Some time ago, I was immersed in a drawing class as a way to improve my paintings. One night, the teacher placed a chair up on the table and instructed us to draw it. The twist on this assignment was that we were to draw the chair, not by rendering its back, legs, and so on, but by drawing the various spaces between its parts. I put pen to paper and limned the space between the legs, top, and bottom. When I finished, I backed up and saw that I had miraculously drawn the chair, not by showing what was there, but by seeing what was not there. This was my first experience drawing what artists call “negative space.”
Today I use the concept of negative space as a coaching tool. When I coach business leaders who are wrestling with a vexing problem, I will use a series of questions that drill down to the essence of what is NOT the problem. Shifting attention away from the challenge or issue results in new insights and often leads to a more creative solution than one generated by deep problem analysis.
One executive I spoke with last month was struggling with an underperforming member on his executive team. I challenged him to consider:
- What is NOT the problem? When has this individual met your expectations? Doing what kind of work? With whom?
- When you interact with this person, what is missing from the conversations? What are you not hearing?
- What is not happening? What’s missing that is making you uneasy?
By inverting the classic coaching questions that are designed to probe deeper into a problem or issue, I challenge a leader to look outside the issue itself. Simple reframing can generate interesting new insights. For this particular business leader, focusing on the negative space allowed him to see that the underperforming issue was in reality limited to a particular area of work and that his executive staff member was really performing well in all other areas. He was then able to focus on the specific trouble spot and target the improvement where it was needed. When he backed away from his work, he saw the complete “chair,” not just the one problem area but all facets of the team member’s work.