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?

Figuring It Out

copyright 2012 Michael SchubertWith President Obama’s recent push for accelerated investment in brain research, we can expect the coming years to deliver a steady flow of discoveries about how we process information. This is welcome news for me, because I’m always up for a good story about mirror neurons or brain plasticity.

You can’t imagine how delighted I was when Daniel Pink published A Whole New Mind a few years back and proclaimed that “right-brainers would rule the future.” But I’m afraid the revolution may be slow in coming. The more we learn about our brain’s astonishing range and capacity, the more I am struck by our tenacious allegiance to “reason” and “logic” as the go-to tools for workplace problem solving. Regardless of the nature of the problem, we seem to think we can think our way out of it.

My heart goes out to the leader or change agent who, when confronted with a relationship challenge, or when puzzling over a question of vision or values, frowns and confesses, “I can’t figure it out.” Could it be—I might gently suggest—that not every problem lends itself to quantitative analysis? Rather than figure it out, could you…

  • Draw it out?
  • Dream it out?
  • Dance it out?
  • Sing it out?
  • Swim it out?
  • Bake it out?
  • Breathe it out?

Next time you’re struggling to make sense of something…what would happen if you turned to some of your other senses for insight? Maybe that’s what they’re there for?

Makers: Choosing to Change the Story

February 27, 2013 4 comments

Miriam Hawley, Co-Founder, Boston Women's Health Collective, featured in the Makers project from AOL and PBSI have no choice.”

We all have experienced a time when that sentence felt immutably true. Most of us have said it out loud more than once. But, the longer I think about it, the more I come to see that we almost always have a choice. It’s just that some choices are tougher than others because they seem to conflict with the story we believe we’re living.

As I watched Makers on PBS, an assertively present-tense celebration of trailblazing American women, it occurred to me that the phrase “pro-choice” can be seen as much more than a label describing someone’s position on reproductive rights. For the women featured in this film, pro-choice is a way of being; a way of saying, “We are willing to take bold action, even when it’s uncomfortable or scary, to challenge the prevailing norms in this story we’re living together.”

And the word “we” is important there.

In Sheena Iyengar’s brilliant research on how our feelings about choice are shaped by culture, she examines how Americans’ insistence on the primacy of individual choice is not always as liberating or effective as we might think. She suggests we might benefit by borrowing a little perspective from cultures in which it’s understood that, “when two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify each other’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.”

Therein lies the power of the women’s movement in America. Paradoxically, the individual choices that these (sometimes accidental) activists make are rooted in a fundamental value of interdependency. Rather than settle for constraints on individual choice imposed by hierarchical power structures that diminish us, they choose to change the story to one of greater equilibrium.

As Gloria Steinem observed in an interview on the PBS NewsHour, “This is transformation we’re talking about; to get to societies in which, as we once were, we are linked, not ranked; in which the paradigm of culture is the circle, not the pyramid.”

Is there an “I have no choice” experience in your life that you can courageously transform into a “we have a choice” moment?

Beeline or Meander

January 25, 2013 2 comments

tree rings

During yesterday’s confirmation hearing to consider whether John Kerry should be the next US Secretary of State, Senator Bob Corker commented to the nominee, “I think you have led a life that has brought you to this moment.”

Well, of course he has. Haven’t we each led a life that has brought us to this moment? No doubt, Corker’s observation was intended to highlight the internal logic of Kerry’s journey. As the son of a diplomat, a war hero and protester, a senator with long service on the foreign relations committee, Kerry’s life, in hindsight, seems to point specifically to this position.

But it probably didn’t always seem that way to him. In the bitterness of a lost presidential bid, for example, don’t you think he might have had moments when he bemoaned his life’s failure to add up? For most of us, life is more of a meander than a beeline. But with and without our help, our experience continues to accrue, endlessly shaping us and the moment we are in.

Even when the logic of our life’s trajectory isn’t so apparent, you can be sure it’s there. It is energizing and clarifying to make a conscious effort to discern that unbroken thread of purpose.

When you look back on the life you have led that has brought you to this moment, what would you say it’s pointing you to?

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.

Go First

October 9, 2012 3 comments

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.   — Lao Tzu

First Turning LeavesThis inspiring thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted, and I think, is often true. A leader succeeds best when her followers have adopted her vision as their own; embracing it so fully they don’t even recognize that it came from outside them.

It’s also true, though, that sometimes a leader has to be visible in her willingness to go first, literally to lead—and I am not only referring to “hero leaders” in positions of formal authority. Each of us, from time to time, has the option to go first from the middle of the pack. When all the other leaves are green, one leaf has to say, “Well, it’s time to turn orange now.”

“But,” you may object, “I don’t want to be the first leaf to turn. That leaf is dying!” Yes, it’s dying, and leadership often involves a kind of dying. We have to acknowledge the death of the system or the process or the product or the relationship that until now was the way we knew. We have to trust in the rightness of what’s next. (I’m aware, by the way, that leaves don’t actually have a choice in the matter…but you get my point.)

We go first when we become aware of something that the others aren’t aware of yet, when we get unhooked from something that is still getting in the others’ way, when we love the others enough to take the risk.

Where is your opportunity to go first right now?

Bring Your A Game

October 1, 2012 1 comment

The final rounds of last month’s US Open tennis tournament were beset with some of the windiest conditions in the history of the event. From the commentators’ booth, John McEnroe observed, “Every player’s worst nightmare is to play in wind like this. It’s basically impossible to play your ‘A’ game.”

A PlusHow do you get up for those moments when you need to bring your ‘A’ game, but conditions (external or internal) are working against you? The wind is howling, your energy is flat, or your fear of failure is creating static that interferes with your performance? Without your ‘A’ game, you can wake up all of a sudden in the car on the way home and the opportunity has passed you by. You might experience this as an indictment of your whole self-worth: I AM SUCH A LOSER! No, let’s not go that far…but it’s true that somehow, in this particular moment, you weren’t able to be who you wanted to be when the stakes were high. You know you can do better.

To improve your chances of rising to the occasion with confidence and clarity when the stakes seem high, start by writing a big ‘A’ on a small piece of paper and keep it in your pocket or your purse in the days leading up to your big event. Use the following questions to bring a clear vision of success into sharp focus so that by the time your event arrives you’re not inventing your success in the moment, but simply following through on the ‘A’ game scenario that you have played out in your mind.

A is for Aspiration: How does this event relate to your biggest vision for success in your life? What do you want to take away from the experience? Reminding yourself why this opportunity means so much to you can energize you by connecting you to a sense of purpose. When you know what you want to get out of it, you can appropriately scale and shape the positive energy you want to put into it.

A is for Awareness: Big moments can expand in our awareness until they engulf us, making us feel small by comparison. One way to respond to this is to move your awareness outside yourself and take in the bigger picture. What’s at stake for the other people in the moment? Is it a big moment for them? How do you want to invite them to participate? What are you co-creating energetically together? What happens to your energy when you see this as a collective experience instead of one that depends entirely upon you?

A is for Attitude: There’s a reason why this feels so big. You can think about it as the degree of difficulty. When a diver walks up to the end of the diving board and executes a simple swan dive, there probably isn’t a lot of challenge attached to it. But try doing a pike with 2.5 somersaults and 2.5 twists from a 10 meter platform, and you’re due to earn some serious points if you nail it. So, first of all, give yourself a preliminary pat on the back for even trying something this big. Go you! And second, recognize how much impact your attitude has on your results. What does it feel like to dread this event? What does it feel like to anticipate it with eagerness and curiosity? What attitude will serve you best in bringing and executing on your ‘A’ game? That’s the one. Be that.