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Awareness, application and a worrying stuckness in personal development

In 1334, the Duchess of Tyrol encircled the castle of Hochosterwitz, a stronghold built on a steep rock and impenetrable to direct attack. The Duchess knew that the only way she could take the castle was through instigating a long siege, depriving the defenders of the food they would need to survive and forcing them to surrender. A long siege ensued and soon those within the castle walls were getting desperate – all they had left to eat was one ox and two bags of barley corn. However, the Duchess’ situation was becoming just as desperate, her troops grew increasingly unruly as there seemed to be no end to the siege in sight. It became a stale-mate – a stuck situation for both sides. In desperation the commandant of the castle gave a rather odd order. He asked his men to slay the last ox, stuff it with the remaining barley and then throw it over the castle wall and down the steep cliff towards the enemy camp. His men, although confused and reluctant, complied. On seeing the ox and barley being ‘wasted’, the discouraged Duchess and her troops, assuming food inside the castle was plentiful, abandoned the siege, moved on and the impasse was resolved.

I was reminded of this story recently on re-reading Paul Watzlavic, John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch’s excellent book “Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution.” It is essentially a book about stuckness. Stuckness is when we find ourselves experiencing a difficulty and every attempt to get ourselves out of it only serves to maintain or worsen the situation. Watzlavic, Weakland and Fisch (from hereon in referred to as WWF) argue that these stuck situations arise through the mishandling of difficulties in a number of different ways: trying harder from the same mindset that created them, oversimplifying or denying the complex nature of the difficulty, creating utopian oversimplified solutions (a silver bullet) or accidentally creating a stuck paradox by attempting to resolve things from the same level of abstraction that caused the difficulty in the first place. They argue that these stuck patterns result in no more than what they call “first order change” – attempts to resolve a difficulty from within the frame of that difficulty – an approach that, at best, results in some incremental shift but essentially only leads to more of the same. In order to break out of the stuckness they suggest that “second order change” is required – a movement or action that attempts to resolve things from outside of the frame of the difficulty. Second order change interventions typically seem counter-intuitive, spontaneous, bizarre and experimental – the opposite of what we might call common sense. In the story of the Duchess of Tyrol there was 1st order stuckness (rationing on one side and waiting on the other) until the moment that the commandant made the unusual, spontaneous and experimental move of doing the opposite of what common sense would have suggested, what WWF would call a 2nd order change intervention. (I guess the Duchess could have made a similar move by getting her soldiers to visibly argue, fight and then desert each other, thus creating a false sense of security in the castle that would then become vulnerable.)

A stuck pattern that I regularly come across and have become increasingly curious about is in the field of personal development and culture change. Many individuals and organisations nowadays have a strong sense that the age of mechanistic, cause and effect, linear thinking of the past no longer serves them well and undertake a plethora of developmental or cultural interventions in order to become more responsive, creative and innovative. However, the majority of solutions applied almost always seem to compound or amplify the problem at some level, resulting in more mechanistic, cause and effect, linear thinking and more stuckness. Typical interventions try harder from the same, outdated and stuck mindset that they are trying to alter or over-simplify the problem by denying the ongoing, dynamic, complex nature of organisational life. Over-simplified utopian solutions, silver-bullet programmes that are a panacea for all ills create a false sense of progress, whilst messages and mantras from senior leaders create confusing, stuck paradoxes that only serve to maintain the status quo.

Informed by WWF’s thinking and recent experiences of this type of stuckness, I’ve began wondering what a global, 2nd order intervention to totally transform our approach to change and development might be. What counter-intuitive and perhaps seemingly nonsensical approaches would need to be bravely adopted? What difficult beliefs would we need to gently let go of in order to challenge stuck habits and experiment with new ideas? What would the equivalent be of throwing the ox over the castle wall?  For me, a clue lies in a central tenet of Gestalt Psychology – Arnold Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change – “change occurs when one becomes more of what one already is, rather than striving to become something that they are not.”  Our individual and organisational stuckness seems rooted in our habit of trying harder to become something we are not, rather than slowing down and becoming more aware of what we already are, as Beisser suggests.  This results in the majority of personal developmental interventions or culture change programmes being little more than 1st order, common-sense events where one collects symbolic new tools, mantras, processes and utopian take-aways that do little more than to give us a short-lived sense of false hope.

These difficulties are further compounded by our stuck, 1st order perception of value.  The value of most change or developmental interventions seems to be based solely on how convinced one is of future application rather than on how much it might enhance here-and-now awareness and choice.  In my experience awareness always trumps application in terms of long-term, 2nd order change, yet it seems that as long as one leaves with a tool or theoretical process (an application comfort blanket) it is judged as a success.  In reality our anxiety is only temporarily dampened until the next time the difficulty rears its head and we seek an alternative, but essentially identical, stuck solution.  (Fair enough, there are valuable skills-based training interventions such as fixing a car, learning a programming language or mastering bomb disposal that require tools, techniques and processes, but these are very different beasts to the more profound psychological, social and cultural change efforts that I am suggesting are terribly stuck.)

At a recent creative session I facilitated many of the group found themselves in the familiar pattern of valuing application over awareness, worrying too much about tangible take-aways to be fully aware and present in the moment – a live manifestation of the try harder stuck pattern. Suddenly one participant interrupted and said “You know, I remember when I was little I just used to knock on a friend’s door and ask them if they wanted to come out to play. Exactly what we were going to play, why we’re playing or what we’d get from playing weren’t important to us, we just went out and played! I miss being able to do that – everything in adult life seems to have to have a pre-determined purpose before we are prepared to do it.”  As Fritz Perls once said “People who live futuristically never catch up with the events for which they have prepared and do not reap the fruits of their sowing.”

I’m left wondering what second order, counter-intuitive, non-common-sense ways out of this developmental stuckness are.  Should we place absolute zero value on future application and 100% on increasing here-and-now awareness?  Should we give up on trying to measure the tangible benefits of an intervention and overtly say that it has no point other than to offer an opportunity to fully experience ourselves in the moment?  Should we dampen our impatience/anxiety and stop judging the value of any intervention until a point in the future where, having spent time back in the context of the ‘real world’, the benefits of heightened awareness can be better appreciated?  Should we campaign to adopt Beisser’s theory as a core corporate change mantra?  I can already imagine a plethora of challenging, common sense responses to these ideas but I can also see how each of them would unintentionally reinforce the stuckness.

What would it take for us to simply come out to play and trust that the freedom of fully experiencing playfulness and personal experimentation will lead to more, not less change? How can we short-circuit our obsession with application for long enough to allow us to develop a greater appreciation of the transformative power of heightened awareness? And what sort of brave, corporate challenger does it take to throw the developmental Ox over the castle wall and begin to get everything unstuck?

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  2. andrew says:

    reads a little bit 🙂 like a cross between double loop learning (Argyris) and triple loop (Bateson) with a smattering of the otto scharmer ‘version’ of Presence+TU then blended as per WWF’s attempts to ‘scale’ the ‘unscalable’ – i.e., not ‘seeing’ quality for want of quantity?

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  6. Andrew says:

    The point is surely in Tyrol people were facing starvation and execution. Risk/reward looks a little different in that scenario, and it would *not* be a good strategy for people defending towns to hear about Tyrol and en masse launch all their supplies at the enemy as soon as they are attacked.

    No doubt useful to challenge your thinking and be brave and innovative; but all actions rest on some sort of diagnosis of the problem and an exploration of the opportunity.

    1. Yes, I agree. The unique context is everything in this story and simply copying the action elsewhere when a situation felt similar would be rather foolish. A bit like organisations who simply try to copy the actions and initiatives of others and expect a similar results.

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