John Culhane

On the work culture and methods in Stafford Beer's enterprises, through a conversation with one of his early industry colleagues.


John Culhane's experience spans working for SIGMA (under Stafford Beer) and a subsequent career in the US oil industry. Our discussion on July 23, 2021, covers his experience working under Stafford, the atmosphere he created in his enterprises, and the methods and techniques developed and applied there. This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.


Evgeny: Hi John. Can you tell us about your connection to Stafford Beer?

John: I first got to know Stafford when I joined Sigma in 1962, where he was one of the top management officials. I did some work for Stafford, and later in life, I bumped into him on an airplane going from London to Paris. He was on the first leg of a rather arduous trip to Chile. I met Stafford at a couple of Sigma gatherings later, by this time his beard, which used to be short and fairly well-trimmed, had grown to almost two feet long.


Evgeny: What was your role at Sigma?

John: I started as one of the first employees of probably no more than half a dozen people. My initial task was to organize the distribution system of NAAFI . NAAFI stood for the Naval, Army, and Air Force Institutes, and it was responsible for catering to the army, navy, and air force. Although I was not under the direct supervision of Stafford, I was working with Roger Eddison , who was my supervisor at the time. As Sigma grew, I became a project manager, and my primary task was to find the optimal number of breweries and bottling plants and depots for Charrington United Breweries.

Evgeny: What was your most significant project at Sigma?

John: Probably, it was finding the optimal number of breweries and bottling plants and depots for Charrington United Breweries. It was a large distributor of beer that had been in operation for over 200 years, with a central brewery in East London. I worked directly with Stafford, who supervised my work. He was exceptional at explaining the rationale behind the work and why it was worth doing. I was privileged to witness Stafford's top management skills in action.

Evgeny: How did you end up working there?

John: After university and national service, I took a masters in operational research at Birmingham and worked for the British Oxygen Company, which was not a lot of fun. I then went and talked to Stafford at Sigma's new offices in Croydon. Stafford said they were just starting and could not offer me a job just yet, but hopefully in the not-too-distant future. A few months later, I got a call from him asking if I was still interested. I was, and I joined Sigma, which was very small at the time.

Evgeny: Who were the other top people at Sigma when you joined?

John: When I joined Sigma, Stafford, Roger Eddison, Andrew Muir, and Lance Perrone were the top management officials, and there were probably about four or five of us.

Evgeny: Can you tell me a bit more how Sigma worked as an entity? Who did what at the senior level? What was Stafford’s focus?

John: At Sigma, we did a lot of work to challenge the boundaries of client organizations whose thought processes had become ossified. Stafford's excellence in this regard was unparalleled. He was an exceptional technical salesman, and he had the ability to sell both himself and the organization, which led to clients having confidence in his team's ability to deliver on promises. Unlike many salespeople who sell products they don't fully understand, Stafford was knowledgeable and kept a hands-on approach. He was able to explain complex technical concepts to top management at client firms.

Regarding Roger Eddison, I'm not sure what his role was in the organization. I do know that the NAAFI contract came from him because he had previously worked for them. We did some interesting work for the government, which came from Stafford's connections with the civil service rather than politicians.

Evgeny: How do you feel about the French side of the operation, did you know them?

John: The French system of education and government is vastly different from the English one. Sigma's French top management was quite peculiar, which often resulted in the misunderstanding of the nature of the English client base. I believe this misunderstanding led to a lot of miscommunications, which ultimately caused Stafford to leave.

Evgeny: What was your experience with the work done in Chile for the steel company or Cybersyn ?

John: During my time at Sigma, I had no personal connection to the work done in Chile. The main client for the steel company was Sergio Alvarez, and the main contact with Sigma was Andrew Muir rather than Stafford. The work for the Chilean railways grew out of the relationship between Alvarez, Stafford, and Muir. However, I believe this was only within Chile.

Evgeny: Can you tell me about the extent to which cybernetics  informed the work of Sigma?

John: During my time at Sigma, the term "cybernetics" was not commonly used, although we did employ a gentleman who was an academic cybernetician, from Scotland. I cannot remember his name, but he was the only one. Most of our work at Sigma was focused on operational research.


Evgeny: Stafford’s tenure at Sigma is also notable for the fact that he kept George Spencer-Brown  on the payroll, allowing him to finish his book Laws of Form, which became an important text for certain strands of counterculture. Did you have any experience working with Spencer-Brown?

John: George Spencer-Brown was a philosopher who worked at Sigma during my time there. He was a total nutcase who was incapable of doing the operational research or projects that we were hired to do. Despite his incompetence, Stafford Beer, our boss, hired him on the basis of Bertrand Russell's  recommendation. Spencer-Brown was probably an illegitimate son of Bertrand Russell, as Russell's biography had a photograph of him as a young man who was almost a double of Spencer-Brown. However, after a short period, Stafford had to fire him because he was useless.

Evgeny: What was the atmosphere like at Sigma?

John: Despite the occasional nutcase, there was a lot of camaraderie at Sigma. It was a self-organizing system where people formed teams to do specific projects for clients, and those who got along and respected each other had a great time.

I enjoyed my time at Sigma because I had more responsibility than an average person of my age. I was dealing with much more important questions in large organizations than other individuals of my age would be. There was a group of people who respected each other, and everything was fine. However, there were also other people who were not as fine and who were getting paid. This must have created a financial problem for Stafford in the top and senior management, and obviously, it was something which the French would have taken exception to. But there was a turnover of people who didn't fit in and didn't share the camaraderie.

Evgeny: Can you tell me about the office design at Sigma?

John: The office was designed on an open-plan basis, and Stafford wanted to encourage interaction between everybody. This had all the attributes of a self-organizing system. Libraries are interaction spaces where people do meet each other and exchange unscripted words, and this, of course, is a thoroughly good thing, and something which Stafford had wished to encourage. I think it probably worked extremely well, and it was a good thing.

Evgeny: I read somewhere that Stafford had implemented a very intriguing sabbaticals system at Sigma? What was it about?

John: Stafford encouraged people to take sabbaticals, and Bernard Warner had taken one just before I did. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, to work with an operational research team there under Russ Ackoff . Stafford instituted this idea of sabbaticals, and Bernard Warner had taken one to go to the University of Pennsylvania, and I went to the University of California in 1967. This was a thoroughly good thing.

When I came back, Sigma was in the process of violent change, and it was just after I came back, I think that Stafford had left, and the place changed enormously, and I left shortly afterwards, and I went to a competing consulting firm called Arthur D. Little , but that was doing much the same thing. I was just forecasting. It was basically just an economic forecast of things which concerned IPC .

Evgeny: What was a typical day like for a Sigma manager?

John: Stafford's working day began at the research department somewhere near Waybridge. Afterward, we would go to London in his car up before lunch. The top management of IPC had drinks before lunch, and Stafford would join them. I would go to his office while they had their drinks. It was interesting to see that all the top managers in IPC had a huge wet bar in a cupboard behind their desk, which was not typical of British industry. At that time, it wasn't necessarily a secret, but it certainly wasn't common.


Evgeny: What kind of reputation did Stafford enjoy at Sigma?

John: Stafford was a larger than life character and a fun person to be around. He could articulate his philosophy very well. Although opinions about him were mixed, I had nothing but the greatest respect for him. Some people thought of him as a genius, while others considered him a charlatan. In my opinion, he was a bit of both, but his strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. Stafford had an outstanding ability to see the big picture and break out of habitual ways of thinking.

The book that best represented the philosophy of operational research, in my opinion, was "Decision and Control."  However, there were varying opinions on the subject, and some people were quite taken with Stafford Beer. At Sigma, there was a range of opinions on Beer, but I believed that any charlatanism was trivial and did not detract from his overall contributions. Stafford was a cigar smoker, but I do not recall ever seeing him drink from his flask. In terms of drinking at Sigma, the top six people, which included myself, would meet for sherry just before lunch. While I do not recall any whiskey being consumed at lunchtime, I cannot say for certain as I was not paying attention.

Evgeny: What was Stafford's approach to clients?

John: Stafford was a good salesman who understood the clients' problems and gave them confidence that we would be able to help them. He was charismatic and had a way with words that made clients feel heard and understood.

Evgeny: Can you tell me about Beer's political views?

John: I would describe Stafford Beer as having liberal views but not necessarily socialist. During the pre-war socialist government policies, most of the liberal elite supported them, but this changed over time, and today I would describe Beer as liberal.

During that encounter on the plane, when he was heading to Chile, Stafford told me that he became much more left-wing. I found this interesting as it contrasted with his charismatic and business-oriented persona.

Evgeny: Did he socialize much with colleagues like yourself, during or after Sigma?

John: I sometimes met Stafford at the Athenaeum , a gentleman's club that primarily catered to academics. Most of the members were distinguished professors. We met there once or twice after we both left Sigma. These were just generally social meetings where we had drinks, and I don't remember having dinner with him. There were lots of left-wing intellectuals who were members.

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