One of the skills available to us as leaders and coaches is to bring our world into a new focus in order to see new opportunities. If we take a step back and look at how we see our world we find that every individual is a unique kind of “observer” of the world. Different people see differently. Just as a physician sees different bodies than those not trained in medicine, the entrepreneur sees opportunity where others don’t. Innovators smell possibilities where others don’t. A generative leader sees possible actions that others don’t.
When people don’t see something that is observable, we call that being “blind.” And we can dispel blindness with new distinctions for awareness, observing, paying attention, and practices for reflection. We dispel blindness and become a new observer when we learn professional skills, for example. And a major blindness in our organizations today is the missing ability to observe waste and value, as well as to do something about it.
One reason for this is that our bodies adapt to see what is usual and recurrent as “normal.” When a non-threatening situation keeps presenting itself, whether it’s a positive experience or a breakdown, eventually it loses its intensity and power to draw our attention. We develop a standard practice for it, such as ignoring it, coping with it, or just letting it go by, but it ceases to be something that we pay attention to. We are built to pay attention to exceptions, surprises, threats, and opportunities.
In our normal routines, we go into automatic behaviors and we respond to expected situations as “transparent,” not needing attention. When we drive a car, for example, we don’t put attention on our feet unless there is something wrong with them or the pedals – they become transparent when we are skillful at driving, and they are no longer in our attention.
The problem is that we can be conditioned to accept as normal what shows up as “every day,” such as boring meetings, a bad boss, an untrustworthy co-worker, impossible objectives, or a time-wasting procedure. We fall into the mood of resignation – “that’s the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about it.” By waking up a new way to observe we can begin to see the waste or opportunity in these situations, rather than accept them as unchangeable “reality.” And often small changes can make a big difference freeing us from the everyday mud that we slog through.
The entrepreneur and innovator, for example, cultivate the sensibility to notice and hang onto a sense of what isn’t harmonious, or what could be different. They have the skill to not just fall into acceptance or resignation about the way it is. They are on the lookout for waste and value-creating opportunities.
As leaders and coaches of leaders, we can develop and bring this sensibility to our teams and organizations. We need to sharpen our capacities to observe and reflect with curiosity, rather than get buried in our full schedules and awaiting to-do lists. When we develop this skill with our teams, we begin to see a different world show up, a world ready for changes, offers, improvements, and new value.
Some well-known processes rely on this skill of observing, noticing, and questioning, such as kaizen in process improvement and lean thinking. In the discipline of generative leadership, we develop the ability to observe the effective coordination of action and value creation as conversational skills. Results are always preceded by the conversations that shape them, good or bad. We learn to see healthy and productive conversations, and can then see what is missing when results are not healthy or productive. We can learn to see missing or incomplete conversations and envision new conversations and practices of coordination that would produce different outcomes.
We have found many everyday breakdowns that can lead to breakthroughs. For example, a common breakdown in organizations is to request or agree to actions without clear specified times of completion. This easily leads to overcommitment and a culture of overwhelm, dissatisfaction, and blame. Not being clear in agreements about what constitutes satisfactory outcomes often leads to frequent dissatisfaction and a culture of resignation. Teams that aren’t invited to give honest feedback on their project plans often don’t believe in or own the success of their projects.
These kinds of problems are too commonly an organization’s “normal.” The changes that are called for are not complicated, but they do usually require boldness if not courage – in other words: leadership. In this way of looking we can learn to see and address – for both individuals and organizations – how people coordinate or don’t coordinate, why certain dissatisfactions are common, prevailing wasteful moods (such as distrust, resignation, anxiety, and resentment), what productive possibilities are seen or not seen, and how to cope with change and breakdowns.
By paying attention to what conversations and coordination practices are generative or not we can help our teams and organizations shift from what is considered normal “mud” to more productive coordination, value-creating actions, and innovative practices.