A Conversation about Constant Change - 3

Here is my response to Steven Devijver's questions (below) author of the free ebook, The Strategy of Constant Change

Q1: You’re this amazing guy with a really special view on leadership and human relationships. What’s your view then - with all this background - on the three human universals? I ask this because you’ve only just recently written on your blog about The Golden Rule. I would like to understand why you think these tree human universals are novel.

Steven, I'm not sure that these universals are novel. I think your identification of them is insightful. They are what I observe in my dealings with people. They want to be treated with respect, kindness and given the opportunity to grow. Yet, at the same time, as people, we make mistakes.

There are two aspects of this worth identifying. There are mistakes that come from a lack of knowledge or ability. These can be corrected by instruction and training. The other kind of mistakes are ones of character.  These are more serious because they are not so easily subject to being changed by training, but by disciplined action. If what I say sounds like Aristotle, you'd be correct. I believe of all the ancient philosophers, his perspective on how we are to live is the closest to what people raised within an institutional context need today.  The parallel insight is of the management philosophers (Say and Schumpeter, especially) of the past couple hundred years who described entrepreneurialism in similar ways. From Aristotle through to Peter Drucker, the virtuous, happy person is the one who acts and creates new things.

I see in your identification of these human universals an ancient truth that is emerging in discussions about organizations and institutions in our day. I point most specifically to my good friend Tom Morris who has been writing and speaking on the value of ancient wisdom in the context of modern corporate institutions for almost twenty years. His perspective informs much of my own.

To be human is to create, and this comes from action, from taking initiative to transform abstract ideas into concrete realities. I believe that this is why God made us, and is God's most indelible mark upon us.

Q2: You mention the human point-of-view on organizational change. How important are human beings and relationships in organizations according to you, and what else should we pay attention to to help organizations thrive?

What I wrote above is about the individual person. Every person, however, exists within a social context, or, rather, many social contexts. There is our family, our neighborhood, our associations whether they are religous, political, or interest based, and then, of course, our work context. What I find is that social organization leads in one direction without intentional human intervention. I find that most organizations grow towards minimizing ambiguity, resist change, exclude outside influence, and become uniform,closed systems of relationships that squeeze out human initiative in favor of social compliance. One of the unintended consequences of universal education is to remove human initiative in favor of comformity. We treat education as a management exercise where efficiency is valued over effectiveness. This is true in every institution that I have had contact with during my lifetime. I do not think that this is intentional, but rather a logical result of how we think.

We think like managers who do not own the work we do. We simply have organzed our lives around the performance of certain activities. Ask people what their purpose is, and rarely does it have anything to do with the work they perform. We think like managers instead of as leaders because we have been taught to work within an institutional environment. I heard yesterday that a million people have lost their jobs in the United States over the past year. Those businesses that lost those people are now more efficient, but are they more effective. Are they capable of taking advantage of opportunities that still exist? I don't think so. Now, imagine, all those million people starting new businesses. Imagine the creative energy that will be released into world as a result.

From my perspective, I see a need to reconceptualize not only what it means to live an authentic, happy, virtuous human life, but also what this means within a social and insititutional environment. As a result, I'm interested in the nature of human relationships. Let me give one example of what I see.

Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the level of social interaction that takes place on line. You and I met through our involvement in the Triiibes online social network. I see in the growth of social media an expression of the basic human need for companionship.  However, I don't see all this social interaction as necessarily their purpose. Instead, taking my lead from Aristotle, I believe that our human interaction should lead to collaborative human action. Through these social media tools, we should be forming relationships where we work together to achieve some impact. If all they are is a place to talk, they will not be sustainable. They will degenerate into a narrow clique built around a few strong, influential voices, and a circle of people who compliantly go along. It is a picture of all social institutions in microcosim.

What is the solution? I return to Aristotle and entrepreneurism. We must become virtuous people who act to create new ways of meeting needs and opportunities. My personal responsibility is to be a person that others can trust. This trust is built upon not only personal integrity, but openness, honesty, humility and the recognition that we each have a role to play within every social context. Sometimes it is to lead, others times to follow, some moments to give and others to receive.  It is from this philosophical perspective that was born my Johnny Bunko 7th lesson - Say Thanks, Every Day. Giving thanks in this perspective is an act of creative openness that affirms the connection that exists between us.

Q3: What’s your view of change is bad, and should be avoided?

I don't see change as either bad or good. I simply see it as the context of how we live. Every change has within it some good that can be identified. For example, suffering is a kind of change. We can view suffering as something to be avoided or we can see in it the opportunity to gain strength.  We have a choice in how we deal with change. We either see it as an opportunity or as an inconvenience. The choice we make determines whether we will find happiness.

We need to develop our capacity to adapt to change. Returning to Aristotle, I believe that this is what he writes about as becoming habituated to doing virtuous acts.

Okay, my next question for you.

Q. Why is it important for human beings to experience discovery? How can we do this on a daily basis? And how do businesses and organizations develop ways to discover?

Geography Awareness Week

Did you know it is Geography Awareness Week? I didn't until Coral Jeffries of the New City Christian School in Asheville emailed me. Here's a YouTube video of her school

Now, since it is geography week, ditch the GPS, and get a map. Just read the map, and see what you can learn. Go by a world atlas.

Here's a good geography test. See if you can figure out how to travel by land between different places.  Try these.

1. Cairo to Cape Town.
2. Provincetown to Terra del Fuego.
3. Murmansk to Delhi
4. Otto, N.C. to Duck, N.C.
5. Stornoway, UK to Muree, Pakistan.

Enjoy your geography. I wrote about Coral and New City here.

Quick Takes: Ben Stein for the College-bound

Ben Stein is a fascinating individual who parlayed many of the bits of wisdom contained in this brief Yahoo Finance article into a movie and writing career that will be remembered by millions of people.  Not bad for an economist.

Here's what I think is often forgotten by students.

Make friends, and preferably join a fraternity or sorority. It's lonely spending your hours by yourself in the library. You need to have a group you can hang with and joke with and eat with. This group will support you, cheer you, divert you, and energize you. Having friends in college is not a trivial matter -- it's life and death in terms of getting through successfully.

Also, don't allow yourself to look like a slob. Always be well dressed, cleanly showered, clean shaven, and look as if you mean business. Teachers don't like sloppy students. They like students who look neat.

I know you'll be sorely tempted to look like a hippie; I used to look like one, and it was fun. But if you wear sloppy clothes, be clean inside them and have your thoughts especially well-ordered to offset your appearance. You'll need to work twice as hard so your teachers know you're smarter on the inside than on the outside.


However, I don't think he takes it far enough.

Increasingly, life is the product of the relationships we form. Connections will win out over sheer talent. Learn to venture out of the closed social circles that are easy to form and provide comfort and security in college. Develop relationships in town with people who are not associated with the college. The easiest place to do this is at a church, synagogue or other place of worship.  Even though sleeping in on Sunday morning seems preferable, go to church and someone will take you to lunch, if you show up early enough to meet people before church.

When they do take you to lunch, you ask the questions of them. Find out what they do; how they got there; how they function in their relationships. Listen and learn.  When meeting new people, always assume that you know nothing, and they are a deep reservoir of insight and wisdom.

College should be fun and educational. It also shouldn't be an escape. It should be a giant spring board to the next ten to twenty years of life.  It will be if you learn to make connections and establish meaningful relationships.

HT: Instapundit

Ideas, Narrative and Practice

Tony Quinlan makes an excellent point in a comment here
Here's his comment followed by my reflections.

You make a good point about the difficulty with abstract thought and ideas in relation to practice. One of the techniques that I've seen used very effectively, and Steve Denning talks about in The Springboard, is that of examples of similar ideas in action elsewhere.
Using stories from other organisations (and, sometimes, ones that aren't immediately obvious in their relationship to current internal issues) avoids the standard traps of "oh, but they can do it over there" and all the other excuses we come up with for other people's successes when we're not succeeding ourselves.
But, crucially, listening to examples triggers people's thought processes. They get the abstract idea and start to look at possible practice immediately.
The difficulty then becomes, how do we collect and spot those stories?  And that's another problem altogether for leaders!

Tony Quinlan
Narrate Consulting

Here are my thoughts on Tony's comment.

Here's what I've found that adds a third level to what you describe.

An abstract idea that is described without a real world context, ie. in a narrative or story, is difficult for many people to understand. The criticism is that we are being too theoretical, too intellectual or too unclear.  A story helps to place the idea in a context that is understandable, so that they can see the value of it.

What I've discovered is that there is still a gap between seeing the practical value of an idea and knowing how to do something with it. What I have learned to do is take people through a process of discovery by asking questions.  For example:

What about this story makes sense to you?
What is most appealing?
If you were to try this, what do you think would be your first step?

I find then they begin to learn to apply an idea, and not merely be inspired by it.

Real learning comes through practice. Tacit knowledge should be the key goal for learning.  Yet our educational systems are really organized around learning ideas and their values, rather than learning the utility of ideas in practice.  Part of the reason for this I've concluded is that there really is no consequence to knowing an idea and not practicing.  Only those situation where we really need to have our skills sharpe do we learn to translate abstract ideas into action.

Let me illustrate this with a story.  At lunch today, I was talking with a friend who is a commerical contractor.  One of my sons worked for him this summer.  We were talking about a range of topics, one being the quality of the workers that he hires and how difficult it is to find sub-contractors who can do really techincal work. He made the comment that we try to educate too many people to be English majors, instead of training people in the trades.

The philosopher Aristotle wrote about learning as the mastering of a discipline. He saw in the importance of mentorship as the means to help people acquire the knowledge to perform well ones skills.  In this respect, we learn to translate ideas into action by practicing with someone who has had the same training and experience.  Too much of our educational focus is on the mastering of ideas, not the mastering of the practice of ideas.

So, from my perspective, storytelling is one of the mentors tools for helping people learn to translate ideas into action.  And for those of us who are in the consulting business, I think this is one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of what we do.  As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."

Public vs Privatized Public Education

My old college buddy George Wood weighs in about the privatization of public schools in a FastCompany debate.

My own perspective is that privatization misses the real challenge facing public education.  That question is the issue of change.  I don't find that either public or private organization have mastered the change issue yet.  For the most part, they are still trying to do what they have always done.

The source of the answer is the creation of public/private partnerships that build on the strengths of both to find not just innovative approaches for schools, but for the role schools are to have in the change issues affecting communities. 

George is involved in the Coalition for Essential Schools and the Forum for Education and Democracy.  These are great organizations providing innovative leadership for public education.

To Be or To Do: The meaning of life and education

David Brooks is a NYTimes columnist that always seems to present what I would call the suburban intellectual's perspective.  He isn't a bohemian and he isn't agarian. He speaks for a certain broad middle of America that is not easy to pin down. Political, ideological and social extremes are much more easy to do so.

So last week, Brooks writes a column on Harvard, following the imbroglio over President Larry Summers resignation.  It can be found here, unless you subscribe to the NYTimes columnist service.

Here's a portion of what Brooks says.

"I've got great news! You're young and you're smart and next year you're beginning college. Unfortunately, I've also got bad news. The only school you got into is Harvard, where, as Peter Beinart of The New Republic notes, students often graduate "without the kind of core knowledge that you'd expect from a good high school student," and required courses can be "a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all."

Brooks could do as many pundits do, go into a long description of the declining state of American higher education, using Harvard as the model that the rest of the university world is following.  But he doesn't.  Instead, he throws the impetus for education back on the student.  He offers a list of recommendations that if followed would provide not only a broad, useful education, but would probably insure that the student could learn the rest of his or her life. 

Here's the list.

1. Read Reinhold Niebuhr.
2. Read Plato's "Gorgias."
3. Take a course on ancient Greece.
4. Learn a foreign language.
5. Spend a year abroad.
6. Take a course in neuroscience.
7. Take statistics.
8. Forget about your career for once in your life.

Some comments on this list.

I'd suggest that this list is not limited to incoming college students, but can be done by anyone.  Here's how you can approach becoming a more well-rounded educated person.

The first two, anyone can do. Your local library or bookstore can provide them.

I'd also recommend you read Aristotle's Ethics and Politics.  It will take your reading of the Gorgias and provide a base for thinking as a philosopher instead of as a spin doctor.

A place to begin reading Reinhold Niebuhr is Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic and a volume of essays and addresses entitled, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr.  Then, if he has sufficiently captured your attention, I'd read, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation : Human Nature 2 Volume SetNiebuhr's perspective is missing in the broard arena of opinion, so be prepared to reorient your perspective on many things.  

The third, purchase a DVD course through here.

The fourth you can do at your local community college.

The fifth you can by going on short term mission trips through a local church or non-profit relief agency like Habitat for Humanity.

The six and seventh will take more effort, but you can do by starting a reading program. Contact a local college for a reading list.

The last one has to be answered by asking the question about life purpose.  What are you called to be or to do?  The following from Robert Coram's wonderful book on Col. John Boyd captures this tension.

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road, " he said.  "And you are going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go."  He raised his hand and pointed.  "If you go that way you can be somebody.  You will have to make compromises and you will ahve to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments."  Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction.  "Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself.  If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors.  But you won't have to compromise yourself.  You will be true to your friends and to yourself.  And your work might make a difference."  He paused and stared into Leopold's eyes and heart.  "To be somebody or to do something.  In life there is often a roll call.  That's wehn you will have to make a decision.  To be or to do?  Which way will you go?"
(I'll write more on Col. Boyd soon.)

If you follow through on Brook's suggestions, and also read my Aristotle suggestions, you'll  see that life is more than credentials.  Life is a creative act lived everyday.  Whether you are 18 or 80, life is what YOU make it.  Make it something worthwhile.

HT: Drew Henderson

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Mentoring, Consulting and Learning

Brad Respess has two compelling posts on mentoring and consulting.  In the first - Mentor Lost, Mentor Gained? - he celebrates the work of a consultant, Bas Hofland, as “possibly the most brilliant mind and best critical thinker in the industry.”  High praise, indeed. 

Every consultant would love to have a client as celebratory as Brad.  Of course, every client would love to have a consultant the quality of Bas.  It is great to see the perfect marriage of client need and consultant expertise. 

In the second posting - Mentoring Ain't Easy - he writes about the importance of mentoring.  He describes the difference between the Greek and Hebrew learning models as he learned in a Sunday school class.  While I am supportive of the point Brad is making, the distinctions made by his Sunday school teacher are historically inaccurate. 

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COG or Leader

Seth Godin comments to a clock device that makes it easier to keep track of factory worker time-in and time-out via cell phones.

I agree with Seth that "Since you were five, schools and society have been teaching you to be a cog in the machine of our economy. To do what you're told, to sit in straight lines and to get the work done."

This is education for compliance, not leadership.  It is education organized not for the student's benefit, but for administrators.  Keep teachers and students in check, and we'll some how make it through the day.

Schools need to teach leadership.  For children to learn to lead requires them to learn the responsibilities of taking initiative to solve problems and meet opportunities presented to them.

The industrial age is over.  Yet, to too large extent, American education is still organized to train for compliance and not leadership.