“Personal Engineering” through Powerful Questions and a Game – The New Stack


David Kassel

David Cassel is a proud resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, where he’s been covering tech news for over two decades. Over the years, his articles have appeared everywhere from CNN, MSNBC and the interactive edition of the Wall Street Journal to Salon, Wired News, Suck.com and even the original HotWired, as well as Gawker, Gizmodo, McSweeneys and Wonkette. He is now broadening his professional skills by becoming a part-time computer programmer, developing two Android apps, co-producing two word games for Amazon Kindle and dabbling in interactive fiction.

On Portia Tung’s LinkedIn profile, the most recent position is that of “Game Director” at a transformation consultancy called Adaptavis – a role that includes corporate/executive Agile coaching “based on systems coaching and the science of the game. And she also gives workshops on improving your “game intelligence”.

by Tung online biography even clarifies a belief that play “is essential to adult lifelong development.”

So, to put it simply, Portia Tung is a professional coach — more specifically, an executive and commercial Agile coach – as well as personal coach and “storyteller and wish maker”. And it’s all based on a deep faith in the transformative power of play.

This unique set of skills has led to an impressive list of clients. Tung’s “School of Play” site boasts of bringing transformative change to the UK Prime Minister’s Office and the National Health Service, as well as to British Airways and global financial institutions.

Yet Tung’s career began more than 20 years ago as a software developer and team leader (according to the School of Play site) – and those experiences are still reflected in his ethos.

Last September, she distilled her belief in the power of play to effect personal, organizational and systemic change into meaningful exercises, for an audience at the Software Industry Conference WOW !

She shared a truth learned in 20 years in the IT world: “Most really tricky problems are rarely about technology or software. Sure, there are solutions/options/beautiful architecture, she acknowledged, “but the hardest problems I’ve encountered working with organizations are: it’s not the software. It’s people-ware. To the right?”

Effective leadership, she told the YOW! public, “begins and belongs to ourselves”. And that can sometimes be much more difficult than solving technical problems – and may require some internal thinking.

Everything is given

Tung’s presentation was certainly playful. As she told the audience, “I try to include all of this beautiful science of play and various science of creativity in the work that I do to help organizations and the people within them be the best they can be. “

Some of the conversation was even illustrated with Star Wars action figures.

Screenshot of Portia Tung's talk on personal engineering (with Star Wars figurines

But her speech ultimately chronicled a path to what she calls “personal engineering.” That is, “a curated collection of tools and techniques ‘for self-improvement’ that I have taken the trouble to test, primarily on myself but also in collaboration with others throughout throughout my career”.

Tung started with three golden rules.

  • Treat everything as data.
  • Remains not to know. (“Give our critical mind a little break – and keep it open and curious.”)
  • Trust the process. It may be the antidote, says Tung, to our fear of the unknown, an ingrained human instinct that she says “is what keeps us alive.

In the case of rule #3, it means having some faith in the power of thinking and listening. Tung pointed out that speaking can bring up pre-existing beliefs and assumptions — and then urged audiences to be prepared to honestly explore them.

The main tool she shared was “powerful questions” – a specific term for the type of questions that are “deliberately open-ended”, to provoke conversation, insight and reflection.

“In polite conversation, as I talked about, I was scolded for asking such rude or curious questions,” Tung added with a laugh. “But fortunately in the coaching profession – and good management and leadership professions – it’s all about curiosity and motivation.”

The idea is to “ignite” the thoughts of the people you are addressing:

  • What would you like to happen?
  • What difficult step do you want to take in your life right now?
  • What hypothesis could prevent you from taking the next step?
  • What more do you think, feel or want to say?

There’s another reason why this technique is so powerful: Describing things vocally, out loud, creates a special kind of distance – and perspective. So whatever the problem, “all of a sudden you’ll see it much more clearly for what it is,” she said. “You can really navigate a problem by looking at it from different angles.”

Further, she added, “This is why Agile Post-Its are so popular.”

Being asked the questions creates a “safe and nurturing environment thought environment,” Tung said. And it’s a phenomenon that she also alluded to earlier in her presentation.

“Until we hear ourselves think, and very often give ourselves permission to think, we don’t really know what we think.

Cultivate courage and self-awareness

Questions like these can also require courage – to actually ask the question, as well as for the respondent to dare to answer honestly from their own position of personal agency. (“Be Told what to do, unfortunately, remains the default mode of management in many organizations for the most part,” Tung noted.)

But as part of this process, she says, you’ll have to trust your “instruments” — your senses, your feelings, and your thoughts.

And at this point, Tung talked about the importance of cultivating and valuing one’s own self-awareness. (Since you will need it to apply information from such powerful questions.)

She pointed out that in general, self-awareness and self-management “is what allows us to have positive and effective relationships with others – but also with our teams and in our organizations”.

Screenshot of Portia Tung's talk on Personal Engineering - On Becoming a Person, showing three stuffed animals surrounding the book

Portia Tung, speaking here on the theme of “personal engineering,” believes in play as a method to help adults navigate transformation.

What great managers do

But it’s also important when asking the questions to start with a critical assumption: that everyone already has what they need to overcome their challenges. “The goal of a coach or a great manager or a leader is to allow the thinker to find that path,” Tung said, adding, “It’s not to guide them or give them a path. It’s really up to people to think for themselves.

This also applies to the person asking the questions. The listener must assume they or they have everything they need, not just the person they’re talking to.

To further illustrate the impact of powerful questions, Tung described a favorite exercise: simply asking what you want to think about? (And what do you think ?). “The listener promises not to interrupt – but to be present, and just to be still, and to be with them on this journey.

“And usually it’s like a five-minute exercise, and it scares people.”

So, to extend the exercise, Tung usually asks the listener an additional question: “What more do you think, feel or want to say?” And at least 90% of the time, they will surprise themselves with extra thoughts. “We know deep down that our mind wants to think and we want to think for ourselves.”

Towards the end of the conference, she shared a remarkable story about a life coach, Nancy Kline, who, during a speech in Russia, had invited a woman on stage. Kline then asked the same questions – what do you want to think about and what are your thoughts?

This prompted a torrent of responses, Tung recalls. The Russian woman “talks and talks… there are tears, there is a transformation”. And it ends with the woman taking Kline’s hand and thanking her for the epic experience – and for all the great advice she believed Kline had given her.

Kline could only smile sweetly — and gently point out that she hadn’t said a word. “That was all your thought.”

Tung shares the essential lesson this illustrates. “We talk about empowerment in organizations. But we wouldn’t need empowerment if we allowed ourselves to do our best to reflect.

“And that we respect each other enough to give each other permission to do their better thinking.

Screenshot of Portia Tung's talk on personal engineering - Quote from Frankl

Featured image by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.


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