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The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

Evolution of a young plant

We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

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Consider the Spandrels

15 Jan

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People used to think that computers were going to make instructor-led training (ILT) obsolete, which of course they didn’t. People used to wear Bluetooth headsets, now they don’t. The problem is reductionism. We tend reduce the overall value of something by evaluating it according to a particular element. For example, just think of candles. Ask yourself, why do we still have candles? The light bulb has been around for a long time, so why do we still buy millions of candles each year? If we reduce the value of candles only to their “light-giving” properties, then we completely miss its other uses.

In evolutionary biology they call these unintended uses, “spandrels,” (a word they borrowed from architecture) which often evolve to become far more important than the original intended use. It’s the error that occurs when we make statements like, “Research shows that empathetic leaders generate up to 15% more revenue.” In essence, this reduces the value of empathy to a function of revenue. “You should be good because you’ll make more money.” Or, the example I gave the other day in our book club; imagine if a man said, “Women are valuable because they give birth to more men.” It’s absurd and yet I see it all the time in the learning context. Reductionism to learning, reductionism to measurement and data, reductionism to practical solutions, etc. However, if we simply stop and take a sober look around, we’ll realize that considering the spandrels actually makes us a lot more intelligent than almost everyone else out there. Training and development interventions are actually doing more than just improving learning. For example, we’ll know that….

  • ILTs aren’t going away because they serve MORE than just an individual learning function: 1) they provide an opportunity for people to get together and build trust and rapport, gain new information, and focus on the relationships so important to leadership; 2) it is easy for HR to demonstrate and measure that learning happened; 3) people are familiar with the modality from our schooling and therefore meta-learning is low (learning how to learn in this environment). Mobile learning (mlearning) isn’t going to replace desktop-based elearning because: 1) people actually have an increasing need for structure in our environment (self-discipline is weak); 2) form factors allow for more dynamic interactions on the desktop.
  • Beware gamification. “Just because something has a learning benefit doesn’t mean that people should do it to learn.” So, think about it this way…a Snickers bar has protein and vitamins. It has some nutritional value, but it would be a mistake to think that people eat Snickers bars, or should eat them, because they are nutritious. I think learning games face this same challenge. Just because people learn from playing games doesn’t mean that they play games to learn. We play games because they are intrinsically rewarding. We play games because play is fun. Play is an end to itself, but gamification is quick to reduce “play” to “performance” or “learning.” Now, you can start to engineer taste and nutrition and create some really good tasting protein bars, but again, you’ll need to balance the competing reasons why people eat protein bars versus why people eat a candy bar (they approach the purchase of these somewhat similar foods from completely different angles). Most of the conversations out there about learning games are doing this in the wrong way.
  • People stopped wearing Bluetooth headsets, not because they didn’t need a way to conduct hands-free phone calls, but because they make you look like a douche bag. This is the same reason why I didn’t by a Google Glass. In theory, they are really cool. In reality, you look like a dork…and therefore I would never actually wear it. If you judge a tool, a process, or a technology only upon its “logical usefulness” then you’ll have to explain why my mother buys scented candles. A “logical use” is often just a disguised reduction.

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  • We can also find learning benefits where others haven’t. For example, most of the conversation about virtual leadership or virtual leadership development theory is largely about trying to maintain the learning while reducing costs (in the name of efficiency), without considering that virtual training and leading may actually have some ADVANTAGES over traditional approaches. Some non-learning things have learning benefits; some learning things have non-learning benefits. That means that we could offer a portfolio of services with some real knowledge of what each modality does well.

Without reducing one to the other, we can take a look at the learning benefits and the spandrels and ensure that we are addressing each in the most effective way possible. Without this understanding, we conflate things, reduce them, and often end up right back where we started. In the end, you can talk all day about the learning aspect of something, but in terms of the vibrant reality of an organizational social system, there are a lot of other important things going on in any given “training,”  “program,” or “intervention.”

If we consider those spandrels, then we can develop better products and services that leverage multiple values and multiple perspectives. E-Learning can do what e-learning does best (compliance, technical training, etc.). ILTs can be even more interactive and social among participants. Mobile can focus on access to secure databases rather than simply delivering elearning on a phone. Considering the spandrels ensures that we can help clients maximize their training. They can avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities. Employees will be happy that we aren’t wasting their time. We don’t feel like we are doing the same old thing. Everyone wins.

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Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

18 Sep

You have to check out this video of Byron Katie working with a lady who believes, “my mother shamed me.” I am always encouraged and liberated after watching these videos. All of my bullshit stories…”I should be successful,” “people should love me,” “I should be treated with respect,” “people should be nice to me,” blah, blah, blah….all of these stories running through my mind. And as soon as I drop the story and accept reality as it is…I find that things begin to change. I can take action without striving for approval. I act out of a sense of abundance not lack. I act out of freedom and not dependence.

These videos make it beautifully clear how our beliefs constantly get in our way. “Who would you be without your story?” Katie always asks. I’m still exploring that answer and I look forward to sharing that exploration with others.

The video is a bit long, but if you have the time, it’s a great way to sit in some truly transformational practice.

*Note: if you’re not familiar with Byron Katie’s work, then she might come across as a bit harsh or judgmental. Understand though that the people who attend these workshops are there to get the truth. They’ve reached a point where they are tired of their story and they a re brave enough to ask for some help. The questions that Katie asks, and the responses that she gives are always intended to help the other person realize their truth.

Seven Tools for Personal Transformation

5 Apr

Evolution of a young plant

This is my shortlist of tools for personal transformation.

1.) Seek Truth
If we are interested in personal growth, then we must cultivate a love of truth, which means observing ourselves and learning that there is a difference between what we think and what we are (“the map is not the territory”). When we seek truth we stand outside of ourselves and evaluate our feelings, our relationships, and our assumptions. As we seek truth, we look for that small light peering through a crack in our stories and we scratch at it. As we learn to accept what is real in the present moment, we are more able to accept whatever arises in us, because we know that it is not the whole of us. While our automatic reactions can derail our search for the truth, acknowledging their presence brings us closer to the truth. When we are willing to be with the whole truth—whatever it is—we have more inner resources available to deal with whatever we are facing.

2.) “Not Doing”
The process of spiritual growth sometimes seems paradoxical because we speak of struggle and effort as well as of allowing, accepting, and letting go. The resolution of these apparent opposites lies in the concept of “not doing” or what I’ve previously called “radical acceptance.” Once we understand “not doing,” we see that the real struggle is to relax into greater awareness so that we can see the manifestations of our own shadows. By neither acting on our automatic impulses nor by suppressing them, we begin to understand what is causing them to arise. Not acting on our impulses creates openings through which we can catch glimpses of what we are really up to. Those glimpses often become some of our most important personal transformation lessons. At first, we may need to intentionally set aside time to practice “not doing,” but over time we may find this practice more fully integrating into our day-to-day way of being (as a friend of mine once said, “the point of basketball is not the timeouts”).

3.) Cultivate a Community
The more support we have for our personal development, the easier our process will be. If we are living or working in a dysfunctional environment (family, community, work, etc.), personal growth is not impossible, but it is more difficult. Most of us cannot leave our jobs or our families so easily, even if we are having difficulties with them, although we can seek out others who give us encouragement and act as witnesses to our growth. Beyond this, we can find groups, attend workshops, and put ourselves in situations that foster the other six tools listed here. Getting support also entails structuring our days in ways that leave room for the people that nurture us. It’s likely that you already have some people like this in your life, but if not then you can easily seek them out. Just remember that support comes to those who offer support (universal law of karma), so you’ll have to risk being vulnerable.

4.) Learn from Everything
Once we have involved ourselves in the process of personal growth, we understand that whatever is occurring in the present moment is what we need to deal with right now. And whatever is arising in our hearts or minds is the raw material that we can use for our growth. It’s common to flee from what we are actually facing into our imagination, romanticizing or dramatizing our situation, justifying ourselves, or escaping into distraction. Staying with our real experience of ourselves and our situation will teach us exactly what we need to know for growth. As we seek truth, we must also be willing to learn from it and develop a “learning orientation,” which means that we look for opportunities to  grow rather than opportunities to accomplish. When we learn from everything we’re free to take chances and make mistakes.

5.) Find Self Love
It has been said many times that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. But what does this mean? We usually think that it has something to do with having self-esteem. Perhaps, but one central aspect of a mature love of ourselves is caring about our growth sufficiently not to flee from the discomfort or pain of our actual condition. We must love ourselves enough not to abandon ourselves—and we abandon ourselves to the degree that we are not fully present to our own lives. When we are caught up in worry, fantasy, tension and anxiety, we become dissociated from our bodies and our feelings—and ultimately, from our true nature. True self love also entails a profound acceptance of ourselves—returning to being present and settling into ourselves as we actually are without attempting to change our experience. It is also aided by seeking the company of people who possess some degree of this quality themselves.

6.) Use Your Body
When we think about personal transformation is it easy to intellectualize it and get wrapped up in the changes that happen emotionally, but we must not forget that physical changes often accompany any changes that happen inside. Some people may start with physical work (exercise, diet, yoga) and find that other areas of their life get better, while others may find that as they do interior work, they are starting to feel better physically. The point is that our interiors (thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes) and exteriors (neurons, brainwaves, cells, body) are linked to each other, so if we’re going to endeavor towards personal transformation then we must account for and activity engage the physical body.

7.) Have a Practice
Most transformational teachings stress the importance of some kind of intentional practice, be it spiritual (meditation, prayer, relaxation), physical (weight-lifting, running, yoga), or intellectual (reading, writing, Sudoku) or some combination of them. The important thing is to set aside some time each day to reestablish the scaffolding that you need to support your growth. Practice interferes with our deeply ingrained habits and gives us opportunities to wake up from our trance. Eventually, we understand that every time we engage in our practice we learn something new, and every time we neglect our practice we miss an opportunity to allow our lives to be transformed.

One major obstacles to personal transformation is the expectation that we attain results. The ego seizes on breakthroughs and wants to recreate them on demand, which often only furthers the illusion that we can control everything. The reality is that we are always growing and changing whether we want to or not. The key choice we have to make is whether we want to grow elegantly and intentionally or just get dragged along for the ride.

Conscious Leadership or Leader Consciousness?

20 Mar

Up until a month ago, the term “conscious leadership” was new to me. However, as I’ve immersed myself in the literature and community, it’s become clear that while it may be a new term, it was not a new concept. I’ve been studying the great contemplative traditions for a long time and they in turn have exploring the boundaries of consciousness for thousands of years. So, while the term may be new, the truth it points to certainly isn’t. The benefit comes from the fact that conscious leadership is taking these mystical insights, integrating them with the best research and theory from organizational and leadership studies, and wrapping them it all up in business language that Westerners can stomach.

I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it also means that some things might be lost in translation. The sheer complexity of consciousness studies is awe-inspiring. The history of the great mystical traditions is overwhelming by itself. Then you add the important insights from philosophy of mind, and more recent contributions from good old cognitive-development psychology, and you have this massive amount of great information to pull together. And this is before you add all of the crappy information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who says that you shouldn’t even bother trying to define words like “consciousness” or “leadership.” Trying to define the words you use is an important exercise. It forces us to make difficult choices and create elegant solutions. So, for the purposes of this article, I’d like to offer my own definitions of both and see where that takes us:

Consciousness – The state of being aware of sensory forms (both internal and external).

Leadership – The process of intentional influence of one person upon others.

You’ll notice a few things. First, they are short definitions. This is because I believe that simplicity amplifies meaning. Second, notice that neither of these definitions includes a moral dimension. This is because I believe that the distinction between TRUE and FALSE is much more relevant than GOOD versus BAD. Third, the two primary verbs are awareness and influence. When we put these two definitions together, we start to see that conscious leadership is primarily about the ability to be aware and the ability to influence based on that awareness.

Now, most leadership models would have you believe that you need to be aware FIRST, then you influence others (this would be accurate linguistically because “conscious” modifies “leadership”). This would certainly fit the hero-style leadership models of the past. The leader is worshiped as an omnipotent deity and the central lever when it comes to organizational change. But we know that this is only one side of the coin. The primary focus on the individual is often shorthanded as “leader development” and the collective focus is often called, “leadership development.” The whole of the field is then called, confusingly, “leadership development.” Clearly, we need to do a better job with our definitions.

The field of conscious leadership seems to be a bit confused on this point. Conscious leadership is used almost exclusively to mean the individual awareness of a leader. I would like to submit that there should be an equal focus on “leader consciousness,” which would be the collective counterpart. As much as I respect the efforts of thought leaders in conscious leadership, I think it sells itself short if it just repackages ancient wisdom. It’s a noble service on it’s own, but it won’t really contribute to the leadership literature if it doesn’t expand its questions. What would collective leader consciousness look like? How would it operate? To me, these are far more interesting questions.

Can You Hear the Mountain Stream?

4 Mar

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A Zen Master was walking in silence with on of his disciples along a mountain trail. When they came to an ancient cedar tree, they sat down under it for a simple meal of some rice and vegetables. After the meal, the disciple, a young monk who had not yet found the key to the mystery of Zen, broke the silence by asking the Master, “Master, how do I enter Zen?”

He was, of course, inquiring how to enter the state of consciousness which is Zen.

The master remained silent. Almost five minutes passed while the disciple anxiously waited for an answer. He was about to ask another question when the Master suddenly spoke. “Do you hear the sound of that mountain stream?”

The disciple had not been busy thinking about the meaning of Zen. Now, as he began to listen to the sound, his noisy mind subsided. At first he heard nothing. Then, his thinking gave way to heightened alertness, and suddenly he did hear the hardly perceptible murmur of a small stream in the far distance.

“Yes, I can hear it now,” he said.

The Master raised his finger and, with a look in his eyes that in some way was both fierce and gentle, said, “Enter Zen from there.”

The disciple was stunned. It was his first satori – a flash of enlightenment. He knew what Zen was without knowing what it was that he knew!

They continued on their journey in silence. The disciple was amazed at the aliveness of the world around him. He experienced everything as if for the first time. Gradually, however, he started thinking again. The alert stillness became covered up again by mental noise, and before long he had another question. “Master,” he said, “I have been thinking. What would you have said if I hadn’t been able to hear the mountain stream?” The Master stopped, looked at him, raised his finger and said, “Enter Zen from there.”

Excerpted from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth (2005, pg. 236-238).

Welcome to the Studio

3 Mar

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Welcome to the Studio. Please watch your head. We have canvas and paints and brushes. We have walls and lights and warmth. You have all the space you need. Your work here is your own.  Your time here will be short, so make the most of it.