Safety vs Freedom

 

‘It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.’Franz Kafka

I come across this quote on radio today.   It explains so well how often the covert challenge coachees face.   Sometimes, it is not the unreasonable boss, the difficult client, the toxic organisation, the bullying peer, the subordinates who never get it or the lack of skills / resources / time, etc which make change difficult.   At least not the only or prominent reasons.   It is sometimes the coachee’s own inertia to stay unchanged for the sense of safety.   Yet, I think such inertia could be hidden deep inside…. even without the person being aware of it.    Quick implications to the coach would probably be how to:

  • sense that such inertia may be there (or not!)
  • collect data to verify
  • gently bring this up to the coachee without triggering resistance (which is easy to come…. ‘Who are you to judge me?!’ )
  • invite exploration on what is behind such hidden inertia
  • jointly create ways to catch it in action

‘What may also be going on?’

‘What is really going on?’   It is the question often used in the Adaptive Leadership practice as well as in the psychodynamics approach.   In the former, it is about being on the ‘Balcony’ rather than the ‘Dance Floor’, or the ability to be at both at the same time.  And being on the ‘Balcony’ could mean reading the political landscape as an example.

In the psychodynamics approach, the question is about understanding the covert dynamics on various levels e.g. intra-personal and group level.   For example, John always fails to refuse others’ request on him, resulting in him working too late and losing his own priorities.   He is frustrated about it and tries to improve without much success.  The overt view is that he is bad at saying no to others and should pick up some skills in doing so.   However, on a covert level:

  • Intra-personal – John may actually derives sense of safety unconsciously by being the victim of overloaded with others’ work….  just like the role he has played with his parents and siblings for many many years,
  • Group – The team may be playing to John’s valency to take on others’ work at the expense of doing his own work well.   This scapegoats John so that the team does not need to face its collective failure to meet business target.

So, it is useful to ask ourselves the question ‘What is really going on?’ instead of tackling simply the overt reason / view which does not really solve the problem.    Yet, some thoughts came to my mind recently on this question.   To ponder this question more, it actually implies subtly (especially when we often stress on the word ‘REALLY’ in the question)  that:

  • Ignore the overt reason / view
  • Figure out THE covert one.. which is like THE truth / answer

In fact, I have experienced myself and seen others like playing ‘detective game’ in finding the ‘real murderer’ in the name of this question.  Saying, ‘No, no, no… it is not.   Tell me what is REALLY going on’    On reflection, it is dangerous to do so.   I think more often than not there are always more than one reasons why someone behaves in a certain ways.   It is not ‘A leads to B’.    It is more like ‘A1 + A2 +….. + An leads to B’.   So, John could be really not skilled in saying no.   At the same time, he enjoys the familiarity and attention in the role of being dumped with others’ work.   And the group is scapegoating him at the same time.

What does it mean?   It means:

  • Do not deny the overt reason / view immediately
  • Always come up with multiple hypotheses on any covert dynamics

So, a better question to ask instead is:

‘What may also be going on?’

This embraces the overt one, and the notion of multiple dynamics.

Thinking further, I guess that it is not even about ‘A1 + A2 +….. + An leads to B’     The As do not act together in a linear way to influence.    They may actually be like in parallel universes.   One of the As is sometimes in action and sometimes not.    Or one of the As only commences to exist in the subject’s and / or observers’ mind because we see it in a certain way.  hm……

The ‘Clash’ between Coaching and Training

I recently ran a rather typical management development program.   There were a few modules in a few days.   Each modules was built around a competency topic e.g. communication, change management.  In each module, the participants are supposed to learn some specific tools / models on that topic, and then pondered how to apply them.   Such design is rather conventional.

Somehow, I noticed myself becoming less excited about such approach.   On reflection, I believe I was uncomfortable to introduce tools / models to the participants without sensing the participants’ need for such knowledge.   Perhaps I can do even more to build the WHY / ‘burning platform’ first (not in the standard design)     Yet, the very act of building the ‘burning platform’ already sounds odd or even manipulative to me.

On further reflection, from the organisational perspective, it is actually unavoidable and understandable for the central learning function to make participants learn about stuff which the latter did not necessarily see the need to do so.   After all, what the employer wants may NOT be the same as what individual employees want.

I think my discomfort is out of my growing ‘coaching mind-set’.   I have been spending more and more time on executive coaching and group coaching in the last 2-3 years.   (There are many different understandings on what ‘coaching’ is.   Mine is more around helping the coachee finding own solutions)     I thus would find it odd in a training setting to bombard the participants with unsolicited content.

I guess there is no absolute right or wrong.   Basically, if I continue to do such off-the-shelf standardized training program, I need to do better to establish the ‘burning platform’, both inside and outside the workshop.   (By ‘outside the workshop’, I mean influencing the clients on things like how to design and roll out the workshop in relation to imminent and related business challenge, how to select and orient the participants and their managers)

Dilemma between Learning and Performance in Action Learning

[Regent Park in London, May 2017]

I am an advocate on action learning, or more specifically the practice of ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL)    I believe we learn most effectively when we reflect on real work with real consequence.   A recent experience pushed me to think deeper on how to put this philosophy into practice. To be more specific, the question is ‘how much should the coach intervene?’

I was one of the coaches for an action-learning type workshop.   In short, the learners have some 24 hours to work together as teams on a real challenge faced by their organisation.   During the event, I felt odd when I heard expectation to help the learners do better in their project.   It seems to me that we care more about (immediate) performance than learning.   The problem is that making things easier for them can compromise their learning.

I realise that my philosophy towards action learning has shifted over the years.   This is probably because of the work in business schools in the last 2 years.  More at ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’.    The new paradigm is that I better just observe rigorously, let them fail and then help them learning from the experience (including the possible anger towards my ‘not-helping’)  Participants can still learn something even if their projects ‘win’.  But the learning from failure (with reflection by facilitation / coaching) can be deeper and better retained.

A further reflection then came – When I worked as an in-house L&D years ago, I cared a lot about the learners’ performance in the projects.   I also did things to enhance their performance.   Why?   I wanted them to look good so that I or my department look good in front of the CEO who was present with the project outcome!    After all, it is much easier to show case project outcome than learning.

If I were an in-house today, even though with the ‘business schools’ experience, I honestly could not claim that I am 100% prepared for the participants to fail in the projects.

So, how to reconcile the dilemma?   Or again, how much should the coach intervene?   As one can imagine, there is no straight-forward answer.   On reflection, I think the better we address the following factors, the more the coach can let them fail and learn from the experience.

Sponsor selection – From the learning perspective, the function of the sponsors / judges is basically to create consequence to the projects.   In general, the more senior they are, the scarier the action learning becomes.   The global CEO whom the participants can rarely meet will put them into the ‘Panic Zone’.  On the other hand, using peer as judges will leave them in the ‘Comfort Zone’.   We can thus dial up and down accordingly to pursue the ‘Learning Zone’?   In addition, we can module-ise the challenge e.g. first round with the country CEO and so on.

Sponsor relationship – Sometimes the tendency, if not obsession, to show case learners’ performance is out of sponsor’s impatience as well as HR / L&D own sense of insecurity.   (I have it myself)    A learning-oriented action learning thus requires mutual trust between the sponsor and the HR / L&D.   From the latter’s perspective, this means continuous effort to nurture the sponsor on the reality of learning and build own creditability.

Duration – Learning and performance are more likely to co-exist if the action learning is long enough.   Say, if the program can last for 6 months, the learners can transfer the learning from previous failure into enhanced performance in subsequent modules.   On the contrary, if we just have, say, 2 days, learning will easily be compromised assuming the need to show-case.

Reflection space – Related to the last point, a short action learning program may not allow enough time for reflection.   This hinders deep learning (from failure).   First, there is literally no time to talk.   Second, coaches would hesitate to challenge too much since there lacks space for the participants to ‘recover’.   I would say in general one day of action will need half a day of reflection for a small group (4-8) of participants.

Coaches – For action learning to yield deep learning, we need coaches who are at least conscious about own anxiety.  They also need to be skilful and resourceful in facilitating just-in-time learning.

What do you think?    How else or what other factors to consider in order to produce a great action learning program given the organisational realities?

Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

img_5403I was shown in a facilitation learning event a short video clip.   It is about a retreat for 50+ people in an organisation design and facilitated by a facilitator   It is the kind of upbeat video with delightful music which showed the smiling faces, colourful wall-charts, fun activities, etc.   There were captions indicating how much the participants happily connected, enjoyed the event, praised about the organisation, etc.

A big question mark came to my mind after I watched the clip – “What really did the event do to the organisation?”    I asked for the objective statements and have to say that the event seemed to meet the objectives e.g. ‘to have a fun, engaging, high energy day’    There were probably also ‘practical outputs’ contributing to the organisation’s strategy and purpose.

But from the clip (and in particular its mood), I questioned whether the event is actually a cover-up to any organisational issue.   Is it actually a dis-services to the organisation?

This post is not a critics to this piece of work.  In fact, if it is a critics, it is a critics to myself.    I have done similar events producing lot of fun and energy, and lot of flipcharts with long list of bullet points.   Well, those events produced what the sponsor wanted…  sometimes perhaps exactly a layer of cover-up.   But is it what the organisation needed?   How much I should and can push the sponsor to spend the resources on addressing the issues under the cover-up?

Well, this is very much related to my last post re my reflection on collusion.

 

 

 

What is really Reflection? (Cont’d)

IMG_8890

 

I have further thought on this.   Reflection is actually a few layers of ‘What does the experience mean to me?’    We asked ourselves this question a few times.   Or the coach / facilitator probes the learners a few times with this question….  probably in different forms though.    Taking a 1 on 1 coaching scenario reflecting on a people management issue

Ch = Coach; Ce = Coaches

  • Ch: ‘So, now you have completed the re-structuring work.   Shall we spend some time to reflect on it?’
  • Ce: ‘Sure’
  • Ch: ‘What does the experience mean to you?’
  • Ce: ‘It was tough.  Frankly, I found it particularly in delivering the news to the individuals’
  • Ch: ‘What have you learnt from your experience in handling such difficulty?’
  • Ce: ‘Well… hm…  I realise that for me it is better to be as open as possible….’

Take an experiential activity as another example in a 1 to many setting.  Let’s say, the marsh mallow activity.

Facilitator = F; Learner = L

  • F: ‘So, what does the last 30 minutes (of activity) mean to you?’
  • L: ‘We find it difficult to get people to listen’
  • F: ‘What does it mean?’
  • L: ‘We so drawn by the ‘doing’.   They just could not wait to work on the material.  Once it started, they do not listen.   Well….  In fact, since the others did not listen, more people switched into the ‘doing’ mode as well’
  • F: ‘What does this observation mean to you at work?’
  • L: ‘Similar things happened at work.   For example, people are drawn into the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ in meetings… ‘
  • F: ‘What does it reflection mean for you in the future?’
  • L: ‘Perhaps we could allocate specific time duration to ‘not doing’…..’

In a way, these layers of ‘What does it mean’ question is like the 4F in activity debrief:

  • Feeling = How did you feel?
  • Fact = What happened?
  • Finding = What did you learn?   What stood out for you?
  • Future = What do you plan to do differently?

The Art of Enrolment – Topic

Here is what I see as the third key reason why enrolment is difficult.   It is the nature of some topic.

For some topics, its name is confusing to start with.   ‘Leadership’ (or ‘Leadership Development’) is one of these.    You pick any 2 people in the workplace and ask them what leadership is.   They probably have very different answer.     In addition, there is one understanding of the term ‘Leadership Development’ which particularly confuses the communication i.e.

Leadership Development = Any developmental intervention for those in the leadership position.

This could really mean anything, even how to ensure policy compliance in China.   See my earlier post on ‘Leadership Development’.

With such a diverse understanding on what the topic it is, no wonder we would have ‘wrong’ participants in workshops / interventions.

Jumping ahead a bit into the ‘So What’, perhaps we should do away the term ‘Leadership’ and ‘Leadership Development’ in describing intervention.   Specifically, we should avoid workshop names like ‘The Essence of Leadership’, ‘Advanced Leadership Skills’.   Instead, we can consider to be more specific in naming them and use terms like ‘Transition’, ‘Influencing’, ‘Feedback’, ‘Visioning’.   If we are mindful to keep the name short, we can add a 4-5 words 1 liner to describe.

(Yes, most organisations have course factsheets already in place. But in my experience, people tend to judge by names rather than the content of the factsheets)

 

The Art of Enrolment

‘Magic happens before and after’ – What a great quote I learnt from the others.   The same applies to the business of developmental work. For example, whether a learning workshop succeeds or not is at least 50% ‘determined already’ before it really starts.   And one of the key pre-workshop work is to get the right participants into the workshop.

I was once in a workshop in Hong Kong with quite a few challenging participants.   They were either:

  • Not knowing why they were put into this particular program (one asked me whether he has done something wrong and thus got sent to this program!!)
  • Not having time for the workshop.   Some were actively working on deals
  • Not seeing the need to develop their leadership at all
  • Not even supported by their boss to spend time in the program

The workshop turned out to be very challenging as we had quite a few of the above and their dysfunctional behaviours influenced others a lot e.g. late-coming, working on mobile devices during sessions.   Having said, there were often 1 or 2 of these ‘prisoners’, ‘tourists’ or even ‘terrorists’ in the workshops I experienced.

Well, that is why I always prefer to work on Just-in-Time learning with intact teams.   See previous posts like this.   Since the intervention itself is real work, the participants will naturally have the will and time for it.   Unfortunately, we got to work on Just-in-Case learning as well and the risk of having ‘wrong’ participants is there.

Let me first reflect on why ‘wrong’ participants will end up in a learning program.   Organisationally, I think the root causes are size, time and topic nature.   First, when there are too many people in an organisation, there will be very different views on what a talent should develop on.     The talent development team in the headquarter believes an individual (let’s say John) should develop on networking skills but John and his boss see hard skills like credit analysis to be more important.   The situation becomes more complex when there are more parties in the picture e.g. local HR, business HR, local talent development, business head.

Ideally, such difference in view can be reconciled if there is time.   Specifically, John comes up his own individual development plan.   He discusses and agrees with his boss.   They then further discuss and agree with their HR partner.   And that HR partner ideally should have liaised with the other various HR specialists and business heads, and thus understands perfectly well the top down agenda on talent development i.e. what competency is needed for the organisation or a particular business.   John can then adjust his individual development plan which by then takes care of his own aspiration, the immediate business and the overall organisational need.   Yet, how often does an organizations have time for such alignment work?    Especially for the listed ones which need to respond to short-term-ism!

Let me elaborate on the third factor – topic nature – in the next post.