The illusion of solutions
I recently had the privilege of participating in a workshop on Provocative Coaching facilitated by Steve Chapman. I found it excitingly rich in freedom, the unexpected, and a liberating sense of endless possibilities through the enabling of creativity, improvisation and vulnerability. I’m grateful to Steve for articulating the rich and thought-provoking concepts of safe uncertainty, the ‘pointless ambiguity of human experience’ and the provocation of moving towards what we’re trying to avoid. This is especially pertinent for both coaches and the leaders who are our clients, confronted as they are with a daily menu of unpredictability, uncertainty, the need for resourcefulness and the ability to constantly take new perspectives.
Reflections with reflections
The workshop enabled so many reflections for me, and each reflection carried its own reflection: whatever I was experiencing and learning in my identity as a coach, I was aware of the potential application and usefulness for leaders.
I was able to see a wider range of possibilities because of the freedom within the container of the workshop – as Steve mentioned, both freedom to and freedom from, in a safe environment where nothing was at risk except the greater or lesser scope of our learning in the context of our willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Of course, there are parallels for the leader’s learning within the safety inherent in a healthy coaching relationship – and, outwards from there, the fertile space that the leader can enable for her or his teams in a context of safety, freedom and lack of judgment.
Certainty and uncertainty
Of course there’s no such thing as right or wrong in the coaching encounter: no predetermined answers, no pre-set course, but rather flow and emergence, and the noticing of these. And here’s where certainty and uncertainty arise, mirroring the working environment – and particularly the leader’s environment.
The Fertile Void
Thinking in terms of certainty may mean that the leader doesn’t see all the tripwires, since not everything is either certain or predictable. In my experience of coaching leaders, the capacity to allow, and allow for, uncertainty – frustrating as that may be – also allows for versatility, responsiveness to the situation as it is rather than as one wants it or assumes it to be, and creativity. Which in turn allows for a more agile response. In these times of constant change and unpredictability (brought home to us so acutely by the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic) that agility, and the capacity to be with the discomfort of not knowing, have been a critical part of the leader’s equipment. It’s the Gestalt concept of the Fertile Void, where anything can arise in the richness of possibility.
It relates too to my wondering about how much (indeed, how little) can be viewed as absolute truth, and a lot being constructs we’ve created in order to make more sense of our world. Organisational life, and the leader’s life, are populated by constructs. I’ve discovered that looking through the lens of constructs is enormously liberating, and allows me space to enquire into ideas and challenges – both my own and my clients’ – with greater objectivity.
Leaders often seek solutions – and many come to coaching seeking solutions. Thanks to Steve, I’ve discovered the work of family therapist Barry Mason, who characterises solutions as ‘only dilemmas that are less of a dilemma than the dilemma one had’.
On certainty he says: I think we all understandably get caught up at times in wanting certainty, and yet I believe that it can indeed contribute, as [Jeff] Faris suggests, to a state of paralysis and lack of creativity, although clearly a degree of perceived certainty is important in helping us move on through our lives in as creative a way as possible.
He refers too to the importance of curiosity: ‘The less curious we are (respectful as opposed to intrusive), the more we understand too quickly and the more we may find ourselves in a position of “premature certainty”’.
In contrast, he talks about ‘safe uncertainty’ as ‘a framework for helping people to fall out of love with the idea that solutions solve things…… Working towards positions that entertain different possibilities’. Complementing this, Steve Chapman’s perspective is that safe uncertainty is about feeling comfortable with the world of just enoughness. It is about having just enough structure, just enough control and just enough planning to mitigate only the biggest of risks, whilst leaving enough fluidity, spontaneity and freedom to welcome new possibilities’ 
In my experience, discovering and working with the conditions that enable different possibilities is part of what lies at the heart of the leader’s role (and at the heart of the executive coach’s role).
Freedom to and freedom from
And so back to freedom: ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. While the leader’s role may so often feel – to them and to others – circumscribed by the imperatives of organisational agendas and strategies, my sense is that allowing themselves freedom, and their coach enabling a context of safe freedom, are critical for encountering the exponentially increasing complexity of their world.
 https://sfwork.com/resources/interaction/04Mason.pdf – InterAction VOL 7 NUMBER 1
 Adapted from ‘Can Scorpions Smoke?’ Creative Adventures in the Corporate World (2014) by Steve Chapman