‘Smoking can fix a lot of our (team) problems’

(Source: press.ikidane-nippon.com)

An executive made a casual remark in a recent intact team development workshop, ‘Smoking (together) can fix a lot of our problems’.    Health hazard aside, his quote does highlight something important on team effectiveness.

With context, what he meant is that when co-workers go out of workplace / meeting rooms and smoke together, they can talk more freely.   A global CEO once said, ‘What our organization needs is more ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ conversations….’

Often, such free dialogues help resolve deadlocks in the formal meetings or email exchanges.   They are less bound by rigidities like seniorities, office norms / protocols, meeting objectives, etc.   They feel more comfortable to ask questions (which often do not happen because it is associated with not-knowing, and thus a scary thing to do in formal settings) and express potentially controversial view.  It is the ‘off-the-record’ thing.  

In addition, psychologically, smoking together can also be taken unconsciously as ‘doing “bad” things together’ and such common experience generates sense of togetherness.  Camaraderie lubricates team to work through difficult issues among members – easier to advocate and enquire. 

Reflecting further, this argument has interesting implications to team effectiveness intervention.   First, it then makes sense to design such space into team interventions e.g. ‘World Café’, even better ‘Open Space’, and even even better ‘Walk and Talk’ with a simple instruction ‘Please have a walk and talk about things you two need to talk about but have not had chance to talk about’.   

(A side question – would a simple team BBQ be a good team intervention?   Definitely yes, if the purpose is primarily on having fun and gaining a sense of togetherness.   But if there are specific issues to be worked on, some gently-structured yet open processes like ‘Open Space’ will be more appropriate.)

There is another implication – despite the argument above, team days / retreats are more often than not fully packed with centrally-determined topics and structures.   Sometimes, even ‘normal’ open spaces like breakfasts, lunches and coffee breaks are ‘invaded’.   Why?   First, not all realise the benefit of the ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ conversations to team effectiveness.   Second, whilst effectiveness of team effectiveness intervention is not easy to be evaluated, coaches and sponsors are easily drawn to gain comfort by having more ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’ given the money and time spent.   

What does all these mean to coaches for team development?

To start with, coaches need to recognize the usefulness of such free space.   Perhaps the question to be pondered during the design stage is ‘Given where the team is, how much do the members need some “white space” to have dialogues on things determined by them (not centrally), in pair or small groups?’   

The Cynefin framework would be helpful here – ‘What questions the team need to work on and where in the framework those questions belong?’   Such free space is useful when the team needs to tackle ‘Complex’ problem, where diversity and experiment are important.  

Further, coaches need to be aware and thus resist the temptation to fill the workshop with ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’….. often unconsciously.  Sometimes, the temptation is about the desire to be seen as ‘doing things’, instead of just ‘letting the group talk’.  We need to be conscious how we define our role – ‘I am here to lead the conversation or even tell them the “answer”’ vs ‘I am here to hold the space for necessary conversations to emerge’.   All these require continual inner work in understanding own intra-personal dynamics.

But also inter-personal dynamics – Often, such temptation comes, sometimes unconsciously, from the clients’ desire for control e.g. certainty on what the team members will talk about.   After all, the client / sponsor can experience a great deal of anxiety in putting together a workshop e.g. spending the money, asking the leadership team (some less friendly than others) to put daily tasks aside, etc.   Such anxiety can drive the person to go for high(er) control in workshop design especially in those ‘high-control’ industries like manufacturers, banks, airlines.   Like in 1:1 executive coaching, we need to work with the sponsor THROUGH such anxiety to realize what the task really calls for.  

(Yes, intervention starts before the workshop.  In fact, magic happens before and after.  This is also why I always prefer to work on cases starting from diagnosis phase.)

How do you help teams having such space…… smoking or not :)?

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

 

A reflection on a recent ‘learning miracle’….  kind of.     I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program.  Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them. Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day.    In another call, Sandy (pseudonym) expressed repeatedly her excitement on how she became better in getting her message across by speaking less and more slowly.   She also gave detailed description on her changed behaviors were well received in her global offsite meeting.

The magnitude of change was exceptional.

If it was just one of them making such rather drastic change, I would say I was lucky.   Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call.    Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

But we had a few of them making exceptional changes.   Why?   On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:

Open program– To start with, majority of the participants paid considerable sum of fee (by themselves instead of being sponsored) and effort to enroll into the program.  This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly ‘invited’ to join because they are ‘talent’ or even because the program is ‘mandatory’.

Pre-coaching orientation– The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the ‘adaptive’ space.   I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.

Psychological Safety– We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure.   The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well.   This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.

Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidence– The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together.   We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously.  And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.

Peer– As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles.   This is both relieving and motivating.

My Being– I suspect my orientation was helpful as well.  Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging.   Putting more attention on psychological safety.

Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection – they made change without any input on techniques and skills!   This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about ‘will’ rather than ‘skill’.  This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless ‘training courses’, reading, videos or advices from others.   They own a great deal of conscious and tacit knowledge.

In other word, when learning does not happen, it is less about they do not know how but more about they do not want to, consciously or unconsciously.   And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?

Or in a ‘so-what’ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make change….  like considering the list above.

‘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 Good Old ‘Images’

 

This post is again about the fundamentals of learning – the use of images.    I came across the above image on ‘Moneyball of Leadership” video by Charlie Kim.   Charlie used it to illustrate his speech on how poor execution can kill even brilliant strategy

When I saw this image, an intervention jumps into my mind.     Imagine yourself an intact team sitting in a room.   After some check-in, show the image with some silence.   Depending on the intended topic of reflection / conversation (without restraining other things to emerge), we can ask the following questions:

Revealing the problem

  • ‘What do you see in the picture?’
  • ‘How would you feel if you are the painter’s supervisor?’
  • ‘In what occasion at work you experienced the similar?’
  • ‘What was the impact to the work performance?’
  • ‘What possibly caused such problem?’ 

Sharing practices

  • ‘How did you / the others tackle the situation?’
  • ‘What worked?   What did not?’

Encouraging self evaluation

  • ‘What was possibly in the painter’s mind when he / she did this?   Craft a line to describe the voice in his / her head, like those in a comic book.’
  • Put all those lines on a flipchart, and then ask ‘Share with your learning partner here an occasion where one of those voices once shows up in your own heads’
  • ‘How did you feel at that time?’
  • ‘If your mind changed at that time, what triggered such change?’

With relevant set-up and questions, one single image can provoke powerful reflection and learning conversation.

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)

Love Art in Yourself

I happened to hear on a radio show this quote – ‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ by Konstantin Stanislavski who is a prominent theatre practitioner.   In particular, he is widely recognized by his theories on actor training and preparation.   Though this quote is more for the actors in the theatre business, I felt it super relevant for coaches and facilitators.   Specifically, the quote is a great reminder to us.

One of the biggest challenges (probably THE biggest) in the business of coaching and facilitation is the practitioner himself / herself.     (Of course, equally, it is the biggest asset as well)    It is a challenge often because we often unconsciously focus on ourselves rather than the work, especially when things does not go well.    For example, in coaching, when the work actually needs us to keep silence to provoke thinking, we keep on talking in order to ‘appear’ helpful.    Another example in facilitation / group coaching, when the work actually needs to allow productive conflict, we say something to pre-maturely harmonize the exchange.

Often, we take care of our own psychological need rather than doing the work.

I also recall an exchange with my fellow coaches in a program.   This was basically a condensed action learning program.  We were pondering when we should intervene as the coaches.   I said probably we should only intervene if we have YES to the following two questions:

  1. Are the participants STRUCK enough to have emotional attachment to the experience?
  2. Am I sure it is not my own anxiety that drives me to intervene?

‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ (or in Chinese愛你心中的藝術,而非藝術中的你)

 

Dancing with the Surprise

Less than 12 hours before starting a 2-day Leadership Development workshop, the client told me that they need to take the first 1 hour away from the workshop.  The new country head as the sponsor will introduce an ‘Action Project’ to the participants.  The first thought came to my mind was that it may not be a good idea because:

  • The ‘Action Project’ means demanding work for the participants in the coming few months. Introducing it in the beginning would probably take away the participants’ attention from the workshop
  • The country head is new to most in the room. We have little idea how his speech and his project will be in the line with workshop
  • Last but not the least, the participants did not know in advance that they need to work on an ‘Action Project’ at all!

Yet, on second thought, I found myself curious to let go.  I chose to experiment with this unpredictability.   After all, my client could not do much about it at that time.   I was very much in the state of ‘Be prepared and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in my previous blog post.

At the end, it turned out to be an enhanced learning experience for the participants.   Basically, I leveraged the participants’ strong attention towards the project to land the learning for the workshop content.   For example, a piece of workshop content is about the notion that people have different behavioural preferences.    I challenged the participants to apply the learning to prepare for the Q&A session with the sponsor on day 2.   The driving questions are ‘What behavioural preference did XXX demonstrated and why?   How would you engage him better tomorrow given your preference?’   I also facilitated them to talk about the possible dynamics within their respective project team using the behavioural preference language.

The underlying learning philosophy is very much the ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL) I mentioned before.   Learning retention is higher for ‘Just-in-time’ rather than ‘Just-in-case’ learning.    See ‘ARL approach’, ‘Learning Sustainability’ and ‘Action Learning in Action’ .

The more important reflection is that I can let go better.   It is driven by my rising inclination to work with ‘what is in the room’ rather than ‘what I prepare’ or even ‘what is on the PPT’.   The fact that I have spent majority of my time on executive coaching certainly contributes to this inclination.

I am curious how else I could be different in the future….  Let the learning continues.

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?