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.

 

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Once upon a time there was an enormous turnip

As I do – I think about my work, wider society and the world and wonder why the problems we collectively create that no one wants to see? This post is meant to be a little playful and fun…

Tackling this problem is at the heart of a course I’m currently part of called Theory U which is an online edX environment provided by MIT. Highly recommend the course if you’ve not heard of it before…

In a conversation today with some colleagues, I was reminded of the children’s story about the Enormous Turnip and why collective and collaborative action is required to tackle the big problems facing us today.

If you know or remember the story you might know where I’m going with this but for anyone who doesn’t let me explain.

Let’s say the farmer who planted some seeds represents our historic design of public services. He planted them on good soil, cared for them, watered them and soon they began to grow. Much like our public service landscape

Enormous Turnip

After a while things get out of hand and take over…in this case the turnip was enormous much like how we see the problems of public services today…it isn’t what we designed or intended but it is a direct result of the things we fed it and maintained over time.

Enormous Turnip 2

Much like the farmer our problem is one of bringing people together, he can’t possibly solve this problem on his own, he could if he thought about it harder, start cutting the turnip whilst it is in the soil, but this would leave the roots and it would inevitably grow back still leaving an enormous turnip in the soil. So he starts to ask for help, he realises that he needs the strengths of other people to help solve this problem, to actually pull the turnip out of the ground altogether, including the roots. Much like our public sector landscape we are not sharing our problems, we are in fact trying to cut the turnip whilst it is still rooted in the ground. We have yet to invite the collective efforts of people around us to directly address the problem head on…and we know it will be hard work. Now the farmer manages to pull off some impressive things, he manages to get people you wouldn’t expect to work together to come together all for a greater and common cause…the dog, the cat and mouse !!

Enormous Turnip 3

It is only when everyone comes together and puts their collective efforts to task that the problem is addressed…it required the resilience of everyone and a recognition of the common problem and to bring them together and be successful…

Enormous Turnip 4

When are we going to come together and start pulling the turnip out of the ground…as I’m looking forward to sharing a delicious supper with everyone 🙂

Images from Slideshare

That elephant is ******* big now I can see the whole thing

Warning: This is a reflective post…i’ve had some time off and did some digging around my inner self 🙂

“There is a moment when you take a step or two backwards and start to see the bigger picture, the full picture, the elephant so to speak and then you wait, your eyes refocus, your body adjusts and there in front of you is the biggest thing you’ve ever seen…it is a massive elephant…holy shit…how on earth did I not notice this given it’s size, presence and impact.”

I’ve worked in a local council now for 20 years (half of my life) and I’d like to think I’ve managed to avoid being completely institutionalised.

But it isn’t until you start a process of transforming yourself that you realise that some of the cultures/behaviours/traditions that you work hard to remove have found there way into your own life.

In that very moment I felt vulnerable, without purpose and most of all I started questioning everything I did and do.

I’ve blogged about these types of things on here before, not in as much detail as i’m now realising sits within me, but my reflective posts and my journey of coaching for example are starting points for me to build on.

It has all got me to a point in my life where I now need to truly transform who I am and prepare myself for my emerging future. It simply isn’t good enough for me to expect others to do this without pushing myself through the change also.

I read quite a bit of organisational type stuff more than I read fiction if i’m honest, I’m always keen to learn and push myself and I really enjoy reading peoples blog posts of their individual and organisational journeys. I always thought that my journey wouldn’t be as profound as it is starting to be though.

Growing up in a local council these are the things that struck me…

I learned to live with frustration.

I learned to live with pressure and stress.

I learned to live in a world that is disconnected.

I learned that failure is to be avoided.

I learned that authority is to be trusted.

I now need to unlearn all of this as it has held me back and is unhealthy

I’m learning to live with opportunity and creativity

I’m learning to live in harmony and find my personal wellbeing.

I’m learning that the world is and has always been connected and I’m connected to it at all levels.

I’m learning that failure is a process of learning.

I’m learning that everyone is to be trusted.

Most of all…

I’m learning to open my mind.

I’m learning to open my heart.

I’m learning to open my will.

I’m learning to see that the elephant has been created by everyone to protect themselves from fear.

All of the above may seem a bit random for some people and that is OK.

Everyone is on their own journey and everyone experiences different things in different ways. We need to celebrate and acknowledge that difference more…we focus too much on creating artificial barriers and boundaries which hinder us all from simply being human.

 

 

Reflecting on how I learn and how I help others

I suspect like so many others – getting frustrated by policy, by process, by all the crap that stops you thinking and believing you can make progress and sometimes by other people/managers and leaders.

I’ve started to think more positively about this and how I can understand more why it happens, how I can work with it and what I need to do differently.

One of the biggest light bulb moments I had with this recently was when a colleague outlined the learning journey individuals make and how when working with senior leaders and organisations you need to be mindful of the learning journey everyone is making or not as the case maybe.

Basically what I realised is that the pace of my own individual learning worked against others and that because this learning was not directly shared I ended up communicating across a deeper void than before i started the learning. This void simply increased the frustrations on both sides when communicating about opportunity or redesign potential.

The picture/sketch below hopefully provides a visual explanation of this…

One of the biggest mistakes and missed learning opportunities I’ve made is that I’ve failed to recognise my own role in helping others learn and develop as I learn.  When I reflect back on my personal journey over the last 6-7 years I’ve been on an individual journey of learning and I have benefited from that in a variety of ways and on the whole It hasn’t been a problem…But as I’ve tried to shift and change my approach to supporting my organisation to learn and develop I’ve missed this key insight although I’ve been starting to address it without having clarity about what it was exactly I was trying to address (if that makes sense)

My Insight: What I had unintentionally done was dis-empowered others in their learning and not focused on the collective learning and opportunity this could have created moving forward.

Learning Gap

Key:
Green Line – My individual journey of learning
Blue Line – A senior manager / colleague / service areas journey of learning
Red Line  – Gap in knowledge = increased frustration

So how I see this now is one of a series of individual and collective learning cycles where the experiential learning is a normative process for everyone involved and we create a sustained change in thinking/learning/mindset which benefits the whole organisation.

I am now actively thinking about my approach to learning new things and whether it would be more beneficial for that learning to be done collectively with others or whether that learning needs to be done individually and then I simply revisit the learning again to support others, so instead of moving on my learning I work actively on repeating the learning with others to reduce the frustrations and disconnection.

If I simply want to develop myself then an approach of individual learning is OK. I’m a huge advocate of self-directed learning and very much value having the time and space in my head to spot something interesting and then research deeper and experiment to build my knowledge and learning base. However I’ve also learned that I am very much a collaborative learner and absolutely thrive when learning with other people – I find shared learning experiences more powerful, more meaningful and have more impact all round..

However if I want to play an active part in helping my organisation learn, to help it change and adapt to the future, then I have a responsibility to ensure others develop their learning and the organisation as a whole creates the knowledge and doesn’t rely on a few individuals.

I am not interested in creating a special role for myself over time, As I believe that we should all design ourselves out at some stage and never overstay our welcome in a given time and space. Paul Taylor better outlines in his post here about planned obsolescence and how this helps creates better systems for innovation. This in turn helps foster a new culture of continuous learning and adaptability, but that only happens when everyone is clear about their role in helping each other to learn and grow.

As an aside I have been reflecting on my purpose recently and have tried various activities to think about what my contribution to the world is and should be…you know that deep internal reflective stuff…Its the kind of thing I want to explore and find answers too..So I am going to be signing up for some Theory U self-study with some colleagues / friends in the Autumn as it will help me find my purpose and clarify the opportunity I have in my head.

What are your thoughts on learning and how your approach helps you and your organisation?

 

 

What am I doing?

I often ask this question of myself as the answer is rarely the same and it helps me get a sense of where I am in terms of understanding the context around me and the value I may or may not be providing.

I asked this question of myself over the weekend, one of those internal dialogues, primarily whilst I was cycling along the roads and lanes of Devon as I’m in training to do a cycling challenge during the first week of September. I’m cycling all three sides of Mont Ventoux in a single day with a group of friends, why? the only answer I can give is why not, its something which will challenge my physical and mental limits and I think I need that right now.

In a professional context I’m currently involved in some work to create some understanding around how and why people contact the council, the type, frequency and value of that contact. It is all part of a much larger piece of work to redesign 5 significant areas of the council and to question and challenge our purpose in those areas and ultimately deliver better outcomes with less money.  The work is fascinating and is already challenging some of the perceptions I had about why people contact us and our ability to deal with some of that contact.

Another interesting piece of work I was involved in was to support one of our county Councillors with facilitating a new conversation in his area around Highways and how we as a council can start to enrich our data about the highways which is primarily hard data with the lived experiences of those people who travel around those roads on a daily basis. Our aim was to provide a different type of space and meeting and not involve our Highways colleagues in the process as we felt they would create barriers to a new conversation emerging at least on this first occasion anyway. This is what I learnt about that conversation and the process:

  • Sometimes sending in a shock wave can make a difference (takes bravery)
  • Putting people in a different setting does result in traditional behaviours being harder to maintain
  • If you remove the traditional platform then you can
    • (a) allow those who want to engage to do so and
    • (b) challenge unhelpful behaviours in a far less threatening way.
  • Communities and the council do seem to have a common understanding of each other’s points of view, but we don’t yet seem to have any mechanism for using this information to effect resolution.
  • We appear to rely a lot on hard data and this data is not representative of what the communities value
  • A single meeting in isolation won’t change anything unless the wider behaviours change as well

On the back of this my role has changed, I’ve now moved out of Corporate Communications and into the Organisational Change Team managed by my colleague Sara Cretney. I’ve been asked to keep the strategic lead for Digital. So I’m now the Digital by Design Lead. My former team managed by Tom Dixon is going from strength to strength and no longer really need me, although I will maintain a strategic link and as individuals I am very passionate about ensuring they can be the best that they can be, so I am still committed to supporting them as individuals if they want it.

We are making real progress with the broader Digital agenda as well which is aligning with the wider organisational change I mentioned earlier and we are also taking opportunities to up skill, develop and challenge the current thinking of our Digital Board as well as other leaders in the council by inviting in external people to constructively challenge and disrupt which is helping us unblock some things as well as generate a new momentum for real and deep change. A couple of weeks ago we had Mark Thompson come in and give a talk to our Board and about 30 other leaders including some of our cabinet members on Digital which went down very well and people are still talking about it – in a good way. We also hijacked a leadership meeting next Monday which will now focus on creating a strategic mandate for action around all the work we are doing relating to Data.

The wider sector development work through LocalGovDigital is also going from strength to strength… ALL of the recent success is not down to me (as I’ve not been involved) and is down to people simply connecting and making things happen – all the work around the service standard is showing that councils can work differently together and that collaboration perhaps needs to be rethought as something more fluid and agile which responds to need and shouldn’t have too much formality around it but enough infrastructure to see it flourish – this and this are good examples. Phil and I have had a lot of conversations recently about how we can push the network forward and continually develop the opportunities to see action on the ground connect with the wider and broader strategic challenges. Whilst what we do as a network may appear somewhat random, it is having a positive impact on people working in the sector and in particular professionals working in this space. Without that I would have advocated the network think about its future and whether it had one – these are questions I constantly think about…If the network isn’t creating or adding value it shouldn’t exist.

My voluntary time is taken up by school governance work with my local primary school and now the emerging cooperative multi-academy trust that we are moving forward with where I’ve been asked to be the inaugural Chair which is a scary position to be in. The opportunity to help transform and improve outcomes for children and young people is a massive responsibility although it really is a huge honour to be asked. All of this activity and development is challenging me every day – providing and demonstrating strategic governance and knowing what this looks like all the time pushes me so far out of my comfort zone for such long periods of time, but I know I am growing and developing. It feels great to be on the journey with such fantastic people who I admire and trust.

I’ve made significant changes to how I work over the last 6-9 months to see whether I can be more effective and It hasn’t been easy, it has been a personal journey and one which has challenged my previously preferred responses.

Now I feel I am in a better place generally and when I ask the question of myself “what am I doing?” I can answer holistically and without seeing all my activity as a whole I can’t begin to see what impact I am making or what value I am contributing to or adding.