What’s Possible

What’s emerging as I continue to ask myself and understand for myself What Matters to me in the work I do (see here and here for more) and how I do it is the importance of possibility. I like having choice ( even if it is only the illusion of choice) and I like it when I can see, or magic up, or work to create choice with clients.

Where there are no options, the work feels deadened and empty, stifling and stagnant …. Where I or we can see different ways to do stuff, there is energy, liveliness, the possibility of newness or movement. It’s generative. Guess where I’d rather be?

Working this way requires more, personally, professionally – you have to be invested differently if you are going to create or commit to working with stuff that isn’t the “norm” – you have to recognise and tackle strong stories, well-established personal and organisational narratives, it doesn’t happen on the sidelines, you kind of have to get involved….and possibly that’s not for everyone. You run the risk of being annoying, or wrong, isolated or scapegoated… or knackered… so, you know.. there’s that…but what if you make a difference? Well.. there’s that too…

How it shows up in practice is through questions & hypothesis – Is that really how it is? Really? Really-really? According to who? What if we….? What would happen if…? What if we could…? And then through action – showing alternatives, doing things differently, taking up or creating space otherwise occupied by certainty and establishment, encouraging clients to see possibilities, challenging what presents itself…

So much of the change work – be it with coaching clients or in organisations and systems – is about really getting into the long-held narratives and what they do for folk….genuinely understanding how a position or a story has come into being and why it is so tightly held and so defended (because more often than not, the story is defended passionately: it IS this way. You CANNOT see this situation any other way. You DON’T understand. I AM ONLY permitted to do/say/be THIS way)….and of course, there is a possibility that that is true.. and there is a possibility that it’s just one interpretation and there are other worlds out there to explore….

And in all of this, the creating and realising of possibility, is the need for articulation and repetition. You have to clearly offer alternatives, to show the possibility in multiple formats and languages and they need to be worked through before they will take hold.. otherwise it’s just flaky dreamer stuff…. My working partner, Claire Marie Boggiano, holds firmly to the belief that you have to say or discuss or show a thing “seven to twenty one times” in an organisation before it becomes regarded as possible. Whilst we are not sure of the actual science behind this, we work on this basis and prepare ourselves for have the same conversations, or raise the possibility for alternative narratives time and time and time again until something opens up…

Perhaps this blog is mostly because I’m reading the Art of Possibility by Rosmund Stone Zander and Ben Zander Good summary here – it’s a beautiful read and is helping me see how I can contribute differently in my work…. So far, it’s the story of the Taiwanese Student that has most touched me.

At the beginning of a Semester, Ben Zander (world renown conductor with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestera) is working with the best-of-the-best-students in a special programme at a Conservatoire. He wants to get them to produce the best possible performance, to get them to commit heart and soul, beyond the technical requirements of the music, their instruments, their current state. He wants them to make mistakes – and in doing so, overcome and grow – he wants them to lose their fear of errors. He makes the decision to award every student an “A” at the beginning of the semester – he tells them: Every one of you will get an A in this class. Now I need you to go and write me a letter telling me, in detail, why you have earned this A… what you do , how you feel, who you are now as this A student. This is a letter from your future self to you now… what more does that person know? What are they doing or how are they being differently from you now?
How delicious….how compelling…. What a terrifyingly wonderful invitation.

The Tiwanese student is confused by this “getting an A” for seemingly nothing. He writes to Zander:
“In Taiwan I was Number 68 out of 70 students. I come to Boston and Mr Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A Student….. I am Number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A. One day I discover I am much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am an A”

There is the possibility – a lifetime of an owned narrative of being number 68 good enough, turned into something else entirely by the possibility things might be better/ different for you than that and then the active choice to embrace the possibility…It’s a beautiful thing. It’s powerful as all hell.

No wonder this is part of my What Matters in my work.

image thanks to https://www.pexels.com/photo/abstract-art-blur-bokeh-285173/

The Truth About Collaboration

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So the truth is there is a way to work collaboratively, co creatively and constructively with others.
Even with people who have vastly different approaches/ preferences.
And the truth is this way can’t be defined in a top-10-tip list.
And collaboration needs worked at hard for the results to show.
And it’s the less-easy path, because self-interest, self-protection and self-centredness is pretty easy to access.
Including and involving others, trusting, sharing? Ah, now… that’s a lot more complicated.

When I want to work collaboratively, it is this:
I need enough clarity, purpose & articulation to make sense.
Know why I’m doing what I’m doing…and ensure folk know that.
State my case.
Why I think what I think & stand within that….
But not stubbornly. Not blindly or narrowly.
I have to be able to give, to yield, to be as wrong as I am right.
To be interested in others.
I have to not be a petulant child.

This is Relational Practice as I understand it.
It is stuff the oils & fuels change in organisations.
The stuff in between the process and procedure and formal mechanisms and rules.
It’s thinking with clients.
It’s working with ambiguity & knowing that not-knowing is transitory, but necessary.
It’s loving the questions.
It’s not fearing new solutions.
It’s not single handedly designing a 24 week organisational solution to be delivered like an Amazon Parcel.
It’s building in consultation, iteration & experimentation.

It’s sharing findings for bigger, more expansive outcomes, rather than tightly holding small fiefdoms.
It’s uncovering answers together… because somehow going slower makes us faster.
It’s pulling existing knowledge into being & building on together that so it’s better and stronger.
It’s getting over yourself to the space beyond you.

It’s encouraging technology for progress and positive outcomes
It’s about quiet time in the crazy.

It’s putting heart and soul in & knowing that cannot be quantified, but seeking the data to explain how it worked & articulate it as best we can & repeat if we can anyway

It’s about power.
The power we think we have.
The power we exert.
The power we deny we have.
The power we are clueless about.
It’s about how kindly or thoughtlessly we use that power.

It’s not dismissing anyone.
It’s not elevating anyone either.
Everyone is important, therefore no-one is
Everyone is different, therefore we are all the same.
It’s about respectful opposition
And about humour in tough circumstances.

It’s about sitting in tough & tender conversations.
If we prefer the tough, it’s facing into the tender.
If we prefer tender, it’s putting yourself in the tough stuff.
It’s about stretch.

And about dignity.
Not denying your femininity / masculinity. Knowing you have both.
I have the capacity to be assertive & strong & directive & agentic.
I have the capacity to yield, to be soft & open & commune.
I can be certain.
I can be afraid
And these are right, proper at times.

And at the heart, it is about love.
Love of self.
Love of others.
Love of the possible & the unknown.
Love of the impossible & the known.
Living with what these give & what they take.

It’s about a hundred stories of hopes crushed & fights fought and getting up and cracking on anyway.
It’s human spirit in all it’s heartbreaking, excruciating beauty.
It’s human nature that tests things of beauty to breaking point.
It’s the terrible things we do to each other to make ourselves feel better & the terrible things we do to ourselves at others’ behest.
We are so clever… we are so dumb…..

And when I look at all of this…. the richness and the depth and the complexity of it all….
I think it is unsurprising that we turn from work that is relational, social, emotional – We go for simple narratives and binary decisions.
and it leads us to a post-truth world, where rational data co-exists with “alternative facts” and “he-said/ She-said” is the basic narrative – a stuck one. An adversarial one.
Here, there is such certainty, it undermines certainty itself.

So how about we sack-off certainty and seek to collaborate, co-create and work through relationships with a little maturity and grace?
Hard work as it is.
Try it. Today. See what happens.

Rest

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Rest:
rɛst/ verb
1. cease work or movement in order to relax, sleep, or recover strength.
2. be placed or supported so as to stay in a specified position.
“her elbow was resting on the arm of the sofa”
3. (In Music) an interval of silence of a specified duration.

When do you rest?
How do you rest?
Do you rest?
Ah.

I was saying how much I’m looking forward to the holidays – I’m a lover of this time of year, all things Solstice and the dead dark of the winter – and I began to notice how much I was craving rest. Proper, intentional, rest. 2016, for all it has been scolded for its disruptive, destructive madness, has been a year of more stability for me, personally. A new home. Proper holiday. A sense of family and community. New working partnerships. Interesting new clients and good work with existing ones… and still, I’m OK with it coming to a close.

I’ve had the privilege of working with an eclectic mix of cultures in 2016, from Ballet Companies, to a European Motor Company; from start-up Research outfit to Fire and Financial Services (separate services for the record, just in case that reads badly). I know how I work defies the received wisdom about having a “niche” or a “thing”… which get a little tricky at times as folk try to place me – and the eclectic thing means I cross-pollinate learning solutions and cultural conversations as I go and that means I’m constantly learning…and that means my breadth and depth of subject matter itches are both scratched……..and it means I have to have more conversations about “fit” than I might otherwise need to have if I had a schtick… which is kind of hard work at times… and these are my choices and I like them….

Nevertheless, I’ve been feeling that raggedy end-of-term sense – where the end is close, but there still seems to be a lot of homework and final projects complete – and in my head, I was kind of looking forward to collapsing in front of the telly, bubbles in hand, for some vintage movies and a lot of snoozing… and yet my heart was gently pointing out somehow this wasn’t quite going to cut it, still…

What I’ve realised is, I’m in need of rest. Not oblivion. Not sprawling, vacantly staring, at the TV, flicking endlessly for “Something Good”. Not giving up and lying in a Spa for 2 days, whilst real life patiently waits in the car park to be dealt with… Not locking the doors and switching off the phone, battening down the hatches and running scared from the neighbours.

I need proper rest – nurturing, nourishing, quiet; with a dose of hectic and lifestuff thrown in to add zest and joy. I need time to read a little, cook a lot, exercise a little, walk outdoors a lot, hold my loved ones, reflect on the year a little…

For many of us, the concept of “rest” is an altruistic one, a much-sought holy grail. There is something of the “tomorrow” about it –it will never come.

For me? It needs to be fought for. Rest in the sense I need it doesn’t mean dropping out and ignoring everyone and everything, only to find stuff still looms large later… it means some matters need to be attended to first, in order to carve out the rest space. For me, it means being able to rest within and alongside your life, learning where and how this is possible. It means allowing myself to be looked after (no easy feat for me) and relishing being allow to look after others. It might mean getting up before the rest of the house for a bit for some quiet time… it might mean sleeping in….

So the presents need buying and Christmas lights are up, the kitchen will have “store cupboard” stuff in so we don’t have to run to the supermarket every two minutes. The wine will be stocked. We know roughly who is where on what day… roughly… and space to Be is in there… and we just need to hold it… and that’s sometimes the tricky part.
The house will be cleaned, tidied and cleared, with as little mania as we can muster – clean and tidy enough to be welcoming, not so much that it’s threatening etc. There’s a bad Christmas Playlist forming (including the much beloved 12 Hawaiian Days of Christmas “ Five big fat pigs/four flower leis/ three dried squid/ two coconut & one minor bird in one papaya tree” – I defy you not to giggle) There are loose plans – new Star Wars Movie, a Theatre trip, kids coming and going, walking off the Christmas pudding etc. At points, everyone being together in the same place will feel like a chore, no doubt – and then the trick will be to carve space for everyone to be Elsewhere or Otherwise Occupied for a bit.

And at some point, having spent half an hour reading a book and then stomping up the hill with dog & humans in tow, knowing there is food ready on return and not really minding when we get back, I will feel that slightly melty feeling and know myself to be relaxing.

I think rest these days is hard-fought for. I know it is worth the fight.

To you and yours I wish you all the best for the Season & good rest, when the opportunity comes.

The Heart of Leadership

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My audible groan is not appreciated. They are looking at me without warmth.
I slightly surprise myself – oh, bugger. Did I make that noise out loud?

What is on the table at this particular design meeting is the integration of a case study. This case study, or variations of it, has been used for the past 4 years with great success. It enables a venerated Professor type from London School of Harvard Tech or wherever to join the programme and work with the leaders. He talks them through something about growth in emerging markets. It’s interesting. They do stuff on it. They discuss and puzzle. They learn.

I really like the Prof – he’s looks good for his age (I’m guessing 60?) and has been doing this leadership stuff for over 30 years all over the world. We have this amazing conversation about a recent Desert Walk he undertook. I totally get why we want to work with him. He’s charming and experienced and avuncular – a natural mentor for the guys trying to create growth in emerging markets. A foil for the raw ambition 70-hours-a-week behaviours that are happening.

And I’m groaning because to the depths of my soul I believe that what would be most in service to this group of leaders, is not another technical, building mind-muscle challenge. They’ve got this. They are a smart, committed, fairly hungry ( if a little knackered) group. They can think their way through complex, VUCA whatever conditions. Demonstrably? They are all OVER that stuff.

What this group of leaders is lacking is joined-upness and trust in each other. The emotional maturity to share without churlishness. The empathy to understand how their behaviour impacts on their team and the grace to accept that sometimes, it’s not great.
The willingness to admit they are scared to let something go, because their need to be perfect and capable and strong means failure is not an option….even though that need is waking them up at 3am and they are a shell the next day, ergo more like to fail.
The recognition that their deep need to always be right and clever means someone else has to be wrong and stupid – and that sometimes, that’s a shitty choice.

The ones who have emotional maturity have been doing the hard graft for ages – building relationships, sorting out issues, oiling wheels, making things work by getting under the egos. Where what is valued is mental dexterity and logical outcomes, this emotional work goes unrecognised, unsung and those who undertake it often don’t value it themselves/ are slightly embarrassed about it – but an engine without oil grinds to a halt…

What the group of leaders we are designing for is lacking is a language to express this stuff – a means of articulating the fear or the joy, the disappointment, the paranoia, the impatience, the shame – and if you can’t talk about it or write about it, draw it or walk with it… if it is nebulous and shadowy and can’t be named, how can you ever work with it?

This can be gnarly work – coming face to face with your nasty, with the bits of you that haven’t contributed to your high-flying career thus far – the Case Study is a breeze in comparison. An easy option. The lovely comfort zone.

For some, emotional, relational stuff is literally learning a new language – something unspoken before, something they don’t understand – it can take a long time… your accent might always be terrible….how embarrassing.
Some folk find working with this stuff overwhelming – they feel the absence of something they “ought” to have and equate that to failure – so run madly from it, muttering about Fluffy crap, no place in business…only to be faced at some point in their lives with the inevitability of lifestuff – death, divorce, illness, change….and then it can all come crashing down.

So why ask leaders to look inward and build their emotional capacity? Easier to stay cerebral and crack on….

Because work without heart leads to heartless outcomes – and we need leadership who operate with compassion and care more than ever. This is not a platitude, it’s a thing – an actual thing. We talk about the future of work, of improving working lives – but a good future requires leaders who can access empathy, compassion, generosity, failure-as-learning and make decisions about their people, resources, markets etc with some ethical and emotional intelligence. A case study in emerging markets kind of bypasses that bit.

I say some of this at the design meeting – not all of it, because me on a soapbox isn’t anything particularly useful at this stage… and we talk about how to get the connection part, the relationship part more front and centre…. and slowly something more heart-felt & human emerges and I’m glad…..

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When they arrive they are polite, slightly scared or bored and the conversations involve a lot of comparisons and competitive niggles. Fast movements, rapid talk. Status games, power games, jostling, laughing….

They leave, days later, quieter, less scared. Less bored. They know each other better. They know themselves better. For some, this is still not right or good – the world seems altered and that’s uncomfortable as all hell – they will very quickly try to recreate their status quo. For others, and the people they lead, it is the beginning of, or the next steps to master, this new language, with all that can bring.

I Want To Know What Love Is…

Love begets love

Love begets love

There were times last week where life, circumstance, folk just seemed unfathomable to me. It started with a sense of helplessness, anger and redundancy as I processed the Orlando shootings – trying to fathom what happens? How? How does it get to the point where your anger and fear overtake you and you walk into a place where people are dancing and laughing and you kill them?

Then there was the odd spectacle of a flotilla of boats on the Thames, having some sort of braying, binary argument, declaring In or Out of Brexit – which might of bypassed me, but I was in the office & Twitter was awash (pardon the pun) with folk going: WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING? And I was struck with the divisiveness of the “debate” – the nastiness and disrespect that seemed to be in the air.

And the very next day there was the murder of MP Jo Cox, which somehow stopped me in my tracks in a way I can’t fully explain – maybe it’s because she’s my age, that I recognise some of her traits in my friends – I felt the wrench of kids left without a Mum, that it happened an hour from my door, that it was brutal and senseless – in daylight, in full view which somehow felt like an assault in itself – whatever it was, I was empty and bereft that evening… my words drying up.

In the face of his wife being shot and stabbed to death in the street, Brendon Cox put out a statement about Love. That his children would be bathed in love. That they would not succumb to hate. I have a soft and sentimental heart at times… his compassion made me cry.

Love. The antidote to poison.

But how? How do you love? How do you find that in you and sustain it in the face of so much toxicity? I’m assuming if you are a person with a faith or religion, you can turn there to find guidance and seek the means for love and compassion. But religion, it seems, is no guarantee of forgiveness, love, care for others….and anyway, I’m irreligious…how do I find the means to nurture my own compassion, my love, my kindness, the best of my humanity?
And where the hell is the place for something like Love in the work I do? Surely that’s not business? You can’t go around spouting love at folk – you’ll be rejected and ostracised, surely?

I’ve been pondering on some of this week.

Like many things, for me, it starts in the everyday. In the last week, I’ve tried to pay attention to Love. I’ve put the hours in. Where before I was noticing hate – brutality, difference, division, I’ve been working to notice love, care, that which unites. Sometimes, it’s not easy.

Turns out I don’t have a “definition” of love – it’s multi faceted for me, and shows up, often as a feeling, a sense – a softening of myself, physically and emotionally – a willingness to join someone in their experience and be joined.
Turns out I can’t love Donald Trump.
Turns out I can’t find my compassion for everyone.. or I possibly could – but that would be like love on an ultra-marathon distance, and in someways I’m still trying to love to 5k without stopping.
Turns out I want to work on that a little – stretch the distance my compassion and love can go.
Turns out I can be judgey and cross – dismissive at times of the things I can’t understand or decide I have no time for.
Turns out the news on TV doesn’t help me find my own sense of love and kindness.

It struck me at one point that folk who appear hate-filled might not know love. Like I’m not sure I know how to BE properly hate-filled. I’m not sure I know what that feels like – to hold some proper deeply-held sense that someone is disgusting or ugly or utterly without merit and they are to be despised, or damaged… I don’t think I know that, understand that, really
Like the urge to worsen the situation for someone weaker.
Like the urge to troll and bait and abuse.
Like the sense of such offence at someone’s skin tone or gender or religion or sexual preference that you actually hate them… I just don’t get it. What IS that? IS that a thing? Really? Or is that surface stuff – may I present my hatred to you – and underneath it all something else is true?

And if this gap is true for me…. then I figure there must be folk out there who don’t know how to BE properly love-filled. To not get that big auld dappy-daft feeling, the warm n fuzzies that make your week go better. To see someone you adore so much that you feel lighter, brighter, better just being in their vicinity.
The urge to give someone more and cheer them on and wish them nothing but good things
The urge to protect them and respect them and hold them in highest esteem.
The recognition of beauty.
The deep sense of wonder and delight.
Laughter that is infectious and connecting
The want to sit with someone who is experiencing hurt or fear or that overwhelming inadequacy thing that sometimes hobbles you… and not try to fix them, not assume they are broken, but show them the care, the kindness, the love that they currently cannot show themselves.
The fact that love can be tough – it shows tenacity and massive resilience in the face of death and destruction. The fact that love can be tender, daft, intimate, powerful.

Some folk may not know this love stuff? In that case, can we work on it? Develop our capacity to love? Is that how this works? Can love beget love? Can it really overcome hatred, or should we be working with the hateful to get them to access their love? Or both?

I don’t know the answers. I have so many questions. But as I write about hate, my body grows tense and taut and I feel fearful and sad and scared. And as I write about love, I can feel myself soften and smile and I gather the faces of folk I love, respect, care for, cherish, adore around me and I sense I’m a much bigger, better person as a result.

Maybe that’s our homework – to write and broadcast more about love….
I don’t know… what do you think?

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images are from Hugh McLeod from @gapingvoidArt

The Poetry of Propaganda – (AKA when the “soft stuff” gets hard core)

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How do you persuade the deeply entrenched to surrender their positions?
If changing systems requires changing behaviours and behavioural change is, typically, triggered by something deeply personal (unless you go super-coercive, but that’s not an ethical/legal position most organisations would go for.. (thankfully?)) what does that mean?

When someone has made up their mind about something. About what is right or wrong. About what they can and can’t do. About what is or is not fiction or fact – and their position is harming them, or an organisation, or a country….. what actions can you take?

These are some of the questions that were raised for me from Jose Miguel Sokoloff’s TED talk as he explains how he & his team helped persuade Colombian Guerillas to demobilise.
I was first made aware of his story through the This American Life Podcast.
Sokoloff is, by trade, an advertising exec – more used to dealing with selling soap or dog food than getting involved in gnarly political/social change issues…but his reasons for taking up the challenge were, in part, emotional ones: He had never known a day of peace-time in his own country.

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J’apprends avec mon coeur et ma tête *

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*I learn with my heart and my head.

I’m writing this in the days after the Friday 13th Paris attacks.

I’m thinking about learning and the importance of it at every stage in our lives, and at every level in how we organise ourselves, our work and our society.

I’m thinking about starting with personal learning – and how important it is to keep an open mind, even if it is with a defiant heart. How our ability to see the other side to an argument and not become entrenched in our own narrow world-view has never been more important. How we still have much to learn, no matter how sure we feel.

Over the past days I have read narratives in the media, on Twitter and Facebook – some have resolutely advocated compassion, bravery, tolerance and understanding. Others have resolutely advocated vengeance, retaliation, punishment and retribution. At times over the past days I have sympathised with and rejected both sides as “the way forward”.

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