Holding patterns

Last week I was reminded of my aeons ago primary school experience of having to bring in something for the 'nature table' and then being made to stand up and show it to my classmates and tell them about it. I liked the clump of sheep's wool I'd pulled off some barbed wire complete with all the claggy bits of mud and twigs – but I got no takers to my offer of giving them some of it to show their mums and dads.

Nowadays this type of thing is called a 'show and tell' which Netmums tell us 'is a key part of the school day and an important part of your child's learning development, as it helps them to organise information and builds their confidence.'

The 'show and tell' (aka sprint review) that I was in was somewhat similar: a valiant presenter and polite audience. These 'show and tell' events are a key part of agile methodology giving the team the time 'to present the work completed during the sprint. The Product Owner checks the work against pre-defined acceptance criteria and either accepts or rejects the work.' A show and tell, however, 'is not a meeting designed to criticise or for the team to take further actions for improvement to the product.'

Skills in organizing information are useful and so is confidence particularly if you can see your work isn't going down that well, and what's interesting about the 'show and tell' approach is that it is designed to be largely one-way – there isn't a whole lot of interaction. I get that show and tells have a purpose and a place in organizational life.

But in some organisations, they are the way of life – demonstrated in management style, in cultural and performance expectations, and in interpersonal interactions.

We were mulling over this during the week in a different meeting as we started to talk about collaboration and how to develop expectations of 'ask and listen' in our predominantly 'show and tell' world.

Pixar, known for computer animated films, is reportedly good at asking and listening. Ed Catmull, co-founder Pixar, tells the story of their 2-hour Braintrust meetings: 'Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.' They now do this well.

But getting to that point where 'Everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work. They really do feel that it's all for one and one for all,' meant developing guidelines designed, among other things, to remove the power structure from the room, because what Catmull's found is that 'while the creative process thrives with a high level of horizontal diversity, be extremely wary of the inhibiting effect of vertical diversity.'

In organisations where show and tell is the dominant operating mode, removing from the room the hierarchical (vertical) power structure to problem solve and collaborate is really hard. It's like taking the teacher out of a traditional classroom.

Then, in our meeting on getting better at collaboration, Alastair asked us a really great question, 'What are the holding patterns in the organisation?' He elaborated: 'What is held-up (either as a stoppage or as something to emulate)? What is held-back? What is held down? What is held out? What is held over? What is held on to?'

The whole idea of holding patterns fired our imagination and our thinking. We began to explore whether our organisational culture is in the holding pattern of 'show and tell'. If so, are people holding back on what they want to say? Are we holding onto notions of hierarchy that are unhelpful? Are we holding down actions for change and holding up the status quo? And so on.

Most of us had been held in a 'holding pattern' in an aircraft over Heathrow at some point and know that to break out of a holding pattern something has to change. Glenda Eoyang, Human Systems Dynamics Institute, has some interesting and useful ideas on how to change holding patterns. She suggests that, 'To see patterns in the world around you is to know your world and to understand something about that world. You make sense of the world by recognizing the patterns around you.'

Once you recognise the patterns, you are in a better place to shift them by, first naming the conditions that frame that pattern, second identifying a way to shift one condition, third taking action and seeing if that brings you closer to the results you want.

She reassures that it doesn't have to be a long analytical process to recognise the patterns, and gives several examples of how 'Increasing, decreasing, or introducing new differences will shift the conditions and change the emergent patterns in a system.'

However, she recognises that 'while it's simple to say that some of your greatest challenges in your family, community, organization, and society are "just" patterns, it's also a recognition of the complexity of those challenges.'

So, to get to collaboration we're going consider the holding patterns that challenge it and then design and try out some shifts. Have you got examples of successfully changing your organisations holding patterns? Let me know.

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