Dealing successfully with event complexity

event complexity Event complexity

In 1975, I was stricken with viral meningitis while attending a conference in the former Yugoslavia. While spending ten unexpected days recovering flat on my back in a Split hospital, my only reading matter was an English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the circumstances, that Taoism stealthily and permanently insinuated itself into my psyche.

Reading Atul Gawande‘s unexpectedly excellent book The Checklist Manifesto recently, reminded me of Lao Tsu’s advice on dealing with complex issues:

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.”
Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English translation)

Ruling a country surely qualifies as a complex undertaking. Lao Tsu’s ancient wisdom suggests we approach such a task — whether it’s a well-cooked meal or a well-governed country — with a mindful attention to detail and action that simultaneously encompasses the big-picture desired outcome.

Leading and following

Gawande updates this advice for modern societies. When working on complex tasks, we have largely moved from the ancient single ruler/leader model of Lao Tsu’s era to organizational models that, to be successful, require many people to be both leaders and followers. As he says:

“…under conditions of true complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either—that is anarchy. Instead they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectations to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.”
—Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

Atul’s “seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation” — surely a classic Taoist paradox — is at the heart of what I believe to be the best approach to the design and facilitation of events: those complex amalgams of numerous complex human beings brought together in time and space for complex and often unknown or unconscious ends.

As I’ve shared in Leadership, Conferences, and Freedom, the best events I have been involved in offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens coupled with the support and expectation that they will exercise the freedom they have been given.

In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, and what happens when they speak up and collectively build the event they want and need, the vast majority embrace this new approach to define and satisfy their personal and collective desired outcomes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 127130111@N06

Ask, tell, ask

ask tell ask In his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”

Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:

“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.”
—Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7

“Ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?

The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.

  • Without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.
  • Asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately. This not only improves the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allows him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.

Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikecogh