05 December 2011

"Personal Value Proposition?" Not so fast

The HBR Blog has a post that suggests,
"Executives set value propositions for their products — the target market segments, the benefits they provide, and their prices. It's why a target customer should buy the product.But value propositions go beyond just products. Your personal value proposition (PVP) is at the heart of your career strategy. It's the foundation for everything in a job search and career progression — targeting potential employers, attracting the help of others, and explaining why you're the one to pick. It's why to hire you, not someone else.
On the surface, it seems to make good sense. After all, knowing the unique value one can provide to a potential employer or organization that may wish to engage her/him is an important aspect of both understanding oneself and getting hired.


As I describe in my popular keynote, "Take me to Your Leaders: Collaborative leadership and trust," the models we create and the language we use are not only descriptive, they are generative. In other words, they generate the institutions that in turn generate our society and the world in which we live.

With articles like this one posted on the HBR blog, I have to step back and question whether the use of corporate/business vocabulary, metaphors, and clichés like "personal value proposition" are appropriate for human connections and interactions in our contemporary context. When we adopt this sort of framing, we contribute to the subtle but systemic dehumanizing effects that characterize corporate colonizing of the life-world. It's not surprising that a corporatist/managerialist institution like HBR would promote business language in the context of personal development and realizing what one can provide that is of value.

Nonetheless, I think it is incumbent on those of us who actively promote a more humanistic, relationship-based construction of society - a construction of society that is more consistent with the complex reality of the contemporary UCaPP world - to mindfully transform the discourse. Exchange of value is but one of the five valence relationships (that is, Economic Valence). There are four others - Socio-psychological, Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological - that we should all strive to "build" without giving dominant preference to any one of them. A healthy organization based on healthy relationships strives to balance the valence relationships, in order to make not only better decisions, but more holistic, balanced, effective decisions.To do so means transforming the language we use throughout our daily interactions, especially in workplaces.

04 December 2011

The Agenda on Gross Domestic Happiness

On Friday, I had the pleasure of once again appearing on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, on the topic of Gross Domestic Happiness. Essentially, the premise of the conversation is that, "GDP is an incomplete measure of a country's success. Can you judge success by economic growth alone? Will measuring happiness help government make better policy?" The participants - two in Washington, one in London, England, one in Vancouver, and me with Steve in the Toronto studio - covered a wide range of ideas. For my part, I was able to make pitches for the value of qualitative measures, a focus on effects, a complexity view of the world, and the importance of social innovation. As always, Steve's natural curiosity and inquisitiveness, and his exceptional skills as a moderator created a great engagement among the participants, and a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion.

02 December 2011

What We Have Here is a Failure of Leadership

As a friend of mine often says, “you’re never a complete failure; you can always be used as a bad example.” The latest instalment of the ongoing soap opera, [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford vs. The Star, has our not-tiny, far-from-perfect mayor instructing Torontonians to join him in boycotting Toronto’s – and Canada’s – largest circulation newspaper. His office will not even share official city communications with Star reporters, because the mayor does not like they way the newspaper’s (mostly critical coverage) of him.

One could easily be critical of Mayor Ford for his fundamental lack of understanding of the role of the fourth estate in civil society and governance. (I’m sure that Ford is not at all familiar with the works of Thomas Jefferson who, in 1799 wrote that, “our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.”) Denying access to particular segments of the press – and more generally, the massmedia – is a favourite tactic of demagogic politicians who know that today’s political media live and die by their access to said demagogues… err.. politicians. Typically, it is mostly right-wing politicians who would prefer the banana-republic or totalitarian versions of a press corps, if not state controlled, then certainly state appeasing.

From where I sit, however, Rob Ford is creating himself as a really good, bad example of leadership. One of the most important aspects of effective, contemporary leadership is the creation of a culture of inquiry. This is an organizational culture where everything, and everyone, is subject to critical questioning about whether or not the organization is steering itself on a trajectory consistent with its collective values and organizational intent with respect to the effects it creates and enables throughout its environment. In a Valence Theory conception, a city is indeed an organization in which it is vitally important that conversations about values, intentions, and effects are robust, thoughtful, engaging, and inclusive. It is not sufficient to create meaningless town hall meetings in which politicos give very limited airtime to people, but ignore all those who express contrary opinions. It is not acceptable to claim carte blanche with respect to all (especially ideologically driven) policy initiatives via a majority mandate obtained during a general election. And, it is unconscionably wrong to force the institutions that the populace trust to shed light on political machinations to “receive Ford’s releases from kind reporters at competing media outlets.

Instead, contemporary leaders should welcome the type of critical scrutiny they receive from even the most partisan and seemingly biased, opposing media outlets. In a healthy culture of inquiry, leaders can reflect on whether there are indeed kernels of insight that can inform their ongoing learning and future policy directions that they can obtain from these otherwise annoying sources. This, of course, applies to any organizational leader, not just public figures. In this sense, it should be a daily ritual for a leader to look at her/himself in the mirror and ask, what and who have I missed in my thinking, my analysis, my plan?

Leaders who don’t invite naysayers to their table – indeed, those who slam the door in their faces – are missing important guidance for a complex world.

28 November 2011

Creating “Smarter” Organizations

Several items have collided in my field of awareness and that always merits a post (especially since I’ve been remiss on blogging in the run-up to, and during, my teaching trip to Sweden). I took advantage of the travel time to re-read Westley, Patton, and Zimmerman’s great book, Getting to Maybe—How the world is changed. This is a book about complexity, social innovation, and non-deterministic approaches to intractable problems. It’s about both personal transformation, and transforming our collective understanding of how to effect change when one clearly cannot be in control. Arguably, as one of my friends never neglects to point out to me, you may be in charge, but you can never be in control. Mostly true, of course—especially when dealing with complex human systems. However, there are many aspects that we can control: one of which is our intention; another, the intensity we bring to transformational undertakings; yet another is the passion with which we strive towards our intention.

In the somewhat unconventional way I tend to connect ideas and observations, the triplet of intention, intensity, and passion came to front-of-mind when friend Holly MacDonald asked on Twitter this morning, “what are three things that an organization could do to demonstrate it was serious about learning?” My response (expanded from Tweetish) was: For organizations truly serious about learning? More reflection on the effects of actions; less blaming and witch-hunting postmortems in the name of so-called accountability; and more adaptive behaviours to navigate complex environments rather than deterministic planning and expectations of perfect execution.

I cannot count the number of organizations I’ve come across that consider themselves committed to organizational learning simply because they invest in employee training. (I know there will be some readers who will roll their eyes at that, and others who will think, what’s wrong with that?) Organizational learning, like adult education, requires active reflection on lived experiences. It requires a commitment to be accountable for what can be done to achieve success from where one is located right now, rather than defending past decisions or action. It requires navigation among the complexity of the unforeseeable – including the potential to change destinations – rather than “staying” some arbitrary course, if only to demonstrate that a prior decision was the “right” one. To accomplish effective organizational learning – that is, learning where the acquired knowledge sustains and informs future decisions – requires that members bring an intention to bring about desired effects in their (and the organization’s) interactions with others. To persevere in the face of unexpected twists, turns, and setbacks that often characterize complex situations requires one to bring presence, intensity, and even passion to the situation. Most certainly, being able to nimbly adapt when confronted with navigating complex situations necessitates possessing a comfort with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not necessarily knowing where one might end up.

It is this last aspect that often stymies even the best of organizational learning intentions. Because leaders are expected to be in control (not merely in charge), to be able to plan and to execute the plan (or be executed for failure), it is almost invariably deemed unacceptable for organizational learning initiatives to have a mindset of “we don’t know what we’re going to learn, but we’ll know it when we learn it.” But true organizational learning is all about discovery, making inroads on what we don’t know that we don’t know. As such, it’s impossible to plan for and quantify, to set “measurable and actionable organizational learning targets” (paraphrased from a BAH organization’s annual management objectives review form). Rather, leaders who espouse organizational learning as a core value would be advised to enable environments that encourage their organizations to be ready to learn: embracing uncertainties, being prepared for transformation, and directing intention towards relationship effects, that is, the organization’s tactility. Sustaining such an environment, especially in the face of more traditional action, “accountability,” and achieving measurable objectives requires… you guessed it: those same three attributes!

Now, if only more organizational environments were created in such a way so as not to deliberately stifle intention, diminish intensity, and destroy passion, imagine how smart would those organizations become from all the learning they could accomplish!

15 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 3

Among the “harvested” ideas that came forward from our third, and final, Conversation Café of this phase of developing our new Master’s degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching was this: our program should have a “future-driving” orientation, in other words, it should create and enable change. Our eventual graduates will be asked to facilitate other individuals’ and organizations’ transformations, enabling them to move to a new place – literally, basho – rather than being satisfied with attaining new specific goals or objectives. But it occurs to me that the specific expression of this idea – future-driving – is not quite correct. Traditional leadership training is all about driving the future, creating the future, living in the future. Consistent with being in a UCaPP world, I think our greater concern, and indeed, our most pressing challenge, is how to drive, create, and live in the present.

In other words, our focus (as the Café participants also noted) might more effectively be directed towards the question of how to encourage leaders to appreciate, understand, and become comfortable with the “complexity of supporting the change that is happening right now.” How do we create the necessary learning to accommodate emergent change as a way of being, without feeling the need to control or “manage” the change in ways that might stifle the appropriate and necessary evolution of the organization? One key characteristic of UCaPP organizations is that their leaders have learned to become comfortable with complexity (ambiguity, uncertainty, and emergence rather than control). They embody this new-found comfort in ways that, in turn, create new forms of engagement and flexible modes of operating that are consistent with the newly emergent properties of their organizational systems. Thus, our program must create learning experiences that enable participants to become comfortable with ambiguity and complexity in an environment not devoid of structure, but not frozen by it, either. One participant suggested the neologistic metaphor of “cloudworks” in contrast to the highly structured, deterministic “clockworks,” connoting a looser structure of flow and emergent, but clearly discernible, form. This metaphor serves to identify the issue of how to create “complexity education”—learning environments appropriate for participants to embody and assimilate principles of complexity as a guiding model for understanding human dynamics.

When we speak of embracing values of social transformation and social innovation, we necessarily involve processes that substantially encompass more than driving towards pre-conceived goals. This concept represents a substantial shift in the notion of leadership for contemporary circumstances: leadership becomes embedded process rather than embodied role. One aspect of contemporary, UCaPP leadership exists as an “ongoing series of conversations around questions that matter.” So, too, must a program that will help to develop contemporary leaders and organizations. Conversations around questions that matter enable cultures of inquiry – invaluable when it comes to navigating a trajectory of intended effects amidst complex environmental interactions – that necessitate fostering a sense of curiosity throughout an organization. This means that organizational members exist in a space of curiosity that opens the mind to be able to imagine what is possible. In doing so, organizations eliminate the fear of failure—sometimes overwhelming, stress-inducing concerns of potentially not being able to achieve a specific end, goal, or objective. This does not mean that “failure” itself is not eliminated (and as reflected in our program, that all students will unconditionally “pass” irrespective of performance or lack thereof). Instead, it reconstitutes the notion of “failure” in a context of complexity, transformation, and innovation, alternative futures that become possible, and navigating for intended effects.

Our first Conversation Café provided the inspiration for a motto: “Transform the individual. Transform the organization. Transform the world.” This Café suggests “4 Ps” that might characterize the type of applicants and students we would want to encourage: those with Passion, Potential, Path/Plan, and Perception. Consistent with the ideas expressed in the previous paragraph, the “plan” would be a different sort of (complexity-oriented) plan than might be typical of a more conventional graduate program. In particular, we would strive to attract people who see the ethos of this program as a personal life goal integral to their passion. We would invite people for whom this program is personally meaningful in the context of “making a difference in the world”; for them, it would not merely be the “next employable thing.”

In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and adaptively applicable) in practice. “Real life” must intersect with “real play” in the learning environment to create transformative experiences that draw on the creativity of the participants. This observation from among our Conversation Café participants is yet another expression of the praxis principle in adult learning that will be embraced and embodied in the context, process, and content of this degree program. Participants introduced the concept of “Living Labs” that extends the common construct of a practicum in useful ways. Living Labs might sustain between courses, and perhaps involve a larger segment of a given cohort, instead of being an individual placement. Living Labs could be a possible way to create a vehicle that enables a more authentic intersection between “life” and “play.” Such extended, collaborative engagements could provide specific but larger opportunities that would enable students to apply, practice, and transfer learning to real world environments, in keeping with some of the transformative aspirations of our program. On an individual level, students would be invited, encouraged, and actively supported to engage in iterative reflective practices as a means of advancing and assimilating their own experiential learning. As an aside, how many contemporary university courses ask their students to write “reflection papers,” or keep some sort of journal, throughout the course, without providing specific guidance on what mindful reflection is really about? Among the “fundamentals” that underlie the overall learning, I would intend to remedy this common oversight in the service of enabling students to become truly mindful, reflective practitioners.

Many of the ideas shared by the Conversation Café participants reflect what are often understood to be good principles of Adult Education. Good adult learning derives from: embedded, embodied, and explicit knowledge, active incorporation of participant (that is, both instructor and learner) experiences; inquiry from within (in other words, reflective practices); hands-on, experiential learning in and from live situations; combined with feedback and feedforward that continually inform and evolve the program content and process. Thus, we create environments of co-learning. Everyone in the environment is both a learner and a co-creator of knowledge. Knowledge, wisdom, and insights exist throughout the room, not just at the front. As a consequence of these principles – co-learning and co-creation of knowledge – we would consider our program to be successful if our graduates can inspire leaders to create environments of co-learning within their organizations. One way of encouraging this is for students to create an organization within their cohort to put their learning into practice via Living Labs, as I described above. Taken together with principles of co-learning, this idea speaks to the true embodiment of learning, reflective practice, seeking transformation, and praxis. It also speaks to an intention towards social transformation within the organizations that our program will touch and hence, expresses the program’s tactility.

For our students, the profound experience of transformation in the context of the program will be embodied in the visceral experience of being simultaneously awe-struck and awe-inspired. But this raises an important question with respect to evaluation and assessment: In a practical sense, how do we jointly accomplish this transformational experience with integrity, that is, being true to both our and the participants’ aspirations, without abdicating our pedagogical ethos and responsibilities? A large part of the individual assessment will necessarily be subjective, collaboratively completed between participants and instructors, and qualitatively expressed via narratives that describe, for example, the circumstances of the student’s most compelling change process. This idea echoes an idea from our first Conversation Café in which students would be assessed not according to whether they achieved specific, pre-conceived goals, but rather according to the degree to which their goals transformed and emerged consistent with their learning experiences throughout the program. Included in such an assessment would be an understanding of how effectively learning is transferred to workplaces, both during the students’ direct participation in the program and thereafter, as a direct application of what has been learned during the course of the degree. In doing so, our students begin to introduce the process of praxis into workplaces in ways that begin to transform those environments towards becoming a true, reflective, learning organization. This, in turn, means that the design principle of praxis must be made explicit to our participants, incorporated as key element of reflective practice, and embodied as a way of being among our students and graduates.

Finally, our participants strongly expressed the notion that we must be in the business of developing the whole person “in relation” through a series of reflective considerations: Who am I; what do I value; what skills do I possess; what behaviours do I enact; what sort of environment do I enable? To support these critical self-reflections over the time of the program, it will be incumbent on us to provide specific guidance for our participants to manage “energy,” more than just time and resources. Mindfulness practices will likely play a large role here. There must be an explicit acknowledgement of the polarity between “tension” and “serenity” wherein the participants must live that balance during their participation in the program. Such active acknowledgement will enable our program to be sustainable, balancing the considerations of performance with renewal.

10 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 2

Transformation and language—two key themes that came out of our second Conversation Café seeking ideas and inspirations for the development of our proposed Master’s Degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching. Not unexpectedly, much of the language that I have been using to describe important, healing-oriented processes among organizations has already been co-opted by the managerialist discourse (according to some of our participants). In particular, the increasingly worn cliché of “change” seems to be giving way to “transformation” as a catch-all, synonymous euphemism for instrumental, mostly unwelcome, counter-inclusive processes. One participant even noted that in her practice, she has come across an organization that glibly uses the phrase “organization transformation” to refer to the heavy-handed, BAH layoffs practice formerly referred to as downsizing (or even worse – from the perspective of management clichés – “rightsizing”).

In what some might call a time-honoured practice, more-conventional consultancies often appropriate language that has been deliberately chosen to suggest new ground, context, and meaning. In doing so, those who cynically adhere to managerialist learning from as far back as the famous Hawthorne experiments of the late 1920s and early ’30s, have come to realize that workers can often be manipulated into compliance (possibly resulting in temporary increases in productivity) by introducing change that appears to be positive, including nominative changes in language. Thus, it is vitally important that as a school and faculty that will create its reputation on true transformative practices, we must first fully understand and appreciate what we mean by terms such as “transformation.”

Among the conversations, one simple yet profound aspect came through very clearly: Self is emergent not through deterministic, goal-oriented training, but from the assimilation of reflective learning of one’s experiences in the context of history, culture, and prior knowledge. Transformation in this sense occurs when the individual explicitly realizes, and can articulate, a fundamentally new context for their life in which prior (and future) experiences can be understood with new meaning. In turn, “emergent self” becomes an agent of similar transformation in other individuals, and among environments in which that individual participates. What this means for the development of our program is that specific skills for personal transformation must be encouraged and nurtured among all our members, including both students and faculty, in a suitably safe environment. These skills encompass an ability for self-awareness and mindful reflection; self-cultivation together with collective co-cultivation; realizing the resultant basho that is thereby created; creating a non-conventional self-plan that focuses on trajectory and navigating for effects, rather than necessarily attaining a specific objective or preconceived goal.

In a similar vein, commonly understood (which means that everyone understands them, but few people would unpack them the same way) terms such as “Leadership,” “Organization,” and “Executive” must be clearly and appropriately contextualized in our program in a way that will clearly delineate and differentiate what Adler’s future master’s degree offers that is distinct from any other institution. Likewise, words like “Development,” and “Coaching.”

Among aspects of our program’s tactility, we would strive for our participants – in-program students and especially graduates – to feel a calling to seed and effect transformations consistent with the values of the program. Such emergent dissemination among the various environments in which they participate would occur long after their direct participation in the program has finished. In this sense, the need being addressed by the program addresses the question: How will organizations redefine themselves and their processes given the complex manifestations of transformation that are now occurring throughout society? This suggests a direct, follow-on question: In what ways can our program demonstrate and offer unique guidance – via our students, faculty, and graduates – towards the answer(s) to that question of redefinition? And perhaps equally important for our sustainable success: How do we appropriately identify those individuals who want (and are prepared) to transform themselves in such a manner for this program to be appropriate for them? 

The short answer is that we would be seeking those people for whom earning this degree would be more than a simple, instrumental benefit, that is, more than a mere “academic exercise.” In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and becomes adaptively applicable) in practice. Pervading our entire curriculum – every course syllabus and practicum experience – “real life” must intersect with “real play” throughout the learning environments. In this way, we would strive to create transformative experiences that challenge the creativity, engagement, and commitment of all our participants. As those who participated in our Conversation Café expressed these ideas, I observe yet another expression of the principle of praxis in adult learning—experience recursively transforming into embodied knowledge that informs subsequent practice. Conversation Café participants identified the concept of “living labs” comprising intervention engagements with practicum clients that could sustain between courses as a possible way to create a vehicle that enables “life” and “play” to intersect in this context.

03 November 2011

Down with Learning Clichés!

Part of the joy – and part of the challenge – in designing a new graduate program pretty much from scratch is the opportunity to reflect on, and incorporate to some extent, my deeply held values and philosophy of education; especially adult education. With respect to the study of media, Marshall McLuhan claimed, “To understand media, one must probe everything … including the words … and oneself.” I would say the same is precisely true with respect to contemporary education, that we must indeed probe everything—our assumptions, our language, and ourselves as both learners and teachers.

One assumption that has become so pervasive in pedagogy that takes on the characteristic glibness of a cliché is the myth of so-called learning styles, and specifically, the notion that everyone learns differently. Nonsense, I say! People do not “learn differently.” That now overly tired and overdue-to-be-retired cliché derives from a post-Enlightenment, early Modernity understanding of disciplinary segregation of abstract knowledge in formal education. I strongly suggest that such a view is no longer adequate as a relevant basis for pedagogy in our contemporary world that is complex and characterized as ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate (UCaPP).

All people learn through repeated and recursive processes of reflection on experiences, be they formally or informally situated; graphically or textually dominant; predominantly visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, or otherwise; coerced, invited, or spontaneous; and combinations and permutations of the foregoing. The key question – arguably, the only salient question – for contemporary educators is, how best to create environments and circumstances that enable optimal conditions for relevant experiences, well-contextualized reflections, and assimilated embodiment of the resultant knowledge that would enable the intended effects of the educational process; that is, praxis.

28 October 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 1

Having spent a good part of this week reflecting on the insight, suggestions, and collective wisdom shared at our first Conversation Café for the master’s degree we are developing in leadership and organization development, and executive coaching, here are some ideas and inspirations that stand out for me.

Most academic degree programs are focused on knowledge. If there is a critical or constructivist bent about them, they include a strong acknowledgement of ways of knowing. If the degree is professionally oriented, as opposed to more purely academically focused, it will additionally have a strong emphasis on practice, or ways of doing. What we heard strongly from our participants – consistent with my own thinking – is that this new program must also encourage individual transformation—realization of each participant’s human potential, holding an inherent optimism in the value of that potential, and being true to the notion that individual change is intimately connected and implicated in the larger project of social change. This adds one more “ways” dimension to knowing and doing, namely an equal emphasis on ways of being in the world, and particularly, ways of being in relation in the world.

We can consolidate these ideas as Savoir3: Savoir, Savoir Faire, and Savoir Être, or Knowing, Acting, and Being. These three, to be integrated by design into all aspects of the degree program, represent the dual ethos of praxis and transformation that informs not only our program and pedagogy, but the intended experiences that we intent to enable among our participants. Thus, what may well become the slogan of our eventual degree program is almost self-evident:
Transform the individual.
Transform the organization.
Transform the world.

How, then, will our students know if they are successful in the context of such guiding principles; indeed, how will we know if our program itself is successful? With conventional academic degrees, the answer is fairly obvious: students are graded for assignments and summative assessments according to some appropriate rubric, they accumulate a certain number of course credits that are required to complete degree requirements, and the school itself processes… rather, graduates a continual flow of completed candidates.

However, if the objective of both the program and (presumably) the students themselves is transformation, how can that be assessed in a more-or-less rigorous, but non-positivist, fashion? (There is another post begging to be written on how the notion of objectivity – externally constructed measures of truth that impose themselves as structure – renders a degree program inorganic; in other words, dead—but that's for another day.) Several Conversation Café participants coalesced around the idea of defining success in terms of the participants’ individually held understanding of “where and how do I want to grow?” and “what needs of mine am I trying to fill?” This is a useful starting point, as it suggests appropriately facilitated processes of reflection and check-in through our participants’ transition through the degree process. However, a large part of measuring transformation must be rooted in how the individual’s perceived needs evolve and emerge consistent with the individual’s changing worldview. Merely satisfying preconceived needs and attaining goals projected from one’s starting point suggest a deterministic process that is inconsistent with the type of transformative effects that are at the heart of the program’s ethos. In particular, the program can only consider itself successful if there are aspects that the learner will discover as s/he navigates the program experiences through which individual transformation begins to emerge. It is quite likely that the successful participants will change their intended and desired outcomes for growth, personal transformation, and perceived needs during the course of the program. Conversely, we might say that if one’s recognized and self-perceived needs haven’t changed by the end of the program, the person simply hasn’t been paying attention!

How, then, do we evaluate our students? As a capstone or thesis endeavour, they must be able to usefully demonstrate what they have contributed in their individual and collective transformative contexts to Savoir3—Knowledge, Action, and Reflection on Being. Success is manifest in the students necessarily engaging in complexity thinking, creating connections in social relation as a way of being, and having experienced transformation among the three elements that comprise Savoir3. Part of the summative evaluation challenge for the students will be for them to design and realize that demonstration—how’s that for transformation in pedagogy?

In many contemporary degree programs that address leadership and organization development, there is a strong thread – if not overarching theme – of change. Change management, resistance to change, organizing for change, ensuring organizational readiness for change, technologies of change—I hate to use the very tired cliché of “and the list goes on,” but I’ve surveyed quite a few graduate programs and the list indeed continues in this fashion!

In keeping true to the ethos that inspires and provides impetus for this program we – without question – need to foster a change in our own understanding and experience of change itself: from deterministic, planful, outcome/objective/goal-biased change to an appreciation and understanding of, and comfort with, emergent transformation, navigating intended effects among complex human environments. This concept strongly suggests – almost mandates –  considerable care in adopting a new(er) lexicon throughout our curriculum content and subject matter. Curriculum is only a framework for the program. To effect the type of transformation suggested by holding true to Savoir3, our intent in course designs will be to create powerful experiences that will enable our students to make sense of their own contexts and histories through both the source materials and collective experiences of instructors, other participants, and other engaged constituencies. Out of these powerful, sense-making experiences Savoir3 will emerge in ways that complete the course syllabi and overall curriculum.

If you are interested in contributing to this conversation, there are still a few places available for both our November 1 and November 7 Conversation Cafés in Toronto—please contact me for details and an invitation. And, if you are unable to attend, I would be grateful to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or directly by email.

21 October 2011

To Transform the World...

The business strategy underlying the new master's degree program we are creating:
"To transform the world, we must begin with ourselves. However small may be the world we live in, if we can transform ourselves, bring about a radically different point of view in our daily existence, then perhaps we shall affect the world at large, the extended relationship with others." - J. Krishnamurti
Business strategy, you ask? Indeed: it this reifying this realization that will make our proposed degree in leadership and organization development, and coaching distinct from similar offerings from larger, more established schools. By transforming the conventional practice of organization development away from the notion of project and change management; conventional leadership away from mustering resources to accomplish missions; and conventional coaching away from instilling hubris-laden over-confidence all towards the tactility of relationship-oriented effects, we will enable strategies to transform business, governmental, and educational organizations for today's world. And that, is an appropriate strategy for contemporary business.

20 October 2011

Narrative Coaching and Organization Transformation

I’ve just spent two days attending a Narrative Coaching workshop offered by David Drake (and the newly formed Canadian Centre for Narrative Coaching). The premise that underlies this particular modality of coaching is, “we are the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves.” If we want to change ourselves and overcome obstacles that appear to be blocking our learning, our growth, our development, and (as so often seems to happen) our success, the first step is to change our story. It’s a tremendously useful and powerful technique, and one that is quite comfortable to me, since it aligns quite well with my prior work.

Besides being reminded that I can be a pretty effective coach in my own right (and thanks to the many participants who offered me the privilege of helping them make sense of their challenges), I was struck by the realization of how relevant Valence Theory is to helping organizations make sense of themselves, and of the changing environment to which they must adapt, in the context of narrative coaching. Valence Theory enables organizations to “instantly” transform their story, from an objective- and goal-based, mission-oriented-at-all-costs machine, to an organic, vital, responsive, and naturally adaptive organism comprised of people, environments, constituencies, and most important of all, relationships. This change in the framing of an organization’s story enables its members to make a different sense of their organization’s place in the world, and the effects that they enable and enact—as well as the goals they achieve along the way.

Among the things that excites me about the new master’s degree program we are creating here at the Adler Graduate Professional School is that the program will be internally consistent with the theories of organization, leadership, and coaching that we will espouse via our curriculum and course syllabi. This means that we intend to walk our talk, so to speak, and regularly check-in with ourselves and our member constituencies to ensure that, indeed, the story we are telling ourselves as we progress is one that best serves all of us. This aspect alone, it seems to me, will allow us to set our degree program apart from those that are offered at other schools. Most important, it will enable us to attract both the right students and the right faculty that will contribute their experiences and perceptions, and transform them into knowledge that will inform a very particular practice of leadership and organization development and coaching: praxis that will transform and heal organizations, and beneficially serve contemporary society.

11 October 2011

Interested in Contributing to a New Masters Program in Leadership and Org Development, and Coaching?

The opportunity to participate in creating something new happens upon us all too infrequently. When that “something new” involves something that truly matters to our lives, our practices, our workplaces, and indeed to society as a whole, the opportunity becomes a gift. We are at the beginning of just such an adventure—the creation of what we anticipate will become an accredited Master’s degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Coaching at the Adler Graduate Professional School.

Consistent with our core team’s philosophy of how engaged and healthy contemporary organizations emerge through creating collaborative relationships, we are holding four evening Conversation Cafés to which we are inviting members of four, key constituencies: Coaches, OD Practitioners, Potential Students (anticipated to be mid-career professionals), and Potential Faculty. Each Conversation Café will be limited to a maximum of twenty participants so that we are able to create effective and engaging interactions among us all.

If the prospect of such a professionally-oriented Master’s degree excites you, we welcome your participation and contributions to help inaugurate a new program that is truly new. Each evening is nominally oriented to each of the four, identified constituencies; we invite you to attend the evening to which you are most drawn. However, if you are unable to attend on the specific night to which you most connect and are nonetheless moved to participate, you are most welcome to attend on any of the other evenings.

The events will be held on:

Monday, October 24 – Coaches & OD Practitioners
Tuesday, November 1 – Potential Faculty
Monday, November 7 – Potential Students

Each event will be held at the Adler Graduate Professional School, 890 Yonge Street (Yonge and Davenport), 9th floor, from 18:00 to 21:00. Light refreshments will be served. Because participation is limited by the dynamics of Conversation Café, and we anticipate there will be broad interest in this exciting initiative, please RSVP directly to me as soon as you are able—and certainly before Friday, October 21 for the first session. Please indicate the evening on which you would like to attend (with a possible second choice in case the evening you request fills up).

We are tremendously excited by the prospects for this new degree, and what it will mean to the practices of Coaching, Organization Development, and Leadership in our remarkably complex, contemporary world.

01 October 2011

A Master's Degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Coaching

The last chapter of my doctoral thesis was a "Conversation with Nishida" in which I essentially posted a request to the universe to facilitate my life's work of helping organizations to heal based on the ideas of Valence Theory, a new, fundamental, emergent model of organization based on binding and interacting relationships among its multiple, member constituencies. My "inner Zen master," Nishida, instructs me to:
“Become a sensei for others,” he responds without missing a beat. “There are many whom you can inspire with your passion for healing that-which-is-not-well in human interaction all around us.” He spreads his hands wide, palms facing upward. “The writing does not matter; nor do the letters you will acquire after your name. To inspire others to perceive, to question, to contemplate, to reflect, to respond—to think new thoughts about all they may have seen for years throughout their lives but too readily accept or ignore. Those are the important matters to which you must now turn your attention. This thesis is done. Now you must begin.”
The universe tends to respond to such requests in unexpected ways. Defying all conventional logic (but what else is new?) I have been offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a collaboration that will bring a new graduate program into being at the recently accredited Adler Graduate Professional School, (tentatively to be called) a Master's in Leadership and Organization Development, and Coaching - M.LODC, pronounced "melodic," as in "creating harmonious organizations. As we are right at the beginning of this adventure, whatever exists so far is contingent, speculative, aspirational, and - at best - cast in jello, so to speak.

There are quite a number of leadership-focused master's degrees, and several master's programs in organization development. What strikes me about them is that, although there are OD courses in the Leadership programs, and vice versa, there seems to be a distinction between them - a separation of sorts - born in the disciplinarity emanating from the prior cultural epoch about which I write. It is almost as if we take for granted that capital-L Leadership in some ways stands apart from the organization, in the sense of the leader of a parade standing out in front of, and distinctly separate from, those marching behind.

Over the past few weeks since I was offered (and accepted) this great opportunity, I have been wrestling with the questions of our nascent program's values, tactility, and worldview; in other words, its ba. What I think will distinguish the program we are developing from others that nominally offer a similar focus is a fundamental philosophy that organizational leadership has no meaning without the context of organization development. By this I mean that contemporary leadership does not stand on top of, in front of, or in any way apart from the uniqueness that is the organization-in-relation, that is, the valence-conceived instance of an organization. Contemporary leadership must be thought of as being embodied and enacted by process-and-people throughout the entire organization among all its member constituencies, integral to its continual emergence and autopoiesis. In this sense, leadership development and organization development are one and the same, enabled by approaches to individual and collective coaching that are not simply tied to sports-metaphor-laden, rah-rah, motivation-of-the-minute. 

We welcome collaborators who feel a passion for this particular philosophical grounding to participate in our program's development (including course development) over the next few months. We will eventually be seeking core faculty, and thereafter (that is, once the new program is accredited) students interested in a very humanistic, relational, and constructionist approach to a Master's degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Coaching. If you are interested in any aspect of participation - as collaborator, potential faculty, or future student - I invite you to connect.

Let the adventure begin!

Update (12 October 2011):  We are holding a series of Conversation Cafés between now and early November to gather the thoughts and insights from the various constituencies that would participate in, and contribute to, this degree. More information is here.

23 September 2011

Academic Stuff that Simply Make Me Smile

I received a request today from the student-run, course materials photocopy service at UC San Diego:
We would like permission to duplicate the following reading material for [a first-year course in culture and technology] with Professor G.in the Fall Quarter 2011.
TITLE:  What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?

We would like to print 100 copies and hope that if there is a permission fee for this use, it will be the lowest price possible since we pass along the cost to the students.

Here's how I responded to the request:
Thank you for writing. Most of my material (especially this article) is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for, among other things, educational use without seeking explicit permission.

However, since you've asked, let me assure you that you have my permission to reproduce the article for Prof. G's course without charge, and with only one condition: I would like you to pass along my appreciation to Prof. G for sharing my ideas and approach with his/her students, and to offer my best wishes for the success of the course experience for all involved.
Their response to that? "You drove a hard bargain!"

I LOVE doing stuff like this. Goes along with one of my learning mantras: "Together, we're all smarter!"

From Cargo-cult Management to Transformative Organizational Learning

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of participating on a panel for the newly inaugurated, Ontario Learning Network, sponsored by Service Canada University for training and development for Canada's federal civil service. As an adult educator, I was invited to share some of my thinking on organizational learning; in particular, I chose to offer my thoughts on transformative organizational learning:

Transformative Organizational Learning addresses the capital-B, “Big Questions” that concern themselves with what might be possible if we could imagine a future with few, if any, constraints; and how can we begin to take small steps today advancing towards that brilliantly imagined future. ... In a transformative organizational environment, contemporary leadership is not about leading in the conventional sense of assuming control and mustering others in working collectively towards a predetermined objective, that is, in the conventional way most modern managers understand “leadership.” ... Rather, contemporary leadership is about enabling a conducive environment where you can bring people together and engage them to create a shared experience from which an alternative future becomes possible... 

The article drawn from my short presentation is here. Download, read, share, enjoy, and most of all, think!

19 August 2011

Bureaucracy at its Canadian "Finest"

In one volume of his landmark, sociological trilogy entitled, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells describes bureaucracy as, "organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal." In other words, bureaucracies strive to maintain the bureaucracy and its procedural systems at all costs (which often tend to be high costs) quite irrespective of the nominal purpose or tasks otherwise to be accomplished. The business of the bureaucratic organization is secondary to the preservation of the bureaucracy of the organization.

Such is indeed the case in what might be considered an archetype of a BAH (Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, Hierarchical) organization, the Canadian military. In a "landmark report charged with transforming the Canadian Forces," that was released this week, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie identifies major restructuring and reallocation of funds away from non-operations-oriented staffing, instead recommending more resources be provided directly to "regular" Forces personnel - those women and men who are actually in the field, on the water, and in the air.

But bureaucracies will go to great lengths to reinforce and preserve themselves, with well-adapted immune systems that overwhelm "attackers" who might seek to create a more effective organization. In this regard, I will let Gen. Leslie's report speak for itself:
Reactions to previous reports urging reform
“If the results were likely to cause institutional angst, a variety of options existed, from waiting until the team disappeared, to conducting lengthy reviews of the recommendations and, finally to classifying the work to an extent that only a few could see it.”

On resistance to this report
“[At] a large meeting in December 2010 involving the generals, admirals and senior DND civil servants ... it became apparent the tendency was to argue for the preservation of the status quo. ... Though grimly amusing, these interactions proved that consensus has not and probably never will be achieved on any significant change.”

How DND handles funding cuts
“Most subordinate organizations have done their very best to preserve their structures, their internal funding (what they need to take care of themselves) and their process ... which usually result in overhead staying much the same while support to the front-line deployable unit is cut far more than originally forecasted.”

On waste and inefficiency
“These are symptomatic of old processes, new overhead layered on old, lots of committees and in certain areas a sometimes bewildering number of steps ...to actually achieve a government directed spending outcome.”
Although it might be easy to chuckle at the "grimly amusing" responses of a military (or even the non-military departments of government) bureaucracy, if you are a leader in your respective organization, how familiar do General Leslie's caveats sound to you?

08 August 2011

Abolish Self-Appraisal? Not So Fast

I’ve just spent the morning flipping through the Harvard Business Review blog, with the odd tidbit of divergent thinking catching my eye (and my Twitter timeline). One item that provoked a “yes, but…” reaction was this item from Dick Grote in which he recommends abolishing self-appraisals from the annual employee review ritual. His argument makes some sort of sense, from a deterministic, quant-oriented, managerialist perspective in which the manager stands in loco parentis, so to speak:
I found study after study that consistently demonstrated that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-appraisal. Research by the consulting firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “the overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

Further, in their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

One senior executive, describing his company's experience using a forced-ranking procedure to identify its A, B, and C performers, told me of the same problem: “The As are afraid they'll be considered Bs, the Bs are scared they'll be seen as Cs, and all the Cs are convinced that they're A players.”
A pretty sad indictment of self-appraisal, overall. For me, however, jumping to the conclusion that because people are not skilled at self-appraisal the practice should be eliminated suggests (through similar logic) that, since the vast majority of managers at all levels have little training or expertise in assessment, appraisal, or organizational psychology, and are pretty poor at it, all appraisals should be done away with. Similarly for coaching, correction, motivation, and almost every other practice that is part and parcel of a manager’s day-to-day work. (And let me tell you: working as an organizational therapist and leadership coach, there are days when I am sorely tempted to suggest just that!)

The effect of annual job appraisals – invariably tied to annual salary reviews – is to reinforce the carrot-and-stick motivational theory, a theory to which we have become so culturally indoctrinated that it is taken as a law of human behaviour from our earliest childhood memories: “if you take out the garbage, clean your room, finish your peas, and do your homework, you’ll receive your full allowance.” Why does any adult manager today believe that such a paternalistic approach to contemporary employees will result in anything other than coerced compliance and unthinking adherence to strictly stated procedures—the bane of motivation, innovation, and success? (As an aside, have a look at Dan Pink’s Drive for an understanding of what really motivates people.)

Appreciative Practices (an adjunct to the OD intervention of Appreciative Inquiry) is one way of helping everyone – managers and their staff alike – learn the process of appropriate and useful reflection that encourages both organizational and individual learning from one’s activities. Grote, in his blog post, suggests that “a more effective approach is for the supervisor, at the start of performance appraisal season, to ask each direct report to send him an informal list of his or her most important accomplishments and achievements during the appraisal period.” Sadly, this focus on the “most important accomplishments and objectives” misses what I believe to be the true measure of contemporary organizational effectiveness in a complex environment, namely one’s tactility or the effects one has had on those whom the individual touches.

By considering effects from a place of positive contributions, an employee’s true value to the complexity of the organization can be appropriately assessed. An employee may be a tremendous catalyst to innovation, or to overall group dynamics that facilitated a team’s over-the-top performance. It is almost always the case that a supposed failure (specifically: failure to achieve one or more objectives that were stated 12 months prior without the benefit of precognitive abilities in either the manager or employee) has many very successful catalyzing aspects wrapped up in that supposed lack of achievement. Further, such an approach enables and encourages the employee not only to focus on their own development, but to become aware of development opportunities among the various constituencies with which s/he interacts. I recently described such a case in which an organization that formerly was guilty of all the shortcomings of self-appraisal to which Grote alludes was easily facilitated to accomplish the benefits of reflective learning instead.

So, in a funny way, I support Grote’s call for abolishing self-appraisals as part of the annual performance review. In fact I would go a step farther: abolish the annual performance review altogether (and especially, decouple it from compensation). In its place, substitute a culture of continuous, reflective and appreciative practices. An employee will always know where s/he stands, and an organization will always gain the benefit of learning and innovation.

17 July 2011

Organizational Therapy and Positive Psychology

I was recently asked about positive psychology interventions in organizations, and the use of Appreciative Practices in organization development interventions. In part, here is the essence of my response:

In my role as an Organizational Therapist, I help organizations, their members, and especially their leaders to realize how problematic the traditional ways of organizing and managing have become, especially in today's context. A foundational part of this work is a new model of organization that I developed as part of my doctoral research ("Valence Theory") that serves to rebalance the priorities among organizational engagement among ALL of its members (that include those that are often called "stakeholders" - employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, as well as regulators, and other members of the same industry). A large part of this practice involves transformation of the organizational culture, and that draws heavily from the praxis of transformative learning (from adult education), as well as becoming a values-based, emergent, "organic" (in complexity terms) organization.

Among the big questions are these:
  • How do we help people to unlearn old behavioural dynamics (that are often about vested power, dysfunctional human interactions, command and control, etc.)? How can we learn instead to adopt those forms of mutual engagement that encourage individual and collective commitment to the higher purpose of the organization - those things the organization would like to promote, preserve, and protect? 
  • How can we encourage and assist people within the organization to attain greater autonomy, accomplish stronger mastery, and connect with their individual higher purposes? 
  • And, how can we attune organizations and their people to navigate among their daily (and longer-term) challenges being cognizant of the multiplicity of interconnecting and interacting effects, so as to enable those effects that serve their values, their purpose, and the greater good?

One among many interventions is to help people to adopt appreciative practices in their dealings with each other, and especially in the context of superior/subordinate relationships. (Note that the concepts of "superior" and "subordinate" ideally evaporate in an organization that successfully transforms towards becoming more consistent with today's societal conditions.) Appreciative practices themselves (derived in the organization development context from the research intervention of Appreciative Inquiry) are consistent with and supportive of positive psychology, incorporating interventions and practices that help people attain pleasurable, engaged, and meaningful lives. It's founder, Martin Seligman, does a great job of describing its tenets in this TED Talk. Nothing, of course, should be considered a panacea. Nonetheless, with the opportunity for substantial improvements in productivity, innovation, member engagement, commitment, social responsibility, and most important of all, happiness and satisfaction, positive psychology based, organizational therapy interventions are unquestionably and tremendously effective.

28 June 2011

Practices Makes (Im)perfect Organizational Transformation

I am in the process of outlining my next book, Conversations with Nishida: Organization, Leadership, and Transformation in a Complex World. In thinking through some of the themes to do with Transformation, I wrote,
Transformation is fundamentally distinct and different from mere change. All transformation reflects change; not all change is transformative. In these Conversations, it is crucial to maintain a clear distinction between the two. BAH can change and remain BAH. In fact, the overwhelming majority of change in the BAH organization – change that is managed through explicit change management interventions, modelled by such programs as Six Sigma, LEAN, or Agile, guided by a preconceived and targeted outcomes as opposed to effects – these changes rarely, if ever, effect organizational transformation, although the changes themselves usually have a significant effect on the organization and its members.

Organizational transformation, in the sense of these Conversations, is ontological—transformative change that affects the organization’s state of being in the world. Transformative change fundamentally shifts how an organization regards itself in relation to its various constituencies, and how its members constitute themselves in relation to each other…
As I reflect on the challenges of organizational transformation, I’m thinking about an organization that is in the midst of a major transformation of its organizational culture. As part of its evolution, the organization is beginning to adopt what I call Appreciative Practices (AP) to inform many of its collective and individual behaviours with respect to development, coaching, and correction. Appreciative Practices are derived from Appreciative Inquiry, a form of organization development intervention that focuses exclusively on strengths, and positive approaches to effect change. (Note: I link to Jackie Kelm’s site because the project in which I was involved used materials that she co-developed.)

In my work with the organization in question, I suggested that the content of their current practice of disciplinary action (that, as in most organizations, is characterized by a suitably ironic euphemism) could be replaced with an application of AP. The benefits are clear: using AP is more readily “hearable” by members who need coaching and/or correction; it focuses on improvements and specific desirable outcomes and effects, rather than errors and wrong actions (as in that old chestnut, “don’t think of an elephant” that makes you think of an elephant); and perhaps most important, it is less stressful and easier to deliver for the manager.

To my surprise, several people in the organization said that they could happily adopt AP for development and annual reviews, but discipline had to be… well, disciplinary! AP just doesn’t feel like an errant employee is being punished, and it is mandatory that they feel that they’ve done wrong.

In this instance, the transition from conventional discipline to AP in correcting and coaching seems to be not so much about changing the employee, but rather more about asserting legitimated organizational authority. Thus, part of effecting a transformation of a traditional organizational culture to one that is more consistent with the aims of AP (and more UCaPP as well!), involves understanding the power dynamics within the traditional structures, and how they must be equally and simultaneously transformed.

In traditional, BAH organizations, the control-resistance power paradigm is a closed, recursive, and iterative loop. Employee does wrong. Manager disciplines. Employee resents. Repeat. (Add the complication of a grievance loop in a unionized environment.) The more control, the more resistance, the more errant behaviours, the more discipline and control, and on it goes. (This, for example, captures the dynamics of the Toronto Transit Commission, and many government workers across all three levels.)

How to break out of this seemingly never-ending loop of power-control-resistance that is fuelled by conventional disciplinary actions, and threatens to stifle the transformed culture? In organizational transformation, the members must first transform their construction of identity, that is the Identity-valence relationship that they mutually create with the organization among its various constituencies. When one constructs oneself as a surrogate for an authority figure (think, “parent” or “teacher”) that metes out discipline, it is unavoidable that a manager will easily give up this fungible aspect of Identity-valence. However, enabling members to first transform towards Identity-ba – one who creates an environment of shared values, sensibilities, and volition to common action – enables an environment in which Appreciative Practices will create the desired behavioural changes without coercion. More important, as the overall environment changes, “misbehaving” employees who choose not to change will soon realize that they do not belong. Employing traditional disciplinary actions in the midst of a BAH-to-UCaPP culture transformation undermines the process by signalling an ambivalence, that the transformational culture is merely nominal, only words with no substance.

Another reason that organizational culture transformation must begin with the leadership.

27 June 2011

Contemporary Leadership is NOT About "Leading..."

Contemporary leadership is environmental.

It is all about enabling an engaging and conducive environment where you can bring people together to create a shared experience in which an alternative future becomes possible.

26 June 2011

Would You Read This Book?

I'm planning to spend a good part of the summer writing. The book, tentatively entitled, Conversations with Nishida: Organization, Leadership, and Transformation in a Complex World, will address questions such as: What is organization? What does it mean to lead in the contemporary world? How can we effect organizational transformation, both in the microcosm of individual groups and in the macrocosm of society at large?

The style of the book would be a series of conversations with a Zen master character, based loosely on the Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, from whom I obtained the idea of ba - a place of common sensibility, common understanding, common values and common volition to action - that I use in my work. My question to YOU is, would you read a book that deals with these questions, based on this reasoning:
Human behaviour and the social conditions in which we act are often considered as conforming to some “law,” almost as if people’s interactions are subject to a seemingly immutable law of nature. Human social systems – education, business, politics, and the like – are often modelled after such behaviours-as-laws that seek to explain and predict why and how people will interact in specific ways under particular circumstances. However, in human social systems there are no laws of gravity, thermodynamics, or relativity—laws that explain human phenomena that exist outside of, apart, and separate from the people that enact them. At one time in history, the dominant thinking asserted that the Sun travelled around the Earth; much to the chagrin of the medieval Church, the Sun (not to mention other natural systems) did not quite care about the dictates of the Pope (nor the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, for that matter!). Quantum entanglement notwithstanding, natural systems exist and behave quite apart from our limited, all-too-human understanding of them.

On the other hand, models and conceptions of human systems care very much about the dominant thinking of humans who participate in them. In this sense, our social systems of business and commerce, knowledge and education, politics and governance, and organization and leadership are self-generative: in other words, the way we think about our social systems actually creates those social systems. What has been especially true throughout the millennia is that, as society’s means of social engagement and interaction have changed, so too have the fundamental structuring institutions – the aforementioned social systems – of that society likewise changed. Further, as these social systems change and become more widely adopted and increasingly taken for granted as aspects of “human nature,” the formerly dominant systems – those institutions that simultaneously defined and were defined by the way things were – seem increasingly anachronistic and out-of-place in the contemporary world.

We can each, individually and collectively, simply accept the changes that seem to be washing over, and imposing their will upon us. We can accept the interpretation and implications of these changes asserted by corporate, political, and other powerful interests that may or may not be beneficial for humankind overall. Alternatively, we can become aware of the transformative effects emerging throughout our contemporary world and begin to correspondingly transform our mental models of human behaviours throughout the social systems that define a society. In other words, we have the power and ability to reshape our understanding of organization, leadership, and the nature of transformation. We therefore have the ability to reshape our world.
So, is there any interest out there to read more about this?

20 June 2011

Requiescat in Pace, Aniko Meszaros

Shocked and disbelieving are my two, initial reactions. My dear friend, Aniko Meszaros is finally at peace. Her life was short, tragic, and yet brilliant. Aniko was the proverbial shooting star, illuminating the world with her charm, wit, intelligence, creativity, and beauty. Tragically, she was haunted by a dark history and ever-present demons, and she struggled to allow the brightness within her to shine through in her work, in her designs, and in the lives she touched during the best of times.

The aesthetic brilliance that Aniko brought to her work is clearly evident at anikolab. The Projects link - including Real, Speculative, Research, and Performance projects - are but a small window into the way she experienced the world and its potential. I can only imagine what possibilities might have been realized had her life not been hampered, haunted, and ultimately cut so terribly short.

Even though I had not seen her since she moved west, I will miss her presence in the world. May you sleep in eternal peace, dear Aniko. God has a new designer in heaven.

13 June 2011

10 Lessons of Organizational Culture Transformation

If you're not familiar with my writing, a few notes of explanation. UCaPP is an acronym representing the phrase, "Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity," (or "ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate," depending on usage), the description I use to characterize contemporary societal conditions. BAH refers to "Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical," a description of traditional management and organizations. UCaPP organizations are mostly described as "collaborative" in the literature, but they are much more than that. For more details, you are invited to visit the wiki site for Valence Theory of Organization - after reading this post, of course!

I’m finishing up a seven-month contract that helped to initiate an organizational culture transformation in a newly acquired Toronto subsidiary of a large American organization. The American organization’s culture is strongly towards the UCaPP end of the BAH-UCaPP organization typology spectrum. On the other hand, the Toronto organization was strongly BAH when I was first introduced to it, and demonstrated many attributes and behaviours that would qualify them for organizational healing—being able to strongly benefit from my practice as an organizational therapist.

Although the formal educational program was prescribed by the parent organization, the Toronto site had specific needs that went well beyond those addressed by the otherwise excellent and insightful formal materials. Nonetheless, the results have been nothing short of outstanding: by the beginning of the program’s sixth month, overall productivity – units out the door – increased by 70%, with customer complaints down to a small fraction of what they were in January. Employment growth in new production staff has been nothing short of explosive, and the line and middle management ranks – initially fearful of what such growth would mean relative to the old ways of doing supervision – are (mostly) feeling quite good about how well they’re coping.

I’ve compiled ten lessons learned from this remarkably successful organizational culture transformation that, not surprisingly, are consistent with the predictions of Valence Theory. See how many might be useful to you as you reflect on navigating your organization through the complexities of today’s environment of uncertainty:
  1. Culture comes from values; values obviate vision as the organization’s source of impetus. When people work from a place that aligns fundamental values among all members, shared knowledge of where to head is a natural outcome. On the other hand, a vision imposed by an small, elite group at the top of the organization necessitates continual reinforcement (and enforcement) through ever-growing, extrinsic incentive plans.
  2. Like learning a new language, culture change venue scripts seem artificial at first, become more comfortable with practice, and evolve into the organization’s lingua franca. The challenge is to ensure that those who are not directly involved in the “language lessons” that serve to inculcate the new culture are nonetheless given opportunities to participate in the new vocabulary of practices, behaviours, and attitudes.
  3. Relying on training as the sole or primary mechanism to effect culture change is completely ineffective. On the other hand, continual peer reinforcement on-the-job, coupled with a concerted program of individual coaching and counselling for key members, with a limited amount of well-contextualized education, are essential to begin the process. Notice I said, “begin.” The process of transformation necessarily continues long after the formal program has been completed.
  4. There will be an occasion – and usually no more than two – in which the new culture’s principles will have to be violated in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the new culture’s principles. This usually results in one or two people being asked to find other employment. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “it is perhaps ironic that coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership is occasionally needed to enforce the transformation away from coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership.
  5. Embracing and committing to the new culture is always a matter of individual choice. What is not a choice is the tight coupling between embracing the culture and sustaining one’s membership (e.g., employment) in the organization.
  6. The person who, in the past, has been identified by legitimated management (i.e., those who are most vested in the “way we do things around here”) as the trouble-maker, malcontent, or the one-most-likely-to-be-written-up-for-disciplinary-action, is likely your best ally in identifying necessary changes, and effecting culture change—as long as you can overcome his/her legitimate cynicism and long-reinforced distrust of management-imposed “change.”
  7. In a UCaPP organization, compensation is at least partially – and ideally completely – decoupled from job performance. The more strongly extrinsic motivators influence an individual’s contribution to the organization, the more BAH the organization necessarily becomes, and the less committed is the individual to the organization’s values as its primary impetus.
  8. In a UCaPP environment, no one is required to give “110%.” Instead, more productivity is paradoxically experienced as needing less expended effort. Conversely, in a BAH environment, 50% (or more) of the organization’s potential is wasted in counter-productive, energy-consuming behaviours and well-rehearsed defensive scripts.
  9. Blindly adopting so-called best practices in a bid to become as successful as some arbitrary industry leader is a management cargo cult. Transformative education is founded on experiential learning, not plagiarism.
  10. The vast majority of benefits of organizational culture transformation are necessarily qualitative, not quantitative. However, there are consequential, indirect benefits – some of them economic – that are measurable, although one cannot usually establish clear, deterministic, causal connections. This means that one cannot “prove” a priori, tangible benefits of organizational culture transformation, much to the chagrin of traditionally trained managers. Remember—when it comes to effecting sustainable, truly beneficial change throughout an organization and among its members, complexity is your friend.

03 June 2011

Congratulations, Julie!

Today, my daughter, Julie graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education, achieved “with honours.” The U of T’s program in Kinesiology is a challenging one – challenging to be admitted in the first place, and challenging to sustain through four gruelling years. Beyond the physiology, anatomy, and other more obvious aspects of subject matter, much of the focus of the program, especially in the latter years, are on the social responsibility of those who undertake a practice of health and wellbeing in contemporary society. To this end, Julie augmented her education with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, and again concentrated on issues of equity, social justice, and a nuanced understanding of power dynamics. (As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!)

In addition to her diligence when it came to her studies, she also did internships with a professional sports team, and with OPHEA, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, an organization that “works in partnership with school boards, public health, government, non-government organizations, and private sector organizations to develop groundbreaking programs and services that support healthy active schools and communities.” And, to top it all off, through her undergrad years, Julie co-founded and produces Glamour Puss Burlesque, a successful burlesque troupe, retrieving a time-honoured art form with modern sass and sensibility.

Julie, your mother and I are tremendously proud of you. May you go from strength to strength, and from success to success!

02 June 2011

Transformation of an Activist Organization

Volunteer groups are often the most challenging in which to effect organizational transformation, since people don’t “have to” be there (as in, they aren’t earning a paycheque), and those who do come bring with them long-vested and entrenched ideas about how organizations are run. Most of them, after all, are members of well-established organizations from which they are earning a paycheque, and those organizations almost invariably locate themselves towards the BAH end of the Valence Theory typological spectrum. So, it is fascinating to observe (even more so to have the privilege to facilitate) the transformation of such an organization.

Last weekend, for the second time, I facilitated the annual retreat of a volunteer-run, activist organization. This group has been established for a very long time, although most of its currently active members are relatively recent (as in, joining within the past three to four years or less). In reviewing the intended activities and objectives decided at last year’s retreat, as I usually do, I took a page from Appreciative Practices to ask three key questions that I commonly ask of each planned initiative: What worked well? What didn’t work as well as it might have? What was missing that might have improved the experience? The current chair of the group was a bit wary of the first question; she says that one of the group’s shortcomings is that they consider that they do everything well, and lay blame at the feet of external actors and circumstances!

Despite her misgivings, (and this is part of the art of my facilitation, of course), I never allow a group to look for blame, but rather, learning. What the group learned through this part of their retreat day can be summed up in two important principles of Valence Theory. The first is embodied in the idea of Effective Theory of Action: it is important to differentiate between achieving the desired and intended effects for a given situation, and achieving the nominal objectives or goals of an initiative. In one instance in particular, an initiative that had been designated as the group’s secondary focus for the year, had accomplished pretty much none of its objectives. However, when we answered the question, “what worked well?” with respect to this initiative, it was clear that a whole bunch of desired effects had been created—in fact, far more than the group could even have imagined a year earlier. Was the initiative a success? According to conventional measures of effectiveness, no. But when considered from the ground of Valence Theory and effectiveness – focusing on effects enabled and rippling through the complex system of human interactions – the initiative was considered to be tremendously successful.

Through the first half of the day, the group struggled with the paradoxes of more and less formal leadership and structure, the need to coordinate and keep track of certain activities while allowing sufficient flexibility for people to jump in and take up responsibility for tasks of their own volition. They realized that for those projects in which there were common values, common understanding, common sensibility, and a common volition to action – characteristics that describe ba – things happened well, including outreach and engagement with “external” organizations. People felt a sense of individual autonomy and agency, and worked not independently (nor strictly interdependently, which suggests tight-coupling), but rather with a sense of collective responsibility and mutual accountability. The conclusion they came to – although I didn’t suggest the specific language – was that their organization functioned better in an environment of organization-ba. To this end, the group decided to recast its traditional governance model of a formal executive with a designated Chair in charge (including taking ownership of meeting agendas and running meetings, a very strong measure of control). Instead, the group’s governance has moved to a contemplative consensus model, with a coordinating committee to tend to the coordination and “business” aspects of the group’s operation, and rotating facilitators managing agendas and meetings (in which the facilitator attends to process and cannot speak to content).

I will be working with the group to facilitate a revisitation of their values to provide fundamental guidance for future decisions, and to help the cadre of future facilitators to learn and practice their craft in a way that is consistent with their transformed governance. And, I anticipate that I will be invited a year hence to once again facilitate their annual retreat. I am most interested to see the successes that the group will be able to effect operating now as a more-UCaPP organization, one that is consistent with the conditions of today’s world.

17 May 2011

Views on the Future of Corporation

Even though this video is a year old (which is, like, fo'evah in Internet ticks...), the notions from various Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and thinkers are interesting, instructive, and possibly offer some inspiration (and even more possibly, some hope). People like John Hagel of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, David Weekly of PBWorks, Brian Phillips, formerly of Thread.com, Jerry Michalski of sociate.com, and Dan Olsen of yourversion.com relate their observations from the midst of the UCaPP transformation of organizations with a number of aspects of figure - stuff that we can notice. What strikes me about how each of these men (notably, no women!) relate their experiences is how consistent they all are with the ground of the UCaPP organizational transformation, which is in my view, Valence Theory (big surprise, right? :)

As many of you know, I am not big at all (to say the least) on emulating so-called best practices. At best, it leads to happenstance success without the understanding and learning that makes success sustainable. At worst, it is like taking someone else's prescription for an ailment not completely understood or diagnosed. Nonetheless,  suggestions and ideas that are consistent with balancing the five valence relationships are not a bad thing to do, so long as one does it with mindful appreciation for, and reconnection with, fundamental human interactions.

As it turns out, this happens to be the major theme of my keynote at the Cybergarden 2011 Conference, Transgressing the senses: Culture, technology, and technomind, later this week in Katowice, Poland.

13 May 2011

Great Customer Service, Great Salsa Shoes

It isn't often that I have the opportunity to write about great customer service - I'm more often ranting about misadventures of clueless BAH organizations like Sympatico. So, it's a real pleasure to relate my experience with Giancarlo Gabellini of Gabellini Dance Shoes.

Many of my regular readers (and friends) know that I'm an avid salsa dancer, one of the Salsa Dealers at Salsaholics Anonymous, and one of the organizers and host of Toronto's weekly, free, outdoor salsa party, Sidewalk Salsa (every Thursday evening from 21:15 to 23:30 at the south-east corner of Bloor and Spadina, from May through October). Based on the recommendation of Anthony Persaud, a few years ago I tried a pair of Gabellini dance shoes for my teaching and practice and found them to be outstanding - the right balance of support and flexibility, well constructed, and offering just the right mix of traction and spin with their suede soles. Having nearly worn out my first pair, I ordered another two pairs, one white pair for teaching and practice, another black pair (a nicer looking style) for "going out." Because of what seems to have been perhaps a bad batch of suede from the supplier, the sole on the "going out" pair wore down to leather and separated from the shoe very prematurely.

When I wrote to Giancarlo, he immediately responded with the suggestion to have the shoes repaired locally (and he offered to subsidize part of the cost). Moreover, he contacted all of the other purchases of that particular model of shoe to alert them to a possible quality control problem with the suede, and checked up on the manufacturer to request a higher-quality, thicker sole on all future orders. That's the type of attention to customer service that not only ensures repeat business, but merits endorsement and your patronage.

I love my Gabellini shoes (albeit in a different way than I love my favourite partner!). More important I love the way Giancarlo takes care of his customers. If you're a salsa dancer looking for a great shoe for practice, and especially if you're a male dancer looking for great shoes for dress, you can't go wrong with Gabellini Dance Shoes.