'Don't be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.' (Raluca Cristescu)
The start of this new year has felt like a very rough ride for some people. I’ve been working alongside humanitarian disaster management experts in and from a wide range of countries, trying to make a difference for those who are poorest and most vulnerable in the world. In some places, wave after wave of devastating impacts have hit hard and fast, ranging from drought, crop failure and swarms of locusts to military conflict and deep civil unrest – all with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis overlaid on top.
A close friend in the Philippines spent today with her children, praying earnestly and wrapping what few possessions they have in plastic bags in preparation for the roof of their fragile boarding house being torn off by an impending typhoon. Others I’ve been supporting have been grafting long hours, trying to help people and communities recover from the effects of war. The power fluctuates on and off, as does the wifi signal, making online communication difficult – yet I, we, they, persevere.
My first direct experience of disaster response was some years ago during the Kosovo crisis. I travelled with a team across Spain, France, Italy and Albania to take emergency logistical supplies to refugee camps on the frontline border with Serbia. Our vehicles were fitted with spare tyres, satellite communications equipment and ballistic blankets in case we drove over land mines. I remember vividly the ‘No weapons on board’ symbols on our windows – signalling, I hoped, ‘Please don’t shoot us.’
We encountered challenge-after-challenge on route. At times, it felt as if everything was against us. As military helicopters flew overhead in impressive formation, we meanwhile were often stuck firmly on the ground, mired in red tape or the insidious effects of blatant corruption. It was a rapid learning experience for me, seeing how my seasoned disaster response colleagues handled this. It was my first exposure to adaptive leadership in a crisis too – out in the field, not inside an organisation.
It went something like this: 1. Hold tightly to your goals and values but loosely to your plans. If you expect everything to go smoothly, you will get disheartened and frustrated. 2. Treat every roadblock as a new reality. It’s not the end of the road, it’s another challenge to navigate. 3. Think quickly and tactically. Lateral thinking will prove more useful than strategic planning. 4. When faced with an obstacle, take a decision and act. Don't stop, keep moving. 5. Pray – God can do more than you can do.
This kind of activist-pragmatist outlook, behaviour and stance draws on and develops creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and resilience. It’s a way in which the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities learn to survive and thrive too. When a life situation is too painful, turbulent or dynamically-complex to understand, predict or control, a focus on the here-and-now can be the most meaningful choice. Even small steps can engender and evoke a real sense of agency, hope and change.
My work now includes coaching, mentoring, facilitating and training of humanitarian field workers in action learning: a here-and-now, real-time methodology to stimulate adaptive leadership and learning in the midst of action. It’s an experimental pilot initiative with a global network of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a team of action learning specialists. When have you developed or used adaptive leadership in a crisis? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
‘It’s always best to pose a question, except when it isn’t.’ (Claire Pedrick)
It reminds me of Ted Winship, a trade union activist I worked with as an apprentice. He often spoke like this: ‘It’s always the same, sometimes.’ It was a kind of word play that made people stop – and think. Or a teacher at school whose name, sadly, escapes me now: ‘If you have nothing to say, say it.’ It was some years before I finally worked out what she meant. I think too of Jesus. He often spoke in parables – stories, analogies, that left many of those who heard him feeling perplexed or bemused.
Yet, why do it? In an era of endless soundbites, personal broadcasts, voices calling out loudly in all directions competing for air space, it’s hard to achieve cut-through. Even harder, perhaps, to achieve break-through; to have a meaningful influence or impact. We create and consume words like candy and in high volume, yet few provide the life-giving spiritual, mental and emotional sustenance we need to learn, develop and grow. How do you use language to evoke or provoke, reveal or inspire?
It’s a breath-taking moment as Dad hands me the keys. The bike has been well-hidden beneath dark covers for many years now, yet when we peel back the sheets to expose to sunlight, the chrome and paintwork glisten like new. I can feel an adrenaline rush rising rapidly within me. I’ve owned 22 bikes and crashed 19, but that doesn’t detract from this raw excitement. With a crazy-wide grin running three times round my head, I slip the key gently into the lock. Turn. Click. Nothing. Oh. Wrong key.
Nevertheless, in a fit of naïve optimism, I try every other key on the ring. No chance. We spend the next 2 hours searching the entire house – and you would not believe how many keys we find and in such strange places, many of which we have no idea what they are meant for. I try every one over and over in the lock, hoping desperately that by some weird magic at least one will release it; even though they are clearly the wrong type, shape and size. The stubborn lock refuses to budge an inch.
Rethink. Ah – my parents know a local car mechanic. I call him. ‘Please tell me you have a set of bolt cutters to hand’. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘but I do have an angle grinder.’ Another 2 hours later and here we are side by side, both on our knees, with shrieks of metal and a blaze of sparks flying everywhere. Pause. Wait. Clunk. The lock drops off. Awesome! An overwhelming sense of relief. ‘What do I owe you for that?’ ‘Nothing’, he replies, ‘I’m also a biker.’ Cool. Warm rush of fraternal feeling.
So here’s the thing. If at first you don’t succeed…try and try again. If your best efforts turn out to be futile, don’t give up. You may just be barking up the wrong tree (sorry - I tried really hard to think of a biker metaphor there – but couldn’t). Pray, and then have a go at lateral thinking to see what new ideas come to mind. If all else fails and you still find yourself stuck up the proverbial creek without a paddle (sorry again), reach out to others. They may just hold the key (aaargh!) to your success.
‘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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‘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?
The team decided to work on clarifying its purpose, it’s raison d'être, it’s answer to the, ‘What are we here to do?’ question. It had been thinking about its ways of working, its team meetings, its mode of operation. It made sense to step back, at least one step, before stepping forward. As team coach, I stepped in briefly to suggest that they start by clarifying the questions they were seeking to answer. They settled on, ‘What is our optimal role?’ and ‘How can we add value?’
I asked again, ‘So how might you do this?’ A team member responded quickly, ‘Let’s discuss it and see what we come up with.’ The others nodded in agreement. As they turned to talk, I interrupted by pushing a metaphorical pause button, ‘And how else could you do this?’ They looked puzzled then one said, ‘We could each write down a purpose statement on a post-it note then compare and contrast what we’ve written?’ I repeated, ‘And how else could you do it?’
They looked confused and then thought hard. ‘We could split into 2 x 3s, work on one question each then compare?’, ‘We could brainstorm ideas on a flipchart?’, ‘We could share our visions of a team from hell, what to avoid at all costs?’, ‘We could draw pictures instead of writing words?’ They combined the final 3. Each person grabbed a coloured pen, stepped up and a provocative, vivid, collage emerged. Their chosen technique generated laughter, insight and great ideas!
The principle here is how to challenge habitual, default patterns of behaviour, how to pause and reflect critically and creatively before diving into action. Posing the simple question, ‘How else could we do this?’ can significantly enhance team energy, engagement – and effectiveness.
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