The Living Organisation :

January 2011

Current Work

It’s been another busy quarter with lots of activity with existing and new clients:

  • 1-1 Coaching
  • Team Coaching
  • Leadership Development
  • Culture/Values and Strategy workshops

Catherine Tate and Agile Leadership


In leading a major Leadership Development initiative in the oil industry in recent weeks, I have discussed with colleagues what I call the “simplicity-complexity” question.

There is a huge, implicit demand for simplicity in organisations: A straightforward approach, a simple answer, a quick decision, the boss will know what to do (what a relief!), action (any action) is better than waiting, a simple 3/5/7 step change formula.

It can be very challenging for leaders to say or maybe admit to themselves that sometimes they just don’t know. Surely the leader’s job is to know! As strong as this projection often is, the reality is that we can’t know for certain what will happen, what’s coming next or what’s best. Sometimes, we simply don’t know what to do. And as a Consultant it can take courage to say: “I have a plan, but I don’t know quite how it will work out,” rather than “I have a plan that will work.”

All of this is about how we manage our anxiety, and as Heifetz suggests, a large part of leading in organisation is about “containing” anxiety i.e. acknowledging the complexity of situations and the absence of simple solutions and yet still being able to act.


I heard Catherine Tate this week on Radio 4, describing her current role performing live in a West End play and the difference between this and starring in television. She said that in the live play, you don’t know where/when the laughs will come. It’s the same play every night but the audience laughs in different places every night and as performers they had to adjust to this and stop anticipating laughs in specific places based on previous performances.

This is a good metaphor for organisations, leadership and consulting. Our thinking, plans and strategies (and assumptions as to how they will turn out) are the equivalent of the pre-recorded TV version of events, all very clear and ordered with the laughs in the right places. But when we then attempt to turn these blueprints into reality, we encounter the “live” version which does not normally follow our neat script!

The world of organisations and leadership is complex. If it wasn’t we would not need to bother with leadership development or 50% of all business books (many of which set out to convince us that they – Halleluya! – have discovered the simple, straightforward answer.)

The challenge therefore for all leaders is: How can we be decisive and take effective action in the midst of this complexity? How can we acknowledge and accept the reality of complexity whilst not being disabled by it? Or as someone from the golf world once put it, how can we commit without expectation?

Aware, Mindful, Agile Leadership

Much as we would like to, we can’t know what outcomes we’ll get. We can predict and guess. But we can’t know.

We can know and pay attention to:

  • What is my intention?
  • What action/behaviour am I planning and what did I actually do?
  • What am I thinking and feeling both during planning and action?
  • What are the outcomes?

So I can be decisive and decide on a straightforward strategy (whether for Monday’s meeting or for company-wide change.) The trick is to not get hooked into believing it will work as anticipated, but rather to pay attention during the action, and learn from this to be even more effective with the next piece of action you consider and choose.

This is leadership as a process of constant adjustment to reality, rather than holding onto our assumptions, expectations and fantasies about how we would like reality to be!

Backwoods iPhone

Leaving early to get to London last week, I dropped my iPhone whilst digging my car out of its snowdrift home. I had to adjust to this new reality fast, as I navigated both London and a changing meetings schedule without my phone.

Arriving back 18 hours later after a challenging journey, I found my iPod neatly flattened into the snow of my cul-de-sac by a passing car. The temperature when I got home was minus 15 degC but the phone is working fine.

New Venture with Wilderness Scotland

The Living Organisation and Wilderness Scotland are coming together to offer a range of new experiences to our business clients.

Wilderness Scotland award-winning leaders in the field of adventure travel and eco tourism, have expanded their offer in recent years to include working with business clients.

Our joint offer will bring together high quality “wilderness – journey – different environment” style experiences with leading business-focussed Coaches and Facilitators who also share a passion for the outdoors and the opportunities for learning and development that experiencing a different environment can provide.

Coach Training

Marjorie Shackleton and I will be offering a 2-day Coach training in Scotland in summer 2011 entitled “Beyond Talking.”

As beginner Coaches we can find ourselves stuck in “talking” mode, with lots of words but often not much insight or movement. The workshop will be of particular interest to internal and external Coaches who want to explore alternative ways of being in dialogue with their clients. Please get in touch if you think you or some of your people could benefit.

Marjorie and I are both members of the Academy of Executive Coaching Advanced Diploma faculty.