Intentional Agility – Don’t Leave Agility to Chance

In the past several years working with organizations that want to be more agile and innovative, I have noticed a common theme: Those that are successful don’t leave their agility to chance.  Agile leaders, teams and organizations intentionally and consistently maintain a mindset, behaviors and practices that enhance their capacity to respond effectively to unexpected challenges and opportunities.

I have outlined a number of these practices in past posts that focus on individual (http://pamela-meyer.com/be-more-agile-in-2016/) and team agility http://pamela-meyer.com/how-to-help-your-team-and-yourself-be-more-agile/ .

If You Are Not Challenging Yourself, You Are Not Changing

The best way to ensure you and your organization are maintaining and expanding your capacity for agility is echoed in the heading above. The slogan is regularly shouted out during the spin classes and boot camps I (sometimes reluctantly) take to maintain my own fitness and physical agility. The boot camp coaching, however, applies well beyond the gym.

The blessing and curse of the human (and by extension) organizational condition is that we tend to default to our comfort zones and routines. Even experiences that were once a stretch (such as a challenging workout) can become a comfortable routine over time. This is why learning agile leaders are constantly seeking out new stretch experiences and are always acquiring new skills and knowledge.

The bottom line is that sustained performance over time, the truest indicator of agility, takes regular, intentional practice.

You would not expect to become a contender in a tennis tournament, 5K race or even weekend softball league while reclining on your couch, any more than you can expect to compete in an ever-changing marketplace by resting on past successes.

Want to assess your current capacity for agility and discover the best place to put your time and resources?

Take the Agility Shift Inquiry: http://www.theagilityshift.com/

What intentional practices do you employ to maintain and expand your ability to respond to new opportunities and challenges?

The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107–1116.

What if you don’t have leadership buy-in to create playspace?

In these first few weeks since From Workplace to Playspace has been out I have had the pleasure of sharing some of its key concepts with a wide range of audiences, including creativity and innovation experts, MBA and training and development graduate students, managers and employees, and HR professionals. One of the most consistent questions I have received so far is “What if you don’t have leadership buy in to create playspace in your organization?”

My response to this comes in two, seemingly contradictory, parts:

1) We all can make choices and behave in ways that influence the quality of our conversations, collaborations and overall experience of engagement at work.

2) Significant organizational change requires the support and buy-in from leaders and key stakeholders.

The first part of the response is at the core of From Workplace to Playspace: we must all take responsibility for the quality of our own work experience and address the dimensions and dynamics that are within our span of influence. Because playspace is created in the present moment in the midst of conversations, collaborations, co-creations, learning and change we each can take responsibility for our own mindset and behavior in each specific context. For example, if I show up to a meeting with a mindset that this is a waste of my time, and no one ever has any fresh ideas or perspectives to share and I behave in ways that don’t encourage new thinking, I will very likely have exactly this experience. However, if I choose to shift my mindset to one in which I believe there is room for the play of new ideas and for people to play new roles and I take responsibility to share and provoke such new perspectives and capacities, there is a good chance I will have a different, more engaged experience. This is the essence of my playspace mantra: Give Permission & Take Responsibility. Anyone in the organization, at any level can put this into practice within their span of influence and create more playspace in the present moment.

The second part of my response to this question is also true. When large-scale, organization-wide change at the level of systems, process and culture are necessary, buy-in from organizational leaders and key stakeholders is essential. The people who have the biggest influence on whether or not a change initiative is successful, or a new mindset takes hold are employees’ immediate supervisors, managers and key-stakeholders. When people at all levels of the organization see their leaders changing their behavior and mindset, and willing to acknowledge that they themselves may at times have been one of the blocks to organizational innovating, learning and changing, then others are likely to change their mindset and behavior as well. In this way, organizational leaders also serve as permission-givers and responsibility-takers.

For more examples of how people at all levels of organizations are doing just this, read From Workplace to Playspace and return to playspace.biz in the coming weeks when we start posting brief videos of playspace success stories.

Imaginative Variations

This past fall DePaul’s Center to Advance Education for Adults invited Meg Wheatley to keynote and lead an afternoon workshop at a conference we titled “Thriving in Transition.” (You can download Wheatley’s keynote for free at the CAEA itunesU site in the itunes store. See instructions here.

During the afternoon workshop we had some fun in small groups as we first told one version of our story, and then (after reconvening with new people) told a completely different version of our story. My favorite story was when, in response to the question “how do you respond to aggression?,” a very conservative-looking woman from the Chicago Archdiocese explained that she immediately began rapping when faced with aggression. In great detail she told us how she defused even the most violent aggressors by incorporating their criticisms and threats into her rap songs, and even occasionally broke into the latest street dance moves.

We delighted ourselves and each other with this lived experience of telling playful imaginative variations of our stories. Tales of fear and insecurity transformed into courageous acts; experiences of anger and frustration became filled with compassion and hope; and stories of victimization became doorways to empowered new beginnings.

Ever since that experience and the energy created in it, I have slowed down a bit and—if not in the actual moment of my story-telling, soon after—imagined other versions of the story. Perhaps the person cutting me off in traffic was not consumed in their own self-centeredness, but rushing to the aid of a sick child; perhaps the angry outburst at the board meeting was not an attack, as much as an expression of fear of the uncertain future. Each imaginative variation of the story gives us the power to reposition ourselves, make different choices and have different responses.

This practice seems particularly resonant with playspace which invites us to play new roles and create more play in the system.