Monday 12 December 2011

Organisational Integrity

I am increasingly interested in the ways in which processes intended to increase transparency, fairness etc can sometimes drive people within organisations to act in ways that are lacking in honesty and integrity.

I am not attributing any ill-will here, or intention to deceive, but rather noticing that the cumulative effect of some processes and their collision with other organisational needs (both strategic and pragmatic) can have some unintended consequences that make the organisation look dishonest.

I will blog more on this shortly, when I have more time and when I have discussed the specific issue that has brought this into sharp focus with the appropriate senior managers...

Monday 28 November 2011

Startling creativity

A while back we had a chap called Gordon Macsween as a guest speaker at Essex Futures.  He went down so well that we invited him back.  His talk was memorable, entertaining and of real practical use.

All of which could be said of his new product, just launched - a wii for wee, or pretty nearly...  You play games by directing your...  well, that's enough detail I think.  Suffice to say that it's a men only game, for very practical reasons.

Initially I wondered if it was a joke, but a quick glance at the company wwwsite persuaded me that it has real commercial possibilities.

Astonishingly creative idea - and yet...

Please remember to wash your hands.

Friday 18 November 2011


I have been reflecting a lot on resilience recently (which I am considering as the ability to work under increasing pressures without a stress response).  As preparation for some Stress Management workshops, I have been reviewing some of the most recent research (see for example Margaret Chesney’s lecture, available via iTunes University: “New Scientific Strategies for Managing Stress, Building Resilience and Bringing Balance to Life     [Show ID: 20631]”)

I have also been coaching a number of people experiencing both chronic and acute pressures, and reflecting on what has helped them - and in some cases their remarkable and humbling resilience.

What has proved interesting is the degree to which the most recent research gives ever-more solid underpinnings for the four-fold framework which I have been working with.  (Chesney talks explicitly about three strands, the physical (both physiological and behavioural) the mental, and the relational or social/emotional.  To these I add the existential/spiritual - dealing with issues of meaning and value.  That relates to my interest in Viktor Frankl, and also echoes Covey's framework in 7 Habits and First Things First.  And Chesney refers to it tacitly on several occasions: the importance of purpose, meaning and value.

Of course, this is all linked to my interest in narratives: the interpretations that people place upon their experiences, which can have a huge impact on positive affect - which is what all four strands are designed to support (and again, Chesney has the research to demonstrate the links between positive affect and resilience.)

And as someone who attended a recent workshop pointed out, there is nothing new under the sun.  The classic Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are a good bedrock for meaning, values, positive relationships, and positive affect generally - and similar underpinnings may be found in many other ancient and traditional wisdoms, with which I am less familiar.

The other area I am keen to explore, and possibly integrate more fully into my work on resilience, is humour. I have been intrigued by Metcalf's Humor Risk and Change programme and am sure he is onto something (though his presentation doesn't always play well with a British audience).  So I am on the look-out for any research on humour and resilience - any clues?

Thursday 10 November 2011

Brain Myths

Fascinating programme on the brain on Radio 4 yesterday afternoon - Mind Myths, still available on iplayer - busting popular myths about the brain.  Perhaps the most notable is the canard that we only use 10% of our brains, leaving the rest dormant (and of course full of potential for scammers selling techniques to activate or access it).  Dale Carnegie was, apparently, the first to put the 10% myth into print in his hugely influential How to win friends and influence people.    However, brain scanning demonstrates the fallacy of this myth; and is somewhat humbling in revealing that motor action tends to require more of our brain than high level thinking...

The style is somewhat irritating, with regular jingles put in, presumably on the assumption that our attention span is only 20 seconds (another myth, in my view...) but when the experts are allowed to speak, it is really interesting; not least in exploring the origins of some of these myths, and the degree to which they have some basis in reality.

The bit I found least convincing was the debunking of the left brain/right brain issue.  It seems to me, listening to the evidence, that there are significant differences between the different hemispheres (left brain is sensitive to language, right brain to melody, for example).  I thought that to some extent they set up a straw man by taking the most simplistic and exaggerated left brain/right brain ideas to attack.  Certainly the work on creative thinking that I have studied and which I work with all stresses the fact that it is the whole brain working effectively that is likely to be most creative; and further that talk of left brain as processing logic and right brain as dealing with relationship is a metaphor - but one based on the neuroscience.

Well worth a listen, though...

Sunday 9 October 2011

Foxy Knoxy or Inspector Clouseau?

The power of narrative in public opinion has been made very clear by the Knox trial, appeal and acquittal.

On the one hand, the prosecutors invited us to believe in Knox as a sexual predator whose over the top games ended in the death of her flat mate.

On the other hand, the defence put before us a story of police ineptitude, with evidence collected late and without sufficient care, calling into question the DNA samples that provided the link between Knox and the knife.

Which story we find more credible is likely to have a strong influence on how we interpret the evidence: was Knox callous or inconsolable when seen in her lover's arms soon after the body of her flatmate was found?  And so on.

What we tend to find is that once a preferred story is settled on by an individual (you or me) or a group (police, media...) all the evidence in the world can be interpreted to fit that story.

It is no coincidence that Knox's family hired a PR consultant to help them to present a different narrative to the world, particularly the press.  And it's interesting (though sad) to note that a neutral narrative (such as 'she didn't do it, we don't know much else') is much less appealing to the press either than  the Foxy Knoxy narrative, which is sufficiently salacious, or the police ineptitude narrative (particularly foreign police ineptitude!) which eventually won the day.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Highlights Awayday

Great Strategy Day yesterday with Highlights Rural Touring.  Jane is a Board member, and a neighbour in the village is Chair, so I was very well briefed!  Moreover, having recently led a two day Facilitation Skills Programme for Akzo Nobel, I was being particularly mindful of my planning and faciltation - and that paid off.

We agreed to use a village hall as the venue.  Their last strategy day (unwisely facilitated by someone else) had been held at a hotel conference centre, and they'd apparently got little done in the afternoon, partly thanks to the big lunch!

But we thought a village hall was more appropriate, as their business is bringing arts (music, theatre, a craft show etc) to rural village halls.

We were made very welcome at Soulby, with a light lunch (delicious soups and a fabulous range of home-made puddings) and cakes and biscuits throughout the day.  The bill for the whole day for 14 of us, including food, was less than £130 - so will be exploring village halls for other clients!

The day itself went very well: they have a good Board and good staff, all well-informed (and having read the pre-work!) and up for creative and purposeful discussions.  In the morning, after the introductions, we reviewed the last period to recognise successes and extract the learning.  We also identified the major strategic issues that needed discussion, and four groups spent a significant amount of time scoping the territory of one or other of these, generating ideas, and identifying next steps to take it forward.

After a light but delicious lunch (qv) we heard from each group, and interestingly, although they had been looking at different issues, some common next steps emerged, that would address several of these strategic priorities.  So we prioritised them with sticky dots, and put names against them to take them forward.

After tea and some home-made cakes (which none of us needed, but somehow many were eaten....) we looked at how the Board and Staff were working together, and wrapped up the day by checking the degree to which the objectives and peoples' individual expectations had been met - and whether there was any further work to be done.

A very productive day, with high levels of energy, creativity and enthusiasm throughout: on that basis I am confident Highlights will have a very successful season, even in the challenging climate in which they find themselves.

And if you live in Northumberland, Durham or Cumbria, look out for their shows in ia village near you: always well worth a visit!

Friday 7 October 2011

These ethical dilemmas...

Clare has just gone off to University, and had used the last of my stock of flipchart paper to line her trunk...

And then I found an old pad, beside the filing cabinet.  But it was rather faded and yellowed.  So the dilemma was do I bin it, as it doesn't convey that professional image which I strive to achieve (you may have your own views on how successfully....)?  Or do I use it?  After all, binning it would seem a waste.

I did toy with the idea of keeping it for the next time somebody needs to line a trunk, but by the time that comes round we will have forgotten about it.

Then I reflected on our stated policy about environmental impact and all that, and realised it is wholly meaningless to use recycled paper etc and then throw away a pad of flipchart paper unused.

So it's on the flipchart stand today and I'll be using it for the Highlights Awayday: and have to rely on the efficacy of my facilitation to create the desired image of professionalism.

Thursday 22 September 2011


Just received a lovely email from a participant on one of my programmes a while back, including:

Come to think of it, perhaps you should have a disclaimer (cf. disclaimers on cigarette packages) on your training courses: "This may significantly affect your life." ;-)

I love the idea of disclaimers, and may try to work up some others.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Essentials of a Strong Story

I've been digressing a little in the writing of my book on the multistory approach (see this blog, passim) and considering story more broadly.  Here's my draft notes for a digression on that subject.  I will be interested in any reactions...

The Essentials of a Strong Story
One of the fascinating things about story is the basic structure, which seems constant across times and cultures.  The other essentials in any story are setting and character: in nearly every story one hears, both setting and character are important, and we will come back to them, but for the minute, let’s focus on the structure.

At its most fundamental, the structure of story consists of:
  • a beginning: this sets the scene and starts the action, typically with the disruption of normality
  • a middle: in which conflict grows to a crisis (whether conflict of ideas, internal conflict, or physical conflict)
  • an end: how things are resolved (or not) often after an unexpected final twist in the tale (and tail).
There are variations, of course, on this basic three-act structure; but in most stories those essentials are there.

At the heart of story, then, is the escalation of conflict, and for our purposes that is an important realisation.

For a start, it helps us to understand why so many organisational visions and leadership attempts to create a positive narrative fail: they are not stories, because they lack that element of conflict.  A vision statement that simply expresses a pious aspiration for a better future is fine - but it will not engage people’s hearts and minds, it will not fire their imaginations, because it is a poor story.

Secondly, it helps us to understand why negative stories are so powerful.  If they are conflict-saturated, they are strong stories.

Thirdly, it can help us to understand the unhealthy dynamics of much competition.  In competition, the exciting narrative is our conflict with our competitors.  Too often, organisations set up competition between individuals, teams or divisions within the organisation - and then wonder why there is unproductive conflict instead of collaboration and creativity.  Competition can be a powerful motivator, but choose your competitors carefully, and notice the stories you tell yourself (and others) about them, and the ones they will be generating about you.

Perhaps most positively, this understanding of the structure of story helps us understand something of the nature of the stories we need to help people construct if they are really to engage them.  They include conflict.  So who is the enemy?  In my worldview, the enemies are things like ignorance, difficulty, laziness and so on.  One can construct great narratives with plenty of conflict based on these and similar.  That then has the added value of uniting us against a common enemy - but that enemy not being some other person or group.

Also, if one is helping people in a genuine conflict, it can be interesting to ask them how a happy ending could conceivably be attained - what twist it would take to allow the conflicting parties to learn to trust - and even like - each other.  As so often, placing these questions in the context of exploring possible stories frees people up to answer them in unexpected - and potentially valuable - ways.

The world in which the story takes place has a huge impact on it and how we understand it.  Part of the enduring power of Austen, Dickens, Tolkien, or Rowling is the world each has created.

Again, this has some valuable applications to organisational life.  Sometimes the negative stories are predicated on a much more interesting, intriguing (and sometimes more credible) world than the world of official organisational stories.  Is it any surprise that there is such an appetite for them?

It also suggests that when we are helping people to develop Rich Descriptions, being curious about the setting of the story, and inviting a rich description of that, may help them to recognise the richer description as a fuller and more accurate account than their (typically thin) dominant story.

The other essential for strong stories is interesting characters.  Again, this can drive organisational stories in difficult directions.  It is so much more interesting if the boss is an ogre than a reasonable person struggling to do her best in a complex and fast-changing world...

Having said that, once one reaches Thin Conclusions about others, they instantly become less interesting, so one can harness this desire for interesting characters by inviting people to consider that the people who populate their conflict-saturated stories are more complex and subtle than simply ‘malicious’ or ‘lazy,’ or whatever thin descriptor has been applied.

Evaluation Time

I'm currently doing a lot of evaluation.  Both Newcastle and Essex have asked me to undertake longer-term evaluation (ie of all cohorts to date over several years) of their respective 'Futures' programmes.  Indeed, they have agreed to share results and learning, which is good collaborative stuff!

We're starting with a Survey Monkey survey, to get some quantitative and some qualitative data, and then following that up with interviews, to enrich the qualitative.
I've also just completed a pilot, with two cohorts, of an Academic Leadership Programme with Northumbria University, and of course that needs to be evaluated too.

One of the issues, particularly with the Academic Leadership programme, is that the Learning Objectives were not tightly articulated at the start.

But Andrew, you gasp, why did you not do that?  It is text book stuff!

Well, perhaps - but perhaps the text books are wrong.  In this case, the reason was clear and, I think, right.  I wanted the participants on the event to have a large part in designing the programme as we progressed, to ensure that we were addressing the issues that they identified as most important to them.

It's a great way of ensuring both relevance and commitment (or 'buy-in' as I suppose the text book would have it) but it does mean you sometimes go in directions not initially foreseen - which is of course the point...

Wednesday 24 August 2011

A Tender that Added Value

I have been fairly critical of the whole tendering process in the past, based on my experience of it.  However, a recent tender I took part in seems certainly to have added value for the organisation asking for tenders.

It was a large organisational change project, and seven organisations or consultants were invited to tender.  Of these four were invited for an interview.

I was the first to be interviewed, and although the interview was fairly brief (scheduled for 45 mins but we talked for about an hour in the event), it was a very interesting discussion, in which they were very open about that fact that I had taken their thinking forward - not least with regard to the scale and complexity of what they were undertaking.

I have just received the feedback: I was their second choice, so did not win the tender.  But what was clear from the feedback was that they had continued to learn from the others whom they had interviewed, and had really clarified, and to some extent reformulated, what they wanted.

The disadvantage of going first (I know there are also advantages) was that they were not able to ask me questions about issues that they discovered later in the process.

Thus their feedback to me was that they weren't sure that my approach would address some of these issues - and had no opportunity to quiz me on that.

Needless to say, I believe that had I been asked those questions, I would have been able to demonstrate how my approach did indeed address those issues.

However, what is clear is that they learned a lot based on the tendering and interviewing process, and made a decision informed by that: it may well have been the right decision, of course, but there are still clearly flaws in the process from the suppliers' point of view...

Saturday 18 June 2011

Essex Futures Final Day

Yesterday we had the final day of this year's Essex Futures Programme.

It was gratifying to hear participants reflecting on their learning over the year - nad also the many friendships forged - and also helpful to hear their ideas on improving the programme for the future.

We were joined for the day by some staff and recent graduates from E15, the University's Acting School, who helped us to prepare dramatic summaries of the projects that the groups have been working on over the year as part of their learning.

These were as creative and entertaining as ever, and were performed in the evening for an invited audience of the previous cohorts, participants' managers, mentors, guest speakers from earlier in the programme, and senior members of the University.  It made for a great celebration.

Friday 20 May 2011

Vagaries of Tendering

A couple of tender results in recently.  One client, with whom I have worked for many years, can no longer use me for some programmes they want to use me for, as their tendering process failed to differentiate on quality (loads and loads of people got 100 % on all quality measures) so they are having to use the cheapest.  They are nervous of this...

Another client had a more discriminating process, which did differentiate.  I got some of the programmes I bid for, but not all.  Some were good calls - the presentation skills workshops are being done by Simon Raybould of Aware Plus, who will do an excellent job for them.  Others went to people I don't know who may well be good too.  But what I did notice was that the of programmes I got, only one is really playing to my core strengths - the others I will do a decent job of, but are a bit tangential for me; but several I didn't get are much closer to my core skills and experience.

It's an odd process: not sure it works well for either buyer or seller...

Monday 16 May 2011

Roger Steare on Love in Business

I went to the York St John's Business School Annual Lecture last week.  Both speakers were very good, but I was particularly struck by Roger Steare (who was the reason for my going at all).

I had been intrigued and impressed by his book Ethicability, and his work as a corporate philosopher.  On this occasion he was talking about the Power of Love in Business.

His essential thesis was that if we leave our emotional self at home when we go to work, we lack integrity - in its meaning as wholeness - and that lack of integrity is costly for ourselves, our colleagues, our organisations and the world.

This was explored in some depth and from a number of perspectives: if I understood correctly, we were being taken through his new book: the Power of Love. On the basis of the lecture, it should be well worth reading.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Narrative Training

I recently completed the 5 day Narrative Training programme offered by Professor Liz Todd and her colleagues Charmian Hobbs and Cate Crallan at Newcastle University.

It was an excellent grounding in Narrative therapy, and really fascinating for me.

We covered some fo the background ideas, particularly deconstruction, de-centred working and externalisation, and then worked through the Statement of Position Maps.

One of the interesting discussions was around the different uses of maps: to orientate, get an overview of a territory, plan possible routes, become aware of hazards, find out where we are if feeling lost, review a journey retrospectively, and so on.  We also discussed the need for a compass in order to use a map well in practice: a rich metaphor for the need for some guiding principles for our work.

The programme was rich in input, discussion and practice; which really helped me to deepen my understanding.  Significantly, I found that I was reading some of the texts (eg Michael Whites and ALice Morgan's) in a much more informed way: making more and different sense from them.

It was also helpful to clarify for me some differences and distinctions: between my work as a trainer and coach, as opposed to the therapists who were the others on the course, and also between my approach to using Narrative (and my underlying assumptions and philosophy) and that advocated by White the Narrative Therapy movement.

So an extremely useful five days - thoroughly recommended for anyone else interested in this approach.


Whilst I do a lot of work solo, I really enjoy collaborating with others - and tonight have just come off the phone from a great call with Mike Cockburn of Sogno and Alan Sides of Sides Partnership.  We've been putting ideas together for a potential programme for a client, and have come up with three very different approaches, each one of which would be great to run with these guys.  Let's hope the client likes them...

Moving Mountains

Today's Moving Mountains (Influencing and Negotiating Skills) programme ran very well.  Unusually, it was an entirely female group (apart form myself) - there was a question raised about gender differences in terms of influencing and negotiating...

As ever, different people found different elements of the programme useful, but overall they all found it helpful and really entered into both the practical exercises and discussions, and the conceptual frameworks we were exploring.

As well as Harvard's classic negotiating model, and the push/pull influencing skills, I can't resist introducing the Multistory ideas.

This remains one of my favourite programmes, because people demonstrably find it so valuable...

Academic Leadership

The second day of both cohorts of the Academic Leadership programme went very well this week.  Both modules were joined by the VC for a session on leadership from his perspective, and also each by a different Dean to share her experience, and a different PVC to take feedback and questions.  These were all useful sessions, but equally valuable was the learning generated by the groups form their own experiences and observations: they had had an assignment to look out for examples of good leadership in HE, and also to gather others' expectations of themselves as leaders, and both of these topics led to fruitful and interesting discussions.  Looking forward to Day 3 for each cohort, in June.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Multistory coaching and interviews

Very interesting coaching session yesterday, helping someone identify alternative plots in her past to undermine a problematic dominant story.  Often humbled as I hear the resilience people have brought to very tough situations - and the matter-of-fact way in which they see that as nothing special.  That story so easily gets buried by the stories of the difficult bits, which quite naturally attract a lot of their attention.  See my job, in part, as helping them to see their resilience and resourcefulness as special - and as a resource they can draw on: part of the story of who they are.

Then had a fascinating interview for the book: as ever, it set a whole load of new thoughts going, as well as confirming the essential interest in the ideas.  Sure I'm onto something useful here...

Thursday 31 March 2011

Unpacking Your Chair

Had the next day of the programme for new professors at Newcastle today.  The focus was on the use of media in support of the professor's role.

So half the day was in the TV studio, with media pro Tony Baker, learning the skills of television interviews  and then practicing them on camera.  This is always fascinating - both because I always learn something new about the art fo the TV interview, and because the academics talk about their research in new ways.  So today I learned a bit about the life and work of John Piper, about a proposal in 1965 to demolish Whitehall and replace it with a new concrete civic space, and about Algerian film-making.

The other half of the day was run by Joanna Berry from the Business School, who took us through a range of Social Media, from blogging and micro-blogging to slideshare, youtube and hootsuite, explaining how they can be used, why they might be helpful and so on: a really fascinating afternoon.

Friday 25 March 2011

A Day in London

Had a very interesting interview with Ruth Spellman CE of the Chartered Management Institute for my book, as well as lunch with my sister.

Also managed to find some time to enjoy the National Gallery.  Started in the Sainsbury wing enjoying the medieval work, then wandered round  ad lib visiting various old favourites, and discovered a fantastic newly-acquired Monet on display!

It is the familiar waterlily pond, but this time reflecting a willow tree at sunset - quite different from the others I've seen of this subject. Wonderful limpid surface to the water, and the whole thing breaks up entirely if you get close - but from a  few yards away is a wonderful meditative piece.  How did he do that?

Returned to the Sainsbury wing to end my visit and discovered that the back of Durer's St Jerome has an apocalyptic vision on it - I didn't remember ever having noticed that before.

Now sat in the Wellcome Collection Cafe awaiting my old friend Laurence Cranmer of Woodgreen Consulting.

Essex Futures Media Training

I spent Wednesday and Thursday with the Essex Futures programme.  The Chancellor, Lord Phillips, gave an excellent introduction to the subject, based on his extensive, varied and eventful media career.  Then the University Comms experts brought us up to speed with some of the key issues they are addressing.

The rest of the two days were run by Karen and Kevin from  Mosaic Publicity.  On the first day, Karen took sus through the 5 Ps of podcasting, and participants made a number of innovative and entertaining podcasts about their projects.

Then on the following day, we were put through our paces in radio and TV interviews.  This is always both daunting and exciting, but everyone performed either well or excellently, and I think everyone found it both useful and enjoyable.  As last year, the Mosaic team were excellent - fun, informative and very practical

Tuesday 15 March 2011

More reflections on Narrative Training

One of the underlying assumptions of narrative work is that we don't know how it is for someone else: what their experience is and how they are making sense of that.  And that is clearly an important and useful assumption.

However, we also did a fascinating exercise on Externalisation in which somebody took on the role of a Problem identified by another participant as being something he or she would like to address.  Then one or two others in the group interviewed the Problem, as Investigative Reporters, seeking to understand the Problem's tactics, intentions, allies and so on - and then the Problem's weak points, the individual's past successes in overcoming the Problem, etc etc.

This may sound a little artificial to anyone who has not worked in this way, but in every case, the Problem's originator reported that the Problem had accurately described its role in his or her life and the strategies he or she used - or could use - against it.

As well as being a fascinating demonstration of the power of Externalisation, it also demonstrated that the person taking on the role of the problem - who in some cases had never met the Problem owner previously - was able to understand the role of the problem in the individual's life, simply by drawing on his or her own intuition, experience etc.

So in fact we need to hold those two things in some kind of creative tension: on the one hand we can have very good insights into how things are for others, and these insights may be useful if explored very tentatively; but on the other hand we must always maintain the starting assumption that we do not know how it is for the other until we have asked, and remain very aware of the risk of our insights (which might in any particular case be wildly inaccurate) influencing our thinking or listening.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Narrative Training

The first two days of the Narrative Training Programme I'm attending at Newcastle University have been very good.  The first day was largely introductory, and we explored what narrative work means, and had fun de-constructing a few frequently-used terms that are perhaps not always helpful.

On day two we explored externalisation in some depth, which really added to my understanding, and also to my experiencing it in different ways, as well as practicing it with others and observing it in different situations.

Interestingly, I've found that my reading of work by Alice Morgan and Michael White has changed since the programme.  Reading the same words conveys different meaning to me...  I guess that relates to a deeper and more experience-based understanding of externalisation, and the broader thinking behind it.

As I said to Liz Todd, one of the training team, it’s not a set of tools, it's about an orientation, a set of attitudes, characterised by an almost na├»ve curiosity, but also informed by a set of skills and practices (such as avoiding accidental internalising questions – or interpreting according to a pre-existing ‘expert’ framework such as Gestalt...)

The training team is a great combination, and the other people on the course are very interested and interesting - so I'm really looking forward to the remaining days of the programme in a few weeks' time - and have lots to practice in the interim.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Academic Leadership Programme

First day of the new academic leadership programme today at Northumbria University.  A great group, and interesting sessions from the PVCs for R&I and L&T Peter Croney and Paul Golding respectively.

As ever, I learned a lot from the wide-ranging discussion - not least what they believe will be most helpful to spend time on in future sessions.   And as so often, the coffee and lunch break conversations were rich too.  Looking forward both to tomorrow's launch of cohort two, and of the next session with this cohort in May.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Half term

Half term is upon us, so today we went for a walk: Hartsop, Boredale Hause, Angle Tarn and Hayeswater, for those who know the area.  Largely walking through cloud, but a great time had by all. Matters philosophical and cinematic (and many others) discussed in depth and levity...  Jane, Mike, Liz, Lulu and me...  This is probably why I'll never be rich or famous, but it's the path I choose.

Monday 21 February 2011

Essex Futures again

Thursday and Friday were spent with the Essex Futures crowd.  On Thursday we were discussing how to develop an academic career, with contributions from Cam Donaldson of Glasgow Caledonian and Nigel South of Essex, who discussed their own careers and the learning they could draw from them.  Sue Endean, the HR Director, helped keep the focus very practical with an exploration of the promotion process and a case study based on that, and I offered some provocations around the theme of time and priority management.

In the evening we went to see E!%'s production of Dracula, directed by one of last year's EF participants, Chris Main - and a good show it was too!

The second day was more focussed on research strategies, with Rob Massara and a team from the REO sharing their expertise and offering practical advice; and the day culminated in a Dragon's Den exercise, with participants pitching ideas to our visiting Dragons, having had minimal time to prepare the ideas or the pitches: but as ever they rose to the challenge, and came up with some great interdisciplinary ideas, and some compelling ways of pitching them.

And along the way we picked up snippets of how well their projects are going, and also heard some personal successes in the Action Learning Sets.

Another stimulating event with this very energising group!

Unpacking the chair a bit more...

On Wednesday we had the second day of the Unpacking Your Chair programme for (relatively) new professors.

In advance of the day, participants had collected the expectations of others (within and beyond the University) of the role of the Professor.  Sharing these expectations was a fascinating exercise, and quickly made us all realise that one individual could not possibly meet all these expectations. So we discussed and agreed that part of the role was to negotiate the role and the expectations others placed on it - and part was to discuss with the professoriate within one's discipline how, collectively, they could meet the expectations.

We were then joined by the Faculty PVC, Charles Harvey, who completely ratified that approach, and also shared his own experiences - and his values, approach etc in a very human way, which spoke to the participants.

We also discussed how to get things to happen in the University, with Gerry clarifying the importance of the informal relationships in making that easier; and then we spent some time thinking ahead to what we would like to have achieved as leaders over the next few years.  Again, that provoked a very rich range of responses, which we shared and discussed in some depth.

As before, the attitude and commitment of the participants made this a very successful - and enjoyable - day, and I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Thursday 3 February 2011

Walking writing...

I blogged a while back about walking coaching and how valuable that can be.

Yesterday I was stuck on a chapter on coaching in the book I'm writing, and instead of sitting industriously, virtuously, diligently at my Mac, I put on some waterproofs and took Lulu for a walk.

To assuage my (rather weak) pangs of guilt, I slipped my voice recorder in my pocket to record any inspirations.

By the end of plodding through muddy fields, doubled up against the gales and rain, I had recorded a few good insights and in particular had found a new way into the chapter: starting it from a quite different perspective than I had originally intended.

So the risk now is that I spend tons of time walking the dog in my carefully preserved 'writing' slots in the diary.  Will have to monitor that, but if yesterday is anything to go by, that could be very productive.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

GROWing pains...

According to the Coaching Academy: 'The GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model is the most common and widely used coaching tool. It empowers the coach to structure a coaching conversation and deliver a meaningful result.'

I have a number of questions concerning it, at least as presented here and generally used and taught.

At one level it seems so obvious and helpful, but I think it implies a lot of things that are not helpful.

Consider, for example, the statement: It empowers the coach to structure a coaching conversation and deliver a meaningful result.

Is that necessarily a good thing? It implies:

a) that it is good for the coach to be empowered

b) that it is good for the coach to structure a coaching conversation

c) that the coach takes responsibility for delivering a meaningful result.

All of these, I think, are open to question.

And one good question is, what is it that we think we are doing when we are coaching?

And then the model itself:

Goal: how straightforward is that? It is all to easy to invite the person with whom one is working to 'set clear (achievable/relevant/challenging etc) goals'. But in my experience, people need time and space to discern what is truly important to them in the future, and it may not even fit the shape of a 'goal', or the very language of 'goals' may limit their thinking. From Peter Block, I have learned that the presenting problem is rarely the real problem (though that language also has implications one might wish to query.) And there is the whole question of being or doing....

Reality: this is another question-begging word. Given the multiple subjectivities of our experience, inviting people to articulate or even explore 'reality' may be less helpful than it sounds.

Options: I believe in these, I really do! But sometimes they are best generated as a by-product, almost, of other processes, not least profound listening, curious exploration, fantasising about the (seemingly) impossible, surfacing of deep values, and so on. Maybe it is the context that makes it sound so clinical and sterile, but something about the sequence Goal, reality, options... just does not resonate, neither with my philosophy of coaching nor my experience of what people with whom I work find helpful.

Will: again I understand what they are getting at, and maybe have fewer concerns about this word than the others - except it is the last word, and that I do find problematic. There is so much more that a rich coaching conversation could explore than is, seemingly, allowed by these four words.

Having said all of which, GROW may be useful as a primer for the busy work-based coach (say a supervisor) just wanting to break the habit of telling people how to do it... But as 'the most widely-used coaching tool' (and that word too is loaded!) I do have real concerns about it.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Ethics and narrative

I mentioned that I've been reading a fascinating book: Ethicability by Roger Steare.

He talks about three kinds of ethical approach:

1) Rule-based (eg deontology)
2) Social agreement based (eg utitilatarianism)
3) Values or principles based.

He points out that all three have their use, and also suggests that the first tends to make us behave as children, the second as adolescents and the third as adults.

This made me wonder if there might be a parallel with modernism and post-modernism and... whatever comes next. 

Modernism could be seen as rule-based; and when people object to my claims for the possibility of absolute truth, I think they may be objecting to this: rules laid down to be applied to all people in all places and at all times.

Post-modernism, social constructionism (the position of many in the narrative world) etc might be regarded as a reaction against that, and an attempt to replace rules with agreed interpretations that are necessarily variable depending on who agrees them.  This interpretation resonates with me as some of the academics in particular with whom I have debated this seem to be reacting against precisely that rule-bound notion of truth that 1) would suggest - and one or two also seem to me to have something of the adolescent's idealism, pride in rebellion, and impatience with other perspectives...

I (naturally!) think I am in the more mature position of 3)  I make truth claims for values, such as the intrinsic goodness of love rather than hate, of hope rather than despair and of faith rather than nihilism.

THese may need to be interpreted and mediated through social discourse (at level 2) and may on occasion need to be translated to rules (as at level 1 - for example, I would hate to meet a driver who thought the rule that we drive on the left side of the road [in the uk]  was not in any sense true and therefore not binding on him or her...)
So I think some of the conversations I have been in have been based on a series of false assumptions - both ways: I think people were assuming I was wanting to make truth-claims of type 1) and have reacted against them; and I was assuming they were reacting against what I really think and believe and reacted against that!

Thursday 27 January 2011

Narrative Training

Excited at the prospect of attending a five day training programme on Narrative with Liz Todd et al at Newcastle University.

Sure it will be excellent and it will be lovely to be on the receiving end for a change, and not be responsible for the success of the event (or at least, only a little bit: I'll try to be a 'good' participant!)

Academic Leadership Programme

Busy working on the design of an Academic Leadership Programme; this is a successor to the successful Research Leadership Programme I've been running for the last few years at Northumbria, and aims to encompass leadership in Learning and Teaching as well.

Always an interesting tension between my desire to encourage self-directed learning, exploration of themes participants are interested in, responsiveness to emerging learning agendas with participants etc and the institutional need to outline clear learning objectives, plan all the sessions well in advance and so on.

And somehow from this creative tension something wonderful will emerge...  I'm reminded of the leitmotif of Shakespeare in Love: 'It's a mystery..'


Reading Ethicability by Roger Steare: very interesting.  Styles himself as a 'corporate philosopher;' seems to have done significant work with serious organisations, and certainly puts his material across well on paper.

Not sure I agree (of course) with all of it, but it is very thought-provoking and I am broadly in sympathy with his approach and insights.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Introduction to Leadership

Good workshop today: enthusiastic and thoughtful participants, and the whole day ran well.  Particularly pleased as I hadn't thought this programme really worked last time I ran it, so had re-vamped it considerably, (including new graphics, handout pack etc), but especially re-designing the exercises to get both good dialogue and good reflection - and both these seemed to take place.

But why is it you can only see a typo once you've handed out the materials: and then it leaps out at you?

Saturday 22 January 2011

Walking CPD

A great day's walking with Alan, Glyn, Karen, Mike and Paul: a stimulating set of colleagues with whom to share experiences, compare notes, refresh thinking etc.  Met at Haweswater around 10.00, and walked up ont Harter Fell, Nan Bield, Mardale Ill Bell, High Street, and Kidsty Pike.  8.5 miles and 2000 feet of height gain.  Sorted the world out pretty thoroughly en route.

Saturday 15 January 2011

How to make Governance interesting

A great day at Essex Futures yesterday.  Governance may seem a potentially dull topic, but we managed to put together a day which I at least found very interesting.  I think the participants did, too: there was certainly none of that glazed look one sometimes sees on such occasions.

We started the day, after a brief introduction by Colin Riordan, the VC, with Colin interviewing the Chair of Council.  Somehow this format made the delivery of information about the role of Council much more interesting than a straight presentation.

Following that, we used a World Cafe type format for participants to talk in small groups to the VC (at one table) the Chair of Council (at another), the DVC (at a third) and the Registrar and Secretary (at a fourth).  This was followed by summaries from three of them (the Chair having to leave for another appointment) and a panel-type discussion.  Again, this seemed a much more engaging format than presentations: and lot of ground was covered which might not have emerged through more traditional approaches, not to mention the more human type of interaction it encouraged.

After lunch, participants were given a real proposal that was presented to the University for a decision, and discussed, in small groups, what they would decide and why.  Their criteria were very good (though being academics, they wanted to defer the decision until they had more information...), and the Registrar was able to tell them what really happened...

Finally we had a presentation (the first of the day) from a visiting VC from another University: Dominic Shellard from De Montfort.  In a very open and informal way he discussed his experiences and then engaged in discussion with participants.

I certainly learned a lot, and trust others did too.

And the whole day without a single powerpoint slide!

Thursday 13 January 2011

A successful bid

Just learned that Glyn, Stuart and I have been successful in a joint bid for 3 lots of work at another university.  I'm still not a fan of the bidding process (we heard today - the date we were meant to hear was last June!  I'd actually forgotten this one was outstanding!)  However, success is always gratifying...

Unpacking your chair

Yesterday saw the first day of a new programme co-designed and co-delivered with some of my favourite clients, Liz Kemp and Gerry Docherty at Newcastle University.

It is aimed at relatively new professors, and the intention is to help them to consider what kind of professor they wish to be (hence Liz's genius title: unpacking your chair...)

We give them both the space and some structured conversations to explore this, and a series of perspectives from others to inform and stimulate their thinking.  Yesterday, as well as Gerry sharing some insights, we heard form the VC about his view of the new dispensation in HE and what he expected of the professoriate, and from Andy Gillespie, an experienced successful and thoughtful professor.

A large part of the success of the day was down to the spirit in which the participants engaged in it.  Right form the start they were open, inquisitive, curious and mutually supportive: it all bodes very well for the remaining days of the programme.

Outplacement Workshop

Over the years I have done a lot of outplacement and career transition work, both in workshops and in a one-to-one setting.  But I haven't done so much recently.

So it was interesting to update and re-vamp my Next Steps workshop for a group of people whose jobs are at risk.  They were remarkably positive for people in such an unsettling time, and as ever, by putting a lot into the day, they got a lot out of it.

It is perhaps a sad sign of the times that I am receiving more and more invitations to tender for outplacement work.  In my darker hours I can feel a bit like a jackal, feeding off the pickings of others' distress; but the feedback I get is that people really value the chance both to consider their options and to have some skills, structures and processes to help them through these difficult times.

An interesting day

The other day I ran a team day which was a bit of a hybrid.  In discussing what might be helpful with the team leader, I'd mentioned both a day exploring the stories (past, present and future) of the team, and also a Solutions Focused approach.  She said both sounded good and could we combine them.

So ever up for a challenge, I agreed.

I am not sure how well that worked, in fact.  It was OK - some parts went very well, and I think the team left with an increased sense of teamness, with greater mutual understanding, and most importantly, with a clearer sense of where they wanted to get to and a commitment to actions to take them forward.

But there wasn't really sufficient time either to turn the embryonic stories about the desired future into something substantial and compelling, or to get the full value of the material generated by the Solutions tools.

I will be interested to hear the team's feedback, and to explore with the team leader how to ensure we get all the value from the work done on the day.

Memo to self: work through the design more rigorously with the client (avoid agreeing to stuff the day before the Christmas break for delivery immediately after!).