‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ (Rosabeth Moss Kanter)
I’m in a coaching conversation with Anna, a client who feels stressed. She describes it as being like trapped inside a box, with no way out; where the box is her organisation, her job, the role she’s in now. The narrative she’s telling herself is that she has no possibility to escape from the debilitating pressure she’s experiencing. Her scope of authority to influence change is too constrained and she’s expected to deliver against targets that feel impossible. She feels totally helpless and hopeless. I acknowledge and empathise with how Anna is feeling, then ask if she’d be interested to explore potential options that could be available to her. At first, she pushes back, as if instinctively. ‘I don’t have any options – that is the problem’. I ask, inquisitively, to test the boundary a bit: ‘You could leave?’ ‘I can’t leave’, she replies, immediately and forcefully, ‘I have a mortgage to pay’. ‘So, the mortgage is part of the box?’, I ask. ‘Hmm. I guess it is’, she replies, more thoughtfully this time.
‘What if you weren’t to pay the mortgage?’, I ask. She looks bemused. ‘It would mean I’d lose the house, of course’, she snaps. ‘And, if you lost the house?’ ‘That would be terrible’, she replies, ‘It’s my dream home.’ ‘So, the dream home is, perhaps, part of the box?’ I ask. Anna goes quiet. After a while, she looks up and responds, ‘I don’t want to lose my home.’ ‘So: it’s as if, to keep your dream home, you feel that you have no option but to stay in your current job to pay your mortgage?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Imagine now, for a moment, dismantling or breaking out of the box that you feel trapped in. If you were to imagine a spectrum of options, ranging from the status quo to what you might think of as a most extreme solution (the ‘nuclear option’), what might they be?’ Anna picks up a piece of paper and a pen and starts to write. ‘At the extreme end, I could sell the house and downsize to a cheaper house or location, then I could get try to get a less expensive mortgage, but I don’t want to do that.’
‘At the other end, I could stay as I am and just accept that the frustration in my job is a price worth paying to keep the house that I love.’ ‘And..?’, I ask. ‘I guess I could apply for another job.’ ‘Say more?’ ‘Well, I could look at other jobs in my organisation.’ ‘Yet the organisation sounds like it may be part of the box too? What if you were to think outside of the box altogether?’ ‘True. I could look at job opportunities elsewhere, or even at a change of career that would feel more fun and fulfilling!’ ‘So, there are, perhaps, some options that could feel in tension for you? The house…or a career that could feel more fun and fulfilling? Which stands out as most important for you?’ ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but if I could find something I really love doing, I might just be willing to consider moving house to do it. Perhaps I’m allowing my attachment to the house to box me in.’ Suddenly, I see a lightbulb moment flash in her eyes. ‘Eeek…’ she says, ‘Perhaps the house is the box!’ Breakthrough.
Anna has left the building.
[See also: Boxes; Deconstructing the box; and Lateral instinct]
'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?
‘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?
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?
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