‘We don’t have a plane crash scheduled for today, but I thought I’d take you through the emergency procedures just in case.’ (KLM Air Hostess)
I love the difference that a sense of humour can make. The air hostess (above) made everyone laugh during the passenger safety briefing on a return flight from the Netherlands today. The airline’s own plane had experienced maintenance problems so it had had to borrow one from another airline. One hostess complained, with a glint in her eye, that the green décor didn't match the blue colour of her uniform. The passengers all laughed when another hostess made an announcement too, aiming to draw our attention to an apparent information light on the plane…only to correct herself moments later with, ‘Oh – this plane doesn’t have one!’ Brilliant. It took the terror out of the turbulence.
On a more serious note, I had been in the Netherlands to work with a diverse NGO leadership team, to support its desire to enhance its international teamwork. I referenced briefly a couple of places in the Bible where the writer comments on the amazing potential of human diversity – where the Divine whole is seen, known and experienced to be more than the sum of its parts – yet also hints at the corresponding dark risks of undervaluing, fragmentation and conflict if not. Strikingly, the writer moves on in both places to emphasise a deep need for authentic love as the critical success factor. This insight set a spiritual-existential tone for the day, as we reflected on team-as-relationships.
Returning to the plane – but this time as a metaphor, a participant from South Africa asked, ‘How many separate parts is a Boeing 747 aircraft made up of?’ Apparently, the answer is about 6,000,000. ‘And what do these diverse components all have in common?’ Puzzled faces all round now. ‘None of them can fly.’ I thought this was genius. What a great way to dispel the myth of the all-sufficient self in the face of the dynamic complexities of teams, organisations and wider world. We worked through an Appreciative Inquiry next, drawing on positives of the past and aspirations of the present to co-create shared trust and vision for the future. Set the trajectory. Fasten seatbelts. Enjoy the flight.
‘For me, revolution simply means radical change.’ (Aung San Suu Kyi)
I heard a well-known pop psychologist on the radio this week, talking about his new book about how to make your New Year’s resolutions stick. He invited the listeners to buy his book in order to learn more. I didn’t do that, but it did bring to mind a number of things I’ve noticed over the years as I work with people, teams and organisations. I will share a couple of insights here that may be of interest and useful – and I promise not to ask you to buy anything.
The first is how hard it can be to make significant and sustainable changes to habitual patterns of thought and-or behaviour. A wise friend, Ian Henderson, illustrates this simply by inviting people to fold their arms. Next, he invites them to fold their arms in the opposite direction. (I found this harder than I had imagined). He goes on to invite them to reflect on what routine they always use to dry themselves after a shower. We are creatures of habit.
That’s OK when the routines serve us and-or others well. If, however, people become trapped in, for instance, patterns of tension or stress, if often demands more than fresh thinking, determined effort or will-power to change it. So, here’s the second. Try disrupting the physical context in which it takes place; for instance: meet in a different room or location; use different chairs; sit in different places to where you normally sit; stand up rather than sit down.
I worked with a team that felt trapped in conflict. They invited me to help them work through it so I asked that we hold our first meeting where and at the time at which they normally met. When we did so, I asked them where they normally sit, including in relation to each other. (‘Exactly where we are now’). At the next meeting, I changed the time and, before participants arrived, rearranged the room completely, then invited them to sit somewhere different.
The shift in group dynamics was remarkable. Disrupting the times and room configuration created enough of a change to enable the team to hold a different spirit, style and type of conversation. This, in turn, helped team members to relax enough to consider and create new possibilities. It released the stuck-ness and enabled a breakthrough of sorts that wouldn’t have been possible by thinking or talking alone. (Like this idea? Look out for my new book…)
‘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.
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