Thinking out of the box sounds good in principle yet can be difficult to do in practice. What if, say, you are the box, or you don’t know you’re in a box, or you can’t see the box? What if others you’re working with are in boxes, or don’t know they’re in boxes, or want to put you in a box, or don’t like your box? I was asked once to coach and mentor an HR colleague who needed to learn to think outside of the box. I asked for clarification. It turns out they meant that she lacked, yet needed, strategic thinking and systems thinking for her role. She looked at me blankly. She couldn’t see what she couldn’t see.
I wondered how to enable her to make a shift to conceptual (‘strategic’, ‘systemic’) from practical; to abstract ideas from concrete examples that she could work with and learn from. She described herself as a detail person, trained to spot the critical points in the micro, e.g. salary spreadsheets so that reports were accurate and errors were avoided. I decided, therefore, to start with an example in the micro and to work out from there to a wider macro. This, I hoped, would gradually bring wider systemic and strategic issues and perspectives into view and highlight the links between them.
I invited her to bring an example from her work. She chose an email from a client in her business partner role. It raised a query about how to deal with a performance issue in his team. She had been about to respond to the email with advice on performance management policies and procedures. I invited her to draw a small box on a large, blank sheet of paper and to draw the person inside the box who was to be performance managed. I then invited her to draw a larger box outside of that box and to draw anyone or anything in that box that could be influencing the person’s performance.
As she considered this, various issues and key people came to mind. She wrote them in the box. I asked, ‘What might these different stakeholders hope you will take into account in addressing this?’ She jotted down those thoughts too. I then invited her to draw an even larger box around that one…and repeated the process until we had reached external stakeholders, opportunities and risks and future horizons. At each stage, she was able to consider significant questions and intervention options. It brought a wider picture into view so that she could see it. How do you deal with boxes?
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You may remember the poster. Seagulls in flight and simple words: ‘They can because they think they can’ (Virgil). It’s a great cognitive-behavioural insight. Faith is to act on what we believe as if it were true. How far are we held back by limitations in our thinking? How can we discover and release potential for what is truly possible?
‘Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.’ (Richard Bach)
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull blew my mind. I was 17 at the time, working in a tedious, meaningless job, just to earn enough money to buy my dream motorcycle. I remember a tradesman called Steve handed me the book. He had travelled the world and had a perspective and outlook that seemed to transcend what we were doing. I opened the pages and started to read. I immediately felt gripped, challenged and inspired. I could see myself, my life, hopes and aspirations in a totally different light. It ignited something deep within me. I felt breathless with excitement. It set my imagination ablaze.
Around that time, pop group Supertramp released, Logical Song: ‘When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical. And all the birds in the trees, they'd be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully watching me. But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical. And then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical…’ It was as if they were speaking my words, my voice. It resonated deeply with the profound existential restlessness I was now feeling. The lyrics went on:
‘There are times when all the world's asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man. Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned. I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am. Yet, watch what you say, they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal...’ These words rang out for me like a prophecy. I immersed myself in radical literature, in political activity and, in the midst of it, found Jesus. Now this was a truly explosive experience, catapulting me from Star Trek’s impulse to warp drive. It felt like my whole body and mind were filled with blazing light.
Family, friends and colleagues looked on, alarmed or bemused. I went into work, tore down demeaning pornographic material that covered the workshop walls, resigned from my job and studies, gave away my possessions and headed off to do full-time, voluntary, community development and human rights work instead. I was bursting with vision and energy and it completely changed the focus and trajectory of my life and relationships since. I’ve never looked back for a second. It taught me that so many limitations exist only in our minds. What limitations are you arguing for? Are they now yours?
How can I help you to discover and release potential? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
Well-being and resilience are hot topics in the world of work at the moment. The Stockdale Paradox offers a useful psychological outlook and stance. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.’ (Stockdale Paradox)
Someone commented recently on my ‘relentless optimism that everything will work out in the end.’ They saw this as a principle that guides my decision making, drawing on my faith as a follower of Jesus. I was a bit taken aback, partly because I had read in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great some years ago that optimism can lead to naïve passivity in the face of challenge. On further exploration, it became clear that they meant I appear un-phased by some situations that could leave other people shaking. It’s as if I am open to, look out for, the possibility in, the opportunity in, what is. Sometimes.
This is quite different to a kind of positive thinking that says things like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’, as if personal, cultural and contextual constraints don’t exist, or, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ – when clearly you won’t be. Collins talks about the importance of confronting the brutal facts; that is, of actively seeking out and facing what could well look and feel like the opposite to how we would prefer things to be. In contrast to optimism or pessimism, it’s a kind of relentless realism. It demands honesty, courage, humility, and a hopeful outlook to avoid falling into paralysis or despair.
Achieving this perspective, attitude and stance isn’t always as easy, however, as it may sound. Psychodynamically-speaking, leaders, teams and organisations often develop subconscious and highly-effective defence mechanisms that protect them from dealing with issues that could feel threatening or anxiety-provoking. As a consequence, it can mean that we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear and filter everything else out – without even knowing it. This may create both risky blind spots (what we can’t see) and dangerous hot spots (what we avoid facing).
To add to the complexity, according to Gestalt and social constructionist research, leaders, teams and organisations can become so focused-fixated on specific issues they consider most important that they inadvertently exclude wider perspectives or dimensions – again without realising it. This influences what they perceive as key, what they consider to be the brutal facts in relation to it, what they believe the options are and, therefore, what they decide to do in response to it. It’s as if the narratives we create function for us as as-if realities. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
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An opportunity to receive questions.
‘Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.’ (Reg Revans)
You may have heard of Action Learning – a powerful tool used in organisations and between peers to learn in the context of action, and act in the context of learning. It typically involves one person presenting an issue, and then receiving critical questions from peers that enable them to think it through for themselves and reach their own solutions. In this sense, we could think of a conventional Action Learning process as a group-team of individuals providing coaching-consultancy to an individual.
I saw this idea turned on its head on a trip to Africa. An organisation was grappling with key strategic issues and invited leaders and professionals to form Action Learning sets to address them. Instead of one person presenting, however, the groups first spent time clarifying and crystallising their own issues. They then asked of themselves and each other: What are the critical questions that, if we could answer them, would provide us with strategic options? They finished by reaching agreement on solutions.
It’s the first time I had seen Action Learning used as a collective venture in this way. It was a a shared, relational process of inquiry, ownership and problem-solving wherein the group itself functioned simultaneously as both client and coach-consultant. I have seen similar patterns of approach used in Asia since. What strikes me is that this isn’t just a different, novel methodology or technique. It’s the product of a deep cultural mindset, belief and stance that sees, values and places the group first.
In my experience, there are corresponding benefits and risks to working in these different ways. An individual-orientation can develop personal insight, awareness and autonomy yet may lack ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ strength and cohesion in addressing change. A group-orientation, on the other hand, can bring the latter advantages to bear, yet faces its own risks including social loafing, conflict-avoidance or group-think. I’m curious, therefore: what have been your experiences of Action Learning?
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! email@example.com