In a packed room, two senior executives are facing off each other, white towels on their shoulders. Crouching behind each of them is a 'coach' whispering instructions and massaging their shoulders. Rousing music from the movie Rocky blares from the speakers. And the two leaders get ready to start the fight.
In one of my previous jobs, I was part of an accomplished leadership team - folks who were all highly qualified, value-driven and strongly committed to the cause of youth skilling and jobs.
But over a period of time, differences cropped up on how to achieve that goal. These got complicated due to our differing personalities and world-views. Clear 'camps' emerged. Conversations became increasingly heated. Review meetings were testy, unproductive. It was not an ideal scenario.
I know what some of you might be thinking - Ravi, this is a common occurrence across many workplaces!
I agree. But I want to focus on one specific event which I view as a missed opportunity.
Sometime in 2013 (I think), we got a couple of senior leadership facilitators to run an intervention. They took the entire leadership group (around 11-12 of us) on a 2-day offsite, where we could talk about the contentious points and figure out a way to find common ground and bridge the differences.
Or at least that's what I thought was the objective.
When I went in to that offsite, I had very high expectations. I wanted the facilitators to put us in a safe space and get us to open up with each other. Bring out the differences in a candid way. Disagree without being disagreeable. Share our own perspectives and world-views. Talk about why we thought our approach was right.
In short, that event could have been transformational. It could have gotten us to resolve our deepest differences. Build the foundation of a stronger, more cohesive leadership team. And been a turning point in our organisation's history.
It failed spectacularly.
Due to various reasons - including a failure on our part to take the initiative - the facilitators did nothing of the sort that I expected. They gave us some platitudes about leadership, got us to participate in random exercises and, bizarrely, even went into some aspects of gifted children and human body aura. (That was seriously weird).
Anyway, my overall point: Gatherings matter.
When you get people together, it offers a wonderful opportunity to make a real difference. To examine our deepest assumptions. To get to know each other better. And to get epic stuff done.
And we often blow that opportunity.
This book is a great primer on how to maximise the potential of such gatherings.
Priya Parker is a conflict resolution expert - she gets people together, especially those who have serious differences, and facilitates an open discussion.
This book is not just about conflict resolution though - it is about all types of gatherings. It lays down a roadmap on how to deliberately create and host meaningful all kinds of get-togethers.
One fascinating idea Priya shares is that of creating 'good controversy':
Good controversy is the kind of contention that helps people look more closely at what they care about, when there is danger but also real benefit in doing so. To embrace good controversy is to embrace the idea that harmony is not necessarily the highest, and certainly not the only, value in a gathering.
...good controversy rarely happens on its own. It needs to be designed for and given structure. Because, almost by definition, controversy arises from what people care enough about to argue over, most gatherings are marred either by unhealthy peace or by unhealthy heat. Either no one is really saying anything that they actually think, or you end up with what I call the “Thanksgiving problem”: a total free-for-all of pent-up grievances that often brings out tears and a screaming match...
Here's a powerful example from the book. In one gathering of leaders from an architecture firm, Priya 'architected' a good controversy. Here's what happened:
...the question they (the architecture firm's leaders) were debating: Did they want to remain a bricks-and-mortar architecture firm, or did they want to morph into an experience-design firm? There was serious disagreement in the room on that question, which is why they asked me to orchestrate the gathering. But as the conversation got under way, you wouldn’t know it. Everyone around the table was smiling, friendly, and polite. Each time a partner would go out on a limb and dip a toe into the underlying controversy, she would quickly withdraw. I tried to redirect the group to what divided rather than united them. “Let’s get back to Anne’s point,” I’d suggest. But they were a sophisticated group and were well practiced at what I realized was one of the firm’s dominant norms: avoiding anything that could stir the pot. The emotions I knew to be in the room were not surfacing. I knew that I would soon have to try a new approach, lest the whole meeting come to nothing.
This, this was the moment where Priya shows her skill. She had the sense to understand that the group is being nice and harmonious but not productive. And she realised that they need to be pushed and prodded to debate deeper issues using any means necessary!
And so she decided to do something drastic:
So with the help of my extremely open-minded client, an executive who was not an architect himself but worked for them, we began to scheme at lunch, while everyone was away. In their absence, he and I restructured the room, gathered some towels, and located some Rocky music on YouTube. We were preparing for a cage match.
When the architects returned, they found two giant posters. One extolled a character called the Brain, the other a character called the Body. Each poster featured an actual wrestler’s body, onto which one of the architects’ heads had been hastily photoshopped. We had chosen two architects we knew to be charismatic, playful, and eloquent. Both of them immediately erupted in laughter when they saw what we had put up. We built on their surprise and didn’t give them much of a chance to think. I jumped into the middle of the crowd and announced that there was now going to be a cage match.
I laid out the rules: In Round 1, each wrestler would be given three minutes to make the strongest argument for his side. The Body would have to argue why the firm should absolutely remain focused on the physical, on bricks-and-mortar architecture, on building buildings, for the next hundred years. The Brain would have to make the case for becoming a design firm, an increasingly popular if ethereal creature that took on jobs like crafting the signage within a hospital or organizing the flow of processes in an airport but didn’t necessarily build things. It was a choice between moving with the times and sticking to their core talent.
The outcome - an open, much-needed debate that made people choose what really matters to them:
For the next twenty minutes, thanks to the willingness of the two wrestler-architects, this stuffy, buttoned-up, conservative, genteel group barked, hissed, laughed, taunted, and listened as two architects made two strong, interesting, sharp, and radically different cases for two very different futures. When certain architects were waffling, trying to claim a spot between the two fighters, it was their previously polite peers who called them out: “You have to choose!” The match was confrontational, heated, and argumentative, and it was exactly what we needed.
If you must know, the Body won.
I wish we had someone like Priya facilitating our offsite way back in 2013.
Imagine the number of missed opportunities to make a real difference because we don't think through how to design and conduct our crucial meetings.
Of course, in such events, the facilitator needs a ton of skill to ensure that the heated discussions during such moments does not make the situation worse. It might be advisable to run such an initiative only under the watchful eyes of a trained expert.
Another powerful idea in the book is that of 'generous authority' - where you take charge (it's not a democracy) but do it for the sake of others (generously):
The kinds of gatherings that meaningfully help others are governed by what I call generous authority. A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others. Generous authority is imposing in a way that serves your guests. It spares them from the chaos and anxiety
From formal to informal gatherings
As mentioned, this book is not only about formal meetings - it applies to all types of gatherings, including family get-togethers, office parties, friends meet-ups etc.
Often when it comes to planning most informal parties, we focus on the tangible stuff: The food (super important), the drinks (even more important), the music, the seating, the house-cleaning... and leave the 'intangible' things to chance. We just expect people to mill with each other, have conversations, sing, dance, eat, drink and then leave.
That is such a missed opportunity. I feel that we should put as much, if not more effort on thinking through the intangible stuff. Of course, that does not mean we need to plan out every minute of the guests' time in the party. But leaving it all entirely to unstructured conversations and music/dance is also not the right way to do it.
What might be an example of a planned fun activity for a party with close friends or family? I highly recommend an event like the 'Story Housie' game which can transform such gatherings.
Overall, Priya's book is filled with several examples and ideas for making your gatherings more meaningful.
Fair warning: The book is not the most engaging or insightful to read throughout. I found myself skipping parts and in some cases entire chapters. But its biggest value is in making us realise that gatherings have a life of their own, and it is the host's responsibility to give it shape and direction in order to achieve the audience's shared goals.
For those who may not find time for the book, this TED Talk by Priya offers a good summary of her ideas.
Hat/tip: Thanks to Gwyn Wansbrough for the recommendation.
Another week, another tweet thread by the tireless Tomas Pueyo.
In this one he gives a quick geography 101 of the Indian subcontinent, especially from Pakistan's pov. What is it about Pakistan's geography that makes it vulnerable to such floods...
Most of what Tomas shares are known facts - but the visual storytelling makes it a great primer for anyone who wants to know more.
One TIL moment for me was the concept of 'horse latitudes'.
Source: Tweet by Tomas Pueyo
If this kind of stuff interests you, you can also catch up on an old article I wrote about the geographical factors that led to Delhi becoming India's capital.
This podcast episode features historian Ian Morris discussing his latest book 'Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels'.
Ian Morris writes in a similar mould and in this book offers a fascinating hypothesis: that human morals and values are not unchanging and set-in-stone... They are instead driven by the context of our environment, especially by how we manipulate energy.
Consider the question: If morals and values are unchanging and self-evident, why have they changed so significantly over time:
Wind back 1,000 years and the moral landscape looks very different to today. Most farming societies thought slavery was natural and unobjectionable, premarital sex was an abomination, women should obey their husbands, and commoners should obey their monarchs.
Wind back 10,000 years and things look very different again. Most hunter-gatherer groups thought men who got too big for their britches needed to be put in their place rather than obeyed, and lifelong monogamy could hardly be expected of men or women.
Why such big systematic changes — and why these changes specifically?
Ian Morris has a theory:
In 'Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels', Ian presents a provocative alternative: human culture gradually evolves towards whatever system of organisation allows a society to harvest the most energy, and we then conclude that system is the most virtuous one. Egalitarian values helped hunter-gatherers hunt and gather effectively. Once farming was developed, hierarchy proved to be the social structure that produced the most grain (and best repelled nomadic raiders). And in the modern era, democracy and individuality have proven to be more productive ways to collect and exploit fossil fuels.
On this theory, it’s technology that drives moral values much more than moral philosophy. Individuals can try to persist with deeply held values that limit economic growth, but they risk being rendered irrelevant as more productive peers in their own society accrue wealth and power. And societies that fail to move with the times risk being conquered by more pragmatic neighbours that adapt to new technologies and grow in population and military strength.
You may disagree with Ian's theories but will surely learn something new from his clear, passionate and articulate arguments.
This is very cool - if you can't zoom in within the email, click on the link and zoom on on the Twitter site...!
We spoke about the dominance of sequels and reboots in Hollywood in last week's newsletter.
In Bollywood the story is ... a bit different? At least over the last 20 years, the share of remakes has steadily come down; but franchise movies are increasing!
A list of useful tips to speed up your Google Chrome browser.
“A group is ruled by the conversations it can't have.”
- Richart Bartlett on Twitter
In this hilarious video Shraddha takes on the idea of 'superfoods'!
Her ability to create clean content on everyday situations with so much wit, warmth and humour is priceless.
That's it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the week.