It is paradoxical, but true, that even the most deeply systemic changes start because an individual wills such a change into being. This is not to say that the individual alone can make the change happen. Nor is it only the individual leader who has to go through a personal transformation.
Everyone on the team will need to undergo a mindset shift and find their own connection with the need for change and where the organisation is headed. What’s the story you will tell yourself?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
On our U Journey, there comes a time when the learning journeys are coming to an end, the scenarios you have developed have been tested and the initiative is poised for scaling. Decisions must be made on what has worked and will be further developed, as well as what has failed and should be abandoned. You could think of it as being similar to a team of architects coming to the end of their conceptual design phase. They are settled on the form and aesthetics of the new building, they would have considered how it is going to meet its functional requirements and will have engaged a variety of stakeholders to ensure a good fit for its purpose.
But you are not building a building—you’re transforming an organisation to address its most pressing problems and seize its most profitable opportunities. There cannot be change of the order you are looking for without profoundly affecting the relationships between people, the processes they use and the level of anxiety they would likely have when they wonder what the changes could mean for them. What will it do to their status? Will they be good enough? What of their shortcomings and vulnerabilities? Will they be on parade for all to see? How will they continue to render the vision of what they are trying to achieve when they have to take their proposed solution to a much bigger, more sceptical and often more cynical organisation at large?
For each of the core members of the transformation team, it is important to retreat from the whirligig of the project as usual and go deep into a quiet place to connect with purpose and make sense of all the changes and how they will ultimately affect the way people think, feel and act.
Standing over the abyss
The conscious and deliberate act to retreat and reflect occurs at the bottom of the U in our U Journey and is the equivalent space of the abyss in the classic Hero’s Journey. It is a place for death and rebirth and is symbolically the threshold into a new way of being. On your way down the left-hand side of the U, you will have crossed two other thresholds. The first would have been to overcome the voice of judgement—that is, the voice in your head that relentlessly tells you you’re not good enough, you don’t know enough, and that you’re going to get found out. Diving deeper down you have to contend with your voice of cynicism as well as that of your team and organisation. The cynic doesn’t believe in transformation or indeed progress of any sort. The cynic in you ascribes base motives to any advocates of change and can’t wait for the moments of failure so the voice can pipe up: ‘I told you so’.
“On your own, in nature, you have no rivals, no point to prove”
We all have this voice in our personality and it acts as a shield against our vulnerable selves. Seems like a good bargain; become more cynical and cauterize yourself against any emotions associated with trying and failing. But there’s a heavy price to pay. That cauterization acts as a barrier to any positive emotions and the rewards that arise from having a go, securing some success and most importantly, connecting deeply with your colleagues as you try and achieve something meaningful.
The Retreat and Reflect series of activities is in fact a wilderness retreat. A place is carefully chosen that is at once safe, has the usual workshop facilities and is close enough to primal nature that each individual can partake in a solo experience in a part of that wilderness. There are three distinct phases: preparation for the solo, the solo itself and the dialogue after the solo.
Why, you may ask, do you need a solo? And why is it desirable to have it in nature? The ‘solo experience’ is a means by which each of the participants accesses their deeper sense of knowing, their connection to the work of the transformation and to the members of the team charged with crafting the vision and bringing it to life. It happens in nature because that is where we can truly switch off all distractions and connect with our own beating heart and true inner voice. On your own, in nature, you have no rivals, no point to prove and no judgements being made by anyone other than the voice in your head. Being all one in nature provides the field in which whatever it is that ails you can be healed.
Thus, the whole Retreat and Reflect process needs to be facilitated by people who are well equipped in keeping people safe in nature, have a heightened capacity for holding deep conversations and who are deeply empathetic towards leaders on a quest to make a difference to the environmental, economic and social wellbeing of our organisations.
There are two fundamental questions to take with you into the Retreat and Reflect process: Who are you? And why are you here? The ‘who are you’ question is not asking about your name, where you live or what your job title is. It is sometimes referred to as the capital W ‘Who are you?’ That is, what is at your core? How do you define yourself when everything other than your essential essence is left? There is an exercise you can do to help get closer to answering this question, developed by Michael Ray—the man who gives the most popular course on creativity at Stanford University. You can find that exercise here.
The ‘why are you here?’ question invites you to go deep into who your large ‘S’ Self is—the way you make meaning out of your life, the contribution you want to make and what you’ll be remembered for. Put another way, it’s the answer to the questions: ‘What difference would it make if you weren’t here at all? What would the world be missing if you hadn’t acted in it, with a deep sense of purpose?’ In the words of the philosopher Martin Buber:
The free man is he who wills without arbitrary self will. He believes in destiny, and believes that it stands in need of him. It does not keep him in leading strings, it awaits him, he must go to it, yet does not know where it is to be found. But he knows that he must go out with his whole being. The matter will not turn out according to his decision; but what is to come will come only when he decides on what he is able to will. He must sacrifice his puny, unfree will, that is controlled by things and instincts, to his grand will which quits defined for destined being.
This idea of sacrificing ‘his puny, unfree will, that is controlled by things and instincts’ is what is facilitated by the process. Equipped with these two questions—and having completed both the Foundation Workshop and the Learning Journeys—you will likely have a much clearer vision of what it is you want to bring into the world as well as what you need to let go of that’s no longer useful to you. On the shortest of the Retreat and Reflect events, it takes four days to go through the transformational process which occurs at the bottom of the U.
It works best when everyone arrives around lunchtime on Day One, with the most senior facilitator inviting everyone in turn to talk about their journey so far, and particularly to focus on what they have learned about the two questions above: ‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ That evening a meal is prepared together and, if possible, the group should sit around a fire and continue the conversation. There is nothing quite like sitting around a fire and telling stories to connect you with a deeper sense of your own being. It is also valuable to do some quiet contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and the like.
Time to explore alone
On Day Two, the participants are briefed on what to expect on their solo, their individual sites are prepared, usually with a tent or swag, and around lunchtime, are sent out to those sites to be alone—or ‘all-one’ as John P Milton, my own teacher in these matters, would say. There is something extraordinary about going into nature on your own and, however temporarily, removing yourself from all elements of human culture. Just think for a moment—when was the last time you did that in a deliberate way, and for a period of two days and two nights?
Just as the caterpillar turns to goo before it transforms into the butterfly, so too are you able to let go of the structures and narrative that brought you to this place and discover the possibility of connection to your highest future self. Surrendering to the experience of the wilderness gives you a glimpse into the connections between inner, outer and true nature. It makes the pain and loss associated with the death of your old self bearable. By deeply connecting to who you truly are and what you are on this good earth to do, you emerge greatly strengthened, with a grand will opened to a full expression of what’s possible.
Somewhere around 10am on Day Four, the participants come out of the solo and are skilfully assembled in a dialogue circle to share their experience.
For millennia, people and nature were not separate—one was the context for the other. Natural places serve as sanctuaries for connecting to the Source of our own being, to life itself, and for expressing our highest form of creativity. ‘The collective unconscious,’ wrote Carl Jung, ‘is identical with nature herself.’ You may be wondering just where all this is going with regard to the transformation in your organisation. That’s where we’ll go next as we Crystallise Intent.
This article is Part 2 of our series on The U Journey.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Andrew Deslauriers on Unsplash]
“Men have become the tools of their tools.”
—Henry David Thoreau
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