Assays of Bias

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And thus do we of reason and of reach
With windlasses and with assays of bias
By indirections find directions out.


Windlasses—think winches, particle accelerators, seeing as one is seen—succeed on the principle that a right hook generates more punch than a left jab. Angular momentum—think the earth orbiting the sun, swinging a pale of water like a Ferris wheel, leaning into a sharp turn on a bike—accelerates not through speed but arc.

Likewise, in lawn bowling, a player must sometimes curve her ball around her opponent’s—make an “assay of bias”—to strike the target. What might those two tethered spheres, the earth, and the ball, observe as they encircle one another?

In the assays (an archaic variant of the word essays, meaning trials1) that make up this blog, I endeavor to find out things through roundabout means. Polonius called this fetch of wisdom Indirections. I’ve added to mine the pursuit of something I call changefulness. To what distant knowledge might the forces of indirection and changefulness eventually lead? Sometimes we change. And sometimes, with windlasses and with assays of bias, change becomes us.


After a forty-year immersion in the change sciences, it is my view that the systems that form and transform us also ferry us from the island of being to the shore of becoming. Ten years into my career in systems architecture, taking in a colleague’s summation of a formula for deconstructing, fiddling with, and reconstructing the entirety of a large corporation, an invisible force began to tug at my wit. The two of us worked for the think tank and consulting firm that trademarked the term (and literally wrote the book on) business process reengineering. When the upshot of your work portends direct consequences to the lives and livelihoods of thousands of women and men, one glance at the subject sitting in the hot seat of the business discovery table, and you understand with clarity and certainty that the science driving your assay is not something you ever want to get wrong.

But as my colleague walked us through the gap between what an organization intends, and how—or not—it actually achieves it, something in the ‘science’ that justified how the few impose new order upon the many wasn’t adding up. And because the gap I sensed was not one I could yet articulate, the human systems underlying our change model became, for me that day, one cloaked in an impenetrable shield that needed piercing.

Today, four decades after embarking on a career in change work, I publicly commit to taking a moment each week to demystify the impressions, memories, and insights amassed before and since the epiphany that upended everything. I wish now to understand how people actually—not just theoretically—change.

Because what follows should not be considered anything more complete or conclusive than my individual change odyssey, I’m dubbing this writing project. Indirections I Have Lived By: Personal and Professional Assays of Bias. And if, like Reynaldo’s baits of falsehood, I take in their writing “a carp [or two] of truth,” I will have learned something, if not of the target of my circumvolutions, at least of myself.

Why do I write? I write to remember. I write to understand. I write to change. I write to get it right. I expect that as I do, I will also encounter some distant knowledge, even a few terms of art. May I endeavor to gain craft enough to replant them as fingerposts along my circuitous route.

Scott Knell
North Potomac, Maryland, USA
10 November 2022



1. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 20 definitions for the word “assay.” Below are the first five.

assay, noun

Etymology: < Old French assaiassay, variant of essai , essay , cognate with Provençal essai … in English, since the end of the 16th cent., essay has … taken the place of assay, except in the ‘assay of metals,’ and uses founded upon it.

The action or process of trying, trial generally.

1. The trying (of a person or thing); trial imposed upon or endured by any object, in order to test its virtue, fitness, etc. Obsolete 
1857: John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art
A great assay of the human soul.

2. ‘Trial,’ tribulation, affliction. Obsolete.
1671: John Milton Paradise Recaim’d 
I am; this chiefly, that my way must lie
Through many a hard assay even to the death

3. Experiment. put it in assay: make the experiment, try it. Obsolete.
1644   J. Milton Of Education. 8  
It may prove much more easie in the assay, then it now seems at distance.

4. Experience. Obsolete.
a1387   J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John’s Cambr.) (1865) I. 73  
Schort witted men and litel of assay.

5. The faculty of trying or judging of things.
c1394   Pierce Ploughman’s Crede 537  
Þanne haue y tynt all my tast, touche and assaie.

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