By Chris Chittenden
Human beings have a future focus, so much so that the well-known philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed us "human becomings". Human beings are constantly pulled between two forces - a tendency to conserve what already exists and a tendency to expand or change our current existence.
Everyone has these conservative and expansive tendencies to varying degrees. These tendencies shape our hopes and fears for ourselves and for those we care about. These hopes and fears relate to the future, yet the future is unknown. This leads many people into moods of anxiety and resignation and a sense that they are not in control of their lives. Those people tend to live in a world where they act in a tentative manner or perhaps do not act at all.
From an organisational perspective, this impacts on productivity. This is not a trivial matter. People with a predominant conservative tendency are likely to feel anxious and powerless in a changing environment. Given the rate of change today, if these people chose to stop and reflect on their mood, they may find themselves in moods of resentment, resignation and anxiety. Resentment because they cannot accept that change is happening, resignation because they cannot see any possibilities for them in the change and anxiety because they fear the uncertainty of change.
Our underlying moods in life predispose us to act in certain ways. Resentment predisposes us to blame and revenge, resignation to not acting at all and anxiety to tentative action. None of these predispositions serve an individual or an organisation well.
So how can we shift people to develop greater expansive tendencies?
For us, the key lies in seeing possibilities for future action that might benefit those people.
Possibilities are the stuff of the future but they are not something that lives independently of us. Rather they live within each of us. A possibility only exists for us if we declare it so. If a human being does not see a future action as possible, they will take that action and so it is not a possibility.
We can generate possibilities in one of two ways and both starts with a declaration to take a break from what we are doing to explore what could be. We call this "interrupting our busy-ness".
The first way to generate possibilities is independently of others. We can reflect on a situation and look for new ways of dealing with it. The limitation is that we can only see possibilities from our own knowledge. We are blind to possibilities outside of our framework.
In other words, we will develop possibilities from what we know. Even if we know that we don't know something, then that is a form of knowledge. By knowing that we do not know, we can find out what we do not know. For example if we know that a field of activity such as golf exists, then playing golf becomes a possibility although we may know nothing about it. We can read books, go to a golf pro and so on to find out more.
However, for every human being there is a vast field of possibilities that we do not know even exists. We do not know that we do not know. We call this cognitive blindness.
This brings us to the second way of generating possibilities and that is in conversation with others. By engaging with others, we reduce our combined blindness and so create a wider range of possibilities.
Conversations for possibilities are most productive when a few ground rules are adopted.
As we have said earlier, the first step is to declare a break to have the conversation. The next step is to identify what is missing, define the domain of conversation and to ensure that everyone agrees before proceeding.
Next it is important to establish a mood of wonder and curiosity for the conversation. If possible find a place that is light, airy and lifts the spirit. Somewhere where you can relax and let your minds run free.
When you engage in the conversation, make sure that you do not judge ideas as they come up. This will only stifle the conversation. Rather you should attempt to build on the ideas of others. Also be prepared to put forward ideas that at first glance may not seem useful. Others may build on them in ways that you cannot see.
Towards the end of the conversation, make sure that you start to formulate specific actions so that possibilities can become something more.
Conversations for possibilities are about designing the future and developing a sense of control. They can be the first step in shifting out of moods such as resignation and anxiety. In times of rapid change, you should be frequently engaging in these sorts of conversations to ensure that you are designing a future that is aligned with the current situation and not just continuing to do things because that is how they have always been done.
© 2001 Chris Chittenden