Archive for January 23rd, 2010

Vincent Van Gogh, Corridor in the Asylum

I meet different groups of executives each week somewhere in the world and in many very different hotel and conference environments.  Over time, you become a connoisseur of learning spaces and hope that the next one will be the one to beat. Sometimes, the rooms are magnificently well-suited to learning and dialogue but, more often, they aren’t, and I have to somehow make it right.

In spite of the design variability, the one thing all conference sites have in common, however, are corridors: the channels that “set the stage” as you walk from one part of the building toward your meeting room. Corridors are taken for granted. We walk almost obliviously through them with  focus on what lies just up ahead.

Despite the forgotten qualities of corridors, they are important physical passageways designed to stretch time between awakening and the formal meeting. Corridors extend time to adjust the brain to  coming social experience, offer a moment’s solitude before a time of energetic interaction, and a chance to get centered. All this is the preamble to the coming transition to more public space, not as easily transited but demanding shared thinking and astute listening. But, what is the impact on the psyche if the room at the end of the corridor is itself a corridor.

The hotel in which I stayed last week in Barcelona for a leadership development meeting, hosted us in their only conference room. It was, in a word, peculiar. While I appreciated the room-length array of windows with all the light they provided, it disappointingly looked out directly on the less than picturesque sidewalk and street just outside the front of the hotel.

The really odd feature, is that this room was exceedingly narrow. We accommodated 14 people, but, we had to get close enough to the front of the room to see the slides. The room  looked like it was once an actual corridor converted into a conference room. When I first laid eyes on it, I thought the space would be cramped width-wise, but we made it work out.

The hotel design itself was eccentric and the usual amenities were absent (though the people were always affable and hospitable):

  • no iron or ironing boards available in the rooms at all, just an ironing service for a fee;
  • a bed lower to the ground than I’ve seen in a very long while;
  • a mattress just slightly more comfortable than lying down on the floor;
  • very lean non-supportive pillows;
  • an oddly-tiled floor that was always cold;
  • wireless internet but for a hefty daily fee;
  • no room service until 9PM; and
  • no business center, or terminal to print out a boarding pass for one’s flight.

I have, over the years, stepped into a range of quirky meeting and hotel environments. For this very reason, I insist on seeing the room the night before I use it. In this way, I can consider what I might need to do to make it feel as comfortable as possible, and conducive to relaxed dialogue.

Adding insult to injury in this instance, I found the room laid out as one large rectangular table in boardroom style. This was way more formal than I had envisioned, so we redid it using table rounds that sat 4 people each.

As I look back on it, many similar experiences come to mind of hotel environments reserved for sessions like this one. I invariably spent several hours rearranging tables, flipchart easels, thinking through where to place various wall hangings, set up a table for materials, one for a coffee, tea and snack station, and a reading desk with pertinent books. It is time spent visualizing alternatives and playing with one after another potential room configuration.

It occurs to me that the frequent surprise I get on arrival to a site, and on first entering the assigned conference room, presents considerable spiritual value. In the 21st Century, leaders need to absorb and adapt to increasing amounts of uncertainty, and do so at ever faster rates. Having this variability present itself so often, makes necessary the very mindset needed in these times: optimal flexibility, resilience, creativity, visualization capacity, and realistic optimism. Without these, change would be an exercise in continuously feeling insecure in the face of emerging realities, and forever a cause for melancholy.

The more I think about all this, the more I realize that I have come to simply expect curve balls, shocks, design eccentricities, and simply odd spaces. Of course, deviations from expectation is all the greater when traveling internationally.

It’s all good, though, and presents a chance to grow ever more unflappable, innovative, think faster, and learn to enjoy the smuzzle puzzles. As we navigate change and surprise, we have the refining opportunity to hone our inner “MacGyver,” and take on the perpetually shifting sands with grace and the heart of  adventure and invention.

“The great thing is, if one can, to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions in one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.” C.S. Lewis

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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