A conversation with Caryn Vanstone

Caryn consults on whole organisation performance and behavioural change work - taking a cultural and empowerment/accountability perspective. Much of her work features the application of improvisation ideas and the development of a "rapid prototyping" culture of safe, fast innovation with high accountability and empowerment.

A conversation with Caryn Vanstone...

CV biopic (1)

Caryn consults on whole organisation performance and behavioural change work - taking a cultural and empowerment/accountability perspective. Much of her work features the application of improvisation ideas and the development of a "rapid prototyping" culture of safe, fast innovation with high accountability and empowerment. Click here to find out more about Caryn.

Jo: Can you give me a bit of an overview of the kind of things that you're working on?

Caryn: What connects the different work we are doing, at the base level, is that sense of community aliveness. With our banking clients, the entry point over the last few years has been problems of ethics and illegality. For example, Libor fixing or money laundering or, in the case of one of our engineering clients, fatalities on an offshore wind farm build. The thing that connects all of them are people following processes and ticking boxes while no longer ALIVE to the here-and-now of what's really going on, and how they're making decisions. So they're following a crowd pattern, or taking what their leaders say at face value and not questioning it because the power differentials are too high. They might have got out of the habit of saying “hang on a minute, I don't agree with you”. Indeed, that could have been actively repressed for example before Deepwater Horizon in BP, where people reported that they did raise objections, but were told that challenging it would be “career limiting”.

While the challenge might be global, our response is to work at the level of “local”.  So, for example, working with groups of site managers and their build teams who are travelling on the boats onto the North Sea wind turbine farm builds. We facilitate them to have different quality of conversations about safety, about themselves and their community. We help them find ways of connecting with each other which is a bit like “waking up” and really seeing each other, challenging and protecting each other.

A new example is a project, just kicked off, where we are part of a consortium leading a project to redevelop the top 16,000 leaders around the world.  It is a massive culture change project. From their current position of financial strength, they want to reconstruct themselves culturally, behaviourally and practically to become an agent of world benefit. Rather than only thinking about how they can extract the maximum profit out of the world, they’re asking how can they empower their own people to empower the world. It’s really interesting, probably one of the first of its kind - a massive organisational rethink around purpose, around the idea of a completely new form of social enterprise that nobody's seen yet at a corporate level.

At the other end of the scale, we're working with the English Benedictine Congregation of Monasteries through the UK, following the child sex abuse scandals in their schools revealed through IICSA. So even though we don't take a religious stand (I'm actually an atheist which they find helpful), we're working with them to develop a culture of rigour and questioning - and finding new ways to “lean into” difficult conversations, unacceptable practice to break codes of silence and avoidance/denial.

In summary, I think that what connects all of these projects is relationship - the ability to turn up, fully alive, connected and awake, and to co-create rigorous and generative social interactions that empower, enable and develop each other.

Jo: It makes a lot of sense. I often hear different stories from people about the ‘ticking boxes’ situation happening at work and it is unbelievable sometimes.

Caryn: Exactly. With many of the kinds of disasters that happen, for society or individual companies, you find that so many people knew about it. For example VW's dieselgate - literally thousands and thousands of people knew about it. If they stopped just for a moment and asked the question they would surely say “this isn't right”, but somehow they don't. It’s kind of bizarre but we just sort of drift into things, don't we?

Jo: Definitely. So what do you really love about your work?

Caryn: I think what I love about it is also what terrifies me about it - which is when you're working with a group or an individual through that kind of process (whether you're using appreciative inquiry, dialogue, rapid prototyping or experimentation and improvisation cycles), they start questioning everything about what they're doing. Over the 20-25 years I've been doing this, you get people who come back two years later with stories of how it's changed their parenting at home, or the way that they respond to something that's completely out of the corporate world. That's what gives me real joy. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing to say out loud but sometimes they leave the corporate world and they do all sorts of other really interesting things with their lives.

But that also terrifies me, because most of the big corporates want the effect (the up-side) of having a really alert, alive, innovative workforce … empowered, engaged with their customers etc … but they don't want all of the disturbance and upwards challenge that inherently goes with it.  

What they are asking us to do, often, is to help people to take their protective armour off - the armour of just following routines, of saying “the process is this, so I just follow it” and to stop FEELING anything.  But of course, we put our armour on at work for good reason sometimes. It's painful sometimes, especially in the big companies, to live a life of being really alert, with all your senses and choices exposed, when the culture itself is quite exploitative or extractive.

We are commissioned, often to shift this dynamic, but I've seen a few people badly hurt by the work (because the most senior leaders were not really ready for the implications of that, and were not willing to change their own behaviour) and that haunts me a little bit. So I'm very careful about how I contract with the senior leaders that I work with now. Sometimes you just have to go with the trust that they're grown-ups and they will find a way of looking after themselves, but I think that's the sort of double-edged sword of the work we do.

Jo: There are difficulties with being vulnerable, and it does put you at risk.

Caryn: Yes, we have to try to help people put steel on the inside, instead of having the steel on the outside. We talk about it as “swapping your armour for a stronger skeleton”. That's what we try to build into the work; how to give people the community and relationship connections so that their vulnerability is in connection with each other - taking care of each other.  We also introduce mindfulness, journaling and self-coaching techniques that help people make sense of the emotional experience as well as the intellectual decisions they're making - and stay safe.

Jo: What do you find particularly challenging and how you deal with that?

Caryn: I think for me, the most challenging aspect is actually also a bit of my own life journey - I guess that might be true for most of us, we often end up “doing” what we most need to work on in our own lives!

When I was a child at school I was a bit weird, I think I still am a bit weird. I was one of these kinds of kids that lived in their heads and I was brainy and wordy.  In addition, I'm partially sighted in one eye, so I can't catch or hit balls, I was completely hopeless at sports. I was a bit lonely and retreated to the world of books and ideas. I became very scared of being rejected because I felt on the outside like a stranger to the world of children - almost like I didn’t know how to BE a child myself. I think I've grown up with the combination of the joy and deep desire for connection and a real fear of rejection.

Of course, in a bizarre and strange way that's I’ve ended up working in a particular field of change consulting that is all about rejection and belonging! So with culture change work, especially the kind of work we do, it puts you at constant risk of rejection yourself because the only way to really be impactful in changing cultural patterns is to be prepared to do stuff that is “weird” within the constructs of that culture.  But being “weird” invites rejection - being “weird and challenging” (especially to the power dynamics that hold the current patterns in place) is doubly inviting rejection.

I don’t think you can change a culture by doing the work “in the style” of the current culture.  That just gives you more of what you already have. I think you have to be sensitive to the politics and dynamics of the present, but you have to design and deliver the work “as if” the company already had the culture they want.  So you are “being the change you want to see”. We're trying to model a future that they're not ready yet to step into, but that's what they've commissioned us to do, and say they want. So you're always at risk of pissing them off because you're not fitting in with what is currently the way that everybody else has adopted in order to fit in and belong.

I think being an outsider (a bit of a weird kid) has given me a very strong sensitivity to those moments where you are just about to get rejected or you're just on the verge. I find that “place” painful, and yet it is also the only place from which to do this work. So I think that's where my edge is actually.

I learned so much about this from my 20 years of studying and playing with improvisation - I remember one of the very first training workshops I did with the legendary Keith Johnstone, where he played what he calls “The Rejection Game”.  It was gut-wrenching the first time I did that - but he just gently held the group and laughed as soon as we discovered that the ONLY defence that works, is one that is all about not defending yourself. Rather, the solution to being at risk of rejection is to CONNECT and to put yourself at service of someone else - which increases your vulnerability, but makes someone else want to keep you around.  I love “teaching” that game now, and it is an essential component of the Impro Workshops that I run for consultants who want to work with culture change.

So, the main thing is to “never travel alone”.  I love being part of all sorts of vibrant networks now, and meeting up with you guys for the first time is part of that desire to think out loud with others, and feel part of a community of practice.

Caryn Vanstone and Steve Chapman are running their next Impro for Work and Life Workshop in London in May.