How old do you have to be to do a bad drawing? The lost adventures of Yappy Dog

This is Yappy Dog. A friendly canine who used to go on all sorts of adventures circa 1981-1983.  I’d forgotten all about him until recently when I started to become interested in my own artistic inhibitions and recalled a time when they didn’t exist.  Yappy Dog suddenly sprang back into my imagination.  All of a sudden, vivid memories of 9 or 10 year old me writing and illustrating stories about him came flooding back.  I remembered how much I used to love drawing him and colouring him in.  I remembered that, for the last year of primary school, I was regularly invited by my teachers to read his stories to the younger children in reception, drawing huge pictures of him to help stoke their excitement. They loved him.  I loved him.  Then, for some reason, I stopped drawing him.  Yappy Dog was lost in time.  Not dead, but kept in suspended animation somewhere deep in my imagination.

crap drawing

Cartoon from Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus: Notes from an accidental professor”

It took until April 2016, inspired by this cartoon in Lynda Barry’s inspirational book “Syllabus: Notes from an accidental professor”, for me to get out a pen and draw him again.

As I looked at the simple image of Yappy Dog it was like looking at a photo of a long lost friend. He hadn’t changed much at all and I smiled as I remembered how easy he was to draw. I wondered to myself why I had stopped drawing him. Going to secondary school and no longer having an enthusiastic audience of 6 year olds obviously had an impact but that didn’t feel like the root cause. Staring at the simple picture on the page in front of me I realised that I think that I stopped drawing Yappy Dog at the very moment I started to become self-conscious about my art.  At the moment I began to  judge him and regard him as a bit crap.  Not good enough.  A bad drawing.

Lynda Barry has a particular philosophy about art and creativity that I’ve become fascinated by: “I’m especially interested in people who quit drawing a long time ago. I have a theory…about bringing drawing back into someone’s life, which is different than teaching them to draw. I’m interested in using the drawing that is already there. [The drawing that] is still there in spite of everything.

I took an experiment to The Lab that was inspired by Barry’s question “How old do you have to be to do a bad drawing?”  After a short warm up I invited people to draw the last doodle that they drew before they became self-conscious about doodling.  An invitation to connect with an act of artistry that they used to undertake simply because it was fun.  The pieces that emerged were simultaneously beautiful and liberating.

childhood-doodles-all

A collection of doodles lost in time

It was surprising how quickly the doodles came.  Some were reunions with long lost characters, others were images that came simply through re-connecting with the spirit of drawing for the sake of drawing, without the constraints of them having to serve a particular purpose or be of a particular quality or style.  People spoke of experiencing the freedom of just moving the pen about the page, the liberation and enjoyment of doodling without any pre-determined purpose or objective.

Lynda Barry suggests “The trick seems to be this: consider the drawing as a side effect of something else – a certain state of mind that comes about when we gaze with open attention. The way kids draw, that kind of line we call childish, what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand?  A live wire!”

I can’t help but imagine what other creative wonders we might unlock if we were to re-connect with a moment before we became self conscious.  How old do you have to be to write a bad song?  How old do you have to be to take a bad photo?  How old do you have to be to have a bad idea?  How old do you have to be to have a bad ambition?

I’ve drawn Yappy Dog a number of times since he became cryogenically defrosted.  Not simply because I want to draw him, but because I know he’s missed me and likes it when I do.  It’s wonderful to see him come back to life.

As Lynda Barry suggests, “a drawing can survive our disliking.  Astonishing!”

Traces, trails and the impermanence of organisings

trace-poem

Although I have experienced 10 leap years during my time on this planet, the 29th February 2016 was the first time I’ve intentionally marked the occasion by doing something to make the most of the ‘extra’ day.  A few weeks previously, whilst browsing Twitter, I came across a great guy called Doug Shaw who was organising an experimental adventure called Leap Day 2016.  The premise was simple – a bunch of people meet in London, head off to a number of suggested locations in order to see what we discover.  I’d never met Doug, I didn’t really know anybody else who was attending and I had no idea what was going to happen so it ticked the boxes as something that, once my mild anxiety had settled, I would ultimately enjoy.  And I did. Very much so.

One of the destinations that Doug suggested we visit was the Traces exhibition at the Tate Modern, an exhibition that describes itself as “a collection of works that capture making as gesture, the trace of an action.”  Whilst there were some exhibits I loved and some that I felt indifferent towards, my imagination was captured by the idea of traces as a metaphor for impermanence.  My mind wandered to images of contrails, the patterns of condensation left by planes in the sky, more commonly known as vapour trails.  Often, on a very clear day, the slowly fading contrail is the only evidence that a huge aircraft has passed by.  Depending on the speed, the altitude, the type and age of the plane, the trail is more or less pronounced.  Depending on the meteorological conditions, in particular the temperature and humidity of any particular patch of air, the trails may be only visible for a few seconds or may persist for hours, spreading across the sky to resemble naturally occurring clouds.  Eventually, no matter how prominent or dispersed, they dissolve and fade.

As the events of the 29th February drew to a close, the individuals of the group dispersed and the temporary organising we had come to know as Leap Day 2016 faded away. However, whilst the people had shifted into different patterns of interaction, a variety of traces lingered on.  A number of different thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions that were triggered by the conversations from the day remained – contrails of meaningful interactions that would persist and fade at different rates over time.

I’ve suspected for some time now that many of the actions that take place in organisations (and life in general) are ultimately distractions to avoid confronting and accepting impermanence – the undeniable fact that, irrelevant of who we are and what status or identity we have in life, we will all fade and dissolve one day. If we hold true the idea that organisations are not things that are separate and different to the people within them and instead regard the people themselves as the live and vibrant organising, it means that our organisations are equally impermanent.  They are temporary patterns of organising.  Impermanent webs of relating that alter and shift moment by moment.  All that remains beyond the present moment we find ourselves in are the traces we co-create as we relate to and interact with others.  Traces whose persistence are determined by a plethora of factors, only a few of which are in our control.

Prolific writer, teacher and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that our “original fear” of our own impermanence causes human beings to dwell in the past or worry about the future, distracting us from the possibilities of the present moment.  He suggests that when we look deeply at the seeds of this fear, instead of trying to hide from it, we begin to transform it.  A very gestalt-esque approach of changing through deepening our awareness of what is. Hanh encourages us to do this by reflecting on Five Remembrances.

1. We are of the nature of growing old.  We cannot escape growing old.
2. We are of the nature to have ill health.  We cannot escape ill health.
3. We are of the nature to die.  We cannot escape death.
4. All that is dear to us and everyone we love are of the nature to change.  There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5. We inherit the results of our acts of body, speech and mind.  Our actions are our continuation.  (Our human contrails.  Our traces)

I’m left wondering about a number of things.  What would happen if we took seriously the idea of incorporating the Five Remembrances into the collective awareness of our organisations?  What would happen if leaders and those in positions of power and influence went about their work knowing that the impact of their actions was fleeting, their durability and consequences unpredictable and variable?  (I’m aware that this could of course nurture ego/narcissism/cruelty as much as it could compassion/kindness/vulnerability dependent on individual and context.)  Would this deeper existential awareness help liberate us from the illusion of permanence, stability and all of the activities and actions we undertake to distract us from the impermanent nature of organisational life.  What resources and capacities would we liberate by gently letting go of our habits of dwelling in the past and attempting to anticipate and control the future? If we were to accept that all we can do is etch a slowly fading trace through the here-and-now interactions we have with one another, how would it effect the choices we make and where we focus our attention and energy?  My personal experience has been that, if I am not distracted by the resistance and fear that considering these questions can provoke, it is a wonderful way of bringing more meaning and possibility into the present moment.  A shift of attention that brings forth a greater personal resilience and determination to focus more of my energy and resources on interactions that really matter.

Meg Peppin was one of the people that I met on Leap Day 2016.  The poem she wrote whilst we wandered around the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library remains with me today – a persistent trace etched through an impermanent interaction.

You do not know if
what you leave behind
will weave into the world
and ignite beauty into our mind.


I created the image and the short poem at the top of this blog as part of the Leap Day invitation to represent our experience through art.

“D-  This blog is not up to standard. Must try harder”  – Investigating our Inner Critic

“I don’t know why you’re bothering to write this blog Steven.  You might get one or two positive comments from loyal friends but overall people aren’t really interested in what you have to say.  Nobody whose opinion is worth listening to will read it.  Why would they?  There are far better blogs out there, written by people who have really done their work and who can write in a far more articulate and insightful way than you ever could.  You don’t really offer anything new – only your own rather immature and confused thinking.  You are simply inviting criticism and displaying your lack of intelligence and insight in a very public place.  Overall I think you’d be better off not bothering. Somehow you’ve got away with it up until now. I suggest you quit while you’re ahead or else people might suss out that you are actually an unqualified imposter!”

 

Meet my inner critic.

I’ve spent many years listening to his constant commentary on everything I do but only fairly recently have I stopped and thought to myself “Who on earth is this guy and when did he become such an expert in everything?”  In January last year I began a CIA style investigation into this character and the source of his constant, de-motivating propaganda.  Who is he?  Where does he come from?  And what are his motives?  Through various experiments I began to compile a dossier about him.  I began to notice that the overall theme of his unhelpful mantras were that I was an imposter, I hadn’t “done my work” (whatever that means) and that I should quit doing what I do until I was “appropriately qualified.”  I began to notice the type of places that he would typically show up and how I would often project his cruel voice onto others, experiencing them as colluding and agreeing with him.  Eventually I began to chat with him through personal journalling, drawing pictures of what I thought he might look like and recently I made a puppet of him that allows me to turn the tables, interrogate and challenge his perspectives and put him on the spot! (A creative variation on gestalt two-chair work.)  Through doing this I discovered him to be far more ignorant than I had imagined.  I discovered that his reasoning was rather childish and immature.  I discovered that he actually embodied every criticism that he habitually aimed at me!

It seems that the more curious I have become about my inner critic the more his power has diminished.  The more I learn about him, the more choice I recover whether to listen to his advice or not.  He is still there but I am starting to experience him more as an annoyance, rather than an authority.  I’ve even began to find compassion for him.  He is old in body and voice but young in age and experience.  He looks and sounds like a wise sage but has the intellect and temperament of an overtired toddler.  He is a composite of various introjects and rules I encountered as I grew up.  He is a manifestation of the  opinions of others that I swallowed whole as true statements about who I was and who I ought to be.  Through finding this compassion I have learnt that, behind the powerful facade, he is scared and simply trying to protect me in a rather deluded way.  He is a frightened, bewildered child trying to advise a grown man.

Last weekend I went to visit my parents and whilst in the loft (retrieving some of my old toys for my daughter to play with) I came across my old High School reports.  I laughed to myself as I remembered their content portraying me as a pleasant, helpful but distinctly average and unremarkable pupil.  However, as I started to read the comments my teachers had made, I began to feel a rising sense of upset and anger.  I remembered that the grades my teachers gave me were average at best (our reports graded effort and achievement on an A to E scale and my average scores were C/D) but what shocked me, as I read the scrawly handwriting from 30 years ago, was how pointed, critical and scathing the accompanying comments were:

Steven’s work is well below standard.  He does not listen enough and work is often incomplete.

Steven has not worked well.  He Still makes little effort.

Steven’s work is satisfactory only.

Steven needs to make more effort.

Steven seems to have difficulty with the work.  He would make more progress if he made more effort.

Steven has a lively imagination but does not pay enough attention.  Work is often incomplete.

When Steven is interested he produces good work, otherwise his results are poor.

Steven’s work is not at the standard we would expect from him.

Even my art teacher had written “Steven’s drawing lets him down – his work is very sketchy” which I now actually take as a compliment!  However, what I found most hurtful about these comments was the advice to “try harder” and “make more effort” when I was exerting as much effort as I possibly could.  I now see how this simply triggered a pattern of stuckness.

As I sat and read these comments I experienced the words coming to me in the same voice that my inner critic uses in his most powerful moments. My anger then gradually turned into excitement.  It was as if I had discovered the source of his power.  As if I had accidentally stumbled upon an ancient book of his favourite scripts that he used to torment me.  I realised that I must have been around 11-13 years old when these comments were written and, being a rather deferential, consciencsious pupil who wanted more than anything to please my teachers, I must have swallowed these comments whole and believed they were a true description of who I was.  Over time these comments must have slipped out of my conscious awareness to lurk deep in the shadows, ready to pounce when the moment was right.

I was left with a number of curious questions.  How would things have been different if my teachers had sought to understand my difficulties instead of simply describing them? (As I help my own daughter with her dyslexia I am beginning to believe that I may have had similar difficulties during my school years.)   What if my teachers were to turn 50% of these critiques back onto themselves and the rigid, inflexible curriculum as the partial source of my problems?   In particular I am struck by the comment that I produced good work when I was interested and can’t help but think that the state of being interested wasn’t solely my responsibility.  As I reflect on these questions I notice that I don’t personally blame my teachers for any of this.  They were likely struggling with their own projections and inner critics so I assume they were doing the best they could with the resources they had.  Nor do I harbour any grudges or regrets as my difficult experiences of school eventually led me to the work I love doing now.  Nonetheless the discovery of this document, ironically titled Record of Achievement, felt like a very important one.

The gestalt paradoxical theory of change suggests that change happens through becoming more aware of what we already are, as opposed to striving to be something we are not.  Whilst my inner critic is still alive and present, my deepening awareness of his form, his origins, his motives and his tactics have resulted in his power diminishing a little.  Whilst it was difficult to read, I am very grateful that I ventured into my parent’s loft and found these old school reports as they provided some vital intelligence for my ongoing investigation.

I am left wondering how much these seemingly insignificant comments from our childhood suppress and suffocate our creative spirit and spontaneous self confidence in the subsequent years.  On one hand they are only sentences, scribbled in the moment by time-pressed teachers with piles of other reports to write.  But on the other had they are powerful words that, in my experience, can provide a lifetime of material for our inner critic.  If you are curious then it might be worth digging around in your own attic!


Steve and gestalt psychotherapist Simon Cavicchia are running their next “Playing at the Edge – Discovering our Inner Critic” workshop in London on the 20th-21st October 2016.  This workshop uses a variety of gestalt, mindfulness, creative practices, masks and movement to help us begin our own investigation into our inner critic.  More details can be found here.

As part of his research, Steve has been asking people to draw their own Inner Critic as a way of getting to know them better.  A growing online gallery of Inner Critics is available here:  http://innercriticexperiment.tumblr.com/   Please feel free to contribute your own.

120 seconds – Stillness in a corporate space

A gentle voice over the public address system interrupted the hubbub announcing that it was 11 o’clock and, all of a sudden, the world around me became almost unrecognisable.

This huge, corporate head office, that moments earlier was noisily bustling with hundreds of employees talking, walking and rushing between meetings, fell silent and still.  Large, purposeful movements became small and grounded. Attention shifted from the task of undertaking ‘legitimate work’ and heads lifted, allowing a broader peripheral awareness to flood in.  A subtle layer of previously unnoticed sounds emerged from the silence – the traffic outside, the hum of the air conditioning, the clicking of cooling coffee machines, the odd cough reminding us all that we were still in the presence of more than a hundred other human beings.  As the sun glinted through the glass roof, some people began looking up and around them, possibly noticing things that they hadn’t previously noticed – the birds outside, the silent figures standing still on the bridges that criss-crossed the building, the various posters and signs that updated employees on a variety of different initiatives, the plethora of colourful recycling bins, the detailed design of the chairs in the coffee area, the colour of the expansive floor, the quality of the air, the clouds moving across the sky.

I’ve visited this place often and seen this busy corporate ‘street many times, yet I had never witnessed it in this way.  The people looked still and thoughtful.  They appeared to be far more connected to this place, each other and themselves.  They somehow seemed more human.  More thoughtful yet fragile.  More flawed but willing.*  It felt as if the organisation had paused, but not in the same way that we might pause a DVD.  It was more reminiscent of a film set where hundreds of extras are holding themselves in anticipation of the director shouting “action” before following their well rehearsed scripts. Whilst bodies were still, the passage of time continued to pass, the world outside continued to happen, breathing and other vital biological processes continued to take place within each body.  My attention was grabbed by a man moving silently through the crowds, respectfully walking between people on his way to the lifts with a sense of urgency and intent in his steps.  In this moment he looked out of place, counter-cultural, a bit weird, yet in 2 minutes time he would be unrecognisable from anyone else.

I began to wonder what people were thinking and feeling.  Were they appreciative of the silence?  Did they find it awkward?  Were they still simply because they didn’t want to appear disrespectful?  Were they thinking about those who had fallen in wars around the world – this moment of reflection had only occurred due to it being Armistice Day.  Were they pondering the futility of conflict and the importance of dialogue, empathy and human connection?  Were they thinking about themselves, their families and friends, their colleagues, the wider population, the environment, the planet?  Were they worrying about their next meeting?  Were they wondering what everyone else might be wondering?  Whatever they were thinking, I couldn’t help but imagine that the quality of stillness and silence was providing a rare opportunity for communal reflection.  I felt that, for the first time, I was witnessing what a connected, mindful, learning organisation might look like – individuals deeply present with themselves, with each other, with the wider human population and the planet we all live on.

This sight moved me for many reasons and I felt a twinge of sadness knowing that this brief moment of heightened awareness and connection would soon be over.  Very soon the social permission to be present with each other in this way would be revoked.  In a moment, the act of being a still, reflective human being, mindfully connecting with people, place and planet would once again become a weird, counter-cultural thing to be doing in a busy corporate environment.  Very soon, the slowly expanding awareness that the silence had allowed to creep in would be dampened down through re-focussing on tasks and objectives – people finding comfort in familiar patterns and engaging in the compelling games that society has taught us we can comfortably think of as ‘legitimate work’.   A recent coaching client came to mind.  He told me that whenever he took a moment to be still and reflect or to simply sit and deeply listen to his colleagues, without any particular business objective, he felt he was stealing from the company’s time.  However, it felt to me that more clarity, power and potential for change was present in these fleeting, silent moments than I had experienced in many hours of the normal, frantic, busy life of this organisation.

As the seconds ticked away I wondered what would happen if one person decided to continue to hold this way of being, to not submit to the call of corporate normality.  Maybe another 2 or 3 would follow?  What if everybody then chose to stay this way for a little longer and gradually began to recommence their conversations and interactions with the same level of awareness and connection that had been present in those last 120 seconds.  What would happen if slowing down in this way and fully connecting with ourselves, each other and our environment became the new cultural norm around here.  Would the organisation thrive?  Would it survive?  With a degree of realism creeping in, I suspected that we would never get the chance to find out.

The silence was gently interrupted by the public address system “It is now 11:02 and the two minute silence is now over.  Thank you.”  For a few seconds people looked at each other.  Some laughed and made jokes to counterbalance the awkwardness of the previous 2 minutes.  Some moved off quickly, as if released from temporary suspended animation, continuing on their previous trajectory.  Others seemed to share a moment of connection before continuing their conversations.  I couldn’t possibly know what they were thinking or feeling as normality returned, but I hoped that others had noticed the possibilities and potential that those 120 seconds had offered.   In less than a minute the street was again full of movement, noise, action and distraction.  I too felt the pull of activity and the commitment to my previously arranged meeting and began to walk towards the lifts.  However, I noticed that whilst I was no longer still, I had been altered in innumerable ways by this unique experience of corporate stillness.

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* A term borrowed from Khurshed Denhugara’s book “Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organisations in the Age of Connection”

Fertile vs. Fruitful – Does cash stifle creative experimentation?

How’s business?

I was surprised that this simple inquiry had stumped me.  Thinking that I’d not understood the question, the friendly pixelated face on Skype said “Are you busy?

I paused.  “I don’t know” I eventually responded, adding to the confusion.  I was currently immersed in a lot of activity but was this ‘good business?’  Trying to help me out, my fellow independent consultant said “It’s always feast or famine in this work isn’t it – you have periods of lots of paid work then periods of nothing –  but it all balances out in the end.”

“I think my work goes in a different cycle” I eventually said.  “Every time I seem to have found a ‘formula’ – a particular offering that people want to pay me for – I can’t help but want to change it, break it and take it in a subtly different direction that people aren’t going to want.  Well not yet anyway.”  To help make sense of my thinking I grabbed a pen and wrote down two words that I felt described my experience : FERTILE and FRUITFUL.  I then added an arrow between each word creating a cycle.  My constant restlessness and curious dissatisfaction with my work suddenly made a little more sense.  I realised that ‘fruitful’ phases, i.e. lots of exciting, paid work, always happen as a result of a preceding ‘fertile’ phase of experimentation, discomfort and curiosity that offers little or nothing in the way of payment.  I also realised that these ‘fertile’ phases were always provoked by a ‘fruitful’ period of playing with the new ideas with paying clients.  An ongoing symbiotic creative cycle of finding the form in order to break the form in order to find another form.

“That’s really nice” said the pixelated face “I guess the ultimate aim is to combine the two and do work that is both fertile and fruitful at the same time.  Isn’t it?”  I paused for some time, causing my friend to think that the Skype direction had dropped off.  “I’m not sure that’s possible” I eventually replied.

I have long been fascinated by the relationship between creative experimentation and money.  There is something about the transactional nature of cash for services that creates a concept of value for money that seems to alter the nature of our curiosity and our ability to wantonly experiment.   It seems that our willingness to immerse ourselves in our here-and-now experiences, with no aim other than to see what happens, diminishes the moment anybody is better or worse off in monetary terms.  And, in my experience, this dynamic is as problematic for those who are providing the services as it is for who are purchasing them.  I notice that I feel somewhat less willing to take big risks, to try out something spontaneous and experimental when I am being remunerated for it.  I notice that I feel a greater pull towards delivering tangible take aways for paid work than for unpaid work – colluding with the problematic pattern of valuing application over awareness that ultimately results in stuckness.  In conversations with others over the last few years I know I am not alone in these experiences.  However, I am yet to unravel how much of this is as a result of my own projections, how much is due to society’s agreed social constructions of what ‘valuable work’ is and I am yet to come up with ideas as to what an alternative approach might be.

I had these thoughts in mind when I began scribbling out some initial thoughts for The Lab earlier this year.  The initial idea behind The Lab was to create a place where people could indulge in wanton experimentation, to try out things that they’ve never done before and have a bunch of enthusiastic and willing people to experiment on.  The single most important dynamic to be created was that The Lab had to feel like a safe place to ‘fail happy.’   A place where participants and experimenters would learn from whatever happened, irrelevant of whether it was what the experimenter intended to happen.  A subtle shift from asking ourselves the binary question “did that work?” to instead asking ourselves the more curious question “how did that work?” on the back of each experiment.  One of the first conclusions that I came to was that, to create this dynamic, The Lab had to be not for profit*.

I scribbled out on a piece of paper the downsides of The Lab being a profit making initiative:

If The Lab is profit making it might…

  • …put a greater emphasis on each experiment ‘working’ and being ‘value for money’.
  • …put a greater pressure on me to make the overall concept ‘work’ and be ‘value for money.’
  • …place a greater value on ‘application’ and ‘take aways’ that match the amount of monetary spend.
  • …create some unhelpful status dynamics and unintentional ‘buyer/supplier’ relationships between experimenters, participants and myself.
  • …lead to us all over-thinking, over-scripting and finding a repeating formula for success that ‘works’ and is of value, unintentionally creating the very dynamic we are trying to disrupt.

As well as being a place to innovate and create, I now realise that The Lab is also an ongoing personal experiment in better understanding some of our dominant constructions about ‘value’ and the potentially inhibiting role that money plays in dampening pure, risky experimentation.  It is about providing a FERTILE environment where people can simply come out to play and see what they discover, knowing that even an absence of tangible discovery is in itself a discovery.  Some of these discoveries may lead to FRUITFUL experiences elsewhere but this is not a guaranteed outcome.

Back on the Skype call, the friendly pixelated face and I explored the idea of the FERTILE-FRUITFUL cycle and how holding it to be true seemed to shift the relationship we had with our work and how we spent our time.  We noticed that whereas the feast or famine metaphor brought an emphasis on money, the FERTILE-FRUITFUL cycle placed a greater emphasis on creativity, relationships and experimentation.

This blog has no conclusion.  If anything, I’m left with more questions than answers having written it.  Deeper questions as to how the transactional nature of our work inhibits creativity.  Questions as to how money can create unhelpful power and status dynamics, altering relationships and artificially splitting the responsibility for experimentation and discovery.  Questions as to how ‘buyer/supplier’ relationships accidentally reinforce stuck, stale patterns where we try to repeat the successes from the past in order to constitute ‘value’.  I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t simply that everything experimental should be free, nor is it that everything experimental should be paid for.  However, I can’t help but feel that there is a tantalisingly different way of creating, discovering and transforming together that is sitting just outside of my awareness at the moment.

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*Note:  Lab participants pay a minimal fee of £35 to attend The Lab which covers the hire cost of the venue and any materials required.  Any surplus is used to fund future Labs or to provide discounted or free tickets to those who wish to come but do not have the means to buy a ticket.

Trout starvation and silent contracts: On networks versus communities

I’ve never been that fond of conferences. I remember right back at the beginning of my corporate career the familiar cycle of excitement and anticipation in advance of getting a day out of the office, feeling socially awkward on arriving at said conference, getting rather bored with the content and then leaving with a sense of relief that the whole thing was over. Not much has changed nowadays except that I have short-circuited this cycle and generally don’t go to conferences in the first place. Putting the subject matter and quality of the content to one side, I’ve always assumed that my dislike of conferences was due to being rather introverted and reflective, preferring to spend my time with one or two people I know or finding time and space to make my own sense of things away from the usual ‘fire hose’ of conference content.  However, whilst this is true, I have started to realise that the reason I find these events so unfulfilling is because, whilst there are lots of people in attendance, one rarely gets to fully meet anyone.

In his wonderful book “Dumbing Us Down – The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”, John Taylor Gatto talks of the rather worrying side-effects that the American school system has on its pupils and on the society they graduate into. He suggests that “our school crisis is a reflection of a greater social crisis” where we have lost connection with each other and live our lives in networks as opposed to communities.  “Networks, even good ones, drain vitality from communities and families.  They provide mechanical solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self awareness, self discovery and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.  Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human. Networks, however, don’t require the whole person, but only a narrow piece. If you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part – a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to.”  This thin slicing of ourselves that begins in education continues and is amplified in adult life, in particular in the corporate world and it strikes me that our tradition of business conferences are a major manifestation of this pattern.

My dislike of narrow, network based conferences means that I am delighted when I experience exceptions to the norm.  For example, for the last three years I have attended the 3 day alternative Learnfest conference run by Impact International on the banks of Lake Windermere in the beautiful English Lake District. Whilst each year has been a pleasant experience, I found this year’s festival to be one of the most enjoyable and personally fulfilling conferences I have ever attended. There was no real theme to the conference other than an invitation for people who are interested in development to come together to discover and stretch themselves in a multitude of ways. Whilst there were subject matter workshops or talks on specific topics, the lightly held structure allowed a lot of time and space to fully meet and get to know each other. Nobody wore traditional corporate costumes (i.e. suits, trousers, shirts, formal skirts etc.) which helped participants see each other primarily in relationship and not role.  We ate together, drank together and walked and talked outside  and around the fire together. There was temporal and physical space that allowed personal stories to emerge – we learnt about each other’s families, friends, backgrounds, dreams, hopes, fears (etc.) As in any such event, the impact of the talks and workshops varied depending on one’s personal interest in the subject matter and the way in which the content was delivered, but the thing that I appreciated most was the opportunity that the fringe events gave us to be vulnerable and face our fears of failure with each other, which built a very strong and supportive sense of community. (My experience of failure at the Street Dancing class still sits with me now – that’s a story for another blog!) John Taylor Gatto suggests “A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety, good parts, bad parts and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible, lives of engagement and participation.”

It seems we need a revolution in how we meet each other in the workplace. How do we create the time, space and permission to perpetually value the whole person that is standing in front of us instead of the thin slice that our habitual corporate networks legitimise? How do we become more aware and empathic with the personal stories surrounding the human being who is currently talking about strategy or metrics in a business meeting? And who decides what is relevant/not relevant, appropriate/not appropriate to bring into the world of work and how can we blur the lines here to build stronger, more powerful communities that are a force for change and creativity?   I’m not suggesting that businesses should force people to disclose personal stories in a scripted, awkward and rigid way that would essentially be just another mechanistic form of a network – I simply wonder how we can bring more of ourselves into the workplace in amongst the legitimate work that needs to be done. I’ve long toyed with the idea of encouraging an international Bring yourself to work day – maybe the time has come to take that idea seriously.

John Taylor Gatto suggests that “If the loss of true community is not noticed in time, a condition arises in the victim’s spirit very much like the ‘trout starvation’ that used to strike wilderness explorers whose diet was made up exclusively of stream fish. While trout quell the pangs of hunger and even taste good, the eater gradually suffers from want of sufficient nutrients.”  When it comes to creativity, networks seem to lack the very nutrients required to fully support our imaginative, creative selves. Networks seem to value application over awareness, performance over process and judgement over curiosity. It is only by waking up and challenging these norms that we can ever generate communities that value the whole person and therefore give the creative permission required to fully grow as individuals and as organisations. As Jamie Catto asked in his closing speech at Learnfest 2015 “Why have we agreed these silent contracts to show so little of ourselves?” It seems that asking ourselves and those we work with this question is a wonderful start point to re-humanising the workplace.


Note:  The beautiful trout pattern in the heading is from “ALYSSA”‘ ON FLICKR.

Meeting Mormo. Refreshing the parts other masks cannot reach.

I noticed I was feeling rather anxious as the weekend of 16th May approached.  I’ve learnt over the years that, even if my head tells me that I’m calm, my body tells the truth. I admitted to myself that I had that undeniable feeling in my shoulders and my chest that I was unsettled or worried about something that might happen.  I’d dabbled with mask work very briefly a few years back at a Keith Johnstone workshop and I’d found the very brief 15 second experience quite challenging.  I remember that I’d tried really hard to act into the scary looking mask but it seemed it hadn’t been good enough and Keith had said “OK, take it off.”  At least it was only 15 seconds of feeling like a mask failure. But now I was facing three whole days learning masks with acclaimed teacher Steve Jarand and a bunch of strangers.  As I got off the train at Waterloo and wandered towards the venue (ridiculously early as usual) I felt a surge of anxiety that, whilst unpleasant, I have learnt to embrace as a sign that what I am about to do is something that is delightfully out of my comfort zone.

Three days later and I was feeling much happier having made a new friend.  I think his name was “Mormo” – a guy with big bushy eyebrows and a black beanie hat.  He looked to me like a Norwegian fisherman.  I’m not sure how old he was or even if Mormo was his name.  It was difficult to understand him because he sort of shouted rather than spoke and he only said his name once at some point during day two, so I may have misheard it.  It was one of only a few words that he could say but I was astounded at his progress over the weekend.  Mormo moved from being  only able to stand and shout, to being able to sit and interact with Steve, to feeling some basic emotions, to eventually having a rather bizarre but sweet ‘date’ with a young lady called Susan.  It was as if I was watching a brand new personality being written from scratch as, in short burst of 3 or 4 minutes Mormo learnt new things.  Mormo was my mask.  The only mask I had managed to ‘turn on’ over the space of the weekend and he now fascinated me.

The masked innovation workshop (January 2014)

The masked innovation workshop (January 2014)

What surprised me most about working with Mormo was that the experience was nothing like I had imagined. Previous experiments (eg. The masked innovation workshop I mention in Can Scorpions Smoke?) had got me curious as to the different levels of permission a mask can give the wearer to tap into their innate, spontaneously creative self.  I’ve also  written previously about my experience wearing a 6.5 foot lion costume in a corporate headquarters and how this experiment  with identity altered my perceptions of power and status.  But this work with the often-bizarre looking half masks (referred to by both Keith and Steve as “trance masks“) was something altogether different.  I can only describe it as an experience of pure spontaneity, as if I was gradually building up layers of a brand new identity in short but intense spells.  This process seemed to help bypass my habitual, ingrained patterns and beliefs about who I am and how I should be in the world much more than my previous mask experiments.  My fear of the workshop soon evolved into a sense of excitement and liberation as, even after taking the mask off, I felt like I had given my sense of identity a good workout and dormant, creative parts of me had awoken.

There is a procedure in working with trance masks in this way that feels very important. It begins by witnessing yourself/the mask in the mirror, making an intuitive mouth shape that fits the face and then allowing a spontaneous sound to come.  Over time one can turn these sounds into words, the jerky movements into fluid actions and eventually, with much more practice than a 3-day workshop allows, fully interact with others as a totally different person.  I realised that my previous experience of failure with trance masks had been because I was trying too hard.  Steve taught me that, at any point in time if I suddenly found myself in my head wondering what to do next or becoming self-conscious about what I was doing, I was to take the mask off as my own personality with all its boundaries and restrictions had leaked in causing me to overthink and thus diluting my spontaneity.   Learning how not to ‘fake it’ was a big breakthrough for me in being able to tame and work with Mormo.  As Keith Johnstone suggests in ImproThe mask dies when it is entirely subjected to the will of the performer.”  In a similar way to meditation practice, each time I became aware of the subtle ways in which my own personality would creep back in I was able to return to the mask state for longer periods of time.  With practice over the weekend I was eventually able to work with Mormo for up to 3 or 4 minutes before my cognitive self leaked back in. (It could have actually been 1 minute or 10 minutes – it’s difficult to track time in that state!)

I spent some time with Gestalt Psychotherapist, creative collaborator and friend Simon Cavicchia making sense of my experience.  “What sounds really powerful is the way that the mask both highlights our familiar unconscious ways of organising our sense of self and reality and, at the same time, offers a doorway into freer and more spontaneous expression.  From a Gestalt perspective this would potentially allow parts of our selves that have been lost under layers of social conditioning to be rediscovered, experienced and integrated – ideas about how we should be and learnt responses to various stimuli for example.  The simple act of becoming more aware of this would extend our repertoire and range for responding more creatively to life’s challenges, freeing us from fixed and habitual responses. In this way, fixed and habitual patterns of self doubt might be supported to relax and hitherto constrained possibilities for creativity, freedom and expression might be found.

Simon continued “A particular interest of mine is shame and how this can be kept in place by our inner critic – Freud’s “superego” – the part of our personality which observes and monitors how we are, finding fault and driving us to strive for ideals that often leave us feeling like failures and deficient in some way.   Experimenting with masks could give expression to the superego part, taking on its character and energy, experiencing directly its tone and preoccupations in order to become less identified with it by seeing it for what it is. Fritz Perls was fond of inviting clients to dialogue between different parts of the self and mask work would allow for different parts to be taken on such as the superego and the more spontaneous part that is oppressed by it – what Perls called the “underdog”.

IMG_7198

The mask that became Mormo

I continue to reflect on my mask experience and have come to realise that working with Mormo gave me an experience of allowing pure spontaneity to arise from somewhere other than intellect or thought, without an idealised image of myself (my top dog) to keep it in check.  At some level I knew that that my absolute core values and ethics were still present (ie. I know I would not have done anything to compromise them) but the temporary absence of an idealised self-image meant that, in those moments, I did not inhibit myself through fear of experiencing shame.  Simon and I continue to experiment using masks to explore different aspects of the personality: our top dog or superego, our underdog spontaneous creative selves, our habitual projections, our strengths and shadows (etc) and the thought of eventually bringing Mormo into the corporate environment gives me that familiar feeling of anxiousness that I had en-route to the workshop. An anxious feeling that Fritz Perls describes as being simply “unsupported excitement!


On November 9th and 10th 2015 Steve and Simon Cavicchia are running an experimental workshop using creative techniques, including masks, to explore the personality and our “Inner Critic” and its effect on realising our full creative potential.  Further information on this workshop can be found here.

Awareness, application and a worrying stuckness in personal development

In 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

Even 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

I’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

Harry Beck’s “normalised” tube map

tube map large

An 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!


NOTES
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 brilliantly 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.