Awareness, application and a worrying stuckness in personal development

CastleIn 1334, the Duchess of Tyrol encircled the castle of Hochosterwitz, a stronghold built on a steep rock and impenetrable to direct attack. The Duchess knew that the only way she could take the castle was through instigating a long siege, depriving the defenders of the food they would need to survive and forcing them to surrender. A long siege ensued and soon those within the castle walls were getting desperate – all they had left to eat was one ox and two bags of barley corn. However, the Duchess’ situation was becoming just as desperate, her troops grew increasingly unruly as there seemed to be no end to the siege in sight. It became a stale-mate – a stuck situation for both sides. In desperation the commandant of the castle gave a rather odd order. He asked his men to slay the last ox, stuff it with the remaining barley and then throw it over the castle wall and down the steep cliff towards the enemy camp. His men, although confused and reluctant, complied. On seeing the ox and barley being ‘wasted’, the discouraged Duchess and her troops, assuming food inside the castle was plentiful, abandoned the siege, moved on and the impasse was resolved.

I was reminded of this story recently on re-reading Paul Watzlavic, John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch’s excellent book “Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution.” It is essentially a book about stuckness. Stuckness is when we find ourselves experiencing a difficulty and every attempt to get ourselves out of it only serves to maintain or worsen the situation. Watzlavic, Weakland and Fisch (from hereon in referred to as WWF) argue that these stuck situations arise through the mishandling of difficulties in a number of different ways: trying harder from the same mindset that created them, oversimplifying or denying the complex nature of the difficulty, creating utopian oversimplified solutions (a silver bullet) or accidentally creating a stuck paradox by attempting to resolve things from the same level of abstraction that caused the difficulty in the first place. They argue that these stuck patterns result in no more than what they call “first order change” – attempts to resolve a difficulty from within the frame of that difficulty – an approach that, at best, results in some incremental shift but essentially only leads to more of the same. In order to break out of the stuckness they suggest that “second order change” is required – a movement or action that attempts to resolve things from outside of the frame of the difficulty. Second order change interventions typically seem counter-intuitive, spontaneous, bizarre and experimental – the opposite of what we might call common sense. In the story of the Duchess of Tyrol there was 1st order stuckness (rationing on one side and waiting on the other) until the moment that the commandant made the unusual, spontaneous and experimental move of doing the opposite of what common sense would have suggested, what WWF would call a 2nd order change intervention. (I guess the Duchess could have made a similar move by getting her soldiers to visibly argue, fight and then desert each other, thus creating a false sense of security in the castle that would then become vulnerable.)

A stuck pattern that I regularly come across and have become increasingly curious about is in the field of personal development and culture change. Many individuals and organisations nowadays have a strong sense that the age of mechanistic, cause and effect, linear thinking of the past no longer serves them well and undertake a plethora of developmental or cultural interventions in order to become more responsive, creative and innovative. However, the majority of solutions applied almost always seem to compound or amplify the problem at some level, resulting in more mechanistic, cause and effect, linear thinking and more stuckness. Typical interventions try harder from the same, outdated and stuck mindset that they are trying to alter or over-simplify the problem by denying the ongoing, dynamic, complex nature of organisational life. Over-simplified utopian solutions, silver-bullet programmes that are a panacea for all ills create a false sense of progress, whilst messages and mantras from senior leaders create confusing, stuck paradoxes that only serve to maintain the status quo.

Informed by WWF’s thinking and recent experiences of this type of stuckness, I’ve began wondering what a global, 2nd order intervention to totally transform our approach to change and development might be. What counter-intuitive and perhaps seemingly nonsensical approaches would need to be bravely adopted? What difficult beliefs would we need to gently let go of in order to challenge stuck habits and experiment with new ideas? What would the equivalent be of throwing the ox over the castle wall?  For me, a clue lies in a central tenet of Gestalt Psychology – Arnold Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change – “change occurs when one becomes more of what one already is, rather than striving to become something that they are not.”  Our individual and organisational stuckness seems rooted in our habit of trying harder to become something we are not, rather than slowing down and becoming more aware of what we already are, as Beisser suggests.  This results in the majority of personal developmental interventions or culture change programmes being little more than 1st order, common-sense events where one collects symbolic new tools, mantras, processes and utopian take-aways that do little more than to give us a short-lived sense of false hope.

These difficulties are further compounded by our stuck, 1st order perception of value.  The value of most change or developmental interventions seems to be based solely on how convinced one is of future application rather than on how much it might enhance here-and-now awareness and choice.  In my experience awareness always trumps application in terms of long-term, 2nd order change, yet it seems that as long as one leaves with a tool or theoretical process (an application comfort blanket) it is judged as a success.  In reality our anxiety is only temporarily dampened until the next time the difficulty rears its head and we seek an alternative, but essentially identical, stuck solution.  (Fair enough, there are valuable skills-based training interventions such as fixing a car, learning a programming language or mastering bomb disposal that require tools, techniques and processes, but these are very different beasts to the more profound psychological, social and cultural change efforts that I am suggesting are terribly stuck.)

At a recent creative session I facilitated many of the group found themselves in the familiar pattern of valuing application over awareness, worrying too much about tangible take-aways to be fully aware and present in the moment – a live manifestation of the try harder stuck pattern. Suddenly one participant interrupted and said “You know, I remember when I was little I just used to knock on a friend’s door and ask them if they wanted to come out to play. Exactly what we were going to play, why we’re playing or what we’d get from playing weren’t important to us, we just went out and played! I miss being able to do that – everything in adult life seems to have to have a pre-determined purpose before we are prepared to do it.”  As Fritz Perls once said “People who live futuristically never catch up with the events for which they have prepared and do not reap the fruits of their sowing.”

I’m left wondering what second order, counter-intuitive, non-common-sense ways out of this developmental stuckness are.  Should we place absolute zero value on future application and 100% on increasing here-and-now awareness?  Should we give up on trying to measure the tangible benefits of an intervention and overtly say that it has no point other than to offer an opportunity to fully experience ourselves in the moment?  Should we dampen our impatience/anxiety and stop judging the value of any intervention until a point in the future where, having spent time back in the context of the ‘real world’, the benefits of heightened awareness can be better appreciated?  Should we campaign to adopt Beisser’s theory as a core corporate change mantra?  I can already imagine a plethora of challenging, common sense responses to these ideas but I can also see how each of them would unintentionally reinforce the stuckness.

What would it take for us to simply come out to play and trust that the freedom of fully experiencing playfulness and personal experimentation will lead to more, not less change? How can we short-circuit our obsession with application for long enough to allow us to develop a greater appreciation of the transformative power of heightened awareness? And what sort of brave, corporate challenger does it take to throw the developmental Ox over the castle wall and begin to get everything unstuck?

“Creative” versus “Creating”: Lessons from the Elders of Surrey

giraffeEven though I use it on a daily basis, I find the word “creative” to be a little problematic in helping people and organisations to bring more creativity into their lives. The main problem, as I see it, is that the word has been ‘thingified‘ to such an extent that it has turned creativity into a deceptively concrete ‘thing’ that results in it being spoken about as if it is a boy scout badge to be attained or a super power that some have and other’s don’t.  I often begin talks by asking the audience “Hands up who is creative!”  This question seems to make the majority of people at least a little uncomfortable.  Those who consider themselves to not be creative feel a bit deficient, those that believe they are creative feel under pressure by declaring it and everybody else seems internally conflicted, agitated or confused by the yes-or-no nature of the question.

The reason I ask this question is not because I am interested in the answer.  It is simply to start to explore the notion that the word “creative” is an unhelpful starting point when looking to bring more creativity into one’s life.  By challenging this we start to realise that it isn’t a black and white fact that some people are creative and others are not. Realising and accepting this means that we can liberate ourselves from the self-imposed pressure to become something that we believe we are not and simply focus on the act of creating – a process that requires increased awareness as opposed to increased effort. By de-thingifying the word “creative” and turning it into a lively verb, we suddenly have a plethora of opportunities to explore and experiment in the act of “creating”: anything from art, music, writing, movement, poetry through to simply experimenting with a new route home from the office, creating a new recipe by adding a new ingredient, making up a story, talking of a great idea with somebody else or creating a plan to go somewhere different on holiday (etc.)  The content and outcome is somewhat irrelevant, it is being fully awake and aware during the process of creating that seems to shift and liberate things inside of us.

I often have to qualify my assertion in Can Scorpions Smoke? that everybody has a frozen creative genius inside by adding that I am not suggesting that everybody can become a Rembrant, a John Lennon or a Frank Gehry (ie. aspirational “Creative Heroes” as defined by society’s traditional sense of the word).  What I am strongly advocating though is that everybody has a more creative version of themselves buried inside and all they need to do to unleash it is give themselves permission to engage in wanton acts of creating.  What they do as a result of that permission is unique and “genius” to that individual.

I was recently reminded of The Giraffe Project, an experiment I conducted in late 2012 where I asked 100 random people to draw a giraffe.  Towards the end of the project I noticed that, whilst I had a broad spectrum of contributors, I had no drawings from anybody over the age of 70, so I arranged a visit to a local retirement home to draw giraffes with the elders of Surrey.  The time I spent with this small group of volunteers was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiments I’ve done.   It was initially also one of the most challenging! I had imagined that the residents of the home would throw themselves into the task of drawing giraffes as a welcome break to their routine, but when I arrived I was rather abruptly interrogated by them.  “Who are you and where are you from?”, “What’s the point in what we’re doing?“,  “What are we going to get out of it?“,  “Why do we have to do it?” – all very legitimate but naively unexpected challenges.  I tried several different ways of explaining The Giraffe Project and my interest in creativity but we kept on going round in circles and I started to feel rather anxious and embarrassed.

Then one elderly lady called out “Why don’t you draw one first and then we’ll see if we want to join in.”  I was devoid of any other options so I found a flip chart and drew a rather misshapen giraffe using a green marker pen whilst they all looked on.  As I started to colour it in and add detail with the blue pen (I only had the two colours!) I noticed that the group had started to scribble on their papers.  Some were smiling as they did it, some were concentrating intensely but all of them seemed engrossed.  They occasionally paused, laughed, compared notes and offered praise or a playful critique of each other’s work.  Then, after about 15 minutes, they finished and shared what they had drawn.  It was this moment that was so moving.  The beautifully imperfect giraffes weren’t just pieces of art but artefacts of a wonderful moment of co-creating: a process in which these 80-90 year women (and one man) had given themselves and each other permission to create.  It was only when I eventually moved from encouraging them to do something creative to joining them in an act of creating that the permission was established, the pressure to perform was removed and everybody chose to engage in the process.

Through regarding our time together as an act of creating rather than an effort to be creative, what the pictures looked like was irrelevant.  One kind and gentle lady had severe Parkinsons disease and, even though she apologised to me for the appearance of her beautiful creation, said that she thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful process of creating it. The outcome was irrelevant, the group and I had simply enjoyed a fleeting moment of indulging ourselves and each other in an otherwise pointless act of creating.

Below are some of the pictures they created.  Though not many, they remain my favourites from the whole Giraffe Project Experiment.

Giraffe g6 g2 g3 g5


You can view the entire Giraffe Project gallery here and read more about the experiment here.

Org charts and the Underground: The map is not the territory

tubegeoI’m a fan of London and one of my favourite activities in the city is to walk.  I try to walk everywhere if at all possible and it is through many years of doing this that I’ve got to know how the different parts of the city join up.  I’ve discovered that places I thought were far apart from each other are actually only a 10 minute walk. I’ve discovered new parks, pubs, restaurants and other interesting places by walking down roads I never before new existed.  I’ve discovered a plethora of short cuts, alleyways, dead ends and wrong turns, all of which turn my time in the city into an adventure.  Through walking more I’ve also learnt how inaccurate the tube map is as an above-ground navigation aid!

Despite its flaws, I am a fan of the tube (The London Underground Network).  The majority of the time it is quick, efficient and provides a great service for those journeys where I simply don’t have the time to walk.  One of the things I love about the tube is its design.  The whole experience feels, at varying points, like a museum, an art installation, a futuristic subterranean city or a insight into the London of the past!  However, the piece of design I love the most is the tube map. Compared to other rail networks I have used around the world, I find the London Underground map to be the simplest, the most logical and the most aesthetically pleasing.  The main reason why Harry Beck’s masterpiece works so well is that it only bears a passing resemblance to the landscape above ground.  Whilst the overall orientation of North, South, East and West are roughly correct the distances between stops have been normalised, curves have been perfected and everything else turned into equally spaced straight lines and simple intersections.   However if one were to look at a geographically accurate map of the tube that has not been corrected in this way it is drastically different. Rather than looking like a neat wiring diagram it looks more like a central nervous system.  More organism than machine.

tube actual tube map large
Left: “Normal” tube map   Right: A more accurate tube map

All of this reminds me of when I started my first full time job aged 18 in a factory. As part of the induction process I was given a copy of an organisation chart for the department I was working in.  Using a series of neat lines and boxes it showed the Operations Manager at the top, the three department managers underneath, then the supervisors and, right at the bottom, a box for each production line labelled “Operators”.  It was tidy, simple, logical and gave me a good idea of the interfaces and pecking order I was about to walk into.   However, it soon became apparent to me that the organisation chart bore only a passing resemblance to the day to day reality of the shop floor.  People interacted in a far less linear and far more improvisational manner.  Most people made decisions outside of the lines of the chart. People didn’t always follow the instructions of the person above them. Most interestingly of all, the power dynamics in reality were drastically different to those that were suggested on paper, with ‘live’ power relations being negotiated moment by moment based on a variety of factors over and above formal seniority such as length of service, knowledge of the equipment, age and even physical stature!  (I remember a firm but fair packing operator in her late 50s being all-powerful due to her length of service, her imposing build and her no b******t way of speaking.   She took on a  ‘mother hen’ role for the rest of the front line staff and management were terrified of her!)

From this point on I became fascinated by the incongruence between the theoretical organisation and organisational reality and the problems that this mismatch creates when people try to design and change things.  Nowadays I try to establish what a more accurate map of the typical patterns of relating are in order to compare and contrast with the suggested ones.  I strive to treat the official organisation chart as no more than a helpful navigation aid, like Harry Beck’s tube map, knowing that if I use it for ‘live’ orienteering I’m going to get very lost and confused.  As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said “the map is not the territory.

Despite this all being rather obvious I regularly come across a plethora of organisational change efforts that use the map to make key decisions, believing that it is an accurate portrayal of day to day organisational life.  When it comes to culture change efforts it seems that many unintentionally set out to only change the map, perhaps secretly hoping that the territory will fall in line as a result (a mistake I have made many times in the past!)  As unpalatable, unpredictive and resource intensive as it may be, the only real way to get a sense of the live, vibrant, messy and continually shifting nature of an organisation is to get out, walk around and see what one notices, spotting the glaring inaccuracies and omissions of the theoretical organisation chart, noticing patterns and activities that take place in the white space between the lines and boxes, witnessing how people really interact and, through doing so, discovering the short cuts and dead ends that you would never have known about if you’d just looked at the map!

1.  Even the "accurate" tube map is a flawed metaphor for organisational
life as power, status and identity are negotiated live in whatever that
momentary context is for each individual and not static and permanent.  I have written before about organisations not being "things".
2. Alfred Korzybski acknowledges the origins of his famous quote as 
coming from mathematician Eric Temple Bell's phrase "the map is not the
thing mapped."  Artist René Magritte illustrates these ideas brilliantl
with his work Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

3.  I can't find the source of the 'accurate' tube map I used in this 
piece so can't credit them.  If anybody knows then please let me know.

Lose the first reel! Start before you’re ready

can2I used to be a serial procrastinator!  I admit that I still put  things off rather than do them right away, but my procrastination nowadays is subtly different to what it used to be.  Nowadays I will put off mowing the lawn, doing some DIY, writing a proposal, even writing a blog (as is evidenced by the rather sporadic timing of these posts!) but what I strive to not procrastinate over are creative ideas and experiments.

Over the last few years I’ve learnt the dramatic difference between having a creative idea and doing nothing about it because I want to think it through and plan it before executing (an example here) versus having a fuzzy, ill-thought-through spark of an idea and then doing it ASAP before I talk myself out of it (examples here and here.)   It was only through experimenting in this way that I discovered that the main thing that caused my procrastination was not logistics or resources but fear and it was only through shortening the time between idea and execution that I discovered that the actual experience was never as scary as the anticipated one.  As a result of this a mantra of mine has become “Start before you’re ready!”  A mantra that forces me to short circuit the fear-driven procrastination process and do things rather than just talk about doing them.

The Irish Film Director David Keating (“Wake Wood” 2010, “The Last of the High Kings” 1996, “Into the West” 1992) added some colour to this mantra when he told me of the term “Lose the first reel” that is used in the world of film making – a general rule of thumb that the first reel of film contains superfluous material that isn’t needed and doesn’t add very much to the final product .  “In scripts people write this whole long preamble and then something interesting happens after 10 pages.  Maybe.  If you’re lucky.  The thing is, although they do need to write those 10 pages it doesn’t mean the audience has to see them”  David told me recently.

I’ve now started using this term as a way of helping myself and others start before we are ready – turning creative ideas rapidly into action and short-circuiting the creative fear that causes us to procrastinate rather than experiment.

When we have a plan for an idea, what would happen if we were to “lose the first reel” of that plan on the basis that we probably don’t need it and it is likely only there as a habitual defence against anxiety and to delay the experimentation?  How much deeper and richer is our learning from things that we start before we are ready to start?  How can our unpreparedness actually widen our awareness and broaden the possibilities that our curious experiments might uncover?

As I have discovered many times, all we need to begin a creative experiment is an idea that excites us.  Ideas that are not well thought through or overly-planned always seem to be full of gifts that we never would have discovered had we wasted our time planning, preparing and narrowing the creative possibilities.

Stop thinking outside the box! All you need is NOW!

boxI feel slightly reluctant to challenge the much used creativity/innovation mantra “think outside the box” as I’m sure it has helped many people to break habits and disturb the status quo. In fact, I think it is something I probably used to say regularly.   However, on an almost daily basis, I find the phrase more and more problematic but at the same time encounter more and more people who are saying it in the hope that it will encourage others to become more creative and innovative.  The main, obvious problem is the fact that “the box” does not exist!  It is a metaphor!  Fair enough, it is a helpful metaphor but it is a metaphor none-the-less and one that we seem to have used so much that we now unconsciously respond to it as if it were real!  As the jazz improviser and professor of Organisational Behaviour Frank Barrett suggests, “human beings have a habit of turning metaphor into geometry” and I fear the helpful metaphor of “the box” has fallen into the trap that Frank warns of.  Rather than use the metaphor as a way of disturbing our habitual thinking, many people seem to try to tackle the challenge it presents in a physical, geometric way as if there really were a physical cardboard boundary surrounding us with creative ideas lurking just outside.  I find that in the rather literal and overly-mechanistic corporate world, the box metaphor tends to result in something that proves rather problematic to any creative process….effort!


So, I suspect there are two reasons why I have come to worry when this metaphor is used.  One is that we often forget it is a metaphor, the other is that the metaphor itself seems to be flawed, at least when it is applied to creativity.  Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that we don’t really need to put any extra effort into becoming more creative as it is a of a process of relaxing and letting go that we need to engage in.  Therefore, in the metaphorical world I don’t believe we need to think outside the box as we already have everything we could possibly need to unleash a more creative version of ourselves inside it – we simply need to look again!  As the great Gestalt Psychologist Arnie Beisser suggests in his Paradoxical Theory of Change – we get more change by becoming more aware of what we already are rather than by striving to become something we are not. (My own paraphrasing of Arnie’s far more eloquent words).  I believe that everything we could possibly need to unleash a more creative version of ourselves is embedded in the present moment – we just need to get better at noticing it which requires less effort, not more.  We need to try less and strive to be more obvious, more average and far less original – a somewhat paradoxical way of thinking that I learnt from the legendary Keith Johnstone.  This process of becoming more creatively awake is about letting go, noticing more and using everything (to borrow Rob Poynton’s lovely model for a moment.)  If we are continually exerting effort to try and think outside of a metaphorical box then this becomes rather difficult.  If we are to use the box metaphor to encourage creativity, I think it is far more helpful to say “look again inside and see what you haven’t yet noticed.”


And, if you don’t find anything in the metaphorical box then look again.  And again.  And again. If you still can’t find anything then look from a different angle, look through the eyes of somebody else or invite others to help you – what you seek will be hidden there somewhere.  In the same way that a curious mind can “see the world in a grain of sand” (William Blake) everything and anything we need to be more creative is embedded in this moment we call NOW.


We just need to put a lot less effort into it all!

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



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