Before the Monsoon: Self-management in India Part 2

Almost a year ago, I was invited by Ved Krishna to Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, to experience a remarkable company, connected by values and love, with a vision of bringing a non-hierarchical way of being to the most hierarchical country on earth. Mango Season was reportage of that experience.

I returned in October last year, to facilitate an offsite for the leadership team. This was a time of transition for the organisation, as Ved moved out of the day-to-day operations of Yash Papersto focus on Chuk — creating compostable tableware with the audacious goal of ridding India of styrofoam.

I am very clear for myself in my facilitation practice — although I scaffold the process and choose the tools, the only objective in mind is to surface what needs to come, and design for action. Sometimes the action or movement is internal, and happens solely through the process. Other times it is operational and shifts a practical application. I was curious and a little nervous about how this fully participatory approach would work, considering the cultural context, the new and old leaders, and the language barrier.

 

The post-it light bulb over Mr. Rana’s head — an accident????

Utilising Liberating Structures and Open Space and Kabaddi, those days both bonded and shifted the sense of possibility in the team. It was also proof of the magic of free participation, safety, trust and ownership of one’s intentions and needs. These practices are not bound by experience or culture — they are universal, intuitively understood, and fundamentally human.

The obvious happened: the ‘consultant’ (me) left, and although the shift had begun, its momentum was muted. By December, Ved and I were trying to sense a way into a more deliberate intention, and imagined a coach and facilitator on the ground, as part of the team, for an extended period. One day I was having lunch with some powerful women, and another, whom I’d not previously met, joined unexpectedly. I simply asked if anyone had any idea of who might resonate with the project, and Lucia Die Gil, (the unexpected guest) said without a flicker of hesitation ‘I do’. And so it was, within 3 months Lucia joined the Yash Papers team.

When I arrived at Mangalam Farm last week, the mangoes were not quite ready. Monsoon had not yet arrived. The pressure and the heat were difficult for me, so I was grateful for a few days of relaxed time to tune in. Lucia had scaffolded a plan and invitations for work with a few teams — the plan changed.

On Sunday morning, Ved cooked breakfast –probably the best omelette I’d ever tasted! Relaxing in the afterglow of delicious food, he shared another vision — one even more bold and audacious than self-management. He said:

‘Let’s create the best fricken workplace in India’

I’ve been around a long time, have known and worked with many great leaders. There are few for whom that statement would be anything more than a throwaway sound byte. And perhaps I am super naïve, but I believe it’s possible.

So we shifted our plans. A new invitation was made:

Transformation occurs through choice, not mandate. Invitation is the call to create an alternative future. What is the invitation we can make to support people to participate and own the relationships, tasks, and process that lead to success? — Peter Block

Having never worked with Lucia as a partner, it became clear in a matter of minutes that we would flourish together, with no stress, complete trust, and in an emergent energy.

Upon arrival in the hotel conference room, we arranged the chairs in a circle. As soon as the group arrived, Manoj said ‘let’s sit on the floor’ and so we did, for the next two days, in circle. These cultural tools of equality — the circle, the check-in, the presencing are relaxed, not judged. If anything, it’s maybe more so in India — willingness and a practice of letting go, suspending disbelief, and being open to whatever happens.

We began the work with dreaming — in partners — one closes eyes for 5 minutes, and speaks their dream — the best workplace in India whilst the other transcribes — no reaction, no questions. One asked ‘by what measure’? The reply: ‘your measure’. We shared back, and transferred each idea onto a post-it, which were then grouped into themes. In addition to themes, it became clear that there were 3 distinct categories: Tools, Processes and Outcomes.

The next invitation was for each person to choose 4 cards that they were most energetically attracted to, then, again in pairs, to propose a minimum of 5 action points around each. In the end, from over 200 ideas, we landed with 48 potential ‘projects’.

At Enspiral, we’ve been experimenting with Working Groups for a while. Enspiral is a collective (a relationship, not a job), and as such we don’t have any paid roles to do the work we need to do on the organisation. The model has worked for us and you can read about our form in the Enspiral Handbook.

Although the inspiration for Working Groups came from our specific need, recently I’ve noticed that the need also exists within conventional organisations, especially those who are intentionally participatory.

Another of the organisations I work with, Avivo in Perth, Western Australia, is 800-person home health care provider on a journey to self-managed local teams. I am documenting that journey in audio format — and they too have commenced 3 prototype working groups.

This was a natural progression — when organisations choose to move from a standard consultation process on transformation to a deliberately participatory one, a key difference is in how the transformation work is done. Like Enspiral, where we are not paid to do this work, in Avivo, and as you will see, at Yash Papers, the work is not a separate job, but a willing act of generosity and service.

My experience is that it is disingenuous to create a participatory process to determine the work, and then hand that work off to a traditional business improvement or project management process. When the individuals identify, scope, and commit to the work, they should also be given the opportunity to do the work.

After scaffolding 48 opportunities (out of almost 200 identified) as essential ingredients to creating #BFWPIN, we sat in circle and talked about the prospect of working groups. The concept of holding Guardianship of an idea. Who in the group felt called to be the Guardian of a Working Group? Slowly the 48 ideas circulated, and one by one, individuals put their name next to one, as they felt drawn. Not everyone did. This is not compulsory or mandated. This is about commitment and guardianship of the dream.

At assembly, the group shared what transpired, and made the invitation — a call for 6–7 volunteers to serve in a group with a clear mandate to define outcomes, work in a sprint rhythm, report consistently, and see what happens. Be prepared to be surprised — even if that means failing.

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The next day, we spent the afternoon with the HR team, with a slightly different slant — rather than the general dreaming question of creating #BFWPIN it was more specific: What can the HR team do to support the creation of the #BFWPIN?

‘No Hierarchy’ is phrase that is in the Yash Papers culture. Not so much in practice consistently, yet. This shifted significantly with the process of role writing. Instead of a job title, e.g. Compliance Manager, what could it be if members of the team were freely choosing their roles?

We utilised a version of the Percolab role process, and within about 60 minutes the team had identified 58 roles and their accountabilities. Then we laid the cards out on the floor, and the invitation was made to select the roles you felt most attracted to. In another 30 minutes, every member of the team had their role cards, and was invited to make a commitment to the team for the accountabilities therein. Yes, there were some roles left in the middle — but they were mostly ad-hoc or seasonal tasks. There were also some that were in the pipeline but hadn’t started yet. It’s important to emphasise that when selecting roles, you are also assessing your own capacity, and the implication of your commitment to the team.

 

This is self-management in practical, tangible terms.

Yash Papers has stopped dreaming about self-management and started doing it, with a non-hierarchical HR team, and self-initiated Working Groups — but not without the vision of an even bigger dream, the #BFWPIN dream.

I reflected to Ved that I personally had shifted from a 5-year commitment to a 20-year commitment to #BFWPIN.

There are many more elements to the plan — doubling the size of the on-site residential colony — re-imagining the working buildings as tools to facilitate collaboration, becoming 100% closed loop regenerative system, creating a learning community for all generations on campus. Do you have skills in any of these areas?

This work cannot be scaled from a framework. This work is intimate and relational and emergent and instinctive. This work can only be done by individuals who are deliberate in their own personal development practice.

If the long, often difficult work of commitment and intention, whether on this project or more generally, is what you recognise as your path, let’s amplify each other.

Three Days in Montreal

Travelling at night by train from Toronto to Montreal (a journey I imagine would be beautiful in daylight), I wrote about my enlightening time in Toronto. Today I sit at a little kitchen table in a ground floor flat in Le Plateau with my head spinning and my heart fizzing from three full days on this amazing island.

For more than a year, I have been scheming and collaborating virtually with our friends at Percolab. A series of opportunities presented for me to be here in Montreal to serve alongside Samantha and the team in the first of a series of events with the CRHA, Quebec’s professional society of HR practitioners.

The society invited me to hold a workshop in addition to the ‘main event’. So, on Wednesday morning around 40 wonderful humans welcomed me to share with them some practices of Deliberately Developmental Organisations. Whenever I work with unfamiliar groups, especially in different countries, there is always a level of trepidation. It’s important to me to reflect an appropriate level of cultural sensitivity, so I started the morning like this:

Mon nom est Susan et je vi ens de Nouvelle Zealand. C’est un plaisir de vous vour ce matin, je vous re mercie de me permettes de parler en anglais.

As always (with me) we sat in circle and had a check-in, with the question ‘what is bringing you energy this week’? After sharing, I gave a brief overview of the concepts of a DDO, including ‘nothing extra’. Using the liberating structure 1–2–4-all, we harvested topics, which were then convened using Wise Crowds to unleash the collective intelligence of the group, practice deep listening, as well as feedback. We had two micro-sharings of process noticing, and finished with a round of intention setting evoked from the question ‘how did this process change your thinking’?

It was great to receive the following feedback:

“it is a lot easier than I thought it would be”
“no bells and whistles necessary”
“it’s safe and doesn’t cost anything!”

My critical feedback for reflection is that the session was billed as a conference/talk, where it was actually a participatory experience. I wrestle with this question, because I wonder how many people would have been turned off by the latter, but were pleasantly surprised/challenged by something different?

Thursday was the ‘main event’ around the seemingly ever-present topic ‘Future of Work’. There were 4 sessions, of which I had the pleasure of co-holding two with Samantha, the first on the Impact of AI and the second on New Organising Structures.

I was disappointed to miss the simultaneous sessions held by Nicolas Langalier, Editor-in-Chief of Noveau Projet, Canada’s magazine of the year in 2015. Launched in 2012, the magazine has been a catalyst and rallying point of progressive forces in Quebec in the 2010s, and seeks to encourage and nurture public discussion.

In our first session, groups worked in small teams to identify the tasks at their workplace that are most likely to become automated. We used a useful tool called ‘the Periodic table of Work tasks’ to visualise. The last step was to reflect and consider how the tasks that cannot be replaced will be enhanced, and moreover what is enabled in the space left by those tasks that will no longer be manual.

Periodic Table of Work Tasks

The reaction in the room was a collective sigh of relief — the topic seems so huge and overwhelming, that having a process to start identifying the potential impact in our own professional realm is liberating, and hopeful.

The second session on new forms of organisational structure was a lot of fun for me, because I just got to sit in the fishbowl for an hour :) I recognise that Enspiral sits on the far end of the progressive continuum, but we know it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing. The mood in the room felt like a collective buoyancy and confidence to try.

The the afternoon ended back in the collective circle with a ‘musical shares’ courtesy of the piano and a gifted pianist in the room; a simple process, share reflections with one person during a 3 minute musical interlude, when the music stops, shift to someone else. Repeat 3 times — I highly recommend it!

Friday was an early session; I had been invited to be the first guest in a series of Matinee Numerique Montreal events hosted by Espace Temps. What a pleasure and surprise to see around 80 people turn out to an 8AM event. Hosted by Vincent Chapdelaine and Elodie Gagnon, I shared a bit of my story and an Enspiral 101, with a focus on how we use technology to organise, and how it supports our distributed network.

It was great to finish up my trip speaking to a group of activists, anarchists and entrepreneurs. There is something really unique, but quietly resonant of home — perhaps it’s that Montreal, like New Zealand is an island. Perhaps it’s that both communities (endeavour to) integrate cultures. I am flying away awash with possibility and gratitude, for snow, fromagerie to rival Paris, new friends, and my imminent return for Tranformer Montreal on 29th April. A bientôt!

One Day in Tronno (Toronto)

Those of you who know me or follow my journey understand the fact that I live on a small island in the South Pacific doesn’t preclude me from building virtual relationships that eventually turn into a heartful real-life embrace. Over the past year, I’ve met (and hugged) collaborators and co-conspirators in India, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, UK, Belgium, France, Bulgaria, the US and Australia.

This week, I’m in Canada — Toronto and Montreal. I spent a delightful weekend with one of my Reinventing Startups co-authors, Brent Lowe, and his family. Today, we had the opportunity to meet with three very different organisations in Toronto who are on their own journey to Self-Management, Teal, and Agile beyond tech.

I’ve been following the Fitzii story for a few years, and was so delighted when their co-founder, Edwin Jansen, agreed to co-host our SXSW session ‘Growing a Company without Bosses’. Although Edwin had the nerve to be on holiday this week, we were hosted by the wonderful Luz (Looth) Iglesias. Fitzii is remarkable not only for their journey, but how they share and document it. Luz was so incredibly generous and prepared to discuss everything — from roles to retreats to self-set salaries to on boarding to one of their latest innovations called ‘share the love’.

The Fitzii ‘role advice process’ was especially useful — a specific instantiation of the advice process that is triggered either by an individual seeking advice for a proposed change, or as the result of a team mate’s feedback. The process is well documented and clear — and action oriented, incorporating self-reflection, advice, decision, presentation of results.

We’ll be sharing more of the Fitzii processes in beta 2.0 of Reinventing Startups, including their on boarding process, the role of sponsor, and their compensation advice process.

As part of a larger, traditional organisation, Fitzii’s practices and way of being bumps up against the institution, but they have found a way to co-exist and thrive.

Lunch was with The Moment, an Innovation and Design consulting agency. I first met Mark and Erika about a year ago, via the responsive.org slack group. Mark was seeking input in advance of a team retreat where the journey was about to begin. It’s been such a privilege to follow their Teal for Real story, read their updates and finally meet the team.

Of course, there is never enough time to dive into everything that’s possible with a group of like-minded humans, but we did our best. We all checked in with what was on top, and shared a bit of our respective stories. I shared a cursory overview of Enspiral, which diverted and tangent-ed and emerged as a very profound question:

if we can start to notice how we are developing, can we also start to notice how we are evolving? and if so, can we accelerate the process?

Obviously we didn’t have an answer to that, but I certainly checked out wanting more: more time to surface and explore with people I don’t work with regularly, but are asking the questions that keep me up at night. I hope that they appreciated my noticing of them as a group — that they are too smart and too nice, and that an edge for them might be purposefully developing a healthy practice of dissent!

We rounded off the afternoon with a visit to B-Corp and fast growing full-service web app provisioner myplanet. The challenge:

when we were 40 people it was easy to be agile beyond the boundary of software development, but with 70+, it’s not so easy.

I think a lot about tools and practices that help startups organise without hierarchy. I also think a lot about transitioning organisations, and how to help individuals practice. The case of scale is really interesting. It’s just like anything else, when you are in something that feels good, that’s going well, we rarely take the time to reflect and notice the conditions, e.g. why is this so great? Moreover, what can we do to either codify or start to create the scaffolds, and even practice with them now so we can be prepared for when we need them.

I stand by my hypothesis that companies already practicing agile methodologies understand much of what is possible with self-organising teams working collectively to a purpose where the team holds each other to account daily and transparently. We learn through practice and continuous iteration the optimal size of team, what roles and skills are required, how to get the best from our coach and our scrum master, how the product owner and the customer interface. The same is true in the organisation. But somehow, it’s harder.

Toronto has got a larger population (~6.5m) than the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand (~4.5m) and it was so invigorating to have the opportunity to have open, authentic conversations with three really different companies who are all trying to change the way they are with and at work. They are the future of work, and will help build the confidence for more organisations worldwide to start their own experiments, prototypes, and journeys.

Reinventing Startups — the making of

How we wrote a book without ever having met….

Last July, Travis Marsh ignited a dream which saw our collective work presented at SXSW. Our collective work not in the sense of anything we’d particularly produced, but the work that energizes our souls, and keeps us up at night. The work that has names like Teal, and Self Management, and Self Organising and Bossless Organisations and non-hierarchy in the workplace. Because we are immersed in it every day, and practice, coach, write or read about it daily, our confirmation bias is that everyone else is! But as Aaron Dignan of The Ready reminds us in his talk at the 2016 Responsive Org conference ‘no, they’re not!’

We scoured the last few years of the SX programme and couldn’t find any sessions discussing these ideas.

Between the four of us, myself, Brent Lowe, Julia Marczi and Travis had some calls just jamming and brainstorming on what could be possible. Quite quickly we landed on the idea that we wanted to put forward two proposals — one for a speakers session, and the other for a workshop on self-management.

Considering the audience of SX, we played with using Zappos front and centre in the pitch, as we imagined most attendees (or at least more than might have read Reinventing Organisations) would have at least heard of Tony Hsieh and Zappos! We even considered pitching him to speak.

We talked ourself out of that quickly — the change we want to see in the world will need CEO’s of really large organisations to consider this transformation, but we really wanted to pull out leaders who were at the front lines, in it with the people, in organisations that weren’t mandating a change, but deciding together that this was the road they wanted to journey together. With that, we gained clarity that the best individuals to share their stories would be front-line practitioners, with battle scars and tenure. We were incredibly privileged that they said yes!

Samantha Slade has been leading Percolab, a consulting company based in Montreal (and with a presence in France) for nearly 10 years. Her blogs and stories of the practical ways this team had collectively embraced self management are exemplars of open-source learning. Percolab are currently transitioning from an incorporated company (with owners) to a worker owned co-operative.

Fitzii is a free hiring platform for small and medium sized businesses. The platform provides easy access to expert recruiting tools and advice. The team at Fitzii is self-managed.” Edwin Jansen has documented the journey of this organisation over the past years, and isn’t shy about sharing the hard stuff as well as the wonderful surprises.

The process wasn’t easy — because we’d started even before the applications were able to be loaded, we made lots of assumptions. We also decided to make some videos, mainly to highlight our enthusiasm and geographic diversity. Travis, who lives in San Francisco, attended an event entitled (something like) ‘How to get your session chosen for SXSW’ on the eve of our submission. At the end of the session they gave away a free pass to the SXSW, and he won it! I think that was a good omen.

We were so grateful for the support with the panel-picker process, and overwhelmed that our session ‘Growing a company without bosses’ was selected.

We found out quite quickly and were put on the wait list for the workshop, which wasn’t successful :-(

We were all so high from the excitement of figuring out the secret sauce to working together remotely that we decided to write something. We’d all come together through, and were part of the Teal for Startups project. This project was born from the impulse that startups needed some sort of guide to give them the opportunity and choice away from the traditional incubator/accelerator options when considering the human aspects of creating a company.

We undertook a lot of reflection, and gained insight into the positive and negative aspects of that undertaking — it was a great model of co-creation and self-organising. After the first wave of work, many in the group had followed their energy and turned back to a sensing process. Our energy was different, and we turned it towards honouring our collective sense, which was to produce a toolkit which could be a starting point for founders and leaders.

Because I’ve worked most of my life in IT, and have been utilising Agile and Scrum practices for over a decade, I knew that many tech companies were already engaged in some of the practices we sensed for the guide: collective purpose, transparency, checkins/stand ups, etc. It’s also true that a fair proportion of startups, and especially those traditionally attending SXSW are in the tech sector, and so likely would have had exposure to agile practices. That became our market framing.

We began in earnest in October.

Three things set the course: 1) A regular, weekly meeting 2) An editor as part of the core team, a full participant from the outset and 3) The deadline for SXSW.

We brainstormed synchronously, and each added to a google doc in between. We used Trello extensively as our project timeline artefact.

Initially, we tried different approaches — each writing our ‘take’ on a topic or chapter, each choosing chapters based on our energy and following the impulse of the energy. Although we were not bad at making weekly meetings, we began to slip on our commitments. I was travelling extensively during this time and my fantasy availability and my actual ability to write/review were at odds with one another. I felt bad, but we were all slipping.

We sputtered. We didn’t meet our commitments. We began to lose energy.

In early December Travis that called it out and named it, and we realised we had to follow our own medicine and revisit our commitment to one another; our accountabilities and how we wanted to be held to account. We all really wanted this to happen, and the level of trust we’d built over the months allowed us to be really honest with one another. It wasn’t easy after that, but we made much more progress more quickly.

This pause also allowed us to gain clarity on the ‘how’. My strength is stream-of-consciousness spewing of content. Travis’ strength is in the ideation of practical examples, tips, and ‘try this’. Brent is the master of crispness — his editing prowess somehow managed to allow our truly disparate voices to sound cohesive. Nicole, our editor, was our sense-maker; our objective, professional, indispensable compass.

We made (more or less) our end of January content deadline, and we are so grateful to Helen Sanderson, Sean O’Connor, Edwin Jansen, Colin Basterfield and Ilana Grossfor their conscientious and sometimes merciless clarifying questions and proof reading. I haven’t actually held the book in my hand yet, but Travis recorded his opening of the box, and it was quite something to experience, even second hand.

The SXSW session was on Monday, 13th March, and we achieved our goal of having books available for the attendees!

Reinventing Startups was created as a resource for the commons. Very soon, the ebook will be avaliable to download for free via our website, Reinventing Startups — if you’d like to be notified, enter your details via the ebook page on the site. We are very excited to be utilising a platform called open.collective for the pay-what-you-feel process, and can’t wait to see what it makes possible as a community tool and a lived experiment in transparent participation.

I’ve been asked what made this possible, what was it about this specific group of people? Collective purpose, intentionality, respect, trust all ring equal for me. And time: prioritising and committing.

We wrote a book without ever having met in person — now that’s pretty cool.

Visit the Reinventing Startups webpage, join our Facebook Group, and help make Beta 2.0 the iteration the world needs. It’s starting.

Panda Pounce

The Golden Pandas — Part 2

As Kate mentioned in Introducing the Golden Pandas, our Panda Pounce in January was the first time we were all physically together as a Golden Panda Posse.

We’d had to work hard to create a rhythm and cadence for virtual meetings and checkins that worked for everyone in the build up to our physical time, and we became super proficient in Zoom and Slack (we #checkin and #checkout daily). But, despite our proficiency at remote working, we needed time to breathe together, to sync our live selves, recognising that the in the moment and residual benefits from committing this time was essential.

We had almost five full days together, in a beautiful part of Auckland called Titirangi, in the Waitakere ranges; replete with flora and fauna, dense and wild, but with all the comforts of a wonderful home lent to us by friends.

Following a spacious check-in, we gently eased into an agenda building process that included space for strategic and tactical conversations, specific product planning, and work sessions. We loosely organised each day to include each of these elements, respecting that each of us had a few general commitments that we needed to honour during the week.

Each session was facilitated by the panda whose energy was drawn towards the topic, and another panda scribed where necessary.

We also experimented with different techniques and ideas that inform our outward-facing facilitation practice, for example, product poker and Joshua’s great process for life-planning. And very importantly, we had wonderful meals….

Although bamboo is the most favourite food of Pandas (luckily we are all ‘mostly’ vegetarian), we do enjoy experimenting, and lucky for us, Kate is a joyful cook. Enspiral retreating is punctuated by wonderful food, prepared with so much love that it changes the energetic quality (I think so anyway!) and nourishes our work, energy, and ability to sustain a good pace. Turns out Pandas love berries, and high summer in New Zealand means a proliferation of strawberries, blueberries and raspberries — a highlight of our time together was a mid-afternoon snack of berries with coconut yogurt and a few crunchy nuts on top.

In preparation for pouncing (and all year long) Pandas like to keep fit, and enjoy exercise, so it’s important that we build some time in for a run or a hike or some press ups. We organise some of our spacious conversations as walking sessions. We also try to build in alone time each day, which is necessary when we are densely packed.

Technology is our friend, and design thinking is a big part of the panda process. We love Realtime Board, and we love post-it notes. We’ve shared screen shots of some of our creations, but I could imagine much mirth if anyone had been looking through the window as the Pandas sat in our circle, laptops open, moving virtual post it notes around the virtual board! It might have looked funny, but it was super effective — and without a facilitator standing and directing action at the whiteboard, it meant all of us were participating fully.

Morning check-ins and evening check-outs are as important to us; and as natural as brushing our teeth. At the January pounce I requested consent for an identity of Panda Provocateur — an experiment in more regular reflexive noticings as we went (thanks François for the tip!), a couple of times a day after a big block of work. I found these really useful as a way to track energy and more instinctive feedback.

Our retrospective at the end of the week provided lots to celebrate and lots to consider. We will have two week long Pounces per year, and 2 mini-pounces, our next one is scheduled for 11–14 March.

We hope you are enjoying Golden Panda time — please share with anyone who might be interested in learning with us as we go! Until next week...may your tummies be rubbed and your bamboo be plentiful.

Masks and puppies

The idea of being one's self, one's whole self ‘at work’ is an idea that most people find really appealing. I think its because most people recognize that they do hide facets of who they are, or wear masks at work.  

This practice began for me, and probably for most people, at school – being laughed at by your classmates as well as your teacher for asking a question or making a statement that they thought was silly or dumb. 

This is the one that sticks with me:

Back in the day, sex education films were shown in the auditorium to all the year 5 classes together, on, wait for it, FILM reels... 

Earlier that week, I’d witnessed the miracle of birth as one of the neighbourhood dogs had a litter of puppies. It never occurred to me that they would come out encased in the placenta. After showing the film the teacher asked for questions my hand shot up (something that hasn't changed) and my question went something like “Do babies come out in the same kind of little bags that puppies do?” Cue uproarious laughter, as if that was the most idiotic thing anyone had ever said. 

Up until then, I’d felt really free to be curious. After that humiliation, a little less.

Isn’t it funny how clearly I remember that incident – I can still smell the air in the room. Walking out of the auditorium that afternoon, I picked up my first mask.

In high school I was a bit of an enigma – always in the top classes, but also a cheerleader, and then a rocker. I spent many years changing clothes in the car – I had literally different uniforms. At school I would dress one way, then change for work in the car into my office uniform, and then change after work into my denim and leather for another night on the Sunset Strip. 

This pattern lasted for four or five years, and my approach to it was that there were ‘different Susan’s’ – 4 or 5 personas that I could be and that were differentiated by my uniforms. 

After university and (my first) marriage, slowly but surely the Susans came back together, into two focuses – work and home. As my personal focus on career (what does that mean anyway?) accelerated, those masks came to the fore. 

Even when I was doing work that brought me joy, there would be some enforced ‘coping’ masks that I’d put on just to get me through the day. 

The ones that comes back for me so strongly are ‘the mask for firing people’ or ‘the mask I put on in the plane because it’s the only time I’m alone and if the guy next to me starts chatting I might very well explode because this is the only down time I’ve had in 17 days’. 

This memory makes me smile a little, because it reflects the absolute nonsense of the idea of work-life balance. When I was not bringing my whole self to work, there was never a chance for any kind of balance – hence the futility of the concept. 

It’s all life….

These are just tiny little snippets of all my experiences, my influences, my ideas, my fears and phobias (utensils with round handles). 

 

At some point, many of us suddenly see that our reactions in the moment don’t always (or even usually) serve us. We might consider why we react to certain things, and might start to recognize that certain ideas or words or phrases repeatedly trigger this reaction. This is one facet of personal sense making. 

I’m not a psychologist, or a Buddhist, but as a human, I know that I suffer less when I don’t react, and when I don’t react the chance that I’ll hurt another human with my reflexive reaction is mitigated.  

But not always. (see 'the paradox of silence').

If we are doing work that matters to us, with the people we choose, in an environment of high trust, is it not in everyone’s interest that we support each other to notice and work with and enable us to work through our personal sh*t to enable growth and development? What better environment than the place where you are spending most of your time, with people who have a good sense of you, and shared context for triggers that manifest when you are together. To feel safe to remove and perhaps destroy the masks?

I return to my basic hypothesis of wholeness, and that it is a remedy for the scourge of scarcity. If I can be all of who I am in the work context, not just the rational/masculine, bringing only that perspective; if I can bring even just 3 or 4 different facets of my being, and you bring 3 or 4 and so on, suddenly we have 12 or 20 different perspectives in the room. And that is magic.

 

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Vulnerability and consent

This isn’t about what you might have thought when you read the headline, and I promise I didn’t choose those words as clickbait.

I’ve never been really afraid to share what I’m thinking. As you can imagine, that’s got me into trouble over and over and over again. Once I even had a boss that wasn’t afraid to name it ‘Susan, you’ll never rise above middle management because you say what you really think’.

I have been told more than once, within a few weeks or months of joining a firm that I was like a ‘breath of fresh air’ because I call it as I see it, unafraid to name the unnamed. On reflection, some of that is about my tendency to ‘think out loud’ and also probably because I’ve never had a lot of patience for learning let alone practicing the unwritten rules of organisational politics.

My expressiveness is not always delightful. I am forever grateful to those who have pulled me up on things I’ve said and asked me to think about the impact of my words. I have done a lot of work on that, and although I say and believe about myself that would never intentionally hurt someone personally with my words, of course sometimes I do.

There is a significant level of vulnerability that comes from honesty and especially when it’s coming from a place that’s not strictly rational. Brining all of ourselves, our whole selves to work means having the vulnerability to share our feelings, our fears, our impressions, and what we notice. All from our perspective and our experience.

I stand in an organisation of a couple hundred humans. I work really closely with about 20 all up, in different configurations. In two of these tight configurations, it’s understood and expected that we can ‘work our stuff out’ through our work. What that might mean is a topic for a different day, but what that means for me is that I can, virtually unfiltered, talk about not only what I’m noticing about the issue or opportunities at play, but how they are affecting me and my development; what are they bringing up for me. Am I being triggered by a word? Is it encouraging me back into old unproductive hierarchical patterns?

The ability to be able to continue to develop is an absolute gift to me, and the gratitude I feel for my colleagues to hold me in that is unbounded. The even greater joy for me is to hold them as they do what the need and want to do to exercise their muscles and sinew and sometimes tear ducts in the process of letting go and letting come.

Does that sound scary, or does it sound awesome?

I’m the first to admit that I’m probably not always hard to hold. Because what comes out is opinion mixed with fear and sometimes anxiety but very often joy at having connected some dots that bring understanding and clarity.

And that brings us to consent.

This week I was in an expanded circle in another group in which I participate. I was triggered by something and challenged it and started processing out loud. It wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair because there were at least two people in that gathering from whom I did not have explicit consent to ‘go there’.

If I’m honest, I knew almost instantly that what I said (what I processed aloud) hurt someone. Because I didn’t intend it to be hurtful, and assumed everyone assumes that of me, I didn’t over-explain myself. And it’s all because I didn’t have the consent of the broad group to do that — to work my sh*t out aloud.

There was at least one other individual that I know was made uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s OK, for example if I’m thoughtfully trying to provoke or challenge, but in this instance it wasn’t — because neither had they given consent.

I’ve apologized subsequently, and I know that over time the trust will or will not manifest, and consent will or will not be granted to me by this individual to do the work I want to do (MY work) out loud, in a group, with them.

Much of what I’m ‘processing’ is the old memes and attitudes and assumptions of 25 years of institutionalization in multi-nationals. Next week I’ll take on the paradox of masks and shadows — and the challenge of re-acquainting ones self with some long ignored facets — let alone the challenge of welcoming them into the workplace.

Power

Throwing your power into the laps of others and running away is equivalent to throwing a grenade.

Leadership and power — there aren’t two more loaded words in the language, and especially in the vernacular of organisations explicitly trying to be different. Over the last 20 or 30 years, the dogma of business and growth has focused on the shift from management to leadership.

What’s the next wave of business psychology/methodology that promises the (slightly sickening cliche) ‘next paradigm’?

An allergy to the sensate nature of the idea of power can paralyze. I’ve been in rooms of evolved, self-aware men who have become so fearful of the power of their voices that they sit and say nothing — turning the atmosphere into some sort of passive-aggressive vortex. What happens next? What happens in an organisation where we suppress our need to speak, to act, and to steward from this place of inverse fear? Is this the only way we know to give space to the heretofore un-powerful and those not given the opportunity to express their leader-ly qualities?

Is this some sort of Tyranny of Structurelessness for the twenty-teens?

Or is it a midwifing process of letting go and letting come. Is it only redolent and recognized in those who have done the work and notice what happens when the space is made — or is it this weird passive-aggressive movement of the head and eyes and slight wave of the hand as invocation to others to step into the space?

How scary!

Come hither into the space of leaders; I trust you, but not enough to help you — I want you to join me, but not enough to stand by your side.

I’ve read the book — I know I need to step aside and allow the voice of the people to enter the space and have not only a voice, but to enact the will of the organisation (because the organisation has its own will).

No one has told us how to do it — but I am a leader, I meditate and listen to podcasts. I know I need to let go, because this is unsustainable and I don’t have all the answers (but wait, I kind of do — this is why I’m trying this!)

There is a patent difference between letting go and making space, and actively participating in the space.

Just because you are making room doesn’t mean you are stepping out. You only need to be ready to learn and grow within a new environment — a new space that includes everyone who is interested in participating; if you step into this fertile land you will change. The land itself will change with the presence of all that inhabit there, and one day you will be able to take very long holidays. But not quite yet…

We’ve all experienced the many forms of leadership and power. It’s too simple and too passive to imagine that it’s just the way of the world — because authority is what we’ve known from the beginning. Of course when we are children it’s important — those older than us patently DO know more, are more experienced, and protect us from that which can harm. Authority and power are different. One protects, the other controls. Authority in business is sometimes a necessity — delegated authority as a signatory on contracts, or at the bank. Neither is it wrong or inappropriate to delegate authority for decisions, or for actions. But that doesn’t make that person a leader, nor does (should) it make them more powerful. On the contrary, it does make them in service of or to.

When leaders decide or realize that they are in service, everything changes.

But this is not a decision that is made on behalf of. For your board to say ‘OK John, starting Monday, we ask you to be at work not as a leader but as a servant’ is as strange as for you to turn up on Monday morning as a ‘servant’ and tell the people they now have all the power and need to be equal leaders. By ‘telling’ you are still exerting the power and control. It’s still parent-child. It’s only in adult-to-adult conversation that the power shifts and becomes distributed.

Sometimes when leaders ‘discover’ that it is possible, that there are case studies and years of practice in organisation who are self-managing, the feeling of relief, of a burden being lifted and ‘seeing the light’ that the impulse is to stop everything in service to the transition. Sometimes it can be a quick process, but sometimes it’s incremental. And sometimes it’s painful, and destructive. But for those who feel it in their being, in their body, it’s the only thing that can happen, for when the emancipation of potential emerges, everything shifts.