January 21, 2018

The subtlety is the point

Four business people in a discussionMany situations seem to require being focused and broad at the same time; being specialist as well as generalist.

That appears to be a contradiction, a dichotomy—one that needs very careful handling if a group of people is involved, and a considerable challenge to manage successfully.

If we suggest focusing an organisation, for example, in one or more particular areas, the people involved in the non-preferred areas are likely to resist because they feel threatened. But we possibly didn’t intend any real downside for them. It’s more that we hope to grow certain emerging strengths.

Alternatively, if we aim to keep everyone happy, we may fail to develop the concentration of effort necessary to achieve significant breakthroughs.

Chances are what we really require is a relative emphasis on certain areas that may yield superior returns on effort, not a major upheaval.

Our biggest challenge, in fact, may be to convey the subtlety of what we intend so that we don’t “frighten the horses” whose support we need. Managing the situation with the necessary sensitivity and spreading that ethos throughout the organisation could be harder than—and just as vital as—the actual choice of areas of focus.

In other words…

The subtlety is the point.

Dangerous questions

Worried manBeen reading Daniel Kahneman’s excellent and very useful “Thinking, Fast and Slow”…

He says: If asked a difficult question we don’t know the answer to, we will normally pick an easier one we do have an answer to, and provide the answer to that one instead. And we do that without realising we’re making the substitution. It’s an unconscious process.

That rings true, I believe.

Moreover, it seems to me…

If the question asked requires a yes or no answer, then our search for a seemingly related question we can answer in those binary terms may take us an especially long way from the starting point, with unpredictable results.

Maybe we should take more care with our questions.

The importance of sifting

The importance of siftingIt’s surprising what a difference it makes, thinking over our experiences and learning.

You’d imagine that if we put all that stuff into our heads the process would be automatic after that—that we could rely on our brains to process everything comprehensively; to form all the connections that there are to form; and to generate all the ideas there are to generate. After all, we’ve put it all in one pot.

In my experience, it doesn’t work like that. The “stuff” mostly just lies there.

Instead, to make the most of what we have—all that accumulated wisdom—we do need to find ways of sifting through our experiences and new things we’ve learned. We do need to do that deliberately. And we do need to create the opportunity for new patterns to emerge.

In other words, both time to reflect and some particular approach to reflection are important.

Talking things over with other people is obviously one way, especially if they have some skill in listening and questioning. Another is writing a journal. Whatever the specifics, expressing what’s inside stimulates new realisations. Particular frameworks and models and new ways of looking at things help.

It’s like we need to cross and recross the ground in different directions, connecting up the pieces in new ways, and sorting out what is most important.

In other words, we need to sift.

So much, so obvious maybe.

The question is: Are we sifting enough?

The truth which sets us free, if we hear it

Worried manJournalist and historian, Herbert Agar (1897-1980) said: “The truth that makes people free is for the most part the truth which they prefer not to hear.” (Actually, he talked about “men”, as was the way of the time, but I’ve taken it upon myself to translate his words to the modern era.)

What a great line that is, and, in my experience, very often true.

Why is that?

Why do we prefer not to hear a truth that releases us from a burdened way of life and sets on a path to greater success and happiness?

Is it because it’s too painful to hear that particular truth?

Or is that we fear being set free? Then we would need to own the consequences of our choices rather than have the convenience of being a victim. We would no longer have something or someone to blame.

What do you think?

Not so easy perhaps to have the responsibility of being free.

Threatening with help

Three senior managersIt’s a curious thing…

People can be remarkably resistant to help: I suppose we all are, depending on the subject. “Help” can take us into painful contemplation, addressing issues that we might prefer to avoid—or at least put off to another time.

Perhaps that’s why “threatening” someone or a group with help can be so effective. Suddenly, when there is a real possibility of someone else getting involved and perhaps setting the pace and the agenda—taking the initiative away—we find it within ourselves to make a start; to tackle the issues we need to tackle.

Sometimes, I’ve been the “help” that is threatened. I don’t think I’m that scary but, even so, some people would rather take the suggestion as a prompt to galvanise themselves into action—independently.

Where are you on this…

Are you the help that is threatened?

Or are you being threatened by help?

Or do you put your pride aside and accept additional expertise into what you’re doing?

Or maybe you’re a leader using the threat of help to get others to take action, even if that isn’t what you originally intended.

Whichever of these apply, it’s a powerful effect.

If they’re not getting along, build more process

Four business people in a discussionIf a group of people who are supposed to be working together aren’t, or at least not very well…

We can, of course, work on their ability to relate to each other and that’s a good thing to do.


It can also be a sign that we need to build more process; to create more system and structure.

Sometimes, groups struggle to collaborate effectively because there are too many sources of ambiguity, leading to frustration and resentment.

In my experience, help the participants create some structure to work within and things often get a lot easier. Clarity increases and frustration diminishes. But they may well not be able to create that structure on their own. No one member has enough influence with the others.

So, if in doubt…

If they’re not getting along, build more process. It could be the easiest way to strengthen the team.

Obvious? It would seem not.

Most of us need a kick up the…

Two businesspeople in slightly tense conversationNo, not that.

Most of us need a kick up the assumptions—our assumptions about what’s possible, about how things might happen, and especially about other people and our relationships with them.

We tend not to see how the assumptions we unconsciously make affect the outcome in any situation. We tend to get what we expect to get because much of what happens is really our own creation. The little actions we take tend to prompt responses that reinforce what we believe.

Often we’re reluctant to declare what our assumptions are and then allow them to be examined. The consequences might be embarrassing: It might become apparent that the premises we believe to be true and have acted upon aren’t true at all. And then more things might fall away—like all the work we’ve been focused on for the last while.

And so we keep our assumptions close. We hide them. But that’s a bad idea. We might go seriously off track without the feedback we need to stay connected to what’s real.

Then we might get a real kick up the…

First step is realising we are making assumptions.

Then we need to identify what they are and whether they really are justified.

They might not be. And then we can make progress.

How disruptive is too disruptive?

Group of people listeningSometime we need shaken up a bit. We get set in our ways. We fail to notice that the world has changed around us.

So a disruptive input can be good for us—what we need, even if it isn’t very comfortable at the time. No doubt we will need to settle back to some stability after the upheaval, perhaps without becoming quite so ossified next time around. Or maybe we’ll manage to institute some continuous adaptation. That would be better.

From the interventionist’s perspective, how disruptive should we be?

Probably more disruptive than feels comfortable for us.

Oddly enough, to strengthen the relationship, we might need to put it at risk.

Are you an interpreter?

Four people speaking in front of a laptopIt’s conventional to admire the creator of novel work—the ground-breaking innovator.

In fact, much value is added in the interpretation of new ideas for familiar situations. And that’s an art too.

There’s considerable skill in sensing what a person or a group needs next—where they’re at—and delivering the right insight at the right time in the right place and in the right way—interpreting an original source and making it relevant to a person or a team or an organisation so that they act on the knowledge and achieve better results.

There can be a long chain from original research to practical application, and many important roles in between.

Perhaps you fulfil some of them…

Are you an interpreter?

If so, how do you go about your trade?

Fairness—does that mean equality or proportionality?

Traditional weighing scalesIn relationships of whatever kind, there’s potential for getting in a muddle over this: By “fair,” do we mean “equal” or do we mean “in proportion?”

This is a key distinction in moral psychology developed in Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”—one that evolved over the course of the work he describes and, by implication, not perhaps so obvious.

Many of us may expect individual rewards to be in proportion to efforts put in or perhaps outcomes achieved, rather than equal shares for everyone, irrespective of contribution (assuming equal opportunity). But not everyone sees it like that necessarily.

Which of these is “right” isn’t central here…

The point is simply remembering “fairness” means different things to different people and our response to whatever we perceive as fair (or lacking fairness) is rather deep-seated, partly innate and unconscious, and so it’s powerful. It has the potential to drive unexpected division.

What do you mean by “fair” when you use the word?

And do the people around you mean that too?

Could be worth clarifying.