The end of ugly

(cross-posted from Medium)

I’m planning a new workshop with my friend Alan Moore, inspired by his new book: Do Design: Why Beauty is Key to Everything

We’ll be asking: could your business be beautiful? And if so, what would it look like? How would it work?

You might at first baulk at this: surely in the rough and tumble of business, wouldn’t beauty be a rather namby-pamby affectation?

Well, we suspect not. Here’s what Emerson said:

Beauty gets us out of surfaces and into the foundation of things.

Pursuing beauty is not an escape from reality, but an intimate embrace of it. When you ask what would make your organisation beautiful, it’s not some fantasy exercise. You immediately notice what’s ugly… often seeing flaws that have gone unacknowledged before, but which are slowing things down, or scaring customers away.

It doesn’t matter if people disagree about exactly what they find beautiful: the process of debating and discussing it will lift our collective sights and help us strive for better things.

Alan and I want this workshop to be beautiful too. We’re using one of my favourite venues, St Ethelburga’s Church in Bishopsgate. It’s almost hidden among the acres of harsh skyscrapers in the city. It barely survived the great fire of London, and was almost destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1993. Yet it remains an oasis of beauty, a symbol for unexpected finds in unlikely places.

We’re hoping to make this a workshop of delights and surprises. We’ll draw on Alan’s lifetime’s knowledge of craft and design — and my work creating events that allow everyone to create together.

We like The End of Ugly as a subtitle, not because we nurture some idealised view of the perfect future. We offer it as a down-to-earth statement of optimistic intent: as Alan puts it in his book, we want to live off the coast of Utopia. If you’d like to spend a day there with us, you’d be most welcome.

More details and booking information here. Registration is £300 plus VAT. Tell your friends!

Failure and learning

Donald Clark has a useful post on the role of failure in learning.

He contrasts the airline industry, which scrutinises and learns from failure to create safety, with HR convention:

We wallow in the world of gifted programmes, summative assessment for selection, lectures, essays, talent management…. The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, Learning Styles, Piaget, NLP,Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.

Many training programmes I’ve seen aim to create efficiency by avoiding failure, but relying on best practice and teaching from a position of certainty. Sadly, this almost inevitably leads to placing faith in models and instruments that turn out to be at best half-truths and as worst fads and cults.

We create five-steps and ten-rules to create a kind of dull safety, that takes the visceral energy that accompanies real learning. I think there’s a different kind of safety which embraces risk and failure, instead of effectively stigmatising it.

When Viv and I are training facilitators, a lot of what we do is to create lots of opportunities to practice, try and fail safely and learn by direct experience. Yeah, we have a book about our work, but in our training we often literally tear it up, to put it in its place.

The process we currently call Action Storming (it needs a better name) embodies several of the principles Donald articulates – failure recognition, focus on tiny steps, lots of repetition to tease out what works and what doesn’t. It builds in ways of having “catastrophic failure” in a safe way – that means setting up realistic simulations of difficult situations in which it’s possible to try things out that may not work. This way we get to explore what works without doubts being left as shadows in the darkness.


Michelangelo to Motorbikes


I’m running a new workshop with my friend Alan Moore. Crafting Beautiful Businesses is on 27 September in London.

The words beauty and business sound an unlikely pairing. Business is about hard facts, isn’t it? And beauty, that’s for artists and aesthetes isn’t it? How could the idea of beauty have much to do with success in the rough and tumble of business? Leave Michelangelo in Rome, we’ve got work to do, right?

But as we say in the event blurb

The search for beauty challenges you to see more deeply. By focusing on beauty you are not being soft or touchy-feely; on the contrary, you are demanding rigour and discipline. As philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Beauty gets us out of surfaces and into the foundation of things”. It’s not an escape from reality, but an intimate embrace of it.

Alan’s new book, Why beauty is the key to everything explores how the idea of beauty can be seen at the heart of many thriving businesses – because it’s close to the heart of things that motivate and inspire us.

One of the many examples Alan uses is Blitz Motorcycles in Paris. A thriving workshop that makes new bikes from old. Nothing namby pamby about that. When you use beauty as a filter for your business, you’re might be surprised what you discover.

seasonedjune323064We’re using one my favourite venues, an old church in Bishopsgate, and we’re intending this to be a workshop that isn’t business-as-usual. Alan’s bringing his lifetime’s experience of creativity at work, and I’ll be focussed on facilitating an engaging, inspiring day.

Full details are here on Eventbrite. The early bird rate is £250 plus VAT until 15 August. After that it’s £300 plus VAT.



Unhurried Leadership

photo-1433838552652-f9a46b332c40-2I like the idea of unhurried leadership. I’ve written about it on the Unhurried website and I thought I’d share it here too.

I have to admit to disliking simple formulae for managing complex things, so I apologise for this five part list. It’s not intended as gospel truth, as I’m sure you could address the same ideas with four Es or 7 Gs. But having created it, I think it helps me remember what I’m talking about.

Practice: Rather than aiming for perfection, leadership is a practice. According to legend, at the age of 95, Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice on the cello. He replied, “because I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Practice is about bringing attention and curiosity to how we work with others.

Performance: We learn by performing into new roles. There’s an element of risk and a willingness to accept the attention of others. Leadership is not done in writing, but as a three dimensional performance. We can act our way into new ways of thinking, rather than the other way round.

Participation: Instead of commanding from above, we aim for everyone to feel involved and to have agency. Human organisations flourish as networks of peers. We work with formal systems but we see the organisation as much richer in connections.

Playfulness: Change happens at the edges of our comfort zones, where we realise we don’t have total control but do feel secure enough to experiment. We aim to find the wiggle room in stuck places, however stressful or serious the challenge.

Personal: No-one wants to work with a two-legged, talking version of the management rulebook. To connect with others, we need to be more connected to ourselves, warts and all.

Viv and I will be playing with these ideas at our workshop at the end of August.

Looking forward to August

Viv has been blogging up a storm this week, in anticipation of the workshop we’re running at the end of August.

Staying alive: Too much time in meetings gets spent in trances, cycling through the safe and familiar. If you are supposed to offering some kind of leadership, you have to be alive to the possibility of doing something new, and brave. We can all recite the mantra about risk-taking, but how can we get better at doing it? At their very best, groups of people are able to share the risks together, so that we go into the unknown with some companionship. Being alive in this way is probably the greatest act of creativity – the willingness to leap, not the elegance of the landing. I explore this more in this post about Otto Rank.

Bolder conversations: It’s pretty clear that the most effective groups are able to have more challenging conversations. We think that isn’t particularly supported by agreeing ground rules (we’re not like a lot of facilitators on this point). It comes – again – from participants taking risks and making themselves vulnerable, rather than telling others to. I wrote more about this here.

Connecting more deeply: When groups get out of trances and adventure together, they can feel a very different sense of connection. Something much more visceral and satisfying than conventional wisdom about alignment. They find that they are willing to go on together without needing everyone to agree politely – something more exciting and alive than the dull conformity so many organisations settle for.

Engaging the resistance: So often we treat discomfort and frustration as a problem to be resolved, something negative to be removed or destroyed. If we slow down enough, we start to find that there is a lot of energy in what we too easily label “resistance”. Part of the art of facilitation is not getting into unnecessary fights but also knowing when to slow down and really engage with those who don’t readily go along with the superficial consensus.

We’ll be playing with ideas like this at our residential workshop at the end of August. It’s going to be a rich mix of activities, reflections and sharing together. With an amazing venue too. It’s August 31 to September 2nd in Cambridge.

There are still places available – come and join us.


A short film about Unhurried Conversations

I’ve written before about the Unhurried Conversations I host here in Cambridge. They have a simple format that prevents people interrupting each other. This seems to create a different and rich experience. We made this little film about how people find them.

As I explain in these past posts, the approach is simple. We use a sugar bowl as a talking piece: if you’re holding it, you get to talk uninterrupted; if you’re not holding it, you get to listen. Although this may seem strange at first, it seems to create a very different atmosphere.

Newcomers think it will be very hard not to interrupt (“what if someone talks for too long? what if someone says things I disagree with?) but then find the actual experience of listening is surprisingly satisfying. We may not need to speak as much as we think in order to feel involved. And then we we do get to speak, that too has a different quality – more reflective and thoughtful.

The idea may be spreading: there’s an active group doing this in Santa Cruz. One of our Cambridge participants is starting a group in Mallorca. I’ve run a few in London and hope to resume these soon.

(Viv McWaters and I will be exploring more uses of more reflective approaches like this on our residential workshop in Cambridge from August 31st to September 2nd. Registration is £875 plus VAT.)

Keeping it simple

I think one of the great arts of facilitation is to keep things simple. The pitfall for many facilitators is that they try to embed in their work all the lessons they learn as they go, so that they create more elaborate processes. In theory, these build in useful lessons from the past, but in practice it often results in ways of working that take a long time to explain.  The facilitator thus has a big role to play in explaining things, something they may secretly rather like.

I increasingly want to do the opposite. Default to using the simplest methods, involving the least explanation from me, and giving more time and power to the participants.  Among the simple things are:

Simple rules to make sure everyone gets a reasonably equal turn

Breaking conversations into smaller groups so everyone gets more air time

Taking longer breaks and using reflective processes so people don’t get tired out

Have people write their thoughts to shared flip charts to help keep a level playing field

I think if you pay attention, participants will then produce provocative, meaningful work, far more easily than if you try too hard to steer them through an elaborate process or with some fancy technology.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning says this:

One of the key tasks of management is to create an organization that stimulates the complexity of those who belong to it.

I believe it’s often very simple interventions that let the group work at its complex best. Over-clever processes often take that creative freedom away.

Creative Leadership, sweet spots and discovery

Legendary baseball player, Yogi Berra, said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time”.

It’s an idea explored in this 2 minute video that looks at the science of hitting a major league baseball pitch. If the hitter waits until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands, it’s already too late to initiate the batting action. So the only way to succeed is to rely on the faster instincts outside  conscious awareness. It is simply an intuitive act.

Think too much, and you can’t do your best. Developing the instinct requires lots of practice.

I remember reading about a scientist who had spent months studying David Beckham’s free kicks. He could explain in intricate detail the physics behind Beckham’s success. It involved things like “computational fluid dynamics”. But that understanding would not do much for your free kick abilities. And Beckham had developed his talent not by studying physics, but with the relentless practice of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Musicians, athletes and craftspeople will work many hours refining their skills. Sometimes without improvement, testing their patience and fortitude. Then for no obvious reason a breakthrough happens – the notes flow, the record is broken, the object becomes form, joy begins to flow.

There is a role for the conscious mind in this, but it’s a subtle one. Parts of the process have to happen outside its control. We need to watch out for a tendency to invent rational explanations for what we’ve learnt. It’s as if our conscious mind desperately needs to take credit for what’s happened. This can lead to all sort of “lessons” that we’re then tempted to teach others. Without noticing, we’ve traded discovery and creativity for the safety of the “known”.

This applies any time we want to improve performance or create something new. It’s not just for sportspeople and artists. For teams and organisations, persistence through failure, playfulness and discovery are vital. They require a paradoxical mixture of repetition and experimentation.

The challenge is magnified in groups, where people will have different responses, and where the sense of exposure is greater. It’s one thing to sit through you own boredom, it’s another to sit with the thought that your colleagues may think you are boring. Likewise, we may be able to manage our anxiety about trying something new, but what about how our colleagues might respond to our failure?

Are we able to spot opportunities not just in brainstorming awaydays, but in the mundane and routine of everyday life?  Can we still be vigilant enough to keep noticing the small signs that change is happening? Do we know when we need to break routine and risk something different and new?

Are we willing to be vulnerable, not merely egging on our colleagues from a place of safety? If we try to avoid vulnerability ourselves, we may have little chance of encouraging it in others.

And like Berra’s hits and Beckham’s kicks, you can’t learn this art from a book. You need lots of practice, in an environment where you get useful feedback. The feedback is tricky; Beckham knows pretty soon where his kicks go; feeling the impact of your behaviour in a group is more complex, since people’s responses can be varied and confusing.

So to develop this kind of capacity, it might be better to see it as a practice. Something that requires attention and repetition. Something you can’t do entirely on your own, that may be best developed in the company of others interested in the practice. Move away from lessons, move towards experiences.

Viv McWaters and I will be exploring this form of creative leadership at our Residential Workshop in Cambridge. August 31 to September 2. It’s going to be based on hands-on experiences, using activities to help you practice. We’ll be focussing on how we perform the role of leader in groups, noticing more and making fewer, subtler interventions, and avoiding the many trances into which people can fall when collaborating. We’ve developed this work over many years in helping organisations facilitate collaboration for innovation and discovery. We’ll use practice activities drawn from the worlds of improvised theatre, psychotherapy as well as business. We’re not aiming to tell you how to do the work, but rather to help you make discoveries of your own about how to be the kind of leader you’d like to follow.

Registration is £875 (plus VAT) until June 16th. You can also download our free book, Nothing is Written for more on our thinking.

Unhurried Update

I’ve been hosting Unhurried Conversations here in Cambridge for more than two years now. Here’s a post from a few months back describing the approach.

It continues to be a fascinating process. The format has remained more or less the same, and many of those attending are regulars. Yet each time the experience is surprising and satisfying.

In fact, I now host them fortnightly and in the weeks off I rather miss them. We’ve increased the maximum attending to 20, which means when everyone shows up, we have to split into parallel conversations. This way we’re able to meet what feels like growing demand.

The repeated experience feels like a great way of deepening my practice. It’s easy to get excited about new facilitation techniques, but for me the real excitement is in taking a simple technique and noticing more and more of the subtle ways in which people work with it. So for me, these conversations have contributed a lot to my professional work.

I find when I take on work now I am more willing to work organically, developing processes live in response to what I see happening in the room. I’m increasingly confident that people really want to connect, want to make things happen, and generally need less pushing, steering and guidance and fewer flip charts, post it notes, bells and whistles to get there. What the facilitator needs to bring, more than anything, is presence. Because much of the art is in self-restraint, leaving the most possible space for participants to operate in ways the work naturally for them – but still letting them realise that you are really engaged with them, even though you are not rushing about a lot.

Iin many organisations there is so much pressure to achieve and meet targets (so many meetings seem to be about “doing more with less”) that people are starved of reflective space. But it’s in that kind of space that I think there is most scope for discovery and creativity. It’s perhaps no coincidence that I am blogging less frequently than in the past. There’s really only so much one say about the value of showing up and being open to surprise; it looks simple enough, but I think it’s something that grows with commitment and practice.

UPDATE: Viv and I will be exploring the use of Unhurried Conversations in organisations on our residential workshop. 31 August to 2 September 2016 in Cambridge.