February 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
November 12, 2012
Sometimes you read something that really strikes a chord. I recently saw this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: ”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” In other times, I would read this and it would simply seem like a poetic truism, but I’m currently experiencing a number of shifts in my personal situation which made me read that quote as if it was written just for me. These shifts are creating a fair amount of uncertainty and bringing up all the associated emotions that go with it. In times like this, it is useful for me to remember that trying to control what is going on in my world will not lead to the best outcomes and in fact, that I need to call on the kind of resources that will best keep me going in times of uncertainty. These resources, in my experience, are more related to responsiveness rather than planning, innovation rather than inertia. While some of my uncertainty is environmental, some of it is by choice: I have jumped off a cliff. It would be rather contrarian of me, therefore, to complain about some of my current uncertainty as I am its author, and for good reason, so the thing for me to remember is a lesson from one of my old teachers: “It’s sometimes not so important what you do; it’s what you do NEXT.”
If we are falling from a cliff, either because we’ve jumped or because circumstances have pushed us, what we need is the ability to be in the moment, thus summoning up all our creativity to learn how not to hit the ground. Our brains are hard-wired to cause us to respond to uncertainty in predictable ways. As Thayer et al write, there is “an evolutionary advantage associated with the assumption of threat” and that our “‘default’ response to uncertainty, novelty, and threat is the sympathoexcitatory preparation for action commonly known as the fight or flight response”. Essentially, because we have inherited a certain vigilance to our environment, when faced with uncertainty, we unconsciously prepare for the worst. While useful for survival if we are about to be attacked by a lion, it’s hardly the most progressive state to be in if we want to thrive. This goes for businesses living in uncertain times as well as individuals.
More people are joining the precariat, a new class of people, not in the traditional Marxian sense of “class”, but a section of the populace bound together by the increasing uncertainty in their lives. If, in the face of uncertainty, more people are living their lives in a state of vigilance, fear and worry, how can this not affect business? When more of what is going on in the business world is unprecedented, how can businesses pretend that we will magically go back to “business as usual” once all this financial mayhem goes away. We won’t; things are irrevocably changing. In the fog of transition, the only certainty is uncertainty.
When the business of a business is pretty predictable, as it was in the Industrial era, there is less need to focus on resilience or responsiveness. In the old days, business could undertake planning exercises and be reasonably safe in the knowledge that the functioning of the business would be able to successfully execute its plans and that the environment would not impinge too greatly on those plans. In the modern era where knowledge is “a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical to organisational survival” (Bettis and Hitt, 1995, ‘The new competitive landscape’), business needs to get to grips with the reality of uncertainty and decreasing forecastability. Businesses also need to remember that they are living systems within wider living systems. Global environmental, political, economic and financial challenges all impact on a business’s ability to succeed.
There is much out there which indicates that we are living in a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While, for some, this may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, I would contend that the world has been thus for much longer, but that what we have been learning in recent years is allowing us to see what we previously may not have. Systems thinking, for example, is giving us mental constructs with which to make a little sense of a sometimes confusing world. If dealing with uncertainty requires us to embrace it, as some suggest, the question remains, “How do we do that?” It can seem a little glib to simply say, “the world is uncertain, embrace it!”
If, on the way down from that cliff, I succumb to my anxiety, it is impossible for me to be spontaneous. Anxiety and spontaneity sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Without my spontaneity, I have no spark for my creativity and it is my human creativity which will assist me to come up with new enabling solutions.
Creativity and innovation at work are not just about coming up with new products and services. They are about how we respond to each other, our customers and the business environment. Creativity, however, is strategically linked with spontaneity. As Dr. J.L. Moreno writes in “Who Shall Survive?” (1953), an “individual may have a high degree of creativity but be entirely without spontaneity, a creator ‘without arms’….Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual and evoke a response.” He goes on to say that there have been many more Michelangelos than the one who painted the Sistine Chapel, but “the thing that separates them is the spontaneity which, in the successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his (or her) resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with their treasures.” Furthermore, “spontaneity operates in the present, now and here; it propels the individual towards an adequate response to a new situation or a new response to an old situation.”
How do you respond to something novel?
When we encounter something unexpected, do we push ahead with our plans? Do we assist others to embrace uncertainty or do we attempt to keep things as planned so that we don’t unsettle people? For example, in developing people’s abilities to have workplace conversations about performance, we emphasise that there is no “step 1, step 2″ procedure for carrying these out. This unsettles some folks. For one thing, such conversations can be pretty emotionally charged, especially if someone is calling someone else’s under-performing at work. How will they react? What will I do if they get angry/defensive/start crying? For another thing, no conversation can be scripted unless you are an actor on stage. Even in this situation, actors develop the ability to be responsive to what others say to them and how they say it, otherwise we see a bunch of individuals reciting memorised lines, which is not how good drama unfolds on stage. Even though they know what comes next, a good actor will be alive to the present moment and deliver their lines as if they are hearing what the other has said for the first time. Responsiveness.
We can ready ourselves for a challenging conversation, partly by rehearsing what we want to say, but we also need to be ready to respond to what the other person says to us. We encourage people to think bigger about these conversations as one of many elements in their relationship. They are a process within a bigger process, not a stand-alone event. For this reason, we don’t provide tools and techniques, we offer spontaneity development. As I quoted previously, Dr. J.L. Moreno said spontaneity is the capacity to offer a novel response to an old situation or an adequate (i.e. good enough) response to a new situation. Any workplace conversation or relationship would benefit from developing this capacity. Tools, tricks and tips are not sufficient in order to navigate the complex spaces we inhabit at work. They are useful to a point, but the application of these in a mindful and purposeful manner needs to come from the individual. In order to deploy all the knowledge and skills that this individual at their ready disposal, the individual needs to be in a state of readiness; this is the spontaneity state. When we are warmed up to a spontaneity state, we bring out all we have developed and learnt and sythesise them in an appropriate and effective manner to come up with a novel response to a familiar situation or a “good enough” response to something we have never met before. We don’t struggle to remember useful tips, we don’t get anxious about what we are about to say or do, we don’t fail to bring out what we know we know. We flow in response to uncertainty, sometimes producing something that surprises even ourselves. Creativity.
Progressiveness is more than just coping
In many businesses I encounter, the tried and tested no longer seems as effective. Perhaps the conventional marketing wisdom or sales tactics no longer bring in results like they used to. They’ve tried sweeteners, good cop-bad cop, management directives, staff socials and everything else they can think of, but loyalty and engagement seem to be on the wane. As Andrew Zolli describes, we are being called on to develop capabilities that are about “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop them“. Accommodating them rather than building bigger storm walls. I have previously described my experience of first arriving in India and realising while looking down on a Mumbai street that it was a river and that in order to get by, I’d have to go with its flow rather than try to swim upstream.
Politicians concerning themselves with the interests of the precariat talk about building a new progressive agenda. I like that word: progressive. It fits with a model of human functioning that I apply in my work, both for individuals and for businesses. Whether we are the authors of our uncertainty or it is the product of our environment (or a little of both, as I’m currently experiencing), our response to it is key. The enabling solutions lie in finding ways to (re)gain a sense of agency in our lives. Agency, mind; not control. The model I apply comes out of the work of the work of Lynette Clayton and has been refined by Max Clayton: we operate out of Roles which are fragmenting, coping or progressive.
In every living moment, we respond to our world by taking up a Role. We learn Roles from the day we are born until the day we die, as we are constantly meeting new situations. The term “fragmenting” corresponds to “dysfunctional”, reflecting the inner experience of acting in this manner. Fragmenting Role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive. Coping Role responses are those which have served us well in the past and have become almost habitual but which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving. Progressive Role responses are those which move us forward. Each of us has a motivating force which takes us forward in our lives and the Roles we enact that take us there are progressive. In times of uncertainty, it seems sensible that we would operate out of our coping or fragmenting Roles; this is related to that hard-wiring. The ones that are most life-giving and useful to us, however, are the progressive.
Once again, we will find it easier to enact out of our progressive Role systems if we can warm up to our spontaneity. Our progressive Roles are the ones which will enable us to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Embracing uncertainty, then, is an exercise in consciousness. Zolli talks about soldiers, ER workers and first-responders training in contemplative practices to assist them to remain resilient. If our hard-wiring is constantly on the alert and tells us that the uncertain is a threat, mindfulness can help us to short circuit that hard-wiring.
What is required is consciousness.
So we don’t like uncertainty? Tough. Just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. The question becomes, “How can I manage myself in the midst of uncertainty?”
So what am I doing about my current uncertainty? Well, after a few particularly challenging days, I’m writing about it. This activity is helping me to be mindful: of myself and of my resources. These are plenty. Some are intrapersonal, some are interpersonal and some are supra-personal. I’m remembering that if I languish in anxiety, I’ll find it harder to keep going. I’m remembering the moments in my life when I have felt spontaneous. I’m remembering my mother’s recent email telling me to trust in my strengths and that I’m a very capable person. I’m remembering to take exercise and eat my greens.
To quote an old friend of mine, worry doesn’t get the cat fed.
November 30, 2011
These are, indeed, interesting times. We are bombarded, seemingly daily, with a slew of economic, social and environmental information which paints an ever more complex picture of what is going on in our world, our communities and our workplaces. Depending on the lenses through which we view this data, which data we choose to look at and which we choose to ignore, each of us, individually or in our ‘tribes’, make particular meaning of them. Either the global ice caps are about to melt and our major cities about to be submerged as sea levels rise, or we are simply experiencing the normal pattern of global warming and cooling that has been cycling for time immemorial. Either we are in the grip of the worst financial crisis ever or it is simply that we have run up more debt that we should have and we just need to tighten our belts for a little while until we get back to business-as-usual (whatever that is).
There does seem to be a consensus, however, that the only constant is change. I think it would also be hard to refute that the pace of change is increasing, as new technologies influence how we connect with each other, how we work and how we manage information and knowledge. Sometimes the changes we experience are of our own making because we realise that the status quo is no longer tenable, sometimes the changes are inflicted upon us.
To illustrate, let me introduce you to C1 and C2, two CEO’s of medium-sized knowledge-based organisations. They are both successful in their own right, both have been around for years, both of them know their organisations well. Both of them are big-hearted and have enormous passion for the work they and their organisations carry out. They are both extremely like-able and well-rounded human beings. We might say that both of their organisations are also successful, purely in the sense that they are still around, despite challenging economic times. Both of these organisations also operate in the same industry with very similar challenges. But if we look a little closer at these two CEO’s and their organisations, we might not say that they are equally successful. World-1, the world of C1, while still functioning, suffers from high staff turnover, low job satisfaction amongst the majority of employees and the kind of poor engagement that leads to staff actively bad-mouthing the place. World-2, the domain of C2, has extremely low turnover with people clamouring to work there, high levels of engagement to the point of staff bragging about where they work and excellent standards of performance.
C1 is great at managing. He forecasts, he plans, he commands. He has been around for many years and knows the organisation inside out. He structures, he re-structures, he is a very busy man. He prides himself on an impressive set of policies and procedures which are constantly under revision; when someone does something that he feels sits outside the organisation’s vision, he puts another new policy in place to mitigate it ever happening again. He tells people about the organisation’s business models, which he constantly invents and re-invents at a pace which keeps people just confused enough so that they don’t manage to really grasp them fully. Just as people seem to understand and come on board with the new model, another one appears. He doesn’t set out to bamboozle people, but that is how they experience his constant re-inventions and modifications.
C1 likes to make pronouncements about diversity. To talk to C1 and to read the organisational documents, you would think that they had reached some sort of diversity-nirvana. In practice, what you would see is a diverse micro-cosm of wider society with employees from a range of ethnic backgrounds, creeds and sexual orientations being shoe-horned into C1′s monocultural worldview. Groupthink is the norm and new staff learn quickly to conform. Margaret Mead could have been talking about C1 when she said, “What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things.”
In C2′s world, there are actually few formal pronouncements, discussions or debates around diversity. What you would see if you went into their domain, however, is a workplace characterised by acceptance of difference, active mutual respect, valuing of diverse contributions from a similar microcosm of the wider society and an organic and evolving culture which is constantly emergent from the interactions and relationships between everyone there. World-2 is messier, in a ‘we-aren’t-the-same-as-each-other’ kind of way, and this seems to create a real hot-house out of which spring genuinely novel and effective responses to clients and other stakeholders. World-2 often surprises itself and delights its external stakeholders with the kind of creativity that emerges from its diverse culture and people are compelled to come to work because it feels good.
In World-1, there is a heavy reliance on policies and procedures to maintain order. This leaves little room for individual creativity, for much of people’s daily work is delineated by the ‘Such-and-Such Manual’ or the ‘So-and-So Handbook’. The fear orientation, out of which this springs, means that the workplace hums to the background music of “Don’t Make Mistakes,” which then means that people default to endless, time-consuming conversations about whether they are doing the ‘right’ thing before making any move. People’s frame of reference is “What will C1 think is correct?” rather than “I feel trusted, along with my colleagues, to come up with the most appropriate course of action,” and there are so many policy documents that nobody could possibly know them all anyway. This over-reliance on codifying means that people’s view of the bigger picture is so obscured by manuals and charts that they have lost their clear line of sight to the organisation’s purpose. The only person to whom this seems clear is C1.
C2 knows that every organisation needs a certain number of policies, procedures and standard processes that provide enough of an agreed-upon structure within which to work. However, World-2 is light on documentation, providing only that which sets out clear, comprehensible guidelines and secures sensible levels of health and safety. World-2′s modus operandi could be called ‘emergent design’, with new ways of working emerging from necessity and the melting pot of staff interactions. There is a thriving culture of experimentation and reflection. People actually look forward to staff meetings because they are mostly filled with idea-generation and robust analysis of ‘what is working and how can we improve?’.
C1 loves hierarchies. C1 loves organisational charts. C1 gets a thrill when he identifies some kind of need for a new level of company structure and can redraw reporting lines. For a medium sized organisation, World-1 has an inordinately complicated structure. C2, who runs a similarly sized organisation, seems to know that the flatter the structure, the more agile it will be in its decision-making and the more responsive its navigation will be through the fast-changing world. C2 appears to keep a gentle hand on the tiller, always aware of what is going on should his intervention be required, but comfortable in the knowledge that their flatter structure is facilitating greater relationship and interactions between staff, thereby unleashing innovation, creative problem-solving and adaptability. C2 spends less of his time on organisational hierarchies and more of his time concerning himself with fostering healthy workplace relationships and ensuring a kind of ‘relational hygiene’ through regular team and individual development, coaching and mentoring. World-1 is struggling to keep up with change by re-jigging its organisational charts and process documentation, by which time the rest of the world has moved on; World-2 is adapting and responding to the environment in real time by drawing on good relationship and robust workplace conversations. World-1 keeps missing the bus; World-2 is driving it.
What could World-1 do to become more like World-2?
1) Grow a practice of reflection: develop the habit of reflecting and integrating. A working week should have time built in for reflecting on the work: what is working well and what needs adjusting. Be conscious of growing this habit or the speed of the world about us can overwhelm. If you sit at a sushi roundabout with food constantly flowing past, it can be tempting to try to grab at everything, without awareness and attention eating more and more quickly. Take time to savour what you are eating and let it digest before eating the next piece. So it is with events at work. Taking the time to digest, integrate and make meaning will lead to less indigestion and greater readiness to deal with the next thing.
2) Learn by doing: develop the habit of trying things out. Modelling and growing a culture of experimentation and what Dr. Mark Batey calls ‘intelligent failure’ will begin to unleash the creativity that each person brings to the workplace. This requires developing personal capabilities related to ‘letting go of control’ and ‘knowing and trusting others’, among others. Support people to make their best contribution to the system, rather than emphasising mechanical measures of individual KPIs.
3) Grow self-awareness: develop the habit of self-reflectiveness. Some of the latest research from the world of neuroscience is telling us, for example, that knowing and naming our feelings leaves us less at their behest and more able to respond appropriately to things around us. Change can bring up scary feelings and if we learn about ourselves and how we feel about change, it can point the way to what we need to learn so that change is something we embrace, rather than something to manage. If you are interested to know more, Louise Altman writes some intelligent articles on emotional literacy, mindfulness and awareness.
4) Grow your spontaneity: develop the habit of improvising. Good actors are also good improvisors, and the good ones have learnt how to do this; it’s no accident. As ‘act-ors’ in our own lives, we can also be better improvisors. Learning to develop our spontaneity, or our readiness state, will allow us to produce good responses to the sort of unpredictability inherent in change.
5) Increase employee contribution: develop the habit of consulting. Treat policies and procedures as living documents. They should be easily understood and relevant. Listen to staff and find out if they provide good guidance or if they are stifling creativity and responsiveness.
6) Grow diversity: develop the habit of love and care. This may seem a little out of place for some, but when people have deep regard for others, when they develop the ability to reverse roles with others and when they grow the kind of self-confidence that doesn’t need to knock others, we are getting closer to diversity. This is important because diversity is one of the fertilisers of innovation and creativity in workplaces; and innovation and creativity are two key ingredients to making your way through change.
None of these things, on their own, will necessarily make change easier to navigate. Taken together, they will catalyse a systemic shift in workplace attitude and behaviour. And, as always, this needs to be led and modelled from the top of the organisation. This can be the hard bit because it its current state, with the current mindset, C1 will feel that these shifts are a danger to World-1 and to be avoided. But then, he’d be right.
That’s my two cents on this for now and as always, I’m keen to hear what you can add on the subject.
September 12, 2011
If you have ever been for an eye test, you will know that the optician will have you look through a contraption with lots of lenses, and then proceed to add and take away lenses until your vision can see the letters on the chart precisely. They will spend time experimenting with the lenses and asking you to say which of two is clearer: “better number one? or number two?…..number three clearer and smaller? or number four?” By the time they are finished, they are able to say whether you need new glasses or whether the lenses you have been using are still optimal. Because shifts in our eyes occur in such minute increments, it’s not until I have a chance to see the world through a new set of lenses that I know if I’ve actually been seeing what is in front of me or if it’s been a good-enough approximation. I know that when I first walked out of the optician’s office at the age of 16 with my first pair of glasses and saw the world as it actually was, I was overjoyed to be able to see clearly and I was able to respond to my world quite differently. I could no longer, then, imagine the world looked as I used to think it did.
The time has come for us to check whether the way we view our workplaces and organisations is still current or if we need to upgrade our lenses. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been viewing organisations, and indeed, our whole world, as a machine. This seems reasonable, as the Industrial Revolution was about mechanisation after all, so for its time, a mechanistic view of the world was a leap in our thinking. We have now advanced well into the Knowledge Age, however, and it is time to update our lenses to take account of new knowledge and new research around Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), as well as our actual experiences which point to ‘mechanism’ being an inadequate world view. Looking at our organisations (and the world) purely as machines has outlived its usefulness. However, we have got so used to seeing the world through these old lenses that it is hard to see it otherwise. This is no excuse to do nothing, though; it is simply learned ignorance. When it became clear that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were right and that the sun was, in fact, the centre of the solar system, only the foolish and the stubborn could continue to believe and operate otherwise.
Research and experience are now proving that the old cause-and-effect, mechanistic paradigm of organisations is not entirely accurate nor adequate and that our workplaces are actually organic, dynamic, ever-evolving complex systems.
A new leadership paradigm, however, will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paradigm shifts do not simply dispense with the old to make way for the new; they include, incorporate and transcend. The new leadership paradigm will take account of and include the mechanistic, command-and-control perspective, while incorporating new discoveries into how complex adaptive systems actually operate. There will still be times when a mechanistic leadership view holds true. This perspective takes the line that if I tell someone what to do and they do it, then the outcomes will be as I have planned and as I predict. If all the parts of the machine work as they are supposed to and as previously agreed upon, the machine will function smoothly and efficiently. Exhaustive policies and procedures, highly detailed strategic plans, lengthy job descriptions and KPI’s; all of these are artefacts of the Industrial Age. And during times of natural disaster, say, I want civil defence organisations to respond quickly and efficiently, so command-and-control will probably be incredibly beneficial. Similarly, when operating a public transport network, I want my local authority to emphasise order, reliability and consistency over experimentation and autonomy: in contexts such as these, there will be commonly agreed outcomes and end-goals will not be competing, so it seems sensible for an organisation and the people within it to operate with clockwork regularity. The important point is that running like clockwork will only be desired in specific contexts.
For many, many contexts in the Knowledge Age, however, the machine analogy is not so useful.
Leadership in the Knowledge Age is not about trying to simplify the complex so that it fits into an old world view; it is about developing the capability to manage (and manage ourselves) in the complex. We now know enough about CAS that it behoves us and our leaders to adapt to this new understanding. Complexity Leadership Theory tells us that the behaviour of a CAS emerges from the interactions between all its elements, i.e. the people. While management can put plans and hierarchies in place, how optimally an organisation operates will be a function of connectivity, creativity, flexibility and experimentation. When this is the case, the most sustainable leadership strategy is learning. By learning, I mean deep learning; not simply knowledge about. The imperative is for leaders to make a real quantum shift and to transform themselves so that their attitudes and behaviours are meaningfully and authentically changed. The things to learn are:
- Flexibility, adaptability and spontaneity-There must be greater ease and comfort in being in the messiness of the ‘unknown’. Solving complex problems requires divergent and creative thinking; many of our current challenges cannot be met in a linear paradigm. This means that leaders must look inward and grow themselves as people. These are not capabilities you can fake. It takes courage and grit and a willingness to look at your own inner workings.
- Experimentation and reflection-There will be less ‘telling people what to do’ and more openness to innovation and reflection upon what happens when something novel is applied. This means constantly being in a state of readiness to challenge the status quo and to challenge others to do the same. This means being un-attached to old ways of operating. This also means looking at what gets created in the system when something new is tried. An intelligent approach to experimentation underscores reflection, otherwise how can knowledge and information flows, connectivity and authority be tweaked and adjusted as you make your way to optimal outcomes?
- Systems thinking-When it’s less about ‘telling’ and more about ‘influencing’, it is vital to be able to see your wider system, its interconnectedness and its emergent dynamic. Old-style hierarchies do not solely dictate how we get people to do things any more. Being a systems thinker is also not just about being able to see the big picture. It’s about being able to see both the big picture and the finer details. A systems thinker will ‘helicopter’ in and out as needs and context demand, and then synthesise the data from both of these in the quest for answers.
- Creativity-I throw my support behind Dr. Mark Batey’s assertion that creativity is humankind’s ultimate resource. It is the arch-substance. In this YouTube interview, he advocates a more conscious approach to developing and nurturing creativity, leaving space for intelligent failure.
So, to conclude, dear readers, it’s time for an “I” test.
- How comfortable am I with ambiguity and the unknown?
- Am I capable of being both a military commander and an orchestra conductor? How would I know when the context requires each of these?
- When I meet a challenge, what do I assume and how far do I go to ‘unpeel layers of the onion skin’ to find patterns, interconnectedness and hidden meaning?
- What do I actively do to cultivate creativity: my own and others’?
September 7, 2011
Dess and Picken, in “Changing Roles: Leadership in the 21st Century” (2000) wrote, “The traditional tools and techniques of management are designed, in large measure, to ensure organisational stability, operational efficiency, and predictable performance. Formal planning processes, centralised decision-making, hierarchical organisation structures, standardised procedures and numbers-oriented control systems are still the rule in most organisations. As important as these structures and processes are to organisational efficiency, they tend to limit flexibility and create impediments to innovation, creativity and change. To meet the challenge (of the 21st century environment), organisational leaders must ‘loosen up’ the organisation–stimulating innovation, creativity and responsiveness, and learn to manage continuous adaptation to change–without losing strategic focus or spinning out of control.”
So if leaders are to loosen up their organisations (at all levels, I would presume), it follows that they first need to loosen themselves up. I’m referring to leader development, growing greater ‘looseness’ and flexibility and openness to novelty and the unexpected. It also follows that if, in the Knowledge Age, organisations are more reliant on the creation and movement of ideas, information and knowledge, rather than producing widgets, that there will be less predictability and greater novelty. This, to me, implies more possibility of mistakes, misconceptions and misunderstanding. Industrial Age management thinking emphasises regularity, but if an organisation’s bottom line is less dependent on the efficiency of machines and more on human innovation and creativity, then the modern manager must develop those capabilities related to dealing with errors, inaccuracies, lapses and blunders.
While cant and hypocrisy have become the coinage of political culture, let authenticity and trust be the major currencies in our organisations and workplaces in the Knowledge Age. Our ruling classes cling firmly to party political dogma, whether fact or evidence prove they are plainly wrong or past their sell-by date. Rather than engender trust and inspire followership by admitting they don’t have all the answers or they’re getting it wrong and inviting alternative paths, they are bungle and mendacity personified.
As a leader, what better way to show your authenticity than through your response to mistakes? Your own, that is; because how you respond to your own stuff-ups will be a good indicator of how you view other people’s. And what better way to generate trust than by being humble in response to your own inaccuracies?
How you respond to other people’s mistakes is going to be tied up with how you view your own mistakes. Ask yourself these seven questions:
- Are they a deadly serious indictment on your character?For goodness sake, take what you do seriously, but take yourself lightly. Be easy on yourself. Laugh at yourself, even. Mistakes do not point to a character flaw, they point to your humanity. Join the rest of the human race and stay connected to your humour. This is not to suggest that your mistakes should simply be laughed off as inconsequential or irrelevant, but keeping your sense of humour and lightness will allow you to slough off the negative feelings that we all get, to some degree, when we screw up. This way, you can move on and learn from what you did.
- Are they good ammunition for workplace power games and therefore to be hidden and obfuscated? If you are never seen to err, how can people possibly get the message that you won’t respond to one of their mistakes with aggression, put-downs or slights. This simply means that when you do err, you appropriately acknowledge it with humility. Becoming defensive and trying to gloss over your inaccuracies, or blame others for them, simply makes you look like a petulant teenager and demonstrates that it’s more important to be seen to be right than to be authentic and responsible.
- Are they opportunities for learning something new? If you are open about one of your own stuff-ups and use it as an opportunity to invite feedback and input from others, they will see that workplace errors are not the end of the world, rather they are routes to improvement. Likelihood is that others will also be more forthcoming about their mistakes because they can be sure that the wider system will benefit from the subsequent corrections. To quote Sir Ken Robinson, ”If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
- Are they indications of ineffectiveness or laziness? If you are one who has never made a mistake, stop reading now. Maybe you did take your eye off the ball briefly, maybe you weren’t as attentive as you should have been or perhaps other things caused you to distract yourself. As long as you admit this with good grace, others will know that it’s not a crime not to be a flawless automaton. Many years ago, when I was immobilised by not knowing the ‘right way to do it’, a teacher of mine coached me to just do something. Immobile, I am achieving nothing. At the very least, if I am moving somewhere, I can correct my course. Mistakes as a sign of laziness? Hardly.
- Are they proof that you are somehow disengaged from your work and therefore not fully committed? As George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” Mistakes are proof that you are participating, you are making an effort and that you are willing to experiment. That is hardly disengaged.
- Are they proof that ordered efficiency and risk-aversion are more valuable than spontaneity and creativity? Being harsh on yourself when you screw up will let others know that you value precision, accuracy and exactitude above originality and imagination. In the Knowledge Age, perfection will be harder to come by and of less importance than innovation. Loosen up for goodness sake.
- There isn’t a question seven. I stuffed up.
Many leaders and managers I speak to live with a fear of being caught out. They privately wonder if others know about their fallibility and perceived lack of knowledge and experience. This shows up by their reluctance to be open about their mistakes, lest they be unmasked as the frauds they truly are. If you are still hiding out, have a look at some of these inspirational quotes, print them off and hang them prominently on your office wall. Even Jamaican drug smuggler Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke said, “I’m pleading guilty because I am.”
August 29, 2011
Further to my previous post, the point of growing spontaneity is to be able to deal with the unexpected, the unpredictable and the increasingly complex. Orchestra conductors have long known this. They lead in complexity. Conducting a performance is about orchestrating the dynamic between the many instrumentalists, not commanding or micro-managing each individual to ‘get it right’, because the experience of the audience is formed from the whole and not from the sum of its parts. Conductors also know that the performance arises from the presence and creativity of each instrumentalist in the moment, interacting with and aware of each other. While they may have rehearsed their ‘parts’, they bring all of their creative, spontaneous selves to the performance in order to create something in the moment that is greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Similarly, good, watchable theatre arises from the interactions between the actors on stage. It does not come from technically precise delivery of lines on the part of each individual actor. I have seen some highly experienced and talented actors deliver dull performances because the director did not focus on the relationship between the characters, instead emphasising the technical abilities of each individual to get their lines ‘right’. Entrancing theatre comes when what you watch appears to be fresh and spontaneous, not highly rehearsed.
There are parallels in our workplaces. As outlined in this excellent piece about complexity and leadership, “Management development involves the application of proven solutions to known problems, whereas leadership development refers to situations in which groups need to learn their way out of problems that could not have been predicted.”
Creative leaders and creativity in leadership are imperatives in the Age of Knowledge and Information. Ordered predictability was useful for a production economy but not for a knowledge economy which requires input at all levels of an organisation.
We need leaders who function as orchestra conductors, managing an interactive dynamic. This model of leadership should be part of the fabric of an organisation’s culture. Leader development must take account of this and develop people’s ability to be more responsive and less directive. This kind of creativity in leadership is similarly necessary to deal with the increasing complexity of our world. More complexity means less predictability. New creative solutions are required to deal with the unravelling of the post-Cold War economic system outlined in this article by Thomas L. Friedman in August 27th’s New York Times. The global financial crisis was not part of the plan (but then again we ought to stop treating global systems as Industrial Age machines). More and more of our organisations also require leadership systems which manage knowledge and information more than predictability and routine.
Dr. Jakob Moreno said that the thing that humans are least prepared for is surprise. In a world where surprise and unpredictability are more the rule than the exception, it seems obvious that training for the spontaneity state is imperative. This does not mean that people will be undisciplined or chaotic, it simply means that there is an openness to what could be, greater agility that responds to greater volatility and a readiness to deal with what emerges in the interactions between people working in the Age of Knowledge and Information.
Preparation for surprise doesn’t come in the form of rehearsing for every possible situation in life. It comes from learning how to warm up to the spontaneity state. What does the spontaneity state feel like? Some people call it flow, others call it being in their ‘groove’, some describe it as like being fully awake and aware of yourself and your environment, others liken it to the ‘yes’ game that actors and improv artists play. Readiness in the Age of Knowledge and Information comes when we invest in growing conscious leaders who are awake to the moment alongside a culture of conscious and awake leadership throughout an organisation. Conscious leaders develop their ability to warm themselves up to what is right in front of them right now and to coach and encourage others to wake up and respond to the moment as well.
This is a radical shift. Dealing with surprise doesn’t come about because you have learnt ‘strategies’ or the ten top tips. That is the point. It’s a surprise. It’s unexpected. It is not our technical knowledge that will help with surprise, it is our spontaneity.
I’ll leave the last word to Bertha Calloway. ”We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
August 23, 2011
Do any of these give you a tingle in your gut?
- You walk into an art shop and see the colourful rows of paint tubes begging to be squeezed onto a palette, the soft, alluring brushes displayed from large to small, and canvases of all sizes screaming to be painted upon. You want to handle the materials and begin to imagine what you could create with them.
- You walk into a hardware shop and see the aisles of hammers, screwdrivers and socket sets; solid and chunky and purposeful. You imagine what it feels like to cut wood with that new circular saw on display.
- You walk into an Asian supermarket and see the rows of wonderful sauces, the colourful packages of exotic snacks and tasty treats; you smell spices and marinades and begin to wonder what you would do with some of these tantalising ingredients.
- You walk into a stationer’s shop….or…. a bookshop….or….an automotive shop….or….a camera shop….or….
Feel that tingle? Know what that is? That’s you, warming up to your innate creative genius. You think about going into one of these establishments and, depending on whether you are interested in art or cooking or DIY, you begin to warm up to your creativity.
Now, I know I’ve said before that nothing is innate. I lied.
In case you missed this blogpost from May, I’m coming out of the closet and declaring my fervent and absolute conviction that we are all born creative geniuses. Jakob Moreno saw that the universe is infinite creativity and said that we are creative purely because we were born in the universe; creativity itself therefore resides within us. By creativity, I’m referring to the thing that assists us to problem-solve in our lives; the thing that drives us to innovate and find new and better ways to do things, whether at home at work or anywhere else; the thing that sparks a new strategy; the thing that helps us plan a dinner party or a birthday surprise; and yes, also the thing that artists call on when they are creating. I want to stress, however, that creativity is not the preserve of artists. It is applicable to all people in all areas of life: our work, our relationships, our hobbies and interests, our families, our ‘quotidiana’.
So why do some folks seem to ooze creativity while others struggle to tap into it?
And if we are all so creative, where, then, are all these new leaders? These new artists? These new theorists? These new ….?
They are all around us. Moreno suggested that there are many more Michelangelos than the one who painted in the Sistine Chapel and many more Beethovens than the one who composed all those symphonies. They abound. We are all born creative geniuses, but we must warm up to our spontaneity.
So what’s the difference between people who seem highly creative and those who aren’t?
I just said it. Spontaneity.
Dr. Moreno called creativity the arch-substance in the cosmos, and spontaneity the arch-catalyst. We need spontaneity to set our creativity alight.
At its root, spontaneity means “of the self” or “of the will”. Developing the habit of spontaneity is perhaps equated somewhat with the current flavour of the month, ‘becoming authentic’. It is about being ourselves and bringing all of ourselves to our lives. What it is not, is impulsivity, for spontaneity has built within it, appropriacy and awareness of a wider system. Being spontaneous is coming up with the best possible or most adequate response to a brand new situation in life, or to coming up with a novel response to an old situation. It involves being as truly awake to the present moment as possible. And being response-able.
What gets in the way of our spontaneity?
We do, of course, or rather, it is our fear, our anxiety, our unpreparedness that gets in the way. We are poorly warmed up, we are subject to memories and emotions related to past events, we get afraid of the future and what we might create. We fear our spontaneity. In fact, Moreno goes as far as to say that we humans will fear our spontaneity until we learn how to train it.
Our fear causes us to be at a loss with all our creativity. Because we don’t warm up to our spontaneity well, our creativity is dulled.
Isn’t spontaneity training a contradiction in terms?
Not at all. We can learn to warm up to our spontaneity. It is a state of being. Warming up is the operational expression of spontaneity. This is about learning to know ourselves and learning how to warm up to the unexpected. Many police training and airline cabin crew training programmes see spontaneity training as central to learning how to deal with crises and emergencies.
Learning, even, if not especially, in the workplace, is not just about inducing and consolidating new habits of behaviour; it is about training and developing humans to the habit of spontaneity; to being in the spontaneity state so that they have full command of themselves. This will allow people to be much more resource-full and versatile in the myriad of situations that life presents us with; both the more predictable, repetitive situations as well as the novel, unexpected ones. ’Goose step’ learning, where the learners rehearse and they are meticulously drilled, may result in great precision in carrying out tasks, but a minimum of spontaneity for anything else which might occur unexpectedly.
- Where in your life could you afford to bring greater spontaneity? With your senior leadership team? With your children? With your most challenging staff member?
- Where could you learn to ‘warm up’ differently so that you come up with more creative (and therefore, satisfying) responses to your world? With your staff? With your partner? With your customers?
- Where in your life would you like to apply greater plasticity and innovation? In your workplace relationships? In your personal relationships? In the systems and processes you apply at work? While you are exploring staff retention and engagement strategies?
When we are spontaneous, we are not fear-full, anxious or self-conscious. We are more satisfied. We are freer. Our creativity flows through us with ease.
So whether it’s called ‘Leadership Development’ or it’s helping managers to have challenging conversations more effectively, the work is, in essence, developing spontaneity, and therefore, increased effectiveness, innovativeness, freedom and satisfaction at work.
There. I’ve said it. I’m out.
I’ll leave the final words to Dr. Moreno: ”The fate of a culture is decided by the creativity of its carriers.” If that wasn’t an exhortation for us to train our spontaneity and learn how to warm up more effectively, I don’t know what is.