Tag Archives | Human Systems

Lost in Space


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I am a member of a group of Group Facilitators that meets once a month to share questions and ideas with each other. Members have a variety of styles and tools and specialize on various types of meetings and groups so, as you can imagine, the discussions are always lively and thought-provoking. I always learn something or come away with something to ponder.

Our last meeting was no exception. We covered a variety of topics which wove around and through each other, and I came away with a lot to think about.

A term I have heard used a lot in relation to facilitation is “holding space,” but the first time I heard it (when someone commented on my ability to “hold the space” for a group process) I had no clue what it meant. Over time I have begun to get my arms around it, but it has been a learning process.

At the last facilitators’ meeting, one of the things that kept coming up was this idea of “holding space.” Being a Word Geek, one of the things that struck me as we spoke about “holding space” was the similarity between the words “facilitate” and “facility.”

Yeah. One of those things that makes you say, “Hmmm.”

I think of a facility as a building in which something happens, and so as facilitators it makes sense that we become the facility – we hold the space or become the space – in which the discussion can occur. So I came home and looked up the words.

Wrongo!

According to various definitions (thanks to TheFreeDictionary.com),

  • Facility means “Ease in moving, acting, or doing; something that facilitates an action or process; something created to serve a particular function.”
  • Facilitate means “to make easier, assist the progress of.
  • Facile means “easy to perform or achieve,” and comes from the Latin “facilis” (easy) which comes from “facere” (to do).

Maybe not so Wrongo

Good facilitators make a discussion easier, assist its progress and, as a noun, facilitators are the thing that makes it easier. The facility in which it can happen.

At last I understand the concept of “holding the space,” although I’ve been told I’ve been doing it for ages.

Exercise

Think about some of the meetings you have attended (or attend, or lead). Are they primarily vehicles for disseminating information and/or collecting status reports? Are they discussions, with people actively participating? What does the facilitator do differently in those situations? Is the facilitator the center of attention, or is the discussion itself the center of attention? Are they meetings people look forward to? Does the group achieve it’s goal(s)? Or is the group lost in space?

The next time you plan a meeting, consider the goals of the meeting and the type of facilitation that would best help the group achieve those goals. Contact me at susan {at} susantblake {dot} com for more information!

Please leave a comment below!

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Image Credit: Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Curiosity in Action: Employee Engagement


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I was recently invited to a forum on Engaged Team Performance by one of the managing partners of Implementation Partners, Roland Cavanagh. I first met Roland two years ago, when I interviewed him for a research project.

The forum consisted of two presentations, one from a client and the other a company built from a similar vision,  about how they view employee engagement and how their efforts to apply Engaged Team Performance resulted in highly engaged, creative, even joyful, company cultures and enhanced the success of each company.

The two companies were, in some ways, very different. One was a relatively small, stand-alone company that was built from the beginning on its model of structure-supported creativity and interaction; this company’s story reinforced my belief that small companies have the potential to test theories and practices that can change the world.

The other company was a newer subsidiary of a much larger, older organization. As part of this larger, older organization, they had to overcome entrenched attitudes and habits: Speaking up and thinking creatively were not encouraged. Questioning was not encouraged.

For example, when looking for ways to streamline a particular process, they could have just automated it. Instead, they worked with the team members to investigate why things were done a certain way. Why do we do it this way? Does it have to be done this way?  How else might we accomplish this? What are the risks and benefits of making a change? Then they came up with a plan, one that was based on answers to questions, not generally accepted assumptions.

Within a larger culture of “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die,” this took some getting used to. It required trust-building.

But as they became more comfortable with this questioning approach, and with the follow-through on the answers, they questioned more and became more creative in their proposals for how they might do things differently. They implemented changes to the process that resulted in time savings that benefited the customer and freed up resources. Rather than cut head-count, they applied those human resources to other projects and initiatives, giving people even more opportunities for creative problem solving. It was more fun for them, and both their customers and the organization enjoyed the benefits.

It struck me, as they were describing this, that what I was hearing was a perfect demonstration of the importance of developing and applying curiosity. By creating a safe space and encouraging team members to exercise their curiosity, they became more comfortable with it and it became part of their culture. They were then able – and eager – to apply that curiosity to additional projects and creative endeavors.

When I brought this up and commended the presenters from this client company during the Q&A period, I was reminded by their blank looks that Curiosity is taken for granted and overlooked in most situations as the integral secret sauce that makes such initiatives successful.

In fact, “secret sauce” probably isn’t the best term to use. Curiosity isn’t a process or a methodology that needs to be learned. Instead, it is a muscle that every person brings with them, and organizations with engaged members encourage, even expect, those members to exercise that muscle.

I don’t think it was an accident that the presenters described environments that encouraged curiosity as part of their successful efforts to build Engaged Team Performance, even if they never used that term. I also don’t think I am looking for something that wasn’t there. But I noticed it, because I pay attention to this subject.

I’m looking forward to reading Building Engaged Team Performance, the new book by Roland Cavanagh and Dodd Starbird of Implementation Partners. Based on the case studies presented at this forum, I expect it to be a very interesting read – even if they never use the word “curiosity.”

What do you think? What role does curiosity play in engaged organizations (large or small)? What is the impact of the absence of curiosity or, worse yet, its being stifled?

Contests, Captains and Crashes


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There’s Big Stuff happening here at Susan T. Blake Consulting, with system crashes and their attendant learning opportunities, new programs, a Contest (scroll to the end if you can’t wait), and a new series of Guest Posts on Curiosity. Read On!!!

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Captains Curious

You may have noticed that on the last two Thursdays I have run guest posts on the subject of Curiosity, one of my favorite topics! (Click here to read them.) I’m thrilled to tell you that these are just the beginning of a weekly series!

After approaching several people and inviting them to participate, the response has been fantastic! There are several weeks of fun and thought-provoking posts ahead, with people in a variety of roles exploring why curiosity is important, what role it plays in their lives, when (and why) curiosity is challenging, and more.

Why am I doing this? Well, I am a big fan of Wonder and Curiosity. In fact, I’d go so far as to make two pretty bold statements:

Wonder saved my life.

-and-

Curiosity can save the world.

I believe curiosity doesn’t only help us to solve problems and be more creative and play well with others. Curiosity also can be used to understand ourselves better. And that makes it a pretty extraordinary Super Power – one each of us can access.

So, in the interest of broadening the discussion and bringing you more perspectives than just mine, I have launched a series of posts by curious guests – nicknamed the Captains Curious.

Are you curious? I hope that you will check back every Thursday for the next installment from the newest of the Captains Curious. (You can have these and my other blog posts delivered to via email or RSS by signing up in the second blue box at right.)

Meanwhile, I will continue writing about wonder, curiosity, business, nature, and other things, and making connections between them that I hope will help and entertain you. Whether you agree or disagree with something that’s been written, please leave a comment!

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Crash Course in (My Own) Process Improvement

Last week Susan T. Blake Consulting suffered a disastrous systems failure. Luckily, cool heads prevailed and all is now well. But important lessons (or at least reminders) came out of it that I want to share with you:

Our Operating System had fallen so far behind the current supported version that several vital pieces of business and communication software were no longer compatible, leaving us less and less able to connect effectively with colleagues around the world. After performing a back-up of the current system, the Operating System upgrade was initiated.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch 1893

It promptly crashed the system and wiped the hard drive.

After conferring with outside consultants with expertise not possessed by our internal team, the upgrade was completed.

Meanwhile, emergency meetings were held to assess the potential damage and establish a recovery plan (corrective action). The Disaster Recovery team went into action and quickly discovered that the systems backup was incomplete, as it only included data and not applications. A long process of re-installing original applications and then downloading upgrades, as well as re-downloading applications acquired online, was undertaken.

The CEO also called meetings of the C-level executives to address root cause(s) of the debacle, assess lessons learned and implement process improvements (preventive action):

  • The Chief Operating Officer assured the others that processes scheduled on external systems (blog posts and Tweets) were unaffected.
  • The Chief Information Officer confirmed that application software was available for reinstallation and that the Disaster Recovery team was busy with reinstalling, upgrading and testing applications, and that key data was safe and available for restoration.
  • The Chief Financial Officer reported that no hard dollars were lost due to the crash, but that soft dollars were certainly impacted due to lost productivity.
  • The Chief Risk Officer admitted that a Lessons Learned review had revealed that a poor planning process had allowed for only a partial backup, an oversight that is being corrected in a new backup plan.

After a long process of reinstalling applications, downloading upgrades, restoring data, and systems testing, the Distaster Recovery team announced that all systems were Go and the team was rewarded with a round of applause and a day off.

The moral of the story is four-fold:

  • Do regular system backups and always do a complete system backup before upgrading business critical systems.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from outside experts.
  • Be curious about the root causes of problems and accept and communicate Lessons Learned without blaming or scapegoating.
  • Remember to say Thank You to people and reward them for their efforts, even if they are “just doing their job.”

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Contest Time!

Last but not least, it’s Contest Time!

Is there something that has been tickling your mind or blocking your path? Something you would like to explore and hash out with a group of colleagues or trusted friends?

Do you need an objective third party to come in and facilitate, or provide a fresh perspective?

You’re in luck!

Enter to win a FREE* custom half-day workshop or retreat ($500 value)!!!

Whether you want to address a business challenge, or a career, spiritual, relationship, or creativity issue, or you just want a mental massage, I will work with you to identify the topic and desired outcomes and I will design a custom 4-hour workshop for four to eight people on the subject of your choice.

Simply send a short email to susan@susanTblake.com with the subject line “Contest Time!” In your email, please include your name, phone number, email address, City and State, and a brief description of the workshop or retreat you want to hold and why. The winning entry will be selected by a panel of judges.

Entries are due by Tuesday, April 19, 2011. Yes, you have one week!

*Entries will be accepted from all over, but entrants from outside the greater San Francisco Bay Area must assume travel and lodging expenses if their entry is selected.

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Meanwhile, you might be interested in visiting the blogs of Gwyn Teatro and Amy Oscar, who have written two wonderful posts that talk about Curiosity in very different contexts: Leadership and dealing with anxiety. Both are excellent!

Low Hanging Fruit – Part II


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My spontaneous post on Low Hanging Fruit has spurred all kinds of additional thoughts, and the committee in my head has jumped into the debate. Warning: They have no fear of mixed metaphors or clichés. (Luckily no monsters have shown up. Yet.) So pull up a chair and enjoy some Humble Pie and Resistance Crumble.

Why do I overlook Low Hanging Fruit? Is it because it is almost too easy, and I love a good challenge? After all, that looks so easy, somebody else must have done it already. Or, maybe it looks so easy because it is and no one else will find it interesting?

Or, maybe it only looks easy to you because of your unique superpowers that you take for granted?

Maybe I overlook that Low Hanging Fruit because I can see it up close and I can see the spots and worm holes. But that beautiful shining apple way up at the top of the tree looks perfect from down here.

Yes, and haven’t you learned from experience yet that once you get close to it, That Apple Up There has just as many spots, if not more? The apple is always greener. (Wait, that’s a mixed metaphor.) You know what I mean. Anyway, you can wash off the spots and eat around the worm hole on the apple down here, right now.

Maybe what makes this Low Hanging Fruit hang so low is that it is a little heavier from the weight of needing some resources (as in, help from other people). And being a good Taurus who stubbornly thinks I have to do everything myself, I would rather, well, be stubborn. About Doing. It. Myself.

But wait, this person has already given you some great feedback, and that person has offered to be your proofreader, and that person is really excited about doing the graphic design. What makes you think you’re doing this alone? Or that you have to?

Besides, you’re going to need help building a ladder to get to the top of the tree to reach that supposedly perfect apple way up there. Why not accept the help now?

I’m afraid that what makes that Low Hanging Fruit spotted and wormy is that it is so personal. What if I pick that fruit and hand it to someone and they say, “Eew!”?

Your apples are beautiful and organic and the spots are part of their charm. People want your apples because they are personal. And that’s what makes them different from everyone else’s.

Oh, and one more thing. If you insist on leaving that Low Hanging Fruit, you’re Leaving Money On The Table and someone else is going to Eat Your Lunch! Don’t Throw Out the Baby With The Bath Water! Get picking!

Sigh. I hate it when you’re right.

This slice of Humble Pie was brought to you by the Low Hanging Fruit Pickers Association.

Low Hanging Fruit


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I recently had a very interesting coaching session with a young man who has taken on a new role with a growing organization. He is new to the organization, and the role is new as well.

This is an exciting spot to be in, but it is challenging as well. I once worked for someone who used to say, “There is nothing more challenging than putting a brand new person in a brand new role.” It is challenging because it is difficult to tell whether issues that arise are related to the design of the role or the skills of the person. As any scientist will tell you, a well-constructed experiment only has one variable at a time.

So, he is in a challenging situation. He was telling me about his ideas for initiatives to be undertaken, and he has great ideas! But they are very grand. And all the bright and shiny opportunities are making it difficult to prioritize.

I asked him if he was familiar with the term, “Low Hanging Fruit.” “No,” he replied.

So I explained that an apple tree has fruit all over it, but we don’t have a ladder. We can either build a ladder now, which will take time, or we can pick the Low Hanging Fruit first. We can reach it now, and it is ripe. We’re hungry now, I said. “Yes!” he said, “Hungry and thirsty!”

“Then start with the Low Hanging Fruit,” I suggested. “What are the projects you can start with first and get some momentum, while building a ladder to get to the top of the tree?” And we began talking about the projects he can undertake immediately.

It occurs to me this morning that the same is true for developing products.

I am in a “mastermind” or “success team” group that meets, virtually, every week. Our mission is to support and hold each other accountable while we are building our businesses. As part of that, each of us is working on a Product of some kind. We are having some interesting conversations and some exciting breakthroughs!

And we face some interesting challenges, some of which are of our own making.

I wonder, to what extent are we – am I – forgetting to pick the Low Hanging Fruit, overlooking it because it is almost too easy?

Hmmm.

My late husband used to look at me sometimes and say, “I hate it when you’re right.”

This time I have to say, “Gah, I hate it when I’m right.”

What is the Low Hanging Fruit you are overlooking?

What Do I Do? I’m Glad You Asked That…


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This post comes to you in response to a challenge from blogger and IttyBiz marketing guru, Naomi Dunford. (You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to her read Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go.)

In her most recent blog post (which you can read here), Naomi challenged readers to answer a very scary question: What do you actually do? Although I do try to answer that on my About and Services tabs, here it is with a slightly different twist – with the questions provided by Naomi:

What’s your game? What do you do?

I wonder. No, really, not about what I do. That is what I do. I notice how things work, how people think and act, and how human systems work (or don’t work). I ask questions that make people think.

That’s a practice that could be extremely irritating if not used wisely. But I ask questions that give people ideas. And I create a safe space for them to answer those questions.

I apply that in a variety of ways:

  • I rock at facilitating group discussions and meetings, especially when it involves getting people’s creative juices flowing.
  • I write and analyze surveys, drive strategy planning projects, develop and present training, and provide individual and group coaching.
  • I write about these and other things that make me wonder and that I hope will inspire you.
  • Oh, and I’m a photographer on the side.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

I do it for a lot of reasons. I do love it; I’m naturally curious about – even fascinated by – people, nature, why things are the way they are. I want to share that wonder, and I believe it can open many doors.

And I do have a knack for usually asking the right question.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

Maybe I have a big head, but I think everybody needs what I offer.

Have you ever thought,

  • “Now what do I do?”
  • “I should get this, but it just isn’t coming.”
  • “It’s right on the tip of my tongue…”
  • “I wish I had someone to bounce this off of…”
  • “I’m pretty sure I know what they think, but maybe I should check. How do I ask?”
  • “I’m stuck,” “I’m trapped,” “I’m bored,” “I’m in a rut,” or…

Then I can help.

If you need someone to…

  • Come in and ask the questions that need to be asked, or
  • Help you to formulate the questions that will help you get useful answers, or
  • Maybe you want to have a team event that you can participate in without having to lead it…

Then I’m the one you want.

What’s your marketing USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?

Because…

  • I ask great questions that give people ideas.
  • I will tell you the truth.
  • I’ve been around, and survived a few things, and I know you can too.
  • I have a lot of tools in my toolkit, not just a hammer.
  • People say my meetings are fun.
  • I know the difference between being a Consultant and an Insultant.

What’s next for you? What’s the Big Plan?

In addition to helping more and more people build their curiosity muscles,

  • I’m developing a series of workshops on Asking Powerful Questions in both personal relations and business interactions.
  • I’m updating my ebook, “Remember to Look Up: 35 Tips for Making a Comeback.” The new version will include exercises to help you with some of the tips, and it will be ready by the end of November.

So there you have it. If any of this appeals to you and you’d like to talk to me about helping YOU out, click here. Or give me a call at (925) 580-6922. (I’m on Pacific Time.) You may also leave a comment if you have something to say but aren’t ready for us to work together.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Management Lessons from My Cats – Part II


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Note: This is the second of two posts I wrote last April and didn’t post until now. Don’t ask me why. Better late than never.

Everyone knows that cats are “low maintenance,” which is why some people prefer them over dogs.

Dogs are not low maintenance.

I have two cats (or they have me). Two cats are even lower maintenance than one cat, believe it or not, because they rely on each other for a lot of play, companionship and cleaning support.

Except for right now, when they are separated for twelve days during the convalescence of one. Abby, of course, requires more attention than usual while I learn how to administer medicine, look after her wounds, and scratch her ears, neck and chin inside the satellite dish.

But Rocket requires more attention right now, too. Not only does she not have Abby for company, but I am spending more time with Abby, so I have to be sure to spend more time with Rocket, too.

Both of their worlds have been rocked, and they are needier and more anxious than normal. Change Management for Cats 101.

And it occurred to me that while cats are Low Maintenance, they are not No Maintenance.

Just like team members. And teams.

Some people – and teams – require little supervision and management. But even they require attention at times. The challenge is knowing how much and when. If you can get that right, they purr.

What kind of attention do you appreciate from your management? What kind of attention do you give to your team members? How do you shift gears to help them cope with Change? What makes them – and you – purr?

PS – Abby is now fine. After what seemed like an eternity of keeping the cats separate, the vet pronounced her Healed and removed the satellite dish. (Which she gave to me, since I had paid for it, but really, if I can’t pill a cat, do you think I’ll be able to put a satellite dish on one single-handedly? Not. Very. Likely. But I’m adhering to Murphy’s Law for Packrats: It’s stowed away in the closet, because if I keep it I’ll never need it.)

Stop Making Sense


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Have you ever been stymied by logic that you know must be flawed but it successfully keeps the status quo in place? By getting to the hidden beliefs behind that logic, we can begin to make a difference.

Here are two true stories that can help demonstrate this. Consider the following:

Story #1

Once upon a time there was a social services agency in a famous city. This city was very proud of its image but, despite its image and beloved status, it had – and has – a very real Skid Row area. The agency served the Skid Row population, and it was located in a down and dirty neighborhood that was, among other things, strewn with litter.

One day, someone noticed that there were no trash receptacles on the street in this neighborhood. A delegation from the agency was sent to the city to ask that garbage cans be installed on street corners in the neighborhood.

The city, in its infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we put out garbage cans, people will just put garbage in them.”

? ? ?

Story #2

Once upon a time, there was a large company that prided itself on its quality customer service and the strength of its customer relationships. This company, despite its image, did occasionally have unhappy customers. Those customers occasionally reached out to the company have their complaints addressed.

The company had a toll-free number specifically for complaint calls, but that number was unpublished. It wasn’t in any of the company’s printed materials, nor was it on the company’s website. Because it was difficult to find, it was not unusual for otherwise calm and reasonable people with reasonable concerns to be frustrated and even furious by the time they got to someone who could address their issue.

It was proposed to The Powers That Be that the “hotline” number and email address should be made available on the company’s website.

The Powers That Be, in their infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we publish that number, people will call.”

? ? ?

What the…?

Those two scenarios are head-scratchers – each seems like a simple, common-sense solution that is illogically rejected.

Yet, the reasoning behind each rejection has a certain logic to it. On the surface, at least, it is about resources.

If the city had strategically placed trash receptacles around the neighborhood, it would have had to spend money to not only purchase the trash cans but also provide pick-up service – an additional labor expense. That wasn’t in the budget.

If the company had published its toll-free number and customer service email address, it might have had to hire another person to handle the increased volume of calls. That wasn’t in the budget, whereas the hidden costs of people routing calls was spread across various budgets.

In both cases, the seemingly simple logic trumps any arguments to the contrary. And so the status quo is maintained. Such improvements rarely make it into the budget for next year, however. Why? Because of the unexamined beliefs that surround them.

It is these beliefs that provide the structural support for the tunnel vision that keeps the status quo in place. What might those beliefs be?

  • This is Eden! We don’t have garbage here. (Denial.)
  • People who litter are moral degenerates who create their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems have to live with the consequences.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from rats, from disease, from bad publicity).

So let’s look at the possible belief system for our second scenario:

  • We don’t have complaints; our customers love us. (Denial.)
  • People who complain are crackpots who have created their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems deserve what they get.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from lawsuits, from bad publicity).

There is a certain logic to this belief system, even if that logic is flawed. But one thing I remember from my first college philosophy course was this: If one premise in an argument is flawed, then the conclusion cannot be true. In the scenarios above, the first premise is certainly not true, and the second premise is, at the very least, debatable.

But here’s an important consideration: I can speculate all day long, but if I don’t get verification of those beliefs, then I am only acting on my own beliefs and not on sound and current data. It is essential to respectfully investigate the real beliefs that underlie a system or decision or I may also be operating on flawed logic.

Stop Making Sense

Only if one looks for and examines the underlying belief system that supports a decision can one begin to understand why the situation never changes. Change will always be resisted until the underlying beliefs are addressed.

So, what to do? When faced with such logic and belief systems, there are three primary options:

  • Accept the situation as it is and collude with the system.
  • Accept the situation only long enough to leave.
  • Pay attention to the underlying beliefs and act accordingly. This option has two sub-options:
    • Keep a low profile, do not rock the boat, but handle individual situations according to a different belief system and make a difference for individuals. This is the path of Corrective Actions.
    • Hold those beliefs up and expose them to the light of day. Sunlight is, after all, the best disinfectant. This is the path of Root Cause Analysis and Preventive Actions.

The last option takes energy and it can make you unpopular if not done with Patience, Persistence and, most importantly, Compassion.

Patience, Persistence and Compassion

The patience, persistence and compassion are very important: We must remember that the people who buy into these belief systems aren’t trying to be difficult, and they aren’t trying to hurt others. It would be easy to say they are dumb, or bigoted, or lazy. But often they are really trying to do a good job – to protect the organization, to save money, to be efficient. Those positive intentions should be honored. But they cannot be accepted at face value without colluding with the system.

Effective Organization Development can help. OD is about improving human systems, which is best done by strengthening the human processes through which people get their work done. (Check out this Definition of OD at the Center for Human Systems for more about that.) These human processes are driven by beliefs that often are not expressly stated, so part of the work of the effective OD practitioner (and of anyone who is trying to improve human systems) is to uncover the beliefs that drive the human processes. In other words, negative, dysfunctional beliefs must be uncovered so that the human processes can truly be improved.

The $64,000 Question

Here is my question for you: How do you shine sunlight on underlying beliefs without everyone involved getting sunburned?

Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos


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The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

Creativity, Change, and the Edge of Chaos


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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?

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