What can we learn from pirates about being more creative?

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at PurpleBeach.com

What can we learn from the golden age of piracy? That was the question posed by Kyra Maya Phillips, co-author of ‘The Misfit Economy’. Sadly, Kyra began by debunking the myth that pirates spent their time making people walk the plank in shark infested seas, had peg legs and said things like, ‘Aye,Aye me hearties’. Instead, pirates were early adopters of hierarchy-free enterprise. All crew members received an equal share in the booty, except for the Captain who rarely got more than a double share. Compare that to modern CEOs!

The quartermaster, responsible for dividing the booty,was also the main recruiting officer. According to Kyra, many merchant sailors who had been press ganged into joining the navy, hoped to be raided by pirates as their only chance to escape the tyranny of their own ship captains. No wonder the punishment for piracy was death by hanging!

Despite pirate crew members’ reputation for being ‘mad, drunk and illiterate’, they were still able to pioneer democratic models of working, based on shared values and common purpose. There is also evidence of early pirate social protection schemes involving compensation for injuries and payments made to their widows.

While not condoning the illegal activities of pirates, or their modern day equivalents (hackers, counterfeiters,etc.) Kyra suggests there is much we can learn from how they organised themselves, giving the example of small gaming companies with ‘no management’ philosophies, who encourage team members to collaborate and innovate spontaneously. It may not work for large organisations, but if you want to make your team more creative, think how they can be a little more swashbuckling!

See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2014Postcards/viewBlog/3/What-can-we-learn-from-pirates-about-being-more-creative?#sthash.EhG0fLK7.dpuf

Who do you get to challenge you?

When I started my career in the mid 80s with Bain & Company, in those days known as ‘the KGB of management consultancies’, a favourite mantra was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.  I’ve often reflected since then how dangerous it can be to promote a culture of relentless positivism at the expense of openness. How many times have we all witnessed slow motion corporate train crashes – accidents that could have been avoided if only people had the courage to speak out without fear of being branded a ‘negative thinker’.

At the recent, excellent ‘PurpleBeach‘ launch event, I was fascinated to hear Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness talk about how we deal with situations at work where everyone can see the problem, but no one does anything about it. This was the ‘postcard’ that I wrote from the beach:

Margaret Heffernan tells a story about Dr Alice Stewart, an Oxford based epidemiologist who in the 1950s, conducted research into the causes of childhood cancer. Dr Stewart had asked herself why, contrary to most trends, the disease was more prevalent amongst children of affluent families. By extensive statistical analysis, she found that by a factor of 3:1, the children’s mothers were more likely to have had an X-ray during pregnancy. Yet although Dr Stewart published her findings immediately, it took 25 years for the practice to be banned in the UK.

The problem was not that Dr Stewart was a woman, nor that she was a ‘difficult person’. Indeed, a research project at the Harvard School of health found similar results but still took 26 years to change the practice in the US.

What enabled Dr Stewart to keep fighting for 25 years? In Margaret’s telling of the story, the answer lies in her collaboration with George Kneale, a somewhat ‘nerdy’ and nocturnal statistician. Kneale declared it his job to prove Dr Stewart wrong. If he could not, he declared, it would give Dr Stewart the confidence to keep on fighting. And the outcome was that he couldn’t prove her wrong and she did keep on fighting.

As Margaret explains, the story is a fantastic example of “thinking partners who work not as echo chambers but as challengers of orthodoxy.” Her question to the audience was simple: , “Do you have someone who challenges everything you do because they want you to do your best work?”

How does this translate into how people behave in the workplace? Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin in their seminal 2003 study into organisational science at NYU* asked execs if they had issues and concerns at work that they don’t voice. An incredible 85% said they did. “That’s a lot of silence,” says Margaret. Fear of retribution was a key factor. In a similar study in Europe, the silence was explained by a sense of futility that nothing will change as a result. How many times have we all heard a similar message from employees when they complete the annual survey?

Margaret shares an illustrative story of an executive in medical equipment company who worried that a device they were due to launch was not safe. When he finally raised his concerns, it turned out that everyone else had the same thought.

The challenge we all face, says Margaret, is to create noisier workplaces, where people are not afraid to raise issues because it could lead to conflict. Without conflict, there is no thought and without thought, no progress. She argues that executives need to be trained to initiate conflict in a way that does not frighten others and that organisations must celebrate the people who are prepared to do this.

In today’s volatile economic climate, the problem is even more acute. High levels of executive unemployment and high mortgages lead to “obedient workforces” and that spells trouble ahead for businesses.

Meanwhile, for individuals, who fear the personal consequences of speaking out, Margaret has some sage advice. Save up some “running away money” . You never know when you will need it!

*An exploratory study of employee silence: issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why – Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin

 

 

The power of mindfulness

Last year, I completed a coaching foundation course with Third Space Coaching, an experience I would recommend to anyone who wants to improve their ability to connect with people, as a communicator, a counsellor or simply as a human being. For me the most profound learning from the course was to experience how powerful it is to be truly listened to by another human being. Whether at work or in our personal lives, attention deficit syndrome has become the new normality for social interaction. Instead of listening to each other with full attention, we are increasingly distracted by our mobile devices, our personal agendas, our increasing disconnection from humanity.

During the course, we practiced mindfulness, the act of ‘being present’ for each other. When we listened to someone’s story, we did so with full concentration and attentiveness, our feet firmly planted on the floor facing the speaker, our vision focused on their non-verbal signals, are minds emptied of all thoughts except those inspired by the  unfolding narrative.

Since the course, I have tried to apply my learning to my working life, not always with success, but in a conscious effort to improve listening as a core communication skill.

I was reminded of my experience while taking part in the PurpleBeach launch experience last week. Listening to Tara Sheahan, co-founder of the Conscious Global Leadership Programme, was an inspirational experience. Here is the text of an article that I wrote for the PurpleBeach website that describes Tara’s story, how a tick bite set her on the path to discover the power of mindfulness:

“Tara Sheahan considered herself to be gifted with good genes. As well as being a wife and mother, she was an high level athlete, runner, and skier. But when at age 35, she contracted Lyme’s disease from a tick bite, she suddenly found herself at risk of losing her whole sense of identity. When she tried to run, every joint of her body screamed. When she tried to cook, the smallest pan was painful to hold.

What didn’t help was Tara’s sense of needing to be perfect. Being sick felt like being broken, useless. She hated asking anyone for help, found it painful to admit she couldn’t do something. Looking back, Tara likens the state to being like a caterpilllar in chrysalis. As Tara describes it, “there’s a stage when it becomes goo, loses all identity, becomes non-identifiable – that’s how I felt.”

Eventually, Tara realised that her negative thoughts were affecting her immune system. She learned that becoming a butterfly was about letting go and asking for help. That meant shedding the concept that her self worth derived from being an athlete. Instead, Tara set herself a new goal – to become great at loving her kids.

The experience of loving and feeling loved was like suddenly feeling free, even though she was still completely exhausted from her illness.

As she began to heal herself with positive thinking, Tara studied the relationship between mind and body. Inspired by John Sarno’s book ‘Mind Body Prescription’, Tara learned that the body has its own ecology; how negative thoughts secrete cortisol and positive thoughts secrete dopamine. She became fascinated with how, even when you are having a great time outdoors in the sunshine, your mind will suddenly ask you, “oh no did I lock the car?”.  She concluded that because the mind wants to keep us safe and so it constantly worries. Yet the effect of that is damaging to our wellbeing.

With these insights, Tara began a new journey to learn how to change her thoughts. On a 21 day ‘silent trek’ in India, she discovered how easy it is to become overcome by worry and self-criticism, constantly comparing oneself to others because we think they are more beautiful, more talented, more intelligent that we are. It’s so easy to always think, “I’m never good enough.”

Tara discovered that through ‘mindfulness’, it is possible to become at ease with ourselves. For example, simply by learning how to control our breathing, we can control feelings of stress and anxiety in our lives. Through daily practice of simple exercises to connect mind and body, we can all cultivate a sense of wellbeing and joy.”