What Defines Us?

2010-11-08 13.36.32


I grew up in a family environment where family history verged on ancestry worship.

Connection to the past mattered. I have a folder in my photo file of the grave stones of family members, from both parent's sides of the family.

I regularly recognize in my interactions with people how my family has defined me. My mother's parents (below) had more to do with this than anyone in my family.


What my extended family gave me as a child, and continues to provide me as an adult, is a ground upon which to stand that defines a part of who I am. Increasingly, I am aware that this is a fading reality in our society.

It is not that family doesn't matter. It just matters in a different way. Family has become, like any social relationship, a vehicle for self-expression and social positioning.  This is a result of the fragmentation of social and organizational life.

In the pre-modern past, one's identity was less individual and more social, defined by family affiliation and community proximity. Where you lived and what your family did defined you.

Today, we are all individualists, with a choice as to how we are defined.

Recently, this question came to mind as I talked with a friend about her past, and how it was filled with traumatic experiences from early childhood into middle age. I was amazed by her ability to stand apart from the abuse of her past and see it objectively. While that did not cancel out the deep emotional trauma she felt, her pain did not define her. She was not her pain, nor the abuse she received. She was something else, something more. For her family is central in defining who she is and is largely responsible for the healing she has experienced.


As I thought about her experience and her response to it, and reflected back upon my own family experience, a number of questions began to come to mind. Here are some of them.

To what extent are we defined by ...

        What we do?

        Where we work?

        Where we were born?

        Where we went to school?

To what degree do  ...

        Our choices,

        Our actions,

        Our network of relationships, and,

        Our daily work and recreation schedule

                ... define us?      

Is our personal identity a manufactured public perception like a product brand? Or, are we the person others think us to be?

I don't think there is an easy answer to any of these questions. There are answers, however they are complex, not simple.

The Question of Potential

Each question above I've thought about often, and in various ways, for almost 40 years. I used to think that our identities are unitary, singular, only one thing, that we are born with an identity.

I, now, see us human beings as much more complex. The range and possibilities for our sense of who we are is greater that we can imagine. One way to understand our identity is to understand what our potential means.

Potential is that unexplored, undeveloped part of us, born from the talent, gifts and experience that expands our awareness and reach in life. It is all future and very little past. It is the difference that we make that has yet to be realized. 

Potential is not something fixed and set at birth. It isn't a commodity. It is unbounded openness. It is not only unknown, but undefinable before its realization.

Potential is not additive but exponential. It isn't a container of what we haven't achieved. It is a platform from which our whole life & work is built. The more we build upon, the greater our potential grows. Our potential creates opportunities for new possibilities in our life and work. 

The only limitation on our potential is time. We must apply ourselves to reaching our potential everyday. I'm not advocating for becoming a workoholic. Rather, I am suggesting we develop an opportunistic attitude about each day. We look for opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact, and to affect change within the contexts where we live and work.

If we build toward reaching our potential each day, then over the course of our lifetime we reach far beyond our present abilities. If we did not try to grow or think that potential doesn't mean very much, then a growing sense of lost time and opportunity will grow within us. I do not wish that feeling on anyone. Regret and longing are not comforting thoughts when one is old and past one's prime.

My point is that we need to see potential as an ascending line of development throughout the course of our lives. This is the inner truth of our experiences of transition in life and work. Each transition point is one where we are being pulled to change in order to fulfill our potential. In each life or work transition is opportunity, if we only see it that way. 

In order to continue to reach for our potential, we must stop doing certain things and begin to learn and master new skills, attitudes, behaviors as we move into new social and organizational contexts. This is the secret to mastering our transitions in life and work. It is the secret to being adaptive and reaching our potential each day.

The Question of Impact

To understand and identify our potential is to understand our potential Impact.

Impact is the change that makes a difference that matters.

Embedded in that statement are the values, talents, relationships, strategies, structures and ways of measurement that are required to live a full, healthy, meaningful life. 

Impact isn't just what we accomplish or what we achieve. It is also opens up new potential, fresh opportunities, and environments that may not have existed even yesterday.

Impact never reaches a final point of completion, either. It is a stage along a path of development. Our potential is the same, not a fixed quantity, but something that grows and develops with initiative and action, or, diminishes from inaction.

We are not human machines, but living systems that are constantly evolving. We are always either growing or declining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This growth is not set, fixed or predetermined. It may show itself as a pattern of development, but it is not formulaic. We are open and responsive to the full range of experience that we have. Our potential for impact is far greater than we can imagine.

To envision our impact is to imagine our potential.

To imagine our potential is to understand better who we are as persons within the social and organizational contexts of our life and work.

To define ourselves is to see that we are both the same and always changing. This is human nature at its most basic.

The Shift in Question

It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change. Up to now personal identity has been seen as a kind of object, a thing that we possess, and lasts our life time.

I am (fill in the blank).

One of the reasons why we viewed our identities this way is that for most of human history we lived in homogeneous communities formed by generations of families. But over the past couple hundred years, that social context has been eroding as families fragment through relocation to new places for economic, ethnic and political reasons. Identities have become more fluid as social interaction required greater flexibility and adaptation to change in society.

As a result, we must learn to adapt to the relationships as they present themselves. This shows us that our sense of self is far more fluid and maleable than maybe we once thought. In this sense, our core identity ends up having multiple expressions, which may appear to us as different identities.

The question that confronts us most directly, then, is what makes up that core identity that allows us to be the same person in very different social and organizational contexts? Or to state it differently how can I be a person of integrity who knows how to find strength for any situation?

The Question of Identity

This post, like many I've written over the past three years, has taken not minutes to create, but weeks, and in this case months, to write. They have because so much of what I write is done in a quest to discover my own understanding of what I sense or observe in my and other's life and work. This quest to understand defines me as much as anything I know. What I learn feeds the importance that integrity has for me.

What I write therefore is often much more personal than may be evident. But it is also social because I writing in the context of many conversations and experiences that I have with people and organizations.

I find that many people have the same issues or needs as I do.The need is to be clear about who we are, and how that factors into how we live each day.

The Place of Desire

A third thing that I've discovered about personal identity, along with the importance of integrity, and our potential impact, is that we are driven by desires. We often talk about these desires as passions.

I have come to this view through the work of philosopher/ theologian James K.A. Smith. He writes,

"Because I think 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 hope for, what we think the good life looks like."

I find this to be true, and yet hard to get at it. It is so much easier to create a list of values or strengths or traits, and say, that is me. But down deep inside of us is a presence that is passionate for the things that matter.

As I have written before (The Platform of Desire 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) on desire, I see that there are three principal desires out of which the whole of our identity finds expression.

Three Goals of Life-Work - Simple

These desires are for Personal Meaning, Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make a Difference that Matters in our live and work.  These desires form the core of our identity. They do because they are ways that we define what we love.

These desires must form the core of our identity because the platform of our identities in the past is eroding.  No longer will families live in inter-generational community. No longer will we work for the same company all our lives. No longer will we find homogeneous environments where everyone finds support and affiliation with people who are like them.

The future is open, diverse and filled with constant change. For this reason our identity cannot be based on external circumstances, but rather on who I am within. And who I am is what I love and desire to create in my life.

When our desires drive us to clarifying the values that give us identity, then we know where to find meaning in our life.

When our desires point us toward the kind of people with whom we can have happy, healthy relationships, then we will know how to be the kind of person who can create those relationships.

When our desires define the impact we want to have, then we know what our life's purpose ultimately means.

As I have worked through a number of scenarios that could possibly define who we are, increasingly they became more complex. The more complex they became the more I realized that the picture I saw was a picture of all the choices from which to build our lives. As a result I was pushed back to what I had discovered before.

There is more to say, and I will in future posts. But let me leave this long post with this final thought.

To live is to love.

To love is to give.

To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters. 

Series Note: This post is the first in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

Twelve ways we know we are at a Transition Point

First Posted July 18, 2012.

Transition Point

This post follows up on Life's Transition Points.  It helps clarify what it means to be at a transition point in one's life or work, or even with one's business.

If any of these twelve conditions are your current experience, you are in transition. Every transition point is a point of decision. We don't always know what that decision is, even though we know we must make one.

I've learned this personally as I've twice in my professional life lost all my clients in a very short period of time. The most recent was a result of the recession. From the peak of my client work to nothing in six weeks. That is a transition point. I'll say more about what I did after I describe these twelve scenarios.

We know we are a transition point when ...

1. What use to be easy is now hard.

It may have nothing to do with us at all. Our context changes. The world changes. The economy changes. Competition gets more fierce. People's attention is distracted. It takes twice as long to get work done than it did before, which really means it is taking four times as long as it should.

A host of other reasons are possible.

Or, realistically, it could be that our skills have not kept up with the demands and expectations of the work that we do. We've become complacent, a bit lazy, too comfortable, and then it all changes in what seems like a moment.

2. We find that our performance has reached a plateau, neither getting better or worse.

We feel stuck. We are doing okay. But okay isn't okay. We want better. But we don't know what better is any more. Better isn't more. We don't really want more. We want something else. But because we aren't really doing that poorly, we are okay. Not great, just okay. And that is the problem.

3. We are clearly not doing well, as our life and work are in decline.

You can see it in people who are not doing well. The stress levels are high. They are not as social as they used to be. We don't hear from them as much. And because they are less social, because of the change they are going through, they are are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and no longer a convenient member of our social network.  They are in transition, but where are they going is not clear.

This describes more people we know that we realize. If it is us, then we need to stop, and begin to make some changes.

4. We lose our job, and are forced to rethink who we are and what we have to offer an employer.

Our personality, knowledge, skills and experience matter. Do we know what these assets are? The question is not where is my next job, but who needs what I have to offer?

5. We are unhappy in our current life and work situation. This can come from a range of issues. Some may require professional counseling. If so, we can find that help.

As our world has become more individualistic, in every way, we have lost the connections that help people in psychological need to find strength and support in community. I've worked with a number of people over the years who clearly needed professional help. Once recognized, a corner can be turned, and health regained. It, too, is a transition point.

6. We are tired of doing the same thing over and over.

There is an old saying, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Or worse, work for many has become a traumatic, dehumanizing experience, like a low-level version of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). For some, simply finding life/work balance may not be enough. It may mean transitioning into something very different. A new career or calling that brings renewed purpose and focus to our lives.

7. We don't know how to spend our time at work. Low motivation to create good things.

We come to work, and it takes some time to get oriented to what I'm to do. The work has changed, and I don't see how it has. It is confusing. The result is that I'm not that interested in bringing my best to work.

8. Our relationships are not healthy.

Whether the relationships are at home or work, when relationships are not healthy, we are needing to step back for a moment and ask,

    What should I expect from my relationships?

    Are our relationships leading somewhere, or are they holding us back.

    Are they negative or toxic, elevating and inspiring?

    Am I able to be at my best for others when I'm with them?

I'll write more about this in the future.

9. We are confronted with life decisions that have no easy answer or application.

Life decisions ... like your parents need you to care for them. Your adult child comes home to live with you. Your spouse develops a chronic illness that requires more of your time that in the past.

The business we own is failing and needs to close. What do I do? Where will I go?

10. We are thrust into a leadership role in which we feel unprepared.

It could be a corporate merger that elevates us to a position of leadership that we neither envisioned nor sought. Yet it is now our job. What do we do?

11. We are entering a new stage of life, as children leave the home, or a marriage ends.

These kind of changes affect our sense of identity. So much of how we understand ourselves is based on how we fit into a social context. I'm a parent. I'm a wife or husband. I'm a son or daughter. I sell <fill in the blank>. I do <fill in the blank>.

When it ends, it isn't just that our responsibilities and activities change. We change. We aren't simply the person we say we are. We are part the person we've always been, and part the person that our social and work context requires us to be.

12. We have a general uncertainty about life and work purpose.

We've never really answered the question, "What is the purpose of my life? What is my calling? What is my mission? What is to be my life's impact?" These are questions that drive us through the transition points that we encounter.

I hope you see that we are all in transition, all the time, 24/7/365. This is the true nature of change. It isn't just what happens to us, but happens through us and in us.

When we encounter these periods of change, we need to respond with a clear sense of purpose.  We need to be able to say, after I get through this, I want to be at <fill in the blank>.

On a personal note

In the spring on 2009, all my clients left me. It was mostly related to the recession. I understood, and accepted it as one of the conditions of change that we all have to face.

I was at a transition point, and since then, I've faced a couple of more of these points in time where I knew I had to change to be different than I was in the past.  As I write this, I'm in the midst of one of these points in my own life and work.

What did I do when I lost all my clients?

I made a couple of decisions. First, to become more social. Second, to learn new skills. And, three, to take on more responsibility.

The trap ,when we encounter a situation like this, is to think, "Focus. Get the next contract. Remove distractions."

I understand this. But it assumes the change we are going through is temporary and life will return to what we knew previously.

I realized this change was transformational. I recognized, at that point in 2009, that I needed to become different, that the past was never coming back. I needed to change. I saw that what I was doing was not sufficient to sustain my client base through hard economic times.

 At that point I understood that our economy and society were changing dramatically. And I needed to change. I did two things right away to elevate my presence socially and to learn new skills.

The first, I took on the responsibility to organize the first Lessons in Leadership Winning Workshop here in Asheville. We created a complete event which began two weeks prior with email blasts to build awareness and enthusiasm. We included two networking events, one immediately prior, and another, immediately after the workshop. The workshop, itself, was the product of a team of people who worked together for almost a year to create an event that was seamless from beginning to end. It was a fantastic success.

The second endeavor that I took on came out of the blue within the context of one of the online social networks that I'm in. I had posed a question related to a situation that I new client had hired me to address. The issue related to the question of morale in the workplace. The response to my question was so remarkable that I decided it would be worth publishing as an ebook. So, with some help of one of the participants, the ebook, Managing Morale in a Time of Change was created.

As I went through this transition point, I learned new skills, gained perspective on what I could do and what I couldn't, realized what I liked to do, strengthen my reputation / brand, and made a difference that mattered. Understand, none of this I was paid to do. I did it because I need to change my course. These voluntary experiences were hugely beneficial in preparing me for the next stage of my professional life.

We all encounter Transition Points in our lives. Our lives and work are often,


at a Plateau

in Decline

experiencing Loss




feeling Inadequate

at a New Stage

and, Uncertain.

The question is what are we going to do about it. It is as simple as change or be changed. There is not a not-change option. So, take charge of these transition points and create the best future that is possible.

Relationships in Transition

Transition Point Coaching Logo

A couple of my friends have had adult children who moved back in with them. In one instance, a son returned from a long term overseas assignment to restart his professional career. For another, a son lost his job, and estranged from his wife, moved home.  I learned from both these friends the importance of openness and compassion in the midst of change.

These transitions, for both child and parent, are difficult. The found space that parents retrieved after their children began their adult life is taken over by their children whom they love. The question that nags in these situations is, "What should our relationship be now?"

Transitions in life and work are not simply processes of change and economic reordering of life and work. The social and organizational contexts that encompass them are intensely relational. They strain the well-worn path that relationships built over time develop.

When life altering change comes, and we find ourselves in transition, we need to focus on the social as much as the practical questions of job search and finding a new place to live.

Long-standing relationships develop a predictability that becomes expectation for continuity. Disturb that pattern, and relationships become frayed.

Something as simple as a job change that requires a move can become highly disruptive. It isn't just the one employed who moves, but the whole family who is uprooted to a new place to establish roots in a new place.  If the family unit is fragile, the transition can be more difficult than it should be.

When we enter a transition space moving toward that point where change is made and a new course is set, reflection, communication and a refocusing of values is needed.

Reflection is a form of self-criticism that enables us to see the logic of change in the midst of the transition.

Communication allows us to see a broader picture as we discover how those who are also impacted feel. We listen and learn from them how best to manage the transition.

Refocusing of values serves to ground us in what is matters most to us, which serves to focus our purpose as a vehicle for those values to live.

All of this is best done in open and honest conversation regularly scheduled.

If you are a parent whose adult child has moved home, talk with one another about how this is personally impacting each of you. Discuss what is important in the function of the home, and reach an agreement on the basics of living under the same roof again.  While the adult child is still a child to the parent, and the parent to the child, they are also adults who should share responsibility for living together again.

If you are in transition, and find yourself, living at home again, especially after years away, recognize that you are not reentering the home of your youth. You have entered a social environment that has changed. No longer is this place oriented around the nurture and protection of children. Your parents, while they still love you, have moved through their own transitions into new stages of their life as adults. There is a place for adult children in the lives of their parents. But it must be discovered, and not merely assumed it is an extension of what their childhood was like.

Change is hard. It doesn't have to be as hard as we make it.  All is required is for us is openness for the relationship to be what it needs to be today, not as it was in the past, or wish it had always been. Going through the transition points in our lives are hard enough without our relationships becoming an obstacle to positive change.

A Support Plan for Relationships in Transition

My proposal is not a widget that fits every situation, but can beneficial in many situations.

Simply apply the Five Actions of Gratitude to how you live together in the midst of change.

This is a tool you can use to negotiate how you live under the same roof again. A simple translation could be something like this.

Say Thanks - At least once a day, with sincerity and specificity.

Give Back - Take responsibility for caring for both the private and shared spaces.

Make Welcome - Be hospitable to one another. Be open to the gifts that you have to offer and receive. Think of this as a new relationship.

Honor Others - Even at the most difficult moments, treat one another with dignity and respect. Be honest, caring and trustworthy. Be apologetic and forgiving. Be kind to one another.

Create Goodness - Establish new paths of interaction and sharing. This is particularly true in the transition is to be lengthy.

Practice these things, and the transition will go more smoothly, and new dimensions of your relationship will emerge.

The Common Ground of Shared Responsibility

Creating an effective business structure is a very difficult proposition. I am not talking about a business or marketing plan. I referring to how a business is structured so that it functions well. 3Cs of Alignment - image

As you know, I look at this challenge through the lens of the Circle of Impact. My sense is that we need to foster alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We do this by focusing on the conditions that create effective Communication, Collaboration and Coordination.

For me this is a baseline from which all organizations need to begin. What happens beyond that is a change in the function of each of the dimensions.

Communication ceases to be a major problem; your message gets out; and work related issues seemed to be less intractable.

Collaboration grows, new ideas emerge from the improvement of relationships, and the organization needs to change to accomodate a higher level of engagement and initiative by people.

Coordination, though, lags in improvement across departments, remote sites, and programs. The reason is that the system of organizaiton is always the last to change. It has the highest resistance to adapting to changing circumstances.  As a result, the optimism that initially rose as communication and collaboration grew also begins to lag. 

After a few months or years, a growing impression of either being at a plateau or in Transition Pointdecline begins to be discussed openly.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the perception that the organization has reached a Transition Point begins to take hold.

In reflection, we can see that the easiest things to change, did.  New, fresh, inspiring ideas infused new confidence and motivation in people, impacting how they communicated and collaborated together. This is what is happening in many organizations.

The jump from one inspiring idea to the next ends up artificially propping up the emotional commitment of people to the company and their relationships together.This is not sustainable.

The resistance of the organization's structure to change remains the primary obstacle to a well functioning, fully aligned organization.

The distance and disconnect that employees have from the mission and outcome of the business is the most basic identifying mark of a structure out of alignment. Indifference that people have to their workplace grows.  The desire to be left alone to do their job so they can get on to what really matters in their life becomes the defacto attitude of the workforce. In effect, there is no emotional access point for them to invest their whole selves in the work they do.

When this scenario is widely experienced in a company, inspiring ideas and motivational team building programs don't have a lasting impact. The problem is a structural or systems one. Issues of communication and collaboration are symptoms of the problem. 

Assumptions about the Product of an Effective Organizational Structure

As I analyze organizations during various projects, I'm looking for various intangilbes that matter. Let's call them assumptions about what an organizational system should produce.

1.  Initiative by employees measured by higher rates of engagement and contribution. 

2. Interaction by employees that is open and collaborative and that transcends organizational barriers to achieve higher levels of efficiency and impact.

3. Impact awareness by employees who can express their own contribution to the organization's impact as a change that is a difference that matters.

These assumptions are difficult to measure, yet relatively easy to see.

Their performance is more evident when they are missing. People not taking initiative. When there is little interaction between people from different parts of the organization. When employees show little appreciation for the organization's mission and impact. 

The question that many of us then have is how to do we redesign our organizational structures so that we realize a higher level of initiative, interaction and impact.

One way to address this issue is through strategic organizational redesign to creates an environment of Shared Responsibility.

Shared Responsibility

Every organization has a responsibility or accountability structure. In older, traditional hierarchical systems, Responsibility resides in varying degrees throughout the organization, but not accountability, which is top down. Shared Responsibility
A shared responsibility structure creates a shared space of mutual, collaborative, coordinated accountability. This illustration shows an organization where management, staff and the board of directors have a common ground of shared responsibility.  The shared space is common ground because the expectation is that each person engaged in this space has an opportunity to contribute out of their own talent, knowledge and expertise within the strictures of their position and role in the organization.

For example, while some members of the management team would not ordinarily work along side of members of the Board of Directors, in this scheme they would because the structure is is organized to provide a shared space of contribution for impact. This approach lowers the organizational barriers that typically make it hard to create a common ground for work.

The purpose of this structure is not order or standardization, but alignment of the functions of communication, collaboration and coordination for the purpose of impact. It is the mission of the organization, not the structure, which drives the change in structure. RK- Org Design

This approach is currently being developed for an international non-profit organization whose constituents are in all 50 states and 20 countries globally.  The board is small in number; is highly active in collaboration with the staff; and works with a large number of advisors and supporters from around the world who contribute  according to their ability.

This organization's aim to create an environment where participation is not boring or disconnected from its mission, but is marked by personal initiative, collaborative interaction, and an organization environment each person has the opportunity to make a difference.

The way an organizational design of this sort works is when the Connecting Ideas of purpose, mission, values, vision and impact are well defined and aligned within the structure, and the leadership of the organization serves as a faciliator of interaction and contribution. Because the organizational structure is a shared space for collaboration, the barriers for constituents to lead through their talent and abilities are low, producing a more highly engagement staff and board.

This kind of structure and leadership must be intentionally designed and developed.  This is not a radical departure from the past, but at the same time, it is also not a logical step forward for most of the legacy structures that exist today.

This approach fosters a shared leadership of responsibility. Leadership from this perspetive is the impact or influence that is the result of the personal initiative take to create impact. When the senior leadership of an organization understands that this is where the future of organizations lays, it requires a change in their own leadership approach.

The Ultimate Question

Can legacy organizational structures change to this model of shared responsibility? 

I believe it can. The pathway to this approach is in appreciating the importance of the relationship dimension for the creation of the strength and impact of an organization.  From that perspective barriers to interaction and collaboration lower or are removed, enabling people to become more engaged with the purpose and mission of the organization, and to do so in relationship with other members of their organizational community.

Creating Impact In Life & Work During Times of Transition: Circle of Impact Conversation Guides

This one of a series of post describing updates to my Circle of Impact Conversation Guides.

Creating Impact In Times of Transition - Life-Work Coaching

This guide has remained virtually the same since I originally created it four years ago. 

Here's what you need to know to use this guide effectively.

1. Make the shift from speaking about change to about transition. Change for many people seems random and disruptive. Transition is still change, but it can be also seen within a historical context. It is important to identify the continuity that is involved with change.

2. We identify the transition by describing the experience of change. What has changed, and how can that be identified. If your performance has flattened out or declined, then you know you are in transition. If your performance has suddenly risen, unexpectedly, then you also know that you are in transition. It is important to recognize this.

Transition Points-Space

3. To recognize this transition is to identify what I call a transition point. This point in time means that we must make some decisions about how we are going to handle this transition. If we are at on a plateau performance-wise, then mostly likely we need to make some changes. There maybe things that we stop doing, and things that we start doing. What is needed is a plan, not necessarily a long-range plan, but a plan that determines how we are going to conduct ourselves in what I call the Transition Space.

4. In addition, by seeing change as a process of transition from one point to another, we also must recognize that this is normal. Change is normal. It is more disruptive and problematic when it is continuity and sameness is viewed as what is normal.  Organizations are human institutions, and therefore living organisms. Either they are growing, in a proper, balance, healthy way, or they are in decline or disarray.  Seeing change as a normal way of life is to be able to identify the big picture of development and decline that has been taking place.

5. It is essential that we try the best we can to anticipate the changes that might be coming. Taking this approach to change enable this mindset to develop.

How To Use This Guide:

Together, with your group or team, read through each paragraph, and discuss how this picture fits your organization. Answer the questions in section four, and begin to look the changes that you need to make to be able to transition to the next level.

This is one in a series of descriptive posts about the Circle of Impact conversation guides. Next is The Circle of Impact. 

Just Knowing You Are In Transition Doesn't Mean Much, with a Personal Update

Transition Points-Space2

For many of us the past 12-18 months has been a time of transition.

We recognize that the context of our businesses has changed. As a result, we have been making changes.

I visualize this change as a transition from what I was before to what I will be in the future.

When we enter a Transition Point, we recognize that something is awry. Our performance is down.

Our markets are drying up. Our work is much harder, more stressful.

It isn't enough just to know you are in transition.

It isn't enough to say "Well, we are in a recession."

It isn't enough to hope that things will get better.

It isn't enough just to realize that things are changing.

When we enter a Transition Point, just waiting for things to get better doesn't work. There are reasons why we are here. Some of the reasons are the result of our decisions and actions. Others are the changes that are happening in the external circumstances of our life and work, like an economic recession or epic technological transformation.

It doesn't matter WHY we are in a Transition Point.

It really doesn't matter that you understand it.

What does matter is WHAT you are going to DO about it.

Change does not happen in isolation. Change is not some abstract idea that others talk about. Change happens and we must respond.

Once we decide to respond to the change that is happening, we enter a Space between Transition Points. This Transition Space is a place of decision and action.

For example, it is a beautiful sunny summer day. Yet the weather report is saying that a really bad storm is coming. We don't wait to put our children's toys in the garage, close the windows of the house, and check to see if our flashlights have batteries, and our phones and computers are charged. We take action, because change is coming.

This is the Transition Space where we plan, prepare, and act in anticipation for the next Transition Point.

For many of us, the recession's severity caught us off guard. We had not anticipated the storm that was coming. We were ill-prepared because don't think of Change as normal, but rather abnormal.

This is our first mistake.

To live in the Transition Space between Transition Points is to assume that all things are on-the-table subject to change or even go away.

It happened to me last spring. I was disappointed, but not surprised, because I had been through this twice before.

We not only need to anticipate potential Transition Points, but also, more importantly, learn to adapt to those changes. If we take this attitude, then, we will see that the perspective of constant and continuous adaptation to change is now the most stabland secure position to be in.

External circumstances can change. Our internal confidence and values should not. We should see that each day is a time of change, and is the Transition Space between yesterdays Transition Point and tomorrow's.

Here, then, are some principles to can help learn to understand how to respond to change.

1. It is a time of stopping and beginning.

We stop doing some of the things that we been doing, even ones that we are good at and in which we find great comfort and affirmation.

We stop because they root us in a past performance that is no longer the best response to the change we are experiencing.

If a hurricane is coming, we don't stand under an umbrella waiting for it to pass. We take action to protect ourselves and our families from the storm.

We must develop new approaches, new skills, acquire a new attitude about who we are and what we have to offer people.

2. It is not a time of waiting, but of patience and persistence.

To wait for times to get better is to lose ground every day. But being faster doesn't necessarily translate into faster arrival at a higher performance level.

When we begin new initiatives, it takes time for them to reach maturity. It takes time for your market to recognize that you are different, and for them to change their perception of what you have to offer.

Instead of waiting for things to get better, we work with great patience and persistence to make each day a step forward. We are totally committed, and we look for ways to improve and change every day.

When we are patient and persistent, our resilience to the hardships that comes with change also grows. If we can remain realistically optimistic, not blindly hopeful, then we gain the resilience we need in a time of great transitions. In time, we'll find the success we seek.

3. It is a time of change which changes us as people.

The test of transition is whether the potential exists within us to be different, even better, and possibly, even, more successful.

To get through this time of transition, we need to tap into aspects of our potential that are dormant.

To realize our potential means we have to become the persons who have the capacity for impact that our latent potential represents.

If this means we move to a different community, change the way we dress or leave behind some business relationships, then we must do it.

Times of change are times of opportunity. These times of transition are the space where we can lay aside the encumbrances and constraints of our past and grow into our next one.

Very few people are willing to do this. The comforts of their present situation, even as things get harder, less successful, are difficult to give up, in order to seek for unknown and uncertain opportunities.

These are lessons that I've learned over the past few months.

Update: Four and A Half Years Later

The above post, apart from some editing for clarity, an added example, and corrected syntax, was four and a half years ago during the height of the "Great Recession".  Regardless of the causes of that recession, the impact remains with us. People and businesses that changed, learned how to be better during hard times. There is always opportunity.

My own experience may be somewhat instructive.

A year after I wrote the above post, I took a position as an executive and fund raiser for non-profit serving ministries across the state of North Carolina. I was let go after the 20 months, and eventually the non-profit closed because of lack of funds. I quickly moved into another position as an interim pastor of a church. Two years later that work is done, and I'm preparing to move into the next Transition Space of my career.

This Transition Point for me incorporates the three principles above.

I've changed as a person.

The work that I have done for nearly twenty years is changing into a very different form.

My future work is development and re-purposing of materials that I've developed over the past 15 years for a new audience, in new forms, with a new focus of engagement with people.

Change happens every day. However, the changes that we need to make some times need time to grow within us before they can emerge as their own Transition Point in time.

My advice to each of you is be patient, persistent and resilient as you intentionally adapt to the changes that are taking place in your life and work.

We are all living in the Transition Space between the Transition Points in our lives. Practice these three principles doesn't mean you can fall back into believing that change no longer affects you. Instead, it means that they opportunities and potential that come with change will be more evident.

Transition Points and Space

This week's Weekly Leader column - Living in Transition Space - looks at a different way of understanding change. Transition Points-Space
Instead of thinking of change as simply disruptive, we should look at it as a transition process. Our natural tendency will be to focus on the transition point. However, we typically living in the transition space between those junctures of change.

I'm convinced that the frequency of these transition points are going to increase. As a result, we need to develop new ways of approach our work as organizational leaders. This is what the column addresses this week.

Are your customers commodities?


As a customer, you can tell when a business begins to think of you as a commodity. All of a sudden, you are in and out - less talk, less transaction time. What does this mean? What should you do?

A friend of mine told me of a favorite vacation spot that his family had visited many times over the years. He had become friends with the owners. During his last visit, he noticed the customer service just wasn't what it had been in the past. He felt rushed and neglected. When he expressed his concern, the response was, "You've been here before. It's not like this is something new to you."  

When loyal customers begin to have this experience, it means the business has entered a transition point. We know this because what we are doing is getting harder, or our results are not what they were. A transition point can be good or problematic. It can have internal or external reasons. Whatever it is, you must understand it and act. Whether, it marks a decline or new opportunities, you must act.

The choice is not between changing or not changing. The only choice is what kind of changes do I make?

Change is necessary to sustain the loyalty and good will that long term customers have for a business. 

When your customers become commodities, as a number lacking any history or distinctive relationship to the company, just the next transaction, you have determined a new course for your business.

You may think that this is a rational business decision. It is also a decision to change the value structure of your business.

Long term customers don't bring their business to you because you have the lowest prices, unless that is your business. They come because you stand for something that is validated every time they encounter you. It doesn't really matter what those values are. It does matter that you know what they are, and that they matter to you.

Losing loyal customers marks a transition point. It is a change that matters. What are the implications?

In the past, you may have been able to charge a premium for your services because of your relationship to the customer adds value to the produce or service. Now, you are transitioning into the commodity business. You have to lower your fees to find customers. And those customers are not like your loyal ones. They are only interested in price and availability.

  Transition Point - without Title

This is what happens at transition points. We make some seemingly innocent, rational decision, and do not see the unintended consequences.

Dealing with change is rarely rational and orderly. It is disruptive and disorienting. We have to learn how to see the tell-tale signs of transition and act to either reverse the trend or capitalize on it.

For my friend, he may return to this vacation spot one more time, giving his owner friend a second chance to show that he values his friendship and loyalty over the years. He'll go with a critical eye to see how he is treated. And there if has been no improvement, he may just move on to a new vacation spot next year.

No one wants to be treated as a commodity.

Beyond The Charts - The Circle of Impact Explained

Circle of Impact -5 QsI received a question that I want to answer here.

Read you about your tools for clarity and connection.

May I ask you a personal question?

The tools are sound yet...what is the next step for you personally? What is the part you play in this scenario. Give the tools and step aside? I read something about you clients?

The form did not require us to talk much about ourselves.

The tools for clarity and connection are the first three charts that I ever created. 

Leading Through Times of Transition
The Circle of Impact
Five Questions That Every Leader Must Ask

Since I first wrote this post, I've expanded the number and range of the diagrams that I've created. Their purpose is to provide a guide for group thought and interaction.

You can download the current set of guides here.

These diagrams grew out of conversations I was having with people. I'd have a notepad out, and I'd draw the situations they were describing on the page, and then make connections. At first, I didn't see the imagery that you find here. A pattern began to arise and that's when I decided to develop the diagrams as tools for helping make complex situations both more simple and dynamic.

Circle of Impact- simple

By simple, the Three Dimensions of Leadership refer to three main areas that affect us in organizations: Ideas, Relationships and Organizational Structure. The difficulty is thinking about them all at the same time, hence the need to think dynamically.

By dynamically, take any one of the three dimensions, and try to understand the impact of the other two on it. For example, what's the impact of relationships and ideas on organizational structures. If very little, then you need to elevate the role of conversation between people about ideas in the organization as one step toward resolution.

The tools are for conversational purposes. I use them in my work to help clients move more quickly through a process of discovery to a point of decision followed by action.

I've found that the charts have a great power to identify problem areas, and their solutions. If the problems are simple, then the charts identify how to move into action. The charts are intended to accelerate decision-to-action processes.

For example, let's say that is some undefined problem that exists but lacks some clarity about what it is. Using the Circle of Impact guide, we begin by asking,

"Is this an Idea problem, a Relationship one or something about how we are Structured as an organization?"

If you cannot answer the question with any certainty, then you take the dimension that seems most likely, and begin there. Do this because ultimately, all three dimensions must come into alignment for most problems to be resolved.

These disagrams have helped me considerably to be able to see what the problem of the moment is without referring to the charts at all. This dynamic of interaction about ideas, relationships and structures give those who learn to use it an advantage over those who simply think in less dynamic  ways.

The next step
Implied in the question, I'm assuming, is how do I use these in my work. If I'm giving these away for free, how does this come back to me as a benefit?

The more people use my charts, the more they will begin to see situations that need change that are highly complex. This is where I enter the picture. Whether it is with an individual or with an organization. I'm helping with these complex transitional processes.

Transition through Time

The Transitions chart simplifies something that is not simple at all. The initial question is:

How do I take my organization through a process of change? How do we make these transitions?

This is where my client projects come from. Because the path from one stage to the next is not always easy to identify and even more difficult to accomplish. People hire me to mentor them through these processes.

Think of it in terms of a team of explorers who have only the most rudimentary information about what the future holds. I work with leaders who must make transitions without a clear or comprehensive understanding all the time. They need perspective and tools for making decisions.

Let give you three current examples of how this is happening.

1. A rural non-profit healthcare group after twenty five years is in trouble. A long range plan is adopted that includes a new marketing place and a total reconfiguration of the board and organizational by-laws.

Problem: Two months into the transition the board determines that by the end of the year, they will be broke.

Solution: develop a partnership with an organization that can bring needed financial resources into the relationship.

End result: The non-profit sells its State license - Certificate of Need to a for-profit regional healthcare business. Non-profit organization reorganizes a foundation for raising money for indigent care in their county.  The transition means my client changes their perception of their mission. A dramatic change in their organizational structure from service provider to foundation follows.  A collaborative relationship between now two healthy healthcare organizations develops, where before there was only one that was struggling to survive.

My role was to mentor the leadership through the process and be a catalyst for the board to believe that they could make this transition.

2. A mid-size corporation goes through a C-level and board leadership change. New CEO wants values to become an important part of the company's assets. Initial project develops values statement. Statement written by diverse team including both management and union leadership. HR develops program to inform employees about the rationale and meaning of values statement.

After the statement project is complete, my role shifts to two projects. One is working with the corporate leadership team to develop how to implement the company's new values statement as a leadership / management development tool. The other project is focused on assisting one of the business units to discover how the values statement can be utilized to improve policies, procedures and internal communication. These projects are ongoing. The optimum word is "operationalize values." In other words,  what behaviors and business processes are required to live up to the values. Five Questions - Verticle

3. A 200 year old church with a strong history in its community recognizes that it must become more future focused. Utilizing the Five Questions Guide, we work for two years to shift the congregation's perception of its mission.

Churches are social environments that are either focused on the past or the future. If the past, they are like museums of memories, recalling the good days of the past, and finding security and comfort in theological perspectives developed in cultural contexts different than today. A focus on the future is a "missional" approach. This approach asks what is our impact or influence to be. The Five Questions help to identify that big picture, and the Three Dimensions help to organize how the church will act upon that insight.

Each of these client projects are dramatically different. The one constant in each is the need to find a pathway of transition from where they are now to where they want to be in the future. My primary role is as a mentor to the leadership through a discovery process so that they know what they need to do.

The Impact of Leadership
The last part of the question asks:

The form did not require us to talk much about ourselves.

When the charts are used in a conversational setting, we are talking about ourselves. We do so in a real world context, not in an abstract one. We are dealing with situations as they exist at the present moment. Brainstorming has its place, as a way to warm up the ideas dimension. But if the brainstorming is not done in a real context, then it will not lead to concrete action.

I brought to a stark awareness of this truth a decade ago. While on vacation with my family the mountains of Wyoming, while riding horseback one afternoon, I heard a voice speak to me:

It is time to stop talking about leadership, and lead.

I knew then that I had to change. I had to get out of my head into action.

If we are to lead, we need to take initiative.

Initiative is the first step in all leadership. There is no leadership without initiative.

Using these charts for just conversation purposes is insufficient. They should provide whomever uses them the confidence that they can take action.

Earlier this morning I came across a quote from Seth Godin that I used in a post a couple years ago. He wrote:

Most fast-growing organizations are looking for people who can get stuff done.
There is a fundamental shift in rules from manual-based work (where you follow instructions and an increase in productivity means doing the steps faster) to project-based work (where the instructions are unknown, and visualizing outcomes and then getting things done is what counts.)

And yet, we're still trying to hire people who have shown an ability to follow instructions.

Life and work can now be understood as a series of transitional projects. This requires not only personal initiative, but also creativity.  We need a totally different mindset than before in order to make a successful transition.

In the post I wrote two years ago, I made the following comment:

Personal initiative is a quality of character that looks for ways to make a difference. This is what I find is at the heart of true leadership. When we take initiative, we are taking responsibility for the outcome of a situation. Step forward, fill the gap, do the right thing, don't wait to be asked, take the lead.  ... Personal initiative is freedom. Freedom to excel in all aspects of your life.

These diagrammatic charts provide us tools for helping us to lead.

They enhance our ability to think conceptually.

They enhance our capacity for meaningful conversations with people that lead to making a difference.

They help to put the realities of organizational life in context.

If you have questions, ask them. Asking a question is the beginning of a conversation, and if you don't ask, you'll not discover what you need to know.

Change: the alluring appeal

Steve Roesler, of All Things Workplace blog and a fellow Age of Conversation 2 author, commented on my Taleb on the Crisis post. It was so good, I felt that it was worthy of a post on its own.  Steve commented:

Ed, This is one of the finest articles that I have seen on this topic; I wish I had written it myself:-) Consistent with this is the nebulous, but unbelievably alluring, notion of "change." We see it in business, politics, and organizations in general. As one who has made a substantial living from phone calls requesting help with "change," the term now has new meaning for me and I treat it as such. "Change" is merely a catch-phrase for dissatisfaction with something. Yet instead of doing the reality-based and often painful work of addressing the underlying issue(s) of substance, "Change" is trotted out as a not-to-be challenged rallying cry. It has been allowed a special, almost sacred, status. Those who would question it are quickly deemed resistant, old-school, and/or (gulp) "traditional." (Each of these words has also been purposefully and inaccurately redefined when used in the context of "change." Those "in the know" will simply wink at each other, thus distinguishing themselves from the un-washed; no actual analysis of fact is needed). What continues to fascinate me is that, in a world with so much helpful and oft-quoted behavioral research, important decisions continue to be made in ways described by you and the authors. Which, I guess, is exactly the point. The result, then, would seem to offer the prospect of this worldview: "I would rather live with unsubstantiated hope that makes me feel good now than spend time investigating an evidence-based foundation on which to build my future." Film at 11.

Steve, you are absolutely right that change has become "merely a catch-phrase for dissatisfaction with something." 

My experience with people who want change is that they don't know what change they want, just that they want it. There is some intuitive sense that they have reached a transition point, and change is Growth and Change necessary. In this image, the dots are those transition points. The emotion that people feel at these points is discomfort or disorientation or greater constraint, less ease at achieving their performance than before. They realize that something is not quite right. Change is needed. They feel it, but their rational mind which is always trying to create order says,"Resist it. Fight it. Keep doing what you've been doing." 

In most cases, what they have been doing is no longer as successful, so performance is flattening out or declining.  If they could step outside themselves, they could see it.  As a consultant, this is the privilege that I have everyday of walking into organizations and seeing the change they are in.

What Nassim Taleb and Danny Kahneman are wanting us to understand is that we are not purely ratioanl beings. In fact, the more intelligent, the more highly educated you are, the more likely you are denial about the role of emotions in your decision-making.

Our emotions are leading indicators of what is to come. The more in-tuned with our emotions we become, the greater the capacity for anticipating the arrival of a transition point, and knowing how to adapt to the constant micro-changes that are required to make the macro change to a new direction.  For in the diagram above, to move to a new level of performance requires that we stop doing some of the things we have been doing before, and begin to do new things that will carry us to that new level. It takes mental fortitude to turn our backs on what has made us successful to this point, and create new capacities that will carry us forward.

On a personal note ... about five or six years ago, I passed through an emotional transition point. The specific situation is not relevant to my point, but the change I went through is. I am now more emotionally moved by situations than ever before. These deep emotions of both happiness and sadness have made it possible to be a better analyst of the transition points that leaders and the organizations are going through. And as I have analyzed what is taking place, my emotions are being touched by seeing my values expressed in the statements and actions of people. So, values are a key to these transition points.

Two examples.

Being the catalyst for an agreement where by a for-profit health care provider purchases the "operational" assets of a non-profit provider, resulting in an informal partnership where the for-profit provides the services, and the non-profit continues in existence as a foundation to provide funds for indigent care.  At the heart of this win/win situation is a commitment by both parties to the people of the rural county where the services are provided.

Being the catalyst for an organization to move from an almost total focus on the past to an emerging vision of the future, with the senior executive recognizing without solicitation or prompting that he is not the one to lead them into that future. So, instead of holding on until retirement in four years, he resigns effective one year out, giving them time to find his replacement.  This frees the organization to start new initiatives right away instead of waiting for his retirement to begin to pass through their historic transition point.

When emotions and the rational analytical mind are a dynamic balance, transitions can be achieved in a win/win fashion. And win/win is the game of the future. This is what is so disappointing about the poltical culture of our country. We are at a transition point, a point of change, and change is merely a way to play the old political zero-sum game of I win/ You lose. 

How does one get in touch with ones emotions in this context?  I don't think pop psychology is the answer. There is too much narcisisstic self-deception embedded in that perspective.

Rather, begin by admitting that your emotions are leading indicators of change, and listen to them. If you can't hear them, then begin to write a journal,or begin to blog. I know that my blogging has provided my emotions an outlet for expression that I never had before.

Do something that connects your emotions to some tangible action that is constructive and beneficial. If you are angry about something, get involved in some way where your anger can be constructive. While not an expert, I imagine this is the next step in the evolution of emotional intelligence.

Thanks Steve for a provocative comment. It has given us much to reflect on.