A lesson in indiscriminate change

I felt incredibly uneasy at #responsiveorg, an unconference for changemakers and those who identify thus. It took me a while to organise my thoughts into something I can share.

A ‘changemaker’ goes into an organisation to change it. The main obstacle is people resisting change. So far, so basic.

Matthew Partovi, Dot People. Photo by author

Matthew Partovi, Dot People. Photo by author

I was a little surprised to see, in the very first talk by Matthew Partovi, the organiser, people split into three groups: Green – energised, yellow – almost there, red – blockers.

Yes, dear reader, if you were, in this scenario, needing some more information or asking too many questions, or just generally of a more sceptical nature than those who quickly and unquestioningly say yes to every new idea and initiative, these young people who just came in wouldn’t label you as ‘still needing more information’ or ‘intelligently opposed’ – no, you’d be a red dot, a blocker. You’d simply be bad.

I tweeted (easy for me to be critical, I’ve never actually done this kind of work – except I have, just not framing it like that) and the very wise Benjamin Ellis replied with

I really thought the people doing this work had a little bit more theoretical knowledge and human experience. So that wasn’t a good start.

It only got worse when it all moved into lifecoaching territory.

One of the sessions was announced as ‘helping to find our purpose in life.’ I laughed it off. I went to a session about exactly this kind of thing in 1992, but more about this later. However: the session about purpose was facilitated by Tom Nixon, partner at NixonMcInnes, an agency I’ve had long relations with, not least because the other partner, Will McInnes, was one of the first people in this environment I met and had lunch with and talked about the future. (Coincidentally Giles Palmer was at that lunch too – Will left NixonMcInnes to work with him at Brandwatch.) And they were one of the sponsors of the London #localgovcamp I ran in 2010. So that’s good memories.

So I went to Tom’s session about purpose – it’s always different when people proposing these kinds of sessions have actually achieved something in life. It adds credibility. I thought, maybe it’s not going to be so bad.

In a room of about 25-30 people, Tom asked everyone to breathe and center themselves, and then answer 7 questions he posed. Tom based his questions of the work of Charles Davies. It was all about ‘unlocking purpose’. Tom writes a blog about these subjects too.

I didn’t answer these questions – I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I just know what’s good for me. If asking myself, ‘would I rather be somewhere else than looking after a disabled child on my own?’, results in a loud and resounding YES, then that’s not news. Even though I’ve gotten far better at actually being here, it’s still something I have to work on.

For me, I know ‘purpose’ isn’t something absolute that you can unlock with some questions. I know that if you asked me 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 7 years ago, my purpose would have been completely, entirely, absolutely, resoundingly – different from what I thought I wanted before. 7 years ago I wanted nothing but to go back to Nigeria, I knew that I could work there and create change, make money, have so much fun. People genuinely responded to me. I loved it. So what could possibly stop me from going back? The fact that I have responsibilities.

And that’s the other thing left out of the equation of these ‘find out what you really want and then go for it with all your power’ coaches – they completely leave out the fact that people have responsibilities (Apart from this, it’s also nothing new. The session about the 7 Habits I was at, in 1992, was exactly the same, and Mike Hernacki wrote the Ultimate Secret to getting absolutely everything you want even before that. I wish had looked a little bit deeper into the people and their various shortcuts to sorting out all life’s problems then. (As it happened, I fully went for it, disconnected from where I was at the time, because I wanted something bigger and better. Because PURPOSE. It didn’t end well, because when I ended up where I thought I was supposed to be, I wasn’t who I thought I was.)

On the subject of responsibilities, it might be interesting to note that NixconMcInnes has changed course drastically and made all their former employees free consultants instead. A course of action that seems to have resulted in only positive responses, at least in public (I’ve had some private chats that sounded very different.)

My two problems with the ‘unlock your purpose with some meditation and some deep questions’ crowd: 1. you can’t know now. It’s not hidden somewhere in you, to be unlocked. It’s not absolute. You change throughout life, you learn, that’s human, and that’s ok. 2. You have responsibilities. You might not like them but if your ‘purpose’ means running away from things you don’t like doing, who does it serve really? You make it look so spiritual but in reality it’s completely selfish.

I didn’t make a secret about how I felt during the event, both on Twitter and in person. Because I spoke out and told the room why I had resisted the process, Tom sat down with me and we had a conversation. So this post isn’t coming as a surprise there.

The entire event was full of fuzzy things like this, and it’s not only this event. It’s like everything is getting more basic every year – or maybe I’m just getting more demanding. @Technoshaman (self-appointed integral mindfulness mentor and adviser to visionary leaders & changemakers) was there and there was the old ‘guru-disciple’ dynamic – the guru/shaman/teacher themselves being utterly unimpressive without the fawning disciples surrounding them and introducing them as someone utterly wonderful (I unknowingly sat opposite him at dinner. It wasn’t very interesting.)  People with the absolute sense of being a leader and writing about being too humble to speak (I’ve head him speak and his amazing addition to the world of change was asking the basic lifecoaching questions and creating a 3D map of the answers, and calling it atmascape.) And so on and so forth.

It’s like we’re trying to find more and more shortcuts for actual life, experience, knowledge, love. Meditation? Sure, but it will only show you what’s already in you, you won’t make new experiences. Yoga? Sure. Mindfulness? Yeah, certainly, if you know who your teacher is and where to stop the process from hollowing out your emotional well-being (But that’s another post.)

I really want to know what happened to having some sensible power to discriminate between bullshit and information. And what happened to actually saying what we think. In the meantime I don’t really mind being the only one openly saying what I think – if that’s the only benefit I have from being German, I might just as well.

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4 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Anke, I have a contrarian view of parts of the event and would even question what you “heard” on the day as I don’t recall hearing the same points that you are conveying as truths. Specifically, the concept of blockers or “reds” as Matt referred to within organisational change is not a new concept and nor was he introducing it as such. He never mentioned that these were people who were sceptical or questioning of the change. In fact, I think he referred to the people who need convincing as yellows (labelling issues aside). I took his point to mean that there are just some people who are actively resistant to a particular change (such as responsive org principles) and to not spend too much of your time attempting to convince them. I also picked up the point he made that people will change their opinions on a piece of change over time which I think is also valid.

    On another note, I don’t recall Tom ever articulating or claiming that the process was a complete success without hiccups. To believe as such would be just naïve in the extreme.

    I was in your “group of 4” at Toms session and wondered to myself afterwards , why would someone quite obviously disengaged and closed to the process of exploring “purpose” elect to go to a session titled “helping to find our purpose in life with 7 questions”?

    I personally had some other reservations about the event – specifically related to the number of attendees looking for an angle via services or consulting or looking to sell a book or similar and it lacked a real practitioner feel which are some points on which I agree however I would fall well short to be able to judge anyone else credentials in space.

    • Anke says:

      Thanks for your comment Paul.

      All the points you are disagreeing with me about are points I’ve never actually made. I didn’t say the dot people concept was new, quite the opposite – I simply described it as something far too basic and simplistic to base actual work with actual people on, and I thought things we talk about at an event like this would be far more advanced. Starting from treating people in the teams we were entrusted to work with with more understanding and human decency, and using much more human-scale language. Janice who commented below described to me how she experienced trainers who used this dot-people concept indiscriminately: People considered to be red dots put in the naughty corner and bullied.

      If intelligent people are ‘actively resistant’ and decide to spend their energy, in a workplace (where you really don’t tend to want to create more trouble than is necessary), resisting a particular thing, rather than just going with it, they tend to have a reason. Listening to them might be more conducive. That’s just my common sense, but then in my work with people I never came in with a superior package of principles to stick to. And I know nothing of responsiveorg principles.

      I was very aware that it wasn’t anything Matthew introduced as a new concept, the moment passed very quickly, but a simplistic and unhelpful concept like this still being used, even as a throwaway comment, still shocked me.

      If you had read my post, I gave all the reasons why I ended up in Tom’s session. I also, both on the day and here, made the point that I didn’t join the session just to be difficult, I resisted to protect myself.

      I explored ‘purpose’ at length first in 1992 and I am now ‘disengaged and closed to the process’ because I can see what it did in my life and in the lives of others. Someone taking whatever their answer is as ‘purpose’ (i.e. something absolute, something outside themselves, something they are meant to do with their lives) might think their job and their family, or whatever they are responsible for at that time, aren’t good enough anymore and leave, that’s not spiritual, that’s selfish. If we frame purpose as being something more important than ‘things I WANT to do’, it gives us more reasons to leave our responsibilities.

      I made all these points in person on the day, rather than just writing about it afterwards, because I think framing ‘wants’ as ‘purpose’ doesn’t just ‘not work’ because what people want changes with their growing up and learning things and meeting others and being affected by others. It also can be really dangerous. And selfish. And someone needs to resist it.

      You don’t know me but speaking up in public is not my favourite thing and when speaking up I trusted that other people would see that a person speaking up would have good reason.

      I think it’s a good, basic, human skill to understand that people who are resisting where everyone else is going with it are taking the more difficult path. (To his credit, Tom is quite aware of this, so sat down with me and talked more about why I was resisting, and I told him more about my life and my own soulsearching.) It’s also good to then not dismiss them as just being difficult, especially when they take the time to both vocalise their reasons and write them down.

      I look forward to your post about your own reservations – mine are obviously very personal, and influenced by my own choices in life. Do post a link here.

  2. Tom Nixon says:

    Hi Anke, thanks for sharing your feedback so honestly. I agree with much of what you write. The search for meaning in life is exactly that – a search (or a journey, although that word is becoming something of a cliché!) I agree with you that it’s not about constructing the perfect personal mission statement which somehow already resides within you. Perhaps I didn’t frame the Very Clear Ideas process well enough. I hope you’ll cut me some slack – as I said when I pitched the workshop to the group, it was an experiment. I was curious to find out if it would be possible to give 30 people simultaneously, in 40 minutes, a worthwhile slice of a process that’s usually done one-on-one over a couple of hours. There was a lot of wonderful, heartwarming feedback at the end and also it didn’t land with everyone. And that’s fine. That’s the beauty of an experiment, right?

    One of the key ‘rules’ of the VCI process which I set out at the start (perhaps not clearly enough), is to make all of the answers active. It elicits answers about things people are building, changing, designing etc. And it’s why the process includes questions like ‘what are you learning?’, ‘what are you making?’ etc. The very clear idea isn’t a destination, it’s a direction. But I accept responsibility if my facilitation didn’t make that clear enough to you. I’m sorry you didn’t want to even try to engage with the questions and take part in the experiment. I don’t know what might have happened if you’d given it a go, but I respect your choice to do what felt right to you. I have no wish to make anyone do anything they don’t want to do.

    I have a different take on selfishness. I share the view of Marshall Rosenberg – creator of Non-violent Communication. His premise is that all humans are ever doing is trying to meet their needs in the only ways they know how. Needs are never a problem (nor are they in conflict) but sometimes the strategies we choose to meet them don’t work out so well. Meeting our own needs can sound selfish, but not all needs are self-centred. I believe one of the most profound things any of us can do is become more conscious of our own, and other’s needs, and make the best decisions we can, with our heads and hearts about how we will meet them. I believe that as we do this, needs like compassion and connection become more significant. To ‘selfishly’ pursue one’s need for compassion is probably going to result in positive outcomes.

    I’m in total agreement with your assessment (and of Janice in the previous comment) of the old school ‘getting ahead’ narrative. I hope we can move beyond that now.

    As for NixonMcInnes’ radical changes – as I said in the announcement you linked to, it has been bloody hard, with dark moments, and the full range of human emotions from joy to anger. I’ve never claimed it was all sunshine and laughter. A change this big was new territory for me. I got things wrong. No radical change is ever entirely positive, for everyone. So I’m not surprised if some people are critical. Again, that’s fine. But the status quo wasn’t working. We were on a treadmill chasing revenue targets to keep the machine running, and that was no good for anybody at all, and not delivering enough meaningful impact in the world.

    I think we’ve achieved the best outcome I could see was possible. In fact what the team achieved by pulling together and making it happen was beyond what I thought possible. I don’t expect anyone to thank or congratulate me. I know I’ve done my best, and can look myself in the eye in the mirror. Now there’s more water under the bridge I’ve begun to share the full inside story of the changes. There is a lot of learning to share and now that we’re on the other side and everyone’s OK, I wouldn’t swap the experience for the world.

  3. Janice says:

    You have just completely described my experiences and feelings about these sorts of ‘leadership’ events. They absolutely incense me, they are such a waste of time, resources, energy and money. The latter particularly makes me angry because I work in the public sector and have attended so called leadership courses run by private firms spouting this nonsense, bullying people in the red, ‘resistant to change’ group, rehashing old, tired ideas and charging the public purse a fortune for it all.

    And the worst of it all is watching young, inexperienced people desperately sucking up all the ideas that they think will enable them to be great leaders and get ahead, but of course they won’t unless they are willing to ditch all responsibilities and manage to duck out of being accountable for their actions.

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