Archive for “Emotional response”

DareMini

So DareConfMini was a bit amazing. What a day. Highlights:

  • Follow your jealousy from Elizabeth McGuane
  • Situational leadership for ordinary managers from Meri Williams
  • The challenge of applying the great advice you give to clients, to your own work and practice from Rob Hinchcliffe
  • Finding something to like about the people who wind you up the most from Chris Atherton
  • Being brave enough to reveal your weaknesses from Tim Chilvers
  • Jungian archetypes to help you make and stick to commitments from Gabriel Smy
  • Radical challenges to management orthodoxy from Lee Bryant
  • Meeting such interesting people at the after party

No doubt things will continue to churn and emerge for me as it all settles down, and I’ll blog accordingly.

In the meantime, all the videos and slides can be watched here and there are some great graphic summaries here (from Francis Rowland) and here (from Elisabeth Irgens)

There are also longer posts than mine from Charlie Peverett at Neo Be Brave! Lessons from Dare and Banish the January blues – be brave and get talking from Emma Allen.

If you are inspired to go to DareConf in September, early bird with substantial discounts are available until 17th February.

Many thanks to the amazing Jonathan Kahn and Rhiannon Walton who are amazing event organisers – and it’s not even their day job. They looked after speakers very well and I got to realise a childhood fantasy of dancing at Sadler’s Wells. David Caines drew the pictures.

 

When form is content: singing a round

A great little place near me runs weekly group sessions where we reflect on our lives and work together on essential skills like empathy and dealing with difference.  We also take part in experiential group activities*.

Today’s theme was trust: the necessity of continuing to trust each other, despite the frailties and failures we know we will sometimes experience. Partway through a presentation on this, we tried an experiment: singing a round.  The song was one that many of us – but not all – had sung before.

The words are about joining together to make something bigger than the whole. And so is the form. We begin by singing in unison. Then we break into groups and each group begins the song slightly later than the previous group. The tune and words reveal themselves as elements which work together as the phrases overlap, making something more delightful and interesting than the unison version.

The rounds I learnt as a child (London’s Burning, Frere Jacques) used the form for its entertainment value (!) but this song uses the form to deliver and emphasise content.

I wonder how we can do the same in our facilitation training…

*Yes, I’m being a little coy here. As a confirmed atheist, it’s a little uncomfortable to explain how I love going to my local Unitarian church.  Discovering that the Minister is also an atheist was a nice surprise. But there you go: my notions of church have been confounded, so check it out.

(Dis)engaging staff

“Who do they think they are preaching to?”

A visit to a client’s canteen earlier this week brought me face-to-face with one extremely disgruntled staff member. In the queue, my contact pointed out the points-based reward system staff can now choose to join, which incentivises choosing a meat-free or meat-and-dairy-free meal. Like a coffee-shop loyalty card, you accumulate points and get mystery prizes. The explicit motivation is calorie-reduction and carbon-reduction: a vegan meal has, it is explained, a lower carbon footprint and is better for you.

Bottled up discontent

I asked whether there had been any controversy about the scheme, knowing that promoting a lower-impact or reduced-meat diet is considered very hard in this Defra research.  Behind us, a member of staff neither of us knew spat out

“Well you’re not allowed to disagree around here!”

She continued:

“Who do they think they’re preaching to?  What makes them think they’re always right? What do they think they’re doing interfering with our private lives?”

She was clearly very angry about it.

The organisation in question is one which has a public and explicit commitment to a low-carbon future, and it could be expected that a high proportion of staff are personally committed to reducing their environmental impact.  So this reaction was surprising.

Unpacking the outburst

I think it’s worth unpacking the points, to see if there’s something to be learnt about engaging staff in this kind of impact-reduction activity:

  • ‘Preaching’ is a word often used when the recipient of the message considers themselves to be at least as ‘ethical’, if not more, than the person transmitting the message.  Perhaps this staff member considers herself to already have a strong personal set of ethics and practices, and resents the perceived implication that she needs to be told to do more.  Perhaps she is unhappy about the way the organisation approaches its corporate impacts, and resents being asked to make a personal change when she thinks not enough is happening at the bigger level.
  • ‘What makes them think they are always right?’  I wonder if there was an opportunity for knowledgeable people within the organisation to challenge the underlying generalisation that meat-free is healthier or better from a carbon perspective, or to contribute to developing the project. Perhaps this person has specialist knowledge which leads her to be uncomfortable with this simplification?
  • ‘Interfering with private lives’.  This is an interesting one. The setting for this initiative is a staff canteen, possibly (I don’t know) subsidised by the employer.  People are not obliged to eat there, although it is cheaper and more convenient than going to local cafes.  The scheme is voluntary, and around 1/3 of the staff have joined it. the scheme includes small incentives for ‘better’ choices, but there are no disincentives for ‘poor’ choices.  Previous initiatives include asking people to use the stairs rather than the lift, and switching off equipment when not in use. These have been successful in reducing energy use in the buildings.  What is it about eating, which makes it feel part of this person’s ‘private life’?
  • ‘You can’t disagree around here’. This is a big problem in any organisation. When disagreement is counter-cultural to the point where a member of staff blurts it out to a stranger…  There’s something unhealthy about a level of top-down orthodoxy which means that it does not feel safe to say no.  Every organisation needs mechanisms and culture which enable authentic conversation (this does not mean that every decision needs to be unanimous).

One dissenter?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that this one person feels this way.  After all, staff take-up of the initiative seems pretty high, and the person I was meeting was an enthusiastic user of the points scheme.

Or this one person could be giving voice to concerns and needs which are shared more widely.  If it’s really the case that people find it very hard to tell colleagues that they disagree, then it will be hard to know.

Engage with resistance

Peggy Holman maintains that we serve our goals best when we engage with those who disagree and dissent.  Seek out difference, listen harder, enquire into the needs and concerns which are being offered as a gift into the conversation, understand the common aims and see where a ‘yes, and’ response might lead.

Richard Seel similarly champions diversity as a critical condition for emergence of new ways of doing things.

Let’s reflect together

What else might have been going on here? What could the scheme designers have done to avoid this? And what can they do now, to respond?

Let me know what you think…

 

 

Adjective/abstract noun

These phrases have caught my attention recently.

All were uttered by sustainability professionals working within different large well-known mainstream businesses.

“…restless dissatisfaction…”

“…chronic unease…”  (apparently the ‘price of safety‘)

“…irrational optimism…”

Witty constructs: adjective/abstract noun.

Like a secret handshake, they signal the speaker knows that what’s being done now is nothing like enough, that optimism is not justified (because trends have not yet reversed), but neither is panic or acute action.  This is a long emergency.

At a workshop last week, the adjective/abstract noun combination favoured by was ‘blessed unrest‘, after Paul Hawken.

The combinations catch my eye (ear?) when there’s some contradiction between the words, an element of surprise.  When they capture the unknowability of this strange time we find ourselves in.

If not me, then who? Leadership and sustainable development

Holding out for a hero

We’re in a hole and we’re not making headway on the huge challenges that face us as a species and as a society.  Our so-called leaders shy away from action which isn’t incremental and easy.  We’re caught in a web of interlocking dependencies shoring up the status quo.  And meanwhile environmental limits are being breached every way we turn.  Why doesn’t somebody DO SOMETHING?

But hang on, what if we are the people we’ve been waiting for?

We, too, can be tempered radicals, positive deviants or social intrapreneurs – different labels for essentially the same ambiguous role: change makers on the inside of our organisation or community, wherever this may be.

This antidote to ‘great man’ leadership is explored in two books: The Positive Deviant (Parkin) helps you prepare and plan, Leadership for Sustainability (Marshall et al) is an edited collection of tales from fellow travellers, shared with a degree of honesty and openness which is unexpected outside the safety of a coaching conversation.

Who will show leadership?

Both books rightly assert that leadership can come from anywhere.  The leader may be the boss, but leadership is something any of us can practice.  And that’s lucky, because we need whole systems to change, not just individual organisations.  And systems don’t have a boss.  Leadership is necessarily distributed throughout the system, even if some people have more power than others.

Parkin’s positive deviant is someone who does the right thing

despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and stubbornly uncooperative people”.

They work to change the rules of the game.  Rather than waiting for stepping stones to appear they chuck in rocks, building a path for others as they go.

Effective leadership comes from surprising places within hierarchical structures, and can arise in situations where there isn’t any formal organisation at all.  This makes the positive deviant quite close to the tempered radical, yet Meyerson’s work is a surprising omission from Parkin’s index and bibliography.

Marshall et al see leadership

“as much [in] the vigilante consumer demanding to know where products have come from as [in] the chief executive promoting environmentally aware corporate practices.”

So none of us is off the hook.

What kind of leaders do we need?

If we are all in a position to show leadership, which qualities do we need to hone, to help us be really good at it?

Parkin is clear that we need to be ethical and effective.

Ethical

As Cooper points out in one of the chapters of Leadership for Sustainability, the scale of the transformation implied by how bad things are now means that doing things right is not enough: we need to do the right things.

It is not enough to show leadership merely in the service of your own organisation or community. With sustainability leadership the canvas is all humanity and the whole planet (All Life On Earth including Us, as Parkin puts it).  Regular readers of this blog, and participants on the Post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business will know that this is one of the distinctions I make between ‘any old organisational change’ and ‘organisational change for sustainable development’.  See the slide 22 in the slide show here for more on this and other tensions for sustainability change makers.

To do this, the Positive Deviant has a ‘good enough’ understanding of a range of core sustainability information and concepts, and Parkin summarises a familiar set of priority subjects.  Less familiar are the snippets of sustainability literacy from classical antiquity which liven things up a bit: Cleopatra’s use of orange peel as a contraceptive and Plato’s observations of local climatic changes caused by overenthusiastic logging.

If you already know this big picture sustainability stuff, you may feel you can safely skip Parkin’s first, third and fourth section.  Not so fast.  I read these on the day DCLG published its risible presumption in favour of sustainable development.  DCLG’s failure to mention environmental limits and the equating of sustainable development with sustainable building is a caution: perhaps people who might be expected to have a good understanding of sustainability should read this section, whether they think they need it or not!

Effective

We need to understand the kinds of problems we’re facing.  Parkin offers use Grint’s useful sense-making triad to understand different kinds of problems which need different approaches:

  • tame (familiar, solvable, limited uncertainty),
  • wicked (more intractable, complex, lots of uncertainty, no clear solutions without downsides) and
  • critical (emergency, urgent, very large) problems.

The problems of unsustainability are very largely wicked (e.g. breaking environmental limits), and some are critical (e.g. extreme weather events).

Complex, uncertain and intractable situations require experimentation and agility, according to Marshall et al.  Parkin echoes this:

“By definition, we’ve not done sustainable development before … so we are all learning as we go.”

Marshall et al go further:

“we doubt if change for sustainability can often be brought about by directed, intentional action, deliberately followed through.”

Superficial change may result, but not systemic transformation.  So leadership demands that we embrace uncertainty and release control.  This is pretty much what I’m trying to articulate here, so you’d expect me to agree. I do.

Parkin is dismissive of understandings of leadership in the context of chaos or distributed systems.  She may be right that it is a perverse choice to lead in this way if you are within an organisation which functions well in a predictable external context.  But as we have seen, leadership is most urgently required in situations which are much less simple than this, where there isn’t an obvious person with a mandate to be ‘the leader’.  Dispersed leadership is a more accurate description of reality and a more practical theory in these situations.  There are some well-thought of organisational consultants and theorists worth reading on this.  For example Chris Rodgers and Richard Seel have both influenced my thinking.  AMED’s Organisations&People journal regularly carries great articles if you want to explore this side of things.

From the installation of secret water-saving hippos in Cabinet Office (Goulden in Leadership for Sustainability) to John Bird setting up the Big Issue or Wangari Maathai founding of the “deliciously subversive” Green Belt Movement (some of Parkin’s choices as Positive Deviant role models), the reader can’t help but be personally challenged: how do I compare, in my leadership?  Am I ethical? Am I effective?

How will we get them?

How can we make ourselves more effective as leaders, where-ever we find ourselves?   How can we help others to show leadership?

These questions bring us to the educational and personal development aspect of these books.

Education and training

Leadership for Sustainability is a collection of personal stories gleaned from people who have been through the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath’s School of Management (succeeded by Ashridge Business School’s MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility and the MA in Leadership for Sustainability at Lancaster University School of Management).  Parkin designed Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development.  So you can expect that both books have something to say about how we educate our future leaders.

Parkin dissects the ways business schools have betrayed their students and the organisations they go on to lead.  Unquestioningly sticking to a narrow focus of value, not understanding the finite nature of the world we live in, and avoiding a critique of the purpose of business and economy, by and large they continue to produce future leaders with little or no appreciation of the crash they are contributing to.

Marshall and her colleagues have shown leadership in this field, using a Trojan horse approach by setting up their MSc in the heart of a traditional business school, and seeding other courses.  Positive deviance in practice!

Personal development

Formal training aside, we can all improve our sustainability leadership skills.

Parkin argues that as well as having a ‘good enough’ level of sustainability literacy, Positive Deviants need to practice four habits of thought.  These are:

  • Resilience – an understanding of ecosystems, environmental limits and their resilience, rather than the personal robustness of the change maker.
  • Relationships – understanding and strengthening the relationships between people, and between us and the ecosystems which support us.
  • Reflection – noticing the impact of our actions and changing what we do to be more effective, as a reflective practitioner.
  • Reverence – an awe for the universe of which we are a part

Action research

Of those four habits of thought, reflection is the one closest to the heart of Marshall’s Leadership for Sustainability approach.

Marshall, Coleman and Reason are committed to an action research approach, seeing it as

“an orientation towards research and practice in which engagement, curiosity and questioning are brought to bear on significant issues in the service of a better world.”

In her chapter, Downey reminds us of the ‘simple instruction at the heart’ of action research

“take action about something you care about, and learn from it.”

Marshall et al tell us that action research was central to the structure and tutoring on their MSc.  I have to confess to being unclear about the distinctions between action inquiry, action research and action learning.  Answers in the comments section, please!

Marshall et al’s action learning chapters are useful to anyone involved in helping develop others as managers, coaches, consultants, teachers, trainers and so on – required reading, in fact, for those wrong-headed business schools which Parkin criticises so vehemently.

The power of the action research approach shines through in the collection of twenty-nine stories, which made this book – despite the somewhat heavy going of the theoretical chapters – the most compelling sustainability book I’ve read in a long time.  People have taken action about things they care about, and they have learnt from it.

Their stories demonstrate that we encourage people to show leadership in part by allowing them to be humble and to experiment, not by pretending that only the perfect can show leadership.  The stories do not trumpet an approach or sell us a technique. They are travellers’ tales for people who’ll see themselves in the narrative, and be inspired and comforted by it.

What does it feel like, to be this kind of leader?

Does this kind of leader sound like you yet?  It could be – anyone can show leadership.  But perhaps you’re sceptical or looking for a reason why it can’t be you?  It sounds like a lot of hard work and there’s no guarantee of success.

Marshall and her colleagues on the MSc course have evidently created a safe space for people to reflect about their doubts and uncertainties as well as their hopes and insights.  Chapters including this kind of personal testimony from people like Gater, Bent and Karp are intriguing, dramatic and engaging.

Karp’s story about food procurement shows difference between action learning approach and leader as hero – she’s as open about the set-backs as the successes.

I instantly recognised Bent’s description of holding professional optimism with personal pessimism, and many people I know have had that same conversation: wondering where their bolt-hole will be, to escape the impacts of runaway climate change.

Gater’s story in a brilliantly honest account of his work within a mainstream financial institution, moving a certain distance and then coming up against a seemingly insurmountable systemic challenge.  In a model of authentic story-telling, he describes tensions I have heard so many organisational change agents express.  He talks about visiting his colleagues ‘in their world’ and inviting them to visit him in his.  At the end of his story, the two worlds remain unreconciled,

“but it was okay – I had done what I could do as well as I believe I could have done it, and that had to be enough.”

Concluding

Both books start from the premise that we can’t wait for others to show leadership – we need to show leadership from where we are.

But we know that’s hard: Downey reminds us that

“…those who protect the status quo get rewarded for the inaction that slows down change, while disturbers-of-the-peace who send warning signals are disparaged, demoted or dismissed.”

But for her that’s not an excuse to hang back:

“we are not too small, and there is no small act. Either way we shape what happens.”

Transparency alert: Penny Walker is an Associate of Forum for Future, of which Sara Parkin is a Founder Director.  Penny has also been a visiting speaker on the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice run by Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason, as well as being a tutor on what might be seen as a competitor course, the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership in conjunction with Forum for the Future.

A shorter version of this review was first published in Defra’s SDScene, here.

What if our conversations were deep, open?

I’ve met some interesting and challenging facilitators recently who have helped me reframe and explore my facilitation work and my sustainable development aims.

Our conversations together have been so refreshing and enriching, we wondered if it might be possible to open them up to a wider group…

So we have created Deep Open.

It’s a one-day workshop for people who are interested in groups, conversation, change and sustainable development.  We hope to enable conversations which allow us to be aware of our feelings (physical and emotional), alert to difference and conflict, challenging and honest.  We’re going to experiment with having our feelings rather than letting our feelings have us.  We’re going to experiement with not distracting ourselves when things feel uncomfortable.  We’re going to try to resist being task-focussed, whilst staying together with purpose.

If you are intruiged by this – rather than irritated – then you might want to join us on 19th May in London for this workshop.

We’re running the event in conjunction with AMED. The others involved are Johnnie Moore, Debbie Warrener and Luke Razzell.

Don’t thingify the elephants

I’ve just got back from a great workshop organised by ODiN and run by Delta7.  We explored the use of pictures, in particular those which visualise ‘the elephant under the table’.

It’s always great to see some old friends and meet new people.  Also good to have the time to reflect on stucknesses and opportunities in my own work which might helps us in this collective endeavour of forging a sustainable future.

So Julian’s picture about climate change at first felt like a comfortable one for me to look at and discuss.  It was familiar territory, summarised what I consider to be an important part of my own work and practice, and gave me a platform to build on.

Too comfortable?

Someone raised the question of the shadow side of naming ‘elephants under the table’.  (I can’t attribute this insight, as ODiN meetings are Chatham House.)  He said that by ‘thingifying’ the metaphor of the elephants under the table, we can shrug off our personal responsibility for them.  I am not forgetful: I have ‘senior moments’ which exist independently of me.  I am not failing to pull my weight around climate change: society is in the grip of denial.

So here’s my challenge to myself: to reflect on the sustainable development elephants, and give people courage to name them, without ‘thingifying’ them and thus distancing myself from them.

Kübler-Ross on the Parkland Walk

We got together with friends to go for a walk last Saturday: an urban jaunt of six miles or so, starting from our homes in N16 (North London).  We picked up the Capital Ring walk at the Castle Climbing Centre, stopping off to have a quick look at the thriving fruit and vegetable garden round the back.  Part of this site is run by Growing Communities as part of its Patchwork Farm, and supplies salad to local organic eaterie the Fat Cat Cafe on Stoke Newington Church Street.

On past the reservoirs and we followed the canal round to Finsbury Park, where local Transition Town group were holding some sort of event.  We stop for a bit of cake (no tea, sadly) and soak up the optimistic face of local resilience.

On to the Parkland Walk.  This is a disused railway line which has become a much-loved and well-used path for cyclists, walkers and runners.

This is where we met the Kübler-Ross change curve, restyled as an artwork helping Parkland Walk passers-by move “From ignorance to bliss… confronting the psychology of Peak Oil“.

I’ve been impressed at how useful this model is in helping us to understand our reactions to climate change since being introduced to it in this context by David Ballard some years ago.

The artwork had the different stages at intervals along the path, each marked by a word and ceramic faces hanging down around it.  Enjoy this selection.

Our little party responded to this conversation piece.  It was a chance to explain Peak Oil, and discuss its likely consequences.   We also pondered the different ways you might “accept” climate change.

I was reminded once again about how much of my work at the moment is about adapting to climate change (for example, facilitating stakeholder workshops about managed realignment at Medmerry and a separate stakeholder engagement process of UK’s first Climate Change Risk Assessment).

It was a chance to discuss terminal illness and debate the validity of the change curve. And we also wondered about the ceramic faces – which of them embodied the stages most convincingly?

Avoiding the ‘groan fest’

Ever been in a meeting where everyone is sure they’ve tried everything, and nothing works?

And nothing will ever work?

And it’s everyone else’s fault?

Sure you have!

Tempered radicals and other internal change agents face this kind of situation alot.  So do external consultants, activists and coach / facilitators.

“The eco-champions meetings I go to are a real groan fest!”

When I was faced with this heartfelt description in a training workshop, we spent a bit of time coming up with ideas.  But I was sure there must be some even better approaches than the ones we suggested.

So I posted a question on two great forums: AMED (the Association of Management Education and Development) and IAF (the International Association of Facilitators).

The useful suggestions from fellow facilitators, coaches and OD (organisational development) professionals gave me a lot of chew on, and the result is this article.  It was first published in the environmentalist, and has also been reproduced in the IAF Europe newsletter.

Your own experiences and suggestions are very welcome!

Not groaning,

Penny


Copenhagen – hiding behind the sofa

I’m finding it hard to listen to the news or read about the Copenhagen meeting, except through the fractured glimpses from other people’s blogs. Reminds me of peeping at Dr Who through my fingers from behind the sofa.  Can’t watch properly.  Can’t look away completely either.

These are the ones I’ve found particularly interesting :

  • George Monbiot – taking a very big picture on how we, as a species, divide into types about climate change, and showing very eloquently why this is so hard.
  • Living on Sunshine – the title of this blog alone is enough to raise the spirits, and with its provocative strapline “how old will you be in 2050?” (personally, 84, if I get there) reminds us old folk that if we’re not going to lead, we’d better get out of the way and let the youngsters do it.

Will someone tell me what happened when it’s over?

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

Thoughts, updates, links, and essays on creating change for sustainable development.