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 from conceptual (‘strategic’, ‘systemic’) to practical; from abstract ideas to 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?
Do you need help with thinking out of the box? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
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! email@example.com
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?
How can I help you build well-being and resilience? Get in touch!
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?
What principles, beliefs or values guide your most important decisions? Olson (below) sounds a word of caution and Nickols offers a useful grid. Let me know what you think!
‘There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.’ (Thomas Sowell)
It was a critical juncture in my life so I met with a friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, to think things through. I had lots of ideas and some concerns but struggled to clear the mental fog that was amassing in my head. What to choose, what to do, when there are so many issues and options in the frame yet no clear and definitive way forward? Adrian challenged me by drilling down hard to my values, to what (for me) is non-negotiable and what isn’t, to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff. The serious conclusions I reached in that conversation 2 years ago have guided my major life decisions since.
This approach resonates with Dr Deborah Olson’s view in Psychology of Achievement (2017) who comments that: ‘When clarifying your goals, be clear about what you want – and consider the things you don’t want to risk.’ Don’t want to risk adds a useful and important dimension to more conventional goal-orientated conversations that focus solely on what we hope to obtain or achieve. I worked with one organisation where the founder lived an aspirational life and achieved amazing things at work but lost sight of his family. His daughter committed suicide. The ethical stakes can be very high indeed.
Fred Nickols offers a simple and practical tool called a ‘Goals Grid’ that can be used to help identify goals and priorities (https://www.nickols.us/versatiletool.pdf) at personal, team and organisational levels. It poses two key questions: ‘Do I/we have it?’ and ‘Do I/we want it?’, places these questions on the axes of a 2-by-2 grid, adds the alternative responses of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ against each question and proposes an action for each domain. The resultant combinations and options are: Have + Want = Preserve; Have + Don’t want = Eliminate; Haven’t + Want = Achieve; Haven’t + Don’t Want = Avoid.
Nickols’ model can be applied flexibly and creatively to incorporate a diverse range of helpful angles in leadership, OD, coaching and training conversations; e.g. strategic-visionary, spiritual-existential, psychological-relational and tactical-systemic. It ensures that trade-offs are made as conscious decisions with transparency and awareness. It also reminds that, when reaching towards a brighter future, to notice, value and protect who and what matters most. ‘Not jeopardising what we already have can matter as much as gaining new things.’ (Olson, 2017). Always keep values in sharp view.
Accidents happen. How do you respond to incidents that knock your carefully-made plans sideways?
I felt a bit nervous as I entered the office and, then, decidedly embarrassed as I accidentally tipped a hot cup of tea down my smart white shirt. The client looked bemused, as if trying to stifle a smile, before racing out of the room to return with a bright yellow t-shirt. Kind man. Not to be out-done by this, my brother went to a formal, tense business meeting with a client. As he approached their office, a car mounted the pavement and hit him, sending him flying into a wet, muddy gutter. His case burst open and his papers went everywhere. It almost broke his thigh but it also broke the ice.
It’s funny how, sometimes, when things go wrong – paradoxically – it makes things go right. In both cases, what felt like a complete disaster in the moment turned out to be the very thing that enabled a different type of contact, a positive bridge of human empathy and relationship and a better outcome. An emotional experience of humour or relief melted the rational, technical barriers that could otherwise have proved more difficult to navigate. Yet how many of us would welcome such ‘accidents’ when they arise, or see only how they wreck our plans, expectations or delicate egos?
It calls for a different kind of awareness, expectation and stance in the world. It means being open to possibilities, opportunities and potential in whatever happens. It’s far less about being planned and more about being prepared. It’s consistent with Professor Richard Wiseman’s view of what makes some people (apparently) ‘luckier’ than others (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06t5w4d). In coaching, we call this developing a client’s resource-fulness. Often, it entails enabling a person to approach the world, work and relationships with open hands, mind and heart; faith, hope and love.
So – how do you respond to serendipitous ‘accidents’? How do you build clients’ resourcefulness?
How can I help you to be more resourceful? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Don’t try to fly near God. You might not come down.’ (Barclay James Harvest)
‘Hold your nerve.’ It was good advice from a friend and consultant as I started out on a new business venture. It felt exciting and scary in equal measure. I had started out full of hope but my faith was now beginning to waver. Things don’t always work through or work out in the ways that we imagine. Was I missing something? Had I made a mistake somewhere on route? After all, there’s a fine line between persevering courageously in the face of all odds and simply being stubborn or resistant to change where needed. As I pondered this, I recalled a previous and strange experience in my life.
Flashback: at 21, I had decided to follow Jesus and I had left my job and studies in industry to work alongside the poor. I felt called to give away all my possessions, except those that I could fit into my rucksack, and I did so willingly – apart from my motorcycle. I moved from the North to England to a community development project in London. On arrival at the hostel where I would stay, a van hit the bike and knocked it to the ground before I’d even had chance to ring the doorbell. That same night, someone vandalised it at the roadside, stole the suppressor caps and poured sand into the tank.
Just five days later, I was riding the bike to work when a dog leapt out from between parked cars and ran straight under my front wheel. The bike jack-knifed and I flew over the handlebars, somersaulted three times (whacking my helmet hard on the ground each time) and the bike was wrecked. I limped it back to the North to get it fixed and got a front puncture on route. One month later, I rode it back to London and, within 15 minutes, was hit from behind by a hire van travelling at high speed. The driver gave false details, the bike was written off and I sustained serious internal injuries to my back.
One year later, just as my volunteer placement came to an end, astonishingly I received a letter from the van’s insurance company, inviting me to claim against it for the accident. I did so and, with the money, bought a sleeping bag and tent and hitch-hiked around Europe and into the Middle East. It was truly a life-changing experience for me. At the end of this time, I became very sick and went to a local travel agent to find a cheap flight home. ‘That will be £157.83’, they said. I looked at my cheque book stub to see how much was left in my bank account: £157.83. Hold your nerve, hold onto God.
When have you held your nerve – or not – in the face of adversity? What happened and what did you learn from it? How has it influenced your life and your work with clients?
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences. What have been the turning points in your career? What happened and what impacts did they have? How have you learned to ride the waves?
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
How can I help you work out your career-calling? Get in touch! email@example.com
‘Spontaneous counter-intuition.’ Those odd moments when, out of the blue, we find ourselves, suddenly and unexpectedly, acting radically-contrarily to our normal thinking patterns and behaviours – and yet with near-miraculous results. Have you ever experienced such a moment? What happened? What sense do you make of it?
'If you give children a problem, they may come up with a highly original solution, precisely because they don’t have the established route to it.’ (Edward de Bono)
It was dark as I meandered through heavy, stationary traffic on my trail bike, trying not to be dazzled by headlights of on-coming cars. Suddenly, I noticed the strange shadowy figures of two men, one man attacking the other, punching him violently in the face against his car. Feeling like Bradley Cooper on NZT in Limitless, I pulled over fearlessly and strode towards them. I flipped up my visor, approached the aggressor, held out my arms in open gesture and asked, compassionately, if he was OK. He looked confused, stopped and skulked away.
The other man, still propped against the side of the car with face covered in blood, thanked me profusely with breathy, gasping voice, ‘You saved my life.’ Now coming to my senses, as if waking up from sleep, I think I felt almost as surprised and relieved as he did. What on earth had just happened? How is it that I had acted so counter-intuitively in the moment and, in doing so, had ended the assault rather than escalated or become embroiled in it? I felt both stunned and amazed as I helped the man back into his car. It felt like a miracle.
Edward De Bono coined the phrase, Lateral Thinking, to describe an approach to innovation and problem-solving that involves use of creative techniques that disrupt normal thinking patterns and stimulate fresh ideas. His ingenious methods helped to solve the human-psychological problem, ‘How can I think out of the box when I am the box?’ They help to break the frozen gaze, the ‘fixed Gestalt’, the mental webs of our own creation that become so entrapping for us (Gareth Morgan). And he made it possible to learn how to do it too.
Yet how do we account for moments of instinct, of intuition, where we act, apparently laterally, without thinking, without conscious process of reasoning or decision-making? This looks and feels qualitatively different to lateral thinking, even if the results of it may appear so similar. How do we make sense of that sudden dream-like state, that doing the wildly unexpected thing that feels strange and unfamiliar, even to us? Is it something that we can learn, pray for, prepare for, especially in readiness for sudden crises? What do you think?
Can I help you develop critical reflective practice? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘We are always influencing, but not always in the way we hope.’ (Richard Marshall) We do well not to underestimate the power of role-modelling. Who has most influenced your thinking and practice? What are you role-modelling for people you work with?
I remember that night vividly. I was alone at an event in St James’ Church in London, an event aimed at raising support for Central American refugees in the UK. I was, serendipitously, sitting next to the Nicaraguan ambassador. At the end of the evening, a group of refugees went forward for a photo shoot. They were being guided and directed by a vivacious woman wearing a nun’s habit who, with warm, wide smile and open arms, gestured me forward to join them. I felt humbled to be invited.
This was my first encounter with Sister Isabel. With five degrees and a PhD to her name, this truly remarkable Spanish woman, who worked as a psychotherapist with traumatised people, became a close friend and inspiration in my life. We met up regularly to chat, discuss, argue, laugh, support and encourage each other in our respective work. She reached out persistently beyond the strict boundaries of her formal role to touch people’s hearts and lives with love. Last night…she died.
So today I feel a strange emptiness. Wordless, struggling to find words to pay tribute to a life that left such a mark on my life. But I don’t want to be silent. Isabel would say all that matters is Jesus, yet I want to show a glimpse of her spirit too. When we met, I was working with a Central American political action organisation. She challenged its revolutionary spirit: ‘You are willing to fight for the people but are you willing to die for them?’ Disconcerted faces all round. She would be – literally.
True to this point, she travelled to Latin America to work with students who were suffering torture under a brutal dictatorship. It was a harrowing experience and she returned even more convinced: ‘My therapeutic training could only take me so far. What these people needed more than anything was love.’ Later, she had a stroke that left her partially-paralysed, yet she limped on with her work with determined patience and conviction. Her final prayer: ‘I’m ready to go now, to be with Jesus.’
What a woman. What an inspiration.
Sister Isabel Maria Montero
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! email@example.com