Suspend Disbelief

We must suspend our disbelief in order to allow for the possibility that something new can be created.

I can’t remember where I heard or read it, but somewhere in my past someone said that the reason Theater works is because the audience is willing to suspend disbelief. Willing to forget that the people on the stage or the screen are actors, that it is a contrived situation, and accept the premise, at least for a little while, that what they are observing is somehow real.

I was reminded of this when I was writing a different essay on the importance of doing something in a new way in order to get a different result. In the process, creativity is sparked.

You know the saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Well, it occurred to me that in order to try something new, we have to suspend our disbelief in our ability to create something. Suspend our disbelief in the possibility of a better outcome. Suspend our belief in a negative outcome if we take a risk.

Negative outcomes such as a result that looks even worse than our previous effort. Negative outcomes such as people laughing at us. Negative outcomes such as an unknown result. (“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”) The unknown is scary. The unknown is outside of our control. The unknown is Chaos.

(If you grew up watching “Get Smart” like I did, then you might remember that the acronym for the Bad Guys’ organization was KAOS and the acronym for the Good Guys’ organization was CONTROL. Hmmm.)

In order to try something new, we have to suspend our disbelief and believe in the possibility of an outcome other than Chaos or, even more revolutionary, believe in the possibility that Chaos is not bad. At least not as a transitional state. Can we suspend our disbelief in the possibility that the outcome of trying something new can be anything other than anarchy, failure, or ridicule?

If you believe that trying something new will not result in something good, if you do not believe that it could result in something positive, can you suspend your disbelief long enough to give it a try?

You do it every time you go to the movies, and the result is that you co-create a different reality, even if only for a short time.

Imagine the possibilities if you were able to apply that in other areas…


Have you ever noticed how seemingly unrelated things connect?

Last week I attended an event in an ongoing series of VisionHolder calls sponsored by Craig and Patricia Neal’s Heartland Circle. This week’s event was an evening with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, co-founders of PeerSpirit, Inc. and co-authors of “The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair.” I have enjoyed several of these events in the past year, and this was no exception.

After opening the circle, Ann and Christine spoke about how they began using circles as a forum for teaching and conducting meetings, how they met and began working together, and some of the key facets of circle work. (Maybe “facets” isn’t the right word, since circles don’t have facets. Hmmm. How about points?)

Anyway, some of those points included the idea that the circle is the molecular unit of democratic practice; all members have a voice. They can remove divisions and do not allow differences to divide people. Anger can be expressed, if it is directed to the center where it can just be deposited and not directed across the circle at someone else. And when we focus on the issue we are gathered around today, “the sacred comes into the room.” (I thought this was a particularly moving idea; it was not about religion, but about something “entitled to reverence and respect.”

I was also struck by Christine’s description of how she began using circles in her teaching. She realized that her students were also teaching her and each other, and I was struck by the connection to Paulo Freire’s emphasis on the teaching model of “teacher-student and student-teacher.” (I am re-reading his book, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” for the first time in 30 years, and I am struck by the timeliness – or timelessness – of his thoughts, as well as how he has shaped my thinking.) Connection Number One.

Then on Friday I attended the annual conference of the Bay Area Organization Development Network (BAodn). For the first time the conference did not follow the traditional model with a keynote speaker and pre-defined sessions with expert speakers. Instead, the conference followed the “Open Space” model. There was a facilitator, but there was no set agenda and there were no “expert speakers.”

Instead, we convened in a circle (ah, Connection Number Two) and the facilitator, Lisa Heft, explained to us how the day would proceed. Anyone who had an issue or question they would like to have addressed in a session could come to the center, create a placard, and announce it to the group. They then selected which of three one-hour time slots they wanted their session to be in. When those who had created sessions were done, they were assigned meeting stations to convene their circles. (There it is again.) Then we began the first session and participants went to the session(s) of their choice. Each group was asked for a Note Taker and the notes were turned in at the end to be compiled into a Book of Proceedings that will be distributed to all participants. At the end, after all sessions were complete, the facilitator reconvened the great circle and each person had an opportunity to share a reflection on the day.

This was quite an interesting experience for me. 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. Every person’s expertise and desire to learn had a place; and all perspectives were welcome. The only barrier to being heard was one’s own barriers to speaking. There was a lot of sharing and learning and exposure to new ideas or tools, and I was struck by how many people said they found themselves having, and sharing, surprising insights.

I wonder about my recent experiences with these learning circles. They are not, at their core, new; as Ann and Christine said, such circles are archetypal, part of our cellular memory: Humans have been gathering around fires since there were fires and humans.

But why are they getting attention now? I wonder, is it just me paying attention? Or is it that at this point in time we are realizing that many of the “experts” have been wrong, or dishonest, and our answers have to come from each other – and from within?

It seems to me that these circles are like Four-Way Stops, which someone once said were one of the great examples of Civilization. Why? Because everyone generally agrees to abide by the rule without enforcement. There is the opportunity for Chaos, but it is avoided.

I wonder. And I look forward to doing more circle work.

What about you? Care to join me?

When Time Slows Down

I was talking to someone recently and she made a comment about how her kids had such a different sense of time – that asking them to wait five minutes was really difficult, that the idea of something happening next week was a really long time, and that waiting for a future event that was a month or a year away was like an eternity.

We wondered: Is this because they have such a short time frame for reference? A year to a 9-year-old is 1/9th of her life. Or is it just because they are so in-the-present?

This conversation reminded me of the time after my husband died five years ago. The idea of living the rest of my life without him was too huge and too horrible to contemplate, so I focused on today. Right now. Putting one foot in front of the other. These 24 hours. One day at a time. I can do Now, I thought. And I did. I could think about tomorrow, but the coming weekend was a stretch. When my mother asked in the autumn if I was coming to Seattle for Christmas, I had to explain that I literally could not think that far in the future.

Did I become child-like for that period?

As I healed, I was conscious of times when I was able to schedule something for the weekend, plan a pot-luck a month in advance, think about a trip to Seattle for my newest nephew’s christening.

In his terrific essay, “What Startups Are Really Like,” Paul Graham ( writes about what founders of startups reported that most surprised them about the process. In Surprise #2, “Startups Take Over Your Life,” one writes, “I think the thing that’s been most surprising to me is how one’s perspective on time shifts. Working on our startup, I remember time seeming to stretch out, so that a month was a huge interval.” Paul attributes this to the fast pace of life in a startup, “which makes it seem like time slows down.”

As we move faster, does time slow down? The theory of relativity tells us that the closer to the speed of light an object travels, the more time slows down for it so that an astronaut who returns to earth after a long trip at the speed of light will have aged more slowly than his twin brother who remained on Earth.

Does life seem fast-paced to children? Is that why time moves so slowly for them? Do we move more slowly as we age, so that it seems to pass more quickly?

Are entrepreneurs like children? Non-entrepreneurs might glibly say Yes, but I’m serious here. Is there a child-like quality that entrepreneurs share with children related to how they perceive life?

When people are faced with changes that they have to get used to, and there is newness, and the world shifts, how does this affect how they perceive time? Are they dropped back to a child-like state until they can grow into the change? Does consciously fostering a child-like sense of wonder make coping with change any easier?

These make for interesting considerations for those of us who are change agents – considerations about how those impacted by changes perceive time and about how they react. What do you think?

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Influence: The Power of the Process

Whether or not one supports the recent health insurance reform legislation, it does provide an opportunity to pause and consider the immensity, complexity, and necessity of the process.

The process of persuading, cajoling, negotiating, influencing, listening, and renegotiating to convince enough people to embrace a change. A change that starts as an idea, and then the possibility of a reality, and then a reality.

Only rarely does someone with an idea present it to unanimous acceptance – especially if the idea represents something new, a change, a departure from the status quo. This is true in all environments, whether politics, business, social services, academia, or even family life.

Especially in situations where individuals in a group embrace competing interests or espouse a broad spectrum of views, it is a challenge to bring people together behind an initiative.

How do you influence decision makers, champions and worker bees to support an idea or an initiative?

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The Art Part

Back in the mid-1990’s I discovered “Inside the Actors Studio” on the Bravo network. And I became addicted. Not addicted to watching Movie Stars reveal Juicy Tidbits about their lives (although they certainly did). I became addicted to watching people talk with passion about their craft. Whatever it was.

They talked about the scientific steps that they followed that allowed them to get their arms around a character, or get into a certain mood. But they also talked about the magic, the Art, that happens, the strokes of insight that can be acted upon when they have done The Work and exercised their mental and emotional muscles enough to be ready.

This fascinated me, and part of the reason was that I got it. I understood the relationship between Art and Science in my own work.

I was working at the time as a recruiter, a job that definitely required both Art and Science in order for the recruiter to be successful. We were taught that there were specific steps in the recruiting and placement process that, if followed, would make us successful. But I also learned that there was an Art part that also played a crucial role.

For example, if I followed the process for asking certain questions in an interview, I would find out the information I needed to be able to know if someone had the experience for a certain role. But by paying attention to how they answered, and by digging a little deeper, I could get a pretty good sense for whether they would do well in a certain environment or rise to the challenge of a particular opportunity. If I made enough calls I would find a company that needed a person, but how could I convince a hiring manager that she should at least interview this candidate even though he wasn’t a perfect fit because I knew how strong he was in these other areas? I could find a person that had the skills that matched a job requisition, but how could I convince her to meet with me if she was happy with her current job? That’s the Art Part.

I was reminded of this recently when I read an interview with Seth Godin about his new book, “Linchpin” (which I am reading). The interviewer brought up that in his book, Seth states that we are all Artists. “Wait a minute,” you’re thinking, “I’m not Creative.” I hear people say that a lot. And you know what? I don’t believe you.

Think about what you do, whether it’s your career, or something else – tennis, golf, gardening, chess, parenting. What’s the Science part? And what’s the Art Part?

Are you taking it for granted?

Is the Art Part missing?

Is that ok with you?

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How Do Our Expectations Shape Our Reality?

This morning I got up to the sound of rain falling. This made me glad, as my plants need watering.

But when I opened the drapes and looked outside, the streets were dry. What?

The wind was blowing strongly, though, and tree branches were waving and dancing in the wind. It is Spring, and the trees have only recently leafed out. I realized that the sound the leaves make in the wind is very different from the sound bare branches make in the wind.

The weather reports had predicted rain, so I expected it. And I misinterpreted what my senses told me because of my expectations.

I wonder: How often do we misinterpret data, whether provided by our senses or by numbers and reports, because of what we expect? How often do our expectations shape our reality?

If I believe that all sales people are solely motivated by money, then I will only create programs that generate behaviors that reinforce my belief. If I believe that people of a certain skin color or ethnic background behave in a certain way, then I will only notice those examples that fit in with my beliefs and use them to reinforce and serve as demonstrations of my beliefs – even if those examples are really only a small minority.

It isn’t until the curtains are opened and it is proven to me that the streets are actually dry that I realize it really isn’t raining.

Sometimes what we think is sound and current data (the sound of rain falling) really is sound and current data about something else (the sound of wind in the trees). How can we effectively interpret the data we are receiving?

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March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking

Disclaimer: I know very little about sports like basketball and baseball, and I am likely to show more about what I don’t know than what I do know. But here goes.

Recently I was watching my favorite news show (Charlie Rose, who is a big basketball fan), and the first topic was an analysis of the Final Four. Which teams had the best players, the best coaches, the best strategies, the best teamwork. And it occurred to me that basketball is really about Systems Thinking.

There are a lot of skills that are required in basketball, including the individual skills like shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, and so on. There are a lot of interpersonal skills, whether offensive, like passing, or defensive, like guarding. But what really makes a team work is teamwork. Systems Thinking.

Thinking about things like, Where are the other players on my team at every given moment? Where are the players on the other team? Where are they likely to go next? Oh, and Where is the ball in relationship to all of those people? What are the possibilities if we can get the ball positioned over here instead of over there? What are the possibilities if the other team moves it this way rather than that way?

It isn’t just about “How do I get the ball?” or “What do I do once I’ve got the ball in order to get the shot?” It’s about “Where do I need to be whether I’ve got the ball or not?” and “What series of moves do we need to make together even it if means somebody else takes the shot?” and “How do we close the gap so the other team can’t take the shot?”

Systems Thinking.

Baseball is a little different, because there isn’t the constant opportunity for turning over from defense to offense and back again at any given moment. An entire team is on defense and one person on offense has the opportunity to hit the ball. The defensive players just have to be ready to catch the ball and get it to the right place to throw the runner out. (I know, I just ignored the crucial role of the pitcher in keeping the batter from hitting the ball in the first place.) This becomes increasingly complex, however, when the offensive team has runners on base. The pitcher has to anticipate who might try to steal, and the other defensive players have to be ready if the ball comes to them and choose the most important position to get the ball to in order to throw a runner out. It’s even harder when there is a series of actions that need to happen – in the right order – and this is why a triple play is so exciting.

Systems Thinking.

Do you find yourself standing in the outfield, terrified you’ll drop the fly-ball? Or even more terrified you’ll catch it and have to decide where to throw it next? Are you a player who only thinks about rushing the ball to the basket and taking the shot? Do you, as a manager, have a team that runs smoothly, passing the ball and being able to effectively assess where it needs to go next based on constantly changing scenarios? Or is your team so mired in process that they can’t respond quickly to changing conditions? Are they all individual contributors, some always taking the ball, some never even thinking about where the ball came from or where it goes once they pass it? Are they terrified if it comes to them?

A player who lacks individual competence and confidence will likely only think systemically in order to protect him or herself, whereas a player who has individual competence and confidence may not think about the rest of the system at all.

Systems Thinking. It requires a level of individual competence and confidence from each of the players, and it also requires thinking about the other parts of the system and the ability to think forward in time.

How good is your team at it?

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Voting with Our Feet

I recently watched an interview with novelist and poet Louise Erdrich. Born and raised in North Dakota, Erdrich is part Ojibwe, part French, and part German.

In the interview, she commented on “the deepest trust” that Native Americans place in the American Government. This is in spite of all of the broken promises and past attempts to dilute, and even wipe out, native cultures.

It occurred to me that they must believe in the noble principles upon which this country is founded, even though those principles are imperfectly applied and protected.

It takes a lot of courage and faith to see past failures and hypocrisy and to choose to embrace the values of a system that imperfectly embodies those values. To stay instead of leave, to strive instead of surrender, to speak instead of grumble.

And what struck me, also, is that I see this with companies. There are many companies with noble mission statements and values statements, but they vary in the degree of success with which they embody and apply those values. (They are, after all, filled with and run by human beings.)

I have often heard it said, “A company is not a democracy.” In most cases this is true. Except for one important thing: Every person who is part of a company has the ability to vote with his or her feet.

Think about the place where you work. Do you support its stated values? To what degree does the company live up to those values? To what degree does it say one thing but do something else? Are its decisions and actions consistent with those values?

You vote with your feet each day that you go to work. But in the thousands of little steps you take throughout each day, do you vote for striving, for improvement, for accountability, for excellence? Or do you vote for excuses, for abdication of responsibility, for safety?

In the last two years, the companies they worked for voted millions of people out. If you are among those millions, how are you voting with your feet now?

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