My colleague Nick Sarra and I were asked to work with some practicing managers and leaders in what is usually described as a ‘fragile state’ in Africa. The country has been plunged into conflict for decades, and this has had a profound effect on social relations and the ability to get things done. Conflict still breaks out sporadically, making parts of the country off-limits, potentially reactivating the tensions which still exist between groups living elsewhere in the country, especially in the capital. The government struggles to provide basic services, so the country is dominated by international aid agencies, development organisations and the representatives of international governments who each have their own sets of policies, procedures and priorities. This becomes visible the moment one steps off the plane: the airport car park is full of 4x4s, each sporting its own logo, and often there to meet, or disgorge development workers with their wrap-around shades and desert fatigues. Without the agencies this country would not be able to survive, but at the same time it feels a bit like an occupation. Continue reading
I went to see the psychologist Susan Blackmore give a lecture the other night and she was drawing attention to the phenomenon of how we are only capable of paying reduced attention when we find ourselves in dynamic situations: we are not able to take in and make sense of everything that is going on, but have to select what to pay attention to. She illustrated the point by showing this video. If you want to experience what she was demonstrating then stop reading this blog, watch the video carefully counting the number of times the team in white passes the ball. Otherwise what I write below will give the game away.
Now go back to the video again and just watch it without screening it for a particular set of actions. Do you see anything that you didn’t see before?
In the lecture room where Blackmore showed the video clip there were probably forty or fifty people, 80% of whom did not notice at all one of the remarkable things about the video, including me. The principal point for the original researchers Simons and Chabris (1999) who undertook the experiment is the inevitability of the human brain being selective, particularly in situations which are complex and fast changing. However, having noticed a similar phenomenon myself in group situations it seemed to me that there are some additional observations that one might offer about our selectivity, particularly in the dynamic and fast changing circumstances of groups and organisations.
The first is the influence of the power of participants in group processes, including a facilitator, to point to what is important to pay attention to. In other words, if Blackmore had just invited us more openly to watch the video without directing our attention to a particular aspect of it then we would have had a much bigger chance of seeing a wider variety of what was going on and deciding for ourselves what was important. I have often been dumbfounded in groups in which I have been a participant where others are ignoring or seem unaware of the most obvious thing to me about what is going on: no doubt I have been unaware of what is obvious and compelling to others. In more orthodox meetings where facilitators do facilitatorly things they have a strong hand in influencing the group about what is important and will often try to impel the participants to stick to a plan that they have devised in advance. This often expresses itself as a two-way dynamic because it has become expected that this is what a facilitator should be doing. So in groups where I am a faciliator and am trying to negotiate what we might do next, or chose what is important to talk about, sometimes groups have tired to impel me to tell them.
The second observation is about the influence of anxiety in particpants in group situations, which can introduce a powerful dynamic to steer the engagement one way or another. Group members will often express anxiety about ‘not achieving their outcomes’ even if we have all admitted that we are not quite sure what the outcomes might be in advance of having the conversation. This can sometimes have the effect of driving the group into undertaking some complicated, seemingly ‘rational’ exercise involving flip chart paper and lots of bits of sticky paper where they think they are ordering a complicated world. These exercises may or may not be useful but they certainly have the effect of closing down observation of and reflection on the way people are working together.
I think powerful processes of selectivity happen more generally in organisations because of habitual ways of working and because of anxiety that gets manifested in a hundred different ways. In order to proceed we have to choose, but in choosing we potentially screen ourselves from seeing what might be important to pay attention to.
The selectivity of our attention and how we blinker ourselves about what we consider important has implications for very accepted ways of working like strategy-development. To develop a strategy implies paying attention to some things and excluding others. What is it that we are excluding and how can we be sure that this is the important thing to exlcude? And next time you are asked to undertake a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) how can you be sure that collectively you are not ignoring the gorilla in the room?
In a previous post I wrote about how the conventional way of thinking about meetings separates out task from process. Instead I offered an alternative way of understanding the patterning of human interaction, suggesting no separation between task and process. The way we choose to work together will directly affect what we achieve. There is nothing separate from what we are engaged in called ‘process’ that is other than what we are doing here and now.
Recently I was consulting with a group of health professionals on a project which is set up to research and develop inter-professional working. One idea that we’ve had, as a group of researchers, is to convene four learning groups of professionals already working in the community to meet once a month to reflect upon their experience of working daily with other professionals. We meet with the volunteer convenors of these learning groups as a way of exploring how they might work with the participants in the groups and how we might work with them. Since we’ve called them to a meeting we have a responsibility to explain what our thinking is so far, but beyond that our intention is to negotiate with them what they think they might be doing.
An interesting thing happens right at the beginning of the meeting, even before we get into this discussion, as one volunteer convenor tells us that she thinks that when they start working properly with their learning groups convenors should do introductions with participants and then establish some group rules. As researchers we respond immediately to this suggestion realising that although we have been chatting in a friendly way before this meeting started we haven’t introduced ourselves in a more formal way in recognition of the task that we are undertaking together. After the introductions we researchers draw attention to this intervention and it becomes an object of attention and discussion, and a good example of what it is that we think is central to the method we are proposing. Because one way of understanding what the volunteer convenor did was to challenge the existing power relations between us as researchers who had called the meeting and the volunteer convenors, who had come mostly expecting to be told how to work. Perhaps one thing that she was implying with her intervention was that we weren’t running the meeting very well!
With this intervention we have already begun negotiating together and are exploring, in the here and now, what it means to work inter-professionally. This may feel like a direct challenge to role and identity: we might have felt, as convenors of this particular meeting, that it was our job to ‘keep in control’ and to steer the group towards what we thought should be happening. In most learning situations that is exactly what happens between the person designated as teacher and those designated as learners. And in some learning environments it may be appropriate always to try and direct. Interestingly, because of people’s expectations of what happens in these kinds of learning environments, it is often those designated as learners who are as likely as the teacher to try and keep the power dynamics as they have come to expect them. It is often very destabilising for learners to be encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.
In our current situation we are more open to negotiate the way forward because we are about to work with professionals whose daily experience is to work with others, and we want to encourage them to articulate and explore this. We are joining conversations which are already going on.
However, our suspicion is that working relationships only change when we start to pay attention to the relationships of power that arise between us. And it is not as though anything goes even in this group. Although we gave way on this issue as it arose, we might not have given way on others. When groups of professionals come together to discuss their working relations they have to feel relatively safe in doing so. The purpose of the group is reflection on practice, it is not a therapy group, although it may also prove therapeutic for some. But being able to discuss what we are doing and to question the way of doing it enables participants in this group to experience what it is we intend in a way which no amount of grids, frameworks and powerpoint presentations would have been able to convey. We are already paying attention to the patterning of our engagement with each other as it emerges.
I was working with a group on strategy planning, and we had spent the morning talking about some of the assumptions and methods that staff bring to the exercise in many organisations. So, in this case senior managers had described their last strategy as ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’: it was a ‘step change’ in the way they were doing things. It had developed a ‘change agenda’ which would need to be ‘driven through’. We spent sometime in the morning talking about why it was that strategies need to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’. Clearly being excited about what you are doing is an important component of having job satisfaction and feeling that you are making a contribution. But what does it occlude? What kind of leadership does it suggest?
In the afternoon we got an opportunity to revisit this question of excitement and how we mediate this in groups, and the very process of making plans together. It was a sunny day and we had been working inside all morning. A group member suggested that we work outside in the garden for the next session. Two or three people in the group of 14 decided that this was a good idea and turned to me, presumably considering me to be the temporary leader since I was facilitating, and asked if I minded. My only response was to say that I was up for it if people felt they could work outside. On the way from the meeting room to the garden we met a small group of senior managers and the CEO who were straggling in to the meeting slightly late, who were then swept up with the group heading for the garden. We sat round on cast iron chairs in the bright sunlight and began talking. Planes roared overhead and people had to lean in to the centre of the circle better to hear each other. The sun burned down, and people began to shift places according to how comfortable they were with this. Eventually someone broke into the discussion by saying they were finding it hard to hear. Others then spoke up about how uncomfortable they were in the hot sun. As the revolt grew it became clear that there was a movement to go back into the meeting room as a couple of people stood up saying we should go inside.
Back in the meeting room we reflected on what had happened. A number of people said that they had been swept up with the excitement of the invitation to go outside. Others had simply followed along. No one challenged the movement to the garden. Once outside, we were all sitting with various degrees of discomfort until someone articulated them – because there was a resonance with what others were feeling it was possible for a new decision to be made. We began to see parallels with the way we strategise and make plans together, how something can seem like a great idea and how others can get swept up unthinkingly in the moment. We also began to question how often we are prepared to speak up, to look out for each other when we see each other in an uncomfortable position, and who exercises leadership in such situations. How often do we catch ourselves in the middle of what we are doing, and ask ourselves: ‘is this such a great idea?’ When we get carried along by excitement it clearly motivates us to do new things, but at the same time, what does it prevent us from doing?
And what does it mean for strategy processes which set out to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’? How easy is it then to resist plunging headlong into all kinds of commitments which are then not easy to back out of? When we retired from the garden there was no harm done, and it only took a few moments to get back to where we were. But if we commit the resources, and the time and efforts of colleagues of an organisation to something we are excited about, it is harder to untangle. There are clear implications for leadership and mutual accountability, of understanding leadership as a group responsbilitiy as well as an individual one, and of the need to give an account to each other of what it is we think we are doing and why.
One of the things that I think the appeal to ‘excitement’ and ‘ambition’ potentially inhibits is this ability to account to each other for what we are committing to: who would want to be publically against putting forward ambitious plans for radical change? If we work in ways that constrain the possibility of exposing our ideas to being tested by others, which I am arguing is a kind of disciplining of these ideas, then we risk exposing ourselves and others to big commitments which are still raw and unformed. There is no way we can think through the consequences of all of our intentions, but the paradox of leadership involves being able to suggest patterns and possibilities in the circumstances that we encounter, at the same time as being open to understanding them differently through the insights of others.