Weblog Entries for April 2012
April 29, 2012
There seems to have been a lot of political leaders looking foolish lately. We look at their actions and explanations and wonder how they ended up there. I guess because they got into a trance where they were simply missing the cues that might warn them to change tack.
I think improv games are an awesome way of exploring trances. When we get tripped up in a game, it's often because we've gone into our head and settled into seeing the world through one particular pattern. A lot of the most satisfying moments in performance can be seen as interrupting the trance of the audience. I think a lot of learning happens when trances are broken. It's a shame so much education seems to be about maintaining trances, not challenging them.
Andrew Revkin looks at how some young people want to reframe economic debate. Here's how one puts it:
The dominant narrative says that environmental restraint must be limited and gradual, while social spending must be contained, otherwise the economy will not grow and we will all suffer. This kind of thinking is pervasive, dangerous, and outdated. Infinite growth in a finite world is impossible, growth based on speculative finance is unstable, and since the 1960’s, GDP growth and self-reported well-being have been completely uncorrelated phenomena. In this sense holistic, deep-reaching change of both thought, education and practice is needed. Indeed, we were brought together by an increasing realization that our global economic troubles aren’t just a few bad apples; the problem is indeed the apple tree.Hat tip: Harold Jarche
Leading and not leading
Gianpiero Petriglieri proposes treating careers as works of art.
Success in art is not just making a living, or being famous and acclaimed. Those are consequences. Success is moving and being moved. It is opening vistas. Unsettling the status quo. Peeking beneath the veil of convention.He reflects on what this means for leadership:
I witness the same mixture of excitement and anxiety among people who aspire to craft careers centered on their passion. Especially when they are faced with the prospect of becoming a "leader." It is as if leading in a world in flux amplifies the dilemmas of living in a world in flux. We expect leaders, more than anyone else, to express their authentic concerns and desires and, at the same time, to give voice to the concerns and desires of those they aspire to lead. We expect them to be fully committed to a purpose and community — but also to be constantly pushing for change.Living in the space where there is both excitement and anxiety is an interesting challenge. I think it might be where life really is. Petriglieri puts his finger on a real paradox of leadership; it reminds me of the moment in meditation where you suddenly realise you're in the gap, and in the realisation, you slip out of it. The moment you flatter yourself that you are leading, you aren't.
Bonus link: another good piece by him: A lesson in engaged artistry
Leaders are most inspiring when their message is deeply personal and yet touches shared concerns—when what they do is intertwined with who they are and resonates with what followers are ready to hear and able to appreciate.
Hat tip: Suzan Grey
April 28, 2012
Leadership as holding uncertainty
“We love the security of the illusion that someone is in control. Even more than the discomfort of a potentially more creative process. That’s how we want our leaders: ”Reassuringly blameable.”Of course, carrying that blameability accounts for a lot of the crankier behaviour we see in managers.
I don't like to get too caught up in competing definitions of leadership, but I think Phelim's is pretty thought provoking:
Well I think I would say it’s to model being comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be comfortable not knowing.I think leadership is often mixed up with a kind of vehement conviction and I think this provides a good pushback to that.
I think the delusion of linearity accounts for a lot of not-very-effective training and even-less-effective bureaucracy. Processes and skills are reduced to simple steps and a kind of mindless consistency is championed.
I think learning needs to be messier; amid all those twists and turns are the discoveries and surprises that satisfy the participant and help new things stick. We have to embrace a certain degree of edginess and discomfort, but in return we get aliveness and engagement.
With some friends I've put up a website which elaborates a little on this kind of edge thinking.
Hat tip: Viv's tweet
April 25, 2012
The art of conversation
I've really enjoyed Keith de la Rue's article: The art of conversation. He weaves together several studies and theories to suggest that the apparently simple process of good conversation has a great deal to offer organisations. The pressure to meet targets means that time spent in "idle" talk is frowned upon, but might actually be a truer source of effectiveness.
He cites research (blogged by me here) that says group intellience is determined primarily by turn taking and social sensitivity, more than by the individual talents in the space. In other words, how the group works is key. Keith argues that this poses a big challenge to organisations where hierarchy is likely to frustrate turn taking.
He then brings in Steven Johnson's argument about the adjacent possible: this suggest innovations do not come in Eureka moments but in the sharing and recombination of ideas. Cafe societies around the time of the enlightenment thus engendered a lot of innovation.
Next, Keith draws on research by Oscar Ybarra on the value of certain kinds of social interaction for individual mental function. If two people engage in a friendly 10 minute conversation with each other, they are subsequently more mentally agile. This doesn't work if the conversation is competitive.
He goes on to reflect on how organisations might make use of these insights in how they engage their people.
Is innovation bad for us?
Karl-Erik Sveiby has a new book out, Challenging the Innovation Paradigm, and here's a four page pdf summary. It suggests that it's only in recent generations that innovation has been generally regarded as a good thing and does some interesting digging around the many unfortunate unintended consequences of innovation. The chapter on financial innovation sounds like a pretty good case in point.
I found this other article at Sveiby's site which appears to be related: Unintended and Undesirable Consequences of Innovation (pdf). The authors argue that
innovation research seems to be built on a fundamental value that “innovation is good”. Whether the value is characterised as fundamentalism or myopia, the outcome is the same: It limits the ability of decision makers and change agents to anticipate unintended undesirable consequences.It pieces together quite an interesting table of what research there is on the downside of innovation.
The new book heads in the direction of proposing a more reflective approach to innovation, which makes lots of sense to me.
HT David Gurteen for this tweet.
April 24, 2012
Counting from one to twenty
Just following up on that last post, I'm going to talk about one of the improv games I find most fascinating. (I may have written about it before, but can't find it anywhere.)
The game is called One to Twenty. You get a group of players standing in a clump, so that they're not getting much or any eye contact with each other. The task for the group is then revealed. They have to count from one to twenty.
There are two constraints. Each digit can be said by only person, and the same person can't say two digits in a row.
So if two players speak over each other, the count is reset to 1.
I add that there is to be no strategising; the group has to just start the count and see where it goes. Quite often this concept is quite challenging to some players who I guess operate on two assumptions: 1)That the key thing is to get to 20 as efficiently as possible and 2)That having an explicit strategy is the best way to get to 1). The second assumption often includes a further assumption like
I know exactly how this should be done and of course I only need to state this loudly enough and everyone in the group will want to follow my plan.Anyway, like all great games it never goes exactly the same way. Generally what happens is that there are a lot of efforts that get part way to 20 but then fail because two people speak at once. Each failure is met with some noises suggesting disappointment/frustration. There may be periodic noises, not necessarily articulate, suggestive of an urge to give up.
Usually, in the end, a group gets there and then there is a rather loud celebration.
I usually shoot for a bit of a debrief after that: what was it like? what did you notice? - that kind of thing.
I sometimes ask: why did you celebrate? After all, it appears in many ways a pointless game contributing nothing to the sum of human achievement. By tomorrow most of us will have likely forgotten all about it. My own answer to this question is that there is something deeply satisfying about this experience - something that perhaps we're not getting as much of as we would like in our lives. I think this points to why I think the assumption about efficiency I mentioned earlier is quite suspect. Without the struggle there would be no celebration and an even greater suspicion that the facilitator is some kind of idiot.
Another thing that often comes up a lot is something like this. A player will explain very carefully how the game was eventually won. He or she then describes the pattern or strategy that the group eventually understood. Quite often there will be a suggestion that the player him/herself had spotted this winning pattern earlier and was very relieved when everyone else got it. There is then a pause, before someone else says, oh, but I wasn't doing that, I was doing something else. This usually comes as quite a surprise to people.
We humans love to post-hoc rationalise and see strategies were there were none - or at least none as simple as we think. And we often get to our goals without ever explicitly agreeing on what our strategy is. That's an idea though should terrify those who like to talk about "alignment" in organisations.
I'm not even going to try to summarise the discussions that happen about what leadership means in the context of this game - and who was, or wasn't, leading.
One to Twenty is a pretty simple game. But I would argue that it points to the real complexity of human collaboration - and I think it suggests that we need to have a strong sense of the ridiculous when offered any grand theories of how organisations work and how they can be "transformed".
(I think it might also connect to ideas about messy coherence.)
Update: Viv tells me of a version where the players stand in a circle and do have eye contact. Apparently this flushes out a lot more strategising and attempts at leadership.
Playing for a change
Viv pointed me to The play of change by Lloyd Sandelands. I like the idea of play being at the heart of change - even if this is anathema to those who like to stick the words "change" and "management" next to each other.
Sandelands makes some interesting points. He refers to the famous battle between Deep Blue and Gary Kasparov, from which many people deduced that the computer could play better than the man. Sandelands says this reflects a misunderstanding of what play is:
Thus, in an example far from the human ideal, we catch a glimpse of what play is: it is a sharing of life with others. “Play” with a computer is something other than this.A sharing of life with others, I like that.
He elaborates further, noticing that play is often analysed through an individualist mindset, so that we focus on what's in it for the individual player we fail to explore why do people play together?
And by taking our answers in the person-centered form of our questions, we do not see what we have missed. We do not think to ask how play expresses a greater life of human communityHis alternative notion is this:
Play confounds social science because it is a form of human community rather than a form of individual life. Its puzzles are those of community; particularly of attraction, synchrony, merger, and selﬂessness.If I follow that thought, perhaps we could see play as the way to actually experience the organisations we claim that we want to develop? Sandelands suggests
change...is managed best when it is not “managed” but is “played”I'd buy that for a dollar.
The dangers of expertise
Andrew Rixon examines the paradox of bringing in the expert, through a Nasrudeen story. It's a tricky thing employing experts: the temptation is to go into a childlike pose and attempt to hand over all responsibility to the guru - with the benefit of a handy scapegoat when things go wrong.
The temptations for the expert are equally strong, setting us up for a teacher trance.
When I'm coaching, I pay a lot of attention to the allure of these trances. If I'm getting a client to play out a tricky conversation, and I find myself tempted to offer advice I will often instead suggest we reverse roles so that I become the one "on stage" as it were. I try stuff that's not perfect and hopefully stay off the pedestal as a result.
April 23, 2012
Alex Kjerulf points out the the brain likes surprises.
This is interesting in the context of happiness at work because many of the things companies do to make their employees happier are utterly predictable: Summer parties, Christmas parties, Bonuses, team events, and so on happen on an almost completely fixed schedule, which serves to diminish their effectiveness.I often reflect on how people get into trances in meetings, unconsciously following routines and getting stuck. Organisations seem very prone to rituals that start out with good intentions and end up, very quickly, dulling the senses.
April 22, 2012
Meetings and complexity
There's a good post at FacilitatorU: Avoid Collective Incompetence. It looks at why we suffer so much disappointment and frustration in meetings.
Part of this problem though can be attributed to our pervasive ignorance of the complexities of facilitating group thought. Most tend to think that the groups they lead, or are part of, should operate just as efficiently as they do individually. This is in fact untrue. Further, the belief in this fallacy by your typical meeting-goer contributes to harsh judgment upon themselves and other participants, leading to apathy, inaction, and the continual self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don’t work.It gives a pretty cogent list of reasons why it's hard for meetings to work well for their participants.
This reminded of a comment I left at Dwight Towers' (who also pointed me to the above article) blog:
What do we mean by saying a method works? It’s absolutely as a piece of shorthand but humans being what they are, it’s unlikely that they’ll all agree on what works means. It may not always mean that everyone has a really good time. Sometimes a fractious meeting that ends with raw nerves is what needs to happen for some issues to be taken seriously.
Many clients get very attached to their events ending on a high note but I always feel a bit wary about this. Why do we think we can or should control when or how are participants get high? Why do we think we can or should have everyone agree at 5pm rather than some other time? We can easily confuse our search quality with a desire to over-control.
The British comedian Eric Morecambe was accused in a skit of playing all the wrong notes. He insisted he played the right notes, not nessarily in the right order. In similar vein, and intending a degree of lightness, we can say that all facilitation methods “Work” but not necessarily in the way we like.
Two interesting posts on practice: Chris Corrigan's The purpose of practice is practice
Practicing kindness, possibility seeking and deep listening on a daily basis ingrains those skills and capacities. It makes you a better facilitator. It makes you a better parent and a better citizen. It even makes you a better cabinet maker, a better financial analyst and a better claims processor.And this from Andrew Sullivan: Practice and the self
We like to think of the brain as some kind of separate part of the body. It isn't. And what exercize and diet and sleep do for the body, thought and practice and sleep do for the brain. And when this kind of practice of something becomes effortless, when it becomes second nature, instinctual, it becomes part of you and you of it. You simply cannot describe the great skill of a craftsman, or a cook, or a priest, or an artist except by observing how he or she has become what she creates and does.
April 9, 2012
I don't expect to see this new film Battleship. But I loved this insight from its director. Peter Berg gives his actors slightly scary challenges. Here's his reasoning:
"Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?" he asks.This makes loads of sense to me.
"Sundance liked to move. If he stood still and tried to shoot, he couldn't hit anything. If he was allowed to move, he could hit it."
It's like that with actors, he explains. "Nervousness sets in. It's best to shake them around a little bit. Just say: 'It's ok, try something stupid, you're not going to get in trouble.'"
April 4, 2012
Driven by fear
Another challenging post by Antonio Dias: Driven by Fear.
Recognizing our own fear as we approach those we recognize to be driven by fear directs our attention at the dynamics of fear, not safely projected onto the other, but where we can have some affect on it directly, within our selves.That'll take practice!