Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Metaphor as a catalyst of positive change

I am often asked for “proof” that metaphor techniques work in the business environment and also in other situations such as community, home, family and school. I have been using metaphor techniques since 2000 and have many examples of success in team environments.  Due to privacy and research ethics restrictions, I cannot reveal specifically who these examples apply to, but I can discuss the situations in a generic sense to highlight the power of metaphor interactions.

One team had a 30% turnover rate amongst employees and reduced this to zero during the time of the metaphor based development process (over a period of 12 months).  Another organisation was able to foster stronger relationships with their stakeholders to secure more support for a significant project. A third situation enabled a coach to reengage a disengaged employee returning him to a positive contributor.  Another individual attributed coping with a significant restructure to being able to analyse and understand the behavioural environment better and thus depersonalise the outcomes. More details of these cases will be published with the release of my PhD thesis in early 2012 as well as the Reflective Impact Diary through which they were collated.

Meanwhile, some facilitators, consultants and knowledge practitioners are beginning to experiment with the techniques in novel ways and share these experiences to further develop the techniques.  This group called the Organizational Zoo Ambassadors Network meet monthly to discuss how they are applying the concepts and the impacts they achieve.  We will share some of these anonymously through the OZAN wiki (members only site) and also some more publicly through related blogs.

Behaviour can also have the opposite effect, in that inappropriate behaviours can limit performance.  One organisation that had over 30% turnover (a good indication there was a behavioural issue) was exposed to the Zoo metaphor and employees were interested to understand it further. They participated in the research and generally agreed that the techniques had merit (based on anonymous written feedback from workshops).  However, when it came to implementing the techniques they did not even try to do so.  The key reason for not doing so was, they were too busy doing the tasks to be able to engage in anything new.  So, despite them being quite unhappy with their situation and happy with a mechanism to help them improve it, they displayed Triceratops, Rattlesnake and Vulture in order to prevent any significant changes.  The turnover continues to be an issue for the organisation and people remain quite stressed and task focused.

Metaphor techniques enable us to stimulate conversations that matter about the positive and negative impacts of behaviours in our environment. A comprehensive set of metaphors that are both creative and fun, help to create an environment where people can exchange views on behaviours in constructive and non-political ways to develop understanding and build relationships.  When leaders trust their people to invest time in engaging in such activities and support them by participating themselves, truly amazing outcomes can be achieved.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Behaviours at Year End Break Up Parties!

Most organisations have some sort of "year end" breakup party just preceding the holiday season of their culture. A celebration of what has been achieved and what there is to look forward to in the following year.  These are the absolute best times to understand the REAL culture of your organisation.  As an example, over the next few days many organisations around the world will be breaking up for Christmas where there will be ample flow of alcohol and consequently ample flow of emotions (sometimes far too openly for the comfort of others).


So sit back in a corner and observe for a while and see the nature of the zoo in terms of behaviours.  Behaviour and relationships (or desired relationships) determine which cluster each of the animals aligns with and who is permitted to join. The image clearly shows the animal alliances and a little analysis helps you to understand the culture of the zoo.  The Organizational Zoo philosophy is that the culture of the zoo is determined by which animals you have, where they are in the hierarchy and how they interact.

What stories do you think are going on in this image?
Why does Triceratops drink alone: His/her fault or the fault of others?
Which of the Lion den (org silos) would be best to be part of?
Why do the Owls spread themselves amongst several groups?
Who typically is th only one working and why?
What reasons are there for being part of a lions group rather than any other, especially the Quercus (Oak Tree)?

Metaphorical questions (like rhetorical questions) are wonderfully powerful. Reflecting on why things happen using the creativity of a metaphor is helpful to our understanding as it brings emotion, creativity and logic together in an "out of body" experience.  We can talk about behaviours in a way that seems more objective and less political than talking about people. Note, I said seems, we are still limited by our own biases and established patterns, but if you allow yourself some freedom, you may even be able to challenge these and come to understand some new options you have not noticed before). A BIG thank you to John Szabo who does all of the Zoo Drawings, he nailed this one just like all the others!

Have some fun with this and at the same time you may learn something about others and maybe even yourself!
Happy people watching!  I look forward to sharing more metaphor with you in 2011.
Enjoy a safe and prosperous break for those of you fortunate enough to get them and spare a though for those who are less fortunate.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The cycles of life: A metaphorical tradition

Many countries celebrate a “Festive season break up” in December or January/February. It may be the financial cycles of the organisation, the tradition of Christmas or Chinese New Year or any of a range of other natural cycles. I sometimes wonder whether we celebrate surviving another cycle or we are celebrating the beginning of the next cycle. We even count the cycles in terms of our age, they year of the XYZ, anniversaries, the decade of ABC, person of the year, annual champions (and “wooden spooners” – those that come last for those lucky enough to not be familiar with this term). We even make (mainly without any commitment) resolutions for the next cycle through annual strategic reviews, personal commitments and promises. If I lost that 10 KG I promised I would every year I would have dieted into oblivion by now- thankfully I am not great at keeping such commitments through multiple cycles. I can argue that it is like recycling. I promise to lost 10 KG, lose 5 them put it back again so I am in a position to promise to loose 10 again next “silly season”.

This cycling is something that humans have retained from their mainly outgrown animal instincts. Sometimes we don’t even realise we are on the treadmill and would be uncomfortable if we were to have the luxury of getting off and stoping for a while.
Nooooo!!! Mustttt stay up wiiiitttthhhh the Paaaccce!” we exclaim as we rush through life as if rushing to the end faster is a good idea.

Perhaps this festive season we should take a little time to rethink how we engage and what cycles to extract ourselves from. I am convinced that we can be more productive and happy by consciously challenging which cycles we choose to remain in and which to jettison. What metaphor would you apply to your ideal life? Would it reflect calm and ordered or aggressive and chaotic or some other style. What image comes to mind when you consider how you would like to live and what cycles would be there and which ones gone? A tropical island where the daily cycles reflected eating, drinking and sleeping and there are no annual cycles? Have some fun with this – give yourself the time to play in your imagination and then think about what you have to DO to achieve that. Persist! Nothing ever changes until you make a decision and act on it. Don’t be too busy to think about what you really want and what truly makes you happy. It can’t happen if you don’t dream about it and motivate yourself to go and get it. Create the metaphor, reflect on it and then do what needs to be done to get it!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Enhancing Professional Coaching with Metaphor

Performance is a big focus of professional coaching and behaviour is a big part of performance. A concept that stimulates a reflective dialogue about the impact of behaviour on performance is a useful interaction, providing it is done in a constructive manner. In coaching, there are a number of ways which metaphor can be used as it provides a creative mechanism to trigger novel ways to assess who we are and why we act the way we do.

Behaviour has a major impact on performance of individuals, teams and organisations, both positive and negative. If you learn how to understand behaviour and how to leverage the positive aspects whilst mitigating the negative impacts, you can greatly improve team dynamics, the working environment and performance generally (whilst reducing stress and negative political behaviours). Problems often happen when people do not talk about behaviour and “read between the lines” rather than ask and seek to understand differences. Differences in behaviour can be a major asset to be leveraged and metaphor provides a fun constructive way to stimulate conversations between people about the impacts of their behavioural environment. The Zoo Character cards and the free on-line profiler enable people to separate the behaviour from the person and depoliticise interactions. This helps people to build relationships rather than damage them through misunderstandings.
Some examples of the types of metaphor based activities that can be done in coaching sessions include:
1. Compare the outputs from the Organizational Zoo on-line profiler for the same person in different situations. Discuss the impact of deploying different behaviours when the context changes. Explore how success comes from being able to adapt to different circumstances and behaving in way that helps to deliver our desired outcomes. Discuss how behaving to control the environment is more productive than reacting to the environment.

2. Consider how your profile may be different if completed by others, a peer, your boss, someone who works within your team. How others perceive our actions and behaviours can be very insightful and their reality may be very different to how you perceive you act. The Organizational Zoo online profiler can be used to do 360o assessments to provide multiple anonymous perceptions of one’s behaviour. This can be very insightful and stimulate some rich reflections. The aim is to engage in a challenging dialogue to learn about behavioural strengths and weaknesses. The rich discussion is far more important than absolute accuracy of the profile. The value created for the coachee is not about right and wrong – it is the ability to understand how to further develop their behavioural capabilities and build more effective relationships. Ultimately, the more we understand each other (those we like and those we don’t) the better we know how to interact in the most optimal manner.

Can we ever truly accurately “categorise” a person’s behaviour? Humans are complex and often unpredictable, especially successful people. Many profilers categorise to simplify a person’s character, which is highly dangerous. People should be taken out of the box, not tried to be put into the box. The Organizational Zoo metaphor enables us to be the animal (behaviour) we need to be in order to achieve our desired outcome (as opposed to judge ourselves unable because we fit into a certain box). If you want your coaches to be more powerful and more successful (and perhaps even more liked), get them to understand what animal they need to be in each situation to get the best mutual outcomes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Leadership in Action? No - just Leadership Inaction

The recollections from my last post created another thought about a story I shared at the power of place session at the International Leadership Association global conference. It highlighted the difficulties the Australian aboriginal peoples encountered with the arrival of the English settlers. My early childhood in “the outback” was a time when aboriginals were treated as second class citizens (and unfortunately still are by some). As a na├»ve child I could not understand why my dark skinned friends with whom I played football and shared lunches at school were any different from me. I admired how much “place” is embedded into their culture and identity, and enjoyed conversations and their stories about the rainbow serpent creator and how the people and animals were part of the overall environment. Metaphor is deeply embedded into their beliefs and how they pass on these beliefs to the next generations through stories. It is only recently that our westernised learning systems are “discovering” the power of story and metaphor in formal learning and business engagement, and yet it has been used for centuries by “apparently lesser educated people very effectively.

Aboriginals understand they don’t “own” land - they and the land are essential elements of the environment. Once the land was taken from them, they lost their sense of identity and place and therefore a large part of their culture. The government’s ignorant answer was simply to give them another place. Typically this was out of sight and I would argue out of mind. For a long time this strategy (disgracefully) worked for the government, but had a hugely negative impact on the aboriginal peoples. For a while, “integration” was seen as the answer. That is, focus on how to bring aboriginal people into the “superior” European ways of life and totally remove their traditional “savage” ways of life. Of course, without identity and belonging to their sacred places, many critical parts of their identity and purpose were lost. This caused many issues such as school dropouts, high level of disobedient behaviours, alcoholism and premature deaths. The infant death rate of aboriginal people is much higher than that of the Australian norms and life expectancy is much lower. I am pleased to say that there are some programs that are supporting some return to traditional ways involving the elders mentoring the young people, but I fear this in insufficient to retain enough knowledge for this to be sustainable.

The key learning for me from these recollections is the arrogance of those in power and their tenuous sense of superiority. They claim to be “developed civilisations” with highly educated leadership “helping” the disadvantaged. These are the same types of people who have destroyed the environment, engaged in divisive world conflicts with aggression, fought over resources and engaged in personality destruction in order to get into power and control decisions making (on behalf of others?). They are also the same types of people who cannot find answers to sustainable management of resources after just 200 years of occupation and who’s short term thinking caused the global financial crisis.

I would like to highlight that the aboriginal peoples of Australia lived in a sustainable manner for 40,000 years (the oldest civilization – yes I stress CIVILization) in harmony with the environment and (mostly) in peace with their neighbouring tribes- until our “modern” society took this away – and for what? This harmonious culture had been part of the environment for thousands of years longer than any western culture has managed without destroying themselves or their environment. Aboriginal peoples understood how to navigate by the stars and manage the optimal resource gathering by seasons long before western “civilisations” were thinking about such things. They shared this knowledge through storytelling and metaphor through millennia, whereas western uncivilisations are trying to find ways to turn story into profit and influence rather than leverage it as a possible way to preserve and share knowledge. Aboriginals understood the importance of environmental balance and strategic use of resources and more importantly, acted on this knowledge through a nomadic lifestyle, so as not to over use what was available and enable it to recover before they returned again.

Our current global leaders (still dominated by western thinking) have not been able to find “acceptable” answers to any of these complex questions because they are looking in the wrong places. They are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. Quality answers are available and will work if given the chance. However, our “leaders” are just too arrogant and “superior” to see beyond their self imposed boundaries. They do not possess the leadership we need for our best future options. The real leaders are too busy trying to make a pragmatic difference with no resources to engage in their silly games of politics. A good first step is to cut “defence” SPENDING globally by 20% and give it to people to INVEST in sustainable community initiatives to improve their living standards and reduce aid dependent subsistence. Show some true leadership by considering what is best for the peoples of the world and make decisions that help the problem instead of being part of it. I am looking to soar with Eagles and engage with Quercus, but disappointed to find too often those in charge are more self focused Lions.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Place, experience, identity and belonging

Connections are strange things - they seem to come out of nowhere, but have importance to us and how we lead others.  A few weeks ago three unrelated things happened a few days apart that triggered me to recall two unrelated memories from my childhood. These stimulated some useful reflections on our behaviour as professionals and in which boat we should be. I attended a session on the use of multiple senses and poetry to influence perception at the ILA conference. I also attended a session on the power of place at that same conference on the same day. The following day, I went for a reflective walk around the Boston Common.

Whilst on this walk I recalled my enjoyment of the poem “Hist” as a child, which I also shared with my own children when they were in primary school. The poem describes a fearful journey at night “a mile or so across the Possum Park” (which as child I thought was Boston Park) and how terrified they were during the journey. Once nearing the other side and coming into the light again, their fear evaporated and their stories changed to how brave they were and how exciting the journey was. This stimulated me to think how often we don’t take that courageous journey out of fear. We don’t get on board that unknown boat to “somewhere else”, especially in a time when perceptions of risk kill many ideas before they can grow sufficient strength to survive attack by the change resistant power brokers eager to preserve their control and interests.

Updating that old poem to suit our current context might look like:
(with apologies to and inspiration from CJ Dennis)

Hist….. Hark,
The journey seems so dark
We SHOULD tread a new track across an unknown park
Step right, lead like you might
With egos aside and open minds
Deliver us into the light
Let’s together embark on an uncertain journey that takes us to a better place using all the knowledge we have and embrace the “sacrifices” this may entail. Because if we do not do so, the sacrifices will be much worse (and are already visible to those who CAN SEE). Please do not be afraid of the dark. Look for the inspiration and confidence that comes from leading by example and accepting that we must act for the future, whilst retain the best of what we already know (and this is not western dominated short term thinking!) The planet needs and is ready for true “advanced leadership”. Are you in the boat or on the bank?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Lead Gunners to Gun Leaders

In Australia the slang term “Gunner” is a derogatory term for someone who is always shooting off ideas but rarely does anything about them. It comes from their constant verbal shots of “I am gunner do this and they are gunner do that…”. The lead gunner wants to look good by spruiking ideas, but knows that attempting delivery of their “great idea” is a risk. It requires action and capability they are not confident about, so they have handy a list of complex barriers they use as a excuses for their lack of delivery and commitment. I often wonder what they see when reflecting (assuming they engage in genuine self challenge). Are they aware of their limitations, or blissfully in their own little “reality”.

Typical of the dry and not so subtle Australian sense of humour is you can buy such people a circular wall decoration called a “tuit”. This removes their excuse of “I’m gunner do it when I get a round to it”. In contrast, the slang term “Gun” applies to someone at the peak of their performance. A gun athlete wins the gold medal, they are the best and everyone knows it. A gun leader is a highly respected individual who delivers on sustainable promises. People trust them and are inspired by them.

I have observed lead gunner behaviours in many of today’s so called “leaders”. Many are fantastic at describing their vision or mission (assuming they know the difference). However, they have very little idea (or intention perhaps) of acting to convert these into reality. This is often driven by fear of the unknown and the unpredictability of the longer term future. The fact that we live in a complex world should be seen as a great advantage and source of opportunities for innovation, not an issue. However, it has resulted in many at the top (I refrain from saying leaders) making decisions that are short term focused to reduce risks and “optimise” short term gain. A better leadership approach is foster “collaborative opportunity before issues” (see earlier post). Although risks are important to decision making, the risk analysis needs to come after the creative interactions to generate a wide diversity of opportunities. This mindset of focusing on short term “risk free” actions for immediate benefit to the few is the action of gunners not leaders. Now more than ever we need genuine authentic leaders who think, behave and act in a sustainable manner. It is far easier to describe what a house is, than to build it. It is even more difficult to convert the newly constructed building into a home, which a family of people “own”, identify with and feel a sense of belonging and safety. Organisations often lack this sense of belonging, causing stress, a lack of loyalty and high employee churn. So back to our Lead gunners…

How do we encourage the decision makers to shed the gunner mentality and remove the barriers to realisation, rather than constantly talk about what is stopping them. “I can’t deliver this until….” echoes along the corridors of the top floor, along with “I wasn’t my fault, we couldn’t have known and this has never happened before”. Get over it! The world is complex and unpredictable. If you want the privileges of being a leader in such a world, deal with this - or get out of the way for someone who can! In fact, if you are a capable leader you will revel in the uncertainty and leverage the diversity and emergence whilst acting in a responsible manner. Such an approach will drive a positive performance spiral in your organisation and contribute to the “greater good” not to mention your reputation.

So, where are we going to find people who get this? Leaders accept the challenges and the responsibility of creating a shared vision which all members of their “tribe” want to willingly follow. Because, if they don’t have willing followers, they can hardly be leaders can they! So are you gunner join the typical leaderless or be a gun leader?