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.


The Social Bond

Troop in Edinburgh - Night

"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?" 

This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.

At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.

The others? "My mother."

None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.

It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question.  It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.

Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?

Is it something personal?

Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?

Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.

Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society.  We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.

In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.

Here's an example of what I mean.

The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.

However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.

One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.

Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.

The Social Bond Online

Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.

Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.

"They are not real relationships." 

The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)

There is a social bond to this shared experience.  Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result.  This is my own experience. 

The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.

There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.

The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.

The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.

As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..

Learning to see a social bond

Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.

Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.

We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?

When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension. 

We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes.  My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.

Let me say it this way.

The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.

Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.

I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.   

In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity.  For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.

Connecting Ideas2
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.

The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas. 

When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.

The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.

The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it. 

I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester.  In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.

The transcendent character of a social bond

A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.

Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.

The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.

For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary,  We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers.  Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.

I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.

The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.

"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."

Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.

 

The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories.  It goes deeper than that.  Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say. 

Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.

There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.

It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.

"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."

Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job.  What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.

Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action.  At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.

The challenge we confront

Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management.  It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life. 

When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,

"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."

At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.

The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.

First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.

I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.

Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.

Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.

To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.

It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life.  And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business.  It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.

To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .

This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.

In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done.  It is where genuine transformation happens.

Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.


What is Good?

Moran-sunrise -KathrynMapesTurner Moran-Sunrise by Kathryn Mapes Turner

This is the question that was the basis for the only philosophy course I took in college. The course, Philosophy of Art, I had hoped would explore the artist impulse that people have to create. And to be able to define what distinguishes a good piece of art from one that isn't.

Unfortunately, the course was neither about art nor how to distinguish what is good. Instead, it was a course in semantics, of how one talks about art, and why art can't be defined.

It wasn't that the professor spent portion of every class denigrating people who had religious faith. It was rather that we talked around subjects, never about them, and therefore never reaching a point of understanding or resolution.

He would take a seemingly innocent or benign idea, like goodness, and through a process of analytical reductive reasoning show us how there is no true idea of goodness. This simple and effective tactic left most of us in the class scratching our heads about what the class was about rather than questioning what we believed about anything.

For probably ten years, I would occasionally dream about this professor. Dream about us debating in class, and me changing his mind. I don't think the professor was so clever to think that he'd make philsophers of us all by tearing down our belief systems. Rather, I think he was convinced that truth could be understood in the analysis of language. And yet, that truth was not true in a values or universal sense, but true to the use of the words in that context.

I think he was an intellectual nihilist, yet did not live that way. He believed in something, and for him it was his art and athletic endeavors. It was what he truly valued. And I'm convinced they gave him a social context of friendship through which universal values were evident in their interaction.

What I understand today is that my professor's approach to understanding could not produce a kind of understanding that is whole, but rather small and fragmented. 

As a kid, did you ever take a part a toy, and then try to put it back together, only to have some parts remaining? The toy is something whole. Something more than the sum of its parts. Language is something whole, more than grammar and patterns of word usage.  

Say the word tide, and it conjures up a range of images. But you don't know what I mean. If I add high or roll to it, two very different images come to mind. The words are parts. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books are wholes. Not necessarily complete wholes, but some whole none-the less.

Art Loeb - Pisgah trailsTo describe the whole of something, or to describe an object as good, is not to describe its parts, but something else. 

For example, this image is of a portion of a map of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For many of you, it is just lines, shading, markers and names. You can tell it is a map, but it doesn't go much further than that.

The map can serve as a guide, an introduction, to what a person can find here on a visit.  Come this summer, you can visit the Fish Hatchery or swim in the cold waters at Sliding Rock or hike up to John's Rock. Each place is represented on the map. Each a place that has meaning for people who visit here.

For those of us who have spent time here, the map is much more. It is a visual connection point to memories and images of places, people, situations and experiences that we've had in locations noted on the map.

For example, just off the map image there is a place call Mt. Hardy.  Seen at the center of this picture.  Mt Hardy from Devils Courthouse 1 On the map, it is just a name of one of hundreds of peaks to climb. Yet, on a June night in 2003, it was a place of fascination and horror, as we watched lightning flash and strikes all around as a group of us camped.

The place on the map represents more than a name. It is something whole and complete, because we experienced it as more than a name on a map. It is a place that will forever stay with those of us who camped there that night.

When we say something is good, we are not trying to analyze its component parts to identify what makes it good. We are saying something about the whole of the object.

I'm convinced that human thought is rationalized emotion. We feel something, and our words provide us a way to connect with those deeper parts of our lives that we know exist, but have a hard to time expressing. We use things like maps and art to provide a connection between those parts of us that are only understandable as something whole and complete.

When we talk about what is good, we are talking about values that capture for us something whole and often times something that is greater than us. These connections, to me, represent the emergent reality that I wrote about here. We are not just our thoughts or just our emotions. We are not just a bank of talent or a fulfiller of tasks along an assembly line. We are whole beings who cannot be understood in any complete way by analytical reduction. Our wholeness rather is understood as unrealized potential within a particular setting. Wyoming When we look at a work of art, like this painting of Wyomng, that I found online many years ago, we can get really close and look at the technique of the artist, the picture fades and the brush strokes emerge. Then step back, and the picture takes on its wholeness again.

What is good about this painting can be described on many levels. There is the technique. The thematic material. The use of color and perspective. But all those are only parts of the picture. When they are all combined together, do they create a painting that we can say is good? Possibly, but it has a lot to do with the values that we bring to the experience.  And our values are products of our interaction with people in society.

I believe that our lives can be like this painting. Excellent in the execution of the brush strokes and use of color, but even more significant because of the picture itself. When we find wholeness in our life and work, we are more than the sum of activities that we do each day.  We become a work of art whose life and work is good. Create Goodness picture

When the Five Actions of Gratitude appeared in my mind one morning driving through northern Mississippi, this is the sort of thing I saw in the fifth action, Create Goodness.  A couple quotes from my Weekly Leader column.

The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught his students that “every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….what is the highest of all practical goods? … It is happiness, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” By this he means that the actions born from our individual initiative, through our relationships, in our work and the daily course of our lives aim at goodness, defined as happiness or living or doing well in life and work. ...

Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in describing Aristotle’s thought on this point wrote,  “ What then does the good for… (humanity) … turn out to be? … It is the state of being well and doing well in being well … . “ The word that Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (eu-day-mo-knee-a), traditionally translated as goodness. Its meaning is much more complex that simply as an adjective for describing a piece of pie or last Sunday’s football game. It touches on ideas related to fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness and completeness. The good person is one whose whole life is an integrated combination of thought, feeling, initiative, interaction, and action, resulting a good life or good work, or a better product, community or world.

What is Good?

It is a life that is complete and whole, fulfilled, meaningful and makes a difference that matters. The good life is a complete and happy life.  It is a life connected to others just as their lives are connected to ours. And when we find that completeness, our lives are like a painting that evokes values that create goodness and elevate the lives of others. We also become like a map which is a reference point, an example, of what is possible, and for those who know that we have become a reminder of what the experience of a complete life is like.


Something Larger than Oneself

Life-Work Goals
Embedded in what I hear from people that they want their lives and work to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and Make a Difference that Matters is the idea that they want to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Here in this TED video composer and conductor Eric Whitacre provides a deeply moving picture of what this is like. Over 2000 people, scattered across the globe, join their voices together to create a virtual choir. This is a picture of the emergent realtiy that recapturing the best of who we are through shared endeavors in community. Watch and enjoy and look forward to the full release of the virtual choir's video later this week.

 


The End and the Beginning

Seeing what's coming

What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?

Working in planning processes over the years, I've concluded that people can see what they want, but fail to reach it because of how they go about it.  We can imagine the future, but not see the path that will take us there. This gap in our abilities is becoming more acute as the ways we have worked are becoming less effective.

From another perspective, we rarely see the end of something coming, or the beginning of the next thing. We tend to see in retrospect.  Our aversion to change, I believe, is largely because we don't like surprises. We defend the past hoping that it is sustainable into the future, even if we see a better, different one.The past, even less than ideal, at least seems known and more certain, more secure, more stable, more predictable, more comfortable, at one level.  It does not mean that it is satisfying or fulfilling, but it seems safer. 

As a result, instead of providing us a sound basis for change, the past can inhibit us from achieving the vision that we see. Instead, we live by a set of cultural forms that must be defended against change. In other words, the form of the way we live and work remains the same even after its vitality has gone. 

Change that has come

What impresses me about our time is how fast change is happening, and how quickly things we thought were normative seem less relevant.

Ten years ago, websites were the rage. You weren't on the cutting edge of business without one. Today, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other social media platforms are the norm for a business. Twenty years ago, CDs were the norm. Now, digital I-Tunes downloads. Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was the West's nemesis, now militant Islam. Forty years ago, Vietnam and racial equality were the dominant issues of our time. Now we have an African-American President, and Howard Schultz wants Starbucks in Vietnam. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy was challenging the nation to go to the Moon within the decade. Today, the government is putting space exploration on the back burner as space travel is becoming privatized.

Could we have imagined these changes?  Possibly. We'd probably not be able to see how they'd happen. That is the curious thing about visions and visioning. We can imagine the end, but not the means.  The pathway to the future goes through today and tomorrow. Yet, we are captives of our past thinking and experiences.  They are the measure of what is possible and what can be done.

The End and the Beginning

I have been reflecting, in particular, on these thoughts over the past several months.  I've tried to step back without prejudice and identify what I see without reducing it down to a few simple categories. What I do see are the markers of change in three broad areas.

For one it is the The Beginning of the End, for another The End of the Beginning, and for another, surprisingly, The Beginning of a long delayed Beginning.

Some of this reflection was prompted by a conversation about a project event to take place later this year. It was a discussion about how businesses function. The contrast was between a focus of work as a set of tasks to be done and the importance of human interaction in meeting organizational goals. I realized coming out of that conversation that this project, for me, represented a turning point in human and organizational development. It provided a picture of the past and the future. The past as the Industrial model of business organization and the future of organizations as communities of leaders. That last phrase was what I envisioned a decade and a half ago when I began my consulting business. Only now, after all these years, do I see that simple idea beginning to have relevance for the way we live, work, organize and lead organizations.

What I see is:

The Beginning of the End of the Progressive ideal.

The  Endof the Beginning of the Capitalist model.

The Emergence of freedom and democracy on a global scale.

The first two, Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the age of Enlightenment.

The Progressive ideal believed, and still does by many of its advocates, that through government control of science and industry a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was an utopian belief in a well-order, controlled, uniform world.

The Capitalist model was born in a belief that each individual should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not be forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It was the ideology that provided the basis of the industrialization out which has come prosperity for more people in history and the rise of the modern middle class.

Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.

Over the past decade, the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. Because the control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.

A principal assumption of the Enlightenment is that we can know what we need to know by analytical decision making. In other words, by identifying the parts of a situation, we understand it, and therefore can design a strategic mechanism for controling the outcome.  This analytical process works very well in the realm of the natural sciences, less so in the realm of the social sciences. To paraphrase novelist Walker Percy, "Science can tell us how the brain functions, but not about the functioning of the mind."

At the beginning of this essay, I wrote of what I was seeing The Beginning of The  End of the Progressive ideal and The End of the Beginning of the Capitalist model. Neither of these observations are political statements. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican. I am not a Progressive nor a Libertarian. I find none of the current choices of political affiliation representative of my own perspective and values. I speak as an outlier, not an antagonist. 

I see these ideological movements as products of a different time in history. The assumptions and the way of thinking that brought these ideologies into prominence are now receding in appropriateness. The conditions that gave rise to these ideas over the past three hundred years are now giving way to new conditions.  If progressivism and capitalism are to survive, then their proponents must change.

Emergent connection

These ideologies born in the age of Enlightenment share a reductive approach to knowledge. In other words, we gain knowledge and understanding by breaking things into parts. The assumption is that things are collections of discrete parts.  Yet, we know that in the natural sciences, the mixing of different chemical elements creates something new and different that cannot exist in any other way. Water being the most obvious example.

However, in the social realm, there is a shift toward emergent knowledge as the basis for understanding what is.  The emergent perspective sees connections and wholes rather than just parts. In a network of relationships, the value isn't one person, but rather the connections that one person has to other persons. 

List-NetworkThink of it as the difference between those radio ads selling lists of sales leads, and knowing the person who has a relationship with 100 of those buyers. The former is a list of contacts, of names and addresses. It is a parts list.  The other is a picture of a network of connections that one person has. This second picture is the picture of the future, for it is a picture of relationships.

We see emerging forces all around us. Again, this is not a political statement, but an observation. One difference between the Tea Party demonstrations and the Union demonstrations of the past year is the difference between an emergent organization and a traditional hierarchical one. The Tea Party organization is intentionally decentralized in local communities. Unions are designed as centralized concentrations of power.  One body speaking for a host of organizations.

 The difference here is between a centralized and decentralized organizational structure, like that described in Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, The Starfish and The Spider. The centralized structure (the spider) is vulnerable at the top. Take down the leader, and the organization suffers significant loss of prestige and power. The decentralized system (the starfish) is not vulnerable at the top, because there is none. In a decentralized system, no one expression controls the fortunes of the whole. The centralized is the industrialized model, and the decentralized, an emergent one. The system that the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model share is one of centralization. Operating separate from both are independents and small business entrepreneurs. The difference is between a hierarchy of control and a network of collaborative relationships.

The recent rebellions in the Middle East are also examples of this emergent model. The use of cell phone and internet technology to connect people in agile, less structured ways make these rebellions possible, not necessarily successful, but possible.Their desire is for a freedom that they see provided and secured by democracy. When thousands of demonstrators fill the streets of Cairo seeking the end of a repressive regime, their impact is far greater than their numbers. We see a visual counterpoint of the difference between being a nation of free people and one living under an authoritarian government.

Even as the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model decline, the impetus towards freedom and democracy grows. I heard recently that there are now more nations with democratic governments than at any time in history.  Democracy that grows from a grassroots base is an emergent model. The impact is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In an emergent context, one person's actions can serve as a catalyst for thousands more. For example, the recent uprising in Tunisia was started  when a street merchant Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the abusive treatment by police of his vegetable cart business.

The Network is Emergent

In business, the emergent model has relevance. When a business perceives itself to be a structure of parts, processes and outcomes, following upon the centralized industrial model, then it has a much more difficult time seeing the value that exists in the relational connections that exist both between people and within the structure itself. It is why so many businesses become siloed and turf battles insue.

Structure - Collaborative into Hierarchy

However, when a business sees itself as a network of interactive individuals, then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is higher levels of communication, collaboration and coordination.

While the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model are products of the age of Enlightenment, emergence, freedom and democracy are even older ideas finding new ground and relevance.  In the traditional business organization, their relevance can be seen in two ways.

First, in the freedom of the individual to take responsibility through their own initiative. This perspective harkens back to the ancient Greek democracies where Greek farmers and small business owners participated in the governance and protection of their city-state. For businesses to replicate such an ethos requires a shift in perspective from employees as functionaries of the tasks of the company to a recognition of the potential contribution that each person offers. It is in this sense that each person leads out of their own personal initiative to give their best to the company.

Second, in the emergence of businesses as human communities of shared responsibility. The traditional approach has been to break down the organizational structures into discrete parts of tasks and responsibilities, and to staff to that conception of the organization. This traditional hierarchical approach worked in simpler times when businesses were less global, more homogeneous, and employees less well trained, and had the technology to advance their contributions beyond their individual position in the company.

Today, the environment of business has changed, as the context becomes more complex and change accelerates. Agility and responsiveness are not embedded in structure, but in human choice and in relationships that amplify those shared choices to make a difference. It is the freedom to take initiative to act in concert with others that creates the conditions of successfully managing the challenging environment of business today. The result of a greater emphasis on relationship, interaction and personal initiative is a shift in culture. One only has to select any page in the Zappos.com Culture Book to see the influence of genuine community upon the attitudes and behaviors of the company's workforce.

The Keys to Change

I began this post by saying that we rarely see the end of something coming or the beginning of something new. What I offer here has been germinating in my mind for the past three years. It is still not yet fully formed, and may never be. Yet, I am convinced that the changes that I see happening mean that there is no going back to the halcyon days of the 1990's or even the 1950's.  Business organizations will not long succeed as mechanistic structures of human parts. Rather they must emerge into being communities of leaders, where individual initiative, community and freedom are fundamental aspects of the company's culture

The keys to the future, in my mind, are fairly simple.

1. Leadership starts with individual employees' own personal initiative to make a difference. Create space and grant permission for individual employees to take initiative to create new ways of working, new collaborative partnerships and solve problems before that reach a crisis level.

2. Relationships are central to every organizational endeavor. Create space for relationships to grow, and the fruit will be better communication, more collaboration between people and groups, and a more efficient coordination of the work of the organization.

 3. Open the organization to new ideas about its mission. Identify the values that give purpose and meaning to the company's mission.  Organize around those values that unite people around a common purpose, that give them the motivation to want to communicate better, collaborate more, and coordinate their work with others.  Openness is a form of freedom that releases the hidden and constrained potential that exists within every company.

We are now at the End of an era that is unprecedented in human history. The next era is Beginning, and each of us has the privilege and the opportunity to share in its development. It requires adapting to new ideas, new ways of thinking, living and working. I welcome the change that is emerging, because I find hope that a better world can be gained through its development.