Steve is an artist, writer, speaker, coach and consultant interested in creativity and the human condition, particularly in these things we call “organisations". We met in Soho to have a conversation about the work we do; which will be shared in two parts.
Steve - I think there's this illusion in the world of consulting that you sell the work, then you show up on the day and only then the work begins. I think the work starts the moment you first interact. I was recently asked to work with a senior group on nurturing an ability to work with uncertainty. In the initial meeting, one of the senior clients said, “Let me be straight with you. This needs to be brilliant. I need you to guarantee that I can get x, y and z from it.” At that point with a client, we're all presented with a decision of 'do I play the game? Or am I honest?' Now, I will always be honest. So I said, “I am experienced in this work but I cannot guarantee what anyone is going to get from it.” We had a whole debate around the illusion of certainty, as well as models of organisations as things that you can manipulate and control.
I obviously want the work, but in that initial conversation I'm always trying to put people off working with me, to find out how serious they are about it. Then we can have a brilliant, honest relationship, where we can do this work in a way where there aren't false expectations. If we don't challenge that early on, it is horrible down the line. I’ve made that mistake in the past and ended up tied into work that neither myself or the client are enjoying.
Jo: You remind me of the importance of having enough time for those conversations, when often the potential client would like to know the outcomes ASAP.
Steve: Yes, everything we could possibly want to know about why something will or won't work is there in that initial meeting. For example an engineering company wanted to work on innovation and risk taking. I pulled into their car park and there were some instructions about how to park the car. To enter the reception I had to watch a video on safety. There were warnings on the stairs about using the hand-rails. I asked them about that and they said, "Oh that's procedure", so you're already picking up clues that there's not really going to be much possible around here when it comes to taking risks.
I suspect that, at least at an unconscious level, the whole process of organisations commissioning work is set up to prevent the thing that they want. Last year someone I had worked with before asked if I could come and do some work around uncertainty, change, complexity etc but wanted to go through such a bureaucratic and long-winded, normalising procurement process before we could even have a conversation about how things are around here. I often experience a great deal of bureaucracy around making any chance of change or difference. A client wants to work on uncertainty, but in a totally certain way.
I think getting a sense of congruence between the “music and the dance” is really important in the early stages of a relationship.. One example was a retreat for senior partners in a consulting business - they asked me to do a talk on resilience and uncertainty. I asked the guy about the type of people who would be attending and he described them as the sort of middle-level partners that are so dedicated, if they're on holiday, they'll come back if a client needs them. I asked what happens if any of them say they are struggling. He said they’d try to help them out, but they probably weren’t really cut out for the job. I asked him, "how would me doing a talk for an hour to make any difference here whatsoever, unless some other stuff fundamentally changes!?" I didn’t end up doing the talk.
My favourite bits of work and the ones that have made the biggest sustainable difference is when there's been an activist, advocate or a subversive in the guts of the organisation who I can partner on the adventure. Normally, someone in HR, OD role. They're able to work the system and provide air cover in such a way so that we can get in and do the work.
Jo: How do you find saying ‘no’ to work?
Steve: It’s much easier when it is your own business. This is why I don't necessarily do associate work. A few years back I was invited to do a pitch with a music organisation alongside a company that I had done some associate work with. We sat with the client for an hour or so and it became clear to me that the thing that we were selling them wasn't what they really needed, which I told them. They were very appreciative and got a lot from the meeting. When we left the person I was pitching alongside said, "Why did you do that - you lost us the work?!" For me, it can't just be about winning the work. It feels unethical to me to sell something I know I cannot deliver or is the wrong approach. But then there is always that part of me that is thinking, "I need money, I’ve got a house and a family to support."
Nowadays, I will always give more weight to this ethical/congruent side and then work out ways to live without the work. People might say I'm not ambitious enough. But if you want to do the work you love in the way you want to do it, you need to be prepared to live below your means. I find that far more relaxing and fulfilling than having an absolute abundance of work that I don't particularly want to do.
Jo: I am very interested in this idea of trying to figure out where you are stuck using the same habits or patterns.
Steve: This philosophy (inspired by Paul Watzlavic) lies at the heart of all of my work. The overused Einstein quote, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" is far more difficult to act on in reality. Culture change should, by its very nature, look, smell and feel counter-cultural. Something counter intuitive, or something that's non common sense, is typically a way of disrupting those patterns and that’s what I try to specialise in nowadays. Finding counter-intuitive ways of disturbing stuck loops of common sense.
A good example of that is with some retail work I did in 2017. The board asked me to come and do a presentation on the work I had been doing in helping their employees disrupt unhelpful norms. To go and give a presentation would have been to collude with the stuck pattern of a board removed from the confusing, exciting and disturbing coal face of the work. I suggested that I take a day with them and they come to join us to play. In the end I was given two hours with them which had to include a lunch break! You could argue that's just how senior people in business operate, but it is a defence, it means that this is not as important as other stuff and that they can approve or disprove it based on seeing some powerpoint summary slides in a comfortable meeting room.
When I heard this I had a couple of choices. I could have had a strop and walked away, I could have tried to cram it into a couple of hours. But as an improviser I’m always interested, when presented with a problem to ask myself what's the offer here? The unique creative invitation that these circumstances present? The offer was the problem of lunch so I emailed the board and asked them to bring food which they could share. I deliberately specific language, “this is a bring-your-own buffet and I’d like you to bring some interesting food to share with your friends.” The response was incredible, people called me and told me I couldn’t ask them to do this. Various PAs asked, “Does x need to do this? He is really senior.” People said goodbye to me, assuming I would be fired.
Then on the day, a load of PAs came in with trays of food that they had ordered, a couple of people brought things they had made. The chief executive said he would have brought something in if he knew about it - he'd been protected by his PA. All we did for two hours was eat lunch and talk about the organisation's reaction to my request. They couldn't believe how terrified people were to ask them to bring lunch.
They soon realised that if they couldn't get through this situation, there's no way they could ever change anything in the organisation. Rather than talk about disruption, power, status and stuckness they ended up having a lived experience of it that was far more potent. But I would never have designed an intervention as good as that if it weren’t for the problem of lunch - it completely unstuck them. Some people absolutely hated it. But they realised “If we are terrifying to people with something as simple as this, we've got big issues here."
Jo: I am interested in the role of titles and how they make us treat people differently, with more or less respect.
Steve: Yes, it is another potential stuck pattern of respect, dependence/interdependence (etc). It’s why I was able to ask the board to bring food. Years ago, just as I was leaving the corporate world, I was seconded to a small charity. One of my favourite things I used to do was dress up as their mascot, which is a big lion. I went back to my corporate head office, one lunchtime, in the lion suit, as we were fundraising. It was so liberating because no one knew it was me. I saw my CEO walking along, ran over and gave him a big hug, had high-fives with other senior people and generally enjoyed the mask of anonymity. I thought it was really interesting, normally around them I would be apprehensive and treat them with a certain reverence. But I was a 6 and a half foot lion and I could do whatever I wanted! This showed to me that these power relations aren’t inherently “real” but a pattern that over time has become a convention.
At the heart of all of our work, unless you are able to gently disrupt patterns of power and status, dependency and submission then nothing really changes. Consciously or unconsciously, often those who are wanting the change have a vested interest in nothing changing. And the only way we can changed this is through experiments in deepening our here and now awareness. At the heart of my practice is Gestalt Psychology. Essentially the heart of the Gestalt change process is becoming more deeply aware of you and things as they are. Change happens through becoming deeply aware of who we are, rather than through striving to be something else. This is the opposite of most coaching or consulting models that are overly future focussed.
Jo: When people have an agenda they want to stick to, they might miss what is going on, thinking, 'That’s interesting but I need to stick to my plan.' Then you can miss the little things which highlight the bigger patterns.
Steve: There's arguably nothing wrong with plans and structures, but hold them lightly. Attachment to what should be happening means we are myopic to what is actually happening. That's where the skills of improvisation are helpful. Because if you pay attention to what is you never don't know what to do. There's always a little clue there somewhere. If you don't know what to do, it's because you're not as aware as you need to be.
I find it is a rather different way of working to how I was originally trained. There's only a handful of people that I feel comfortable co facilitating with, people like Caryn Vanstone, Simon Cavvichia (and others) because they work in a similar “live” way. We know not to rescue each other from moments of blankness. To be comfortable with not knowing. To not be desperate to try and fill every moment with words or content and leave some space/time for emergence. It makes me think of traditional English pubs, where literally every bit of wall space is filled with pictures. I think when we design the agenda, it's like every little part needs to be filled.
I’m interested in these unspoken elements of doing consultancy work. For years, I've been wanting to edit a book that's called The Naked Consultant, which would be a collection of stories of our consultant foibles and neurosese! For example, I hate that bit before a workshop officially starts when people are coming into the room. I pretend to go to the loo about 10 times because it feels excruciating for me to make polite conversation. And despite doing this work for 20 years now I still always worry I won’t have enough stuff to fill the time and then always end up doing a tiny fraction of it. My worst one is on the morning of some bits of work hoping it will be cancelled! Luckily that one has got better over the years. I know a couple of friends of mine would say the biggest problem in their work is deciding what to wear.
You can find the second part of this conversation here.