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………..

CONDITIONAL PERFECT

There’s a bit of a theme emerging. It’s post Rio, fewer bodies than usual squashed into the city, and a there’s a general temperature-related slow down.

If three teeny data points suggest a theme, then here’s a theme.

‘Perfect’ is beginning to feel too shiny and hard; we’re falling out of love with the idea.

  • First data point.

Imagine a tube journey of average hideousness, everyone magnificently employing the usual coping strategies, much fantasising of journey’s end. Three young men swagger into the central standing area, and begin to arrange themselves and their luggage. This involves space, elbows, combs, backpack swinging, to-be-overheard voices, and a pretty unambiguous sense of entitlement. The tripping up of two small children, the unaware hitting the head of another passenger with a backpack, and the (also unaware) stepping back onto another passenger’s foot is predictable. But what was not predictable was the reaction from two other young men as the heroes left the carriage. One turned to the other with just two words. ‘Over Achievers’.

  • Second data point.

Stuart Heritage wrote a piece in the Guardian this week where he expressed his changing views about certain previously reviled politicians. What brought about this change of heart? Simply, any signs of failure and misfortune. Instantly the most unlikely candidates – Michael Gove for instance – became objects of affection and renewed, compassionate interest. So, so far from perfect.

Here’s what the Guardian has to say about it.

  • Third data point.

The Rio Olympics have apparently been a wonderful success for GB. Loads more medals than other countries with loads of medals I think. Good-oh. So why do fond reflections about the single gold won by Fiji in the Rugby 7s (and involving a GB defeat) keep appearing?

Here’s an example from the advertising community, not known for any antipathy towards success, achievement or perfection and all that it brings. It’s clear that the single minded investment in GB performance and ‘winning’ has somehow removed the gilt from the gingerbread. While the (more amateur?) sport-revelling and enjoying performance of a less driven team has given more pleasure.

Here’s what Campaign has to say about it.

It is a theme, isn’t it?

A conditional perfect tense is used when something ‘would have happened’ but was stopped by something else.

Sounds much more like real life than, you know, perfect.

MYSTERY GOLF

If serious top flight journalists call this ‘the silly season’ then I think we can all feel we have permission to do our part and contribute to the gaiety of the nation.

Contributors to ‘The Idler’ are big players on the lightness of heart and intensity of enjoyment front, and there are some fine ideas this year by Ben Moor for the World Congress of Idle Sports. Pointless Games.

While Cobbled Court Tennis and Badminton in Armour are cinematic in their possibilities, there is one pointless sport that I think deserves to be taken –well, seriously.  Imagine playing a game of golf. (This is difficult enough for me, I am ytrops, the reverse of sporty).

Imagine that the location of the hole is unknown.  The hole could, in fact, be absolutely anywhere on the course.  Does it even exist at all?

What might the rules now be for such a conceptual and elusive game?

What might be the best way of playing it?

It would be well named ‘Mystery Golf’, would it not?

Fresh – or jaded – from a long management change project, I find myself unable to get a certain thought out of my head this summer.

Isn’t much of what we carefully and loyally call ‘leadership’ rather like being invited to join …..a game of mystery golf?

Have a lovely summer.

PLEASE CONFIRM YOUR HUMANITY

Just about everyone is wrestling with a feeling not unlike being slapped in the face repeatedly with something wet, unpleasant, and fishy just now – as another, probably shocking, news event screams for our attention before the full facts of the previous attack / coup / natural disaster / international incident fade away.

More than one journalist has suggested that a permanent banner should run along the bottom of all screens with the words ‘what just happened?’ repeating endlessly.

People cope in different ways.

Rocking rhythmically backwards and forwards isn’t recommended, but is comforting.

Humming tunelessly to drown things out can hit the spot in a similarly ‘leave me alone its not happening’ way.

As can getting stuck into all things work.

It was in a spirit of clearing up lots of deferred tasks, some of them online renewals, some of them closing down things that should have been closed down aeons ago, that I was reminded of the nonsensical instruction at the closing stage of many online submissions that demands proof that you are – not a robot.

A common instruction for this stage is ‘please confirm your humanity’ and involves, typically, an ironically robotic action- such as copying fake attempts at spidery hand-written characters from one box into another.

Given the times in which we currently live, the turbulence, the challenge to our feelings of what is right / wrong, what is ‘normal’, what is good / bad, and the widespread feeling of existential unease, is this really how to ‘confirm your humanity’?

Something much simpler will do that.

Something we should not be afraid of showing, something which when others reveal it we should respond to with compassion and comfort.

Bewilderment.

SHIPS IN THE NIGHT

Talk to any working team and group, in any culture, and the same handful of ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issues will appear.

The top winner, by miles, is the casual use of email.

Over use. Misuse.

It’s a perfect storm of demotivation. A workload problem (having ‘00s or ‘000s of emails to deal with daily) combines with a communication problem (so many of these emails containing unclear, unsuccessful and unnecessary versions of communication that just devalue the recipient).

The most common cry?

‘They could just come and talk to me….’

Email isn’t the problem of course, only the symptom.

Just about everyone finds connecting with colleagues in a ‘real’ way difficult.

Its not a recognized or supported skill. It suits any hierarchical culture not to build this skill.

But reporting email-over-use as the top ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issue keeps the real interpersonal communication issue underground and out of sight.

An interesting word was used by a team member the other day as he described a how it felt to receive a slew of emails from his bosses.

‘It’s like they are being aloof. It keeps them aloof’

I looked up the origin of the word, suspecting perhaps a military or sporting etymology.

It was nautical. And conjured rich imagery.

The word meant ‘windward’, to keep distance from another vessel.

From ‘luff’, or ‘loef’ (old Dutch) the word aloof has grown in everyday usage from a sense of distance to include a sense of a lack of sympathy.

The perfect image.

The word describing a vessel at sea using the wind to keep its distance now describes a management style that uses email to do exactly the same.

KNOWN KNOWNS

Way back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld gave a News Conference at the Pentagon. It was a year before the invasion of Iraq, and barely 6 months after 9/11.  Shockingly that time (looking back from now) feels almost stable.  It was in answer to a question about available intelligence and evidence concerning WMDs in Iraq that the famous ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’ quote appeared.

It was, then, considered a surreal sort of verbal evasion that perfectly echoed the Presidential style of communication.

Times changed, and in the face of a never ending stream of unknowns the quote gathered a sort of wisdom. Most of us will have made some reference to ‘unknown unknowns’ when discussing tricky situations.

In the UK currently the results of a fate-changing national referendum and the findings of the Chilcott report are being digested. Both could be said to be prime examples of complex scenarios with many ‘unknown unknowns’ unfolding.

But they aren’t.

An uncomfortable theme links both of these scenarios; a theme combining two common behaviours,

  • The inability to speak frankly.
  • The failure to say ‘no’, or ‘this is not possible’, or ‘this is not true’ to those deemed more senior or powerful.

On a smaller scale, this theme appears in every example of dysfunctional team /or organisational behaviour with which I work.

The connection with Rumsfeld is simple.

Like a magician he directed us to an area of ‘unknowns’.

The real area we should all be watching constantly is the known.  And we should be calling it, every day, loudly.

HUNT THE SYMBOL

A constitutional crisis, shock then anger, no way out.

Brexit life begins.

An early casualty of last week’s referendum was surely – as with war – truth.

Can words (either side) ever again be believed?  As words are traduced, then images and metaphors leap into life.  Just as in our everyday working lives, it’s the colourful, naughty, funny images that cut through any amount of misleading official statements. Here are three descriptions of what happened on June 23rd. Two from journalists, one from a writer, they all appeared within 72 hours.

“This is like having a headache and then shooting off your foot.
No foot. And you still have the headache”

“Johnson and Gove wore the expressions of people at an auction who,
having made a spectacularly extravagant and jokey bid, see the
auctioneer’s gavel finally fall and commit them to the sale”

“Gove spoke like a man who had just woken up from a bad trip to discover
that he had murdered his brother”

Words and meaning can become untethered at times of fear (and loathing).  Images, metaphors and symbols cut right through it all.  And might just reduce the misery.

START MUCKING ABOUT

The organisational theorist James March (Stanford) coined the term the ‘Technology of Foolishness’ in the 70s.  In papers and articles he noted that this was needed to counteract the prevailing ‘Technology of Rationality’.  He sometimes called it ‘sensible foolishness’.

He had observed that certain principles seemed to fixate Management and Leadership gurus: especially that ..all business activity should be goal driven, and that rationality rather than intuition should drive decision making.

This was constraining innovation and creativity.

So what does ‘technology of foolishness ‘ mean?

It means PLAY.

He exploded the idea that purpose precedes action, and showed that purpose emerges from action. Especially when those actions are imaginative and playful and intuitive and creative.

It is all about ‘escaping logic’.

Playfulness is a deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules.
James March

And the killer finding was this.  Organisations that value and encourage play are more profitable.  (See Google’s 20% time – 20% of everyone’s time dedicated to unapproved & experimental ideas)

Once you look, you see support for this everywhere.
‘Play is the highest form of research’ Albert Einstein
‘The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by
the play instinct.’ Carl Jung
‘A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men’ Roald Dahl

Have you played today?

Just start mucking about. You’ll be in very good company.

INVISIBLE FRIENDS

Over the last couple of weeks, several ‘culture’ conversations have surfaced a common experience that professionals rarely have a chance to speak about – little inner voices that whisper advice.

These invisible friends can be encouraging, they can be steadying, they can be….

Well, you know how they can be: horrible.

Sometimes these voices are adding to the already high (quite enough thank you) level of anxiety being felt in the workplace. Psychologists call them toxic interjects.
It’s a deadening phrase for what many experience as a much more energetic and lively internal exchange.

These are invisible friends, right?

The content is not friendly. It can debilitate. We need some techniques for reducing the cacophony level. It may be time to reclaim a phrase that is sometimes abused these days as a tactic for not answering a challenge.

It’s the thought – ‘lighten up’.

Truly.

Professional sports people, performing artists, those who expose themselves constantly to the sorts of experience where those invisible friends love to make themselves heard, all report that an ‘are the stakes really as high as I’m making out?’ question helps reduce the level.

So, they are taught to try out..

‘If anyone was filming this, they’d laugh’
‘I’ll just do what I do’
‘Anything could happen, and probably will’
‘ I’ll do my best. Yep, my best’
‘I chose to do this. I choose it.
Well, here we are and here we go’.

Or many collect and use a tranche of family sayings to ground, recalibrate, and raise an internal laugh of recognition

‘I am on dry land..’
‘Great aunt (insert fictitious and ridiculous name) is gonna love this’

and as was suggested years ago by a tutor

‘Just don’t leave this room as you found it’

Make some up, try them out, lighten up, and send those invisible friends on holiday.

PLAYING TAG

A bit of a theme during this summer is going to be ‘employee engagement’.

Even the phrase sounds old fashioned, doesn’t it? Echoing another time of hierarchies, of command and control.

(And what is ‘engagement’, any way?)

Lets begin a little un-picking of this oddly beached reminder of old corporate management lore.  I’m going to start with ‘tag’ questions.

Came across these in some commentary about the planned ‘Prisons and Courts Reform Bill’ in the Queen’s Speech.

Lots of (good) work is happening around the treatment of child witnesses, and the re-designing of court procedures to humanise the ordeal of giving evidence for children.
A tried and trusted questioning technique in court is to use ‘tag questions’.

A declarative statement is turned into a question.
‘ The policeman was kind to you, wasn’t he?’
‘ Mummy often shouted at Daddy, didn’t she?’

It’s a construction that leads the witness, suggests a ‘right’ answer, and is confusing.
This form of questioning is to be stopped where children are involved.

Then I looked at an employee survey in a medium sized Public Sector organization and found:

‘The management cared about helping you accomplish your personal
and professional development and career goals in a timely way?’

‘You are given opportunities to experiment and work in different ways
frequently?’

The structure is reminiscent of the ‘tag’ formation, isn’t it?

Whether you agree/ disagree, or rate the statement on a scale, the declarative statement makes it completely clear about the assumptions and expectations of ..‘the management’.

This is rather like confirmation bias.

Once you’ve noticed it you will see it everywhere.

No?