‘Who started this work – the organisation’s founder, or the child who inspired him to do it?’
This challenge came as a healthy jolt, a moment of insight and inspiration, from Carlos, a humble, radical leader working with poor communities in Brazil. It was at an induction event for new leaders of a now very large, global non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its history was being presented through the lens of the organisation’s founder and its successive global presidents. The founder was a war photographer who had been appalled to see the terrible suffering of children during the Korean War. An encounter with a child had galvanised his determination to do something about it.
The resultant NGO had worked very hard over the years to support poor and vulnerable children throughout the world and had indeed achieved some remarkable results. Over time, however, as the organisation had grown in scale and scope, it had started increasingly to view the world through an organisational lens rather than through the eyes of a child. The simple-yet-profound voice of a child had become lost in the midst of complex strategies, structures, policies, plans and programmes. The presidential perspective symbolised a shift from client/beneficiary-centric to organisation-centric.
Why is this important? Firstly, this child’s interaction with and influence on the founder challenges traditional ideas of leadership as a hierarchical-structural phenomenon rather than, as according to Chris Rodgers (2015), ‘an emergent property of people interacting together, not as an elite practice confined to those at the top of organizations.’ Secondly, this NGO’s experience highlights the risk of subtle-yet-critical drifts away from a customer-client, outside-in focus to an intra-organisational, inside-out/inside-inside focus. How can we address these issues as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers?
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‘The big question is, who rolls the dice?’ (Pav Ponnoosami)
You may have seen change models that depict human experience as a linear curve. The idea is that people progress through change by transitioning progressively through different emotional phases. On the whole, it’s a useful tool – except, that is, when it isn’t. Perhaps a more apt metaphor for complex change in organisations today could be a snakes and ladders board. (If you’re not familiar with this children’s game, it involves rolling a dice to move a piece from start to finish, step by step. If you land on a ladder, you accelerate forward. If you land on a snake, you slide backwards.)
That’s so often what happens in change – and so often what it feels like too. We step forward then, all of a sudden, someone or something hits us and knocks us off course. We trip up, fall down, get up, dust ourselves off, steady ourselves and find our feet again. We take another step, more cautiously this time and, unexpectedly, happily, something positive shifts. Wow, we leap forward now filled with fresh energy, confidence and hope. Success! We smile, breathe…then, shockingly, the ground gives way. Woah?! How did that happen? Where did that come from? Two steps forward, one step back.
Why is this metaphor useful? It creates a realistic expectation, an anticipation, that enables us to handle change. If we know in advance that change will feel chaotic at times; that multiple changes from different sources may well collide and create conflict; that not everything will be as smooth, clear, organised and coordinated as we may hope for; that sometimes our energy will dip or rise, that we may feel irritable, excited, annoyed all in the same day and – yet – that we will get through this; that the ‘miserable middle’ is only the middle; we can keep moving forward, pushing ahead.
It normalises what otherwise feels abnormal. It helps us not to panic. It begs interesting questions too. For instance: Whose game is this? Who decides the rules and why? What piece have I chosen to represent me – or my team? Who or what are the snakes and ladders here? Am I a ladder for others or a snake? How resilient and resourceful am I if I land on a snake? Who am I competing with? Who rolls the dice? What would it mean to win? As leaders, coaches, OD and trainers, we can listen for the metaphors that our people/clients use; explore them playfully; experiment with alternatives.
I was in Canada at change leadership event aimed at paving the way for a new global initiative. My role was as organisation development consultant, invited to share psychological and cultural insights that could turn out to be significant as things moved forward. I was new to change management on such a large, complex, international scale and, at times, felt out of my depth, as did a number of my colleagues who were experienced experts in the field. We persevered and it was a useful event.
At the end I asked Ric Matthews, programme leader, to give me some feedback on how he had experienced both me and my contribution during those 2 weeks. I was new to the organisation and keen to learn. He looked at me directly and gave me a fairly succinct list of things he had seen and had experienced as my strengths, along with a similar-length list of things that he had seen as my weaknesses. I could recognise everything he described and thanked him for his honesty and clarity.
Ric ended by saying, ‘My advice is to focus on and build on your strengths, not to focus on and spend effort addressing your weaknesses. Your weaknesses may in fact turn out to be the flip sides of your strengths. In addressing your weaknesses, you may inadvertently undermine your strengths.’ This was my first introduction to an explicit strengths-based approach to leadership and change. It felt energising, inspiring and liberating. It has had a huge impact on my work and career since.
If you’re familiar with appreciative inquiry and-or solutions-focused coaching, you will notice resonances with a strengths-based approach. It’s about building on what is going well, shifting our attention from problems to solutions, moving our gaze from deficits to possibilities. It’s being aware of what we do well, using and developing it and releasing our full potential to become all we can be. How do you use this type of positive psychology in your work as leader, coach, OD or trainer?
‘My English is terrible,’ he said, despondently, in near-perfect English. ‘I feel like I’m going backwards rather than improving.’ This recent, brief conversation with an asylum-seeker student typified a phenomenon that leaders, coaches and trainers often encounter in people and groups. A German social worker friend describes it as: ‘Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, which is, translated, ‘A question of perception.’ It’s something about perspective, belief what we notice and how we construe it.
In this vein, Dr. Terrence Maltbia commented astutely in a LinkedIn post this week that coaching and facilitation are ‘as much about mind-sets as skill-sets.’ This student (above) was far more competent, more skilful, than he realised. Yet his own assessment of his performance affected his confidence badly. This, in turn, affected his emotional state and what he believed himself capable of doing. The immediate coaching challenge was, therefore, to address his mind-set, not his language skills.
I asked and gestured: ‘Imagine a box. The box contains everything you know in English. How big was the box when you arrived in the UK?’ He gestured the shape and size of a tiny box. ‘And now..?’ He gestured a significantly larger box. ‘And so..?’. A wide smile broke out on his face. He sat up straight and his voice became stronger as he spoke: more confident, able and hopeful. In that moment, his perspective had changed and everything had changed with it. Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung.
Why is this important? A person’s performance at work can be regarded as a dynamic product of 4xCs: commitment, competence, confidence and credibility. Commitment: what we are willing to do; competence: what we are able to do; confidence: what we believe about ourselves; credibility: what others believe about us. In my experience, confidence is a critical recurring factor in enhancing or inhibiting a person’s effectiveness. So, I’m curious: how do you enable a change in perception?
It can at times feel like everything is falling apart. And there is a reason for this. Because it is.’ (Neil Gibb)
I love the provocative spirit of Gibb’s words in this Introduction to his book, ‘The Participation Revolution: How to Ride the Waves of Change in a Terrifyingly Turbulent World’ (2018). The vividly dramatic, apocalyptic language suggests a world in process of fragmentation, disintegration and profound change, shattering old patterns and paradigms and signalling the birth pains of something radically new. It has resonances with Kotter’s burning platform metaphor: change now or die.
We can see glimpses of this shift phenomenon all around us on the world stage: e.g. global warming and related extreme climate change; multinational corporations transcending the power and wealth of nation states; increasing nationalism challenging international alliances and institutions; mass migration across national and cultural boundaries; a postmodern shift in trust from authorities to peers; a digital revolution that is transforming communications, cultures and relationships.
No surprise then that change leadership and management feature so strongly as recurring themes in contemporary leadership literature. Organisations – and people – can feel battered by multiple, relentless and ever-increasing waves of change that often feel outside of their control and yet to which they are nevertheless required to respond. It can leave leaders feeling anxious, bewildered, paralysed and tired. It can leave employees unsettled and anxious about an uncertain future.
Perhaps it’s enough to make anyone feel dizzy and disorientated. What kind of change curve can make sense of our experiences when we face so many changes from so many different directions all at the same time? Gibb proposes learning to ride the waves; a crash course in surfing, if you like. It sounds like a great idea in principle…but how do you do it in practice? If you are a leader, coach, OD professional or trainer, how do you enable others to navigate turbulent waves of change?
‘You can’t always control who walks into your life but you can control which window you throw them out of!’ (Anon)
It can be one of the worst feelings. To lose control. To be out of control. It’s also one of the main root causes of anxiety, depression and stress. To have control suggests to have choice, to have power to decide, to have agency, to be free. To lose those things, to have them taken away from us or to discover they lay out of reach for us can feel scary, disorientating and debilitating. It’s a critical consideration in change leadership, coaching, OD and training: how to handle issues of control.
I met with a change team recently that discussed how best to support people through transition. They had a very positive intention and created some great ideas. The critical and missing ingredient was to invite and involve the actual people they aimed to support in choosing what they would find most useful. The simple felt-experience of choosing can create a psychological sense of control in the midst of bewildering and anxiety-provoking change – and that can make all the difference.
I worked with a leadership team that felt overwhelmed by challenges they were facing. Their environment was so turbulent, complex and unpredictable that they struggled to understand it and to know what to do in response. Their felt sense of out-of-control-ness evoked anxiety and that made it difficult to think straight. Their solution lay not in exercising greater control but in letting go of their psychological need for control. They learned adaptive-responsive, emergent leadership instead.
How do you work with issues of control?
‘A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?’ (Google)
I searched Google recently for ‘weird interview questions’ and, among others, the vivid, sombrero-donned penguin example flashed up onto my screen. It was definitely my favourite. I mean…who would think to ask that question never mind try to answer it?
Its brilliance lays in its strange unexpectedness, zany imagery and sheer randomness. It’s a fantastic example of lateral thinking, a provocative-evocative approach designed to disrupt ordinary thinking, routines and expectations. A person’s response to such questions can reveal their personal and cultural assumptions, projections, imaginative-creative skills – and sense of humour! It can also stimulate fresh energy, insights and ideas.
The jolts we experience mentally, emotionally and physically when we encounter such questions, especially if they come out of the blue…or red…or yellow…or any other colour that may appeal to or disturb us…can feel like, all of a sudden, riding a rollercoaster at breakneck speed with no seatbelt on – like being catapulted, confused, into strange and unusual worlds. Think Jesus and parables, Zen and koans or, if you prefer, Alice and Wonderland.
Leandro Herrero (Disruptive Ideas: 10+10+10=1000, 2008) proposes that the impact of a few simple, such disruptive ideas can be like dynamite. They are likely to be controversial and counterintuitive, risk being ridiculed or dismissed – and yet are disproportionate in their ‘potential to impact on and transform the lives of (people and) organisations.’ Sometimes small things really are big.
Where have you seen or experienced simple questions, ideas or actions create earth-shaking movement?
‘I want it all and I want it now.’ (Queen)
I’m not the most patient of people. Some have a remarkable gift of serenity, an ability to stay calm and peaceful and to……..….wait. I sometimes wish I was more like that more of the time. It reminds me of M. Scott Peck’s ‘The Road Less Travelled – A New Psychology of Love’ with its emphasis on the value of delayed gratification. It’s like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fox in ‘The Little Prince’. The fox teaches the Prince how important it is in taming, anticipating and arriving to learn to…..…….wait.
This is not, or course, to say that waiting per se is an absolute imperative or virtue at all times and in all situations. If, for instance, the fire alarm went off while writing this piece, wisdom would demand an instant response: ‘Leave the building – now!’ Yet how is it that, culturally, we appear to have become so incapable, so intolerant, of waiting? Is it that our sense of time horizons, partly driven by communications technology, are getting narrower and narrower, shorter and shorter, near-instant?
Biblical writers talk a lot about the need to ‘wait on the Lord’. It’s something about seeing things from a wider perspective, a wider timeframe, trusting God to work things through in eternal-time. I see resonances in Adam Kahane’s ‘Solving Tough Problems’ where he advocates, counterintuitively in our cultural era, stepping back from difficult, complex issues, rather than trying hard to think our way through them, to allow space and time for solutions to emerge, to rise into consciousness.
Dr Lim Peng Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders, coaches and other change agents may race ahead and become impatient with people lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. ‘In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time the middle and back sections are moving, we may already be racing off to the next great idea and initiative.’
How good are you at…………waiting?
Happy New Year!
‘Where has 2017 gone?’ ‘I lost all track of time.’
I find it curious how a subjective sense of time vs an objective measure of time can be and feel so incredibly different. Some hours, days and weeks seem to pass incredibly quickly. Others go on as if they will last forever. Our sense of perspective on time changes over time. For example, when I was a young child, World War 2 seemed like it happened hundreds of years ago. As I get older, paradoxically it seems closer.
It’s as if how we perceive the time-distance is relative to how long we have been alive. The longer I live, the shorter the time-gap seems and feels to me. I’m intrigued by how some distant events in my own life feel as they happened just yesterday whereas some more recent events feel like they happened eons ago. I think it’s somehow related to how we experience those events emotionally, e.g. ‘Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.’
Our perspective on time seems also connected to how far experiences from the past still affect us now or, perhaps, how far they resonate with what we are experiencing now, as if they set up a psychodynamic reverberation effect. Some say, ‘Time is a great healer’, as if the passage of times creates distance between us and the emotional impact of an event so that it no longer carries the same depth or intensity of feeling. It’s sometimes true.
There is chronos time (sequential moments) and kairos time (pivotal moments). The New Year marks a point in time, a shift in seasons, a transition from- and thereby -to. For some, it marks a psycho-symbolic ending, a closing of a metaphorical door on whatever has gone before. For others, it holds a fresh hope to re-set our lives – a lot like the promise held out in the gospel. As the clock chimes midnight into 2018, what will the new year mean for you?
You may have heard the expression, ‘To hit rock bottom.’ It’s often used in relation to reaching the lowest possible place in life, a place that is in effect devoid of all resources and hope. To hit rock bottom suggests a falling experience – having fallen from a better situation…to a deteriorating situation…to the hardest of all possible situations where it really couldn’t get any worse. Some argue that when things get that bad, they may need to be so before we find ourselves motivated enough to make the necessary, fundamental – even drastic – changes needed to resolve or improve them.
There are some parallels with use of extreme, evocative images, e.g. that of a ‘burning platform’, in change leadership. This fire metaphor conveys that the status quo is under threat and that we, by extension, are under threat too unless we wake up, smell the proverbial coffee and…not sure what comes next…presumably drink it – or at least use it to douse the flames?! It’s like, ‘Change or die’. It suggests that, at times, we need to compel ourselves or others urgently by painting dramatic, real or imagined (and sometimes a bit of both) scenarios that radically incentivise or force us to change.
But do we really need to hit rock bottom or to face the wall first? Are there ways to galvanise sustainable change without prerequisite anxiety or near-despair? I believe we can learn here from the therapeutic arena. Some examples: in working with people at risk of free-fall, we can ‘raise the bottom’ or help ‘create firm footholds’ (e.g. support people early to face and deal with real yet less-devastating crises); use ‘motivational interview techniques’ that increase people’s intrinsic desire to change; use spiritual-existential coaching to help people build deeper and stronger foundations.
As leader or coach, have you ever hit rock bottom, felt yourself falling or worked with people who have? If so, who or what made a difference?
Nick is a coach and OD consultant. Can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org