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Learning to Innovate

April 21, 2015 1 comment

dancing trees nycTony Wagner is a compelling champion for change. In his books and TED talks, the former teacher and “Expert in Residence” at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab makes the case that “reform” doesn’t sufficiently capture what it will take to align our education system with the emerging economy. Wagner says that what’s needed now is nothing short of system reinvention; that we’re overdue for shifting the metric for success from what students know to what students can do with what they know.

He has identified seven skills that we must foster in students who will be equipped to thrive in a world where innovation is king and knowledge has become a commodity:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Further, Wagner has observed that student success is most likely when this adaptive, collaborative skillset is complemented by a strong sense of intrinsic motivation. In a series of interviews he conducted, outstanding young innovators consistently expressed the value of giving back and making a difference—a value that had been nurtured by parents and teachers who allowed them to discover their passion and purpose through play.

Now, I know there are thousands of teachers and administrators who share Wagner’s perspective and are working to reinvent our education system from the inside out (see for example, Educators 4 Excellence). I also know that these innovation-friendly skills and values are already firmly established in the recruiting and people-development playbooks of entrepreneurial leaders and start-up talent managers.

But I think Wagner’s message has relevance for leaders in every sector of the economy—maybe especially those currently being subjected to disruptive innovation. Innovation, after all, is learning. Regardless of the nature of your work, the extent to which learning is integrated into your culture directly impacts your ability to achieve and sustain the results you want.

What ideas can you borrow from a conversation about reinventing education to awaken the playful, adaptive, purpose-driven learning capacity of your own organization?

Creating Systems of Wellbeing

October 26, 2014 2 comments

One burnt out candleIt’s not surprising how many of us consider “problem solving” to be one of our strengths. Simple human nature probably explains why our attention is consistently drawn to what’s not working, what’s broken or missing, what’s causing us inconvenience or pain.

And that’s not a bad thing. Because there are plenty of things that are broken right now.  From the classroom to the congress to the climate, there is no shortage of critical problems to be solved.

But what if our relentless focus on Fixing is undermining our best intentions? As we consume an endless litany of examples of human suffering, wrongdoing, short-sightedness, and imperfection do we lose track of what IS working and diminish the spiritedness we need to envision and create our best future?

One of the exercises my partners and I feature in our Coaching from a Systems Perspective course is called the Engine for Success. In it, participants identify those mutually reinforcing variables that are feeding their success as coaches and leaders. For example, curiosity feeds learning, which in turn feeds curiosity.

From November 6 through 8, we’ll be in DC facilitating conversations that similarly accentuate the positive at the 2014 Systems Thinking in Action Conference—a gathering of change leaders devoted to creating systems of wellbeing in our organizations and in the world.

I hope you can join us in spirit. Or even better, join us in person!

The Power of a Systems Perspective

Graphic facilitation by Elise Crespin In Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, he recalls an anecdote from education pioneer Deborah Meier that stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

“We had one of those world maps with the U.S. right in the middle—remember those? And one of the students looked at it and said, ‘How come the East Indies are in the west?’ And that question got me thinking about the impact of what you put in the center and what it does to everything else.”

I love this story because it so nicely illustrates the value of what my partners and I call “coaching from a systems perspective.” Like a good coach with a provocative question, this little girl created an opening for Meier to talk with her students about their place in a larger system and the perspective they were holding about that. Meier changed the curriculum as a result of this inquiry because “it had so many implications for how you see yourself.”

This is exactly the kind of opening we try to create with leaders who are grappling with the challenges of effecting sustainable change for themselves and their organizations. We find that it is often new insight about the vantage point from which they’re viewing a complex systems environment—and their ability to try on other vantage points—that allows them to break through to new ways of thinking and acting.

One tool we use to get a fix on what our coaching client has put in the center of her awareness, and what that “does to everything else,” is the Butterfly Framework of Complex Human Systems.  Like Meier’s world map, this framework allows us to step back and ask, “Where in this landscape of internal and external systemic forces is our client’s awareness focused? What would be possible if she shifted her awareness to another part of the system?”

Having just returned from the SoL Global Forum in Paris, where I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop on the Butterfly Framework, I can report that there is a vibrant international community of coaches and consultants who understand the evolutionary importance of greater systems awareness. Colleagues from no fewer than fifteen countries shared stories with me about how they are catalyzing transformation by helping their clients ask more beautiful questions and better see the systems they are and the systems they’re in.

What question, if you asked it right now, would move you to a new perspective?

Edith Wharton’s Round Table

Edith Wharton's TableAs the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith Wharton is best remembered for masterful stories and novels that consciously exposed the turn-of-the-century world of wealth and privilege she inhabited. Less well known is the fact that Wharton was an innovative designer whose first published book was The Decoration of Houses, a guide in which she and her co-author, architect Ogden Codman, Jr., pioneered an aesthetic of clean lines and graceful spaces that rejected society’s prevailing preference for ostentation.

When you visit The Mount, the country estate she built in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1902, you see many design choices that reflect Wharton’s simpler, classical sensibilities. In one important instance, you also see how she used design both to tweak the social conventions of her era and to stimulate her inner storyteller.

Other estates being built at this time featured large dining rooms in which massive rectangular tables were intended to impress. In his place at the head of the table, the host’s status would be perfectly clear. By contrast, for the dining room at The Mount, Wharton created a smaller, intimate space, opening onto the garden and full of light. At its center she placed a small, round table, just big enough to accommodate eight people. And at this round table, where corners couldn’t “cut off conversation,” she and her guests (often including her dear friend Henry James) engaged as equals in lively literary dialogue.

Wharton was no feminist. Politically conservative, she moved to France after her marriage ended and stayed there until she died, avoiding the awkwardness of divorced life in American high society. Nevertheless, in her round table, I see a tiny contribution to the dramatic social changes that were afoot. As any experienced facilitator can tell you, when you change the space, you change the conversation—and there is nothing like a circle to get people talking and telling stories.

How do you create spaces where conversation and change can happen?

Endings are Beginnings

September 11, 2013 Leave a comment

 “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
—Lao Tzu

fallen tree

I, like many in the systems thinking community, was saddened to see the demise this past spring of Pegasus Communications. For over twenty years, this lively little company had created and distributed user-friendly resources that enabled managers, teachers, and change agents of all stripes to act with greater understanding of the dynamic interdependencies in their operating environments. The Pegasus annual conference was like a family reunion to a community of people who see systems literacy as essential to our survival as a species.

At the same time, being systems thinkers, members of this community are not inclined to dwell too long in a state of sadness and loss. Instead, they are quick to recognize that, as in any living system where death gives rise to new life, the abandonment of old forms is a necessary component of learning and growth.

Just as the fallen trees I saw while hiking in Pennsylvania last month provide fertile ground for the emergence of new organisms—and the renewal of the forest—so the passing of Pegasus creates a space ripe with possibilities for innovation.

It is into this space that Siraj Sirajuddin of Temenos has entered, with great spirit and optimism, to host the 23rd Annual Systems Thinking in Action Conference, November 14–16, 2013 in the Washington, DC area (in beautiful Leesburg, VA). I am sure that the inextinguishable curiosity, creativity, and energy of the systems thinking community will make this a stimulating and memorable new beginning.

Seek Alternate Route

road work signSummer is the time for road work in New England. As the weather warms and schedules ease a bit, public work crews seize their short window of opportunity to repair the cracks and potholes wrought by winter. “Seek Alternate Route” signs are everywhere.

Groan. My first reaction to that message is aggravation. What an inconvenience! But, wait a minute—wasn’t I just complaining about the potholes, too?

One of the watchwords familiar to systems thinkers is worse before better. It’s a handy phrase for reminding the impatient and impetuous among us to keep the longer view in mind. By thinking long-term, we can better anticipate the unintended consequences of that seemingly simple quick fix. We can more readily accept the temporary discomfort of significant course correction by focusing on the improvement it will bring.

The pain of rehab after hip surgery may lead to pain-free walks on the beach. Sales numbers that sag during a major process redesign may soar when the new processes are up and running. The deceleration and detours that accompany road reconstruction give way to a delightfully smooth driving experience.

Tuning in to longer feedback loops can reduce your agitation level. And besides, who knows what you’ll discover along that alternate route?

2012 Gift Book Pick: The Elephant in the Room

December 4, 2012 3 comments

Elephant in the Room book coverAt first glance, I wondered why Diana McLain Smith called her latest book about relationships The Elephant in the Room. Surely, interpersonal relationships are now understood to be an essential part of organizational life; every leadership competency model includes relational skills and every workplace development office offers classes on conflict resolution.

But as I delved into this highly readable, story-rich book, I increasingly appreciated Smith’s insight into two important ways that relationships at work are like that proverbial elephant—seen but undiscussed; or at least under-discussed and misunderstood.  By providing a practical roadmap and tools for identifying, understanding, and strengthening key relationships, Smith has created an excellent resource for leaders and coaches poised to push past their limitations in this domain.

The first way that we typically under-discuss relationships at work is by relegating them to the “soft skills” territory, making them a quality of life concern rather than a life or death concern. Smith moves relationships into the “hard” category, not just in the sense that they can be difficult (we all know they can be!), but in the sense that relationships are critical business assets. The behind-the-headlines stories she shares amply illustrate the significant bottom-line consequences of relationship issues left unaddressed. For leaders reluctant to venture into relationship matters too deeply, an amplified awareness of what’s at stake may help them embrace the work as a strategic investment.

The second way we tend to under-discuss relationships at work is to regard them at arm’s length, as structures outside ourselves that we can learn to “build” and “manage.” But with her finely-honed systems instincts, Smith exposes the inadequacy of this framing and guides us to see relationships as dynamic human systems that we inhabit and continuously co-create with each other. She provides tools that empower us to see how we contribute to the very patterns we feel trapped by and how, together, we can interrupt and disarm those patterns in the interest of forward progress. By inviting us to engage with relationships as a matter of perspective rather than of skill, Smith has elevated the conversation and made it easier (though still not easy) to talk about them productively.

If there is a leader or a coach on your holiday gift list, I think they’ll welcome The Elephant in the Room as a source of new insights and action in the coming year.

Dialogue and Deliberation Resource Center

NCDD networking cardsAs a proponent of systems thinking, I’m often reminded of the gulf that exists between our ability to recognize big, hairy, systemic problems and our capacity to solve such problems together. It’s sometimes tempting to throw up our hands in disgust at the persistent divisions that impede constructive conversation and action on big system challenges. But one organization that never wavers in its resolve and has established itself as a force for progress in this realm is the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD).

NCDD has been cataloging resources about and for dialogue and deliberation since 2002.  Their extraordinary resource center gives you access to more than 2,600 discussion guides, assessment tools, case studies, public engagement programs and organizations, articles, books, videos, and more.

Dialogue and deliberation are innovative processes that bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and collaborate on today’s toughest issues.  NCDD’s Resource Center was designed to connect you with the information, guidance, theory, and examples you need to engage people effectively.

You can use the search field, categories and tags, or additional sidebar navigation options to hone in. Especially recommended is the “I’m Looking For…” sidebar box that lets you cross-search categories and tags. Use the site map contents to see a full list of all the categories and tags, or just look over the most recently added resources.  Know of a great resource on dialogue, deliberation, or public engagement that should be added to NCDD’s Resource Center?  A form is provided so you can submit your favorites!

A big thank you to NCDD co-founders Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke for their commitment to this important work.

Art Changes Everything

February 14, 2012 4 comments

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” — Donella Meadows

Last week, at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Statewide Assembly, my fellow members of the Reading Cultural Council and I were tickled to be recognized for our advocacy “on behalf of arts and culture across the Commonwealth.” We received the honor for making this brief video to highlight the community impact of projects we had funded.

The event had me thinking about “support for the arts” as a leverage point for change. When I consider where Donella Meadows might have ranked it in her famous list of twelve progressively effective Places to Intervene in a System, my guess is…she’d have put it right at the top.

Why? Because art and culture allow us to continually reexamine the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions…or deepest set of beliefs” that constitute what Meadows called our society’s paradigm. The arts help us stand outside that paradigm from time to time and see it for what it is—temporary, relational, evolving. That’s a powerful leverage point!

But the most powerful leverage points share an interesting characteristic: They are often counterintuitive and therefore, easy to dismiss or overlook. Support for the arts is no exception. How might we convince public policy makers that by increasing our investment in humble community arts projects we are catalyzing big changes in everything?

At the Assembly, we sat with hundreds of other local arts advocates in the Great Hall of the State House listening as a panel of community leaders discussed the current state of the creative economy. While enthusiasm was high (and we are lucky to live in a State that has just completed multi-million dollar additions to two of its flagship arts institutions) the subtext of the conversation was clear: Promoting public policy that recognizes the aggregate impact of community arts requires constant vigilance.

Despite data showing strong returns on investment for every public dollar expended on arts and culture, most legislators are content to let arts-related spending languish at bare minimum levels. Except among the most dedicated artists and art lovers, support for the arts is deemed a luxury, not a priority.

You’ll have an easier time finding a policy maker eager to invest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the vaunted antidote to America’s declining stature as the world’s economic and innovation leader. But as WGBH president Jonathan Abbott noted during the panel discussion, to leave the arts out of that picture is folly. He endorsed the idea that STEM education be expanded to STEAM, to include the Arts, so vital to stimulating the imagination that leads to scientific breakthrough.

Largely obscured in this discussion is a more fundamental and potent leverage point: The power of the arts to engender solutions to expensive and disabling social woes. Yes, the arts generate exponential economic activity. Yes, the arts stimulate scientific breakthrough. But most important, with projects like the MCC’s 2012 Gold Star winners, the arts help us shed our prejudices, connect across cultural barriers, turn toward aspiration and away from fear. Live together. Grow together. Create together. Come to understand ourselves.

I’ll invest in that. How about you?

Self-Absorbed or Self-Aware?

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

distorted reflectionWhat label would you use to describe your most common stance toward “self?”

Self-conscious? (cringe)  Self-absorbed? (preen)  Self-preserving?  (shields engaged!)

How often is your self-regard constructed from distorted assumptions about how others perceive you? We all do it. Not being privy to the thoughts of others, we make assumptions about what they must be thinking based on our own deepest fears. They are judging us. They are competing with us. They are out to get us in one way or another.

Here’s a radical trick to help you reduce the distortion in your self-awareness. Instead of making everyone else a judge, or a competitor, or a predator, imagine that we are your children. How are you taking care of us?

Daniel Goleman wrote, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action.”

To be self-aware is to humbly and joyfully accept our gifts and imperfections as the instruments we’ve been given with which to serve others. In self-awareness lies clarity about capacity and purpose.

The amusing paradox in your journey toward self-awareness is that it’s not about you. It’s about us.