MIDDLE GROUND, COMMON GROUND

How was your summer?

As we all stream back to school, it doesn’t feel as if this is going to be an ordinary new term. Too much has happened. News bulletins became more like drive-by shootings during the summer as huge, life shaping, sometime shocking, events and happenings were announced. Newsreaders assumed new but useful facial expressions of – frankly – bewilderment.

So what do we need to look out for at the start of the new school year?

Having just been fortified by witnessing an excellent discussion between some Brexiteers and some Remainians (truly, the office seemed to provide a context for this team to be wonderfully grown up and generous as they argued and then argued some more while listening too), it will be the ability to rise above differences that I’ll be working on.

As if on cue, an old joke was sent to me by an American friend about this very thing: about why looking at what we have in common rather than magnifying differences is going to be kinda crucial.

I was taking a short cut towards a bridge one day, and saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump.

I ran over shouting ‘Stop! Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘There’s so much to live for!’
‘Like what?’
‘Well…are you religious?’
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said. ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Christian.’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?’
‘Protestant.’
‘Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
‘Baptist.’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’
‘Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?’
‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.’
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.

I’m less sure, now, how funny that actually is………..

THINKING INSIDE THE BOX

A80pxtreeny list of empty marketing phrases will include a couple of loved and familiar entries. They make us laugh while feeling safely immune from their emptiness.

All harmless fun.

‘Thinking outside the box’ has sidled into this position.

The phrase feels like an old rogue of an acquaintance: never taken too seriously, yet thought of with fondness.
But is it a rogue – or a danger?  Not only has the true emptiness of the phrase eluded us.  So has its falseness.

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The trickiest task for any of us in a business environment is to become fully aware of all aspects of a situation or challenge. And our own part in it. Prejudices, habits, favourite theories, ambitions and needs will all conspire to filter out what we can see and read of the data around us. And that data is truly around us: in front of our eyes.

We live in a time when our culture encourages and favours extrovert behaviour. These things go in cycles, and that part of the cycle is where we are.  One symptom of this has emerged as I watch how teams, sometimes very experienced teams, approach new projects.

I see and hear – very early in the process – ‘we must be different’, exclamations of ‘we need to get creative about this’ (think ‘outside the box’), and ‘we must be original’.

What effect does this have?.

Such an approach is immediately setting a high bar, creating an unintentional pressure. It is effectively suggesting that everyone aims for a standard of perfection. And the effect of trying hard to reach a standard, as many of us will have experienced, is a strained self-consciousness that can kind of ruin everything. It’s creating a tension, isn’t it? Tension makes us anxious. Anxiety makes us fumble.

So does trying too hard to be clever. Actively trying to be different effectively blocks our ability to see the obvious.
We will all see any situation in our own way. Something different will be apparent to each of us. It may seem obvious. Good. Share it.

An obsessive search for something clever can mean missing the obvious, missing what was right there. Great solutions can and will be found when we are relaxed and natural and being ourselves. What appears ordinary to one team member may be a revelation to another. The familiar becomes fresh when looked at attentively.  The trick is to not become caught up in trying too hard to ‘be creative’.

Keith Johnstone, the fantastic pioneer of improvisational theatre reminds his students of a killer ingredient for improvisational creativity:

‘Dare to be dull’.

So perhaps we should spend less time with that loveable old marketing phrase rogue, and introduce a successor.
Let’s think inside the box. Let’s pay proper attention to what is actually there.

BEAUTIFUL NATURALLY

Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo imageA boisterously beautiful young person landed at a table.

I’m clumsy, and in awe of those who move fast without damage. I steadied my espresso cup just in case. But this was a choreographed whirlwind, energy with a purpose. Her companion threw up a hand for a high five and laughed.

The mise en scène. It was another Blue Monday apparently (Again! How many are there?) and the i-pad to-do lists were all out in the café. There was condensation on the windows. We were all well into broken new-year resolutions, and perhaps drinking in the caffeine of resolve for replacements. Hey, Mondays.

I want to tell you about our heroine because what unfolded was so cheering and wise.

She had a job interview. The latte was champagne this morning.

Espresso coffee - part of Penny Hunt's executive coaching regime!

So what are they looking for?’

They want someone who can lead a team, and has brilliant judgement.
I so want this. I am like so going to be that person! I could tell from the way the headhunter described the MD and the stuff he does that this is going to take loads of preparation and psyching up.  You’ve got to help me on this.

‘Right here. Drink your coffee and tell me slowly what they actually want. And what you actually want.’

The voices lowered, the heads leaned towards each other and the coaching and prep work between friends began. Isn’t it great when you see one person really listening attentively to another? Doesn’t it support and transform the person speaking? I am bound, because of my love of espresso, and years as an advertising planner in the coffee market, to think that the coffee / caffé environment has a wee bit of magic to contribute here.

How many serious issues might be resolved or helped in this simple way?

I heard an extraordinary sentence from Nick Clegg during an interview about the resolution-resisting developments amongst the Lib Dems around Lord Rennard. Round Lord Rennard. Mr Clegg had chosen not spoken to LR. He didn’t judge that necessary. The issue for a leader, he said, is to uphold the principle of mutual respect within the party.

Mutual respect. Not speaking. Ah.

Experience suggests to me that there is no reason strong enough to refuse a conversation. Never. Just about all good things start with that mysterious dance of speaking out, and then of listening.

And the dance at the table next to me gathered momentum. Our heroine had been demonstrating the different ways in which she was going to tackle this interview.

She was going to convince this difficult MD that she is the perfect person for his business. She was going to employ techniques to convince him that she has leadership, and team skills that put Angela Ahrendts to shame, and that it is a mystery amongst her peers why she is not queen of the world.

The attentive companion listened. And listened.

After a pause, he spoke.

‘Or you could just be yourself.’

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