IATEFL 2012: Progress and mess with Underhill

Underhill’s plenary was great!  Started and ended with music – sung by the man himself.  Here’s my summary of snippets from the talk:


1. For starters, Underhill offers some definitions:


“A difficulty is fairly clear cut, definable.  I can explain it, label it.  Probably solvable with current thinking. I may know what the answer will look like.”  Could be big or small, but essentially it’s fairly straightforward. e.g. how to build a bridge.
“A mess is extensive, boundaryless, uncertain, ambiguous.  No correct view.  Resists change. Everything is interconnected. Hard to know where to start or what the concern really is. No tidy fix within current thinking.” e.g. whether we NEED to build a bridge.


2. “Where there’s humans, there’s mess.”


3. Quote from Capra: “A system is an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts.”  Underhill analogises: you can’t predict a body from any of the bits, a family from any of the bits, and adds: “you can’t predict a classroom, how it works, from any of the bits.”


4. Traditional view: things are primary; relationships are secondary.  Systems view: other way round!


5. We think and act in boxes.  Systems thinking is thinking out of the box.


6. Our tendency is to default to ‘control’ when something needs to be done, rather than default to ‘connect’.  This might work with ‘difficulties’ but it doesn’t work with ‘messes’.  Neither is necessarily right or wrong – but we shouldn’t just do one without thinking about it.


7. Traditional, hierarchical approach to leadership works less well when complexity increases.  Today’s complexity is too great for this default ‘heroic’ leadership – “you need intelligence dispersed throughout the system.”


8. Current shift (according to Heifetz) is away from influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision and towards influencing the community to face its problems.  Now need to identify these problems — they are either ‘technical’ (things we can fix with existing know-how, i.e. a DIFFICULTY) or ‘complex’ (where there’s a gap between values and reality, i.e. MESS!)
Heifetz says the first one isn’t really a leadership issue – it’s a management issue.  Leadership stuff is about engaging with the second bit: mess.
Leadership means helping people EITHER adapt values OR adapt reality OR adapt both. (according to Heifetz) = “adaptive leadership”


9. Quote from Lewin: “When people are aligned to their purpose, when the gap between values and behaviours closes, what people experience is a stream of ease.”  So organisations need to align their purposes with the purposes of people, so people are essentially undertaking things which are important to them – this is the conversation of leadership today.


10. “Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level.”  So organisations with lots of training are not learning companies unless all this learning is connected up!  This explains why organisations that learn collectively but not connectively are full of committed managers with high IQs having a collectively low IQ!


11. The learning mantra:
See what’s going on.
Do something different.
Learn from it.


12. Learning to think systemically:
1. See more points of view.  Try to hold two opposing views in your head at once.  Be uncertain – give up trying to be right; it’s boring!  Look for unintended consequences.
2. Encourage connectivity, not control.  Give up trying to be interesting!  Reach out and connect – it’s much more interesting.  Start conversations with whoever’s there about whatever matters to them.
3. See your whole school as an adventure park for learning.  Underhill: “Teaching has everything to do with learning.”  More Underhill: “Make plans, but don’t expect them to work out.” (not only relevant to lesson plans!)


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hi LauraI was there last evening watching this plenary online from India along with couple of people from all around the world. Despite the over-modulated voice and a big time critic of Adrian I managed to hang on for half an hour or so; but concepts weren’t that clear. Well reading your post made that clear. Thanks.Best, Cherry.

  2. Laura Patsko

    Hi Cherry,Glad you found it useful! To be fair, a lot of people were saying after the session that they weren’t that thrilled with it… (sorry Adrian!) I think they also found some concepts unclear, or not clearly relevant enough to their circumstances or the conference mood in general. But there will still a few interesting points to take away and ponder, I thought.Today’s blogging has been plagued with wifi connection problems but now we’re back online there are more posts coming… stay tuned!Best,Laura

  3. Pingback: IATEFL 2012 conference – elephant in the room | EFL Notes

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