See what happens

I’ve just read Dave Snowden’s summary about managing complex problems. It reminds me of the principles of Improv. These are fresh in my mind from the Banff conference last week.

In Banff there were quite a few discussions about the notion of failure. In improv one of the biggest impediments to performance is the fear of failure – or getting distracted by perceptions of not doing well. We tried different ways to address this: should we celebrate it? fail more often? or maybe not use the word failure at all? Dave talks about safe:fail.

Anyway, the gist of this approach to complex systems – whether that’s being on stage in a scene or tackling some horrendous organisational issue – is to try stuff and see what happens. It’s an approach puts less emphasis on prediction or efforts to map the past onto an emerging future. “See what happens”, keeps our options open. We can stay away from too rigidly predicting success or failure: those predictions tend to close our eyes to the multiple ripples from our stone in the pond. (I think of the old joke about the surgeon saying, “The operation was a complete success, although unfortunately the patient died.) See what happens is an invitation to be open to the detail of what emerges.

It’s interesting to try small interventions and see a ripple effect. Sometimes when coaching, I’m tempted to give the client several ideas on what to do differently. I generally now try one thing and see what happens. For instance, if we’re practicing a difficult conversation with a colleague, I might say, Try that again, only this time focus attention on how tense or relaxed your shoulders are. Very often, all sorts of aspects of the performance change.

There is some judgement about what I choose for the focus of attention: it’s generally based on some intuition or experience of something which will improve the performance. I find people often do better at difficult challenges when they’re less tense and not trying so hard. This closely relates to the ideas of The Inner Game, blogged the other day. After this experiment, we can reflect on what changed and see what we want to support and what we’d like to lose. That’s the spirit of Dave’s approach of “probing and sensing”.

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