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Saturday, 2 October 2010

What could we learn from the Inca architects?

The Incas were incredibly skilled architects and stonemasons who built stuff to last with precisely cut and shaped stones that fit closely together – like people in an effective team.


They built massive constructions with unparalleled seismic resistance and high static and dynamic steadiness to keep them stable during an earthquake - without mortar. The separate pieces moved during an earthquake, only to lay down in exactly the right place afterwards.

Following three key value themes of precision, functionality and austerity, the stones were cut to perfection and interlocked. They remain today so close that a knife cannot be inserted between the joins. The Inca stonemasons were there long before Mies Van der Rohe and his philosophy of “less is more”.

Hatunrumiyoc - Twelve-Angle Stone - Cusco
The 12-angled stone in Hatum Rumiyoc Street in Cusco, Peru
In terms of resources, they had no iron tools, no written language, no draft animals and no wheel. But a major contribution to the skill of the stonemasons was the human and social organisation necessary to maintain the great numbers of skilled and creative people.


I think there is a lot to be said about re-discovering simple structures in business too and that’s what elegant consultancy should strive to achieve.

Those Inca architects could teach us a lot about working with a client to plan, construct and maintain the long term  strategies and structures to enable their business to grow through their people – and be flexible enough to withstand the odd tremor and weather the winds of change! 

What might ancient structures teach you? 




Tuesday, 29 June 2010

What is your act of kindness for today?

My family and my children are my lodestar, my reason for being and I love them beyond words. (Thankfully, they never read my blog, so I won't get locked in the loft again for being so sentimental!)

At the weekend, my youngest son suffered a nasty injury as the result of an accident that required reconstructive surgery to his right - and writing - hand. That's pretty hard to come to terms with when I brought them into the world, thankfully physically perfect, and have navigated them through endless childhood scrapes to try and ensure that they stay that way.

Anyway, such is life and its rich selection of lessons that we were chosen for this particular one. Consequently, in the last 48 hours, we must have been managed by at least 25 people face to face, and countless people behind the scenes and I want to take a few moments to reflect on the contribution of clinicians - and the kindness of strangers.

From a whole night spent in Accident and  Emergency on Sunday, through to the surgery today, we have experienced nothing but kindness from complete strangers to a level that is both humbling and moving and I have been struck by being so kindly treated by so many people from such a wide variety of nationalities, cultures, skin tones, languages and origins that I have lost count.

Today, as I saw my "baby" disappear through the wide double doors on his way to the operating theatre and out of my control or ability to keep him safe, I was moved by the simple humanity of the whole experience and quite literally by "the kindness of strangers".  I couldn't help feeling that if the whole world operated on this currency, it would be a pretty wonderful place in which to be.

Then, I went outside for some air and as it was a London Hospital, nearly collided with two heavily armed policmen,  with sub-machine guns strapped across their chests, as they strolled up Fulham Road in the summer sunshine. The contrast was like standing on a rake, with the handle of "reality" rushing up to thump me on the head.

I spent some time thinking about how lucky I am that a) I wasn't particularly scared of the police or their guns, and b) to have been able to commit my precious child to such safe and trustworthy hands in a fully equipped and hi-tec hospital with drugs a-plenty - and without money changing hands. This is more than would be true for a large percentage of the very people who had shown us such kindness since the weekend.

I don't want to use my own blog to make any political point in particular - but I do wonder what our level of treatment would have been like if people had not immigrated to London from countries without this level of human and medical care or where to encounter armed police would have resulted in a different outcome?

I think the "kindness of strangers" was a line from Tenessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire - and it is the second time I have been directed by it in less than a week. The other reference was an article written about an Afghan refugee who is devoting his life, post-asylum seeking, to becoming a paediatrician in the UK. He had such amazing care from the community when he arrived as a frightened child, that he wants to put something back.

I have learned a lot in a short space of time and possibly it's a lesson that I needed. Whether that is true or not, I intend to squeeze every ounce of learning from it.

I also intend to see if I can perpetuate "the kindness of strangers" for each day from now on by engaging in my own act of kindness and respect for my fellow human beings.

If everyone woke up each day wondering what kindness they could bestow on the world in general, I wonder what effect it would have?

I realise that I am feeling particularly sensitised and vulnerable right now - but I will still ask the question...

What will be your act of kindness for today?

I am planning to keep this question close to my heart - next to the photograph of my children...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

How are you choosing to keep your head above water?

Each morning at my local gym, there is a golden window of time, somewhere between the briefcases departing and baby buggies arriving - but just before the back problems descending, when the pool is ideal for me.

I try to get there most mornings when I can as it offers a great thinking opportunity where my left brain counts the strokes and generally keeps itself busy in perfect linear fashion, whilst my right brain plays around with how it is going to achieve the various challenges of the day ahead. 

Anyway, just recently, I have been jolted into realising that the pool offers a rich slice of life analogy, so my morning swim has taken on an added dimension...

This particular pool is divided by floating marker lines into three lanes, marked "slow lane", "medium lane" and "fast lane" and the instructions on the side inform us that we should swim in a clockwise direction. (Another notice sternly informs us of all the things we can't do - which immediately makes me want to run, dive, splash and shout like a lout!).

I love watching the choices people make between the lanes and their process of deciding whether they are  "fast lane" people or "slow lane" plodders as the whole pool begins to resemble an organisational hierarchy. 

To swim in the fast lane, it seems that you have to have the right gear and take yourself very seriously, (although it must be a challenge in a tight hat that makes you look like a rubber gob-stopper, goggles that make you look like the mother-ship is waiting for you to re-join it and a nose clip borrowed from a synchronised swimming team.)

The fast-lane swimmers take it very seriously indeed, hardly ever greet or acknowledge each other, enter and exit the pool by shunning the steps and thrash up and down in seeming oblivion to whatever else is going on in the pool. These guys know exactly what they are tasking themselves to achieve and it's a purposeful, productive and performance-based part of the pool that a less competent swimmer would be well-advised to steer clear of, in case you were mown down by someone in a rubber hat with photos of Michael Phelps in their waterproof wallet.

The slow lane over on the other side of the pool is the entire opposite where people enter and exit by the steps, take rests at each end, greet each other, talk to each other, occasionally bump into each other - and if there are only two swimmers present, muck up the clockwise arrangement by agreeing to take a side each and swim up and down at their own pace.

Instead of rubber hats, they sport a collection of rubber flip-flops, often with sparkly bits on, that they park by the steps in the same way that small children keep new shoes by the end of their beds so that they can see them when they wake up next morning. The slow lane swimmers don't need a rubber hat because they seldom get their hair wet and couldn't perform a tumble-turn if their lives depended on it so don't need a nose clip either. They do, however, know each other's names and are good sports in navigating round slower swimmers and helping less able people up and down the steps. You can always tell a slow-lane swimmer too because they test the temperature of the water before getting in and have some stock phrases to share about their toe-led research once they are in.

In the middle lane are the "middle management" class of swimmers. The fast lane is too - fast - and the slow lane isn't enough of a stretch. The middle lane is the narrowest of the lanes and also the splashiest as the fast lane people unawarely make tidal waves next door and splash-as-they-thrash. The middle lane swimmers are very earnest and well behaved. The best view of the clock on the wall is from the middle lane, so they tend to swim by time with strokes that are invariably careful and controlled. A middle lane swimmer will always know how long they have been in, how many lengths they have done and how that compares to yesterday's performance. They set their own goals and quietly get on with it, but I suspect it is not very challenging.

In my curious, quirky fashion, I find myself wondering whether the lane that we choose in which to swim has any correlation with how we choose to live our lives once we are all dry and fully clothed?  After all, I doubt that fish consciously recognise the water they swim in.

When and how do I swim with oblivion in the fast lane? Potter with pleasure in the slow lane? or stay safely in the narrow middle lane? What would it be like if I used the pool in a different way and swam across the lanes in widths, instead of lengths? What if there were no lanes and we all rebelled one morning and robbed the pool of the floating markers in one combined act of liberation?

I am left thinking that perhaps the lane itself doesn't really matter. What does matter for me is the nature of conscious choice about my current lane and the consequences for me, and others, in making that choice. Are there times when I lose my sense of self and stay too long in the fast lane, with my ears covered by a rubber hat, my eyes covered by goggles and a further sense blocked off by a nose-clip?

When do I limit myself by staying too safe in the middle lane - not taking risks and not pushing my boundaries?

What am I likely to miss if I spent too little time in the slow lane - with no flip-flops with sparkly bits and awareness or time for acknowledging and caring for others around me?

In correlating my swimming thoughts to my own life experience, these are fundamental questions that I intend to live in for a while.  

How are you choosing to keep your head above water?




Tuesday, 18 May 2010

How many elephants have you missed today?

As a designer and facilitator of learning experiences, a well-used technique in my toolbox is that of the "jolt" -  a brief experiential activity that engages the participants and provides new insights. 

I love the notion of the jolt. In my head they work like changing the points on the railway - there you are trundling along on a particular line, then if the points are changed, you end up going down a completely different track and finishing at a new destination or departure point for further learning.  

I had such a welcome jolt to my thinking today, kindly and unknowingly gifted by an Italian student who is staying with us at the moment. She had her first day in London yesterday and returned full of exuberance and joy at the delights of "my" City in the spring sunshine - SouthBank, Westminster, London Bridge, Soho and so on.

However, I was completely foxed by her pleasure at seeing "so many elephants" followed by a question about why they were there.

Now - I have lived in London for over 30 years' and have seen many things - but a plethora of elephants doesn't spring to my mind in association.

I asked again, (rather patronisingly with hindsight) if she indeed meant "elephants"? (Luckily, since the Italian for elephant is elefante, I was spared the post-facto cringe of having reached for the dictionary to check on her grammar - ouch!)

I was fascinated by the number of ways my brain continued to work to try to quash her "perception" that London was full of elephants and assert my "experience and knowledge" that it wasn't - here's a few of them that I'm not particularly proud of - but can't deny that they did happen...:

"She's a tourist and has spent one day in "my" city - she must be mistaken as she couldn't know more than me"
"Does she really mean elephants? Maybe there's an Italian word that I don't know - it's just sounding like elephants"
"Maybe she's got a thing about elephants and noticed something that I haven't ever noticed - like I notice the dolphins all around the embankment and other people might not..."
"Maybe there was an exhibition somewhere - small eared Asian elephants at East India dock? or -great flappy-eared African elephants somehow connected to the World Cup in South Africa? - I mean there has to be a logical reason why elephants would be used..."

It is scary how my head flipped so easily into making quite so much noise - rejecting, sorting and strangling ideas and alternative thoughts.

I was only saved from mental lock-down by my natural curiosity - and the internet.

The truth is...there are elephants - everywhere!

250 of them, gloroiously invading as a public art exhibition to raise money as part of the Elephant Parade that has been set up by the Elephant Family Charity throughout the world and visiting London for the first time from May 3rd - 29th June (http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/) Each one is the size of an adolescent elephant and will be painted by an artist or celebrity to make them ready for the Elephant Parade, before they are auctioned off by Sotheby's.

So - I know where I am off to next time I am in town - down to The Scoop to see the first 25 grouped together.

I am also wondering what one would look like under the cherry tree in my garden...

So, it seems that my big-eared friends have provided me with a well-timed and fabulous jolt about my own listening skills!

How many elephants have you missed today?


Thursday, 13 May 2010

One saying that I never have seen the point of is the one that attempts to instruct me that I "can't have my cake and eat it". Since I can't-remember-when, I have been resistant to the restriction that is inferred by this small cluster of words.

Firstly, Why not? Can't I get another one? Make another one if it came to that - and maybe the next one I make will be better - but how will I know how to make it better if I hadn't learned from eating the first?

Then - the logical question - what is the whole point of having a cake if it is not to be eaten?

What's the point of having something if you don't use it?

Before I paint a picture of myself as a cake-gobbling giant, I have to confess that I can leave cakes well alone, (but wave a packet of Twiglets in front of me - and that's a different kettle of fish-cakes.)

Anyway, it's not about cakes at all, but I do think that my early inbuilt reaction to such boundaried restrictions has shaped my thinking to some extent. (So thank you Nana!)

I have connected with this recently in a random sequence of situations that I notice seem to be requiring me to adopt an "either/or" mentality, when a "both/and" approach leaves me with far more creative leg-room.

Some of the triggers have been various discussion threads in different groups about coaching definitions.

 First was an ILM discussion thread about whether coaching outcomes should be about performance OR development.

Do you hear the crafty pre-supposition of the "OR" in the question? The moment a question requires me to think in this linear fashion, a big cake pops into my head.

Why does it need to be either about performance OR development? How do we achieve improved performance without development? And what is the point of development without improved performance?

Is either/or? - not in my opinion or experience. Is it both / and - you bet!

Another was a question about the notion of "life coach" OR "executive coach" and the implications of defining ourselves under these titles. I got the cake-in-the-head-thing again!

If I define myself in this way, then I am at risk of setting the coaching style and the agenda for my client - and one of the core purposes of coaching is to work to the client's agenda. 

Call me greedy if you must, but why would I want to choose "either/or" when "both/and" is up for grabs? It's a really limiting thought process, full of restrictions and binary choices, whereas "both/and" thinking gets me to a completely different place of variations, permutations and possibilities.

I've learned from this little jolt to my wrinkled thinking to keep "either/or" questions under tight control in my own coaching dialogue in future!

Can I have my cake and eat it? You bet I can - with a cherry on top!

How about you?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

How do you manage your outer space?

In the far-off days, when I had what my mother would call "a proper job", my office was situated in an underground level of the building. I can clearly remember speaking to people on the telephone from my executive desk (probably with executive toys on - it was the 80's after all) and hearing them comment about the weather outside.

"Isn't it lovely" they would say. (Or conversely "isn't it awful" - it is the UK after all)

My reply was usually along the lines of ..."is it?"  Because it's difficult to comment when a) you have no window and b) you haven't been above ground for hours.

I was reminded of this fact only yesterday when I met with a colleague, who has an office at level-2, as she emerged from the depths into the evening sunshine, without any idea that it had been shining all day.

So, I was especially grateful to start work this morning, with wood pigeons in the cherry tree, bluetits feeding from the hoppers in the bird-cafe just outside my window and my dog at my feet.

Our cherry tree is so spectacular at the moment that local Japanese people come and take photos of it - a natural and cultural connection with their home at this time of year. 

Instead of taking my working routine for granted, I am especially mindful today how the outer space I create for myself has a lot to do with the quality of the work I do - which is tightly connected to the quality of my thinking, feeling and inner space.

If this is true for me, then might it also be true for others?

In which case, my inquiry is whether I am paying enough conscious attention to the quality of the "outer space" I create or manage for coaching and learning interventions?

I have some clients where part of our coaching routine that has developed is to meet a short walk away from the working premises so that they are able to "get out". The walk to and from our sessions has become part of the routine of reflection before and after that we use to notice-the-things-I-wouldn't-have-noticed-if-I-hadn't-been-noticing.

Often, these "things" prove to be the basis for further insights, metaphors or metasagas and I realise that there is even more potential to work in the "outer space" than I have been using up until now - for myself and for others.

A principle from the Tao Te Ching floats in to my head from seemingly nowhere, (must be the Far Eastern blossom thing in my outer space connecting with my inner space) on the subject of the fundamental usefulness of space and how the space is what creates the object itself:

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. (chap. 11, tr. Waley)

Another Taoist principle is to "know when it's time to stop. If you don't know then stop when you are done" That should give me more than enough to play with for a few days!

How do you manage your outer space?

Friday, 23 April 2010

How are you making the most of today?

Reclaiming my full awareness has been fun - but also a bit scary.

This week I was back on the road, mindlessly consuming miles of tarmac and ancient fossil fuel.

Suddenly, 100 yards ahead (ok - 91.444 metres - but my brain is still wired in yards, feet and inches in the same way as perfecly bi-lingual friends will still count numbers in their own language - which I guess is the power of the language we first formulate - but that's another whole other blog topic...)

So - 100 yards ahead of me, the car in front clipped a traffic cone on the central reservation side of the fast lane. I'd never before witnessed or experienced so closely what happens when a car travelling at 70 (or even 80 mph or more) encounters a stationary object.  It skewed from side to side, looking like a bizarre version of a bucking bronco, from fast lane to middle lane and back again.

By luck more than good judgement, we managed to avoid each other and the car and driver made it in one piece across to the hard shoulder where he or she did whatever one does when we realise that we have avoided serious injury - or death - by a narrow margin.

Following this little drama, I slowed my speed in the universal driver reaction and went slowly and carefully for the next few miles.

Then, at about the time my body returned to stasis after the shock, and the distance increased between me and the incident, my speed crept up again and I settled back in to my ownership of the road.

Then in my left ear, I heard a slight buzzing sound. I looked across to the passenger window to see a large bee, who either was getting irrationally excited about a trip to the Midlands, or was getting upset at being trapped in my car.

Physics was never my strong point, so for a moment I was engrossed with the possible results that opening the passenger window would bring. It seemed like a binary decision - either the air would suck the bee out, or the blast would fling it further in.

I slowed down, opened the window and hoped for the best.

Buzzing stopped, window up, sigh of relief.

Until it started again - this time on my side of the car - I really should have paid more attention to Dr. Robson and the school physics lab at the time.

This time I did the job properly - opened the window completely and watched it disappear - (probably onto the windscreen of the car behind - in case Dr.Robson is out there somewhere?)

Then I was left uncomfortably pondering - was it one bee experienced twice? or two bees experienced once?

Was there a nest - or whatever bees make - in my car somewhere meaning that I might suddenly be blasted with some kind of Hitchcock-style shared intelligence stinging fury at being driven to the Midlands instead of to the South Coast for the day?

Shortly afterwards, a few people, who I never saw before in my life, drove past waving and mouthing something that I don't think was an enquiry about the bee/s or my health and I broke into another sweat and heart rate boost as I realised how little attention I had paid to the road or cars around me during the minutes that I paid to the bee/s. It dawned on me that twice in one shortish journey, I could have experienced a life-changing, if not life-shortening, different outcome.

There's nothing like a close shave to feel lucky to be alive - so having two close shaves within 20 minutes of each other is a powerful lesson.

How are you making the most of your day?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

What to do about a loose connection?

I spent the first of the really glorious sunny, warm days at the weekend in my favourite spot, double digging a patch of my garden.

The skies of West London were clear blue without a cloud. More noticably, there was not a single vapour trail coursing over my head, nor any rumble from planes taking off and landing since all the airports are still closed. It was, quite simply, silent bliss.

I realise that I am lucky to be home, and not stranded somewhere else, with my holiday or business trip in shreds around me and struggling to make it home, or worried about separated family members like so many other people.

A few days either way, a different set of circumstances and choices, and I would indeed be in that position. I would also be likely to be significantly out-of-pocket as there is no claim against a force-majeure - which quite literally means "a greater force".

I am curious about my own thought process about the greater forces that have - literally - grounded us all. I had the kernel of this same thought in the winter, when all the snow brought us to a standstill.

It is true that in my daily life, I very rarely have to stop and consider the earth and its power, and that when I do, it is usually vicariously - earthquakes in far places, disasters and floods, all reported in to my sofa, heated car seat or wherever I happen to be at the time.

I know, from past sailing experiences and growing up on the coast, that the sea is to be respected at all costs. This was ingrained from an early age when our primary school assembly favourite was "for those in peril on the sea" and I shared playground anxieties with the children of fishing families and life-boat crews during spells of bad weather.

But I am now jolted into realising how 30 years' of busy London living has blunted my senses and loosened my connection with the earth and universe in general. It seems incredible to my modern, yet naive, mind that a volcano can stop the air traffic on this scale.

But maybe my modern mind has mal-developed to become fooled into believing that we are stronger than the forces of nature and that just because I  don't confront them every day, that somehow they cease to exist, or that they can be overcome by modern inventions, science and technology.

I clearly remember the reports, before the terrible Tsunami struck, that all the animals left the low ground for the high ground with the sort of collective intelligence that binds the natural world.

As a developer of managers and leaders, I have frequently asked myself whether, in fact, we have forgotten more than we know when it comes to harnessing the collective intelligence in other contexts.

Therefore, perhaps the really incredible thought is that, with human arrogance and dangerous naivity, I have been seduced into thinking that it is incredible.

It's a mega reminder that my experience and view of the world is only my perception - and as such, perhaps it is a timely reminder for me in some way.

I am planning to spend some time considering how to strengthen my loose connection with the world and personally speaking, in my happy, sunny garden, I am grateful for the reminder.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Where do you find your creative mo-jo?

Where you find your own creative mo-jo is an important question to answer - preferably before you realise that you have mislaid it!

I've really discovered the question out of the frustration of neglecting my own - I allowed it out of my sight and to slip from my grasp back in November and I haven't really been able to find it since. I have a hunch that it can happen to us all.

For various domestic, personal and professional pressures, choices and stories I tell myself,  I seem to have been existing on auto-pilot and that twilight zone of mechanical function, managing task, purposeful action and not much space has shrunk my spirit like a prune.

Thankfully, as a result of years on my very own Human Element bean-bag, I at least now know the difference (for me) between spiritually wizened prune and juicy fruit, between surviving and thriving and my own process of being fully alive - or just scraping by.  Thank goodness for that at least.

Otherwise - I might not discover the need to wake up and keep looking. I simply wouldn't know what I didn't know or what I was missing.

Of course, in my coaching endeavours, I can be a bit of a whizz (so they tell me) at helping other people to find theirs - but it's a more than a bit hypocritcal if my own insists on hiding behind the curtains.

I've spent a while crashing around looking for it, giving myself a good beating for being so stupid as to have lost it in the first place, and then got rather cross with "it" for not playing the game and being found.

Then I got a glimmer when I least expected it. It was gardening with all the delicious smells and senses after a long winter of neglect, a bit of a metasaga and a jogging of a memory of being 10 and moving to a new house with badgers in the wood at the end of the garden. I wanted to see a badger for myself, so every evening, I went thumping into the woods, did a 10 year old's oxymoronic version of sitting still and had no clue about which way the wind might be blowing my scent down to their sets. Needless to say, apart from a few fleeting glimpses of pale grey in the twilight, like my creative aliveness, they were ever elusive.

A new parentally influenced plan involved staying indoors in my own space, but laying down food trails in longer and longer spaces until they led eventually to my back door. Trial and error led me to understand that badgers love bacon - and before long, I had whole families of badgers playing on our patio in the evening light.

So - I still don't know where to find my creative energy exactly but I am now in a place of trusting that it's still there and that I do have to be open enough to let it find me (and I'll know when it does because I think it looks a bit like a badger!)


In the meantime, a few bits of mental bacon in the form of good reading, music, a bit more dancing on my desk and a lot more noticing what I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been noticing and I think it'll turn up soon.

Thanks to my colleagues and coaching clients who all contribute so much - you know who you are and also thanks to all you lovely people who have asked where the blog went and encouraged me to get going again!

It's back - and so am I!