Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Different Way to Think About SWOT

The idea that your strengths can turn into risks was expressed very memorably by Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard, who argued that an organization’s core competencies often harden into “core rigidities.” Features that served the organization well in the past — such as its values, skills, and managerial and technical systems — can become obstacles with new projects.

Adam Brandenburger, Are Your Company’s Strengths Really Weaknesses, Harvard Business Review

This dynamic also works with individuals.

How does a strength become a weakness?

Is your expertise preventing you from seeing other options?

Are your planning talents preventing you from pivoting when a better path appears?

Do your successes inhibit agility?

Values, skills, managerial systems, and technical systems that served the company well in the past and may still be wholly appropriate for some projects or parts of projects, are experienced by others as core rigidities – inappropriate sets of knowledge.

Dorothy Leonard, Core Capabilities and Core Rigidities: A Paradox in Managing New Product Development, Strategic Management Journal, Summer 1992

The same holds true with our personal core capabilities. The values we hold (and their healthy or unhealthy manifestation), the skills we have, and the systems we develop might work for us, and might still work for us in some scenarios, but they don’t work for the circumstance and environment you are in.

It’s the “what got you here won’t get you there” tension. The most common example of this tension is the struggle many skilled individual contributors experience as they move into management. Suddenly, their skill in doing the work becomes more of a hindrance to their success than a help. The shift can be disorienting and many can’t make it – to the detriment of both themselves and their teams.

I have seen the same dynamic play out across different fields – most notably the struggle Training and Development specialists face as they attempt to become Performance Specialists – and within individuals in contexts as varied as child-rearing, up-leveling athletic skills, going from club speaker to competition speaking, and changing jobs.

We are being invited to think of our strengths and weaknesses as part of a polarity. Our strengths can be weaknesses. Our weaknesses can be our strengths.

It’s not just a matter of “playing to your strengths” or “working on your weaknesses.” We can, instead, look at what the environment needs from us and discerning whether that is an environment that will help us grow OR provide the stability and confidence we need at that moment (depending upon where we are at in our lives at that juncture).

Does the environment want your strength or your weakness? Do you want to play to your strength? Is it time to work on a weakness? Or is it time to leverage that weakness as a strength?

It’s a different perspective on the relationship between strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and how our individual strengths and weaknesses interact with the environment.


Dorothy Leonard, Core Capabilities and Core Rigidities (pdf) – Despite this article’s age (1992), it contains a brilliant discussion of the dimensions of a core capability and the paradox inherent in these capabilities.

Adam Brandenburger, Are Your Company’s Strengths Really Weaknesses? (HBR – freemium) – This article proposes a different model for SWOT analysis and invites you to ask how your Strength becomes a Threat and your Weakness becomes an Opportunity. The article uses business as a context, but the same questions and model apply to our personal lives.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Amazon affiliate link) – Marshall Goldsmith’s book guides people from Individual Contributor status to Management and reminds us that our skills in doing the work (our core capability) no longer applies in managerial positions and can easily become core rigidities.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Focus on Transformation, not Digital

The Digital Transformation is not digital.

The tools within digital transformation – AI, Machine Learning, Quantum Computing, Big Data, etc. – are just that. Tools.

What are you using these tools for?

What problem are you trying to solve with these tools?

What are you transforming into?

The new technologies, in and of themselves, help us solve problems. They “disrupt” by allowing us to address issues we were not able to address before. They “disrupt” by providing access to information that we could not see before. They “disrupt” by showing us opportunities we couldn’t see before.

Acknowledging “disruption” and determining how (or whether) to respond is the transformation. This is the human moment.

Again I ask – What are you transforming into?

Only then, should you worry about what technologies will assist you in that transformation.


This post triggered this article. (Thanks Vijay!)

The Digital Transformation Playbook (Amazon affiliate link) – This book is about the strategy and mindset required for “digital transformation.” It encourages you to answer the question “What are you transforming into?” and shows you how “digital” fits into that answer.

The Design Thinking Playbook (Amazon affiliate link) – This book provides a toolkit for answering the question “What are you transforming into?” as well as the question “How do I best provide value to others?”

It’s not about the tools, it’s about the tool user.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Participant – Observer Spectrum

One of the first things Dr. Lester Stephens, the chair of my thesis committee, asked me to do was to take the walk across Jackson Street from LeConte Hall (where the History Department lives) to the Anthropology department in Baldwin Hall. Once there, I was to ask Dr. Charles Hudson, the leading anthropologist studying the Southeastern Indians, to serve on my committee.

Mind you, this was before the era of “interdisciplinary studies.” You would have thought that my crossing Jackson Street to visit “those crazy anthropologists” was akin to crossing the DMZ into North Korea from the way some of my colleagues reacted. It just wasn’t done.

Once there, I encountered a man who perfectly combined the archetypes of Professor and Santa Claus with a touch of Hells Angel. He also turned out to be one of my most fondly remembered, and supportive mentors.

One of the most important things Dr. Hudson taught me (among many important things) was the Participant – Observer spectrum and how Anthropologists use this spectrum to learn about the culture they are studying. The history of Anthropology is a history of researchers trying to navigate this spectrum between being a participant and being an observer.

On one end of the spectrum is the Enthusiastic Insider – such as the anthropologist who moves to Ecuador to study the Jivaro shamans and decides to become one. This particular extreme was in vogue in the mid-20th century (especially the 60s and 70s) and can still be found today.

On the other end of the spectrum is the seemingly “objective” observer who inflicts his or her judgments and beliefs upon the culture being studied. An extreme version of this spectrum can be found in the papers of European explorers in North America. This perspective pervaded anthropology until well into the 20th century.

Most anthropologists try to find a place in the middle ground between these two extremes – recognizing their own biases while trying to respect the internal logic of a culture’s beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. They try to juggle participation with observation – with varying results.

An advantage of being an outsider is that you can better see trends and assumptions. If you have exposure to other cultures, you have points of comparison and contrast. A disadvantage is that it is easy to miss the nuances of culture as experienced by the insiders. Furthermore, you are contending with the “observer effect” – observation is likely going to impact the behavior of the observed. Being an outsider also requires the observer to get very clear on the biases they are bringing to the observation. More easily said than done.

An advantage of being an insider is that you get a more accurate picture of the perspective of the culture and access to information that an outsider doesn’t get. There is also the advantage of “lived experience.” Unfortunately, the insider does not have a broader picture and is likely to make judgments that bias their inside status. It is also easy to mistake thinking you are an insider vs. actually being one. The observer-participant may still be shielded from important information and experiences.

Often, as one starts getting to know people, I have found that the position on the observer-participant spectrum changes. Early on, you start as an outsider. As you adopt the assumptions and behavioral norms of the culture, you start to shift to participant status.

For many of us, this shift occurs unconsciously. We adjust our behavior and beliefs to better fit into our environment. This is a natural thing to do and is an important part of human development. Humans crave belonging.

What if you could make this shift more consciously? Some of the best anthropologists work to maintain a conscious shift from outsider to insider as they gain knowledge and trust. They attempt to maintain a perspective slightly outside the culture they are studying and keep touch-points for comparison as they dive further into the community. They also work to deeply engage in the beliefs and assumptions of the culture.

It’s a sensitive balancing act. As a consultant, it’s easier for me to maintain an observer perspective – moving from a detached perspective into a more participatory perspective while still maintaining a level of detachment. The detachment is easier because I know my time is limited.

As an employee, it’s trickier. With time, and without being conscious of it, we adopt the beliefs and norms of our environment. We want to belong. Even management falls into this unless they have strong supports elsewhere – often outside the company, but ideally within the company too. At a certain point, if there are no supports within the company, the company shakes off the interloper.

Knowing that there is a Participant-Observer spectrum can help as you begin to evaluate your current environment and determine whether you have the supports you need to make the change you wish to see.


Dr. Charles Hudson – The Southeastern Indians (Amazon affiliate link) – If you are interested in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks, and Seminoles, this is a comprehensive anthropological overview of these cultures. From here, I would then move to insider authors within these traditions and do a comparative study.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – book) – One scientist’s attempt to navigate the participant-observer spectrum, to much criticism. Wes Craven’s movie The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – movie) was based on this work. This is one of the few horror movies I managed to sit through because the ethnobotany was interesting.

The Cosmic Serpent (Amazon affiliate link) – This book is a case study for the hazards of the participant-observer spectrum – especially once hallucinogenics get involved. In this case, the anthropologist found himself on a quest to prove the link between the shamanic experience and DNA. A fascinating read requiring some discernment – most critics have noted the occasional leaps of logic Jeremy Narby had to take to prove his argument.

The Way of the Shaman (Amazon affiliate link) – Michael Harner’s 1980 work, in my opinion, is a better example of balancing the participant-observer spectrum. Much of this work is a comparison of shamanic practices across cultures with an emphasis on South American practices. Harner’s later work tipped further into the participant side of the spectrum and there is significant criticism around his decision to develop workshops teaching shamanic practices. Another interesting read.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Resilience – Differing Definitions

re·sil·ience /rəˈzilyəns/

1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
“the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”

2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
“nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”

Oxford English Dictionary via Google Chrome 2019

Resilience will be the scarce resource.

Said during a personal discussion with Robb Smith, Integral Life. He has repeated this in multiple interviews.

Robb Smith defined “resilience” as personal resilience.

Yet, in the business literature, the discussion of “resilience” emphasizes organizational resilience. Not in terms of the people, but in terms of “making sure the business survives.” The issue is couched in terms of protecting information, making sure the business can operate after a cyber (or other) attack, and leveraging AI so that you are not so dependent upon people.

This was my impression after reading the Price Waterhouse Cooper – 22nd Annual CEO Survey.

The CEOs didn’t seem to be focused on the resilience of the humans who (currently) are the organization. They were focused on the resilience of the entity that is “the corporation.” Making sure the “corporation” continues to make money for its shareholder (and themselves).

Despite the Business Roundtable’s redefinition of the purpose of the corporation away from shareholder primacy, I think it’s going to be a slow evolution – because paradigms change one “funeral” at a time.

In the meantime, how should we respond?

I’ll admit – I’m not crazy about the “Millenials are…” meme. It disregards the natural adaptability of people within other generations outside of those born in the 80s and 90s and discounts the challenges that cohort has to face that many of us didn’t (such as crushing student loan debt and formative years spent with cell phones and social media).

Where I think many members of that generation have it right is in the assumption that the “corporation will not be loyal.”

They want work that is directly in line with their own career equity, which are the skills and experiences that help them improve their career prospects. They know their time is limited, so they don’t invest in doing things outside their own path. Boomers, however, are used to working hard for a company in exchange for long-term investment in skills development and for security, like a retirement fund or pension.

Mark Lurie – The Disconnect Between Millenials and Baby Boomers When It Comes to Work Ethic

They have watched their parents (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers) get burned by the assumption that “the company cares.” And many of us in older generations are moving towards that same attitude – searching for environments where we can continue to build career equity, learn new skills, collaborate in positive and supportive teams, and work on projects that match our values and serve a higher purpose.

That contract – employee loyalty for corporate security – was torn up long ago -starting in the 1970s as the “shareholder primacy” theory became popular and solidified when the Business Roundtable flatly stated that the purpose of the organization was to serve shareholders (1997 version).

I think it is in our individual and collective best interest to consider personal resilience.

What can each of us, individually, do to build greater personal resilience?

I think the answer is individual to each of us.

For myself, it’s giving myself more space to think – away from the noise of our world. It’s finding areas of the day to pause and reflect. It’s being discerning about the information and the opportunities that are presented to me and being more mindful about what I commit to.

Simple, not easy.

I think that those who follow the “Millenial way” have it right when it comes to working within today’s environment. At least until we see more evidence that the members of the Business Roundtable and the CEOs and boards that they serve are serious about their new commitment.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Appropriate Edge

In Yin Yoga, a common instruction is “Find an appropriate edge.”

What this means – “Find a place where you can hang out. You are slightly uncomfortable, but you can sit with it a while.”

Yin yoga has you stay in one pose for an extended period. It can be very uncomfortable. However, in this process, I find that I leave one of these sessions feeling more peaceful.

Appropriate edge changes daily.

Some days I better tolerate sensation and discomfort.

Some days I can stretch more.

And some days, I have to ratchet WAY back – supporting EVERYTHING with props and reducing the time spent in pose.

I have found that life works this way as well. Some days, I’m in a space where I am looking to “stretch myself” and can tolerate the discomfort that entails. Other days – I’m already so uncomfortable that I just can’t.

I’ve noticed, in both myself and others, that we assume that our “appropriate edge” is both much further than is truly appropriate (no pain, no gain = invitation to long-standing injury) and is based on our best days when we are at our most flexible and pain-tolerant.

We forget that we are organic beings with variable energy.

What is your “appropriate edge” today?


Melissa West – Yin Yang Theory, Episode 497 – I’ve been following Melissa West’s yoga for at least 8 years. She’s the online yoga teacher I point most beginners towards. Her workouts are very do-able for everyone, she has wise recommendations for replacement exercises, and she combines theory/story and practice in a beautiful way – demonstrating how yoga (or, really, any physical practice) can integrate mind and spirit with body.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Why We Downplay Our Strengths

I remain terrible at accepting complements.

I remain terrible at valuing the things I have successfully done.

My internal monologue often says “Well, yeah, but….”

If I did it…it couldn’t be that big of a deal.

Subtext: If I can do it, most anyone else can do it…better.

Most of the smartest people I know have some version of this monologue going through their head.

It’s a particularly insidious form of impostor syndrome.

It totally devalues TO MYSELF the things I have successfully done, any accomplishments I may have had, and evidence that I am capable of providing value to others.

I’ve been lucky the past couple of years. I am surrounded by highly accomplished friends who are familiar with these voices and recognize when it is happening with others. They are helping me realize that I am devaluing my strengths, my accomplishments, my experience – for no good reason.

They are helping me realize that there ARE things I do that not only come easy to me, but also can help others.

The struggle can be real, but we don’t need to struggle all the time to provide value and get things done.

It’s a lesson that requires significant reinforcement for this stubborn student.


HBR: Why Talented People Don’t Use Their Strengths (freemium article) – Whitney Johnson’s exploration into how we downplay what comes easily to us and the fears that come up when we are asked to play to our strengths when it feels like other things are more highly valued.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Importance of Consonance

Society tells us a lot of things about what we should want in a career and what the possibilities are—which is weird because I’m pretty sure society knows very little about any of this. When it comes to careers, society is like your great uncle who traps you at holidays and goes on a 15-minute mostly incoherent unsolicited advice monologue, and you tune out almost the whole time because it’s super clear he has very little idea what he’s talking about and that everything he says is like 45 years outdated. Society is like that great uncle, and conventional wisdom is like his rant. Except in this case, instead of tuning it out, we pay rapt attention to every word, and then we make major career decisions based on what he says. Kind of a weird thing for us to do.

Tim Urban, Wait but Why? Go read this post.

As I mentioned in a prior post, it is unlikely that we are going to find stability outside ourselves.

That social contract left the building long ago.

As a result, it becomes more important to individually determine what we want our lives to look like.

I say lives, because the work and workplaces we choose have a dramatic impact on our lives.

I know this from my own experience.

Being a stagehand is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, heavy lifting, exposure to the performing arts, and (in the right circumstances) intense teamwork.

Being a medical professional is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, cortisol and adrenaline spikes, exposure to the best and worst of human nature, and (in the right circumstances) intense teamwork.

Being an IT professional is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, intense periods of focus in front of screens, many meetings, exposure to multiple new technologies (in the right circumstances), and intense teamwork (often when things go deeply south).

The environments, types of people, topics of study, and the activities of work are wildly variable. The constants are long hours (whether we want them or not) and the need for teamwork.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

This is not an ask for you to “find your purpose” in an environment that is truly purposeless.

This is about you.

Why did you choose (or fall into) your profession? What about it appealed to you when you started? Why do you keep doing it?

“Because I’ve done this for 20 years and this is what I get hired for when I look for work” is a perfectly appropriate answer. At least be honest with yourself.

The next question is a bit stickier – “Will this matter in the end?”

Are you working in service to an idea or a problem you wish to solve or a desire to make a positive difference in the world?

Is what you are doing leading that direction – even if it might not feel like it right now?

It’s OK if the answer is – “Probably not, but it pays the bills.”

Many of us have been trained to focus there. Get a “good job,” climb the ladder, pay the bills, retire and do nothing once you hit 65.

I believe that our current environment is a call for each of us to find what Laura Gassner Otting calls “consonance.”

Consonance is when what you do matches who you are (or who you want to be). 

Laura Gassner Otting, Harvard Business Review, “Are You Pursuing Your Vision of Career Success, or Someone Else’s”

We are being invited to make conscious decisions about our work, our careers, our skills, and how we serve our world.

We are being invited to explore what calls us and whether our activities move us towards or away from that calling.

We are being invited to ask our work connects with the larger world. How we contribute to our communities and the groups of which we are a part.

These aren’t easy questions, and they are likely to change over time and circumstance.

Our careers are no longer tidy paths towards mastery and a gold watch.

We have an invitation to something much richer.


HBR: Are You Pursuing Your Vision of Career Success, or Someone Else’s? (freemium article) – “Happiness recruits, but consonance retains.”

Picking a Career (article) – Tim Urban’s funny and insightful reflections on career paths and life.

What Color Is Your Parachute 2020 (Amazon affiliate link) – A classic in personal career development, for good reason.