#Proof

Perry Timms
6 min readSep 3, 2023

“Prove it,” they say

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Who they are, is immaterial. When something is put to the logical, mental or believable test, proof is paramount.

And in a world now littered with spin, “alternate truth” (FFS), and deep-fakes, proof — as a concept and an actuality — is perhaps more elusive than ever.

Let’s not go all conspiracy theory on things though (since that’s actually become a frickin’ hobby and career choice for some).

Of course, in a court of law, it’s about proof. In fact, the burden of proof is often referred to. Beyond any reasonable doubt. Because we are dealing with the ascertaining of facts behind a criminal charge and proving the guilt — or otherwise — of the accused to then be sure that justice has been served. And there is proof that is the case. The evidence is all-crucial.

That kind of proof is an ultimate, sacrosanct assessment of the facts and not at all to be dismissed.

This is a different context of proof. About phenomena, ambiguities and perspectives about the world of work.

If you follow me or know of my leanings, I am huge of the belief that self-managed systems of work are the starting point for me, NOT the hierarchically-controlled, stratified approach we see in so many organisations (as a continuation from the Industrial era, despite us being in the Knowledge or even Creative era now).

So, I challenge that orthodoxy based on my belief — and proof — that self-managed systems work. At scale, in multiple industries, geographies, and so on.

I’m constantly asked for proof of who says so. Apart from me.

So I talk to the numerous studies by academics like Robert Kegan, Gary Hamel, Michael Y Lee and Amy Edmondson.

The work of pioneering thinkers like Frederic Laloux, Isaac Getz and Brian Carney, Michele Zanini, Lisa Gill, Timm Urschinger, Francois Nuchel, Erik Korsvik Ostergaard and Traci Fenton.

And then practitioners and business folks like Ricardo Semler, the late Tony Hsieh, Matthew Gonnering, Nathan Donaldson, Matt Perez and Roberto Martinez, Rich Sheridan, Samantha Slade, Tom Nixon, Vishen Lakhiani, NK Chaudhary, Ed Wesley, Kim Jordan, Karin Tenelius, Dunia Reverter, Jos de Blok, Jean-Francois Zobrist, Kent Thiry, Paul Green Jnr, Doug Fitzpatrick, Blake Jones, Ray Tuomey, Wes Kennedy, Ev Williams, Andreas Flodstrom and Gustav Henman and many more.

So there’s proof, right?

Nah. People say “Well, it’s alright for them.” And dismiss their experiences all too readily.

They have a point—ish.

So I then go back to the academics. And some studies that are— like those around the Buurtzorg model — really strongly evidenced-based. Ratified and validated research on impact and value creation.

Some acceptance, more intrigue and at least a recognition of believability.

But is it proof? And what even is proof? It feels like that (proof) is now an incredibly hyper-personalised perspective.

Take another example.

Working from anywhere/returning to the office/hybrid.

Lots of conflicting proof is being espoused by both “sides” of this current dilemma/issue.

It seems that — and it’s a psychologically ratified phenomenon and archetype — confirmation bias is everywhere and more in play than ever before.

Employee Engagement is stubbornly low. Productivity is stubbornly low.

Economics and capitalism are setting the world on fire (literally).

And then people will point to the proof of this and some, proof that will cast doubt on it.

I really don’t know if Employee Engagement is even the right way to measure how fulfilled and flourishing we are. Or if that sense of lower results is proof that work is broken, my sense is, that the working model for the 21st century is WELL past its sell-by date. And that productivity is low because of disaffected people who are working in outmoded systems.

I have some proof of this though; studies, papers, research, surveys, intelligent and believable people showing me examples of otherwise flourishing environments and case studies.

Case Studies.

Here’s an interesting proving mechanism.

One outlying company, breaking new ground, offering alternatives and being successful in a range of parameters.

But, is it proof enough?

Just because it’s OK for Titantech Inc. or the Garage Upstart to have something work for them doesn’t make it proof enough for a lot of us. And nor should it be.

It’s an indicator. Or as my good friend Erik Østergaard says “a signal”.

This leads me to another area of focus for us.

The Future.

We cannot prove the future. We can talk about future-proofing all we like but it’s simply not predictable, linear, programmable or otherwise. And neither are we as sentient beings.

But we are in a mode of “receiving” signals from the future.

I mean, not literally like the future is a thing broadcasting messages but metaphorically it is.

Or maybe this quote is more relevant to this:

“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day…” — Gloria Steinem

So what we are doing today will be determining what the future is. So I guess we can analyse what is happening and plot that ahead to a future consequence.

But is it proof?

Not really. It’s an indicator, as I said. However, let’s stick to the emitting of signals from the future.

We cannot prove that if we accelerate our actions to reduce or eliminate our emissions it will reverse global warming, climate crisis or the ongoing destruction of our natural world into a more balanced ecosystem for us to continually live how we might wish to. We might show proof that if we don’t drastically change and reverse things, it’s an apocalyptic scenario that might just be too uncomfortable for many, despite there being proof based on past and recent trends. Deniers will deny. There may be validity in their denial but how they prove their theories is often caught up in as much subjecture as the theories they are trying to disprove.

But our past — and today’s — ways of living, working and being are an indicator of what is to come. So we can use what we know (proof) to project ahead scenarios (of what might be) thus we are headed to the future and then playing that back.

As signals.

But where’s the proof (sceptics will always say)?

It’s all about our ability to imagine. To put words to conceptual thoughts, theories and trajectories.

And imagination is where proof just throws in the towel. It cannot compete.

I recall the wonderful story told by Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath.

Of the impressionist painters — Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro — who were trying to exhibit their new form of art at the renowned Salon in 19th century France.

Exhibited in the least accessible part of the gallery show, they were somewhat disgruntled by this and maybe even felt their future was a bleak one. The proof was there in low footfall, sales and commissions and a lack of appreciation for their new art form.

The signals from the future they received were this:

Should they -

  • continue to play as smaller, alternative niche artists in the biggest arena in the hope they would “breakthrough”?
  • try to source alternative galleries to achieve that breakthrough?
  • set up their own show and attract interest that way?

I’m sure there were more options.

And they chose the latter — their own exhibition — and the rest is history.

The impressionist painters though, had no proof that this would work. All the proof they had was being shunned by the art world at that time.

If they had acted purely on the proof at the time, the world would have been robbed of some of the most loved and recognised art forms the painting world has ever seen.

Instead, they listened to the signals of possible futures. Which they used to override the proof of the day.

And they didn’t have a single HBR case study to go by!

And just to be clear:

I’m not anti-proof.

I’m anti-dismissing the art of the possible.

I’m pro-future signals.

I’m pro-imagination.

So what’s the point of all of this then?

  • Having proof of something is great. But not always the only way.
  • The future has no proof. Yet we’re all headed there anyway.
  • The future does have signals. And they may be embodied in one, outlying case study.
  • Imagination is inherently human and evades, overrules and maybe even laughs at, proof.

I love the thought of proving that the signals, imagination and beliefs I hold will shape a future better for many — if not all — of us.

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Perry Timms

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017–2023 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan