Here’s a question: where do you speak about strategy issues when you don’t know exactly what it is you want to say?
Certainly not in the board room or at a company presentation. Probably not even in front of your senior leadership team or even in a one-to-one meeting with a key report. You’re supposed to be the person with the answers; you don’t want to spook your people by sounding uncertain. You might risk it at home with your life partner, but that’s hardly a recipe for a pleasant domestic evening.
For most CEOs, the only place they can speak freely about what they DON’T know about business decisions, rather than what they do, is to an executive coach. (Which, of course, is one of the main reasons that coaching is so valuable.)
But no coach, sadly, can be available 24/7. Most of the time, there’s a hard stop between what’s going on inside your head and what you feel comfortable sharing outside it. The problem? It’s a hot mess inside your head. (Don’t take that personally, it’s a hot mess inside my head too.) The limits of the brain – yes, even yours – are non-negotiable: you can only hold one thought at the front of your mind in any one moment, and you’re almost certainly stuck in thinking patterns that are so familiar you can’t even see them any more.
But if we’re to lead successfully, we need to find strategies for thinking that go further upstream, beyond what we know we already know, beyond even what we’re happy to express to others as work in progress. As Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of PepsiCo put it: ‘Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed. You must continually increase your learning, the way you think, and the way you approach the organization.’
Which is where exploratory writing comes in. It’s tempting to write off writing by hand as quaintly old-school in the 21st century. Surely there’s an app for that? But neuroscience research repeatedly shows that pen and paper are surprisingly effective brain-tools, and come with significant benefits over their fancier technology counterparts.
Sure, you wouldn’t want to write out the quarterly report longhand. But where this technique comes into its own is in the deep work that we so rarely find time and space for. And the best bit is that this practice requires very little in the way of time or space: just 6 minutes and a scruffy sheet or two of blank paper. (I don’t care how busy your day is or how stretched the stationery budget, you can find both of those.)
You’ll need just one more thing: a prompt. Any old prompt really, this is just a jumping-off point, and there’s no telling where you’ll land. But asking yourself an open, curious question at the top of your blank sheet of paper before you set the timer for six minutes works a little bit of neurological magic. Humans possess many mental reflexes and one is one known as ‘instinctive elaboration’, which means that any time someone asks you a question they effectively take your brain hostage, just briefly. If I say ‘What did you have for lunch yesterday?’ you can’t HELP but waste precious seconds of your life that you’ll never get back recalling that mediocre panini.
But if we’re going to be stuck with mental reflexes, we might as well use them, right? Asking yourself a GOOD question – by which I mean a forward-looking, open, curious and non-judgemental question – lines your brain up right for a really productive writing sprint.
By adopting this simple, low-tech, human-friendly habit, you effectively create space for an executive coaching moment whenever you need it. Free from the fear of other people’s reactions, liberated from the need to look like you know what you’re doing, you can explore not only the challenge in front of you but also your own reaction to it. What’s your instinct? What past experiences might be informing that reaction? What current anxieties and priorities are influencing you? What might the next step be?
Exploratory writing isn’t just helpful when you’re facing uncertainty or challenging decisions – it’s also an excellent practice to embed into your day as a space for reflection and self-development.
In his seminal book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier points out that ‘people… start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened. Your job as a manager and a leader is to help create the space for people to have those learning moments.’ To which I’d add: it’s also your responsibility as a leader to create the same space for yourself. Your people deserve nothing less.
Written by Alison Jones.
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