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.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Emergent Learning

As part of the conversation around agility, innovation, and transformation – I hear more discussion around adult learning and how to create a “learning organization.”

Unfortunately, the term “learning,” for many people, triggers thoughts of classrooms and teachers.

“Learning” is seen as separate and apart from what we normally do.

It isn’t.

We are learning all of the time. Mostly unconsciously.

We are learning what is acceptable and not acceptable in our environment.

We are learning what is rewarded and what is punished.

We are learning whether our adaptations to that environment are providing the desired results.

And, yes, occasionally we spend time in the classroom or in apprenticeship trying to (or being strongly encouraged to) “learn something new.”

What if we thought about learning as a constant and talked about ways to be more mindful around what we are learning and want to learn?

What if we considered “learning” as embedded within the environment?

What if we consciously thought about what we want the people within our domain of influence to learn about us and about the environment we are in?

What if we provided the means and the environment to encourage this education within the day-to-day?

  • Will you provide time for reflection?
  • Is it safe for them to have a generative conversation with you? Are you open to diversity of thought?
  • How stable is your personal foundation? (Uncertainty and Ambiguity)
  • Do you personally have a functional framework for sensing and sensemaking? Can you share that with others? Can you integrate their framework – or help them find their own?
  • Is the journey that you are on leading you to where you want to go? Are you leading others on a journey to where THEY want to go?

Each of us learn from others and our environment constantly.

Instead of thinking about “learning” as something you do on the side – consider it part of your moment-to-moment existence.

That shift is a game-changer.


Six Enablers of Emergent Learning (article) – A discussion of Emergent Learning vs. Continuous Learning vs. Intended Learning. I believe there is a place for all of it.

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Amazon affiliate link) – Robert Kegan and Lisa Lachey’s research applied to organizational design.

Association for Talent Development (site/blog) – The primary US association for corporate trainers and talent development professionals.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Why Stability is Important

In the discussions around “digital transformation” and “innovation” and “agility” and our “VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world” – we forget that safety and security is a significant human need.

Instead, the discussion centers around how we all need to be more innovative, agile, flexible, and better able to cope with chaos.

I think we are missing the mark.

I also think that we can’t currently rely on organizations, of any sort, to provide any sort of stability.

They are too busy being “digitally transformed,” “disrupted,” “agile,” “innovative,” etc.

The only place we can establish stability is in our individual centers.

The best gift we can give is to help each other develop their individual centers.

Stability can be found within our selves and through the development of healthy relationships.

From there, we can pivot and flex to adapt to environmental demands.

We can also mindfully choose which demands we intend to address.

“Stability” has gotten a bad rap of late. And I would agree that leaning too far in that direction is not helpful.

However, we may have swung the conversation, and our actions, too far in the other direction.

We have a much better chance of being agile, innovative, and flexible if we have a solid platform to work from.


HBR: If You Want Engaged Employees – Offer Them Stability (freemium article) – Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Development specialist. She argues that providing employees with a sense of stability will improve performance and culture.

Human Capital Institute: How Leaders Can Manage Organizational Stability to Inspire Loyalty (article) – This article includes some interesting questions around the ROI for the employee and being clear on whether loyalty is an important value for your company – or not.

Forbes: What It Means to Have a Culture of Stability – A more traditional perspective on “stability” and its benefits and hazards.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

We All Need Leadership Skills

Agility, Holacracy, Digital Transformation, and other trends demand that EVERYONE develops leadership skills.

What does that mean?

Flatter organizations result in more authority being given to those of us in the trenches – by necessity.

An increasing customer focus forces organizations to look to line staff for accurate information about the customer.

A greater emphasis on teams and agility means that decisions need to be made on-the-fly by those team members.

The sum of all of this = we all need “leadership skills.”

What does “leadership skills” mean, exactly?

For many of us, “leadership skills” look like a lengthy laundry list of things we need to be good at to be a “leader.”

I don’t think it needs to be that complicated.

I would argue that we are all leaders, in our own domain.

Our attitude, our actions, and our choices shape our environment.

The question isn’t “Are you a leader?”

The question is “What is the quality of your leadership?”

You can find clues in the quality of your life and your relationships.

Since we are all leaders, it’s important that we develop “leadership skills.”

A good start is this list from the Center for Creative Leadership.

They list the following skills as key to leadership development:

  • Self-awareness – To me, this includes Integrity and Honesty, as well as a healthy measure of Emotional Intelligence. It’s not simply knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Communication – I would emphasize Listening and Asking Questions here, not just the ability to communicate in multiple media in ways others understand.
  • Influence – I would change this to Collaboration. I believe that it is more important to be able to work well with others, including respectful confrontation. I have found, at least for myself, that influence stems from the ability to develop strong relationships.
  • Learning Agility – The ability to focus your learning, to learn quickly and pro-actively, and integrate those lessons is key to succeeding in today’s world. I include focusing your learning because you are always learning something. Each time you talk to someone, or engage in media, or try something, you are learning something. The trick is – focusing your efforts. Learn more consciously.

We are all leaders.

It’s time we work to be great ones.


Top 5 Skills for 2019 (blog post) – This is my argument for key skills we all need to develop and practice this year. To me, these skills go a long way towards developing “leadership skills.” We need to be leaders in our own life.

Deloitte’s 21st Century Leadership Trends (article) – Deloitte’s perspective on the C-suite. They note that there is not just a change in needed competencies, there is also a change in context. It’s becoming progressively clearer that old ways of working, and “leading,” aren’t working.

Deloitte’s Leadership Competency Model (article) – The big consulting firms drive the conversation around leadership. Deloitte has one of the more robust Human Capital consultancies. This article contains their perspective on leadership and the competencies required.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Those Who Wish to See You Fail

There is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails.

Peter Bregman and Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Harvard Business Review

I wish this maxim wasn’t true.

In my experience, it’s often who you least expect.

Something about your project or change effort threatens them.

To your face, they may tell you all of the right things.

How they will support you.

What they will do to help.

The proof is in their actions.

Are they doing what they said they were going to do?

Or are you hearing rumors and back-talk from third parties?

It gets stickier when the saboteur is a key stakeholder.

It’s at this point I start questioning whether I am in the correct environment.

Is there any sort of hook that I can use that will help?

Can I clearly articulate how it will help them in a way they understand?

Do I know what the threats to them (real OR perceived) are?

Can I avoid the stakeholder while the idea is still nascent and fragile?

Are there any other supports in the environment that I can leverage while I create quick wins for this change?

Or is my timing bad? Or am I in the wrong environment?

Do I need to abandon the change or walk away from the environment or get away from that person?

None of this is easy.

Yet, having a key stakeholder play saboteur is one of the biggest risks we have to any project.

What are you going to do to mitigate that risk?

Can you?

Do you have the supports you need to deal with it?

I’ve been reflecting recently on dealing with executive saboteurs.

I’ll admit, I don’t have a great answer.

At a high-enough level and in a conservative-enough organization, the only option is to attempt to find supporters with that person’s ear OR who are high-enough that the saboteur is almost forced to listen.

We have to recognize that there are some people who just won’t listen because we don’t have the right title or we don’t look “right” (sexism, ageism, racism, other-ism all rear their ugly heads here). We are the wrong messenger.

We also have to recognize that there are some people so focused on their own agendas and power issues that no amount of logic, sales skills, or empathy will help.

Prioritization, fundamentally, has to be a team sport.

You can’t just ask a fall-guy to do the dirty work for you.

And you can’t take sole responsibility – especially if you are working at lower-levels in a traditionally hierarchical environment and have been told that you are “empowered” to make decisions with no (or limited) evidence that those decisions will be abided by upper management.

If you are placed in a position of having to say “no” to a high-level executive that won’t take “no” as an answer, make sure you are clear on the impact of saying “yes” and start recruiting allies.

You are going to learn how strong your support structure is very quickly.


Mark Goulson: Talking to Crazy (Amazon Affiliate Link) The best book I can think of for this scenario. That and recruiting help + air cover.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Are Your Leaders Supported?

What does the support system for your organization’s leadership look like?

Who is their “boss?”

  • Activist shareholders who are trying to make their 10x investment and get out in the next year?
  • A University Board of Directors wishing to put their college in US News and World Reports Top College and University rankings? Or just survive?
  • A long-tenured senior executive counting the days to retirement?
  • A new boss who is trying to “make a mark on the organization?”

During my time spent among organizational designers, particularly the Responsive Conference and Conscious Business communities, culture change can only happen with the support of the leadership.

Those who try to change the culture bottom-up will eventually hit a ceiling.

At its worst, traction towards a positive change in culture among the line staff and line manager can be squashed quickly by a senior executive or two if there is no support above and among them – demoralizing the line staff and managers for the long-term and harming future efforts.

Furthermore, if you are ASKING your line staff and line managers to change the culture, you need to make sure you are in a position to provide “air cover.”

All it takes is one senior executive to challenge your line staff and you caving in for that culture change initiative to fall apart. And for those who have been trying to create a positive culture to start heading for the exits.

If you have a change you wish to see in the culture, and you want your line staff and line managers to implement that change, what supports do YOU have when they (and you) are challenged by your peers and above.

  • Do you have a strong mentor and/or coach to lean on?
  • Are you clear on your vision and the advantages to your peers and boss if they support you in this change?
  • Are there other areas of the organization and peers that have already planted the seeds of the change you wish to see?
  • Is it clear that the “powers that be” understand the value of the long-game?

In organizations with strong traditional hierarchies, you can be certain that as you, your employees, and your allies try to create positive culture change – a noisemaker is going to escalate up the chain and work to sabotage your efforts.

In a strong traditional hierarchy, asking your line staff to take bullets without PROVEN support from YOU is asking for failure, and for the disappearance of your line staff.

You need to make sure that you have the support YOU need to support those who are helping you with your culture change effort.


Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism (Article)

HBR: Culture Change that Sticks (Article)

HBR: Changing Corporate Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate (Article)

The King’s Indian: Why Corporate Culture Change Fails, and How to Succeed (Medium Post)

Michelle McQuaid: Can You Create Change From the Bottom-Up? (Blog Post)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Step Before the System

Perks are great, but they are detached from the day-to-day.

Often, perks are a way to “shield” managers and executives from the sticky task of creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable day-to-day environment.

“We have a wellness program, what’s your problem?”

What if you have me on so many disparate projects that I don’t have time for your “wellness” program?

There is a need for a deeper conversation about work, what an organization is and its role in our world, how we decide what activities to pursue, and the relationship between customer, employee, and organization.

We have wellness programs – yet the disengagement, burnout, anxiety, and depression statistics are frightening.

We have wellness programs – yet only 1/5 – 2/5 of employees use them, even with incentives and punishments.

I’m not saying that wellness programs are bad. Not at all.

They are a tool in the toolkit and evidence that the organization is at least thinking about the importance of employee health and its importance in achieving organizational goals.

I am just asking for a deeper conversation.

One where we stop talking about workplace wellness as something separate and apart from the work itself.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in my opinion, an issue of prioritization and trying to do too much at once.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in many people’s opinion (most notably Gallup), an issue of management and leadership (or lack thereof).

The wellness programs are helpful.

But if your employees have no time to use your wellness program resources, or, even if they ARE able to use those resources, they work in an environment that doesn’t reinforce their attempts at self-care, the wellness program becomes a shiny, expensive pink elephant.


Harvard Business Review – What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers (Article). This article got me thinking further about the workplace and why working conditions for knowledge workers seem to be deteriorating even though we have tons of research and writing about employee engagement, employee health, and the importance of both for creativity and innovation.

World Health Organization – Stress at Work (Article). When workplace stress and burnout catches the attention of the World Health Organization, you know it’s bad.

Personal Observations on Burnout (Blog Posts) – As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. We can do better.

2 Models of Community Building

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

Back in 2009, Dr. Tony Karrer predicted that Workplace Learning Professionals would morph into “management consultants”.

At the time, my reaction was “I dunno – that term seems so charged.” 

I think of the overpriced “consultants” that have invaded more than one of my corporate environments because decision-makers won’t listen to people from within the organization. (It means more if they are spending thousands of dollars for the same advice.) 

I think of the management gurus who tell us how to play nice with others, climb the corporate ladder, and win friends and influence people.

Dr. Karrer talked about how the definition of “management” will change.

11 years later, much of what Dr. Karrer wrote about is still true.

We’re still grappling with push vs. pull.

We’re still grappling with the notion that learning is always happening, not just in the classroom.

For those of us with time in the Workplace Learning trenches, our bread-and-butter is making change stick. Or…it should be.

It is NOT the development of courses – classroom, blended, online, or any combination of such.

It’s not even in the implementation ceremonies that mark projects.

11 years later, I find myself as a Change Management consultant.

It doesn’t feel like a very dramatic change – That’s what we (Workplace Learning experts) should have been doing this entire time. Behavior change.

Our jobs are changing and it is becoming progressively clearer that we are becoming “knowledge gardeners” and change managers.

Thinking about the tools I’m building and the programs I’m developing today – 11 years later, this is how my career has evolved.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in all of the places I’ve worked the training department(s) have been in the unusual position of being able to touch and connect across all departments in an organization. As a result, training departments are in a great position to connect people, synthesize disparate processes and share information.

We talk about creating learning environments.

We talk about breaking down organizational barriers.

Maybe that’s where we need to focus our energies. Creating and cultivating learning environments. Not just tools – LMS, tutorials, courseware, etc. The material remains of information. The “activities” of learning.

We also need to help create a cultural environment. All of our materials are (supposedly) built with attitude and behavior shift in mind – why not direct those skills towards broader cultural purposes?

I’m still helping people get the information they need. Encouraging people within any organization or group I work with to talk to each other and share what they know. Facilitating learning when they need and want it (preferably in much smaller chunks than they are getting now). 

Those things have not changed over the years.

Those of us in the trenches of change – the project managers, developers, designers, business analysts, and trainers – need to gain familiarity with all of the tools that will help make change stick, not just the ones specific to our specialties.

We’re being asked to enlarge our toolkits – and determine wise and best use of our tools.

We’re being asked to combine what works across specializations to find what most effectively creates the results we want in the context we are in.

Using whatever our favorite tool is across all problems can only take us so far.

I don’t have any prediction for how my career will change over the next 10 years. I’m somewhat shocked (and partially dismayed) that much of what Dr. Karrer and I wrote 11 years ago has proven to be so evergreen.

What I do know is that today’s environment requires me to learn personal agility, discernment, and vision-setting. I need to learn and practice relationship building and safe space creation.

I need to continue being a catalyst for change.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fast Zebras

Almost 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “Fast Zebras.”

A fast zebra is someone who is singularly focused on achieving performance results, knows how the organization can both hinder and help, and charts their course accordingly. In particular, they are wise about when to use the formal and rational elements of organization (such as hierarchy, processes, and monetary rewards) and when to use the informal and emotional elements (including values, networks, and feelings about the work).

Jon Katzenbach, How “Fast Zebras” Navigate Informal Networks

I’m somewhat surprised that the idea of “fast zebras” didn’t get more traction.

My suspicion is that “Fast Zebras” threaten organizational hierarchies and, ultimately, leave hostile environments.

Environments often have effective antibodies to rogue elements like “Fast Zebras.”

The concept was also marketed towards organizational leaders. In my experience, most “Fast Zebras” can be found lurking within your line staff.

The project managers, organizational trainers, senior engineers, and business analysts who have worked on many projects, have cultivated strong relationships throughout the organization, and know where the bodies are stashed.

People in hierarchical positions of power, particularly in deeply conservative organizations, often need to maintain the hierarchy. Middle and senior managers are often hamstrung by having to “keep appearances” among their peers and seniors. These individuals are quickly reminded about their “place” and attempts to go around the formal hierarchy are ruthlessly punished. The punishment is often covert and long-lasting.

Individual contributors have a great oppotunity.

We are not entirely beholden to the structure.

We are beholden to results and getting the job done.

In many instances, we need to work around the structure to get work done.

As one of my project management colleagues not-so-gently reminded the Mucky Muck as he wrongly chided the line staff about not working across silos, “If I don’t work across silos, I can’t get anything done.”

Every other line staffer in the room nodded in agreement.

One of the engineers chimed in – “Your problem with silos is with the management. We work together all the time. Heck, half the time we don’t even talk to our managers because then we’d have to wait for the silos to work.”

The project manager and engineer are the “Fast Zebras.”

Are you?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

How Our Attention Gets Hijacked

We are easily manipulated into compliance with someone else’s demands.

Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six principles that, when used deftly, can cause an individual to say “yes” to a request:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Think about the number of people taking up residence in your inbox right now. Take out the people you know – co-workers, clients, potential clients, and people contacting you for help. 

If your inbox is anything like mine, what is left is a collection of people who asked for my email in exchange for information – a PDF, or video access, maybe even a book (Reciprocation).

They then use this email to send me more email – sometimes multiple times a day (Consistency).

Occasionally, they will send a testimonial about their work and how awesome they are (Social Proof).

Most of them write in a friendly, conversational tone (Liking).

Many of them will have letters behind their names or may have held important jobs at prestigious organizations.  Barring that, they will share brand-name organizations and important individuals they have worked with (Authority).

These emails contain a call to action that expires at a random time to encourage me … strongly … to ACT NOW!!!! (Scarcity).

This dynamic occurs regularly in daily life.

  • Have you ever performed a favor that you don’t want to do to Reciprocate for something they did for you in the past?
  • Did you ever do a task because the requestor Consistently hounded you about it?
  • Have you ever found yourself chanting at a sporting event, rally, or all-hands meeting (Social Proof)?
  • Have you ever done something for someone simply because they asked, and you like them (Likability)?
  • Do you have a boss that leverages Authority to get you to participate in a project you have no interest in? 
  • Have you ever scrambled to get a report done because a client set a tight deadline (Scarcity), then that same person didn’t even look at your deliverable until 2 weeks later (if at all)?

Cialdini observed that these techniques tend to trigger automatic behavior patterns in people. These patterns, Cialdini noted, “tend to be learned rather than inborn, more flexible than the lock-step patterns of the lower animals, and responsive to a larger number of triggers.”[1]

We have these automatic patterns because we are looking for the shortcut. 

“You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we NEED shortcuts (emphasis his). We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb, to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond without thinking when one or another of these trigger features is present.”[2] 

Robert Cialdini, On Influence

Others who are clear on their intention can leverage this to their own benefit. The amount of information noise we grapple with makes us less likely to have both the desire and the ability to analyze information or requests very carefully.[3] 

Skillful manipulators know that we are working in an environment of information overload, and often help to CREATE that overload. That overload reduces our desire and ability to discern what is important to us and whether what is being asked of us is in our best interest.

The best way to fight back is to define for ourselves our values and vision.

[1] (Influence, Kindle loc 295)

[2] (Influence, Kindle loc 362-368)

[3] (citation: Epley, N. and Gilovich,T, (2006), The anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic: Why adjustments are insufficient, Psychological Science, 17, 311-318; Petty & Wegener, (1999), The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual process theories in social psychology, pp 41-72. New York: Guilford.  As cited in Influence)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What Are You Amplifying?

What are you amplifying?

All that is “wrong” with the world?

All that is “right”?

All that you want?

All that you don’t?

Oneness or separation?

Love or hatred?

Joy or sorrow?

It’s become clear, to me at least, that it’s time to become mindful and careful about what we are amplifying.

We have been seeing it in the conversations around Facebook, “fake news” and “deep fakes.”

We see it in our Amazon experience.

We see it in the ads that are served to us as we surf the Net.

Each time you click something, buy something, watch something, pause on something – you are amplifying.

Artificial intelligence and quantum computing algorithms begin to shape your world based on what you are paying attention to.

Complicating matters, we are hard-wired to focus on the dangerous and negative. Marketers and those who wish to spread their message know this and act accordingly.

We’re easily manipulated, even when we are doing our best to be mindful.

Think about a time that was traumatic and dramatic.

Now try to remember a time where all was well in your world and everything was peaceful.

How quickly did you remember the trauma and the drama?

How hard was it to remember a peaceful time?

Think about the news? How much of it is trauma and drama?

How much of it is positive?

So much is competing for our attention and doing so in ways that are noisy and negative. Our brains like that.

We are going to keep being fed the noisy and negative – because that is what we are amplifying.

What do you want to do to break the cycle? Change what gets amplified?

What we pay attention to is going to shape our world.

What world do you want to live in?


I find that when a topic begins to cross my path repeatedly, it’s time to pay attention. Quantum computing, recently, has been that topic.

What makes Quantum Computing so interesting, and scary, is that it potentially takes information and either amplifies or cancels it. We are seeing this work in current AI algorithms using binary (classical) programming and current technologies.

Introduction to Quantum Computing ( – non-affiliate link, 60 minutes) This is the tutorial that got me thinking about Amplification. Mid-way through, one of the experts mentioned waves, troughs, and how they amplify and cancel each other. She mentioned that this concept is being leveraged in Quantum Computing and AI applications.

The Grand Challenge and Promise of Quantum Computing (GoTo 2019, 45 minutes) A clear explanation of what quantum computing is and potential applications.

Tristan Harris – How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds (Medium article) Tristan Harris was a technology ethicist at Google. He describes the “behind the scenes” of how technologies are being leveraged to take over our attention.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

When to Stay the Course

Some of us abandon ship at the first sign of discomfort.

Others of us plug away well after it becomes obvious that our expected return on investment is not forthcoming.

This is for those of you who tend to jump ship as soon as the going gets hard.

Dreaming about the thing is, frankly, more fun than actually doing the thing.

When you attempt to manifest, there is a good chance that you will encounter dis-illusionment.

That sinking feeling that the thing you are trying to create isn’t quite what you wanted.

The idea that was better in your head than in reality.

This is when it is incredibly important that you are clear on what you are trying to achieve.

Remember: the change journey tests your “Why.”

If Why you are doing something isn’t strong enough – you will jump off the path at the first opportunity.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What is it about this new idea or opportunity that is so attractive?
  • Where, in my current effort, am I uncomfortable?
  • Am I clear on WHY I am doing what I am doing? What am I trying to accomplish?
  • Will this new idea or opportunity get me there? If so, is it an improvement on your current path?
  • Are your expectations of both this experience AND the new experience realistic?

It’s an art deciding whether to pivot or stay the course.

It requires mindfulness and lots of questioning.

It requires clarity on what you are trying to accomplish.

It requires being real about what you expect to experience in the process.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

When to Pivot

The ability to pivot and see opportunity is probably the single greatest skillset an entrepreneur can have.

Mark Sisson, interviewed by Lewis Howes, episode 827

Life provides us opportunities to question what we are doing and why.

The bigger the thing we are trying to accomplish, the more frequent the universal tests.

You often have a sense as to when a pivot is coming.

You are not seeing the results you expect. Or results are taking longer than you planned. Or the environment has changed around you, making what you are doing less valuable or desirable?

You may also see a great opportunity or have a new idea. One that is a heck of a lot more appealing than navigating the change dip.

So when should you pivot?

There’s no one right answer.

A few questions I ask when I am staring at a potential pivot:

  • How close am I to my “out?” Hopefully, you have defined what your “out” is. It could be a financial number. It could be a specific feeling. It could be an experience.
  • What do the trends look like?
    • If the trend is positive, but you have hit your “out” – do you still have runway? Do you need to come up with a way to shrink the scope of work while taking care of the immediate issue?
    • If the trend is negative or flat-lined for the forseeable future, what is keeping you on this path? What have you learned? Beware the “sunk cost fallacy.”
  • If I am faced with a new opportunity, does the new opportunity have the potential to move me towards my goals faster? Goals in this context aren’t just SMART goals, but also experiential. Does this new opportunity potentially move me towards my goals in a way that I will enjoy more than my current path? Your values and long-term vision should serve as guardrails for your decision-making.

Once you decide to pivot, leverage what you have learned.

Think of what a pivot is. It’s not blindly launching your entire person in another direction, fully committing and burning all your bridges. When you pivot in the physical world, you plant one foot in the same spot and use that as the hinge to explore different angles. You’re not leaving your feet. You’re keeping a little in the tank, you’re staying grounded. 

That’s how you should pivot in life. Keep one foot on the ground (where it’s comfortable), using your knowledge and experience as a base, and explore your options. 

– Mark Sisson, Primal Blueprint newsletter, July 29, 2019

If you are reading this, chances are you have a wealth of knowledge and experiences you have developed over the years.

Pivoting isn’t failure.

Pivoting is listening to your environment.

Pivoting is an opportunity to learn.

Pivoting allows you to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, the experience you had, and the experience you desire.

Just pivot mindfully.


Mark’s Daily Apple (Blog Post/Newsletter) – Mark Sisson is known for the Primal Blueprint lifestyle framework. His newsletter this week had a beautiful reflection on pivoting. Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to it – but even if you aren’t interested in nutrition, Mark provides insight into life, athletics, entrepreneurship and, yes, nutrition.

Lewis Howes interview with Mark Sisson (Podcast) – This is the podcast where Mark talks about his perspective on pivoting.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Accepting Positive Feedback

Much of the conversation around feedback centers around negative feedback.

How to receive negative feedback without getting angry or beating yourself up.

How to give negative feedback in ways that don’t trigger the receiver and allows the receiver to make positive change.

However, many of us struggle to receive positive feedback.

Especially those of us who struggle with perfectionism.

Attagirls, thank yous, this-is-greats and other positive affirmations and appreciations fall on deaf ears.

The response starts with “Yeah, but I didn’t…”

Whenever I catch myself saying “Yeah, but I didn’t…” either verbally or in my head, it’s a signal to pay attention. What is truly being reflected back?

Maybe I’m doing better than I thought I was.

Maybe I DON’T need to do or be “more.”

Maybe whatever I put out there doesn’t need to be perfected.

Maybe my standards for myself and my work are unrealistic based on the requirements for the task, the time I have, the resources I have access to, and the energy available.

This is why I “look outside myself” for feedback.

I know that I tend to look at things with grey and foggy glasses – especially when I am under stress.

I know that my perspective, of myself and of my work, is cloudy and inaccurate.

External feedback, especially external positive feedback, is a valuable source of information that we can leverage to gain a more accurate perspective on our environment and our place in it.

And maybe, just maybe, give ourselves permission to be more human.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Leveraging External Feedback

In a recent conversation with a dear friend, I was telling him about a current volunteer effort.

I will be helping my local Toastmasters chapter move from an older curriculum (Legacy) to a new, online-based curriculum (Pathways – the “engine” is Cornerstone OnDemand).

Our chapter has a number of veteran Toastmasters who are working on projects within the older curriculum. Many are suspicious of online learning, some of the subject-matter changes made to the curriculum, and computers in general.

I need to move them over to the online-based curriculum by June 30, 2020.

At the core, this project is a paper-to-computer transition.

My friend’s chuckling response – “Yup, sounds like something you would say ‘yes’ to. Classic Wendy project.”

I couldn’t tell whether his tone was filled with admiration or recognition of my insanity.

I haven’t had to do a paper-to-computer transition in 10 years. This was the bread-and-butter of my early career as I moved recalcitrant doctors over to electronic medical records.

I suspect I won’t need to do another one of these things again.

And, unlike the EHR/EMR experience, there is already a crew of respected veteran Toastmasters in my District who have already moved over to the new curriculum and are informally serving as champions.

Furthermore, I’m at a point in my career where I don’t need to prove myself in this arena. I’ve done this many times before.

The stakes are also lower. I don’t have the usual pressure to inflict this change on others. This entire endeavor is volunteer and I don’t have a “boss.” My fellow Toastmasters will ultimately do what is right for them. If they want my help, great. I’m there for them.

I will also admit, my friend’s admiration of my insanity gave me some pause.

What does his reaction say about me and where I am at internally?

I learn a lot about myself when I reflect on how people interact with me.

  • How is my inner state reflected by their response to my words and actions?
  • How am I responding to others?
  • What is being asked of me? Is it a reflection of what I am bringing to the table?
  • What do I find myself saying “yes” to and why?
  • What are people saying to me and about me? Is it accurate?

It helps that I’ve become more skilled at determining whether someone is accurately reflecting, tippy-toeing around me (information by itself), or being a jerk.

Part of that skill is a result of 10+ years of guided navel-gazing and learning how to evaluate where my head is at before and during conversations with others.

I know that I am much more likely to see someone as being a jerk if I am already going into the engagement angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed.

I also know that I am more likely to take negative feedback (true or not) to heart if I am sad, insecure, or uncertain.

After some reflection, I realized that both my chapter’s request that I take on this project AND my friend’s admiration for my insanity reflect the skills and experiences that I have gained over the years.

My friend is right. This is a “Classic Wendy Project.”

And my goal is to prove my fellow Toastmasters right in selecting me for this task.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perfectionism as Addiction

Perfection develops as an adaptation or a survival strategy for a number of different reasons. The most common one is to compensate for a sense of inadequacy and not being good enough, and over functioning to meet external standards is one way to offset those feelings of inadequacy

Deany Laliotis, LICSW in the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine course Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand: it drives our pursuit of excellence, motivates us towards quality, and provides tangible rewards from the outside world.

On the other hand: it feeds the sense that we will NEVER be enough, triggers shame, tips our life out of balance, and sucks the joy out of creating and out of our real accomplishments.

Complicating matters, we are bombarded with messages that if we just “do more – better” that we will be OK.

Perfectionism provides feelings of control.

If I just do this “more perfectly” – it will all be OK.

Then, the goalposts move.

There is no such thing as “more perfectly.”

The therapists ask “When is the amount of effort you are expending no longer providing return on investment?”

How much is “enough?”

Is that last 5% (when you are already working at 110%) going to really give you 115% of results? Or 100%? Or is it even going to move you backwards?

Will anyone really notice?

Or…will they continue to feed the shame of “not good enough?”

I have found that there is a vicious cycle at work here. One that mirrors addiction.

You do something with high quality in a tight timeline.

Your internal reward is a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and control.

You are externally rewarded – with a demand for higher quality and a tighter timeline.

You feel needed. Confident. Competent.

For awhile, it works.

You feel accomplished. People around you are happy. You are rewarded with more challenging assignments with higher quality demands in a tighter timeline.

Somewhere along the way, things tip.

Now you are chasing the “high” of acceptance and control.

But it takes more and more to get there.

Suddenly, all you are doing is seeking the next “hit.”

But there is no joy.

No joy in the accomplishment and no joy in the process.

Instead of getting the return on investment, you are moving backwards. Relationships deteriorate. Life goes downhill.

The problem comes when people set standards without ever evaluating, “is this standard the least bit reality-based?” And until they evolve a discrimination strategy. So, I don’t have any difficulty with somebody setting high standards that are attainable, achievable. The rub comes when it’s painful, when it’s self-restrictive, is when people set standards for themselves that they can’t possibly live up to, and they have no idea that they’ve set an unrealistic standard for themselves.

Michael Yapko, PhD in Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards

How realistic are your standards?

What are the rewards you are expecting? Is that realistic?

What are the true costs? Are the rewards worth the cost?

Chances are, you will never meet your own standards.

You might not even meet anyone else’s standards.

That’s OK.

Find someone to help you with discernment.

Someone who can show you whether your standards (and the expectation of others) are realistic.

Someone who can show you the true relationship between cost and reward.

The quality of your life depends on it.

Resources: (all links are Amazon Affiliate Links unless otherwise noted)

Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards (non-affiliate): This CE/CPU course provides a therapist’s view of perfectionism and how it goes wildly astray. The online course also provides insight into ways to address raging perfectionism in patients.

Psychology Today: Are You Addicted to Perfection? (blog post): Insight into how shame may tip the scales from the pursuit of excellence into personally destructive perfectionism.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Brene Brown’s 2010 reflection on perfectionism, shame, and the challenge of being human. Many of her examples focus on family and relationships – where much perfectionism and “over-functioning” starts.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

You Will Never Measure Up

You will never meet expectations.

You will never get everything done.

You will not be number one.

Why not?

Because you are now competing with over 7 billion other people.

You are now measured against instantaneous satisfaction.

You are now bombarded with opportunities and things that you MUST do in order to succeed.

You are told you need to have “more” in order to be successful.

Be “more.”

Do “more.”

Dig underneath the shiny life you see on social media.

What is really there?

I see all of this as an invitation.

An invitation to consider what “successful” truly means to ME.

Maybe you can measure up, meet expectations, get everything done, be number one, and still have an Instagram-ready life.

If you can do all of this without burning yourself to a crisp and destroying your relationships with people you love – kudos.

For myself, I find I need to get very clear on what I need to “measure up” to, the expectations I can (and can’t) meet, which activities I pursue, and what “success” means to me.

The best I can do is determine what I am “measuring up” to and keep my expectations for myself and others achievable.

The best I can do is choose the activities that I know I will enjoy, will help me learn something new, and minimize later regret.

The best I can do is to be the “number one” me. I’m not likely to be “number one” at much else. Even if I managed it, I wouldn’t be there long.

And if all of it is not Instagram-ready – so be it.

Resources: (All links are Amazon-affiliate links unless otherwise noted)

Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Eric Barker does a beautiful job writing about the polarities of success, debunking popular and, often, simplistic myths about success, and the societal demands around success. I strongly recommend the audiobook version.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree (the blog) – Much of Barker’s book stemmed from his blog. The blog provides the baseline research and initial analysis for the material in the book.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

What is Your Relationship to Your Environment?

I find that there are 4 dominant approaches:

Appease the Environment – The assumption here is that the environment is hostile and unpredictable. The best way to cope is to appease whatever “God” controls your environment. (ie: your boss and/or other people in a position of power; any higher power – gods, goddesses, spirits, etc)

Control the Environment – Most leadership training is about “controlling your environment.” Evaluating the environment so you can change it – ideally so that it works the way YOU want it to. Process improvement and system thinking approaches tend to fall into this category. The implicit assumption is that your way is the right way.

Become One With the Environment – This approach deals with the tension between what is best for the environment that surrounds you and what is best for you. It helps to know exactly what you are “becoming one with.” Most people who talk about “becoming one” approach it with an idealized vision of what the environment they are working with is (or should be – which starts sneaking into “control.” It’s good to have this idealized vision. It’s also good to be realistic about what you are working with right now. Sometimes, the best option is to go find an environment that best matches you and will help you thrive.

Get Perspective On the Environment – This approach aims to gain perspective, then optimize.

Key questions – What are we trying to accomplish? What does the environment look like right now? Is there enough within that environment where we can accomplish those goals – or do we need to set either preliminary goals OR set entirely new goals? What are the components within that environment that we can optimize so that it works for EVERYONE within that environment and still achieve our goals? What do we need to “weed”?

This approach reminds me of permaculture. Permaculture aims to use the environment you find yourself in and grow plants that will work best in that environment.

Depending upon your goals (such as – “I want a vegetable garden”), you plant seeds.

There are parts of your environment you can’t control – such as the weather.

There are other parts that you can – such as the seeds you plant

Some vegetables will thrive in your environment. For example, I live in Virginia. Lettuce does well here in the spring. If I were in the tropics, lettuce is do-able but more challenging. Lettuce (particularly varieties such as Iceberg) will bolt or rot in the heat and humidity.

What is your default?

Does your default change based on your context?

Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics has shaped my thinking around “fit your solution to the environment you find yourself in” vs. “solve the problem”

Two books provide excellent examples of “fitting your solution to your existing environment”:

  • Memenomics – Said Dawalbani’s analysis of the evolution of economies. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
  • Spiral Dynamics in Action – A series of case studies for applied Spiral Dynamics. The Case Studies focus on national-level solutions, but there is much here that we can pull for smaller-scale efforts.

Links are Amazon affiliate links. I earn a few cents if you purchase through these links. Thank you for supporting my work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We are ALWAYS Learning

The discussion of “Learning Organizations” and their various consultant-defined flavors is starting to get to me.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Each time I talk to a person, I am learning something.

Each time I step into a meeting, I am learning something.

Each time I enter an environment, I am learning something.

But am I learning what you WANT me to learn?

When I talk to you – am I learning that you are a jerk?

When I step into a meeting – am I learning that my ideas aren’t valued because I am not one of the ‘chosen ones?’

When I enter your environment, am I learning that your environment is hostile?

Is this your intent?

If you want people to learn that you are a jerk, that their ideas have no value, and that your environment only works for a select few – great!

Call it “selective,” “exclusive,” or whatever floats your boat. At least be honest and clear about your intent. Be mindful that this is what you WANT people to learn about you and your organization.

The question is not “How do I develop a ‘learning organization.’ “

The question is “What are people currently learning, do I need to change it, and what do I need to do to best support what I want people to learn?”

Please stop treating it as something separate and apart from day-to-day life or as something special.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Are we learning what you want us to learn?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Building a Container

For those of us who find ourselves in “informal” positions of leadership (trainers, project managers, team leads, event organizers, etc) – it’s important to understand that we, too, are responsible for building a supportive container for the teams and people we work with.

I purposefully use the concept of “container” because we are often trying to protect our students or team members from the stresses of the larger organizational environment during the time we have them.

Containers have boundaries.

Containers, when built well, provide the safety and security people need to do the work they need to do.

Since much of my career has been spent inflicting unwanted change on people, I’ve become mindful of the container I have wanted to build.

The build starts with one question:

How do I want individuals to feel when they leave my container?

When I’m training, the answer is “confident.” Confident that they can function once the change hits. Confident that they are capable of learning new things in the future. Confident that they have a path to mastery within the new environment created by the change.

In project teams, the answer is “comfortable.” Comfortable that they have the resources needed to do the work. Comfortable that their work is valued and appreciated. Comfortable with the knowledge that they are being set up to succeed and (when possible) thrive. Comfortable with asking questions and with sharing challenges.

In a recent workshop, that answer was “safe.” Safe to explore potentially sensitive areas of themselves and their world. Safe to share with others. Safe to reach out for help.

Once you determine the desired emotional outcome (the Why), you can then consider how you want to encourage these outcomes (because you can’t control how others feel, you can only create a space where those feelings are more likely).

  • How do you wish to model this outcome?
    • Remember: your students and team members are looking to YOU for what this looks like.
    • It is hard to model when you are a ball of stress. I’m not asking you to pretend you have it all together. We’re human and we live in interesting times. Instead, I want you to make sure that you have your OWN support network as you do this.
  • What are the behavioral norms you need to set?
    • This is the core question behind “Classroom Management.”
    • What behaviors will you encourage?
    • What behaviors will you discourage and how will you address them when they appear?
  • What are the boundaries around that container?
    • Who are your allies outside of that container that can help you hold and maintain that container? Who can help you “run interference” as you and the others within the container do the work?
    • What exceptions will you need to make?
      • There WILL be exceptions. I have found that defining these exceptions up front makes it easier to maintain the boundaries of the container overall.
      • Example exceptions (these are IT examples because that’s where I came from): Power outages, Core application outages, the CIO wants something from the team ASAP.

These containers aren’t built to hold forever. YOU can’t hold the container together forever (unless you are a CEO). The containers I am describing are built to provide a temporary space to get real work done. They are built to provide the safety, security, and confidence that allows learning to happen.


Aaron Dignan’s Organizational Operating System Canvas works at the CEO-level. It’s overkill for the containers we are trying to build, but he provides some interesting questions for us to consider as we build our temporary containers –

Amy Edmonson’s research emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Containers are, fundamentally, all about creating that safety in often hostile environments. – The Fearless Workplace: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. (Amazon affiliate link)

The domain of Classroom Management (even in the K-12 space) contains many techniques I find useful when dealing with teams of professionals. Many K-12 teachers are masters at creating containers within hostile environments and without choosing who goes into the container. Better than Carrots or Sticks (Amazon affiliate link) specifically addresses the K-12 classroom. I would argue that what we observe as kids in school carries over into our adult lives. This book contains ideas that we can transfer into the workplace. Even encouraging people to bring their favorite “security blanket” may not be such a bad thing.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Thinking in Containers

What does it take to create a culture?

What does it mean to design an environment that facilitates culture?

A recent project provided an opportunity to explore these questions.

In this project, I needed to create an environment where a group of relative strangers would feel safe exploring potentially sensitive changes.

Some questions surfaced as I sat with the challenge.

  • What are the demonstrable outcomes I want to achieve?
    • My answer: People feel confident and secure both in the new environment and with each other – no exceptions.
    • I will know this by watching how people interact with each other.
      • Are cliques forming?
      • Is someone being shunned by the group?
      • Is someone isolating? They don’t need to participate all the time (I was trying to make the event introvert-friendly), but it was worth quietly asking if everything is OK if they appeared distressed.
      • How are the conversations? Open or guarded? You can tell a lot by observing body language.
  • What is a “safe” environment? What does “safe” mean?
    • I decided that, in this context, “safe” means that people are unlikely to be hurt physically, mentally, and emotionally by the environment or by other people.
    • Any “risks” (we worked with fire) would be identified and mitigated. Participants were responsible for following safety protocol for the physical risks and taking care of themselves for the mental and emotional risks.
  • What expectations do I need to set? What behaviors do I need to demonstrate?
    • Since I was one of the organizers, I was also one of the de-facto leaders. I knew people would be looking to me for both expectations and modeling.
    • The organizers set the expectation that we would be mindful and protective of each other in this space.
    • A pre-existing rule in our code of conduct for this particular group was “impact is greater than intent.” Emphasizing this rule seemed and being clear on our main environmental principle guided people (and myself) to right behavior.
    • My personal behavioral goal – Be Peaceful. Easier said than done.

Fundamentally, we were trying to create a container where people felt safe exploring what change means to them and how it manifests in their lives.

The feedback we received from attendees was that we were successful.

Now that I have some distance from this project, I have been thinking about what we may have done to create the container we did.

When I think about “containers” in this context, I think in terms of the combination of:

  • The people we attracted to join us in the container
  • The environment within which we placed this container
  • The behavioral norms the group established within the container
  • The behavioral modeling the creators of the container demonstrated

Admittedly, we only had to maintain this container for a few days and we were not trying to do this within a legacy organization or group that had to still keep meeting older obligations such as serving customers and executing projects.

Looking at singular, short-term events, however, can help us see what we are working with and potential tools we can use to build these containers.

Let’s explore this further in the next post.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Myth of “Fearing Change”

I hear so much noise about how “people fear change” and “people don’t want to change.”

I don’t think that’s true.

They just don’t want to be herded through YOUR change.

They don’t want you inflicting your change onto them.

The people you are trying to lead aren’t stupid.

When I hear resistance, I hear variations of the following:

  • I don’t see what’s in this for me OR I see how this will hurt me.
  • You have not provided enough time or support to guide me through this.
  • I don’t feel like I can succeed with the way your change is structured.
  • Your expectations for what this change is going to do for us are unrealistic.
  • Your change is disconnected from the vision/values you claim to espouse.

I’ve witnessed individuals make dramatic changes very successfully.

Pivoting to new careers, building new skills, developing creative solutions, adapting to new environments and requirements.

They do these things often in spite of “leadership” and the systems in which they work.

Workers seem to be more adaptive and optimistic about the future than their leaders recognize. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that workers fear that technology will make their jobs obsolete. But our survey revealed that to be a misconception. A majority of the workers felt that advances such as automation and artificial intelligence would have a positive impact on their future. In fact, they felt that way about two-thirds of the forces. What concerned them most were the forces that might allow other workers—temporary, freelance, outsourced—to take their jobs.

The authors of this Harvard Business Review article found that the lower-income and middle-skilled workers they surveyed had a more nuanced perspective of the forces changing the economy and the workplace, and their role in it, than their managers did.

What the workers are looking for is support and guidance to prepare for future employment. They are looking for environments where they can learn and grow. They understand the necessity of change and of learning.

The workplace offers opportunities to embed learning into the day-to-day.

This can be done through project selection and design, work assignments balancing the skill of the employee and the complexity of the task, incorporating regular performance and learning reflection opportunities at key milestones, and opportunities to discuss organizational strategy and share perspectives.

There’s no big, new systemic change involved here. It’s all things we are already doing (or trying to do). We work on projects. We perform tasks. We have performance reviews (either formally or informally). We discuss strategy and share perspectives (both horizontally and vertically).

The shift is in perspective.

Do you see the people you lead as people or as a “resource” to be “maximized?”

I suspect that if you see people as a “resource” – any talk of “how to make my employees more adaptable” is a waste of time.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

What ‘Decision Criteria’ Looks Like in Action

I’m going to share some of my decision criteria when faced with choices.

Remember the 4 questions from last week:

  • What area of your life are you focusing on right now?
  • What are your goals – long and short-term?
  • Which relationships are important to you?
  • What values do you wish to demonstrate?

Here are my current answers to these questions:

  • What area of your life are you focusing on right now?
    • I am currently focusing on career and my business.
    • If something comes up in regards to my health (mental or physical) or my family, I will change my focus.
  • What are your goals – long and short-term?
    • My short-term goal is to embed with a team. I enjoy working solo, but I learn when I work in a collective. The evaluation process has two questions:
      • Will I enjoy spending time with these people?
      • Do I align with what they are trying to accomplish?
      • What do I think I will learn from this engagement?
    • My long-term goal is to develop expertise in change management – both personal and organizational
      • I have some already from my years as an educator and project manager, but I feel that the paradigm is shifting and some of the old-school theories provide only partial answers
      • I have theories from my time away from the collective and research. It’s time to put the theories into practice.
    • The decision-making process will bias the long-term. I am working to establish a solid foundation for this next phase of my working life.
    • The big vision is to establish something that can follow me anywhere, provide value no matter what my age, health, and energy levels, and is independent of the vicissitudes of the economy and the workplace.
  • Which relationships are important to you?
    • Family and partner first. Who do I want to show up at my funeral and say nice things about me?
    • A big question with each opportunity – How will this help me practice developing positive, healthy relationships? It’s a test in how strong I can make bonds.
    • Another question – What am I attracting? What am I seeing in these people? We spend most of our waking hours in the workplace. Life is too short to spend your days with assholes.
  • What values do you wish to demonstrate?
    • Am I learning something through this engagement? Is it something I actually WANT to learn? (Learning)
    • What work am I supporting? Do I agree with their vision of the future? (Integrity)
    • Can I bring my whole self into this engagement? (Integrity)
    • Am I clear on how this choice will impact my relationship with those who are most important to me? (Family)

There are a few other questions I am also asking as I size up my choices:

  • What is the opportunity cost if I take this opportunity?
    • What gets deprioritized?
    • What will I NOT be able to say “Yes” to?
  • What are the “success criteria” for this opportunity?
    • What do I want to get out of this experience?
    • What are their expectations of me? Are they realistic?
      • I am retiring from playing the “rescuer.” This goes for both individuals and organizations.
  • Am I clear on “scope of work?” Is this something that plays to my strengths?
    • I’m a researcher and educator at heart. Seeing what is lying around and using that to prototype solutions to a problem is my happy place.
    • Clients inform me I am great at seeing patterns and identifying actionable steps.
    • I need help with sales, marketing, and extrovert skills and I am best when surrounded by people with these talents.
  • Am I clear on my “outs?”
    • I’m nearing 50. Life is too short to continually bang my head against the wall.
    • There are environments where it’s not worth wasting my (or their) time in trying to engage. I’m (slowly) learning how to identify these environments early – ideally before I say “yes.” It’s a work-in-progress.

These questions sound very career-driven and group-focused, but they also apply to other areas.

I’ve used variations on these questions for workout programs, nutrition initiatives, hobbies, and other personal endeavors.

  • Do I like the environment I am in as I engage in this activity?
  • Do I like the people in this culture and the guidance I am receiving?
  • Am I getting the results I am expecting from this experience? Both short and long-term?
  • Is the time I am spending on this activity enjoyable?
  • Am I clear on when I should stop because it isn’t working for me?

Your questions, values, period-of-life, and circumstances are likely different.

It may be worthwhile to sit down and determine what are the important questions you have to ask yourself when you make a decision.