The Thing! A blog about valuing process over performance.

ThingThis is a thing.  It is a happy thing, but a thing nonetheless.   Because it is a thing, you can pick it up, move it about, transport it from A to B, squeeze it, change its shape and even tear it apart to make two or more little things.  The great thing about things is that because they have a boundary, a density and a structure you can manipulate and control them.  An organisation, however, is not a thing.  You can’t pick it up, move it from A to B, change its shape or its structure.  Fair enough you can control and manipulate some things within an organisation (buildings, org charts, desks, documents etc.) but not the organisation itself because, essentially, it does not exist! An organisation, as far as I can tell, isn’t a thing but an ongoing, complex process in which a bunch of human beings interact with each other in a way that is as predictable as it is unpredictable – an improvised social process that cannot be changed through control and manipulation but only altered, influenced and disturbed through participation.

The reason I like to talk about things in my work (and get my daughter to draw them) is that they are a great way of exploring a rather worrying pattern I notice in organisational life – an addiction to reification: turning abstract processes or concepts into something that we then believe and act as if are more concrete than they actually are.  The majority of business education seems to make this problem worse through teaching leaders and managers that their organisations are things that they can control and manipulate as if they were machines (pulling levers of change, shifting the needle on problem x, moving the culture from X to Y via Z).   The jazz musician/Professor of Organisational Behaviour Frank Barrett describes this reification habit as “turning metaphor into geometry!”  I like to refer to this process as “thingifying.”  Thingification is all around us in the corporate world and is likely as a result of what Professor Ralph Stacey calls “an institutionalised defence against anxiety” – a way of talking and interacting that makes us feel that the world around us is more stable and concrete than it actually is.   I’ve come to believe that thingification is the biggest challenge facing leaders and organisations who are trying to change, become more responsive, agile, creative and innovative.

One particular type of thingification that crops up regularly in my work is the thingifying of personal development.  It seems that the value placed on any particular development intervention is based almost entirely on the “tangible take aways” rather than the clarity, challenge, intensity and ‘developmental heat’ the experience creates in the moment.  To me this is like judging the value of a holiday based on the quantity of the photos and souvenirs that you gather, rather than the moment by moment enjoyment of the experience of holidaying.  (Sure, photos and souvenirs are great anchors of the memory of a holiday but they are only so because the holiday experience itself was great.  Either way, such photos can never convey the entirety of the experience to those who weren’t there, the only way to do this is to invite people to experience the holiday for themselves!)

It seems to me that this focus on tangible take aways distracts people from truly dwelling in the moment and noticing how they are changed, challenged, inspired, fearful or enlivened by their lived experience of any particular development intervention.  It is as if the anxiety of not having enough “holiday snaps” to show anyone after a day or a week out of the office distracts people from noticing the holiday.

As part of the research for Can Scorpions Smoke? I interviewed Dom Fitch, Creative Director for the charity Shakespeare Schools Festival.  SSF works with school children, often in deprived areas or with particular learning difficulties to help them put on their own, abridged versions of Shakespeare plays in well known theatres.  The wonderful thing about their approach is that the children are encouraged to interpret the plays in their own way and retell the stories in their own words.  One of the most memorable things that Dom told me was about the absolute focus that SSF places on process and not performance.  Below is an extract of the interview:

“In my first year with SSF I was at a big theatre in the north of England and a number of schools had just performed. We asked the Head of Education of the theatre to give an appraisal of the performances. An appraisal comes with a very specific caveat – it is not about judging, it is about giving all of the students that have performed some praise, so that every school has had something positive said about them.  At the end of the night she was effusive in talking about the perfect performance of one particular school, which, if you were to judge it as a moment of traditional theatre, was good. She then turned to a company of much younger pupils whose performance of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t as theatrically ‘good’ and simply said to them “I think you can really learn from the other pupils that have been on here tonight – they really showed you how it can be done properly!”  It was at that moment I realised why I wanted to do this work – because it’s in absolute opposition to people like her, who believe performance, assessment and achieving excellence are the only things that are important. She was totally unappreciative of the process those students had been through: the endless rehearsals they’d been in, those moments at home learning their lines with their parents, the relationship they have had with their teacher – she crushed all of that with that one awful statement.

We recently worked with a pupil referral unit and, because of the complex personal circumstances of many of the pupils, we knew some of them wouldn’t turn up for the performance.  We therefore decided to film the entire process that they went through and showed it on the night.  It didn’t really matter that only two or three pupils turned up because, through showing the video, we made the process the performance. The audience could actually see students wrangling with language and getting annoyed with each other. One student in particular got cross and exclaimed, “I don’t understand this language” and walked out of the classroom. However, on the night, he came on stage and performed his own rap inspired by Romeo and Juliet.  By making the process the performance, the audience were able to witness that student’s creative light bulb moment where he realised how he could make the play his own.  Had we just had him on stage performing a rap it would have been nowhere near as inspiring and impactful.”

I find myself quoting these stories regularly when trying to de-thingify personal development work and explain the importance of placing more value and attention on the developmental process versus the final ‘performance’ and end product.  If I think about my own recent developmental experiences, such as conducting a choir or going busking, the performance wasn’t brilliant (i.e. I didn’t learnt to conduct a choir or become a successful musician) but I was truly altered by the intense process of doing it.  If I were to evaluate those experiences based on the performance element alone and ‘tangible take-aways’ I would have been a bit disappointed.  I believe we can challenge the thingification of personal development by beginning to place more value in the process of learning, discovery and play and gradually weaning ourselves from developmental souvenir hunting.

Remember….a thing is for Christmas, not for life!

Exaggerate! Personal development lessons from cars and choirs

Alfa-choirMany, many years ago I fell in love with an old Alfa Romeo Spider.  I’d never really been that much into cars, nor did I have any money to spend on anything truly classic, but there was something about this particular car that looked, felt and smelled unique compared to the normal bargain basement vehicles I had owned up until this point.  With some help from the bank and some discipline about not going out for many months, I managed to get a loan, save up some money, haggle with the owner and drive away with a smile on my face and the wind in my hair. (In the five years I owned the car there must have been only three occasions where I was forced by extreme weather to have the roof up!)

Like any relationship, over time you start to become aware of some little foibles.  I began to notice that the indicators would occasionally flicker for no reason (I learnt that this could be resolved with a random kick in the area somewhere under the steering wheel!)  I discovered that there was a growing tear in the rear window of the soft top (I could live with this I very rarely had the roof up).  Then, one day, whilst travelling in convoy with some friends, I discovered that the speedometer was out by around 10 mph depending on what speed I was travelling at.  This meant that when I believed I was travelling at 30mph I was actually traveling at anything up to 40mph!  I was thankful that I’d discovered this before getting a speeding fine and decided I needed to get it repaired as soon as possible.  Unfortunately it was at this time that I learnt why most people don’t drive around in old Alfa Romeo Spiders – the cost of spares is extortionate.  I could barely afford to keep the car on the road anyway so there was no way I could fork out the two to three hundred pounds a replacement speedometer and associated bits and pieces was going to cost.  (I seem to remember that I was going to have to replace almost two thirds of the entire dashboard!)  Rather than stop driving the car I decided I needed to adapt and learnt to mentally correct for the error, calculating the actual speed versus the indicated speed.  Over time, this became more and more automatic and I was able to have a happy 5 years driving without any incident before I reluctantly decided to sell the car for something more practical with my imminent fatherhood in mind.

I’d forgotten about the old Alfa speedometer until this week when I attended a workshop entitled “Leadership as a Performing Art” convened by Robert Poynton, Paul Hedley and Danish conductor/musician Peter Hanke.  During the workshop, a group of participants and I worked with a small and incredibly talented choral choir.  The pinnacle of this wonderfully intense personal development experience was the opportunity to step in front of the entire group (singers and participants) and conduct the choir.

I stepped forward not knowing what song the choir were going to sing when I began to move.  I had no idea what to do with my hands so decided I just needed to experiment and see how they responded.  I began moving cautiously and some beautiful sounds emerged.  After around 45 seconds the piece ended and we all reflected on what had  happened.  I remarked that, whilst the music was beautiful, I didn’t really feel connected to the group and Rob challenged me by asking whether I was actually leading them!  I realised that, although there were moments where I felt I was leading, I was actually following, very subtly, at an almost undetectable fraction of a second behind the singers.  On reflection it was like I had been conducting a musical recording – it leading me rather than me leading it.

I tried again, deciding that this time I would be bolder, take braver decisions and move my hands in a more assertive way.  It was better.  I felt connected with the singers and that this time I was leading them.  There was still something missing though and, as we once again reflected, I began to wonder if the intensity of the movement that I experienced in myself was a lot higher for me than it was for the singers.  It was at this moment that my old Alfa speedometer came to mind.  I wondered if my internal ‘personal intensity’ gauge was out of calibration and, rather than reading too high, it was reading too low.  “I want to try again and I’m going to try hard to be over the top” I told the group.  “I‘m going to try and be a really intense, overly dominating conductor who will annoy you all.”   I began conducting, moving and taking bold decisions that I felt were going to be too much for the singers.  I moved my arms in what I felt was an overly exaggerated way, I emphasised timing and texture in a way that made me feel like I was a scarecrow in a hurricane.  The choir responded beautifully.  The piece ended.  It was the best of the three pieces I had conducted and, in that moment, I realised how much my internal dashboard of myself was out of calibration.

This is something I often notice in others in my coaching work and it seems, once again, that it is a case of what one notices in others is also present in oneself to some degree.  I have decided, on the back of the choir experience, that I am going to start to take some of my own advice more seriously.  I’m going to experiment with making things bigger – if I feel I’m operating at an 8 then I’m going to aim for a 12 and see what happens.  I’m going to experiment by making things smaller – if I habitually do some things at a 5 or a 4 then I’m going to try doing them at a 2 or a 1 and see what the effect is.  A fear of personal failure would normally prevent me from experimenting in this way but now that I have developed a playful and experimental curiosity around the dashboard metaphor, any failures I experience are more likely to be happy ones as I will have learnt something very valuable.

So, if you’ve not calibrated your internal dashboard of yourself for a while it may be worth booking in for an MOT!*

* A compulsory test for vehicle safety and emissions in the UK


Busking Book Launch: Absolutely terrible or a little awkward?

book-launchWhilst I find it much easier nowadays to come up with creative ideas I feel I’ve still a lot of work to do on getting better at actually doing them.  Many projects or experiments that I’ve found myself highly excited about have never materialised or have suffered chronic procrastination due to my habit of putting things off.  (Here’s an example from the past.)  However, I’ve now come to admit to myself that the reason I normally hold off from turning these ideas into action isn’t time, resources or logistics…..but fear!

When I was talking to some friends in early 2013 about my forthcoming book they asked me if I was having a launch party.  I responded by saying that I really wanted to avoid a traditional launch party with pomp and ceremony, exclusive invites, champagne and me talking and selling copies.  I wanted to do something very different, something that was the antithesis of a traditional book launch and in which I embodied the creative practices I write about.  My imagination then kicked in and I found myself telling them that  I would be doing a “reverse busking book launch experiment“, playing my guitar and singing improvised songs about the book, with people coming up and taking copies (possibly giving donations if they felt like it was worth it!).  I told more and more people about the idea and everyone loved it.  However, the more people I told, the less love I felt for it and I started to think of safer alternatives (i.e. excuses) that wouldn’t be as terrifying for me.  I decided that, rather than procrastinate or modify my idea, the time had come to confront my fears!

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Athens in 308BC  that I first came across in Oliver Burkeman’s fabulous book The Antidote – A Bracing detox for the self help junkie.  As I understand it, the Stoic philosophy stresses the fundamental importance of reason in making sense of our moment by moment experience, replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones.  I wondered if this philosophy might help me make more rational judgments about my own fears that seemed to continually make me procrastinate.  The central idea of the stoic philosophy (that was later adopted by American psychologist Albert Ellis) is that, by intentionally experiencing our fears, we can make more rational judgement as to whether they were as awful as we imagined or just a little awkward.  (Or as the Stoic philosopher Seneca describes it “deliberately experiencing those evils so as to grasp that they might not be as bad as you’d irrationally feared.”)

I decided that I needed to see if the actual experience of my “reverse busking book launch experiment” idea was as bad as the anticipated one so, on Monday 31st March 2014 I boarded a train to London Waterloo armed with a case load of books, my guitar, my harmonica, a home made “Book Launch” sign and a stomach full of butterflies!  The final hours leading up to the event were horrible as I anticipated how awful the whole experience would be and everything that could go wrong.

Here’s what happened:

What I learnt from this experiment:

  • The actual experience was NOWHERE near as bad as I had anticipated.  About 3 minutes into the experiment, it all became a lot less scary.  By the time I was 30 minutes in I was enjoying it.  At 60 minutes when I finished (because I got moved on by the authorities) I wanted to do it again!
  • I needed to re-connect with the part of me that had come up with the idea in the first place in order to have the courage to do it.  This mean trying to tune back into the gut feel I initially had, the rush of excitement and enthusiasm I’d felt and silence the ‘mad, bad and wrong’ voice in my head.
  • Even after spending 2 years writing the book, it is still difficult to practice what I preach and be prepared to fail happy and say “yes” to adventure but, having done so, it feels a lot easier.  I just need to regularly practice and stretch the boundaries of my experiments.
  • I really had to resist the urge to rehearse and practice in advance!  Every part of my logical brain was telling me this was a performance and that I had to prepare in order to make it good.  I managed to avoid this which made the improvised experience even more exciting and creative.
  • Interacting with the general public was nowhere near as scary as I’d imagined and I realised how often I project characteristics onto strangers.  Occasionally I saw people whom I anticipated as being grumpy, angry or who I thought might attack me!  I incorporated them into my song and every one of them smiled and my perception of them changed.
  • People in London were very suspicious and were hesitant to interact or take a book, believing that there must be a catch!
  • You need a permit to perform, a permit to advertise and a permit to film on London’s South Bank!

If you would like to order your own copy of “Can Scorpions Smoke?  Creative Adventures in the Corporate World” you can do so by clicking here.

Lifts and laptops – The problem with virtual meetings

Laptops in a liftI like to regard myself as being pro-digital and try my best to keep up with the latest innovations.  I use Evernote as my virtual notepad, WordPress for blogging, MailChimp for publishing Adventurer’s Monthly, Basecamp for collaborative projects, Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/G+ for social networking and a variety of other apps to organise my travel, my diary and even my car parking.  The one thing that I am yet to fully embrace though is virtual meeting technology.  Fair enough, I use Skype or Google Hangouts to chat with people, but I’m yet to be convinced that we can achieve the same quality of interaction on a screen compared to being in a room together.  Clients of mine continually ask if group development work can be conducted virtually, to save on time or travel costs, but I always resist and stick to my guns, insisting that face-to-face is the only way of doing the deeply relational work that they want me to.  The problem is that I’ve never had a good enough reason to explain why I believe this, other than it simply doesn’t feel the same.  I end up sounding like a Luddite!  It was only when I was recently in a crowded lift (elevator) that I started to understand what is lacking in virtual working.

Lifts are fascinating places.   They are windowless boxes in which strangers come together to experience moments of awkwardness whilst they travel vertically up and down tall buildings!  One of the greatest gifts that smart phones have given the human race is that they provide us with something to do to avoid making eye contact, humming a tune or making polite conversation about “going up” or “going down” whilst in a lift.  Go into any big lift nowadays and everyone seems to be using their phone, even if there is no signal!

Lifts are awkward because the constrained environment gives us an unfamiliar type of space to interact in.  I read somewhere that where people choose to stand in a lift pretty much corresponds to the way in which dots are laid out on a six sided die and it seems to be a reasonably accurate observation.  (i.e. one person will stand in the middle, two will stand diagonally apart from each other, six in two rows of three etc.).   This happens because the space between people is relational and carries meaning – we move and change our position based on the position of others.  Imagine a lift packed full of 15 people with everyone standing closely together.  If we were to remove 13 of those people, leaving just two people standing right next to each other, the meaning of that space changes and the space between them will suddenly seem really inappropriate.

I’ve started to conclude that the reason I dislike virtual meeting technology is because of its failure to replicate the social awkwardness of lifts!  Whilst the technology is good in that it allows us to see the facial expressions of others, the relational space between people on a computer screen carries little or no meaning.   I have an experiment in mind to prove this….Imagine putting 12 laptops with 12 people on Skype together in a lift in a way that people can see each other’s faces.   Imagine moving them closer together and then further apart.  Imagine moving them into different patterns – huddling 3 together away from the other 9 for example.  I suspect that, other than effecting how well the camera picks up the faces of others, it would make very little difference to the experience of interacting because the relational space between people would carry no additional meaning.  If we were to then repeat the experiment, with the same people actually in the lift,  they would describe the experience as very different.

So, I now have a vaguely plausible reason to explain that, whilst Skype (etc) is perfectly fine for a conversation, until the technology is advanced enough to make the virtual-relational space between people more meaningful, face to face is the only way in which I’m believe we can do deep group development work.

However, from what I have recently read about advances in virtual reality, in particular ‘digital empathy’,  this day may not be too far away.

I’ll be first in the queue to have a go on the virtual lift experience!

Beautiful Imperfection

LionI wish I could draw like a 6 year old.   It is a personal development goal I take very seriously.  People who know me are often puzzled by this rather odd developmental objective.  “Of course you can draw like a 6 year old” they try to re-assure me “your drawings are very good.”  Whilst this positive encouragement is nice to hear I have to disagree with its validity.  I simply can’t draw like a 6 year old because I am 40!  I no longer engage with the world in the same way that a 6 year old does and, no matter how hard I try, I no longer have a 6 year old ‘eye’.  A 6 year old has learnt just enough to draw things that are recognisable but has not yet been sucked into complying with the social expectations of what ‘good’ art should look like – they simply draw the way in which they see the world.

My own 6 year old daughter is my creativity mentor and Chief of Imagination for CSS and she regularly produces a stream of artistic masterpieces for me to use in my work.  I am often also treated to musical compositions, plays and improvised games – all of which bring me much joy and make me feel truly alive.  Whilst there is of course a proud-parent bias in how I view my daughter’s work, I have come to realise that my obsession with the style of her creations isn’t solely because I am her father.  There is something about the quality of her work and the work of most children that fascinates me.  A quality I have come to call beautiful imperfection – a way of expressing oneself that is exceptionally beautiful because of, not in spite of, its flaws.  This is a reason why I so enjoy the artwork of the cartoon Adventure Time and the music of Daniel Johnston along-side many others I consider creative geniuses.

It seems to me that, as adults, we devote a lot of our time and energy to ironing out imperfections, rounding any rough edges in order to attain faultlessness due to a shared social belief that this is what the world demands of us.  Ironically it is this need for perfection that stifles the creative spirit of the average human being and inhibits us from giving the world our best work.  We either don’t begin or give up trying something because we have no guarantee of perfection or we strive so hard to achieve perfection that we burn up lots of energy and fall out of love with whatever it is we are trying to achieve.  I certainly experience the latter regularly with my own writing!  I have, however, come to realise that the concept of beautiful imperfection is more than simply a way of encouraging people who believe they are not creative to relax into their natural, obvious abilities.  The very fact that something is proudly and boldly imperfect, such as a child’s drawing, seems to convey extra meaning over and above the words, images or actions presented .

I am suspicious that perfection unconsciously conveys a false sense of safe-certainty, control and order whereas imperfection implies that things are not as ‘concrete’ and rather more uncertain and unpredictable than we maybe like to admit.  I discovered this by accident when I made the choice three years ago to hand draw as much of my work as possible.  Even if I am required to use Powerpoint I hand draw/write everything on paper and then scan it in and project it on a big screen which magnifies the imperfections in my work ten fold –  my wording is often a bit wonky, the letters are inconsistent in shape and size and the images are far from professionally produced clip art.  When I first started to do this I noticed that people seemed to engage with the messages I was conveying in a subtly different way.  For a start, people seemed to smile more at the style of presentation but, more profoundly, they seemed to engage with the content as if it were a ‘serving suggestion’, an idea or a thought to consider but to hold lightly as opposed to an absolute truth to be wrestled with.  People seemed to be more willing to engage in curious conversation and debate, chewing over the ideas and making their own, unique sense of them.  To me it seemed a very different response to when I presented things in a more polished way which tended to result in people simply regarding what I was saying as a truth to either be accepted or rejected as the perfection in presentation style unconsciously implied some sort of idealistic certainty in the message.

I’ve noticed that the facilitators who have most influenced me have been those who model beautiful imperfection in their work.  They are wise, insightful, responsive, spontaneous but they also ‘show their workings’, share their confusion, admit to their mistakes and have overt conversations with each other in front of participants about how things are going, damping any projections of perfection and control others may be throwing their way.  In other words they come across as human beings.  I strive to embody this as much as possible in my group facilitation work as I feel it changes the power dynamics of the interaction from parent-child or teacher-student to something far more mutual, lively and insightful.  It turns workshops from being something I lead or run into something that I jointly participate in.

I developed an eye for Beautiful Imperfection when I began The Giraffe Project earlier this year.  The idea of the project was simply to ask 100 people, aged 5-95, to draw a giraffe.  I had no real interest in the quality of the pictures, I simply wanted to see if people could let go and enjoy the process.  (I also explored some early thoughts around the word ‘fun’ in this experiment).   I can still remember the joy I felt as I opened each envelope that was returned to me and I saw the wonderfully unique creation within.  This joy grew and grew as I saw more and more giraffes with wonky necks, unusual heads and bodies of all shapes and sizes.  The online Giraffe Project gallery is, to me, an embodiment of beautiful imperfection and I get far more joy from it than I would from looking at 100 anatomically perfect drawings.  (I may as well look at a collection of photos!)

Beautiful imperfection is about seeing flaws as an undeniable expression of what it means to be  a human being.  It is about regarding our own imperfections not as a weakness but as a unique gift that has the power to inspire others.  Is it about gently letting go of the tyranny of perfection, certainty and control and embracing a way of being that is compassionately and beautifully imperfect.

I want to end this blog with a short lesson from my Creativity Mentor who decided she wanted to have a go at playing along with the music that my wife and I had at our wedding – Pachabel’s Cannon.  This is a piece of music any non-piano playing adult would likely not attempt due to believing they could not achieve anything near perfection but she achieved in a beautifully imperfect way.

The “F” word and the difference between role play and real play

SB FUNI am slightly concerned that I am becoming a bit of a hypocrite!  Either that or I am simply becoming more aware of a subtle distinction in the way we go about this thing we refer to as ‘work’.

A colleague of mine recently pulled together a great proposal for a piece of work to be run as part of a big leadership conference.  It was a simple yet creative and engaging piece that I felt would truly help the participants to develop a deeper awareness of themselves and others in an experiential and playful way.  In my mind this was exactly what the client had asked for.   Having seen her do similar work in the past I knew that participants would also likely end up laughing a lot and enjoying themselves which I consider a wonderful by-product of inviting adults to engage in purposeful play.   At the last minute however the pitch was rejected on the basis that, whilst it sounded like a great learning experience, they wanted something more “fun”.

Over the last few years I have began to notice that I have a growing aversion to the use of the F-word (fun) in a corporate context.  It has the power to make me cringe both physically and mentally in the same way that watching a particularly awkward episode of The Office did.  The funny thing is that if one were to ask individuals who have participated in workshops that I have run, or those run by similarly minded colleagues, they would generally describe the playful nature of the experience as “fun”.  This is where my worry about becoming a hypocrite creeps in.  Why does “fun” feel OK in one context but not another?  Am I only welcoming of “fun” if it is as a result of my actions or those of others whose work I respect?  Am I jealous at some level that fun is occurring in places where I am not present or able to participate?  Or am I simply becoming grumpy in my advancing years?  Whilst age may play a factor in better noticing and articulating these feelings I am pretty sure that it isn’t a major causal factor.

If I reflect on my own experiences as a participant rather than a facilitator I notice that I have a different feeling depending on whether fun is expressed as an up-front, explicit objective versus where fun simply occurs as natural and possibly unintended consequence of the work. If I engage in an activity or interaction and find myself playing, learning and enjoying it then it feels appropriate to say “that was fun”.  However if somebody at the front of the room says “The objective is to have fun” or “This is going to be fun” I find myself cringing and searching for an excuse to leave the room.  I feel like responding by shouting back “That’s for us to decide – not you!”  I’d rather endure a mind numbingly mundane meeting than engage in forced fun – they type of experience in which even the person leading it looks like they are trying to convince themselves it is enjoyable!  Even worse is the reaction I have when “fun” is presented to me as the main outcome of a piece of work I am being asked to design.  Fun feels an appropriate word when it is something that occurs naturally in the moment, but troubling when it is something that one sets as an objective for others.  I can’t help but think that my colleague’s client had convinced themselves that  “fun” was going to make the difference they wanted whereas what they were  actually seeking was to learn and discover through “play”.

As I reflect on this I begin to notice another fine distinction between play that is of value versus play that is, for want of a better phrase, a waste of time and effort!  I see a big difference between what I would describe as real play versus role play.  As a natural introvert I always feel some discomfort the moment the person at the front of the room announces “Get into groups…” but I have gotten better over time at not letting my preference to learn in private prevent me from fully embracing an opportunity to discover with others.  On many occasions I have found the mutual experience rich in learning and insight even though there are moments of personal discomfort as I discover things about myself through shared, public experiences.  However, on other occasions I find the experience excruciatingly pointless and wish I could be anywhere else but in that room!

It seems that the experiences that engage me and are of most value are the ones that I would refer to as real play – experiences that are both live and consequential.  In other words the choices I make and the actions I take have an immediate impact on real people, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.  Two recent examples of this are fresh in my mind.  On both occasions I found myself with a group of people I didn’t know very well and was set a task.  The task was both live and consequential as we were invited to provide consulting and coaching support to real, living and breathing clients with real organisations and genuine problems.  The nature of this work and the presence of real and live consequences meant that all of us engaged in it in a genuine and authentic way – we were more prepared to put forth our opinions, argue, challenge and collaborate in service of the task at hand.  The meaning and importance of our work felt significant to us all. It is this type of work that I refer to as real play.

However, if I think of other recent examples that have made me want to gauge out my eyes with a stick as a more pleasant alternative to taking part I notice that they have been dead and inconsequential.  Gimmicks or games that have no real objective other than to keep us busy and active. Activities that distract us from what is going on between people rather than make us more aware.  Exercises during which whatever we do and however we act makes no difference to anyone or anything so, at some level, we don’t really bother.  Because it is not real we feel we can get away with social loafing or letting stuff pass us by because we know it has no consequence – there is nothing worth making a stand for.  Sure, we are still real human beings interacting in the moment but to me the fake-ness of the task means that people inevitably end up acting in a way that they think the imagined scenarios would demand.  This leads to participants acting to a script that belies their spontaneous selves in the moment and causes them to occasionally chip in with the caveat “…in reality I would…”  You may be familiar with the type of thing I’m referring to – build a bridge out of straws, solve a cryptic puzzle, decide which desert island inhabitant to cook for dinner (etc).  Don’t get me started on icebreakers that have no relevance to context other than they sounded like fun! I have even come to think that the majority of those developmental actoral scenarios, where one adopts a particular character or plays a particular context in order to experience what it is like, are less than effective due to their somewhat dead and inconsequential nature.  This is what I have come to think of as role play – playing in a situation in which none of the characters, scenarios or challenges are real enough to provoke a genuine response.  I’m convinced that even children don’t do role play in this way – they seem able to engage in whatever game they are playing as if it were real because they haven’t yet mentally separated work and play as two artificially divided modes of being in the same way we have as adults!

So, it seems to me that I’m likely not a hypocrite, I’m simply noticing and making sense of a subtle distinction in my reaction to different approaches to work that I can summaries as follows…

I am engaged and energised when fun is a naturally occurring outcome of real play that is live and consequential.

I am disengaged and frustrated when fun is expressed in advance as an explicit goal of role play that is dead and inconsequential

Whilst I find these distinctions helpful I feel the need to emphasise that they are only a convenient description.  There are infinite moment-by-moment shades of grey.  Essentially the difference comes down to the awareness and responsiveness of the facilitator and the participants to notice when one thing may have strayed into the other.

A new mantra of  MAKE PLAY NOT FUN comes to mind to help maintain my own awareness.

So, I’m left feeling less of a hypocrite. However I’m now wondering if others share my dislike of the use of the F-word in this way or whether I am simply becoming more grumpy with age and slowly turning into some sort of corporate fun grinch! Do let me know which it is.


NOTE:  I included the Spongebob image on this blog because the word ‘FUN’ is included.  It is by no means a dig at the cartoon which I always experience as fun. In fact the episode entitled ‘FUN’ is one of the best!

NOTE 2:  The recent big gap between blogs has been due to a number of factors including taking time out to work on the book.  Thanks for asking those who got in touch wondering what was going on.

Death of the doodle – Does a digital age scrub out the scribbles?

Doodle - confidential text blurredOver the last 12 months I’ve been working with a number of corporate graduate groups – bright young things, early to mid 20s with boundless energy and a curiosity that I find helps them engage in play and creativity with far less fear of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong than those with a greater experience of the business world.  Whilst I find the descriptions of typical Gen Y/Gen X/Baby Boomer traits interesting they are, at the end of the day, a macro trend or a convenient stereotype and not everybody embodies all of the traits all of the time.  However, the one thing I did notice about all of the groups that I worked with was their use of technology in meetings and workshops.  To be more precise, their use of phones or tablets to take notes.  Even though I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy Gen X-er I still favour a pen and paper to make notes.  Most groups I work with do the same so it was initially very disconcerting to look out and notice people typing away.  “Are they bored?”  “Who are they texting?”  “Are the surfing the net?” “Are they writing e-mails?”  I later discovered that none of my worries were real and they were simply making notes (one had tweeted something nice about the session too!).  I  realised that the association I was making that technology use equals disengagement was untrue and from somebody brought up in a different era.  However, not only did I have a realisation about technology I also realised that just because somebody is using a pen and paper doesn’t mean they are paying attention and making relevant notes!  I have to confess that I am guilty of this.

I am a compulsive doodler.  I initially started doodling at school because I was bored and wanted to make my work look more interesting (I remember being reprimanded for drawing some little men moving numbers about in wheelbarrows in my maths book – “this book is for maths – not art!”)  My doodling then moved on into my early experiences of the corporate world where found that I could escape the dullness of endless meetings by letting my imagination run wild on paper.  Nobody knew I was doing it – they assumed I was making studious notes.  Over time I gradually stopped as I taught myself this wasn’t the behaviour of somebody who wanted to ‘get on’ in business.  However, over the last 5 years I’ve began to doodle again but for a different reason –  to keep my mind engaged, creative and responsive.  Instead of tuning out of what is going on around me I strive to remain acutely tuned in and doodle at the same time as a way of keeping my creative spirit active whilst allowing my logical, business self to do its work.  This ends up in less structured doodles and more abstract scribbles.  People often make the assumption that because my page looks like a mess of images and words that I haven’t been paying attention, however I’ve found the opposite.  My attention seems to be enhanced by the spontaneous reflective doodling I do, I can recall key points and facts from the meeting easier as they are associated with and embedded in my drawings.  I also find that when I look back at my notes that include doodles I am able to connect better with the colour and detail of the occasion when they were taken as opposed to simply what the words say.  (e.g. the room I was in, the mood I was in, the feel of the meeting, how people were interacting)  There have been a number of studies conducted over recent years that claim doodling enhances attention span in meetings (Jackie Andrade, Portsmouth University 2009 is one I came across recently) and other studies suggest that doodling helps children that have been labelled as ADHD (Attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder) so it seems others may share my positive experience of scribbling in the margins and gaps between words.

The reason I haven’t taken to using my iPad or iPhone to take notes is that I feel I am denied the ability to both write and doodle at the same time.  I can’t inject the life I enjoy putting into my scribbles.  I’ve tried digital methods before but feel that my notes end up looking like a series of sterilised words with the meaning and liveliness I was trying to capture stripped out.  I’ve tried a few apps but not yet found one that gives the same experience of being able to spontaneously turn a word into a picture or write in a different style or shade, colour or spacing.  I tried using a ‘Livescribe’ pen for a while – a special pen and paper that instantly saves your scribbles into a PDF format that you can share via social media and cloud technology – but this lacked the freedom I needed to give that extra dimension to my notes.  When I look at my 6 year old daughter’s school work it is beautiful because it is imperfect – the letters are different sizes, it is often illustrated, the spacing is sporadic and random – all of which conveys extra meaning about the person and the context of the moment in which the notes were conceived.  Whilst I appreciate that her writing style will become more uniform and digital over time as she progresses through school I do wonder of the benefits of keeping this imperfect creative spirit alive in parallel throughout education and into our working lives.

My thoughts turn back to the graduates.  I wonder if the emergence of the digital note-taker is spelling the end of the doodler and what the impact of this might be of this next generation of corporate employees who only ever work with digitally sanitised notes that appear ordered, controlled and certain when compared with the wild scribbles, illegible hand-writing and curious page layouts of the pen and paper generation.  Is this another challenge that is emerging that will unintentionally dampen down creativity in the workplace and our ability and willingness to express ourselves in a unique way?  What will a meeting in the future look like when everyone has a tablet in front of them that they are frantically typing away on?   Does this really matter?  Do the upsides of the connectivity and ability to instantly share outweigh the possible creative downsides?  Have I become a technical dinosaur and am now fulfilling the very Gen X stereotype I aspire to distance myself from?

Many questions.

And as I finish writing this piece I suddenly realise that by typing up my thoughts on a blog and hitting ‘publish’ instead of writing you all a hand written and illustrated letter may too have contributed to the demise of the doodle!



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