Over the past 20 years I have played with change in a range of financial institutions with variable success. Then a year ago, I was invited to join a bank-wide transformation like nothing I had ever experienced before. If I had only three words to describe my first impressions a month after my arrival about the bank’s culture, they would be: Friendly, capable and open.
A year on and those words still hold true. What’s more, for many of us these may also be the same three words we wished we could use to describe not just the institutions we entrust our life savings to, but also the places where we do our life’s work.
For the past year I have provided individual and group coaching to senior managers and their teams, as well as individual leadership coaching to organisational change agents such as Scrum Master and Agile Coaches. I have co-designed and co-delivered Agile and leadership training, facilitated numerous programme increment planning for groups in person and remotely as well as accompanied a number of programme teams on their Agile journey.
A Different Kind of Agile Adventure
“So what?” I hear you say. What has made my latest Agile Adventure different to those in the past, is this. By taking a more systemic stance, seeing, thinking and taking action with the whole system in mind, I have enabled more positive and enduring change… Sooner with less effort. Repeatably. Continuously. And have more fun. As many of my colleagues will agree.
So what’s my key learning? In order to do my life’s work, I need to continuously transform myself. Sounds simple and is anything but easy.
My Three Lifesavers
As a wise Agile coach once said to me, “A dead Agile coach is no good to anyone.” Here are my three latest lifesaving principles as I learn to sail my ship:
Keep my own drama out of my work
Do I what I do best
Remember what my work is in service of – not only the individual but the system as a whole.
Symbiosis of Change and Change Agent
Thank you to everyone with whom I’ve had a chance to work with and learn from in the past 12 months. It’s been jampacked with challenge and delight. A year on from an auspicious beginning, as this particular chapter now comes to an end, I am physically and mentally fitter and healthier than when I started. And if my body could still grow vertically, I’d be at least an inch taller now 12 months later.
Here’s one way I’ve found to enable transformational change and have lots of fun doing it. With love. Au revoir! Auf Wiedersehen! Play on!
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Today I invite you to explore a topic from one of the many systems to which I belong, the world of Agile. And the topic is Agile Leadership, a concept made of two halves.
On the one hand, there’s “Agile” the family of methods for delivering value that is iterative and incremental. I began practicing Agile shortly after its inception when I began my professional life as a Java developer 19 years ago. The key to learning about Agile for me is this: To be agile, you have to practice Agile. Sounds simple and is anything but easy. Otherwise, Agile wouldn’t continue to be as much of an industry as it is today.
On the other hand is “Leadership” which requires an understanding of how systems work, in particular, relationship systems. What do I mean by “relationship system”? I find this avian metaphor from Coaching Constellations creator John Whittington useful.
Imagine each of us are a peacock. Behind each of us is a fan of feathers, with each feather representing a relationship system we have come from. From education systems, to previous professional systems as well as current professional systems, to social and cultural systems. And, of course, our family of origin. It’s no wonder that when we get together as groups and teams in an organisation, we end up ruffling each other’s feathers. Peafowl and politics indeed.
And just before you lose hope at the seemingly impossible mission of changing a system for greater good in your lifetime, it turns out you are key to that change. Why? Because as a systemic leader, the first system to look at is your own. In principle, we each stand a better chance of changing ourselves than those around us. As a systemic leader, you work on your own “system” in service of the wider system, your organisation.
Let’s Go Play in the Field
Where are you right now in relation to Agile Leadership? Notice what comes to mind. Or perhaps in your body. Simply acknowledge what is. That is enough.
The Route to Healthy Organisations
During my play research, I stumbled upon a curious discovery. The word “business” according to the ancient Chinese translates to mean literally “meaning of life”. If this is true, organisations can be a place where you can do your life’s work. Living your life’s purpose. At work. Imagine that. And in order to live your life’s purpose, many of the great philosophers agree that we each need to work in service of the wider system and not the individual. To work for greater good. That’s what distinguishes a job from a career, a career from a calling.
The Five Ancient Agile Values
As a young IT professional trying to make sense of how organisations worked, one of the key texts that has shaped my professional path these past 19 years from developer to development manager to consultant then Agile coach and most recently executive and personal coach is Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming (aka XP) Explained (1st and 2nd editions). What captured my twenty-something heart and gave me the courage to work and play in service of something greater than myself are the XP values: Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect. It seemed like fair play to me.
Agile Leadership Through a Systemic Lens
Communication: As leaders, it is essential that our “three brains” are aligned, the one in our head, our heart and our gut. Without this internal alignment, our leadership is as discombobulated as we are. This somatic coherence sounds simple and is anything but easy. Otherwise, leadership wouldn’t continue to be as much of an industry as it is today.
Being human is also about human-being and human-doing. It is a combination of thought and action. This is why it is important to know your values, to embody that knowing of what you stand for in all three brains so that you can live and breathe your values, day in, day out. This is what engenders trust. In yourself. And in others.
Simplicity: What do you do to add value? Is what you’re doing useful? Add value every day. Start small. As Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or in XP, one baby step at a time. The important thing is to begin. To live a value-driven and values-driven life.
Feedback: Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Notice any inner chatter. Acknowledge what is instead of wishing for what could be. A key systemic principle is the balance of exchange. A balance of giving and taking. Which of your three brains have you excluded? A systemic leader ensures each brain has a place just like each person in their team has a place. Anyone that is excluded will lead to organisational entanglements and difficulties that compromise organisational health for all.
Courage: Show up as yourself. From a centred place. A place of mindfulness and meditation. A place where you will not be easily recruited by other people and their stories which serve to only entangle the system further to the detriment of everyone in the system. Perhaps one of the most courageous acts for many is this: Play at work. Give it a go. I find inspires me and others towards a greater purpose. Leading by example.
Respect: This value was added in the second version of Kent’s book. And it was the game-changer for me. It addresses 3 key needs we all have as human beings: Belonging, safety and recognition.
Belonging: It ensures everyone has a place. No one is excluded.
Safety: Each of us agree to be the same-size. No one is bigger, no one is more than another.
Recognition: To truly see and be with one another requires us to “go beyond the field of right and wrong” and meet each other in the field of non-judgment described by Sufi poet Rumi.
A useful reminder regarding respect I’ve found among leaders is this: “Giving up wanting to help or to rescue people is essential if you sincerely respect them.” from the creator of Family Constellations Bert Hellinger.
Back in the Playing Field
Now that we’ve come full circle, I invite you to consider this: What would be a baby step towards better for you and each of those people or entities who are part of your Agile Leadership system? And if what you are contemplating were a chapter in a book, what would be the chapter heading in just a few words? Say them out loud. Play with the words until they feel true. To you.
Thank you for joining me in the field today. I had fun. I hope you had fun, too. I invite you to take what’s useful and leave behind what’s not with me. Let’s play again soon!
The Dream Team Nightmare by Portia Tung – A “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Agile novel with eight different endings designed to enrich and put your Agile knowledge and experience to the test. Contains useful exercises to try with your team as well as an Agile glossary. Also available on Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles online stores.
We hope you’ve had a playful summer and are looking forward to Nature’s colour orchestra as autumn sets in.
Summer in Two Countries
This summer saw the launch of our flagship programme on Playful Leadership which leverages the latest research on Play Science, neuroscience, psychology and coaching to explore and develop your personalised leadership style through play. The first ever Playful Leadership Foundation course took place this sunny July at Chicheley Hall in beautiful Buckinghamshire, the UK country home of the Royal Society.
A lucky bunch of us are off next week on 7-8 October for some outdoor play and indoor contemplation for the next Playful Leadership Foundation course. Registration is now closed. We will be announcing more dates for next year soon!
Other Upcoming Courses
For a thought-provoking, playful and change experience when it comes to creating effective Agile transformations, there are two options this autumn in two equally beautiful cities:
Yay! The School of Play turns 3 today (proof that the Universe has a sense of humour given it’s April 1st), the same week as our favourite play festival CounterPlay 2019 gets ready to play later on this week (BTW you can still buy a ticket to play at CounterPlay).
To celebrate our toddler of a startup’s birthday we are launching our Playful Leadership Foundation Course set to take place this 8-9 July in the beautiful venue of Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire, a stunning Grade I listed mansion as featured in film and television projects as Pride and Prejudice, The Meaning of Life, and Black Beauty.
Chicheley Hall is also the home of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, a venue for residential events. As the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, The Royal Society is dedicated to promoting excellence in science and is a fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists.
We very much hope you’ll come and join us to play at Chicheley Hall this summer to experience and celebrate the transformative power of play!
Ever since I can remember, I have approached each new year like Indiana Jones the Temple of Doom. For me, a new year is a paradoxical praline, a seductive chocolatey shell of adventure and challenge filled with a soft centre of unease flavoured with dread. And the only way to deal with dodgy chocolate? Run it off of course.
And that’s when I remember one of the most useful lessons I learned in 2018: to welcome my Fear whenever, wherever and however it shows up. Then give it a hug.
And then I remember a curious riddle and answer I once saw while splashing about in a hotel swimming pool far away from home, spelt out in mini turquoise and white tiles: “What is the shortest distance between two people? A smile.”
Three Magical Words
And before you know it, instead of my usual greeting of “Good Morning!”, I find myself uttering a heart-felt wish out loud to each and every passerby: “Happy New Year!” First to a young couple out jogging together. Then to an elderly lady walking her cockapoo. And then to a family of father, mother and their grownup son. And then to an elderly man who seemed deep in thought.
In reply to my gift of a wish of “Happy New Year!”, that elderly gentleman said with deep sincerity, “I hope you make lots of money!” To which I reply with a challenge and a smile, “May be happiness!”
And that’s all it took, a simple wish of “Happy New Year!” from one human being to another to light up our faces and keep our hearts warm.
That’s when I remember what is probably the most beautiful song in the world: “What a Wonderful World” performed by Louis Armstrong. And my running adventure this morning was just like he sang, “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do / They’re really saying I love you.”
And I’m reminded, “I hear babies crying, I watch them grow / They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know.”
One of my favourite things is to think the unthinkable, speak the speakable, dream the seemingly impossible. It forces me to dig deep, face my fears and then befriend them – after all, they’re part of who am I so why wouldn’t I care for them like I do the rest of me?
And when I give my fears the time of day, listen to all they have to say and thank them… something magical happens. I am suddenly reminded that now’s as good a time as any to live my life’s purpose because no one else is going to do it for me. And that I won’t be around forever to do my life’s work.
F for Fun, Fear and Friends
Just before I created my puppy of a startup The School of Play, I met up with my friend Mark. He’d always struck me as a good listener and wise and kind. I wanted to sound him out on my latest idea.
Me: I know this sounds crazy, but I’m going to create The School of Play to promote happier adulthood through lifelong play.
Me: I think it’s my life’s purpose.
Me: So what do you think?
Mark: I think you’re right.
Mark’s calm and non-judgmental response wasn’t only refreshing but it helped me realise I was onto something huge because, as a person with endless ideas that challenge the status quo, I’m used to people telling me I’m an idealist and why my ideas won’t work in the real world.
While our brains are delighted with the surprise of the new and we extend our comfort zones through continuous growth, to expand our self-definition we need challenge. Gretchen goes on to describe how the more elements we have that make up our identity, the more robust and resilient we become when one of those elements are threatened, such as losing our job.
The Meaning of Life
But what’s the point of being robust and resilient if we don’t know our life’s purpose? I’m 42 and I’m not alone in experiencing so-called midlife crisis regularly and often. Each crisis has been an opportunity to either move closer or further away from the person I wish to become. In my experience, Purpose exists to light the way less travelled.
My wish to promote happier adulthood through lifelong play is my attempt to create a better world for my little girl and her friends as well as all those children who are now grown up and have the chance to effect positive change as adults, for themselves and for future generations.
What’s your life’s purpose? And what’s the smallest step you can take to live the life you long for?
First of all, a big “Thank You!” to those of you who’ve written to let me know I’m not a lone sufferer of Legophobia and shared your personal brick stories of terror and bravery.
Second of all, an even bigger “THANK YOU!” to those of you who complained that I had made up a condition to justify my prejudice against what is probably one of the most beloved childhood toys in human history. After all, the only appropriate answer when one is given feedback is, of course, “Thank You”.
According to Urban Dictionary, Legophobia is “the irrational fear of playing with a Lego set”. Urban Dictionary goes on to assert that the fear is due to “a person’s negative school experience when trying to visualise three-dimensional solids”. This definition has been given a definitive 210 thumbs up from 210 Urban Dictionary readers.
Ways of Seeing
I can’t remember when my aversion to Lego developed, but I remember struggling with the VRML module on my Masters in Computer Science course. These days I still find it hard to visualise in 3D but that’s because I naturally visualise in 2D images and words. As a writer, my preference for words and 2D to date has been more than sufficient in enabling my imagination to express itself.
What’s more, I’ve managed to lead an extraordinarily playful life in spite of my limited physical depth perception. With hindsight, I believe this is partly because of my acute level of critical self-reflection. You lose some, you win some.
The Same Fear by Another Name
A further Google search reveals that a synonym for Legophobia is Lateriphobia (from Latin Lateri meaning “brick”), a term coined by Kaleb Palmer in 2015.
According to Kaleb, Lateriphobia is a condition you are either born with or develop as a result of “difficult or terrifying experiences” with Lego such as “accidentally deconstructing it then fixing it”.
Kaleb continues, “In extreme cases, Lateriphobia can cause hysteria. Sufferers may feel like the Legos are trying to harm them and do what they can to either destroy or escape the Legos”.
I have no doubt many of us will have observed repeatedly such reactions from toddlers attempting to play with Lego, to young children transitioning from Duplo to Lego as well as older children and adults.
Lateriphobia as a Lifelong Companion
Based on my observations and firsthand experience, I assert all human beings are susceptible to Lateriphobia throughout our lives. What’s more, Lateriphobia could be used to describe the universal human condition that is our aversion to learning: because learning causes discomfort, can be difficult, requires work as well as reveals our deficiencies and incompetencies.
I suffer from Legophobia. I first realised I had this condition when I attended an introductory Lego Serious Play workshop run by wonderful Lego Meisters Duo Katrin Elster and Jens Hoffmann at the ever playful conference Play4Agile some years ago.
Prior to attending that workshop, I’d noticed in passing that as an adult, given a choice of playing with Lego or another activity, I always preferred the alternative (including doing chores!). And since building Lego didn’t feature in my job description at the time, I dismissed my aversion as simply a personal preference.
It wasn’t until I found myself having to first follow instructions to build a turtle as a warmup exercise and then use it to represent my thoughts that I realised the severity of my Legophobia.
My inner critic shrieked with pain as I struggled to piece the brick animal together. What’s more, I was surrounded by other adults who were clearly more adept than I was and I had to refrain from snapping back at offers of help.
“You’re rubbish at Lego!” my inner critic remarked. “Should have played more with Lego when you were little!” it continued. “Following instructions has never been your strong point!” it hollered. “Everyone will see when you get it wrong!” it sniggered.
“But the hard edges as so constraining,” I protested. “I prefer curves and round edges. I’d much rather be implementing my own design rather than following someone else’s. This feels like handwork. Where’s the fun in all this?”
Not to mention other perturbing challenges such as searching for a particular widgety piece in among a mountain of similar looking bricks which reminded me of searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack or, worst still, looking for something important and not being able to find it because I hadn’t been tidy enough.
Yet in spite of the clamorous voices in my head (isn’tthere an orchestra in yours?), Katrin and Jens had somehow created a safe space for me to first recognise my Legophobia and second to engage as an active participant so that I could learn from the experience.
Since then I’ve attended the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Facilitator Training run by Katrin which was one of the most demanding and draining training courses I’d ever been on, but also one of the most rewarding as it deeply affected me throughout the course and long after the course was over.
Letting It Go with Lego
The course enabled me to experience firsthand the importance of psychological safety (also known as safe play), a key ingredient to true play. True play is the place where deep learning takes place and, if you’re lucky, transformative change happens in what could be described as an enjoyable way. The playfulness of expressing my metaphors through Lego models helped me learn what true vulnerability means among adults and it feels just as Elsa described in her snow song. Who would have thought plastic bricks could evoke such as a sense of ice lolly freedom?
Hope and Play
My favourite insight to date from my Lego Serious Play encounter has been this. Just as Hope research reveals that a person’s past hopefulness in no way predetermines a person’s future hopefulness, we each of us have the choice to choose to play differently in spite of our personal play history. How will you choose to play?
Having engaged in play with thousands of adults for the past sixteen years in various roles, ranging from Agile coach, trainer and keynote speaker to executive and personal coach, I am convinced that play is the most effective, efficient and enjoyable way to bring about positive change.
True Love for True Play
From leading live sing-alongs of “Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes” at conference keynotes held at places like Churchill College, Cambridge and the Ministry of Justice to facilitating organisational change in large corporates and running play adventure experiences, I have repeatedly witnessed and experienced firsthand the phenomenon of true play. True play, to paraphrase Play Expert Dr Stuart Brown, is fair play, safe play and being a good sport. True play enables people to re-open their hearts and minds to learn and grow where previously they may have existed as zombies shuffling to the beat of 9-to-5. True play reinvigorates the mind, body and spirit like no other tool, technique or framework I have come across in all my years of zombification, first as a working adult and in the past 4 years as a working parent.
Following the Footsteps of Kindred Spirits
So imagine my delight when I recently stumbled upon Gretchen Rubin’s concept of a “happiness project” (the reason I missed her book the first time around was because I was too busy playing with a number of my own happiness experiments all involving play of course!).
According to Gretchen, each person’s happiness project will be unique. The first step to defining your happiness project is to answer the following 3 questions:
1. What makes you feel good?
Because of the nature of my job as an organisational change agent and working in a number of highly toxic environments (thus inducing a feeling of being perpetually discombobulated), play became my goto coping mechanism.I learned very early on that if I can’t laugh at myself, then I’ve missed the biggest joke of all. Over the years, I have developed key survival skills such as making light of the intolerable to bring hope (even for but a moment) where previously there was only corporate darkness and despair.
2. What makes you feel bad?
Being surrounded by wasted lives – untapped human potential in others and myself (of course!). This became a top priority when I became a parent because I discovered that in spite of all the playing I’d done in my professional capacity with adults, I knew nothing about true play when it came to working with real play experts such as my own newborn. What I needed was to learn and grow more, faster than I’d ever done since being a child myself.
3. What feels right?
Play has been a lifelong passion for me because it’s synonymous with continuous learning and personal growth powered by love and kindness for others beginning with love and kindness for oneself. Formalising my passion for play, from play science and play philosophy to play culture, makes becoming a play researcher an obvious next step.
My Happiness Play Project
My happiness project is based on research answers to the following questions:
Is it possible to become a more playful person?
What is play anyway?
How can I become a more playful adult?
How can I become a more playful parent?
I’ve decided to adopt a personal approach to my research because, like Gretchen’s happiness project (how to make herself happier), I believe that change begins with myself and if I can figure out how to become a more playful adult and parent, then it’s highly likely that other people may find the research useful too since our common denominator is as human beings.
I invite you to join me on what is sure to be a playful adventure – challenging and changing the way we live by becoming our best playful selves. For you. For me. For humanity.
By the way, did I mention that risky play is a key ingredient to true play? Play at your peril to live long and prosper. Happy 2018!
The School of Play turns one today! And as though by magic, it falls on April Fools’ Day.
Dare to Dream Greatly
The School of Play began as one of my most ambitious dreams to date. It goes like this:
One day, when my little girl is all grown up, just before she sets foot on her starship, ready for yet another intergalactic mission to make new friends and facilitate intergalactic peace, she turns around and kisses me on the cheek. “Mama,” she says, “I love doing what I do every day with my friends knowing that we’re creating a better world.”
And that’s when I know we’ve together created a world where everyone can thrive by turning their dreams into a reality. Just imagine what such a world would be like!
The Power of a Wish
Like all powerful wishes, The School of Play came to life in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. Many people would tell me, “Are you sure you want to include the word ‘play’ in the name of your school? People might not take it seriously”. While others would simply roll their eyes with disapproval and disgust at the thought of adults having fun, not just at home but at work, too.
And that’s when I knew I was onto something important. Every time I’ve had a truly weird and wonderful idea, I’d experienced such negative reactions. That was, until I moved out of the naysayers’ sphere of influence and went in search for others who were courageous, nurturing and generous enough to let other people’s ideas live.
The first year of running the school has turned me into an entrepreneur, a product manager, a web designer, an accountant and a philanthropist and much more besides. That’s not to say that I’m an expert in all those roles, but rather I now get to practice whole-heartedly things like Lean and Agile principles and practices and put them to the test on my life’s purpose: to promote happier adulthood through lifelong play.
Gratitude and Friendship
And so it is with great gratitude and joy (not to mention relief), that I find myself celebrating The School’s first birthday with global playmakers in a world playground created by play visionary Mathias Poulsen with the purpose of creating a more playful society for greater good for all.