What sort of theatre?

Put-Down-Your-CleverI’ve sometimes talked about Bruce Schneier’s idea of “security theatre”. He uses this to describe security processes at airports that (in his view) create an illusion of security to reassure the public, but are actually pretty ineffective. I’ve extended that to talk about “action theatre”, by which I mean stuff we do in meetings like action planning that may appear to be to do with action but is sometimes really a way of avoiding difficult stuff and doesn’t actually lead to change. More here ( and see also commitment ceremonies).

So that’s theatre as in: not real just simulated.

But what about the kind of theatre that is real, in the sense that it goes beyond mere words and show to resonate with us emotionally, to register as true beyond mere logic or analysis?

In this sense, then everything that happens in organisations is theatre, though of varying dramatic impact.

When I’m working with people on difficult conversations, this seems important. Typically, when someone in a group shares a difficult conversation, the tendency is go for analysis. There are learned discussions about learning styles, or references to anyone of a number of pigeonholing systems like Meyers Briggs. Or to a variety of therapeutic models.

All of which is quite seductive but actually becomes quite time consuming. And while all this theory is being explained, I’m not sure that much changes. Perhaps the client gains some new insight, but I suspect that it remains theoretical.

And that’s because difficult conversations are a performance. There are things at stake. Feelings run high. And all the clever analysis can easily become a way of avoiding those feelings. As if we believe: if we strategise this enough, we can avoid all those awkward feelings. If I just work out what’s happening, I can control this situation.

I’m more inclined to think that instead of avoiding the drama inherent in difficult conversations, we might we want to accept it. And bring more of an actor’s mindset to them. Now actors like to think about motivation but they also do a lot of rehearsal. And that’s what I encourage people to do with difficult conversations. Play out a few lines of the scene and see how if feels to change what you say or do in any one of a number of ways.

Sometimes your understanding of the situation gains more from trying stuff out and doing things with your body, than engaging in analysis. Generally, it helps to try out some goofy things you wouldn’t normally do, to open up more possibility.

A lot of the time, people are surprised that very simple shifts can change how the conversation feels. Shorter sentences. Little changes of posture or pace. And doing less work and leaving more space to the other person. But you don’t get learning from a theory, you get it by trying, flailing around a little, and then making discoveries.

We put down our clever for a while, and use a bit more of the intelligence and creativity that comes out when we try stuff out, not just talk about it.


According to legend, famed cellist Pablo Casals was asked, at the age of 93, why he continued to practice. He replied, “because I think I’m noticing an improvement.”

Practice is a way of thinking about my work that I find really useful, and there are several layers to it.

In part, it’s about resisting the lure of labelling what I do as either success or failure. That seems to be set me up for anxiety. And if you are paying attention to the the intricacies of how human beings operate, it’s very hard to be sure if today’s success might turn out to be part of tomorrow’s failure, and vice versa. Beyond the labels of good and bad, we get more freedom to think about what’s actually happening.

This is not, however, an invitation to say, “oh well, anything goes”. As Dan Milman repeats in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, there is never nothing happening. A spirit of practice encourages me to reflect more on how I work, not less.

It also constantly runs through my mind when I notice myself others doing what I call “teaching”. Teaching is ok in its place, but it’s a trance that quickly becomes self-defeating. When someone describes a challenge or problem, people often respond with advice and solutions. I often sense that isn’t really what’s needed.

I often ask myself, instead of explaining things to people can I either embody it more myself, or create an activity from which they might discover their own interpretation of it, or just let them continue to reflect for themselves instead of interrupting their journey with helpful suggestions.

My friend John Wenger makes great related point. Many of life’s skills are processed in parts of our brain that aren’t about information and analysis:

Research indicates that skills based in this part of the brain are best learned through motivation, practice and feedback, rather than simple transfer of information. In other words things that involve the “F” word (feelings) require a transformational learning process. As Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, states, “A brief seminar wont’ help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.

In other words, we learn this stuff through seeing others practicing, and by practicing ourselves. Not from a how-to book or seminar.

The spirit of practice also crosses the questionable boundary between work and life. I increasingly realise that what I am doing working with groups, I need to get better at doing with myself, on my own. I’m quite adept at noticing when groups get stuck and need changes of pace, process or environment. I now get to practice doing this for myself… paying more attention to when I’ve been staring at screens for too long and need to get out on the bike or in the pool… or just do the washing up.

I am rather thinking that all of life is practice, is we choose to think of it that way.

Viv podcasts

Viv has recorded a podcast with Jessica Tangelder talking about creative facilitation, including a lot about how she I work together.

Of course, I agree with just about all of it; Viv and I have practiced together a lot over the past few years (despite being on opposite sides of the planet). It’s still useful to me to hear Viv articulate it and remind me that there is a reasonably coherent explanation of how I work!


Viv reviews Letters Left Unsent, the reflections of a humanitarian aid worker. It sounds fascinating, peeling back our surface stereotypes to reveal the rich, messy complexity of the real world. Viv talks about how easily we fall into assumptions about other people’s lives are like; assumptions that strip out much of the truth and energy.

She tells a great story of how she explored a group’s stereotypes of what Dutch people are like, and then using play and performance to bring out deeper truths.

Getting into this takes time and often feels like a diversion from what we might think is the real work. People default to workaholic notions of what meetings should achieve; they should be efficient, follow an agenda, achieve set outcomes… but all of these pressures tend to keep us locked in stereotypes and assumptions.

Choosing to disrupt this can be risky. Proposing a playful approach, or suggesting a reflective walk, will sound crazy to some participants. Surely that would be a waste of time? I increasingly find the opposite is the case; the more disruptive approaches can dislodge fixed ideas that are really holding us all back.



Not a machine…

My friend and collaborator Alan Moore (no relation) pointed out this terrific quotation from John Stuart Mill. There’s good wisdom for facilitators: it’s not our job to get everyone to be the same it’s more about making good use of our differences.

“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it,

but a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies,

that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.”


What sort of leadership?

Harold Jarche challenges ideas about leadership:

But we don’t need better leaders. We need organizations and structures that let all people cooperate and collaborate. Positional leadership is a master-servant parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee relationship. It puts too much power in the hands of individuals and blocks human networks from realizing their potential.

In the network era, leadership is helping the network make better decisions. The future, as proposed by current leadership, is not about becoming a better leader, it’s about all of us becoming better people.

I’m no fan of what might be called heroic leadership. And I’d agree that we need to look at the design of systems that generate behaviours before we go trying to fix people. (A lot of “difficult people” behaviour in meetings is down to poor formats that leave people starved of real engagement.)

At the same time, any human system only works when its adequate design is activated by people who know how to make it work, and bring some kind of goodwill and enthusiasm to the process. For that uniquely human spirit, then I think we need a word like leadership. It’s not a form of martyrdom or grandiosity. It’s something everybody can do, given a halfway appropriate context. So for me it’s more about what sort of leadership. Becoming better people is not a million miles from the sort I’m after.

(Some other stuff I’ve written about this)


Becoming who we are not: facilitation as performance

jIu84dxoCathy Salit is one of the biggest influences on my work. She’s got a book out this April – Performance Breakthrough -and I talk to her in this podcast.

The subtitle of the book is A Radical Approach to Success at Work and I think Cathy lives and breathes that claim. Listening back to this interview, I feel reinspired in my work. Facilitation is not about having clever tricks to make people behave differently; it’s about helping people discover and grow together. We need to avoid the traps of aiming for “behaviour change” and be more open to the amazing things that human beings are capable of.


Show notes – these are a rough guide, there’s no substitute for hearing the real thing!

0.00 Introductions.

1.48 Cathy: helping people to be who they are, and who they are not… who they are becoming.  We all have this capacity to become new versions of ourselves.

3.20 Cathy: The value of being unnatural, that’s how we expand our repertoire of what’s possible.

3.38 Johnnie: It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds when we seek to change. To grow, we have to leave behind old versions of ourselves.

4.39 Cathy: We are all artists… think about living more as an artistic process rather than focussing on “behaviour”.

6.07 Johnnie: How a child learns to walk: not by being instructed, but by pretending to walk until it can.

6.40 Cathy: How babies learn language also a process of pretending; and the adults join in this pretending process, relating to babies as who they are, and who they are becoming.

8.15 Cathy: So facilitation, leadership can be about creating space where people can go beyond their normal, constrained ways of behaving.

9.10 Johnnie tells a story of how Viv once responded to a group in apparent difficulty: by saying, “you can work this out” and leaving the room. An example of how you can be quite robust in the way you show faith in people.

10.30 Cathy sees that story as being like a theatre director, responding to what the group is doing and seeing what they need to move forward. Letting go of control, not being “the answer”

11.39 Johnnie: the paradoxical role of facilitator – being seen as “in charge” but also needing to get out the way. Talks about the notion of the ensemble raised in Cathy’s book.

12.20 Cathy: The importance of trusting the group, at least as much faith in creating the ensemble as in getting the notional work done. The dangers of getting over-focussed on the outcome.

13.45 Cathy: Story of a recent facilitation where she asked them to do an unusual introduction process. People met in pairs but then had to perform to the group as the person they’d just met. How it had a dramatic impact on how people were connecting, the performance element helped create a sense of ensemble.

17.15 Johnnie: an apparently simple activity can start to reveal that there’s a lot more going on in meetings than the surface material that we notice. Recalls Cathy’s notion that we can be more than one version of ourselves.

18.50 Cathy: We are not just who we are, already packaged and done. We have a multiplicity that we give little voice to. The perils of being told what “type” we are and getting attached to our identities.

20.20 Johnnie: How I (and others) respond to pressure is to double down on “who I am” which keeps us trapped – and keeps people away. But what right do we have though to push people who are stuck like this? Relates a story about getting permission and creating invitation.

22.10 Cathy: I don’t believe in trying to change people’s behaviour, I believe in helping people to grow. We need to see that we have choices. We have performance choices, we can play other people.

24.15 Cathy references Herminia Ibarra’s book: Act like a leader, think like a leader. Flirt with the idea of being other than who you are.

24.50 Cathy: What it means to be authentic is to give expression to our multiplicity, getting stuck in one role is inauthentic.

25.20 Johnnie: The importance of trusting people to uncover possibilities, and not necessarily on your own schedule.

25.50 Cathy: The orientation to changing people’s behaviour makes it a problem to be fixed. I don’t want to problem-solve when it comes to helping people to collaborate. It’s not a problem, I want to help people grow. Relate to people as performers.

27.30 Johnnie: Recalls Keith Sawyer‘s work on problem-solving vs problem-finding. The value of not answering questions for the group.

28.25 Cathy: Asking big questions about little things. Engaging people in philosophical activity. Beware of assumptions about what we think other people are saying, thinking “it’s all been said before”. The importance of curiosity, keeping asking questions. Language is something for us to create new meaning with. There is so much to work with than we realise is available to us.

30.30 Johnnie: Sometimes I ask a group to not settle for analysis. If people give a performance of an issue, it comes to life in a very different way. Getting beyond management-speak. Connecting more levels of intelligence than the initial problem description suggests.

31.35 Cathy: A performance can be so much more honest. Performance and play create safety to say and see things that are unseeable, unutterable otherwise. Sometimes I’ll ask people to perform the conversation in the hallway that’s going to happen after this meeting.

33.05 Johnnie: What sort of safety is it we want? Do we want polite, po-faced safety, where we don’t take any risks or talk about feelings. A rather weak, febrile kind of safety. Versus a different kind of safety where we do share more emotional stuff and find we are more connected and safe in a quite different way.

33.55 Cathy: We’ve got to break down the cognitive and emotive divide that rules our idea of what learning is and what facilitation is. Learning is not just in your head, it wires our full selves.

35.05 More about the book and how to get hold of it!

I can’t wait to get my hands on Cathy’s book, and there are some incentives for pre-ordering. Details here.


Quantum shifts

A few years back, when I had just moved to Cambridge, I was sitting in my new home feeling deeply depressed. The move had been extremely stressful and at that point I was regretting it. This had been intended to change my life for the better, but right then it just seemed like a massive mistake. I remember chatting with the son of a friend of mine, who was a veteran of twelve step recovery.

“Ah,” he said sagely, “you pulled a geographic.”

He explained how easily people in distress from addiction reach for miracle cures – big changes that will transform their lives. A new relationship! A new car! Or (hence the term) I’ll move to Australia! Unfortunately, these big moves often fail because they don’t address the harder to spot, deeply rooted, tiny habits that make up the addiction.

I eventually turned things around in Cambridge, but that conversation has always stuck with me.

Which leads me to another clip from John Wenger’s latest post.

He makes this neat point about the idea of a quantum shift, neatly embracing its stricter meaning and the more popular interpretation.

What was required was a quantum shift; I use “quantum” to describe both the smallest thing and the largest thing.  From my experience, it is usually the smallest shifts in individuals or teams that create the biggest and most significant ripple effects in culture and perforamance.

I think management porn encourages us to compete with each other for “strategic” insights. So the little shifts that might matter get disparaged. We sit at boardroom tables wringing our hands about high-sounding abstractions. The ability to hold these kinds of important conversations is often the route to power in organisations. But they easily distract us from the multiple, apparently mundane details that make up our real lives and may have more to do with how things really change.



Insights and illusions

John Wenger discusses how easily we create blind spots in our self-awareness leading us to cheerily diagnose others whilst missing our own follies. Moats and beams. He tells of a CEO who was almost comically unaware of his failings on this score.

polonius4aShakespeare was onto this. In Hamlet the courtier Polonius delivers a wonderful speech to his son about how to live a moral life of moderation in all things. It ends thus:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Great stuff. Sadly, Polonius turns out to be a bumbling manipulator of the first order, ruthless mocked by Hamlet for his obsequiousness. And he ends up stabbed behind an arras while spying on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. Not quite Senator Pat Geary, but close.

This syndrome gets accentuated whenever we are in a position of power.  As the dying John of Gaunt tells Richard II, “a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown”.

The combination of generic human frailty plus the effect of status makes this an almost impossible trap for anyone who styles themselves a leader.

So leaders get lots of training to develop self-awareness, but the fact that they are getting all this attention may actually contribute to the delusions of high status. (Have we created an unachievable myth of leadership?)  At least Henry V, the archetypal heroic leader in Shakespeare, has the wit to dress as a common soldier by night in order to get some idea of what his troops really think.

Habits and the brain

Roland reminded me about this video. A guy gets a bike where the normal steering is reversed so if you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel goes right.

It’s almost impossible for anyone to ride the bike at all. It takes our hero many weeks of persistent practice to get past first base. (His young son, with a more plastic brain, gets there a bit quicker).

It’s hilarious and fascinating. In our little book, Viv and I say that many of life challenges can’t be solved by reading a book, they are more like riding a bike. This video helps point out the rich complexity of that kind of learning.

So much advice for life’s challenges would be great if they were as simple as they seem. Shelf loads of management books explain how we can be excellent, agile, innovative, whatever. Yet this can be much like explaining to people just to reverse their steering on a backwards bike. Great theory that helps very little in practice.

And this is just to change how one human being and one physical object relate, never mind getting teams of people working together well. We should be wary of letting our explanations override the value of experience, persistence through undignified failure, and sometimes letting go of working it out in our heads.