‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
You may be familiar with conventional brainstorming (sometimes reframed as, ‘thought showering’) where participants are invited to share as many ideas as possible. The underlying belief is that a free-flow of ideas in a group is likely to produce more and a greater variety of ideas than would be likely or possible for an individual alone. As psychologist Michael West points out, however, groups tend quickly to experience group-think where people influence each other’s ideas and start to think along very similar lines – thereby actually limiting rather than expanding the range of ideas that emerge.
In some cultures and contexts, political and relational dynamics also influence what people feel willing or consider appropriate to contribute in a group. In light of this, West proposes that it’s sometimes better to invite people to jot down as many ideas as possible separately before sharing in a group and, if expedient, to share them anonymously if that makes it more acceptable to do so. Bryan Mattimore’s creative ‘worst possible idea’ technique goes one step further and breaks the oft-felt pressure to come up with the best or right idea altogether.
Instead, it invites people (light-heartedly) to generate an array of truly terrible ideas (e.g. as Ian Gray suggests, ‘illegal, immoral or unworkable’) and then to identify key attributes – i.e. what makes them so bad? If combined with reverse brainstorming, we can invite participants to engage in counter-intuitive activities such as swapping, ‘How could we solve this problem?’ for, ‘How could we make it much worse?’ Being playful in this way can reduce anxiety, snap people out of traditional thinking patterns and surface seeds of innovation that could prove transformational.
So – what have been your best (or worst!) possible ideas? What did you do to discover or create them?
A baptism of fire. I had just moved to the city. It was a new community development project. On a local housing estate, a gang of youths was harassing residents at night. This mostly involved stopping people at knife-point or setting fire to litter stacked against people’s house doors. Here was my mission…if I chose to accept it: to work at night, infiltrate the gang, stop what they were doing and convince them to do something more constructive with their lives. I was 21 years old, wore an earring, combat trousers, white trainers and black leather jacket. They thought I should fit in.
I worked alongside Dan, an experienced detached youth worker. We set out at 10pm each evening, wandered the streets and hoped to find the gang. I wondered what would happen when we did. The youth worker gave me two practical words of advice: ‘1. Always carry money and, 2. Always ensure we are outnumbered.’ I felt puzzled, laughed nervously and replied, ‘Surely you mean 1. Never carry money and, 2. Always ensure we outnumber them? Isn’t that a better way to stay safe?’ This was my first encounter with counterintuitive thinking in youth and community development work.
Dan elaborated: ‘If a gang tells you to hand over your money and you do, they are likely to leave you alone. If you say you have no money, they probably won’t believe you and may well attack you to rob you.’ I responded, ‘Oh – and outnumbered..?’ He replied, ‘If we outnumber them as we approach them, they may feel threatened and attack us. If they outnumber us, they are less likely to feel threatened and more likely to be curious.’ Later that night, we did find the gang huddled under a dim street light. Dan walked casually into their midst, lit a cigarette, smiled…and said, ‘Hi.’
DeBono calls this lateral thinking. It’s a way of approaching a person or situation that involves challenging default perceptions, instincts, logic, decisions and actions and trying out radical alternatives instead. It’s like the judo teacher who instructs, ‘If an aggressive person grabs you by the lapels and pulls you forward, walk towards them rather than instinctively pull back.’ Jesus modelled it to dramatic effect. It can feel mind-bending, universe-warping, paradigm-shifting. It can be hard to do. Yet it can also yield creative and innovative results.
What have been your best counterintuitive moments, insights and ideas?
The team decided to work on clarifying its purpose, it’s raison d'être, it’s answer to the, ‘What are we here to do?’ question. It had been thinking about its ways of working, its team meetings, its mode of operation. It made sense to step back, at least one step, before stepping forward. As team coach, I stepped in briefly to suggest that they start by clarifying the questions they were seeking to answer. They settled on, ‘What is our optimal role?’ and ‘How can we add value?’
I asked again, ‘So how might you do this?’ A team member responded quickly, ‘Let’s discuss it and see what we come up with.’ The others nodded in agreement. As they turned to talk, I interrupted by pushing a metaphorical pause button, ‘And how else could you do this?’ They looked puzzled then one said, ‘We could each write down a purpose statement on a post-it note then compare and contrast what we’ve written?’ I repeated, ‘And how else could you do it?’
They looked confused and then thought hard. ‘We could split into 2 x 3s, work on one question each then compare?’, ‘We could brainstorm ideas on a flipchart?’, ‘We could share our visions of a team from hell, what to avoid at all costs?’, ‘We could draw pictures instead of writing words?’ They combined the final 3. Each person grabbed a coloured pen, stepped up and a provocative, vivid, collage emerged. Their chosen technique generated laughter, insight and great ideas!
The principle here is how to challenge habitual, default patterns of behaviour, how to pause and reflect critically and creatively before diving into action. Posing the simple question, ‘How else could we do this?’ can significantly enhance team energy, engagement – and effectiveness.
I re-watched The Imitation Game and A Beautiful Mind this week. One of the things that occurred to me whilst enthralled by the brilliant portrayals of Alan Turing and John Nash was their apparent lack of social inhibition. They were willing to say the un-sayable, to challenge peers, authorities and so-called experts, unconstrained by established cultural and political norms. It’s as if this enabled them to think the un-thinkable too and I wonder how far this accounted for their incredible genius.
By contrast, a concern about offending is becoming increasingly commonplace in UK universities and, perhaps, wider Western liberal democracies as a whole. It’s tricky to balance freedom of speech with freedom from harm, especially in an age of extremism. However, as Joanna Williams (author of Freedom in an Age of Conformity, 2016) comments, what passes for formal education often appears more concerned now with social inclusion than with knowledge. What risks lay in this for us?
I spoke with some young people recently who commented on how scared they feel to say anything controversial at school. This is about more than holding and expressing a contrary opinion that others disapprove of. It is, in effect, about not being allowed to hold that opinion at all. This leads to self-censorship driven by social vetting by peers, often compounded by institutions. It can feel like only current mainstream views are permissible. All divergent views and voices are suppressed.
This has real implications for leadership, OD, coaching and training in organisations. What scope is there for truly radical creativity and innovation if people feel constrained from thinking the un-thinkable and imagining the un-imaginable? How can we model and support healthy, critical thinking and conversations? What can we do to spot and address it if a person or team is editing their questions, views and ideas to conform with what they perceive as culturally-acceptable norms?
Conventional wisdom tells us this: if we acquire more resources, we can do more and achieve more. Correspondingly, if we have less, we can do less and achieve less. It’s as if there’s a direct 1-2-1 causal relationship between resource and ability. The language we use in organisations often reinforces this view. We grow and shrink our ‘human resources’ according to the number and size of jobs that need to be done, tasks that need to be performed. It’s a linear logic. And it’s wrong.
Let’s flip this around a bit. A charity plans to run a leadership development programme but loses the funding to do it. It lost the resource so lost the programme, right? No, it explored alternative ideas and found a commercial organisation that was willing to run a high quality programme for it pro bono. It satisfied the charity’s need for a programme and the commercial organisation’s desire to support ethical work in the community. A great outcome for both parties. A win-win solution.
So what made the difference? Was it a shift in resources - or a shift in thinking? Here’s the thing: ‘How else might we do this?’ invites lateral thinking, creative ideas and innovative approaches. It takes us away from acquiring more resources and towards becoming more resource-ful. It moved this charity away from, ‘How can we get more money to support our work?’ towards, ‘Who shares similar passions and interests?’ and, ‘What might be possible to achieve our mutual goals?’
This is, of course, the domain of agile thinking. As environments become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), we need to think ever more creatively, adaptively and resourcefully. This implies a fundamental paradigm shift away from human resources and towards resource-ful humans. It means shifting our attention beyond solving the immediate issue to developing critical thinking, creative ideation and reflective practice. How do you do it?
‘Organisations do not exist. People do.’ This was the provocative title I chose for a dissertation I wrote some years ago now. The idea, the belief, has stayed with me. It shapes how I think about and approach leadership development, OD, coaching, facilitation and training. Inspired by Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation and insights from social constructionism, I continue to be fascinated by how the images we hold when we think of ‘organisation’ influence and, at times, constrain our awareness, actions and the range of options we believe we have available to us.
So I meet you in the street and ask you to tell me about you organisation. You may start by telling me about the products or services you provide. You may well move onto saying something about the structure, by which you are less likely normally to mean the physical structure and more likely to mean how jobs, roles, responsibilities and authority are organised. You may well describe or depict the structure like an organisation chart. Now here’s the important bit. Insofar as you and everyone else in the organisation believe this structure exists and behave as if it does, to you – it does.
Now imagine that the structure dissolves so that what is left is people and whatever physical assets the organisation may own. Imagine that people are released from job titles, role boundaries and that you now see them as whole people, rich with experiences, in vibrant colour. You have a task to achieve and you invite people with the best energy, enthusiasm, skills and life experiences to offer. As different tasks arise, different people get involved. Imagine, just for a moment, what that could look and feel like and achieve. Imagine the creativity and potential for innovation. Imagine!
What did this thought experiment reveal for you? What images are constraining you or your clients? What assumptions are you making about what’s possible? What dreams could be realised if the images were to change? What would it take to make the shift?
‘I don’t know’ is a leadership act that invites others in. (Karakusevic)
It all depends on the voice. I can say, ‘I don’t know’ with heavy heart and sloped shoulders, a voice of resignation, a paralysed feeling. A sense of no way forward. This may be a voice that I speak to myself, to others, when I encounter unfamiliar territory, new experiences, fresh challenges. It can leave me feeling stuck, lost, hopeless. I’ve heard this voice whisper in my own head from time to time and I’ve felt its debilitating effects.
I’m learning that I can use a different voice too: ‘I don’t know - but I’m really curious to find out. Let’s start something and see what happens!’ This voice comes from a free place, a spirit of playful inquiry, a willingness to experiment. It’s a voice that releases me, invites others to contribute, draws people in. It’s an approach to co-creative leadership that liberates and empowers. It’s at the heart of coaching: the power of not-knowing to release knowing in others.
This approach to living and leading can build optimism and agility in organisations where things are ambiguous and uncertain. No surprise, therefore, to see 2 new books in 2015: ‘Not knowing’ (D’Souza & Renner) and ‘Nonsense – The Power of Not Knowing’ (Holmes). Not-knowing frees us from the pressure to know and allows us to explore new ideas, new horizons, new paradigms. It enables us to embrace the future with open minds and hearts.
So I’m noticing resonances between current thinking, my Christian spirituality (e.g. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’) and what I’m discovering through experimental fields (e.g. Gestalt). And I’m very curious to hear from others who live, work and play in this not-knowing space too. How do you create and sustain a not-knowing mindset? How have you applied it to your leadership or coaching practice? What benefits of not-knowing have you found to be true?
It was an energising experience, facilitating a group of leaders this week who are keen to build a new high performing team. We pushed the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work. We used photos to create an agenda and physically enacted people’s aspirations to avoid falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.
It felt very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we do’. There was a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants leaned actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack inspiration or effectiveness.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’, ‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What would be a great result?’
So I presented a simple model to the team with four words: content (what), process (how) and relationship (who) encircled around goal (where). In all my experience of working with individuals and teams, whether in coaching, training or facilitation, whether in the UK or overseas, these four factors are key recurring themes that make a very real difference.
They seem to be important factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of energy, bored or disengaged. Worse still, if left unaddressed, they can lead to negative, destructive conflict that completely debilitates a team.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.‘Think back to your best experience of working with another person or team. How did you feel at the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with the person or team. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? What were they doing? What made the biggest positive difference for you?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question to pose could be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that, more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to accommodate or negotiate.
Now back to the model with some sample prompts to check out and navigate with a client, group or team. Notice how the different areas overlap and impact on each other. It’s about addressing all areas, not just to one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need
Goal: ‘What’s your vision for this?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Who or what else is impacted by it and how?, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
Content: ‘What’s the most important issue to focus this time on?’, ‘What is the best use of our time together?’, ‘What is the issue from your perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?’
Process: ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What approach would you find most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto others?’, ‘What would be best to do now and what could be best done outside of this meeting?’, ‘Could we try a new way that would lift our energy levels?’
Relationship: ‘What’s important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What are you noticing from your unique perspective?’, ‘What distinctive contribution could you bring?’, ‘What is working well in the team’s relationships?’, ‘What is creating tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
The versatility of the model is that it can be reapplied to coaching, training and other contexts too. In a training environment you could consider, for instance, ‘What are we here to learn?’ (goal), ‘What material should we cover?’ (content), ‘What methods will suit different learning styles?’ (process) and ‘How can we help people work together well in this environment?' (relationship).
In a coaching context it could look something like, ‘How do you hope to develop through engaging in this coaching experience?’ (goal), ‘What issues, challenges or opportunities would you like to focus on?’ (content), ‘How would you like to approach this together?’ (process) and ‘What would build and sustain trust as we work on these things together?’ (relationship).
I’d be interested to hear from you. Do the areas represented in this model resonate with your own experiences? Which factors have you noticed tend to be most attended to or ignored? Do you have any real-life, practical examples of how you have addressed these factors and what happened as a result? In your experience, what other factors make the biggest difference?
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.