Creativity, Change, and the Edge of Chaos

Not so long ago I wrote about chaos and our fear that chaos is the only possible outcome – and a negative one at that – of trying something new. In that post I wrote about the importance of suspending disbelief in the idea of a positive outcome. (You can read that post here.) I even went so far as to suggest that Chaos is not necessarily bad, at least as a transitional state.

Well, in a recent blog post at Rise of the Innerpreneur, Tara Joyce writes that Chaos is the result of too much structure – and the result of too little structure. What? Chaos as a result of too much structure? That’s right. Most of us would probably accept without a second thought the idea that Chaos is at least a possible result of too little structure.  But with too much structure, a system strangles and the system fails, also leading to Chaos.

When a structure is changed or taken away, we fear chaos. I wrote about this in another blog post about my recent experience with circles. At a recent conference that was held in Open Space format, the typical conference structure did not exist. But that lack of structure did not result in Chaos: “It was somewhat uncomfortable, at least initially, for those who are more comfortable with Structure – even if they admitted it was only so they could resist that structure – but there was no Chaos.” There was likely no Chaos because the old, rigid structure was replaced with a different structure. Even a change of structure can feel like chaos must be just around the corner. But we have to live at the edge of chaos in order to change.

Tara makes an excellent point:

“Living at the edge of chaos

This is where life and creativity exist. They can’t be limited by too much structure or failed to let unfold in the moment through too much planning.

It’s a process of listening to, and trusting in, the ideas within us; then revealing those ideas through our action.”

I love that. The edge of chaos as an ideal state. In order to grow, in order to thrive, we must live at the edge of chaos, whether in business or elsewhere in life. I would also submit that living at the edge of chaos is an antidote to tunnel vision, which is a symptom of too much structure – in thinking and beliefs, and in human systems.

In my earlier post I proposed that Chaos is not necessarily a bad thing – as a transitional state. You know how when you start a major house-cleaning project, it always looks worse than when you started? That is Chaos as a transitional state. But maybe it is really the edge of chaos – it simply brings Chaos from being part of the wallpaper to being front-and-center while a new order is created.

At the end of my earlier post, I asked these questions:

Can we suspend our disbelief in the possibility that the outcome of trying something new can be anything other than anarchy, failure, or ridicule?

Can you suspend your disbelief long enough to give it a try?

Now I reframe those questions: Are you willing to live at the edge of chaos in order to make a space for creativity, change, growth?

And I add this question: Are you willing to help others step out onto the edge?

Coincidences and Beliefs and the Importance of Why

I have learned to pay attention to coincidences. If something comes up multiple times within a short time frame, it gets my attention.

Many people rely on the Rule of Threes, or the idea that things happen in threes. But when it comes to coincidences, I am willing to stand up for things happening in pairs. After all, if you think about someone, and then they call you, aren’t you usually willing to say, “Wow, what a coincidence! I was just thinking about you!”

In fact, just the word “coincidence” points to a minimum of only two events. “Co” means “with” or “together,” and “incidence” means “to fall on.” So only two events happening together can be a coincidence.

This may not appeal to statisticians who look for at least five data points in a certain direction before they are willing to pronounce the existence of a trend. (That’s for another blog.) But I submit that it only takes a couple of incidents to get my attention, and a pattern of events really gets my attention. It doesn’t have to be trend, just a Coincidence in order to make me stop and ask questions. A Stereophonic Theory of Incidents is fine with me – I don’t require Quadraphonic Incidents or Surround Sound when it comes to noticing something and making me wonder.

Case in Point: Multiple Events have come up recently that asked me to stop and think about my beliefs and the effect of my beliefs on my actions.

In their Triple Impact Practitioners Programs, Michael Broom and Edie Seashore recently asked participants (including me) to stop and think about their beliefs about support that guide their behavior about getting support for themselves. Hmm. Then we were asked to consider where those beliefs may have come from and whether they are appropriate now. Hmm.

Then, within only a few days, Marcia Wieder, in her Dream University’s “90 Days to Transform Your Life” program, asked participants to articulate their beliefs around their dreams, and to think about whether they are limiting beliefs or empowering beliefs. Hmm.

Double Hmm. Within only a few days, I have been asked to stop and think about my beliefs, many of which I take for granted, and how they affect my actions and the choices I make. That was enough of a coincidence to really get my attention.

If we take some beliefs for granted, how do we even identify them? How do we bring them forward, or to the surface, so we can look at them objectively?

I think that asking the question “Why?” is a great tool for this. If I make a statement, or a decision, or a choice, such as “I couldn’t possibly do that,” “I must do X,” “That person will or won’t do that,” or “The universe works this way,” and then I ask myself “Why?” (or “Why Not?”), the answer is probably a Belief. It may be helpful (or even necessary) to ask “Why?” several times to get to the core belief. (Or the Root Cause, in the language of various Quality programs, although they do not typically talk about Beliefs. Consider the “5 Why’s” of Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing.) Once that core belief is uncovered, I can then ask myself why I may have adopted that belief, whether I really believe it, and whether it still makes sense.

This can be a very useful practice for identifying why I may say one thing but do something else, or why I may have trouble with X, Y or Z. It can help me to be authentic, to be the author of my own life. It can help to shine a light on the beliefs at the root of tunnel vision. Because the truth is, we can choose what we believe, once we stop and think about it. Coincidences may make us sit up and notice things, but we do not believe things because of coincidences. We believe things because we choose to accept them – or not.

If you are facing a stumbling block in some part of your life, whether it is a pattern of events that trouble you, or a project that has gone poorly, or a relationship isn’t what you would like, or you are stuck in some way, think about the statements you have made about it and then ask yourself “Why?” Then ask “Why?” about the answer. Take the elevator to the ground floor and see what is there when the doors open.

It might be scary, and you may feel like you don’t have a net. Don’t worry, we’re here to catch you.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking

Yes, Systems Thinking. Disguised as chess.

One of the great challenges that faces small business people – and big business people – is tunnel vision. Ever wondered how it can be dangerous, and how you can overcome it? Consider the following…

I’m reading “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.” No, I’m not a brainiac. I’m just a person who has taken up chess again after more than 30 years and I’m tired of getting my pants beaten off. So my chess partner recommended this book, and after a few more humiliating defeats I went out and bought it.

I go to bed with Bobby Fischer. I ride the train with Bobby Fischer. And I have to say, this is a great book. It’s very simple, consisting of picture after picture of scenarios where you’re asked to identify whether or how one side could either checkmate the other or escape checkmate. You’re given the answer on the next page.

Like I said, very simple. My six year old niece could probably absorb this very quickly and then she could beat my pants off, too.

Well, I’ve been reading the book, and one of the key lessons that are being pounded into my head is to remember to Watch The Entire Board. Brilliant strategies fail miserably when you overlook the one thing in that corner over there and a Bishop zooms in and takes your Queen. Ouch!

I was struck by another important lesson the other day. Bobby and I were taking the train into the city, and I was getting a lot of the answers right – more than half, anyway. There was one scenario where I was pretty sure the answer was, “No, White can not checkmate” Black in this scenario. I turned the page and…. Doh! Wrong again! What? Surely not! Oh. Again I was looking at the board with tunnel vision, thinking about the possibilities only in certain ways, and I completely forgot that a Queen can move diagonally as well as forward and backward. Doh! That’s pretty basic.

And so I would have missed an opportunity to solve a situation quickly because I forgot about the capabilities of one of my pieces.

Which made me think: How often do we in organizations fail to utilize all of the talents of the people on our teams because we overlook their ability to move diagonally as well as up and down? How often do we limit ourselves by forgetting our own capabilities? How often do we miss opportunities because we don’t even see the opening in that corner? Or we see it, but think, “Oh, I can’t do that” or “I don’t know anyone who can help.”

If you’re feeling stuck or at a loss for ideas, I highly recommend that you spend $7.99 on “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” – and that you read it. Not so you can obliterate your opponent, or even avoid getting shellacked by your opponent. But it may change the way you look at situations and people – including yourself.

And you’ll look like a brainiac on the train.

You Want to Start Your Own Business? Are You Crazy?

Whether you want to have more control over your own life, or you have a great idea that no one could implement quite like you, or because you’re fed up with job hunting, if you’re considering starting your own business you are not alone. But there are a lot of people out there who will tell you you’re crazy. Some of those voices may be in your own head!

Marcia Wieder, a coach, author and trainer, speaks eloquently about the importance of listening to, not silencing, your inner Doubter. But you have to learn to recognize whether that whisper of doubt is simply an obstacle that requires a strategy, or a belief (“I’m not creative,” “I could never do that,”) that just needs to be questioned.

Another resource I have found tremendously helpful is Naomi Dunford’s IttyBiz website. Naomi specializes in helping small businesses with marketing themselves. She writes eloquently and hilariously about the bliss and the terror that many of us with an “IttyBiz” feel. (Warning: Naomi has a potty mouth, and she’s proud of it. Please don’t let it deter you.) I tripped over her website through a link on another website, and I got hooked. And I have now purchased several of her products. Not only because they’re great, but because she’s been there. Here. Where we are. Where you might be.

Starting your own business is not, by definition, crazy. “Crazy like a fox,” maybe. Here’s the thing: Sometimes you have to know when to listen to others, and sometimes you have to know when NOT to listen to others. (Have you read my ebook? We talk about that, among other things.) And learn to be Crazy Like a Fox.

Stay tuned . . .

Opportunities for Inspiration Are All Around Us

Opportunities for inspiration are all around us if we are willing to try something new.

A new show started on HGTV earlier this year, “The Antonio Treatment.” The design star is a musician and former set designer, and he looks more like a biker than an interior designer. I love this show, because it is iconoclastic.

In one of the series’ first episodes, he brings in a friend who is a cartoonist, Steven Silber, to meet with the client, who is also a cartoonist. The client makes a comment about not having the courage to distort people’s faces (an important tool of the caricature artist). Silber’s response was great. He said, “Sometimes something that may break your usual mindset is to use your opposite hand than what you’re usually using, and then you’ll do something completely different from what you’re used to doing.”

What a great reminder to just change things up a little bit to get very different results.

What a great reminder that even “creative people” need to spark their inspiration.

What a great reminder that even people who say, “Oh, I’m not creative,” can find inspiration in just doing something differently.

What can you do – or have you done – just a little differently in order to get your creative juices flowing?

I’d Love to Start My Own Business, But…

How many times have you said those words to yourself, or to someone else? If the answer is at least once, you’re not alone. But why do so few people take the plunge?

There are a lot of answers. One answer is security: Despite the common pitfalls of working for someone else, or for a big company, there is a great deal of appeal in knowing where your next paycheck comes from, in not having to go out and find your own health insurance, in not having to Sell (that’s a Four Letter Word). In not having to think much, really, about anything except the work itself. Is that a good enough reason to not take the plunge?

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone should go into business for themselves. For a lot of reasons. Only you can decide which are the right reasons to go into business or continue working for someone else.

But people do go into business for themselves all of the time. (And a lot of people are doing it right now.) Some are successful, some are not. Many are not successful the first time, but they keep trying. Others go back to The Corporate World.

If you are seriously thinking about launching your own business, there are a number of issues you will have to wrestle with, including being clear about why you want to do something this crazy, formulating your idea, coping with fear and uncertainty, dealing with isolation, accepting the fact that yes, you will have to Sell, balancing planning with action, and thinking about the type of business you want to run. (Hint: I don’t just mean your line of business or your niche. What kind of soul do you want your business to have?) Not to mention all of the traditional business issues like dealing with taxes, licenses, insurance, financial planning, and so on.

That list may be enough to make you thank your lucky stars for the boss you hate and the paycheck that’s too small and the benefits that are too expensive. Or make you call a recruiter instead of a CPA. But if you’ve thought that you might have a great idea for a business, or at least you’ve got a solid platform of experience that you could use in your own business, and you are willing to wrestle with this stuff, stay tuned. We’ll talk more in the coming days and weeks about these issues and about some of the other things to keep in mind as you consider taking the plunge, and I’ll share some of the things I’ve found helpful as I have gone down that path myself.

Stay tuned…

Life’s ABCs – About Blindspots and Change

Once Upon a Time, I was preparing a presentation for a group of IT students. The topic that had been given to me was, “This Isn’t Your Father’s Career” (a reference to a car ad at the time). A keystone of my presentation was the importance of being able to effectively deal with change: Technology changes every fifteen minutes, and one must be able to roll with the changes, so cultivating the ability to cope with change would be a key factor in their future success.

Silly me, but I was surprised that they just gave me blank looks when I presented this idea. I still don’t know if it was because their lives had been so full of change so far – changing classes every semester, changing family structures, changing majors – that they just took change for granted, or because their lives had been so stable that they couldn’t even imagine the types of change they would be facing. Both groups probably had a number of surprises in store for them later in their lives.

The reason I am telling you this story is that I realized something important when I was preparing for this presentation. I saw myself as being very good at coping with change; I had moved around the country several times, I had started several new jobs quite successfully, and I was a change agent in most of those jobs. The great realization, however, was that I was really good at dealing with change – as long as it was my idea. I realized that in many cases where a change wasn’t my idea I had to take some time to get used to the idea, to internalize it. Then I was great at implementing it and making it work. But not always right away.

The beauty of this realization was that once it dawned on me, it became easier for me to deal with changes that were not my idea. What had once been a blind spot was now visible to me.

I think that I am not alone in this. In the course of managing programs, facilitating meetings or providing career counseling to others when we are often discussing changes of one kind or another, I can see when people get that overwhelmed, Deer-in-the-Headlights look. People often say to me, “I’m not good at dealing with change.” Or, they’ve said, “I’m great at dealing with change, I specialize in facilitating change.” Either way, when I tell them my story, people invariably stop, giggle and blush, and then often break out into laughter. They nod appreciatively. And they relax.

Dealing with change instigated by others – or by fate – requires us to acknowledge that we don’t control everything. We do, however, get to control how we respond to the change. Am I going to resist? Am I going to take the role of victim? Or am I going to take ownership of how I respond?

The other important thing I realized is that if I am not alone in how I deal with changes that aren’t my idea, I must be more sensitive to the impact on others of the changes I instigate. That is easier said than done.

How do you feel about change? Do you welcome it? Do you instigate it? Do you drag your feet? Do you drag others along with you, kicking and screaming? Answering these questions honestly may help us all as we move forward through these interesting times.

PS – If you’re dealing with major changes right now, you might be interested in my e-book, “Remember to Look Up: 35 Tips for Making a Comeback in Your Job, Career or Life.”

What Spiders Can Teach Us About Building a Great Team

I know, you’re thinking, “But spiders are solitary creatures. What can they teach us about building a great team?”

About 15 years ago I rented an 18-foot truck, my sister and I loaded it up with the contents of my storage locker, and we set out to drive it from Seattle to Minneapolis. Yep, two chicks on cross-country trip. (In a truck, no less.) Although there were no guns and no convertibles, the comparisons to Thelma and Louise were endless.

Well, we had been on the road for a short while and I was behind the wheel, happily driving along, when one of us turned on the air conditioning.

And a bunch of spiders blew out at us.

I hate spiders. They are the only thing I know of that will make me scream. So you can imagine what happened: I immediately screamed and started brushing away spiders.

While I was driving.

Luckily for me, my sister is not afraid of spiders and never has been. In fact, she was My Protector growing up, as she was the one who would capture the wolf spiders that inhabited our old house and release them outside. (Of course, I think she’s also the reason I’m afraid of spiders, since she put a daddy-long-legs on my neck when we were playing Truth or Dare or something when I was very little.)

Anyway. My sister could have grabbed the wheel, but instead she very calmly (at least in comparison) said, “You drive, I’ll take care of the spiders.” And I did. And she did. We still laugh about that sometimes (and I get the heebie-jeebies).

“But what,” you might ask, “does that have to do with building a great team?”

Well, think about it. My sister and I are a great team, and we were an especially great team at that moment, because we had different strengths. I was able to remain (relatively) calm and keep driving even with the heebie-jeebies, and she was able to restrain what would have been a natural impulse to grab the wheel and instead dealt with the spiders. Imagine the consequences if neither one of us was able to deal with the spiders, or if I was not able to maintain my composure and keep driving, or if she had tried to grab control. Great teams are composed of people with complementary skills. Even members of teams that appear to all do the same thing, say, the Rockettes, have different responsibilities. After all, someone has to be the pivot person on the end, right? (Never having been a Rockette, I’m just guessing. But you get my point.)

The great challenge in building a team with complementary skills isn’t just that, however.

The First Great Challenge of Building a Great Team: Avoid the temptation to hire people just like you.

The Second Great Challenge of Building a Great Team: Anticipate the surprise scenarios and plan for them by putting in place the people who can handle them.

My sister and I didn’t plan to have a nest of spiders come blowing out into our laps, of course. (Seriously, I would have asked for a different truck, thank you very much.) You can’t plan for everything. But knowing you have people on your team with a variety of skills and personalities that can cover a lot of possibilities not only makes your team stronger, it also makes life a lot more interesting.

Do you agree?

Can Webinars Ever Replace In-Person Training?

Although the technology and platforms for teleconferences, webinars and online meetings have improved dramatically in the recent past (Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, and are just a few examples), the question still comes up: Can virtual training and meetings ever replace the in-person experience?

The answer is, of course, “No.” Before you proponents of virtual meetings begin howling, however, let me say that I also support and use these new technologies. These tools have made it possible for people from around the globe connect and participate in meetings and training that they would otherwise not have access to, and they have allowed me to build relationships with colleagues whom I have never met – in person, that is. I have colleagues with whom I have formed virtual relationships in Pakistan, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland, not to mention Maryland and South Carolina. I marvel – and am grateful – that this is even possible.

Granted, virtual meeting rooms present certain challenges: It can be difficult to obtain visual clues about how event participants are feeling, their level of engagement, or even who is speaking or wants to speak. It is not only difficult but impossible to engage in the physical actions that contribute to relationship building: Signs of respect such as a handshake, a bow, a kiss on both cheeks, and signs of support and affection such as a hug or even a pat on the shoulder or back. It is also far more challenging to sit on a conference call for eight hours than to sit in a room with a group of people for eight hours.

These gaps can make not only participation and facilitation challenging but can also inhibit valuable bonding and expressions of respect. These challenges require new processes to bridge those gaps and even new etiquette.

It has been very interesting for me to participate in and to help plan a variety of webinars in the last year, and I have observed a lot of creative uses of technology to replace in-person interactions, such as:

  • Using “chat” features to give participants the opportunity to introduce themselves;
  • Using those same “chat” features and “raise hand” features to allow participants to submit questions;
  • Using polling to gather feedback and test knowledge; and
  • Using discussion forums to provide participants with an opportunity to interact with one other between and after sessions while digging into and reinforcing the material presented.

A prime example is the new series of courses being presented by Michael F. Broom of The Center for Human Systems. Michael and his colleague, Edie Seashore, have for years been presenting a variety of in-person programs ranging from short workshops to their multi-session Triple Impact Practitioners Program. These programs have been very popular with their participants, but even these in-person programs have a downside: It is challenging for people in all but a few locations to get to them, and it is challenging for the presenters to get to all of the locations where there are people who want to attend.

For this reason, Michael is launching “Making OD Work[1], a new series of courses that will be conducted virtually using a combination of technologies. The webinars will be conducted using conferencing software that allows for visual presencing by participants with web cams, presentation of audio-visual aids by the presenter(s), dialogue between the presenter and participants, chat between the presenter, the participants, and subgroups, and small-group breakout sessions. Between webinars, participants will have in-depth discussions via private discussion group software – making possible the deeper exploration of topics, enhanced learning, and relationship building that are hallmarks of in-person events.

Are such events the same as the in-person experience? Of course not. Do they allow for the same duration and intensity as the in-person experience? No. But in this age where the world is getting smaller and smaller and yet we are still often thousands of miles apart, these technologies are making meeting, learning and bonding possible in ways that we could only dream of a few years ago.

What new processes and etiquette would you like to propose to enhance effectiveness and engagement in virtual events?

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I am a part of the team that has been developing and promoting this program.

Grassroots Change

Although I had met her twice before, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the 2010 BAodn conference with Beth Waitkus, the director of the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison, and I was struck by the profound nature (no pun intended) of what she and the program’s volunteers, supporters and inmate participants are doing.

Beth is a quiet, dignified and unassuming person, but I had the distinct impression that she is completely present to whatever she is doing and whomever she is with.

We were in an “open space” discussion group that had been convened on the subject of getting “regular people” involved in processes. Beth spoke eloquently about the participants in the IGP and the stages they go through in becoming involved and engaged in their classroom and “business” discussions. It seemed to me that an important aspect of the process was the earning of the participants’ trust that it was safe to speak honestly and that their input was valued. A transformation occurs as participants learn to not only value and respect their own input but also that of others.

This would be a significant accomplishment in a business setting, where there can be many obstacles and barriers to engaged participation, but in a prison setting it is nothing short of astounding. And it shows us that even when there are significant constraints, amazing things can be accomplished – like a dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, or a lily growing high in the crotch of a tree.

What, you might be asking, IS the Insight Garden Program? The Insight Garden Program (IGP) operates a 1,200-square foot organic garden in San Quentin’s medium-security prison yard. The IGP website says:

“The Insight Garden Program (IGP) provides rehabilitation to self-selected prisoners through the process of organic gardening. Through the act of caring for plants, the qualities of responsibility, discipline and mindfulness transfer to the interpersonal realm – by growing plants, people also “grow”… In our classes, men learn about landscaping and gardening, including (but not limited to): Planning, budgeting and design, irrigation, soil amendment, seasonal garden maintenance, and plant ID and propagation. By working in an organic flower garden, men also … (develop) an awareness of their connection to and impact on the world around them. They learn about the interconnectedness of human and ecological systems and how the principles of the natural world, such as diversity and cooperation, transfer to all levels of human systems.”

Pretty neat stuff, isn’t it? But it relies upon a fairly radical basic assumption, that the participants in the program can learn, can change, and have something worthwhile to contribute. That is radical in many organizations, let alone in a prison setting.

Has Beth made a significant change to the prison system? Hard to say. But programs such as this certainly give Sacramento something to think about. Has she made a significant change to one aspect of that system and, perhaps most importantly, to the lives of program participants and the systems they enter upon release? Yes, indeed.

Now that’s what I call a grassroots change.

If she can do that in a prison, perhaps there is hope for other organizations as well. I wonder…

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