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  • Sonja Kirschner

A magical mess

It was as if the universe had put up a disco ball in the sky. First, when we looked up to the Icelandic sky near Selfoss last week we saw some pale white lines; all the sudden they turned light green, then darker before they transformed their shapes and finally the entire sky lit up in all the colors a rainbow has to offer. I’m not exaggerating! There was that glittering canopy above us that strongly reminded me of the finales of major events, e.g. the last minutes of the dancing formations in the Sambódromo during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the moment of the Best Picture announcement at the Oscars or the final moments of the 4th of July fireworks over Manhattan – just all natural and thus beyond anything I had ever seen before. I was so touched by the appearance of the Northern Lights that I almost spoiled the experience by the tears that rolled down my cheeks and put a little - luckily temporary - veil across my eyesight. My bucket list item was a full-blown check.


The phenomena of Northern Lights is magical and with magic often comes on the one hand mystery, e.g. sagas claiming that the lights are the spirits of unmarried women and on the other hand science. Let’s stick to science here: “The magical curtains of color that streak across the northern night sky are the result of solar wind – a stream of particles from the sun that collides with oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. The collisions produce haunting greens and magentas as the earth’s magnetic field draws the wind towards the polar regions.” (Lonely Planet, Iceland, 2019)


Aha! Particles collide with other substances. Sounds like things must get messy before stunning beauty evolves. Like at work? Like in life? Well-known change models account for exactly that: no matter if we look at individuals, teams or entire organizations it all starts with a pretty big mess:


Karen Kimsey-House, the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) talks about the power of disorientation, about disturbance and turbulence in individuals “All that water in the bowl must slosh around quite a bit before it can settle into a new configuration.”


Tuckman's stages of group development – a classic in teambuilding workshops – accounts for four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. Conflict, doubt, anxiety, fear, disagreement, dispute, challenges and personality clashes are only a few of the descriptors of the storming phase.


And Schramer’s Theory U – which is a long-standing basis to explain any transformation from individuals, to groups, structures and all the way to entire systems describes the process of going down the U before things crystalize, manifest and perform at their best on the other side of the U. Or in other words: Squatting before leaping helps you to jump higher!


Isn’t it amazing how nature and human development resonate with each other? Besides being mind-blowingly beautiful the Northern Lights teach us that chaos is natural and even needed in a transformative process. It’s necessary to feel the urgency as Kotter puts it and “indulge” in the mess for a while to let true emotions, opinions, values and visions take shape.


Counterintuitively, we who build our own or help shape the futures of individuals, teams and organizations must hold that space for a while and swim together in this sometimes cold, scary and blurry water. Things and people must collide, they must get into each other’s way to provide an opportunity for transformation. Once that has happened new forms become crystal clear, individuals hum, teams buzz, organizations perform at their best and sparkle brilliantly like the Northern Lights.


Wishing you a magical mess to draw from to shine bright in everything you do!

Yours Sonja

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