Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Change’

Approach

February 2nd, 2017 Comments off

How I work

What’s it like to work with Stuart Reid?
Here I’ll tell you the kind of results my clients achieve, and I’ll also give you a sense of my guiding beliefs, my approach to working with clients, and how I’m different to most organisation change consultants.

 The results you can expect from working with me

We develop a strategy together that drives your business forward. This is a strategy that cuts through the noise, and gets right to the heart of your business. You get the right people involved in the process, so it’s based on solid information. Crucially, it is a strategy that all of your people can remember – not a document that gathers dust on a shelf. So it guides every decision in your business – big or small.

You have a leadership team that works like a team. Team members participate more actively, conflict is more productive and results come with a lot less struggle and effort. Team meetings are focused and lead to clear decisions – and team members follow through on them. Your key leaders share resources and collaborate across their functions, instead of acting like independent barons.

You transform how your leaders lead change and engage their teams. Your leaders now feel confident and skilled in influencing others. They know how to listen and they are confident in holding difficult conversations. Your people understand why your business is changing, and their part in it. And they get involved, and make the change work by contributing their unique knowledge and their energy.

You finally make progress on those business problems that just wouldn’t go away. Your customer service team and your sales team are suddenly working together instead of complaining about each other, and sales take off. You find new ways to cut costs in the business without harming quality. Your workplace starts to feel like a good place to be, instead of a place you dread going to on a Monday morning. Things just start to click into place.

You road-test your thinking and your ideas before exposing them to others. You sharpen up your thinking by talking things through. You gain new insights by thinking out loud. And you can rehearse and strengthen your arguments before you take them into a high-stakes meeting. You feel safe because you’re working with someone whose only interest is to help you develop your very best thinking.

You find out what’s really going on in your business – before it’s too late. You no longer find yourself blind-sided by problems that ‘come from nowhere’. Now you see them coming: your people warn you about them while you still have time to act. So you spend less time fire-fighting and more time on your strategic role as a leader. Your Board members have more confidence in you, and you feel less stressed and more in control.

My guiding beliefs and values

I am always working to develop my knowledge and skills. I am constantly reading books and blog posts on business, psychology, communication, organisation change and innovation. I set up a ‘Business Book Club’ in my home town just so I could find other people to talk to about the books I was reading! The benefit for my clients is that I read all these books – so they don’t have to.

It’s important to me to have autonomy, and to make informed choices about the things that matter to me. I extend the same courtesy to those I work with. I will provide you and your colleagues with my views, my knowledge and my experience, but I will never forget that the choice about what action you will take lies with you. No one can be forced to change.

I believe that everyone has something of value to share and that most people genuinely want to make a contribution. So in my work on organisational change, I involve as many people as possible who will be directly affected: they all have knowledge and views that matter. This includes employees at all levels in the organisation, and often includes partners, suppliers and customers.

Organisations can and should be great places to work. Your organisation exists in order to make a profit, or to provide a public service. But if your employees dread coming to work every day because of the way the business is managed, you’re going to have serious productivity problems. Most of us spend a large part of our lives at work. A workplace should be a fulfilling and satisfying place, where human beings can bring the best of themselves to work, and develop as people.

 My approach

I’ll really get to know you and your business. When I work with any new client, I will invest time up front in getting to know your business and your people. I will typically have one-to-one conversations with a range of different employees at different levels in the organisation. You will always find me well prepared for any meeting or event that I attend.

My work is tailored to your specific needs. No two organisations are exactly the same, and one size does not fit all. So I will develop a plan that meets your unique needs.

I help you have more honest conversations. Failing to address workplace conflict, poor performance or other issues creates a dishonest culture that blocks change. Crucial conversations are avoided. The elephants in the room just pile up. These issues are avoided for a reason – they are difficult to talk about, and can make people anxious and embarrassed. I create the conditions where an honest conversation can happen – sometimes for the first time ever. That’s when change can suddenly be unlocked. And the sense of relief is palpable.

I will be there when you need me – and only when you need me. It’s important to me to work with a small number of different clients each year – typically around 3 or 4. And I normally work part-time with no more than one or two clients at any one time. I enjoy the variety, and I learn more this way: so I can bring my learning to bear with more clients. I will be there when you need me to keep a project moving forward, but I won’t be a full-time permanent fixture in your business.

What makes me different

I work with the reality of change, not an abstract model. Many consultants who work in organisation change will offer you a simple five-step or seven-step process for changing your organisation. I don’t do that, because in my experience it doesn’t work. You don’t change how people think and behave by following a flow chart.

I support you through the messy business of real change in a busy organisation. Sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back. You try things out (some of which will work and some won’t). You often realise that the change you really need is different to the one you thought you needed. This is normal – and I help you to accept that, and keep going.

I believe that organisations change one conversation at a time. This is a key feature of how I work. Fundamental change comes about because of a series of conversations over time, which lead to changes in mindsets, beliefs and behaviours. When enough people change how they behave, the culture starts to shift. These conversations for change can be one-to-one, they can happen in small teams, or in company-wide meetings. If you want to change your organisation, you need to change the quality and content of the conversations that are taking place there.

 

Scouting for strategy

September 30th, 2016 No comments

Scouting for strategy

“When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for proof.”
J K Galbraith

Developing an effective strategy for your organisation depends on your willingness to confront inconvenient truths, and your ability to see the world as it is, rather than how you wish it were.

The Dreyfus affair

In 1894, a member of the French army’s general staff discovered a torn-up note in a waste-paper bin. When they pieced the note back together, they found that an officer had been selling military secrets to Germany. The hunt began to find the traitor.

photo of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Suspicion quickly fell on Alfred Dreyfus: it was no coincidence that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer of his rank in the entire army. It was at this point that confirmation bias kicked in. Every piece of evidence the investigators gathered was interpreted in a way that confirmed the conclusion they had already reached: that Dreyfus was the traitor. The investigators:

  • compared Dreyfus’ handwriting to that on the memo, and concluded that they matched (even though professional handwriting experts were much less confident);
  • searched Dreyfus’ apartment and found nothing at all to incriminate him (which just went to show what a clever and well-trained spy he was);
  • talked to his school-teachers and learned he had been interested in learning foreign languages (useful for betraying secrets to foreign powers); and
  • learned from his teachers that Dreyfus had an excellent memory (very useful for a spy, who has to memorise a lot of information).

Dreyfus was found guilty, publicly humiliated and imprisoned for life on Devil’s Island, a barren land off the coast of South America.

Mad, bad or wrong?

So were the investigators mad, bad or wrong to conclude that Dreyfus was guilty on such flimsy evidence? Did they know he was innocent but just not care? Was he framed to protect someone else?

Researcher Julia Galef argues that we don’t have to assume any madness or badness on the part of the investigators. What they did was all too human and predictable: we are all guilty at times of the confirmation bias to which they fell prey.

The soldier and scout mindsets

In an illuminating TED talk, Galef contrasts two different mindsets, which she calls the ‘soldier’ and the ‘scout’.

Imagine a soldier in the heat of battle, with adrenalin pumping and heart pounding. The soldier’s actions all stem from deeply-ingrained reflexes: instincts aimed at protecting their own side and defeating the enemy. They are swept along by this over-riding purpose.

By contrast, a scout’s job is not to attack or defend: the scout’s job is to understand how things really are. They may hope to learn there is a safe place to make camp just over the next ridge, but if what they find is an exposed plain with no good shelter, that is just what they will report back to their commanding officer.

These roles are also metaphors for different mind-sets. When the French high command were investigating Dreyfus, they were almost certainly in a soldier mindset. Their country was under threat, military secrets were being sold to a foreign power. It was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. And Dreyfus may well have stood out at first because he was Jewish – for the investigators he was not one of ‘us’, so he must have been ‘one of them’.

Enter the scout

A high-ranking French officer began to suspect that the case against Dreyfus was flawed. Colonel Picquart had reason to believe that the spying had continued after Dreyfus was in prison. But it took 10 years for him to finally have the case against Dreyfus over-turned.

Picquart demonstrated a ‘scout’ mindset. He was interested in confronting the truth, even when that was inconvenient for him personally (during his campaign to free Dreyfus, he himself spent time in prison for his disloyalty to the army). He was curious enough to investigate why Dreyfus might not be guilty, even when his organisation was convinced otherwise.

Scouting for strategy

In developing an effective organisational strategy, you need to follow a process that forces you to confront the world as it actually is, not how you would like it to be. The scout mindset – curiosity, a willingness to look for evidence that disproves what you believe, and an ability feel proud rather than ashamed when we discover our errors – is your friend when facing an uncertain future.

What you can say about this

  • Are we being soldiers or scouts here?
  • What evidence could we find to show this isn’t true?
  • Who am I not listening to right now, because they see things differently to me?

Want to know how to see the world as it actually is when developing your organisation’s strategy? Drop me a line at stuart@stuartreid.org.uk.

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

May 1st, 2015 No comments

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

 

I have a masters degree in organisational change from one of the top business schools. I advise leaders on how to navigate change in their organisations. I regularly read books and blog posts and attend seminars on change. So why do I find it so hard to change myself, even when I’m fully committed to doing so?
change cartoon

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This question came up for me recently, when I reviewed how often I manage to meditate. I know how good meditation is for me, and I am committed to meditating every day – but I discovered that whole weeks can go by without me doing any meditation. I love walking, and aim to walk at least 10,000 steps 5 days a week – but for the past two months I haven’t achieved this goal.

If it is this hard to build a habit when I am keen to do so, how much harder is it for a leader to influence change in their organisation when they are facing active resistance?

A personal inquiry

So I’m kicking off a one-year personal action inquiry into change. My intention is to deepen my understanding of change: what it is and how it happens. And also to develop my practice as someone who helps leaders to navigate change in their organisations. My intention is to deepen my own thinking and understanding of my role in change, and to identify what practices make change easier.

personal inquiry means it’s not just an academic review of what other people think about change: I need to have some ‘skin in the game’. So part of my inquiry will be reflecting on my own experience of change during the year.

And it will be an action inquiry because as well as thinking, reading and talking to others, I’ll be taking other kinds of action too. I’ll be doing some experiments to try to deliberately bring about change. And some noticing and observing change as it naturally takes place around me.

These are some of the questions that interest me right now:

  • Are the processes of change the same for individuals, organisations and cultures? Do the methods that help form new personal habits also help in transforming organisations?
  • What metaphors for change are helpful?
  • What illusions do we commonly suffer from when we are trying to make change happen? (Illusions of control, of permanence, etc)
  • What paradoxes are involved in change?
  • What other ways are there of understanding change? For example, I’m interested in what we might learn from Buddhist ideas about being ‘unattached to outcomes’.

Join me

I intend to open up my inquiry and share what I’m learning with others. And I’d love to hear from and collaborate with you if you are also interested in inquiring into change. I’m going to experiment with ways of opening up that conversation online, virtually and face-to-face as part of my inquiry.

If you would like to be involved in that do please let me know in the comments below, or contact me directly. 

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:

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: , , ,

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.

Clients

February 26th, 2010 Comments off

Who I work with – about my clients


I help leaders achieve positive lasting change in behaviour: for themselves, their teams and their organisation.

I typically work with Chief Executives, Chief Operating Officers, Executive Directors for People and other Executive Directors in all kinds of organisations. My clients are responsible for implementing significant change in their organisation – change that will address a problem that really matters to them – and want external help in making that change.

My clients have achieved success in their careers, which has brought them to senior leadership positions. But the skills and experience that brought them to the top are not enough to help them make the change they need. They may be feeling ‘stuck’. They know that they need to try something they haven’t done before, and they are ready to do that now.

I am a sought-after consultant, and I work with only 3 or 4 consulting clients a year.

Are any of these statements true for you?

Your organisation’s strategy isn’t working. You may have an organisational strategy, but no one ever looks at it and it makes no difference to anyone’s day job. Or the world has changed and your strategy needs to be renewed. Or you are not satisfied with how you have developed your strategy in the past, and you want something more engaging and more effective, that produces a strategy that changes your business for the better.

Your leadership team doesn’t work together. When your team meets, it gets side-tracked and wastes time. Key decisions get postponed. Decisions get ‘unpicked’ or fail to be actioned, and you waste a lot of your time ‘chasing up’ actions. Team members act as independent ‘barons’ in their own areas, and don’t work together as a team.

Your leaders don’t lead change effectively. Successful change depends on influencing and changing people’s behaviour, but your leaders use methods that don’t work. People resist change, wait for the change initiative to blow over, or just keep their heads down. You lose the people you most want to keep, and the promised benefits of change are never fully realised.

You have a problem in an area of the business that just won’t go away. You might have a persistent problem in a particular part of the business, like your customer service team. Or your annual staff survey tells you every year that ‘communication’ is a problem, despite trying one initiative after another. You are not ready to give up, but don’t know what else to try.

Being at the top can feel lonely. All those around you have a vested interest in influencing your decisions: they want a particular outcome. You may report to a board chair or a political leader, but there are some problems that you want to work through first by yourself, before taking them ‘up the line’. You know that talking things through is helpful, but you don’t make enough time to actually do it, and aren’t sure who you can trust.

People don’t tell you bad news until it’s too late. No matter how open you are, those who report to you can be reluctant to give you bad news. You find out about some problems when it’s too late: you could have fixed them with less effort if you had found out earlier. And you suspect that your leadership role means that people don’t always give you the feedback that you need, especially where you might be contributing to a problem. They don’t tell you what you need to do differently, so how can you change?

Who is most likely to succeed with the approach I take to organisational change?

You are more likely to get success in working with me if you:

  • Are committed to personal development. You know that what got you here won’t get you there. You want to continue to grow, learn and apply your learning.
  • Are willing to get help. You expect others to ask for and accept help when they need it, and you expect the same of yourself.
  • Are willing to invest in yourself and in your organisation. You will commit the time, effort and resources into improving your organisation. This includes committing your own time: you are willing to working with me as a trusted advisor, making time to meet regularly.
  • Are open to trying something different. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get the results you’ve always got! You are willing to try something new, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable at first.
  • Are willing to share your thinking and reflect on your actions. You are willing to examine your own contribution to problems, and take action on them.
  • Are committed to mutually supportive relationships. You know that your success has come in part from the long-term, supportive relationships that you have developed.

If you fit the profile above you are in a good position to approach a critical change. I help leaders like you through exactly that kind of change.  Find out more about how I work.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

January 21st, 2010 No comments

Drilling a well

Drilling a well

This post concludes my summary of chapter 1 of Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations, and covers two new techniques.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

Scott describes a very simple technique which makes a noticeable difference to the quality of conversation. She recommends whenever we find ourselves about to say “yes, but”, replacing those words with “yes, and”.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, but I’m very busy right now.”

The ‘yes’ here does acknowledge the need, the ‘but’ says ‘but I’m not going to meet that need’.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, and I’m very busy right now.”

There’s a bit more wriggle room here – the second response doesn’t quite have the air of finality. There’s some room for discussion.

How does this work? Because saying “yes, but” acknowledges that there are competing needs, and asks us to choose between them – we can only have one or the other. Saying “yes, and” acknowledges that both realities or sets of needs can be valid, and allows us to look for ways in which everyone’s needs can be met. There’s more potential in the second response.

Mineral rights conversations

A ‘mineral rights conversation’ is one that has a clear focus, and drills down deep. The name comes from the idea that if you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill a single hundred-foot well, than one hundred one-foot wells.

A mineral rights conversation has seven steps:

  1. Identify your most pressing issue.
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Determine the current impact.
  4. Determine the future implications.
  5. Examine your personal contribution to this issue.
  6. Describe the ideal outcome.
  7. Commit to action.

This is a structure that could be used effectively in a coaching conversation. Scott gives a long example of a mineral rights conversation in the form of a transcript of a conversation she had with John Tompkins, the owner of a fishing company that was in trouble.  In the conversation Scott uses powerful, focused questions that lead the company owner through these steps. The conversation ends with a clear commitment on John’s part to take specific actions. And at no point does Scott offer advice or tell John what to do – he generates his own solutions. Her main strategy is just to ask good questions.

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

Interrogating reality

January 3rd, 2010 No comments

Lion and cub

Lion and cub

This post continues my summary of Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (I got as far as the introduction last time!)

Chapter 1 (‘Master the courge to interrogate reality’) is the longest single chapter in the book, and will take me more than one post to summarise.

Interrogating reality

Reality changes

‘Interrogating reality’ is one of the four key purposes of a fierce conversation (the others being provoking learning, tackling tough challenges and enriching relationships). This is a never-ending activity, because reality changes. Scott uses a great quote from Lillian Hellman to illustrate this:

People change and forget to tell one another

Worse than this, we ourselves change and we mask it from ourselves quite well too.

Scott introduces the analogy of a beach ball to develop this idea further. Imagine that your organisation is a beach ball – with a blue stripe, a red stripe, a green stripe and a yellow stripe. You are the president of the organisation, and you spend all your time on the blue stripe. To you, your organisation is blue.

But your finance director may spend all her time on the red stripe – her reality is very different. So when you lay out your vision for the future in a board meeting, you talk about blue; and your ideas are brilliant, because they take full account of the blueness of the organisation. But your finance director wonders if she is working in the same organisation as you – she raises her concerns based on her red view of the organisation. Meanwhile the VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, is so uncomfortable in the face of conflict that he sits so still in the meeting that everyone forgets he’s there – he disappears, and no one can remember later whether he was there or not.

How often in organisations do people hide what they really think? When the boss outlines his or her latest idea, how often do people just smile and nod, while inside they are thinking “This is crazy!”, “It will never work”, “We tried that before and it failed last time!”. These are likely to be the very people who will have to implement the idea, in which they have no faith. How often do you find yourself saying things you don’t mean, just to be polite? What conversations have you not been able to have with colleagues, with your life partner or with your children?

Who has the turth?

Scott believes that most people would rather hear the truth, even if it is uncomfortable for us:

[R]ecognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises, but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.

In an organisation, as in a relationship, everyone has a piece of the truth.We only know what we know (the blue stripe, for example). So getting at the truth for an organisation requires everyone to put their piece of truth on the table. Does this take time? Probably. But not doing it might take longer. Failing to take into account the views of others will lead them to quietly sabotage your plans – why should they care about your views, when you show little interest in theirs?

A three-step model for interrogating reality

Scott offers a very simple, three step model which helps to get everyone’s reality in the discussion (this summary uses my words rather than hers):

  1. State your view (including your recommendation if you have one)
  2. Check for understanding
  3. Check for agreement

How does this work?

You should clearly state how you see things, including what you think ought to be done (if you have an opinion on that). Some people choose not to express their view, in the belief that it will influence others and stop them saying what they really think. Scott’s view, which I agree with, is that people will assume you have a view anyway, and will try to guess what it is. Better to just tell them. It also gives people a firm starting point to respond to.

You then check to see whether people have understood what you think – let people ask questions to clarify (and if anyone is looking puzzled or thoughtful, invite them by name to ask questions if anything isn’t clear). And then you ask a genuine question inviting people who see it differently to say how they see it – acknowledge that it may be hard for people to speak up, but show that you are genuinely curious about their point of view. So you can acknowledge that you only know what you know, and others in the room will know things you don’t know, and will see it differently.

It is your behaviour now that will make the difference between this being a genuine discussion, and the discussion becoming a ritual. If someone expresses a view that differs from yours, do not become defensive and explain how you were right all along. Be genuinely interested in the alternative view – could they be right? You need to be tentative about your own viewpoint – could your proposal be improved or a different idea be better? Scott also recommends calling on each person individually to express their view. And ask people to comment on each others’ views too, as well as your starting point.

Well, that’s it for now. There is more to come in this chapter, including a way of holding a conversation that stays focused on the most important topic, and drills down to what really matters. I’ll cover that in the next post.

* 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.