The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

leave it with me

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The Human Zoo is a Radio Four programme that explores the quirks and foibles of human behaviour.

The third episode of the second series was on trust and mending trust (1). This is a topic that resonates with us as we have been spending much time thinking it through with clients in the financial, pharmaceutical and other sectors, most of all around cultural shift and balancing controls, safety and innovation.

The central premise of the programme boiled down to something like this.

We are simple creatures, and we see companies as people, trusted friends, or people who break trust. Vulnerability is what makes trust so painfully difficult. The idea of taking a chance with each other is at odds with the trend to transparency. So does transparency restore trust, or does it institutionalise suspicion, a move from ‘leave it with me’ to ‘let me watch you’? And how is it we’ve come to demonise ‘self-interest’, somehow moving to the presumption that a doctor is interested in harming rather than healing patients?


The Russian Circus in Almaty, Kazakhstan | photograph by Victoria Ward on an evaluation field trip for the British Council

This was played out as an idea, with delightful absurdity, through one of the presenters, who tracked down an old trapeze artist partner she’d once dropped. Thinking from the angle of aviation safety she wondered what a Black Box would have revealed (creaking ropes, the squeak of rosined hand on sweaty ankle, a small cry from a woman who has fallen off and me saying something like ‘oh God, are you OK?). With a counsellor from Relate she talked about rebuilding trust and asked what a Public Enquiry into the dropping might have uncovered. The Relate counsellor pointed out that a Public Enquiry might have found something to do with equipment or surroundings, as might the enquiry behind a recent fine related to the death of a Cirque du Soleil performer (2). The counsellor said:

But at the end of the day, it’s what is between you, how you rebuild trust and confidence in each other.

This brings us to work we’ve been doing on the ‘three lines of defence’ in banking, with a detour via Archbishop Justin Welby.

The three lines of defence model has been roundly criticised (3). In summary, it is about:

  1. The first line being the business or front line, which needs to take responsibility for its own controls, supported by…
  2. The second line or control functions like risk and HR who build processes and respond to external regulatory direction. Finally, this is overseen by…
  3. The third line, or internal audit, who regularly dive in to test the resilience of controls and the working relationship between the first two lines of defence.

While all organisations have a mature or fledgling form of the three lines in practice,

The “three lines of defense” system for controlling risk has been adopted by many banks with the active encouragement of the regulators. It appears to have promoted a wholly misplaced sense of security. Fashionable management school theory appears to have lent undeserved credibility to some chaotic systems. (4)

All the same, it’s what we have, and it has the virtue of simplicity (not to mention rhetorical and narrative roots in the power of threes). The challenge then is to shift it from being a ‘let me watch you’ approach to a ‘leave it with me’ attitude, one where audit, for example, is truly seen as being on the same team rather than the other side of a hide-and-seek game of seeing and overseeing.

Over the past few years we’ve worked to create interdependence between the frontline and the central managers and policy makers of organisations. Sometimes we’ve fleshed out these relationships through dilemma stories, conversation triggers, at others through techniques such as Walking in their Shoes, hooking together organisational and personal timelines to make the connection between my personal stories and the public reputation of the organisation which hangs on my actions.

For regulated organisations, collaboration, clear ownership of risk and joined up thinking are a key component of a mature control culture, embedding give:get and the lateral flow of knowledge and stories peer to peer. This maturity can derive from the ability to reimagine the three lines of defence as a deep understanding of human interdependence that can be strengthened in several ways through the culture of the organisation. A way of imagining these is also through images and metaphors, such as the trapeze artist’s trust of and responsibility for their partner.

We’ve also placed this work in a framework for cultural alignment we’ve been developing over 2013 which we’ll be talking about a lot more during 2014.

This brings up the power of deeply engrained metaphors that govern our actions (5) and the case Archbishop Welby made in June in his speech at the St Paul’s Institute, which we quoted in a Sparknow blog:

We need to move from a metaphor of system to a metaphor of body if we are to make any progress in shifting to the kind of banks we want to have.

If I dent my car, I’m annoyed, it makes a dent in my wallet. That’s it.

If I dent my body, it hurts. The organisation, the bank, must be felt as a body, not a system – or rather, a human, self-correcting, self-learning system.

For as long as we distance ourselves from the human in banking, we will be unable to make progress.

The three lines of defence may have its roots in military or sporting metaphor. Transferred to the context of governance of financial institutions, holding military or sporting comparisons in mind has one major weakness, which the circus analogy does not. In both the military and a sporting team, you are doing battle against the enemy while looking after your own. In a circus, you are not doing battle (except perhaps for market share), but you are prepared to go to the very edge of safe risk in pursuit of ultimate performance, to delight your audience, for your own self-actualisation and for the team you work in. To do that you must have innate trust and confidence in each other, ready to work through failures together to do your best work as safely as you can (to paraphrase The Human Zoo programme.)

Whatever the paraphernalia of scrutiny that needs to be built into, and around, any organization, ‘leave it with me’ and strong human relationships are where trust needs to start and end. It’s about not dropping a catch, together, jointly building the methods to spot where things might get slippery, and then, if things do slip out of your grasp momentarily, being able to assume that you are all working with good intentions and be able to examine the moment forensically, take responsibility and work rapidly towards repair and the newly strengthened bonds that come from the insight of a difficult moment.


(1)  First broadcast on 16 July 2013, was rebroadcast on Tuesday 29 October. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b036v89w

(2) News item on Cirque du Soleil 

(3)  http://paradigmrisk.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/excuse-me-how-many-lines-of-defence-the-new-financial-maginot-lines/

(4) Changing Banking For Good paragraph 20 Part I (see also Part II paragraph 143 and subsequent)

(5)  Richard Bronk ‘The Romantic Economist’ and Sparknow Blog ‘Systems Versus Bodies’.

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