Deciding without decisions

I’ve been trying to work recently with the idea, ‘when in doubt, wait it out’, basically working around the thought that if you come to a difficult situation sometimes it’s helpful to just trundle along until the circumstances change just enough to clean the windows of possibility for me again. Sometimes waiting dissolves the windows entirely so that the possibilities simply present themselves. Sometimes waiting just reminds me that sometimes I am not always a patient person. Maybe true patience dissolves the sense of waiting? What does it mean when people say, ‘they tested my patience’ or ‘there are limits to my patience’? How can there be limits to patience? With true patience I imagine there is nothing to limit, being an attitude and all. I don’t know.

I think I’d link this idea into my recent (and often inadequate) attempt to not make too many decisions in my life, my felt need for a decision often indicating that I haven’t been gentle with either the situation, with others, or with myself. Decisions, I have found, are often born where gentleness doesn’t feel at home.

Maybe an urgent felt need to make a decision comes from me not having listened closely enough to the situation I find myself in? Maybe if I listened closer I’d not feel the need to make a decision but might rather find myself moving towards some things and away from other things on the basis of whether it feels right or not. Does decision-making sometimes get in the way of intuition? Maybe sometimes it’s less about being decisive and more about waiting it out.

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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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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.

http://www.anthonymccann.com

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.

8 First Principles of “Culture Change”

For me, there are eight First Principles of Culture Change which provide the dynamic bedrock upon which all else builds:

1. Hereness: To understand the dynamic patterns within a situation, it is important to acknowledge your own place within those dynamics. Grounding yourself in “being here” is a crucial starting point.

2. Withness: It is impossible to make true sense of the culture of a situation unless you acknowledge that “being here” is also “being with”, whether with people or in relationship to the context or environment in which you find yourself. Acknowledging the cultural context of interrelationship provides a strong basis for cultural change.

3. Subtle Power: This refers to “the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another”. This is the most effective understanding of power with which to enact culture change. Subtle Power allows anyone within the situation to occupy a “position of power”; power becomes ever-present – no-one can ever be thought to work from a position of powerlessness.

4. Nearness: Each person’s experience of the culture of a particular environment is always local, specific, and personal. Through what a person experiences as near-at-hand, subtle power combines with hereness and withness, as each person is invited to an acknowledgment of their own agency, or response-ability, within a located reality.

5. Change Happens: It just does. And it doesn’t stop. And it doesn’t always look like change. And it’s not always helpful. But it can be.

6. The Relational Field: If you listen to how Subtle Power happens you soon come an understanding that each moment is a play of influences and influencing. This, the relational field, is where culture change happens. It is impossible to understand culture change without some understanding of the relational field.

7. Change Isn’t The Aim: If change simply happens, then the aim of culture change isn’t change, but, rather, particular kinds of change – it is important to be clear about what qualities of change you want to happen, and, perhaps more importantly, what kinds of change you don’t want. If the purpose for culture change isn’t clear and transparent, the culture change process can be confused, frustrating, and divisive.

8. Participation: To the extent that we acknowledge Subtle Power and the presence of a relational field, to that extent we also quickly come to acknowledge that we, too, play a part in the relational field, that we each exercise power, and that we each play our own part in the enactment of culture change. This is the heart of the notion, “Be the change you want to see.”

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Speaking at Tangible Ireland

I can confirm that I will be speaking at the Tangible Ireland Ambassador Summer School (20-22 August, 2013) at Deebert House, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick on the theme of “Leadership for Change Management”.

Tangible Ireland was founded by Raymond Sexton in 2001 initially as a boutique business development consultancy and has evolved to an organisation consisting of a wide and diverse network of independent business and civic leaders committed to promoting collaborative leadership, shared excellence and a ‘pay it forward’ philosophy. The network is based in Ireland and works collaboratively at home, with the global Irish abroad, and with all who embrace the Tangible Ireland philosophies and approaches. More information about the Ambassador Summer School can be found at http://tangibleireland.blogspot.co.uk/ and for more about Tangible Ireland generally join the Tangible Ireland page on Facebook.

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The Challenge of Culture Change

For a business to achieve what it sets out to achieve it is crucial to foster a strong, healthy, and culturally sustainable organisational environment. When resilience, engagement, productivity, and improvement are the outcomes promised by culture change, it is easy to say that culture change is needed. Working out what this means in practice is much harder, and one of the recurring challenges of business.

Culture change is about people – what they think, how they feel, what they do. You can restructure, rebrand, and reorganise, you can change the language of the workplace and re-arrange the furniture; but if the cultural climate of the organisation doesn’t substantially shift, then all you are left with are a series of very expensive cosmetic changes, even higher levels of employee cynicism, and a greater culture-change challenge.

How does an organisational culture defeat the best intentions of its leadership? How does an organisation slide from a career of excellence towards a cultural climate of employee dissatisfaction, low productivity, and stagnation? How can we understand the dynamics of culture change enough to enable us to not only understand what’s going wrong, but to provide us with clear guidance for pragmatically and effectively ameliorating organisational problems?

The interventions of culture change are called for in times of difficulty, stagnation, or crisis. Complex organisations, bureaucratic systems, and institutional practice have shown themselves over centuries to be well suited to facilitating the particular demands of business, profit, and economic growth. However, latent within organisations, bureaucracies, and institutions is a structural logic that consistently undermines the best intentions of the people within them. One of the key challenges of organisational leadership is balancing the benefits of organisational life, the gravities of organisational stricture, and the more personal dynamics of social interaction. Finding a balance is not impossible, but it remains improbable so long as the tenor of the cultural climate is driven most by goal-achievement, command-and-control, chronic high pressure, and financial growth rather than a more integrative understanding of cultural sustainability.

Most organisations committed to culture change focus on changing visible norms, customs, and behaviours within their organisation, which tend to have little impact on performance. A large number of small-scale changes may not effect the necessary shifts in the organisational environment to embed true, lasting, meaningful change.

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