We recently held our fifth Challenger Day. A Challenger Day is the chance for us to experiment with 50 or so willing guinea-pigs from many different organisations who are interested in the way that organisational and personal change is approached. Or to steal the words of one of the participants at the end, it was "the opportunity to reflect, explore, challenge and create." We are interested in the messy reality of change rather than the sleek, seductive, programmatic view of change that we might have come across elsewhere in our careers or in the literature. There is minimal theory, we try to make it as experiential as possible to bypass the cognitive analysis which often gets in the way of deeper learning.

Each Challenger Day takes as its theme one of the patterns of behaviour that we wrote about in Challenger Spirit. There are seven of them in total and so far we have covered:

Witnessing the Establishment: waking ourselves up to what is really going on both around us and inside us. This involved washing lines and flamingos.

Hope and Ambition: deepening our connection with a purpose that provides something consistent to hold on to during change. This involved masks and flamingos.

Being the Face on the Dartboard: strengthening our resilience. This involved crutches and flamingos.

Challenger as Learner: examining the limitations of our thinking, our habitual patterns and routines. This involved matchsticks and flamingos.[1]

The theme we covered on this most recent occasion was Dance, Prod and Shuffle, i.e. our ability to work with what we have rather than what we want, improvise, get into flow, collaborate and adapt quickly. In preparation for the day each of us who work in Relume prepared an experiment to bring along. A friend alerted me to Geoff Bezos' lovely quote "‘it’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work"; we endeavour to remain true to this ethos.

Some time in advance of the day itself we try out these experiments on ourselves. I'm sure that somewhere in the German language there is a word which describes 'something-which-is-not-quite-a-rehearsal-because-the-thing-you-are-rehearsing-is-too-loose-an-idea-and-only-really-forms-while-you-are-trying-it- out-but-also-changes-subsequently-the-more-you-think-about-it-and-play-with- it-and-you-know-that-at-the-time-you-actually-do-it-for-real-you-will-change-it- again.' If this word does indeed exist then that it is precisely the word I would choose!

One such experiment (provided by Claire Genkai Breeze) involved walking around a labyrinth together. However, because there were so many of us on the day she asked us to split into three groups. She gave each group a name: the Tops who she described as the people who know what's going on, who set direction and who lead the others. The Middles, those who interpret what is wanted by the Tops and bridge the gap between the aspirations of the Tops and the reality of what is actually possible. The Bottoms, those people who are actually going to get the work done.

The Tops were led off in to the room containing the labyrinth. In a very short time the conversation amongst those outside the room (the Middles and the Bottoms) began to percolate and bubble:  “What is going on in there?” “What will we be expected to do?” “I'm feeling left out”, “At least I'm not one of those Bottoms”, “At least I'm not one of those Middles”, “That's typical of the way the Tops behave, going off and leaving us uninformed.”

I found it extraordinary that this arose so quickly, yet as a self-nominated Middle I couldn't stop myself from joining in. It made me appreciate how talented we are at creating stories for ourselves and how swiftly we enact the roles that fit our narrative.

It was remarkable how rapidly I felt myself associated with a particular group, and the stronger my association with the Middles, the greater my desire to disassociate from the Bottoms and the Tops. While only ten minutes before we had been one group of people, milling around, sharing coffee and getting to know each other, we now began to define our identity according to the labels we had acquired.

After about five minutes we were told that we could enter the room. The Tops were corralled together in the middle of the labyrinth and we were asked to find our way through the twists and turns so that we could join them. Occasionally we were told to hurry-up; occasionally we had to reverse our direction when we hit a dead end. I wonder whether this description has any similarity with change processes you have been involved with.

I should point out that, in case you're imagining that the labyrinth was constructed of high walls, it was actually marked out on a very large, completely flat carpet. As someone said to me later 'I couldn't understand why we chose to walk the very indirect path to the centre rather than ignoring the markings and walking straight there.’ I don't know either, I just know that we didn't do this. In the absence of very much information outside the room we had become tribal, disgruntled and anxious. In the absence of very much information inside the room we had become obedient and were quick to invent rules and barriers that did not exist.

When we reached the Tops some of them had that furtive look of people who know their role is to provide clarity but unfortunately don't have enough of it themselves to be able to do so.  It brought back the excruciating memories of times, when as a leader in a large organisation, I found myself in exactly the same situation. My ability to stifle a desire to scream out “I don't know either!” was presumably a critical skill that allowed me to progress up the hierarchy. While I'm not at all sure that it would have been a particularly helpful act of leadership, I'm sure that attempting to hide it was equally unhelpful. Of course, an adult dialogue about uncertainty might be very helpful in such circumstances but how easy is it to begin this when the labels we have for each other are so strong, our expectations are so embedded and the stories we have created about each other are so inventive? The chance of us listening to alternative perspectives, accepting other views, keeping an open mind are about as likely as Watford FC remaining in the Premier League next season [2].

Our ability to Dance, Prod and Shuffle requires us to loosen our attachments so that we are free enough to accept whatever is actually happening and work with it rather than trying to wrestle it into the thing we hoped or planned it to be.  When we are tied so tightly to our preconceptions the opportunity for movement is very limited indeed.

Barry Oshry has written a lot about systems and as far as I know, introduced the terminology of Tops, Middles and Bottoms. It’s therefore fitting I think to end with a quote of his:

‘… in the dance of blind reflex, we fall out of the potential for partnership.’

 

 



[1] The venue we use has flamingos which provide the most predictable element of Challenger Days

[2] Of course, that depends who we sign but previous experience of promotion to the top tier at Vicarage Road has been a pretty dispiriting experience and has left deep scars.

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Comment by Beata Karczewska on July 17, 2015 at 17:27

Ah it was a fascinating exercise Asher, love your perspective on it! During the 30 mins (or however long it took) I felt entertained, curious, anxious, surprised, serious, guilty, defensive and this in a few cycles of back and forth! Every time I think back to this experiment I realise something new about myslef. And how similar it is to real life! Glad I have a sense of humour because this is what puts it all back into right place for me :)

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