The benefits of Practice and Discipline – reflections on 5 key practices

It was a little over a year ago that I really committed internally to pushing forward with a level of personal development that has had profound impact on who I am.

The type of development I’m referring to is truly leaning into learning new practices and disciplines that are intended to anchor me in a more creative, playful and purposeful frame.

For me I used to think that knowing or having just enough experience in certain things was enough – Brene Brown nailed it for me as she explicitly made visible the typical frame people have – attitude vs practice – I had an attitude to learning and developing as opposed to truly having a practice of learning and developing. Learning and seeing this challenged me as it knocked me sideways for a while as I believed I was continually learning and developing but was doing anything but that given my understanding now.

For the purpose of this post and to share what these words mean to me I offer my perspective below for which you are welcome to inquire into should you have different perspectives to share.

practice : to perform repeatedly / habitually so as to become proficient

And…

discipline : to develop by instruction and exercise especially in self mastery

There are many practices I’ve now integrated into my day, my work patterns and my life in general but I wanted to share my experiences into 5 key practices for me and the learning and benefits I’m gaining as a result.

1) Gratitude

I didn’t actually think this would have the impact it has had but practicing gratitude in various forms has increased the joy I feel and experience in my life.

I started by mentally taking note at the end of the day things I was grateful for, at the beginning I found this awkward as I didn’t feel the things I was grateful for was worth being grateful for.

However weeks into the practice I had a moment when during a normal work day I simply stopped and enjoyed a single moment working with some leaders in health and social care and after that finished I felt the gratitude wash over me and a sense of joy emerged.

After that I accepted that the practice is not a quick fix to anything but is a discipline to hold that allows you to see and sense the moments in our lives that give us meaning and joy. That has transformed my life, I never realised joy could be found and felt in such simply things…naive I know but for me transformational.

I’ve now expanded my practice and have a gratitude journal as I’m keen to capture and reflect on those things.

2) Checking In / Showing Up

The practice of checking in, in its simplest form is sharing how you feel, what holds your attention and what’s going on for you when you connect with people/colleagues etc.

It’s a practice I had curiosity in about a year ago but it wasn’t until last summer when working with a health and social care team in northern Devon I introduced it as a practice to build connectivity and togetherness.

It was such a powerful practice with the team that members of the team refuse to start meetings without having the opportunity to check in.

The benefits and impact on me personally have been that in every meeting this happens I feel I can show up as myself and can have how I feel acknowledged by others which helps that simplest of human desires – connection.

The practice is so much of what I do and how I work now that only last week with the teams support I, along with co-facilitator Kelly – guided 30 senior leaders in the council including the chief executive and leader of the council through a learning session where everyone checked in.

This exercise in that setting fundamentally shifted the discussion into a space where a deeper and more personal honesty was actively shared and displayed. So much so I was at times overwhelmed with emotion as colleagues shed their armour and were vulnerable. It was a humbling moment.

3) Noticing

This practice emerged from my use of the Headspace app.
I found this practice incredibly helpful as I found myself getting distracted often by the many thoughts that filled and consumed my mind.

In headspace you are introduced to noting as a way to create that bit of space, a moment where you can regain awareness and allow yourself to use the technique to let things go.

The practice creates the space for oneself to regain some personal clarity and learn more about thoughts, distractions and habits etc.

I’ve found the practice so transformative as noting can only happen when I have and hold awareness. If I’m not then through noting I can bring myself back. By definition, you can’t be both distracted and aware at the same time.

I’ve learnt that living more aware is healthier for the mind than living distracted.
4) Generosity

Within my practice development is the Braving Inventory from Brene Brown.

All of these practices are incredibly important and interconnected. However I wanted to share the practice of generosity as it has been the hardest to hold and make a discipline

Underpinning the practice is the assumption “everyone is doing the best they can”. So the practice involves holding this continually even in those moments people you might be engaged with lack tact, sensitivity, empathy or kindness and come across as angry or aggressive.

The practice invites you to extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others

Try it and you’ll understand how much it challenges you but after time you develop your empathy skills and can more often than not hold that generosity and when you do it unlocks something inside.

I found it removes judgement and helps me move away from closing things down and encourages me to open things up with a curiosity that simply wasn’t there before.

I still wobble a lot on this practice but know that continually developing my practice I can live a life without judgement and that is a worthy goal.

5) Creating clarity

This practice wasn’t an intentional practice to develop but became visible through learning why and where my anxiety’s originated from.

Lack of clarity nudged me into a space where anxiety was a core emotion and that felt horrible.

I was sure how the act of creating clarity helped until I started a practice which helps create that more often. One of the key underpinning and contributing practices is understanding, playing back, summarising and agreeing. Clarity creates safety and Clarity is kindness (as Brene Brown shares).

It was a practice I started because once I experienced clarity being created I realised how much clarity was lacking from my work and life.

This practice along with and connected to the noticing practice allows me to seek and find external and internal clarity which frees me from a struggle I never had a conscious view was happening.

This has been the single biggest impact on my mental health and that allows me to engage fully with the other practices listed above and the many many more that are now key and core to how I live.

I hope you have found the learning shared above helpful and if you decide to try any or have practices of your own I’d be interested to hear what they are and how you benefit.

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The transition from old to new

Growing by Marissa Elkind – Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/YmkGcE

A fable about letting go:

Two travelling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her,  so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!

 “I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
Unknown Author 

When I was a line manager I used to take a fair amount of comfort from knowing that there were documented processes for everything, which essentially helped keep me safe, my colleagues and my staff safe (that was my assumption).

In having processes for everything, what that meant for me as a manager was that in a strange way, I didn’t have to think about anything – I simply followed the process and trusted that it got me to the right outcome (again that was my assumption).

Perhaps obvious to many people but this essentially means that rulebooks, processes and procedures tell people what to do, insist on discipline and compliance if you expect to be rewarded or stay out of trouble.  It is pretty much the lifeblood of command and control organisations. However, this has an unintended consequence that any form of creativity is pretty much designed out of the flow of work.

I used to think I was being creative and could be creative but I now know that I wasn’t.  Everything I did was wrapped within the parameters of the rules and processes which surrounded me (visibly and invisibly).  So on a personal level, I was only tinkering around the edges which over time end up becoming part of the problem.

Many of the conversations I now have,  make this increasingly visible to me and I can now start seeing the restrictions or parameters played out in what people say and how they act.  It has taken some time (a huge amount of unlearning and practice) to see this and learn how to tune out the noise and pay attention to the things that make them visible.

Most people state that they believe they have incredible freedom to act and they feel empowered to change any aspect of the work they do.  But what plays out on a practical level is actually the opposite.

I used to think I had a huge freedom to act, but I now know that I didn’t and was blind to so much stuff that stopped me creating lasting and sustainable change.

It is true that people can change some processes and some policies so that some improvement can become visible, but inevitably that change is single loop thinking – see my previous post talks about the single loop and double loop learning.

When you help make these things visible, the challenge is to understand why these things happen, what the consequences of these things are on the work and on the people who interact with services.

In simple terms, once you have done this, you can change those things based on knowledge and understanding.  Now, this is where I’ve started to find things incredibly interesting…the transition between old ways of working and new ways of working”.

In this “transition” space – you really learn about letting go and what letting go actually means and that it isn’t straightforward and easy.

Essentially the journey involves an emergent process of learning, where you have to unlearn and let go of all the things that currently get in the way of doing good things and then learn from a base of principle how to think differently, behave differently and act differently.

Underpinning this transition is ideally a shift from model 1 behaviours to model 2 behaviours (Argyris and Schon).

On a personal level this transition is still very much underway and as a team, we are discovering and learning what principles make sense for us and help us achieve our purpose (To help leaders see, think and behave differently).

So when it comes to letting go of old behaviours, habits, thinking, all the things that provide comfort and allowing yourself to become vulnerable and exposed, it is a no wonder that this is a much harder journey than some would acknowledge.

However and this is one of the biggest realisations I have – In my experience so far, moving to a principled way of thinking, behaving and doing is something that truly does liberate oneself.    It does allow oneself to legitimately move away from the constraints of how we currently work and importantly the constraints I placed upon myself that stopped me from starting this journey of learning and growing.

I used to think I was continually learning and growing, but I now know that I wasn’t. What I used to do was build faulty feedback loops that reinforced my current thinking and created further barriers to exposing my true vulnerabilities, restricting my ability to grow.

A final reflection is that through all of this it has reinforced one thing – I am truly privileged to be in a leadership position and how I think, behave and act has profound implications on others. I have a responsibility to understand those things so that I can ensure I create and add value.

 

Love or Fear – which one rules you?

I was asked a question recently about the challenges around organisational change and barriers that “some” managers seem to put in the way.

My response I think took a few people by surprise as I simply suggested that those people who appear to be providing blocks or barriers are simply acting from a different place. They are operating from Fear.

I’ve over simplified this but essentially there are only two ways in which you can live your life, and from there make decisions about the things that affect you and those things around you.

Those two things are Love and Fear (Over simplified but I like the over simplification)

Personally I’m scared of many things, some rational and some irrational and because of that my thinking around those things gets clouded by the feelings of fear which take complete control like an auto-pilot – in those moments I’m not likely to make good decisions, even though those decisions might help me feel better about that fear, or manage it away from me…but all too often those decisions restrict my personal growth or the growth of those around me.

I also love many things and from that place, I’m able to let go, be vulnerable, trust in myself and others and allow decisions to be made more freely and those decisions have wider benefits as they are not about me but are made in a wider context.

Which rules you?

I’ve also thought a lot about how people learn to move away from Fear and I used to think you could simply inspire them, nudge them, provoke them and even shock them into a different place…but the I was reminded on this quote…

galileo

 

All we can do is to support people, create conditions and spaces for them to learn and discover love within themselves.

How are you helping others?

 

Networks, shared purpose and systemic change

I didn’t attend UKGovCamp 16 this year and haven’t for a while now, which is fine as I still get to consume the many, many posts and reflections from the people who attended…you can’t replace physically being there, but the quality of the outputs certainly helps the wider community develop its thinking and practice.

I read this post last week by Catherine Howe about Networks as a driver for system change and was reminded why I always enjoyed being in Catherine’s company as it resonated with so many things that I’m facing right now.

I was also struck by one of the comments left on the post and wanted to let that sit with me for a few days before I could work out why it didn’t feel comfortable or why it stuck in my head…

The specific comment is available on Catherine’s blog post here. Firstly let me just say that I’m not writing to specifically argue with the comment but wanted to explore the comment further as it is something I’m wanting to understand more.

The comment was this:
I tend to feel like I’m trying to influence and shape the culture of the group, rather than curate it. And the ways I do that are through my actions as a member of the group (the “be the change you want to see” approach); trying to consciously champion/ignore/call-out the good/undesirable/toxic behaviour in others; and thinking up actions/experiments/initiatives which nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head. 

The actual bit of this comment i struggled with is the very last bit – the bit that reads – “nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head” Now I can understand the motives behind this and the sentiment but I am personally wrestling with the implied statement of someones individual direction being a preferred route over someone else.

So the question I asked myself was: Is it ok for someone to push their own agenda through a system or is this just manipulation?

Now I’m not going to hide the fact that, this has been an approach I’ve previously adopted but it hasn’t worked that well in terms of really affecting the whole system, what it did was connect me to people who had a similar view and a similar mindset which has been great. But what all of this lacked was a real sense of system wide change over and above simply connecting people across a system. That is however an important part of how systems change…networks and relationships are critical, but they must have the trust underpinning them to be really effective.

The issue I see in pushing an agenda through a system is that you inevitably marginalise people who don’t initially align with the direction. This then reinforces the echo chambers which end up sitting isolated within a system.

The learning I am going through now is challenging me to think about my role and my contributions within a wider system and what a duration role really means in terms of improving and transforming the outcomes for people and places and how we can see a system change itself informed by a new shared sense of purpose…after all the purpose of the system is what it does!

One chain of thought led me to look at the various styles of leadership and the relative merits of each in particular circumstances and situations but all that did was validate that diversity of thought and diversity of ideas and approaches is at the heart of shifting thinking and shifting to a shared purpose. But the key aspects here are that whatever style, the pre-requisite is that all styles of leaders need to think about a new mode of operating which is open, transparent and authentic. Clearly some leadership styles will struggle with this but that is the challenge we face.

 

Another chain of thought led me to consider the context for LocalGov Digital and how as a group of individuals who essentially have come together around a shared purpose. So i asked myself what is missing to see systemic change…what is the role of a core group of people to curate and create conditions for people to define the shared purpose in such a way that as individuals we all make appropriate changes which affects the wider system.

To a point i think the network is doing some of this, but it comes to scale and the reach of the network and the perceived lack of “signing up to something”. This has always been an issue for me, I’ve often thought that if people have the same shared purpose then we simply need to connect and help mobilise and enable them to create change…however some people have said that they feel the need to sign up to something…but can’t really articulate what that needs to be.

As LocalGov Digital we often get stuck in a place which tries to define an offer as if the network was a membership as opposed to clearly articulating the shared purpose and playing a role in curating and enabling people to come together around that.  I feel that we are getting better at this, I feel that we need to actively shift the focus on to things which bring people together for a shared purpose to emerge and evolve. Events like UKGovCamp and LocalGovCamp are examples of this, however taking time out and prioritising these types of things isn’t easy when you are essentially locked away in a sub system which has its own priorities which are not aligned to a new emerging shared purpose…

I have no answers but I am actively thinking and practicing new ways of working so I can help others around me – one thought occurred to me is that the greatest contribution I could make is by getting out-of-the-way of others so they can contribute more effectively – realising I might be blocking someone is hard to take as it is so opposed to how I want to work but being open to that means I’m becoming more mindful of my actions within a wider system and letting go of more things all the time to ensure others can grow themselves.

So coming back to the comment…
I tend to feel like I’m trying to influence and shape the culture of the group, rather than curate it. And the ways I do that are through my actions as a member of the group (the “be the change you want to see” approach); trying to consciously champion/ignore/call-out the good/undesirable/toxic behaviour in others; and thinking up actions/experiments/initiatives which nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head. 

Most of the comment above is fine, but the last bit needs to be challenged as people need to learn and identify the positive and negatives themselves…one approach in my view is that there is only a shared purpose and if you have a purpose you are trying to see, share it, allow others to challenge and develop it, make it better, deeper, more meaningful. Accepting that we can only ever have part of a picture means we need to share more, open up more and that makes us all vulnerable…which is ok…as I trust those around me and where trust doesn’t exist, i am actively working on how to develop it.

So my final reflection is this: Trust is the only currency worth focusing on…everything else comes from that…

A response to the UK Digital Strategy

Dear Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy,

I’m responding to your recent request for thoughts on the UK Digital Strategy. This response is split into two 1) the broader environment and conditions required for Digital and 2) How local public services are designed, delivered and commissioned, although the outcomes of which may have much wider benefits.

1 – Conditions for radical change

I start with the underlying proposition that every citizen can and will meaningfully integrate the internet into their daily lives. This level of active and capable participation should allow for new opportunities to emerge which reduce and divert demand on public services to alternative tools which are open by default and digital by design.

This environment will not simply develop, and the transformative opportunities will not unfold, unless people, businesses, service providers, government, community organisations and others fully understand and integrate digital into everything they do.

We must acknowledge that a digital climate is different to a transformation programme. It is a shift in thinking in which people and institutions are routinely aware of and constantly incorporate digital technology and opportunity into whatever they do.

This requires pervasive and meaningful digital awareness and education — a ubiquitous digital climate that animates and inspires creativity and transformation and enables growth and wellbeing.

Recommendation 1: Actively support grassroot action and education alongside the major players of change.

We require strong visible leadership across all sectors to enable transformation and strong decisions that ensure that we all contribute to creating a climate for growth and wellbeing. The leadership can come from anywhere and should not be restricted to hierarchical positions within recognised national organisations or from a single sector. We must demand that digital leadership be present in all sectors to drive sustainable growth and wellbeing.

Recommendation 2: Support and foster strong digital leadership across all sectors

2 – Co-ordinating and stimulating action

I’m part of LocalGov Digital, a network for digital practitioners working in councils. We’ve done some great things over the past three years like creating a standard for writing digital content, running an unmentoring scheme, running the UK’s leading local government unconference, introducing an online platform to aid council collaboration, and running a workshops to help redesign local democracy to name but a few.

There is however no core funding for coordination and much of our work is done on a voluntary basis in addition to our day jobs. You can find out more at http://localgovdigital.info

Enabling co-ordination and collaboration wouldn’t take a great deal of resource. It really just needs a few people to start to join things up between councils, voluntary and community sector, health, blue light services and central government, and everyone else looking to improve the digital services the public sector offers – benefits might include but would not be restricted to:

  • Accountability for poor local public digital service delivery.
  • A reduction in the duplication of spending and development work across all sectors.
  • Better knowledge transfer between sectors, including standards for data and services.
  • A sharing of skills, assets and resources between organisations.
  • A fundamental role for local people and places to help influence the creation and development of local public digital services

The outcome would be better, cheaper, citizen focused local digital services. There is currently no network or organisation able to deliver this at scale, or it would already be happening.

Recommendation 3: The creation of a new accountable body to co-ordinate, measure and improve local public digital services.

Carl Haggerty