Just Try Some Experimentation

I have a client I have been coaching for some time. Let’s call him Rob. He’s a senior guy in a business with a nationwide footprint including multiple offices of widely varying sizes. One of Rob’s key responsibilities is to take the Strategic planning process forward, building the cascade from corporate strategy to section objectives to team actions and personal KPIs. Importantly, Rob wants to do this work collaboratively as part of an organisational aspiration to be more collaborative in its culture. And he also has to fit everything into the frameworks provided by their multinational owner.

So it isn’t a simple task, and in our regular conversations I see Rob grappling with the question “how am I going to do this?”

Understandably, Rob finds the task very uncertain and challenging, even overwhelming at times. What he dearly wants is the answer and until he finds the answer I see him sometimes spinning his wheels and losing confidence.

I can’t give Rob the answer or tell him how to do this. Nobody can. This task is a complex one, both very alike the situation in similar organisations, yet unique in its own ways. What I have been able to help Rob gain is the confidence to admit he doesn’t know, to understand there isn’t a right way, and to just try things. Rob has shifted from problem solving mode to learning and testing mode. And the difference has been amazing. In recognising the inherent uncertainty, complexity and ‘unknowability’ of the situation Rob has been able to cut himself and his people some slack.

  • He lets go of the need to have ‘the answer’.
  • He trys different things and learns how to build the frameworks as he goes.
  • He takes small steps with confidence, learning as much from the things that don’t work as from the things that do.

For example, Rob wants teams to report back against their agreed objectives and KPIs. He was struggling to come up with the ‘right’ questions that would gather the ‘right’ data. Then with his experimenters hat on he decided to test different sets of question in different offices, to see what was going to work best.

Now at the check-out from our coaching calls I hear Rob use phrases such as “I’m really looking forward to trying this” and even, “I’m excited about the next step”.

There is real power and freedom in that mindset shift from “why don’t I know how to do this?” to “what can I try next?”.

So why not try a little experimentation?

If you want to learn some more about the experimental approach in practice, join us for our upcoming free webinar on August 19th.


Re-experimenting with my migraines

In reflecting on my blog (below) from 2 years ago,I realised that I had fallen back into the black hole of "business as usual", and my approach to solving the problem was a key part of the problem.

Even though I had recognised previously that my focus on being overtired and stressed was preventing me trying alternatives, I had fallen back into a pattern of just trying to "fix" that probable cause.

Over the last 2 weeks I just happened to avoid my evening sugar hit (I love lollies!), replacing them with fruit and lots of water, and was pleasantly surprised at the result- no migraines!

Now while I'm realistic enough to appreciate that I probably haven't found the magic answer to my migraines, it did serve to remind me that 'just trying stuff' in complex situations is a more appropriate response than staying fixated on our belief in the one answer.

So my experiments continue, to salve my aching head....

 

I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!


COVID Horse or COVID Mouse?

I first published this blog in April 2020 at the height of our initial COVID lockdown. 16 months later it feels just as relevant. What do you think? Are you seeing Trojan Horses or Trojan Mice in our COVID responses?...

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?


Those silos are still around!

In thinking about this month’s topic on silo busting, I was reminded of my blog four years ago:

Following a successful workshop a couple of weeks ago on setting up a collaborative framework for a project with a bunch of internal staff, the manager said to me that she couldn't believe how well the group had worked together, and how "they got more done in 2 hours than we had done in the last 2 months!"

She was surprised, which struck me as a bit unusual until I realised how uncommon working well together must be in that organisation.

I reflected back on my 32 years in a big corporate in a past life and remembered the challenges I experienced in working with teams there- the constant battles between the organisational silos- engineering and production, HR and OD, marketing and sales- hoarding of information, and the strong positions and solution focus that each group took into each session. Then I realised that my recent client was experiencing that same culture of brick walls I had experienced for years.

I also realised that my experience of the last 12 years had been quite different, as I had got so used to a different pattern and so what we saw with the group was more the norm to me, but quite unusual for her.

While I was the facilitator in that case, it reminded me once again that it is not fundamentally the tools or skills I had that made the difference- it was the collaborative thinking that helped people work across their organisational boundaries - people getting to know each other better, willingness to share information, deeply listening to a diversity of views, and their willingness to take ownership of something that they felt important.

This resonated with me yesterday as I read a really interesting case study, where a government agency had focused on collaboration as a starting point to tackle the lack of innovation, in a traditional organisation.

In the case, the key agency Director acknowledges some of the challenges in changing the way the staff work given they felt overwhelmed, siloed, too busy, no info sharing, etc, and how "winning the hearts and minds" of the staff was key task for her collaboration facilitators.

So I'm now more mindful of the effect of the organisational "tribes" and the unconscious and mostly unintended influence they can have on getting good results together, and the power of collaboration in breaking up those silos.

So what have I learned in the meantime?

  • The dynamics around silos haven’t gone away
  • People are more aware of the issues around organisational barriers and how to respond with more useful collaborative behaviours:
    • Listen more
    • Pay attention to the relationships as well as the content
    • Share information
    • Check assumptions about each other
  • We’ve found that a simple tool can be really powerful in seeing each other in a new light by revealing and challenging such assumptions. Try it out here.

How are you finding those silos? A barrier - or an opportunity to learn and try new stuff?


The Agony of Silence

Thinking about this month's theme of listening I've been reflecting on why I find it so hard to be silent in a group environment- to pause and wait for others to speak. In my experience as a facilitator and coach, I feel this tension almost every time I work. That growing anxiety as I pause and wait for input or a response from someone else in the room or on the zoom call. But why do I feel this way?

  • Is it that I feel inadequate if I'm not contributing or controlling the conversation?
  • Is it that I worry my client won't be getting value if I'm not talking?
  • Is it that I just have so much valuable stuff to say that I must get it out?
  • Is it that I don't want to give others a chance to get their threepence worth in?
  • Am I worried that they might say something contradictory?
  • or even worse, they might say something more insightful or valuable than I could?

The palpable tension as the pause lengthens, and silence fills the space.

What are they thinking? Will someone step up? What happens if they don't, and will it seem like I've wasted their valuable time being quiet.

It's a ridiculous fear really, that a 30-second pause might result in a failure to meet a deadline, or get a job done, or meet the boss's needs, particularly as we have already used 10 times more than that on arguing who is right or wrong on some aspect of the issue.

And then relief! Someone steps in with an insight, a question, a comment, an idea. It cascades from there like a dam has broken and overwhelms those assumptions and anxieties.

So I have learnt that the pain of being silent is one of the keys to listening more effectively. But this insight doesn't make it any easier to keep my mouth shut for those seemingly interminable seconds!


A hop, skip and jump into collaboration

When facing any problem at work, our natural tendency as a leader is to seek a clear process to find solutions.

A step by step guide that gives us confidence we are on the right track, and can get the desired outcome. It would seem that part of the attraction is our need to know, and to be seen as a good problem solver (otherwise we might look a bit incompetent??)

Now it seems that in a lot of circumstances this works just great, but what about those wicked and complex problems where our standard problem solving fail and we need new thinking to tackle it together.

We've spent a fair bit of time trying to make sense of this dilemma- how to provide a step by step guide to solve complex issues when the nature of complexity dictates that a linear approach will fail!

Our insight is that we need to treat such situations more like a dance than a climb- taking a flexible approach allows for the emergence necessary when taking a more collaborative approach.

We can still generate a framework and set of tools in a logical sequence to provide guidance, but we are seeing growing evidence with clients that being able to "hop, skip and jump" is key to success. This might look like

  • starting at the appropriate place in the logic given your situation- maybe step 3 or 7....
  • moving back and forward through the logic as needs dictate
  • missing some steps if needed
  • starting anywhere, but going everywhere.

While you might need to understand the framework and know how to use any particular tool, a key success factor will also be to know what tool to use when- the hop, skip and jump approach.

If you want to know more about how to do this, talk to us about applying our Collaboration System.


What makes you do different?

While reading Stuart and Viv's great new blogs to get some inspiration for this month's topic, I noticed the tag line at the bottom of our blog page- about our programs "building your collaborative muscle"

Then I thought ...aahh...I'm actually in the middle of something just like that- my continuing recovery from my surgery for my ruptured quad tendon, particularly re-building the quad muscles that had atrophied from lack of use.

So why is this a time to try something different?

I've realised that I just have to, because:

  • I can't do what I normally used to do
  • there's a high risk to my future (mobility) if I push what I normally do
  • when I try to fix something it doesn't seem to work the same as before
  • I'm willing, but others aren't (in this case my leg!)
  • I revert back to business as usual pretty quickly

So what am I now doing that I may have avoided before, not even considered, or been embarrassed to try?

  • slowing down hugely (easier when your body forces that on you)
  • asking for help (eg requesting a wheelchair at the airport)
  • following a really rigorous 12 month rehabilitation plan (that actually changes weekly depending on progress)
  • but also accepting that I might just have to let things emerge, as I can't predict or plan everything (eg improving knee flexibility past 90 degrees)
  • constantly experimenting with new ways to get things done (climbing stairs, crossing slopes, working permanently from home)
  • Letting go of some things (being OK to not control everything- because the damn leg just won't respond)
  • sharing the load at home and work (could be just an excuse to avoid cleaning the shower!)

And I'm actually seeing that trying something different isn't just really useful when I am faced with a complex and uncertain situation that challenges almost everything I do, but it's actually the only way to get the type of progress I need to reach my vision- skiing black runs again within 12 months- Covid permitting!

So I'm wondering what's your try-different story? Hopefully not as debilitating as mine!


Is it time to do something different?

This is a very appropriate title for my blog this month as I, personally, am about to do something very different that is simultaneously exciting, scary, sad and makes me feel vulnerable. Yes, I’m going to step back from 59 years of (almost) regular work and 32 years since I founded Twyfords in 1988. I’m going to step into the unknown world of “retirement’.

I’m doing it because it seems like a sensible way of approaching the rest of my life. I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know what it will feel like. I have already received advice that ‘transition to retirement is not always as easy as many people expect’ and that I ‘should have a retirement plan’.

What I have learned over this last decade of exploring collaboration is that, when facing an uncertain future, full of ambiguity, which is likely to include complex decisions about many things,  and likely to be dependent on the input of many other people, careful planning isn’t necessarily going to help.

So, my plan is not a detailed plan but more of a heuristic to live by as I let the future emerge. My notes to myself are:  keep my body active through regular local and long distance walking; keep my mind active by learning new things and reading more widely; and finally continue to attempt things that challenge me.

While musing about this future, after 32 years I’m unable to switch off the habit of considering Twyfords future, in parallel to my own.

I am excited for the possibilities for the company, and sad that I won’t be such an active participant as in the past.  We’ve been working hard during the uncertainties of the Covid-19 environment, the anxieties of the Black Lives Matter movement all embedded in the planet’s vulnerability to climate change. It’s pretty obvious to us just how important collaboration is going to be at every scale.

Twyfords theme this month is ‘Is it time to do something different?’

By this we mean, isn’t it time to think and act differently and improve our people’s capability to work really effectively with others on tricky, messy issues where complexity and uncertainty abound?

We asked our networks and their networks to respond to a quick 60 second survey. We are delighted at the number of responses we’ve had. We are finding evidence that the challenges facing project managers who want to lead their teams into more productive ways of working are the challenges our work is focused on solving i.e.

  • They are looking for ways to ‘nudge’ their people to work differently and more constructively together.
  • They seek confidence in leading a diverse team as it tackles difficult projects.
  • They want to ‘add’ collaboration to their project management skillset for the future and
  • They want to be able to ‘manage up’ and influence their managers and executives to support this new way of working.

I am confident that my colleagues at Twyfords, starting immediately, have solutions for project managers within organisations that struggle with:

  • impermeable silos,
  • a risk averse culture,
  • a technical focus ... and most specifically
  • a lack of support for ‘doing different’.

I wish them, as well as old and new clients, an exciting, but sometimes a little scary, way of ‘doing different’ where both authenticity and vulnerability will lead them into new ways and new success.

I’m also confident those ways of thinking and working will help me as I step into my new world as well!


Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.


(Not) Walking into Uncertainty

I'm not sure, but my experience is that having a sequence of uncertainties might actually makes things a bit more manageable. Seems a paradox, but perhaps provides some clues for living in these uncertain times.

So, to explain.

I arrived back from an overseas skiing trip with a serious leg injury in early March, just as the pandemic got serious here with the restrictions then lockdown.

Initially I was facing lots of unknowns regarding my treatment- did I have coronavirus? (test negative!), could I get to see the specialist and get surgery asap, could I recover in time for planned overseas trips, could I work?.

And then I get the surgery done and faced a whole new set of unknowns- how to manage with a full leg brace on 24/7 - could I sleep, work, etc?, how to get around?, how to even sit at home?, how to get rehabilitation?, and what does the rehab look like?, what should my leg look and feel like at the milestones in the rehab program?

And at the same time, Covid19 restrictions kick in and so a new set of unknowns emerge - how to get the stitches out with hospital cancelled?, face to face physio not available so how to recover?, how to exercise when staying at home with no walking?, how will it impact a fairly strict and lengthy rehabilitation program?, etc

But interestingly, I have survived OK when facing seemingly overwhelming uncertainty (both short and long term), and I was just reflecting on some of the things that might have helped:

  • Structure- providing myself a series of routines that gave me some short term certainty- a shower and dressing routine each morning, a short walk and coffee at the beach each day with my wife, timed 4 hourly exercise routine during the day, scheduled bi-weekly physiotherapy appointments, news hour each evening.
  • Not worrying about things I can’t control - letting go of the plans for travelling or skiing for 12 months, not stressing about needing someone else put my left sock and shoe on, relaxing about being driven everywhere, working as much as I can manage at home- even if it’s only 2 hours a day.
  • Keeping connected- using Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected with clients, colleagues, friends and family
  • I’ve always been an optimist, so I guess that has also helped- I tend to look at things with a positive view, and that has been evident in how I have viewed my surgery and recovery and prospects- she’ll be right!
  • Also helpful is being flexible and trying some new things around my leg and recovery- like flexing my knee at home for physiotherapy rather than just relying on the expert- small safe to fail experiments!

So while I don’t recommend tearing a quad muscle tendon, it has given me new insights in how to thrive in uncertainty!