Six Simple Guidelines for 21st Century Leaders

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. One of their questions was: what are the simplest rules you offer to the leaders you interact and work with. I have a hard time thinking of it in terms of rules, but six simple clear guidelines emerged pretty readily:

  1. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Simple, but we are not always aware of where and when our words and actions are out of alignment. In the perspective of Worldview Awareness, this is the idea of Taking Whole or interconnectedness. In this situation, our words are interconnected (or not) with our actions. Coaching, mentoring, peer support or simply the willingness to receive reflections from others provides helpful guidance and reflections for you to learn what is out of alignment and sense into how to bring it back into alignment. But if you don’t want to know the answer, even if you ask the question, people will know it and tell you what you want to hear rather than what helps you most.
  1. Learn to listen.  Fully, completely, without judgment and without filling in the blanks  as the other person begins.  Too often we think we already know what the other person is going to say or where they are headed.  Often, we are wrong and have shut down the opportunity to find out what the other person wanted to share with us and that opportunity may never come around again. When we do not fully listen, the other person will also tune out or become frustrated and we are left with little of value, cross communication and unresolved issues. When we fully tune into another person or a group, the space is enriched, truth shows up, generative space is created, people are heard, validated and seen. A couple of favourite expressions about listening: “When we change the quality of the listening, we change the quality of the conversation.” “When we truly listen, we can listen another person into being.” It goes a long way toward creating new levels of consciousness in a team, organization or initiative.
  1. Ask good questions.  All the time. Ask more questions than the number of answers you give. A good question evokes thoughtful responses, helps you understand the situation more fully and helps others you are with find their own way. There is a craft and an art to framing questions. A simple way to begin is to imagine the responses that a question will evoke: yes/no responses, short answers or thoughtful responses that will have the person reflecting on their own rather than waiting for you to give them the answer. Also, imagine how you are asking the questions, the energy that makes it an inquiry and not an inquisition. Learning to craft good questions takes practice, and it is a practice well worth developing.
  1. Bring genuine curiosity and compassion to every conversation. Curiosity and judgment cannot exist in the same space. Defensiveness doesn’t sit very well in a curious space either. Neither does dismissiveness. When you notice yourself in a place of judging someone else or yourself, you find yourself defensive or dismissive, make a mental note to switch to curiousity. And then do it. Become curious about the other person, the situation or your own responses. And invite yourself into compassion too – for yourself as well as the other person. It creates a space for people to show up in the fullness of their humanity, a generative space where ideas and opportunities flow. It creates an environment “safe enough” for people to risk sharing ideas and sharing passion for what they care about.

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  1. Humility is an asset, more than that, a way of being. You don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. Especially not in today’s complex world. And oftentimes, leaders are removed from the points of intersection between the organization, its customers, stakeholders or the problems or issues that emerge. Twenty-first century leadership asks us to draw on the wisdom, knowledge and experience – the collective intelligence of a team, group or organization to solve problems, take risks and try new things. Finding the place of humility within you will enable you to listen more fully and access the brilliance in others in the most remarkable of ways.
  1. Set a few simple guidelines and get out of the way.  The more you try to control a situation, the more you shut down the potential for better things to happen, the more you send the message to other people you do not trust them to offer good solutions or strategies or to get the job done. Then the less they will demonstrate their own leadership, autonomy and sense of responsibility.  Trust yourself, trust your people and trust the power of the guidelines you set – preferably determined with the people most able to get results, closest to the situation.  Let people do what they are capable of and support them in the process.

The 21st Century is calling us as leaders  to build connectedness in a world of highly divergent cultures, experiences and perspectives, to learn and work together more effectively. Often, less is more.

 

 

Navigating Decision Making Dilemmas

The increasing complexity of our environments – at work, in community and at home, time crunches and decision making pressures often leave us wanting for good decision making processes – especially when pressed for immediate action and results.  Key decisions taken by one individual – even one expected to make a decision – often fall short because one person does not always have the full picture or the decision meets resistance because people impacted were not involved in the decision making process. Collective decision making often misses the mark if dissension, debate or strong personalities dominate the process (meaning some people just give up or give in) and when it seems to take too much time we hit the panic button and believe any decision will do.  Yet how often are decisions revisited because not enough time was invested in the exploration of options or in creating the generative conditions for conversations that lead to eliciting the collective wisdom and intelligence inherent in any group? Or because leadership under the pressure of chaos or uncertainty turned into the heavier hand of trying to manage the situation?

There are some simple patterns and practices available through the Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter that offer us windows into understanding the human dynamics alive in any group and particularly groups or teams seeking direction or guidance through decision making.

In May 2014, Shape Shift Strategies will be offering a one day workshop in Moncton (May 8) and in Charlottetown (May 15) to explore effective decision making practices.  The emphasis will be on the human dynamic conditions that lead more often to generative conversations and wiser decision making.  We will dive more deeply into the practical application of worldview, powerful questions and divergence/convergence in ways that support collective decision making in teams, organizations, communities and maybe even families.

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Information and registration details for both Moncton and Charlottetown are available through Eventbrite. Join us if you can.  Ask how you can bring this one day workshop to your team or organization.

Deep Sensing Interviews

Deep sensing interviews are a powerful tool.  In the times I’ve used them I’ve seen them help deepen relationships, deepen a field of inquiry, shift the shape of  a team, organization or system.

Deep sensing interviews are one of the tools highlighted in the Sensing phase of Theory U,  where we begin to see how we see the world.  Once we become aware of our seeing, then we have the opportunity to focus our attention in more intentional ways.

The beauty of a deep sensing interview, when it is designed well, is that it takes the interviewee on a tangential or divergent journey to where you want to go which is usually the current situation you are wanting to inquire into.  When we take the direct route to where we want to go, we often get the first off-the-top of the head responses which also often are the responses aligned with role or positon in the team, organization or system.  It can be a good, helpful reflection and, often so much more is possible.

Deep sensing interviews take people out of their heads and invite them to embody the conversation or enquiry which takes them to a different place, allowing them to see their own experience and their own questions in new light.  They also help to build trust which is advantageous if you are embarking on any initiative requiring trust, openness and alignment.

It was through the four year Collaborative Care initiative, championed by the College of Registered Nurse of NS that I was first introduced to deep sensing interviews.  Phil Cass, who was on the hosting team with us, spoke about the impact in Columbus, Ohio. In health care work there designed to shift the system, they discovered, through sensing interviews, that the people interviewed seemed to have a public voice and a private voice.  The public voice was the one that came from their role or position and provided ideas or suggestions from that official voice. It was often also the voice looking to someone else to “fix” the problems.  The private voice was the one that tapped into both despair and hope, the embodiment of the conversation, the knowing that if change is really going to happen, it is going to happen through people and relationships first, then systems and that they just might have a role to play.

Phil’s experience with deep sensing interviews inspired us to use them too, but not without some trepidation at the start.  The structure of these interviews is a bit different and they take time – a good hour and sometimes more – which feels like a lot of time to ask of someone – especially someone busy, especially someone “high up” in a system or organization, especially since it doesn’t dive right into the information you’re after but takes the time to build the field of inquiry.  Now, however, having seen the impact and quality of response, it is an intentional strategy to draw upon when, of course,  it serves the purpose of the work underway.

There are four key phases to a deep sensing interview.  They are:

  • what was your path to here
  • why here, why now
  • what is here – issues and challenges that have led to this inquiry
  • imagining the future

Path to Here

I will tell people before we begin that this interview will start in a very different place, because I want to get to know them, because I want us to see connections across a journey.  The questions will be about where they grew up, what it was like to grow up there, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what did they do after high school, how they found their way there, what excited them, what they were passionate about.  These are not diversionary questions.  They are questions that help people reconnect with themselves, their dreams, their essence.

Why Here, Why Now?

What is their job now?  How did they get to this job? What did they aspire to when they began this job? What keeps them going on the difficult days or in the challenging times?  Why here, why now?

What’s Here Now?

This series of questions is intended to get at the issues and challenges – in the team, organization or system – that sparked the inquiry or the work. Why are we here?  What is the need?  What is their role in this? What could it be?  What are the barriers? What else gets in the way?  What conversations are not happening?  What are the costs – financial, human, other? What is the trajectory if nothing changes – how much worse could it get?  What would that cost?

Imagining the Future

Imagining the future – these are the questions to inspire what’s possible.  What one conversation, that’s not happening now, that if it did happen, could change everything?  Who would be in that conversation? What/who are your systems of influence?  What are we not seeing, that if we could see it, would allow us shift the shape of our experience?  What would an ideal future look like?  What would it take to move us in that direction?

The questions floated here are not the “right” questions, or the “exact” questions.  To be powerful, the questions need to be crafted to the purpose and intention of the work. Testing them improves them.  Leading people through a deep sensing interview invites them into a mindful reflection where just the asking of the questions begins to open up new possibilities.

Sometimes in the interview it is tempting to assume someone has already answered a question.  I will often say to someone, you may have already answered this, but I’m going to ask it anyway.  It is amazing what more turns up when you ask the question – something completely different sometimes, often a new level of reflection and depth.

I have used deep sensing interviews in systems work, in organizational work and with teams – particularly teams that are experiencing challenges in the moment.  Looking for themes and patterns across the interviews is a powerful tool for building momentum in the work.  We have, at times, reflected back the “voices” with direct quotes.  At other times, especially for teams, the themes and patterns have been mind mapped.  It is extraordinary how people begin to see things they could not see before, how illuminating themes and patterns provides a base for shifting to more of what’s working.  How people begin to recognize that their themes and patterns are collective – my story is also your story.  What a surprise it is to individuals when they begin to see this.

Deep sensing interviews.  A powerful tool when well crafted and clearly intended.

Shaping Questions for Powerful Check-in and Check-out Processes

Check-in and check-out processes are not just frivolous time wasters in our meetings.  If they feel that way, something is probably  missing.

Wicked questions help shape powerful processes. The shaping of questions in a thoughtful, purposeful and intentional manner increases the likelihood of them being powerful. This is the second post on powerful questions, the first one contained  general thoughts about shaping powerful questions.  This post focuses on check-in and check-out – processes, so fundamental to the work we engage in and setting context for what we do.

The greater clarity we have about the purpose and intention of the overall work and the process we are choosing to use, the greater the likelihood of crafting a question that does exactly the work we intend it to do.  Check-in and check-out processes are used very intentionally and in all kinds of settings.

People who come to an Art of Hosting training are often introduced to check-in and check-out for the first time. There are many forms of check-in and check-out.   If we’ve done our work well, these processes will have been experienced in a variety of ways – through the use of words, body, music and using varying lengths of time from a couple of hours or more to a 10-15 minute process.

Many people leave a training seeing the possibility of bringing a check-in process to their team or meetings but wondering exactly how to do that well.  Using the same question all the time eventually wears out its appeal so it becomes important to hold attention and keep things meaningful and relevant to bring new questions at least periodically.  It keeps things fresh.  Which brings it all back to purpose and intention.

The Use of Check-In  in Trainings

In an Art of Hosting training, we use a check-in process as we arrive and settle in together.  Usually this is planned as a  longer process, wanting to dive  deep together as we set the context and container for the whole three or four days we are gathered.  We intend to begin well as we arrive, meet each other and understand individual and collective intention for this training.

Not only do we use good questions for this initial check-in, many of us also engage in the fundamentals of good circle practice so we set our container well and with depth.  A little teach on circle, the use and power of a talking piece and the agreements of circle set the stage well for the work we want to do with each other.  Our greatest and best resources on good circle practice come from our friends Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea at Peer Spirit.  When we do this well, it is common for unexpected and beautiful things to arrive in our centre from the hearts, minds and souls of participants.

Often times check-ins on other mornings are simply to bring us into the space together.  Sometimes we don’t even use words but invite a physical movement or embodiment check-in.  Sometimes it is music.  It is whatever fits well with the overall theme and flow of the day and brings us fully into the space.

Check-ins also do not need to be done with the full circle.  Sometimes we use dyad or triad interviews or conversations to allow the time for people to go deeper in small groups.  Sometimes we might invite people into a walk with each other.

The Use of Check-Out in Trainings

Just like we use check-in to bring people into the space, we use check-out to bring some closure or convergence to a day or a multi-day process.  Doing a check-out doesn’t necessarily mean bringing everything to a nice tidy close but it could.  Check-out provides an opportunity for good reflection.  Where are we at, individually and collectively?  What is alive and present in the room?  Is there anything in particular we need to be paying attention to as we revisit our design for what’s next?  What is resonating for people?  Are we in a groan zone?  Are we eager and excited for what’s next?  Was there cool learning that took place that we want to provide people the opportunity to reflect on more deeply?

In a check-out we may want to presume in a certain direction, plant a seed – “What is shifting for you as a result of your experiences in this day?” “What spark are you carrying forward?”  Or we may want to take a little pulse – “What’s alive for you now?” “What one thing has your attention?”

And, like the check-in process, sometimes we are not wanting to use words.  Sometimes we use dance, embodiment, other physical movement, a series of claps or other imaginative ways to close our conversation or our day.

A good thing to remember, please don’t confuse depth with length of time of a process.  I’ve been part of many processes where there was not a lot of time available, but depth was achieved because of the care that went into thinking about purpose and intention and crafting a wicked question to guide the process.

What About the “Real World”?

This is one of my favourite questions – how to practically apply what’s been learned about check-in and check-out to “real world” situations, like my two hour staff meeting, my three hour partners meeting, my team that only wants to get right down to business, with a group of high powered individuals, senior leadership in an organization or in government?  Especially for folx who say, “that dance check-out was really nice but I could never do that with my group.”  And, of course, you wouldn’t want to go back to your organization and use some of those things that seem a bit too out on the edge.  But when you first try to use these processes, sometimes the very notion of a check-in or a talking piece is “out on the edge”.

Look for openings and invitations and step into practice in the places where greatest opportunities exist to try even some little new thing.  Sometimes bringing a check-in and check-out process to your meetings or your team is the simplest way to begin to practice on an ongoing basis and it can be done without great fanfare.

The Use of Check-In  in Ongoing Practice

It can be a relatively simple thing to begin a check-in process with your team.  “We spend a lot of time in meetings.  It would be great if we all felt these meetings were a relevant and meaningful use of our time and I’m not sure we all feel that way right now.  I would love to hear us each speak to this question: If we used our meetings really well, what would it look like and what is the difference it would make to us as a team and our work?” 

“The purpose of our meeting is….  Before we dive into the agenda, it would be great to hear a bit of what you are observing in your world that relates to our topic this morning.” Or, pay attention to what is the best question that can refocus your team or your meeting on what is important and link people’s passion or interest with the topic at hand.  It is amazing how a few minutes doing that can shift the entire feel of a meeting as people pay more attention.

Work the question you want to start with.  Will it generate the kind of thoughtfulness you are hoping for?  If not, how can it be nuanced – or sometimes completely thrown out in favour of a better question – to do the work you intend it to do?

How much time do you have for your check-in?  With a long time frame of meeting – a day or more, you have more time to begin well.  With a shorter meeting – as little as an hour or two – you can still begin well, just be conscious of the nature of the question you are asking.  The better you begin, the better the quality of the meeting, usually with better results in a shorter time frame.

The Use of Check-Out  in Ongoing Practice

Short and sweet often works for check-outs, particularly when you are in a short meeting. Once you get used to using check-in and check-out, meetings somehow don’t feel complete until you do a short round of check out.  Simple questions targeted at what you are looking for at the end of the meeting.  Curious about what is sitting with people now?  Ask.  Curious about what people are taking away?  Ask.  Curiosus about what is percolating?  Ask.  Noticing that things or people feel a bit unsettled.  Invite.  Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.  If you invite the rumblings that you sense, thank people for sharing.  “Thank you.  Good to know where we all are.  And not unexpected, given what we discussed/where we are in our process.  Thanks for sharing.  It is appreciated and important.”

Bringing in a Talking Piece

While I’m sure there could be an entire post on using a talking piece, there are some simple ways to bring one into your meeting.  For groups that are not familiar with this process and for whom it doesn’t feel quite right to do the full blown teach just yet, I will often say something like, “I want to hear from everyone in the room and to do that offer out this item (something I have with me, something in the room, something symbolic for the group, sometimes a bracelet I take off my arm, a pen in my hand, whatever is readily available) as a little talking piece.  This is just so we make sure we hear everyone’s voice.  The beauty of it is that when we have it, it is our turn to talk. When we pause, it is truly a pause and not an invitation for someone else to jump in.  It means we can think about whether we are truly finished or if we have a bit more to say.  When we don’t have the talking piece, that is our invitation to listen and listen well.  Because you know when you get the talking piece you can take a minute to think about what you want to say.  I find it changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation.”

I know from my own experience, that when the talking piece is not used often their are people who choose to stay quiet even when you invite all voices and then it is harder to re-invite their voice.  And it is amazing at how appreciative people become around using a talking piece.

Conference Calls

Yes we can, and do, use check-in, check-out and virtual talking pieces in our conference calls.  And, yes, it works well there too – shifting attention and quality of our experience.

The main points are the same across these different categories: purpose and intention, a question related to purpose and intention that you’ve worked a bit to make it wicked and powerful because you’ve sat with it to sense into whether it will do the work you want it to do.

Where are your openings and invitations?  The more you find them and accept them, the more you will find yourself in a practice that no longer feels risky but now feels fundamental for powerful process. The more the shape of your world will have shifted and before long you may find yourself not just an experimenter but a practitioner.

Shaping Powerful Questions

One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-out, World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, was the first time I heard the three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world….