Habitual Behaviour

man-brushing-teethI am staying with my sister in south-west France. I go there fairly often and so have a small selection of toiletries left at her house. This includes a toothbrush. Now I was brushing my teeth yesterday when a thought occurred to me. (Bear with me, this setup is quite important.)

I realised that even though on this occasion I had brought my electric toothbrush with me I had not pressed the little button to make it work and was brushing my teeth manually as I normally did there  because the stuff that I leave at her house does not include an electric toothbrush. I realised that my behaviour was situationally dependent. Even with a simple task like brushing my teeth I was doing what I normally did in that environment. (BTW – the photo is not me, I’m much better looking! 🙂 )

Our context or environment influences our behaviour in all sorts of ways. Actually the reason I was at my sisters was to attend a funeral; at funerals we tend to wear black and be a bit sombre; in libraries, we tend to be quiet; for work we tend to wear sober suits; in pubs we tend to go for an alcoholic rather than non-alcoholic drink – and I am sure that there are lots of other circumstances where our context triggers habitual behaviours.

So, my personal development challenge to you is to notice and observe these habitual behaviours then consider the implications and what might happen if you choose to behave differently in that context. I will be interested to hear your reports.

Are you afraid of learning?

heston-blumenthal_1434103cI like to think of myself as something of a gourmet and a better than average domestic cook. Indeed, on occasions I even live out the fantasy by putting on my chef’s jacket (I even bought a toque once) and cooking for groups of friends and our clients. I guess it was that interest in food and cookery that led my wife to buy me a ‘molecular gastronomy kit’ for Christmas 2011 – a box full of kit and chemicals that might just turn me into the next Heston Blumenthal. I’m ashamed that 14 months later I have not used any of that kit. Why?

Switch the scenario, your employer pays for you, or perhaps you even pay for yourself, to go on an expensive training course where you learn – or, more usually, someone tries to teach you, all sorts of new tools and techniques to improve your management or leadership practice. You come away with a head full of ideas and the course manual goes on the shelf never to be looked at again nor are very many of the ideas that you brought away with you put into practice. Why?

Perhaps it’s because I’m comfortable in my kitchen. I can nearly always rustle up something very tasty from whatever we have in the fridge and store cupboards and on occasions I will go out and buy some special ingredients to make a special meal. Yet all of that is within the envelope of what I know already and what my intuition tells me might be an interesting combination of ingredients. I rarely follow recipes, although I do read cookbooks out of interest and (also I think) a desire to stimulate my grey cells into something new or different. I guess I want whatever I cook to be mine, not a regurgitation of the beloved Delia’s undoubted skill in writing recipes. I know that I want each meal to be different – I could no more eat foie gras two nights running than listen to the Archers or watch Eastenders two days running. Doing things the same way as before just does not do it for me. Perhaps that’s a legacy of a life in organisational change, where I soon realised that every situation is different and required a different approaches to resolution. Or perhaps that is why I ended up in change because repetition is a boring.

Anyway, back to using that molecular gastronomy kit. I looked at it this morning and wondered why on earth I was not, so far, interested in using it. I don’t know the answer but here are a couple of propositions:

  1. that I am not interested in learning anything new. I hope this isn’t the case, for as long as I can remember learning has been one of my core values and much of what I do seems to be about putting myself in positions where I might be able to learn something new.
  2. fear of failure. I am really not very good failure. The prospect of not achieving my goals leads to one of two responses, either avoidance or persistence. I clearly remember the sinking feeling in my stomach on the rare occasions when my culinary concoctions have not worked out. Although I can only think of one or two occasions (from over 35 years of cooking just about every single day), when what I produced was actually inedible.

Switch the scenario again. When you return from that management or leadership training course, what gets in the way of trying out the new ideas? Do you really want to improve your performance or did you just go on the class for a bit of intellectual masturbation? Do you fear the consequences of trying out some of these new ideas? Or is it just that you can’t be bothered because you are stuck in a rut? Well as someone said to me some time ago “the difference between a rut and a grave is 6 feet”.

So, before the week is out that molecular gastronomy kit is going to be explored and used. I need to watch the video and read the manual because of this stuff is so different to what I already know that it seems unlikely I will be able to use intuition to guide me. I also need to do something else that I generally don’t need in working with intuition – plan. I know I will need to decide in advance what equipment, materials and ingredients I will need in order to prepare my chosen gastronomic treat.

I know it will be okay, because if it doesn’t quite turn out how I expect then I create the opportunity to learn by having another go. I suspect my wife might be in for some interesting treats over the next few weeks!

What have you stopped noticing?

I waschinese on mobile phone sitting minding my own business on Manchester Picadilly Station a few days ago (oh, the exciting places I get to for coaching assignments!) when an obviously ‘Chinese’ looking young guy came and sat alongside me. Well, as Manchester has one of the biggest Chinese communities in the UK, that was no real surprise. What DID however surprise me was when he pulled out his mobile phone to ring someone and this perfect Manchester accent emerged from his mouth.

Now what really surprises me about that is that I was surprised. I live in Bradford and am perfectly at home with young people with obviously Asian heritage speaking in a broad West Yorkshire accent – I don’t even notice what some might hear as a vocal incongruity, indeed the potential for noticing would be in an Asian under 30 years old speaking in an Asian accent!

Our brains are designed to notice difference, so the incongruity of the Chinese Mancunian is perhaps not surprising. But what is the process, and what are the consequences, of the incongruous becoming the norm?

Whatever the process, this is a challenge faced by anyone brought into an organisation to stimulate change. While we are outsiders we notice all sorts of things about the organisation, and the behaviours of its’ players, that the insiders miss because they have become habituated. In time, we risk ‘going native’ and ourselves becoming habituated to all those ‘weird’ behaviours we have been employed to point out and change. A change agent has a limited life in any organisation.

So, what have you stopped noticing about your world? And what are the consequences?

Practical leadership – when to walk away.

Walk AwayI have just been reflecting on the various organisations in which I have a voluntary interest, typically as a trustee or school governor. Every single one of them either has had, or currently has, significant leadership issues – perhaps that says something about the type of organisation in which I get involved but I really wanted both myself and you to reflect on our behaviour when faced with serious challenges.

Throughout most of my working life I was paid, and sometimes handsomely, to face and deal with the challenges of organisational stress and change. I mention this because I have come to recognise that facing similar challenges as a volunteer is fundamentally different. In the first instance a security driver always kicked in, after all my employer paid my mortgage and set up a pension which now allows me to volunteer my time. The situation with volunteering is fundamentally different, I can walk away at any time and can even arrange such a departure that most other people involved would recognise that I was neither implicitly not explicitly knocking the organisation for which I had volunteered. Indeed I did that three or four years ago when I temporarily gave up all of my involvement in school governance because it was taking over and I realised that I needed to pay more attention to my business and personal life. Well, that is what I said at the time.

Reflecting on that, and taking account of my current circumstances, I wonder whether I had just had enough. I guess that I volunteer in the belief that those receiving my services will value them and be prepared to listen to what I have to say. Better still, act on it. When this does not happen, the change manager in me says something along the lines of “Well, the system is stuck and I am part of the system. What can I do differently that might provoke a different response?”

As a professional, one tries and tries and tries alternative tactics and strategies in an effort to unlock the system. Equally, as a professional I have come to realise that there is a time to walk away. I have probably mentioned before that, in something like 30 years of change leadership, one of the key lessons I have learned is “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. The implications of that statement are that on occasions one ought to walk away from a challenge, partly because walking away is itself an intervention that might shift the system and partly because a change agent’s time is usually best spent on situations where they can make a difference rather than tiring themselves out in trying to move the immovable object.

So my proposition is that the statement “I have had enough of this” might well be my subconscious telling me to walk away. What do you think? Especially for those of you who volunteer your time, what keeps you there when the going gets tough?

Spend, spend, spend – what does it tell you about your Values?

Tods-Ferrari-Loafers-Mens-Shoes-RedA few days ago I went shopping for some shoes. Now that is a challenging enough task in itself, because over the years I have found that I am particularly difficult to please and, having wide size 11 feet, it is hard to find styles that actually fit me. Unfortunately I did not succeed on this occasion although I did find a beautiful red suede pair from a company whose pattern I know fits me – unfortunately it was not available in my size. So, what has all this got to do with personal development, leadership etc?

Well, the intriguing bit was when I was discussing it with my wife (and coach) and I offered the opinion that whilst I was prepared to pay the reduced price at which the shoes were being offered I would not be prepared to pay the full price of £100 a pair. She laughed out loud! And, strangely enough, so did I as the words came out of my mouth. So why laugh? Well we were sat having a single meal that would in the end cost as much as the full price of that pair of shoes that may last me several years!

This got us wondering what our shopping habits might tell us about our own value systems.  I cook a lot and claim to do so passably well, I am an adventurous eater and if someone rang me now to say there was a table available at The Fat Duck in Bray (for the uninformed, arguably the best restaurant in the UK and in the top 5 of the world) it would be a matter of seconds before I decided to accept and drive the four hours to get there. I read cookery books, I get presents to do with cooking and this Christmas my stepdaughter even bought me a chopping board inscribed “Geoff’s kitchen”. In short, food matters to me. Indeed, it seems that it matters to me rather more than shoes do – why else would I balk at paying £100 for a pair of shoes yet not think twice about driving for four hours and paying £200 for a single meal?

Sometimes I just want food and yes I have been known to eat in McDonald’s but most of the time my tastebuds are titillated by novel types of food, innovative ways of preparing and presenting it and eating experiences that incorporate the food into a wider milieu. I value the food and the eating, yet I know that the underlying value is that of innovation and that for me, the value of innovation is most beautifully expressed by great ingredients, great preparation and a great eating environment.

So, my challenge to you is to think about the spending decisions you make and how those decisions can inform you about your own value system. When you are making choices, those choices are influenced by your values.

“I don’t know” – good!

I-Don't-KnowI recently came across this challenging little sentence in an article by Luc Gallopin:

“As far as mastering today’s world is concerned I think we would be better off with the skill of ‘not knowing’ or ‘ignorance’.”

Well, that got the grey cells active! In this age when we are exhorted to set goals for everything from when we will reach millionaire status to what time we will spend with the kids each day, surely ‘not knowing’ has no place? Perhaps this idea of knowing what we want to happen is especially prevalent at this time of year when those New Year’s Resolutions come out again – goals for the next year.

You might, by now, expect me to have a slightly different take on goals! Oh, I do not deny that they have their place – how else would we know what to buy at the supermarket if we did not set out to get butter, milk, bread etc? (actually I very rarely take a list as I like to be guided by what takes my fancy as I wander around), how could we be certain of submitting that report on time if we did not know ‘when’ the right time was, etc.

I want to put a case for not knowing, for leaving things to just happen; and I want to preface it by asking you to think about those great things that might have happened to you when you did not have a SMART goal – falling in love, watching that spectacular sunset, learning to walk or talk (interesting how much children manage to learn/do without even a mental concept of ‘goal’). Just imagine setting the goal “By 23rd February 2013 I will have fallen in love with a 5’10” blonde Australian woman”, how ridiculous (even though it might be aspirational!).

But ‘not knowing’ is subtly different to not having goals, after all Columbus set off to discover the East Indies (his goal) without having much idea of where or how he could find them perhaps that’s what enabled him to find the Americas instead. He clearly subscribed to the apocryphal quotation:

You cannot discover new oceans unless you are willing to lose sight of the shore.

Losing sight of the shore involves being prepared to give up foreknowledge. Yes, you might have some idea of what you want to achieve, but be prepared for stuff to just happen and take advantage of happenings. We cannot know the future, so all we can really do is set off into the void with some generalised desired outcomes and be prepared for whatever happens.

In my book THAT is the essence of great leadership; having the humility to acknowledge that you do not know, the passion to achieve something and the wisdom to recognise and use whatever opportunities come your way. Good leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable.

Giving things up

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsA couple of days ago my wife called me into the kitchen. She had been rummaging around in one of the cupboards and found some paperwork and one or two other items that she thought were mine, and indeed they were. Not only were their mine but they had been in “Geoff’s Drawer”, situated immediately above the cupboard in which she found them. So full had this drawer becomes that a few items had overflowed and fallen into the cupboard below, only to be discovered some months later when my wife just happened to be rummaging around at the back of the cupboard.

Is your life, your office, your brain a bit like this? So full of stuff and ideas and projects and ‘must dos’ that some of them get overlooked for a very long time. Mine certainly is.

Well this is a time of year when we typically start to think about what we are going to do new or differently next year – those New Year’s resolutions. Whether or not the New Year is a good time to make such resolutions is perhaps the subject of another blog, but assuming that we make them at some time or another there is another aspect to which we might pay attention. What am I going to give up?

It is a bit like that a full drawer, only when I have a good clear out and throw away some stuff  do I really appreciate what is important to retain. Similarly, creating change typically involves stopping doing things as well as starting new things.

So here is a suggestion, when you make your new years resolutions how about making one of them that you will stop doing something, that way you will create space in your brain for whatever it is you want to start doing.

Flooding and leadership – what can we learn?

I was musing on the recent floods and my mind turned to the leadership challenges of dealing with an expectable yet unexpected event, one that has short-term impact and long-term effects…

I was particularly taken by this image of a river in flood, with both a direction sign and a Stop sign showing. The river was over 4metres above normal level at this stage and anyone who didn’t know what they were doing could quite easily be washed away – the direction signs and the Stop sign were no help at all, just like sometimes our well laid change plans turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help.

This is change leadership of a different type – crisis management – and one that needs a different set of tools to those typically used for transitions in ‘normal’ conditions. Residents of York, who had been prepared in advance by both previous experience and the blandishments of the Environment Agency knew what to do and many of them minimised the impact by taking and acting on the advice of those who had ‘been there, done that’. They relied on both external expertise and internal experience. The EA could no more be expected to give detailed advice to every single household that your change leaders can give individual advice to everyone affected by your change.

What they could and did do was to make every effort to inform as many households as possible of the broad risks AND of the specific impending hazard; advance publicity was extensive and every potentially affected households had a telephone hotline to keep them informed of the scale of the emergency and what they could do to help – that included encouragement to help others (neighbours). Actually IN the crisis the advice was simple – ‘stay away’ – well-meaning amateurs are more hindrance than help and this is where the professionals come into their own with the resources and expertise needed to deal with critical cases. The cleanup and recovery, where huge resources is needed, is where the ‘amateurs’ come in.

So, how might this apply to the crises that will inevitably arise during your change effort?

  • Firstly, acknowledge that such crises are expected and unexpectable – they will happen but you don’t know when or what their nature will be.
  • Learn from the past – the EA are good at transferring lessons from both local and wider history of flooding to their operational response. What can you learn from your own history of change or from others’ tales of woe?
  • Prepare your ‘constituency’ – to give the impression that all will go smoothly is tantamount to telling your people an untruth, and that’s never a good idea. How can you prepare them for the inevitable ups and downs? They will need to rely on internal resilience as well as your leadership.
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of a crisis emerging – it’s easy to figure out that several days’ rain in the upper catchments will eventually flood York, but what are the signs that you might expect to see if the **** is about to hit the fan on your change effort?
  • Know when to ditch the ‘business as usual’ plan and invoke the crisis plan – good emergency planning is less about the type of emergency than about the impacts, so what impacts do you need to plan for?
  • Keep Calm and Carry On – above all, as a leader you need to project calm, the impression that you know what is happening and how to handle it (even if behind the scenes you are getting the clean trousers out!). Your followers will take this calmness on board and work through the crisis with you.

I’m sure there are other lessons, just remember to be aware – as a change leader you need part of your attention on the past, part on the now and part on the future, that’s what makes it such grrrreat fun!

Coffee making and paying attention

Simon Hartley has written a stimulating little piece about the importance of  ‘engineering’ enjoyment into an experience – in this case, specifically of tasting coffee in a competition. In that article he states that “They will all taste the same thing, but their enjoyment of it is highly malleable” – I beg to differ on the first part of the claim!

The sense of taste, as indeed any other sense, is influenced by a host of factors beyond the pure objective content of the coffee – analysing coffee to its’ minutest chemical composition cannot predict what it will taste like to one or more individuals. Their interpretation of the taste could be influenced by physical factors such as how they swirl the coffee in their mouths, the configuration and sensitivity of their taste buds, other smells in the room (70% of ‘taste’ is actually driven by smell – so there are another load of confounding factors) etc. If we now look at factors ‘inside the head’, again individuals will interpret the nerve signals produced by their sensory apparatus in different ways. Perhaps the classic is professional wine tasters who cannot distinguish many white and red wines unless they also have the visual stimulus to ‘confirm’ their taste. If we look further into that field, tasters have to develop a language with which to describe what they are tasting. Expectations also play a part, hence blind tastings.

So, what’s my point? Well, that we all experience the world in VERY different ways – our brains all interpret the objective reality (“blooming confusion”) in our own subjective way. THAT is why the tasters are malleable to what the barista helps them experience through their words and manner.

And that is also why you need to pay individual attention to how people are interpreting whatever messages you are seeking to send to them!

Involve your people in change

Here we go with my fourth principle of effective change leadership – get them involved. When we think back, most of us have some experience of having resisted change. Maybe your whole department was being split up, or maybe your partner wanted to go to a different restaurant to the one you usually frequent – whatever the scale, experience suggests that those who have change done to them tend to resist, whereas those who are actively involved in the change and have a real ability to shape it are likely to become committed.

Now I imagine that this could come as something of a challenge who are typically in the command and control mentality, but even for those further along the development spectrum it can be quite a challenge to take a piece of strategy that they might have been working on for several months and ask their employees “What do you think and how can we implement this?”  But that is what needs to be done. There are those, and I happen to be one, who would argue that employees need to be involved in strategy development, not just tactical implementation. However not all employee bodies (or indeed bosses!) are ready for this, although it may just be that a forthcoming major change becomes a trigger for developing and the more actively involving employees.

When you do involve your employees, make it real. There is nothing worse than a sham attempt to obtain employee input that is subsequently completely ignored. Even in the extremely unlikely event that they have nothing constructive to add, they deserve some recognition and acknowledgements for the input alongside a coherent explanation of why you chose to ignore them.

So, rather than bang on about how important it is to involve your people I would like to offer you a challenge. The challenge is to set out your change proposal and ask your people about the good and the bad, what will help of what will hinder, hot has been missed in the proposal and what makes no sense to them whatsoever etc. You need to listen to them and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that an anagram of listen is silent.