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.