Slowing down is an amazing way of creating conditions in which a system accomplishes what “it” is seeking to achieve in a faster and more effective way. By system I mean ‘self’ as in individual person, or a group of people or an organisation. For some reason, we have tricked ourselves into thinking about ‘speed’ as a virtue. It is like the faster you do things the more you are assumed to be effective. The reality is often very different. Speed creates inattention to what really matters and imprisons people into the proverbial hamster-wheel. In its wheel, the hamster runs very fast and gets the impression that it is going somewhere. In reality, the hamster is simply in the same place.
In this brief article, I share what I have witnessed in the last two months with regard to how ‘slowing down the system’ may lead individuals and groups to deeper understanding and more creative responses.
Different groups and contexts…
In the last week of April 2012, I was in Abu Dhabi where I had the opportunity to co-lead a process involving forty emerging leaders from seven Arab and three European countries. The emerging leaders were seeking solutions to the challenge of youth unemployment. In four days, the leaders (participants) came up with five ICT (information and communication technology) based innovative ideas for prototyping how to reduce youth unemployment. What do I think allowed the emerging leaders coming from different countries and cultural backgrounds to accomplish what they did in four days?
At the beginning of May 2012, I had the privilege of working in Argentina with over 70 incredibly talented emerging leaders from one of the world’s leading banks. In seven days, the bankers sought to understand the needs of local businesses and community based organisations and provided solutions that the stakeholders felt were truly game-changing. In one experience, a local business was passionately looking for ways of scaling-up their work without reneging on their commitment to environmental sustainability and the values that intimately connected them to their stakeholders. What do I think enabled the bankers understand so deeply and incisively the needs of their clients and provided such invaluable solutions?
In the third of week of May, I was in Zambia co-facilitating a course in Organisation Development. The course focused on ‘Intervention Strategies’ and the participants were middle to senior managers from business, public and civil society sectors. In real-time, the participants practised how to intervene in different situations through the intentional use of ‘self’. They used real life situations to practice the principles and values they were learning about. At the end of the four-day course, many participants marvelled at their own capacity to generate positive results and bring about a different (desired) reality. What do I think permitted the course participants to have such a deep experience?
In the first week of June, I was in Brussels co-leading a training programme for consultants and managers seeking to develop their skills in facilitating profound change at personal, group, and organisational levels. At the end of the three-day programme, participants felt that they had gained practical skills of how to enable profound change happen. Many participants shared that they had experienced a personal transformation in the way they thought about and practised ‘systems change’. To what do I attribute this perceived transformation?
My colleagues and I who worked on the above assignments ensured that the design of the processes we used deliberately included the following key ‘ingredients’:
Deepening quality of attention of participants
We (facilitators) created an opportunity for participants to engage in short and yet very deep reflections at several junctures each day. We called this ‘attention practice’. The assumption we worked with was that many people, especially those in leadership positions, do not have adequate opportunities to reflect on their work, their work’s impact, and the possible futures they are contributing towards or simply facing. The three minutes of silence were followed by another three minutes of journaling. In the three minutes of journaling participants wrote in their notebooks or journals or drew mind-maps or any other way of expressing their reflection or insights on paper. Journaling was followed by a sharing of insights in pairs or small groups. Most participants expressed surprise, wonder and gratitude for value they discovered from intentional silence and journaling.
Attending to ‘Self’ as an Instrument
Through intentional silence and other techniques (that included peer feedback, personal assessment, practising techniques for growing one’s presence); participants experimented with using themselves as ‘instruments for the change they wanted to see’. This meant that participants needed to be aware of the inner intent from which they operated, and chance they had to re-calibrate that intent. They would then make the intent come through the way they communicated and conducted themselves. From time to time, facilitators created conditions and exercises that invited participants to practice how to use ‘self’ in the highest order with intent: being self-aware, being aware of the situation that needed their intervention, taking into account the needs of other stakeholders (human and non-human), choosing the intervention strategy to use at a given moment, and then calling upon the best of themselves to take action.
I attribute part of the above success to the backroom work that we did as facilitators. In all the cases I have share here, we – the facilitators – faithfully practised mindfulness, gave feedback to one another and made ourselves vulnerable in the moment of the processes in order to model what we were inviting participants to be and do. Daily, we woke up very early in order to meet and practice meditation and journaling together. I also know that at individual level, all facilitators held the deepest positive intentions in service of our participants. Fascinatingly, participants sensed what we were putting in behind the scenes. They remarked, “As facilitators, you glide so perfectly with one another”; “You combine so well, it is like you have worked together for years”; “You are so spot-on with your interventions, you must be very alert”; and “We can feel how much you want us to be successful even when you are not saying anything”.
Holding the best deepest intention for a group one is privileged to support, in my view, is one of the primary roles of a facilitator. Our backroom work was our way of heeding the wise counsel of former chief executive officer of the Hannover Corporation, William O’Brien, who once said, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener”.
I am of the opinion that it was the carefully orchestrated movement between deep moments of ‘attention practice’ and the willingness to experiment to use ‘self as an instrument’ that, in the main, enabled the nearly 200 leaders I have been privileged to work with in the last two months achieve the level of creativity and the results I have referred to in 2.0 above.
A combination of attention practice and intentional use of ‘highest self’ has the potential to enable people access the sort of intelligence that they do not often tap into. The two practices create conditions in which the human capacity is brought to the fore. When I was on my flight from Belgium, I was reading Joseph Jaworski’s book entitled Source. One of the arguments that Jaworski makes in Chapter 26, based on scientific data, is that our intelligence as humans does not just lie in the our brains, but in our hearts and guts also. Now we know (what many traditional communities intuitively knew long before being contaminated by Western civilisation and logic) that the sort of neurons and neuro-chemicals that we previously only associated with the brain can also be found in our hearts and guts. This re-discovery proves that complex processes of ‘thinking’ and ‘knowing’ do take place in our hearts and guts, just as they do in our brain. Studies are showing signs that the heart sometimes perceives future realities a little earlier than the brain. Exciting prospects of how we might start working with the concept of visionary leadership.
In conclusion, I make the argument that practising and deepening our attention through intentional silence and constantly sharpening the tool of ‘self’ are a cocktail that has phenomenal ability to increase our intelligence and capacity for innovation. We sharpen the tool of ‘self’ by practising personal reflection or mindfulness, seeking feedback from those around us, and being deliberate about choosing the presence we bring to our clients and interventions.
 Joseph Jaworski, Source. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012, pages 127.