Mike Wilson is a great leader and challenged me with his typical warmth and smile: ‘Nick, I’ve noticed you always stamp draft on the front cover when you submit a paper, proposal or report. I’m going to encourage you not to do it next time and to see how that is for you...’ Mike was astute and had touched on a deep point. What did draft represent for me? Why did I do it? This event was some years ago now but I remember that conversation, that feeling, that revelation, vividly.
A previous leader had commented that I produced very high standards of work and yet, on the flip side, it sometimes I meant I spent too much time and effort on one task to the detriment of another. It was as if I was trying to do everything perfectly, irrespective of what the task called for. I felt continually pressured and stressed and blamed it on unrealistic demands. I needed to learn that, in most situations, ‘good enough’ isn’t mediocre or a failure. It really is good – and enough.
There are, of course, circumstances in which exceptionally high standards are important. I look at the Rio Olympics this week and marvel at the incredible training, stamina, ability and achievements. Yet if we apply the same principle to everything we do, we risk becoming anxious and disheartened, exhausted or depressed. I think the key here is in something about wisdom and discernment, perspective and choice. This is so much easier to achieve with support than on our own.
So here are some useful coaching options: 1. Psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural or personal construct coaching to explore and address beliefs and values. 2. Person-centred or mindfulness coaching to notice and handle feelings differently. 3. Gestalt, systems-based or social construct coaching to identify and address relational, cultural and contextual drivers. 4. Appreciative inquiry, strengths-based or solutions-focused coaching to build on ‘good’ and create a new future.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
How do we make sense of situations when it all goes wrong? How do we help clients do the same? I had one such incident this weekend. Having psyched myself up for a long cycle ride, the valve on my rear tyre broke just as I was setting off. I couldn’t fix it so I replaced it with a new tube. When I started to pump that up, however, the tube burst. I couldn’t believe it. End of ride. I felt surprised and frustrated. Why do these things happen? A couple of hours later, however, I felt relieved as the heavens opened with an unexpected downpour of cold rain. If I had made it out on the bike, I would have been caught out in the open, soaked to the skin with no waterproofs. Was this providential? Did the tyres mysteriously go wrong so that I would avoid this storm?
Alison Hardingham cites a Chinese Taoist story that fits the theme well. It describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘Maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said, ‘Maybe’. The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune but the farmer again said, ‘Maybe’.
The story continues. The next week, conscription officers came to the village to take young men away for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied, 'Maybe’. (Psychology for Trainers, 1998, p116). The meaning of the story is clear. We are never quite sure of the future consequences of actions or experiences in the present. How we experience events, how we feel about them, is also influenced by how we frame them, how we construct them, what we believe about them. It’s the focus of a number of fields of research including cognitive behavioural psychology and social constructionism.
In this same vein, I’m fascinated by an enigmatic place in the Bible where it describes the Spirit preventing people doing what they had set out to do and, presumably, were convinced was the right thing to do. (If you’re interested, check out Acts 16: 6-8). The point it conveys is that God may at times intervene in human lives to stop us doing something, e.g. if the unforeseen consequences may be harmful to us or others, or if there’s something else that’s more important for us to do. The Bible doesn’t attribute the direct intervention of God to every human experience. Nevertheless, for me, this example opens an intriguing window into a spiritual dimension that has important implications for how I make sense of what happens to and around me.
Quite a while ago, I studied at a college. I really struggled with the whole thing and, since then, have felt a passion to support students going through similar experiences. Two years ago, the college sent out a flyer asking for coaches and mentors for its students. I felt delighted. This was my moment. I sent an email explaining my background and coaching experience and qualifications, including coaching and mentoring students from other colleges. No reply. I sent another email to the same person. No reply. Bemused, I sent an email to the college administrative team. No reply. Now feeling frustrated, I sent an email to the college registrar. No reply. Was this just a terrible system with poor client care, or was there a deeper principle at work?
I’ve had other similar experiences. Some years ago I worked in a Palestinian hospital in the Middle East. The experience really screwed me up but, on return, I felt desperate to go back. I tried and tried, applying for job after job and yet every one drew a blank. I tried volunteering with various organisations and still drew a blank. However, in the back of my mind, in my spirit, I had this growing intuition, a 'spiritual discernment', that this wasn’t the right path for me. I don’t know what the consequences might have been if I had gone but this felt more than coincidence. So tell me. Have you had similar experiences where your or a client’s best efforts have failed? What sense have you made of it? What new insights or opportunities emerged as a result?
I had a new, short, mini-article published online in About Leaders this week called, ‘What is really going on here?’
It introduces examples of different frames of reference we may use when working with people as a leader or coach. I would love to hear what you think, what frames you use and what experiences you have in this area. Looking forward to hearing from you!
What’s your theory of change? What issues are you trying to address? What creates and sustains those issues? What kind of interventions and when are most likely to prove successful? What would success look and feel like, and for whom? What is your overall goal? These are some of the questions we looked at on a Theory of Change workshop I took part in yesterday. Theories of change are becoming increasingly commonplace in the third sector, paralleling e.g. strategy maps in other sectors. There are a number of reasons for this. Charities and NGOs are under increasing scrutiny from supporters and funders to demonstrate how their resources are being used to achieve optimal impact. This has created a whole industry in impact evaluation.
The third sector is maturing too. No longer driven into action by empathy or altruistic instinct alone, organisations in this sector have more experience, more evidence of what works and what doesn’t and more analysis and understanding of why. The issues have turned out to be more complex than some had originally imagined, making significant and sustained progress challenging. Against this backdrop, a theory of change can prove valuable. It aims to clarify goals and outcomes and to work back to activities and other factors that will enable the outcomes to be achieved. In articulating these things clearly and succinctly (often in simple graphic flowchart form), underlying assumptions and causal links can be surfaced, explained and tested.
At heart, a theory of change answers questions such as ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What is necessary for the goal to be achieved?’ and ‘What’s the rationale behind our intervention strategy?’ In doing so, it makes the organisation’s focus, operations and use of resources transparent, accountable and more open to challenge and improvement as new research and evidence emerges. I find myself particularly drawn to the critical-reflective aspects. For instance, one NGO I worked with conducted a fundamental strategy review starting with these same principles, asking questions such as, ‘Why are people poor?, ‘What causes and sustains poverty?’, ‘What interventions make the greatest difference?’, ‘What is our optimal contribution?’
One of the interesting challenges for a third sector organisation is whose voice is represented in framing and answering such questions, e.g. donors, beneficiaries, trustees, staff, volunteers. A charitable organisation I work with currently conducted a strategy review recently, inviting feedback from beneficiaries using surveys, focus groups etc. to find out what they struggle with and aspire to and what role they would want to see the organisation playing in helping them address or achieve these issues. The needs and aspirations that surfaced have been summarised as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ or ‘they’ statements in clear and colloquial language, keeping the focus on what each individual as beneficiary wants to experience as a result of the organisation’s actions.
This is a sharp contrast with some experiences I’ve had in the past. In one instance, a third sector organisation I worked with set up a drop-in project providing advice and support for long-term unemployed people. The Local Authority provided funding using ‘number of people using the service’ as its key success criterion. Paradoxically, the more successful the service was in enabling local people to find employment, thereby reducing the number of people who needed to access the service, the more the service was deemed statistically by the Local Authority to be failing. A theory of change can help surface such outcomes and assumptions at an early stage, enabling more constructive dialogue and agreement between agencies and stakeholders.
I believe the potential for theory of change extends beyond third sector organisations aiming to articulate their vision, strategy, plans and reasons behind them. I’ve used similar methodologies to explore and articulate an organisation development strategy within a third sector organisation. We started by exploring a number of questions with diverse stakeholders and groups such as, ‘What kind of organisation are we trying to develop?’, ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why are things as they are?’, ‘What drives or sustains how things are?’, ‘What matters most to people here?’, ‘Who or what influences change?’, ‘What would it take to achieve the changes?’ This enabled us to create a map showing goals, activities, assumptions and causal relationships.
The same principles can be applied at team and individual levels too, e.g. for leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and counselling purposes. It enables dialogue between different parties and keeps rationale and assumptions explicit. If assumptions are clear to all parties, they can be challenged and revised in light of different preferences, perspectives, realities and evidence. I’ve used adaptations of this approach with people and organisations where Christian beliefs have been held as important and integral, developing the model as a theology of change. A theology of change may surface and articulate e.g. God’s purpose, values, presence and activity in the world, the role of the Spirit and Christians, discerning a sense of ‘calling’.
In my experience, the language and methods of applying theory or change need to be adapted for different purposes and audiences. It represents a logical-rational paradigm that is likely to work well for some people and cultures but not so well for others. Using Honey & Mumford’s learning styles as one possible frame of reference, theory of change (as the name implies) may appeal most to people, teams or cultures with a theorist orientation. Reflectors may be attracted most by its emphasis on surfacing underlying assumptions, activists by the evidential dimensions and pragmatists by its focus on outcomes. Perhaps the key lies in using the principles it embodies flexibly and sensitively in the context of real human dialogue and relationship.
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Dave arrived clutching a notepad and pen in hand. ‘Can we use this meeting to create a strategy?’ I was his coach and intrigued by this request. ‘I guess we could do that,’ I replied, ‘and I’m wondering what else is in the picture that may explain why you’ve brought it here.’ He looked surprised at first, then a little sheepish. I continued, ‘It might normally be something you would work on with your line-manager. After all, it’s his role to mentor you in this area.’
Dave put his paper down, sighed and explained how he and his line-manager had had an argument that week. Things felt very frosty between them now and Dave felt abandoned with the strategy piece. So I proposed options for the way forward. ‘We could use this meeting to look at the strategy, or we would use our time to explore how you might move forward in your relationship with your line-manager. What would be the best use of this time for you?’
Dave chose to switch the agenda to the relational piece. If he could resolve that, he could work on the strategy with his line-manager and that would be more effective in the long run anyway. It was a good lesson for me in pausing and stepping back one pace before diving in. ‘Why this, why now?’ or ‘What else is going on here?’ can be useful questions to ask oneself or the client before racing ahead into action points.
Sarah looked stressed as she handed me the report. ‘Could you cast an eye over this for me before I forward it to the management team?’ I noticed the tension in her voice. ‘What kind of feedback would you find helpful at this stage?’ I asked. I had learned through experience that, sometimes, when a person asks for feedback they are really seeking affirmation. ‘Any comments on how it could be improved’, she replied.
I glanced at the report and it looked confused, unclear. I felt surprised because, when this person had spoken on the subject earlier, they had sounded very clear. I started to make amendments to the text in an attempt to streamline it but it quickly looked like a teacher’s red pen all over the page. So I stepped back and thought, ‘what would make the biggest improvement?’ and jotted down a few notes along those lines instead.
Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy. What was really going on here? I mentioned my unease to Sarah and commented on how the written piece came across very differently to her spoken presentation. ‘I don’t like putting things in writing’, she replied, ‘I struggle to say what I really want to say.’ ‘How critical is it that you should submit a written report?’ I asked. She looked surprised, hadn’t thought of that. ‘What format would enable you to present at your best?’
Sarah went away and discussed this idea with her own line-manager. She had assumed a written report was needed whereas he now assured her it wasn’t. As a result, she decided instead to leave the report and to present orally to the management team. I could see a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Once again, it was valuable to step back from the immediate presenting task to consider what might lie behind it.
And so it strikes me there’s wisdom in being curious, in exploring the story behind the story. Not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not looking before leaping. I need to be careful of my own need to feel needed, my own need to resolve the dilemma that could drive me to focus on addressing the immediate presenting issue. I need to learn to pause, breathe, pray, take one step back and enable the client to do the same.
I sometimes meet Christians in my coaching practice who feel concerned about whether or not they are missing God's call on their lives. They want to know they are following God's path for them. The question is sometimes framed along the lines of, 'How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?'
There are instances in the Bible where God has specific plans for specific people in specific situations at specific times. On those occasions, he tends to make his will abundantly clear. My sense is we need to be open to those moments, to be ready to receive specific guidance if God should choose to reveal it.
I've had some examples of this in my own life. For instance, I once felt God prompting me to take a can opener to a youth meeting I was due to lead that evening and to give it to a particular girl. I didn't hear a voice, it was a kind of sense impression, a strange kind of knowing, hard to describe.
I felt surprised and confused but decided to do it anyway. I mean, why not? What's the worst thing that could happen? I handed it to the girl on arrival and simply said, holding my breath, 'I believe God wants me to give this to you.' I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed but gave it to her anyway.
I continued with leading the meeting and, after a few minutes, noticed the girl was in tears. It turns out she had had a major row with her mum that week and, as a result, had left home that day, moving into a bedsit. Her mum, also feeling distraught, gave her a box of food to take with her.
The girl wasn't going to come to the meeting that evening. She sat in her bedsit alone, weeping. After a while, she opened the box to get something to eat, only to discover it was all in cans. The shops were closed and so she came to the group because at least she would get some refreshments there.
That was the moment at which I had handed her the can opener. You can imagine the exposive impact. I was completely blown away by it, as was she. I've never forgotten that experience. I can't explain it, but it did teach me an important lesson about listening to God and acting in faith.
In everyday life, I believe God's general call is to live a life that his consistent with his overall mission and values. This is what it means to follow him: to discern his goals, his direction, his attitude, his way of doing things and to walk behind him, imitate him, get in on his act, so to speak.
I've sometimes offered people at a crossroads in life with advice drawing on three principles: mission, values and identity. It seems to me that it's important to think through these things prayerfully, allowing space for God to encourage, guide, reveal, challenge our preconceptions etc.
For example. Mission: which course of action is most consistent with what God has already been doing in and through my life? Values: which course of action is most consistent with biblical ethical values? Identity: how would this decision affect my sense of identity and relationship as a child of God?
It can also be important to consider intention. What's my intention in taking this course of action? Am I being entirely honest about my motivation? Who will be affected by it and in what ways? Is this how God would want me to deal with the issue? Once again, a need for prayer.
Many of these things are hard to do alone. We can get muddled, frustrated and confused. This is the value of talking things through with others, people we can trust to be encouraging and honest with us. People we can pray and discern with together, supporting each others' lives of faith with integrity.
The Bible itself reveals a God who is trustworthy, who doesn't play games with us. It's sometimes hard to work out what he is calling us to do, to discern his voice from so many other voices, but he does promise to live in and guide us by his Spirit. The bottom line on guidance? God is God, therefore relax.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.