‘When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.’ (Dave Barry)
We can think of leadership as the property of a structure, in which a person designated as a 'leader' holds particular responsibilities and has, at least in principle, the hierarchical authority needed to fulfil them. We can also think of leadership as an intrinsic property of an individual. In this sense, leadership is something that resides within and emanates from a person, something that she or he has and does. This is the realm of competency frameworks and of leader-development initiatives.
We can also think of leadership as the property of a group; for instance, a leadership team. In this idea, shared leadership is something exercised by a collective, where a diverse united group is, in potential, more than the sum of its parts. We can also think of leadership as a property of a dynamically-complex eco-system, in which acts of leadership emerge, sometimes unexpectedly and from unexpected places, and exert influence. This is the arena of dispersed and distributed leadership.
In organisations, I’m finding the latter perspective especially useful. When working with leadership teams, I invite participants to reflect on the eco-system (cf Gestalt: field) as a whole; for instance: 'Where is leadership-as-influence exercised, inside or outside of the organisation’s boundaries? What are the distinctive roles and responsibilities of different 'leadership' entities within the system? What are the relationships between them? What does each need from the others to be effective?'
I notice this invariably opens up far deeper, wider and richer conversations than those that focus on individual leaders alone, or leadership teams in isolation, as if they exist in a cultural-contextual vacuum. Some people find it useful to experiment with mapping their eco-system graphically, recognising that any depiction will reveal and, therefore, create opportunity to open up to healthy exploration and challenge, the way in which they construe their reality and leadership dynamics within it.
‘When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can turn into deadly projectiles.’ (Despair.com)
You’ve probably heard of change management. You’ve probably heard of change management teams too. You’ve probably heard of change plans, like project plans, sometimes expressed in Gannt charts with rows of scheduled tasks, mapped against proposed timeframes. You’re less likely, I would guess, to have heard of a transition plan. A transition plan deals with the human dimensions of change, the underlying psychological, emotional and relational issues that often prove critical to its success.
Whilst change can often be planned and prepared for by agreeing desired outcomes, then working backwards to identify the practical steps needed to achieve them (a bit like working out the mechanical structure of a car engine in order to build one), transitions don’t work like that. A change process may be complex, in that there may be many interlinked moving parts, yet is in principle manageable. A transition process is dynamically-complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.
This means that transitions can only be handled effectively by ongoing conversations with affected people. It calls for open and honest dialogue. It calls us to be invitational, curious and co-creative. It involves listening, hearing, being responsive and building trust. ‘If we were to do X…what would it mean for you?’ ‘Given what it would mean for you, what would you need?’ Well-led transitions will influence mood, climate, energy, engagement and agency: critical success factors in any change.
‘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.
‘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]
‘Just ask the question.’ (Sonja Antell)
A key skill in coaching and action learning is simply to pose a question. Adding pre-amble before a question, or post-amble (as one action learning participant aptly named it this week) afterwards, is one way of establishing rapport and sometimes credibility by adding background and context to a question. We may hope, too, to communicate empathy and soften the hardness that a short, succinct question alone could convey.
Here’s an example of pre-amble: ‘I can identify well with the situation you are describing today. I’ve been in similar situations too and it reminds me of some of the challenges that I faced then. Given that experience, if I were to ask you a question now, I think I might ask…’ And of post-amble: ‘The reason for my asking this question is that sometimes people in the kind of situation you have described find it useful to consider…’
That’s OK, right? Yet imagine this. The person who is being coached, or the person presenting during action learning, is often engaged in an intense thinking journey, grappling internally with a challenge or struggle and seeking to make sense of it in order to move forward. A simple question can feel like a useful, light-touch nudge, a prompt, a possibility. Pre- or post-amble can distract the person, feel like interference and disrupt the flow.
So how to handle the relational and cultural risks of being too direct? How to avoid coming across as abrupt or rude? This is best addressed at the contracting and ground rules-setting stage. Helpful key questions to reach clarity and agreement from the outset include, ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ Then, as we step back periodically to review our work together, ‘What are we doing well?’ and ‘Even better if..?’
[See also: Claire Pedrick: Simplifying Coaching (2020)]
‘How is that human systems seem so naturally to gravitate away from their humanness, so that we find ourselves constantly needing to pull them back again?’ (Jenny Cave-Jones)
What a profound insight and question. How is that, in organisations, the human so often becomes alien? Images from the Terminator come to mind – an apocalyptic vision of machines that turn violently against the humans that created them. I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in East Africa that, in its earnest desire to ensure a positive impact in the lives of the poor, had built a bureaucratic infrastructure that, paradoxically, drained its life and resources away from the poor. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
I worked with a global NGO that determined to strengthen its accountability to its funders. It introduced sophisticated log frames and complex reporting mechanisms for its partners in the field, intended to ensure value for its supporters and tangible, measurable evidence of positive impact for people and communities. As an unintended consequence, field staff spent inordinate amounts of time away from their intended beneficiaries, completing forms to satisfy what felt, for them, like the insatiable demands of a machine. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
A high school in the UK invited me to help its leaders manage its new performance process which had run into difficulties. Its primary focus had been on policies, systems and forms – intended positively to ensure fairness and consistency – yet had left staff feeling alienated, frustrated and demoralised. We shifted the focus towards deeper spiritual-existential questions of hopes, values and agency then worked with groups to prioritise high quality and meaningful relationships and conversations over forms, meetings and procedures. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Academics and managers at a university for the poor in South-East Asia had competing roles and priorities, and this had created significant tensions as well as affected adversely the learning experience of its students. The parties had attempted unsuccessfully to resolve these issues by political-structural means; jostling behind the scenes for positions of hierarchical influence and power. They invited me in and we conducted an appreciative inquiry together, focusing on shared hopes, deep values, fresh vision and a co-created future. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Where have you seen or experienced a drift away from the human? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
‘I’m not a teacher, but an awakener.’ (Robert Frost)
I imagine something like a coffee table between us. As the client talks about a challenge, issue or opportunity they are dealing with, I imagine them metaphorically painting a picture on the table, perhaps adding something like colourful photos from magazines, to depict their situation vividly. If, as a coach, I allow myself to follow the client’s gaze, to focus my own attention too on the scenario that is unfolding, I risk losing sight of the client. It may weaken the contact between us; draw us both into the place where the client already feels stuck; diminish the potential for transformation.
How can I know if this is happening, if I have inadvertently become preoccupied with or seduced by the drama the client is presenting? Here are some tell-tale signs: ‘Tell me more about…’; ‘I’d be interested to hear more about…’; ‘Could you share a bit more of the background..?’ It could be that the client’s issue resonates with an area of interest, expertise or experience of the coach; or that the coach has subconsciously slipped into diagnostic-consultant mode, with a view to finding or creating a solution for the client. It’s as if, ‘If you give me enough information, I can resolve this for you.’
A radically different approach is to hold our attention on the client, to be aware of the figurative coffee table in our peripheral vision, but to stay firmly focused on the person (or team) in front of us. This is often where the most powerful coaching insights and outcomes emerge. Here are some sample person- (or team-) orientated questions: ‘Who or what matters most to you in this?’; ‘What outcome are you hoping for?’; ‘As you talk about this now, how are you feeling?’; ‘What assumptions are you making?’; ‘What are you not-noticing?’; ‘What are you avoiding?’; ‘Now that you know this, what will you do?’
‘Are we learning yet?’ (John Connor to the Terminator)
‘History never repeats itself. Every single historical moment is distinct from those past.’ (Angela Johnson). That said, we can and do well to learn from the past to help inform our decisions for the future. This is a core principle of Learning Reviews. Some years ago, Learning Reviews were a key part of knowledge management (KM). The idea of KM was to capture, distil and disseminate learning from projects, to save others in future from having to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel.
Things became quite complex if, say, project participants had a vested interest (e.g. for competitive advantage) in retaining, rather than sharing, what they had learned from experience; or hidden factors that had influenced success in one instance or arena were subtly different to those in a new situation. Against this backdrop, KM evolved into wisdom management (WM), where those engaged in the process would critically-evaluate insights and ideas rather than simply re-apply them.
I ran lots of Learning Reviews with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), where I developed and practised an appreciative approach that I will share here. Imagine a grid with ‘What Went Well’ (WWW) and ‘Even Better If’ (EBI) as column headings; and ‘Why’, ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Who’ as separate rows. ‘Why’ focuses on purpose; ‘What’ on content; ‘How’ on methods; and ‘Who’ on people and relationships. I would give each key stakeholder a copy of the template in advance.
At the start of a Learning Review meeting, I would invite participants to decide on key questions (e.g. ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to draw out key insights?’). Then, I would facilitate the group to engage in a process of critical reflexivity, addressing blind spots (e.g. ‘What assumptions are we making that could prevent us gaining deeper insights?') and hot spots (e.g. ‘What issues may we be tempted to avoid in case they feel too difficult or painful?’).
This groundwork with a group at the outset often proved vital. It enabled participants to contract with me and with each other around issues such as trust, vulnerability, humility and courage, as foundations for the Review itself. We would then explore the Why, What, How and Who dimensions using the WWW and EBI philosophy and approach, working rigorously to identify the conditions (e.g. personal or broader contextual) that had contributed to what had been experienced.
I would end the Review by inviting participants to identify and crystallise, out of all that had been considered and discussed, the top 3-5 critical success factors for initiatives of this type. The final challenge would be to articulate and publish the resulting discoveries as tangible, transferable recommendations that would be easily understandable and accessible to other leaders and participants in future projects, along with details of who to contact if further insight is needed.
What have been your experiences of Learning Reviews? What have you learned through doing them?
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
'Management speak is the strangling of language. It is the wringing out of any meaning from once-beautiful words.' (Chris Huet)
Research published this week by the UK communications firm, Enreach suggests that, in the UK, management-speak still annoys and irritates. Expressions such as: blue sky thinking; thinking outside the box; low hanging fruit; and touching base appear to provoke particular disdain. Yet what is it about these phrases that triggers such strong and cynical reactions? Duncan Ward, author of the survey, proposes two principal reasons: that jargon conveys inauthenticity by presenting: (a) a smokescreen – an attempt to hide shortcomings; or (b) a façade – an attempt to impress others.
Ward also reflects that, given that many people are now not working face-to-face partly owing to the residual effects of Covid restrictions, clear communication is considered as essential. My sense is that, in an egalitarian social media era where soundbites and short-sharp messaging are the norm, people are also impatient of any language that comes across as pretentious or waffly. Against this backdrop, management jargon is disliked at work because it creates a fog factor: clouding rather than clearing. It blocks – rather than builds – relationship, meaning and trust.
Viewed through a cross-cultural lens, the UK sometimes looks down on language it perceives as imported. It likes to see itself as culturally sophisticated; using simple, clean language. Management-speak is perceived as originating in the United States and with that, for some people, it carries an underlying (and, I hasten to add, unfair) judgement of superficiality. This is one possible reason why I believe Scott Adams' satirical Dilbert was so popular in the UK. We were able to smile at a phenomenon ‘over there’, whilst also to recognise its growing influence ‘over here’.
Ward added that most respondents use jargon, in spite of disapproving of it. I can add my own name to that list of offenders. I worked with Peter Robson, a great leader who came from a very different background. At my first appraisal, he said, ‘When you speak in OD language, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.’ He also added, in generous spirit, ‘Yet I have seen and felt the impact of what you do. It’s like magic. Whatever it is – keep doing it!’ Ward concludes simply that: ‘people would prefer to understand more clearly what their colleagues mean.’
What jargon phrases do you find yourself using? Which wind you up most – and why?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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