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Small change

April 29th, 2014 4 comments

Small change

If your organisation needed to save £300,000, would you think about making people redundant? Re-structuring? Business process re-engineering? Or would it occur to you to cancel the olives that you are serving with lunch?

An American Airlines flight attendant took the time to notice that many of her passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. She thought this observation might be useful and passed this observation up the chain of command. It was eventually discovered that the airline was charged by its food supplier for salads based on the number of items they contained. The cost for a salad with one to four items was less than a salad with five to eight items. And the uneaten olives, it turned out, were the fifth item in the American Airlines salad. When the airline dropped the olives and switched to a four-item salad, it saved five hundred thousand dollars a year.
 [from Robert E. Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the kaizen way, pp. 161-2.]

The assumption that big problems need big solutions is natural and beguiling. It gets our brains whirring and we come up with big ideas, grand schemes and elaborate plans. And those schemes can be intimidating – too big to implement. So we can all too easily end up doing nothing at all. Or we start to implement them, and it all becomes too hard, and we give up.

Another approach is to question our assumption instead: that big problems need big solutions.
Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades… There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution.
 [From Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: how to change things when change is hard, p. 44.]

 Big problems may need small solutions

So big problems may need small solutions. And more than likely, more than one small solution. And sometimes the first step towards a solution can be embarrassingly, trivially, or comically small. In One Small Step, Robert Maurer tells the story of someone who wanted to stop taking sugar in her tea. So the next time she went to add sugar to her tea, she gently removed one grain of sugar from the teaspoon. The  time after that it was two grains… Pretty soon she had cut out sugar altogether. Robert also writes about people who buy a chocolate bar but throw away the first square… then two squares…

These ridiculously small actions also have the benefit of being ridiculously easy. They’re so easy you can start straight away. That’s a huge advantage over elaborate schemes.

I wrote this blog post by setting myself the goal of working on it for just one minute a day. That made it fun – all I had to do was write a sentence or two, or find the right page number for the quote I was using. And most days I did a bit more than a minute – because I felt like it. In just 10 days I had a finished blog post – the first one I’ve written for nearly a year. This stuff works…

What is the biggest problem you are facing now? And what could be a very tiny step – embarrassingly small – that you could take right now to  move you in the right direction? Share your ideas in the comments below and I’ll respond!

Categories: Change Tags:

Learning fast

July 3rd, 2013 No comments

Today I came across a seductively simple 5-step approach to learning a new skill fast.

In a video interview with Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project, author Josh Kaufman describes how to get ‘good enough’ at a new skill within 20 hours of practice. The five steps, as set out in his book The First 20 Hours: how to learn anything…fast are:

  1. State the level of performance you want to achieve with the new skill. What is it you want to be able to do? So not just ‘learn French’ but instead ‘go to a restaurant where the waiters speak only French, and spend the entire meal speaking only French’.
  2. Deconstruct the sub-skills you need to achieve that level of performance. It’s really hard to practice ‘being a good golfer’. But you can practice ‘driving the ball 100 yards from the tee’.
  3. To help you do step 2, do some research to find out what those sub-skills are (eg skim-read between  3 and 5 ‘how to’ books, identifying the key skills those books identify). Josh warns against over-researching and getting stuck at this stage: this step is about taking a quick overview of the subject area so you can focus in on the key sub-skills.
  4. Make it as easy as possible to actually start practicing – eliminate as many barriers to practice as you can. So if you’re going to learn some chords on the guitar, keep your guitar out of its case on a stand where you can easily reach it in your practice place – not buried at the back of a cupboard.
  5. Pre-commit to practising those sub-skills for at least 20 hours. Then do the practice.

‘Accelerated Learning: how to get good at anything in 20 hours’ on YouTube

I find the first step really appealing – it makes the goal much more achievable: rather than boiling the ocean you are encouraged to think of a very concrete goal. And this step also guarantees that what you are learning is something you can actually use – you only learn the skills you need, rather than mastering the whole field.

Josh Kaufman is happy to agree that taking this approach doesn’t make the practice itself any easier – the first few hours are still going to be tough and discouragain, and all learners will make mistakes. And it’s only when you get to the end of step 5 that the practice actually begins – I know from my own experience that I can spend a long time in steps 1-4, avoiding starting on step 5…

There’s a lovely little moment at the end of the video interview where the interviewer Jonathan Fields is visibly excited by this approach and keen to try it out. But he resists naming what he is going to try to learn, because he realises that he has not fully committed to actually putting in the 20 hours of initial practice. Until he’s ready to make that commitment he won’t be going public.

Early in the video Josh explains how his approach fits with the often-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice needed to master a skill. Really mastering a skill – for example, being able to play golf against Tiger Woods and have a chance of beating him – would indeed take around 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice. That’s what it takes to be one of the best in the world. But you can get surprisingly good at a new skill – according to Josh – in only 20 hours (that’s 40 minutes a day for about a month).

I’m very interested in giving this a go, and have already thought of a skill I’d like to get better at. But I think I’ll do some practice first before I go public on my commitment… just to see if I can get beyond step 5.

Categories: Change, Coaching, Training Tags:

Change in organisations

January 3rd, 2013 5 comments
Skimming stone

Skimming stone

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.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Categories: Change Tags: , , ,

How amazing is your workplace?

November 5th, 2010 7 comments

Fun at work?

Fun at work?

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.

** The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Categories: Change Tags: , , ,

Don’t talk about morality at work

April 17th, 2010 No comments

Silenced

Silenced

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.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

** 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.

The power of less

March 1st, 2010 No comments

less is more

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.

Summary

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!

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

December 28th, 2009 No comments

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

My stand-out book of the year for 2009 is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This book was recommended to me this autumn by five different people who heard about my interest in conversation for change, so it arrived at just the right time for me.

The book is about how to have ‘real’ conversations about the things that really matter, with the people that really matter. While the book contains a lot of practical techniques and exercises to try, it is more than a set of top tips – the core of the book is about helping you decide the kind of person you want to be when in conversation. Do you want to be someone who plays safe and keeps every conversation light, or do you want to take the risk of being seen for who you are, and perhaps being changed?

The book is also packed with nice one-liners and quotes that help to keep the main messages memorable.

I’ll be writing a series of posts summarising some of the key ideas in the book, mainly to help me make sense of them for myself, by putting them into my own words. But I’ve also been trying to act on what I have read, so I may well reflect on that too.

So, what is a ‘fierce conversation’, and why would you want to have one? The best place to start is with the book’s Introduction: the idea of fierce.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

What is a fierce conversation?

‘Fierce’ can sound threatening, cruel or scary. But Scott intends it in a different way – for her ‘fierce’ means passionate, intense, robust, strong, unbridled and untamed.

In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

‘Fierce’ doesn’t quite do it for me – I can’t shake the feeling of aggression or threat that goes with that word. So I tend to talk instead about ‘powerful conversations’ or ‘effective conversations’, or just ‘conversations for change’. Not quite as passionate as Scott’s phrase, but then that may say something about me 😉

What are conversations like when they are not ‘fierce’?

Scott adapts a quotation from Ernest Hemingway to argue that “our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” She paints a picture of avoided or unsuccessful conversations, where nothing real is said, relationships fail, tough challenges are avoided and no one learns anything.

If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves smaller in every encounter, behaving as if we are just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles…

Many work teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversations they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that’s what keeps many of us stuck.

Ouch. Not easy to read, particularly if it reminds you – as it does me – of conversations you are having or failing to have. In Scott’s view, each conversation has the potential to enhance our relationships, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges and interrogate reality. No single conversation can be guaranteed to do these things, but every conversation can.

Scott observes at various points in the book that “when the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation has even ended.” That was certainly true of the powerful conversation I had earlier this year.

At home and at work

Scott considered writing separate books about fierce conversations in our personal lives and in our work lives, but decided that would have been a mistake. In her view (and in mine too) “who we are is who we are, all over the place”. We can’t separate ourselves off successfully and have different conversations at home to the ones we have at work, not in the long run.

Scott’s observation has been that people who have problems at work have similar problems at home. For me, this is also a matter of choice and authenticity (about which Scott has more to say in a later chapter). Personally I want to be the same person at home as I am at work – to talk and behave in recognisably the same way, as much as I can (recognising I am only human and won’t always achieve what I set out to achieve). If I want to tell the truth, tackle a persistent problem or have a better relationship with my partner or my children, then I can approach it in the same way as I would at work. The techniques are the same, and so are the objectives:

  • interrogating reality
  • provoking learning
  • tackling touch challenges
  • enriching relationships

And she quotes the poet David Whyte:

The conversation is the relationship.

Every conversation we have has the potential to either enhance our relationship with the people we are speaking to, or fail to do so. We have a choice about how we want to use our conversations, and how much attention we want to pay to them.

Getting started

Scott is very pragmatic in her advice to the reader; most chapters have one or more assignments to try out. She advises us to be patient with ourselves, as change takes time. We can start one conversation with a time, beginning with the next person who stands in front of us. Her advice at the end of the introduction is to:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, telling little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself. And at least once today, when something inside you says, “This is an opportunity to be fierce,” stop for a moment, take a deep breath, then come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real…

When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen. It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge. You will have said at least one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.

So, are you interested in giving it a try?

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.

Security is a harmful illusion

November 22nd, 2009 No comments

Security is not just an illusion, but it’s a harmful one, according to Eve Ensler in the video below. This way of seeing the world has links to the way in which good improvisers make themselves vulnerable on stage.

Security is a harmful illusion

Eve Ensler makes her argument at the very beginning and very end of the video, and in the middle tells some stories to illustrate what she is saying. At one point she says:

we all die, we all get old, we all get sick, people leave us…and that’s actually the good news! Unless your whole life is about being secure

If what you want is to be absolutely secure, anything that might affect you or change you becomes a threat. So your time becomes focused on protecting yourself. You insulate yourself and isolate yourself – the only way I can absolutely prevent my relationship with you going bad is not to have a relationship with you in the first place.

And Eve Ensler points out that this just makes us less secure, as we are less connected to people and the world around us. So she argues that we should actually make ourselves less secure – we should “hunger for connection not power.”

Be changed

One of the basic guidelines that improvisers follow is to allow themselves to be changed – they allow themselves to respond to what is happening around them on the stage. This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.

Keith Johnstone is one of the founding fathers of improvisation. He recently returned to the UK to run an improvisation workshop, which I was lucky enough to attend. Keith explained in the workshop how as a theatre director in the 1950s he was puzzled by the way in which some plays had a lot of ‘stuff’ happening – war, death, torture – but he was left feeling unmoved. And in other plays not much ‘happened’, but he found himself emotionally affected by what he saw on stage.

Keith realised that the key difference between these types of plays was whether one character was changed by another. This is what ‘action’ is and it is what drives a story. So improvisers need to actually care about what is happening on stage, engage with it and be changed. It is easier to try to drive a scene in the direction you want it to go – towards the funny conclusion you can see in your mind’s eye for example – than to surrender to someone else’s idea and go with that. That involves being vulnerable and giving up some control. But scenes where two improvisers are fighting for control, with neither being changed by the other, are dead scenes for an audience – there is no development and no action. What audiences love to see is the improvisers taking risks, going with an idea and exploring it, committing to it.

So if our lives are going to have a story, to have some action, to go somewhere, then we need to allow ourselves to be changed by others. That is how we can make a real connection with someone else. And if Eve Ensler is right, this is more likely to give us what we need and want than pursuing the illusion of security.

Conversations for change

October 22nd, 2009 2 comments

Conversation

Talking with passion, listening attentively

I recently had an unexpected, powerful conversation which has had a lasting impact on me. It has also helped me to see more clearly what I am doing when a coaching session or facilitated meeting goes really well.

It happened like this…

I attended the European Conference of the International Association of Facilitators in Oxford in mid September. It was a good conference, well organised with some interesting sessions, and in the beautiful setting of Keble College. But like many events I go to these days, some of the best discussions I had were in the breaks between sessions, or over dinner or a drink with other participants.

One of those conversations took place on the Friday night, when I spent a good part of the evening talking to a facilitator from Finland. She told me a lot about what mattered to her in her life, about big changes she had made and challenges she had overcome. I learned a lot about her in a very short time.

When I reflected on our conversation the next day, I realised that I had done what I normally do. I pride myself on being a good listener, reflecting back and asking questions that help others to open up, and being comfortable when people are showing strong emotions. These are some of the core skills I use in my work, and I had used them in our conversation.

But what I hadn’t done is give anything of myself; I hadn’t told her what I really thought, and hadn’t really revealed much about me.

Opening up

So at the close of the conference, with my bags packed, I made a point of seeking her out, and sharing with her how she had struck me – as a beautiful, strong, confident person, and as someone I admired for the difficult changes she had made in her life. We agreed to walk together into Oxford on my way to the station, and we continued our earlier conversation. As we talked half an hour became an hour, we took a detour to visit my old college and sat on a bench to talk, we went for a coffee and continued the conversation. In the end we spoke for 4 or 5 hours.

As we talked our conversation deepened and became more two-way, as I opened up and talked a bit more about my own life and my experiences. I learned things about myself and my own hopes and fears that I hadn’t been aware of before. And what had started as a farewell became a conversation that has stayed with me and continues to affect me now.

A powerful conversation

So what made this conversation different?

  • There was some emotional content to it. Most conversations, certainly all important ones, have an emotional element. But in this conversation we named the emotions and talked about them directly.
  • Connected to this was an honesty and openness – rather than hiding behind my professional skills as a listener, I chose to also talk and voice my own experiences, and be changed. It felt like I was taking a risk, but a risk I was willing to take because there was already an openness from the person I was talking to.
  • Deep listening – both of us sat and listened to the other talking, and gave each other the space to speak. There were occasional silences where nothing needed to be said.
  • Being in the moment – we both chose to be present in the conversation and make that the main thing we were doing; the time flew past quickly.

Soon afterwards I came across this quotation from Conversation by Theodore Zeldin:

…talking does not necessarily change one’s own or other people’s feelings or ideas…Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving information…

..conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

And I realised that this is what happens when I am doing my best work – when I am mediating well, or when we make real progress in a coaching session, or when I am really ‘in the moment’ as a facilitator and aware of what is happening in the room. What connects all of my work at its best is this type of conversation – where emotions are engaged, there is an honesty and directness, where people truly listen and allow themselves to be changed by what they hear. Experiencing this personally has helped me to realise that this is what the people I work with sometimes experience as a result of the conversations I take part in.

So what next?

So what has happened since? Now that I am thinking this way, I’m seeing references to conversation everywhere (in the language of improvisation, I’m accepting an offer):

  • By chance, I recently met a former colleague I haven’t seen for three years, Cliodhna Mulhearn. Cliodhna is doing very powerful work using conversation to bring about change, focusing on Appreciative Inquiry.
  • Cliodhna recommended Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management to me; chapter 6 of this book is about the power of conversation, and describes exactly the kind of powerful conversation I had.
  • I talked about these ideas with my own coach, who directed me to a group of academics and practitioners who are using and writing about this approach to change, not just on a personal level, but at a team and organisational level as well.

This has also given me the incentive I needed to start this blog. I know that I usually find out what I think by opening my mouth and starting to speak 😉 So the blog is partly a conversation with myself, and writing these posts may well change what I think, as well as record my existing thoughts. But of course a blog is an open space, so maybe there will be others out there who will join in this conversation, and I’ll learn from them too? If you’re there, it would be nice to hear from you.