Meeting the world

 … we meet the world with forms of language already in use and it is these forms that determine what we notice, how we interpret, and how we coordinate action with one another. Without this culturally inherited language, there would be no means by which to make the world intelligible.”

Harold Gadamer

Starting in the Middle



Very often leaders find themselves in the kind of situations that have been described as “wicked problems” or “messes” or, increasingly, “complex”. Very often when they do they focus on identifying and defining the problem that needs to be solved and articulating a future state that needs to be achieved. There is a sense, though, in which, these are often two sides of the same coin, so one of the difficulties that arises is that the problem definition effectively constrains the possible solutions.

One of the things I have learned to do over the years is to always remind myself, especially early in a situation or process, that I am starting in the middle and that I and that I will only ever be one part of what’s going on.

For me this means several things in particular:

  1. Recognising that whatever is going on has a history (I’m inclined to say here multiple histories depending on whose perspective you are looking from). I therefore know I need to go back “upstream” to get a sense of how this situation is emerging.
  2. Understanding that the patterns that hold the situation as it is and those that, at the same time, are the source of disruption, are already happening. I therefore know I need to actively seek to look at things from multiple perspectives and to find ways to present them so they can be catalysts for opening up different possibilities.
  3. Knowing that the people involved will already have a sense of what the situation is “calling for”, based on their particular interpretation of what is happening. I know therefore that this is an important clue about where to go and what to do next.
  4. Being very aware that as soon as I or anyone seeks to understand further or to change anything in the mix of what’s already going on, they will be “intervening” and the dynamics of the situation will change in some way. I know therefore that I need to be very aware of my footprint and impact on the situation and to seek ways of being reflexive about my involvement.

I have learned above all else that defining the problem too early, before you have a good sense of the situation, puts real limitations on what can be achieved. This understanding can only really be gained through the eyes of those intimately involved in it and is better done descriptively rather than analytically.

If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

Bruce Lee

Coming to grips with difficult to define concerns

For some years now my colleague Dr Garth Britton and I have been playing around with different ways of engaging with organisations and organisational leaders in circumstances where they know, or perhaps simply have an uneasy feeling, that things aren’t going the way they planned or that, to a greater or lesser degree, the wheels are falling off.

Mostly when this happens people go looking for a pre-existing solution, which of course pre-supposes that you know reasonably precisely what the problem is. Inevitably there are a range of pre-packaged solutions available. Inevitably, too, they often turn out to not be a particularly good fit to the situation or, even worse, the solution to a problem that isn’t the particular one you are experiencing.

All of this pre-supposes two things: firstly that what is being seen or sensed is the problem, and secondly, that thinking about organisational dilemmas as problems that require solutions is the most useful thing to do. Our experience suggests that this may not always be the case.

So here I have tried to describe some of the things we have learned and the way these translate into practices and approaches.

Generally we begin in a situation with a client by acknowledging that neither we nor they fully understand what is going on. At the same time we also recognise that collectively within the organisation, or across the the organisations involved in the situation, people do know a great deal more than they have been able to say so far. So our first step is to wade in and start “in the middle” to engage deeply with the people who are in the situation, devising ways to tap into their knowledge, perhaps enabling unheard voices and perspectives to be heard, in order to bring the situation to life. In doing this we seek as well to “go upstream”, back into the history of the situation and people’s involvement in it. We do this so that a sense of how things came to be the way they are can emerge along with a sense of the various trajectories embedded in current activities. We generally do this before turning attention to where to go and what to do next.

Sometimes collecting this data involves very loosely structured interviews/discussions, sometimes meeting with people in groups and sometimes the use of a more formal software-based qualitative data collection method. However we gather this data we focus on asking people to be descriptive, that is to tell us stories about their experience of the issue or situation. This is part of a process of seeking to understand and make sense of athe situation “from within” rather than assessing it judgmentally from outside.

This generally leads us to do this work iteratively, first getting the people to describe their experiences and then asking them to tell us what their stories/experiences mean in the context of the issue or situation being explored. Once again we seek creative ways to do this that work in the context. One way that has worked particularly well has been to set up a space with the organisation where the data is displayed in some way as it is collected and analysis begins so that interested people can drop in and perhaps lend a hand or make an observation. This always leads to interesting conversations and insights and perspectives that might not have emerged in more formal settings. At other times we will have recorded some of our interviews and discussions and are able to extract particularly interesting excerpts from them which can then provide the stimulus for discussions in small groups.

Somewhere along the track we begin to develop a sense of what is important to the people and the organisation, where people are uncomfortable or stuck, what would make sense to try in order to change the situation. To “nudge” it more in the direction people want and need.

As we do we look to find ways to mirror back to people in the organisation, especially those who have the authority to initiate activities and expend or re-direct resources, what we have been seeing and hearing and our sense of where the starting points for doing something different might be. Generally this means that while we might write a report it won’t be a typical consultant’s report. Equally we might, if the circumstances are right, use more visual and descriptive forms of communication. Whatever we do we bear in mind that the end-product deserves to have a a “social life” and be a resource around which people in the organisation can gather to explore possibilities and potential ways forward. Whatever the form of presentation we are much more likely to propose some short-term safe-to-fail experimentation and ongoing action-based inquiry than we are to present a fully worked out plan of action.

We think about the kind of work described here as taking place in the “space between”. That is, the space between knowing and not-knowing, between those who are truly within the situation and ourselves who have become part of it temporarily and between and among the different perspectives that inevitably go to make up an organisation on its way to somewhere else. We do this to remind ourselves that we are entering territory in which no-one is the expert and in which there is much that we either do not know or cannot yet articulate. It also is a reminder that we may be working in a situation in which the conventional notion of a definable problem and a solution that follows logically might not apply.

In setting this out we feel the need to stress that it isn’t a recipe that can be followed precisely and repeated precisely the same way to get the same result in different context. We see it more as an emerging collection of descriptive concepts that help us to prepare to engage with our clients and, in that engagement, to jointly find ways to occasion both insight and meaningful activity in directions that matter.

I have written about these concepts before, although then it was in the context of some lessons is wish I had learned when I was in leadership roles. This is still, and will always be, a work in progress but I think they apply here as well:

  • Begin in the middle – we observe people  and their work in context, we ask them to be descriptive first and foremost and then use their words and concepts to develop rich description(s) of the situation and its antecedents.
  • Engage deeply and often – we talked frequently to test insights and understandings and are very open about what is intended and what needs to be done.
  • Notice “rich points” and “striking moments” and explore similarities and differences – noticing what doesn’t fit with the usual understandings and paying attention to differing or alternative perspectives can open up insight and a different view of  the possibilities that are available in the situation.
  • Work together to co-design  and articulate new ways forward (next steps), alternate understandings  and potential new practices (disciplines).
  • Initiate short, sharp activities to test ideas, strategies and implementation approaches.
  • Continuously gather data to inform and test the ongoing usefulness of new frames and developmentally evaluate the impact and effectiveness of emerging  practices and tentative action.

Getting It Out of Our Heads

Over the past ten years what I do and how I do it has changed significantly.

One shift has been in the area of coaching. When I began in 2000 coaching was arguably just entering its second generation and moving from a focus on what might be called skills coaching, which grew out of sports coaching, into goal focused coaching. The kind of coaching that is exemplified by the GROW model. That is, helping people achieve what they needed to achieve in the context of their role within an organisation and/or their aspirations in life. The focus was and remains on performance in relation to specific goals or ends.

Early on I was lucky enough to encounter a number of people who certainly didn’t need skills coaching and were very adept at achieving goals and making things happen. They did, however, sometimes find themselves in situations that were hard to figure out and in which conventional approaches to leading, managing and organising didn’t always seem to work. With these people I quickly became a partner in conversations that were much more focused on sense-making to some degree but often just on finding a way to “go on”. That is to work out what would make sense for them to do in this situation at this time, given what they currently knew.

Two things in particular grew out of this experience for me. Firstly the recognition that in many instances working out how to “go on” or perhaps “make progress” was a great outcome, because in many of these circumstances it was actually impossible to frame the issue as a problem, at least in the conventional way. Often it was nothing more than a sense of unease or disquiet. Sometimes it was something so complex that establishing even a cursory sense of the factors that were at work was too difficult. So people had got used to feeling their way forward but appreciated the time and space to talk it through a bit.

Secondly I developconversation_leadershiped a heightened appreciation of the power of what one writer calls “relational-responsive” talk. What I mean by that is that it was OK to be involved in a conversation that went all over the place, that wasn’t structured and which I contributed observations and opinions to (conventionally coaches didn’t offer advice). These were conversations which required significant attention and I found myself somehow knowing what to say without having consciously thought about it. I also learned, through practice, that it helps to make any “background thinking” explicit, rather than keeping it hidden.

I began to understand more fully that who we are and how we “show up” in a conversation is an incredibly important part of what sets really good leaders apart. I also began to understand more fully how much the conventional thinking about leadership actually constrains how many people in leadership roles feel they are able to be. It demands a degree of forward focused certainty that actually proves quite difficult to maintain in reality.

I learned therefore that a different kind of conversation from the usual is needed when it is not so much a problem that you are attempting to solve as a difficulty that you are trying become attuned to and find your way about in. In fact this kind of talk/thinking happens, whether we like it or not, long before there can be talk of goals, actions and other kinds of more focused descriptions. It just that it mostly happens in the confusion of our inner conversations.

Getting it out in the open and putting it, however tentatively, into words, can be incredibly useful.

Operating Practices for Leaders

A little while ago my colleague Dr Garth Britton and I began thinking about the ways in which our work as consultants and coaches had changed over the past five years. At the time we developed a very rough description of an approach we called Open-Ended Consulting based on some broad broad patterns we had detected in our practices. Then we got busy with work and life and didn’t progress this any further.

I’ve been thinking recently that much that I have learned as a consultant and Executive Coach I wish I have known when I was a senior executive. With that in mind I returned to this work and thought I would share these “practices” with you, with a view to fleshing each of them out over the coming months.

So here they are:

  1. Begin in the middle – observe people and their work in context and develop rich description(s) of the situation and its antecedents.
  2. Engage deeply and often – talk frequently to test insights and understandings and agree what is intended and what needs to be done.
  3. Work together to co-design and articulate new ways forward (next steps), alternate understandings and potential new practices (disciplines).
  4. Initiate short, sharp activities to test ideas, strategies and implementation approaches
  5. Notice “rich points” and “striking moments” and explore similarities and differences
  6. Continuously gather data to inform and test the ongoing usefulness of new frames and formatively evaluate the impact and effectiveness of emerging practices and tentative action.

Our thinking, as we identified these practices, has been heavily influenced by an alternative tradition of  thought about how we, as humans, engage with the world and each other. This tradition is strongly social in its underpinnings, recognising that from our birth, if not before, we engage with the world around us, including other people, both bodily and discursively. It is therefore a powerful alternative to strongly individualist ideas and helps to counteract the prevailing tendency to see the mind as separate and superior to the body, including particularly emotions and intuition.  In our view this tendency often leads us to seek objectivity in situations where it is simply not possible. At least not in the time available to make a decision about what to do next. It also means we often under-value the other ways of knowing we have available to us.

Exploring and experimenting with these practices has helped us be more confident in starting our work in complex and ambiguous circumstances by simply talking to people about how they are experiencing the situation and how they understand it. It has also reinforced for us the value of local, contextualised understandings and locally developed experiments, prototypes and actions as the basis of learning the way forward, one step at a time.

For the moment I’ll leave you with this thought:

“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”

George SaundersThe Braindead Megaphone