‘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 involved 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?’ It helped 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?
‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ (Richard Gold)
I took part in a fascinating workshop with Richard Gold this week. Richard is a Lego Serious Play facilitator who uses Lego as a colourful, creative, engaging and experiential tool to raise awareness, evoke insight and generate ideas with individuals, teams and groups. The method involves touching, moving, doing – physically – rather than simply talking about. It is a fun, visceral method that plays with metaphor and imagination and invites experimentation and team collaboration.
At each stage of the process, Richard offers minimal guidance, simple prompts, then asks in provocative spirit, ‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ What a great question. It creates optimal space for serendipitous new experiments, insights and ideas to surface and evolve without being directive or prescriptive. It provides just-enough; inviting team participation, courage and co-creation. It reminds me of Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergence’ – take a step forward and see what comes into view.
So that got me thinking about leadership, OD, coaching and training. There are situations where directive and prescriptive interventions are entirely appropriate. Yet how often – perhaps in our desire to impress, be helpful or achieve the outcomes we hope for – do we exercise too much control over the person, task or process? How often, in doing so, do we limit the potential for personal/team initiative, ownership, discovery and innovation? Are you sufficiently un-clear?
‘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 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?
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?
What is it that makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd? How is it that some people resist peer pressure, seize the initiative and radically break the mould? Is this kind of personal leadership, the ability to think freely, move proactively and act autonomously, something we should seek to attract and nurture in organisations? Could it release fresh energy, inspiration and innovation? The relationship between an individual, group and organisation is complex. Organisations as groups often foster consistency, continuity and conformity. We test people during recruitment for their potential fit, we induct and orientate people into the existing culture and we performance manage people to deliver preconceived products and services.
It’s a brave organisation that recruits and develops social revolutionaries, people who will instinctively challenge the status quo, think laterally, refuse to accept time-honoured traditions and push for something new. For leaders who operate in a conventional management paradigm, it can feel threatening, confusing and chaotic. The risks can seem too high and too dangerous. I worked in one organisation where we recognised our culture had become too settled, too complacent, too safe. People often commented on its warm, supportive relational nature but it lacked its former edginess, struggled to deal with conflict and desperately needed to innovate. The challenge was how to introduce and sustain a shift without evoking defensiveness.
Social psychologists offer some valuable insights here, for instance in terms of social loafing and diffusion of responsibility where individuals are less likely to act independently or with the same degree of effort if they perceive themselves as part of a wider group where responsibility is shared. A challenge in this organisation was how to stimulate personal initiative and responsibility. Social conformity is another social psychological factor where people are likely to act consistently with the norms of a group if it provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within that group, or the approval of a perceived authority figure. A challenge in this organisation was how to ensure that personal initiative and responsibility were valued and affirmed.
We took a four pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with the leadership team with a skilled external consultant known for his outspoken, courageous, challenging style to develop a more robust leadership culture, capable of open and honest conversations without fear that this would undermine relationships. This enabled the top team to model a new cultural style. Secondly, we introduced a simple behavioural framework that positively affirmed personal leadership in terms including personal initiative, personal responsibility, creative thinking and innovative practice. This framework was embedded into the organisation’s recruitment and performance development to attract, develop and reward these qualities and capabilities.
Thirdly, we held an annual ceremony where staff were invited to nominate peers for awards where they had seen positive examples of such qualities demonstrated in practice. The peer aspect helped raise awareness and reinforce personal leadership as a cultural quality valued and affirmed by the organisation and to capture real stories that illustrated what it looked like in practice. Fourthly, we created a new innovation post, appointed an innovation enthusiast and allocated a new budget to stimulate and enable creative thinking and innovation across the organisation. This created a culture shift and a tangible symbol of the leaders’commitment to move in this direction. A willingness to question the status quo became a cultural value.
A corresponding challenge was how to engender a spirit of personal leadership that took the wider system and relationships into account. If individuals only operated independently and didn’t take account of or responsibility for the implications of their decisions and actions on others, relationships would become strained, the organisation would become chaotic and it wouldn’t achieve its goals. To address this issue, we introduced the notion of shared leadership alongside personal leadership, emphasising and affirming the value of collaborative working alongside independent initiative. This too was reflected in the annual staff award ceremony and in recruitment, development and rewards. It was a matter of creative balance.
As a tool for developing greater personal and shared leadership, I have found the following questions can be helpful: Who are my cultural role models? Who have I seen demonstrate great personal leadership? What can I learn from them? What would it take to contribute my best in this situation? What will I do to make sure it happens? In the past 12 months, where have I shown personal initiative? When have I held back from saying what I really thought or felt for fear of disapproval? What are the impacts of my actions on others? How far do I take responsibility to help others manage the implications of my decisions? How can I work collaboratively to achieve better win-win solutions? What difference do I want my life to make here?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.