Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Be careful what you wish for...

One of the things many people I talk with wish for is to work for an organisation that is values-led; or at least has a set of values aligned with those of the individual.  And one of the things I enjoy about working with so many universities, who now form the majority of my clients, is that I truly believe in the importance and value of learning in all its aspects.

So why do I sound a note of caution?

The reason is that I have also noticed that it is in values-led organisations (whether commercial, educational or third sector) that some of the most painful conflicts have arisen.  And perhaps the reason is obvious, but it took me a while to understand and articulate it for myself, so perhaps it will be helpful for others.

When we work for an organisation that is aligned with our values, we are engaged at a very deep level - and so is everyone else. So when differences arise about how we should act, they are deeply held, and also more difficult to discuss dispassionately.

I still remember vividly working with a Christian charity that faced a difficult dilemma. They were clear that they would recruit anyone who wanted to contribute to their charitable purposes; but when it came to Board appointments, things were not so clear. On the one hand, some believed that the values of equality and inclusivity, founded in the Christian virtue of Charity, demanded that they appoint people to the Board regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). On the other hand, others believed that the integrity of the organisation as a Christian charity, demanded that the Board (or at least the majority of the Board) should be believing Christians: Faith is also a Christian virtue, of course. Their concern was that removing the Faith-based requirement for Board appointments would inevitably result, over time, in the organisation losing its Christian ethos.

As you can imagine, people on either side of the debate felt very strongly indeed; and it was difficult to discuss the issue without the emotional temperature rising very rapidly.

Similar conflicts can arise in all arenas, of course. In a university, a proposal that would be beneficial to students but onerous to teaching staff is one example. Some would argue that the students' perspective is the most important - whatever facilitates their learning should be prioritised. But equally, others argue that motivated and productive lecturers are the most important determinant of student learning: so over-burdening and alienating them is clearly wrong.

And because our values are involved - because we are deeply invested in the issues - these conflicts are far more difficult to discuss and resolve than if we are arguing about some issue where our intellect - and our passions - are not so deeply involved.

So by all means work for an organisation that is led by the values that you adhere to - but don't indulge in the fantasy that everything will therefore be sweetness and light!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Why is truth-telling so hard?

I was at a meeting recently with a couple of very senior people (Let's call them A & B) and an HR person (let's call him X).

X had convened the meeting to discuss a proposal I'd written at X's invitation for a piece of work in the organisation, which A & B would need both to approve and be actively involved in developing and delivering.

Early on, I asked A & B if they had had a copy of my proposal - I didn't want to go over the whole thing again if they had, but I have learned to take nothing for granted.  They both said that they hadn't and X said he would send it through to them after our meeting.

As we left the meeting, X told me that he had indeed sent the proposal through to A & B before the meeting, but had thought it better not to mention that.

And so the truth was not told.

And I get that - I am sure that I have done similar in similar situations, and may well do so again.  But I have been ruminating on it ever since and a few things strike me.

One is that X's silence is easily understood: X did not want to embarrass A & B, especially in front of an outsider; and may have been wary of the consequences had he done so.

A second is that X may have been right. I don't know the organisational culture, or A or B as individuals, and it may be that X would have been victimised for pointing out that the document was in fact in both of their in-boxes.

And what harm was done, after all? Just a white lie, to save face for busy senior people.

But actually, I think harm was done.

For example, A & B may think X is less competent than he is - he should have sent the paper in advance.  Or they may discover it in their in-boxes and realise that he had sent it - and then judge him for not saying so. They have also been denied a learning opportunity: how was it that their systems had not flagged that there was a paper they should have read for this meeting? And X's behaviour suggests, and colludes with, a culture where the truth is not spoken to senior people, which is very unhealthy.

All of which reminds me of Patrick Lencioni on trust (and the associated need for vulnerability), and also later on telling the truth (with regard to accountability) and how easy it is to excuse ourselves from doing so.

Of course, it is easier for me as an outsider, to tell the truth: I can walk away more easily if it goes wrong.  And of course, that gives me a graver obligation to do so.

And that reflection makes me think of the organisations where I am not an outsider: a couple of charities with which I work. In one, I have some leadership responsibilities, and in the other I am a pawn on the ground, as it were. But in both cases there are issues about which I am having to think carefully about telling the truth.  

And the reason in both cases is that I have raised issues or queries quite openly and with little forethought, and then found that I have been met with a very strong, negative reaction from senior people.  Which brings me back to my question: why is truth-telling so hard?  And in the organisational context, it is frequently because of the (fear of) potentially negative responses of those with power.

Yet organisations need the truth to be told; leaders need people to be able to speak honestly and openly to them; or else they are leading without complete information, and possibly without insight.  And the led (including me) need to find the courage to speak our truth, and also the wisdom to do that in a way that reduces the likelihood of a defensive response - but we need not let the fear of such a response stop us from speaking all together, or we collude with the dysfunctionality of the organisation.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Playing with pictures

Recently, at the instigation of my good friend and colleague Jan Allon-Smith, I bought a set of three packs of Visual Explorer Cards, as developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership.

I have been experimenting with them in a variety of settings: a team awayday, coaching and coaching supervision; and for different purposes: checking in and out at the start and end of the day, exploring coaching and supervision issues, and eliciting feedback after a peer-observed supervision session. 

They have proved very fruitful in all three contexts, as one might expect: stimulating a slightly left-field (or as some would say,  left-brained - but let's not get into that argument just now...) approach to the issues under discussion, as I had hoped and indeed expected.

But what I found very helpful, and had not foreseen, was the way in which they served as reference points later in a conversation, to issues discussed earlier.  Thus in the supervision session, I asked the coach I was supervising to select and talk about images at various stages of our conversation. Quite early on, for example, I asked her to choose a picture (and then talk about it) representing how she would like her coaching client to be at the end of a coaching session. Later in the conversation, on more than one occasion, we were able to refer back to that: 'if you want your client to be... [gesture at appropriate card], how does that inform how you choose between these approaches?...' It proved a remarkably effective shorthand way of referring back to a whole set of ideas that had been unpacked earlier.  At the end of the supervision, I invited the coach to take photos of the pictures she had chosen, as part of her note-taking from the session, which she thought a particularly useful and powerful way of helping her to remember what she had been exploring.

In describing that to my wife and business partner, the ever-insightful Jane, she pointed out that the pictures were serving a similar purpose in this context to the naming of stories in the ManyStory approach. How had I not seen that? So now I'm off to blog about that on the Shifting Stories site...

It is worth saying that the Visual Explorer cards are very expensive, and if one had the time and inclination, one might do as well to buy a large stock of postcards (if I were in London, I might simply have gone to the South Kensington museums and a couple of art galleries and bought one each of every card they stocked).  One of my colleagues at the Coaching Supervision Group suggested buying the pack of 100 Penguin Book Cover Postcards  - but my reservation here would be that too many feature mainly words, and all have words on the covers which would change the dynamic....

Having said which, the only advantages of the CCL images over a rich selection of good varied visual postcards  (though I am sure that they would argue they have been carefully selected etc etc...) are that they come in neat plastic boxes to keep them in good condition when carried about, and that they look made for the job - which, if one has cynical clients, or one is concerned about maintaining a very professional image, may be valuable.

My final reflection on all this is that I used to use far more visual imagery in my work - particularly when I was running Creativity Workshops on a regular basis, which I have not done for a few years now. I wonder if I have retreated somewhat into a 'safer' world of more word-based practices - so a healthy reminder to keep refreshing my work and approaches.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Why we do what we do

I am currently reading Why we do what we do  by Edward Deci, and finding it fascinating. 

One of the first issues that really caught my attention was his examination of the use of money as a motivator. It is such a truism, but according to Deci we need to be very careful here, as it can undermine intrinsic motivation, changing a chosen task into a chore, and leading to a risk of alienation. He describes, for example, an experiment in which students are given puzzles to solve. Some are asked to do it for the fun of it; others are paid. At the breaks, those paid, put the puzzles down and do something else; those doing it for fun, continue to play with it.  Which would we prefer in our teams?...

His central thesis is that intrinsic motivation is both more effective and healthier than extrinsic motivation. And to encourage (or at least not destroy) intrinsic motivation, Autonomy is critical. Perceived competence is also critical.

He notes the failure of centralised bureaucratic systems (eg Soviet, Chinese) that undermine both, and lead to disengaged people doing work they believe to be meaningless with a deadening effect both on productivity and on their own well-being.

Competition is interesting: if it’s win - lose, that is problematic; but if it is perceived as a chance to test yourself against a challenging standard, it can be very positive.

Feedback: Praise is also interesting: non-controlling praise works; controlling praise (ie praise motivated by a desire to attain specific future behaviours) undermines intrinsic motivation; ambiguous praise (ie not clear if controlling or not) is likely not to work for women (who typically interpret it as controlling - conditioned to seek praise as a reward?) and is likely to work for men (interpret it as appropriate recognition for their efforts - conditioned to think of themselves as entitled to recognition?)

Negative feedback: can be disastrous: as it is often both controlling and undermining of competence!

With all of rewards, limits and feedback (both positive and negative) it’s all about how you do it. So inviting self-evaluation is by far the best approach. Deci acknowledges that these are necessary but thinks that we pay too little attention to the risks, and too frequently address the needs in ways that are severely counter-productive.

People need to understand the instrumentalities; how to behave in order to achieve desired outcomes. The linkage between their behaviour and those outcomes - and feeling competent at those instruments, in a way supportive of their autonomy and nurturing of their competence.... is likely to be valuable.  Self-critical feedback (that is accurate) is of course a competent thing to undertake.

So loads to think about, and I have not even finished the book yet.  But it does raise questions over the influencing skills model I use, for example, about which I need to think more.

And I may well write further about this one, once I have finished it.

Monday, 19 March 2018

GDPR and Ice Cream

On Friday (16 March) we had a very valuable CCNet meeting at Abbott Lodge Ice Cream Farm. And not valuable only because of the quality of the ice cream (excellent though that was). But the real value lay in the opportunity to be taken systematically through the implications of the new General Data Protection Regulations by Mark Wightman (of Aethos Consulting).
Mark Wightman
Mark started by some myth-busting.  For example, people who claim that they can (for a fee) make you GDPR-compliant are probably overstating their case.  The regulations are full of words like ‘proportionate’ and ‘reasonable.’ What that means in practice is that until there have been a few court cases and the judiciary have decided what is proportionate and/or reasonable, we won’t know.
On the other hand, that also means that small businesses, such as those represented at the meeting, will not be held to the same standard as, say Google or HSBC or PWC.
As long as we take a reasonable and proportionate approach, then even if we get something wrong and someone complains, the regulator is more likely to say we should change our policy or practice, than to land us with a large fine.
Mark then took us through the essentials: understanding what personal data is; what principles underpin the regulations, and what sequence of steps we should take to develop appropriate and proportionate policies and practices.
All those who attended found it a very useful, and surprisingly (!) interesting morning, and we are most grateful to Mark for sharing his expertise with us.
(Cross-posted from the CCNet Blog)

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Time To Think Coaching (and Collusion re-visited)

Shirley Wardell
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was booked on the Time to Think Coaching Course, with one of Nancy Kline's colleagues, Shirley Wardell.  In that blog post I also reflected on the risk of collusion that I am concerned about, in non-directive approaches to coaching.

I attended the first part of that course this week, with the second in a fortnight's time.

It was, as I had expected, extremely interesting and stimulating, and took my understanding of the Time To Think coaching process further, as well as giving me the scope to practice the process overall and in particular the elements of it with which I most needed to get more familiar.

It was also fascinating to work with Shirley, who has been a colleague of Nancy's for many years and is extremely familiar with, and skilled in, the Thinking Environment approach. Encouragingly, she is very different from Nancy - an exuberant extravert (ex-sales trainer, dramatic producer...), while Nancy is a more reflective introvert. So seeing the same principles and practices modelled - and in a very disciplined way - by such  a different character was fascinating. There was none of that sense of artificiality that I have sometimes encountered in, say NLP experts: Shirley was following the rules, as it were, but in a way that was wholly authentic and congruent with who she is.

I did raise the issue of Collusion, and of course the first response was to have a thinking round about it: all the course participants, and Shirley as the course leader, thought out loud about the topic.  

A few points emerged that were very helpful. One is that the Thinking Environment includes, as one of the ten components, Information.  That means, unlike in purely client-led sessions, the coach has the right - even, Shirley suggested, the duty - to raise issues that were important to the coachee's goals, if necessary. 

Carl Rogers
That includes the coach's perceptions, insights or wonderings - raised appropriately as questions to explore. She also mentioned Carl Rogers' criteria for assessing whether such things needed to be raised: they had to be striking, persistent, and relevant.

Another coach on the course, Ayesha Malik, highlighted the importance of contracting, in this regard.  (So much comes back to contracting!) If we have explained the ten component well, we will have included a discussion of Information, and whether - and how - we feed back our perceptions as part of the learning process. 

We also discussed strategies for when the coachee might talk through the whole session as a way (unconsciously or otherwise) of ensuring that there is no time for such feedback. Again, contracting (and if necessary re-contracting) are important here; and then raising this behaviour itself, explicitly with the client, as a topic for discussion.

So my initial concerns about the risks of collusion when using this model have been largely mitigated: it was largely a lack of understanding on my part; and the helpful part of all that is that I now know how to improve my practice in that area when using the Time To Think approach.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Time Management Tools

Regular readers will remember that I wrote about Toggl a while ago.  Toggl helps you track how you are spending your time, including providing you with the ability to categorise and group items, so you can get an overview of the proportion of time spent on different projects, types of activity etc.

I found it very interesting, as it made clear to me quite how much time I spend travelling; and how well (or not) I use that time.  Also the discipline of recording made me more likely to stick to the task I had started, and less likely to goof off an play on social media, walk the dog, or have a coffee - at least until I had finished the task.

 It also revealed how much time I spend on client projects which I never record (liaising, briefing guest speakers, preparing handout material etc). All of which is fine - and rather lays to rest my image of myself as lazy, which is partly historic, and partly because I don't really count the time sat at home on my laptop as work - but this has revealed that a lot of it really is.

But perhaps this is the moment to confess that I am not using Toggl assiduously (or indeed at all) any more. I think that there are a few reasons for that. One is that I took a break for a couple of days in January when I was particularly busy and didn't re-start.  A second is that I wasn't sure of the best ways of categorising some things (is coaching preparation and review best seen as part of coaching? Or separate? And if separate, is review (which is in part CPD) separate again?) and so on.  I saw the risks of wasting time on the tool rather than doing more productive activities.  So that's a risk with Toggl.  But I think I will continue to use it, periodically, to keep an eye on the balance of my time.

And then, just the other day (as I was preparing for a coaching session, with the chap who had introduced me to Toggl) I found the Eisenhower app. This is simply the famous Urgency/Importance grid, online. Where Toggl helps track what you spend time on, this helps you to focus on what you should be spending time on - and what you should not.

I find the in-built advice less helpful (eg for Urgent but not Important, they simply say 'delegate' but that is not always possible or even appropriate).  For the best online explanation of the grid (he says modestly) see my video:

But the tool itself is useful. You can use it as a to-do list, by adding things you need to do to the appropriate quadrant.  They can be dragged to another quadrant if things (eg the deadlines) change; and once done, deleted (but are still available to read or even re-instate or re-cycle).  And as with Toggl, once you have decreed that something is urgent and important, there is quite an incentive to do it: and then to do the next thing; and then to move on and do something Important before it becomes urgent.  And likewise to contain the urgent but not important activities so that they don't swamp the important ones.  

All common sense, and what one tries to do anyway - but this brings it back into sharp focus.  So as with Toggl, I'll try it for a while; then probably pause and take stock and even take a break from it (perhaps that's when I'll pick up Toggl again).  

As with so many skills, there's something about paying sustained attention for a while, and then making a few tweaks, that is hugely helpful.  And as usual, I will report back on this blog if any learning of note arises.