Potions and Pills – The Modern Consultant at Work?


I notice a thread running through my blogs. I’ve become more passionate about interrupting, in myself and others, a superficial kind of patter; I’ve become intolerant of over-simplistic models and explanations of change and leadership which are still being hawked around.

Let me give you an example of unhelpful formulas. I’ve been working this week on issues of personal, team and organisational transitions. I’ve been struck by how many so-called ‘Change Curves’  take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grief and transitions, distort the basic insights and create their own magical thinking on how they hope people will handle transitions. ‘Anger’ gets transmuted into the more palatable feeling of ‘Frustration’, and the ups and downs of transition get smoothed away into a single upwards journey towards ‘Acceptance’. This kind of fantasy thinking won’t help our clients.

The theme of last week’s blog – Madness and Magical Thinking, Everyday Life in Organisations – struck a chord with many people. One former colleague wrote to me:  “I agree with your article. Most organizations are toxic because people build some sort of “persona” to survive or strive in there… more and more I avoid working with them, or, at least, with those where I feel it is not possible to get beyond this curtain”. We need to create the conditions for more authentic conversations. Authenticity is easy enough to put on a leadership competencies framework, but not so easy to create in reality in the context of highly politicised organisations.

I am looking in different places for insights. Poetry is helpful; as I prepare for this session on leading organisational transitions, I’m reminded by the poet, Juan Jimenez, that identity is not a simple concept.

I am not I.

                   I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see,

whom at times I manage to visit,

and whom at other times I forget;

who remains calm and silent while I talk,

and forgives, gently, when I hate,

who walks where I am not,

who will remain standing when I die”.


So how do we proceed?

  • With passion and humility,
  • With fierceness and compassion,
  • With clarity, doubt and not knowing,
  • With a smile
  • As we navigate the complexity and contradiction that is organisational life…

Coming Out: Am I a Snake-Oil Seller? Are You?

I’ve wanted to come out for a long time. My silence has often seemed collusive.

The notion of snake-oil seller comes to mind – saying one thing and knowing another is true.

I’m speaking of everyday collusions rather than grand duplicities: the half-truths that I find myself and others peddling or accepting in the fields of leadership, change and organisational development.

So here are five ‘truths’ that inform my thinking, and at best, guide my action:

1. ‘The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess…Our job is to straighten out our lives.’ I first read this 20 years ago and railed against it. Our job, I thought, was to change the world out there and this quote from Joseph Campbell seemed too selfish. Now, two decades later I see the insight which I missed then: sorting yourself out is systemic and transformational as we’re all connected. The quote is not a recipe for isolationism or narcissism. Rather it recognises that the choices we make and the life we live inevitably ripple outwards. As chaos theory evidences, the flap of the butterfly’s wings, whilst seeming inconsequential, leads to a hurricane on the other side of the world.

2. Take a cosmic view of yourself and us as human beings. We talk about taking a helicopter view but in general our stories and perspectives are too small. It is a miracle that conscious life exists at all in the universe. A physicist commented to me recently that it is awe-inspiring that matter (trillions of atoms) should coalesce for a few brief decades in the form of a person. At this most fundamental level we all have a common heritage, as children of the universe. This remembering is not just whimsical or philosophical, it has practical ramifications. Re-imagining our story, and our place in it, is vital to rediscovering our purpose. For the most part our frameworks and map of organisations are too limited and anthropocentric.

3. Transformation doesn’t happen in a training room in a single day. Formation and trans-formation are ongoing processes of change. This is where it’s so tempting to collude with the rhetoric of instant enlightenment. Of course there are moments of insight, even epiphanies, but the transformation into a shift in habits of behaviour requires discipline and time.

4. The interplay of power and love are the essential forces at the core of human systems. There is much confusion about these forces. We need to cultivate a richer understanding of the dynamics of power and love within ourselves and within the human systems in which we live and work. Martin Luther King summarised the challenged well in one his last speeches:

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

Power and love are polarities in creative tension: ‘power is the drive of all living beings to realise themselves intensively and extensively’ and ‘love is the drive to unify that which is separated’ (definitions from philosopher Paul Tillich). Lest you think this is too abstract reflect on your past few days and examine how these fundamental forces play out in your family, in the groups you are part of, societally and globally?

Here’s my experience. This past week I’ve been in China to run an Organisation Workshop for a global firm on behalf of Barry Oshry of Power+Systems. In the workshop, middle managers got to see more clearly the dominant drive of self-realisation (power) at play (in themselves, their team, their projects) and the new possibility of wider partnership (in the connection across the silos and collaboration with their peers – the systemic manifestation of love).

Around the workshop and following a chance encounter I ended up joining some young Chinese people in their twenties for a traditional tea-tasting in Shanghai. I could see ‘real-time’ the dance within myself of the pull to decline the invitation/withdraw (separateness) or to join them (connection and potential common ground).

These forces of love and power are not just analytical categories. They are forces we actively choose and create and through which we all shape the world in which we live. In the geo-political sphere this week, China and Japan significantly escalated the level of direct confrontation over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. This is reactivating old fault-lines and wounds from the 2nd World War and you can see on the street and in the news the raw and dangerous emotional dynamics of Us/Them with its rapid objectification of the Other. Interestingly, what seems to be moderating this polarising and conflict is the recognition the two countries depend on each other economically: there may be more than one way to recognise our interdependence.

5. Stuff happens! The observations I made all seem too neat and tidy as if knowing things, often in hindsight, is the transformation. Most of us react habitually and automatically to the everyday stuff that hits us. Our reactions are predictable and often diminish partnership with others. ‘I don’t do what I want to do and I often do what I hate’ as one ancient philosopher put it. This is a fundamental truth at the heart of the human condition.

This is why compassion (love) and will (power) are such vital ingredients in our human journey and in our work. Compassion to accept our own and others’ contradictions and shortcomings; will to choose the life we want to create.

So we come full circle: the world is a mess. It’s perfect. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.

Got to go – a row has to be sorted out with my eldest son.

Gemstones of Leadership

If we are to be effective in our organisations and our lives it helps to know what’s precious. Recently, I’ve re-discovered some simple, sparkling truths about what’s important. Here are four of these gemstones:

Change really is organic! We may subscribe to this as an idea but at what level do we really know this to be true? Do we have faith in working this way? I was having a conversation with a successful business leader recently and heard a story of transformation in his business. What was remarkable, but shouldn’t be, is the absence of many of the tools and interventions that we tell ourselves are valuable: no grand plan, no blueprint, no roll-out, no Gannt Charts, no detailed monitoring. What was present from this Top leader was his engagement, interest, visibility and some permissions and encouragement – an enabling contribution – with Middles and Workers leading the change locally. What was noticeable was the uneven pace of change and at a certain stage it going viral – this isn’t the ordered, tidy change of consultant toolkits but more of the messy, organic, emergent process that change actually is.

For something to change, something has to change! If the same people are meeting under the same conditions then why would anyone expect anything new to happen.  So one possibility is bringing more diversity of stakeholders into our gatherings: customers, workers not just middles and tops …  Who has important insights, information and knowledge? What relationships need to be better connected? Whose voice needs to be heard? Bringing more diversity into our meetings and gatherings increases the turbulence and the risk but also the possibility of creating a different future.

Deepen the conversation. For many of our daily conversations and meetings we don’t actually need to be present; we could just put a dummy and a tape recorder in the room. Too many of our interactions have a canned and highly predictable quality to them.  I include myself in this.

Taking a new step; uttering a new word is what people fear most” said Dostoyevsky. 

A lot of the time we are reluctant to ‘show up’ and spend much of our energy managing the situation to reduce risk (of exposure, criticism, getting it wrong, not knowing, anxiety, …) and protect ourselves. Of course, this is a subtle dynamic and we fool ourselves a lot of time that we are not doing this. It feels hard to make a shift in this game as others are playing it too. It’s actually not that hard to shift the quality of conversation.  Here are the four key qualities needed –I learnt them 20 years ago from Angeles Arrien – and of course I frequently ignore or forget them. When I remember them and am willing to risk living by them they make a big difference:  

  • Show up – bring the whole of yourself to a conversation – head, heart, gut and spirit.
  • Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
  • Tell the truth without blame or judgement.
  • Be open to outcomes not attached to them.

Remember the power of good questions. I was having dinner at a conference recently with a group of six people and it could have easily been an average conversation amongst people who don’t know each other: pleasant but not remarkable. Instead, it was a memorable, intimate evening of sharing stories that mattered. The switch came from an invitation from one of the people at the table to start the conversation in a different way. We were invited to share a symbol that told us something important about who we were. It led to an interesting, connected, unfolding conversation…

These four gemstones invite us to embrace anxiety and uncertainty.

Are we ready to befriend uncertainty and anxiety as welcome travelling companions and the catalysts of creativity and innovation?

Or do we flee from uncertainty and anxiety at all costs?

Demons and Tyrants: Facing our Fears and Liberating Leadership

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I encourage you to find better living quarters.” Hafiz

My work is helping leaders at all levels see more clearly the reality they and others are in, building their self-awareness and system awareness to then take more effective action.  Yet this week I have been faced, again, with the uncomfortable reminder that a part of me doesn’t want to see reality and prefers to live in an illusory, dreamlike, Manichean world of good and bad. Of course I’m on the side of good! Our compulsive busyiness also serves as a protective device, our reason for not slowing down, for not pausing to acknowledge or name our fears or to see our part in the situations we find so perplexing.  I’m reminded of the oft quoted phrase: “human beings can only deal with so much reality”.

Perhaps this has been one of the attractions of the Royal wedding in the UK last week, with 2 billion people watching it across the globe on TV, that for a day (or longer) we become entranced in a fairy tale.

In our organisational work we need to have accurate maps of the human condition if we are to be effective.  I remember years ago whilst working for one of the big four consultancies being highly distrustful of the standard change management methodologies mainly because they had an over-simplistic view of how human beings operate. It wasn’t particular to that firm. It’s one of the reasons why 70% of change projects still fail to deliver expected benefits.

So what’s fear got to do with it and how should we work with our and other people’s fears?

There are five key points to remember:

1.    Befriend your fear and learn as you go. Most significant challenges facing organisations are complex. This means what we, or others, have done before may not be useful to create the way forward. We have to befriend ‘not knowing’, which is different from ignorance, if we are to create something new; this is what many of us fear. We also have to be more willing to embrace uncertainty: engaging with stakeholders over whom we may have no formal power, whose worlds we don’t understand and whom, at least at the start, we may even fear. This is why courage is essential to leadership; courage like fear is infectious. Small, everyday courageous acts encourage and engender other acts of courage. As leaders, or as coaches and consultants to senior leaders, we need to create cultures that are conducive to learning, accepting of human fallibility and supportive of creative experimentation.

2.    It’s not just you – fear is epidemic but innoculations are available.  If Descartes said “I think therefore I am” the modern equivalent seems to be “I worry therefore I am.”  As the Iranian poet Hafiz reminds us the house of fear is a place where many people choose to make their home. The first step is to change our living circumstances and see how fear operates in our lives and how it controls us. Honesty is required and courage (again) to acknowledge and name our fears. Many fears dissipate in their potency when exposed to the light of day and when explored and tested with trusted colleagues and friends.  This is where liberation comes in as we re-connect with the power of our choice and intentionality.

3.    You are not alone and you are not solely responsible. One of the most pernicious aspects of our thinking around leadership is the continuing dominance of the idea of the Hero Leader and the associated tyranny of perfection and self-sufficiency; fears and concerns are not shared, responsibility remains located with a few or only one person, and we unwittingly place others in a position of passivity. There is a much greater collective capacity waiting to be released and connected if we can revision leadership as universally available.

4.    Self awareness and system awareness are key. There are strong forces at play within ourselves and within the systems of which we are a part:  power, fear, hate, compassion, love, gratitude, ingratitude, forgiveness, resentment…  We need to be able to distinguish whether our feelings are clues about our own stuff or the condition of the wider system. There is no one practice to rely on to do this but journaling, reflection groups with colleagues/peers, external supervision/coaching and some personal discipline like mindfulness or meditation are also possibilities. We must build this discernment of what is personal and needs attention within us and what is an aspect of the dynamics of the wider system and therefore needs a more systemic approach.

5.    Change the Conversation.  In Brighton where I live, I went down to witness (not support) a ‘March For England’ demonstration (a network associated with far Right groups) and the counter-march by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the weekend following St George’s Day. As I left I heard the UAF group start the chant: “Racist Scum! Off our Streets.”  What seemed to unite both groups is the language of fear and hate. The dominant conversation in our communities and wider society is one of fear and control.  If we are to take seriously our role as co-creators of our world we need to change the conversations in our heads and with others to one of possibility, ownership, commitment, gifts and generosity and away from fear and retribution. This applies equally to our organisational lives as well as wider society.

Community – is it relevant to your work? Peter Block’s latest thinking

Peter Block’s recent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, will interest anyone who is concerned about strengthening the vitality and connectedness of communities.

Block highlights a toxic cocktail of forces: widening inequality, imbalance of power and resources, self-interest, isolationism and a fragmentation of community, all resulting in what he calls ‘avoidable political suffering’ in our communities. He contrasts human suffering, such as illness, sadness, loss, which are painful but unavoidable aspects of life, with political suffering which is avoidable and unnecessary:  poverty, violence, homelessness, neighbourhoods in distress; and the more subtle suffering of people’s learned dependency, absence of possibility, the powerlessness that breeds violence, and disregard for the worth of a human being.

The book is a passionate call to action and a practical reference guide in how to build community.  He points out that the current disconnection in our communities results in too many people left at the margins with their gifts and contributions to society unrealised, with detriment to them and to the wider community.

Lest you think Peter Block is alone in his focus on communities, influential business thinker, and father of Corporate Strategy, Professor Michael Porter last month (in the Harvard Business Review) reminded business leaders of their interdependence with the communities that they operate in and “that at a basic level the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined”.  Porter argues for a new notion of shared value: creating economic value for the business in ways that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.

In Porter’s view many companies remain trapped in an outdated notion of value creation, a narrowly optimisation of short-term financial performance, while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their long-term success. Business must reconnect company success with social progress.  In terms of the development implications for leaders and managers Porter notes they will need a “far deeper appreciation of societal needs, a greater understanding of the true bases of company productivity, and the ability to collaborate across profit/non-profit boundaries.”

Block’s observes that the silo mentality of public and private institutions, each operating in their own parallel worlds, maximising their own purposes, does not create a connected community. His call is for each of us to claim our latent power as co-creators of our world, our role as citizens as well as consumers, and to recognise how we unwittingly contribute to the fragmentation. Blocks challenges us with our freedom and accountability to make different choices.

So what are some of Block’s key ideas that apply to organisational as well as community settings?

Social fabric – community and relatedness are built one conversation/one room at a time. For those of us involved in organizational change (the latest research indicates that 70% of change projects still fail to achieve their expected benefits) we would do well to remember Block’s poetic advice that: “community building is so complex it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye.”  Block talks eloquently about a quality of aliveness that is needed in each step. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, each meeting we attend. This is subtle and easily overlooked in contrast to the ‘big ticket’ items we are usually encouraged to focus on in change management; I don’t recall any advice like this on how to manage change in my ‘Prince II’ programme and project management training!

Conversations are central. This includes the stories inside our heads as well as how we listen, speak and communicate meaning to others.  Block asserts that all transformation is linguistic. Nothing in our doing will shift until we can question and then choose again, the basic set of beliefs – the mindsets that lie behind our action. Clearly there is much more to say about how this happens in practice. Mindset always trumps technique and tips, which is why focusing on the latter without the former is often fruitless.

Too little is understood about collective change. And too much attention has been placed on the individual with a naïve view that if enough individuals awaken, the shift in the organisation or community will follow.  Block’s work, like Barry Oshry’s, includes a focus on how to work with context and power in bringing about collective change.  Block’s approach to conversations is aimed at building community: where people show up by invitation rather than mandate and experience an authentic relatedness; where the focus is on the communal possibility and the creation of a feeling of  ownership and accountability even though others may be in charge; where diversity and dissent are given space; commitments are made without barter or coercion (this one item merits a posting in its own right); and where the gifts and contributions of each member are acknowledged and valued.

Look for what’s already there and working and amplify it! Block underlines the importance of focusing on gifts, assets, resources and possibilities rather than problems and deficiencies. For a number of years I worked with what were some of the most embattled public authorities in the UK. At the time each Council was under threat of government intervention. I soon discovered that a problem-solving mentality invariably makes things worse and invoked defensiveness. Focusing on what is beginning to work, where strengths lie, what possibilities people are prepared to experiment with, what conditions create success in this place is a much more fruitful and effective approach, and this applies not just to organisations or communities in crisis. When you look for deficiencies and shortcomings, you find them, and the same is true for strengths, capability and possibility.

Every gathering has to be an example of the future we want to create. Block challenges us to pay more attention to how we gather: be aware that how you act as the leader/convener in setting-up the conversation, including the nature of the invitation, affects whether you fall into the same-old conversation patterns or not; experiment with how you ask powerful questions that engage people in an intimate way, confront people with their freedom, and invite them to co-create a future possibility. He maintains these insights and disciplines about convening conversations are ones that can be learnt by anyone with a little teaching, practice and reflection.

Understand the importance of leading across boundaries and working productively with difference. If we want to meet the complex, fast changing needs of our customers and beneficiaries, we have to understand and work with the law of requisite variety: the degree of internal complexity within the organisation has to match the degree of external complexity. You can see this law in operation in commercial settings. For example the question of which of Apple, Google or Microsoft will successfully surf the competitive crest of the technology wave will in major part be due to their ability to sense and respond to emerging customer needs and also how far they can create high levels of internal integration and collaboration within their companies to anticipate and respond to those needs faster than their competitors. The same principle of requisite variety applies in public settings where the offerings of social services agencies have to be as complex and varied as the lives of the families and individuals they serve. When these agencies make their services too simplistic they create enormous havoc: bringing the hammer of heavy intervention and supervision to bear where encouragement and support would  work better is counterproductive; and in other circumstances not having the capacity to be directive or fast enough to intervene can cost lives.

Projection sustains itself in the absence of relationship. To bridge different worlds and work effectively with difference we need to practically understand inter-group dynamics:  how projection and steroptyping work, how we rapidly form ‘us and them’ group identities that polarise and separate us, and how we problematise the ‘other’. We are all subject to this reflex reaction of projection. Learning  how to take back the projections and build relationship with the stranger or the ‘other’, be that our neighbour down the road, or colleagues in the technology or marketing department, is a key skill in building community. Collective or communal transformation happens when we get connected to those who we previously saw as the ‘other’.

Build your confidence in how to work fluidly between the small and the large group. It is the small group, 3 to 12 people, that Block sees as the unit of transformation, the place where a feeling of belonging is created.  Small groups are at their most powerful when they meet as part of larger gatherings for example to create connection, to move the action forward, and for members of the small group to see and feel their relationship to the larger whole.  Block gives an overview of the field of large group methodology – bringing large groups of people together – from 20 to several thousand – to work on visions, build strategy, define work processes and create direction for institutions and communities.  Large group methods create ownership, engage larger numbers of people, help the culture evolve, and in community settings put democracy into practice. Block’s comment is that this competence in convening large groups well, needs to be more widespread and not treated as the sterling silver for use on special occasions.

Lastly remember simple, ordinary things are important: offering hospitality and paying attention to the physical space. How do we set up the room? How do we choose a meeting space that fits what we want to create? These are things we often neglect, or outsource to others without much thought.westminster boating base  

In London for many of our public programmes we choose a venue overlooking the Thames with wonderful natural light, the drama of the river with its changing moods, lots of space for conversation, and the hire fee supports the charity which owns the venue.

How do we bring artistic disciplines into our gatherings so that more of the whole person is engaged?  We have at least six other intelligences besides our IQ .

Answering these questions can be fun – remember Peter Block’s encouragement to create a quality of aliveness in each step!

%d bloggers like this: