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...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Listening and power

I ran an event for the senior team of an organisation recently. The team has an annual retreat for a couple of days every year: this was the sixth one since the current Chief Executive has been in place, and first I have facilitated for them.

After some discussion with the CE (and knowing the organisation and the senior team quite well) I suggested that we use Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach. (See the Nancy Kline tag for my previous posts on this topic).

So we recast the agenda as a series of questions, and included an initial round of 'What's going well for you?' followed by a reminder of the Thinking Environment components (most members of the team had come across them previously - indeed they had resolved to work accordingly last year, but had forgotten to do so...)

And then each agenda item was treated in a TE way: we took turns to speak; we listened to each other without interrupting; we truly attended; we shared the time fairly; we split into smaller groups for some items; - and we had some great discussions.

What I noticed was that this approach re-distributes power towards those who are normally disadvantaged by the traditional meeting behaviours: those who are slightly less quick at articulating their thoughts, those who are more likely to be interrupted, and less likely to interrupt; those who like to reflect, even as they try to express their thoughts. I have, of course, noticed this before.

But what really struck me this time was that power is not a zero-sum game. The increased power of those people was not at the cost of others; rather the whole team seemed more potent. The CE, who spoke less than he normally does, increased in both understanding and stature. Wiser decisions were made with a higher degree of consensus; and difficult issues were addressed with a greater degree of mutual understanding.

At the end, the CE, and many others, said it was the best retreat they had ever had - and they resolved to work in this way in the future.  I will be checking in with them to see if they are more effective in implementing this resolution this time than last (and I did just happen to remind the CE of this resolution just before the next senior team meeting...)

Friday, 22 September 2017

Invisible Facilitation

I have blogged before about Invisible Facilitation (here and here) and was reminded of the idea this week, when I ran an awayday(-and-a-half) for the senior team of a University.

As before, some of my most valuable work was done beforehand (getting the agenda cast as questions, for example, and agreeing the whole approach with the Vice Chancellor, which informed how he introduced the day and ran various discussions). On the event, I said very little.

One thing I did say was a brief (10 minute) introduction to Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv) and the implications of the 10 components as they might apply to this awayday.

I also sorted the groups for the group work, managed the timing and so on; but 90% or more of the talking was done by the participants, and (and this is the important thing in terms of the Thinking Environment) the airtime was shared pretty evenly between them.

At one stage I also passed the VC a note about a change to the meeting process, when I thought the Thinking Environment principles weren't being honoured (ie a few were doing all the talking). He changed the process, and the thinking took off again.

The last thing I did was invite them to comment on what they had taken from the event, and their reflections on the Thinking Environment as a methodology for such meetings.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive: indeed a number of them said it was the best awayday they had ever had as a team.

So once again, nearly-invisible facilitation proved a very valuable approach: and fortunately the group were sophisticated enough to recognise the correlation between my (very few) interventions and the success of the event.

Another blow struck for introverted facilitators!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Risk taking and prudence

I have been reflecting a bit about risk-taking and prudence; and my different relationship to physical and emotional (or social) risk.

That has been prompted, in part, by a recognition that over the summer I made a number of imprudent decisions about physical risk; one of which led to my damaging my ankle quite severely, taking a fall from a rock-face, and another leading a group of friends over Striding Edge in fairly adverse conditions (I learned later there had been a severe accident that very day with someone falling from the ridge; and a fatality two or three days previously).

And then, in discussion with some other coaches, I was reflecting on taking risks as a coach, and recognising that I had never regretted taking a risk in that context, but had regretted occasions on which I had failed to do so.

At the level of physical risk, my conclusion is that I should start to act more like the venerable grandfather that I am, rather than the teenager I was thirty-five years ago. That is simply a matter of growing up.

But with regard to social or emotional risk, I have been reflecting on the excellent analogy in Daniel Nettle's book on Personality. He talks about smoke detectors, and points out that a smoke detector can fail in either of two ways.

On one hand, it can go off when it is not necessary; which leads to people standing outside in the rain waiting for the fire brigade to arrive and give the all-clear to re-enter the building. On the other hand, it can fail to go off when it should do, which leads to possible loss of life.  Naturally enough, manufacturers over-calibrate smoke detectors, so that the first error occurs, rather than the second.

Nettle's point is that our response to risk can be over-calibrated like that. Clearly, over the years, I have managed to over-compensate with regards to physical risk, but, like many people, social and emotional risk remains over-calibrated; so that there is always a tendency to over-react to perceived risk and refrain from, or withdraw from, situations that feel risky. 

And as with physical risk, the way to re-calibrate is experience: regularly pushing the boundaries of perceived risk, until I am more comfortable with it.

So if I offend you next time we meet, put it down to experimentation with calibration: it’s nothing personal!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Things we don't want to do...

Some time ago, a coaching client pointed out to me that there are only two types of things one can put on a to do list: the things we are going to do, and the things we are not going to do. His point was that life was much more pleasant (and productive) if we simply don't put on the list the things we are not going to do.

I remembered this twice during the week; once was in a meeting with a client who had realised since the last time we met, that the reason he had been unable to make time for the one really big priority that he had been procrastinating over for years, was that fundamentally, he didn't want to do it.  That realisation released a lot of energy (and some guilt and sense of incompetence). In particular, it freed him to identify what he really did want to do, and to get on with doing that.

And I had a similar experience myself. I was discussing with my coach various ideas to market my book, Shifting Stories, as sales have just started to slow down. (Did I mention I'd written a book? And that it's really very good?...) 

And we generated a number of ideas, including trying to get it reviewed in some of the professional journals, and what that would take (research, finding the right contacts, sending out copies, badgering the contacts etc - all with little prospect of success...). And I realised I just didn't want (or intend) to do those things. So instead of pretending (to myself or my coach) I simply said that I wouldn't. And that liberated a lot of energy for considering what I will do. Which includes more workshops for interested groups (I've a couple lined up already for the next month or so, and will seek to build on those); more conversations with people who already like the book (or the ideas it contains) about how they are using it, and how they might share the ideas; more use of social media (I quite enjoy blogging and writing Linked-In posts occasionally), and so on.

These are all activities I can commit to without my heart sinking; and as a result, not only am I more likely to do them, but I am more likely to do them in such a way that they are likely to be successful.

So I am now reflecting on where else in my planning this might apply: what else feels as though it deadens the soul, and how can I remove such items from my to do list, and replace them with activities that energise and excite?

So that's my top time management tip for this week: strike off the things you really have no intention of doing, and use the time and energy released for something more enriching.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Caxton Kafka

Some years ago, my wife organised a Caxton card for Mike, our son, to use on his travels. She also put my name on it, so that I, too, could use it.

We haven't used it for a while, and a replacement card arrived recently; which posed a problem. The problem arose because since last using the card, we have changed various email addresses, forgotten the passwords, and forgotten in whose details (d.o.b. mother's maiden name etc) the card was originally registered.

I know, I know, we should have had records of all of these, but we didn't. To register the new card (and transfer the balance from the old card to the new) we had to log in. For that, we needed to enter the correct email address, and the password. Forgotten password: no problem - they'll email it. But as we had also changed email addresses...

Clearly the thing to do was to call the helpline. I explained the situation, and the young woman at Caxton asked for my date of birth and my mother's maiden name, which I gave.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: I see. But those are in fact my date of birth and mother's maiden name. Perhaps we used my son's date of birth and mother's maiden name when we opened the account: 9/5/96 and Plasom.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: Oh. What should we do then?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: I understand that. But given I can identify myself by other means (I could send you a copy of my passport for example) I am wondering what we have to do to move this forward.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: So do I have to write to Caxton, or what?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself. You could phone back, if you can remember the details you may have given when you registered the card.

Me: So I should keep phoning with different combinations of my own, my son's and my wife's details until I hit the right one? Is that what you are saying?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: Yes, I understand that; but I want to know what I should do next, to establish my identity.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself (and hangs up).

This is a shortened transcript: I tried various tacks and questions; she was almost unvarying in her response. It really was like something from Kafka - or possibly Vaclav Havel - that almost overwhelming despair of banging your head against a bureaucracy that isn't even malevolent, simply stupidly unmoving...


I conferred with my wife and tried again later. I got a much more amenable young man, who asked me several identifying questions, and told me that I had got one wrong, but the rest were all correct, so on that basis he was happy to accept my identity. The one I had got wrong was my mother's maiden name. It transpired that my wife, in setting up the account had used all my details (date of birth etc) but given her mother's maiden name... I could have phoned many many times before hitting on precisely that combination, so was grateful that the second Caxton employee was less Kafkaesque than the first...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Intuition or co-creation?

One of the discussions I often re-visit with my coaching supervisor, Jan, is the issue of non-directionality versus making suggestions for how to think (differently) about an issue or sharing new insights about it, when one is coaching. 

Some of our purist friends would argue that the minute coaches make a suggestion, they are taking autonomy away from the client and thus working against the primary goal of coaching: increasing client agency.

Interestingly, and although I am sure they would deny it, I think that understanding springs from a view of the client as 'broken' - as necessarily lacking in autonomy or agency. That is not a view I share.

However, I do recognise that offering suggestions is not the first thing to do; that encouraging people to think through their own issues in depth is generally more productive (cf my frequent blogs on Nancy Kline's work for example) certainly as a starting point.

But I also think that where I have a piece of theoretical knowledge (eg the research on Negotiating) or specific experience, it would be a failure, as a coach, not to share that appropriately. And it is rather over-optimistic to imagine that skilled questioning will help an individual to come up with the fruits of twenty years' worth of research, or pluck from the air the idea that reading Getting to Yes might be helpful.

Perhaps it is the nature of the people I coach, who are mainly academics or senior professional people, but I don't find that they swallow my ideas whole, or that there is a huge power imbalance whereby they credit me with some spurious authority. On the contrary, they are typically highly autonomous and characteristically intellectually critical. So the danger of my imposing my thinking on them seems relatively minor. Of course I take care to make sure that I pose things as suggestions or options to consider, and the feedback I get from my clients is that this is a helpful part of the process.

What we were discussing at my last supervision, and which I found particularly interesting, was the sudden insight one sometimes has, as the person one is coaching describes their issues in depth.  There are several risks attached to these: they can be a distraction ('when will she shut up, so I can share my brilliant insight?' or 'I'd better remember that, so I can contribute it at the right time...'); or they may not be so wonderful or relevant an insight as one thinks. And, of course, they are the nearest one gets to imposing one's own ideas on the coachee. 

In discussion with Jan, we agreed that sometimes these are very valuable; indeed the discussion arose because I had had that experience in a session we were reviewing as part of my supervision. But we also agreed a few other things. One is that it is very valuable to wait before offering them; to put them aside mentally and continue to listen exquisitely to the other person. If they are good insights, they will still be relevant later; and if not, they are better not shared prematurely (or at all!) Likewise, if they are as good as I think, I won't forget them - rather than worry about that, I should trust my memory: if I forget them, that's probably a sign that they weren't as brilliant as they seemed.

But the most interesting part of my discussion with Jan was her insight (which I am truly grateful that she shared!) that these are not so much flashes of brilliant thinking by the coach, as ideas co-created by the coachee and the coach, and the process they are working through together. Insofar as they are accurate and perceptive, it is because they are grounded in the coachee's analysis of his or her issues. It is the coachee who has done 90% of the thinking, and perhaps all the coach does is articulate back to the coachee a fresh perspective on that thinking. But as Jan pointed out, the credit belongs largely to the coachee - and making that explicit also helps avoid the concern about undermining agency.

And of course, that realisation means that I can take some of the credit for Jan's brilliant insight!