What’s the point?

 I still remember when I saw the first time an Abstractionism painting many many years ago, I wondered ‘what is the point?’ I have never managed to appreciate them.

I went into Albertina in Vienna earlier…. partly involuntarily. At least for the sections I visited, the museum contains a good variety of paintings in the last century including Monet and Picasso.

Interestingly, the one I spent most time on is this one, called ‘Face in a landscape’. I am not sure whether it is officially classified as Abstractionism (as there seem to be many -isms). But it does have the ‘what is the point?’ effect on me.

I cannot help wonder why I looked at it for so long. On reflection, the vague image is like the Tavistock experience to me. Like this piece, the experience is to create white space for individuals to make their own sense or to surface own assumptions. The key difference is that the latter is about how people behave in group and how group behave.

In fact it is also like many aspects of life in general. There is no single absolute truth. Everyone has his or her own truth. It depends how one perceives.

One particular aspect is leadership. 10 people can have 10 different ways to lead.. and they all could achieve the ‘result’ (the additional layer of complexity is that people define ‘result’ differently)

I was probably drawn to the painting because of such ‘no single truth’ notion. It speaks for the path I have been trying to develop myself into in last few years. And in the spirit of this blog theme, such notion also points to the importance of questions (rather than answers), both in developing myself and helping others develop re the complex aspects of life like leadership.

Perhaps I start to appreciate such paintings more.

French and Leadership – The limitation of traditional classroom training

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Some thoughts came to my mind when I was attending my French class earlier this week.  (Yes, apparently, I was not an attentive student to French!!)

During the class, the teacher played some recording.   We listened and tried to understand.   He corrected our mistakes and then also introduced some grammar points.  We then practiced some more and got corrected.    This lecture-practice-correct loop (in whatever order) seems to me a rather typical classroom training scene.   In the corporate world, similar things happen in the training rooms.

Some argue that such notion of training in the corporate world was naturally borrowed from schools and / or military training.    It has worked there and thus it might work here.   In fact, if I were the first few people in the business history asked by the CEO to help people learn, I would probably adopt what I experienced before i.e. classroom training.  After all, the CEO has experienced the same and thus would likely agree with my proposal.

It probably worked well in the beginning.   I imagine the first few training topics in an organisation are technical in nature e.g. how to operate a machine, how to process a loan application.   For topics like these, there exist THE right answers (may be more than one). We can thus tell the learners some theories or models and correct their practices / exercises.

But problems arose when we extend such lecture-practice-correct loop into topics without THE right answers e.g. Leadership.  (Of course, it depends what one means by Leadership / Leadership Development.   I talked about it in earlier blogs – ‘Really, what is leadership?’ and ‘Leadership Development’.  We use this term to mean a lot of things.    If it means ‘how to use the performance review system’, there is THE right answers.   But if it means ‘how to lead better’, there is NO right answer.)

In the latter version of ‘Leadership’, any response to the question depends on the situation, the one who wants to lead, the ones whom to be led, etc.    There is no correct answer.   In the language of Cynefin Framework, the technical topics being to SIMPLE or COMPLICATED domain, whilst the latter version of leadership beings to the COMPLEX domain.

Apparently, the lecture-practice-correct loop would not work here.   Any lecture can at best be inputs for individual experiments.    It would be demotivating and frustrating (to the learners and the organisation) to take any lecture content as the Holy Grail.     More, without THE right answer, any attempt to correct would be in vain.

Yet, from what I have experienced so far, we are still largely ‘conditioned’ by the lecture-practice-correct approach, no matter what the underlying topics are.   This probably adds to the list made by Mckinsey on ‘Why Leadership Development Programs Fail’.   In short, we are helping others learn leadership like the way we do French.   C’est bizarre!

(You may ask ‘So what then?’.   See my thought on earlier blog posts like ARL and ‘Forget about Training’)

What story would you like to tell?

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Many years ago, I was facing some difficult career choices.   As a coachee, I was asked a question which I found very powerful.   My first kid was a few months ago at that time, and the question was like ‘The best way to raise the kids is to role model.   How would you choose so that you will have the stories you want to tell your kids when they grow up?’

I suddenly became very clear on what I will do.    On reflection, the question is powerful because it connected my emerging identity to the problem.   Since I had a lot of energy on such identity, the question empowered me to address the problem the better.

The implication for me as a coach is then to look for the different identities a coachee has, especially those outside the natural scope of the underlying problem.   So, if the problem is in the workplace, look for identities like a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a sister, a brother, a friend, a sports team member, a church member…..    Sense which one the coachee has energy with.   Prompt the coachee to look at the problem from such identity may give him / her new perspective.

What is really Reflection? (Cont’d)

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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?

What is really Reflection?

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I am intrigued as I heard a colleague explaining what reflection really means.   I have not really thought about it, and I like her definition.   I got to make a note here.

‘Reflection is not about re-telling or summarizing.   Reflection is about not about reviewing which means summarizing and evaluating.   Reflection is abut the question ‘What does the experience mean to me?’

It is more elaborated than how Oxford Dictionary defines it – ‘Reflection = Serious thought or consideration’.    Perhaps the ‘What does the experience mean to me?’ version is more applicable in the learning context.

Relating to this, we had this conversation on the topic of Reflection in a very reflection-friendly venue.  There are a lot of space for individual or group jointly to talk about ‘What does the experience mean to me?’    To be more specific:

  • There are a lot of quiet corners or rooms with chairs or sofas in circle
  • Natural light is available in most rooms
  • The interior décor (lines and colours) is ‘clean’ and simple
  • There is a library full of business books
  • The venue is next to the nature – a forest and a stream

But most importantly, there was no other group in the same building.   I am talking about the big barn (in the picture above) with just some 30 of us.    (I subsequently learnt that the place has a policy of renting out the a building only to one group.)

All the above provide ‘white space’ for the participants to reflect on or have dialogue together.

What if one day I can build one like this in Shanghai or Hong Kong!?

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New Experiment

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I wrote a paper with an IMD professor on a few companies in China.    Well, it is not exactly related to the themes of this blog.   Well, but it is an easy post to start with….  a lot other coaching / facilitation experience to reflect on in this blog!!    Anyway, hopefully such new attempt will somehow lead me to the coaching / facilitation field in this part of the world…..

Click Leading-Chinese-Companies-final-11-11-2015 to access the paper.

Improv Theatre and Emergence

I normally find it hard to enjoy stage performance / show normally but the dinner performance in the IAF EMENA conference in Stockholm was indeed amazing, even inspiring!   They did improv theatre. I find them to be very creative in how to improv e.g.

  • Randomly started a conversation between 2 actors. Another actor called ‘pause’ anytime and replaced any in-action actor by himself / herself, and carried on the conversation
  • Asked audience to shout out a scene to start with.   Started a random conversation among the players.   Whenever an audience threw a flower onto the stage, the player who just spoke would sing a song using the words he / she just said.   They called it ‘Feel like a song’
  • Two players stood together and moved like one individual. When they spoke during the play, they looked at each other and spoke at the same time. Funny words and meaning came out.

In doing the above, they achieved quite a few things.   They interacted with the audience and kept them engaged.   In fact, they co-created the ‘stories’ with the audience.   And they managed to keep the ‘stories’ entertaining.

Most importantly, apart from being entertained, I saw emergence.   They created the environment where new stories could emerge – stories which even the actors did not know before the show.   I am most amazed with their mindset (just my inference).   One said confidently in the beginning along the line of ‘We are going to perform on stories which we do not know’.

This is exactly the mindset needed to deal with “Complex” problem (under Cynefin Framework) – the cause-and-effect is so unclear that existing practices do not work.   The leaders need to take time to experiment for emergent practices.     To me, the most challenging part is to be mentally prepared e.g. to go against the urge to adopt any ‘best practice’ or ‘technical fix’ which could easily be Work Avoidance.

The way how the improv actors carried themselves provided me a great example and reminer to such way of thinking.   On the other hand, I also learn from them on the technical aspect.   I reflect on how the actors managed to co-create the stories:

Diversity – They designed ways to tap into the different inputs from the floor e.g. timing on when to sing a song.   Other than being engaging, the inputs forced the actors to create something new.   It broke the inertia.

Team – In a way, their task is to convert the crazy inputs into digestable and entertaining performance.   Working in a core team who knows each other well makes it much more possible.   The 4 actors both challenged and supported each other.

Technical – Allowing things to emerge needs solid foundation. The actors could work on new inputs since they have strong performing capability. They sang well. They spoke clear and loud. They made melodies from the piano which their team members can follow. We needed readily available lego pieces in order to emerge.

(Note: The performing team is called Aktör Entertainment.  But somehow, I could not find them on the internet)

A question on question 

New learning experience last month.   First, I acted a coach (for teams and individuals) in a CEIBS executive education program in Shanghai.     I learnt a great deal from the professors, the fellow coaches and the participants.   On the other hand, I did a group coaching session with a small group in Zurich. It is humbling to learn of the challenges faced by the business people in this part of the world.   Lastly, I ran a facilitation skills workshop with a few inhouse facilitators in Hong Kong – a start to their learning journey.

There are a lot of learning from these experiences.   Let me reflect on some.

A question emerged from a coaching conversation with a participant.   She was facing an issue which she already has a lot of data e.g. her own feeling and observation, others’ advices, numbers.   In fact, I sensed that the abundance of data was keeping her from making her decision. She was worried and puzzled. Our conversation led me to ask the following question, which apparently helped her:

‘What is THE one question, if get answered, will relieve you from feeling puzzled?   Take your time and write down your question.   Feel free to write as many as possbile first and then choose / craft into ONE question.’

I do not invent this question totally.   In fact, I was kindly challenged with a similar question when I was puzzled on whether to move to Switzerland.   What I learn now is that such a question is particularly useful when the coachee already has a lot of data.   Moreover, it is important to give time for him or her to really craft the question in writing.   The quiet time spent helps clarify what he or she really wants.

I exchanged the above thought with a friend and received the following challenge – ‘Are we then finding a question to fit the answer we want?’   What he meant is that e.g. if I tend to take up the Switzerland adventure, the above approach is about finding a question which supports the move.   He challenged that such approach is not rational and objective.   Well, my response was – ‘It does not matter. Making a decision, especially the major ones in life, is largely an irrational act after all.   Like getting married or buying an apartment. It is particularly ‘OK’ if one has thought through the pros and cons already.   The key is in fact about helping one to tap into his or her irrational side.’

What do you think?