Posts Tagged ‘change’

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?

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?

Score and Performance

August 22, 2012 4 comments

The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams.I had the good fortune recently to visit the Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. In addition to being moved by the majesty and poignancy of the images presented, I enjoyed learning more about this pioneering artist’s approach to his medium. The wall text for the exhibit, coordinated by the museum’s curator of photography, Phillip Prodger, provides lots of meaningful context.

One particularly interesting note accompanied the large print of The Tetons and the Snake River from 1942:

“Adams famously likened negative and print to the score and performance in music. Because the negative contains all the information necessary to make a picture, he considered that the “score” of a photograph. And because printing in the darkroom requires interpretation that can vary according to the attitude of the printer, he considered that the “performance.” According to this idea, Adams changed the way he printed many of his negatives over time.”

Now, unless you’re a Photoshop user, you might not do much interpreting of your pictures these days; it’s so convenient to set your digital camera to automatic and let it do its thing. But this idea of score and performance struck me as relevant to something bigger than photography. I think it’s a nice way to think about the human capacity for change.

We all have the “negatives” we’re printed from: The inherited traits encoded into our DNA, the family systems we grew up in, our MBTI profiles and zodiac signs. But isn’t there an equal measure of “performance” that accounts for who we are? It seems to me that our ability to vary our interpretation of the encoded Self over time is what aspiration and choice are all about.

What attitude are you bringing to the darkroom lately?

New Leaves, Same Roots

Core Values Venn DiagramWhat do you promise not to change this year?

No, I’m not trying to talk you out of your courageous commitment to new behaviors. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to help you. I want to see you eat better, exercise more, improve your listening skills, find time for reflection, stop driving like you’re the only important person on the road, etc. I totally support your intention to change!

And that’s why I’m asking you what you want to conserve.

Behavioral change can only stick if it’s intrinsically motivated—when we say, “I want to,” or “this matters to me,” rather than, “I should.”

Naming what matters to you will help you illuminate what you want to conserve—those core values that sustain your resolve to change. My intention to savor my food honors my values of gratitude and beauty. My determination to read more and watch less TV is grounded in values of language and intimacy.

When I work with clients to clarify their core values, we uncover gold mines of intrinsic motivators. Not all values inventories are as visually delightful as the one you see here, which so cheerfully embodies the client’s values of creativity and design (he told me I could share it with you). But however you format it, this is the kind of list that provides a solid foundation for choosing the life you want.

Victor Hugo advised: “Change your leaves, keep intact your roots.” What would happen if you started your year with a galvanizing look at your values? Please get in touch if you want some help with that.

Happy New Year!


Mid-Life Crocus

March 25, 2011 3 comments

CrocusesIs there any vision more hopeful than a crocus triumphantly pushing forth from the icy soil of a New England garden in March?

This year, as I witness the magic of new life advancing out of the retreat of winter, I am thinking of the many people in my life who are surprising themselves with their capacity for fresh starts and new learning—regardless of how many birthdays they’ve clocked.

In her book The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot shares the uplifting stories of forty men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 who, far from regarding this phase of their lives as a time of deceleration, have discovered new channels for learning and growth (see her talking about it with Bill Moyers).

Noting the hushed and “confessional tone” that her interviewees often adopt when talking about their blossoming passions, Lawrence-Lightfoot wonders whether “somehow, we feel that people our age should be consolidating our experiences, integrating all that we’ve learned and accomplished, and resting on our laurels—not engaging in risk-taking projects, embarking on unmapped adventures, and enduring the awkwardness and vulnerabilities of new mastery. Maybe we even feel it is somehow undignified to be so childish in our enthusiasms and eagerness to explore new domains of knowledge, recover ancient passions, and try on new roles and costumes.”

There is something of the crocus in these Third Chapter adventurers as they start new careers, adopt new personal development processes and uncover the writer or potter or chef or storyteller that has lain dormant within them all this time.

With delicate yet assertive gestures, they are finding ways to give expression to the surging life force still constantly renewing itself in their hearts.

What’s blooming in you?

Shape Change

March 8, 2011 1 comment

ReactiveIn working on various writing and editing assignments over the years, I’ve made extensive use of the “Track Changes” feature in Microsoft Word. And I occasionally find myself smiling with amusement when selecting the menu option “Accept Change.” If only it were that easy!

From big changes, like sending a child off to college, to little ones, like adapting to a new mobile phone, all of us experience resistance to change at one point or another. Most challenging are the changes that we perceive as coming from outside ourselves—changes done to us, rather than initiated by us.

At work and in our personal lives it’s so easy to surrender to the idea that we don’t have a choice in change. But, I tend to agree with Maya Angelou, who suggests that we always have the power to choose something when she says, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

In a recent conversation, a client and I made an entertaining discovery about the word “reactive” that inspired me to develop this little animation about my orientation to change. It’s less than a minute long. I hope it gives you a smile.

Goodbye, Old House

February 21, 2011 2 comments

Moving onThank you for sheltering us from snow and rain and wind for almost 50 years.

How many times did we find retreat and sanctuary in your embrace?

You stood silently behind us in countless photos; a member of the family. You knew our routines and bent yourself to our needs.

Within your sturdy walls we expanded and contracted, celebrated and grieved, whistled, worked, and prayed.

Now it’s time to go. We have outgrown you, in a way. Our new house is ready. And you have a new family to learn.


What is it time for you to say goodbye to, with gratitude and clarity?

Categories: Yes/No Tags: , ,

The View from Here

January 29, 2011 3 comments

Fog risingWhen you go around with eerie music and spooky sound effects in your head, everything you see looks like a horror flick.

Remember the classic recut trailers that turned Mary Poppins into a predator and The Shining into a lighthearted family film?

Beyond spotlighting the editing skills of their creators, these little pieces beautifully illuminate the power of perspective. Filmmakers are always making choices designed to shift our perspective. They take us to a viewpoint. And it’s our viewpoint that determines what we actually see.

So, as the director of your own life story, you have some choices to make. Are you starring in a thriller? A romantic comedy? An action adventure? What soundtrack have you chosen? What happens when you change the audio?

Growth Spurts

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

flowers growing among the ruinsStand back. I’ve got a theory. I won’t be quoting any esteemed researchers on this one; it’s just a blurt from observation.

Over the past few months I’ve met up with or spoken to several women with whom I had been good friends in high school and college, but hadn’t spoken to with any depth for close to twenty years. (Yes, thank you, Facebook.)

We all remarked on how we were able to pick up right where we left off; how hearing each others’ voices and seeing each others’ faces immediately transported us back into the comfort of close relationship. It occurred to me that one reason those bonds are so supple is because they were forged while we were each in the midst of a dramatic growth spurt, a time when we were transitioning, when we were wondering more than knowing: What career should I pursue? What’s it like to be independent of my parents? What is sex all about?

Similarly, going farther back, our childhood relationships with parents and siblings owe some of their intensity to the explicit state of becoming we were in while they formed. Actively engaged in learning and change every day, as children we’re particularly receptive to the feedback we get from others about what’s good about us and what’s bad about us. We’re paying close attention to this incoming data because our success and safety depends upon it, and as a result, the love—and resentments—we share with those individuals throughout our lives are rooted in the very soil of our hearts.

My theory is simply that the sponge-like quality we take on during growth spurts can lead to deeper relationship with other human beings. I’ve also experienced it as a young parent growing alongside other young parents and as a member of a project team growing with my colleagues at work.

So, if you’re feeling a gap in the area of meaningful relationships in your life, you can help test this theory. Choose to be in growth spurt mode! Is that even possible?

I think the answer is yes. It starts with a courageous question: Am I a work in progress, or a done deal? If you’re a work in progress (Hint: If you’re alive, you are) get curious and then intentional about who you want to be. Make time for reflection. Notice what you’re paying attention to and ask yourself whether it’s drawing you forward or holding you back. And most importantly, choose to be with other people who see themselves as works in progress.

I can almost guarantee that you will grow together.