I am the Walrus


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.

Silly me.

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.

13 thoughts on “I am the Walrus

  1. When you say “experts are not what the world needs now” I find myself feeling happily in agreement, because I too need to make a difference to the world in general, and to organisations, like the one you describe, in particular.

    That’s one of the key reasons I’ve given up providing advice, in favour of a (client-centred) therapy stance. Cf Carl Rogers. Expert no more.

    “Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.” ~ J Krishnamurti

    – Bob

    1. I like the Krishnamurti quote Bob. I also take counsel from Taleb’s approach which is not to advise, but simply to say what he does. If we don’t have skin in the game, we need to tread very carefully as to what we communicate with our clients.

  2. As I read this Jeremy Hunt (Health Minister) is on The Andrew Marr Show talking about the impact of complexity on the NHS and quoting Orwell in relation to following all the small rules and breaking the big rule!

    Whether it’s patient care or horse meat in the food chain I can’t help but think of hierarchies that exist for the benefit of the structure at the expense of those it was intended to serve. The ‘we’ has become the ME and we are only now weakening-up to the need for more WE-thinking….INTERDEPENDENCE!

    THANKS again John.

  3. Hi John…it strikes me that when we are retained to carry out an analysis with a fresh set of eyes, we owe it to our clients to sit down with them at the outset and establish some ROEs. This gives us an opportunity to prepare the CEO for the inevitable response of “delay, defer and deflect` that tends to occur more often than not in certain types of situations with certain types of (dysfunctional) clients. The response creates the opportunity to provide valuable feedback as to what is going on and why it is occurring. If the CEO is truly committed to improving the way the organization behaves, a great place to start is to focus on how information is shared and whether or not new ideas are welcomed or shunned.


    1. Hi Russ, this is true, that we need to meta-communicate what and how we will bring to the client. Having done this, there are still times where the information fed back is unpalatable. While doing our work is about being professional and delivering what we promise, it can’t mitigate for the human responses that people have. This is why I write that I need to take a more softly, softly approach. It’s not what, it’s how. Even in our personal lives, I’m sure we have people who SAY they are open to feedback about themselves, but I know for myself that if it’s delivered in a way that gets my limbic system going, it is less likely to be well-received. One bind is, for example, when the feedback to deliver is that someone is not good at receiving feedback. So, yes, as you say, a good place to start is to set out how information is shared. I believe we still need to be mindful that we are dealing with humans and their feelings.

  4. A very timely post for me. I find myself in this same position at the moment, hired as an expert, with people looking at me to “tell them how to do it better”. So this passage jumped out, and warmed my heart…

    “…..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.”

    …and affirmed my believe that I DON’T want to be that expert person. I want to be their companion, journeying alongside, discovering together, waking up, maybe even finding solutions to suit the context. When I leave this place, I want to leave a fertile field, not a desolate wasteland.

    Your writing continues to inspire me on my own journey. Thanks, John.

    1. Thanks again for commenting Tobias and I’m glad this has struck a chord for you. I’m with you, I don’t want to be that expert. It’s a job for me to become more conscious of when that invitation is being subtly delivered and to not enter that game, tempting (or easy) as it may be. I’m more interested in moving away from dependency relationships and into something more mutual. I believe that if I respond to someone from that dependent mindset, I’m somehow disabling them, which is not the work of a good consultant.

  5. John,
    This has become a welcome place for like-minded people (trying not to be experts) to convene and reflect – and I’m with Tobias here, your writing (and this one takes us wonderfully “down the rabbit hole”) is inspiring.

    Having just watched a discussion on the ominous possibilities of what are being called “sequestration” cuts here in the U.S. economy, I was struck with a comment from someone from the “left” think tank @demos_org who described the entire economic policy discussion in the Congress and media being based on a “fear of the future.” She also ended her talk by adding that “I’m not terrified of the future, I am thrilled by it.”

    I think in many ways this goes to the heart of what WE are up against in this epochal transition we are in. So to your point of people’s defense of order and structure, we find ourselves triggering deep, usually unconscious fears of the unknown. And because most human communication is simply internal projection, when it’s fear-based and unconscious, the tendency is towards dependency or defense. Couple that with the sense of urgency (also mired in the fear of the future beliefs) and “drive” for results in most business environments – the “experts” are expected to deliver even more.

    Of course, all of this is happening at the same time as a major take-down of expertism, especially that of the branch of patriarchy that it often is.

    Finally your statement, “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.” reminds me that on a deeper and very practical level, it’s the work of NVC (Nonviolent Communication – a terrible name that I hope they will formally change) that helps us to do that very thing – respond to people’s deeper needs instead of their surface “strategies” to get those needs met.

    Thanks for indulging a long comment – it’s Sunday here.

    1. Thanks for commenting Louise and adding in. The fear and the unconscious is what I spotted as well. Your writings get to the heart of that stuff really well and we are in for some bumpy times while governments and businesses try to make some sense of the emerging future. It can be challenging to rise above our own fears, too, of course. Still, if we are gentle with ourselves and remember that we are just as human as everyone else, we can do our best to stay in relationship with folks and do our best to keep (nonviolent) lines of communication open.

  6. What I love about your article, John, is the self-reflective state that you model. Blaming the client is a mirror of the paradigm that blames the expert, and vice versa. Seeing this, to me, is absolutely the right stage from which a different kind of action (and consulting) can occur. Then, it seems to me (and I can only occasionally get there myself, when I’m very lucky) the next step is to find the small, authentic moment where “client” and “expert” are equally touched and there’s identification. The personal and the systemic are one, and all is seen. It’s the only thing I know that soothes the moment when the pain of “conscious incompetence” arrives and makes it human to be there.

    And maybe that’s all we can do, but that’s plenty, even if it lasts only a moment…or two.

    Outside my own consulting, I saw this happen one day within a company two brothers were operating. After a long, unfacilitated discussion with the entire company that tracked the root of problems back to problems in the relationship between the brothers, there was a moment when they both laughed out loud in a moment of recognition, and said in unison, “OMG, WE are the problem!” The personal and systemic collided and a clown face appeared — one that like many clown faces is both happy and sad. And that was that, they got it. After that, action to change things became possible.

    Beautifully written, John and so insightful. Your facility with pulling out the nuances is amazing to me. This post honors so well the bittersweet nature of our work. And I’m honored to be your colleague and friend.

    1. Thank you for your comments Dan, I truly appreciate them. It is a real challenge to see the wood for the trees when I’m involved in a system. My gut will signal that something needs attending to and my own systems blindness makes it hard to know what it is. In moments like this, sometimes the best I can get to is to allow myself to sit with it, reflect and as is often the case, to write something so that I might be able to see with a little more distance, which is helped when someone like you has a look and comments.
      Warmly, John

      PS. The honour is also mine.

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