Much of our practice, if not all, sits at the intersection between implicit experience and explicit roles or activities. Like the viral memes that play with definitions of what my mother thinks I do, what society thinks I do… and what I actually do, we all hold assumptions about what roles and activities are, what they involve or entail.
When we think of a pilot, for example, we often think first of the fascination of lift, of staying airborne, of navigating up there. But the hardest part really – the one that requires ages of counter-intuitive training and separates the seasoned from the rookie – is the art of landing: ending the flight, coming back to the ground. Similarly, surgery is not so much about cutting, always a vivid image, but about stitching things together; and anaesthetics is really about waking people up safely. Likewise, organizational communication is often about withholding or redacting information.
With this interface between assumptions and experience in mind, some important active dilemmas are constantly there to explore. This posting is not about resolving them, taking a position or even listing those we have found. It is more about noticing the effort needed to dance this line elegantly, which calls for life-long practice. A tricky place to live, which requires sound cockpit management both to be fully in the moment and also to look back, forward and across.
A lot of our work at Sparknow is about surfacing issues and building capacity through increased awareness of where the join sits between two poles, so that more informed decisions can be made. Seeing things - most of all familiar things - from a different point of view is, we believe, a key element of evolving a transition into a lasting change and/or finding a story that has both depth and longevity.
Recently, we have been involved in projects that require a kind of balancing act to explore some vivid examples of this tension:
- Controls/innovation | two projects in contrasting sectors (financial services and manufacturing) share the theme of finding stories that highlight the balancing act between rising regulation, heightened external scrutiny around production quality and tightening of processes on the one hand, with a need to shift parameters and reinvent their field to maintain their licence to operate and aspiration to grow on the other. One does not exclude the other, and innovation within controls creates new possibilities that a rule-free space would not. However, a successful outcome requires awareness of this necessary pairing, and possibly longer timeframes than disruptive innovation may accommodate.
- Summaries/texture | good stories are memorable stories, usually. Memorable stories, in our busyness and on-the-go-ness are short. Board-level information is shorter. And yet building in plural points of view, going back to the evidence rather than only looking at the digest and seeing the full picture to extract new insights is key to more informed decisions. We addressed this in a recent blog. In a current research project, we are exploring the challenge of reporting the full picture of uncomfortable truths while keeping it bite-size for full agendas. Reporting is also part of the process, and our work with MLA London was particularly focused on this area.
- Noise/silence | we are involved in designing and running ongoing learning sessions around interviewing and leadership stories for the Clore Foundation Fellows. As with summaries vs texture, our research and cultural alignment work around change needs to listen for silence, not just for the overtly-stated positions. Holding the silence in an interview or workshop is a particularly challenging piece. Not filling it oneself is even harder. In exploring this practice, we find that the stories that emerge from quieter, more reflective spaces can be as much part of the picture as those that emerge from the noise an organization can make around itself. We learn to listen for this.
As we continue to shape new ways to help organizations find the space to tell their own stories, balancing dilemmas like these become an overt, explicit part of the process. This is what we actually do.