Monday, April 30, 2018

#52books The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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#52Books – The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)

Format: Audiobook

For Christmas during my freshman year at Virginia Tech, my father gave me a copy of The Power of Myth.

“Wendy, you might not understand this right now – but keep revisiting it.”

Joseph Campbell’s life centered around finding the commonalities between mythologies and cultures. His work and perspective influenced the way I approach life.  The constant search for common themes between disparate cultures and activities.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the combined, comprehensive exploration of Joseph Campbell’s academic work.  The foundations of the hero’s journey are here. The recognition of the similarities between creation and destruction myths is here. Essentially, this is (and has been) the foundational book in the comparative mythology corpus.

That said, this is also very academic and not the most approachable read.  Even in audio, the text is dense and professorial. The over-dramatic reading by the 3 narrators doesn’t help.  Furthermore, it felt like it took 5-10 chapters for the editors to determine the best balance between the narrators.

Hearing the material DOES help get a sense of the poetry and repetition inherent in the stories told in oral cultures.  The stories are designed to be remembered and re-told around the fire.

The audiobook is long and I found myself alternately drifting elsewhere or being aggravated by the British accented male narrator’s over-dramatic delivery.  My taste in audiobook narration leans towards straight-forward.  You may find it charming if you are into fiction.

This does not negate the importance of this book.  Dense, richly layered, and comprehensive.

As an introduction to Joseph Campbell, however, I would show them The Power of MythThe Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) is the deep dive for those who want to explore further.

(All links Amazon affiliate links.  Thank you for supporting this blog.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Developing Inner Agility

Admission: Inner agility is not one of my strongest suits.  I am a recovering control freak.

To state the obvious – we are living in a time of increasing complexity.

Much of that complexity is of our own making.

  • Additive processes.
  • The cult of “more.”
  • A bias towards “growth” and speed.
  • Access to an overwhelming amount of information
  • Increasing demands for attention from ALL corners
  • More diverse things connected with and dependent on each other

In 2011, Gokce Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath, in the Harvard Business Review, observed:

It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior. In a complex system the outlier is often more significant than the average.

If you remove the wrong variable in your environment, you wind up with the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge.

No wonder people (leaders and employees alike) are paralyzed and overwhelmed.

Choose the wrong variable…and it feels like disaster is imminent.

In a recent article, Sam Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel at McKinsey call for a recognition of the cognitive and emotional load that this complexity can cause. For everyone.

And, naturally, at times of intense stress, it’s easy to fall back into survival patterns.

It’s hard enough when you are an employee.  As a leader, if you fall back into old survival patterns – the negative impact can be that much greater.

“At the very time that visionary, empathetic, and creative leadership is needed, we fall into conservative, rigid old habits.”

And with the desire to move faster and faster and do more and more with fewer resources, no wonder transformation efforts, of any scale, fail.

It’s not a simple fix.

It requires individuals to practice the opposite of what the culture demands, how many of us are schooled to act, and how our brains prefer to work.

To spot opportunities—and threats—in this environment, we must teach ourselves how to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty. That means learning how to relax at the edge of uncertainty, paying attention to subtle clues both in our environment and in how we experience the moment that may inform unconventional action.

This relaxation at the edge of uncertainty is the key to inner agility.

The McKinsey consultants’ recommendations to develop inner agility:

  • Pause to move faster – ie, stop to look at the map occasionally. Are you still headed in the right direction?
  • Embrace your ignorance – Be a beginner. Ask questions. Learn from others. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
  • Radically reframe your questions – It might be worthwhile to ask at a higher level.  Ask people you know will disagree with you. Question your assumptions.
  • Set direction, not destination – Having a north star to provide context to your destination helps.
  • Test your solutions, and yourself – Allow for “safe to fail” experiments (this is what pilot projects are supposed to do). Do this for yourself too.

How much resistance did you feel when you read those recommendations?

Thing is, these are some of the behaviors that will help stop the insanity.

I feel we’ve hit a point where we need to start making hard choices about our direction, the things we focus on, and the activities we undertake.

Opportunities are abundant. Time and energy may not be.

It may be time to stop, look at the map, and make sure you are headed in the direction you expect.


Leading with Inner Agility – McKinsey

Harvard Business Review – Learning to Live with Complexity

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Communicating Complex Ideas

I love Wait But Why.

Well-researched. Well-written. Random topics.

Tim Urban writes about whatever catches his fancy and uses his blog as an opportunity to research whatever catches his fancy.

In an interview with First Round – Urban talks about how he approaches complex ideas.

Urban’s first step is to place the topic in his taxonomy of complex ideas.  Complex ideas, Urban claims, fall into one of 3 types.

Complexity as Gathering – Find all the material on a topic. The work is in making sure you have enough material to digest a topic and digest it well enough so that you can explain it to others.  It’s front-loaded and time-consuming. Once you have enough information and have digested it sufficiently, you can create a structure and narrative to make that topic easier for others to digest.

Urban’s example of this is his research on Elon Musk’s Neuralink project. “The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around — but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked.”

Complexity as Dusting – Urban sees dusting much like an archeologist brushes the dust off ancient artifacts.  It’s a matter of digging beneath an idea and allowing the revelation of truth.  The idea unlocks other complex ideas. It’s about finding the first principle, then applying the idea elsewhere.

Urban’s example of Complexity as Dusting is the difference between a cook and a chef.  A cook, Urban explains, follows recipes.  A chef creates recipes.  “If you start looking for it, you’ll see the chef/cook thing happening everywhere. ”

Complexity as Pattern-Matching (or Pattern-Resistance) – The search for patterns, then the determination as to whether that pattern should be matched or resisted.  “It’s a slog throughout,” Urban notes.

Urban is currently researching democracy and tyranny. “With something like society, it’s going to take me forever because it’s going to be me trying to find the pattern — the honest pattern — in a whole mess of analog complexity and uniqueness. It’s hard to do without being reckless because you can carelessly find patterns and there’s already a bunch of preset patterns set by political rules and tribes,” says Urban.  Then it is a matter of figuring out how to share those findings. People come to many sensitive topics with pre-set ideas of what the “reality” is.  Kudos to Urban for tackling sensitive topics like this.

I wish I had this taxonomy 30-some-odd years ago when I was starting college.

Urban’s second step is defining his audience.   Both where they are and where he wants them to end up.

Urban’s audience for Wait But Why is someone who has heard of an idea, but knows nothing about it.

His goal – to get them to where they can at least answer a layman’s question and form an intelligent opinion.

As with any communication (or activity, really), it’s good to know where your audience is and where you want them to wind up.

Urban’s final step is to write in a way your audience understands.

Provide the shortcut to understanding so that your audience does not have to go through all of the efforts you just made.

Urban, to me, is the classic example of the experienced guide.

They have done all the work (repeatedly) and made all of the mistakes so you don’t have to.

Essentially, what Urban is trying to do is flatten the down-slope of the learning curve for his readers.

He does this through simplification, storytelling, humor, and crude, yet elegantly explanatory, pictures.

When I was leading discussion sessions at both Georgia and Kentucky, I used to tell the students, “If you can’t explain it to a 3rd grader, you don’t understand it.”

It’s easy to get too separated from the experience of the beginner as an expert.

It’s tempting to show off knowledge and our own expertise.

I’ve fallen into both of those traps more times than I can count.

Urban, in that First Round interview, has (once again) broken down the research and writing process elegantly.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

#52books Why Simple Wins

Format: Kindle
We have a culture of “more is more.”
We struggle to let go of things.  The pet processes that we so carefully designed.  Tasks that we have made our own.
If we want to let go of things that no longer work or are outdated or didn’t need to happen in the first place, we hesitate to go through the grief of dealing with all of the people impacted by the change, nevermind our own grief and feelings of loss.
Lisa Bodell provides a compelling argument for simplifying processes, a recognition of the challenge in front of us, and some instructions for how to go about doing it.
For the how-tos, all you need to read is Chapter 8, then use the Appendix of 50 questions.  She has tools throughout the rest of the book, but the last chapter really talks about the process.  Because, when done right, any business process improvement NEEDS to be a process itself.
The rest of the book is also worth your time.
She provides exercises for teams and organizations, as well as structural and hiring strategies.
She describes characteristics of both leaders and staff, as well as supportive behaviors that will help with creating a simplification culture and discourage the development of complexity.
Bodell talks candidly about the struggles she encountered when providing simplification consulting.  What worked and what didn’t.  Where she found the most resistance and why that resistance appeared.  I get the feeling that this continues to be a work in progress. As it should be.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Strategy and Tactics at Point of Value

Point-of-Work (PoW) is where measurable business outcomes are generated…or they’re lost…if not lost…compromised. – Gary Wise

Gary Wise has been a leading thinker in the Performance Support space for years.  He’s been banging the drum for workforce capability and thinking in terms of point-of-work publically for almost 10 years.  He was one of the key influencers in my instructional design career.

His recent posts have me thinking about projects and how they often stop short at value delivery.

Though there is significantly more discussion in the project management space around value and how projects are (or should be) designed to deliver business value, most projects in practice still focus on getting the deliverable out the door. Training, performance support, any change management, or discussion of how this impacts the organization’s customers are often considered at the last minute – if they are considered at all.

We got the thing out the door on time and on budget. Hooray!

Then no one uses it.

Or…worse…the successful project has a negative impact on the business.

We need to start looking further down-stream and longer term.

Here’s some ideas I’m kicking around right now – triggered from Gary’s recent post  Adopting a Strategic Re-Think

He talks about this from a Learning and Development perspective, but I think he’s on to something broader.

Let me list my assumptions.  These are some initial thoughts and I would love some feedback to let me know how far off the mark I am.

A project is an investment that will allow the organization to better serve its customers, either directly or indirectly. (I’m going to file any project triggered by changing compliance requirements as indirect service to customers – humor me here).

The interaction between the organization (often through its employees, with potentially a gatekeeper in between) and its customers is what I am going to call the Point of Value.  The organization exists and thrives if it is able to provide value to its customers.

For an employee to better serve its customers, the organization is looking for what Gary calls Sustained Workforce Capability in the knowledge and skills needed to deliver customer value through the organization.

As Gary argues, training is one tool to drive Sustained Workforce Capability. It does so by reducing the time-to-competency for new knowledge and skills.  However, training is NOT the ONLY tool that needs to be used. Appropriate longer-term supports and environments at the Point of Work for the employee are also necessary to embed these behaviors that will (ultimately) provide customer value.

Designing projects such that the “definition of done” for the project occurs at the point of usability and utilizes the appropriate metrics to determine the business impact of project deliverables.

You can’t design a project that ends at “we got the thing out the door.”

You can’t even design a project that ends at “we did training and went live.”

The project end is really when the longer-term supports are in place, the new system has stabilized, and you are starting to see the impact of your project deliverable on the business.

My experience has been to give it a good 2-3 months after “go live” to clean up any leftover business and allow the system to stabilize with no major configuration changes.  From there, the business can see whether the project helped or hurt, issues that have surfaced with adoption, and what changes need to be made next to get closer to the vision.



Gary’s blog, Living in Learning, is an encyclopedia of useful ideas and tools for workforce performance and how workforce performance impacts the organization.  It’s not just about “training.”

DRIVER – A Repeatable, Agile, Discipline to Generate Learning Performance Guidance

DRIVER: Enabling a Strategic Re-Think for L&D

DRIVER – Avoiding the Paralysis of Fear & Loathing of CHANGE

Performance Support & “The Art of War”

Data Analytics Vs. Tsunami

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Definition of “Done” – Have one

In too many activities, a definition of “done” seems to be missing.

I don’t know about you, but when I have too many unfinished things on my plate – my performance suffers.

Every unfinished activity has a cognitive load attached.

If something is not “done,” – it tends to hang out in my head and simmer there.

Too many of these things and it gets overwhelming.

One of the environmental characteristics of the flow state is clarity of goals.

Goals have many levels. At the basic day-to-day, what are you trying to accomplish?

What does a completed state look like?

If you don’t know, or if everyone involved has a different definition, it’s going to be tough to know how you are doing and next to impossible to determine progress.

That activity, without a definition of done, becomes a resource sink for both money and time.

Furthermore, it makes it difficult to move on to other opportunities.

Your resources will continue to be tied up in the never-ending project.

The definition of “done” should be explicitly spelled out and agreed to by all parties.

What are the criteria that need to be met to consider something complete?

These criteria can include deliverables and quality standards for those deliverables.

Example – The project team has determined that the best approach to communicate to the end-user, with the resources they have available, is written end-user training documentation.

The project team decides that the end-user training document is complete when:

  • All written content identified for development is 100% complete with no grammatical or spelling errors
  • All graphics have been completed and laid out in the manual
  • The table of contents is complete and accurate
  • 95% of the target audience easily understands the document and can follow the instructions without further guidance.
  • The document is ready for conversion to PDF and distribution via email to the end-user.

The Agile Alliance recommends posting that definition someplace visible to keep everyone on track.

This activity helps maintain clarity of goals.  You know what you are working towards and you know how close you are.

These definitions can (and should) be created at multiple levels.  You can create them per user story and/or per deliverable and create an over-arching one for the project.


I have encountered significant resistance in creating a concrete definition of “done.”

I’ve heard fears around the lack of flexibility, as well as the fears around the accountability demanded when you have stated explicitly what you are going to do.  I’m sorry, but accountability is necessary to get anything done.

However, I do think the fears around the “lack of flexibility” are unfounded.

The flex remains in how you get from where you are at to “done.”

To use the example I mentioned above – the definition of done may be a training document with no spelling errors and understandable by 95% of your target audience, but the document itself can be one page or many pages, leverage graphics in interesting ways, be serious or fun. As long as the document meets the definition of “done” for that deliverable and helps the greater project to deliver the promised value, you are golden.

You can use the concept of “definition of done” for projects (which should have one anyway – traditionally managed projects call this scope) and for personal activities (ie – when is my part “done” such that I don’t have to think about it anymore).

All I ask is that you develop the discipline of defining “done” and finishing activities.

I’ve found over the years that those disciplines go a long way towards reducing overwhelm.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

#52books How to Change the World


#52 Books – How to Change the World: Change Management 3.0

Format: Softcover Booklet

Jurgen Appelo has taken 4 common models and combined them into what he calls a “supermodel.”

  • Dance with the System – PDCA or Plan, Do, Check, Act
  • Mind the People – AKDAR or Ability, Knowledge, Desire, Awareness, and Reinforcement
  • Stimulate the Network – the Adoption Curve and focusing on the right people
  • Change the Environment – the 5 I or Information, Identity, Incentives, Infrastructure, and Institutions

He then goes into some detail about what he has learned as a management consultant as he applied the models.  There are some quick-shot ideas to try and stories of what worked and what didn’t in his consulting practice.

I’m a fan of this approach. No need to reinvent the wheel and develop a complicated framework with new terminology.  The 4 models he selected have become 21st century classics for a reason.

This booklet is a quick introduction into change agency and a jumping-off point for deeper study and worth a 45 minute read.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

How to Eliminate Noise

Michael Hyatt and his daughter Megan, in a recent Lead to Win podcast on the Cost of Overwork, observed that current technologies have made this an incredibly noisy world.

The whole podcast is worth a listen (or read – I linked to the transcript above).  However, what struck me wasn’t the cost of overwork (high), it was their observations of how we are doing this to ourselves through our technologies.

Social media services like Facebook… This is one of the dark sides of that particular service. We can get such a quick dopamine hit we don’t develop a tolerance for boredom and we don’t stay in these spaces where there aren’t the measurable results. I also think behind all that is fear. It’s like fear of missing out. “If I say no to that opportunity, if I say no to that project, maybe I won’t be promoted. Maybe I won’t advance as quickly as I would like.” Maybe it’s just fear of the unknown.  – Michael Hyatt

Beyond that – they noted that our digital productivity tools feel like we spend more time playing with our digital productivity tools. Our almost unlimited access to information these days makes it harder for us to find and filter what we need.

Worse, our technologies require us to run the gauntlet of distractions, people demanding our attention, and noise.

How many of you have been interrupted while looking for information on a Slack channel?

Have you taken a course that leveraged Facebook for its community participation and found yourself surfing your feed before getting to your group? How much time did THAT take?

What is your experience with Messenger apps? Email?  How much weeding do you need to do before getting to real information or real work?

And this is just desktop. Now let’s add your mobile phone and all of the notifications and the difficulty of shutting off all of the notifications.

We are in a time that requires us to get focused and stick to that focus. Find a north star and walk towards it.

Say “no” regularly and brutally cull anything that doesn’t apply to our direction and destination.

Our individual and collective sanity may depend on it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of Window of Tolerance is a useful one to help us understand why we feel so stressed in today’s working environments.

The original theory comes from Childhood Development.

I’ve observed the same behaviors in adults as well.

Also, many of the same solutions.

Are the environments you are creating around yourself safe or stressful?

How are your interactions with others?

How much time are you spending in fight or flight (chaos state)?

Alternately, how much time are you spending in freeze or numbness (rigidity)?

As adults, we are responsible for the environments we find ourselves in.


We have the responsibility to get ourselves back within our personal window of tolerance.

We have the option to walk away.

We have the option to find better coping mechanisms.

We have the option to pay attention to the things and people that support us.

We have the option to shut out the noise.


Take care of yourself.

Then, do your best to take care of others.

It’s the least we can do.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

#52books The Start-Up J Curve

#52 Books – The Start-Up J Curve: The Six Steps to Entrepreneurial Success (Amazon affiliate link)

Format: Kindle

Since I started Middle Curve, I’ve been struck by how much noise there is in the entrepreneurial space.  All the things one “must do to succeed.”  It’s overwhelming.

Howard Love has created a map.  And he is NOT arguing to “go find venture capital money and scale RIGHT NOW.”  He’s about building solid foundations and habits.  Asking questions and identifying problems that the people around you have.  EXPECTING the downturn after the initial excitement of starting.

Howard identified 6 stages that many new businesses will go through and what to expect in each.  He emphasizes the activities to focus on, and what to set aside for later.  He talks about how early start-ups should expect to morph as they learn more about their customers. He talks about how a business takes longer to work than expected.  The inevitable difficult time.

I got through the first chapter and thought “Thank-friggin-goodness someone wrote this.”  I’m not alone.

I’ve been revamping Middle Curve once I realized my initial model wouldn’t scale and wasn’t sustainable.

From Howard’s definition, I’m about to finish the Create phase and am about to go into the Release phase. He talks about the procrastination and perfectionism gremlins that pop up during this transition.

Wow! No kidding!

I’m just happy that someone has identified patterns around the reality of starting (or re-starting) a business.  He identifies the blocks and hazards. He clearly talks about ways to identify and overcome them.

I am grateful that this book landed in my hands when it has.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Following a North Star

The North Star analogy, to me, has two components.

The first component – an unattainable target.  One that, at least, has you walking in the right direction.

The second component – looking at your immediate environment to see how you can best walk in that direction.

Often, when I hear people talk of “Following their North Star,” I get an image of someone marching through a desert.

There are not many obstacles.  It’s pretty clear sailing. They can keep looking up at their star without the fear of walking into a wall or tripping on a curb.

The reality, in my experience, is more like navigating through varied terrain.

Yes, there are clear spots where you can keep looking up and not worry so much about falling or crashing into things.

But there are also areas where you need to bushwhack.

Or go east to find a clearer path. Or move west to find a better place to cross the raging river.

Navigating by using a North Star is an exercise in finding the star, looking at what is in front of you, maneuvering the next right step, finding the star again, looking at what is in front of you, maneuvering the next right step, rinse, repeat.

It winds up being more of a zig-zag path filled with backtracks and detours vs. a nice, linear multi-lane superhighway.

The journey demands a clear focus on the north star AND the agility to maneuver the terrain in front of us.

Focusing back and forth between near and far-sighted.

Stopping to evaluate and check our navigation occasionally.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Allow the Gap

I’ve learned over the years that when my calendar looks suspiciously empty, something is up.

The smartest thing I’ve done in awhile was to not try to fill the space myself.  Allow the emptiness.

Let the time fill itself up as it needs to.

This time gap, it turned out, filled itself with the need to create space to be with family.

Both my family of birth and my family of choice.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people that I care enough about to miss when they are gone.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people that I want to be with as we grieve together.

I’m fortunate to have clients who understand and are willing to provide me with some space as I sit with family and friends as the generations transition.

Thank you.

In all of the noise and the quest to be busy and productive – creating space for things to happen may be the most important thing we do.

The quickest way to create space is to not fill up the new found time.

Allow for serendipity.  Allow things to just happen.

Sit for a bit. Enjoy that bit of quiet.

Ultimately, the stuff that needs to get done will get done when it needs to get done.

This past month was a good reminder.

The relationships I have and build are infinitely more important than any deadline or to-do list.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

#52books The 12 Week Year

#52 Books – The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Format: Hardcover

Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s main argument is that we need to think in terms of quarters vs annually when it comes to evaluation and goal-setting.

It’s not the argument that is most compelling – any project manager or manager familiar with Agile, Scrum, and Sprints can tell you the power of thinking in small, achievable chunks.

What I find compelling in this book are Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s choice of definition of accountability and their emphasis on the importance of aligning one’s business/career vision to their personal vision (and NOT the other way around – which is what most of us do), and their steps for creating a plan one can actually use.

  • Accountability – Moran and Lennington take their definition of accountability straight from Peter Kosterbaum and Peter Block’s Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World (Amazon affiliate link). Accountability = ownership.  Accountability = personal sovereignty.  Accountability, according to this definition, is NOT something someone else does to you or can do for you.  Your managers claim to “hold you accountable.” What they are doing is trying to motivate you to do something for them that you may or may not have taken ownership of.  This alternate definition forces one to look in the mirror and take responsibility for one’s choices.  I don’t know which is scarier.
  • The importance of aligning your business/career to your LIFE – If you are being externally motivated to do things, how close is the alignment of your job to how you want your life to look. If the business/career goal doesn’t align with your life vision, how inspired are you to work towards the goal?  How quickly are you going to give up, or do something else, or find another distraction?
  • Creating an actionable plan you have a fighting chance of following – As with many of the authors I’ve encountered of late, they insist on vision, focus, measurement, and getting VERY honest with yourself if you are not following the plan you laid out.

The first part of the book is theoretical.  The second part of the book is the step-by-step.

In the second part, they divide the practical application into individual and team considerations. For each, they include pitfalls and tips.  It’s obvious these two know what they are talking about from their troubleshooting tips.

This book nicely bridges the gap between The Perfect Day Formula, which is focused on defining the perfect day and week for individual execution, and The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which is more focused on team applications and longer-term execution.