‘Life is like the harp string. If it is strung too tight it won't play, if it is too loose it hangs. The tension that produces the beautiful sound lies in the middle.’ (Gautama Buddha)
In World War 2, when faced with a critical decision on how to respond to the Nazi threat, one of Winston Churchill’s advisers argued forcefully that ‘organisation is the enemy of improvisation’. This wasn’t a diatribe against the power of organisation per se. It was, however, deeply rooted in a belief that the UK’s main chance of success would be to act in ways that would capitalise on its own agile cultural traits – and leave the highly-organised German war machine disorientated and defeated.
I’ve noticed there are parallels in learning a second language too. Students are often taught in highly-organised ways – focusing on vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing. It can provide them with a useful foundation, yet can also leave them completely paralysed in free-flow conversation. I’ve concluded that, at least in this respect, ‘Accuracy is the enemy of fluency.’ Remove the expectation to get everything right, distract from fears of making a mistake, and the words will start to flow.
That said, I need to beware of unhelpful polarisation. Early in my OD career, I worked alongside an experienced HR consultant, Chris Rowe, who introduced me to a tight-loose principle. I had argued instinctively that an organisation needed to let go of its highly-organised, stifling structures and processes to become more flexible, responsive and innovative. Chris challenged me: there is a time for tight and a time for loose – and wisdom in knowing which, where, when and for whom.
Fish out of water
‘One fish asks another fish ‘How is the water?’ The two swim on for a bit and eventually the other fish replies, ‘What is water?’’ (David Foster Wallace)
The more I know, the less I understand. That’s the conclusion I came to after spending 5 years in a Christian faith community in London with 70% Nigerian people, 20% Ghanaian, 8% Mauritian and 2% from the UK. It’s a belief that’s been reinforced by 7 years closely alongside people from the Philippines and other countries in East and South East Asia.
Beyond surface-level cultural traits such as distinctive clothing and food, culture runs very deep, mostly well below the radar of conscious awareness. Like the values and beliefs that underpin it, culture often only becomes known, including to ourselves, when we encounter a person or situation that contradicts or clashes with it. It can take us by surprise.
I’ve made various cross-cultural blunders on route, ranging from an innocent hug in one context to posing questions in a group in another. On reflection, I’ve sometimes been astounded by my own naivety. Yet few opportunities for learning compare with a cross-cultural experience. It may feel like a bumpy ride on route yet the results can be transformational.
[See also: Cross-cultural coaching; Crossing cultures; Cross-cultural action learning]
Issue to question
'I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.' (Richard Feynman)
When a person introduces an issue they are facing, we and often they are not always clear at the outset what underlying challenge that issue is posing for them. Rather than asking more questions about the issue itself, however, we could invite the person to reframe the issue as a question. ‘What questions come to mind as you think about this?’ ‘What question is this raising for you now?’
I worked with a strategy consultant who asked great questions; for example ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to make strategic decisions?’ In Action Learning sets, we could ask a presenter, for instance, ‘What are the questions you’d find most useful for us to ask?’ And, in high-challenge coaching, ‘What’s the question you’re hoping I won’t ask you?’
Priest-philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed that a good question can set a person off on a quest; a restless and intense journey of searching and discovery. It’s very different to providing a superficial answer that can close thinking down. I sometimes go one step further and ask, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ It can raise tacit, subconscious and intuitive knowing into view.
‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a resourceful idiot.’ (Scott Adams)
15 minutes before I was due to lead an online change leadership workshop in Germany, I stepped outside briefly for a breath of fresh air. I wanted to clear my head, focus and pray. Then…oh no, I heard a gentle click behind me and discovered, to my alarm, that I couldn’t open the door without a key. It hung tantalisingly on the inside and I could see my mobile phone staring at me blankly from the table. Aha, I thought. I will ask my hosts to let me in. Oh, they were out. Mild feelings of panic rising, I rushed to a neighbour. Thank God they were in, could understand my Englisch-Deutsch, had the hosts’ number and could call. Now, with just 2 minutes to go, my host appeared and saved the day.
It was a timely reminder that sudden change can come from anywhere, unexpectedly and often from left field. It was also a helpful reminder that leadership, resilience and agency aren’t simply inward, intra-personal qualities or strengths. Our ability to handle the impacts of changes and transitions often emerges from an outward-facing resourcefulness, looking outside of ourselves openly (and, for me, prayerfully) for people and-or other resources who can co-create and co-enable a solution with us…or – if no solution is possible – sit with us in the midst of discomfort, disappointment or pain.
‘What is most important about any event is not what happens, but what it means.’ (Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal)
Here’s one way to think about human change and transition: change is what happens around us and transition is what happens within us. Imagine, for instance, a change at work – ‘We used to do X and now we’re going to do Y instead.‘ Simple, right? It can be, yes…except when it isn’t. It all depends, at heart, on what that change will mean to a person, team or organisation, and-or what it could mean for others that matter to them too; e.g. colleagues, family, friends, people who use their services.
It can get more complicated still. The same change could mean different things for different people and groups. It could also mean different things for the same person or group e.g. at different times, depending on what else is going on for them. In practice, this means that to support people through transitions, change leaders do well (a) to avoid making assumptions about what a change will mean and (b) to explore, ‘What will this change mean for you?’; then, given that, ‘What will you need?’
I can almost hear some leaders crying out in protest, ‘Don’t be naïve, Nick. Be realistic. People don’t like change. They’re resistant to change.’ Yet, here’s the thing. People will sometimes resist change, even though they agree with it, if they don’t feel heard or understood. Conversely and paradoxically, people will sometimes support change, even if they disagree with it, because they do feel heard and understood. Working with transitions isn’t an optional add-on. It can prove the key to success.
Questions about questions
‘The smart ones ask when they don’t know. And, sometimes, when they do.’ (Malcolm Forbes)
We sometimes discover in new Action Learning sets that participants are unsure about the distinction between questions for clarification and questions for exploration. Participants may wonder, similarly, if and when closed and open questions should be used. This can lead to all kinds of awkward mental and linguistic gymnastics such as, for instance, wanting to ask a simple question for information, yet trying hard to frame it as an open question.
I find that one useful way to mark the difference between clarification and exploration questions is to consider, ‘Who is the answer to the question for?’ If I ask a question for clarification, the answer is for me, so that I will know or understand something better. If I ask a question for exploration, it’s offered as a gift that may, I hope, enable another person to gain insight and know or understand something more deeply or broadly for themselves.
We also sometimes discover that participants get a bit stuck when thinking about how to transition from questions for exploration to questions for action. They may wonder if, for instance, questions for action are questions for exploration that focus on action. I find a useful way to mark this shift is to think of questions for exploration as divergent (opening out) and questions for action as convergent (drawing together, to enable a close).
What we see here is that what makes a good question in Action Learning is determined less by rules about the structure of a question itself (e.g. whether it is an open or a closed question), and more by the focus and orientation of questions at each stage of the process. Participants pose questions in service of the presenter and, at the end of the day, it’s for the presenter to decide which land usefully for them or enable a shift towards a solution.
‘If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you can use the plane the next day, that’s an outstanding landing.’ (Chuck Yeager)
‘I think I just crashed the plane!’ That made me laugh. We had been toying with the metaphor of flying an aircraft to think about different stages of a coaching or action learning process. My nephew, a trainee pilot, had explained to me previously how landing a plane after a flight can be the tricky part. There’s a risk that, having touched down, the plane bounces off the runway and takes off again, resulting in something like a kangaroo-effect along the runway until it finally comes to a halt.
During an action learning facilitation training workshop this week, a participant guided the group successfully ‘down’ into the action stage, only inadvertently to have it take off again as she opened up to further questions for exploration. In the learning review afterwards, one of her fellow participants commented with a smile that it felt, perhaps, more like a turbulent landing than a crash into the runway. That was a relief. Yet, how to land a plane without the bumpy-bounce effect?
Tony Stoltzfus in Coaching Questions (2008) offers a useful guide that focuses on three successive stages to help create a shift, from possibilities to decisions to committed actions: Could do; Want to; Will do. Could-do raises possibilities and options into the frame. Want-to touches on energy and motivation. Will-do moves towards determination and traction. We could picture this sequence as something like: What could you do? Is that a step you want to take? What will you do, by when?
Stoltzfus goes on to highlight potential issues to look out for and to attend to, including ‘insurance’ and ‘equivocation’. The former involves helping a person to identify and address critical factors that could either ensure or undermine their success. The latter can be useful if a person appears to be feeling ambivalent or only superficially committed to a course of action. It’s the person’s own choice as to whether they follow-through. This is, however, about helping them to land themselves well.
Examples of insurance-type questions are: ‘Are there any obstacles to getting this done?’ ‘Who else do you need to check with?’ ‘On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you’ll complete this step by the deadline?’ ‘What would it take to raise that to a 7, 8 or 9?’ ‘How could you change the step or the deadline to make this more realistic?’ ‘What could you do to increase your chances of getting this done successfully?’ ‘Do you need an accountability person or mechanism to help you do this?’
Examples of equivocation-type questions are: ‘Are you ready to commit to that next step?’ ‘You said you might take that next step. Is there anything holding you back?’ You said you ought to do this. What would make it something you’ll do because you really want to do it?’ ‘You sound like you're procrastinating. You can choose to do this or not to do it. What will you do?’ ‘Is there anything we need to discuss or change about the step you’re considering that would help you to make a more decisive choice?’
Stoltzfus ends by offering some tips on tentative language to listen out for at the action phase that could indicate a person is equivocating, or hasn’t yet reached a decision point: ‘I could…’ ‘I might…’ ‘I’m thinking of…’ ‘One possibility…’ ‘Maybe I should…’ ‘I ought to…’ ‘I’d like to…’ ‘Someday…’ It’s analogous to hovering above the runway without yet having achieved touch-down. Try: ‘How do you feel, here and now, as you consider each option?’ ‘If you were to land this, what would you need?’
[See also: A good ending; Get a grip; Grit]
‘Revolution starts in the mind. Question everything.’ (Bryant McGill)
If – a tiny word, one of the shortest in the English language – framed as a question, can open up a whole array of possibilities. It can raise insights and ideas into awareness by presenting a hypothesis that stretches the imagination and creates the potential for breakthrough. Used in coaching, consultancy and action learning, it can help shift a conversation beyond the what-is to the what-could-be; from a place of stuck-ness towards radical and liberating solutions.
Posed in invitational, coactive tone: ‘If we were to have a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ ‘If we were to introduce this change, what would it mean for you?’ ‘If we were to move ahead with this, what would you need?’ ‘If you were to do this with confidence, what would you be doing?’ ‘If you were to be successful in this venture, what would that make possible?’ ‘If you had a good-enough answer to this question, what would it be?’
If you were to draw more on the power of ‘if’, what difference could that make?
‘When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s a meteorite hurtling to the earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteor.’ (Despair.com Demotivators)
I was surprised to return to my desk and find 6 people waiting in a queue to complain. I’d worked hard on my all-staff presentation and thought I’d handled it well. My task had been to present the results of an annual staff survey: the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d attempted to present a view that, even in those areas where scores were low, such scores represented implicit positive hopes and aspirations. If, for instance, someone had given a low score for quality of management, it was because good management matters to them, even if their desires and expectations were unmet.
My agitated colleagues saw it differently. They felt as if I had spun the results, put a positive spin on the ugly, with a result that those staff who had already been angry, frustrated and disappointed now felt even more strongly that their voices were ignored, dismissed and unheard. Still taken aback, I tried to defend myself, arguing that it wasn’t spin but a matter of perspective. They weren’t having it, and they pushed back even harder than before. I was left reeling and confused. In my mind, I had presented the survey results with integrity. I couldn’t understand their hurt and angry responses.
This was some years ago and I remember vividly, some days later, driving into work when a penny dropped suddenly. It occurred to me that, when a person describes a glass as half-empty, it’s not simply a matter of perspective but one of sentiment and emotional experience too. By presenting a glass as half-full, I had inadvertently failed to acknowledge and represent an authentic expression of how they were feeling. I returned to my colleagues and shared this somewhat embarrassingly-belated self-revelation – with which they wholeheartedly agreed. They accepted my apology with grace.
That was a scary moment. My Dad had developed a dangerous arrhythmia and drastic action was needed to save his life. Paradoxically, the solution lay in stopping his heart. After what felt like a breathtakingly-long pause, the cardiologist restarted his heart to re-establish a healthy rhythm. Thank God it worked and we could all breathe again.
More recently, my laptop got into a mess. It was operating so slowly and experiencing so many glitches that I wondered if I needed to replace it. An IT trainer friend, Rob, had a look and discovered that, for some time, I had been closing the lid to power it down, rather than turning it off-and-on again to reboot it. He restarted it and then it worked.
A teacher friend, Kathrin, commented that people professionals who deal with challenging relationships, complex issues and wicked problems can get into a tangle too. Over time, it can feel harder to see the wood for the trees, a bit like having pressed on day-after-day without sleep. If you're feeling stressed or burned out, you need a restart.
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I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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