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?

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Beekeeping and Leadership Effectiveness

Honeybees fascinate me.

I recently crossed off one of my “bucket list” items and spent time at the Heifer Ranch in Arkansas learning about beekeeping. Everything I knew about bees and beekeeping up to now came strictly from books or documentaries. No hands-on experience. So I heeded the nagging nudge and gave it a try.

Suffice it to say, I’m hooked.

Sue Hubell tells us in her book, “A Book of Bees, And How to Keep Them”, “The end of one honey season is the start of the next, and autumn is a good time to start with bees…Summer’s end is also the new beginning of a new cycle for bees. It is then that they prepare for the winter ahead, and their preparations, along with the help a beekeeper can give them, determine how good the next season will be.”

I learned a lot that week – how to calm the bees, extract honey, build and repair supers – all good, practical activities. The most impactful for me, though, was what I learned by observing the master beekeeper, Chuck Crimmins, as he lovingly cared for his bees.

It’s said that bees learn to recognize their beekeeper’s voice and the rhythm of his or her movements. Bees will react, either aggressively or calmly, depending on what is happening around them. Vibrations unnerve them. They can sense apprehension and smell fear.

Watching Chuck’s quiet and gentle movements was like watching a movie clip in slow motion. Bending to rest his ear on the side of the hive, he listens for the buzzing hum. Are the bees active? Quiet? He slowly removes the hive cover, gently pulling out each frame, holding them up to the sunlight to check the bees’ health, and tenderly uses his breath to blow them aside to look for the queen. Bees are landing lightly on his arms, flying around him – he works the bees all the while without wearing gloves! It was inspiring to watch Chuck’s quiet and slow approach how, as beekeeper, his role as helper, he held and cared for the space where the bees calmly work their magic.

Reflecting on Hubbell’s words and spending time with Chuck that week made me think about leadership and how we leaders can often get it wrong. We think our teams need us more than they actually do. We lean into our position, our expert-ness, our thinking that our way is best. We over-care and overbear, fill voids with our voices and opinions, stomp heavily on ideas outside our own – whatever it is, we get in the way of possibility and the creative magic that our teams can create.

Beekeeper-like leadership – this is a notion that I’d like to ponder a bit more. What opportunities do we have to lead our teams like a beekeeper tends to his bees? What are the ways we might lightly step in when needed, gently check-in to assess health, and then confidently assume that our teams are competent to learn from mistakes, perform and deliver? As Susan Scott talks about in “Fierce Leadership” – instead of holding them accountable, hold them able!” How significant a shift might that make?

Honeybees don’t really require our help; they’ve been collecting pollen and making honey for thousands of years. Perhaps the people we lead have an intuitive sense about how to work in ways that we can only imagine, if we only make way for their intuition to take hold.

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