Sunday, 14 January 2018

Unrepentant About Ice Breakers

 On Twitter this morning, I saw a stream of comments from teachers about their hostility to ice breakers.  Many referred to their discomfort, and their frustration at these pointless activities; they felt patronised by being 'required to have fun' and by being given childish activities to do when they all have degrees; and so on...

This touched a raw nerve, as I often use ice breakers at the start of programmes, including some aspects of the things derided in this thread (getting people to move, for example...). Indeed, on Friday, I had run a morning session that had been largely a 'getting to know people' session; with an introduction by the sponsoring senior leader, an icebreaker, and two other introductory-type exercises. And I am unrepentant.

So how do I square my approach with the evident, and indeed virulent, hostility of (some) professional teachers (at least on Twitter)? 'Ice breakers are pointless. I don’t start teaching by getting them to share some pointless factoid or get to (sic) close for comfort. Get attention, get going.' And likewise 'must be some research that actively refutes ice breakers as a useful activity.'

I think there are various things to consider. One crucial aspect is context. Various comments from the teachers indicated that icebreakers were being used when they were pretty pointless: eg at the start of meetings of staff, where they all work together and know each other really well. I am not sure why one would do that. Likewise, at the start of a conference session, when there is no requirement or benefit in them getting to know each other well.  Again, I am not sure why one would do that, either.

The context for my icebreaker yesterday was the first day of a year-long programme, in which academics who did not previously know each other will be working closely together on a one-day-a-month basis.  The programme directors had asked me to run a morning to get them to know each other, to discuss their goals for the year, and so on.

In that context, investing 20 minutes in a light-hearted but reasonably challenging activity in small groups seemed a useful way to start.

I made sure to follow it up with a more didactive session (in fact, a brief presentation of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment components), and we then used that model as a framework for the more formal participant introductions: each was given five minutes to think out loud about their role and why they were on the programme, with all others listening with exquisite attention. As there were thirteen participants, that took over an hour,

Again, that exercise might fall foul of the twitter teachers, as being made to talk in front of others is uncomfortable (especially for introverts) , and also, as one put it:
'Today’s about learning from each other..’ so what are we paying you for??!
Both are fair comments; but I am still unrepentant.  Some participants did find it uncomfortable to talk about themselves for five minutes: but that discomfort itself became a useful source of reflection and learning. One of the participants, for example, said that hearing others talk about the discomfort made her realise that it was not just her, and that had increased her confidence in talking in that group. A number said they feared that they would be boring, but all acknowledged that they had not found anyone else's introduction boring, and so that helped lay that particular worry to rest.

It is also worth saying (as indeed I said to the participants) that I don't mind people being uncomfortable: it is not my job to keep them happy all the time, as long as they are learning.

This is not one of mine:
no balloons were involved!

And what were they paying me for, if they were largely learning from each other?  Again, this might infuriate some teachers, but my role really was that of a facilitator; I was being paid to design, structure, and deliver a process that would enable the objectives of the morning to be met; that included some learning from me, but the majority was learning from (and about) each other.

But I come back to context: the reason that this was a worthwhile use of these intelligent peoples' time is that they did not previously know each other, and the rest of the programme relies on them being comfortable to work together, taking risks in their thinking and supporting each other in doing so.

Incidentally, the feedback from the Programme Directors was that it seemed to them that the group was much more cohesive as a group after the morning, and had got to a stage it had taken a number of sessions to reach with last year's cohort (which is why they had asked me to work with them on the first morning). Likewise, the programme participants were very positive about the morning, talking in particular about the value of looking once again at the fundamental skills of good listening, and immediately having a couple of chances to practice that (we did a paired exercise after the big group one).

I may be deluding myself in taking this feedback at face value - maybe they are just being polite. But I don't think so; not least because previous people whom I have subjected to such cruel and unnatural practices have not only sought me out later to tell me how they have valued my approach, but also engaged me to do further work with them and their people; and longer term evaluation (by other people) of programmes I have been involved with has also supplied very positive feedback.

And so I remain unrepentant...

Friday, 1 December 2017

More reflections on Time Management

Since installing Toggl (see previous post, here) and despite being very busy (as Toggle reveals: I will put some analysis on this blog in due course) I have been reflecting further on Time Management.

When I run workshops on the topic, I often start by joking that if ever business is slow, I can always sell a time management workshop; and there is some truth in that. It is a perennial problem for many people in many organisations. 

But this week's insight (or was it just remembering or bringing to the surface something I have long known?) was that time management is really about two quite different , but in practice inter-related, questions.

One is How do I allocate my time? and the second is, How do I manage myself?

I say the two are inter-related, because in my experience (and thinking not just about myself, but about the many people with whom I have worked on this vexed issue), the decision on how to allocate time is profoundly impacted by one's self-management skills (or lack thereof...)

By this I mean that it is relatively easy to block out time in the diary every week to work on important activities before they become urgent. But then something arises: an interruption, a a distraction, a more urgent task; and it is in the management of one's responses to these issues that success in time management lies.

I should add that I am not an advocate of 'stick to the plan, no matter what!' If the building is on fire, then leaving it seems to be a better idea! 

However, what one should do is, firstly, notice that one has a choice, rather than react out of habit; and secondly make that choice by a genuine consideration of the relative importance (s well as urgency) of the distracting activity.  More often than not, the right course of action is indeed to stick to the plan.

So developing the self-management strategies to enable one to notice the moment of choice, to make the choice based on the right criteria, and then to implement the choice, becomes a key focus for those determined to improve the way in which they use their time.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


One of my coaching clients had set himself the task of finding a light-touch way of tracking how he actually uses his time, as a first step to reviewing his time management practices.

He came up with Toggl, which I hadn't previously known. So I thought that I would give it a try. It is a long while since I last tracked my time this precisely (so long ago that it was before people had developed packages like this) and some benefits are obvious - as long as it doesn't become too time consuming or a distraction in itself.

So I started to do so today, and I have to say that Toggl seems easy to use and useful. One can either click start as one starts a task, and then end when on stops, for automatic time recording; or one can create an entry by typing in the start and finish time.

That generates a task list, showing each task undertaken and how long was spent on it; and also, on the dashboard, some nice summary information.  Here is today:

This is the summary view: there is more detail available (who I was coaching, and all the items that were tagged Admin or other).

But the most interesting immediate effect that I noticed was that once I had clicked 'start' I did tend to stick with the task until it was done (or until my available time was used up) rather than interrupt myself with other tasks. I am sure Deming would have had something to say about that (what gets measured gets done, or something of the sort).

So I will play with Toggl for a few weeks, see what I learn, and if there is anything of interest, report back here in due course. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness

At Cardiff Futures this week, we had a session with the inspirational Aileen Richards. She had a long corporate career with Mars, and is the first woman on the Board of the Welsh Rugby Union.

She raised many interesting aspects of leadership, illustrated by anecdotes from her 30 years of corporate experience, and led a highly-engaged discussion with participants. 

One point she made that has been causing me to reflect was based on an article about parenting that she had read many years ago. It started by reflecting that most parents say; 'I just want my children to be happy.' That sounds a bit motherhood-and-apple-pie. But, the article continued, what they should say is; 'I just want my children to be kind.' 

The point was that is people are kind, happiness will follow, as will other good things. And I think that there is much truth in that.  But I have also been reflecting on the other part of the proposition: the pursuit of happiness (which is famously written into the US Declaration of Independence. 

For I think implicit in the idea Aileen was proposing, and made more explicit in other contexts, is the notion that happiness is actually a by-product of other things. The direct pursuit of happiness is likely to be counter-productive - for it provokes a focus on the self, and on one's own state of mind and emotion that is likely to lead to a selfish outlook: and it is a matter of common observation that selfish people don't tend to be happy.  Conversely, if one considers the truly happy people one knows, it is pretty clear that they don't focus on pursuing happiness: they have more meaningful things to do with their lives. 

Of course, Aristotle was on the case, back in the day: he maintained that true happiness is to be found by pursuing the virtues.  And I think he may have been onto something.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Playing with four-box models

Last week, wondering what to post on the Shifting Stories blog, I drew up a quick four box model on the back of an envelope about the stories people tell in organisations. It was fairly light-hearted – not the fruit of deep thought or empirical research. What surprised me was how much it resonated with others. As is my custom, I cross-posted it to Linked-In, and it had a sudden flurry of hits and likes, mainly from people I don’t know.

So always one to respond to feedback, I thought  I’d play with some more four-box models (when wondering what on earth to blog about this week…). In part this was stimulated by a conversation with my eldest daughter at breakfast this morning. I am going to meet a charity this morning, with a view to becoming a trustee.   It is one of those informal ‘meet for lunch and then a brief meeting’ things – not, as I understand it, a formal interview. 

I was remarking that such occasions are not my favourite; I rather prefer a structured situation where I know the rules of the game, as it were. I am not particularly adept at informal social situations. But I mused that perhaps the image I should strive for is ‘committed but not fanatical.’ Annie laughed: ‘Yes, I think either uncommitted or fanatical might not be the best!’  And instantly a four box model sprang into my mind. So here is my grid for anyone recruiting trustees for a charity…

And that’s why I like four box models. Although they only look at a couple of variables, they do throw up and clarify interesting and thought-provoking combinations – and they are good fun.

Friday, 27 October 2017

On the 50th Anniversary of the Abortion Act

Marble Arch lit up by Life to mark the anniversary
People sometimes assume that I am pro-life because I am Catholic. In fact, it might be more accurate to put that the other way around. In my late teens and early twenties, the time when one is questioning such things with particular intensity, the Catholic Church's clear and consistent pro-life position was one of the things that helped convince me that this was my spiritual home.

My pro-life position, then, has two main roots: one practical, one philosophical.  The practical one was witnessing one of my sisters being pregnant at a relatively young age and in very inauspicious circumstances. That was in 1969, the year after abortion was partially de-criminalised. So my nephew was an early candidate for abortion - and I have always been quite clear that ending his life would have been the wrong thing to do (not least for his mother, as things turned out, of course).

On the philosophical level, it seems to me that human rights are universal or they are nothing. Of these rights, the right to life is clearly foundational: without that, no other right has any meaning. Once we take it upon ourselves to say certain categories of human beings do not have the right to life, whether because of age, disability, the circumstances of their conception, or any other reason, we have assumed to ourselves a position of power that is untenable and, I think, corrupting. History is rife with examples.

The first training I had in non-directional counselling was with Oxford Nightline, when I was an undergraduate. It was the approach taken to all the issues that students might present with, except suicide. With suicide, we were not non-directional: all our efforts were to keep the student from ending his or her life; confidentiality no longer applied - a second volunteer would call the emergency services whilst the first kept the student talking, and so on.

And rightly so: somebody's life is at stake. Moreover, we recognise that the desire to commit suicide is, more often than not, a passing one; but a successful suicide is irreversible. 

I believe similar considerations also apply to abortion. If one considers Kubler-Ross' research, and the transition curve, we are compelling women to make an irreversible choice at a particular moment, when they are going through the emotionally charged experience of coming to terms with an unwanted pregnancy. We know that the way she will react will change over time - but the nature of the choice demands a quick decision. Such a decision may well not be the one she would make given more time and more support.

Of course, I do not condemn any woman who has made that choice; any more than I would condemn anyone driven to attempt suicide. But in both cases I would see it as a tragic choice, one to be avoided, not promoted.

And I do blame those who promote abortion through lies; both the active lies of the abortion industry and the colluding lies of their cheer-leaders in other spheres of public life. By active lies, I mean lies like Marie Stopes promoting itself as supporting women in their choice, when in fact their staff are on a bonus scheme to push women in one direction: the one that contributes to MSI's bottom line. Lies like denying that the unborn child is a human being, flying in the face of science. And lies like claiming that pro-life prayer groups are harassing women in Ealing, when despite having two cameras trained on them, there is no evidence of their having done so.  Their crime, rather, is to offer women a real choice, as these women testify: 

By collusive lies, I mean things like the BBC, commissioning a poll on public opinions, and then suppressing the fact that the public does not favour de-criminalisation, and only quoting the results that favour the BBC's agenda of liberalisation. And the BBC dropping a woman who chose not to abort her baby with Downs from a programme, and steadfastly refusing to interview women such as those who feature in the video above, who have been helped by pro-life organisations. 

I also mean things like the NHS, which refers to an unborn child as a baby, when it is wanted, but as 'a pregnancy' when describing abortion. Surely the nature of the being under discussion doesn't change depending on our attitude towards it? This is an Orwellian use of language.

I mean things like ideologues imposing radical pro-abortion agendas on organisations they lead, without consultation of their membership; whether that is Colleges of health professionals, or Amnesty International, which has apparently spent more on abortion campaigning in Ireland than on the causes its founders and members signed up to.

Abortion, of course, does not address the many serious and challenging issues that some women face. Indeed, it provides a short cut that makes it easier to ignore them. Perhaps the most damning indictment of all is that abortion is used by pedophiles, rapists, incestuous relations, and abusers to cover their crimes (as in Rotherham, for example). To its shame  MSI carries out hundreds of abortions on girls under 16 without any referrals for safeguarding.

That is why I not only oppose abortion, but also support those who work to offer real support to women in crisis pregnancies; and why I am so proud of my daughter Clare, who works for Life (the second speaker on this clip).

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Meeting

This morning, as I was driving down the M6 to a meeting, the traffic came to a halt and we could see heavy black smoke ahead. The opposite carriageway was completely clear, and it was quickly apparent that the motorway had been closed due to a vehicle on fire (we soon learned, from those who wandered up the central reservation to have a look, that a large crane had caught on fire).

So I sent a message to the person I was due to meet, and also texted Jane at HQ (we were at a complete standstill, and had been for some time, I should add...) to let her know what was going on. She replied that the person I was due to meet had also got in touch to say he wouldn't be able to get to work on time, so could we postpone the meeting.  I had visions of him being a couple of cars ahead in the queue...

So I then typed up a quick briefing note of the issues I had wanted to update him about, and the questions I had hoped we would be able to discuss, and emailed that through to him. In the meantime, he had texted me his mobile number and agreed we should talk by phone.

And that is what we did. I called his mobile (it turned out he was sat at a train station, awaiting the  next train to get him to work) and we had a very productive telephone conversation, in about 15 minutes.

And then I had to wait for the motorway to reopen, before I could go to the next junction and then come back home the back way (the northbound carriageway was still closed as the crane was on that side of the road).

All of which made me reflect that I should conduct more meetings by phone.  Had I gone to his office, the meeting would doubtless have lasted longer - not least because both of us would, at some level, have felt that it should, to justify the journey.  But in fact we sorted everything in quite short order.

Yet I had had, I thought, good reasons for seeking a meeting rather than a phone call. I was suggesting some changes to a plan of work, and wanted to gauge his reaction. I wanted to have a creative conversation with him about some possibilities, and elicit his best thinking. I wanted to continue to build the relationship: we had only met twice or thrice, and that over a twelve month period.

But in fact, the meeting we had by phone was more than adequate: it was quick, efficient good-humoured and productive.  I was able, I think, to gauge his reactions, and he certainly had some very good ideas that took our thinking forward. And writing the briefing note had really focused my thinking, and also gave us both a written record of the key issues.

So my conclusion is that I need to be more confident in the power of a phone call both to transact business, to enable creative conversations, and to build relationships.  And I am sure my clients will appreciate the time saved by shorter conversations - and I certainly will, once travelling time is added on top...