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Courage Camp: Yes is the Answer

15 Aug

At the end of June I attended Courage Camp, in Avignon, France. In many ways and (to be truthful) quite unexpectedly, it was the start of something potentially transformational. I’ll share more and put it into a more professional context another time. What follows is my very personal reflection. Courage is a practice, and sharing something as personal as this here is part of my own process.


The answer is: Yes.

I’ve been thinking about the symbol I created to represent my personal courage and encapsulate the experience I was having at Courage Camp, in that time and place. And indeed, it was an at-the-moment manifestation of the internal movement that Courage Camp was provoking. The provocations continue, were I to be honest.

When the original idea was pitched – that we were all to develop our own symbol of courage to paint in semi-permanence on the wall – I had a notion about sowing seeds. Growth and renewal. Nurture and harvest. You know, all that crap. I did some sketches and felt settled on the idea.

But as the moment approached, I allowed something else to reveal itself.

  • Why was that particular song playing over and over in my head?

  • Why did the phrase I often use suddenly seem even more apt than ever? You can’t push the river.

  • Why was a blog post I wrote three years ago suddenly in mind? When you get to the fork in the road, take it.

  • Why do I so often say no to being courageous? What am I afraid of?

  • Why is David’s ghost hanging over me today?

Believe me when I say this is not like me. It is not. I closed my eyes and listened… Yes is the answer.


I lost David in December 2016 – truly a brother in every sense of the word but genetic. We’d been friends since we were 12. He died in a traffic accident in Uganda, while working on a documentary film about refugees from Sudan. He was the most courageous person I ever knew. He was also funny as hell, incredibly creative, and a real pain in the ass much of the time. He was a Yes Man.*

Want to take a road trip? Yes!

Jump off this cliff into the water? Yes!

Walk on the wrong side of the fence? Yes!

Go to Africa to make a film?

* I am very aware on the non-gender neutral term here. Since I am using it ironically to reflect off the original negative connotation of “Yes Man,” please forgive the anachronism. 


So, the symbol is a Y, of course. Yes.

Courage Symbols

But it is also a fork, and inflexion point, a decision to make and from which there is no return. Blue, the river flows and spills forward and down to the sea to be taken in by unimaginable vastness. I leave my mark on the wall. I may return to look at it again, but the moment will be gone. Yes is also a kind of impermanence.


There is an apocryphal story about the first time John Lennon met Yoko Ono. Yoko was already a known artist in the London avant-garde scene of the mid-60s (talk about courage – a single Japanese woman travels to London in the 1960s to be an artist!).  One the installations was a high-ceilinged white room with a nothing but a tall white ladder in the center. Above the ladder hung a magnifying glass. John climbed the ladder and used the glass to look at the black spot floating on the white ceiling: YES.

It made an impression. In 1973, he wrote Mind Games, the title song of his album of the same name. It is a beautiful piece, one of my favorite Lennon songs.  As the soundtrack in my head, that song left its mark on me that day in Avignon. The proof is on the wall.

Yes is the answer. You know that for sure. / Yes is surrender. You’ve got to let it go.


Addendum:

Mind Games was the first album that John Lennon produced on his own. To be honest, I think he covered up several beautiful songs with overproduction and unneeded flourishes. It’s my opinion to take or leave.

I have been playing Mind Games (the song) on my guitar for many years, and so I include my own version of it, recorded just here and now (18 July, 2018; Geneva), on my phone with my travel-sized Martin guitar.

I encourage you to listen to the original if you are unfamiliar with it. John Lennon’s was a beautiful voice, instantly recognizable and unlike any other. I believe he, too, was a Yes Man.

Me? A work in progress.

Is It Really Property? What’s the Expense of Guarding It?

12 Mar
  • The future is unknown.
  • Specific goals should change frequently. Whatever you think you are working towards at present will be different a year from now (and if it’s not, ask some deep questions).
  • Learning is acquiring and applying skills so that individuals become skilled at sense-making from abundance.
  • Value is accrued by sharing freely across, between and beyond specific organizations.
  • Workers should discover, test, elevate and discard new ideas and processes.
  • Trust is the lifeblood of modern work.
  • Creativity > Skills: What you can learn above what you know; synthesis over distillation.

I have been thinking about these ideas for quite some time. I read, write, discuss and promote ideas about organizations, and the ways in which individuals move through and beyond them. The power of networks and worker mobility have altered the ways in which we need to organize ourselves and develop our professional skills.

I am not alone, nor breaking vast areas of new ground. I owe much to others whom I follow and learn from. (See @BenCpdx to see whom I connect with.) This is the model I build on.

Learning Age

As I consult with organizations, I get two common push-backs:

  1. What about protecting intellectual property (IP)?
  2. How can we (our organization) maintain focus on our goals if we allow a free-for-all of exploration and individual sense-making?

This post will focus on IP. I will follow up with the organizational goals in my next post.

I find people often confuse smart ideas and clever people with actual “property.” Property represents specific, recognizable, and likely commercial products. That actually limits the conversation reasonably well. Because a team within your organization is working on a new product or service line does not mean that you need to guard a specific property. In those cases, I argue that transparency and working out loud (#WOL) will benefit progress much more than expose it to danger.

IP should also mean In Progress. Whatever you feel may your organization’s secrets, or the guarded technology that allows you to out-perform your competitors, are likely much less important than you think. We live in an era of constant change, and the value of any given IP is also in flux. Context and connection reign. Thriving organizations are more concerned with culture and process than with particular property.

Even in cases where one feels the need to protect patent information, in fact the reverse is often true. Joerg Thomaier, Chief IP Counsel at Bayer: “Greater transparency on the patents covering a product would avoid situations where companies inadvertently infringe our patents… the whole industry will need to embrace the idea [of] greater transparency.” In other words, the considerable time and cost into protecting and fighting for IP could be significantly reduced by transparency.

The core of the push-back lies in the us v them industrial view of business and the traditional command-and-control mechanisms of the late industrial age. Those days are fading into the past. Creativity, synthesis and transparency are the new lifeblood of the connected age (what I call “The Learning Age”). The work, then, is to develop the skills for people and organizations to thrive in the new era.

How Fast Can They Learn?

20 Jul

I’ve been part of a complex change initiative for the past 18 months or so, at a large legacy organization that is struggling to catch up to the realities of doing business in this century. By which I mean, in large part, to live and make use of the digital world we now inhabit. One of the primary things we are trying to do is to get people to think about their business data in different ways, and to unify standards of data across a far-flung enterprise.

speedometer-1063350_960_720People are asked to learn new tools and processes, the areas of traditional learning solutions. But also, to think about how their actions improve their teams, departments (lines of business) and client experiences, the ways in which they cooperate and collaborate, and the changing environment that is rolling out around them.

“So,” my client asks, “how quickly can we expect them to learn this?”

I completely understand how she believes this to be a straightforward question, driven by her “learning” budget. She struggled with my answer: “It will take as long as it takes. And it will take something like a lifetime.” I see how that is not a terribly satisfying or reassuring response.

So, I turn it back to her learning experiences. I asked her what kind of phone she had. An Apple iPhone 7, as it happens. “How long did it take you to learn how to use it?” She hesitates, and then answers that she learned how to use it in the first few minutes.

“OK, do you use it in the same way today as you did the first day you got it?”

“No, of course I discover new things and new apps and what I can do with it all the time.” She is starting to catch on to my line.

I get her to see that she has an internal motivation to continually learn its many features, discover new apps (mostly via word of mouth and observation – social learning!) and keep up with her peers, if not her children.

Right. I explain it is very much akin to the same thing.

We can train people on the new technology platforms up to an advanced-beginner level. However, unless they have the motivation to learn, internalize why they should do so, and start out on their own journey of discovery through social learning, peer support (or pressure not to appear behind, if you like) and organizational allowance that learning is as much about trial and failure as it is about success, they are unlikely to ever achieve a state where we can say, “Now they’re done learning.”

In fact, we need to reset hearts and minds to never say they’re done learning. We are teaching a set of technologies, it’s true. But to live and adapt to the modern workplace means learning that is much more like the iPhone than it is like traditional corporate training.

Learn the basics, observe what others are doing, share your own discoveries, and adapt and learn constantly. How will it take you to learn to use a computer? As long as it takes, and it takes forever. That’s the world we live in.

Exactly. That’s where Learning & Development needs to be. Training, sure, if it’s needed (none was needed for the iPhone because it was well designed). But training is the starting blocks. Our primary function is to teach people to be learners. Our organizations depend on it.

Lead with Training? Look beyond the recipe

15 May

I’ve seen it time and time again. An organization has a new technology, often joined with a new process and vision for processing, customer service, data alignment, sales, etc. The knock comes on L & D’s door, and we are thrilled to be able to get in on a new initiative without the baggage of poor performance leading the request.

But just as we should pause and assess if training is the part of the solution to substandard performance or a new change initiative, we need to also pause to think about the appropriate timing and type of training that will advance the strategy initiative. While it might seem counter-intuitive to those of us in the instructional design and training game, we need to think about training as an essential element in the organizational kitchen remodel — a part of a well-designed program, but not the driver.

OK, I’m not entirely sure a kitchen is the best analogy, but let that marinate with me for a moment. A kitchen needs a workflow plan, a place to store fresh and nonperishable items, ample space to store tools and cooking utensils, and a set of good cook books (explicit knowledge), at least until the cook moves through competence and proficiency to become an expert intuitive gastro-artist (implicit knowledge).

So, training can carry the novice cook along the path to competence, and even proficiency. However, if the goal is to build expertise, training can’t carry the load the full distance. Similarly, the training program, no matter how well designed and implemented, can’t deliver the tools, materials and setup necessary to get the anticipated results.

Cathy Moore has done some excellent work on how to evaluate the need for training to address performance issues. But what I’m suggesting here is to take that to another elevation: Even when training is part of the issue, are the conditions for applicable success present? Seen this way, each training design should be a mini (or full-blown) change management program. Per standard practice of change management, skills are an essential ingredient. But so too are organizational support, vision and incentives to follow through.

complex change matrix

Complex Change Management Matrix

So, if you are already in the discussion that Moore (and I) suggests, take it to the next logical step: How does training fit into the change the organization wishes to see?

We don’t spend the money to build a beautiful kitchen without the hope that we’ll become better cooks. But design and appliances don’t get us there. Neither will skills alone without the proper tools and support for experimentation, failure and improvement.

Yogi’s Fork: Take it

8 Oct

Yogi Berra, the great baseball player, admired public figure and philosopher of the common man, recently passed away. Famous for his many aphorisms, there is one in particular that applies well to how individuals and organizations operate in the digital age (what I call The Learning Age): “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”

While this could be interpreted a number of ways I suppose, I’ve always taken it to mean that action is better than inaction. Making a decision can be as important as making the right decision, at least in most circumstances. That is, if we do the work of reflection, documentation, and in so doing allow it to inform what we do at similar forks in the future, that is the most important action.

I wrote about this some time ago, but it is worth revisiting.

While it’s of course ideal to make evidence-based, informed decisions when possible, we live in a world of novelty and experimentation. We are constantly faced with decision points that are unlike those we have encountered previously. The worst thing we can do is to be paralyzed by indecision. Make a choice, note how and why you made that choice so that you can create your own evidence for next time. Then, do your best to make the decision work as best as possible. That way, once we are past the fork, we have a trail of actions and outcomes that we can reflect on the next time we face a similar divergence on our path (and there will be many!).

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline and elsewhere, talks about a double loop of learning, and if we want to dress up our Yogi’ism we can overlay Senge’s principle to it. Take the fork, make the choice, but use the data you collected from previous choices to consider the assumptions and underlying reasoning that steer things left or right, and build your next decision on the knowledge (living in the people, the outcomes and the technology at hand) to create a constant updated loop of what you know and you apply it.

Individuals and organizations need to thrive in a constantly-changing set of circumstances. If we wait for the perfect choice to reveal itself before acting, we are doomed to the dustbin. Act based on the information at hand, and learn from the outcome(s) for the next fork.

There are no “wrong” choices. Mistakes are fine, just remember what Yogi said: Losing only happens because “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Rest in peace, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra.

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