The famously eccentric inventor and philosopher R. Buckminster-Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome and author of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth) is once supposed to have said “Never show unfinished work”.

Yet organisational life increasingly demands us to show each other our unfinished work. The demands of agile working, sprints and scrums (not to mention the anxiety of a global pandemic) seems to require us to work in perpetual draft, refining and re-creating almost without end. Constantly required to show our unfinished work to each other, we are braced for critique and hopeful of appreciation (with the latter often in much shorter supply).

Psychologically it’s hard. Hard whether you’re doing strategic thinking within your executive team, developing partnership working with another organisation or just trying to keep your business afloat in the uncertainty of COVID-19. We know we can’t create perfect organisations, strategies, or even plans on our own, so we know we need to invite our stakeholders to join us.

Sometimes we just don’t because it is hard work. It makes us vulnerable, and we have to find the intellectual and emotional flexibility to discard some of our ideas and embrace new ones. To “kill our darlings” (as the author William Faulkner is said to have advised would-be novelists).

How can we judge how “finished” our work has to be before sharing it with others? We fret about it ourselves here in Metalogue – because we’re always aiming to work in partnership with our clients and create new ideas together. We see it within our clients too; smart strategy people try to do strategy FOR their executive teams, and executives try the same with Boards.

What happens when sharing unfinished work goes wrong? Solid but incomplete work gets criticised as half-baked when offered upwards. And it results in accusations of leadership incompetence when shared with a broader organisation, who expect leaders to know and be certain. We end up slinking away, advised to “work that up a bit” and bring it back more polished (perhaps so it can be properly rejected.)

But that highly polished work, with the ends all neatly sewn up, disappoints senior recipients because there’s no room for their skills and experience. It promotes cynicism and disengagement in the front line for much the same reason. When pre-polished work doesn’t go down well, we end up defending it, or (perhaps worse) taking silence as consent to our proposals.

Finding the stamina to continue creating together means we need to show up with our unfinished work, be open to its adaptation and find ways to complete things together. We will have done our homework, reflected and challenged ourselves, and somehow stayed away from false certainty. We want to show up to our work “prepared but not complete”.

If this stirs something up in you, give us a call.

Like all organisations we are looking how to deal with the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak. Our clients are thinking about how to keep making progress on planned work which involved bringing groups of people together, sometimes from around the globe, to tackle issues like strategy and organisation design. Should they just stop, because who wants to do strategy or change work on a crackly phone line?

We would agree about the crackly phone line. But we know from experience it’s possible to do excellent work virtually; everything from ordinary business meetings, developmental experiences such as coaching and leadership programmes, right through to strategy and organisation design. We have clients we’ve never actually met face to face. And with our own partners living and working in several cities, we have virtual weekly meetings and run virtual development for ourselves too.

We do know that you can’t do it by just replicating what you would do if you were all in a room together, and endlessly apologising for what can’t happen. So we thought we would share a few of our top tips about how to run serious business conversations virtually:

1. One virtual, all virtual. This is an important point which we first learned from Ghislaine Caulat’s research on Virtual Leadership (thank you Ghislaine – full plug below!). If you want to create a conversation in which all can participate then make sure everyone is connecting in from a quiet and private separate room. Having people using different channels e.g. one person calling into a small meeting, or small groups huddled together in different locations who CAN communicate with each other in breaks, often makes for unhelpful sub-group dynamics, and a feeling of exclusion for people on their own. And we would argue that it’s either video for all or audio for all – make a healthy level playing field for your conversation.

2. Act like normal humans. Find ways to do your normal social processes. So many people launch straight into the “business” of the meeting without going through the basics of “how are you” and sometimes even forget “hello”. This does little to draw people into giving their full attention to the conversation at hand. In fact we’d say you need to devote more time to this aspect when working virtually to allow people to tune into each other. Find out where each other are, how each other are, allow a bit of messy chat if that’s how you normally start a meeting. Draw people into being interested in each other – then you’ve got their attention.

3. Choose a good technology. And make sure beforehand that everyone who is going to be in the meeting can use it. Don’t just ask – check with a test call. Sound basic? How often have you found yourself shut out of a virtual event, or trying to run one with a key person unable to join. We currently favour zoom for its reliability and flexibility: it’s easy to set up, and doesn’t require any downloading of apps. You can have break out groups, shared content, co-created content and all kinds of other useful features (and judging from a recent experience you can do a great Q and A from Botswana for a large conference). However, some of our clients’ firewalls block it: we want to know this in advance, and then we use something else – Skype, Webex, Facetime.

4. Tend to your dynamics. Remember that working virtually amplifies existing social and emotional dynamics, and can disinhibit people. Things that are difficult to talk about in a room together can be even trickier virtually, and people may therefore either say a lot less or a lot more than they ordinarily would. Take care with yourselves (especially right now as there’s the extra pressure caused by this current outbreak)

5. Design and redesign your conversation – don’t just expect it to happen! We have had some previous blogs touching on the importance for leaders of getting skilled at designing conversations (here for example). Think about topics for the conversations, where you need interaction within your group, what needs to be formal and what informal, what is better done offline or asynchronously, and what the purpose is of each element of the conversation. If you were going to have a strategy day or Executive awayday, feel free to have a day but design it with several short sessions spaced with breaks for work offline, food and comfort. Maybe share more in advance, use different methods to get feedback.

We’re not relishing the disruption (and suffering) that the Coronavirus is bringing. But we are working closely with our clients to design work that helps them keep on track with their business priorities. We hope this gives you heart – and if you’re not used to working virtually and would like to think with us about how your organisation can do this well, then drop us a line on contact@metalogue.co.uk. And if you want to know more about Ghislaine Caulat’s research her excellent book is available, on Kindle too.

Sarah Beart and Simon Martin

The psychologist Carl Jung asserted that one should apply to oneself the same methods that one proposes to use with others, and to do so “with the same relentlessness, consistency and perseverance.”  With this good principle in mind, the Metalogue team recently had a working session on the “Team Dialogue Indicator™”, an approach developed by our friends at The Right Conversation to look at how teams talk.

Their approach starts from a principle that is dear to our hearts – that the quality of conversation in a team affects what that team can achieve. We thought we’d take a look at the quality of our own conversations, with an eye to seeing how the indicator might work for clients who are interested in improving the effectiveness of their own senior team.

The model invited us to look at “core dimensions” of our conversations;

Voicing: how comfortable we are at expressing opinions and challenging each other

Inquiry: how keen we are to understand each other and how skilled we are at listening and productivity

Productivity: how useful and productive our conversations are

And also to examine the” influencing dimensions”

Power: what is the role of power and hierarchy in our typical conversations

Structure: how focused conversations are, and how much scope there is for flexibility

Attentiveness: how attentive and “present” we are

What did we learn?  As for many teams, we discovered that a lot of what we do is just fine, and we have things to be proud of.  We often encourage our clients to start with appreciating what works for them, before succumbing to the temptation to dive into finding and solving problems.  The feeling and nature of a developmental conversation is very different if we start by working out how to amplify the good stuff.

However, just as you might expect, there were also areas where people had rather different experiences of our meetings, and some frustrations. I will draw a veil over these (confidentiality being another important part of our way of working), but the model offered us a very helpful way of surfacing some of these differences, and talking about them frankly and without blame.

We found ourselves in a rich and creative conversation about things we wanted to change, and with a commitment to review the quality of our conversations again once we’ve had a chance to try these experiments out. We think the indicator offers a useful model for teams who are serious about improving the quality of the work they do, but don’t know quite where to start. And we’ll let you know whether our changes stick.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a fresh and appreciative look at your own senior team, we’d love to hear from you.

In the “University of Heathrow” (as an esteemed academic colleague of ours refers to it), waiting for a flight to the current round of difficult meetings, it’s easy to get tempted into buying the latest expensive, glossy book promising the secrets of leading successful change. Full of case studies illustrating the successes of improbably wise and prescient leaders, not to mention impossibly diligent and capable consultants, these books suggest that if only you applied this model or that framework to your organisation then the holy grail of change, lasting success (and a large bonus) could be yours.

Call us cynical? Go ahead! Any of these books will do – in the hands of a skilled practitioner. Of course, the realities of what goes on in your organisation will be different, and the people you work with may be less glamorous and assured than their case study counterparts. But our provocation is that any change or strategy model will do as long as it is used with skill to stimulate and contain productive conversations.

In our view of the world, an organisation is not merely a machine to be re-engineered, an ecosystem to be cultivated or a political system to be manipulated. We think of organisations as essentially conversational phenomena. An organisation is the emerging pattern of all the conversations that take place between all the people who are in some way shaping and shaped by what the organisation is and does ( so yes this includes customers, suppliers, your local community, the CEO and the cleaners) . And culture is something an organisation does, rather than has.

The role of leaders and change agents is to convene and configure conversations that offer the prospect of change. And in our view (shared by consultant and author Peter Hawkins) the change has to begin to happen within the conversation itself – otherwise nothing is changing. (See Peter Hawkins’ 2011 book “Leadership Team Coaching”). This is unconventional in a world dominated by a “diagnose-plan-implement” mantra. It’s controversial to put forward the idea that things might and do change as you begin to talk to people about the current situation, rather than waiting for the plan to be put into action.

Conversational skills

When we talk about convening, we mean identifying and gathering together the necessary people to participate in the conversation. And by configuring we mean the art of structuring a series of conversations, and making good choices about who needs to talk with whom about what. Convening and configuring are crafts – it’s not enough just to get everyone in a room. But they are crafts that can be learned and, we would argue, need to be learned by leaders everywhere. As one client for a rather fraught partnership event put it “You are the people who know when we need to go from pairs to cabaret tables.” We laughed and agreed at the time, but later were troubled. It seems that while leaders undoubtedly need the skills and confidence to convene and configure conversations for strategy and change, we’ve rarely seen this in the curriculum of a leadership development programme

If any old change model will do, why do we use change and strategy models at all? We think they actually do serve an important purpose, by prompting leaders and consultants to create and convene conversations around particular issues of importance to the organisation, describing them in particular ways. The model chosen describes the problem as seen by the organisation’s leaders or consulting team – so you may find yourself working with a model around competition (e.g. Porter’s Five Forces) or one around culture (a culture diagnostic – is culture a disease we wonder?) or a directional policy matrix. There are general models of change too – for example John Kotter’s step model. The purpose of ALL these models, in our view, is mainly to stimulate conversation. The framing of the conversation is important, as those of you who’ve read our research into Organisational Transformation will know (if you haven’t, just click HERE

The effects of conversations

Are you sceptical about the idea that conversations change things? If, like us, you have been to a lot of fairly dull meetings then we can understand your view. Lots of ritualised and pre-scripted exchanges – the detail may differ from month to month but everyone knows their part and can take their cue. We are talking about the importance of conversations in which something novel is said or done. As John Shotter reminded us at a workshop some years ago, if you have any doubt that words don’t change things, just think about the first time that you risked saying “I love you…” to another adult. No one knew what would happen next. But that whatever happens next everything is different about the relationship. Conversations with novelty, where risks are taken, change us intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Good starting points for change conversations

So what does make for a good conversation – one with a “center not sides” as Bill Isaacs puts it (in his book Dialogue). In our view, good conversations are convened around a question with a “How” or “what” start rather than a topic. Why? Because if you are trying to DO things differently, then it is helpful to start with a framing that suggests that there will be different action(s) when you know the answer. Examples might include things like “How do we get closer to our customers?” or “How do we organise our people to make the most of the skills we have?”.

Good conversations also have the right people in them, and focus on what is in the gift of the people who are in the room. It is no good having a change conversation that allocates actions to people who aren’t present, or that requires people who aren’t there to change what they do. How often do we hear that a board or exec team has decided that the next management layer down (it is almost always the very next layer down) need to change their behaviour, improve their leadership, raise their game, get better at delegating and generally shape up. So the executive team commission some change work for this group, or perhaps a leadership development programme.

This way of working ignores the contribution to the existing pattern made by the exec team, and indeed of all the other people in the organisation. So we might ask, what is the contribution that you, the exec team, are inadvertently making to keeping things as they currently are? What kind of conversations do you need to have with each other, and with this next layer down, if things are going to be different? What are you willing to change about what YOU do? This is inconvenient to a top team that is comfortable believing the problems lie elsewhere. Sometimes when we pose this question it turns out to be the last conversation we are ever invited to have in that organisation. It’s probably better that way, because if the people commissioning the change work aren’t prepared to contemplate their own part in things then it’s going to be very difficult to change what anyone else in the organisation does.

Power and feelings in change conversations

This leads us on to an important point about power. When things change in an organisation, it means a change in “power relations” by which we mean things like who has and uses what kinds of power. This is often implicit rather than explicit in the change brief: for example, successfully delegating more will involve the “delegatees” having and using the power to take more decisions and responsibility. Taking more leadership may involve speaking up in company town halls, and perhaps contesting senior decisions. This is going to be disturbing to all kinds of people – those doing the challenging, those being challenged and those who are witnesses to what goes on. And it requires everyone to be able to hold their nerve in the face of unfamiliar, unscripted conversations where unprecedented things are being said, and people don’t know the rules about how to respond.

To state the obvious, this creates a lot of feelings. Many years ago we sat in a conversation of about 40 senior managers who were contemplating a huge reorganisation and a change of ownership in a large, traditional, heavily unionised organisation. New things began to be said about possible changes to working practices and the room felt electric. One man commented at the coffee break “I don’t know what kind of talk is, but it’s dangerous and I don’t like it.” It’s a common reaction. People feel excited, nervous, sad, elated, terrified, angry, numb, enthusiastic and indeed more or less any other emotion you can name.

Much of this doesn’t make its way into change models, except perhaps in rather simplified terms where people are described as “resistant” or “bought-in” to change. We argue this is based on a bit of an oversimplification of what goes on; all kinds of emotions are going to stir up in conversations about change, for all members of an organisation, for its leaders and consultants too. So good conversations need to allow the emotions to be expressed, and understood. This requires additional skills of convening and configuring skill, so that people get a chance to notice how they feel, and to express it while also departing from familiar patterns of talking.

At this point, you might moment to think about a change you would like to make in your area, and about what you are trying to achieve. What follows below are the sorts of questions we find ourselves asking when we are being called upon to “do change” – to convene and configure some conversations:

What is the question that we are really working on, or need to?

What relationships are important?

What is the current quality of those relationships?

What conversations are actually possible or realistic at this stage?

Who needs to be part of these conversations?

What formats or styles of conversation need to happen and in what order?

Who has what kind of power in relation to this question?

What constraints are there?

What are the anxieties in relation to this question, and for whom?

How much structure is needed for this conversation and of what kind?

What needs amplifying?

What needs dampening?

How might it be possible to draw on or access wider forms of knowing? (when it comes to emotional matters, try engaging in expressive activities like drawing or sculpting)

Find these questions useful? We’d love to hear it if you do.

Like to know more? Drop us a line or give us a call (07776 171474) – you will have deduced that we love a good conversation.

The “T” word is everywhere – it’s hard to find an organisation that isn’t undergoing some kind of transformation. At an event last week to launch our Metalogue research on the subject, one group worked on the question “How do we help leaders hold their nerve during transformation.” It was a popular question, and the group was composed of a mix of transformation leaders and those who are endeavouring to support them (strategy, HR and OD directors).

Wobbly leaders

People were clear that it’s daunting work, and a lot of leaders feel “wobbly” during a big transformation. They are trying to lead the transformation while also dealing with immediate pressures, such as this quarter’s profit and other performance targets. It can be hard to find time to make connections to the future and to the end goals. Leaders commonly get through the first stage of the transformation and then see just how much work remains to be done.

Some people spoke about how difficult it can be for a new leadership team to form itself AND lead a transformation. Others mentioned how leaders have to go against the grain (theirs and the organisation’s) in order to get the transformation to happen, especially when they have to work across organisational splits. And there was general agreement that leaders (and OD and change practitioners) have to hold their own nerve as well as helping others.

Don’t look down!

A paradox emerged – helping leaders and others pay attention to what is NOT going to change seems really useful. Leaders who can hold on to a thread of continuity, and who can genuinely honour the past, really help themselves and others. However, often leaders aren’t prepared for the feeling of chaos when a transformation gets underway, so it’s useful to help them accept that they may feel wobbly (and tell them not to look down when they do!).  They tend not to be prepared for just how long transformation takes – helping them be OK with the long haul is important.

Leaders who have been through it spoke about the usefulness of being accompanied by people who’ve seen some of this before, and know where else it had worked (stories from competitors’ successes seemed particularly consoling!). And creating spaces for honest conversations was vital – conversations where leaders could allow themselves to be wobbly, to remind themselves about the purpose of the transformation and be ordinary about the job of connecting with others about continuity and change.

Walking backwards into the future

One lovely idea that emerged was to help leaders with the idea of walking backwards into the future. In Maori culture the idea is that we are always walking backwards into the future, because we can easily see what’s behind us but not what’s ahead (and it’s awkward – just look at the slightly nervous face sketched by one of my talented colleagues above). Holding your nerve while walking backwards seemed a fitting description of the experience so many leaders are having right now.

Calling all excretors; why words matter so much in change

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”

Did you grow up with this saying as a supposed consolation when someone said something unkind at school? Words may not actually be able to break bones, but they do have effects on our physiology, and how we interact with the world. At IBM, in my first job, there were two phrases in the unofficial employee handbook of jargon “Cold Pricklies” and  “Warm Fuzzies” , describing two common and very different experiences at work.

“Cold Pricklies; a nagging suspicion that somewhere you have overlooked something critical, and will be punished for it

“Warm fuzzies the kind of feeling it is alleged you get when you think you are proceeding in the right direction, or when you are being treated well by your manager. This state of mind is usually of short duration and is succeeded by “Cold Pricklies.” “

Source; IBM jargon dictionary seventh edition April 1985

(10th edition available online at https://comlay.net/ibmjarg.pdf)

Words have serious effects on us and change how we feel about ourselves in the world: a little praise from your colleagues can really generate feelings of warmth (or a cold chill)

What about words in change? Try a little thought experiment. We all know what a consumer is; indeed I am one and so are you. It’s a taken for granted term in daily life with constant references to consumer rights, consumer surveys etc. Let’s stop and think for a moment about this term, and pursue this metaphor a bit further. One thing we know about consumption  it is that it leads to excretion. This is the other end (sorry) of the process.

So now try replacing all the common phrases with consumer in them with “excretor”. Do you want to be part of an excretor rights group or buy excretor magazines? How would you calculate an excretor price index? How do you feel about the people coming into your retail environment if you call them excretors? What would an excretor watchdog actually do? Or an excretor pressure group?

If you are feeling a bit queasy now, then I would say you are experiencing the physiological consequences of words. Usually these effects are a bit more subtle, and you may not even notice that it is your whole self that reacts, and not just your thoughts. For example, what happens when you hear the words “transformational change”? Or “restructuring”?  Mild fear? Excitement? Heart sinking a little? You are probably not alone in having some kind of reaction.

The choice of words and metaphor needs some care when it comes to change. Author Gervase Bushe in his work on dialogic organisation development  suggests that leaders need to create a generative image to make change possible. A generative image, says Bushe,

“is a combination of words, pictures or other symbolic media that provide new ways of thinking about social and organizational reality. In effect, it allows people to consider alternate courses of action or decisions that they could not have imagined before it surfaced.”

A key part of making change work then, is to find a novel and specific way of talking about the organisational change that people can sense and feel, as well as think and talk about. This needs to be something beyond the “one size fits all” terminology of the change recipe book. It might need to provoke something, or join some ideas together (Bushe talks about ideas like “sustainable growth”), or call attention to a different aspect of the situation.

For me, putting the ideas about consumption and excretion close together did change something.  While not perhaps a “nice” image it does make me think differently about myself each time I am being a consumer/excretor. I find myself hesitating about taking up the role of the former, contemplating the inevitable consequences of that consumption. What might happen if we kept these two ideas really close together in everyday life? I’d be interested to know.

What novel language and phrases might you need for the change you are leading?

With thanks to John Higgins, and to Professor Duncan MacFarlane at University of Cambridge, both of whom listened generously to my ranting about consumption/excretion and generated enough warm fuzzies to get me blogging…

 

 

 

Some years ago, we were asked to tender for some work with an organisation which was creating a new five year strategy. The director responsible told us that the strategy he’d inherited sat unread, and largely unimplemented, on the shelf of his classy, glassy corner office. It was a beautifully written and presented document, containing almost nothing anyone disagreed with. And yet it was irrelevant to the organisation’s current situation; a lot of water had flowed under the bridge in the world’s financial systems since its conception. The new director wanted to find a way to get the executive team and those lower down the organisation much more involved in the new strategy, but at the same time he was nervous. How would he go about it? How much analysis would he and others have to do? What kind of external consultants would he need, and how much of his and others’ time (and money) would it take? What would the politics be like? What would happen when people disagreed with each other about what to do next? Would anybody actually do what was agreed?

We proposed a highly involving process for the executive and senior managers of the organisation, one which involved a series of focused and facilitated conversations, supported by the organisation’s own analysts in a “strategy steering committee” whose members were drawn from across the organisation. The director was still nervous. He told us with a grin that he was comforting himself with the knowledge that if the process didn’t work or got out of hand, he could pull a few all-nighters and write the thing on his own. We knew he was telling the truth, and that the earlier strategy had almost certainly been produced in precisely the same manner!

Swarm in and buzz off?

Strategy has come to hold an almost extraordinary mystique in organisational life. People with responsibility for strategy (and strategy consultants) get paid more than others, and are treated with a mixture of reverence, fear (and sometimes contempt) by those who work with them. Doing strategy seems to cost a fortune, and rely on a swarm of clever, snappily dressed outsiders buzzing around for weeks. All too often we see the kind of outcome we describe above – a lovely set of documents handed over to the CEO for “implementation” even though the ideas may already be out of date before the door closes.  We’d like to suggest that it’s possible to do strategy differently, more economically and with better effect.  We call it “strategy on a shoestring.”

The planning not the plan

When we hear about strategy in organisations, people often refer to the paperwork, the eventual description of what’s been agreed and what people are trying to achieve. We find ourselves less interested in what should be happening than what is happening. Of course, what you’re interested in depends on your view of organisations: conventional strategy work makes perfect sense if you see your organisation as a machine-like creation, operating with high predictability in a generally stable context, and amenable to changing its direction like a car, or being re-tooled and serviced so that it can make different products, faster.

But most leaders don’t experience their organisations quite like this.  A less conventional, but more practical view, sees an organisation as arising from a set of social and conversational interactions between people, which end up with a particular pattern to them so that the organisation has a recognisable membership, purpose, boundary, culture, formal structure and outputs. Getting these things to be different is more tricky than merely issuing a new set of instructions.  In our take on strategy, the virtue is in the conversations that are convened and the relationships that are created. If these conversations work well, then action flows naturally from planning.

However we’re not under any illusions about the difficulty of this for leaders. These conversations take effort to set up and conduct. While good analysis and clear rational thinking is still needed, these conversations require leaders to cope with disagreement, confusion, politics, resistance, and criticism. It’s more uncomfortable than circulating a glossy plan, but when people are involving in the planning itself they are much more likely to get behind you.

Strategy on a shoestring makes for a difference in timing too. Good strategy conversations start the changes rolling; you aren’t waiting months for the strategy black box to unleash its secrets, by which time who knows what’s happened in your market, or in the world. Good strategizing leads to rapid cycles of experimenting and a much more nimble organisational culture which can respond to the demands it faces. Which is why we’re with the saying usually attributed to Eisenhower: “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Critical friends: working with more than the usual suspects

Doing strategy on a shoestring by using your internal resources isn’t a cheapskate alternative (even if it is cheaper). It’s an investment in your organisation’s capability. Using your own talent, judiciously supplemented, makes more sense than paying outsiders to learn all about your customers and your organisation. In one organisation, we explicitly invited “critical friends” to be part of the work; customers and other stakeholders who cared about what the organisation was trying to do and who would have useful criticisms of the ideas and plans under development. This organisation was operating in a confusing and political environment, one where it was all too tempting to produce strategy in a vacuum. It required courage for the leaders to go out and deliberately seek differing views. And it was very useful; critical friends were thoughtful, generous and creative, and the eventual plans much more robust and practical.

Our director with the classy corner office did get his strategy, researched, refined and created by the very people needed to bring it to life.

Strategy on a shoestring next time?

 

This question cropped up recently in the midst of some work with a senior team. They are leading an organisation going through significant change; context and market are shifting, there is a new political environment, internal role changes, constrained finances and people at the top are moving on. There is a good deal of uncertainty about what all this will mean, and what good leading looks like.

The small senior team have been tight knit. They are understandably keen to protect their people from the politics, the uncertainty and the heavy demands. At times the team can barely keep pace with what’s required, despite being enormously bright people who work long hours.

But their people are demanding NOT to be completely protected, to know more about what’s happening and to be allowed to contribute. They have their own links into the context, albeit at a more junior level, and are picking up hints of what’s going on. Sometimes they hear more from outsiders than they do from their own bosses. They feel frustrated and held back – and yet the senior team don’t want to give the impression that things are out of control or “unravelling” as one of them put it.

This put me in mind of hamsters. My daughter’s friend was one of the first in her primary school class to have a hamster as a pet. One morning, not all that long after the marvellous arrival, her mother discovered it dead in its cage.  Fearing the upset it would cause, her Mum replaced it the same day with a near-identical one from the petshop. And when the same thing happened again a few months later, she repeated the distress-saving manoeuvre. No one said a word, and the parents breathed sighs of relief that upset had been averted.

A few weeks on, the daughter warned another school friend who was just about to get her own hamster that they were in the habit of dying; in fact her mother had already had to replace two. “She thinks I don’t know, and I don’t really like to upset her by mentioning it”.

Like the little girl, people tend to be quite smart about what’s really going on. But they don’t want to make life more difficult for their own senior people by raising difficult or emotional subjects. People end up protecting each other from the discomfort of loss, of not knowing, or of not being able to control what happens. At the same time, they can end up complaining about each other. How often do you hear “They never tell us the truth” or  “They just won’t step up to the responsibility”?

With this senior team, we identified a few potential “dead hamster” topics; things where people at many levels already have some insight into what’s going on, where it’s uncomfortable to admit just how much is still uncertain, and where no one can predict or control what happens next. The senior group then had a rather thoughtful conversation with their people; the knowns and unknowns, some of the intriguing possibilities, what looks like staying the same as well as what is likely to change. They are finding a way of leading, and allowing their people to contribute.

Do you have any “dead hamsters”?

departed hamster