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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 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.

Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 No comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.

Caring

November 13th, 2009 2 comments

Listening

Listening

I wrote a while ago about the differences between exercising my professional skills as a listener, and choosing instead to actually engage in a conversation and give something of myself. One of the differences is needing to care, in order to actively take part in a conversation.

For example, mediation works well when there is a level of empathy between the mediator and the parties in the conflict. As a mediator, I can only properly empathise with the parties when I let myself care about them – when I have genuine concerns for the pain or difficulty they are both experiencing. I can’t be cool and detached when I am caring, I have to be on their side in some way – on the side of both of the parties, that is (what some mediators refer to as multi partiality).

In their book Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management, the authors link this idea of caring to the idea of being authentic.

It is possible to read plenty of books about listening ‘techniques’ and still miss the point. One of the challenges for us is to develop our authenticity as a listener. This means we listen, not because we have to but because we are genuinely curious and care about the speaker and what they are seeking to communicate. (p. 89)

This is harder to do than it is to say. While I am listening to you, your words are prompting thoughts and responses in my mind. More often than not I am waiting for you to finish only so that I can tell a funny story of my own that you have reminded me of. Or I have such a strong reaction to the first thing you said that I don’t listen to your careful exceptions and explanations – I just want to tell you why you’re wrong.

When I’m doing this I’m not really in a conversation with you – I’m just waiting for you to get off-stage so that I can have the star turn. The hard work is in really listening to what you are saying – all of it – and actually responding to what you said.

This perfection is difficult to achieve – sometimes my internal voice is just too insistent, and I need to speak. And it’s not much of a conversation if I never give my own opinion or viewpoint. But to listen to somebody – to really listen to them – is to treat them as a person who is worth listening to.

If you have experienced another person paying you full attention because they care for you, then it’s a memorable moment. (p. 89)

(Hat tip to Steve Hindmarsh for first introducing me to Ivan Böszörményi-Nagy’s idea of multi partiality or multi-directed partiality.)

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

The ripple effect

October 30th, 2009 No comments

Poncho wearer jumping for joy

The joy of ponchos...

As facilitators, trainers or coaches, we sometimes know that we have made a positive difference to the people we have worked with. But we can also have positive effects which we have no idea about – what we do can have a ripple effect that can continue long after we have packed up and gone home.

At September’s European conference of the International Association of Facilitators I attended a session run by a lively fellow facilitator from Spain, Sonsoles Morales in the main lecture theatre. During her session, she shared a very effective ice-breaker that had a much bigger effect on me than I had expected.

I’m putting on my poncho…

Sonsoles invited the 25 or so people in her workshop to take a piece of flipchart paper each, and a marker pen. She then asked us to fold the flipchart paper in half, and position the paper so that the fold was at the top. Using the marker pen, we each then wrote something on the front of the flipchart that we felt best described ourselves. Some people chose to write keywords, some wrote sentences. I chose to draw some pictures that showed different parts of my life.

We then tore a half-moon-shaped hole in the top folded edge of the flipchart, creating our very own personalised ponchos.

My poncho from the front

My poncho from the front

Sonsoles led us outside into a garden area in bright autumn sunshine. I put on my poncho for the first time, wearing what I had written at the front, and wondered a little nervously what would come next.

What do you see?

Unexpectedly, Sonsoles asked us not to focus on what other people had written on the front of their ponchos, but instead to walk around the group, find people we did not know, and just look at them as people. We were then to walk behind them, and write briefly on the back of the poncho something that had struck us about the person we had just looked at – their physical appearance, or how they seemed to us as people. Sonsoles encouraged us to seek out people who did not have much written on their backs, and write a few words.

As the exercise went on, I became very curious about what other people had written on my back. I was also aware that I didn’t really know who in the group had written on my poncho – most of my attention was on the people I was looking at, rather than the people who were looking at me.

Once everyone had some comments on their ponchos, Sonsoles led us back inside. Only then were we allowed to remove the ponchos and turn them over to reveal what the strangers we had met thought about us.

Our survey said…

My poncho from the back

My poncho from the back

The words written on my back were very simple and straightforward, including:

  • Fun
  • Nice Beard
  • Funny
  • Library & books
  • Beautiful eyes
  • Love your drawing

I was surprised to find tears coming to my eyes as I read the words on the back of my poncho. A group of complete strangers had chosen to say nice things to me – someone they barely knew. I realised how rare it is for us to give or receive heartfelt, simple compliments to people we do not already know well.

For myself, I know it is much easier and safer for me to keep barriers up in a social situation where I am among people I don’t know, to manage my own anxiety. Opening up and being direct makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable – it raises the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or rejected. I can avoid that risk by playing safe, and not giving away what I am thinking or feeling. But having experienced how it feels to receive a heartfelt compliment has made me more willing to take the first step of paying those compliments to others.

The ripple effect

So what effect has this had on me?

One immediate effect was that I decided to give some positive feedback to a fellow facilitator at the conference who had deeply impressed me the previous day. And I have blogged about the conversation this led to, which has stayed with me since.

A second effect was a more general one – to make more of an effort to tell people what I like about them – strangers I talk to, friends and family, shop assistants, anyone I come into contact with. This effect has faded a bit since the conference – I’ve slipped back to my self-protecting old ways – but writing about it today has brought it back to the front of my mind.

Using this activity as an icebreaker

The effect the activity had on me was not one that Sonsoles could have predicted, and it will not have this effect on everyone. Nevertheless, one reason the activity works is because it does encourage people to be direct with each other in a way that builds trust. It would work particularly well for a group that does not know each other very well to start with, and could accelerate the process of getting to know each other.

Sonsoles also added a further step to the exercise, which I left out of the description above. After writing on each other’s backs, we walked around as a group again, but this time looking at the front of our colleagues’ ponchos for connections and similarities. Some of the other comments on the back of my poncho – about having two sons, and having a link to Scotland – were the result of similarities I found to other members of the group. This makes use of what is on the front of the poncho, and helps build connections between individuals in the group.