Open Thoughts

The Green Room Experience

Many moons ago, I was a stage actor in a theatre group.  Grease paint. Dialogues. Arc lights. And all that! From the plays of Anton Chekov to ‘The Zoo Story’ (my toughest) by Edward Albee) .   The Zoo Story, I recall in particular, was miles and miles of dialogue. A never ending ascent of a tall ask, for it was a two character, one act play, for a duration of what could be called ‘eternity’.

As much as I remember the performances, memories from the Green Room stay fresh! A time of bonding, intense conversation, reassuring glances and a scintillating access to performers and performances.

The Green Room, Wikipedia says,   “is the space in a theatrestudio or similar venue which accommodates performers not yet required on stage. The green room functions as a waiting room and lounge for performers before and after a performance, and during the show when they are not engaged onstage.”

My experiences in the Green Room guides me to think that the definition is perhaps an honest clinical descriptor. Like saying ‘Twitter is a social networking tool’. Or that cars have four wheels and help in getting from place A to place B. Technically right, but far less than what they do.

For the Green Room is a ‘hot and happening place’. In every sense of the word.  My recollections lead me to memories of fervent pace and the anxious eyes of fellow performers before the performance. The director’s calm demeanour that magically soothed frayed nerves. Plus it was an incredibly awesome angle to relish some class acts from! A place where you are closest to the real act. Performers and performances in close quarters before their grand performance on stage. You see mistakes. You see spectacular transformations.

The Green Room is a stepping stone to a real performance. In a literal way too! All of those memories and experiences came rushing back. In just a bit.

For now, switching topics and talking about CAWW! 🙂

For a while now, Change Agents Worldwide has held my attention. In a very unique sort of a way. It started with random exchanges on twitter that stayed long after the exchanges themselves. Leading gradually to more sustained conversations that were not only ‘useful’ but served to whet the appetite for learning and exploration in the ‘change’ domain in a way that can be described as unique, contemporary and also at the bleeding edge of thought!

The people that I had these conversations with, lead me CAWW.  Take a moment. Do go over the website. One particular line from their website that struck a deep chord enough to explore their work “We designed Change Agents Worldwide to function as a cooperative, where value is realized by every node in the network” Every word there, appealed.

So, when I did discover that CAWW had a ‘Green Room’ where I could go and dip my toes in what it is like to be part of the real conversations behind the curtain, I didn’t waste much time asking Susan Scrupski for an opportunity.

What looked like a relatively calm week in June (that later got swamped by a busy calendar) was when I got to get into the Green Room at CAWW! A authentic and thought provoking digital experience.

After sharing my contexts in the ‘stream’, we got down to outlining priorities, problems and challenges.  A superlative change agent is one that asks a heap of questions. Some of them out of a seeking for answers.  At other times, as part of a nudging thought train in a different direction.

The people at CAWW are masters at it. Deep searching questions. Calm quips. Simple yet profound ideas and a curiosity for more. The beauty of the interaction also got multiplied by the geographical spread of where the ideas and interactions came from. S

Simon Terry based out of Australia and me would exchange a few ideas before Europe woke up and the conversations would continue through the evening with friends from the West! If the maxim of ‘ideas rule the world’ were to be proven true again, in a very literal sense, I didn’t have to look any further.

Engaging and hearing from a variety of people.  Richard Martin. Luiz Suarez. Jon Husband. Joachim Stroh. Catherine Shinners Carrie Basham Young. Stuart McIntyre. Thierry de Baillon.  Kevin Jones. Guy Alvarez . Marcia Conners. Patti Ankalam Presenting a dazzling array or presence, opportunity and thoughts.

A clutch of ideas, an array of links to resources and surveys and more importantly thoughts to pursue, stay with me. Long after the one week in the Green Room of CAWW has gone by! A wholesome refreshing time.

Notwithstanding the fact, that this Green Room triggered a flurry of memories of another Green Room from a different era.  More of that story for another time.

For now, people, if you haven’t explored CAWW, you must!

Beware the busy life!

We were in the middle of a discussion about possibilities for the future. The future painted itself as an alluring picture. One member of the team that was discussing the problem, was clearly worried. That worry stemmed from the load that the present day and its travails threw in already. There were processes to build. Projects to complete. People to meet. His calendar remained filled to the brim. He wondered where he would pull time out from for this ‘future’ discussion?

It was soon apparent that we weren’t headed anywhere. Nobody competes against a full calendar. Unless you are insanely brave or completely naive! We were stuck. It became clear that if we wanted to get anywhere productive, we needed to step off the ‘busyness’ treadmill. That was tough. Considering how critical the present day challenges were.

We are all genuinely busy. Aren’t we? With overflowing calendars and a constant hum in our minds about how busy we are and how much we miss leisure.

The busy life occupies us and our imagination. In this lovely piece in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviewing ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time’ by Brigid Schulte, writes that being busy has acquired ‘social status’.  ( Here is another review of the same book. This time, by the NYT )

“Keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them”, she writes. Some of us are afflicted with what I call the ‘Full Calendar Syndrome’. The condition that causes palpitation upon seeing a few slots on the calendar ‘open’. Busyness reassures many of us with a sense of worth and progress. But what a travesty, that. More on that later.

Amongst the things that ‘busyness’ robs us of, is the possibility of looking around and seeing beyond our problems. Often times, the very aspect of looking in another direction gives us great clarity on the problems we work on. Full calendars and occupied minds, prevent us from creative thinking and missing obvious solutions that could be staring us in the eye otherwise.

John Maynard Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for our grandchildren” in 1930.  Kolbert’s piece pointed to this paper and obviously I downloaded it in some spare time, in the midst of being busy.

Its ten pages long and a fascinating piece to read, and to think of how his mind traveled a hundred years from the heights of the Economic Depression of the 1930s to peer into the future is some thought in itself.

Simply and simplistically put, Keynes felt that a hundred years from 1930 there would be so much wealth in the world that would automatically lead to an abundance of leisure!

His thoughts on the scale of our economic growth are well in tune with where the world has reached. But his posits on the scale of economic growth leading us to having substantial leisure hasn’t seen the light of the day. In fact, we have gone the other way. Wealth has only increased our ‘buysness’ and leisure has almost acquired the status of a bad word.

Bertrand Russell, another of those men, who rode those times with thoughts and words that caused people to pause and think, wrote “In praise of idleness” in 1935. (He makes a persuasive case for a four day work week which obviously, didn’t go a great distance but it’s a great read nevertheless). “The general thesis which binds the essays together is that the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”

I would call to special attention “..vigorous action is admirable even when misguided..”

While ‘Busyness’ is certainly something to contend with, the other aspect that bears down on us heavily is the hysteria that surrounds our ‘busyness’, in our own minds. How many of us think our days are so packed that we don’t have a minute to breathe? Of course, most of us! On the one hand, we pack our days with much work (and if we don’t, there is worry that seeps in) and on the other our constant refrain in our minds revolves around ‘how busy we are’ and how much that interferes with what we would rather be doing!

The question that begs our attention, large chunks of it, is this : “What am I busy with?” It is but obvious that this question hardly gets asked and the possibility of it getting answered with care and thought, is even more remote.

Too busy to improve

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life” – Socrates

Socrates said it like none else.

There are strikingly simple things that can be done to jump off this treadmill. Simple stuff. For one, a simple scan of our workday will lead us to some levels of insight. Are we really busy with stuff that counts or is it a meaningless routine that we hazily go through the motions.

Conscious Choice
Leading a life of purpose and commitment, as cliched as it may sound, against a life of ‘routine busy’ is a result of conscious choice. It has to be consciously lived by design before it becomes a default mode of living. In the absence of conscious choice and action, there is enough and more of an activity swirl that happens around us that keep us going and suddenly we wonder where the last several years went!

Elizabeth Kolbert further writes, “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”.

She goes on to write, “…so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion”

The antidote to this of course is to pause, find some time and think about life! To figure out what you are driven by? How do we want to get there? These need to be thought through and worked out. It is but obvious that several times, our choices are unconscious. From a set of options that popped in front of us because of the circumstances that we are in. Not a set of options that we created in line with what we wanted to do in life! To use the much abused and cliched word : ‘Purpose’!

Our life choices need thinking. Its our life. Even if our lives have many elements of routine, there are always avenues to make them rich and full.

If there was one purpose to this note it is this : to cause you to get to a “pause and ponder” mode about your ‘busyness’.  If you have come this far in this post, well, you might as well consider doing that. 🙂

Writing goals down and concertedly working on it, is a great place to begin. It works. All the time. Far better then when you dont write it down. If you have the time that is. Writing them down is perhaps the wheel that can set your success cart rolling in the right direction! Its a great first step. Of course, most of us know this. The question really is, ‘how many of us practice this’!

Do you?

On reflection

When was the last time your calendar had an entry that earmarked time for ‘Reflection’. Of course, “Reflection” could take any label and many names, but with the intent of ‘reflecting’, or ‘intensely synthesizing” an experience or a result. My questions on this to a variety of people over the last couple of weeks, have saw a handful of ‘’overwhelming ‘yes’s” and a heap of hemming and hawing!

Nobodys fault. We just live in an age where ‘action’ has assimilated all the space that it had and shared with ‘reflection’ and ‘thought’ as the route to success. Having structured experiences has a huge focus on the experience, while as much focus must go into reflecting on these experiences. These hardly happen, except perhaps when this happens to be participants in an ‘outbound’ programme.

First things first. Reflection helps in learning and assimilation. Research has consistently pointed in this direction. The works of Dewey, Donald Schon, Kolbs and several others, consistently alluded to this. A new working paper by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano and Bradley Staats lends further credence to that with greater aplomb. ( Get the full paper here  )

This piece that Duke Today illustrator Jonathan Lee put together, is awesome on many counts. Amidst all the wonderful illustrations, this illustration below stood tall besides being very pertinent to this post.

Reflection Magnifies Learning

Don’t we reflect? Of course we do. Thinking about various thoughts, conversations and ideas whilst doing something of routine is more often the case. Nothing wrong with that. While reflecting on the go, may quite well be a natural occurrence to many of us, intentional, focused synthesis of events and experiences lead learning to a different sphere. That is uncommon. Or rather, these are not practices in the mainstream. Reflection itself can be a natural consequence of several aspects.

‘Reflection’ facilitates the process of transforming tacit information and accrued experience into a codified knowledge base, adding several degrees of confidence. Just the possession at the end of the day, of such codified learning boosts self efficacy. This of course, requires cognitive investment.

Some of the best leaders who I have worked with over the years have always been those that have been able to hold conversations that helped me intensely reflect on several experiences on the job. In a connected, fast paced world, the ability to be able to hold the space for reflective conversations is at an implicit premium.

Journaling, having to ‘present’ the understanding etc help a big deal. Personally, teaching and further sharing of the results of reflection (including Working Out Loud) have helped me greatly. Surprisingly the paper mentioned above didn’t find evidence of increase in learning resulting from further sharing of it.

If you are a leader who is keen on facilitating a group into reflection this piece can get a good start. At the heart of it all, are three things in my opinion
a. Complete listening
b. Questioning
c. Allowing people to be

Being able to ask the right questions that facilitate reflection solves three quarters of the problems. That is a skill that can be acquired with constant practice. After asking the questions, to listen intently without interjecting with a point or two is also crucial. Some of my best conversations have been ones that left me thinking about it long after the conversation was over.

Gautam and me had this conversation on twitter.

Gautam’s point is well taken. It is my view that if it is made important enough, time will get created for it. It cannot remain in the fringes and remain and optional extra but must permeate as an essential means of completing work. It is every manager and leaders interest to give it the space it deserves.  Of course, it needs to get into the calendar!

Reflection has continued to remain one of those things that we either take for granted or consistently undervalue its necessity. In my view, it has to be woven into work. Developing and exercising the muscle around facilitating reflection takes a person a great distance. Besides, it perhaps offers the simplest and most potent tool in developing people on the job!

Follow effective action with quiet (1)

Notes to Myself. #PowerPoint

After having been subjected to (and subjecting several others to) many hours of meetings, all invariably dotted with PowerPoint sides, here are some notes that am sharing. Notes that I originally made for myself!

The corporate world is rife with several things. But one aspect that is ubiquitous across the corporate world is PowerPoint slides. Well, no offence meant to Excel sheets, or Word Docs. But tell me, which other product is so mortifyingly despised to the point of it getting branded as ‘murder’, yet so very mainstream and widely used! So much so, that Guy Kawasaki thought it fit to include learning to use Powerpoint as one of the skills to be learnt in school!  Well, Dilbert sometimes nails it like nobody else.

Imaginary Productivity

This is the season for PowerPoint! So much so, somebody walking into a meeting without a SlideDeck is often considered underprepared! Plans, budgets and several other ‘opportunities’ to revel in the dark revolving whorls of bullet points and transitions. Whatever your reason, when you make your latest slides (have you ever wondered why they call it ‘slide’), may you do so with some love, respect and consideration for others. Especially the ones who will have to ‘sit through’ your presentation.

You can well argue that three quarters of them aren’t anyway interested and are fiddling with their phones and texting their favourite groups on Whatsapp. You may after all have a point there. But then, lets assume for a moment, that all people in front of you in the room aren’t like that and would love to focus on your presentation and what you have on your slide. Ok!?

Be kind to them. Be kind to their eyes. Overcrowding a PowerPoint slide with a font size that can get an optometrist roaring all the way to the bank may be your way of getting back at the Whatsapp folks. But then, relax. There are more elegant ways of ‘revenge’!

The other thing, changing your slide design, making the points fly all over the place, appear immediately after they disappear and vice-versa are all good in a Bollywood potboiler. You are making a presentation on next year’s budget for God’s sake! Remember that.

And most importantly, watch any logo that you may be using. Especially so, if its your company’s logo. You may have your opinions on labouring hard to stretch a simple act of trivia to the level of a proficient accomplishment on your job, but let it not show on the corporate logo. Keep the logo intact. Distorting the logo is disrespect.

Don’t have more than ten slides. Yes, after that, it really slides. No, not ten. Make that five slides. “Introduction” and “Thank you” slides included.

 

Abhijit Bhaduri on twitter had an excellent tweet and a flurry of tweets from several other friends on this topic.

Read the thread here once again.  And before shooting off a powerpoint file as an attachment keep in mind the tenets from David Ogilvy’s fantastic book on communication.

The real power in Powerpoint is about the ‘point’.  Powerpoint is just a tool to pass information or at best a prop to make a point. A prop morphing into the main point is such a travesty. Keeping the prop at the right place helps in moving the conversation forward.

Finally, if you are not in a meeting and have to make a point and still have to convey a message, pick up the phone, walk over to someone and talk! That may get something moving! If you need to send it as an attachment to a mail, keep the tenets of “Writing that Works” by David Ogilvy in mind.

Dont let it slide. 🙂

Distance Running and change !

I took to running sometime back. Long distance running. While it has helped keeping the health in check it has had numerous other ‘corollary’ benefits, if you will.

Time to reflect and think would go up ahead in the list for me. Bereft of the mobile phone and any other form of ‘interference’, it offers you time and space to think. To jostle with an idea while the foot pounds the pavement.

While running today, I asked myself if there were any similarities between long distance running and leading change in large organisations. By the time we finished the run, I had enough thoughts that I deemed fit to fit a post !

The Czech runner Emil Zatoptek said it like no one else did, about marathon running.

“We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”

Marathon running is a different sport altogether. It requires patience, perseverance, persistence, loads of luck. Not to mention pretty hard nosed training and diet !

Well, driving change in organisations is no different. What works for running works for change leaders as well. Here are the top five that I juggled with today as I ran the 26 kilometers!

1. The inherent need for patience

Perhaps a basic ingredient for any long distance course is patience. Long distances don’t get over in a jiffy. It takes a long while. To be able to spot the bends in the road and to see that they are not the ‘end of the road’ makes a huge difference. To stay aligned to the course over long durations of time, despite changes outside requires patience !
No different for change leaders. For change happens, if at all in such small installments that sticking in there for a long period of time is de rigueur.

Long distance running is not about a burst of energy. It is sustained energy. It is three quarters in the mind. The course of the road changes often. The climate changes. And the body reacts to these changes in a positive or negative way.
An established runner quipped on a day when nothing was working out for me for well over half of the race “When everything is going wrong, be patient. When everything is going right, be patient.”

Patience is perhaps the biggest ingredient of change initiatives in organisations. Effective leaders know this and drive change at a pace that will sustain the organisation and yet be patient for changes to take root.

2. Rhythm :

I have seen runners who have the best strides. Some who look majestic. Yet other who run with a purpose. A few who really run at great speed. It has been tempting to align with these people. And think that it would rub off on you. But the real runners who have helped me complete a course are those that share a similar rhythm as mine. Who go ‘toe to toe’, in a way !

Change leaders achieve great results when aligning themselves with the rhythm of the organisation, the requirement and strike a balance.

Change leaders finding the right allies with a rhythm that matches theirs or which is something that they can adapt to, is critical.

3. Different Paces for Different Races

Every race is different. Every course is different. Therefore every race is run differently. The basic preparation may remain the same. The course is Mumbai is quite different from say the course in Amsterdam. One has dry, humid weather and a few inclines with massive crowd support with fantastic . The other has very pleasant weather, flat terrain with little help from people! Pacing, racing and acing these races are as different, as jiggery and energy gel !

Every change initiative is different. Sometimes, even within an organisation, different functions take to leading and understanding change very differently. To be alive to each step makes a huge difference to the running and to driving change. Every race requires a strategy of sorts. So does every change initiative!

4. See as far as your eye can see

The course of a full marathon is 42 kilometers. Or 26 miles. There is no change in that. I once was struggling at the 34th kilometer when a fellow runner, ran past me, asking me not to think of the finish line, but to just think of the distance ‘that the eye can see’. That idea stuck. And worked too.

For once you reach the distance that your saw, the eye is seeing and setting a new target of sorts. While thinking of how it would be to finish the race etc would indeed be good, it sometimes can get daunting.

It cant be very different to a change program for change happens in small installments  To break down large targets into small operational target which keeps getting modified and updated on the go, with the large target in mind is central to a change program.

5. The merit in metrics

Metrics help. It helps to know analyse and change. There are a slew of watches and apps on mobile phones can give you with multi colour graphics the exact spot where you sweated two droplets extra and where your heart beat was one hundredth of half a beat away from your normal beat cycle.

Personally these haven’t held my fancy. There is a merit in the metrics. But the race is to be run and the journey to be enjoyed. You know when you have indeed run a good race is when you run with rhythm, poise and finish strong irrespective of the constraints.

Change metrics in organisations can be fuzzy while being useful. Change metrics are useful. But the metrics are not the target. Real change is!

While having a perspective on the metrics (and reports and all that), good change practitioners know that metrics is just another means to tell them the health of the change process. Not an end in itself.

Change happens. Over time. So does a long run!