‘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 – and so often what change 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 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 embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not compelled to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
I was astonished and alarmed to feel the building shudder each time the heavy vehicle went past. The doors inside my home rattled loudly, pictures slewed on the walls and cracks appeared around the window and door frames. I felt a new and urgent empathy with people living in earthquake-prone zones. I couldn’t believe it. Phone in hand, I hurriedly called the construction site manager. He sounded surprised but agreed to come and inspect the damage the following week.
Sure enough, the doorbell rang and here were 2 men dressed in hard hats and safety outfits on the doorstep. The contract manager with whom I had spoken previously introduced himself politely. The other, apparently the local site manager, stood back with distinct reluctance and scepticism written on his face. I reached out, shook hands then took them for a guided tour of the house, pointing out various cracks on route. Their reactions and responses couldn’t have been more different.
The contract manager listened carefully, took note of the damage and promised to ensure it would be rectified quickly, explaining what that would involve in practice. He also offered to inspect the exterior walls to check for any signs of structural damage. The site manager, by contrast, insisted in defensive tone that the vehicle could not have shaken the house, that the cracks could not have been caused by shaking and that they are, instead, a normal part of a building settling. Right.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, coaches, OD and trainers? I will list a few that spring to mind: 1. How open are we to invite and receive critical feedback on our leadership, interventions, actions or services? 2. How do others feel when they give us feedback? 3. How do we respond to feedback, especially if it is unsolicited or may leave us looking and feeling vulnerable, foolish or mistaken? 4. If/when cracks appear, what do we do to restore relationship, confidence and trust?
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?
‘Who or what features in your holiday photos?’ (Richard Marshall)
I find the question intriguing. Richard is a psychologist who has lived and worked in different parts of the world. He observed that some people notice, focus on and value that which is the same as their ‘normal’; others that which is different. I’m definitely a difference person. I like and get a buzz from diversity – not in its politically-correct sense – simply from different-ness. Since earliest childhood, I have felt drawn to people, things, places and ways of seeing and doing things that are radically different to the norm, my norm. It has shaped profoundly my life, career, relationships and choices.
At school, I looked out for kids who were from different countries and spoke different languages. Unsurprisingly my own best subjects at school were languages too. Later, as my friends settled down in life, I hitch-hiked around Europe, loved the different cultures, currencies – and lamented when the Euro brought boring…sameness. I dreamed of marrying an exotic girl. I spent much of my adult life working in international NGOs, fascinated by so many new environments, cultures and people. I have studied and worked in 4 different professional fields: community work, TEFL, coaching and OD.
So, here’s the thing: how often have you heard the maxim, ‘People don’t like change’ or, ‘People are resistant to change’? A large swathe of change management literature is devoted to the theme. Yet is it really true? People may well resist change that is and feels imposed on them – in which case the resistance may be a response to a lack of choice, a loss of control, rather than to a change per se. As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, how well do we notice and capitalise on the insight and energy of those who instinctively prefer creativity and innovation, difference and change? What do you do?
‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
‘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?
People sometimes ask if I have a guiding framework for fields of practice that range from individual and team coaching to organisation development. To be honest, it’s difficult to pin down definitively without becoming simplistic. After all, we work with people, cultures, systems and contexts that are dynamically complex. Different people, situations and times call for different interventions. Here-and-now presence, openness, curiosity and trust are prerequisite conditions for successful outcomes.
That said, I often hold 5 x Rs in mind as potential areas for attention. Each R represents a different and inter-related dimension of experience, awareness and practice that commonly influences a client’s inspiration and effectiveness. The Rs are: Results, Relationships, Resourcefulness, Resilience and Reflexivity (sometimes known as ‘critical reflective practice’ or ‘praxis’). I may explore and apply these dimensions with a client at different levels ranging from intra/inter-personal to organisational.
Results focuses on who or what is most important to a client and other key stakeholders and taps into e.g. vision, values, purpose, strategy, plans and outcomes. Relationships focuses on the quality of client contact with and between key stakeholders and taps into e.g. ethics, cultures, systems, synergies and dependencies. Resourcefulness focuses on solutions, strengths and opportunities in the client/environment and taps into e.g. spirituality, talent, creativity, innovation and networks.
Resilience focuses on client health, wellbeing and sustainability and taps into e.g. motivation, engagement, patterns-trends, agility and flow. Reflexivity focuses on the client’s critical self- and situational awareness, stance and actions and taps into e.g. assumptions, constructs, influences, behaviours and decisions. I place the latter at the centre of this model because, at best, it radically questions, challenges and guides all other dimensions. It lays at the heart of transformational change.
What frameworks do you use and find most useful?
At a crucial moment in World War 2, Winston Churchill is said to have consulted with two of his key advisors on how to proceed in the face of Nazi Germany’s terrifyingly-effective military advances. One proposed (my paraphrase), “We need to become more organised than the Nazis if we are to defeat them.” The other pushed back in response: “No, the key to victory lays in our unique ability to improvise and, thereby, to take the Nazis by surprise. Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.”
What a dilemma. It’s like Myers Briggs J meets P in stark confrontation. The challenge here was how to face a serious existential threat posed by a highly organised enemy and not only to survive it but also to win: whether to out-organise the organised or to out-wit the organised by doing what they least expect. Yet, in that moment, two people looked at the same data-information, made sense of what they saw in different ways, drew different conclusions and proposed very different solutions.
I see parallels in some of the opportunities and challenges that leaders, OD, coaches and trainers face today. In volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and stressful situations, how often are our observations and decisions - and those of our clients - based subconsciously on (and thereby constrained by) implicit psychological-cultural assumptions and preferences, e.g. for certainty-structure vs fluidity-agility, rather than necessarily on what the situation itself calls for per se?
Take, for instance, restructuring and re-engineering projects to solve issues where different types of conversations and relationships could have been less costly and more effective; or formal change management programmes that adhere to strict policies and procedures whereas innovative change leadership could have achieved far better outcomes. This begs important questions: What lies beneath different analyses and ideas for solutions? How can we work with clients to raise them into awareness?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.