What’s your Contribution?


“We live in a “vuca”world….it stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and it is being used as a short hand for what I think of as our new normal. In such a world, there has to be a huge premium for organisations that can understand and respond rapidly to changes or new trends by being agile and adaptable….” Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD, Welcome note in People Management magazine, April 2013

I read this editorial and was lifted and a little cynical all at the same time. Lifted at the acknowledgement of complexity and ambiguity in organisations, because I experience working in complex, adaptive client environments where politics, budget, tradition, culture, pace, apathy, enthusiasm etc all influence how well or badly something is delivered (if at all). Lifted also because the words agile and adaptable are appealing, somehow – they speak to me of a working environment which is functioning, healthy, where there is a swiftness and smoothness of movement and decisions, where folk can innovate where needed and this is seen as a good thing.

And I’m cynical for all the same reasons. As a consultant, I have the privilege of working with a number of different organisations and cultures simultaneously, so comparing and contrasting what is out there is kind of inevitable. On the whole? I’d say agility is altruistic and that my cynicism is founded in feeling the enormity of the task: How do we make whole organisations agile and adaptable?

In truth, I struggle to get my head round the “whole organisation” question. It feels huge. I’m not sure I can do much with a whole organisation ( Is there such as thing as an organisation? Hmm… another blog post, perhaps) – but I can work with people who will influence and shape their world. I can work to have conversations that can pack a punch across a business….perhaps that is the best anyone can do?

I’m thinking that, as we work in complex adaptive spaces, surely we need complex, adaptive responses? Yes, we need learning technologies and innovations that allow our businesses to be cutting edge and informed… but who will run and ensure that the technologies and innovations work? It’s people. Brilliant, bored, excited, stubborn, pissed off, playful, serious, awkward, destructive, creative amazing people.

What’s my contribution?

My response to a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous is that we must help people live, talk and work in that world well. But this made me think. What do I bring? What am I offering to the Organisational, UK plc, HR/OD/L&D conversation? If the call is being put out for those who will support agility and adaptability, what is my contribution to that?

I’m increasingly taking up a space that revolves around getting people to talk with more confidence and consideration in their day to day work. The Dialogue work I am so passionate about is compelling because it is so simple: in conversation you can advocate a point of view (in favour or against) or you can inquire into what is being presented (asking more, opening up thinking). You might think of it as tell/ask. You might think of it as push/pull. What happens though is there is a dance, a complex, adaptive, ambiguous conversational dance between the advocating & inquiring. We make tiny conversational choices (or great big old bold ones) to advocate or to inquire and these impact and influence those around us.

When you begin to understand your conversational dance moves, you feel more confident, more able to try new moves, more able to dance well with others. It is compellingly simple, elegant, complex and clumsy all at the same time.

Whether it is one-to-one coaching conversations, or group work using dialogue (and I’m about to risk bull sh*t word bingo here), my client work typically revolves around building people’s capacity to be resilient in the face of ambiguity and recognise their own brilliance and staying-power in environments that can feel hostile, volatile or confusing. You get individuals to see their worth, their contribution and the value they bring to the organisational party? You enable people to speak for or against a course of action with some clarity, confidence and conviction? Well then bring on the complexity and ambiguity, my friend, it will not faze.

What I bring is a little old fashioned – my stuff is about communication, talking, relating, being considerate and compassionate in the world. Oh and challenging well. Really well. Being able to put your opposition to an idea across with care and conviction so you are heard. Actually? Perhaps my stuff isn’t old fashioned… perhaps it’s classic.

My contribution to support living in a “vuca” world well and to the request to support leaders and managers to be rapidly responsive and agile, is a constant invitation to the people I work with to be “human” (see above – brilliant, stubborn etc) and to talk well with others. In order to work, my contribution also needs to be supported by those who can add technology in the mix, those who are creative, those who have the capacity to deal with data and finances brilliantly. I am part of the overall system – contributing and relying on others to support or challenge me. In a complex world, I don’t have a panacea or a simple answer( and nor does anyone else, Guru, Thought Leader or “Expert”).

I do, however, have a contribution to make in a “vuca” world.

And I’m interested. What is yours?


Further action :

fuchsia blue Exploring Dialogue Sessions are running May 8th & 9th, London

Please comment below or contact me if you want to discuss further.

Further reading :

David Rock’s work on Quiet Leadership (particularly the Dance Toward Insight chapters)

Ronald Heifetz, Martin Linsky’s work on Adaptive Leadership

Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science – example of writing here

David Bohm’s Dialogue work ( See article Dialogue: a Proposal here)


18 thoughts on “What’s your Contribution?

  1. Oh this struck a chord Julie. A fucshia blue note you might say. I can’t think of a time in my professional past that is more challenging yet more exciting than right now and the future we cannot predict. And you have it right. People. Lifeblood of organisations and work. Yet stretched, pushed, under-valued. Communication and Learning are our two strongest skills and virtues yet they become over-thought and under-played when we need them at their most glorious best. Nice call to arms here though – what are we doing to improve? I know I exist – in a work sense anyway – to make this whole situation better for now and tomorrow. One conversation at a time. Keep conversing like this please – for all our sakes.

  2. Thank you Perry. I’m loving the notion of a fuchsia blue note. at the risk of mixing dance/music metaphors, this was part of the point – that I bring a particular note, resonance, tone, tune – whatever you want to say – and others bring theirs – it can be symphonic, or just a bunch of bum notes…

    I’m pushing for more dialogue work in our organisations. You already know I see this as being a step on from coaching conversations. I want folk upskilled, self aware and capable of holding difference or making a contribution brilliantly in organisations. It’s that simple and that difficult.

    Looking forward to more conversations and dialogues with you about how to bring these tunes to life & get folk dancing…..

    • I guess being prepared to do anything, rather than just point out the problems, is key here. I’m offering dialogue as my part in the doing… And interested in others’ offerings. What about yours, Peter?

      • Behind the stage of my “high visibility brand” I think Dialogue is ever more important. Some of the ‘cleverer but quieter’ things I do rest on the skills and strategies of inquiry. There’s significant content on Learning Organisations in “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and “The Music of Business”.

      • What I have always enjoyed in our conversations is the different perspectives you bring and the consideration you seem to want to offer the clients you work with. YOu bring your experience and reading and yes, of course your book.. so that is the “out there” explicit advocacy I see you offer. But in being seemingly unafraid to talk about paradox, daft practice, rules for rules sake – I recognise bystanding, inquiring – asking tough questions….. You’re gonna have to loand me a copy of the book at some point….I feel dreadful for not having looked at it.

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  4. Hi Jools, excellent blog again.

    In some ways I take issue with the CIPD assertion that this is a more volatile, complex world than we’ve ever known. It seems to me that life has always been this way, “the only constant being change” etc etc.

    I started my career in the RAF. Back then it was (as it always is) a volatile complex time, fall of the Berlin wall, peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia and we needed to be able to communicate. When I was going through my officer training the first lesson in communications was drilled in to you. “It’s not what you say to someone, it is what they hear”. We were taught how to speak to people to generate different outcomes. Not just how to give orders but also how to receive them. How to listen to our teams and share information. So I like the way that you write of your work as classic rather than old fashioned. I don’t think quality ever goes out of fashion.

    As for your question about contribution. Well tomorrow I will run a pilot course with a heavy engineering company. The course is about Incident Management. Lots of command and control you may think but actually we will be learning how to communicate under pressure, how to give feedback and how to understand the working styles of others. I will be talking to them about another central tenet of my military training, “Improvise, adapt, overcome” – but that’s a whole other story…….

    • Thanks Jon

      Great reminder for me here that we often “just accept” the notion that things aint what they used to be & hark after a simpler, less hectic, easier time…. I do get pulled into the “things are difficult and fast and complex” story sometimes…. then I remember part of my role might just be to say “really?”.

      And I love the notion that quality never goes out of fashion – certainly that was wisdom offered to me by my Grandmother and I think/ hope it stands me and others in good stead.

      As for your whole other story on Improvise, adapt,overcome? I look forward to the blog ( or the discussion) on this..
      Good to hear your contributions to the L&D offering….I know the folk on your course will leave well equipped.

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  6. Great read, Julie. I think you have to start with individuals and not organisations, as you say. It is us individuals who can make change happen and I think technology has a big part to play here (and does) in galvanising us around a common purpose (check out the fact people have come together here to comment, for example). I agree with Perry – learning and communicating are existential elements of the human experience. Organisations need to stop abstracting these fundamental human processes and let them happen more easily and naturally.

    • Hi Martyn – thank you. Yes – humanness – bringing whole self to work, working out where you contribute well… all of these things allow us to grow & learn…..
      And I’m playing with the notion of quiet change, still – can a whisper be as loud as a shout? can we start with individuals and encourgae new conversations in organisations? can we spark new thinking collectively through individual experience? enticing work, I think….

  7. Great post. “Agile” sounds awesome, but I suspect there’s a fine line between making proactive changes and reactive whipsawing. I suspect the average employee hears a leader prattling on about “agile” and hears “it’s Tuesday, so let’s change something.”

    Us humans seem to have a knack for simultaneously looking back with nostalgia for a time that never really existed while looking forward to a time when everything slows down – despite all the evidence that it never will.

    We also seem to sing the praises of new communication tools while missing the point that they are just tools – they don’t communicate for us. Gotta do the dialog ourselves…

    • Hi Broc. you’ve got me thinking about how we set good environments for thinking and talking well tohgether – timing has to be part of the consideration, perhaps. If we mis-time the conversation, it will either fall flat or be seen as being outrageous & too soon…..

      Hope all is well over the pond. Looks like you had fun with Doug


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