Change and frustration

This diagram[1] pops up in my social streams from time to time. I grabbed it from this site.

Vision Table-2


It aims to show that you must have five elements in place in order to achieve change. It seems to reflect a common story about organisational change. At its worst, it appears to suggest that change is something that should happen without confusion or anxiety.  Or perhaps it is only saying things like “if you encounter resistance, you need to change incentives”. Either way, change is presented as quite a clean, rational logical business.

That’s not how I experience life: my own, other people’s, or in organisations.

I prefer to think of change as inherently messy and confusing. Confusion, anxiety and all those other uncomfortable feelings are not bugs but features.

Just managing oneself is a complex challenge. Managing whole organisations can’t possibly be easier. Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” I think there’s an equivalent wisdom needed for those writing about “organisational change”.

(I’m also reminded of Donald Factor’s insight about frustration.)

[1]  R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (pp. 93-128). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.)

Emergence over conscious design

A fascinating article from Stop trying to be creative.

Researchers used an algorithm that generates multiple variations of simple graphics. Participants select one of these, and the program then evolves some new variations of that. Participants select again, and so it continues. Remarkably, over time, people end up with pictures with sophisticated images of things we can recognise from the real world.

People choose only on gut feel, and they don’t know where their choices will lead, but they do lead somewhere. It brings into question the assumption that we purposely design things.

It got me trawling through my blog for other posts that feel linked to these ideas:

The secret life of chaos, a BBC show showing complexity emerging without conscious design.

How network effects determine which songs go to the top of the charts, not so much the inherent qualities of the song.

How communities of species emerge but can’t be reverse engineered.

Our brains as evolved systems that can’t really be understood using engineering principles. Including this quote from Patricia Churchland:

Nature is not an intelligent engineer… It doesn’t start from scratch each time it wants to build a new system, but has to work with what’s already there… the result is a system no human engineer would ever design, but it is wonderfully powerful, energy efficient and computationally brilliant… Nervous systems evolved, and that makes it difficult for neurobiologists… to look at the wiring diagram and figure out what’s going on…. [Artificial intelligence researchers] tend to approach the problem within the framework of electrical engineering, and with prejudices about how they think brains should process information, instead of finding out what they do.

It also reminds me of the section of Nothing is Written where we talk about how you can’t really predict how people will connect new ideas to their existing map of the world.

Hat tip: Jon Husband (via Facebook)

Fixing and exploring

Chris Corrigan writes about the tension between theorising and doing – in the context of change in organisations:

Traditionally, academics are suspicious of practitioners who fly by the seat of their pants, who don’t ground their experience in theory and who tell stories that validate their biases.  Practitioners are traditionally suspicious of academics being stuffy, jargony and inaccessible, too much in the mind and engaged in indulgent personal research projects.  Secretly I think, each has been jealous of the other a bit: academics coveting the freedom of practice and practitioners wanting the legitimacy of academics.

He points to a new book about dialogic organisation development. The (free) introductory section of that book explores the contrast between what it calls diagnostic and dialogic approaches. Diagnostic approaches assume that the practitioner or consultant knows – at some level – what the problem is, and designs interventions to fix it. The dialogic approach sees the process as more organic, creating conversations between all participants to explore change and how it happens.

I’m simplifying a bit, but this dialogic approach resembles our thinking in Nothing is Written. In there, we’re pushing back against conventional teaching by the knowing expert, and towards more shared, exploratory methods that embrace ambiguity.

Conversations and dance

My work really revolves around conversations. I host unhurried conversations and I help people have difficult conversations. When facilitating meetings, I often work to shift away from unwieldly one-to-many formats towards more conversational ways of working.

The longer I work like this, the more fascinated I become with the patterns with which we converse. So much more goes on in conversations than the words exchanged. That’s true of fabulously satisfying ones as it is of deeply frustrating ones.

That’s because there is a dance in conversation. Beyond the words said and the ideas expressed   is  the dance between the speakers. Subtle pattens of pace and rhythm dramatically affect the experience. The origins of the word conversation lie in the Italian conversare, meaning to turn or dance together.

The dance can take many forms, and its nature will keep changing.

I can’t pass up the opportunity here for another Monty Python clip which I think about a lot when watching people try to be assertive. Often, when trying to say something challenging. people nervously say too much, too tentatively. They end up wittering on, which can be intensely frustrating to the other person – the opposite of the intended effect. The flip to this is that the other person will often become abrupt and fierce. The challenger provokes the very response they were afraid of.

And we get a fish dance.

What sort of dances do you get into in your conversations?

Craftsman, meet visionary. You guys should talk.

From Antony Delanoix at

A craftsman commits to the patient practice and repetition of tasks to sustain the quality of his work.

A visionary has his eyes on the horizon, imagining new possibilities.

Most of us have some of each in us, and when they get along, we create good things. When they are in conflict… not so much.

Organisations have that conflict in spades. On a daily basis we experience products and services where the detail and the promise are frustratingly at odds with each other.

How can we sustain both the vision for better futures and the painstaking eye for detail that ensures they come to fruition?

We need to move flexibly between the vision and the craftsmanship, often to and fro many times a day.

Fortunately, nature provides us with deep enduring practice in this pulsation. She has us do it all day with our eyes, as our focus moves from near to far.

And more deeply, she has our hearts beat and our lungs breathe. We’re pulsing creatures. All the time.

Could we bring more of that to our work? I’d like to think so.

Shared Peril

image-0010A few ideas about fear, from Viv‘s and my book, Nothing is Written:

“Few things can bond a group of people like shared peril. If the group comes together in the face of adversity, its sense of camaraderie and trust increases. Without the element of shared peril, these moments of growth would not happen.

Of course, adversity can also break a group. So the focus must be on allowing participants to manage their own experience, so they can be on the edge of their comfort zone, and not pushed beyond it.

And the trainer must be willing to share in the experience. If they only create peril for the participants, that’s more a kind of bullying than learning. Trainers should drop their masks of expertise and reveal their vulnerability.

There is nothing like the connection people can make by experimenting and discovering together. Be part of the adventure, not just the narrator.”

As with other parts of the book, I keep thinking: I need to keep this in mind for myself more of the time.

I’ve come to realise, when facilitating, that pre-match nerves, or stage fright, are a good thing. They’re a sign that I am being present, accepting that working with people is never completely predictable. I think audiences pick up that when someone is a bit nervous, they are also alive to possibility. When they appear too certain, they’re in a kind of trance where they think they really know what should happen next. I think either state helps create different moods for the audience.

I notice that if I fall back on little bits of humour that have worked before, they often don’t seem to work this time. Things said with less calculation, however, often generate more emotional response.

In some paradoxical way, by being somewhat vulnerable, a facilitator helps create a kind of safety in the room. It’s a safety you don’t get by just “agreeing” a set of predictable ground rules.

Emotional connectedness

image-0004Here’s another page from Viv‘s and my book, Nothing is Written:

“A baby is playing with her mother, exchanging looks and gestures and smiles. This is happening over a video link, but the level of engagement seems like it’s face-to-face.

But then, a small adjustment is made. A two-second delay is introduced to the video feed between mother and child. Quite suddenly, the child moves from contentment to distress. Just a small disruption of the synchrony has remarkable consequences.

This is one of many experiments described by Thomas Lewis and Richard Lannon in their book, A General Theory of Love. What emerges again and again is that good parenting maintains spontaneity and a sense of connection. The same may be true of learning.

Maybe we could use our time together to increase our emotional bandwidth, to complement the technological bandwidth we already have on our devices. This means sharing experiences rather than content.

In learning, maintaining a sense of care and attention may be the most powerful thing we can do. Passing on fixed ideas and knowledge is secondary.”

This has been very much on my mind working with groups this year. It’s so easy to get fixated on getting to outcomes and action lists and forget that we’re working with human beings whose minds thrive on connection. A lot can be gained by spending time on introductions so that people can connect with fellow participants, not just the subject experts. Often they will learn more from sharing their own experiences with each other. And spending time at the start on introductions also pays off – not a laborious “go-round” so much as a series of paired conversations or small groups, where people can connect without the pressure of performing in front of a large group.

Experiences over explanation

image-0006From our book, Nothing is Written:

In his book, Friends in Low Places, Dr James Willis describes research in which two groups of people were shown a photograph of a face. After seeing the photo the first group was asked to recall details of the face. The second group didn’t have to do this.

Later, each group was tested to see if they could remember the faces they had seen in the photos.

The second group – those left to use only their innate and wordless ability to remember a face – were twice as likely to remember it.

By attempting to make learning more detailed and explicit, we may be getting in people’s way.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the studies of tennis coach Vic Braden. Braden would ask top tennis players the “secret” of their technique. He found that although they had detailed explanations for how they did what they did, these descriptions were inconsistent and often false. Famously, Andre Agassi insisted that he would roll his wrist as he hit his forehand shots. In fact, stop motion photography showed that this simply wasn’t true. The fancy term for this is confabulation.

Our rational mind invents a plausible explanation for a behaviour, and believes its own propaganda.

Fresh experiences beat old explanations.

Bonus link: The gondola kitten experiment. When you’re busy explaining things to people, are you putting them in a gondola or helping them to discover for themselves?