Monday 23 December 2013

Stuck for a Present? - A Thought for Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas, a friend introduced me to Kiva.

Kiva is an organisation that enables people to make loans to those in the developing world who need capital to start or develop some means of becoming self-sufficient.  So you can go to their site, look at projects, and decide whether you want to support the expansion of a farm, or the purchase of a goat…

Over time, the loan is repaid, at which point you can reclaim your money, reinvest it in another project, or make it a donation.

You can start with a very small amount, to get the feel of it ($30, I think). Then, of course, you can expand your portfolio...

So this year, following a friend's example, we are giving each of the children a Kiva voucher. They can then choose which projects they wish to support, and watch their progress over time.

I envisage we will repeat this every Christmas, so over the years they will end up with a portfolio of several projects they have supported - and also with an appreciation of how much good relatively small amounts of spare cash can do to people much less fortunate than themselves: so it is a present which educates as well.

So if you are stuck for a present, I commend Kiva to you (and even if you are not…)

Friday 13 December 2013

A note of thanks

In the New Year, I will be running a large Open Space event for a client, who has never experienced one before.
Until a year or so ago, I had not run one.  But I have done several in the interim, thanks to a client who had experienced one and took the risk of commissioning me to run one with him - and then several more, as it was so successful.

Reflecting on that, I realised that it is something of a pattern. Over the 25 years I have worked as a freelance consultant, I have changed and developed what I do significantly - and frequently I have been supported by a client who understands that I want to try something new, and is prepared to take the risk of allowing me to do it with his or her people.

That is true of coaching, of many of the consultancy projects I have done, and of new workshops or approaches to team development that I have undertaken.

So I am extremely grateful to all my clients, past and present, who have been willing to take that risk, and trust me to try something out for the first time.

And the approach of Christmas feels like the right time to put my gratitude on the record, and to say thank you.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Anti Hero as Leader

I was sent a link to this report about Anti-Heroes by Professor Gerry Docherty, formerly of Newcastle University (UK) and now of Griffith University in Australia.

Gerry in many ways exemplifies the style of leadership articulated in this report, which, I think, is why many of us value, respect and admire him.  I hope that his style and qualities are likewise recognised at his new University and that he flourishes there.

The thesis of the report - which is well worth reading in full - is that the new realities of the world require, in many roles, a new style of leadership, quite different from the types of leadership which have been effective in the past, and indeed remain effective, in some circumstances, in the present.

The traditional style of leadership is characterised as:
  • Clear thinking
  • Self-Confident
  • Expert
  • Charismatic
These are undoubted strengths in some situations, but such leaders are also prone to the following flaws:
  • Un-empathetic
  • Over-confident and opinionated
  • Inflexible 
  • In denial of uncertainty.
The Anti Hero, by contrast, is characterised by the following traits, which are typically less valued by organisations :
  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Flexibility
  • Acknowledgement of uncertainty
  • Self-awareness.
These characteristics suggest that the Anti Hero is better at:
  • Adapting to new circumstances
  • Drawing upon all the relevant information
  • Building diverse relationships
  • Understanding other people
Anti Heroes also have their typical flaws, which include:
  • Complicated communications
  • Slower decision making
The report explores when each of these approaches might be of most use, and also has several case studies to put the flesh on the bones of this analysis.

It is more polemic and exploratory than academic in tone, so I would see it as a provocation to thought and reflection rather than an authoritative piece of research. But it resonates with both my prejudices and my experience, so I commend it to you on that basis.

Reflecting on all this in the light of the recent death of Nelson Mandela prompts some further thoughts.

Perhaps he was truly great because he combined characteristics of both types, without any seeming conflict or contradiction within himself.

For who could deny that he was clear-thinking, self-confident and charismatic? Yet he also demonstrated empathy, humility, flexibility and self-awareness to an extraordinary degree as well.  So perhaps the two types are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But I suspect such fusion is rare: which is why a leader of the stature of Mandela is also rare.

Friday 29 November 2013

Best predictor of group effectiveness?

As I have remarked before, it is always pleasing to come across research that matches and validates one's own beliefs and values.

In this case, it is an article by Adam Grant in the McKinsey Quarterly, called Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture.  In it, Grant argues that the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness is the amount of help that people give to each other.

Note that this is not just about individuals being prepared to offer help, but also for that help to be accepted: that is to say, it is about a culture in which people are both generous and open with their time and their skills, but also have sufficient humility to recognise that they need help.

He explores not only why this might be the case, but also how to go about developing such a culture, and cites many examples, including the intriguing Reciprocity Ring exercise, with which I shall experiment (watch this space).

I won't summarise the whole thing here: it is worth reading in full - not least for the wonderful example with which Grant concludes his piece. I have no doubt the book, on which the article is based, would be worth reading, too.

As a Christian (work in progress) I have long thought about the relationship between virtues and leadership (and organisational behaviour more generally). 

I think one could draw up a remarkably robust set of corporate values based on the virtues: faith, hope, charity; justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance.  

So I am delighted to see that work like this validates such things as charity and indeed humility. Understanding the value of virtues is one thing; putting them into practice is, of course, another and more difficult challenge.  But as Grant points out, in his final paragraph, walking the talk is essential (or as one team I worked with put it: we may not always walk the talk, but be do try to stumble the mumble.)

Saturday 16 November 2013

Are trainers particularly gullible?

At an event recently, I made a disparaging remark about NLP.  An academic who was present agreed, suggesting that all the claims of NLP, when subjected to proper research, were proved to be spurious, or at best unproven or unprovable.

I thought he was over-stating it, and mentioned the eye access cues: something I have found interesting and have frequently observed.

A quick search on Google brings up many versions of this chart: interestingly, if you add the filter 'free for re-use' they all disappear (something I will come back to) so I drew my own.

The academic who had queried all NLP said he thought this was bogus too, something I was slow to believe, because I had observed it.  I even asked a 'visual'  question of the group and noticed the eyes of the chap nearest me going up and to the side as expected. 

Subsequently, my academic nemesis pointed me at research that calls this into question.  And there is much, much more. It seems that while some peoples' eyes move when they are asked a question, it is by no means universal, and there is no consistent pattern.  IE there are enough examples to make the gullible (such as me) believe the chart, not least due to confirmation bias, but the hypothesis does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

The same seems to be true of most other tenets of NLP. Wikipedia carries a long,  and well-referenced, article describing the various aspects that have been unsupported when subjected to scientific scrutiny.  Wikipedia also notes that there is nothing to stop anyone branding him- or herself as an NLP Master Practitioner (though you will gather that I will not be doing so.)

Which raises some interesting questions: given that NLP is, to say the least, an unproven technique, why are so many trainers so keen to be initiated into it?  And given that my outlook on it is sceptical, why was I still so quick to believe the 'eye access cues' claims? Are trainers, in general, particularly gullible?

And it is not just NLP.  I have blogged before about the much repeated (by trainers) 'research' that 'proves' that verbal communication is responsible for only 7% of the meaning we receive (the rest being voice (38%) and body language (55%).  Clearly bunkum, but passed on from trainer to trainer with all the authority of the Verbal Tradition

And then there are all the various pseudo-psychometric instruments of varying validity; with even those that benefit from some statistical evidence base (such as MBTI) being wildly mis-represented and over-sold.

I thing there are a few considerations that might lead trainers, as an occupational group, to be more prone to such fads than the average person.  

One is the need to have something to offer. Of course, there are things that we can learn from research which may be of help to those we are seeking to serve: the Harvard work on Principled Negotiation would be a good example. But very often the best work I do in the realm of interpersonal skills training is to help people with issues like self-awareness, reflection and experimentation: that is, people construct their own highly personal learning, rather than my teaching them anything.

A second consideration might be the fact that trainers, by and large, are optimistic by temperament. Clearly that is likely to be valuable in a profession that seeks to bring the best out of everyone; but it may incline us more to credulity.

A third is the need to feel professionally qualified and up-to-date.  Certification in various methodologies is reassuring, and may help convince clients or potential clients that one really does have something to offer.

Related to that is the fear of being left behind: if everyone else is getting qualified in {whatever it may be} then I probably should too.

I think there is something else going on, too.  There is something very appealing about being one of the initiated: I think NLP really trades on this - indeed someone recently described it to me as a giant pyramid selling scam, and I think there is some accuracy in that description. I particularly dislike the labelling Master Practitioner etc. and the amazing amount of money demanded by many of the big NLP organisations to train and qualify people in such an unverified (to be kind) approach.  I do not think it a coincidence that every version of the eye access cue chart that Google threw up was copyright.

But I remain embarrassed at my own gullibility, having thought I was above such credulity.

Saturday 9 November 2013

When less is more...

It is always fun when one stumbles across research which supports one's own existing hypotheses (or indeed prejudices).  So I was delighted to find a piece or work (courtesy a blogpost on the excellent Harvard Business Review site) which suggests that leaders who talk too much get poorer results from their teams.

The thesis is that leaders who feel powerful tend to dominate (verbally) their teams; that encourages team members to believe that their ideas and contributions are not valued, and the result is poorer team performance.

Call it confirmation bias, but I certainly think I have witnessed this.  And by the same token, some of the leaders I admire the most, and who seem to me to get the best results from people working with them, are precisely those who go out of their way to demonstrate their genuine interest in the ideas of others, and recognise (and counter-act) the power dynamics that make it less likely that people will be truly open and honest in talking with them.

The full article may be found here: and it is well worth a read.  I do not agree with all their hypotheses.  Also I question some of the underlying assumptions. For example, they hypothesise that when leaders are reminded of team members' instrumentality [that is, usefulness to them in accomplishing goals] their tendency to dominate will be restrained, which seems to me to ignore the power of habit. The fact that the experiments were conducted using subjects who do not usually work together might not show this: but a leader who has dominated for years might need more than a 'reminder' of others' instrumentality to help him or her to modify behaviour… (In fairness, the article does recognise this and other limitations implied by their methodology).

(I also deprecate some of their language: 'to summit' as a verb is a new one on me - but I am told that there is no noun that can't be verbed!)

But it is all fascinating and thought-provoking stuff - and the overall message concurs with my prejudices, so is clearly true!

Interestingly, this also resonates with my interest in rhetoric: one of the points I should have made in my previous post is that brevity is often a hall mark of the effective influencer.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

On Rhetoric

I have long been interested in Rhetoric. 

Rhetoric is the art or skill of persuading people by the spoken word. The ancient Greeks studied this assiduously, as their version of democracy rested on persuading the people in the market square. Whoever could win the argument won the day! 

Ever since, orators have used and built on the discoveries they made, and the basic rhetorical toolkit remains as powerful today as it has ever been - when well used. 

As a trainer and presenter, I often structure key points carefully, using particular rhetorical structures quite deliberately. I also coach others to use them when working on their presentation skills.

Here are some of the main techniques. 


This is the presentation of ideas by way of a strong contrast. 

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. 

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. 

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. 

Rhetorical questions: 

These are questions where the answer is implied by the question, or is assumed to be known (or knowable) by the listeners. 

What’s Montague? [...] What’s in a name? 

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? 

What have the Romans ever done for us? 

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? 

Three part lists:

These may be single words, phrases or whole sentences. The pace and intonation of the delivery is particularly important to make these effective. 

Veni, vidi, vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered.) 

Cry God for Harry, England and St George! 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers... 

Liberté, fraternité, égalité. 

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer 

I stand before you today as the representative of a family in grief, a nation in mourning, and a world in shock. 

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness 

Lies, damned lies and statistics 

Litotes (understatement) 

This can be used for a subtle emphasis with a slight comic effect and to evoke sympathy. 

And to do that would risk the financial collapse of the company, which would be slightly embarrassing. 

Hyperbole (overstatement) 

This is used to convey emphasis by exaggeration, and is best used very sparingly. 

I’d sooner die! 


For a good exploration of the first few of these, in the context of political rhetoric and stimulating 'spontaneous' applause, see Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears.

For a more comprehensive list of rhetorical devices, with examples, try here.

Friday 18 October 2013

Blogging about failure

Something I've been thinking about recently - and a stimulating conversation with Andrew Derrington brought it back to mind today - is sharing reflections about failure.

I am a great believer that we can learn a lot from things going wrong. Many years ago, I used to convene meetings of AMED in the North East. Far and away the most successful meeting I can remember was one where we invited members to share their greatest training disasters.

To their credit, members rose to the challenge, and we heard some hilarious stories; and there was a high degree of resonance: in most cases, we agreed, we had all been there. And in discussing our disasters, and each others' perceptions of where things had gone wrong, we all learned a great deal.

So I would like to blog about failures I have had; but there are a few problems.

One is that I don't have that many. That's not a problem in other contexts, of course, but if I want to blog about failures, it would be useful to have a few to choose from.

The second, and related to the first, is that the one or two things that have gone wrong still hurt, even though they may be some time ago.  Moreover, and this is the point, they may still be sore for my client; and that brings me to the most difficult issue. These are not just my stories: others are involved, and almost inevitably, if I am to reflect honestly on them, that may involve criticism of them.

Of course, I can anonymise them, and change details, etc to protect people or organisations from being identified, but my fear then is that other clients may think I am writing about them, and viewing as a failure something they (and indeed I) don't see as one...

The other concern, of course, is that by writing publicly about my failures, I may put off current or prospective clients  or collaborators.  However, I think  any client who wants to work with someone who claims never to have got anything wrong is probably not a client I'd want to work with, so I think I can take that risk.

So... (deep breath) here goes. No1 in a (very) occasional series.

Some time ago, a former boss - let's call him Paul - in an organisation I'd worked in, and who knew I was interested in writing, took me out for lunch at a Greek restaurant.

To be honest, I  was flattered. I had only set up the business a short while previously, and was naturally keen for new business. So after a few retsinas, Paul broached the business part of the conversation. There was a need to train managers in the organisation to write more clearly and succinctly. So he had commissioned a specialist consultancy to develop an Authorship Skills programme. Now he needed someone to deliver the programme. Here he laid on the flattery a bit, saying that the specialists had developed a great programme, but he wasn't convinced their training skills were anything like as good as mine; though they were cheap.  So if I were prepared to match their price (which was lower than my day rate) the work was mine.

It was, he assured me, a way back in to working for the organisation, and in future, naturally, they would pay my usual rates, but on this occasion... And then there was the volume of work...

So I ended up running poorly-designed workshops for managers who didn't want to be there, and felt patronised to boot, for cut rates, in an area that was outside my core competence.  Unsurprisingly, I didn't enjoy these, I don't think they really addressed the issue, and I was never invited back to do any other work for that organisation.

But I learned a number of valuable lessons, early in my freelance career:

  • Don't drink when negotiating a contract
  • Don't drink with clients you don't really trust
  • Don't listen to flattery
  • Don't say yes immediately to things you are unsure of - take the time to reflect
  • Don't cut price for the promise of future business
  • Don't agree to run programmes designed by someone else sight unseen (though I have breached that since, which may be the subject of the next in this series)
  • Don't work outside your core expertise without explicitly discussing that with your client
  • Don't assume your client has undertaken good (or indeed any) diagnosis
  • Don't agree to sheep-dip programmes where everyone is compelled to attend regardless of need

The last two points underpin most of the rest, in this instance: these workshops were always going to be tough, because the need they addressed was ill-defined, only perceived by some senior people, and not recognised by the victims of the process.

What brought all this back to my mind was hearing about Andrew Derrington's workshops, targetted at academics writing research proposals.  Here the need is specific, identified and acknowledged; and Andrew clearly has the expertise and experience to deliver them.

The contrast could scarcely be greater.

Friday 11 October 2013

Progress on That Book

As you may recall, I have been working on a book about narrative for some time.  The label 'Book' in the sidebar will take you to previous references to it in this blog, and 'Narrative' will give some insight into the themes.  I am ashamed to see, looking in my diary, that I conducted the 40 or so interviews for it in 2010 -2011.

However, I have now practically finished the first draft, and will shortly be sending out relevant chapters to those interviewed, to check that I have not misunderstood or misrepresented anything.

Then there will be the editing - and I am still working on what kind of diagrams or illustrations may be useful.

However, it feels as though a milestone has been reached, so I am in celebratory mood, and feel re-energised to put more effort in to getting it to the next stage.

So tentatively, I am hoping to have something to show for it in 2014 - but don't hold your breath!

Friday 4 October 2013

Leader? Me? You must be joking!

One of the most frequent requests I get for coaching is to work with people newly-promoted to a leadership role.
And once they are comfortable, with me and the process, they often express some reservation about their suitability or competence for the role.
If incredulity is your response to the idea of being a leader, it may be a very natural one.  It may also be mistaken.
Many people shy away from the notion of being a leader because they have in their minds someone who:
  • Is very charismatic
  • Is very authoritative (or even authoritarian)
  • Can rouse people to action by fine or fiery words
  • Knows all the answers

...and so on.

In fact, the notion of such hero-leaders is not upheld by the research, and is going out of fashion in organisations.  Instead, many are recognising that the true role of the workplace leader is to enable the people who actually do the work to deliver.

This helps us to recognise that other approaches to leadership may be equally - or even more - effective.

Some of the key requirements of leadership, then, are to ensure that the team is effective in planning, doing and reviewing the work.  That does not mean the leader has to do all of the planning, and still less all the doing.  But he or she has to make sure that those three things happen effectively and that the team has what it needs to do them.  Those needs may include clarity of purpose and direction, sufficient resources, whether of time, training, staff, or kit, good quality feedback on their performance  (including praise for work well done) and so on.

Again the leader may not provide all of those: he or she may simply prompt the team to sort some of them out for themselves; or remind others in the organisation of these needs and get them met that way (eg the need for positive feedback).

So the role of the leader may be most helpfully seen as providing the necessary support for the team to deliver.

Which is why I like the idea of an organisational hierarchy as an inverted pyramid, with those who deliver services at the top, and those who immediately support them next highest, with  the Chief Exec tasked with supporting the whole edifice!

I am also very interested in the role of emergent leaders.  I use this to describe those who, without a formal leadership role, step up and take a lead on a specific issue when the need arises.

It may be the team member who spots a problem, such as a safety hazard, and resolves it; or one who sees an opportunity, and grasps it.  I have seen numerous examples of both of these: and indeed one of my current projects is working with the head of a large organisation to develop the culture within which this will happen more frequently.

So another role of the leader, in my thinking, is to encourage, enable and support such acts of agency by individuals.

And finally, because I still hold to my heretical view that people are more important than organisations, I believe a leader should ensure that work is a positive experience for those he or she leads: not necessarily enjoyable all the time (though that would be good) but ultimately rewarding: allowing people to grow, to use their gifts and talents, and to accomplish something of worth and significance.

Friday 13 September 2013

A Speech to Write

I have been invited to make a speech next week. That is a relatively rare occurrence, so naturally, I start with a (mental) literature search.

 A corner of my mental library

The first thing my mind settles on is Gussie Fink-Nottle's speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School Prize Giving.  This must rate as one of the greatest passages of comic writing in the language, but I scarcely want to emulate Gussie.

The late, great, P G Wodehouse

Then the name King came to mind.  Not Martin Luther King, I'm afraid, but Clive King.  Lou's speech in Stig of the Dump is another classic, but again not one I would want to copy.  

My highbrow literary tastes

After all, I will be addressing an audience of academics.

An audience of academics hanging on my every word (fantasy #3542)

With a vague feeling of gloom, I thought I might have to do all my own work; and then a friend pointed me at these two fantastic resources.

One is an academic sentence generator, that produces wonderful results such as: 
The linguistic construction of normative value(s) is, and yet is not, the discourse of pedagogical institutions.
This is clearly the stuff for the occasion, and I realised my problems were nearly solved. 

More useful still, however (though arguably slightly less entertaining), is the Postmodern Generator, which will write the whole thing for me, in this style:
1. Narratives of stasis
“Sexual identity is fundamentally a legal fiction,” says Sartre. Thus, Hubbard[1] holds that we have to choose between capitalist discourse and preconstructive situationism.
The characteristic theme of the works of Rushdie is the role of the observer as artist. Bataille suggests the use of postcultural nationalism to modify sexuality. However, the example of semanticist theory intrinsic to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses emerges again in The Moor’s Last Sigh, although in a more subcapitalist sense. (... and on it goes)
However, I am not sure I could deliver such a speech with the straight face it would undoubtedly need to carry it off.

I would muse further about this, and indeed the ethics of delivering a speech generated by a random phrase-maker.  But I can't - I have speech to write.

Enough procrastination: I must get to work!

Monday 9 September 2013

Conscious Competence model of learning

Four Box Models
The recent post about Advisor Roles reminded me how many four box models I use in my work. They are often helpful in teasing out different aspects of complexity, or different elements in our thinking or in a process. The urgency and importance grid is a classic and well-known example.
One I frequently refer to is the Conscious Competence model of learning. People often find it helpful to understand why, when they have 'learned' something, they still find it difficult to do.  This helps highlight the difference between 'learned' as in understood, and 'learned' as acquired competence in...
I will probably post on more four box models over the coming weeks.
Conscious Competence Model
This model of learning suggests that when we start learning something new, we have both low competence or skill, and low understanding, or consciousness, of what we need to learn (A).
The first phase of learning, from A - B is about acquiring the knowledge or understanding necessary to raise our conscious awareness or understanding.

That results in our knowing what we are striving for, but not yet being skilled in executing it (eg knowing the theory of how to do a hill start in a car, but still stalling more often than not).
The journey from B - C can be a frustrating one.  We know what we are trying to do but can’t yet do it.  The temptation can be to give up at this point.  But in fact, what we need is to practice, until we are competent.
At C we are operating at a point of high consciousness  and reasonable competence (eg during a driving test, when we are continually muttering 'mirror, signal, manouevre...' to ourself).
Over time, our awareness may reduce, leading to unconscious competence (D).  We maintain the competence (we jump in the car and drive safely to work, without explicitly thinking about our driving at all).
However, as we are paying less attention to the process, we may find our competence slips a bit (eg forgetting to put on the handbrake, when stopping at red lights: E)  

If we want to improve our competence further, (to take the Advanced Motorists' test, for example) we will need to go on the same journey: increasing awareness (E - F) practicing skills with heightened awareness, to improve our competence (F- G) and then allowing it to slip into unconscious competence at a higher level of skill (H).

This model informs both my own design and execution of learning interventions, and how I help other to understand the learning journey.  
For example, I may use this model to introduce learning that builds on things people already know. I explain that I am not assuming they have no knowledge or skills, but rather seeking to help them bring the knowledge and skills they do have back into conscious awareness, so that they can be polished, improved a bit, and slipped back into unconsciousness at a higher level of competence.  I find this can deflect people from a path of resentment or feeling patronised when it is necessary to cover things they may, or indeed should, already know, but don't put into practice.  

It is also one reason why getting groups to discuss an issue is helpful: it helps bring the tacit (or unconscious) knowledge back into awareness: conscious competence.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Advisor (Consultant) Roles

At yesterday's Awayday with the Clinical Trials Unit, I had an interesting conversation with the Director and Deputy Director, about the different roles an organisation like theirs can find itself operating in. It reminded me of the fascinating analysis by Peter Block in his outstanding book 'Flawless Consulting.' 

Here's my notes and reflections on the relevant part of his thinking.

Advisor Roles

“Clients” (who may be individual managers, or whole departments or organisations) tend to prefer us to work either in an expert capacity  or a ‘pair of hands’ role.

Equally we may feel more comfortable in one of these roles, particularly if dealing with senior or powerful Clients.  They are clear and either flattering (on the one hand) or easy (on the other).

While either of these roles may be appropriate on occasion, there are risks to both of them; not the least of which is setting a precedent (and associated habits of thought and behaviour) that will make it harder for us to re-negotiate a collaborative relationship when that is what is truly required.

The Expert Role

You go away and come back with the answer - you’re the expert.

The problem here is that although an ‘expert,’ we may lack some of the Client’s understanding of his or her particular issues or organisation; also it is very much easier for our proposals to be rejected if they are formulated in isolation and then presented back to the Client.  If the Client feels that as experts we are challenging the Client’s understanding, wisdom or experience, we may well provoke a defensive response - and an equal and opposite reaction.

The Pair of Hands Role

Here’s what you need to do - go off and do it.

As a ‘pair of hands’ we may find our expertise undervalued, and find that we are in a position where any suggestions we have to make are ignored, and that a lot of our time is wasted on trivia.  We may be expected to assume that 'the Customer is always right'; but that is a very simplistic stance that implies we have nothing to add to their understanding.  Likewise, we may find it difficult to negotiate for what we need for the successful delivery of a solution, setting ourselves up for failure.

Sometimes, if we are pushed towards a ‘pair of hands’ role and feel under-valued, our instinctive response is to emphasise our expertise - and move to expert role.

However, in both cases, seeking to move more towards a collaborative approach will give us more leverage in the Client’s system.

The Collaborative Role

The assumption here is that both you and your Client have something of value to bring to the situation, in terms of generating appropriate ways of working and developing solutions to whatever issue you are addressing. You have particular skills, knowledge, experience or expertise, which is why you are involved. The Client knows his or her needs, people, system, problems, history, and so on.

So a collaborative relationship is one that enables you to draw on both your understanding and insights, and your client’s, in order to develop the best ways forward - and to build the client's understanding and commitment to those solutions from the start of the process.  However, it is harder work for both you and the client, and takes more time...

Moving Towards a Collaborative Role

As with all movement, the direction depends on where you are starting from...

If you are starting the relationship from scratch, use your initial meeting to negotiate a contract on how to work together: take the opportunity to model a 50:50 collaborative relationship.  Make requests/demands as well as offers of help.  Treat the client as an equal, worthy of respect; and demonstrate that you expect to be treated in the same fashion.

Then use every opportunity thereafter to model a 50:50 approach: invite the client’s ideas and contribute your own, too.

If you are already in a relationship where the client sees you as an expert, seek realistic and relevant opportunities to involve the client.  Seek his or her views or advice on key decisions or options as you work through the project.  That will increase the client’s involvement, and also prepare him or her for the final presentation of your thinking, so that there are no surprises and much less likelihood of rejection.

If you are already in a relationship where the client sees you as a ‘pair of hands’ you may wish to engage with a role re-negotiation about how you can add more value if you are able to get involved with the decision making more directly.  Or you may choose simply to ask to be involved in specific meetings where you know key issues are to be discussed.  Another strategy is simply to start making suggestions in a proactive way, starting with issues which are important to the client and where you have suggestions that are likely to work.

In all cases, the issue is to identify where the client is (implicitly) placing you on the grid, and work out how and how far you will be able to move to a more collaborative working relationship.

Monday 5 August 2013

Invisible Facilitation

I have been musing on visibility and invisibility of late.  Recently I have presented a number of conference sessions, runs some development workshops, and facilitated awaydays for a number of organisations.

Clearly, when speaking at a conference one is in the spotlight.  Whilst I frequently include quite high levels of participation, there is an expectation that the presenter takes centre stage and delivers some insight.

The same is true when running workshops.  There is more scope for participative and co-created learning, but nonetheless, people expect a certain amount of information to be delivered by the person at the front of the room.

But with the facilitated awaydays, I often think the best thing is for the facilitator to be invisible.  

Frequently my most important work is done in advance of the day:

  • helping define what the issues are that need addressing 
  • devising the best process for addressing them, 
  • helping position people to engage positively with them; 

and so on. On the day itself, I may take a  much less visible  role.

Quiet roles a facilitator may fulfil (sometimes merely by his or her presence and manner) include:
  • creating and sustaining a safe and positive space for the conversation, 
  • agreeing and sustaining ground rules, 
  • managing the time so participants can focus on the issues, 
  • summarising discussions and moving the agenda on; and 
  • ensuring clear next steps are agreed.

One of the facilitator’s concerns, of course, may be that if she or he is not seen to be doing very much, people may conclude that the role is unnecessary, or the particular facilitator is incompetent.  But my experience is the reverse. I often hear tales of (and occasionally observe) facilitators who do too much - who need to be in the limelight for whatever reason.  

But the feedback I get from clients when I seem to do very little is almost always very supportive: here is a quotation from one:  Especial thanks to Andrew.   It takes real skill to be so totally unobtrusive, and yet completely in control!  

So I think we should trust our clients (who, after all, want an effective event, not a showboating facilitator) to recognise our contribution, and not worry about being seen to perform.