At a crucial moment in World War 2, Winston Churchill is said to have consulted with two of his key advisors on how to proceed in the face of Nazi Germany’s terrifyingly-effective military advances. One proposed (my paraphrase), “We need to become more organised than the Nazis if we are to defeat them.” The other pushed back in response: “No, the key to victory lays in our unique ability to improvise and, thereby, to take the Nazis by surprise. Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.”
What a dilemma. It’s like Myers Briggs J meets P in stark confrontation. The challenge here was how to face a serious existential threat posed by a highly organised enemy and not only to survive it but also to win: whether to out-organise the organised or to out-wit the organised by doing what they least expect. Yet, in that moment, two people looked at the same data-information, made sense of what they saw in different ways, drew different conclusions and proposed very different solutions.
I see parallels in some of the opportunities and challenges that leaders, OD, coaches and trainers face today. In volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and stressful situations, how often are our observations and decisions - and those of our clients - based subconsciously on (and thereby constrained by) implicit psychological-cultural assumptions and preferences, e.g. for certainty-structure vs fluidity-agility, rather than necessarily on what the situation itself calls for per se?
Take, for instance, restructuring and re-engineering projects to solve issues where different types of conversations and relationships could have been less costly and more effective; or formal change management programmes that adhere to strict policies and procedures whereas innovative change leadership could have achieved far better outcomes. This begs important questions: What lies beneath different analyses and ideas for solutions? How can we work with clients to raise them to the surface?
‘Britons’ top three favourite accents are Irish, Welsh and Geordie. The least favourite are Brummie, Scouse and Cockney. People with a Yorkshire and Welsh twang sound the happiest followed by Scouse. The Southeast sound the most intelligent and Glaswegians sound the angriest.’ (Howarth, Dec 2017)
Isn’t it interesting that accents carry such connotations and evoke such feelings? I arrived some years ago at London School of Theology in the South of England as a new student. It was a daunting experience: that first-day-at-school feeling. At the first evening meal, I heard another student speak with a Northern accent and instantly connected with him. We became great friends. It was as if our common accent gave us a deep point of contact – a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby) in an alien environment.
Accents, like other cultural distinctives, create and sustain a sense of unique identity and belonging. They distinguish 'us' from 'them', creating a socio-psychological boundary, an existential and emotional safety barrier, a metaphorical extended family, in the midst of a larger and potentially overwhelming complexity. I remember moving to a new area to engage in community development work. I had to learn the local accent convincingly in order to be accepted by local people. Accent influenced trust.
Accents can serve as a useful metaphor for cultural issues in organisations too. Here are some useful questions for leaders, OD practitioners and coaches: What functions as a secure base for people in this team/organisation? What brings hope and fulfilment here - or provokes anxiety or resistance if threatened? Where, when and how have helpful boundaries in this organisation become unhelpful barriers? Where may I need to learn a new ‘accent’ in order to build credibility and relationship?
‘Organisation Development’s (OD) goal is an inspiring and effective organisation’.
We can view OD as perspective: a way of looking at people and organisations and posing provocative, searching, stretching questions, e.g. ‘When you look at this person, team or organisation, what do you see?’; ‘What are you (and others) noticing and not-noticing?’; ‘What stands out to you (and to others) as important and valuable here – and why?’
We can view it as critically-reflexive: a way of surfacing and testing oft-hidden personal, cultural-systemic and contextual beliefs, values and assumptions, e.g. ‘How are you (or are others) construing this situation, e.g. via metaphor/narrative?’; ‘What enabling or limiting assumptions are we making here?’; ‘Who or what is influencing who or what – and how?’
We can view it as reframing: a way of re-thinking and creating paradigm shifts, e.g. by viewing a situation through different frames (e.g. psychological; political; financial; legal-regulatory); flipping between vantage points, e.g. personal; team; organisation; other stakeholders; shifting the conversation from problem-solving to innovative solutions-focus.
We can view it as co-creative: a radically-relational way of working, high in support and challenge, that engages diverse people and teams in powerful conversations that engender shared focus, insight, energy and action. It involves listening, visioning, influencing and sense-making as collaborative ventures, releasing talent-potential and building trust.
What’s your experience of OD? What has it looked like? What difference has it made?
'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ (Richard Gold)
I took part in a fascinating workshop with Richard Gold this week. Richard is a Lego Serious Play facilitator who uses Lego as a colourful, creative, engaging and experiential tool to raise awareness, evoke insight and generate ideas with individuals, teams and groups. The method involves touching, moving, doing – physically – rather than simply talking about. It is a fun, visceral method that plays with metaphor and imagination and invites experimentation and team collaboration.
At each stage of the process, Richard offers minimal guidance, simple prompts, then asks in provocative spirit, ‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ What a great question. It creates optimal space for serendipitous new experiments, insights and ideas to surface and evolve without being directive or prescriptive. It provides just-enough; inviting team participation, courage and co-creation. It reminds me of Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergence’ – take a step forward and see what comes into view.
So that got me thinking about leadership, OD, coaching and training. There are situations where directive and prescriptive interventions are entirely appropriate. Yet how often – perhaps in our desire to impress, be helpful or achieve the outcomes we hope for – do we exercise too much control over the person, task or process? How often, in doing so, do we limit the potential for personal/team initiative, ownership, discovery and innovation? Are you sufficiently un-clear?
‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
On the face of it, the hottest early May bank holiday on record in the UK wasn’t the ideal time to run a marathon. After all, the risks of dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion were high. I went, not to run but to support and take photos of my friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, as he and other athletes set out in high spirits to grasp this intense challenge. 20 miles in, I watched person after person stagger past, bathed in sweat, struggling ahead but determined to finish. Charity logos emblazoned proudly on their t-shirts, they were unwilling to give in to the sun’s relentless heat.
After a while, I noticed one man stop at the side of the path. He was desperately weary, bent over, clearly out of energy, rubbing his cramped hands up and down his painful thighs. He looked depressed, dejected and defeated. After a few minutes, however, two other runners appeared behind him. One paused briefly, smiled, put his hand reassuringly on the man’s back and spoke calmly but assertively, ‘Don’t stop. Keep walking. You can do this.’ The man’s face brightened a little, a glimmer of hope – and he stood straight, started limping…and walking…then broke into a jog.
It felt moving and inspiring to observe. The empathy and compassion, support and challenge of a fellow runner, a total stranger. What a difference it made. I would like to think that exhausted man finished the race, collected his medal and went home feeling proud of this great achievement. And what a wonderful example of a ‘good Samaritan’, the person who was willing to notice, to pause in that moment, to think beyond himself, to act decisively on behalf of the other. What a fantastic role model and metaphor for leaders, coaches, L&D and OD too. I want to be more like him.
'There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.’ (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)
I spoke with a friend and colleague recently. It was about a bizarre incident in the news where a group of leaders acted over a serious issue in a way that was clearly ineffective and self-defeating. Somewhat bemused by this, I found myself musing out loud, ‘What were they thinking?’ My friend responded wisely, ‘They weren’t thinking. They were driven by an overwhelming feeling.’ How easy it is to assume rationality in decision-making where, at times, emotion may play a far greater part.
It reminded me of many years ago when I became a passionate and pained activist for human rights in Central America. It was during a period when governments and allied death squads committed acts of unspeakable horror against the poor. Alongside fellow activists, I burned myself out for the people and for the cause. On reflection, however, I’m not sure what practical difference my efforts made. A co-activist commented in retrospect, ‘We were driven more by instinct than strategy.’
Such accounts could lead us to propose that rationality is far superior to emotion or instinct when it comes to decision-making and effectiveness. We could conclude that to think-things-through is the best course of action, prior to action. ‘You didn’t really think this through, did you?’ is a culturally-coded message that signals to a person, ‘You idiot!’, or, in more gentle diplomatic language, ‘If you had thought about this more carefully beforehand, you would have achieved a better outcome.’
On this note, Prof Eugene Sadler-Smith sheds some intriguing light. He discovered that some of the best leadership decisions are informed by intuition, not by rational process, and that leaders often post-rationalise their decisions if rationality is valued personally or culturally as more acceptable, reliable or sound than emotion or intuition. This revelation calls for a critical-creative balance of intuition and rationality, with each inspiring, informing and testing the other.
What do you think? What’s your intuition telling you?
‘Expectation is a belief that is centred on the future.’ (Wiki)
You may recall the now-famous words of Tom Peters: ‘It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.’ It’s a bit like the parable in Matthew’s gospel: a man has two sons and asks them do something. One says ‘No’ and does it; the other says ‘Yes’ and doesn’t. It signals that expectation is linked to relationship – and trust. If we expect something to happen, it’s as if, for us, it will happen. If it doesn’t, we may experience surprise, disappointment or relief.
Relief, of course, because it’s possible to expect the worst as well as the best. If our fears are unjustified, we call this catastrophizing. Conversely, if our hopes are unfounded, we call it naivety. Both indicate a disconnect between what is imagined and what is real – although we may not be aware of it at the time. That said, our expectations may be entirely realistic, based on firm predictability. Such expectations represent promise, certainty and, where positive, hope.
If our hopes and expectations are high and fulfilled, it can increase our sense of satisfaction, delight and confidence for the future. If not, we are likely to feel frustrated, hurt or disillusioned – and to lose trust. This is why, instead of aiming high, some parents, teachers or managers encourage their children, pupils or staff to ‘lower their expectations’. The intention is to reduce stress by avoiding the risk of disappointment. (This raises interesting questions vis a vis managing customer expectations!)
Alternatively, we may take positive steps to increase the probability of high expectations being met. We may pray hard, sign binding contracts, plan in detail, identify and address critical success factors, prepare contingencies, mitigate the effects of sub-optimal performance etc. Or, psychologically, we may practise mindfulness, increase resilience, learn to handle expectations and disappointments differently. As leader, OD or coach, how do you handle expectations and enable others to do so too?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.