Saturday, 18 March 2017

Tango and Leadership

On Friday, I went to a session on Tango and Leadership at Cumbria Coaching Network  led by Sue Cox. I nearly didn't go - I mean, me and dance... (ask my children...) 

But it was very valuable and very enjoyable (both to my surprise). I went partly because of my heightened awareness of shame as a blocker, due to Jacqui Sjenitzer's workshop - so thought I should ignore that and go anyway.

Not so much this...
Sue was excellent. She started with a brief introduction, including an explanation of the difference between show dances (precisely choreographed) and the kind of tango she is interested in (co-created in the moment, danced by two people who probably have never met before, in response to music that is not of their choosing and which they may not know, and in a crowded space, full of others also dancing...). She also set the context in terms of leadership: the fact that complexity, change and systemic interdependency mean that one can neither predict the future nor prescribe the response: one needs to co-create in the moment...
... more this

She also talked of her own experience: having got good at Tango in the UK, she went to Buenos Aires, and quickly realised that she had to unlearn a lot; and she then learned some wrong things by naive observation (stick your bottom out, for example). But the posture of Argentinian women dancing the tango is driven by their core, not by an intention to stick their bottom out: and that makes a huge difference.

And then we started to think about dancing. And again, Sue wrong-footed me, as it were, by saying the one thing we would not be doing was learning any steps. She demonstrated a few formal ballroom steps and asked if that was dancing: the way she did them, it clearly was not. Dance, she explained is something different - especially the kind of dance she is interested in.

So we started, instead, by truly connecting with ourselves - familiar stuff to those of us who have done any work with mindfulness. The next thing was to engage our core. Those who are familiar with Pilates, and most athletes, will know about the importance of the core muscles: that group of muscles including the abdominal muscles and the muscles around the bottom length of the spine. For me, it is the place from which I sing (when I am singing well), and indeed speak. Sue's point is that good dance movement originates from the core, and that legs and arms are free to move when the core is engaged and the focus of attention. The third thing we learned to attend to was our connection with the ground: pushing our feet into the ground, even as we engaged our core to allow our backs to lengthen and widen and our limbs to move freely.  I quickly found that I was moving quite differently; and also that my concerns about my two left feet seemed entirely irrelevant (which was very welcome).

What has all this to do with leadership? In Tango, this is what the leader - and also the follower - need to attend to before they are ready to dance. Sue described this as personal leadership - connecting with ourself, engaging with our core, and being properly grounded. The parallels with leadership in organisations are not merely metaphorical...

And then we moved on to consider how to lead and be led. Again, we did some interesting work on creating a connection that was energised; rather than just leading or being led, actually engaging with the other, with a true desire to do something creative together. That is something so visceral that you can tell the difference in the way your partner holds your arms. Then it is possible to project your intention by the smallest of movements, inviting the other to respond, either as you expect, or possibly in an unexpected but creative way, contributing to the co-creation of the dance, in response to the music. We practiced the difference between leading a truly engaged follower, one who might push back, as opposed to a passive follower who merely did what was expected, and how much more creative the process was with the engaged follower. Indeed the distinction between leader and follower often fell away, as both engaged in the co-creation of something that could not be choreographed in advance.

So that is the second set of connections with leadership: Connecting and Collaborating - and the notion that the quality of the relationship is at the heart of leading and being led. In fact, the Argentinians don't talk of leading and being led. The verb they prefer is marcar, which might literally be translated as to mark, but has the connotations of to suggest, invite, open up space for...  So the key issues were the importance of engaged connection, clear communication of intention, co-creation and mutual trust, and responding to the changing external stimuli; and again the parallels with leadership in organisations are not merely metaphorical...

We were running out of time (and puff - it was all surprisingly tiring) but had time for another set of brief reflections, about the language we use around leadership, and the interesting things that can happen when we use language (and thinking) that is not all about power.

I don't think I have quite done the session justice, but it was very good indeed. You can see Sue's TEDx talk on the subject here:

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Coaching Supervision, Seven Conversations, and Useful Fictions

I was unable to get to David Clutterbuck's recent workshop for the EMCC, unfortunately. However, some colleagues who went told me that it was very good, and passed on various snippets. The topic was 'How to co-manage and get the best out of supervision.'

One of the things that struck me as helpful is the concept of the seven conversations that the coach could review with his or her supervisor.

The first two are before the meeting: the coach's internal conversation, and the coachee's internal conversation. The next three are during the meeting: the conversation between the coach and the coachee; and (of course) their respective internal conversations. And the final two are the respective internal conversations after the meeting.

When talking about the coachee's internal conversations, we are, of course, making it up. We cannot know for sure (even if we ask) what the coachee's internal conversations are. Nonetheless, it is a valuable area to explore, as it provides access to other aspects of the coach's thinking and processing, that we might otherwise not explore. Thus it is what I categorise as a 'useful fiction.'

For example, if a coach tells the supervisor that she thinks the coachee's conversation prior to the meeting revolved around a sense of guilt for not having done what the coachee said he would do at the last meeting, that opens up a very interesting range of issues for the supervisor to explore with the coach, that might not have come up otherwise. These could include how accountability is contracted for and managed; whether the coach felt adequately prepared for the meeting (ie is this projection?); and so on.

So while it may be nothing like what the coachee's internal conversation was in fact, it is still a useful thing to explore. That is what I mean by a useful fiction. In fact, that notion of 'useful fictions' is looming large in my thinking at present: I may write further about it in due course...

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Power of the BATNA

Recently I have been working with a few people preparing for forthcoming negotiations. As always, I lean heavily on the wisdom of the Harvard Negotiating Project, as captured in the seminal book, Getting To Yes. 

Once again, I have been struck by the simplicity, power and simple rightness of the approach. In particular, the power of the BATNA.

The BATNA is the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It provides the final criterion to judge whether or not you should accept a potential agreement. If the agreement is better than your BATNA, then you would be wise to accept it; if your BATNA is preferable, then refuse the agreement, and implement your BATNA.

It sounds simple, and it is; yet people rarely negotiate like that. Too often, people have a 'bottom line' approach to evaluating an agreement. But that is fraught with problems, particularly in a situation which is changing in live-time, or where there are many factors to consider.

But the other thing about the BATNA is that it tells you where the power lies in the negotiation. It is easy to believe that the power lies with the party with most wealth, resource, influence etc. Yet that is not the case. The power actually lies with the party who can walk away from the negotiation most easily; that is, the person with the best BATNA.

From that it follows that there are two key things to do before negotiating, if you can. One is to develop the most attractive BATNA you can for yourself: not because you necessarily want to adopt it, but because you will negotiate with more power if you have it available to you. It is like going to a job interview with another attractive job offer already made: it affects your performance. The second thing to do is to understand the other party's BATNA. If it is unattractive, then you have more power; if it is very attractive, you have less. Knowing that is very valuable.

For more on this, the book, Getting to Yes is highly recommended. And I also comment on it in relation to my book Shifting Stories, over on the Shifting Stories website.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Flawless Consulting

One of the books I return to again and again is Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting. It is packed with good advice, and the overall message is as powerful as it is simple: the need to behave authentically and to understand and complete each stage of the consultancy process effectively.

The reason it has come to mind now is that I am just back from spending a couple of days interviewing many of the members of a senior team. I used a very simple interview structure with just four questions, and listened to each of them for an hour.

As a result, my head is buzzing with the richness and complexity of all that I have been told, and wondering how best to feed it back into the system in a useful way.

And then I remember Peter Block’s words of wisdom: frequently the most useful thing a consultant can do is to offer a clear and simple picture of what is happening.

So I asked myself that question: if I had to offer a clear and simple picture of what is happening, what would I say?  And there, beyond the complexity, is the clarity I need. There are just a few things to focus on, at least initially.  Complexity sits behind them all, of course, but I am quite clear that if we address these few issues effectively, we can make significant progress.

So if you are engaged in consultancy, or if you use consultants come to that, I highly recommend Flawless Consulting: a true vade mecum.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

On The Receiving End...

I have blogged numerous times about Nancy Kline's approach to listening and the Thinking Environment, the various ways in which I have used it, and its consistent usefulness. But what I have not written about before is my experience of it on the receiving end. 

Ever since last April, when I attended Nancy's Thinking Partnership programme, I have had a regular Thinking Partnership session with one of the other practitioners who was on the programme, a wonderful coach, Claudia Danser

We typically speak on Skype (as she is in London and I am in Cumbria), and have learned a lot about the Thinking Partnership process and that medium as a result (for example, on Skype, don't look into the eyes of the person to whom you are listening; rather look at the video camera lens - that feels to the recipient more as though you are looking into his or her eyes, and it makes a difference!)

These conversations have always been valuable, both for the opportunity to continue to practice the skills in a safe environment with a skilled coach, and also for the actual content of the session. Normally, we both find that the first stage, the simple attentive listening, is sufficient to resolve whatever issues we bring to the session.

However, the reason that I am writing about it this time is that the issue we addressed in our most recent call needed more than that. I was experiencing an unusual, and unusually strong, sense of worry about a forthcoming piece of work, and wanted to understand why.

Claudia had to go all the way through the model, helping me to identify the assumptions I was making, decide which one was most limiting, and then construct an alternative positive assumption to try out. 

The result was excellent. Not only did I understand what was causing my unease (which was my declared goal) but also found that by the end of our conversation, I had replaced the sense of unease with a far greater sense of ease and confidence, as a result of replacing the limiting assumption with a more liberating - and truer - one.

Interestingly, that conversation was sound only: we couldn't get Skype to work (possibly because I was in a hotel room, connected via a poor hotel link). But it didn't seem to matter: the process worked, once more.

So yet again, I have experienced the power of Nancy's model; and this time as the recipient, rather than the coach. And once again, it has delivered exceptional results. I remain impressed.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Social Media for HE

John Denham, Sue Littlemore & Gordon Mackenzie
in the panel discussion
This week, we had the media and engagement module of Winchester Futures, featuring a stellar range of guests, including John Denham, Sue Littlemore, Gordon Mackenzie, Alastair Bruce and Alastair Stewart.

John, Sue and Gordon, along with Sam Jones, the University's Head of Communications, were discussing how we can influence policy and practice.  Their insights and experience shed a great deal of light on the political process and appropriate ways to engage with civil servants, policy makers and ministers.
Alastair Bruce: Royal Herald
as well as distinguished broadcaster
The two Alastairs joined us for the subsequent interview skills practice: taking participants in small groups through the essential skills of TV interviews, and then interviewing each on camera. I had the pleasure of welcoming them, but I wasn't present for their interviews as I was working with other groups at the same time on radio interviews. However, all the reports were extremely positive, so we are most grateful for their time and expertise.
Alastair Stewart, stalwart of ITN

We also discussed social media,, with Vanessa Harbour and Debs Wilson sharing their knowledge and experience. I also contributed a bit, and promised participants a list of the links and resources that I mentioned. It occurred to me that other people in HE might find them useful, so I post them here, as a reference point.

One of the points we discussed was the importance of curating your online profile. Even if you have no intention of engaging in social media in support of your work, it is important to know, and to manage, what people will see if they search for you online. Here is a useful checklist for that process.

We also talked about the range of ways in which one can engage. At one extreme is the passive consumer. At the very least, it is worth bookmarking THE, The Conversation, and Wonkhe.  Wonkhe's Monday Morning HE Briefing is worth subscribing to, as well.

If you want to look more seriously at how to use Social Media to support your research, you should have a look at Mark Reed's slides on this. Mark is an academic researcher who has developed a sideline in helping other academic researchers to increase their impact. His book, The Research Impact Handbook has a very valuable section on using social media, and the associated wwwsite is worth exploring, too.

If you want inspiration, have a look at the JISC's list of top 50 HE professionals using social media, here. The range of examples is extraordinary. Here I cite are just a few that caught my eye.

Cardiff University Medical School’s official Facebook page Cardiff C21 is now one of the most influential platforms of communication within the school. The page is used as an adjunct tool in medical education, and is estimated to reach over 70% of the School’s 1,400 medical students. Innovative content, thought provoking articles and other posts keep the content relevant and interesting to students. The team ran some research and discovered that:
    • 42% of students studied topics further due to posts on the page;
    • 26% applied for jobs and opportunities advertised on the page;
    • 47% attended an academic event advertised on the page;
    • 24% of responders joined a club or society due to work of the page;
    • 62% of respondents reported feeling either more or much more satisfied with the medical course as a result of using the page.

Or there is the Jisc-funded social media crowdsourcing project, The Great War Archive, which managed to collect 6,500 digitised items from the public in just 12 weeks.

I also liked the sound of a YouTube 'clone’ site (closed site for students), for bioscience students at Ulster University. Students in small groups of three or four make a reflective video documentary about one of the experiments they conduct; this is then uploaded to the site and shared with everyone on the module; and also #Vetfinals on Twitter: a revision club for vet students at Nottingham, where an expert tweets a clinical case for students to ‘solve’. 

Another valuable sites to explore, if you want more ideas, is the Oxford University Social Media Guide. It has 29 top tips for creating and managing effective social media channels.

 Finally, the Newcastle University Library Services site is excellent, showcasing how a huge range of different social media platforms can be used in support of research.

There are risks of course; one is reputational. The speed and vehemence of social media campaigns when one puts a foot wrong can be breathtaking (remember the Tim Hunt affair?)  The other is time: it is easy to get seduced into wasting a huge amount of time on social media. Both Mark Reed's material and the Oxford Top Tips have something to say about this.

But the benefits are also, potentially, enormous. The reach of social media is enormous; and academics who use it well can both spread their work and engage a huge public in ways hitherto unimaginable.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Listening Beyond...

I have been working with Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment model again this week; specifically with a number of professors at Lancaster University. One of the things that struck me afresh was Nancy's notion of 'Let's see how much further your thinking can take you... and how much further than that.... and how much further than that..."

For what seemed to happen in the practice sessions was that highly intelligent people surprised themselves, discovering how far their thinking could go, when they were listened to with exquisite attention by a colleague.

They were thinking about topics they had thought about before, but made real breakthroughs in their thinking, and in the way in which they were thinking, with minimal intervention (though maximum attention) from their listening partners.

One found, for example, that she suddenly identified a number of assumptions that she had been making; and by re-considering these, and abandoning the false ones, she made significant progress. That was without the thinking partner asking about assumptions (Nancy's hypothesis is that the brain normally does that naturally, when the right conditions are in place; just occasionally, we have to help it with the appropriate questions).

The hardest part of these conversations, for the listening partners, was resisting the urge to interrupt, to contribute, to ask questions. But (under strict instructions from me) they managed to do so, and listened beyond the obvious, to some new and fascinating ideas.

In the plenary conversation afterwards, when we were discussing the application of the same principles to meetings, one professor also spoke very articulately about the fact that in meetings he would listen, but would need time to go away and think before delivering thought-conclusions. Yet, here he was in a meeting, delivering a thought-conclusion. When I pointed that out, he agreed that it was due to the different way in which this particular meeting was being run - that is, in accordance with the ten Thinking Environment components. 

So yet again, I am persuaded of the practical power of this seemingly simple approach.

So for the record, here are the ten components, with a bit of a gloss on them; drawn from Nancy's work in Time to Think and More Time to Think (both highly recommended, of course).

Hypothesis: Attention is an act of creation, and the quality of our attention determines the quality of the other’s thinking.

In almost any setting the best help we can be is to create the conditions for people to generate their own finest thinking. And when someone is thinking around us, much of the quality of what we are hearing is our effect on them; and that requires that we are sufficiently humble to refrain from even thinking about all our wise ideas while we are listening. In fact, the quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Attention, driven by deep respect and genuine interest, and without interruption, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Attention is that powerful. It generates thinking. It is an act of creation.

Hypothesis: Even in a hierarchy people can be equal as thinkers, and that equality helps them to give of their best.

If we seek to treat everyone equally as a thinker, everyone must get a turn to think out loud and a turn to give attention. To know you will get your turn to speak makes your attention more genuine and relaxed. It also makes your speaking more succinct. Equality keeps the talkative people from silencing the quiet ones. But it also requires the quiet ones to contribute their own thinking. The result is high quality ideas and decisions.

Hypothesis: Ease creates; urgency destroys.

Ease is an internal state free from rush or urgency which creates the best conditions for thinking.
But Ease, particularly in organisations and through the 'push' aspect of social networking, is being systematically bred out of our lives. We need to face the fact that if we want people to think well in the increasingly demanding and target-driven academic environment, we must cultivate internal ease. This implies a preference for quality over the rush of adrenaline.

Hypothesis: The human mind works best in the presence of appreciation

Society (and perhaps particularly academia) teaches us that to be appreciative is to be naïve, whereas to be critical is to be astute. And so, in discussions we often focus first, and sometimes only, on the things that are not working. The consequence is that our thinking is often specious. A skilled listener generates a balanced ratio of appreciation to challenge so that individuals and groups can think at their best.

Hypothesis: To be 'better than' is not necessarily to be ‘good.’ Mutual encouragement will produce better results than competition.

Competition between people ensures only one thing: if you win, you will have done a better job than the other person did. That does not mean, however, that you will have done anything good. To compete does not ensure certain excellence. It merely ensures comparative success, and can feed unproductive ego-driven behaviours. Competition between thinkers is especially dangerous. It keeps their attention on each other as rivals, not on the huge potential for each to think courageously for themselves. A Thinking Environment prevents internal competition among colleagues, replacing it with a wholehearted, unthreatened search for good ideas.

Hypothesis: Unexpressed feelings can inhibit good thinking.

Me (r), with Nancy Kline (centre) and other participants
on the Thinking Partnership programme
Thinking stops when we are upset. But if we express feelings just enough, thinking re-starts. Unfortunately, we have this backwards in our society. We think that when feelings start, thinking stops. When we assume this, we interfere with exactly the process that helps a person to think clearly again. If instead, when people start to express feelings, we relax and welcome that, good thinking will resume.

Hypothesis: Withholding or denying information results in intellectual vandalism. Facing what you have been denying leads to better thinking.

We base our decisions on information, accurate or not, all of the time. When the information is incorrect, the quality of our decisions suffers. Starting with accurate information is essential, therefore, if good independent thinking is our aim. The importance of information also pertains to the pernicious phenomenon of denial, the assumption that what is happening is not happening. Learning how to formulate questions that dismantle denial is a powerful feature of Thinking Environment expertise.

Hypothesis: The greater the diversity of the group, and the greater the welcoming of diverse points of view, the greater the chance of accurate, cutting-edge thinking

Reality is diverse. Therefore, to think well we need to be in as real, as diverse, a setting as possible. We need to be surrounded by people from many identity groups, and we need to know that there will be no reprisal for thinking differently from the rest of the group.

Incisive Questions
Hypothesis: A wellspring of good ideas lies just beneath an untrue limiting assumption. An Incisive Question will remove it, freeing the mind to think afresh.

Everything human beings do is driven by assumptions. We need to become aware of them, and by asking Incisive Questions, replace the untrue limiting ones with true, liberating ones. The building of Incisive Questions is at the very heart of generating fine independent thinking. These questions have been described as ‘a tool of unbelievable precision and power’.

Hypothesis: When the physical environment affirms our importance, we think more clearly and boldly. When our bodies are cared for and respected, our thinking improves.

Nancy Kline has found consistently that Thinking Environments are places that say back to people, ‘You matter.’ People think better when they can arrive and notice that the place reflects their value - to the people there and to the event. Place is a silent form of appreciation.