Chair Game at the V&A

This last year I have become somewhat obsessed by a game I call the Chair Game, which I learned from Stefan Cousquer (who in turn, learned it from Michael Jacobs).

For me, it is such a rich game, there is so much to learn from it. I will write about what I am learning from it at some point, but meanwhile, here’s a lovely little post that John Willshire wrote which sets the scene nicely for the Chair Game at the V&A, which is happening next week.


A knowledge worker needs a good body

What does it means to be a ‘knowledge worker’.

The term conjures up an image of cerebral, nerdy, cleverness – of academics, geeks or intellectuals, steeped in learning of a bookish kind. And it suggests, that to stay employable, you need to be studying, acquiring more information, and qualifications, constantly. Which creates a huge amount of pressure and stress, particularly on young people who trying to make their way in an ultra-competitive world.

But is that necessarily so?

As Sir Ken Robinson said, in his famous TED talk, ‘the body is more than just a means of transporting the brain from one meeting to the next’. There is a growing body of scientific evidence (pardon the pun) to support the view that much of our knowledge is embodied. Maybe all of it is?

The language doesn’t help us here. We find it easier to talk about the mind and the body as if they are separate objects, rather than interwoven aspects of an integrated whole. Neuroscientist Candace Pert, in her wonderful book ‘Molecules of Emotion’ refuses to use the words ‘body’ and ‘mind’ separately and instead uses ‘bodymind’ throughout.

This shift has interesting implications for what it means to be a knowledge worker and for how we develop ourselves.

If you body is a source of knowledge then it implies that you need to develop your ability to read, understand and use your body as well as your cognitive and intellectual skills.

People in office life tend not to do this. I mostly work with executives. If they think about their body at all it is probably only in terms of appearance and health – going to the gym or changing their diet is normally the limit of the attention that they pay to their body. It rarely occurs to them that it is a source of information.

So in improv workshops I encourage people to pay attention to what is going on physically. Their bodily sensations provide clues, suggestions and ideas about what to do or how to act, particularly when faced with uncertain, changing circumstances (the so called ‘VUCA’ world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). This ability, practised and developed, helps you face complex, changing, human predicaments more effectively than any amount of book knowledge.

Bodily knowledge can be very precise. I have a business school colleague at Oxford who is also a musician. He plays both piano and trumpet. He noticed that the way he got nervous before a performance was very specific. When he was due to play the trumpet his mouth would get dry. If he was going to play the piano his hands would start to tremble. His body knew, quite precisely, what was coming. Take that idea to work. Do you notice what kind of nerves you have? Are they the same in a negotiation as in a performance review? If you could understand what they are telling you better, how might you act differently?

Not so long ago I was talking with a friend about some difficult personal circumstances he is going through with his daughter. It was really helpful to him to realise that he has a huge amount of experience, learning and knowledge (acquired from his own struggles) that he carries with him everywhere – in his body. Rather than trying to ‘work out’ his messy, complex, emotional issue as if it were a maths problem, he realised that instead, he might focus on becoming more adept at allowing his embodied knowledge to guide him. This jars with his profession, which deals in the abstractions of facts and evidence, but to use only the analytic approach he is so accustomed to, is to miss something important. Somatic sensitivity may be as important as intellectual capacity.

Over the weekend I was talking with an entrepreneurial student trying to make his way in the hurly burly world of start ups. Again, it was a helpful idea to him to realise that developing his ideas and his business meant learning to work with his embodied self, not just his intellectual self. Not everything has to be squeezed through the filter of analysis. The history of entrepreneurs bears this out – even financier George Soros says his investment decisions are guided by the feelings he gets in his back.

My own hunch is that this bodily aspect is becoming increasingly important. Over the past few months I hear more and more conversations about the future of work. As machines and algorithms take over, it seems people are in a precarious state when it comes to employment. In a car factory where the product is made entirely by robots, what are people for? As Warren Bennis said, many years ago now: “in the factory of the future there will be a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to stop the man touching the machinery.”

Yet our bodies might be our biggest competitive advantage. Not as a muscular force but as an intelligent one. We may not be able to outperform robots or computers when it comes to physical or computational power but our bodies, which provide a different kind of processing from our conscious minds, give us all sorts of knowledge and information (often through emotions) that allow us to have build empathy, connection, meaning and relationships. In other words, the things that really matter to us. Machines can’t do this. However, just because you have a body doesn’t mean you know how to read it or use it with any degree of skill. This is something you have to develop.

To do so we need to appreciate that there are different kinds of knowledge that show up in different ways. The body and the sensations it provides are an incredibly powerful source of information that we routinely ignore or dismiss. It may be true that bodily knowledge is no substitute for intellectual knowledge – but then intellectual knowledge is no substitute for bodily knowledge either. The two are complements not alternatives.

We should spend more time paying attention to our physical sensations and what the body tells us. This knowledge is sensory, subtle, tacit, and nuanced. It is accumulated through experience and we carry it with us everywhere. It is every bit as useful and important as facts and data and quotations and numbers.

The future belongs to those who know how to work with their body as well as their mind.

The Perfect Steve Chapman

I know the perfect Steve Chapman. He always comes up with Steve Chapman-like comments. He is an unending source of Steve Chapman style ideas. When I want a Steve Chapman perspective on something of mine, he’s the guy. He writes a blog that is the quintessence of Steve Chapman-ness. He also talks like Steve Chapman, walks like Steve Chapman and even looks exactly like Steve Chapman. He does all of this without having to try. He is Steve Chapman through and through. No-one else I know comes close.

I also know the perfect Kay Scorah. Just as Steve Chapman is Steve Chapman I can depend on her to be 100% Kay Scorah. She is ineluctably, irredeemably and effortlessly Kay Scorah. And in a similar vein, blessed that I am, I also know the complete Neil Randhawa, the authentic Conrad Keating, the total Mark Skipper and the only proper person to go to for an injection of Jorge Alvarez.

I am challenged, however, when it comes to Robert Poynton.

I seem to have a much slimmer grasp of who he is than I ought to. My ideas about him can be horribly distorted, lurching wildly from massive exaggerations of his shortcomings to drastic overestimates of his capabilities from one moment to the next. As if I really have no knowledge of him whatsoever.

I spend a good proportion of my time and energy wishing him to be otherwise, trying to make him be (or appear) a certain way. I find myself thinking that if only he were able to do this a bit better, or stop doing that, or act a bit more like so and so, then he (and I) would be better off.

What would it take, I wonder, for each of us to really know who we are and accept that?

If I could truly realise that I need to be and become who I am, rather than hope (or pretend) to be someone I imagine, what would then be possible….?








Cutting ties

A neck tie is a curious thing – a long, thin piece of cloth that serves no practical function, wrapped around a man’s neck, where it dangles in a perfect position to collect any stray drops of spaghetti sauce.

A tie separates head and body, physically and symbolically.

The police in Britain have thought about this. They wear clip-on ties, so that an officer can’t be strangled by their tie. Yet the tie remains an icon of male business attire in most of the world. How fitting.

I was reminded of this at yesterday by Tara Swart, during a talk she gave at the MCT HR conference in Istanbul (where I also gave a talk). A neuroscientist and leadership coach, Tara spoke of how most people in business talk and act as if the mind and the body are somehow disconnected from each other – as if the one does not affect the other. Something we know to be scientifically wrong.

This is common sense too. Indeed, it is so obvious it ought not to be news and yet somehow it is. In his famous 2006 TED talk Ken Robinson observed that academics regard the body as a means of transporting their brain from one meeting to the next, yet we largely ignore the intimate relationship between mind and body. Descartes still has a lot to answer for.

The tie, unabashed and unembarrassed, hides the idea of severance and disconnection between mind and body in the open. Flaunts it even. An idea that plagues us but which is so widespread we barely notice.

Might this be changing? A strong theme of the conversations the conference speakers had with Turkish business leaders was the importance of feminine qualities to the future of leadership. And in the main, women don’t wear ties.

At Ataturk airport, on the way home from the conference, I started reading a book given to me by another one of the speakers, Steven D’Souza entitled ‘Not Knowing’. He quotes Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of ‘The Black Swan’) who says: “it is not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie”.

And on the Turkish Airways flight back to Madrid I noticed that they had an interesting variation on the safety video. As well as advising ladies to take off high heeled shoes (‘which may tear the escape slide’) they also invite men to loosen their ties.

I would go further.

Rather than loosen ties, I think we should cut them off, abandon them, burn them, bury them or take them to the thrift shop. We should embrace the idea that the head and the body are both part of the mind, literally and metaphorically. To separate them is to deny part of who you are and to limit what you are capable of.

Moving towards difficulty

It’s a filthy day. The rain has been coming at us, all day long. Horizontally.

People don’t associate this weather with Spain, but here in the Gredos Mountains, when it rains, it really rains. It looks implausible, like bad movie rain, with exaggerated sheets of water coming at us hour after hour. The waterfall across the valley, swollen by the run off from millions of acres of bare granite, thunders so loudly you can hear it even above the howling wind. Our off-grid house, perched on an exposed hilltop, feels like a boat being battered by a storm.

On days like this, our own little stream becomes a torrent, sweeping so much sand and silt downstream that it can cut off our water supply. So this morning, I got the waders on and plodded uphill in the driving rain to the dam, ready to plunge waist deep in to the water, to see what was going on.

It sounds miserable, and in some ways it is, but there is also much to love about this. There’s something so simple, basic and vital about it. It’s probably atavistic (it’s certainly a bloke thing). You end up soaking wet and covered in mud but on the inside, you glow.

This time I had an added incentive. Basilio, one of the two brothers that built this house and one of the most resourceful people I have ever met, had made an improvement to the set up and I was curious to see if his idea had worked.

The problem he was trying to solve is this. Behind the little dam is a pool. A (perforated) pipe is set into the dam, which draws water from the pool and takes it into a water tank a few metres away, from where it is piped 2km downhill to our house. When the stream is in flood, the pool behind the dam fills up with sand and silt, water stops flowing into the pipe and before too long you run out of water (which is ironic, since it is inevitably tipping down).

Most of the ideas I have had about how to resolve this were ways to try and retain, or control the sand and silt – another dam, a bigger dam, a bypass channel and so on. But of course, that just delays the inevitable. Sooner or later you would have to clear out the silt – there would just be more if it.

Basilio’s idea was different. Instead of trying to stop the silt, he extended the pipe upstream so that the end of it lies just where the water flows over a rock and into the pool. He moved it into the area of turbulence, knowing that the constant vortex of water there would wash away the silt. At that point, where the water flowed into the pool, there ought to be a little area washed clear. And there was.

On the walk back down I started to wonder how this logic might apply elsewhere. Where else might we be better served, not by trying to constrain or control forces that will, sooner or later, overpower us, but by moving towards the source of the difficulty, into the turbulence, and, like an aikido move, using that to solve the problem….

Simplicity on the other side of complexity

Whilst working on the Praxis symposium this year I found myself thinking about what is it that I am really doing when when I am designing a workshop or learning experience.

I have written about this before (see How to cultivate conversation, The Craft of Improv) but I still keep learning. Which in itself is fabulous – one of life’s great joys is to find you can keep on learning about something you already know well.

Back in June, as I was thinking about the Praxis event, it came to me that in effect, there are only three things you have to think about – how you organise people in time, how you organise them in space and what you give them to do. That’s it. There are an infinite number of possibilities under each heading and they obviously interconnect, but in essence that is all you have to think about.

I love this. It was a really helpful insight. It gives me clarity and simplicity but also acts as a creative stimulant. It gives me confidence, but inspires me to invent. It seems to be a great example of how simple patterns can underlie complexity.

It reminds me of Heisenberg (the quantum physicist not the character in Breaking Bad) who said:

“I would give nothing for the simplicity on this side of complexity; and everything for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Perhaps (at last?) I am approaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity…?


How are we thinking about this?

Earlier this year I took a few days out to stay at the Krishnamurti Centre – a beautiful retreat centre in southern England, next to Brockwood Park School, where two of my sons are studying.

The Centre is dedicated to Jiddu Krishnamurti’s work. They have all of his books in just about every language you can imagine and a large number of his talks on video. Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to a rather dog-eared, photocopied manuscript on a small bookshelf tucked away in the corner of the library that wasn’t by Krishnamurti at all. It was the transcript of a series of dialogues held in Ojai, California by Krishnamurti’s friend and thinking partner, physicist David Bohm.

Bohm suggests that the vast number of problems human beings have are because we aren’t very good at thinking. The difficulty, he says, is that thought can’t see itself.

With the body, we have a sense of ‘proprioception’. I know where my arm is (even if I can’t see it) because I feel it from inside. The mind is different. Thought doesn’t have this quality and that trips us up. We mistake the way we are thinking about things for the way things are.

I read the manuscript slowly. It seemed such a simple and powerful notion, yet I found it hard to grasp. So once I had finished reading the text, I started to read it again. And, since the manuscript is unavailable anywhere else, when I was visiting the boys at school a few months later, I went back to the Krishnamurti Centre and started to read it again.

I am not sure that even now I properly understand what Bohm was saying, but I am left with the feeling that anything we can think is a child of how we think. If there is no way of thinking that is truly free, or independent of our selves and our interests, then it is important to examine how it is we are thinking about something. Not to try to get rid of that way of thinking, but simply to make it visible.

Which suggests that a good question to ask, in almost any circumstances is: ‘How are we thinking about this?’

It seems to me that this is an example of a philosophical question that is extremely practical. Imagine that any meeting, or conversation in any context – be it business, politics, education or anything else – began with people asking ‘how are we thinking about this?’.

What then might be possible….?

Help – ask early, ask often

In the spring I hosted an event called ‘The Help Weekend’ – an inquiry into what it takes to get and give help. It was based on the observation that most people are slow to ask for help, yet when they are asked to help someone else they are (often) delighted.

I brought a small group of people to my home in Arenas de San Pedro for the weekend and asked each of them to think of something they could use a little help with.

The process of inviting people started to reveal some very different attitudes to help. At one end of the spectrum were people who said ‘oh, that’s an interesting idea, but there isn’t really anything I need help with’.


At the other extreme were people who were so worried by the number of things they needed help with and the difficulty of choosing that they felt unable to participate (as one of them put it “I think what I need help with is asking for help”).

In the end, there were seven others and me. Each of us had a chunk of time, to use as we wished, to get help from the others. When you weren’t being helped you were a helper.

It was a wonderful, highly emotional, weekend. The experience quickly created a strong sense of connection amongst us. And we not only got a lot of help on our particular projects, but learned a lot about the wider issue of asking for and giving help.

Here’s a selection of the things we noticed….

  • Its hard to help people if they are very abstract. Being concrete helps people to help you.
  • Small things, almost inconsequential things, can be very valuable.
  • You need to be honest with yourself about what it is you need help with.
  • A little structure is good.
  • To get help you have to let go of trying to control stuff.
  • We easily get too used to doing things by ourselves.
  • Asking for help is intensely personal – you get ‘up close’ and that can make you feel vulnerable.
  • Sometimes individuals help more than a group.
  • When you get more energy, then something has helped – so the energy you feel can be a good measure of helpfulness.
  • You can get what you haven’t asked for, which is often more helpful than what you thought would be useful.
  • The importance of empty spaces……
  • Asking for help shows us that we are incomplete……this makes us more interesting people and therefore more beautiful.
  • It can be hard to be ‘selfish’ when it is your turn to get help.
  • Giving help can light a fire in you and uncover wisdom you didn’t know you had.
  • You always have something to contribute, even when you don’t think you do.
  • There is an emotional release to asking.
  • There is physical joy in giving and receiving…

We came up with a motto, that seemed to capture much of this – “ask early, ask often” (hat tip to Ideo). We have taken this practise to heart. We continue to help each other and in general, people report being much more willing to ask for help than before.

So it would seem that the Help Weekend helped.

We don’t know

If the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, what should we do about it?

What can I do? What can you do? What should we do?

It’s a question that, like many people, I often ask myself.

On the one hand I hear people say that we know exactly what we ought to do. Years ago, at Schumacher College I heard Paul Hawken describe it as a design problem. More recently, whilst spending time at Findhorn, there was a similar feeling – that we do know what to do but what keeps us in the hell bound handbasket is corporations, or governments, or ignorance, or wicked, selfish people (fill in the blank as you like).

Understandably, this makes people feel angry. And I don’t like feeling angry.

Moreover I don’t think we know what to do at all. I am not sure there is anyone, however enlightened, who is able to imagine what a truly sustainable global system, with all the complexity that implies, would look like. And even if they could, that isn’t the main challenge. The difficulty is getting there from here, without creating yet more violence and antagonism.

Which reminds me of Sartres and football. Obviously.

Satres said “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.

At the narcisstic club-cum-circus I support, Real Madrid, that is completely forgotten and it seems to me that the same often happens in more important arenas, like planetary health. In this case the ‘other team’ not only includes a vast array of interconnected factors we can only dimly sense (let alone predict or control); it includes billions of humans beings each with their own interests, attachments and fears.

I think the hardest struggle is to find ways to engage as many people as possible, from as many perspectives as possible to explore, invent and create all sorts of initiatives, ideas, products and businesses that might lead us somewhere new. And to do so without demonising anyone. Which means letting go of the idea that some people know the answer and others are simply being selfish and obstructive.

Because it seems to me, that when it comes to what matters most, we just don’t know.

What we have to do is accept that and yet find a way to keep taking action anyway.





Fresh eyes and ears

I was recently interviewed by a Radio Station, BFM in Malaysia.

Which I thought was rather lovely, given that I live in a small town in rural Spain. I think I can reasonably claim to be the only inhabitant of Arenas de San Pedro to be interviewed by an Asian radio station.

As far as I recall, no-one anticipated that this kind of thing would become commonplace with globalisation. The predictions were all about the destruction of local culture by Coke, McDonalds et al, but I don’t remember there being any comments about how speaking at a conference in Wales would lead to an interview on Malaysian radio.

Which just goes to show how wonderful the unpredictable nature of complexity can be sometimes….

Anyway, it was a great interview, not because of me, but because of the interviewer, Natasha Fusil. She had done her homework and asked great questions. She also made some very pertinent observations, so I found myself learning new things about my own stuff along the way.

For example (minute 9) she made asked whether being able to improvise requires you to think on your feet and be mentally quick, or whether that is the result of the practises. It’s the latter, of course, the point that being responsive and agile is an output, not an input. I couldn’t have put it better myself – in fact, I didn’t, it took someone with a fresh eye to put that interpretation on it.




Patient learning and the futility of ‘happy sheets’

Freddie Mercury was wrong. If you want it now you can’t have it all. At least not in the realm of learning.

Part way through an experimental, two-day, Praxis workshop, one of the participants told me that she couldn’t work out what she was getting from it. She was by her own admission having a wonderful time and she was well aware that the workshop was experimental (there was a clue in the title – it was called ‘The Awareness Experiment).

She herself, a scientist by training was well aware that in a good experiment, you don’t know the outcome in advance, indeed, she had pointed out to me the absurdity of the fact that to get funding her lab had to stipulate in advance, what it was going to discover!

So what was going on here?

Learning doesn’t necessarily take place in the same period as the experience that generates it. It may require (unconscious) processing reflection, experience, the relevant context (which may be completely unpredictable) and a trigger or need, to name but a few possibilities.

To put the same thing the other way round, if, at the end of a learning experience (programme, workshop etc.) you ask participants what they have learned, you are only allowing them to give a trivial answer. On these feedback forms, or ‘happy sheets’ as my friend and colleague Marshall Young refers to them, all they can report is what is immediately available to them with the conscious mind that they can verbally report. And by definition, any significant or deep learning is unlikely to be of that kind.

We should be more patient. We should slow down, let go of our anxiety and accept that proper learning is slow, painstaking work.

If we did, we might find that we actually learn more.


Good beats right

In the past few months I have been making an effort to substitute the word ‘right’ with the word ‘good’.


‘Right’ imples something definitive, certain, finished, complete, correct and singular.

More often than not, in everyday life, it is inaccurate and misleading to talk about ‘right’. Outside of maths (or other purely symbolic realms) how often can we really talk of the right answer? Is the campaign, idea, text, process, product or design we have come up with really the one and only ‘right’ one? Or are we just trying to sound important?

Talk of one right answer limits, curtails and closes down possibility. ‘Right’ kills improvement. If you have the ‘right’ answer you stop. If you have a ‘good’ one, you might yet make it better.

Right also suggests ‘wrong’. It polarises. The two are closely related, so as soon as something is ‘right’ then everything else (or more often, everyone else is wrong). Thinking in terms of ‘good and better’ (rather than ‘right and wrong’) leaves room for difference, variety, complement, nuance, growth and development. It allows and encourages more than one way of doing things.

My friend and colleague at On Your Feet, Gary Hirsch, took up improv theatre because of this. He loved acting but found it hard to remember the lines. Gary found that a script, by defining what was right, made everything else ‘wrong’, which paralysed him. When he discovered improv he found a world that was more forgiving, flexible, free, creative and satisfying.

So, whether I am right or not, I find this is a good habit to practise…..





Evaluation vs. Feedback

My friend and colleague John-Paul Flintoff has been writing about feedback. So I gave him some and he gave me some – inviting me to write this post. I am interested in how easily we confuse feedback and evaluation. Indeed, we don’t just confuse them (i.e. have trouble telling them apart) we conflate them – assuming them to be the same thing.

But they aren’t.

I remember very well, the moment I realised this. I was working with an executive who was talking about performance reviews and why she found them difficult.

“We aren’t very good at giving feedback. If you have to say someone hasn’t done well, then that’s obviously difficult. But being British, I find it just as hard to give compliments to people”.

For her feedback came with a value judgement included, it was evaluative. And whether that was good or bad, she found it difficult.

Yet the word feedback, in its original sense, doesn’t imply this at all. It is simply information – literally a ‘feed’ of data reporting back on an action or series of actions. Feedback would be ‘you are going north’ evaluation would be ‘you are going the wrong way’.

I also realised, in that same moment, how common it is to conflate the two, and how much complication and difficulty that leads to.  In a world of Facebook ‘likes’, where we are constantly invited to evaluate, this blind spot is probably getting bigger.

Just as this senior manager said, if all feedback is interpreted as being thumbs up or thumbs down, then of course it was hard to give, or take. So you probably avoid it (or dismiss it) as much as you could, stunting or slowing the flow of information.

So how would you get simple, straightforward information about what was actually happening? How could you think sensibly about what to do if everything was always loaded with judgement?  It’s a small step from that to the knife in the ribs that John Paul experienced.

I find it useful to tease the two apart. Like this. Evaluation is feedback plus judgement.

feedback vs. evaluation

So to anyone who wants to encourage a healthy flow of information between people, to improve whatever you are doing, my feedback would be – be ready to give and get both feedback and evaluation. And learn to distinguish one from the other.



A view inside the mind

…plan plan plan, talk, worry, plan, plan, decide. Rush, hurry, meet, talk, talk talk, check. Plan plan, rush, decide, talk talk, micro-plan, check, worry, doubt, talk talk rush rush hurry hurry decide doubt check, check, check, talk plan, mini-plan, anticipate, confirm, talk, talk, hurry, worry, hurry talk talk talk talk. Pause… worry, worry, worry, hurry, do, talk, talk, rush, hurry worry. Talk check check talk worry hurry, talk, plan plan plan….

If I am not careful, this is what my day can sound like from inside my own mind.

How about you?  When do you stop or pause?  How do you create space for reflection?

People are oceans not objects

l like the idea of thinking of people as oceans rather than objects. Whilst it is neat and tidy to identify people as objects, we are more complex than that. Context shapes who we are far more than we realise and in some ways, we blur into each other (something I have written about before).

There are various aspects of the oceans metaphor I like.

For example, we don’t have a problem referring to the Atlantic or the Indian ocean, yet when you get down to the Cape of Good Hope, its obvious that we can’t be too definitive about where one ends and another begins. I also like the idea that oceans are deep and mysterious. I have heard tell that we know the surface of the moon better than the depths of the oceans. And every time some brave submariner with a new bit of amazing kit descends a bit further into those hidden depths they find extraordinary, unlikely creatures, alive and well down there in the darkness, or in the scorching heat of volcanic vents.

Then there is the fact that ocean currents flow in different, often opposite directions at different depths and in different regions and in different seasons.

So as metaphor, it invites us (or reminds us) to see ourselves as the complex, fluid, unresolved, fuzzy, contradictory beings we are.

The Power of Context – who is my son Pablo?

At the beginning of September my two elder sons went away to school, leaving Pablo, the youngest, living alone at home with his parents. He is, as they say ‘a different person’. We see it ourselves and others comment upon it. With no competition for attention, or food, or time on the Play Station, Pablo has indeed become different. But he hasn’t changed. He is just expressing himself differently. No doubt he will learn and change through this experience, but the immediately observable change is a change in context more than a change in him. He isn’t different. How could he be in the space of a few days?

This makes visible how mistaken our normal way of thinking can be. We find it easier and simpler to treat people as if they were objects to which we attribute stable (or slowly changing) attributes. What Pablo is showing us is that a person is a stream of actions not a thing (in complexity language a ‘dissipative structure’). As such, people are profoundly shaped by context and relationship. Not so much ‘Pablo’ as ‘pablo-ing’. Alan Watts says something rather similar, here (start at ‘Appling’ 1min 15s).

Change the context, change the relationships and you ‘change’ the person. Which changes everything. Something you might want to think about if you are interested in changing some ‘thing’ or someone.

The old ones are the best

In an interview last year, I was asked why we use the arts and humanities so much on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.

To me, the question revealed a couple of assumptions. First, that the most important knowledge is proto-scientific, technical and in the main, rational. And, as a natural consequence, that it is the most recent theories, the ‘latest research’ we should pay most attention to. These assumptions are, I think, very widespread, which is what made it a natural question to ask. I also think they are mistaken. So I answered with another question.

‘Why would you ignore the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human inquiry?’ I replied.

We are easily seduced by novelty and recency and can quickly become ‘fashionistas’ of thought. This is upside down. My feeling is that there is a kind of inverse law in play, along the lines of ‘the more recent it is, the more likely it is to be trivial or inconsequential’.

If you are grappling with anything that involves a consideration of human nature (and frankly, who isn’t?), if you are looking for deep understanding, for an explanation of why we act as we do, then you are going to need, at the very least, to include the long view of human thought.

It is a bit like biomimicry. Yes, it is a nascent field, but biomimicry bases itself on three billion years of research in the massive R&D lab that is ‘life on planet earth’. Surely the collective wisdom of thinkers and doers throughout the ages is more likely to hold solutions to important human issues than an up to the minute MBA?

So, if you want to learn proper grown up stuff then the old ideas are the best. Or to put the same thing the other way around, that if you only concern yourself only with new learning, you are unlikely to come across anything that is great.

Travel Thinking

Travel broadens the mind they say. For me it has another benefit. It also deepens it.

Living in rural Spain and working mostly in the UK I travel a fair amount and I find that when I travel I escape the insistent, nagging of the to-do list.

Part of this is the drive. After a year in the early 1990’s spent mostly on buses in China and South America, I became convinced that the constant passage of a landscape does something to the eye, the brain and the mind, opening up new spaces and ideas. That still works for me.

And even the sluggish, cumbersome milling around that always accompanies air travel opens up lots of inbetween spaces, like niches in a coral reef of time that can be occupied by little half-formed, half-baked ideas, looking for somewhere to live. It is amazing how many times I come back from a trip with new ideas or something worked out.

For me, this kind of travel isn’t anywhere close to the value of a walk (which I see as a form of thinking not an aid to thinking) because the physical body is essentially passive, but the movement of a journey, even one as dull as an oft repeated journey can be a valuable source of stimulus.



Draw your own conclusions

Years ago a friend, who is an artist, did a very simple line drawing portrait of me.  logo4

A few years later another, who is an engineer turned it into a wood block. I was amazed at his ingenuity.  ‘I have made a few improvements though’ he said. ‘Your glasses weren’t drawn straight, so I levelled them out’.

Here’s the thing. My glasses are never straight. My face isn’t straight and as anyone who wears glasses knows, the act of taking them off with your dominant hand tends to skew them even more.

The artist drew what he saw.

The engineer made an assumption that regularity was good and ‘corrected’ the image to be more regular, thus in his view, making it ‘better’.

Draw your own conclusions.

Learning fast and slow

Over the past couple of months I have started to realise how long it can take for me to learn. Sometimes, years after an event I am still learning. For example, even now, two years on from The Creative Tapas Experiment I am still getting ideas from it – both through reflection and through conversation with other people who were there.

I think this makes sense and that we have quite mistaken ideas about how and when learning of any significance happens. We are often in too much of a hurry to allow any deep learning to happen. If we are trying to memorise the road signs of the Highway Code, then maybe its reasonable to expect an immediate result. But if we are interested in anything complex or subtle, like leadership or creativity is that really sensible? Or is it wiser to let a learning experience seep into us slowly and starts to affect us over time, in gentle ways we didn’t anticipate?

I love this idea. It means that powerful experiences, like The Praxis Awareness Experiment I was lucky enough to be involved in a few weeks ago, or The Coaching To Excellence programme I was on last week have the capacity to keep on yielding learning for who knows how long.

All I have to do is be patient and they will, in their own sweet time, surrender their riches to me.





The Dictatorship of Diaries

Diaries take time, lay it out in a long line and chop it into little bits. They all do. In more or less sophisticated, clever, beautiful or techie ways perhaps, but essentially it is the same idea.

As if time is a piece of string.

This is not how I experience time. For me time has depth and layers and fuzzy endings and beginnings and intensity and quality and colour. More like a river than a piece of string.

I am not alone in this. Stewart Brand wrote about ‘Pace Layers’ in a wonderful chapter of his book ‘The Clock of the Long Now’. The Greeks distinguished between ‘chronos’ (quantative or clock time) and ‘kairos’ (qualitiative, propitious moments).

So the tools we have don’t work for me. Cutting time into pre-determined chunks that dictate what I should do based on some prior decision… What if I don’t feel like it? What if I am not in the mood? What if the activity I need to spend time on is a slow, long, rumbling, ruminative one that won’t fit neatly into a box? There are a thousand ways that the dictates of a diary don’t work or don’t help.

So, tool makers of the world, here’s a challenge. Can we design a diary, electronic or otherwise, that acknowledges the rich, complex, layered nature of time and helps us use it in a wiser, gentler, more creative way?


A New Parenthesis Experiment

I have been running one person ‘Parenthesis‘ retreats here in Spain for a couple of years now. This year, working with Hilary Gallo we are adding a new, small group format.

We are going to be running the first one as a kind of beta-test at the end of June this year.

If you are interested in participating let me know soonest (there aren’t many places).

If you would like more information, here is the brochure.

Group Parenthesis beta brochure

Woolly thinking

WDG. “Woolly Doable Goal”. What a lovely phrase, courtesy of John Willshire at Smithery.  A great way, I think, to remind ourselves that getting going is easier than we think. Just set yourself a ‘woollly doable goal’. I have a few of these phrases myself, from ‘start before you are ready’, which occasionally graces this website as a byline, to ‘start anywhere’ (from “Everything’s an Offer“).

There is a bigger point here too. It reminds me that reclaiming the woolly, soft, fuzzy, messy part of life which is so often implicitly condemned or eradicated, is good work.

And all in one little acronym. GWJ. Good Work John.


I don’t work

Driving down the hill this afternoon, I bumped into my neighbour, Vicente. He is one of the few people (even round here) who lives mostly off the land. I mentioned I was heading down to the office to do a bit of work. ‘I don’t work’ he said.

This puzzled me. After all, I happen to know that this week he and his family have harvested (by hand) several tonnes of olives. ‘I only do what I like’ he said. ‘I don’t have any money, but then I don’t work like you do’.

Actually, since my ‘work’ this afternoon consisted of an hour’s conversation on Skype with my great friend Amanda Blake about her upcoming book ‘Your Body is Your Brain’ I am perhaps not so different from Vicente, at least, not today. And I remembered that just over a week ago I had lunch in Madrid with my brother in law, who is a Professor of Psychiatry at Manchester University. And he said something very similar to Vicente – about how privileged we are to be able to do what we like.

So I wonder what would happen if anyone who can, whenever they can, started acting like Vicente?

Stop working – do what you like.

Opening Movement

I had a revelation this morning. I realised that for years, I have been unconsciously regarding good posture as a fixed thing, as a standard, ideal, static thing to aspire to, as a particular position that I encourage my body to adopt. And as a result, I suspect I have got stuck, in all sorts of ways and that this no doubt contributes to the stiff back and all the other discomforts that I attribute to ‘ageing’.

This morning I realised it might be better to think instead of posture as an inner dance. That how I hold myself, how my body is, is always a movement, even I am not visibly moving. After all I am always breathing. It may be a subtle dance, swaying gently back and forth but a dance nonetheless, not a static thing.

And of course, there is a metaphorical, as well as a literally interpretation of this idea, namely, that when we try to achieve a particular, fixed goal, we get stuck. How much more useful would it be I wonder, in our organisations and businesses, to think in terms of a dance or a movement, rather than a ‘position’?

What is particularly lovely about this is that for once I can track where the insight came from. The seed was planted last week by my friend Adriana in a Feldenkrais class.  Then Roland, who has also worked with Adriana commented on what he had learned from her. Then yesterday, as serendipity would have it, I spent a good bit of the morning reading a draft of an upcoming book about embodiment, “Your Body is Your Brain” by my great friend Amanda Blake.

We will see how I get on. But for now, I am dancing.

Reading weekends – expert or emergent?

Looks like Reading Weekends are becoming popular. The School of Life are running one too (not for the first time it seems). Here. 

There is an interesting difference though, between what we did and what they are doing. They have specially selected “books that will change your life” and Burkeman and Berthoud play the role of ‘expert guides’.

On The Praxis Reading weekend people selected the books themselves, for any reason they like and the conversation was emergent. There was no expert, just a conversation amongst equals. So, the same, but different.

Stop Pushing

A couple of weeks after the Reading Weekend, two of the participants have told me that it helped them solved business problems. Which I think is brilliant. It convinces me of more than ever that it is pointless to just push harder. We need to go away to come back, to breath out after we breath in. We need to look at things out of the corner of our eye, to let the unconscious do its work, to allow new connections with new people and new ideas to be made in ways we don’t predict.

What is so fantastic about this is that while it can’t be forced, the Praxis Reading Weekend, and umpteen other events I have been involved with prove that there is a huge amount we know about how to create the right conditions for this to happen, if we let ourselves work a little less hard.


Read, walk, eat

We recently hosted the Praxis Reading Weekend at La Serna.  I am hoping this is the beginning of all sorts of interesting things that La Serna could play host to.

One of the participants, Chris Riley found it very thought provoking and had this to say about it. I am thrilled. As you would be.

Even though I knew it would work in some way, I was still pleased about how it worked and how easily.

‘Read between meals, talk over meals’ seemed to be enough structure of the right kind to engage people and I was fascinated to see how the books wove their way into the conversations, even though we didn’t ask about them specifically. Since people picked up different books according to what others had said about them, the whole thing became remarkably interconnected in surprising ways and over time the conversations became deeper and broader, and the group became quite happy with the kind of silence that illuminates talk.

It reminds me of something Zidane, the footballer once said “Sometimes, magic is almost nothing”.

Of course we had some great advantages – a wonderful group of people happy to take whatever adventure came and an extraordinary place. I also know from experience with Parenthesis that Fidel’s food can work magic on people. So it isn’t nothing, even if its ‘almost’ nothing. But it certainly need not be complicated or as hard for people to come together an enrich each other on many levels.  And I have a hunch this is just a beginning….


The power of the polymath

Sometimes I think there are too many TED talks out there nowadays – it becomes so hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. But I love this one. Of course, as a polymath myself I am biased, but I think Ella (who I know from the Do Lectures) makes a great case for why generalists are sorely needed (in a nutshell – cross fertilisation and holistic thinking).

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Shameless Self Promotion

In November I will be co-teaching a course at the wonderful Schumacher College in Devon, with Patricia Shaw. It is about leading in the midst of complexity. It will bring together improvisational practise with complexity thinking and focus on ‘working live’.

I am thrilled about this because going to Schumacher back in 1997 and 1998 was a wonderful experience. I was on courses led by Paul Hawken, Fritjof Capra and Edward Espe Brown. I am amazed I have been invited back there to teach. I feel I am in exalted company. And it is something I have hoped for, dreamed of even, since I was first there. That will teach me to be patient.

So, have a butchers (to those unfamiliar with cockney rhyming slang this is short for ‘butchers hook’ i.e. ‘look’) and pass it on to anyone you think might be interested.

Many thanks.

Pay more attention

I had a lovely surprise on Monday morning. I found a new product. Of my own. One I had already made without realising it. There it was, lying hidden in an e mail from a client, who, it turned out, had already bought it, as had several others. She was now, albeit unconsciously, telling me what it was. She called it: “Conversations with a creative thinker”. I would never have thought of that. All I had to do was notice it was there, pick it up, dust it off and put it on the shelf.

I love it when this happens. It involves no struggle or effort. I adore the feeling of ease and grace that I get when elements that were just lying around assemble themselves into a new whole, with an elegant fit. It is ‘fit’ in this sense (as in ‘fitting’ rather than ‘strong’) that makes evolution work, I believe.

By contrast my own efforts to design things seem forced, even clumsy. It makes me laugh to realise that something was right there, often in plain view and I still didn’t see it. And maybe, what it is suggesting, is that I need to do less, push less and pay closer attention.


Do Improvise

My new book ‘Do Improvise‘ is out.

I am very honoured to have been asked to be one of the first ‘Do’ authors and Miranda, who runs Do Books, seduced me into it with the beguiling brief ‘it will be rather like a Ladybird book’ (for those of you old enough to remember such things). It is shorter than ‘Everything’s an Offer‘ and I am curious to see what relationship the two end up having to each other. It feels rather like wondering how your children will get on when they grow up.

I am thrilled by the cover design (huge hat tip to James Victore and Do Books in general for persuading him to do the covers). As well as Miranda, and my wife Bea (who saved me as the deadline loomed) enormous thanks to Ronan Harrington who took great trouble to read it closely and suggest some changes, most of which we happily embraced.



There’s no such thing as a bad idea – or is there?

People often say there is no such thing as a bad idea. I disagree. I think there are plenty of bad ideas. I have lots of them myself.

Instead, I prefer to say… ‘there is no such thing as a good idea….yet’. I think that is much more useful direction for anyone interested in having ideas.

It changes the emphasis. It suggests that we shouldn’t expect any idea to be perfect from the outset and that any and every idea can (and should) evolve into a better one. This gives new ideas the protection they need and allows any idea, how silly or odd it may sound to have potential. However, in addition it also encourages us to build on them. So, yes there are bad ideas, but if we build on them they might evolve into good ones.

Busy is the new lazy

Being busy is great, isn’t it?  It makes you feel and sound so purposeful, so important.

But actually I think being busy is often just lazy.  It is an excuse for not prioritising – for allowing business and work to trump things that are more important.  It allows us to avoid making conscious choices.  It blinds us to the simple things life offers us every day (beauty, a kind word with a stranger, the smell of fresh bread and so on).  It excuses us from honoring our commitments to the people we love (“Sorry I didn’t call/visit/ask/turn up – I was busy”).

I think we should stop the lazy approach that allows us to be busy the whole time and be properly lazy instead and build in time with no goal or purpose.  Time to lie fallow, to allow ideas to mature, connect or emerge without forcing them.  Time to ‘visit’ with ourselves, as my American friends put it.  Even if all you want is to be as productive as possible, being busy isn’t the best way to achieve it.  And if you want a creative, fulfilling, satisfying life then being constantly busy is a sure way to ensure you don’t get it.

Humour me

I am beginning to realise how important it is to have a sense of humour. Not just because it makes life more enjoyable, but because it draws attention to things, that you can then do something about.

I am learning this from Marshall Young, who I work with at Oxford. For example, he used to call old Oxford of the dreaming spires, the ‘theme park’. Not something you would catch many Oxford dons doing.

Marshall’s joke made me laugh and think. As a result I started to think in a very different way about the role of old Oxford in particular on the leadership programme we both worked on. It gave me a new understanding of how the programme worked, the importance of aesthetics, space and the effect they have on the participants. It completely changed how I understood what we were doing. It also led to a new a rich line of inquiry about the use of physical space in executive education and training in general. Not bad for a throwaway joke.

He did it again recently. I was designing another programme and mentioned that I was going to bring in a colleague, Stewart Morgan, to talk about a model called ‘The Trialogue’. Marshall knows both Stewart and the model and, with a smile, suggested the the model was ‘a fig leaf’ and that all that mattered was to get Stewart into conversation with the participants.

I thought this amusing enough to mention to Stewart who replied ‘Well, perhaps it is a fig leaf, but a fig leaf covers your important bits, so I am pretty glad to have it.’ Which made me realise that what we needed was fig leaves all round. That would help everyone make sense of a very complex timetable, making the conversations we wanted, more likely.

I don’t think Marshall does this consciously. But his sense of humour and levity are part of who he is and that quality encourages the mind to dwell on things it might otherwise ignore.

Laughing matters.




Your body knows stuff you don’t

A few years back I was lucky enough to see the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero perform. She is a classical pianist. And she improvises.

The first thing she did was invite the audience to sit anywhere. Many joined her on stage.  Some even sat under the piano. Then, she asked people to volunteer a start point – she asked them to sing, or hum, or whistle a short melody. Anything would do she said, even a ring tone from a phone. After a short pause, she would then launch herself into a piece of classical style music, with all the variation and complexity that implies. Some pieces lasted up to eight minutes (I timed it) – and it was all improvised.

Her playing was extraordinary of course, but just as interesting to me was the behaviour of the audience. People very quickly started suggesting songs they knew, by title. When they did, even if it was something really obvious (like ‘Happy Birthday’), she still insisted they sing a little of it.

This came to a head when someone suggested, by name, a specific section of a particular piece (by Rachmaninov). He even told her which bars he was interested in. Gabriela looked blank. The man, surprised and sounding like a bit of a smartass went on…

‘But you must know it’ he said. She still looked blank.

‘Can you play the piece?’ she asked in return.

He rather smugly replied that he could, so she asked him up on stage and he took her place at the piano stool. He lifted his hands to play, but before they even hit the keyboard she burst in with ‘oh, that one, yes of course’ and promptly shunted him off the piano stool and played the bars he had in mind.

I thought this was fascinating. I am convinced she didn’t do it to make fun of the man (though he probably deserved it if she had). I think it shows that during this kind of performance she is engaging her somatic, sensory self – she needs to hear the music or see the position of the hands. She is working in a non-intellectual plane, which is why she couldn’t work off the title of a song or a piece, even if she “knew” it.

Which is why Gabriela herself, or at least her cognitive, verbal self, can’t explain how she does it. She is charmingly open about this, saying that she really has no idea what she is doing, that the music just ‘comes’.

But at some level, in a way she cannot articulate, except perhaps through the music itself, she knows exactly what she is doing. It is just a kind of knowledge that is deeply mysterious and cannot be transmitted. The best kind, perhaps?


Blue Sky Thinking

Hiking in the sierra with Neil Randhawa, we saw this. The mountains were beautiful on their own, that’s true, but the clear, straight line of the contrails behind the plane added to it.  The juxtaposition of the regular and the irregular is, I suppose, what makes such a striking image and it makes me think of the value of contrasting perspectives, a theme of the conversations Neil and I were having as we walked through the snow and ice.


Change as a skimming stone

I often come across people who want to change the world, or create ‘large scale change’. A noble aim indeed. Yet I wonder about this. To scale things we create systems and programmes that can be ‘rolled out’. Such roll outs almost always fail or falter, or produce unintended consequences that exacerbate the very issue they were aiming to address, or create a new one. The best programmed change (e.g. Positive Deviance) doesn’t seek to roll out solutions but allows people to discover things for themselves.

However, it seems to me that change (or changes) often happen in other, completely un-programmed ways. Like a stone skipping across the water, ideas and actions often leap and skip in unlikely ways, from one place to another. A doctor in Sussex tries something new that a jet lagged Canadian hospital CEO sees at five in the morning on a regional BBC news show which he mentions to his medical staff, which sparks off an inquiry that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. No one can track, or even see, the path the idea has taken. But does it matter?

I don’t think it does. I think I know when I am involved in something that is rich and fecund and that is going to give rise to all sorts of seeds of ideas, actions and initiatives that I will never be party to (like The Creative Tapas Experiment or the Do Lectures). That ought to be enough but I suspect that one of the reasons it doesn’t get much attention is because nobody gets the credit for this kind of change…



The brain is a symphony

I have been struggling to find a fitting metaphor for the absurdity of the ‘locational fetish’ that seems to be afflicting anyone who writes in the popular media about the brain these days – i.e. the idea that by knowing which part of the brain is active we know something important. This morning it came to me. It is like a symphony orchestra. Simply knowing that the woodwind is playing during a particular section of a symphony tells you very little.  It is true, but almost entirely useless.

Without an appreciation of how, at a particular point in a particular symphony, the sound of the woodwind relates to the barely audible rumble of the accompanying timpani, or echoes an earlier theme, or acts as a prelude to a coming one, you are understanding very little. The woodwind is not inflexibly and atomistically responsible for a particular kind of sound. At different moments, in different pieces it is used for a vast range of purposes.  The woodwind can’t be understood in isolation and the symphony can’t be reduced to discrete and separate elements.

Nonetheless, this is how we often talk about the brain or bits of the brain (which, by the way, aren’t actually discrete structures, but areas). Yet the brain is like a symphony. Or, perhaps, like a symphony of symphonies, millions of times more complex and more interconnected than any piece of music anyone could ever compose. Mozart’s own brain was way more complex than any music he wrote.

The ‘bits and pieces’ way of thinking and talking is inappropriate, unhelpful and insidious.  It makes us see everything from food to the brain as no more than the sum of its component parts. It becomes circular. When we always break everything down into bits, we forget that there is any other way of thinking or acting. It stops us seeing anything else (like relationships for example). People look for the bits and pieces of leadership or creativity or love. When that approach doesn’t work they assume they simply haven’t found the right bits, or that they haven’t looked hard enough. As if more computational power were all you need to find Mr. Right or lead an organisation through turmoil.

I design and lead workshops. They aren’t exactly symphonies but there is a rhythm, a metre, a cadence and flurries of energy and ideas that are akin to melodies. I find these really useful ideas both when designing and running workshops. I don’t need to focus on the bits, I can look at the patterns and at the whole. Now, that’s a whole lot more difficult in brain science I admit, but the complexity doesn’t go away just because we pretend it isn’t there.

I have no doubt I owe an unconscious debt to Denis Noble here for the musical metaphor, which he develops substantially in his book ‘The Music of Life – Biology Beyond Genes’.



The locational fetish

Why is it that people get so excited about knowing which bit of someone’s brain lights up when they are engaged in some activity or other? It doesn’t explain anything. In fact I think it is dangerously misleading. The brain is massively interconnected, in a way that we cannot even begin to imagine, let alone map, so the whole idea of locating higher order capabilities, or thoughts, or emotional states with specific physical locations is simplistic in the extreme. It’s a kind of modern day phrenology with MRI scanners. It is almost entirely nonsense and the popularity with it is embraced gives science a bad name.

Stop it. Please.



Act yourself into a new way of thinking

‘Start before you are ready’ is an invitation to action. It reminds me that we can act ourselves into a new way of thinking, just as well as we can think ourselves into a new way of acting. This maxim encourages me to pay attention to what is happening as events unfold, to be present and attentive to what actually happens, rather than what I imagine might happen. It also makes me leave space for other people to make contributions I wouldn’t have thought of.

Starting before you are ready means accepting that you won’t ever have all the information. I once met Gene Krantz, the flight controller on the fateful Apollo XIII mission and he said “sometimes you have to act before you get all the data in, or you will never get all the data in.” Acting on hunch or feel, as Krantz had to do, isn’t acting on the basis of no data, it is acting on the basis of a different kind of data.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare, but I find it useful to be reminded that the kind of preparation we most commonly do – abstract, rational (often numerical) analysis – isn’t the only, or even the best kind.

Breathing might be just as useful as counting….


Does it scale?

Recently I have become very interested in the issue of scale.

In particular in the assumption that more, or bigger, is better (necessary even). This assumption is everywhere. Business seek more sales, more customers, more products and yet more growth. Pressure groups want more supporters, more people signing their petitions and making more contributions so they can get bigger still. Business schools and even alternative conferences want more talks on their web sites, bloggers and authors want more readers and so on. ‘Ah, but does it scale?’ is a question on every consultant’s lips. Success means achieving big numbers, and, big numbers means success. More is almost universally assumed to be merrier.

I question this. Or, to be more precise, I question that being able to scale is the only, or the most important indicator of worth. I have two problems with the idea that scale is necessarily good. First, in many cases it is self-defeating. We are subtle creatures, who both need and enjoy intimacy, connection and nuance. As organisations or endeavours (of any kind) grow the sense of intimacy and connection inevitably diminishes – for everyone involved – creators, staff, customers, suppliers, audience. As a result organisations introduce systems and processes, normally heavily automated ones (like computerised call handling) to substitute for intimacy, but these are a poor imitation and we feel the difference profoundly.

Or, as things grow, they simply become unwieldy. To take one specific example there are now far too many talks on TED for me to find it a good use of my time. The people than run TED chose to make it bigger (it wasn’t something they had to do) and that choice has consequences. Something is lost as the thing gets bigger.

The second reason is to do with complexity and requisite variety. Colin Tudge talks about this eloquently in the context of farming in his Do Lecture but I think the point is more widely applicable. Scaling implies that at some level there is a uniform, reproducible, standardised element. Software, as Microsoft conceived of it in their heyday, is the apogee of this approach. However, complexity doesn’t lend itself to this approach. If you want to create value in the system as a whole, instead of just exploiting the capital of the system for your own good, you need to be sensitive to local, micro conditions, you need a wide variety of options and possibilities to choose from and you need to pay close attention to what is unfolding and changing as it does so. Webs of tightly coupled interaction are anything but uniform, as nature shows us all the time.

So I don’t think scale is all it is cracked up to be. The diseconomies of scale, whether personal (alienation and depersonalisation) or systemic (soil degradation and resource depletion) are intimately connected to this obsession with growth.

I am convinced that more often than not (particularly in the longer term) the diseconomies of scale are as important as the ‘economies of scale’ that we hear so much about.  Our insistence on scaling up, coupled with the impatient way we go about it creates at least as many difficulties as it solves.  If we want to create an ecological economy (and if we can’t then I think we are toast) then we need to give up this monotonous insistence on size.  Again, ecology shows us the way – as Paul Colinvaux points out in the very title of his book ‘why big fierce animals are rare’.

I am prepared to admit that this dislike of scale could just be a question of personal taste.  Or it could be a handy post rationalisation for a personal failing – more than once I have been told (rightly, I think) that I lack the ambition, persistent or stamina to grow something ‘significant’.

Even so, I also think it is valid to suggest that there other ways to proceed and that backing off from a relentless focus on scale can be a good place to start. Scale isn’t the only way to create an impact.

For example, I recently held an event for fifty people called The Creative Tapas experiment. It couldn’t possibly scale. It won’t even be repeated at the same level of scale.  Yet it had an effect, of a different kind.  It acted as a catapult. It has created leaps and discontinuities in relationships amongst people who have known each other for years, created new connections, opened up new possibilities and given people a great gift of seeing what they themselves are capable of, given the right conditions. And those are just the things we can see a month on from the event.

The effects of that event and the experience it created will never acquire any visible scale. I won’t become famous or rich as a result. But the impact is there. And sometimes, I think that is enough.





Start before you’re ready

I have been very struck recently by how productive it can be to start things before you are ‘ready’. It is something improvisers do the whole time. They step on stage before they have an idea, rather than waiting until they have one. They let the idea emerge from the action.

It seems to me that a similar thing happens in other contexts. I don’t mean you shouldn’t prepare but that if everything is determined and decided beforehand – in other words, if you are completely ‘ready’ – then something is lost. The unimagined possibility is eradicted before it even has the chance to occur.

In the month of May I was part of two gatherings where this spirit of ‘unreadiness’ prevailed. The Creative Tapas was one, an extreme example perhaps, but a wonderful reminder of the power of leaving space for people to do what they want. The Praxis Forum was another – as a pilot workshop it made a lot of sense not to ‘finish’ it but it is hard to do. We normal feel obliged to tie things up neatly. In my view, Marshall Young (the Praxis Forum Director) did a masterful job of giving people enough structure to make it work, but to leave enough open or unfinished so that people felt really involved and valued.

This is another good reason not to work so hard. Instead, let people help you. Ask for help. Start before you are ready.




The false god of scale

Human scale. What a difference it makes. Yesterday I wanted to transfer money from a UK account to an account in Spain. By chance I got an e mail from Lloyds bank that very morning saying that they had just made this easier and that I could do it on-line. Hooray!  But no. When I called it turned out that I didn’t have the right kind of account. The bank had e mailed me about something I actually wanted and then denied it to me.

It struck me that the problem here is scale. If they really knew me (like Miguel, my independent travel agent does) they wouldn’t do this. They set up all kinds of technological systems to try and personalise things and yet it is incredibly clunky and the net result yesterday was that I ended up disliking the bank that little bit more.

This is nuts. We have the perfect technology for personalising things. People. We do this naturally and brilliantly. Of course it doesn’t scale. So why don’t we accept that and let go of the idea that everything has to get big. Why can’t I have a little bank, truly personal, where the people know me, that is backed by a big entity to give you reassurance. To a certain extent in Spain we do. The small thing is the branch, who know me personally and will bend or break the rules if they need to and judge it to be a reasonable risk, but why not embrace that idea and give the people more freedom?

Why do we substitute a useless technology (IT) for a brilliant one (people) in pursuit of the false god of scale?

The Introductor

I am very pleased to have been featured on The Introductor this week.

There are some fascinating people on this, I am thrilled to be in their company.  Sincere thanks to Ella Saltmarshe, who I met at the Do Lectures, for this.



Cooking the Books

My wife commented to me this morning that ‘Do – Improvising’ – the book I am currently writing – seems to be a lot easier than ‘Everything’s an Offer’ ever was.

She is right.

It’s a bit like cooking. With the first book, it was as if I was trying to prepare food in a country I don’t know, with no recipe, no idea of where the shops are, what is good at this time of year or who is going to eat whatever I make. With ‘Do – Improvising’ I feel like I am at home, making something simple from fresh but familiar ingredients and some friends are coming round for dinner in about an hour.

What is interesting is that I couldn’t possibly do the second one without the first. ‘Everything’s an Offer’ taught me how to write a book. Now that I know that, I can just get on with the writing.

It reminds me of parenting. My father used to say that first children have it hardest because they have to teach their mother and father how to be parents. I don’t quite know where this goes, but it does seem to me that understanding when we are having to learn something as we do it, instead of just doing it, might help us to be a bit easier on ourselves.

Collaboration in Cambodia

I am in Cambodia this week, working on collaboration.

I was invited only last week, to work with a co-facilitator I hadn’t met, for a client I don’t know in a field I am completely ignorant of (disaster relief management). It has been fascinating. In particular what I am noticing is how the way the invitation was made demonstrated an open-ness, a willingness to let go that made it almost impossible for me not to accept.

Many people might have worried that making a last minute invitation would come across as disorganised. But on the receiving end, it felt incredibly confident and positive and that inspired me to think that this would be something worth doing. So the way I was asked was itself a great example of how to inspire collaboration, the theme of the workshop.


Quit while you are ahead

It struck me recently what a skill it is knowing when to stop. Marshall Young (Director of the Oxford Praxis Forum), who I work with at Oxford, seems to me to be a past master at this.  A couple of weeks back we were having a typically rambling conversation when, as is often the case, a striking idea hailed into view (it was to do with the difference between an economy and an ecology). We spent some time exploring the idea, made some connections and identified some actions and then, quite naturally Marshall then drew that part of the conversation to a close and we moved on. I realised that isn’t the first time he has done that. He tends to let the natural rhythm of the conversation dictate the length of the meeting, rather than let the length of the meeting dictate the rhythm of the conversation. Since people seem to schedule everything rigidly these days, that’s incredibly rare. The diary rules the dialogue. Which makes for a lesser quality of conversation.

It also strikes me that there is great skill here that I (and many other people) could do with practising, instead of talking an idea to death through over-enthusiasm, which I am apt to do.

I’ll stop now.

Small town networks

Friends from London, or some other metropolis, often ask me what it is like living in a small town. I think they wonder what on earth we do to entertain ourselves in such a place.  When I first lived in Arenas, I used to answer that there was a trade off (one I was quite happy to accept) but a trade off nonetheless, between the spectacular natural landscape and the human landscape which was, so I thought, pretty limited.

I see it a bit differently now.

I have a more varied group of friends in Arenas than I ever expected. This includes a blues singing vet from Arizona, a Galician producer who grew up in Germany and a locally born, half Brazilian guitarist who spent a decade in Nashville. There is a surprisingly wide variety of people here.

Those interesting people do interesting things. Our Venetian chef started a thriving branch of the Slow Food Society. There is a farmers market, ecological consumer group, a cooperative gallery for local artists, workshops on body percussion and movement therapy, groups that meet to star gaze.

Obviously this isn’t a patch on what any big city offers, but the human scale changes things. You hear about everything interesting that happens. It is all close – you can go to a yoga class and the film club in the same evening and still have time to meet someone for a drink. The grapevine is powerful. You can reach anyone you want to, whether it’s a percussionist or a photographer, even if you don’t know them yourself.

This has made me realise that wherever you live, what there is to do is a function of two things. It doesn’t just depend upon what is available, but upon how accessible it is. In big cities there is a collosal amount to do. But it isn’t very accessible. It may be hard to get to, over-subscribed or simply expensive. Much of what you see in Time Out only serves as a backdrop. In a small place there isn’t anything like as much going on, but everything there is, is incredibly accessible. I suspect that we over value the amount of stuff that is happening, and under estimate the importance of accessibility.

It made me wonder about whether we misread things in a similar way in other contexts, work maybe? Perhaps the content, the stuff, that we have available is less important that the access, via easy, human channels that we have to it?



There is always the chance of a fresh start

I had a terrible day on Wednesday. I didn’t get anything like what I wanted to do done. What I did, I didn’t like. Then, in a foul mood, ‘everything’ got worse, mostly because I started interpreting it that way. Which gave me the great displeasure of being right. Which made me bad tempered with the people I love most in the world. Well done Robert.

What struck me, at 6am on Thursday as I got up to write, was the power of a fresh start. Consulting with the pillow (as we say here in Spain) makes that easier, but what I noticed was how, if we choose, we can make a fresh start at any point, at any level of scale. Not just each day, but each hour, each minute, each moment.

It doesn’t require an overnight sleep, it just requires you to let go of the emotional energy you are dragging from the past moments or hours, into the current moment. It takes a certain power of observation and will to do this, but that’s all. That fresh start is always there (like one of Gary’s robots) waiting for you. If you really want it, all you have to do is accept it.



A change of scene this weekend (maybe that will help me write). Not far, just north 80km to the other side of the sierra, to Avila and an old house that belongs to my wife’s family.

Place makes such a difference. Not just because of its intrinsic features (air, light, beauty, quiet etc.) but because of what people have done (and thought) there before. We notice this on Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme and joke about making sure we give people an experience of the dreaming spires (not just the modern Business School).

It is as if we lay down sedimentary layers of experience, that whilst invisible, are somehow accessible to people later. In places that people have frequented for a long time like Oxford, or La Serna (some of the house is 16th Century) there are many layers of sediment for us to access. Which makes you think not just about what you can take from the presence of people gone by, but about what you might leave for those that are yet to come….


Your own worst enemy

I just finished a draft of a chapter of the Do book and it is so funny to watch myself, working against myself.

First there is the terror of the blank page, the fear that I can’t find anything worth saying so I struggle hard to get going, to get something (anything!) down. My fears prove misguided and I quickly generate tons of stuff, most of which is crap. But not all of it. So then I have to struggle again to find and dig out the bits that aren’t crap.

It is peverse and maybe inevitable, but we do seem to spend an inoordinate amount of time struggling mostly against ourselves…..writing makes this particularly visible, but it seems more generally true as well.  Why is that? (Hat tip to Gary for the image below).

Rhythm versus Pace

One of my neighbours, Vicente, lives mostly off the land. Nature made him a very elegant calendar, with a beautiful cadence from one crop to another, preparing, sowing, fertilising, harvesting, pruning. Olives, then figs, then cherries, then chestnuts in a cycle of cycles throughout the year.

Quite a contrast to the clients who always want the workshop by the end of the following month. Three months go by, they call again, and curiously enough they still have to have it by the end of the following month, except that now its June not February.

To me, Vicente has light and shade in his way of working. There is an ebb and flow, which has both rhythm and harmony. Musical notions both, obviously. By contrast, the client wanting a workshop seems to me to have a flat, oppressive sense both of time and of their own priorities. There is little harmony or rhythm there, just a sense of building pressure and stress (driven by technology’s accelerating pace). As one of them said to me this morning “time is evaporating”.

I think we need to learn to appreciate variation more. If, as Tom Friedman suggests, the world is becoming flatter, we might ask ourselves what we have to do to find, or create, ebb and flow, peaks and troughs, intensity and reflection. In general, flat isn’t very attractive.

One thing might be to start to be more thoughtful about when the workshop really needs to be done by…..about when would be the right season for it. To think about whether it is connected more to sowing or reaping, fertilising or pruning. Do this, and my hunch is, we would find the rhythm of our own lives, like Vicente, who is one of the cheeriest people I know.

Jam today

Today I got a birthday present from thirteen virtual strangers. In the form of an Improv Jam organised by Steve Chapman and Caryn Vanstone based on that wonderful premise of inviting an interesting group of people simply to explore and learn together with no specific objective. For me, since it was my birthday, it was a lovely present. I think the favourite idea I came across during the day (thanks Fabiola) was the notion of ‘found improv’.  Of uncovering or revealing improvisation behaviour that is already there, like the unwitting poems that people ‘find’ on signposts.

Slow Slow Quick

I met technology theorist Tom Chatfield in Oxford back in November. A few weeks later I sent him an e mail, inviting him to an improv session in London. I didn’t hear back for a while.

When I did, after about a month, Tom was profusely apologetic, bless him.

And yet there had been no rush, the event was still more than a month off (and he couldn’t come anyway). But it made me think about the assumption that if we don’t respond immediately, there is something wrong. While I am all in favour of showing people respect, it also strikes strike me that the immediacy of technology may insidiously be suggesting that immediacy is everything. That there is no place for the slow, deliberate, thoughtful reflective response. If so, then the important collapses into the urgent, we become less discriminating, less skillful at appreciating and understanding variations of rhythm and we get more stressed as a result.

So, if anyone owes me a response on anything that you feel is overdue, relax. You can quote this back at me.


Take your own advice

I like playing around with the sub-title of this site. So far I have had ‘Out on an edge’, ‘Life is a mash up’, ‘Big fan of small airports’, ‘What will this year hold?’ and currently ‘Time for a walk’.

I went for a walk on Sunday morning. With the dog. It was a spectacular day, as you can see from the photo (click on the title of this post).

What came of it was spectacular as well. A three hour hike released a spontaneous brainstorm (breathily recorded on the iPhone) and I came back down the mountain with a completely new idea for what On Your Feet in Europe could be, the products it might offer, the relationship with the business in the US and who might be involved.

Not bad for a walk with the dog.

Two Be

I find myself thinking about the theme of permanence and change and the balance between again. Hardly surprising perhaps since in Spanish, it is woven into the language. Castillian has two verbs to be – ‘ser’ and ‘estar’. The first is used for things that are deemed to be permanent – like where you are from (or which football team you support). The second is used for things that are deemed to be temporary – like whether you are hungry (or married).

At Oxford in November it struck me that this distinction is useful for leadership development. Leaders need to not only develop their capabilities and capacities (the ‘ser’) but, perhaps more importantly, develop the practical judgement, in the moment, as to which approach, and which personal qualities are more appropriate in that particular context (the ‘estar’).

A shame then that so few of our participants speak Spanish, since the distinction inherent in the language would make this very easy to explain. Looking back it is funny to think how odd the idea of there being two verbs to be, and now how completely normal it becomes over time as the very structure of the language becomes incorporated into the fabric of the way you think.

Voices in the head

Yesterday I started writing again.

Not planning or preparing or making cups of tea or dithering around but actually writing.   Miranda, my publisher, will be pleased, or perhaps relieved. My wife, Beatriz, perhaps less so.

I know I was really writing because the voices in the head started. In the middle of a yoga class, or whilst picking up the kids from school, I have that desperate urgency to reach for a piece of paper or a voice recorder and jot down a turn of phrase, an idea, a metaphor. I recognise that feeling and whilst it is a bit daunting it is also beautifully familiar. Like coming home.

In the writing itself I am at that interesting point of finding a new voice. A different voice from ‘Everything’s an Offer’. Still me, but a modulation or variation. Like an actor using the same body, the same person indeed, to represent a different character. Still them, but different. Which seems to me to be a universal, perhaps even eternal theme – how do we stay the same, yet be different enough to grow learn and develop?



Improv in ten

Dave Morrison does a wonderful and quick explanation of the improvisational way.

Makes me realise that the twenty minutes I got at the Do Lectures was a luxury.

Also, I particularly liked how he demonstrated ‘Yes And’ though, as normal, I do take issue a little with the implication that you should always say ‘yes’ (I bang on about this at some length in ‘Safekeeping’, Chapter 6′ of ‘Everything’s an Offer’).


Leonardo da Vindication

I saw the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London over the holidays, which was fabulous, though reminiscent of looking at great art on a rush hour tube, so crowded was the space.

I was struck by how significant two pieces of improv practice were in the masters work – collaboration and being willing to be changed.  All of Leonardo’s major works (with the exception of ‘The Last Supper’) have at various times, been attributed to his pupils. And even though the Madonna Litta, for example, is (currently) attributed to him, it really would seem to be a collaborative work, as the studies by Boltraffio that surround it so beautifully demonstrate.

The other thing was a comment by the gallery’s restorer, Larry Keith, on the audio commentary (which I would highly recommend if you go). He mentions that despite doing a lot of preparatory work, Leonardo was very willing to let the final work change as he painted it, even if it meant the original ideas were transformed beyond recognition. He wrote about this and encouraged his pupils not to get stuck on what they had prepared.

My favourite piece was the ‘cartoon’.  I am not the only one. Apparently people flocked to see it when it was first displayed.  It makes me think that ‘finishing’ things is over-rated.


My jet pack arrived

This afternoon I decided to try and do a Skype call from home.  Our house is remote – there is no phone line (and therefore no fixed line internet). In fact, there isn’t even mains electricity or water.

So I decide to use my phone as the connection. It will work with voice I reasoned.

I was wrong. It worked with video.

And while I was relishing the chance to share the beauty of the sunset with my friend Ed Brown in California, my wife called. And I found I could answer the phone and talk on it, even while I was connected on Skype to Ed. Blimey.

A few years back in Greenwich in London I saw a T shirt that said “technology has failed us – where’s my jet pack”. This afternoon, I felt like mine had arrived. And it reminded me that even though technology can be frustrating, we would do well to stay amazed at the extraordinary possibilities it brings. However uncool that may be.

Name calling

On Friday, one of the group I was working with in Oxford asked me what “the trick” was for remembering names. I often get asked this. There isn’t a trick. And that’s the trick.

I had spent most of the day sitting in a lecture theatre listening. Everyone was sitting in named places and I had all day til my session began at 330pm. The “trick” is simply to regard it as worth making the effort.

Most people, including my questioner on Friday, say “I am no good at names”.  Which is true but useless. I don’t think anyone is naturally good at learning names, it always takes effort and concentration, but that’s all it takes.

I wonder how many other things we prevent from happening, simply by telling ourselves that we don’t know what ‘the trick’ is?