Welcome to the Freedom Fridays Project podcast. I'm Pete Clark, your host, the Whispers Guy. It appears that work expands to the time that we give it and I started to explore how I was investing my time and effort, particularly on Fridays. It's evolved to an exploration and experiment with time, energy, attention and identity and a mindset shift from I have to, to I choose to. So if you're interested in exploring some changes to the way that you invest your time and energy, if you'd like some tips on the way as you make some changes, perhaps to your identity, if you would like the freedom of I choose to, away from I have to, then this is the podcast for you. So welcome to the Freedom Fridays Project podcast.
Welcome to this week's episode of the Freedom Fridays Project podcast. This week, I've got a special guest, who was one of the first people to give me some really helpful feedback when I first started this, and it's been 30 odd episodes in and I finally persuaded him to come on. We're going to change a little bit and I've known this chap for 20 odd years, and not really realising we live two streets away from each other for a long time. And so please welcome Marcus to the podcast. How are you sir?
I'm very well Pete. I'm just going to turn that thing off. It's coming through the other side.
Welcome. And so Marcus, I normally start this by asking the question around the change, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And in chatting with you before, I was really keen, because we play in the same space, we talk to clients and people about organisational transformational change individual personnel, etc, etc. I'd be really keen if you're open to it to talk about that in terms of what's been your experience of what works, what doesn't work? How do people navigate it? When do they fail, when do they succeed? And this whole huge, great melting pot of ideas around change, would you be willing to talk about that?
Mate I'd love to, I can't guarantee anything profound, but we can certainly create some bandwidth for people. I don't know if we're going to add to the 2 million podcasts that are out there but let's have a go Pete.
Well at least my mum might get some insight.
And mine too, I'll send her the link and she'll go, Oh, this is fantastic. And it'll be just like visiting her but not visiting her.
So maybe the first question to start with then, we can start at an individual level or an organisation, I'd be interested in your view, is change really that hard?
I struggle with the change management ceremony that is around it all, there's a lot of column inches given over to managing change and handling change and it all feels very sort of deliberate and overblown to my way of thinking. The author that made sense to me when I read it was the way Ralph Stacey thinks about, the late Ralph Stacey sadly passed away some weeks ago. But Ralph runs the doctorate of management or ran the doctorate of management in the University of Hertfordshire and had this idea of complex responsive processes, which was a turn to the complexity sciences to understand organisational life. And within all of that literature and thinking he had this idea of paradox. He said, one of the things that managers struggle with is that there are a number of paradoxes at work, when I say at work, in effect, when we're going about our life in organisations. And when it comes to change, what's really happening is a paradox of continuity and change. You're not doing change and then doing not change. You're always doing both. And a very simple way to think about that is that if you take some of our most beloved brands, and we can think about something like say Coca-Cola, right? It's a good example right? So 1812 no 1896, got my year wrong, when John Pemberton first put the black sticky stuff in a bottle. And then Candler was the guy that kind of turned it into a business and made it into a thing and the soda fountains and the whole bit and it goes back to quackery medicine, right? So you think about what that product was from its early Inception all the way through to today as they're dealing with type two diabetes and plastic in the environment and the various contexts and so you might say, how does that product have to change so that it can continue. And you see the presence of both of those ideas. We're trying to keep the Coca-Cola product going and PepsiCo would be similar, we're trying to keep that product going, what do we have to do to it so that it can continue to be what it's always been. And that would probably be my opening thought is that if we can take a more nuanced view of it, then we think about it differently in terms of this idea of not having to manage it, then having to manage it, then not having to manage this thing called change.
I'm going to dive straight into the concept of these paradoxes because like you, I know 0.1% of what's out here. And when I talk about paradoxes, and all that toggling between this and that, everyone nods and goes, Yes, I get it, I get it, Pete. And I don't fully get it. I don't really get it at all, really. But when I spruik it, it's like, yes we understand that. And yet, what I observe is, no we don't, we really do not manage that both and thinking we tend to, we say we do, but we're going to straight into either or thinking because it's comfortable. It's more certain than the uncertainty of not knowing. Do you see that as well, and the leaders that you work with?
Yes and whenever they do that, this idea of, because I'm trying to remove the idea that you're going over there to do a thing called manage change, to just point out gently that as we sit here today, all of us are getting a day older, all of us are getting a few hairs grayer. And by the way, you're not managing anything, it's just bloody well happening. It's happening. And in some respects, that's sort of liberating to go, don't worry, it's going to change on you whether you want it to or not, it's just going to gently drift. And then of course, what we know from the nonlinear idea in complexity is that things are sudden, until they have a phase shift or a phase transition and then there's a phase shift event, or if you like a collapse. So you might say that an avalanche, we see the bit where it's collapsing. But what we haven't noticed is all the little imperceptible movements that were heading towards that moment where that happened. Your car breaks down in a similar way, it's gradually getting close to a point where it's going to break and then one day it breaks. And so I think those things are happening in organisations and in teams, that highly motivated member of your team is highly motivated today, kind of highly motivated tomorrow, reasonably motivated the next day, it all sort of plays out as they're fine. And then one day, they come in and put an envelope on your desk and say, I'm done. And you're like, well, how come five days ago, you didn't say that we are 20% of the way towards your resignation and on Tuesday, we are 40% of the way towards, and that's because it's not linear but there's gentle change happening. And yet some of us, it might even be imperceptible to her in my example there, even she couldn't have told she was getting towards that point. But then suddenly, she stomped around the lounge room at home on Thursday night, and her partner said to her, You know, honey, just resign too bad. Just tell him you're done. And boom, there's a phase shift event, there's an avalanche event in her social life where suddenly something changes. You go, Well, when did that happen? Did it happened on Thursday, did it happen five days earlier, or five months earlier? Where do you start the clock?
I've observed that success or failure, however it's defined, often appears to happen slowly and imperceptibly until it's fast and obvious, which is exactly what I think you're describing. And with the individuals that you see, do you think they play a slowing down or or an accelerating effect on the change that might happen in a team or an organisation?
Well, I think every time you act in an organisation, I think while the narrative says that leaders are these all knowing all capable, powerful people who can somehow develop a penetrating diagnosis of the current reality and a magnificent prescription for an idealised future, and then elegantly go about flawlessly executing that, that's the fantasy. That's what's on the LinkedIn thread most days. I think instead, what happens is, they intervene in the change and with good intent invariably, they're trying to do something good, which is either to mitigate a bad one, or accelerate a good one. And then sometimes they get some of what they wanted, and it goes well for them. And sometimes they get some of what they didn't want and they're like, Oh, hang on, I've actually sent it in the other direction, unintentionally. And then the other thing they get which they often don't anticipate is they get things they weren't expecting. Now they can be good or bad. Sometimes you can go well actually a side benefit of doing this it turns out that that's had a positive or negative effect on this other constituent or part of the puzzle that I hadn't even thought of as a point in time. You see this at the moment, I've just come off the phone with our lawyer who's just helping us with some contracts and he was sort of talking about, we'd wrestled as a firm, they're mid sized law firm, with working from home and how we do that, COVID of course thrusted upon them. And then he said, You know, as a funny, unintended consequence of it all, we've actually become a more liberated connected firm, we're a bunch of introverted lawyers, he said, I've just come off a lunchtime, virtual zoom yoga session, he said, we would never have done that on site at the office in the city. But we've all just done it sitting on our various lounge rooms and bedroom floors at home, and it's wonderful. And he said, no one planned this. But we'll grab it, because it seems to be there. So that's an it's a positive, unintended consequence of something that they did in another part of the business.
And your experience of leaders, what do you think prevents them from being able to hold that space, and not rush to make sense too quick and not rush to assume this is good, and that's bad. Do you observe any traits that help them or hinder them in holding that space?
Just say a bit more about what you mean by holding the space?
Well, often what I've experienced is smart people, one of their Achilles heels is they try and make sense of things too quickly. Something happens, Ah what this means is this, what this doesn't mean is that and they'll head off that journey of making it work or avoiding it. And what I'm hearing, what I've observed is the ability to hold space allows you to to see how it plays out for a day, or a week, or a month or a little bit to know maybe something's going to change a little bit. Let's see what the avalanche falls first. Have you observed any traits and leaders that are either really good at that are really bad at that?
I mean, that's that tolerance, what they call tolerance for uncertainty is a measure Richard Carlton's work which says, How tolerant are you of prospective uncertainty, and inhibitory uncertainty. So prospective uncertainty is I don't know what's going to come. and inhibitory uncertainty is, because I don't know what's happening, I can't act. Now, what we find when you look at their data, and this is particularly true of entrepreneurs, they're quite prone to prospective uncertainty. They don't like knowing what's coming. But they're quite comfortable with inhibitory uncertainty, meaning, they don't go to ground and freeze. So they can operate in the presence of not knowing, which means they have a tolerance for going, Look, this won't stop me from trying some things even though I have no idea how it's really going to play out. And I think for some leaders who and to be fair, it's a little bit biological your set point on that you can acquire, you can build up a bit of a tolerance, if you sort of work on it and think about it, it's to sit with the knot in your stomach, acknowledge the knot in your stomach going, I have a knot in my stomach, I'm not sure what's going to play out here. But I'm going to definitely give myself 24 or 48 hours before we publish a point of view on it and we'll just see how a few things play out around us. I think we're witnessing that at the moment with the return to office mandated vaccine thing. I think it's a real big game of B2B chicken. In that all the enterprises are looking at all the other enterprises going, what are you doing? What are you doing? What did you do? Well, if you do it, we'll do it. And when the first law firm goes, the other law firms follow. Or you might have seen Deloitte went, they took a view on vaccines and then with that, one of the other big four said, Okay well you're in we'll go in, because they're probably in those meeting rooms going, I don't know, let's just let it sit for a couple of days and see if anyone else goes on record with how they're going to deal with vaccines and office and that might give us enough of, at least a groundswell of public sentiment with which to move?
Which for me ties into, coming back to your Coke question, how does the product change? I wonder if sometimes is that a combination of the product changing or not? And the perception of it changing or not? So this groundswell of public opinion, we believe now this is the way to go because there's enough of us saying, this is the way to go.
Well, that's what keeps us alive, right? I mean, on balance, if you run with the pack, the pack probably knows something. I know we talk about herd mentality, and they run off the edge of the cliff. Well, that's true, too but as a general rule, you might say, the goal is survival, pass on our genes, so we want to still be in the game, we just want to stay in the game. And so maybe a large strategy is just to look around and go, What does everyone else seem to be doing? And as long as we do the average of all of that we might be kind of okay, let's just have a look and listen to see what some of the early deciders go with or choose to do.
And how much do you think people look and listen for what they want to hear versus actually maybe I should look and listen for what I metaphorically can't hear, because that will open up possibility for me.
I don't know, honest answer, how much does it? I don't know, I've certainly met some leaders who are very conscious of inviting novel contribution. So they're very conscious of going, I want to hear from people who I know, disagree, generally, and specifically with me on this topic. So let's bring that, and that's all in the inclusion literature, and then the diversity and DNI literature, but to actively bring in points of view that you go, I know you and I don't see eye to eye on this. So please talk to me, what do I need - it was one of the points you made I think in one of your Monday morning emails - what am I about to now learn? Let's think it was one of those I read it somewhere. Talk to me about what it is I definitely don't see just yet. I think some some leaders are exceptionally good at that.
And any signals as to why they're good at it, beyond being born? What is it, their experience is it their interpretation, is it their meaning making is the five people they surround themselves? Have you got any anecdotes about what causes someone to be like that or not?
Well, I certainly don't have a clear cut elegant answer. I think generally, they've had either direct experience or vicarious experience that's taught them the merits of entertaining divergent points of view, when making a complex and high stakes decision. So that they have learned that it is a good idea to invite the different points of view into the conversation and to spend time with those being batted around the room before we come to any conclusions. And even to say, look, today we're just going to talk about different ways to handle this, we're not deciding anything. Tomorrow, we'll make a decision. I want us all to go home overnight and have another think as well. We'll meet again in the morning for a quick half hour to see if anyone's got any new thoughts on the topic. But for now, let's just hear each other out and then we'll make a decision at 10am tomorrow. That kind of, what's the right word? It's sort of like that certain uncertainty, if you like, or predictable unpredictability, where you're, again, another paradox where you're acknowledging that, we're going to definitely make a decision. Not yet, if that makes sense.
I can't remember if we spoke about this, this year or last year, I read about one of your posts, which I always find fascinating. And you said something like, whatever the decision or whatever the complex scenario is, loosely split your team into three or four groups, this group go and discuss the advantages of this extreme, this group go and discuss the advantage of the other extreme, and then come together again, and that's what we'll discuss. As opposed to, what should we do, and we kind of follow the initial voice of Well, it seems to be we should be doing this or that, actually deliberately creating the space to have divergent views and not agreeing one way or the other until we've kind of come together. And let's see what that creates.
I love that move. I mean, I think that's a very popular, it's called a few different things. Some people call it Wargaming, some people call it Red Team, Blue Team, a lot of investment institutional money managers use it where they say, right, we're going to have an argument about a certain stock, I want, three of you are going to argue the bull case and go and tell us why we should be buying it to hand over fist and another three of you are going to go and research and put together a case for a bearish example, why we should run away and run as fast as we can get away from it. And we're going to hear the arguments as to why it's a good idea. Again, a current example at the moment would be investing in travel stocks. Do you believe that okay, now's the time, go in go hard, go big, because we're now all going to massively get back on planes and cruise ships and off we go, or do you believe that that moment's already past that actually, you should have done that in the darkest days of lockdown and already the future is priced in? They're great debates to have and it's a lovely mechanism. And I think that's the simplest way for a team to build up its tolerance for and capability with divergent thinking is just to force the team into two teams and go, Go away and argue the For and go away and argue the Against, and then we'll come back and have the discussion and debate. And particularly if you put somebody who you know is For, put them on the Against team. So if you go, I know my CFO really wants to do this so I'm going to put them on the team that says, We shouldn't do it and force them to go and build an argument as to why we shouldn't.
I remember working with a team years ago now. It was a Kiwi team and they were going through that question of should we change the New Zealand flag? Maybe three, four or five years ago, I did exactly that. Who's kind of for it, who thinks it might be a good idea? Who thinks it might not be a good idea? Right, swap, you are going to argue the other side line. And for me it wasn't, so I'm diving into a little bit of our practice, it wasn't necessarily the outcome of the conversation, because I think they probably go with the herd anyway, for good corporate branding reasons. But actually, the conversations they had, the perspectives that forced them to take, even if albeit loosely, was far more valuable than the outcome of the conversation.
I couldn't agree more. I think this the sheer fitness for spirited debate. I think there's no downside for that, right? Any team goes, this won't be the last time we have something difficult to decide together. Let's just practice our ability to work through knotty challenges for which there's no clear cut way to go and there's arguments for and against, let's explore them together.
In your experience with the teams that you work with, have we built or over lost a little bit of that fitness to have spirited debate?
I think we've lost a lot of fitness to have a spirited debate, I think. And it's not just the remote working thing, it's the cataclysmic event that was the pandemic. And so not only were we working from home, but we were also quite likely dealing with some very difficult headwinds in all kinds of arenas, whether it was homeschooling or our partner runs a travel agency, which has been destroyed or these sort of things. And so obviously, there was a heavy emphasis toward pastoral care and checking in and how are we and we've seen the proliferation of mental health commentary and awareness and mechanisms and support. I mean, it's magnificent, and it's wonderful. But if you were to, like a thought experiment, if you had just come from another planet, and you arrived onto Earth, and you're logged into LinkedIn, and you read it, you might say to yourself, God, what the hell is wrong? What's happened to these people? How come all they seem to be talking about is mental health? What's going on? Like that would be a question for an outsider who's brand new to the narrative. Now bring that back to an organisation you go, I think it's quite tricky and it has been tricky. We've certainly seen it with the people leaders we're dealing with who go, I find it hard to have a performance conversation at the moment because I've just got to be so careful about everybody's wherewithal, and how they're coping variously. And because it's so uneven in terms of in any given team, you might have someone who's thriving, is loving it, someone who's desperately miserable, someone who's got a mountain of headwinds and yet someone else who goes No, no, I bought Afterpay stock right at the beginning and so this has been the greatest 18 months of my life. That's the problem. Unlike say an economic downturn, where for everybody it's all a bit bad this thing has been the most asymmetric experience imaginable. There are people, if you work for a pathology lab, they had real challenges with their rem & ben committees on the board to go, we have triggered 400% bonuses, do we pay them? Is that the right thing to do? While airlines and cruise companies are stood down? We've triggered the milestones to release the payments but how does that look? So for some people, it's been the greatest time of their life and for other people, it's been the worst. And for the people leader, they are there going God, what have I got in my mix for my team? And how do I variously navigate the different contexts, so therefore, you tend to back away from the performance thing. So to the question, long winded answer is, I think teams are gently finding the ability to go, Okay, let's discuss our performance, let's talk about some hard things, let's face into the fact that, while we've been managing pandemic stuff, we've kind of missed a trick on the project, we're falling behind the deadlines, and so on and so on. They want to get back to that I think, in a couple of cases.
Opinion alert here, what I observe and my take on that is that mental health stuff, softer stuff, hidden stuff was always there, it just got hidden. It just got hidden under a performance conversation. It just got hidden under a mask of, I am a high achiever, we are high achievers we've got to produce this product, profit, whatever it might be, and this time has caused it to come far more to the surface. And people leaders in particular, have been less adept at dealing with the people side ironically, of their people leadership.
Well, I think, in fairness, and in their defense perhaps, not that you're attacking them I suppose but in their defense, it was probably never part of the original remit. Or not expressly called out as such. Your job is to run this team of people here are your KPIs to hit, by the way, we need you to be sort of an accidental part time counsellor clinician, confidant and therapist, and I know people will howl at me suggesting that they're the implications of this work and they're not, but to some extent they go, Oh, look I'm almost too scared to ask how they are. One guy said this the other day, I'm scared to ask how they are, because I'm not sure I can get the toothpaste back in the tube when they actually tell me. And so I kind of just want to go, closed ended question, Doing okay? Yes, okay good, let's have a look at the report, let's open the dashboard and look at the metrics. Please don't take it down a path. It's tricky, it's really tricky.
I think you're right. I think whether they've been primed for the role or not, it's in the JD, and it's in my role description. I'm not sure I've been properly equipped to handle it when it really comes to the surface.
Yes and obviously people are doing a wonderful job to sort of stand up the EAP and the various things around that to handle that. But I think it's very fraught and challenging for some people leaders. I mean, some people have an affinity, or a proclivity or a disposition that maybe leans toward it more readily. But for others it's tough.
And holding the mirror up to ourselves, what's your view on, so I would put myself in this bucket, I've been immersed in this world for far too long, decades, and still, on a daily basis, screw it up, don't get it right, don't follow my own advice, fall over, don't make the changes that I know I can and should make, but just for whatever reason. Do you observe that in you, or are you a bit better or worse than that?
Oliver Burkeman has a book called The Antidote, which is an inverted commentary on the positive psychology movement. And as you might say, what is otherwise colourfully described as the happiness mafia or the self improvement zealotry. It's a very useful book to read because a lot of what you're describing is, when I don't follow or I don't implement and all I would say to that is, according to what alleged standard that you're supposedly meant to adhere to. So if you remove the standard, you'd stop failing. Now, that sounds a bit defeatist, when you just leave it there. But I suppose I try, I mean, I love the Big Five literature on individual differences. All of those five factors are normally distributed in the population, meaning there are arguments for high and large amounts of these things, and small and low amounts of these things, so none of them are all good, and none of them are all bad. This idea of strengths, I think, is very problematic, because, in one context, yes strength, in another context weakness. So then they buy themselves an out by saying, Oh yes, but don't overdo it. It's like, well, that's always been the problem. But whatever it is, don't over under, so on the one hand we say, Have discipline and follow your goals. And on the other hand, we say, Be kind to yourself, self compassion, self care. Well, which one are you going to pick? Because you can find anything, right? You can say, I should go to the gym, I don't should all over yourself. Well, yes but maybe you should go to the gym, the shoes aren't going to run themselves. And so, I'm trying to get you in a direct answer here, I try to not get too caught up on whether or not I'm doing enough of the so called right things. I don't know that it's a winnable quest and I wonder whether it is a recipe to be forever discontent? Because you're right, they'll always be something you haven't done according to some preordained standard that amazing people adhere to, like super successful people wake up at 4am. Do they, really?
Well maybe I'm seeking bias in this, but I interpret what you've said as exactly the problem. We've taken all of those things into a binary, do this, don't do that, Oh, hang on change, do that don't do this. Whereas we come back to our original question at the start, which was, how do people hold the space to kind of know when to dial it up a little bit, or pull it back a little bit or toggle more task or toggle more people, or don't go to the gym today, or do go to the gym today? Rather than being stuck in this, I have to, I have to do it now and all of it otherwise, I'm burnt out. So it's this kind of meandering between, I use the infinity loop as a visual for it which seems to help people kind of go - Oh, yes maybe today is the day where it's okay not to but if I do that for a lifetime, Okay, when does it become I need to, Oh but not every day - and this infinity loop seems to help people navigate all of this uncertainty and vuca-ness and complexity in a way that perhaps going one way or the other hasn't.
I think that's a lovely visual for it. Because you do oscillate between I think. Back in the UK, when we first started working together, there was that funny idea of a bank account or a bucket, or I can't quite remember the metaphor was, but the idea that you know, something's a deposit. So, I ate a salad and I went for a run, okay, deposit, that's a good thing. But I'm going to have a glass of wine and a bag of crisps, but that's a bad thing. Yes but I had it with a friend, that's a good thing. And I think if you take a portfolio view of yourself then you don't get to miserable by denying yourself all the pleasures and at the same time, you don't become too gluttonous, by you know allowing yourself to not fulfill some obligations. I mean, if you read, I find all the high performance literature quite interesting, because most people who did anything, they've got a book written about it, they talk in unpleasant terms about their training regime, and they did make themselves do things they didn't want to do. They go, I didn't want to go to training I didn't, I missed out on parties, I missed out on lots of things. It was wholly unpleasant. And I loved competing at the national and international events, and it's holding that polarity in your head to go, both those things are true. I hate training and I'm glad I've trained. So they might wake up and say, I have to go to the gym, then you go. Good for you.
I remember, I think when we started working together, it was the kind of borrowing from the old Covey description of production and production capability, or capacity. And the cultures would have a Friday off, to learn and distinguish and create, and the sales guys would go, You're not having a day off, you are coming to meetings with me. And that got squashed and it was funny how it all played out.
Yes well I must must confess, we still find that, we do professional supervision through our team facilitators and we pop it in the diary and we always have to book it out a long way in advance to get all the diaries and get the supervisor to come across and do the work. And then as it eventually rolls around in the calendar, there's all this pressure to go, Oh, you know, could you cut it short? Could I put a sneaky call in at the beginning of that, you guys are all here, it's a rare opportunity, the client could meet you all. And they're not entirely wrong, right? That's a fair thing. And so inevitably, we end up with a negotiated world where we go, Alright yes, deal with it over lunch break or early, and we'll make sure we do a couple of things.
I'm going to pause there. That's the end of Episode 37. Marcus and I got into a bit of a flow and we extended the conversation beyond what we had originally thought. And there's some interesting things to come up in part two, where we'll talk about organisation's leaders and their teams, and any early warning signals that might indicate the success or failure of a change or transformation. So tune in next week for Episode 38 of the Freedom Fridays podcast. Cheers