Practice, practice

Like many of my friends, I like to talk about facilitation as a practice. It isn’t a straightforward process of identifying problems and choosing the right recipe to solve them. It’s easy for humans to see patterns that appear from meeting to meeting, but that skill can sometimes blind us to subtle differences, and make us apply formulaic “solutions” to what we think the “problems” are. In the end, I prefer to “trust the people” rather than “trust the process”.

So I really appreciate Antonio Dias’s reflections on what we mean by practice. He makes the important point that practice is not simply doing the same thing again and again until you get good at it.

Practice… is not practicing scales, doing calisthenics, or running through any sort of programatic solution to the problem of “mastery.” Practice becomes a place and a time dedicated to allowing improvisation to happen

That “allowing” process is really interesting. There’s something paradoxical about it, and it doesn’t lend itself to prosaic explanation. When facilitating, I regularly find myself feeling my way through some phases of meetings. Sure, there are times when I can just run a process, but there are others when I sense a pressure to “do something” and I don’t know what it is. I tend to sit with the anxiety and when I am able to just allow it, a moment of calm descends and then I can decide what to do. My hunch is that the move to just allow the uncertainty is key, it’s when I step out of “problem-solution” thinking.

Antonio quotes Peter Kajtar who is poetic on this:

…we … need… a renewed sense of the importance of a moment to moment openness and sensitivity to coherence and incoherence, an awareness that is devoid of, or …actively discarding preconceived ideas, acquired emotional attitudes and other reflexes of the past. As long as that past remains, the ‘now’ will not contain ‘the whole of time’…. Instead … our ‘now’ will simply be the point where the past meets the present and continues (with its sorrow, confusion, conflict, etc.), a little modified. And we may continue on that path to our heart’s content, but we will come to nothing new.

Marginality or nowhere?

Chris Rodgers suggests that the most useful things in organisations come from people willing to operate at the margins. This where unexpected things can emerge. Unfortunately, organisations typically reward more obvious, linear efforts that conform to command-and-control. It pays to act like the mastermind of a big project. As Chris puts it

“The trick here is to become a “marginal man” without becoming a ‘nowhere man – sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody’

Facilitators will know what he means.

Persistence vs genius

Incredible to think, isn’t it, that the Chinese language started off as English in England, but then one person whispered it to another person…

That’s how Milton Jones kicks off his comedy routine, according to this Guardian article on how various performers develop their material. In Jones’ case, there is a huge amount of testing of material. And it’s interesting to hear how tiny tweaks have an impact, and how different things work differently with different audiences. (I loved that, for instance, inserting a pause after “isn’t it” in that opening gag can have quite an impact).

I suggest there are parallel lessons for facilitators/innovators and maybe some other human beings too. Less focus on the idea of individual genius or guaranteed formulae. More emphasis on practice and experimentation.

Contrast this with Hanif Kurehi, who seems to have more faith in individual genius.

Hat tip: Martin Shovel for his tweet.

Double loop learning, the limits of reason and polite oppression

Chris Argyris’s work on single- versus double-loop learning gets cited a lot by folks trying to get organisations working better. Here’s a classic article (pdf) in which Argyris explains his thinking.

He points to the tremendous difficulty people have with genuinely challenging their own thinking. It’s much easier to “problem-solve”, a way of thinking that fixes the issue in the external environment instead of looking for our own part in it. He gives some great examples of how people struggle to come to terms with their own defensiveness. He describes double-loop learning as a way of thinking in which we are able to explore our own part in the troubles we create.

He gives some good examples of management teams struggling and failing to look at their own behaviour and sticking to fixing the blame elsewhere.

He argues that this is particularly difficult for “smart people” because, he suggests, they haven’t experienced sufficient failure so find it harder to recognise.  I really don’t see this kind of blinkered thinking is particularly confined to smart people. I think smart people may be able to conceal their feelings more successfully behind a screen of clever thought, but that’s not quite the same thing.

He also argues that change needs to start with senior people, because they’re the ones most likely to be the subject of appeasement and avoidance by their juniors. This makes lots of sense but here’s the paradox. Whereever you are in a hierarchy, you can push the blame upwards to bosses who won’t listen. And the CEO will have someone else he can blame eg investors. The trouble with looking to the top for change is that the people at the top don’t think they are there. And I like to think change can result from a lucky or inspired piece of bravery from anywhere. And we all know of people who aren’t “senior” but wield tremendous power for good or ill in organisations.

The other aspect of the approach that makes me uncomfortable is the tendency to idealise how conversations should happen. He describes how conversations would be more productive if people engaged in double-loop learning. His examples are rather comic in their bland, polite constructiveness. Sorry, but this isn’t how things happen in the real world of mistakes, errors and outbursts of feeling.

When I run into people advocating “double loop learning” I often get this feeling of polite oppression. One the more interesting challenges of being human is trying to manage our desire to be rational with the reality that our decision making is inherently emotional. There’s something about the notion of “double loop learning” that often feels to me like a big status play. You are emotional, whereas I am a double-loop learner, darling. The call for politeness in the face of distress is often a tactic of the most powerful against the underprivileged.

Waste, potential and sticking your neck out

Simon Terry pulls together several different strands of thinking about the limits of management. The focus on efficiency and elimination of waste cuts us off from the biggest potential, our capacity to grow and innovate.

I see many organisations struggling to get a quart of productivity into a pint pot of systems, under great stress to make savings and be more efficient. I’d suggest that as that stress rises, so does the number of management abstractions bandied about: people only feel safe to talk in general terms about things like “leadership” because if they got specific the whole stressed out deck of cards might come falling down. In these circumstances, meetings become a workaholic microcosm of the organisation – we fill the walls with masses of post-it notes as if this is the measure of the value of our conversations. We can talk in general terms about the need to “manage upwards”  or “creating a no-blame culture” but this actually becomes a way of avoiding actually doing it.

On top of this, speaking in big strategic terms is often associated with high status, so the more “senior” the manager, the more likely they are to be indulged in this habit… and the more others will think talking this way is how to get ahead.

I think this logjam breaks when someone gets specific and personal, stepping out of the cocoon of abstraction to engage with someone as a human being: maybe kindly, maybe harshly, but with something resembling a human emotion. In doing so, they reveal, even in the disguise of anger, some personal vulnerability.

I tweeted this the other day:

Most “change” conversations in orgs assume change is a one-way process, in which the changer gets to stay the same. A terrible fallacy IMHO

If we stick to the clever, high status abstractions about efficiency we are probably trying to stay the same, while inviting others to change. When we speak a little more from our edge, and from our own struggles, then we might re-engage as humans and something new might happen. We might not like it, but it will at least be new.

I would be very wary of anyone claiming they have a “tool” or a “process” that will make this happen. Whatever process you run, in the end someone, somewhere has to stick their neck out a little… and someone else has to manage their urge to chop it off. You can blather on about values, culture till the cows come home; humans are smart and complex and we’ll find ways to signal our vulnerability, anger, contempt, enthusiasm, love whatever the system.

Difficult Conversations 7 – Shared Peril

If everyone in a group feels they are sharing in a challenge it can be quite a powerful experience. But there are potential downsides too. If the challenge isn’t really shared, but used as an opportunity for some in the group to establish status over others, things can go awry. Likewise, if people feel press-ganged into “having fun” or an activity that is well outside their comfort zone. this can have some fairly unhappy consequences.

In this video, Kay and I talk about how working on difficult conversations can be made into a satisfying group experience and avoiding what I call “fun fascism”.

You can see all the videos in the series here.

Change is not an Event

Neil Perkins makes a good point, very eloquently: change is a process, not an event. It combines a lovely example from nature and a great, self-deprecating personal anecdote. He captures how easy it is to think that cleverness is the key to mastering change.

I’m tempted to fashion this into a card, mug or tea towel to give to clients (and to remind myself) whenever we get lured into being over-ambitious in setting the outcomes for any meeting or event.

Thanks to TIm Kastelle whose tweet reminded me to read Neil’s post.