Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Failure is a Ghost Story

Failure and ghosts have a lot in common.

People are terrified of both.

Neither exist.

I have worked with so many organisations that have a cultural fear of failure. Generations of managers believe that missing a target, or losing a deal, or moving a deadline is the end of the world. Failure.

Fear of failure kills innovation, and lack of innovation kills companies. Not competition. Not economy. Not consumer behaviour. Not regulation. Lack of innovation is what kills companies. From small local businesses to global corporations.

When a manager is afraid to fail, he or she will discourage risk. They won't do this overtly - in public, they will say that they support and encourage risk. Their fears manifest in far more subtle ways.

Managers who are afraid to fail will ask their teams to come up with 'good ideas'. Not ideas.

Managers who are afraid to fail will critique those ideas and ask, "But what do we know will work?

Managers who are afraid to work draw attention to people who play safe, who follow the rules.

Managers who are afraid to fail ask "What did you achieve?" instead of "What did you learn?"

Why do these attitudes kill innovation?

If we already know that an idea is good before we test it, we're playing safe. We know what worked in the past, and we do that again, and again, and again.

If we focus on successful results, we play safe because we emphasise and reward predictable results. The only way that you can be certain of what is going to happen is if you do what you've done a hundred times before, and you do what you know will succeed. You play safe. In reality, this doesn't guarantee success, it just makes you feel safer. When your team want to try something new, unproven, that's terrifying. "What if it doesn't work?" "Just do what we know."

Failure is a ghost because it only exists in our imagination, and yet both failure and ghosts can seem very real. Failure is simply a comparison to a judgement.

You can fail an exam. In an exam, you know the subject, you have a fair idea of what questions will be asked, you know the passing grade. If you fail to reach the passing grade, what do you do? You either forget about it, because it's not important to you, or you take the exam again. Better prepared, you achieve a higher grade.

We put a lot of pressure on our children to 'get good grades' because better grades are a gateway to better jobs. If they fail, they can try again. And each time, they learn more.

We can only achieve the result of fail or pass after the event. We can only fail when we stop.

Failing - or succeeding - is an arbitrary judgement, a comparison made by someone else, to someone else's benchmark. When you fail an exam, or you fail to bake the cake you wanted, or you fail to score a goal, or you fail to catch a train, or you fail to finish your coffee, what do you do? Do you stop? Do you give up? No, you figure out what happened, you learn, and you keep going.

As a leader, you can create a language of failure in your team or organisation, simply by talking about success. When you focus on and reward success, you implicitly discourage failure. Reward doesn't mean a financial bonus, it simply means that you ask "What did you win?" instead of "What did you learn?" Just by implying what is important to you, you will create a culture where failure is feared, risk is avoided, innovation is killed and your days are numbered.

As a leader, you can just as easily create a language of learning, growth and innovation.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Most Dangerous Coaching Question

The entire self-help industry is based on a simple question: "What do you want?"

With this one question, coaches and life transformation gurus conjure up your wildest dreams, innermost desires and best laid plans.

And what you don't realise is that this one question is precisely what prevents you from achieving those dreams.

In fact, the self-help industry is designed to create one result: Addiction.

Here's why.

The question "What do you want?" contains a presupposition, something which must already be true for the speaker in order for the question to be understood. Whilst all statements contain presuppositions, the important one here is 'want'. To want something presupposes that you do not have it.

'Want' is also an 'unspecified verb', meaning that it is an action with something missing. The missing part is 'to have', so if we expanded a 'want' statement to be fully grammatically correct, the result would be "I want to have..."

Have is not an action, it is a statement of possession. However, the word 'have' shows up in language in the same place as a verb, and it is therefore an unspecified verb, and also a 'lost performative' meaning that the direct action has been lost, muddled up and hidden.

Here's an example: "My boss criticises me". Criticising is not an action, it is not a performative verb. It is a judgement on a series of experiences, edited together in a generalisation, like the trailer for a movie. Similarly, we could summarise the movie Star Wars into the statement "Boy becomes hero". It's true, but it's missing a few details. Maybe sometimes your boss does give you feedback which you don't like, and at other times that's not the case, and at other times you are not interacting with your boss at all. Your assertion is a misleading generalisation which omits the action that you are commenting on.

If I use 'have' in present tense, I might say, "I have a pen". That doesn't tell you anything about how I got the pen. Did I buy it? Steal it? Borrow it? 'Have' is a snapshot in time, and your brain will create a story to explain that snapshot. My mother developed dementia later in life and would create stories to explain unfamiliar items around her. When I bought her a clock, she said, "Oh, where did that clock come from? Oh yes, the neighbour brought it in for me". Five minutes later, my sister had brought it. Five minutes later, another story. None of them were true, from my point of view, but all of them were true for her, at least for a moment. Our brains create stories to explain the world that we see around us, like a prequel for a movie to explain the backstory to a character.

When you use 'have' in place of a verb in future tense, you miss out the steps that you'll take to get you to where you intend to be. Anything in the future is imaginary, yet we act as if it's real. We say, "This time next year I will have a new job". And what are you doing, today, right now, this minute to get a new job? Nothing.

The question "What do you want?" provokes the response "I want to have..." which means that you don't have it now, and you have no idea how to get it. You're not focusing on the first, direct action that you can take, you're focusing on the end result. You're picturing the cake, but you don't have any of the ingredients. And you don't know how to bake a cake. When I say that you have no idea how to get it, that’s based on a very simple observation. If you knew how to bake a cake, and you had the ingredients to hand, you wouldn’t want a cake, you would be baking a cake.

'Want' literally means 'lack', as in this ancient rhyme and proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Focusing on what you want without considering how you'll get it amplifies your sense of dissatisfaction with where you are right now, with what you have in your life right now.

With that amplified sense of dissatisfaction, where do you go? Straight back to your guru for some more daydreaming.

We're so used to thinking in terms of goals, objectives and targets that we have largely forgotten that goals are impossible to achieve, because by the time we start taking action, the landscape has changed and the goal has changed.

Research shows that the only reliable way of making changes in your life is to DO something. NOW.

Move. Get going. Start. Begin.

Goals exist only for a far more important reason - to set a direction of travel. Focus on that instead, and see where it takes you.

As a coach, perhaps a more useful question is therefore, “Where are you going?”

Friday, 24 May 2019

How do we replicate talents?

Stop for a moment and consider everything that you know. Think about all of the knowledge that is in your mind. How did it get there? All of the facts, experiences, skills - almost everything that makes you 'you', at least in terms of your abilities and personality, is the sum total of your life experience.

When you were born, your brain was a relatively undifferentiated, densely packed lump of neurons; nerve cells which can pass information between them. Through a process called 'Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity', the neurons in your brain began to connect together. STDP is a process for connecting neurons where there is a synchronisation in their firing pattern.

Let's play a game. Imagine that on a table in front of you there are five boxes:

One of the boxes contains some coins, the others are empty. How do you work out which box has the coins in?
Simple, you say. You pick up each box in turn and shake it. Or you feel its weight.

The test really is simple, but without STDP you couldn't do it. Your choice depends on the timing between your action and the reaction from the box. What would happen if you shook box 4, but the rattling noise came from box 1? And then when you shook box 1, box 5 rattled? That would be confusing, right?

The synchronisation between your action and the reaction from the external physical world is the basis of how all of the neurons in your brain became connected.

Imagine a skill or talent that you have mastered. How would you teach that to someone else? You might demonstrate the skill while they watch. How would that help them to play a musical instrument or drive a car? You might try to describe what to do. You probably know how that works out - most of what you're doing is outside of your awareness, so you can't describe it, because you don't even realise you're doing it.

Does everyone have to learn through their own trial and error? Or can we accelerate that process, fine tune it to replicate talents more quickly and efficiently?

Without realising it, you give out clues about how you perform the skill, clues about how your neurons wired themselves together as you learned the skill. Those clues are revealed in two ways, through your behaviour, and through your language, but not through what you say, the clues are in the way that you organise and structure your language, and you won't even be aware that you're doing it. While you think you're describing what you do, you're enacting the skill through the way you translate your personal experience into language.

By understanding the structure of that translation process, which linguists call a transformation, we can 'reverse engineer' your learning process, take out all of the elements which are not directly relevant and design a highly specific, customised learning process which then enables us to transfer that talent to anyone else.

In practice, the process is quite straightforward, though it does require multiple interviews of multiple role models, cross referencing, testing and a technical understanding of the structure of language. It's all easily learnable though, and the approach will give you a very different experience of working with your colleagues and clients - hearing what's really going on for them at a deeper level rather than reacting to what they're presenting at the surface.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

You can have a fast solution, or a good solution, but you can't have both

I've found that many organisational cultures - which of course means managers and leaders - favour people who are reactive, solution focused, ready to act to solve customer problems.

This is killing innovation.

The underlying culture seems to be based on the idea that the customer is the most important person in the business, and this simply isn't true. For a start, the customer is not part of the business, they are an external connection. You don't owe them anything, and they don't owe you anything. You give them products and services, they give you money. It's a fair and equal exchange. When you start to treat that customer as if they are important, that exchange becomes unequal and unfair.

"But without customers we don't have a business!!"

Yes, you do. When you start treating customers as if they are important, you become biased towards the customers who demand attention, and since you have limited resources, your attention is no longer allocated fairly. For every individual customer who gains an advantage through discounts, concessions, better service, rushed orders etc, you actively disadvantage another customer. If you were that customer, would you be happy with a lower quality of service just because someone else was shouting louder?

If you called your internet provider to complain about slow service, how would you feel if they told you that other customers in your street were more important?

No, the most important people in a business are not customers - the most important people are the employees. You take care of the employees, the employees take care of the customers. Simple.

What has this got to do with innovation?

Believing that customers are the most important people makes managers react to customer problems. The pressure to react quickly and decisively makes managers think they know what to do, that they have 'good solutions'. A culture of firefighting emerges, because reacting to one customer neglects another, and the impact builds like a snowball.

"But we have to solve this customer problem NOW!"

No, you don't. You had to solve it weeks or months ago, but you didn't.

The pressure to act and react causes people to do what they know 'works', because it's what they did last time. You probably have a few favourite recipes, which you could whip up easily if some friends descended for dinner, and you also have some recipes for solutions for common problems at work. You know the 'best' way to get something done because you have your own experience of trial-and-error to fall back on.

When you feel under pressure to come up with a solution, you might even offer a choice - that you can either deliver a fast solution, or a good solution. But not both.

Imagine you're taking a loved one out for a very special evening. You go to a very good restaurant. Do you demand to know where your food is, two minutes after ordering? Of course not, you know that high quality food, caring preparation and tempting presentation take time. All of these things are important enough to wait for.

Now imagine you're staying out of town for work. You need to get something to eat, you don't care what, and you're in a hurry. Do you go to a fancy restaurant? Or do you go to a fast food outlet, where you can get something quickly? Do you complain that your cheeseburger isn't served on a silver platter with a fine wine?

You can fast, and you can have good, but you can't have both at the same time.

The real problem is that we cannot separate a problem from its environment. If you make the same journey to work every day, it's not the same journey. Everything around you is different, each time you follow that route. Believing that it's the 'same old same old' is an illusion that your brain creates, so that you don't have to make an effort in order to interact with the world. You might say that the differences each day are irrelevant, if you still arrive at work. Do you always arrive at exactly the same time? Do you tend to arrive early to give yourself room for delays? Do you tend to arrive on time or a little late because you don't want potential delays to eat into your well earned sleep time? So, right away, you can see that no two journeys are the same, we can only treat them as equivalent if the desired outcome is always achieved.

In organisational problem solving, we have two outcomes. One is to solve the problem, and the other is to learn. I would say that learning is actually the most important and valuable outcome, because it will largely prevent future similar problems. Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But we have to act NOW, we can worry about learning later!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.


Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

And one of the most important reasons for this is that by doing what works, what you know, what you have proven in the past, you are repeatedly applying the wrong solution to the problem, because you are applying a solution which worked once for you in a different situation in the past. It's the same old same old. In fact, you are continually recreating the same problems by repeatedly applying the wrong solutions. Because what you're applying isn't a solution at all - it's an idea. A solution is something which you can only know looking backwards. You can only know that your actions resolved a problem by looking backwards. As you look forwards into the next problem, any similarity is an illusion created by your lazy brain.

As a manager, you have to allow people space to find new ways, to create new ideas and to test those ideas the same way that you did - trial and error. That means making mistakes, and so the pain for you is in allowing the space for them to do that. There is no other way. And in any case, mistakes can only be defined as such when you have a specific outcome in mind, an expectation which has to be met. Let go of your expectations and you will create the space for innovation.

If, as a business, you want to keep doing the same old things, year after year, while your competitors move ahead, then keep applying the same solutions to the same problems. At least it's comfortable. But don't say that you want innovation, because that's not possible.

Innovation implicitly comes from what you're not doing.

If You Want Help, Tell the Truth

Imagine the scene.

You have a problem at work. A frustrating problem. A problem involving your colleagues, or your manager, or both. Over time, the problem has become worse.

Imagine that you go home and tell your partner. Or your friends. You vent your frustration at all the things your manager and colleagues are doing that are causing your problem.

Your family or friends nod sympathetically. They ask questions. And, finally, they deliver the sucker punch: they give you their analysis of the situation, and they tell you what to do about it.

Aaargh! All you want to do is offload. Why do other people insist on telling you what to do?

Just to be nice, you reply, "Yeah... but", "You don't understand", "It's different", "I've tried that", and so on.

You might even say, "I've tried everything and nothing works", when what you really mean is that you already know what to do.

So, why are you still talking about it?

Your family and friends have the best intentions when they give you advice. They pick up on the presupposition that you unknowingly transmit - that if you're talking about a problem then logically you have not solved it, so logically you don't know how to solve it. Therefore, they ask you questions to gather facts so that they can perform an analysis and deliver a solution to you.

Your family and friends each offer you a perfect solution to the problem that you have described. So why would you reject their suggestions out of hand?

It's because their suggestions were perfect solutions to the problem that you described. The real problem is that that's not the problem. You didn't tell the truth. You told them only what you wanted them to know.

The same thing happens, of course, when you're trying your best to help someone else. Imagine a colleague, or someone in your team, is telling you about a problem. Logically, they must be asking for your advice, so you draw on your own experience to suggest a solution, a solution which you know will work, because you've done it yourself a dozen times. A guaranteed, sure-fire winner.

Imagine your frustration when they dismiss your solution out of hand, or worse still, tell you what a good idea it is to then do absolutely nothing about it.

Once again, your solution was perfect, but it was a solution to the wrong problem. They didn't tell you the truth. In fact, they may have told you exactly what they wanted you to know, to get you to do what they wanted you to do.

Furthermore, it was a solution to a problem that you once had, a long time ago. It turns out that solving problems stifles innovation, and I'll tell you why in another article.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Coaches Ask Too Many Questions

Coaches ask too many questions. Far too many. They are obsessed with questions, to the point that they are afraid to give advice. I even heard of a coach who failed her ICF certification for giving advice in her assessment coaching session.

The ICF lists 'asks powerful questions' as part of their 'credentialing' criteria. Some people even say that asking good questions is what marks out a coach as being different to a mentor or consultant.

Maybe we should take a step back and ask what the purpose of a question really is.

Questions are designed to get information from someone. And therefore, a question leads to an answer, and that answer represents what the coach wants to know about, not what the client wants to talk about.

Even an innocent, 'open' question such as, "Can you say more about that?" is a leading question. The client has already told you exactly what they want you to know. They used the precise number of words that they needed. When you ask them to tell you more, they are now saying more than they planned to, which usually means that they will simply repeat themselves, or throw you a bone to lead you off in a different direction. They told you what they told you for a specific reason - it was exactly what they wanted you to know, so that you would give them the response that they wanted.

Each time you ask a question, you change the subject.

As a communication method, a question contains three components. The first is a marker that the statement is a query, which could be a word, a punctuation mark or a voice intonation. For example, if you start a statement with words such as "what" or "why" or "how" then what comes next will be interpreted as a question. If you speak an entire statement and then end with a tag question, then the entire statement is re-interpreted as a question, isn't it?

The second component is the presupposition or 'payload' of the question; the information that frames the question. If I ask, "What job do you do?" then the presupposition is that you have a job. If I ask, "When are we going for dinner?" then the presupposition is that we are going for dinner, and the query is about the time. That final query, the piece of information being requested, is the third component.

The presupposition of the question is exploited by people who seek to influence. "Why are you thinking of hiring me as your coach?" is an obvious, and perhaps clumsy example. "What are some of the things you look for in an excellent coach?" is a more subtle one.

From an early age, as your brain created an abstract map of the world around you, you created a 'critical filter' to protect you from other people's maps.

Imagine that you have a problem at work. You go home and talk to your family who then give you advice. "You should do this", "You should try that", "You should tell your manager" and so on. You reply, "Yeah... but", "You don't understand", "It's different", "I've tried that", and so on. Your critical filter is working perfectly, deflecting the advice because you already know what to do. You might even say, "I've tried everything and nothing works", when what you really mean is that you know what you have to do, but you're scared to do it.

Your family, friends and colleagues have the best intentions when they give you advice. They pick up on the presupposition that you unknowingly transmit - that if you're talking about a problem then logically you have not solved it, so logically you don't know how to solve it. Therefore, they ask you questions to gather facts so that they can perform an analysis and deliver a solution to you.

This reveals another reason why their suggestions are unhelpful - each of them is a perfect solution to the problem that you have described. It's just that the problem that you described isn't actually the problem. You told them only what you wanted them to know.

Professional influencers, expert public speakers and people who are 'good with people' know that there are two simple communication methods that you can use to bypass the critical filter.

Stories are not blocked by the filter because they are not about you, and don't tell you anything which conflicts with your map of reality. Stories are explicitly about someone else's map of reality. However, in order to understand the story, you put yourself into it, and it therefore becomes part of your map. If you have ever felt an emotional response while reading a book or watching a movie then you have experienced this process.

Questions bypass the critical filter because they do not explicitly carry information, however the presupposition within the question does exactly that, so now you can see why I called it a 'payload' earlier. The presupposition, hiding within the question like an army inside a giant wooden horse, slips past your critical defences in the dead of night and quietly infiltrates your map of reality.

Let's join the dots and come full circle back to coaches asking too many questions.

A coach asks a question because they have an intention.

The coach reveals that intention through the presuppositions in their questions.

The coach delivers that intention in the payload of their questions.

The coach influences the client through their questions.

Whether you like it or not, as a coach, you are actively directing your clients.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not. If the client could get what they want by themselves, they wouldn't be talking to you. However, to pretend that you are 'non-directive' or that 'the client guides the direction' is misleading. As a coach, you absolutely guide the client, you actively manipulate them to where you want them to be.

As a coach, if you have something to say to your client, be honest and say it. Don't dance round in circles trying to get the client to say it by asking them manipulative questions, just because you believe you shouldn't be giving advice or unsolicited feedback.

When you enter into a coach/client relationship, you are put into a position of trust. The client accepts that, to get to where they want to be, they have to cover some unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory, and to do that, their existing maps will be useless. Sometimes, they are asking to be led, sometimes to be pushed, sometimes simply to know that they are not alone on their journey.

If you're not going to give the client advice or feedback, who else are they going to trust enough to do that?