The connection of anger and fear is brilliant. It has set off a myriad of thoughts in me but the key thought is that this is a central issue at the top table. I like the point on “anger” being admired or the stuff of myths in the Industrial Age. And indeed now in organizations: “strong leader, courageous conversations, cuts through the crap” etc. all labels I hear around our organization! And what you set out beautifully is that for you, and I know for many of the “angry leaders” fear is their real emotion, which they are not able to voice.
I love your stories. You tell them beautifully, they draw me in, and there is always an element of the unexpected. I read them avidly, wanting to know where they will lead. Both you and all the other characters display their vulnerability and uncertainty, even though in the main those featured are successful and acknowledged to be so, in one way or another.
Practices for inside myself
BEAUTIFUL MINDS AND SCRUFFY SUITS
They pride themselves on their cool, rational thought and their training that means they are relied upon by the rest of the organization to underpin the financial heart of the place. Many of them have an actuarial training and their business of insurance relies on the elegant calculations they perform. I have enjoyed getting to know them over the past few months, they are prickly to begin with, and very closed to anything I may have to offer. Over time, they give more of themselves and I realize, with a thump, how little people listen to them, beyond issues relating to their core competence. It is a strange divide; on their subject of expertise their voices are loud and their opinions well-received and respected. On most other matters, they are politely ignored, as if they can’t possibly understand the other workings of the organization.
We are talking together because they are having difficulty applying the same perfect logic they bring to their analysis to themselves. The department is being restructured by a new leader, the evidence has been gathered, the inputs offered, interpretations completed and yet the conclusions are peculiar. The room is a collection of highly-intelligent individuals, so fascinated by their minds they have forgotten about the rest of their bodies. I note a range of spectacles, unkempt hairstyles and suits that say “just give me something to wear that I don’t have to think about each day”. There are a number of awkward monologues and courteous, ‘bi-polar’ disagreements which leave the opposing party feeling wellliked and dismissed.
Over time, we come to agree there is something amiss in what they are suggesting for their own department. They tend to favour current practice over the bestavailable evidence. They are following what their peer group is doing, even when it has been demonstrated not to work. They behave as if doing more of what they do is the same as doing what they do more effectively. They focus on surface symptoms rather than root causes. The most devastating realization for them is that they are failing to present information or choices effectively. They have been trained to remove bias and yet here is bias in spades and bucket loads.
This team makes a useful example precisely because of its training, but the situation is a common one. It is hard to let go of what we know and what we are, for what we could become. The other reason this team stays with me is that members were able to do what many others couldn’t, which was to describe how frightening it was to let go of past biases.
We worked on some practices together that were designed to help us experience our organizational lives more directly, practices that put them in the overlap, opening the choice between static or dynamic, fearful or fearless. I need to find a better word than fearless because the actual manifestation of their being was still fearful and yet moving. (See Figure 11)
At first, I felt very angry, they were having a go at me, my whole body was flushed with an enormous surge of emotion. My mind was trying to grab anything that would get me through this and everything in my body was ready for a fight.
Then I stopped and gave it a little longer. It may only have been seconds, but felt much longer, as these things often do.
Now I noticed a sensation in my stomach that is difficult to describe but I knew it, after many years of experience, to be a sign that I was scared. My intestines were all tangled up, I was hyper-sensitive to the environment and my heart was in my mouth. I used to deny this being about fear and call it something else; I couldn’t accept I would be scared of anything, far better to be angry than scared.
Now I can accept it is fear, it gives me some more choices.
I also know that, when I feel it, there is bound to be some anger somewhere, sometimes directed towards me. This is helpful when everyone in the room is still smiling but my senses are telling me something different. Sometimes, it is more ‘obvious’, people avoiding contact with me, talking past me and turning their faces away.
It is then a choice of what do I do with this? Do I want to press into the anger, encourage its expression? I often do this by reflecting back to the team their facial expressions – this sometimes causes a shift. Or do I want to diffuse the anger? In this case I chose to do that in the interests of the bigger piece of work by trying an apology. But I could only make this choice once I distinguished fear as different to anger. If I only had an angry response there was no choice about my reactions.
I imagine a picture of my fear when it is hiding just behind my anger. It is smaller, obscured somehow, it makes itself available but only for an instant before it hides away again, hands over its eyes or ears or mouth. If I can pause and wait quietly then it may show itself again. The fearful part of me feels weak but the more I wait, the more time I give it, the more likely it is that it will come and speak for itself.
When I speak from that place, I notice the whole tone of what I am saying changes, my voice and presence are different, steadier more connected, the audience is more intent on hearing what I have to say, the room is quieter. And we get a result more often than not.
In the Establishment, it is quite easy to be angry with a whole host of things in the business that are not going to plan. In the culture of the Industrial Age, being angry is often admired as a form of leadership and if it is not admired, then it is certainly the currency of many organizational myths.
In the channel at the edges of the status quo, access to fear, especially the fear behind any anger, is a source of creativity and change, if only we can give it a voice. (See Figure 12)
• Can you identify what triggers it?
• Is it authentic, about addressing some kind of injustice?
• Is it a cover for another emotion?
• Could you be covering up fear?
• If so, what are you scared of? Can you articulate it or write it down? What happens? How do people react?
• Can you distinguish the changes in your body and the distinctions between what you notice when you are angry, compared with when you are scared?
We walk into a new section of the building, my footfall is definitely less heavy here, something has changed in the thickness of the floor covering. It is quiet here too, as if we have closed the door on the real world of this business and entered hallowed ground.
The two people we are here to meet are buttoned up, the clothing is all very ‘on-trend’ and I feel slightly intimidated, the way I do when entering a luxury retail store. They are leading the CEO’s strategy group. As far as I understand, it is a kind of skunkworks set up to handle strategic breakthroughs and we are talking to them because they are a little stuck.
Their smiles are cold and we begin with a time check. We have sixty minutes, but they need to be away in 45, important business for the CEO. There are regular time checks every ten minutes from one or the other checking on our progress and I am more than a little pissed off before the second one.
There is no space to breathe here; it is a parallel of the environment they have set up for this strategy group. They hand-select high-potential individuals from the global business and bring them to the corporate headquarters for a 12-month stint. They are tasked with making a breakthrough on some issue of strategy that a local business unit has dragged its heels on. After doing the ‘thinking’, they hand it back to the business unit and, hopefully, as a result of their increased profile and access to the CEO, go on to an immediate promotion back in their country.
The team was run by the two people I was meeting, one was the leader, the other an internal process consultant with a specialism in six sigma approaches. They coached the selected few during their time in the corporate headquarters. As I was already experiencing, there was a significant emphasis on process and structure and being neat, ordered, smart.
The problem was, they were having no breakthroughs. Even those they claimed to have had looked good on paper but didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Few breakthroughs were sustained - partly because the local business resented being given an answer to implement, partly because there was no space for creativity, diversity, disturbance or difference. And it all showed up in the conversation. I call it a conversation, it was more of an examination. They were looking for quick, easy answers and weren’t too keen on a world view that challenged their own highly-developed perception.
Most of all, there was no room for anything outside of their prescribed process. As we were escorted back over the perimeter I noticed my chest expand a little and let out a couple of deep sighs before I felt ‘back in my body’ again. You won’t be surprised to hear this was another of my not-so-glorious failures and we weren’t invited back for another conversation.
When we are scared or in an environment that is scared, we forget to breathe. Or, at least, forget to breathe so that the breath goes all the way into our bodies and nourishes us. It often gets stuck in the upper chest, quickly moving in and out in a shallow manner. So it is a simple practice but one that has immense power when you are scared and in the container.
• When you are scared, how do you breathe?
• When does your chest feel tight, physically or metaphorically?
• What are the signals and symptoms of suffocation in the organization?
• Learn to take some sighs and deep breaths so that they reach the cavities in your body. I don’t mean hyperventilating
• As you learn to breathe what do you notice in your body and mind? What happens to your fear?
It was a strange charade in which I took part every Monday morning in the workplace. The ‘real men’ I aspired to be like had played rugby or watched rugby over the weekend. The White, middle-class population that made up this corporation shared their real-or-metaphorical bruises on a Monday morning and laughed with each other. It seemed to set up an easier working relationship for the rest of the week.
I wasn’t White or middle-class and had no interest in rugby, but somehow I forced myself into sounding and looking the same so I could fit in. I could give you a dozen other examples of how I bent myself to fit in for the first 10 years of my career. The most damaging was when I was suffering at the hands of bullies and only realise now that they got away with it because I was so desperate to be like them, to please the image I had of a senior executive in this organization and fit in.
The ultimate irony was that, as the years progressed and diversity in the workplace became a fashionable focus for organizations, I was repeatedly used as a representation of diversity at a senior level. “We can’t be prejudiced,” went the argument – “otherwise he wouldn’t be a director.” I had a rude awakening when confronted by one of my junior colleagues on this issue.
“You may be the poster child for diversity around here but you are just as White middle-class and male on the inside as the rest of them. You just look different on the outside. That isn’t the kind of diversity we are meant to be talking about.”
I denied many aspects of myself in order to make this pretence work. My initial education, where I had started my career, my accent, a degree I didn’t want to do, how much I loved the people side of things, how wrong I believed many of our management practices were, what I liked, what I knew about and pretended not to.
I convinced myself that the organization wanted my energy and commitment but not my difference. Looking back on it now, I wonder if the responsibility for this farce was 50:50 theirs and mine. I look back now and wonder how much the many talented people around me were denying of themselves; what more we could have gained if we had enjoyed our individual weirdness instead.
Those who had the courage to be their different selves and were not rejected seemed to be treated as a novelty. They were accepted for the value they brought, but limited in how far they might progress in the organization or with what they would be trusted. Our recruitment processes also unconsciously reinforced the need to be the same, rooting out difference even when the brief was specifically to find it.
Fortunately, I realised later on – and not too late – that I wanted to celebrate my difference, not hide it. It took a while, and was initially motivated by giving up on what anyone else might think or say; internally, I was daring them to sack me but something unexpected happened. I became more successful and the promotions followed more quickly until eventually I ran the place. I do my best now to make not fitting in a badge of honour rather than a reason for removal. We celebrate individual weirdness, encourage people to talk about it, and there has been an interesting, unintended consequence. Giving up the desire to fit in means the energy that the bullies feed on is removed, their power is diminished.
Giving up the desire to fit into the current culture helps build and strengthen the shift between the Industrial Age and the Age of Connection. If you are serious about the phase shift to a new age then looking for, and amplifying, your difference and the difference in others is a key part of the process.
A risk of standing out is that you may have to give up your desire for progress in promotional terms. Or it may accelerate you. You won’t know until you try. (See Figure 13)
• What is weird about you? According to the current paradigm, what do you reject? What do you deny?
• What does your difference represent? What could you symbolize for the future?
• How can you make your difference useful to yourself and the organization? Where is it accepted and denied? Where will you do something new? Why can't it be accepted? What would have to be given up by the status quo? Where are you agreeing in order to fit in?
THE ARTIST’S BIN
It was hard to imagine the business structure without his team there, their creation was based on the insight of which he was most proud and they couldn’t let it go. We had admired his work over the years from a distance - he was one of those that the original Challenger research was based on. He is a little older now, a little greyer around the temples, a little more conservative in his dress, a little slower with his speech. Eventually, I recognise what the tonal difference in our conversation means. He is less certain:
“It struck us a while ago that there was a group of leading-edge customers which was exerting disproportionate influence on the market and yet our sales force was set up mostly to hit as many customers as possible, as many times as possible, with a consistent message across all customer groups,’ he says. “Marketing had most of the power in the business so we were organized around brands and ‘key messages’. It took a lot of work but I led the effort to change this mindset in the business.”
The structure re-organized around customers rather than brands. There had been a lot of investment in time and money and now the data were telling him, after the excitement of the first couple of years, that the model wasn’t working as well as hoped. The need for strong brands at the heart of the business model was reasserting itself. It was time for another change that he was fighting to the point of his own health suffering.
We are talking because his health and his performance rating are in jeopardy.
I gather my breath and wonder if there is another way to approach his wellbeing. Much of the work we have already completed has left him no better off. His attachment to something on which he has based his identity is overwhelming any other efforts to help.
“I was told once, on a writing course, to identify the most beautiful line in a paragraph or chapter or book and discard it,” I say. “The idea was that I would be so attached to the beauty I would end up forcing other parts to fit and the result would be clumsy or uncomfortable”.
He is lost in thought for a while and then turns his face back to me.
“I actually do that too quite often when I’m writing papers, believe it or not, because you do get hung up on a sentence or an opening. Exactly the same thing happens when I am painting, there’s a piece of it that took considerable crafting but as the painting evolves it increasingly doesn’t fit and finally you paint over it.”
Building our channel at the edges of the Establishment – we need some artistry, the ability to create something highly personal and yet throw it away easily, this is going to help the next phase emerge. The courage to let go of something we may strongly believe, in order to allow something else to emerge. (See figure 14)
• What is it in the organizational view to which you are most attached or are most likely to reject?
• What effect is it having on you?
• What effect is it having on everything else around it?
• Where do you have to force things?
• What if you took your most ‘beautiful line’ and threw it away?
• What if you took the line to which you were most averse and kept to it?
Practices for between us
He is usually a mild-mannered man, known for his gentle demeanor and care for others. His smile is almost never absent from his face and his efforts are always on behalf of someone else. An email or call is never going to be a selfish one, he will be contacting you to try to help someone, make connections, offer his services. We have known each other for a number of years but this is the first time he has asked for help for himself. This time he couldn’t make it work with what he had, the winning formula had run out of steam and he was lost.
More than his being lost, I was most concerned by his lack of a smile when we greeted each other; his mop of hair, round face and glasses, framed by a painful circular frown, arching over dark-brown eyes. His back was aching - it wouldn’t let him sit down for long - so his story was interspersed with slow movements up from the chair, a walk around the room and then a slow lowering back into his seat. He was struggling with a boss who couldn’t be satisfied, no matter how much he tried to do, what had always worked in the past.
“I felt he was complaining and how unfair the accusations were, it was unrelenting aggression and I couldn’t escape from it. I just listened quietly after trying a couple of times to put my point across.”
“What would you like to do to him?” I asked after a particularly long story of suffering. There was then another ten minutes of explanation that it wasn’t really his manager’s fault and outlining all the extenuating circumstances.
“Yes but what would you like to do in your most wild state?”
“I would like to knock his block off,” he says, with his hands shaping up to circle something.
“That looks more like a strangling motion than a punching one.” He laughs out loud, looking at his hands.
“Yes. Ok then, I’d strangle him.”
“Go on, have a go, pretend that is his neck you have in your hands.” That was too much, he is embarrassed and looks down, puts his hands away.
I apologize. “Sorry, I should have said none of this is intended to hurt anyone. My hypothesis is that you have a wild part of your nature that doesn’t get enough expression. It is causing you difficulty with your energy and your physical symptoms.”
He is slumped on the desk, hands over his ears, elbows on the table, energy drained from his body, but makes a strong connection with the suggestion. I sense the slump is an expression of how he feels during some of the interactions he describes.
We worked a lot more with what he wanted to say. It wasn’t immediate, but slowly, as he accessed this wild man hidden behind the jovial exterior, the symptoms began to alleviate. We started with journaling, building up to saying it out loud in private and then, on a very emotional day, finding the voice to speak it in person to the offending party. His expression wasn’t inappropriate in any way despite accessing some wildness in order to be able to express it.
We have long since given up on our wild nature, being wild is seen as being unprofessional. Instinctively, wild men and women who can’t let the wildness out surround us. But the Flawed but Willing know they have to build a channel that can withstand this part of themselves and others. There is a creative use for our wild natures if we can find an expression of it that doesn’t hurt others; sometimes the seed of the transition is buried inside a scream.
We can cope with socially-permitted aggression in the Establishment. That is not what I am talking about. That is often just about dumping your stress on others or acting out some psychological need to demean other people around you. Neither am I talking about a wild state of anarchy that characterizes chaos, breakdown and fragmentation. But, at the edges of these states, what is the part of you that just wants to shout out loud at the injustice, limited thinking, avoidance or lack of integrity around the place? That is what we are after. (See Figure 15)
• How do you picture the wild man expression of yourself?
• Could you draw or describe the figure?
• How is this version of you kept in check in relationship with others?
• What are the benefits and sacrifices of this mechanism that keeps you in check?
• Where do you want to let him or her out and what would the positive consequences be for you and others?
My business partner and I are sitting in the very plush offices of a private equity firm in London, having been invited there by the managing partner, someone my business partner has known for many years. They struck up a strong working relationship through a previous project in another company and he wants to support us in getting our new business off the ground. We are interested in doing the high-end psychologically- and spiritually-based work that will help CEOs and their executive teams prepare their businesses for this uncertain future in the Age of Connection.
I am new to the field, having just left the industrial corporate world to follow my passion and interest. I feel comfortable in this office, I can understand the feel of the place, the language used, the way people move. I fantasize about what is going on in their day and the challenges that cause their brows to be so furrowed. A very smart PA clicks into the meeting room with an important-looking print-out for our prospective client. He excuses himself, pores over it, makes some scribbles, then calls his wife to discuss tiling for their home improvement project.
We have a laugh and a coffee, the two of them reminiscing about old times and then get down to business. The organization has difficulty interviewing prospective businesses and the people in them, with a view to purchasing these and recruiting new management teams, if needed.
“Can we help them with interviewing skills?”
My heart sinks. “What a shame,” I think; “We can do so much more than that.” (Maybe he doesn’t realise quite how special we are. Oh well, we will politely decline and make our way to the next appointment.)
“Yes,” says this clear voice sitting next to me.
“We can help with that and do it in a way that you won’t have tested before.”
I have a quizzical expression on my face and lots of doubt in my head but keep my mouth shut and my head nodding affirmatively. A few minutes later, we have said our goodbyes and are wrapped up against the cold of London in February.
“I have no idea how to do that,” I say, wanting to sound curious, but actually sounding reproachful.
“Neither do I”,says my business partner, pointing at a bookshop. “But the first thing we are going to do is to buy a couple of books on interviewing skills and work out how to build our work into their principles.”
I have mused, in the past, about an experiment that could somehow measure how many times people say “no” in an average day in the Establishment. In my experience, there is an inbuilt fear of saying “yes” to the uncertain. We find it much easier when saying “no” fulfills a need to look clever, to make the person asking the question look worse, to demonstrate the ‘quality’ of our thinking or to be in opposition.
The channel being built to help the transition to the next age is strengthened by saying “yes”. Saying “yes”, when you can think of lots of reasons to say “no”, is at the heart of experimentation and could access the hidden possibility present in your organization - one you just can’t see yet. (See Figure 16)
Experiment with how many times you say “no” to the uncertain in your day or week. Yes, I do literally mean record it somewhere, like a ‘symptom diary’.
• Can you see any patterns in what you are saying “no” to?
• What are the conditions around you when it happens?
• Track how energetic you feel and what it does to the energy of those around you.
When you have enough data, try an experiment with saying “yes”; literally spend the whole day saying “yes”. (You can always undo them the next day if need be, just give the experiment a whole-hearted go).
• Can you see any patterns emerging as you say “yes” to it all?
• What are the conditions around you when it happens?
• Track how energetic you feel and what it does to the energy of those around you.
I hadn’t ever been allowed past it, the protective shell around the inner experience that was at the heart of who he was. It was just too strong, the defences were multitudinal and he left me wondering what it was that was so difficult he wouldn’t want to access it. Our conversations were pleasant enough, but I doubt I did much more at the start than be someone with which he could talk in confidence to relieve the loneliness once a month.
In addition to the psychological defences, there were others too - forms of self-medicating to keep the anxiety from being ‘discovered’, excessive work, over control, alcohol and affairs. The defences had served him well in many ways. He was rich, successful, powerful, had reached the position of CEO that had always been the ultimate aim. He was still married, had three beautiful children and a stunning home that his wife had designed and built. And yet, it was just taking too much out of him, he was angry and upset most of the time when at home, over-pleasant and ‘adapted’ most of the time at work.
Then, one day, we were fortunate with the timing of our conversation (or maybe there are no accidents). Everything had gone wrong at the same time that day - work, home and health. We met at the end of a few hours that had held no respite. The relationship he most treasured with his chairman and mentor had taken a turn for the worse and he had intended, but forgotten, to cancel our conversation.
It was in that moment of finally being overwhelmed that we had a tiny glimpse into the core of his being and about what he what he was most defensive. As we worked on the difficulties of the day and his responses to them, there was a story he told me briefly. It is one that I have been permitted and privileged to hear many times over the years from others - of childhood abuse. Sometimes sexual, often physical and always emotional in some way; experiences of overintrusion or neglect or both.
His body shuddered and he couldn’t stop his hand shaking as he spoke. There was a gentle sigh in us both as we allowed ourselves to talk about the unspeakable for just a few minutes before it had to be put away again.
We drew a diagram together which helped make some more sense of what was going on and took the emotional pitch down a level. It was a way of welcoming the conversation and it not being too much to bear. It felt as if, once we had turned to scribbling our sense-making onto paper, the enormity of what was being shared was easier to talk about.
Being overwhelmed is something of which we are fearful and, at the same time, something that can be helpful as we transition from one age to the next.
If our defences are like a brick wall, always solid, never breached, then the possibility of anything novel emerging is reduced. It often takes a moment of being overwhelmed before the part of us that we are defending can be seen. In the moment of being hurt, overloaded, caught out, tripped up or humiliated we gain a chance to see, and work with, the part of ourselves we spend the rest of our time enclosing in a protective shell.
As we spend time at the edges of the things we know and with which we can cope, the channel is strengthened. When we can’t cope, the cracks can allow us to integrate an experience that has been shielded for a lifetime but refuses to vanish or stop causing problems in the rest of our lives. (See Figure 17)
• What are you defending or shielding most strongly in yourself?
• How does this keep you rooted to the status quo?
• What are the defences you are using (psychological, emotional, behavioural and relational - at home and at work)?
• What are the defences designed to stop you from saying, showing or doing?
• What happens to your defences when you are overwhelmed?
• What are the opportunities these moments present to you?
• What is the worst that could happen if you were to expose the inner workings of your weaker, under-developed, more vulnerable self?
• And what is the best that could happen?
There are 14 of us standing in a circle in a small, long, wooden–floored, stark room in Camden, north London. I have a feeling that I haven’t experienced for a long time. I feel so exposed and vulnerable, I am fairly sure I am not going to make it to the end of this exercise. I may have to make a feeble excuse, step outside, grab mouthfuls of fresh air and decide if I am going to do a runner.
I knew when my friend Steve sent me the invitation to a day of ‘musical improvisation’ that it was something I really, really didn’t want to do, so of course I hovered over the delete button and then replied to say “yes”, I would be there. I trust Steve and have been involved in a range of experiences in theatre in the past but there was something about singing, in particular, that was disturbing me. I thought it was worth trying to find out why.
Back in the room, I found my constrained, corporate self standing in the middle of a group of artistic media types, all converse trainers, crumpled jackets and shirts hanging out. The idea of this exercise is that the piano player plays a tune in a particular style and you sing to it - in gibberish - nothing has to make any sense, but it needs to match the musical style of the accompaniment. The person to your left starts singing to you and you have to respond in some way, again in gibberish. Then, when you have finished, the music changes, you turn to your right and sing to the next person in the new style. So we go around the circle.
I am standing about six people along the line, working out when and how to make my exit. The first few rounds do nothing to quell my panic but it is all happening too quickly and, all of a sudden, there he is, my first partner, completing his piece and turning towards me. We have never met before and have no particular connection. I find myself unable to look at him and am turned away at a slight angle. As my eyes travel around the room, I settle on the facilitator who catches my eye. She has been a caring presence since we began the work and I feel comfortable again for a moment. She makes a slight gesture with her hand, indicating that I should turn my head and look at my partner as he starts to respond to the music... oh, for heaven’s sake, it is something operatic!
He starts singing and it takes my breath away, the room goes still. It wasn’t that he was any good; frankly, I can’t remember whether he was even in tune. The magic was in the degree of commitment he brought to his singing and to me, as his partner. There was no chance he would be half-hearted in his delivery and, despite my obvious discomfort, no chance he would hold back in his interaction with me. I was spellbound.
And then, without warning, he finishes singing. I open my mouth and out comes something I don’t recognize, I haven’t planned for it and, all-ofa- sudden, have lost my self-consciousness. Again, I can’t recall the quality of what I produced, just that it was similarly whole-hearted. At the moment we build to a duet and finish our piece, it seems natural and obvious to give him a heart-felt hug. Two blokes that have never met before, at least one of who is not very tactile at the best of times.
The rest of the day is stimulating and enlightening but nothing else touches that moment. As I reflect back on it in the days and weeks that follow, I know it has done something to my visceral understanding of commitment in a way that is impossible for me to forget or unlearn.
I am left asking myself some questions that are now posed to you.
• Where, when and to whom in my organization am I committed?
• Where do I hold myself back?
• When do I give myself fully?
• And what is the role of commitment in living a successful, creative life?
Practices for across us all
The CEO has some key strands to his strategy for the future and one of them contains the word ‘empowerment’. He has reasoned that, with the technical advantage of his business being fast eroded, the freedom of his global employees to innovate could be a critical source of advantage in the future.
The project team of 12 colleagues gathered around the meeting table wear pursed lips and severe frowns, these people were responsible for this ‘empowerment strategy’ and the conversation had been becoming increasingly difficult. They were making little progress and were expecting a visit from the project leader in the next hour.
A few minutes late, in she rushes, a whirlwind of power, and the mood changes in the room - from collective frustration to collective fear and a desire to look good. She listens in to the conversation for ten minutes or so as the team becomes increasingly confused and stilted under her gaze. The discussion sounds familiar to me; those organizations that most need empowered employees have cultures that are least likely to allow those initial faltering steps towards it to take place.
“We can’t just let chaos reign in the organization, we have to give people some boundaries.”
“We need to define ‘empowerment’ more clearly, we can’t just leave it as open as it currently is, people are confused.”
There are some dissenting voices, mine included, that argue for space and time for the organization to feel its way through this initial period; to generate some imperfect experience from which learning can take place. And then we are hit with the impatience of the Establishment.
“Ok, I’ve heard enough,” says the project leader. “If you can’t sort this out despite all the time you have spent on it, I’ll have to do it myself.”
The difficulty creating an empowered business was highlighted in a sentence. This is what it was like to try and work it out for oneself inside this organization.
She was true to her word and, a couple of hours later, had given the problem to one of the big consulting houses that were supporting the strategy implementation. Back it came in pristine blue and white the next day. A definition of empowerment, two sentences on one slide, each word defined precisely. What it did mean and what it didn’t mean. The expression was great, definite, clear, the boundaries everyone had been keen to have. Within 24 hours it had been put under the noses of all relevant stakeholders and was ready to be rolled-out. And rolled-out it was, over and over again... with little effect. You see, in that instant, the signal had been sent and clearly received. There are a few people with big brains at the top of this organization, they do the thinking and then give you some rules to live within. Don’t step outside of those; if you do, you will have no excuse as you have been told clearly what the right side of the line is.
The Industrial Age believes it is good at requesting, and often achieving, something close to perfect compliance. The language, metaphors and measures of mechanics and machines has left in us a desire and belief that this is possible if only we lead the right people in the right way (and of course check up on them).
The transition to the Age of Connection will need in us an equally powerful belief and desire for imperfect contribution, which leads to more contribution and sets up a virtuous cycle of energetic belief. It must build an organizational belief that, as one person, one team or one project, the small things we contribute make a difference. (See Figure 18)
• What practices are currently in place for creating compliance? How do they work, what do they require from you and what are their effects?
• What is your sense of how these practices have been handed down to you from previous generations?
• What is the tension you, your team and your business experiences between compliance and contribution?
• Where are the people, businesses and industries that model contribution over compliance?
• What are the practices you could invent for creating contribution? How do they work?
• What do they require from you and what are their effects?
• When you visualize handing down new cultural practices to the next generation, what do you see? What do you hear yourself saying?
EXPERIMENTS ARE NOT PILOTS
It is a large, complex organization that grew from its roots as an engineering business. This has left a significant imprint on the organization’s language and culture and it is exhausting to do anything different without it taking a lot of energy, immense skill and a significant amount of time.
The project lead is a thoughtful and considered man, who has successfully delivered a number of complicated projects to budget and deadline. This has earned him a series of promotions to where he now sits on the executive team. The office is pristine in its appearance; there is a number of framed pictures of old project teams on the walls - they are lined up in symmetrical rows. The desk is another repository of symmetry: computer, keyboard, notepad, telephone, square blocks sitting next to each other. He gestures to the chairs in the corner of the office.
We are meeting as he has responsibility for a major part of the strategic initiative we are supporting and there is a tension between the momentum behind the project and his cultural preferences, borne out of his history within the organization. I am tired and impatient, not at my best. He slowly pours us some glasses of water and leans backwards in his chair.
“So how do you know if something of this nature is going to work or not?” I ask.
“What is the time lag between collecting the data and acting on it?”
Furrowed brow. “Conservatively, between 6-12 weeks. Well, we have to first agree on our goals, the target data, the methods we are going to use. And then have some process of data collection, often done by external partners so we have to brief them too. Then we’ll sort and analyze the results before presenting them to the key decision-makers in the business with a recommendation; in a structured, systematic and scientific manner.”
“And what if you needed to move more quickly?”
Pursed lips. “We wouldn’t want to make any errors through haste.”
My energy now lies somewhere around my ankles, I notice I am slumped in my chair and force myself to sit more upright, leaning forward. “But if you had to. Is it ever possible to act first and collect the data afterwards?”
“We wouldn’t ... well, maybe we would pilot something first in a small way.”
This first conversation gave us access to a whole load more pain within the project but taught us a lot. It gave us a new distinction between a pilot and an experiment that has relevance for our new organizational Age of Connection. There is much talk of experimentation in the new age of organizations without distinguishing it from what has been done for many decades in the Industrial Age – a pilot. (See Figure 19)
HOW TO CONDUCT A PILOT
Take little risk, do something in a small way that you have already decided to do in a big way. Just learn how to do it with fewer screw-ups than you would have had if you hadn’t done the pilot. Make sure you still look good during and after the pilot project reports back.
Manage your stakeholders so they are happy with the pilot result. Make a big deal of what you have learned. Above all, keep the anxiety inside you and in the system low, that is what pilots are designed to do. They are about scaling up in as efficient a way as possible from something small to something big. Pilots often come from, and then have to be fitted into, existing structures and ways of working. Being about efficiency, they often draw a boundary around the work that constrains the novel.
Many pilots already have a financial target associated with the larger-scale execution before beginning the test. That is constraining in itself. So beware - pilots end up having a lot invested in assumptions set prior to the outcomes. They are often established to confirm pre-existing biases. The data so generated can then be used to win an argument about which you were certain all along.
Make lots of small bets; you don’t know which, if any, will come off, the point is to learn and this may involve you looking bad, stupid or mad. If so, you should be feeling anxious and causing anxiety in the people around you. Expect messiness and lack of order; know how you will respond when this occurs and the parts of you that are likely to sabotage the experiment in the interests of neat results.
Pay little attention to your stakeholders; most of them will be encouraging you back to the norms they have put in place, defeating the point of doing an experiment. If your experiment causes stakeholders to look a little red-faced, this is a good result, know how you will manage this. This is about scaling-up from something small to something big but the scaling is focused on increasing levels of learning, not efficiency. The boundaries here don’t have to be in line with what has gone before, how many unusual people and inputs could you involve in the experiment? Is there anyone you have not involved before whose opinion has been undervalued? Could this experiment just as easily produce an answer in which you will be disappointed, not the one you wanted or expected? Are there any ways in which you are using the experiment to manipulate your position? If so, you are probably doing a pilot.
Experiments strengthen the channel and help us make the transition to the Age of Connection. I don’t have anything against pilots, they serve a useful purpose, I’m just arguing that the two concepts are not interchangeable. Pretending a pilot is an experiment for the fear of really experimenting.... keeps us stuck.
It is the early morning rush at reception, four receptionists behind the desk, three of whom are usually harried, abrupt and keep their eyes down when checking you in. I have been coming through these doors for years saying “hello” and giving my name, there is no flicker of recognition. So I pray for my friend, the fourth receptionist, who smiles, acknowledges we have met before and always has a moment for some human contact.
It is even busier and noisier than usual.
“What’s going on?” I ask, not expecting the answer I get.
“It’s the Formula One car in the foyer, people can’t get enough of it.”
I’m curious and a little bemused, the last thing this mechanical organization needs is another machine.
I offer a few lazy, prejudiced opinions on it as my client picks me up from reception and we walk past this beautiful, logo-covered vehicle with more than a hundred pairs of eyes peering at it; people chatting animatedly to one another before starting their day’s work.
“You are a creative business, wouldn’t something closer-to-home be more relevant?”
The leader with whom I’m working is gushing with enthusiasm. “I know what you mean, I was very sceptical at first, thought it must have been some kind of late-night dodgy deal drummed up in a cigar- filled room. But the business is captivated, the story is that our processes have been in need of improvement for a long time and we haven’t moved fast enough. The Formula One deal also involves a partnership where their engineers share their learning on process improvement, they are operating at a completely different level of precision to us.”
The work is successful and is one example of the many times I have now experienced this phenomenon. The best sense I can make of it is that it encourages innovation and invention rather than improvement. Many businesses are in desperate need of people who can help recreate their organizations, yet, under pressure, they understandably revert to the status quo, doing their best, finding ways to improve the domain they are already in. In the Age of Connection, the successful are finding ways to access other domains, far away from their own.
When they do this, there is a spillover from one domain to the other and learning tips back the other way as well. In this case, an engineering business was learning from a creative business and vice versa.
Our fear often stops us setting foot outside our own territory, crossing the borders to explore distant lands. The blocks are self-imposed but the fears well-founded. It takes time to find and build those new relationships that lead to creative serendipity. You’re not going to find them in the conferences you usually attend, the consultancies you employ or the benchmarking studies you buy. All this takes the time you don’t allow yourself for fear of wasting it in fruitless exploration. The fear is also well-founded because transpositions from different worlds into your own are more likely to fail. And yet, far from home is where the Flawed but Willing usually find the relationships, insight and experience that generate invention rather than incremental improvement. (See Figure 20)
• How far from home can you travel? To suppliers, partners and other organizations in your own industry? To new industry sectors connected to your own or sectors that have nothing to do with your activity, business model or customer base?
• What are the interesting ways of working that you observe in these other places? Don’t worry about immediate relevance, just play with the areas that grab your interest.
• How can you create connections to these distant lands? Can you create the kind of connection that may come back and re-create you?
• If you were changed by the connection and you changed them, what might you end up looking like?
ROOM FOR THE ABSURD
They are sitting looking blankly at the flip-chart. We continue to write down the sentences as they come up, trying to quiet the chatter in our brains. This is going terribly wrong, they hate it, they hate us, have we missed the point completely. “Quick,” I think, “we need to do something clever to recover this; no, breathe and stay with it, we’ll be ok.”
My co-facilitator is tapping his belt-buckle in the way he does when he is nervous and is swallowing a little too often to suggest he is any calmer on the inside than I am. We are playing with the distinction of being absurd using the mechanism of random questions.
Where after the others act controlling cat?
When HR cycle the strategy that reflects customers?
Why don’t you hijack fruit bowls?
Why not run of car play?
Does the business avoid grey cats?
Could you deliver noisy buildings
We need to get a sentence from everyone in the room but we’re not half way through yet and my stomach is screaming “stop!” But my heart is telling me it will be ok so we keep going, more buckle tapping and swallowing until we have a few more.
How would you demurely shout?
What are the unintended consequences among fluffy head office?
Why behind bright his wheelbarrow desire among loud door?
Why wall exercise furry I sad?
What lean boring goat enjoys fast house?
When they paint warm table happily I run.
Now we are sitting quietly, watching the other people in the room take in all the questions. I am reminded of Alice in Wonderland; which character used to talk in nonsense riddles? Or was it all of them? Can’t remember.
How do these absurd questions give you access to the edges of your organization?
Then something fascinating starts to happen: worrying less about their senior executive image and expertise, one person makes a connection between a sentence and their struggle on a particular project. Within minutes the room is full of verbal pictures, metaphors, rhyming couplets, laughter, identification and a host of new nicknames for some of their absent colleagues. The things that needed to be talked about are getting some airtime and because they have been approached from a fuzzy side view (not face-on, but from a hazy, irrational place, somewhere at the edge of our vision) there is a new tone to the conversation.
And then our time is up; the team members pack up their smart briefcases and file out of the room. As the last person leaves, he sticks out his suited trouser-leg in an impersonation of a ‘John Cleese-style’ silly walk.
Our fear of looking ridiculous and not having immediate answers often stops us challenging the status quo. The absurd questions we used are a nice vehicle, but any device will do that makes it harder to quickly pinpoint or jump to an answer. Anything that breaks the pattern of reliance on superior knowledge; that stops the brain for just long enough and asks you to sense, feel and nudge your way into a response. This all strengthens our channel as we transition to the next place. (See Figure 21)
• What is your description of your organization’s ‘common sense’?
• What is the wrong thing? What is the forbidden thing?
• What are your devices for tipping yourself over into the absurd if you need to?
• What will you risk to spend some time in these places that may be seen as ‘non sense’?
• How empty or meaningless do you fear it to be?
• How will you face the discomfort on the other side?
We make sense of things too quickly in the Establishment. If we build the channel strongly enough, it will hold our absurdities for a little longer than we find comfortable and then, out of the absurd, comes the elegant and novel, the path to the next phase.