In yesterday’s post, I was concerned about both the abuse of power, and the effectiveness of confessional use of language. The desire to compel people to put into words (generally the words of power in the facilitator’s culture and/or ideology) learning is problematic to say the least. And the excuse of no one is compelled to ignores the guilt-tripping of group pressure and can easily result in gaming. The easiest way to get someone off your back is to say what they want you to say and then get on with what you wanted to do anyway. Most workshop-based intervention from which the output is a set of statements about how we should change means little or nothing if expressed in general terms. We will engage more fully with our staff is meaningless without a series of experimental probes of micro-actions that will start the next day. As I said yesterday I far prefer to avoid abstractions, in particular value-laden linguistic abstractions, in favour of How what can I/we do tomorrow to trigger more stories/observations like these, and fewer like those. The anecdotes of success and failure can be catalysed through action, but not created by assembling words of power on flip charts in workshops, although there are exceptions. The Agile manifesto is an example for good or ill, but the event that produced it was the culmination of many pathways that led to the event which was itself a catalyst. In effect, it came as the result of multiple small, and some large, actions is software engineering practice; it instantiated it did not initiate.
Now that final phrase is also an illustration of the power of language to create differences. I and others did it with complex and complicated, efficiency and effectiveness. English (far too good for the English by the way) with its vast and subtle vocabularies allows for all sorts of word games to be played to make people sit back and think differently. That is the use of language as aporia and I refer readers to my three-part series on that, which started with a post on linguistic aporia. This use of language is about starting journeys of meaning rather than seeking to define the end state or a pubic confession of past sin at the mercy seat. And the essence of such approaches is to create what I call necessary ambiguity or yesterday unpurpose. The art of Gaping Void, one of the leading practitioners using semiotics in change and long-term friends, does this brilliantly. I’ve started this post with one of my top three examples of their work. It asks a question, it doesn’t determine a goal. If you look at religious teaching then the main form is the use of parables (and that is not just Christianity. The essence of a parable is that it asks difficult questions in ways that make you think and act differently. We are shortly launching an open participation narrative project on the use of parable as meaning-making and will start with the Parable of the Sower, but will move onto the Sufi tradition of storytelling, the brilliant, complex & magical film Whale Rider from Maori, and then on with other examples from other religious and cultural traditions. In working within organisations it is better for leaders to tell a parable than to proselytise a MISSION or PURPOSE statement. The former can’t be gamed, the latter just triggers linguistic conformance. Add to that my suggestion of yesterday about creating negative stories to act as a constraint and you have a more natural, and naturalistic approach to change. The template for parable form stories and the whole of this approach will be in the wiki shortly by the way and if anyone wants to contribute let me know.
There is a wider lesson here, and one I learned the hard way in IBM and have taught/mentored ever since. It can be summarised simply as the more you get promoted the more you only meet angrier and angrier customers and the fewer decisions you get to make. Too many new leaders confuse authority with power (something I will return to in tomorrow’s post). In general, any leader is navigating to varying degrees of success, complex balances of needs both individual and organisational, along with complex histories and inevitable misunderstandings not to mention conspiracy theories. If you can’t live with that you are going to have a near-impossible time, if you can then get ready for frustration. I’ve never bought the idea of servant leadership as it represents things as a dichotomy, sometimes you serve, sometimes you direct. In a crisis, you can achieve more than during day-to-day living. The leader is always a navigator and the ability to create and use necessary ambiguity a key skill.
Banner picture of Yellowstone National Park is cropped from an original by Rod Olphe on Unsplash and it was chosen deliberately to ask a question of readers about context and pathways