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.