Prior to the industrial revolution,
and especially prior to discovery of electricity, a person's life was lived
within the confined space of their village. Social experience happened within the community of family and neighbors. People would gather in their homes, around the backyard fence, in church and community pot-luck dinners. Their world was small and confined to the close proximity of their town.
My grandfather once told me that the
most significant invention he saw in his 94 years of life was the radio,
because it opened up the world beyond the small town where he grew up. Listening to what was happening in Europe gave him the idea decades later to take my father to Paris on an American Legion trip. The medium of radio opened up the world to my grandfather, and the impact was felt by my father and later by me and my sisters.
This experience of openness to the world beyond that which we can walk or ride on the back of a horse in day is new in human
history. While the radio began this trend, its technology matured into what today we know as computers and the interwebs. This has changed us socially, and it has changed how we relate to the natural world.
In an interview with Krista Tippett of the radio program, On Being, novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson speaks about her childhood growing up in Idaho.
Ms. Tippett: ... Marilynne, you grew up in Idaho, which you describe ... as a place of
more austere but intense beauty. ... how do you trace the roots of your sense of mystery ... as
something that came to be an animating force for you as a novelist and a
Ms. Robinson: Well, my
grandparents had a house in the mountains not terribly far from where I
lived. It was in the western side of the Rocky Mountains, near Canada,
and the proportion, or the disproportion, of nature on the one hand and
human settlement on the other was really striking. I mean, even — as a
child I grew up with the idea that human beings were a fairly trivial
presence in the environment and that the mountains, you could hear them
all the time. You could smell them. There was pine in the air or snow or
My grandparents had a house built actually by my great-grandparents,
which was modern by the standards of the late 19th century and so it had
a sleeping porch. You were supposed to sleep out there so that you
wouldn't get tuberculosis. There was no ambient light. And it was amazing because at night you would
hear the mountains. You would hear coyotes, you know, and there was no
other light. There was no sense of human presence aside from my
grandparents' house. (Emphasis mine.)
Robinson's description of her childhood experience with the "platform" of the Idahoan mountains points to how a place or a setting or an environment affects our sense of who we are and our sense of meaning and purpose.
As seen in Robinson's story, in the past there was a clear distinction between people and the
natural world. It gave proportion to the place that a human being fits into the natural world.
For me, riding on the back of a horse in the wilderness south of the Yellowstone border gives me a sense of my smallness in the midst of the vast grandeur of nature. It does not diminish me as a person, but provides perspective to see that I am not the center of the universe. Proportion is an important perspective to have. It can open us up to a much larger, wider world, if we choose to see it that way.
This sense of proportion is not limited to those of us who love the mountains. It is also a product of immersion in the life of the sea. My friend and colleague David Pu'u is a man of the water. I've learned much about life from his life-long love of the ocean. I've come down from my vantage point in the mountains to join him and the circle of surfers, artists and scientists involved in the Ocean Lovers Collective. When I asked David to describe the impact of the ocean as a platform, in the way that Robinson speaks of the mountains, he directed me to this video that he produced several years ago. It captures what I was seeking.
When Nature is a platform, like any social or organizational structure is a platform, it influences what we value and desire. Or in the words of James K A Smith, what we love. To live in nature is to love it, but not in the abstract sense of love, but in the deeper sense of understanding, of respect, and of a relationship that requires listening and giving.
To live outside in the natural world is to experience something different than what one feels driving through a natural setting in an automobile.
Traveling through the NorthWest Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1981, our experience walking was quite different than riding in a Jeep. Walking, we encountered people. We saw little things along the road that we would have missed. And without the noise of the engine, we could here the wind and the sound of the water rushing down from the glaciers that we passed.
Humans in Nature
Some of my perspective has been formed by German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who wrote that
human beings were the most physically vulnerable and the most intellectually
creative of all animals. To survive the physical harshness of nature, human beings had to use the creativity of their minds to develop
clothing, shelter, tools and sustainable food sources. This human vulnerability was true throughout the pre-modern era, before electricity,
in-door plumbing and central air-conditioning. And away from the technology that we've developed to support human existence, we are still the most physically vulnerable.
In earlier times, people understood that life was fragile, and depended upon others for support and safety. Creativity was not just in creating tools for survival, but also social structures to support human existence.
Victor Davis Hanson writes about how the cities of ancient Greece grew up as a place for agrarian farmers to gather to sell their crops and support one another.
The material prosperity that created the network of Greek city states
resulted from small-scale, intensive working of the soil, a complete
rethinking of the way Greeks produced food and owned land, and the
emergence of a new sort of person for whom work was not merely a means
of subsistence or profit but an ennobling way of life.... The wider
institutions of ancient Greece --military, social, political--embodied
the subsequent efforts of these small farmers to protect their hard won
gain....The original Greek polis is best understood as an exclusive and
yet egalitarian community of farmers...."
In the pre-modern world, the land was the platform for civilization. Today, the virtual world of electrons, bits and bytes and social media is that platform.
In the next post in this series, I'll look at how technology has changed the experience that we have. And look at the mediating role that the various platforms of technology and human institutions, like social media, have upon us. And how these platforms affect the formation of our human desires for meaning, for companionship and our ambition to create impact as human beings.
We live in an era created by science
and rational thought. But the culture that we live in is not rational. It is
sub-rational, almost primal, in its elevation of the expression of desire over
This elevation of desire is a two-edged promise. It on the one hand, a promise of engagement in all that life has to offer.
On the other a promise of total exhaustion, of even annihilation, if embraced without thought, direction and boundaries. It is the power behind the passion of ambition and human connection.
Images of desire capture our
attention, draw us into experiences that touch us, change us and can ultimately transform us into new persons. Our rational selves rarely do that. It is the passion of desire that makes it possibly for us to make the sacrifices to be people who create the goodness that lies dormant in the potential that we all have.
If that desire is let loose, never guided by our rational selves, then like Icarus' flight to the sun, we can crash and burn.
Desire = Love
I'm calling desire those inner
drives that draw us toward what we love. Philosopher James K.
A. Smith sees this love lived out in a sort
of secular liturgy of worship. There are rituals that we observe because they
reinforce the importance of our desires.
“… we are primarily desiring animals
rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our
ultimate identities – what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is
what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately
love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a
sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our
being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit)
vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision
of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we
undertake, often without our thinking about it. ”
Our loves and desires are shaped by how we live in the world around us. The social and organizational systems and structures that are the context of our life and work is a place of engagement where we either find our desires fulfilled or frustrated. Our happiness is not so much about what we think, but how we intersect with the social and organizational places where we live and work. Smith writes,
So when I say that love defines
us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but
rather our desire for a way of life. This element of ultimacy … is fundamentally
religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or
doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas
but love, which functions on a different register. Our ultimate love/desire is
shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us.
Or to put it another way, our real world context is both outside of us and within us. The connection between our desires and the physical places where we spend our days is intimate and integral to every aspect of our lives.
If you are like me, there are places you go to find restoration and perspective. For me it is the spiritual geography of wild places. Remove the technological noise and perspective returns. At these places, we reconnect with the desires that drive us toward what we love.
When I go to a place like Max Patch (below) I find myself standing on a high mountain bald with a 360 degree vista of mountain ridges.
The vastness of this mountain scape, like that of this panorama of the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole (below), touches me deep inside, reminding me of vastness of the opportunities that we each have each day to make a difference.
The desires of my life and work resonate with the bigness of these mountains. It is why I constantly return to them, where I find balance and proportion between me as an individual and the bigness of the world in which I live and work.
Smith presents a compelling view that contemporary consumerism is set of liturgical practices that both inform and form us as people. He writes,
"Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall - the liturgies of mall and market - that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart. ..."
What is true of the mall's impact upon us is also true of the social and organizational structures where we live and work. They are not inert, neutral, artificial places. They are living contexts which engage our desires, and where our lives take root in a real world. These "places" affect how we develop as human beings.
It is this deeper truth that lies behind the design development of office space between those of an open plan and the closed kind advocated by Susan Cain in her book, The Quiet. The architecture of space in social and organizational structures affects who we are and how we perform. This is the tangible representation of the role that human desire has.
A Structure for Desire?
We don't look at the way we organize our businesses and organizations from this point of view though. We tend to see space or organizational systems as just a place where work takes place. We think of organizational structural design as primarily about creating efficiency and production. We don't think of them as a determining factor in how people connect to their inner desire for meaning and impact. It is the same reason we don't see people, but rather human resources. It is the utilitarian mindset of the industrial age that cannot see what is evident when one stands outside of that context.
The effect of this mindset is to diminish our understanding of human potential, reducing it to whatever is needed for the task assigned. Consequently, any connection to human desire is lost all together.
It was James K. A. Smith who provided me the insight to see something in my work with clients that had been evident all along: three human desires that everyone has. Desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters.
What we love drives us towards these desires. And we need to structure the social and organizational systems of our lives and work to enable these desires to find fulfillment.
In part 3 of this essay, I will look at how we can create organizational structures that enable people who work within them to find personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships, and to make a difference that matters.
Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow.
Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.
The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.
Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.
I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do. The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.
I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.
We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.
Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.
I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.
I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.
The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.
What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.
Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.
Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.
Is there an alternative course?
If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.
I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.
The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives
For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.
First, individual initiative.
This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.
Second, community collaboration.
Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.
Third, open culture of ideas.
All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.
That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.
Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures.
The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.
What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.
See the two channels in this stream. One is meandering and the other is more direct. The meandering one has established its own path which is different from the wider stream bed. I've seen this before in streams near my house as a child. The stream bed was dredged of silt, and it looks like a long straight culvert. Within a few months, the meandering curves return. Flow finds its own path of least resistance.
Professor Adrian Bejan writes,
"Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance..."
It applies to the function of leadership in a way that may surprise you.
The conventional view of leadership is that it is a role within an organizational structure. The people within that structure are divided between leaders and followers. It looks sort of like this diagram. Responsibility is set at the top and accountability is to the level above. It is built for order, control and efficiency.
This kind of structure worked for a long time, many millennia, for many reasons. Principally, limited access to education and technology kept many people from advancing beyond the physical labor of the family farm or the factory. These cultural situations acted as restrictions on the growth of this structure. Sources of friction, like these, are rapidly being removed, the result is that the place of leadership in organizations is changing.
By place I mean function. The function of leadership in this older hierarchical model was management. The function of leadership in the future will be something quite different. Instead of managing order, it is creating opportunity for leadership.
The Flow of Leadership
A vacuum is an open space.
Think of two spaces. A bowl full of water and a sponge.
The sponge is less dense, has more open space than the water in the bowl. Place the sponge in the bowl, and the water flows into the sponge until it can hold no more.
Take that same bowl of water, and leave it out on your kitchen counter long enough, and the water in the bowl will evaporate into the air. The water in the bowl is denser than the air. However, for it to flow into the air it must change into water vapor.
This metaphor describes the changes and differences that I see in leadership between the 20th and 21st centuries.
In the older model, the corporation absorbed the raw talent into its organizational structure.
Today, there are fewer corporate jobs, and so people are adapting to a world of independence, entrepreneurism, and networks of interdependency.
This is the difference is between a closed system of a few leaders and many followers and an open system where everyone can function as a leader. It may depend upon how you define leadership.
These changes, however, are not caused by our ability to define words. Instead, it is defined by our ability to interpret the natural changes that are taking place all around us.
Adrian Bejan's point above is that nature's pattern is one of flow from one place to another following the path of least resistance. I recommend his book, Design in Nature, as an introduction to an understanding of flow in science.
The flow of leadership then is to remove the barriers, the restrictions, the obstacles and the controls that bar people from developing as leaders.
Is leadership, then, a function of management or is leadership a function of who we are as human beings?
Or, let's reverse the question.
Are human beings born as management functions? Or, are we born to lead, to make a difference with our lives?
It isn't a question of nature versus nurture in human development.
It is instead a question of how human beings function in modern organizational structures.
It is a question of human purpose first, and, and organizational purpose and structure second.
Remove the barriers that block human beings from fulling their potential, and leadership develops.
Create openness, and leadership throughout the social and organizational setting will result.
Leadership in the 20th century was a product of organizational structure. Leadership in the 21st is a product of human action.
Leaders take personal initiative to create impact, to make a difference that matters.
The flow of leadership, therefore, is the change that results from the human action rising from the individual initiative that fills the open spaces of opportunity to create the impact that is needed in each individual situation.
This means that in organization structure after 20th. century models must change
The role of executive changes from one who manages processes to one who facilitates the creation of opportunity and the development of the practice of leadership throughout the company.
The structure changes from a monolithic hierarchical one to a collection of smaller, networked communities of leaders.
In this respect, companies are no longer simply places of employment, but rather places of human formation.
The transition is not an easy one, but a necessary one. It is not easy because the most fundamental structure of the modern world is required to change. What is that structure? The concentration of power and affluence into the hands of those who are designated as leaders.
Leading by vacuum
The title of this post is a way I have come to describe what happens in an organization that opens up the opportunity for people to learn to take initiative to create impact.
We create a leadership vacuum when we refuse to do that which we are not able to do.
In other words, I only do that which I can do.
This isn't a rationalization for the avoidance of responsibility. It is rather an intentional recognition that each person has gifts to offer to the functioning of the organization. When leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, they are at the same time restricting the possibility for the leadership potential of others to be realized.
Here's how it works.
1. Do that which you can do. Invite others to do that which they can do. Be a team of shared initiative and contribution.
2. Celebrate your values by creating a culture of unity and commitment to a shared purpose for your relationships and your work together.
3. Create an organizational structure open to change and personal initiative to create impact.
An open structure of shared responsibility for each person to realize their own potential for making a difference that matters is the future of organizations.
Executive leaders as a result push the responsibility for developing the processes and policies of the company down the organizational chart to the point of implementation. They also are constantly communicating the Why of the companies values along side the How of the companies policies and approach. They do this by being clear how the values of the company are functioning throughout the organization.
Like a stream, openness for leadership helps the organization finds its path of least resistance to create impact.
Like a vacuum, where there is openness to make a difference, people step forward to fill the space provided for them to make a difference. When each person does what they do best through their own personal initiative to create impact, then the leadership capacity of the organization expands to become its greatest asset. This is 21st. century leadership.
This post was published March 4, 2012 as an introduction for two presentations that I gave in Ventura, California, March 16-17, 2012. Here are links to those two presentations.
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. 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.
Over the past three years, the ground upon which we stand has been rolling like the ground underneath this Vermont house after Hurricane Irene came through.
If you are still standing, congratulations. If you don't know which direction you are facing, welcome to the club.
If you have fallen, and are trying to pick yourself up, don't quit. What you've been through, in retrospect, can provide valuable lessons for the future. If you need a hand, just ask. It is how we stand together.
Like many people, my last three years have been the hardest that I've ever faced. From losing all my clients within a six week period in the spring of 2009, to 2011 becoming the busiest, most productive year that I've had in the past decade, there are lessons I'm learning that each one of us can apply.
One of things I learned is that I was not as well prepared for the storm of the recession as I should have been. Like many people, I assumed that what I was doing was enough. It wasn't. As a result the process of the past three years has been a process of personal development that enables me to see what I need to do to make the next three years the best that I've ever had.
There are three things I did that have been infinitely beneficial. I want to share those with you in this post as a guide for how to look at the next year. I suggest that you download my Circle of Impact Leadership Guides as a reference. Print them off, and use them for taking notes to your self. Keep them handy. They will help you gain and maintain perspective on what you are headed.
The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides
I'll give you a quick overview of each guide, and then speak to the three things to do that will help develop the impact in our life and work that we desire.
The first thing to know is that we are all in transition. If you think, maybe, you are just in a disruptive time, and, that things will return to where they were. Look at this list of 12 transition points. This is a random list I wrote down one afternoon. I'm certain that another dozen could be identified. The point is not to be overwhelmed with the sense of disconnection, but rather to see that change is normal.
Change is happening to us all the time. We each need to make the mental shift from seeing change as random, disruptive chaos to a pattern of change that has a logic that we can tap into and take advantage of. Once we start thinking in terms of transition, we begin to see how a process of development can unfold to our benefit. This is where we start because with a transition mindset, we begin think more opportunistically about the future.
To see our life and work this way is to see how it is a system or a network of connections between various aspects of what we do where we do it.
From this perspective, we can see three broad areas that every leader faces:
The Three Dimensions of Ideas, Relationships, and, Social & Organizational Structures.
The problem is learning how to align them so that they work together. Our experience tends to be more fragmented, which is where our experience of the ground never being stable under our feet is found.
The key to pulling all of this together is being intentional about the ideas that link the dimensions together. These ideas are:
The Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose, Vision and Impact.
Each one of these ideas needs to be clearly defined so that they can be effectively applied.
For example: You are building your team to start a new venture. You want to select or hire people who not only share similar values, but, are also committed to the purpose of the endeavor. Bring these two ideas together in the selection of a team, and, a vision for what is possible will emerge. As a result, instead of never getting by the team formation stage, your team comes together quickly, and, moves well into the process of creating the impact that you desire.
The Circle of Impact perspective provides a way to see the whole of an organization. But just seeing it doesn't mean we know how to apply it.
The Five Questions guide is the tool that helps us clarify, focus and move more quickly into action. Ask them continually over time, and we begin to see a pattern that helps to make better decisions. This is just a tool. It isn't a magic wand to wave over a problem and it goes away. It is a tool that must be applied and acted upon. So, when you have answered the five questions, make sure that you do something specific in response, and then come back and ask the questions again.
I created the My 5 Questions template to make it easy for me to quickly answer the questions whenever the need arises. The purpose is to clarify, focus and move me to action. There is no limitation on where you can use these questions. Use the personally, professionally, with your team, your family, with clients, or with someone you meet over lunch. The questions work very well in conversation.
Three Things that Mattered the Past Three Years (2012)
It is simple. Just three things to do.
1. Care for people. Regardless of who they are. Whomever you meet each day, care for them. Treat them with respect, dignity, and compassion. I don't mean take over their lives. I mean provide them a relationship that enables them to become a better person.
2. Think for yourself. Decide for yourself who you are going to be. Act with integrity towards your own values and goals, so you can help others do the same.
3. Live opportunistically in the moment. As a planner, I can confidently say that a long-range plan is more often a closed door than open path. The best plan is knowing who you are, what values matter, and the impact that you want to achieve. The process is discovered daily in the moment to moment interaction that we have with people. This is where real freedom is found.
Afterword Three Years Later (2015)
The years 2012 to 2014, for me, were ones of dramatic change. When I wrote the above post, I was optimistic about the future. Instead, within the first year, the non-profit that I had been hired to lead failed and closed. The recession's effect upon my consulting work lingered. And my marriage ended. Hard year, but still a year of transition.
I realized, as everything was ending, that something new was beginning. I had to get to that point so that I could begin. I took the time to reflect, to heal, and, begin to set my sights forward. I found myself working an hour a week with a group of women in an addiction recovery program. A totally new and different experience for me. And, then, I came to see that I need to relocated my life and work to Jackson, Wyoming.
The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides serve as a check point to connect perceptions that I had three years ago with those that I have now.
My Values have not so much changed, but have become clearer, more definitive, and, more focused on putting them into action.
My Purpose has changed. Instead of focused on businesses in a consulting context, I am redirecting my energies towards the personal leadership of individuals.
My Vision has yet to become clear. The reason is that Vision functions in the context of relationship, in a social context of collaboration and community. I have only move to Jackson within the past month, so time for visioning with others will come.
My Impact for the future will emerge as I go through the process of aligning my life and work with The Four Connecting Ideas.
Near the end of my father's career, the company for whom he had worked for over 35 years, was purchased, and, not so slowly, its assets drawn off and exploited for use by the parent company.
I remember him telling me of the day that he was on a management recruiting trip in Pennsylvania, and received a phone call that the company was not going to make payroll that week. He returned home to help usher through the closing of the company and be the last executive remaining as he handled the outstanding employee medical and benefit claims against the company. He was of an age where he could retire. It was a sad day for him. He had worked for the company his entire career.
My dad's story is not unusual. It is symptomatic of the time we are living in. I thought of my father as I watched last year's under-appreciated film, The Company Men. It is a story of executives and their families coping with change as their corporation goes through a series of downsizes simply to raise the share price. Like my father's experience, the film illustrates a very common experience of change. Here's a clip of a meeting where decisions are being made as to who is to be let go.
This has become a very normal experience for people. Even with a nice severance package, the emotional trauma of being fired is something that doesn't quickly go away. What lies behind this approach to quantifying the value of a company is a way of thinking about organizations that I believe is ultimately destructive rather than a path to sustainability. The logical outcome from over a century of this way of thinking has been the narrowing of the value of a company to something short term and specifically related to its financial value.
Consider the executive's rationale for downsizing staff and eliminating a division of the company in this exchange between Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson's characters from the movie. .
Nelson: "Stock is stalled and revenue is flat."
Jones: "Entire economy is flat. We are in the middle of a recession."
N: "I only closed two of the shipyards. Should have closed all three of them. Stock is in the toilet."
J: "Everybody's stock is in the toilet."
N: "Well, the stockholders would like to see their share value maximized."
J: "Heh, Heh, Heh, Well ... sell the Degas'. ... three thousand jobs?"
N: "Gene, we aren't some little shipyard any more. I'm not going to keep pouring money into a losing operation."
J: "We innovate, retool ..."
N: "American heavy manufacturing is dead. Steel, auto, shipbuilding ... the future is in healthcare infrastructure and power generation."
J: "I have to be involved in any decision that affects one of my divisions."
N: "You wouldn't have approved the cut. ... You'd go behind my back to the board again, right?"
J: "They were good people, Jim."
Both men are backed up against a wall. They are caught by a way of thinking about the value of companies that worked in times where growth was relatively assured. Now, the competition is tougher, more astute and far more flexible in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Do you think they could have seen this coming? I'm not sure. It goes back to how to you determine the value of a company. I'm not talking about how Wall Street values it, but the people who are touched by the company in some manner. How do they value the company?
Can the value of a company be reduced to one thing, like the share price, or the charismatic leadership of the CEO or a design innovation? Or is the value embedded in the whole structure and context of the organization?
We are in a time of global transition in all aspects of life. Short-term, reductive, passive aggressive, reactive thinking is not going to lead us out of a recession into a new era of peace and prosperity. Instead, we need to realize that our approach is failing, and that we need a new way to think about how organizations function. It must start with the willingness to be different, to think differently, and invest in changes that provide for long term development.
The Context of Change
The ancient Greeks had a word for change which is metanoia. Literally, it means a change of mind, but it has come to mean something much larger and more comprehensive. Metanoia points to a change of orientation, perspective and direction. There is a sense in the meaning that the change of mind is accompanied by some regret. So the change, upon reflection, is a choice to follow a different path. People choosing to turn toward different values and new ways of expressing them. Metanoia is a change that embraces the whole person, the mind, feelings and will, and is expressed in action that is change.
This change of mind is an awareness that the path we have been on is no longer sustainable. As I wrote in my post, The End and The Beginning, this change marks an end of an era in several ways. The nature of this redirection means that the recent past is no longer an adequate guide for understanding what we must do in the future. As I began in that post,
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?
The continuity between the recent past and the near future has broken down. This is a turning point for us. The 20th century may provide our most immediate experiential memory, but for the purpose of understanding the future, it is now ancient history.
Reflect upon the attacks on 9/11, our response to them, and the global recession of past three years, and our response to it. Can you see how the tried-and-true methods of the last century have not worked. Neither peace nor prosperity are being restored, in fact, the world is less peaceful and prosperous than it was a decade ago. Terrorism maybe contained upon our shores, but it still festers in places of poverty throughout the world.
Fear, doubt and diminishment in the confidence in our leaders and institutions are increasing. Greater diversity, interconnectivity, and, yes, even greater business efficiencies, are not answering the question about what it is that we must do.
We are now at a crossroads that requires metanoia, a change that is comprehensive and whole. This change of mind requires us to begin to see businesses as a whole organizations, rather than as a collection of interchangeable, discardable, transferable, value-specific parts. The company in The Company Men was dying because it too, like my father's company, was just a collection of assets to be exploited. There is no future in this way of thinking. To have a future requires us to change our minds and see things differently.
To change our minds, we need to make Three Turns of perception, understanding and orientation.
The Moral Turn In the first clip from The Company Men, above, Tommy Lee Jones' character raises questions about the selection of people to be let go. His response, that there is an ethical question involved, is met with a legalistic answer.
By reducing the decision to a question of share price and what is required under the law, the company is not just making a business decision, but also a moral choice.
What is a company that no longer manufactures its products? Is it now a money machine for its share holders as long as the money holds out?
The moral turn is first and foremost about the purpose or mission of the company.
Does a company whose actual purpose is share price encourage confidence and trust?
Does a company whose primary focus is share price understand its connection to the people who work in the business and the communities where they are physically located?
Is a company more than its financials?
Does a company have a responsibility that goes beyond its shareholders, and what is defined by what is strictly legal?
Every organization exists in a context that is greater than the sum of the parts of the organization. There is a culture that is physical, ideological, technological and social.
For example, what distinguishes an insurance company in London to one based in Sao Paulo or Detroit is geography and culture. Yes, they each ofter insurance plans. Yes, they each have customers. Yes, they each generate revenue. The difference is the local context that helps to define the culture of the business.
As a result ...
a company is not primarily its mission or purpose, but its values that are embedded in ideas and relationships within the context, culture and structure of the organization.
Values permeate the whole of the business, including those persons and organizations outside of the business who are influenced by it. Values inform its purpose, its vision of impact, its relationships with all those who are touched by the company, and how the company measures its impact.
The mission of a company is a product of its values.
When the purpose of the company is more than its financial value to shareholders, it is no longer, just a reservoir of assets to be exploited, but a context in which to create the future.
Recently I heard a presenter during in an organizational development workshop describe organizations that are mission driven as organizations on the rise. He used a diagram similar to this one that I use to describe organizations in transition.
When a company reaches a point of maturity or stabilization or equilibrium, the importance of its mission as a guide often fades. What follows is an increasing focus on its financial assets as its primary purpose. The presenter was convinced that once an organization shifts from a mission focus to a financial focus, it has entered a stage of decline. In effect, they no longer see how a company can grow, but rather be sold.
The moral turn that a company needs to make is to reaffirm its values and reestablish its mission as the driving force of the company as a whole.
The Social Turn When the value of a company is reduced to its share price, the company loses the value that exists within its social structure. Not every member of the organization benefits from a rise in the share price. As a result, the company fragments into internally competitive parts to see who will survive the company's disintegration.
For example, as a Boston Red Sox fan for over 45 years, I was particularly disappointed in their collapse this year. It was not that old patterns of attitudes and behaviors that had hampered the team in the past had returned. Rather, it was the squandering of the talent and potential that existed on paper, at least, at the beginning of the season.
By all appearances, the social environment of the team is the core reason for their decline. At the beginning of the season, they were the odds on favorite to win the World Series. Great pitching, the acquisition of two all-star hitters, and a coaching staff that had produced two World Series championships held great promise for the upcoming season. Yet all that collapsed into a mess in what appears to be based in a collective selfishness and lack of accountability for the team's social environment and on field performance.
The Social Turn is the recovery of the human dimension in organizations. As human beings we are social beings through which our individuality develops. Much of the fragmentation of modern business organizations isolates individuals and business units into individualized roles that make collaborative team work more difficult. As a result, the connections that exist between people in the workplace are treated as having marginal value.
In The Company Men, when Ben Affleck is fired, the stated reason is that his position is redundant. In effect, the company was recouping a cost that it viewed was exceptional rather than necessary. The company also loses in this kind of fragmenting of the social structure of the business. Affleck's character was not just a person in a cubicle, but was a connection point in a network of relationships that provided information and influence beyond the company. The value may be redundant, but it is a redundancy that creates strength and resilience, not weakness.
Social fragmentation is not just found in businesses, but in global society at large. Its destructiveness finds its way into companies and organizations, weakening their ability to marshal the talent that exists. The Social Turn is one that values relationships of honor, respect, humility, trust and mutual reciprocity. These values function to create a social fabric that allows for diversity and interconnectivity that creates the sustainability that businesses and communities need.
The Structural Turn The industrial model of business was conceptualized around the idea that a business is filled with a few smart people and a lot of laborers. The world has changed, yet the structures of organizations have not. Still the structure is a hierarchy of decision-makers "leading" a larger number of decision-implementers.
This approach does not work as well as it once did. Here are just a few reasons.
1. Technology levels the information playing field.
2. Advances in public education, and the expansion of higher education has created a society of workers who are much better informed and equipped to do decision-making type work.
3. The complexity of working in a global environment of diverse cultures makes it more difficult for a few people to know everything they need to know about the issues that confront their business.
4. The skills required for leadership and management of business are much more accessible to far more people than every before.
5. Hierarchical structures are organized for control through compartmentalization and standardization.
The Structure Turn that is taking place elevates personal initiative, network collaboration, and adaptive learning as the keys to the organization and leadership of businesses.
Instead of a structure organized around compartmentalized roles and defined areas of responsibility, the emerging structure is an open environment where the skills and resources needed for the work of the business is acquired through a network relationship structure.
In this structure each person is responsible for the whole of the project, not just their segment. Each person can function in the role of leader, while not having a title as one.
In this networked structure, the premium skills are placed upon thinking skills that are both analytical and intuitive.
As I recently commented to Dana Leman of RandomKid,
"Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, and everyone is a leader."
Leadership ceases to be a title, and becomes a set of behaviors and attitudes that all share. For the character of this kind of leadership to take root, it requires changing the structure.
The Structural Turn is towards an organizational culture where people are free to create and contribute, to communicate, to initiate and to pitch in where they see a need. Instead of being doers of assigned responsibilities, they are facilitators and problem solvers. In many companies, this kind of structure is developing. However, it must happen at the senior level for the turn to be successful.
How would the company in The Company Men function differently if they operated under a network structure?
1. More people would be engaged in meaningful reflection about the challenges facing the company because they knew that had an actual stake in its success.
2. Innovation would be more prevalent as employees practiced a higher level of leadership initiative and problem solving.
3. New business applications through employee ingenuity would expand the number and range of revenue streams the company has.
4. The company would be unified behind its shared values and mission.
5. The company would be a more attractive place for the top talent to work.
6. The company could more easily adapt to financial downturns.
7. Communities would be vying for the opportunity for the company to create a local operation.
The central message of the Three Turns is for your mission to drive change in the company, centered around values that unite people to create a shared company culture of trust, personal initiative, and a desire to contribute to the company's success. When this happens, the turn from hierarchical structure to a network one can take place as a natural evolution of the company.
Change is embedded in everything. It is the subtext of every topic of conversation that I have. It is the core issue of every project that I do.
Our assumptions about change need to change.
First Assumption: Change is bad.
Change is neutral. It is needed in every aspect of life. Without change there is no life. Too much change too quickly can be destructive. Change functions on a continuum between growth and decline, even life and death.
Second Assumption: The Opposite of Change is No Change.
Staying the same isn't a very sustainable strategy. Yet, it seems to be the response I hear most often to the prospect of change.
Third Assumption: Manage Change through Attitudes and Behaviors.
This is a good approach to a point. It assumes that human beings are living in an environment which is changing and their response (attitudes and behaviors) is how we address change. However, I find that this is an inadequate approach to the management of change.
I can understand why these assumptions are the ones I encounter most. They are based on assumptions that are the conventional wisdom of the past century. What are those assumptions?
Fourth Assumption: Large, Global, Transnational Organization is the logical, progressive direction of human civilization.
This assumption is captured most succinctly in the phrase "too big to fail." Yet, we do see failure, decline, possible disintegration and collapse of the world's largest and, at one time, the most progressive and prosperous nations and organizations.
Fifth Assumption: Stability, efficiency and maximumization of resources are the highest values of organizations.
What this perspective actually produces is vocational instability, economic volatility, social dislocation and the concentration of power and resources into the hands of the few.
Sixth Assumption: Urbanization, and the loss of an agrarian socio-economic culture, is the progressive and beneficial outcome of these historic trends.
While I am not an urban sociologist or economist, my on-the-ground observations is that increasing urbanization is more inefficient, is poor ground for the sustainability of inter-generational communal social structures, and increases the cost and demands of daily living. It seems to me that all these factors exist within a continuum where too little and too dense are not ideal for community or socio-economic sustainability.
Seventh Assumption: The above trends have disrupted natural cycles of growth by accelerating the process of change beyond what is now manageable under the assumptions of the past century.
As an out-of-alignment wheel on a car spins more chaotically as speed and variation increase, so are the cycles of change increasing in speed and variability.
Eighth Assumption: Change is cyclical and we are at the end of a long cycle of the kind of growth in organizations described above.
From a contemporary context, is Greece's economic meltdown the anomaly or is it the canary in the coalmine? Are we at the end of the era where large, global, transnational organizations can function?
Ninth Assumption: The future will be or should be like the past.
There are two assumptions here. One is if the past is prelude to the future, then what in our past should we have seen that would have helped us to predict the past decade of terrorism, war, political division and global economic recession?
... for Baby Boomers, this is the age of our childhood. There is this tendency of humans to look back to a golden age. If you quiz people, the golden age usually corresponds to their childhood. They’ll say, life was simpler. Of course, life was simpler, you were 8 years old.
There’s this thinking of, if we could just get back to the way things were in 1950 or 1960, then all will be well. Part of it is this individual nostalgia.
But part of it is this historically anomalous position during this period from 1945 to 1965. Because in a fundamental way, the US was the only victor of World War II. The US was the only country that came out with a stronger economy than it went in. America’s principal industrial competitors were either gravely weakened, like Britain, or absolutely demolished like Germany and Japan. So, it was easy for the US to embrace free trade. Yeah, level the playing field because we’ve already leveled the industrial capacity of all our competitors.
The weakness of this assumption is that underlying it is a belief often held that our best years are in the past, not the future, therefore, what changes we experience today are taking us further away from the golden age of the past.
Tenth Assumption: Change is Structural, and cannot be adequately faced by just changing attitudes and behaviors.
The future is going to be different. The last stage of acceptance of this will be the recognition that many of the above assumptions are declining in validity. Yes, of course, as individuals we adapt to change by modifying our attitudes and behaviors. We also must adapt by changing the social and organizational structures that have led us to this point in history.
The indicators of structural change are already evident. They are awaiting application in theory, design and practice. I'll write about them in my next posting.
Creating design-driven innovations requires two assets: knowledge of how people could give meaning to things, and the seductive power to influence the emergence of a radical new meaning.
Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean
Thirty years or so ago, historian James MacGregor Burns published a classic text, simply titled Leadership. It was the first book on leadership that I had ever read, and it has stuck with me ever since. The reason is a simple comparison that has taken on greater meaning as time has passed. The idea that Burns described in the book was the difference between leadership as a transaction between people, and leadership as transformation. It was this latter notion that he advocated as the way to understand the nature of leadership.
Burns' idea carried such authority that the whole notion of transaction as a the core activity between people in business has been lost. Now it is common for people to talk about how their products transform the experience of their customer. Transformation, which is another word for change, has become a standard upon which we measure businesses, and especially leaders. This is a very good thing.
While we can affirm that this shift of perception has occurred, it doesn't mean that we understand its implications fully. For it may well be that transformation is just another term for transaction. I know you are wondering why this matters. It does seem to be a bit pendantic, but I believe there is something worth discovering about the difference between transaction and transformation.
In simple terms, a transaction is an exchange between two parties. In contrast, transformation points to something changing, of becoming different, growing, expanding and the impact that follows.
Let me describe this in terms of something that I experience everyday.
As a consultant, coach and trainer, it would be easy to create a formula that applies to everyone and every organization. All you need to do is buy the formula. That is the transaction. You buy the product, and our exchange is done.
However, it I take a transformational approach, I'm not selling a formula that you buy from me. Instead, you are buying something else. You are buying a process that leads to the results and the impact of the transaction. The transaction takes place, and it leads to something else. It leads to change.
A transaction therefore is a lower level activity compared to transformation. It is easier. Requires less thought, and can be repeated over and over again. And it works when the circumstances are right, and fails miserably when they are not.
This is an important point. There are activities that we do that are of less significance than others. Higher level activities are actually a combination of many lower level ones, like a commercial transaction. But there is more to it than just an exchange of goods and services.
Why are these higher level activities transformational, rather than simply transactional?
Let's look at this from an organizational perspective. Here's a personal example of mine.
I chair a committee of a regional organization that serves local chapters. Our committee is also a work team that is planning an event. The event is a day-long workshop with a presenter from out of town. There is no audience that will automatically show up. We have to recruit them. We discovered from past experience - Our first attempt at holding the event was cancelled in part because only three people signed up. - that a "transactional" approach doesn't work. By transactional, I mean, treating the event as an activity that provides expert information. We had to offer more. Not more information, but something different, an experience that held the promise that it would matter, make a difference, that it would be transformational.
A transformational approach requires a different mindset. It is a more complex approach. It functions at a higher level of organization. The popular term for this is emergent.
Emergent gets alot of use. It is sometimes use as a word for new or for revealing new aspects of something. The way I use is it something different. Sociologist Christian Smith provides a helpful, though rather academic, description of what it means for something to be emergent.
Emergence refers to the process of constituting a new entity with its own particular characteristics through the interactive combination of other, different entities that are necessary to create the new entity but that do not contain the characteristics present in the new entity. Emergence involves the following: First, two or more entities that exist at a “lower” level interact or combine. Second, that interaction or combination serves as the basis of some new, real entity that has existence at a “higher” level. Third, the existence of the new higher-level entity is fully dependent upon the two or more lower-level entities interacting or combining, as they could not exist without doing so. Fourth, the new higher-level entity nevertheless possesses characteristic qualities (e.g. structures, qualities, capacities, textures, mechanisms) that cannot be reduced to those of the lower-level entities that gave rise to the new entity possessing them. When these four things happen, emergence has happened. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. - Christian Smith, What is a person?, pp.25-26 (emphasis mine).
Let me take these four contributing factors to something becoming emergent and show how they are functioning in my illustration above.
First, our event is designed for individuals who have a particular interest in our topic.
We shifted our emphasis from here's an informative workshop to here's a gathering of people who are dealing with the same issues in their local chapter, which meets the second criteria.
Part of our purpose is the third criteria, which is to bring people together so that they form supportive relationships that transcend, yet support, their local individuality. We want to create an atmosphere where there is ongoing interaction after our event.
Fourth, a movement that transforms each local chapter can grow, emerged from the experience. We want to be more than an association of people who occasionally gather (transaction-level). We are creating a community of support and interaction that is transformational. It not only changes us as individuals, but also changes the local chapters through the connectional relationships that are formed.
Apply this idea to organizations, we see that much of what we understand about organizations is functioning at the transactional level, a lower-level of order than what is needed.
A business organized around transaction sees only the activities or tasks that people do. A person is hired. They are assigned work. They do their work. The transaction is complete. In an ideal world, this is the best that a transactional approach offers.
This simple understanding of organizations is just that, overly simplistic, idealistic and largely false. Most organization, regardless of size are filled with the ambiguity and complexity that inhabits all of life. A change in the environment or with technology or policies and regulations, and the organization experiences disruption. In other words, change turns a simple organization on paper into a complex one in real life.
I saw this in a hosiery mill where I once worked on a project. There were seventeen steps in the process of making a pair of socks. Because each stage was its own discrete activity, disconnected from all the others, it took six weeks from weaving to shipping to manufacture a pair of socks. This was a simple transactional approach to manufacturing as it saw each step as it own transactional system. Through out project, the company decided to change their manufacturing system. They integrated the steps of the system, and the transformation of the process reduced the time required for producing a pair of socks to six days.
For an organization to shift from a transactional orientation to a transformational one requires it to move from an understanding of business as a structure of discrete processes to a culture that creates a product that matters in the marketplace. This culture, I'm suggesting, is what theorists call an "emergent reality." It is so because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Consider what Apple did when it created the iPod. It was a music player in many respects like many others that were being produed. Except their player transformed the entire experience of personal music listening. It was a transformational product because Apple wanted to change the culture that surrounded that transaction that took place commercially.
What is it that businesses miss that keeps them from this transformation?
Partly it has to do with values.
Every company espouses a set of values. They are printed on cards, posters and are part of the boilerplate language of advertising. You can hear it.
"The most trusted name in ... ."
This is transactional treatment of values. It is just an exchange of a word or two to convey a meaning. It is this approach that makes it possible for a company to say it believes in one thing and act in another. Their values are not their culture. They are jingles for sales transactions.
When values transcend the transactional, they create a culture that unites and transforms the company into something different. I've written about my experience with Dayton Power &Light where a project to develop a values statement transcended the card upon which it is printed to begin the transformation of the company. The outcoem of that transformation has been recognition by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in America.
How do you create an emergent organizational culture?
First, you have to distinguish the difference between a company's organizational structure and its culture.
The structure can be reduced down to each individual position, task, department and objective. The culture permeates the whole of the business from the CEO down to the janitor. It is not reducible. It is whole. This means that if the company's values are trust and fairness, then those values are the basis of how each person functions from the CEO down to the janitor. There are not one set of values for one level of the structure, and a different set for another level. Culture is whole throughout.
This is why so many companies are having difficulty adapting to a changed global economic climate. Some people within the company benefit, while others don't. This is a product of structural design, not cultural development.
Second, there is culture in every organization. It can be whole, yet broken or deficient.
How then do leaders focus on cultural change which produces long term cultural development.
An example is the company where the founder is still in charge, and has never let anyone make a final decision. So the company is full of passive followers, not people who know how to take individual initiative when needed. The value of that company is diminished because without the lone decision-maker the culture is not sustainable.
This specific issue is one of the most significant challenges facing contemporary organizations and institutions. It is a matter transforming the culture of the company into a shared leadership one, sharing from top to bottom.
Third, there are multiple cultures within every company or social environment.
In some cases we may call them silos. These cultures compete for turf and resources. Their individual self-interest is greater than their collective interest in the welfare of the company. As a result, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The parts can be parasitic within the whole, eroding capacity and strengthen to serve private or limited interests.
The challenge for leaders is to learn to lead from a values perspective. In so doing, to unify the disconnected cultures to join in become one. You cannot attack the micro-cultures. You must identify within each of these cultures the values that are worth affirming and spead of them in a manner that demonstrates their connection to the values of the whole.
I know it sounds far-fetched, but I have seen it work. It is a matter of the difference between a transactional and transformation work culture.
Fourth, you have to quantify how the values of a culture are measured and managed with personnel.
My colleague Bill Kelley has shown me how "values can be a condition of employment." Similar in idea to the idea that values must be "operationalized." The deeper you go in understanding the importance of your values to the success of your company, the more those values will shape the culture of the company.
This transformational approach means that managers must align new hires with the values of the company, and manage them accordingly.
Fifth, an organizational culture is a human, social, relationship phenomenon.
It is about how a company becomes a community. For some businesses, their culture is shaped by the notion of being a family, where caring is an important aspect of their relationships with one another. For others it is fun, like at Zappos. In others, it is innovation, or excellence, or trustworthiness. Whatever the culture is, it is reflected in the relationships and social environment of the organization.
Sixth, an organization culture is based upon a set of shared ideas.
Principally, values, but not exclusively. When I refer to Connecting Ideas, I am referring to ideas that are the foundation of an organizational culture. A company's mission; it's values; a vision for the future; and, a clearly defined understanding of the impact that the company is to have provide a way for people to connect together and share a common interest in the success of their collaborative efforts. These ideas are not just tactical points to use in a process. They are the glue which brings together people to make a difference together that is more than what they can do individually.
In effect, the connecting power of these ideas are the transformative agent for change in an organization. They must connect. They must matter beyond their inspiration power. They must guide decisions, define performance and create a culture that is whole and emergent.
Creating an emerging transformational culture is not an end in itself. It is rather a pathway. It is one that leaders can take to transform their organizations to meet the opportunities of the future in the present.
A generation ago the saying "The Future is Now!" celebrated the presentness of a hope in the future. It foresaw the acceleration of change that compresses our experience of time.
I used to see this frequently in planning projects. The five year plans we'd create, often would take only 18 to 24 months to complete. The sense of time that people had was off kilter. Much more could be done than they imagined. The limiting factor? Seeing beyond the present. Or, to put it another way, being able to identify a future that was truly tangible, beyond the aspirations of today, in which they could root their present actions.
Through these experiences, I often saw its contrasting attitude, not the inability to truly grasp the future, but rather resistance to it. I would hear,"What's wrong with the way we've always done things?"
The traditions and cultural forms, as I wrote about in Bringing the Past into Future, replaced the values that were their inspiration. Instead of a vision of the future, a nostalgia for the golden days of the past provided motivation of resistance to the future rather than engagement.
Whether it is a nostalgia for the past, or a shallow adherence to current organizational fads, the lack of a tangible vision of the future makes it difficult for people and their organizations to develop the adaptive skills needed in a environment of accelerating change.
Resistance to the Future
A resistance to the future is based in part on the lack of personal confidence to venture into the unknown of the future. It is easier to stay with what is comfortable and known of past ways of doing things. It is also in part how we approach the future, or how we bring our past experience to the task of envisioning the future. It is worth restating what I wrote in The End and the Beginning.
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?
If resistance to the future is part confidence, part approach, its also part, the lack of skills in managing change or in knowing how to adapt.
Adapting to the Future already in the Present
To adapt is to change on the fly. It isn't a linear process. It is an emergent process. Each adaptive moment moves into a new context of change. It isn't staying in one place and defending the palace against the barbarian hords of change. It is rather like being in conversation with different aspects of the future, very quickly and progressively.
For example, you walk into a room and within two minutes have a twenty second conversation with a 90 year German World War II veteran, a 10 year old girl from St. Louis in a soccer uniform, a thrity five year old couple from Miami with twin 6 year old boys, the 65 year old Japanese CEO of a global communications business, a 16 year old social entrepreneur from Sri Lanka and your great grandmother. Each encounter requires you to shift your attention from one person to the next. And if each relationship was intended to go somewhere, then within those twenty seconds, you'd have to quickly be engaged in who they were, find common ground and define a shared responsibility for the relationship in the future.
Sounds daunting. But that is what adapting means. The needed skills are a quiet personal confidence that enables you to be the same person with each of those listed in the example, and a tangible vision of the future that provides a conceptual context for the relationship.
This sort of adaptation goes hand in hand with innovation. It is a learned skill, not a personality trait.
These examples may suggest that these are for extraordinary people in unique places. Yes and No. In one sense this is true. They are extraordinary people, but only because the learned to become extraordinary. They developed the confidence and the capacity to adapt. In another sense, they are no different than you or I. They are just further down the path toward the future than most of us. This is one of the core values behind the children and youth social entrepreneur site, RandomKid: The Power of ANYone, (Disclaimer: I chair the board of RandomKid).
Creating a Vision of a Tangible Future
Ask this question of yourself and your organization.
Are you best days / years ahead of you or behind you?
How you answer that question will determine how you relate to the future.
A tangible future can be difficult to imagine because the past is actually not very tangible either. It is an amalgam of memories and impressions attached to random situations, people and objects that represent to us what we selectively remember our past to be. One person remembers a conversation one way, and another a different way.
Our remembrance of the past changes day to day. It is constantly shifting. We can remember a traumatic situation that leads us to view the future with bitterness and cynicism. Then, encounter someone who's perspective sheds light on our experience so that we see it differently. In the space of a few moments, our feelings that our best years are behind us shift to hope and optimism about the future. All of sudden a tangible future begins to form in our minds.
What has taken place within us? What is the source of this change? It isn't simply the influence of someone's different perspective.
What we've experience is the Future being brought into the Present. All of a sudden, with a flash insight, we see something in the future which is real. It is tangible. We feel we can reach out and grasp it. We want it. Our sense of purpose and self-confidence in a moment has changed. We are different. We have adapted to a new context, a context where the future is here now.
The Future Begins with an Idea
This question about the relation of time to our lives is one that I've reflected upon for a long time. The relation of the past to the future and of the future to the present exists in time. It also exists outside of time. What we remember about the past that we wish to be a part of our future are conceptions of the way we want our life and work to be.
At the most fundamental level, we are talking about ideas.
Several years ago, I conducted a project with a mid-size corporation to develop a values statement for the company. The planning team was a mixture of mid-level managers, Union leadership and a senior vice president. One of the refrains we heard from the group was, "We want to get back to a time when the company was more like a family." Over the years, things had changed. The company had gone through a scandal with some top executives. Perception by some was that the company's best years were in the past.
Here's a situation where a rememberance of the past influences people's expectations of the future. For this team, being a family meant something. The question was what does this mean. For not every employee has a positive experience of being a family. As we went through our process, four ideas came to the front that provided a way to understand the past in order to create the future that they desired.
Those ideas were Respect, Trust, Integrity and Pride.
It would have been easy to take those words and turn them into slogans for an internal marketing campaign. The result would not have been a tangible future of respect, trust, integrity and pride in practice, but continued cyncism about the role of leadership in the company.
But that is not what happened. The company instituted a program of culture building around these ideas.
The first step was to introduce the values to the whole company through small gatherings of employees where they would participate in a discussion of the values and their historic place in the company.
Next, leadership training was instituted for middle managers so that they could implement or "operationalize" the values within their work areas. The purpose was to make the values of respect, trust, integrity and pride live in the functioning of each department. In effect, the process was equipping new leaders to solve problems and resolve issues before that became to big.
Today, the company is recognized as one of the nation's most trustworthy companies.
I share this story to emphasis a point about what it means to bring the future into the present.
For many organizations the past is represented by traditions and cultural forms. A cultural form could be any practice that is regularly done in which the original rationale has been lost. The future for those companies consists, in many respects, as an attempt to preserve those traditions and cultural forms into the future.
The alternative is to recognize that behind every tradition or cultural practice is a value that matters or at one time used to matter to people and their organization.
Another key to understanding for how to bring the future into the present is to understand where our values fit in.
Let me be clear about this. I'm not talking about those values that are divisively used to distinguish one organization or association from another. Those values of the negative other have no place in creating a positive, tangible, sustainable future. They are representative of past traditions and cultural forms that have lost their meaning. I say this primarily in anticipation of the distastful unpleasantness that is about to descend upon our country called a Presdential election.
A tangible future is one where values matter in practice, not just in theory. So, if respect, trust, integrity and pride matter, then they matter in practice. If customers matter, then they matter in practice, not just in advertising copy. If innovation and impact matter, then the organization will adapt to make it possible for those values to make a difference in the future.
In order to understand how a value matters, ask this question.
If this value was functioning at its highest capacity, if it was reaching and sustaining its potential, then what would, 1) it look like if we were to shoot a video of its performance, and, 2) be the change we would see as a result?
Impact or difference is change. If something changes, it can be measured in some way. What is it that is changing when this value is a living practice in your organization? Can you identify at what level it is operating today? Can you see things to change so that it can grow a little bit more today, tomorrow, next week? If you can, then you are seeing a tangible future being brought into the present.
If you can answer this, then you can envision the future. If you can envision the future in a tangible way, then you can identify what must change to make it happen. This is how the future is brought into the present.
This is true not just about values, but especially of each of the Connecting Ideas - Mission or Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. Make them tangible for today, then you can see how they will be in the future.
When you do, what happens is that old traditions and cultural forms that no longer are empowered by their original values can be discarded, and new ones formed.
This means that you have a reached a definitive transition point in your life and work. A clear point of change that either leads towards decline or advancement. When you do, it is important that you discard dead traditions and cultural forms in a way that becomes a tangible moment of remembrance in the future. As you do, the values that guide you forward will find new traditions and cultural forms to serve as their vehicle for their practice.
Remember, those traditions and culture forms are nothing more than tools for making our values tangible in our daily life and work. Develop new tools, hold true to your values.
Three Things We Want Now and in the Future
I've written before about my observation that people want three things in their life. They want it to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and Make a Difference that Matters. Ask yourself today the following questions.
1. Where do I find meaning in my life and work? What are the values that matter to me most in what I seek to do each day? What activities do I regularly do that support what is meaningful to me?
2. Who are the people that matter most to me? How am I fulfilled by being with them? What are the values that matter to us? How do we practice them together? What are the traditions and cultural forms that we use to celebrate the values we share with one another?
3. What do I do that I feel makes the greatest difference to people? Where do I see my actions creating change? If I was to continue to develop the confidence and skills to make this difference, what do I see myself doing in the future that is different from today? Am I at a transition point in my life and work as it relates to the impact that I am having?
What then is the tangible future that you can begin to create today?
The Future is Now. The future is an idea, a tangible idea that provides for us a point on the horizon to lead us forward. Our idea is a value or values that defines for us meaning, fulfillment and the difference we can make. When our idea becomes clear then we know what we must do. And a tangible future becomes a reality that we can reach.