A Plan for No Plan

Michael and I are about to head out for our annual vacation week in Port Clyde, Maine. We’ve been renting the Gable Ends cottage with our good friends Dave and Kathryn Dodge for the last five years; it’s become our “end of summer” time for reflecting on what has been and preparing for what will be. The cottage, designed and built in the early 1900s by architect Russell W. Porter, sits on the water’s edge and could have been plucked right out of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The porch invites long, leisurely hours of reading and napping, and provides prime viewing of lobster boats, tourist charters and solo sailors.

Dave is an en plein air artist. His week mainly consists of setting up his easel, either  just off the porch facing the water or down the road along the rocks that bank  Marshall Point Lighthouse. (yes…that lighthouse. The one that Forrest Gump runs up  to, turns around and runs back from during his cross-country jog.)

Michael, Kathryn and I wile away the days with walks to the town’s general store or up to the lighthouse, with long, rich conversations and tall stacks of books. No pressure to do or go, just whatever nudges us in-the-moment.

The week is restorative and allows us to reconnect in a sustaining way, much differently than our often hurried phone calls and text messages that, although keeping us connected, lack the human touch that enriches our friendship.

I recently facilitated a design meeting for an upcoming leadership offsite. When the conversation began to explore a team-building activity for the agenda, strong opinions emerged about what they did not want. Some ideas were deemed uncomfortable; others were off-putting. (Phrases like “touchy-feely” were even batted about.)

I offered an alternate option. What if we didn’t “design” an activity, something that would be “played” and debriefed during the offsite. What if, instead, the team just spent more “off-time” together? We could carve out time on the  agenda to be together away from the meeting room, and to do something relaxing, fun and interesting. Since the team had established a goal to continue to deepen their relationships, why not just “hang out” with each other?

Ideas began to bounce around the room. Perhaps tour a local winery? Go to an aquarium? Play softball? The specific activity didn’t really matter; what was important was planning unplanned time, time without a set agenda or “learning” outcome, time together that will help enrich relationships.

I really believe that our work relationships, and our commitment to deepening those relationships, are foundational to both enjoying our work and being productive. Every time — bar none — that I facilitate a team-building workshop, the one piece of consistent and positive feedback that I receive focuses on the time the participants spend getting to know each other and learning about each other’s lives. I now always plan a time not to plan, leaving room for conversation and camaraderie. The restorative nature of those interactions sustains a generosity of spirit throughout the team that enables them to work better with each other when they go back to their offices.

Sometimes, it seems, having no purpose can be a purpose in itself–and a gateway to effective teams.  Have others had this experience?  When have you planned “not to plan?” What was that experience like?


Hoarding is Sometimes on the Inside…

Everyone has a guilty pleasure or two.  Without them I don’t think we’d be the people we are. Oh, there may be one or two people out there who claim to watch only Public Television (always said with capital letters) and to never eat at McDonald’s, but do we really believe them?  And don’t we think them a little odd?  No, guilty pleasures are everywhere.  My husband, for example, is debating whether to go see the Monkees on tour this summer.  And I have another good friend who seems to know far too much about Snookie….

So I’ll admit it:  I like “Hoarders.”

For those of you pretending not to know what I’m talking about, “Hoarders” is a show on the A&E Network, now in its 3rd season.  It has racked up over 40 episodes, all with essentially the same theme:  an otherwise very nice person has a terrible obsession: hoarding things.  Buying, boxing, hanging, crating, piling, cataloging and saving… things.  Things and more things.  For many it has led to divorce, loss of a business, even criminal charges.

Despite the “watching a train wreck” fascination of the show itself (I did say it was a guilty pleasure), each episode is about a real person, trapped.  And not just by the things around them, but by their own obsessions and habits and (in some cases) real illnesses.

But how much hoarding is more subtle, more amorphous?  How often do we collect and save, not physical things, but emotional ones? A grudge here, a slight there.  Impatience.  Failure to listen. Disrespect.  Now and then these things happen to everyone (and, by the way, now and then we do them ourselves).  When we’re healthy we deal with them through caring conversation, or, sometimes, by recognizing them for the accident they are and then just letting them go.  But not always.

Now with every client I meet, I look for this type of hoarding. I ask questions designed to help people unpack such behaviors and, when they find them, to uncover what might be packed behind those behaviors.  And I, as their coach, need to recognize those behaviors in myself, too, in order to be in the best service for my clients.  We should all be looking for those small piles of mental and emotional artifacts that get in the way of our being our best selves.  They’re always there, and we must always be working to find them, sift through them, and throw away what no longer works for us, what no longer matters, what only holds us back.