‘To understand is to perceive patterns.’ (Isaiah Berlin)
According to Gestalt psychology, human beings are hard-wired to see things in patterns. Take, for instance, a tree. If I were to invite you to imagine a tree, it’s likely you would imagine the whole tree (well, at least that part of the tree that is visible above ground). I wouldn’t imagine that you’d picture all its constituent elements separately – cells, leaves, twigs, branches etc. Unless you’re dissecting a tree in a botanical lab.
It’s essentially the same idea in music. When we listen to a melody, we hear the tune as a whole, not each individual note separately from the others. In fact, if we were to examine each note in turn in isolation, it’s unlikely we’d be able to discern what melody they form part of when clustered together in a specific configuration. Except, perhaps, if we’re learning to play an instrument and focusing intently on one note at a time.
Now this intuitive ability can be a real gift when working with teams, groups, organisations – or even making sense of geopolitics. It means learning to step back from the immediate issue or event and, metaphorically, to narrow our eyes into a near-squint to allow a bigger picture, a wider system, a deeper meaning, the wood for the trees, to emerge. Khalil Gibran observed, ‘the mountain is clearer to the climber from the plain.’
I recognised this phenomenon at work this last week when, in the Netherlands for the first time, the more I relaxed and allowed the language to flow over me, the more of it I could understand. When I paid too much attention to individual words, the more I got stuck. There are parallels in Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game. Beware paralysis of analysis. Take a breath, relax your grip and notice what surfaces into awareness.
'There’s a big difference between plan and prepare.' (Rob Abbott)
I was chatting with a friend, Rob, yesterday about a forthcoming trip to the Philippines to co-lead a community event with local people. I had commented on how updates on numbers and ages of participants and other such details fluctuate from day to day as the event approaches. It makes detailed planning difficult, especially as I know from experience that I am likely to encounter all kinds of other interesting and unanticipated issues, opportunities and challenges when I arrive.
This is a real life example of where to plan has its limits. If I rely on having everything organised in advance, all my proverbial ducks lined up, all my I’s dotted and T’s crossed in order to be successful in this venture, I will almost certainly come unstuck. What will happen when reality clashes with what I had carefully designed? What will I do and how will I feel? Will I try to force-fit people and circumstances back into what I had in mind – or tear up the tidy Gant chart and improvise?
I think this is where to prepare can be very different and useful. It means having clear-enough vision and goals in mind, or a willingness to co-create them in the room, then anticipating a broad range of scenarios and possibilities. It involves preparing myself, my relationship with my co-leader, activities and materials that we can flex and adapt as needed. This approach is sometimes called emergent or adaptive leadership – a willingness and ability to be responsive in the midst of change.
I have found a couple of questions valuable in discerning and deciding my own approach. Firstly, I will reflect on what I need to feel confident and competent in a situation. Is my desire to plan really a desire to increase my felt-sense of control and decrease my angst in the face of uncertainty? Secondly, I will reflect on the situation itself. What does this situation call for and for whom? In what ways will planning facilitate a way forward and in what ways could it get in the way?
I’ve noticed that leaders’ responses to these and similar questions tend to be influenced partly by personal preferences (e.g. whether the leader prefers to live life and work in an organised, structured, predictable way or perhaps in a more open, fluid way) and partly by cultural norms (e.g. whether forward planning is regarded as the right and best way to do things or living in the potential of the moment is considered more important and valuable). It’s not a one-size-fits-all.
In my own leadership practice, I have noticed a shift over the years. Whereas earlier I would plan hard – and sometimes over-plan – to increase my sense of confidence in achieving the results I had in mind, now I will pray, reflect, focus on goals and aspirations and leave more open space for serendipitous questions, ideas and solutions to emerge. It means I am more present to the here-and-now, more relational, more resourceful and, on the whole, more effective. How about you?
‘Stop deciding ahead of time what to discover.’ (John Shotter)
It’s summer in the UK – holiday season. And I dislike planned holidays. I love to take holidays…but to decide and organise every detail in advance feels like sucking the life, the oxygen, the fun out of it! This can of course prove very tricky when sharing holidays with plan-ful people. For me, it’s a tight-loose principle. It’s about ensuring just enough structure to make it happen and, at the same time, lots of flex and freedom for serendipitous encounters and unexpected adventures to emerge.
I like the joy, excitement and stimulation of not-yet-knowing so the idea of planned discovery feels strangely paradoxical to me. How can we know for definite in advance what we may discover? It’s like a training course where we formulate learning outcomes in advance: ‘This is what you will learn.’ How would it be if we were to frame it differently: ‘This is the material we plan to cover. Come prepared for an exciting adventure of discovery! Who knows where the journey could lead?’
The same can be true of team meetings or conversations with colleagues. How quickly we fall into formulaic patterns and routines. It creates a sense of predictability, which can be good, yet often leads to frustration and boredom. It engenders what Heidegger calls listening as ‘already listening’, that is, listening, anticipating and interpreting through the filter of what we have already decided or believe. How different it would be if we were to meet each other in an excited spirit of inquiry!
So discovery can bring fresh energy, inspiration and innovation – yet what can we do to foster the conditions for it without trying to prescribe or design it ahead of time? Here are some ideas: Firstly, practise curiosity: be willing to not-know, experiment, take a risk. Secondly, be disruptive: do something different, try a new method, meet in a different place. Thirdly, step outside: visit other organisations, join cross-cultural teams, network widely. Try it – and see what you discover!
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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