I was enjoyably provoked or nudged today by a blog post from Rob Poynton. Rob writes about how large scale change seems to need systems and programmes that get ‘rolled out’, but which almost always fail, falter or produce unintended consequences.
It seems to Rob that changes often happen in unplanned, unintended ways – like a stone skipping across water. The path can’t be planned, and we may not even know where the stone has come from. That’s the kind of change that Rob chooses to be involved in.
I intellectually and emotionally agree with Rob’s analysis. It seems right. For example, I think that organisations are best understood as something like conversations – an interactive, creative process that occurs between people, in which we make gestures and offers to each other, which can be received and replied to in unexpected ways that we can’t control. So no one can control what happens in an organisation – they can only make an offer and see how people respond, and in turn respond to those responses.
This is very different to a view of organisations that sees them as being like machines. The machine view leads us to try to change organisations by re-engineering them, changing the wiring, drawing up blueprints etc. It is a view that believes that top-down control is not only possible but also the desirable way to bring about change. A small number of people at the ‘top’ of an organisation make some decisions (which might be written up in a document called a strategy), which are then ‘implemented’ or ‘executed’ by more junior people who can be ‘aligned’ so they face the right way. The cleverer and more skilful the people at the top, the more effectively the strategy can be implemented.
So here’s the thing. Most of my work is with large, public-sector organisations. And I am often invited in by one or more of those senior people who are trying to do this top-down change thing, and my job is to help them. And their job is to do the strategy-implementation thing – if they fail then they could lose their job.
And I do have some sympathy with the people I work with. They want to make things better in particular ways – they want to get their team members working better together with less conflict, they want their organisations to be more productive, they want new types of work to be done to better meet the needs of the people who use their services. They feel they do not have a lot of room to manoeuvre, with pressure from their own bosses, from politicians and from the public to achieve great things in a short time.
These intentions to make things better in particular ways are legitimate, it seems to me. And I want to help the managers to achieve them (they are my clients, and my purpose is to help them achieve theirs). And when I start working with these managers I quickly get seduced by the tools of the machine view: I ask to see structure charts and to read the latest strategy, in the belief that they are important. I start to help the manager to develop a step-by-step change plan, with phases and milestones and structural change, because that is what the machine view tells us we need in order to achieve X change by Y date – because how else do you bring about change? I assume that the objectives are given and not negotiable: that we have to achieve X by Y date with Z resources, and that planned change is the only way to do this.
What would happen if my client had a conversation with her boss pointing out the flaws in the machine model, arguing that we can’t control change only make offers, and that she can’t guarantee that X will happen by Y date? I imagine that this would not be acceptable, she would be told to get on with it or fired and replaced if she refused. And imagining this conversation also stops me having the same conversation with my client – I imagine that if I explained my view then she would fire me and find someone else who would promise to achieve X by Y. And I do want to work to earn my living.
So the machine view has great power. As long as enough of us act as if it’s true, particularly if those with power do so, then it is hard to break out of it (at least, if we want to work it is). And it traps us in a cycle of large-scale, programmed change that doesn’t work (if Rob is right about that).
So how to break out of this? I could start by having the conversations I avoid with my clients, instead of avoiding them. The chances are some of them don’t believe the machine view either. (I can imagine some of them saying “I know this won’t work but I’ve got to do it anyway”). And I’d like to work with these managers to find a new and more effective way for them to pursue their legitimate aims within their organisations, which needs a different understanding of their role as leaders and managers, a different understanding of change, and a different view of what organisations actually are. And it needs a different understanding of what my role is in supporting change. I’m not very sure what that ‘different’ understanding is – particularly what someone actually does who wants change to happen but acknowledges they can’t control it. But I am interested in finding out by trying it.
Are you an 18 second manager?
This is a nice provocative video from Tom Peters on listening:
Tom refers to research into the length of time taken by doctors before they interrupt a patient describing their symptoms. He recommends that managers and leaders (and in fact everyone in every organisation) develop their ability to listen to their customers, employees and colleagues. It is something that be learned.
Are you an 18-second manager, or an 18-second leader?
Come with me to Istanbul!
I’m running a workshop on ‘Improvisation for facilitators’, as part of the International Association of Facilitators Europe Conference 2011. The workshop will run from 9:30am – 4:30pm on Thursday 13 October 2011, in a conference venue in central Istanbul.
The skills that improvisers use to create scenes and stories can also be used by facilitators to bring their work to life. This workshop uses improvisation games from the world of theatre to help you relax more when working in the moment with your clients, connect more quickly with the groups you work with, and actually enjoy re-writing your plans on the spur of the moment!
You need no performance skills for this workshop – it is suitable for absolute beginners. You can relax as you are guided through a selection of specially chosen improvisation games and exercises.
The workshop will be limited to a maximum of 12 participants, so book now to guarantee your place. An early bird rate of €165 is available for bookings made before 31 July 2011. Bookings after that date will be at the rate of €200. Further details – and a booking form to secure your place – are available on a dedicated page on my website.
Up on the ridge
In the article Daniel refers to Martin Buber’s idea that life is a form of meeting, and that dialogue is the ‘ridge’ on which we meet. I like that image, because a ridge is narrow, and we need to take care not to fall off. It takes some effort to stay up there – it is easier to slip back down into our own territory, than it is to stay at the point where we are in a real connection with someone else.
Dialogue, debate and conversation
Daniel explains why he prefers to refer to ‘dialogue’ rather than debate; he feels that dialogue is about seeking mutual understanding, whereas debate is about winning an argument, or vanquishing an opponent. I share his interest in mutual understanding rather than winning, but I prefer to refer to ‘conversation’ rather than dialogue: conversation for me is a less formal, more everyday term than dialogue.
Tips for improving conversations
Daniel gives some great advice in his article for improving the quality of the conversations or dialogue that he is promoting. His tips include:
- bringing assumptions out into the open (and sharing your own assumptions before pointing out the assumptions of other people);
- offering a gesture of empathy (what Daniel calls an ‘open sesame’ for dialogue). Empathy usually involved “acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view”); and
- “expressing the emotions that accompany strongly held values”. Conversation about any topic that really matters to people is bound to touch on deeply held beliefs and very personal convictions. “If the status quo is to be subject to question, strong feelings are bound to surface.”
The whole article is well worth a read, and I’m inspired to take a look at his book of the same name (Amazon affiliate link).
I work for myself. And I have a great boss – most requests for training get approved, I work flexible hours, and if I really don’t want to take on a particular job, I don’t have to. I get pretty much anything I ask for from my boss.
However generous my boss is, I realised the other day that he may not be doing everything he can to help me do my Great Work. Because I am not asking for everything I need. In particular, I don’t (yet) have a workplace that really supports me in doing the best work I can. (I was inspired to think about this by hearing a reference to “the most fun workplace in human history”.*)
My best ever chance to have the most fun workplace in human history is right now – when I am my own boss, and I work mainly from home. Who else in my life is going to be so motivated to give me everything I need and want to get my work done?
So what would I ask for if I could have anything I want to support me in doing my Great Work? Here are some things I thought of:
- an uncluttered, calm and tasteful work environment – nice pictures on the walls;
- great coffee, available on demand;
- someone to do all the Good Work for me that has to be done, but which is not my Great Work (including sales and marketing, bookkeeping and financial planning);
- membership of a gym to help me keep in shape; and
- an in-house café serving healthy, tasty food.
And then I asked myself how much of this can I have right away. So in the past few weeks I have:
- de-cluttered my house and my home office, selling/donating/recycling/binning things I no longer need or want;
- hung up the on my walls the pictures that were in my storage cupboard for so long that I had forgotten they were there;
- bought, installed and filled the furniture and storage I need so that I now have a place for everything and everything in its place;
- got back to inbox zero on a daily basis, and am working now on emptying my physical in-tray;
- got back into exercising twice a day (at home rather than in a gym);
- taken the time to cook a proper lunch a couple of times a week;
- invested in a coffee maker that makes a thermos jug of coffee in one go – so I can take it up to my study when I start work in the morning, and avoid having to pop down to make a fresh cup every half-hour or so;
- researched local book-keeping services;
- started using an ironing service on an occasional basis to free up time for me when I am busy.
All of these are things I could have done at any time in the past 6 months, but because I stopped noticing the environment I was working in, they either never occurred to me, or didn’t seem to be priorities.
So I’ve also made a note in my ‘to do’ list to review my work environment again at the start of next year. I wonder what small things I’ll notice then that will improve my working environment straight away?
Whether you work for yourself or for someone else, what one thing could you do this week that would help you have the most amazing workplace possible? Leave me a comment below to let me know; I’d love to hear your thoughts.
* The phrase comes from Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job [Amazon associate link] by Dennis W Bakke. I heard the book’s publisher Mark Pearson use the phrase in a podcast interview with Michael Bungay Stanier.
I frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.
I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.
Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.
Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:
1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.
My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.
The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.
What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.
While it is true that
If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.
I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.
What are the implications for me as a facilitator?
I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.
I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.
There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.
And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.
What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ’sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?
* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009
I got a couple of really good points from the TED video that I have embedded below. The video is a recording of Stefan Sagmeister, who runs a New York design agency. Every 7 years he takes a sabbatical year off, to recharge his batteries and to generate some new ideas.
At 1:30 Stefan describes how he sees his sabbaticals as effectively ‘bringing forward’ some of the retirement he hopes to enjoy at the en of his working life (he has a really nice animated graphic that makes his point very clearly). This is how I have been thinking of my own part-time working over the past five years. Except that I am bringing forward some of my retirement into every week – I am able to do now some of the things that earlier in my life I had been putting off until retirement. But the idea of a year-long sabbatical is even more attractive…
At 2:25 Stefan develops an idea from an earlier TED talk by Jonathan Haidt. He distinguishes between a job, a career and a calling:
- Jobs: we do them for money, 9-5
- Careers: we do them for promotion
- Calling: we would do this even if we weren’t paid to do it
Apart from preferring the word ‘purpose’ where Stefan uses the word ‘calling’, this is also how I think of my own work. I am overjoyed each time I find myself doing work that I would happily do unpaid: playing games with groups of adults; sharing skills and knowledge that I find useful and interesting with new people; coaching people to achieve their goals; mediating between people in conflict. This is great work, and I want to spend more of my time doing it.
Hat tip to Alexander Kjerulf for linking to the TED video.
Research** has found that managers often recognise they are making a moral decision at work, and they draw on their own moral standards to make those decisions. BUT THEY DON’T ADMIT IT! When asked to explain their reasoning, they will explain their reasoning in purely rational terms.
Bird and Waters, who carried out the research, refer to this as the ‘moral muteness of managers’.
To me this is an example of not being fully present, of not fully showing up for work. And organisations and individuals both contribute to this happening. Organisational cultures give people particular resources with which to explain their actions – complying with rules and regulations, or doing what we’ve always done, or doing what the boss would want can be the ‘usual’ or expected explanations that are offered for decisions or actions. And as individuals, we can also choose not to disclose the full reasoning for our actions or decisions – for fear of criticism, or because we don’t want to spend the time in debate, or just because we don’t want to stick out and appear different.
The problem is that as a result we shrink a little bit each time we do this. If we don’t bring our moral selves to work with us, then work becomes a place where we can’t develop as moral people. The same happens if we don’t bring our emotional needs, our needs to be physically healthy, or our needs to learn to work with us – work has much less potential to be a place where we can express emotion, be healthy and learn.
I am trying to ’show up’ more in my work. My focus is on being more transparent about my reasoning (explaining not just what I think, but why), being more curious about what other people think (so I may learn something, and may change my own opinion), closing the gap between what I think and what I say, and speaking up when I am unhappy or have a different view. I’m not finding it easy, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m already a good listener; now I am choosing to speak as well, rather than remain mute.
** In interviews with 60 managers, Bird and Waters found nearly 300 examples where managers had dealt with moral issues at work, but in only 12 per cent of those examples was there any public discussion of the moral issues. F B Bird and J A Waters, ‘The moral muteness of managers’, California Management Review, Fall 1989: 32, 1, pp. 73-88. Hat tip to Nancy White, who refers to the study in her book Dialogue at Work.
I’ve been thinking about death for the past couple of days, and it’s been great! It’s given me some renewed energy and made me feel more positive. Interested in how death can cheer you up too? Then read on…
I have recently come across a great guy called Michael Bungay Stanier. He is the author of ‘Do More Great Work‘, and is also behind the company Box of Crayons, who have some amazing inspirational videos on their website.
In a podcast on his website, Michael was talking about how he had visited a website which can ‘predict’ the date of your death, based on your date of birth, gender, diet etc. (Of course it is not a prediction, just a statistical average. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow, or live 20 years longer than the prediction). And Michael has printed out the date of his death on a card which he keeps next to his computer, and had also set up a countdown clock on his desktop, ticking away the seconds and hours he has remaining on this earth.
How is this helpful to anyone? The point Michael made in his podcast is that if you think to yourself that there is a specific date and time at which you will die, by definition you only have a limited number of hours left to live – they will run out at some point. So do you really want to spend even one of those hours doing something that is pointless, or that is not exciting, or that does not add value to your life? Imagine reaching the end of your life and realising the hour spent aimlessly surfing the internet, or reading boring e-mails, could have been spent on something worthwhile – playing with a child, reading a great book, talking to a friend, enjoying a walk in the outdoors. Would you like to avoid having those regrets?
I found it a really helpful way to think. It has given me some energy to get on with things that I have been putting off (like getting back to this blog). And the great thing is that it really doesn’t matter whether the ‘death clock’ prediction is right or wrong (in fact, it’s almost certain that it will be wrong). All that matters is to think that there is a day when you will die.
Michael has a card by his computer, but I wondered whether there might be a more 21st century way for me to focus on my date of death. And sure enough, there are several ‘death clocks’ to choose from on iTunes, many of them free! I downloaded the delightfully-named iCroak to my iPhone and punched in my details**. I was delighted to find that I am only half-way through my life, and still have 42 years to go. Phew!
Christian art from medieval Europe has many memento mori – reminders of death. They were intended more to remind people that life was meaningless and fleeting, and to focus their attention on the afterlife. My iPhone memento mori has a different effect on me – without a belief in the afterlife, it is focusing me on the here and now. What time is it? It is always ‘now’.
** This is not quite true. I actually downloaded three different apps, and kept the one that told me I had longest left to live
The power of less
It has been quite a while since I posted here. I’ve been feeling a bit like I backed myself into a corner by committing to covering the whole of Fierce conversations by blogging about it – it’s felt more like a chore that I haven’t wanted to come back to.
And I realised that the commitment I made was only to myself, and I could relieve myself of the commitment any time I wanted! So that’s what I’m now doing.
Reading The Power of Less by Leo Babuta recently has helped me to see where I am over-extending myself by making too many commitments, and getting less done as a result. Leo is the creator of the Zen Habits blog, one of the most popular blogs on the web. And in the book he shows how to focus on exactly what you want, and then make sure that you get it.
What I took away from reading the book
This is not a book about getting more done in the same fixed amount of time. I probably can’t be dramatically more efficient than I already am. The message of this book is to do fewer things and do them better.
I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things on my to do list. I subscribe to blogs that I never read. I receive e-mail newsletters that go straight into my ‘Reading’ folder but never get read. And I haven’t seen the bottom of my in-tray since…I can’t remember when. And this makes me feel stressed and inadequate for not doing what I ’should’ be doing.
Any of this sound familiar?
The message from this book is not that I will suddenly be able to process all this information and complete all my tasks, by following some simple rules. The message is that I should reduce the amount of information I am trying to process, and identify the tasks that will really help me to move in the direction I want to go, and focus on those.
Make fewer commitments. Focus on seeing them through. Place limits on yourself to help to focus.
But for me this is easier said than done. I find it relatively easy to identify what really matters. I find it much harder to focus on that and give up the rest. That means giving up some information that ‘might be useful one day’. And it means accepting that there are some tasks that I won’t complete, even though ‘it would be nice to do them’. I have to give up something I want in order to get what I really want – less stress, a more achievable ‘To Do’ list, more order and less ’stuff’ to manage.
That means making choices and deciding not to have some things.
Forming a new habit
One of the main things that Leo recommends is to form new, productive habits. He has clear advice about the best way to do this:
- start only one new habit at a time: this is one way of placing a limitation on yourself to help yourself to focus. One new habit that sticks is worth any number of new habits that fade;
- choose an easy goal: this is motivating, and builds up early experience of success;
- choose something measurable: it should be obvious to you whether you have done it or not on any particular day;
- be consistent: do it at the same time every day;
- report daily: make yourself accountable by telling other people daily that you have acted on your new habit; and
- keep a positive attitude: expect setbacks now and then, note them and move on. Get back on track.
My new habit
My new habit is to get my e-mail inbox down to zero at least once a day. I’m going to focus on that for a month, by which time it will hopefully become a new habit.
This should be achievable – I spent a couple of hours the first time getting my inbox down to zero, but if I do it daily it will be easier and quicker in future. I am being more ruthless about some e-mails that I just don’t need to read. I have already unsubscribed to some regular e-mails to reduce the number of e-mails coming in. And I’ve set up some new rules in Gmail to automatically archive routine e-mails so I don’t need to read them (like e-mails from Amazon telling me that my orders have shipped – if I need to check up on an order I can always do it online).
I have publicly committed to doing this and am posting daily on Twitter and e-mailing a friend who has agreed to hold me to account (and I’m also blogging about it here, and will blog again in a month’s time to say how I’ve got on).
I’m not quite being as consistent about when I do this every day as Leo would recommend. But I am saying that if I haven’t done it by 7pm, that is when I will get to inbox zero.
This is quite a short book – 170 pages – and is an easy read. It is packed with ideas for new habits to form and straight-forward productivity principles. Some of the ones I would like to try include:
- Identifying your three Most Important Tasks (MITs) each morning. At leasat one of these should be related to your main goal or a major project that you are working on, and should move you forward on those. And you should act on your MITs early in the day before anything else.
- Single-task, not multi-task. Really focus on one task at a time – turn off your e-mail and mobile phone, don’t internet surf or ‘just look something up’. Notice when you are being distracted and just return to the one task in hand until it is complete.
- Check e-mail just twice a day.
- Reduce the number of commitments you take on, and say ‘no’ more often.
- De-clutter and then let less physical ’stuff’ into your life.
These would all be good things to do, and I am doing little bits of them here and there. But I am trying to stay true to the message of the book, and my only new commitment right now is to empty that e-mail inbox once a day for the next month. Then I’ll pick one of the other goals I’d like to achieve, and work on that.
Wish me luck!