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Seven Life Lessons of Chaos

John Briggs & David Peat

©2002 - 2010
Access to Excellence Co Ltd.
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`July 1012

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6th ICQM Conference Tehran, July 2005

6th International Conference of Quality Managers

Tehran, Iran. July 2005

I must admit that I approached this conference with a little trepidation, and not simply because it promised the attendance of 5000 delegates. When I’d mentioned my plans to attend the conference, the universal response from friends and family had been ‘why Iran?’. I understood their concerns, for like them I knew little of what to expect, indeed that was my main reason for wishing to visit. For those of us involved in change we must always guard against our own resistance to doing things new and different, and take the chance to experience and learn from new things. I could little suspect at the outset just how much I would learn and gain from the experience of one of the best conferences I’ve ever taken part in.

As mentioned above, the conference attracts an audience of 5000 delegates, so many that uniquely in my experience, the conference is run twice, each time for around 2,500 delegates. For the presenters this provides a unique learning opportunity in which they can respond to feedback and tune their presentation. It also provides the chance to view more of the other presentations and get to know your fellow presenters.

To facilitate this ‘bonding between presenters’, the conference held a welcome evening in which we were all invited to share our experience and views prior to the conference starting. With presenters form 15 different countries, many sharing some uncertainty of what lay ahead, this proved to be a lively and stimulating exchange and set the scene for a terrific team spirit during the conference. As a consequence the ‘presenters refreshment room’ proved to be a source of lively debate and discussions throughout the four days.

The conference venue was the International Conference Hall in Tehran which features a large and impressive circular main hall with complimenting side rooms used for the parallel sessions. In addition there was ample space for a very large exhibition featuring a wide range of organisations including a bookshop with a tremendous and eclectic selection of books that appeared to be doing good business throughout the conference. (Incidentally I bought a copy of The Limits of Thought, a discussion between J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm which I shall be reviewing soon.)

The conference management and organisation was excellent and was exemplified by the quality of supporting material produced. In addition to bound copies of the presentation slides, the papers presented had been produced in two very high quality books, one in English and one in Persian. Delegates also received the papers in electronic format on a very impressive CD ROM.

Throughout the conference live translation was provided between English and Persian and vice versa. I gave my presentation in the main hall which had ample space for me to walk as I spoke. This provided a good sense of contact with the audience. The response from the audience was very positive with some enlightened questions for which I must thank my friend Dr Arash Shahin for his skills and speed in translating. I must also thank Professor Mohamed Zairi who chaired the session and Mr. Mehrdad Korang Beheshti (pictured right) who operated the computer on my behalf and ensured that everything ran smoothly.

Overwhelmingly I was struck by the warmth of the audience and somewhat flattered and surprised by the numerous requests to be photographed with delegates.

The subject of my presentation was ‘Change-ability’; our ability to change being a factor of what we are, rather than what we do. Hence sustainable change is a function of what we are being, rather than what we are doing. This appeared to strike a chord with the audience, something that would also be reflected in the experience gained during the tours following the conference, more of which later. At the end of the presentation I was delighted when a delegate presented me with the following quotation which he then had translated for me. This seemed to sum up the spirit of change we had shared.

‘If a man lives two days the same he has failed. If he lives today less than yesterday he is damned, but if he achieves more today than yesterday he is blessed above the angels.’

Assessment Process
Of particular note during the conference was the collection of delegate feedback information. Delegates were encouraged to provide feedback on sessions they attended in order to qualify for a certificate of attendance. Special feedback forms were distributed during and collected after each session. These were automatically scanned to extract the scores and comments. This was quickly processed and literally within minutes of a session ending, data was available on the delegates perception.
At the conclusion of the conference a summary of this data was presented and I was delighted to receive the second highest score for the conference amongst the 81 presentations given. In addition the data revealed other delegate information including the remarkable fact that 99% of the audience were qualified to Bachelor Degree or above and mostly in engineering and management.

All in all the conference was a tremendous experience, but provided only part of the learning opportunity of the visit. In addition I was fortunate in being able to additionally participate in tours of Tehran, and the cities of Esfahan and Shiraz.

During the morning of the tour of Tehran we visited a number of palaces most recently used by the former Shah of Iran. These were impressive, particularly the mirrored rooms, but I was a little perplexed by the focus on the carpets. In each of the rooms we saw, the guide would draw our attention to a board which proudly proclaimed the carpet size and the number of knots per inch. After an excellent lunch our tour then took us to the carpet museum and it was here that I saw a carpet being made by hand. Now I could see and understand how even a relatively small carpet might involve several years work and that those in the palace represented not simply many man-hours, but ‘man-lives’ worth of effort and skill. I was mesmerised by the skill of the carpet maker. Even having seen it being done, it still defies my understanding that the complexity of the carpet and its design can be created by hand one thread at a time over a period of several years. Truly remarkable.

From the carpet museum we moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Here we saw a special collection of exquisite paintings prepared for the illustration of 800 year old books. The detail contained in these paintings was quite astonishing, and so fine that a strong magnifying glass was required in order to fully appreciate it. The pictures looked amazingly fresh and the colours so vibrant that they appeared as if they had just been produced. It was difficult to believe that they could have been painted so long ago. Our guide informed us that to achieve the delicate results they were produced using the finest brushes with bristles made from the hairs from the back of the neck of 6 month old kittens. Trying hard to imagine such a brush, I still found it impossible to see how such detailed work could have been produced, and our guide confirmed that they knew of no artist’s capable of producing such work today. I found these pictures truly stunning.

Some of the pictures can be viewed on the museum web site at

Following the conference a small group of us undertook a tour of Esfahan and Shiraz. With a day in each, we could hardly do justice to these beautiful cities.

In Esfahan, located to the south of Tehran,  we saw the remarkable architecture and decoration of the Shaikh Lotfolah mosque, the immense Naghshe –Jahan ( meaning the image of the world in the Persian language ) square and the fascinating bazaar which we were told ran for 3 kilometres along winding ancient alleys. We tried our best to become lost amongst the strange sights and pungent smells of herbs and spices, but magically arrived back at our start point. Esfahan is also noted for its beautiful river spanned by equally magnificent old bridges. One of which, called ‘the 33-bridge’ as it comprises 33 arches is almost 400 years old. A highlight for me was the chance to remove shoes and socks and paddle across the river, cooling from the temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius. By the time we had reached the mid point of the river we had been joined by 8 or 10 teenage boys who were keen to walk with us and have the chance to practice their English. At the end of the walk there were again photo-calls as they wanted to be photographed with us. The warmth and friendship that we had felt at the conference was reflected wherever we went.

Shiraz is a city located towards the south of Iran. It is known for many things such as roses, wine ( previously ), art and literature, but I will remember it as the city of poets. We were able to visit the tombs of two of the most famous poets, Sa’di and Hafez  With the chance to read and listen to a little of their poetry I was able to begin to understand the connection between my presentation and the Iranian culture. For example at the tomb of Hafez, it is said that if you make a wish and read from a randomly selected page of his work you will receive guidance on whether your wish will come true. We all made our wish and then a page was selected from which our guide would read. The response contained within the verse was that the achievement of our wishes would be determined not by what we did, but by what we were. Again an illustration that our ability to change relied not on doing, but on being. Whilst our guide read the page of poetry I was impressed and astonished to notice a young boy of around 15 who mouthed the words of this randomly selected page as she spoke. I found the poetry and its connection to the beliefs and culture very powerful.

In the morning of our visit to Shiraz we visited the ancient rock tombs of Necropolis. Carved into the steep sides of a mountain 2,500 years ago are the four tombs of ancient Persian kings. Adorned with large stone carvings depicting scenes from their lives and great battles. These tombs are truly impressive monuments to a sophisticated culture that dominated much of the world at the time. Impressive though this was, it could hardly prepare us for our visit to Persepolis.

This is an awesome spectacle. A magnificent city and palace built 500 years B.C. The sheer scale and majesty of the ruins is stunningly impressive. To imagine the city as it was in its prime almost defies belief. Huge halls with roofs supported by one hundred pillars each 18 metres tall. Magnificent decorative carvings. The most exquisitely carved walls adorning grand staircases. Persepolis is truly breathtaking and again I found myself straining to understand how it could have been built. What beliefs enabled people to perform such spectacular acts, to create such splendour and beauty. I was delighted when the conference organisers provided me with a DVD which illustrates some of what Persepolis would have looked like at the time of its construction.

You can view some of this material on the Persepolis website at

Final Day
And so to the final day. Our party had by now been reduced from 11 to just two. I and Navin Dedhia from ASQ ( USA ), gratefully accepted the invitation of the conference organiser Hesam Aref Kashfi  to take a walk into the mountains to the north of Tehran with his son Samin. Even in the height of summer these mountains remain snow topped, and I was happy to take Hesam’s aim to reach the snowline with a pinch of salt as we set off. As we walked we met several packs of mules carrying supplies up the trail, the only route to a number of restaurants dotted along the track. We walked for a couple of hours or so, and though the snowline stayed well beyond our reach, we could clearly feel a marked drop in the temperature. A waterfall provided a welcome opportunity to stop and remove our shoes and again paddle in the cold and refreshing water. All too soon our time was up and it was time to begin the walk back down. We had time for lunch in a restaurant which channelled the fresh melt water along gullies by our feet providing some cooling against the heat of the sun. Like all the meals I’d had, this was perfect but alas all too soon it was time to leave for the airport.

There was so much more to the visit than I’ve been able to mention, the amazing meal with the members of the Chamber of Commerce, the meal at the home of Mr Massoud Omidi, one of the delegates, whose wife prepared a beautiful chicken dinner and whose daughters entertained us all with their musical skills, the discussions and debates with colleagues, new friendships made and chance encounters with the people of Iran. I haven’t mentioned being saluted by a team of marines at Persepolis, or the hair raising traffic and so much more.

I hope that I’ve given you a feel for the experience of attending the conference so that perhaps if you have the chance to travel to Iran, or maybe attend a future conference you will have something to weigh against your natural feeling of uncertainty.

Personally I enjoyed this conference like no other and recommend that if you have the opportunity, you take the chance to sample the sights of Iran and feel the hospitality of its people.

I would like to thank everyone involved in the preparation and organisation of the conference. I am well aware of the dedication and effort required to achieve success with such a venture and congratulate all involved. In particular I would like to thank Hesam Aref Kashfi for the invitation to attend, and for all his work to ensure that arrangements were in place for my visit and for the time he devoted during the tours to make sure that we benefited fully from the experience. I would also like to thank him, Mr. Hamid Saraidarian, Mr. Majid Saraidarian and Dr Arash Shahin for the care and attention they gave to ensuring that everything went smoothly during the conference and to all involved at the conference centre who provided their support, and of course to my fellow presenters and the delegates.

I hope that the greatest compliment I can pay is to say that I have been changed by the experience. I thank you all.

Steve Unwin
July 2005