Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist

Pablo Picasso

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” ~ Pablo Picasso

Today a story to illustrate this thought from Picasso.

A story of skilled and highly experienced professionals knowing when to throw away the rule book and the script and go with intuition.

Throwing away the script and replacing it with a Panda

A number of years ago I was asked to facilitate a two-day meeting for the top sixty people of a key division of a global financial institution.

These were highly successful and brilliant people, yet their organisation was, as is so common, struggling with transformative change.

I lead a team both from our business and the client that planned this two-day event in great detail, all geared to supporting them in achieving the types of shifts that would enable transformative change.

The three of us in the team from our business had decades of experience between us, as did the client team, yet as we got to the second day, it seemed nothing was working. Everything was stuck.

I was facilitating at the front of the room and everything suddenly ground to a halt. Calmly, I turned to my two team members sat at the front table. To the audience, it will have seemed that I was consulting with them as we readied for an organised next step.

No, this was the point at which I threw the script away. In reality, I turned to the team and said: “this isn’t working, we have to try something different, and I have no idea what that might be!”.

The team looked at me, very calmly, then looked at each other, then one of them turned to me and said: “this is where you shine, turn around and you’ll know what to do”.

Yikes! So, I turned around, then for a full ten seconds, looked at the audience without saying anything.

It then suddenly came to me. They could not shift towards transformative change for the future of their business as for the last day and more they kept reviewing the past. Every time I tried to bring them to the present and look to forward-looking solutions they kept dragging themselves back to the past.

I was reminded of the Picasso quote:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”

So, with all the planning from experienced professionals, I then realised I had to go out on a limb and try something creative.

I started talking. I told them :

“A few weeks ago, I was relaxing with my youngest son watching a cartoon movie. In that movie a giant panda was learning Kung Fu and learning from the wisdom of his master, a turtle. Now, stay with me folks, what the turtle said stayed with me.

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present”.

You see, it strikes me that this quote is exactly what we need right now”

I then paused. I stood there, all sixty eyes on me. I said nothing. Seconds past (that felt like minutes). I simply stood there looking at them, inviting someone to speak.

Finally, someone said: “the other day I was watching a movie with my son too. There was a little green man dispensing wisdom. He said “Do or do not, there is no try””.

That was the moment that shifted things. The “stuck” feeling lifted. I let a couple more quote be popped out and then everyone was energised. With that shift in energy in place, I could pull them into the present and move the conversation to where they were in that moment with the business, which then meant we were able to focus them on what they needed to do next to begin that transformative change process.

Where in the rules did it say “if things get stuck, give them a quote from Kung Fu Panda?”

Nowhere. What it took was knowing the rules and knowing when to break them. Knowing it was the time to bravely try something in service of the client. Finally, it meant trusting you would have intuition rush forward to let you know what to try.

As a coach, the same thing happens with asking questions. I’ve well over Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of 10,000 hours of experience before coming close to mastery of anything, so I know “the rules”. However, it is when I put those out of my mind and simply listen deeply, it is then that the best questions come forward, unbidden, from intuition.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”

Finally, I leave you with that wisdom :


Also published on Medium.