On Water. And Fish.

Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?”

My father used to tell this story a lot. More recently, the story has been popularised by a YouTube video of a commencement address by David Foster Wallace called “This Is Water.”

A friend of mine in Chicago once mentioned to me that she liked living beside a large body of water like Lake Michigan because it allowed her to feel small. I don’t think she meant it in the sense of insignificance, but in the sense of being humbled in the face of the immensity of that-which-is-not-you-but-relates-with-you.

I like water. No, actually, I love water. I like the way that water is always moving, even when it’s still.

Water reminds me that hope is possible.

I find water helpful for reminding me that nothing is fixed, nothing is necessary, nothing has to be the way it is. That remains a very difficult idea to carry around with me, when there are so many people going around declaring that so much is fixed, so much is necessary, and so much has to be the way it is. I’ve often made such declarations myself.

Difficult or inconvenient the idea may be, but it remains helpful, indeed, so helpful that it pretty much provides the support for my understanding of hope in the world.

Water, it seems to me, invites me to think very much about ‘how’ more than ‘what’, about relationship, about literally ‘going with the flow’, about listening to situations. Bruce Lee went for a stroll with a similar idea:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can *flow* or it can *crash*! Be water, my friend.”

Some people might take that as an invitation to be a doormat, to submit to people, to subordinate yourself to situations. But I don’t think that’s what he was on about. I think it was about flexibility, about appropriateness-to-context, about being aware of changing conditions, about being more fully present. The structure of the final section of Bruce Lee’s movie Game of Death unfolds these principals in narrative form through various fight scenes, as Lee adapts his fighting style to the distinct styles of each fighter he encounters on his way up the tower. While I may not be the greatest fan of oppositional fighting styles in martial arts, the movie for me provides a strong reinforcement of the key principle of fluidity and adaptation, key values in how I wish to think about gentleness.

When water is restricted it eventually becomes stagnant, unhealthy, unwelcoming, toxic. But even when water is stagnant it remains fluid.

Nothing is fixed (though much tends to be stable)
Nothing is necessary (though much tends to be helpful)
Nothing has to be the way it is (though it’s important to understand how things happen to be).

http://www.anthonymccann.com

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five water-worn stones

“I do not relish the role of david confronting Goliath, who numbs the soul wherever he touches it. But I find myself curiously, perhaps absurdly, cast in that role. And the five water-worn stones I choose from the river to put in my sling, are five spiritual aspects of Maori community life – arohanui: the love of many; manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and stranger; korero: speech that begets peace and understanding; matewa: the night life of the soul; mahi: work undertaken from communal love; I do not know what the outcome of the battle will be. My aim may be poor. But I think my weapons are well chosen.”

(James K. Baxter)

More information on James K. Baxter’s life and work:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_K._Baxter;
http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/baxt.htm;
http://www.library.auckland.ac.nz/subjects/nzp/nzlit2/baxter.htm

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Cultural priming, the “adjacent probable”, and changing the cultural equation

Within any particular culture, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that culture or upon having moved to another). When a cultural climate is dominated by the dynamics of enclosure this is one of the primary contributing factors in the acclerative intensification of enclosure. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I have developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self- organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of my Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

Importantly, the gravities of the adjacent probable within enclosing organisational environments are much stronger on account of the high directivity of the corresponding cultural climate. In the context of culture change interventions within cultural climates of organisational enclosure, this strong tendency to default to the adjacent probable leads to what I call “cultural feedback”. This is when we systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change, despite (or often because of) our best intentions. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational or institutional practice are what take their toll on employee engagement, organisational direction, and the health of the organisation’s future. They strain the social contract by limiting the expectations and quality of the social contract. If defaulting to the adjacent probable runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure, the need for helpful culture change interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics of the cultural climate within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural equation.

Reference

Stephen Johnson. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation. London: Allen Lane.

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The Elimination of Uncertainty: the engine of enclosure

The elimination of uncertainty ethos is what drives the cancer of “enclosure” at the heart of organisational practice. Enclosure is the accelerative and intensifying process in play when good organisations go bad and when bad organisations get worse. When left unchallenged, enclosure spreads, it deepens, and it corrodes the core cultural supports of your organisation, among them productivity, employee engagement, creativity, and trust. When this happens, it is “business as usual” that makes the unhelpful difference. Following the principles of the Cultural Climate Framework, an enclosing cultural climate comes with what I call the Organisational Enclosure Triad – an environment saturated with the elimination of uncertainty ethos tends also to be characterized by chronic heightened intensity, and by chronic heightened directivity. While there are many more features of enclosing cultural climates, these are the core drivers of unhelpful change within an organisational culture. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of the organisation.

One the difficulties within a business environment is that the three elements of the organisational enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxy in accepted business practice. The logics of the triad are embedded within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard and recommended business practice. The challenge isn’t eliminating the presence of these elements, but in minimising their impact within the workplace.

It is important to note that while the “elimination” of uncertainty is to be avoided, the reduction of uncertainty is to be welcomed. Similarly, while chronic heightened intensity is to be avoided, occasional intensity at appropriate times is to be welcomed. And while chronic heightened directivity could lead to all sorts of problems, occasional directive strategic interventions might sometimes be very appropriate. It’s about avoiding the extremes of elimination, intensity, and directivity without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Organisational Enclosure Triad redux

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Cultural Climate and Culture Change

Cultural climate is the key driver of behaviour and expectations within organisations.

The most important dimension of an organizational culture might be characterised as its “cultural climate”, or, in shorthand, the personality of an organization. The cultures of organizations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organization, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges it faces.

To speak of “a cultural climate”, then, is to speak of the dispositional quality of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time).

“Culture change” is the process of actively intervening to change the cultural climate of an organisation, and supporting that process by way of due diligence, due patience, and due care. To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of the organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The notion of change can be thrown around meaninglessly so that change becomes a welcome, unconditional good, and eternally necessary. Sometimes the term is used as if change is something other than that which ordinarily happens – change becomes rare and difficult to achieve, making it the sacred preserve of the creative few. In the other extreme, change can be considered ever-present, constant flux inescapable; life becomes so saturated with change and impermanence that little we can do truly makes a difference. Change becomes more meaningful when it is thought of as ordinary, possible, and available in everything we do.

Culture change is one of the more radical approaches you can choose to change your organization. Culture change involves identifying, evaluating, and actively changing the personality or personality traits of your organisation so that they better suit the aims, aspirations, and potential of your company, and so they better support the potential and possibilities of everyone in the organisation. At its best, organisational culture change positively affects productivity, innovation, sustainability, and emotional health simultaneously.

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Double Listening

I am interested in the coaching possibilities opened up by Winslade and Monk’s mediation technique of “double listening”. Drawing on the work of Michael White, they make note of the “absent but implicit” story of hope that sits alongside the voicing of a story of conflict:

“Mediators can give this story of hope for something better a chance if they first of all hear this absent but implicit hope and then begin to inquire into the story that it is a part of. The story may often by subordinate to the story of the outrage and pain, but it perhaps speaks to the person’s better intentions in relation to the other party. If given the chance for expression, these better intentions can give rise to a different story of the future” (Winslade and Monk 2008:10-11).

The expression of pain and suffering through remembered events and feelings can become a seed for hopeful reflections, not as a utopian aspiration, but as an awareness of the desire for a more positive experience that the pain and conflict reveal. I think the lessons of this “double listening” are not just relevant to formal mediation, but are also helpful in invitations to transformation more generally. What Winslade and Monk’s work draws attention to is how stories of the past also shape our stories of the future. It may be that “double listening” can further open up what John Paul Lederach (2005) calls our “moral imagination”, allowing for even deeper understandings of the complexities, paradoxes, and possibilities of being human.

In very simple terms, double listening opens up the notion that ‘complaint is a window on aspiration’, that every complaint that I utter can also be turned on its head as an aspiration to a better situation, an improvement on what is. Staying with the complaint and hanging out there can lead to a lot of negative energy that can easily suck hope dry. Turning a complaint on its head to work out what it tells me about my aspirations, hopes, and values can provide me with an opportunity for reflection, a window to the otherwise, a doorway to new possibilities.

Complaint or conflict can become, then, a diagnostic opportunity for new perspectives, rather than the direct route to blame and denigration that they can often be.

http://www.anthonymccann.com

References

John Paul Lederach. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: OUP.

John Winslade and Gerald Monk. 2008. Practicing Narrative Mediation: Loosening the Grip of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coaching – a hopeful art

I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my father’s legacy and with my own 15-year journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. From my course of study I now understand that, practised ethically and sensitively, coaching can be a gentle art. Coaching can be a celebration of withness. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering, relational presence, in the moving embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

For me, one of the clearest statements on hope comes from Roger Simon, a radical pedagogist, who writes,

“Hope is the acknowledgement of more openness in a situation than the situation easily reveals: openness above all to possibilities for human attachments, expressions, and assertions. The hopeful person does not merely envisage this possibility as a wish; the hopeful person acts upon it now by loosening and refusing the hold that taken-for-granted realities and routines have over the imagination” (Simon 1992:3).

This seems to me to speak to the very essence of the coaching profession. Hope is the assertion, for me, that stuck is never really stuck. Coaches, in effect, become catalysts for hope, inviting openness to possibilities, helping people to loosen the binds of taken-for-granted realities and routines. Through a coaching alliance, the coach and the person being coached commit themselves to a coaxing-forth of openness in and through dialogue, presence, and time spent in the company of a spirit of inquiry: “Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope” (Raymond Williams 1985; cited in Hutchinson 1996:2). Of course, a successful coaching relationship will depend in large part on a coachee’s openness to feedback and willingness to change (Bacon and Spear 2003).

Very little has been written about hope in academic literature outside the contexts of theology, psychology, and education (see Halpin 2003). Most work approaches the subject of hope from a utopian or eschatalogical perspective – where hope tends to be conceived of as being ‘somewhere else’, beyond the here-and-now, situated just beyond reach, but always reached-for, in a there-and-then.

In response to such approaches, in Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory (2001), Patrick Shade undertakes a critique of particularly theological conceptions of hope that locate the agency of hope elsewhere, often in a salvific external absolute power. Shade draws upon the work of pragmatist philosophers, in particular C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, in order to move towards more embodied and personally relevant understandings of hope, grounded in what’s available, what’s near, what’s at-hand.

This is the kind of hope that interests me, and the type of hope that I feel coaching aspires to. This is the kind of work that I want a concept of ‘hope’ and the profession of coaching to do for me. I’m interested in hope that is most helpfully considered a consequence of a deeper presencing of the self in relationship.

It is important that any such consideration of hope doesn’t allow us to simply assume that an attitude of hopefulness will leave us free to do whatever we want or be whoever we want to be. I don’t think this is what coaching invites us to think, despite some popular conceptions of coaching as a doorway to ‘get the life you want’ philosophies. Life tends to be more complex than that, and coaching at its best works from the realities of life.

One of the key questions of theoretical inquiry in the social sciences is whether individuals can freely and autonomously initiate action, or whether what we do is in somehow determined by the ways our lives and identities are constructed. From Darwin onwards we discover that we have physiological, instinctual histories linking us to the rest of the animal kingdom that we cannot escape. From Freud onwards we learn that perhaps our lives are determined, at least in part, by subconscious drives and desires. Theorists like Althusser explore the role that ideology plays in determining our possibilities as human beings. Lacan, Foucault and others have explored the ways that our actions are also a consequence of language and discourse. It might seem difficult, if not impossible, for us to escape the forces that constrain and construct us. If hope is to be real, if hope is to be present, then hope must be grounded in the realities of our lives – the constraining, determining, shaping realities of our lives that often leave us feeling stuck and unable to move. David Halpin writes,

“The state of being hopeful … is not a passive or empty one. On the contrary, it implicitly involves adopting a critical reflective attitude towards prevailing circumstances. Indeed, hope often creates discontent, inasmuch as a person’s hopes for the future may make them very dissatisfied with things as they are presently, especially if they get in the way of making progress. Consequently, discontent of this kind often draws attention to a significant absence or gap in how certain matters are currently experienced, allied to a wish to change them for the better” (Halpin 2003:15).

The initial approach a person makes to a coach in a personal coaching context might be considered, in these terms, a deeply hopeful act. A sense of dissatisfaction with the present, a sense that something is getting in the way, a sense that something is out of balance, a sense that there is nowhere to go, will come together with a wish to effect meaningful change, even if the desire for change is muddied, and the nature of that desired change unknown.

People seek out a personal coach often through some felt sense of self-estrangement,  confusion, or paralysis. Hence, the first relationship to be the focus of an invitation to a deeper presencing through coaching is the relationship a coachee has with themselves and the potential for movement in their own life. In some sense, coaching is a way of introducing a coachee to themselves. This is most obviously done by mirroring the coachee back upon themselves: “The coach acts as a mirror, reflecting back the coachee’s thoughts, words and ideas to enable the coachee to see things more clearly and, in doing so, to work out how to move forward”  (Bresser and Wilson 2012:16). This can be done through catalytic and challenging questioning, bringing the coachee closer to the core movement and dynamism of their life. The coach becomes a sounding board to reveal the hidden, the unnoticed, and the unspoken.

Fran Peavey speaks of the importance of not only bringing our unique worldview to consciousness, but also our unique changeview, that, “comes from what we’ve been taught about change, our understanding of history, and our own observations and experiences.” (1986:164). To invite a coachee to a greater understanding of their own changeview may also be to invite them to consider the ways in which their understanding of change and how it works in their life may not be serving them very well. Their changeview and their reality may be at odds: “Most change initiatives that end up going nowhere don’t fail because they lack grand visions and noble intentions. They fail because people can’t see the reality they face” (Senge et al. 2005:29). In effect, people become stuck not where they are, but where they are not.

It is the always-already hopeful structure of the coaching relationship which supports the exploration of such tensions in safety and a challenging comfort. Kimsey-House et al. discuss these two dimensions of safety and challenge within the context of what they term Co-Active coaching:

“In Co-Active coaching, we talk about two core characteristics of an effective coaching environment: one, it is safe enough for clients to take the risks they need to take, and two, it is a courageous place where clients are able to approach their lives and the choices they make with motivation, curiosity, and creativity. By the way, “safe” does not necessarily mean “comfortable.” Significant change may be highly uncomfortable, and yet there are ways to ensure that the experience is safe” (Kimsey-House et al. 2011:17).

A key aspect of coaching practice, and of the hopeful call to a relational presencing, is the invitation to the coachee to turn discussions about goals and ambitions  from dialogue, clarification, and reflection into clear plans for actions, particularly small, doable actions that are easily accomplished: “To be effective, a goal must be inspiring, challenging, measurable and have a deadline” (Bresser and Wilson 2012:20). The practicality of doability makes the stuck unstuck. For Patrick Shade, this quality is an essential quality for hope and a precondition for the fostering of agency:

 “If it is to be realizable, hope must be practical in being continuous with current conditions. And yet, hope is itself practical in that its pursuit changes us and our environment, thereby transforming and taking us beyond current conditions. Hope signifies the growth of agency. [emphasis in original]” (Shade 2001:22).

I see coaching as a vital change tool for a more hopeful world, a way to make the stuck unstuck. Through the alliance of a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005:26). To practise the profession of coaching is, indeed, to practise a hopeful art.

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References

Terry Bacon & Karen I. Spear. 2003. Adaptive coaching: The art and practice of a client-centered approach to performance improvement. Mountain View, CA: Davis-Black Publishing.

Frank Bresser and Carol Wilson. 2012. “What Is Coaching?” In Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide. Jonathan Passmore, ed. Pp. 9-26. London: KoganPage.

David Halpin. 2003. Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Francis Hutchinson. 1996. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. London: Routledge.

Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth. 2011. Co-Active Coaching: changing business, transforming lives. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.

Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers. 2005. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Patrick Shade. 2001. Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Roger Simon. Teaching Against The Grain: Texts for a Pedagogy of Possibility. Toronto: OISE Press.