The not so Magnificent Seven


Curiosity, playfulness and The not so Magnificent Seven. I’m sometimes asked a question along the lines of, “If you could recommend one book about what you do, what would it be?” Being perfectly honest, there isn’t a single answer: it depends on context (as does everything else!). But there is one I lean into on a regular basis: it’s by Edgar H Schein and it’s called “Humble Inquiry – The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling”.

Developing authentic questions requires curiosity and, curiosity is good and I can recommend it. The same might be said for playfulness and I recommend that too: “Playful Curiosity!” Wow, now we’re talking! Why? Because playfully curious leadership may create a context in which others may develop complementary approaches: ones that add to and/or reinforce the culture the Curious Leader might wish to embed and in so doing, ask others to embrace.

It goes further: I sometimes come across what is best described as a “Frustration Gap (Chasm?)” between Espoused Values and Lived Values: you know what I’m talking about don’t you? It happens when we’re saying all sorts of warm, inclusive things about our organisation, but the “lived culture” is very different to the point of being unrecognisable.

It’s my view that this creates and contributes to the following Not So Magnificent Seven:

  1. Grand scale cynicism
  2. Poor retention of “good employees”
  3. Self seeking behaviours
  4. Low morale
  5. A “stay in lane/risk averse” approach to work, dominated by hierarchy and power
  6. “Turning Up Is Good Enough.”
  7. Communication styles which mean that little of worth and plenty of harm is communicated, leaving space for misassumptions (intentional or otherwise) and gossip

So, what would a playfully curious leader be like, what would they look for in others and what do they need to get the very best out of their playful curiosity? How might they use their approaches to reduce the impacts of the above?

But first I’d like you to consider the implications of the following taken from Humble Inquiry. Here, Edgar Schein tells us that in a number of huge disasters, Bhopal, The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, the Challenger Space Shuttle and others, workers involved with the projects were aware of high risks and potential failings.

So let’s consider the information that relates to the Challenger Disaster, the cause of which was the technical failure of the “O Rings,” on the solid fuel booster which was brought about by sub-zero temperatures on the morning of the launch. Now, there are other significant elements that contributed to the cause because here we had “an institutional culture that thwarted communication and led to decision making that was oblivious to the real danger.” (Thomas J Lee)

So, where do we go from here? I’d like you to think of some playfully curious, “How do I?” questions to run out across your team/organisation. These can counter the institutional culture(s) that have contributed to not only the high profile disaster referred to here, but to the day-to-day shortcomings that have a toxic impact on your business.

Not So Magnificent SevenPlayfully Curious Possibility
Grand scale cynicism“If right now, our workplace was featured in a ‘How Much Fun Do You Have At Work?” podcast/vlog, how do you think we’d do and why?”
Poor retention of “good employees”“With candour and bravery, write the leaving speech of a popular and successful (fictional) person who is off to another job”
Self seeking behaviours“When was the last time someone helped you out because it was the “right thing to do?”
“When was the last time you helped someone else out because it was the right thing to do? ”In each case, what were the benefits?
Low morale“Without booking a comedian (short term benefit anyway!), what can we all do/stop doing, to increase happiness around here?”
A “stay in lane/risk averse” approach to work, dominated by hierarchy and power“What don’t you do/say, because you’re worried about how other, powerful people might use this against you?” 
What DOESN’T happen because of this?
“Turning Up Is Good Enough”“Sorry to be so blunt, but if you were to expire in the workplace, chances are we’d have your job advertised and the position filled before your will was read.” Discuss.
Communication styles mean that little worth and plenty of harm is communicated, leaving space for misassumptions (intentional or otherwise) and gossip“How much of what you hear, do you believe and what persuades you to believe/disbelieve?”

… and yes, I agree the above carries its risks, however there are risks in not doing this or something similar. I’d suggest that you think of some tentative first steps informed by your producing a clear statement of what you would like to improve, achieve and incorporate into an ambitious, playfully curious development plan.

Good luck!