Posts tagged “Fear”

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.

 

A moment of commitment – reflections on writing

Tempting and disconcerting in equal measure: being asked to write a book is such a flattering thing, dangerously seductive; being asked to write a book is such a frightening thing, because “what if it’s rubbish?”  Putting something in writing is a moment of commitment: hard for an inveterate hedger and fence-sitter like me.  (I couldn’t even decide between ‘hedger’ and ‘fence-sitter’, could I?)

Avoiding temptation, taking courage

In an attempt to stop it being rubbish, and to remind myself that it’s not me that’s being flattered – it’s the wise things I’ve learnt from others – I made a conscious choice to stand on shoulders of giants both for theory and for tips that really make a difference, when writing Working Collaboratively.

I found some great academic research and theory before I decided that I really needed to stop reading and get on with writing.  But it was more on ‘collaborative governance‘ (advising others on how to do things) than multi-sector collaboration to get things done.  Noticing that distinction helped me decide what to get my teeth into.

What kind of collaboration?

I knew I wanted to include examples, and there were plenty out there even from a cursory look.  But I wanted to find ones which were more than contractual, more than cause-related marketing, and which involved multiple collaborators not just two (you can’t change a system with just two players).  I wasn’t so interested in crowd-sourcing,  where the hive mind is used to generate multiple clever ideas which might be the solution, but stops short of putting collaborative solutions into practice. That feels like another form of consultation to me.

It’s not to say these are bad things: but to me they are less difficult and less necessary than when collaboration is a way to solve system-level wicked problems, where there is a need for simultaneous action by players who each bring a different piece of the jigsaw with them.

So I drew up some criteria and then searched for examples which both met those criteria and that I had a head-start with: knowing key players, for example, who I could be confident would at least read my email or return my call.

Hearty thanks to everyone who made time to be interviewed or to give me their perspective on some of the examples.

Book writing as a project

The project has followed a pattern I’m now pretty familiar with, in my consulting, training and facilitation work:

  • excitement and disbelief at being invited to do such a cool thing;
  • fear that I’ll have nothing interesting or useful enough to say;
  • writing myself a little aide memoire to keep those pesky internal voices at bay;
  • mind mapping key points and allocating word count (in a training or facilitation situation, that would allocating minutes!);
  • less familiar was the long research phase, which is not something have to do very often and was a real luxury;
  • identifying examples and interviewees.

Then the actual creativity begins: knitting new things, finding scraps of existing articles, handouts or blogs to recycle and stitching it together like a quilt with additional embroidery and applique. I start committing myself to a narrative thread, to a point of view, to some definitive statements.

Then the first of many moments of truth: sending the draft off and nervously awaiting the feedback – sitting over my email until it arrives and then putting off the moment of actually opening it and reading the response.

Altering and amending the draft in response to that feedback and to my own nagging unhappiness with how I’ve captured something which may be very hard to pin down.

And then there’s a dip: the boredom as I get too familiar with the material: is there anything new here? Will anyone else find it interesting?

At that point I know I need to leave it all to settle for a bit and come back to it fresh after some weeks.  Fortunately, when I did, I felt “yes, this is what I wanted to say, this is how I wanted to say it” and crucially: “this has got things in it that readers will find useful, amusing, novel, easy to understand.”

Collaboration of goodwill

It’s sobering and enlightening to remember how much goodwill was involved – interviewees, people who gave me permission to use models and frameworks; anonymous and other reviewers; people helping to get the word out about it.  There was a lot of swapping favours and continuing to build and reinforce working relationships.  It might be possible to analyse these all down to hard-nosed motivations, but I think much of it was trust-based and fuelled by enthusiasm for the topic and a long history of comfortable working relationships.

What did I say?

As an author, it feels as if the project is ended when the final proofs go back to the publisher.  But of course it doesn’t, thankfully, end there.  Now that I’ve been invited to blog, present or share expertise off the back of the book (e.g. Green Mondays, MAFN, DareConf) I have to remind myself of what I’ve written!  Because your thinking doesn’t stand still, nor should it.

 

 

What is it afraid of, what’s it trying to hide?

I’ve not blogged in months – too busy and too tired. But lately I’m emerging from bonkers levels of work and have the time and energy to read the papers. Even the review sections!  This blog post is triggered by an interview with M John Harrison by Richard Lea in Saturday’s Guardian.

I like science fiction in a casual and (I’m afraid) ignorant way, including Margaret Attwood’s speculative fiction set in eco-dystopias and Philip Pulman’s theological atheist fantasy parallel universes. But I’m afraid I don’t know M John Harrison’s work.

What really struck me – and the reason I read the article – was the quote pulled out to headline it:

“A good rule of writing in any genre is: start with a form, then ask what it’s afraid of.”

In touch with fear

Some people are in touch with their anger, others with their guilt, a lucky few with their joy and exuberance.  I’m very aware of my fear – although I don’t always spot what’s causing it at the beginning.  (As a tangent: it may not be fear at all.  In the same edition, Oliver Burkeman writes about physical symptoms being (mis)labelled as particular emotions.)

So I’m wondering about my own practice, and if it might be liberating to consider the form – the genre- and the fear that Harrison claims can exist outside the individual practitioner and in the form itself.

As a trainer and facilitator, and as a consultant, what are the genres I work in?  And what are those genres afraid of? What are they trying to hide?

What’s the genre?

First, define your terms.  This will get too dull if I try to examine too many.  So I’ll stick to the designed, facilitated meeting.  This is my stock-in-trade.  The aims are untangled and combed through until they gleam with clarity, realism and honesty.  The meeting is made up of sessions lined up in the optimum sequence.  Attention is paid to ensuring a mix of modes (individual, pairs, small groups, whole group; spoken, written, thought, drawn; presented, discussed, explored, agreed and so on).  We consider in advance what kind of record is needed, and what needs to be recorded in the room to make sure this happens.  I could go on – at some length.

What is this form afraid of?

I think there are two principal fears.  It’s afraid of wasting people’s time and it’s afraid of people hiding things which – when shared – are important for mutual understanding and progress.  These seem like right and proper things to want to avoid.

There may be some other fears, which are worth examining and asking – in Harrison’s words – “what it’s trying to hide”.

What’s it trying to hide?

The genre of the planned facilitated meetings may be trying to hide things about itself, or about the people involved in making it happen.   I’ll return to this question in due course, but find myself stumped for the moment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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?

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?

It’s a beautiful day – am I allowed to enjoy it?

A bright, warm, sunny, late October day.

The sky is blue, butterflies are dancing through the air and a fat red dragonfly buzzes us as we walk along the footpath in our T-shirts.

I want to lose myself in how lovely it is, but part of me is saying “We’ll be nostalgic about cold cloudy autumn days with proper rain once climate change kicks in”.

Curses!  Sustainable development change agents have a hard time of it, what with being so aware of impending ecosystem collapse and the paltry efforts our organisations are making to stop it.

Can’t we just enjoy the sunshine and let tomorrow worry about itself?

How do we feel about it? And how do we help ourselves feel effective, empowered and persuasive in the face of the latest information on ice melt, ocean pH and HIV/Aids? This survey of organisational change agents may help you feel less alone.

Take a look at this slide show, that illustrates the results of the same survey and draws some conclusions.

What do you feel about it?

*Update: Jonathon Porritt blogs about optimism and pessimism here.

Just too depressing to think about

At a gathering of friends, new and old, over Easter, I’m asked, “What is it exactly that you do then, Penny?”  After a few fumbling attempts to explain,  they get it. Their responses, though, are telling:

“Yes, because I just wouldn’t think about climate change at all if I didn’t have to.”

“It’s just too depressing to think about.”

“And too frightening.”

“And you just feel overwhelmed. The more I know, the less I feel able to do anything about it.”

Those are the responses of my friends.  As professionals in our field, however, what is our duty to our clients? What do we do with their feelings of fear, depression and powerlessness?

An ‘every-day’ response might be to rescue people from their feelings, so as to spare them (and our) discomfort.  “It’s OK, I’m sure we’ll get through it, there’s nothing to get upset about.”

But I think that as professionals intervening with our clients, or active citizens helping to run grass-roots activities, that’s not sufficient.

The work of people like Joanna Macy and Mary-Jane Rust can help us.  It can help us to understand the causes of despair.  And it can help us to honour it without being disempowered by it.  So we can confront that depressing thought and begin to make a path of our choosing.

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

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