A Horizon for Self-Reliance

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Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude and goes his own way, there is a fork in the road, though the travelers along the highway see only a gap in the paling.

Henry David Thoreau
Journal, 18 October 1855

Wallace Stegner in his collection of essays, Marking The Sparrow's Fall, writes on American self-reliance.

"Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher not unwilling to criticize his country and his countrymen, but when he wrote the essay entitled 'Walking' in 1862 ... He spoke America's stoutest self-confidence and most optimistic expectations. ...

(Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism) reports 'a way of life that is dying - the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a way of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.' ...

Assuming that Thoreau spoke for his time ... and that Christopher Lasch speaks for at least elements and aspects of his, how did we get from there to here in little more than a century? Have the sturdiness of the American character and the faith in America's destiny that Thoreau took for granted been eroded entirely away? What happened to confidence, what happened to high purpose, what happened to hope? Are they gone ... ?"

The American virtue of self-reliance sounds archaic compared to the modern conventions of self-improvement and self-help. The difference is worth noting.

We think, possibly, that Thoreau's time was much simpler, and being self-reliant was easier to achieve. Today, everything is so complex. We may wonder whether being self-reliant is possible? 

Self-reliance today as compared to Thoreau's day is quite different. As the world has become increasingly complex, to think that we can do all that we need to do on own is a recipe for frustration and aggravation. Unlike in Thoreau's day, today, we interface with so many organizational structures. Independence as described by Wallace Stegner is no longer really possible. As a result, self-reliance has to be understood in the context of living and working  in organizations. There we must related to a widely diverse set of people. Self-reliance and people skills go hand in hand today. 

Self-reliance is not narcissistic self-centeredness. It is rather the ability to know that we can walk into any situation and know that we can figure out how to function well in it, making a difference that matters because of who we are and what we desire.

My series of blog posts Situational Awareness gets at this reality.

Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This is a core skill of self-reliance.

The Horizon of Self-reliance is not independence but freedom. Our freedom to adapt to situations, to connect with people in meaningful ways, and, to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

 

To find out more about this way of approaching our lives, sign up for my email list which will go live in 2017.


Two Forces of Globalization

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Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.

Ai Weiwei

We are in the midst of an unprecedented transition globally. This change is historic, cutting across all segments of society, and is not happening in a predictable way. Two examples from the past year illustrate this historic moment in time.

Independence referendums in Scotland and Catalunya, as well as movements in Wales and Northern Italy, show that there is strong sentiment for separation from the countries where they currently belong.  As the picture above from the demonstrations in Glasgow leading up to the Scottish referendum vote says, "You are better than you think you are."

In Greece, a national referendum showed that the people of the nation desired a non-austerity solution to their nation's financial crisis. Yet, the country's financial crisis demonstrated that the nation of Greece was no longer in control of its own welfare. It had lost it to the Troika of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank as they sought to impose austerity measures upon the nation.

While the reach of governing institutions, whether national governments or global supra-national ones, has grown over the past two hundred years, another global phenomenon is emerging represented by the capacity of individuals to create small, focused entrepreneurial organizations and movements to affect change on a global scale.

We now find that there are two forces for change functioning within this 21st. century global context.

One is the force of global integration of business and government.

The other force is of personal initiative operating within the context of networks of relationships.

It is at the point of interaction between these two forces that this historic moment of transition is taking place.

The Force of Integration

This first force seeks to integrate all functions of society into one seamless efficient system of governance by global institutions.

The people and institutions at the center of the preeminent expression of this global force believe that it is through the integration of economics and governance that a peaceful and prosperous world can be achieved.  These international institutions emerged after the First World War to manage how the nation-states of the world interact to create peace and prosperity.

Emerging the past half century are similar movements like ISIS that want to want to integrate global governance through the eradication of people and nations who do not follow their strict line of belief.

These two very different versions of globalism share a belief in integration, but through different means.

This drive for integration is the logical unfolding of the modern hierarchical organization. Whether in business or government, integration enhances efficiency and the control of variables that affect the functioning of large complex institutions. Remove the inefficiencies and you achieve success. Unfortunately, human beings tend to represent the greatest form of variation in these large organizations.

The theme of integration has emerged in popular young adult novels and films like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Giver. In each of these narratives, a governing authority seeks to or has accomplished the integration of society by controlling how each person functions within that world. In these stories, characters of a particular independence of character and diversity of talent foster a crisis of change for the governing systems of society through their own personal leadership initiative to bring people together to resist the forces of integration.

The Force of Personal Initiative

The second force is reflected in the native desire of people to live lives and do work that matters. These acts of human initiative operate within the context of relationships of trust and mutuality, and are facilitated by the growth of computing and communication technology.

Many of these acts of personal initiative are done without recognition. The gift of a meal to a hungry person. The mentoring that takes place in scouting, sports and in youth club programs. The volunteering that takes place in local communities through religious congregations and community non-profits. Entrepreneurial programs to train and develop the leadership of new businesses. Event planners who bring people together to support local programs. The meetings over coffee where community understanding and healing begin to take place where conflict has existed. In each situation, the beginning of the effort starts with a person taking initiative, and then, grows through the networks of relationships that emerge at both the local and global level.

We can see this force of personal initiative in the central characters of the stories mentioned above. Their motivation to act comes from a source of inner values that move them out of the crowd into a place of influence.

Katnis in The Hunger Games steps forward to compete in the games instead of her sister.

Tris in Divergent is motivated by an inner sense of justice about the importance of family.

Thomas in The Maze Runner discovers within himself a calling to serve the members of The Glade by leading them through the maze to a safer place.

In The Giver, Jonas discovers within himself an emotional depth that is expressed in his love for Fiona, his desire to save the infant Gabriel, and, ultimately to take action to cross the boundary that will release memories both painful and joyful back into society.

These two forces are not necessarily incompatible. However, the challenge is how the legacy institutions of global hierarchy can adapt to growing importance of networks as the structure for human work and community.

The particular context of this great transition are the structures of society, government, business, communities, and the non-government organizations that serve people.

The Context of Organizational Structures

It is important to understand how organizational structures function in society.

Organizational structure has no voice, but it has force.

It is invisible because its presence is so comprehensive.

The force within every organizational structure is to resist change. It seeks regularity, consistency and efficiency.

Real change cannot happen without change to the structures of society and organizations.

How many carriage makers went out of business a century ago because they could not change from making horse drawn buggies to automobiles?

How many small businesses and religious congregations closed their doors because they could not adapt to changes in their neighborhood or the technology of their business?

How many communities now languish because they could not adapt to changes taking place in the larger society?

In ancient times, kings would build a wall around their city to guard against the invading forces of change. Today, physical walls don't work. They have been replaced with political, legal and economic walls. The fortress walls of today are under threat, and are just as susceptible to collapse as those ancient ones.

Today, the structure of integration seeks to create an orderly and efficient system of governance throughout global society.

The institutional force of integration is hierarchical, operated by an elite circle of global leaders, who hold authority over the whole system.

In business, when one company totally dominates the marketplace, so that all their competitors are in effect dependent upon them, we call this a monopoly.

In politics, if a small group of people hold dominant control over the governance of a city or a nation, we may call that an oligarchy or a dictatorship. The history of nations and empires is filled with examples of these kinds of hierarchies. We can also see that they are unsustainable.

The mandate of hierarchical structures is to bring control to all facets of business or society.  In a global context, this governing hierarchy trumps democratic choice. This is the one lesson of the Greek crisis.

The question that interests me here is whether this trend can last.

Has the power of personal computing and communication technology, as it has expanded globally over the past 25 years, now made it possible for many things to be done without the requirement of an hierarchical authority?

I do not believe that the future is either utopian nor dystopian.  I do see that global networks of human relationships are structured very differently. Its power to adapt and to extend its reach quickly without prior expectation is remarkable.

At the heart of the network is the individual who initiates and acts to create opportunities within relationships of trust and mutuality. 

Hierarchies are not built on trust, but rather on the integrity of the system.

Networks, on the other hand, only function well when there is trust at the center of the relationships.

Both systems are inherently fragile and susceptible to change from outside forces.

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I have thought a long time about the difference between these two structures. Increasingly, I am convinced that hierarchy is a structure that functioned well in an earlier era, but no longer. 

The authors of the introduction to Jean Baudrillard's In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, characterize a shift that has taken place in the society where Henry Ford's factories once were the norm.

"The dominant characteristic of Fordism was repetition and stability. Post-Fordism, to the contrary, brings out instability and adaptability, all qualities instilled by advanced capitalism."

In effect, the direction that we are moving globally is from a world of regularity and predictability to one where there are no givens. Some of the skills required for this new world are ones of adaptability, collaboration and personal accountability.

With this disintegration of traditional hierarchical institutional structures comes opportunities that are present directly in front of us each day.  As a result, networks of relationships provide a structure that more easily provides a globally dispersed people the capacity to work in concert towards shared goals.

Five Questions for Understanding

My search for understanding about these two global forces has been driven by the following questions.

How did we get to this point of significant transition in how we live and work?

What is the long term impact of the growth of networks? What is the future of global hierarchical systems of economics and governance? Can they adapt by adopting the relational structures and values of networks of relationships?

Who is most significantly benefited by this interplay between the forces of integration and the network?

Where is this leading? What changes are coming that we can barely imagine right now? What opportunities will come with these changes?

What obstacles make it more difficult for networks of relationships to reach their potential impact? What must each of us as individuals do to alleviate those problems?

We are on the verge of seeing a great calamity as the structure of supra-national institutions diminish in credibility and effectiveness. The dependence that national governments have placed on these supra-national institutions to managed progress towards global peace and prosperity will become more difficult. 

In effect, these global institutions are painting themselves into a corner from which there is no easy exit. This is what I see in the Greek crisis.

The conflict between the forces of global integration and the power of personal initiative expressed through networks of relationships is the context of this growing crisis.

It does not have to be, however.

All we must do as leaders and global citizens is to begin to take personal responsibility for the world at our finger tips, by acting to make a difference that matters, by building networks of relationships that facilitate greater capacity for organizations and communities to adapt to a changing world.

I return to the quote of Ai Weiwei that began this post as a fitting place to end.

Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.

May each of your actions build strength in your own circle of impact.


Change Early, Not Late

Seth-ChangeEarlyLatePage 24 and 25 of This Might Work This Might Not Work (Behemoth) by Seth Godin

This is EXACTLY right.

I remember years ago, my father, one of the best judges of people as an HR guy that I ever knew, said to me as we were talking about one of my consulting projects,

"Son, the best time to fire someone is before you hire them."

My rule of thumb #2 (Rule of Thumb #1 is "Everyone needs an editor.") is

"Never wait to change. It only complicates things and makes them harder."

Ok. That said, there is a continuum of change response that is worth recognizing.

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Don't take Seth's words or mine as license to become a Change Junkie.

Instead, ask what is your purpose or mission, and will this change make it more likely that you'll achieve it.

Let's reorient this whole question.

The question should not be "To change or not to change"

The question should be "What change do I need to make right now?"

The assumption is that change is normal and necessary.

It is what we now call adaptability which is how we function in the transitions that we are constantly experiencing in our lives and work.

The Five Questions - HandoutPostcard

The first question of The Five Questions that everyone must ask is ...

What has Changed? How am I in transition?

If you are in the midst of a serious, overwhelming transition, then ask this question.

When was the last time I was happy, content and at peace with my work and life?

Whether your memory of that time is accurate or an illusion, it does not matter. What does is that the memory of this point in time is a starting point in understanding that transition that you are in.

Ask about what changed during this time? What changed about your perception of your purpose or in your relationships or possibly with the context of the work you do. These are three areas that are always present in our lives, and where our awareness of change has its greatest impact.

The second thing to recognize about this memory of a time in the past is that it reveals two things. The first are values that matter to us that we'd like reinforce or reinvigorate in our life or work. The second thing is that it points to a desire or desires in our heart that tell us what we love and want to see as central to our lives.

For example, lets say your company is bought out by a larger firm. Your memory points to how the company used to be like a family, where everyone care for one another. Now, that family feel is gone, and the pressure to perform is greater than you have ever experienced.

What you discover in that memory are the values of relationship and connection in the work place, and, that you love working for a smaller firm.

With that awareness, you can better understand the transition that you are in, and, the change that might be necessary in order to find that place of work and life that is meaningful for you.

This is what change is really about. Finding the right place where our desires for meaning, relationships that are happy and healthy, and a place where I feel my life matters can be realized.

So Change Early, Not Late. When you know that change is necessary, then begin the process of planning for that change.

What you'll find is that your capacity to change not only grows, but its negative impact upon your life diminishes. Why is this?

What I've discovered is that as we change, the speed of change increases. As it increases, it becomes simpler. Holding back changes inevitably means we must manage a host of obligations and expectations that have been thrust upon us by situations and people that may or may not carry meaning or impact for us.

The key is being very clear about your values, your purpose, and, how your team or group works together in the context of the transition that is taking place.

Doing the same things in the same way is not how we avoid the risks of change. It is how we embrace of the risk of irrelevance.

The risk of not changing is greater than the risk of changing.This is because we may think that not changing is just one decision, the same one, repeated over and over again, day after day.

To embrace change as the process of the transition we are in is to see that every decision is a new one and that when we make those according to values, purpose and a clarity about the impact we want, then we move forward to those decisions to see the path forward.

James C. Collins, who along with Jerry Porras wrote Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies make this point about how we function in an environment of transition.

“Visionary companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and—quite literally—accident. What looks in retrospect like brilliant foresight and preplanning was often the result of “Let’s just try a lot of stuff and keep what works.”

 There is a fluidness about change, that once encounter, we discover a sense of flow moving through the moments of decision.

Simply put, change and change often. Not as a change-junkie, but as a responsible leader who both initiates and responds to change. Learn to do this and you'll never miss the fear and the doubt that accompanies change decisions. You'll find that the stress of change is not in the change itself, but rather in growing into a mindset that almost sees the connection between the past, present and future as happening simultaneously. I know this sounds crazy, but this is exactly what my own experience has been.


A Century of Difference

Amazing how much has changed in such a short period of time.

However, I do believe that the principles which people shared, and the way the Circle of Impact can be applied has not changed.

The reality is that our needs for clarity of thought, being present in our relationships, and, genuine leadership are more needed now that ever.

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The other day I asked the following question as my Facebook status update.

Just thinking about how different the 21st century is compared to either the 20th or 19th. Working on a post about this. What would you all say is the difference? I'm curious.

It is an important question if we are to effectively lead into the future. Here are some of the ideas shared. (Thanks Jenni, Pat, Richard & F.C.)

The social aspect... communication in a heartbeat

The entirety of the gross data and factual information within the world is within your 1.5lb. laptop.

Less face to face social interaction. Less informal group social interaction. More social interaction at a wire's length.

Too many businesses have forgotten ... being the people business.

19th more face to face ... 20th letters and telegrams ... 21st email, mobile phones and social networks - instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed.

In summary, these friends are seeing changes in technology, relationships and communication. I agree. These are the core differences that are impacting us daily.

If we use my Circle of Impact framework, we can identify others. This is a valuable exercise because it helps us in two ways. First, in seeing the transition over the past two hundred years, and second, to give us an idea of where to put our energy and resources for the future.

Circle of Impact

Using the Circle of Impact to Identify Change

Ideas: The Importance of Clarity.

Today, ideas matter more than ever. In the past, the communities and places of work were fairly homogeneous, not as culturally diverse as today. Now we need to be very clear about our values and purpose, and be able to effectively communicate them in visual and tangible ways.

In the past, we could measure our business by the bottom-line, and have a pretty good idea about whether we were succeeding. Today, if we are not clear about the impact we are creating, the purpose of our businesses / organizations seem vague. Impact is the difference that matters, and distinguishes us from others in the same industry. The core meaning of impact is the change we are seeking to create, and how we know when we have.

Lastly, is having a vision that is clear about what each person brings to the mission of the organization, and by that I mean, understanding what is their potential contribution. Then knowing how it is aligned with the operating structure to produce impact. And thirdly, each member of the organization being able to articulate that vision from their own place within the organization. Same vision, different expressions of it.

Relationships: The Importance of Being Present

Today, the person who is prejudiced, condescending and exclusive toward people and other cultures is viewed as backward, narrow and insecure. Openness and welcome are important behaviors that leaders and their organizations need to exhibit.

This mindset, so to speak, is really just an entry level attitude toward relationships. At the core, what made for a healthy relationship two hundred years ago, does so today. A year ago in a post, Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomancy, I wrote,

Diplomacy is the practice of respect applied in places of diverse cultures. It is the ability of one person to be able to empathize with another person, even though their cultural, ethnic and philosophical backgrounds are not similar. ...

This type of respect is a form of humility that places the dignity of the other person ahead of one's own perogatives. It is what I see missing in much of the social and civic interaction that takes place in our society.

This aspect of relationships has always been true. The difference today is that it has to be treated as one of the strategic initiatives of the business. How the business relates to the person and the culture will have a huge impact upon how well they do.

In addition, the importance of respect, honor, dignity, and trust are now functioning within a social environment where technology mediates our relationships more and more. This is one of the most significant changes of the past two hundred years. And as one of my Facebook friends noted,

... instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed ...

This means that the quality of our relationships is really a matter of the person we are. Our character, integrity and values matter more than ever. They do because with many people we only have a moment to convey the depth of who we are. If we come across as shallow, narcissistic, unempathetic, or distracted, then we may never have a chance to change that impression. 

The impact of all this change in relationships and social context is that we must constantly be present with our best selves, if we hope to build relationships for the long term. To be present means that our first inclination is not to tell our story, but to ask questions to identify their story. When we know who they are and what they value, then, with genuine integrity, we can tell our story. We are able to do this when we truly approach each person with dignity, respect and trust.

Structures: The Importance of Leadership

A major change over the past two hundred years is in how businesses organize themselves. In the past, the industrial model depended upon a standardized, formal structure. Today, the complexity of doing business has placed a greater burden on workers to be problem solvers and initiative takers. The expectation that workers take greater responsibility is changing what it means to be an employee. In effect, this shift is a change in what is leadership.

In the past, leadership was a position, a title which often was personalized into a heroic narrative of the senior executive. Today leadership has become the impact that each person has within the business structure. It depends upon their ability to communicate, problem solve, relate well to others and contribute in ways beyond their job description. In effect, the skills of leadership are now the skills of an entrepreneur, and are needed by everyone within the structure.

With this shift, a company where more and more employees have the capacity to take initiative to lead, the quicker the company will adapt to changing situations with customers and in their industry.

The Difference that Matters

Here are five actions we can take.

1. Be clear about the Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose/Mission, Vision and Impact. Develop an elevator speech for each, so that when the moment arises you have something clear to say.

2. Develop Ideas in Conversation. Identify three to five people with whom you work, and often have lunch, and begin to share your ideas with them. You may want to share this post with them, and see where the conversation goes. The idea is to learn through collaborative reflection.

3. Volunteer with an Organization that Serves People in Need. I have found that working with people who have lived through or are living in hard times gives me perspective on myself. I learn to appreciate what I have and gain the ability to respect those whom I may have not been able to see any value. The resiliency and adaptability of people who are in need provides us a window into our own capacity to change. 

4. Develop a Set of Questions to Ask Everyone You Meet.  What sparks your curiosity? This is how the Circle of Impact was developed. I asked questions of everyone I met. Once the Circle became clear, I began to use this as a framework for my discussions with people. Now it is printed on my business card. Do this is to take initiative because your desire is to make a difference.

5. Go Slowly on Beginning to Take Initiative. Yes, leadership is an initiative taking function. But not all organizations have embraced this idea. In fact, many think that relinquishing control over employee freedom to lead ends with chaos and confusion. It certainly can if there is poor communication and coordination between members of a team or department. Understand, therefore, that leadership in this perspective needs alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure.

The last thing to say is that while the changes over the past two centuries have been great, the core attitudes and behaviors that make for effective leadership remain the same as always. The primary difference are the changes in the social and organizational contexts that have come through technological innovation and the growth of life and work on a global scale.


Measuring Leadership

Circle of Impact
There are no real measures of leadership.

Well, they are, but what we use are not real measures.

What we typically measure is management, not leadership.

The management of people, products and processes. 

That is different than leadership.

Management numbers may ... may ... have a relationship to leadership. But it needs to be defined.

So, if you are going to measure leadership then you need to define what it is, and define it in such a way that you can measure it.

 

Defining Leadership

Here's how I define leadership.

Leaders take initiative to create impact.

Each word is intentional.

Initiate

    Leaders start, engage, facilitate, act, do and take the first step.

Create

    Leaders generate processes, products, systems, relationships, openness, cultures, opportunities, or the next ones, and they adapt, form, and bring into existence what is new, needed and necessary.

Impact

    Leaders make a difference that matters by creating change.

 

By this definition any person can function as a leader. What does this mean for those people who are in executive and supervisory roles in traditional vertically integrated hierarchical organizational structures?

It is simple.

Executive leaders initiate the creative processes which produce leaders who initiate to create impact.

This means that executive leaders are measured by the leadership of those for whom they are responsible. This is quite similar to what we have thought of as management, but there is a difference.

The difference is that the management of efficiency, predictability and consistency requires control those who work for them. The reality is that this is a fading reality. Businesses are rapidly changing, by necessity, and our understanding of leadership needs to catch up.

The Three Dimensions of Leadership

Now if everyone simply initiated change in a random manner, then greater chaos would ensue.

Therefore, an integral part of executive leadership is coordinating the leadership of others. Executives do so through three principal areas: Ideas, Relationships and the context which each person has through the social and organizational structures of their work.

In other words, leaders facilitate clarity around the Connecting Ideas of Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. They facilitate the communication and coordination of the actions that follow the organization's purpose. 

Executive leaders build a culture of shared leadership through the shared responsibility for the organization's defined purpose, values and its vision for impact.

As a result, leadership spreads out through the company. We can see a better connection between the company's purpose and the means to achieve its bottom line. Better communication, and a greater sense of community between the people in the company, fosters a culture that adapts more quickly to the opportunities and obstacles that present themselves every day.

Measuring Leadership

So, how do we measure leadership.

First, we define the change we want by defining the purpose of the impact that we seek.

We track change. We track the changes that we see in how the Connecting Ideas are being use. We track change in how people communicate and work together. And we track changes in processes as they adapt to new circumstances.

Second, we identify and track employee initiative.

We track the connection between communication and issue resolution. If people are taking initiative to resolve issues at their own point of responsibility, then you are seeing the spread of leadership in the company.

Third, we track the speed of change.

How fast does it take for an idea to be enacted? The key to this returns to the Connecting Ideas. These ideas provide a context of understanding that can guide the initiative leadership of people.

Ultimately, the measure of leadership is the number of leaders who have been formed and nurtured by the company, and the collective impact of their shared leadership.

By growing a leadership culture of initiative, a company can become a community of leaders whose impact is far beyond what it was when everyone was being managed to just do their job.


The Benefits of Adaptive Learning

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The other day, I stopped by to see a friend and colleague. On his desk was one of the best leadership books of the past decade, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. It is stellar description for leadership of the importance of the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptation is a key skill for leaders who are managing change, while at the same time creating stable, sustainable enterprises.

Peter Mello and I had the opportunity to interview Marty Linsky on the book for two Weekly Leader podcasts, Part 1 and Part 2. It is worth hearing Linsky talk about the book and his work with Ron Heifetz.

Sitting there with this friend in his office, talking about leadership, how we deal with people in various situations, I came to a realization about myself, and about adaptive leadership.

In order to be an adaptive leader, we must be an adaptive learners.

I  realized, then, that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else.

It wasn't like a being student in a classroom learning from a teacher. Rather, it was learning by listening and observing to the lessons embedded in a person's perceptions and experience.

Listening and Observing - keys to being an adaptive learner.

Informational or Contextual?

There is no way I can tell you what I have learned from any particular individual. It isn't that type of learning.

It isn't informational learning.

Rather it is contextual learning. Learning from the context of a person is learning to see how ideas matter within a certain distinct situation.

It isn't abstract, or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea that transitions from the idea itself to something practical and real, that's applied in a particular situation.

The use of values in an organization is an example.

There are two types of values.

There are the ones that are on a list that the company claims are their values.

Then, there are the ones that actually are practiced by the people in the company.

These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent or even aligned.  Depending upon different conditions, the same understanding of value will have a different application in an organization.

Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.

Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own discrete offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants, and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to V.P. Joe, you go through his assistant Mary, or look at the latest memo.

Company B is physically structured around an open space concept. My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid share with me her experience of touring the Bloomberg offices in New York. She sent me a link ot a video tour of their offices. Regardless of your position, your office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit is a greater exchange of ideas.

So, two companies can claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to these insights and apply them in your own context.

Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how to organize office space is different.

This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others the clearer our own understanding becomes, and how we can be adaptive leaders.

This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn't an understanding derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains synthetically weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method.

It requires openness to other people, their ideas, their experiences and an appreciation of their particular context.  The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas that you hear each day. 

The Difference Adaptive Learning has made to me.

Sitting in my friend's office, I came to realize that adaptive learning had been my practice for over 30 years.

Listen and learn from people, whomever you meet, you can learn something from them.

Listen to them, ask questions to clarify what their experience was. Listen without trying to compete. Listen to learn.

Take what is heard and seen, then, reflect, process and apply what you learned.

Share what you learned with others. Express gratitude.  

This is how the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides came to be developed. Circle of Impact
From lots of conversations over the years, about what was happening in organizations, each one contributing a little piece of wisdom and understanding, creating a holistic perspective, I learned what I was suppose to see in leadership. In effect, these are not my ideas, but rather my catalog of what I've learned from other people. These lessons have wide applicability because this is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.

The benefits of adaptive learning are many.  Here's what I've learned.

1. We learn that Ideas matter.

They are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. They connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. All learning at the most fundamental level is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in what they are thinking.

2. We learn that Relationships matter.

When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person with whom we meet, every single one, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees.  Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what I mean by the idea, Community of Leaders.

3. We learn that Structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles.

If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another, and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in a system of operation that is not sustainable. 

For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, stable, set, concrete, real thing that exists. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.

4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing.

When our posture towards others is learning from them, we are less concerned about making sure they understand just how much we know.

It this is an issue for you, then practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books in subject areas in which you have no background. Stop trying to reinforce you own knowledge, and start expanding it. Start listening for the wisdom and insight in others.

5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything.

Adaptive learning isn't a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.

6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible.  

Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old way of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. This approach produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening.To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters, it is to create impact. Becoming impact focused simplifies leadership.

7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership which leads ultimately to becoming a Community of Leaders.

An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contributing and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal intiiative from which all leadership originates.  It isn't just the individual initiating change. It is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders.  This is what I see as a Community of Leaders.

Realizing that I have lived this way throughout my life, my gratitude grew towards the hundreds of people from whom I've learned. Many are no longer with us. Many have no idea of the impact that they have had on me. Many are friends who are my go-to-people for counsel when I need it. Many are random people whom I've met in passing whose stories and insight helped me gain a deeper appreciation of so many different ideas and ways of leading organizations. If you are one of these people, I thank you.


A Conversation about Strategic Planning

First Posted May 20, 2005, updated for today.

Circle of Impact- simple

One morning in a business office.

THE LEADER – We need a plan.

THE ASSISTANT - Why?

THE LEADER – We are being overwhelmed by issues and problems that seem to come from nowhere. … It isn't clear what step we need to take to resolve some of the challenges..

THE ASSISTANT - Yeah! It does seem that we’ve been floundering for the past few months. Any ideas?

THE LEADER – Uh, huh. THE FRIEND recommended I talk with THE GUIDE. He led a retreat for THE FRIEND's nonprofit board. Thought he might be able to help. Here’s his phone number.

THE ASSISTANT - Ok. I’ll set up the appointment.

Next week, at a local coffee shop.

THE GUIDE - Tell me what's going on.

THE LEADER – Well…I came to talk about our need for a strategic plan. We have some problems.  Here’s a list I started the other day.

<THE LEADER - hands THE GUIDE a list>

THE GUIDE – So you think a plan will help you solve all these problems?

THE LEADER -- Yes. I hope so because I am not sure what else we can do. We are caught between processes that no longer work as well as they used to, and things that are successful without our really putting much effort into them. We know those things aren't sustainable in the long run. They really aren’t our core business either, but they bring in revenue now. We need some clarity, perspective and direction.

THE GUIDE – OK. But here’s what you need to know before embarking upon a strategic planning process with me. 

There is more to a plan than producing a document. We are talking about a change process. Unless you are prepared to do things differently, don’t begin. It will only make your situation more difficult because you are going to raise everyone’s expectations, and not be able to meet them.

The reason?  They will see through the process as simply an avoidance of reality. Your people know what is true. They may not know the whole truth, but they know it for their piece of the puzzle which is your company. If you want them to trust the process, then you have to see this as a change process that requires honesty, transparency and integrity.

THE LEADER – Oh. I thought a plan was to help me know what I am to do.

THE GUIDE – It is. But what you have been doing may be counter productive to what is in your best interest, and the best interest of your company.

THE LEADERReally?

THE GUIDE – Yes.

THE LEADER – So what should I do? This isn’t what I thought strategic planning was about.

THE GUIDE – Yeah. That’s the normal reaction.

THE LEADER – So, tell me this. Why do I need a strategic plan?

THE GUIDE – A plan is simply a tool - nothing more or nothing less - that helps you as the leader of your organization to focus the goodwill, energies and commitment of people upon a clearly conceived vision of impact.

Most organizations and leaders get trapped into thinking that their business is managing activities. It’s not. It’s producing results. Those activities are important because they help produce the impact you want. But they aren’t the impact. Can you tell me what the impact of your business should be?

THE LEADER – Yeah. We want to provide our clients with the best products and services in our market.

THE GUIDE – Ok. What’s the impact? What is the change you are creating?

THE LEADER – What do you mean? We want to do the best job we can serving our customers.

THE GUIDE – Serving your customers. Providing products and services are just things you do. They are activities. And you are spending your time focused on managing the activities of all your people. Right?

THE LEADER - - Yes and No. We have goals, sales projections, that we look at, in some cases on a daily basis. That’s how we measure how well we are doing. And we are a market leader here in town, so we are doing pretty well.

THE GUIDE – Uh Huh. So what’s the problem? Why did you come to me if you are goal oriented and results focused?

THE LEADER – Well … we have these prob…I’m not sure now that you mention it … There’s something missing in our business. I can’t put my finger on it. Some things are doing well and others … I guess I sense that we are not reaching our potential.

THE GUIDE – If you were to reach your potential, would you know it?

THE LEADER – Uh…that’s a good question.

THE GUIDE – Here’s the problem. You are a smart guy. You would not be the leader of your organization if you weren’t. You have the right degrees. You read books on leadership and management. You attend conferences. You stay up to date on trends in your industry. And as a result you have become very comfortable with the language of leadership and management.

The problem is – and you are like me in this way – we know more than we have experienced or have practiced. Ideas are important for helping us focus, clarify, motivate and articulate our perspective. But knowing an idea conceptually, even visualizing how it might work is not the same as having tested it to see if it does. And like most ambitious leaders you absorb new ideas all the time, but never give them the opportunity to see if they work. Let me ask you this …in the past six months, how many audio books have you listened to and how many books have you started on your Kindle?

THE LEADER – Gee, …I don’t know … maybe a dozen?

THE GUIDE – Yeah. And every time you pass through an airport, you look at the bookstand, and you buy a book because it has a compelling title and a fresh set of ideas. What was the last business book you finished?

THE LEADER – Uh…The One Minute Manager?

THE GUIDE – Yeah, exactly. Here’s what I’m driving at.  Ninety Nine percent of business leaders are doing what you are doing. They focus on activity results and the collection of ideas. And their budget serves as the only strategic plan they have.

What you should measure is change, impact, the difference you are making. And all those ideas you are collecting become a mental load. We read books to learn and grow. And we should measure their impact by the change we make.

THE LEADER – Ok. Tell me more.

THE GUIDE – Ever read any philosophy?

THE LEADER – Yeah, in college. Don’t remember much of it.

THE GUIDE – My favorite philosopher is Aristotle. Want to know why?

THE LEADER – Sure.

THE GUIDE – Because he understood how to establish the link between the idea of something and the experience or practice of it. What he said is that we should think of ourselves as artisans, craftsmen, who learn an art by practicing it. We learn by doing. And we learn by doing it over and over and over again. The same is true with leading. Reading books, listening to tapes, attending conferences, even getting advanced degrees have value, but they are not a substitute for practicing leadership skills in the real world.

THE LEADER – Ok. Let me sort this through. What you are saying is that for most leaders they are focused on the wrong things. They don’t really see it that way, but their gut tells them this is true. They do the best they can. But there is always something missing. They don’t know what it is, so they read books, go to conferences, attend lectures, and listen to tapes. They get ideas that seem helpful, get inspired to do better, but fall back into the same rut and routine because nothing has changed.

THE GUIDE – You’ve got it.

THE LEADER – So the trick is what? …practicing? That I don’t understand.

THE GUIDE – It is not the practicing. It is the process of turning ideas into experience that produces the kind of impact you desire. It comes back to impact and change.

THE LEADER – OK. So what does this have to do with my need for a strategic plan? After all, all you’ve given me are your ideas and nothing has changed.

THE GUIDE – It isn’t that nothing has changed. Your perception has changed. And if that matters then your actions can too.

THE LEADER – I do see your point. But still I am not clear about how this concerns a strategic plan for my business.

THE GUIDE – Many strategic plans are written to be documents that are checked off the activity list. They are perfunctory and for the most part merely project current reality into the future. At least that is the way many of the ones that I’ve encountered over the years. The shift in business is to a more results focus that has broader categories of measurement than just bottomline numbers. This shift affects how planning is done. And this is where we began. Let me ask you a question. Can you describe for me what you want your business to be like in 5 years?

THE LEADER - - Sure. I want to expand to include two other cities in our region.

THE GUIDE – Ok. That’s a goal. Now imagine that you have accomplished this goal. You are now in three cities. Describe for me what you see going on. Imagine you have put together a music video that celebrates the achievement of your goal. Tell me what you see. What music would be playing?

THE LEADER – I see my role has changed. Instead of managing my one office here, across the street there ( pointing out the window), I have a manager for each location.

THE GUIDE – So what are you doing? How does this change your activity schedule?

THE LEADER – Hmmm. I haven’t thought about that. Not sure.

THE GUIDE – This is a problem that many leaders in growing businesses face. They want to grow. And they think that what changes is that their life and work will be the same, only just at a higher activity level. What is hard to calculate are the number of changes required. Managing managers is different than managing a staff. Being the leader of a regional group of offices is different than being the manager of a single local office. The change is both professional and personal. It is more dramatic and demanding than you can imagine. You are not adding responsibilities, you are taking a quantum leap in the number and complexity of the responsibilities that you will have. It requires you to learn new skills, behaviors and approaches to leading. You and your business cannot continue to do things the same way. You will have to change.

THE LEADER – How do I know what I’ll need to know? This is bigger than I thought.

THE GUIDE – Don’t get overwhelmed . You don’t have to compress five years into 20 minutes. You have time. And you’ll be amazed at how short a time it will take, that is if you have a plan, are focused and are totally prepared to follow this path where it leads. Ok?

THE LEADER – Ok. Where do I start?

THE GUIDE – With a plan.

THE LEADER – Back to square one…

THE GUIDE – But on a different game board. You see we aren’t planning for a single local office, but for a regional group of three offices in three cities. We begin at the fulfillment of your plan.

THE LEADER – Yeah. This is different. Can we start now while this fresh?

THE GUIDE – Sure, I have another hour. We can talk project scope, process and cost later. Let’s begin by asking five questions. I want you to start writing a journal so that we have an historical record of your progress and of our interaction.

THE LEADER – OK. Can borrow some paper?

THE GUIDE – Sure. Here’s a pad. 

THE LEADER – Thanks.

THE GUIDE – OK. Now before I give the questions and get another cup of coffee, I want to say one more thing. While the success of your organization is a team effort led by you, the success of a planning / change process is totally up to you. You have to lead the effort by modeling the change. While others may have the desire for changes to be made, none are thinking like you are in terms of the development of the business. It is your role to lead them to a vision of the future that you all share and work to achieve. This becomes one of your primary responsibilities. The planning processes that I have worked on over the years that have been less than successful have ultimately been because the senior leader has not become the champion of the process or the resulting plan. You have to be your business’ champion if you want to reach your goal in five years. Ok?

THE LEADER – Yeah! Makes sense. Because I rose up through the ranks, I’ve always felt a little reticent to be too forceful in leading. You are giving me a picture of how I have to be different in the future. Wow! This is amazing.

THE GUIDE – Yes it is. Very exciting. Now let’s begin this adventure. I’d like you to write down the following questions, and while I go get us both some fresh coffee, give me your immediate response to them. They don’t have to be complete sentences or even phrases. But they have to make sense. The questions are:

1. Over the past 12 to 18 months, what has changed? How is the business in transition

2. What has been our impact? What difference have we made that matters?

3. Who have we impacted?

4. What opportunities do I have now that I didn’t a year ago?

5. What obstacles must we address? What problems have we created?

 < 10 minutes later>

THE LEADER - - Here are my responses.

THE GUIDE – Ok. No, just hang on to them. As we talk about the questions, write down other thoughts you have. The purpose behind this is help you think concretely about the changes that need to happen in order for your goal to be realized. When we are finished, your goal will have been transformed into a vision for impact. Once we have that clarified, developing your plan will be easy.

< 45 minutes later >

THE GUIDE – You have a beginning idea for what your life, work and business will be like in 5 years. I’m going to need to go, however, I want to quickly sketch out what my strategic plan looks like. Before I describe that do you have any questions?

THE LEADER – If we to follow through on this, how long will it take?

THE GUIDE – There is no waiting for the plan to be completed before you begin to implement. We have already begun to implement your plan. The skills you need you will learn and practice as we work together. You build commitment and support for your plan by the way you put your plan together. This way you learn to become a master craftsman of leadership arts. And your staff join you from the start in the adventure of growing into a regional market leader. Our teacher Aristotle would be so proud.

THE LEADER – OK. Never thought of myself as an artist. That will take some getting use to.

THE GUIDE – A typical plan consists of four parts.

There is a Vision statement. We’ve discussed that already. However, it is important to understand that it needs to be simple, concise and impact focused. From that statement are derived a few – two or three – Goals that are a restatement of the Vision. If we took your five year goal of having offices in three cities, one of the goals could be something like “to be a regional leader serving in …”.

Then we develop Strategies to fulfill each goal. Strategies are not simple action steps. Rather they are collaborative efforts that focus the work of the organization. In this case, a strategy could be establishing rapport with lenders, business leaders and potential customers to determine the right location for your business in their community. Each strategy then is divided out into specific Action Steps with an estimation of time and cost and assignment of responsibility for the initiative. The usefulness of this approach is that it helps you manage your activities so that you can maintain your focus on results. This will become clearer as we work through the process. Is this clear enough for now?

THE LEADER – Yeah. What I like about it is that it is all integrated, linked together. I have my dream and I see how I can achieve it. Wow! I didn’t expect this to come out of this meeting. Ok, what’s next?

THE GUIDE – I’m going to prepare a set of questions that I want you, your staff and some of your clients to answer. I’m going to ask for some documents that describe how you are organized. Because with growth comes the need to address organizational structure. I need to know whether your operation is based on clear policy choices, or, are you primarily operating on the strength of your personality and character. To grow like you wish, your operating structure will have to grow as well. I’ll have those questions to you by the end of the week, along with a project proposal that will include process, timeframe and costs. Does that sound okay to you?

THE LEADER – Yes it does. Thank you very much. This is going to be great.

THE GUIDE – Yes, it is. Remember this day. It is the beginning of what could be a life-long adventure of pursuing a vision for impact that still forming in your mind. Thank you for letting me join you in this journey.

< conversation ends >

Afterword:

I've had many of these conversations over the past two decades. There are two sets of lessons that I've learned.

Lesson Set #1:

Strategic planning is a conversation. It takes place in relationships. It is a personal process that takes place in a business context. It is so because strategic planning is a change process. You can’t change an organization without changing the people and the relationships in it.

Strategic planning is an analytical process focused on enhancing the impact that you wish to achieve. If there is no vision, there is no reason to change or to improve. If there is no plan and no way to change, then the vision is a fantasy that is soon recalled with regret, maybe even bitterness.

Strategic planning is a tool for building an organizational community focused on individual performance experienced as the impact which is a shared vision for the future.You can not do it alone. The clearer the plan, the better the conversation, the more trusting the relationships, the more likely your vision of impact will be realized.

Lesson Set #2:

Strategic planning is less and less about long term planning, and more about providing a platform for adaptive leadership. This primarily means that a plan is a daily change process.

The Leader of an organization is now more of a facilitator of other's leadership than the sole leader who delegates. One of the major shifts in the operation of the organization is in the encouragement and equipping of individual leadership at all levels of the organization. Leadership in this sense is initiative taken to create impact. For the majority of the organization's employees this means that they become problem solvers and system adapters to change.

Measuring impact or change is more critical now than ever.  One way to get at this is look at what is called the Triple / Quadruple Bottom LIne

It is important also to understand that how we measure results is influenced by our experience of the acceleration of time. Now, a minute, an hour, a day are still the same length, but our experience has changed. We are now forcing more tasks, decisions and encounters into the same space of time as we have always had. The benefit / liability of technology is that we can do more with fewer resources, in less time for greater results. We need to recognize that measuring performance requires us to be much clearer and specific about what matters. We need to be clear about what results from our life and work actually matter. Impact or creating change or difference is how I've come to understand what we must do.

Lastly, we need more conversation that creates the conditions of collaboration. My Circle of Impact Leadership Guides are designed to foster conversation built around the Five Questions. Do this with everyone in your organization, and everyone will begin to see the big picture, within the context of their specific place within the organization. This is essential for leading change in the 21st. Century.