What Matters – The Garden Centre Lesson


So after yesterday’s blog,  I start thinking about What Matters in my work. The things I value…The things that serve me well… I haven’t thought much about these in a while… I have an urge to properly pause for a bit and not do anything much other than stay with the question for a while – What Matters?

I give myself the gift of a few hours. I’m easing into the week from the Easter weekend and nothing is pressing too hard. There are other things I could be doing, of course, and I could allow myself to feel guilty for “wasting time” etc – but I’m over that stuff…. This is a lively, active pause, not a vegging-out, mindless one…. Good stuff will come from this…I’m encouraging myself to do as I said I was going to and stop for a while. No sudden moves. What Matters?

I sit on the floor of the office with a cup of tea in hand. The Dog is delighted I’m at her level and wags over to my side, dumping herself unceremoniously beside me….I cuddle her and stare at the spines of books, wondering which one sort of “speaks” to me – where to begin, where to begin? What follows is a period of picking books up, raffling through pages. Noticing what resonates. Noticing where I shudder…. I give myself freedom to just go with whatever. I notice myself fretting about what’s not on my shelves..is my library good enough?… I manage to laugh at myself a little…good enough for who? Who the hell is watching right now? I figure what is there got me this far & I haven’t read half of it cover to cover – there’s enough here, for today.

Through this process, I reach back to points in my learning and my development as a Practitioner where light dawned on previously dark spaces…. I find myself seeking to return to what I have been shown… Revisiting my training: how to reflect and put that reflection into new action. How to take a thing – a moment, a regular occurrence, a block, a belief, a question-  and look at it through different lenses and positions and therefore work with it differently. What Matters?

Turns out that experience matters – I don’t mean Years-Served-Endless-Hamster-Wheel-Clocking-up-Time experience, I mean the lived experience of being in the world. Of being a fully living, sensing, thinking, learning being operating in a fully living, sensing shifting world. It matters to me and for my work… my lived experience impacts me, influences me, changes me.

When I started an MSc in Org Change in 2012, I was horrified – and I mean properly Are. You. Kidding. WTF horrified – that it began with Philosophy. One of the first sessions was on Phenomenology (cue about 3 months of me having the muppets’ M-numm-M-nunnh song in my head, only with the lyrics as “phenonmenon doo-doo-do-doo-doooo” – very very bad – if you want a different experience from this explanation, view here)

Phenomenologists argue that there is no one hard and fast, objective reality, that there is simply experience, followed by the interpretation we put on that experience.  So when we were sent off to visit places near Ashridge and a bunch of us went to the same Garden Centre what we found was: We went to the same place but Oh MAN did we have different experiences. For some of us, it was all about the lovely flora & fauna – spring, colours, growth – for others, flowers signified hayfever. For others it was about security cameras, warning signs and signs saying: do this/ don’t do that – human rules on nature. For others it was about the quality of cake and coffee – the welcome and offering. The Garden Centre Lesson: Bottom line? We were physically in the same space but emotionally, mentally and experientially worlds apart.

When we got back together to talk about what we heard/saw/ noticed/ experience it was like we had been to different places. Who was right? What was important? Whose experience was more valid? Powerful stuff.

So experience matters – my experience is just a valid and useful as yours. What I see and experience counts. Even if it’s inconvenient to you.  (actually, as a Consultant…arguably especially if it’s inconvenient to you) If we want to understand the whole garden centre, we can’t just see the roses. If we want to understand the internal Culture, we can’t just data-gather from one source  – (ie Leadership, or Frontline, or Customers, or coachee etc) I mean we CAN… but if we do, we need to be clear on the limitations of that view/ experience.. and not arrange the whole world/ training budget around a single view… ( And yes, we need to layer context on to experience eventually, or no-one gets anywhere… there needs to be a value judgement in there someplace or we won’t make decisions.. but later.)

My training: Notice the phenomena. Drop the shoulds and oughts and coulds. Have the experience. Notice the data (all of it – what you think, feel, sense – bring your whole self in) Sense-make and hypothesize. Create meaning. Reflect on it (either in the moment or after the effect – or, if you are me, probably both)…Notice your bias, your Bubble & blindspots if you can…and from there, can I play with that meaning in order to move on?  Can I offer myself choices: go deeper into the issue, or widen it out or just shift it elsewhere… momentum, progress, perhaps? I’m seeking difference, insight, learning.

I go back because it’s a thing that has served me well – reflective practice – an iterative process that moves me from Here to There – wherever There might be. I know there are good models for reflective practice – interested in hearing from others what they use or value

For me? this is What Matters. Taking my experience seriously.  Taking others’ experience seriously. Data gathering from different sources. Discussion. Iteration. And time for reflection whilst cuddling the dog & perusing books that fire my synapses.

Business Translation & Keeping it Real

deep-listening

This is inspired by a recent conversation with Carol Read, who is doing some extraordinary, breakthough transformation and innovation stuff in the Horizons Team, within NHS England’s Sustainable Improvement Team. I met her through connections with SeaSalt Learning & I think we have started a conversation that could last for many years…. And as we talked, I was reminiscing….

Back in the day when I was an in-house Change Consultant, working with the slightly alchemical purpose of “changing the culture” at the Postal Authority in Jersey, I had an “ah-ha!” moment.

I’d been invited to present to the Board – what has happened, what we are planning to do next, budget stuff (something along the lines of: can you find us some money to do up the staff canteen to show we mean we are going to change and improve the whole business, inside and out? I’m recommending we don’t go down “fur coat no knickers” change route…etc)

I had the standard 10–15 minutes slot, which inevitably rolled over as questions needed to be asked and answered. Part of the Board’s interest was the future, unsurprisingly. In our world, at the time, one of the best ways we could stay competitive was to innovate. We were a small Postal Service, which meant we were, potentially, more agile and able to trial stuff across the operation than larger set-ups in, say, the UK or Germany.

One way we could innovate was to be a test-bed for new delivery methods or tracking tech; we could look at new ways to produce “direct mail” (you may call it Junk mail. 10 years on and I still feel I have committed a sin calling it Junk Mail); we could look at pick-and-pack fulfilment as an income stream (Amazon was in its infancy – we were looking to learn from their model). All these future possibilities…

And I remember going back to my desk, slightly fuzzy-headed with the whirl of future-promises & tech and experiments…. And looking at the list of stuff I knew we needed to get done now. The canteen upgrade suddenly seemed very….unsexy…. but still deeply necessary… and I found it hard to reconcile.

The Board that day were all future and commerce and budgets and business opportunities (as it should be) and I knew this stuff wouldn’t mean a hill of beans to the day-to-day experience of a Postie or a member of the Counter staff until it arrived (typically in bubble-wrap, with a training course & a lot of head scratching) in front of them.

Not because they were daft, or didn’t have ambition or vision. Not because they were lazy or backward or didn’t care about the job – far from it. They were so focussed on doing the job – getting the mail out getting customers served – that what was important was there here-and-now. That was what was real.The lived experience of the place being too hot or cold. The inconvenience of parking. The canteen ruled with an iron fist by the cook who was resolute about the food offerings available.. with chips….

And so my epiphany was this: the need to Translate.

I had (I believed for a while) invented a notion: Business Translation. I saw the language of the Board – all broad brush & future tech & strategy & hypothetical circumstance vs the language of the Operation – specific & tactical, and day-to-day tangible. Separate languages – or perhaps it was just different patois – but the Change work seemed to be about bringing those two closer together. Working closely to articulate and decode “that future stuff” so we could make the here & now actions more purposeful and (dare I say it) aligned.

It all seemed so simple. Just translate stuff.
Mostly, this thought took the team to good places. At the core of our Change methods was: how do we explain this is in different languages? The way it showed up varied. We paid more attention to our internal comms, we cut back on some actions that seemed overly grounded in future flim-flam or in the compromises that come with “this is how we do it round here”. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it burned.

Looking back, much of what we did was “push” and direct and broadcast. If I were to have my time again there, I’d have done a lot more of the pull/listen/adapt the big ideas stuff. I’d still have the fights with marketing about too-tight constraints on internal branding, but I’d probably be a little less strident in my confrontation… I’d listen more.

At the core of the change work, I still believe it’s about translation. Creating better conversations, spaces to think together, action that is communicable… that stuff. Too high falutin’ and it’s ethereal & wispy. Too grounded and it is ludding and static.

I’m grateful to Carol for the conversation – about the dreamy innovative cool stuff & the need to work closely with the here and now to deliver it.