Thinking out of the box sounds good in principle yet can be difficult to do in practice. What if, say, you are the box, or you don’t know you’re in a box, or you can’t see the box? What if others you’re working with are in boxes, or don’t know they’re in boxes, or want to put you in a box, or don’t like your box? I was asked once to coach and mentor an HR colleague who needed to learn to think outside of the box. I asked for clarification. It turns out they meant that she lacked, yet needed, strategic thinking and systems thinking for her role. She looked at me blankly. She couldn’t see what she couldn’t see.
I wondered how to enable her to make a shift from conceptual (‘strategic’, ‘systemic’) to practical; from abstract ideas to concrete examples that she could work with and learn from. She described herself as a detail person, trained to spot the critical points in the micro, e.g. salary spreadsheets so that reports were accurate and errors were avoided. I decided, therefore, to start with an example in the micro and to work out from there to a wider macro. This, I hoped, would gradually bring wider systemic and strategic issues and perspectives into view and highlight the links between them.
I invited her to bring an example from her work. She chose an email from a client in her business partner role. It raised a query about how to deal with a performance issue in his team. She had been about to respond to the email with advice on performance management policies and procedures. I invited her to draw a small box on a large, blank sheet of paper and to draw the person inside the box who was to be performance managed. I then invited her to draw a larger box outside of that box and to draw anyone or anything in that box that could be influencing the person’s performance.
As she considered this, various issues and key people came to mind. She wrote them in the box. I asked, ‘What might these different stakeholders hope you will take into account in addressing this?’ She jotted down those thoughts too. I then invited her to draw an even larger box around that one…and repeated the process until we had reached external stakeholders, opportunities and risks and future horizons. At each stage, she was able to consider significant questions and intervention options. It brought a wider picture into view so that she could see it. How do you deal with boxes?
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What principles, beliefs or values guide your most important decisions? Olson (below) sounds a word of caution and Nickols offers a useful grid. Let me know what you think!
‘There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.’ (Thomas Sowell)
It was a critical juncture in my life so I met with a friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, to think things through. I had lots of ideas and some concerns but struggled to clear the mental fog that was amassing in my head. What to choose, what to do, when there are so many issues and options in the frame yet no clear and definitive way forward? Adrian challenged me by drilling down hard to my values, to what (for me) is non-negotiable and what isn’t, to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff. The serious conclusions I reached in that conversation 2 years ago have guided my major life decisions since.
This approach resonates with Dr Deborah Olson’s view in Psychology of Achievement (2017) who comments that: ‘When clarifying your goals, be clear about what you want – and consider the things you don’t want to risk.’ Don’t want to risk adds a useful and important dimension to more conventional goal-orientated conversations that focus solely on what we hope to obtain or achieve. I worked with one organisation where the founder lived an aspirational life and achieved amazing things at work but lost sight of his family. His daughter committed suicide. The ethical stakes can be very high indeed.
Fred Nickols offers a simple and practical tool called a ‘Goals Grid’ that can be used to help identify goals and priorities (https://www.nickols.us/versatiletool.pdf) at personal, team and organisational levels. It poses two key questions: ‘Do I/we have it?’ and ‘Do I/we want it?’, places these questions on the axes of a 2-by-2 grid, adds the alternative responses of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ against each question and proposes an action for each domain. The resultant combinations and options are: Have + Want = Preserve; Have + Don’t want = Eliminate; Haven’t + Want = Achieve; Haven’t + Don’t Want = Avoid.
Nickols’ model can be applied flexibly and creatively to incorporate a diverse range of helpful angles in leadership, OD, coaching and training conversations; e.g. strategic-visionary, spiritual-existential, psychological-relational and tactical-systemic. It ensures that trade-offs are made as conscious decisions with transparency and awareness. It also reminds that, when reaching towards a brighter future, to notice, value and protect who and what matters most. ‘Not jeopardising what we already have can matter as much as gaining new things.’ (Olson, 2017). Always keep values in sharp view.
Accidents happen. How do you respond to incidents that knock your carefully-made plans sideways?
I felt a bit nervous as I entered the office and, then, decidedly embarrassed as I accidentally tipped a hot cup of tea down my smart white shirt. The client looked bemused, as if trying to stifle a smile, before racing out of the room to return with a bright yellow t-shirt. Kind man. Not to be out-done by this, my brother went to a formal, tense business meeting with a client. As he approached their office, a car mounted the pavement and hit him, sending him flying into a wet, muddy gutter. His case burst open and his papers went everywhere. It almost broke his thigh but it also broke the ice.
It’s funny how, sometimes, when things go wrong – paradoxically – it makes things go right. In both cases, what felt like a complete disaster in the moment turned out to be the very thing that enabled a different type of contact, a positive bridge of human empathy and relationship and a better outcome. An emotional experience of humour or relief melted the rational, technical barriers that could otherwise have proved more difficult to navigate. Yet how many of us would welcome such ‘accidents’ when they arise, or see only how they wreck our plans, expectations or delicate egos?
It calls for a different kind of awareness, expectation and stance in the world. It means being open to possibilities, opportunities and potential in whatever happens. It’s far less about being planned and more about being prepared. It’s consistent with Professor Richard Wiseman’s view of what makes some people (apparently) ‘luckier’ than others (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06t5w4d). In coaching, we call this developing a client’s resource-fulness. Often, it entails enabling a person to approach the world, work and relationships with open hands, mind and heart; faith, hope and love.
So – how do you respond to serendipitous ‘accidents’? How do you build clients’ resourcefulness?
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‘Spontaneous counter-intuition.’ Those odd moments when, out of the blue, we find ourselves, suddenly and unexpectedly, acting radically-contrarily to our normal thinking patterns and behaviours – and yet with near-miraculous results. Have you ever experienced such a moment? What happened? What sense do you make of it?
'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 involves 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?’ They help 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?
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‘The problem is, we are protecting people when we should be preparing them.’ (Carole Pemberton)
How to weather a storm. Resilience has become a buzz word in organisations today, linked with well-being, positive risk, agility, adaptivity and sustainability. As an individual-personal level, the imperative is being driven by a growing awareness of and concern about mental health issues, experiences, influences and impacts, including in the workplace. At a wider organisational level, factors include ever-more complex global dynamics and a seemingly relentless need for change. All in all, it can feel like a perfect storm – leaving leaders, managers, people professionals and staff alike feeling perplexed and exhausted.
I worked recently with a forward-thinking public sector organisation in the UK. It was and is working through a merger with two sister organisations and recognised the criticality of building resilience by preparing leaders, staff and teams psychologically in advance for the transitions that this would entail; as well as to manage the practical change process itself effectively. I will share insights and ideas here that participants said they found most useful. We framed the experience as moving from an until-now-known reality to a not-yet-known future reality, through what sometimes may look-feel like a messy place in the middle.
1. Scary voids. In the absence of knowing exactly what a change and new future may hold, some people will fill the interim void with anxiety; others with hope. It’s normal – and partly influenced by what each person has experienced in the past. Hold your nerve. Reach out if you – or others – need help. 2. Small things are big things. In the midst of change and transition, the most insignificant of decisions and actions can take on great symbolic significance – positively or negatively. Don’t be surprised if this happens. Ask each other what small thing(s) would make the biggest positive difference – then, if possible, do it.
3. Mind games. People, teams and organisations construct narratives that help them make sense of their experience. Pay careful attention to the stories that you and other people tell yourselves – and each other – on route. Change the narrative: change the experience. 4. Rollercoasters. Transitions can feel like a bumpy ride, often feeling more like a ‘snakes and ladders’ game than a smooth change curve. Be patient, flexible and forgiving. One step at a time. 5. Building blocks. Reflect and help others reflect on life-work changes that have worked out well in the past – and how.. Engender resourcefulness. Inspire hope.
How do you develop personal, team and organisational resilience?
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Tuesday night. A close friend in Asia discovers she is in terrible financial debt through no fault of her own. She has supported a near relative through her studies at considerable personal cost and the relative has let her down badly. I ask her to ask the bank how much she needs to clear the debt. Wednesday night. She tells me, UK equivalent, £1000. She says, ‘Let’s pray.’ I agree. Thursday night. A biker in the UK who I don’t know well calls me and asks if I can meet him at a biker/truck stop café on Sunday morning. I wonder if I have inadvertently done something to upset him. I agree to meet.
Sunday morning. He’s waiting at the table and I sit down, nervously. He asks, ‘That girl in Asia you once spoke about trusts Jesus, right?’ ‘Yes’, I reply. He slides an envelope across the table towards me. Now I am puzzled. He says, ‘Jesus told me to give her this – as soon as possible. Can you send it to her?’ Intrigued, I say, ‘Yes.’ He continues, sternly. ‘This is nothing to do with me. It’s between her and Jesus. I don’t want to hear about it again.’ I slide the envelope into my pocket, thank him and leave. At home, I open the sealed envelope. £1000 inside in crisp, new bank notes. I am speechless.
I don’t know about you, but this type of encounter, this kind of experience leaves me stunned and amazed. It has happened to me on quite a few occasions in my life and I’m convinced it lays beyond ordinary, rational explanation. I’m going to be brave here and to call it a miracle. It’s unpopular in contemporary secular culture to talk about God or the super-natural in the context of work and I’m not going to get all religious because that would be inappropriate and annoying. I am, instead, hoping to provoke an open spirit of curiosity. Have we thrown out the baby with the bath water?
I remember reading Holloway’s book, Spirituality & Social Work (2010) and Mathews’, Social Work and Spirituality (2009) which re-introduced questions of faith and spirituality into domains where such considerations had effectively and, I would argue, over-hastily been dismissed as irrelevant. Having reacted rightly against ‘religion’ in its worst, oppressive forms, I detect a fresh openness to consider Who or what may lay beyond the boundaries of empirical science; especially when working with people and cultures for whom life-giving faith and spiritual dimensions are fundamental.
As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what role, if any, do faith and spirituality play in your practice? How do you work effectively with people and cultures who consider them critical? Have you ever seen or experienced something that caused you to question everything you had believed was real and true?
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It’s hard to think outside our own thinking to do the as-yet unthinkable, yet that’s often where real transformation takes place. How do you do it? How do you enable others to do it?
What does a kilogram weigh on the moon? Is grass still green when it’s dark?
I had this fascinating conversation with a chemistry student last night about what can be known to be true and how. We touched on philosophy, theology and science and I left feeling like my brain had been bent and twisted in different directions. One of the key principles that came through is that we base our understanding of the world on what we believe or know to be true already. It’s a form of projection that creates a psychological sense of certainty and enables us to predict, test and move on. It’s also a phenomenon that can leave us profoundly mistaken – without realising it.
I listened to a radio interview with the controversial film director Quentin Tarantino. When asked to comment on the quirky, sudden and often dramatic mood swings in his films, Tarantino responded, ‘Who do you imagine I am directing in my movies – the actors or the audience?’ He went on to paint an image of himself standing invisibly behind the cinema screen like the conductor of an orchestra. The audience watches the film. He conducts the audience. The audience is the orchestra. It was a stunning example of challenging the assumed, reframing an experience, revealing the unexpected.
The moral of this story? Not everything is as it appears to be or what we may want or expect it to be. We are easily unaware or deceived. It’s why ‘critical reflective practice’ is so valuable and important as professionals, leaders, managers, teams and organisations. It’s about taking conscious, proactive steps to challenge, test and transform our awareness, assumptions, thinking, stance and practice – enabling greater inspiration, resourcefulness, resilience and effectiveness. (See: Thompson & Thompson, The Critically Reflective Practitioner, 2008; Bassot, The Reflective Practice Guide, 2016).
As leader, OD, coach or trainer, what have been your experiences of critical reflective practice? Where have you seen or experienced real transformation, radical re-framings or paradigm shifts?
Can I help you develop critical reflective practice? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘How to develop a thick skin at work without being obnoxious.’ (Experteer)
The article title made me smile. We often think of people with thick skin as tough, resilient and, at times, insensitive to others. It’s as if thick-skinned people are able to handle high levels of relational tension or conflict without feeling hurt or bruised. A similar personal-relational metaphor we sometimes hear is Teflon. If you are unfamiliar with it, Teflon is a material with ‘an extremely low coefficient of friction’ (Urban Dictionary). If something is coated with Teflon, stuff doesn’t stick to it. Tensions and conflict simply slide off, leaving a Teflon person unaffected by relational stress.
Whilst thick-skinned or Teflon people may be insensitive to criticism or insults, other people may be overly-sensitive, feeling hurt by relational tension or allowing conflict to penetrate into their soul. A pastoral friend, Nikki Eastwood, uses a blotting paper metaphor to characterise this. If you are unfamiliar with it, blotting paper is an absorbent material, used to soak up excess ink when writing with a traditional ink pen. If we allow ourselves to absorb all the hurt, pain, frustrations etc. of other people, including that projected onto us, we can become debilitated, stressed and exhausted.
I worked for most of my life in human rights work and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Faced, at times, with unspeakable suffering of others, I became very run down. Eventually, I spoke with an insightful therapist, Shona Adams, who challenged my risk of over-empathising. In my desire to feel and communicate genuine contact with others, I learned that sometimes I stepped so far into others’ shoes that I stepped out of my own. It was as if I was experiencing others’ traumas vicariously, yet without the resilience that people in such situations often develop or discover.
So, what can we do to build healthy, constructive relationships that are neither too Teflon to the point of insensitive arrogance on the one hand or too over-empathetic to the point of unhealthy confluence on the other? How can we develop emotional intelligence and resilience? Firstly, listen actively for expressed and unexpressed feelings of others. If you’re unaware or unsure, be curious and inquire. Secondly, establish and maintain a clear psychological boundary and relationship between your experiences and those of others. It may be about you but it’s not only about you.
If you would like help with creating and sustaining healthy, inspiring and effective relationships at work, get in touch! email@example.com
'The good news is you have 200 people working for you. The bad news is they don't see it that way.' (Euan Semple)
I love how humour can transform, creating fresh perspective by shedding novel light on people, issues and situations in ways that plain comment or description just can’t. It can be a great technique for reframing, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa too. I worked with a colleague, Benjamin, who enjoyed using phases playfully. If something went wrong or didn’t work out as we had hoped, or if someone was sounding unduly pessimistic, he would simply grin disarmingly and say something like, ‘Ah well, every silver lining has a cloud.’ Humour can inject energy, diffuse tension, bring people together, make life and work more fun. Smiles and laughter are good for health and well-being too.
I worked with Richard, an occupational psychologist and HR leader who had a passion for developing talent and enhancing people’s commitment, capacity and contribution. He could have presented his case for change using formal statistics, spreadsheets and information. Instead he would start with an open, provocative smile, ‘There are people who left this organisation years ago...but still turn up for work every day.’ It had a very different qualitative feel to sarcasm, cynicism or bland statement of fact. It was a powerful use of irony to highlight an issue, evoke curiosity, challenge the status quo and invite a response. I could almost hear every person in the room thinking, ‘I wonder if that could be me?’
For humour to work, it needs to have some resonance with what the audience already knows, perceives and experiences as real and true. I think back to the first time I read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle (1996). I sat on my bed and literally cried laughing. It was for me, as for many others, a refreshingly new approach to shining a critical spotlight on the quirky, crazy and self-defeating politics of office life. This, however, signals that humour is culturally and contextually-relative. Have a glance, for instance, at satirical Despair.com. Are its posters funniest for those who have seen their earnest equivalents first? What have been your best experiences of humour at work? Who or what made them so effective?
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This short article addresses the question, how to spot and deal with untrue truisms that appear to be true. The tricky bit is that common truisms often guide and reinforce everyday beliefs, behaviour, decisions and actions – including at work. Untrue truisms can prove limiting, unhelpful or damaging. What do you think?
‘Ring a bell and Pavlov’s dog salivates.’ True? Not necessarily. It depends on the context in which the dog hears the bell (Anne Rooney, Psychology – How the World Works, 2019). ‘Brainstorming in a group generates more ideas than individuals generate alone.’ Not necessarily true either. It depends on whether individuals in the group have had opportunity to write down their own ideas separately first (Michael West, Developing Creativity in Organisations, 1997).
We could list many more frequently-proclaimed and widely-accepted truisms here that turn out to be not entirely true. ‘People don’t like change’. Oh, really? Perhaps closer to the truth could be a more qualified statement, ‘Some people don’t like change’ or, as a variation, ‘Most people don’t like having change forced on them’ where the emphasis is definitely more on forced – an implied denial of choice, freedom, influence or control – than on change per se.
The problem here lays in simplistic generalisations, superficial conclusions, trite clichés that may well sound plausible and convincing on the face of it yet lack validity and soundness. They present an idea of reality with an air of marked confidence, yet which doesn’t correspond with research evidence or lived experience. (Some contemporary politicians came to mind as I wrote that…but I won’t go there). Worse still, we and others may act on untrue-truisms as if they were true.
What can we do as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to notice, reveal and test hidden, personal-cultural assumptions that are so often masked and disguised as statements of fact? Firstly, listen for words or phrases that signpost a claim is about to follow, e.g. ‘of course, ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, ‘self-evidently’, ‘everyone knows that’. Secondly, acknowledge that the explicit truth claim represents an implicit belief. Thirdly, open it up for critical exploration and evaluation.
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Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org