070511-F-2185F-959.JPGI came across this wonderful word in a Wired article on the almost-accidental history of the development of the unmanned military drone aircraft.

A skunkworks project is “an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures. The research and development (R&D) workers in a skunkworks are usually specially selected, given special resources, and work on a crash basis to create an innovation.”

So the Manhattan Project was a skunkworks; so was Steve Jobs’ elite team commissioned with designing the Macintosh. “On a crash basis” apparently means in a more intense and urgent manner than usual work: it’s a team run hot, on deadline, with all the unique limits and affordances that kind of environment creates.

Big Safari, the entity responsible for the game changing innovation of the Predator drone, had three characteristics that seem important for folks interested in how productive disruption happens, like me and, I imagine, you. (All quotes from the Wired piece.)

1. They built on existing resources by using readily-available market electronics and piggybacking on existing communications systems.

We generally didn’t do anything from scratch,” says retired colonel Bill Grimes, Big Safari’s director from 1985 to 2002. “We took existing hardware that was maybe for one purpose and adapted it to a completely different one for our needs.” Like at a tech startup, Big Safari’s teams were small and horizontal. Expediency, agility, and thrift were essential. “The most important thing was to get something useful to the war fighter quickly,” Grimes says.

I am struck by how frequently we feel that only new stuff can address big problems. Frequently, the solution lies in seeing how to use what is already at hand in a new way. This means not turning up your nose at ideas, materials, or structures that either seem beneath the scope of your vision or too old and unsexy to be worth including. Some people might laugh at you for apparently remaining stuck in the old way of doing things. That doesn’t matter: if the solution lies in using old tech in new ways, the last laugh will be yours when your innovative ways of using it beat others to the punch, with way lower opportunity costs.

2. Big Safari believed in the 80 percent solution.

Ordinarily, before a modified military aircraft is dispatched into combat, it has to pass through a lengthy vetting process that can take years. But Big Safari liked to deploy its creations before they were fully polished. The team referred to this as “the 80 percent solution” (because sometimes the last 20 percent of a job takes the longest). It was like releasing the beta version of a piece of software, says Brian Raduenz, then the commander of Big Safari’s Predator detachment. “We would need to get it out there, get it into the hands of the guys doing the job, and then pay close attention to what they had to say about how it was working.”

From where I sit, the last 20% is often where everyone gets to feel safe and insured that the outcome will either be successful, or that they will be professionally insulated from the repercussions of failure. It’s CYA time.

But “fail big, and fail often” remains the way change happens, and there’s no time to CYA in that moment. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable and remain deeply teachable by the outcomes of your first assay. If you have good bones under your project, believe that the production values will work themselves out when there’s time and resources devote to them. If your IP is solid, then go to market with a beta. Note how this raises the stakes of first deployment – which focuses the mind marvelously on learning from what doesn’t work. Also note how it sets you up to be first in a crowded space with a solution. It’s how you actually become a game changer: a mix of imagination, solid design, and audacity that gets you results – and feedback on what to do next – that no one else can even wave at. The willingness to be vulnerable and seem dumb goes hand in hand with the potential to really make a quantum leap forward.

3. Big Safari identified and cultivated their allies, then deliberately circled up with them rather than with those who sought to undermine them.

On the first day of what would become a two-day meeting, he noticed that some of the engineers were laughing at the proposition of mounting a missile on a motorized glider. “We identified those who were leaning forward, who felt like this could be done, and I privately got ahold of them and invited them the next day,” he says. “The remainder were totally unaware of the second meeting.”

I fervently talk about change as a solo endeavor, but it really is not: we need allies, people who have more faith in our potential and best intentions than doubt in our capacity to do what we are setting out to do. Who are these people, really? We need to figure it out and cultivate their connection. In my career, I have frequently been one of the “lean in” people my clients come to depend upon, for a time: they make me as someone with their best interest at heart, initially because of the money I am costing them but eventually for deeper reasons. This insight reminds me how important it is for those seeking to make a change in their lives to seek out allies in their real world settings, as well It reminds me how accountability, and consistency, and making change stick, goes much better when you surround yourself with like-minded people, or at least decrease your interface with those who would undermine your efforts toward your goals.

I need to note how Big Safari’s insights mirror my own work:

  • Some of the insights I bring don’t seem new or sexy. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, and they are discarded at the client’s peril.
  • Willingness to try new things, before they are polished, in public is a huge part of making change happen. That requires vulnerability: commitment to doing something new in order to get a different result.
  • Our allies are an essential part of our change. Or really: as we grow up our perceptions of those around us, we may come to learn that those we perceive as enemies are actually just people who see the world through different lenses than we do. If we can learn how to codeswitch, we may find allies where before we found only adversaries.

I’m sure I’m not the first to see the Big Safari principles as part of a generational shift. Its insights make more sense to the emerging group of innovators than those of my vintage, or even my kids’. We are still deeply stewed in the idea that respecting traditional lines of command (and control) is the way to get ahead; that CYA is the path to longevity at a company, respect, and security.

Those two gens behind me have been raised in a world where all those promises have been broken, and their heroes are dropouts and disruptors who have redefined the tech limits of what can be done in garages and hoodies. “Gig economy” workers got there because the stable, tenured, upwardly-mobile world proved to be an illusion. This shift cheated them of stability and predictability, but it also freed them up to do work we could never have imagined in its audacity and paradigm-shifting power. Like so many cataclysmic changes, what seemed initially to be a loss was also opportunity.

So this way of talking about change is a way better fit for the younger folks than the C-level silverbacks with whom I made my bones. I spend so much energy trying to convince the older guard that my audacious and terrifying ideas will work. The younger folks see the potential right away: there’s so much energy saved by just turning focus to making things happen, rather than mourning how the old ways limited and constrained and squandered us. They are infinitely pragmatic, so going with what works – even if it’s unstylish, or half-baked, or unpopular – wins on the merits every time. 

Maybe we can think of it as “Millennium Falcon” change: those who are used to being chased and disrespected learn to value a technology for what’s under the hood, not how it looks.

There’s one more question the Big Safari story gets me worked up about: where’s the urgency come from to work “on a crash basis”? In war, it is clear – we are moved to accomplish things we couldn’t before because our imaginations are fired by fear, and the deadlines driven by the advancing columns of enemy. 

But where do we generate that kind of motivation in the real world? More to the point: when the product is US, how do we maintain the innovation “in the field”? After all, we aren’t a finished piece of hardware turned out to see what it will do: we remake ourselves every day, according to our choices. How do we keep making the innovative choices, when the business-as-usual of the real world is, for all its pain, still more comfortable than doing something new? (The devil you know…)

My best answer is that the world will motivate us to change, eventually, because it will unfailingly deliver us the consequences of our choices. Unproductive, small, self-defeating choices will inevitably bring us pain, and that pain will eventually become more acute. We may be called upon to learn from our past mistakes: maturity is, in fact, realizing that we cannot do the same things we have done in the past and expect different results. If we are focused on changing the right things, and are honest with ourselves, we will find abundant reasons why we need to make change stick.

But at the same time, we can’t live “on a crash basis”: by definition, a sprint gives speed over a short distance, and life is a long-distance haul. Perhaps we need to bring “crash” intensity to the types of change we need to make, but then find a more sustainable level of intensity in the actual work we do with ourselves.

  • We can be rigorously accountable to ourselves without making ourselves feel like the sky will fall whenever we make the wrong choice.
  • We can notice small successes and accept that permanent change is a long road, and celebrate our willingness to place ourselves upon it.
  • We can realize that urgency isn’t panic and fear: it’s just telling ourselves the truth, and acting accordingly. That’s a way to keep up our resolve and commitment to change over the long haul.

So: let’s learn not to be afraid to embrace solutions that are already at hand; to roll with what we have, even though it’s not ready for prime-time yet; to find our allies. Whatever our vintage, these are principles that will serve us well. And especially, let’s figure out how to bring “crash” intensity to our every day efforts to change – without actually crashing.

Image of Predator drone from U.S. Air Force, with thanks.


juggleI am thinking a lot these days about twos and threes.

Notice that you can’t divide three by two evenly; that’s the infinite inequivalence that makes juggling so much fun to watch. When you try to do three into two, you generate a lot of energy (think back to arithmetic – that repeating remainder without any perfect closure). Nothing gets “solved,” but a whole lot happens.

So from another perspective, I guess a great deal gets solved, but in a perpetual, dynamic way, not a settled, static one. Jugglers keep all the balls in the air. They just never land and stay put.

Another place two and threes come up: chairs, stools, things to sit on. Imagine a two-legged stool. That’s not a stool at all, of course – that’s a balancing act, and the only way you can become stable on two points is by moving really fast (e.g., a bicycle). At a standstill, two points = falling over.

Add a third point, though, and you have one of the most stable structures in engineering: a tripod. The tripod is remarkable, not just because of its stability, but because of how forgiving it is of uneven lengths in the legs. If one’s a little short, the stool will be a little lopsided…but it will still stand firm. Compare that to, say a four-legged table where one leg is a little off. That’s what sends you to the floor in restaurants to prop up a foot with sugar packet or coasters: four points are unforgiving of any inconsistency.

I think three is a magic number.

This numerical peroration comes out of my trying to understand my role as a change agent in the lives of so many people I have worked with. My thinking goes like this:

  • I am convinced that the ideas I have formulated and implemented are all anybody needs to make profound and lasting changes in their life. Really, all anyone needs to do is get in tune with the truths embedded in the principles and act upon them.
  • If that’s the case, what is my facilitative role?
  • Why am I needed at all, if what matters most is connection between the person’s choices and sound principles to help her choose?

I have come to understand that I am the third leg of the stool.

When people first encounter these ideas, they can’t stand alone with them: it’s too unstable, too much of a balancing act, to suddenly reorient your life so completely. I serve as a third point of contact with reality. I supply reminders, suggestions, and accountability. Some times I do more, sometimes less; sometimes I do more than the client wants me to, sometimes I disappear when she most wants to lean on me. The “length” of my support can vary while maintaining stability.

But really, I am there to help to client know what it feels like to be steady and secure, well-rooted in her own honesty and the principles that help her act on that commitment.

To push the metaphor: as the client gets better at making the desired choices, more secure and automatic in her new responses to old challenges, I fall away. As with a bicycle, the client’s energy generates its own equilibrium. We aren’t meant to be stools, always dependent upon others: we are meant to be bicycles, autonomous and self-directed. I know I have done my work well when I am no longer needed.

So I am needed desperately – until I am not. My work is in that transition from being needed and not-being: it’s in the chaos of change.

The tension between the client needing someone to support and structure and hold accountable and their desire to have everything settled right away generates a lot of energy. Like with the juggler, everything seems to be going in every direction at once, and the client spend a lot of time wishing that things would just stop moving. But they can’t stop moving, not at first: the energy of constantly making new choices pretty much forbids it. (Which hand is going to catch THAT ball? Oh no, here comes ANOTHER one…)

I’ve developed a real distaste for helping professionals whose work seems to have an unspoken expectation that the client will only thrive if he continues working with them. This antipathy includes not just change agents, but counselors, therapists, and even life coaches: anyone who seems to be cultivating the client’s need for the professional even as the client’s choices become more and more positive. That’s not really helping, in my opinion: that’s substituting one set of self-defeating dependencies for another.

That’s why I structure my in work in discrete, three-week stretches, with clear accountabilities for both parties and the understanding that if I’m not keeping up my end, I return what I have been paid, but if the client isn’t keeping up his, I keep what I have been paid so far and end the relationship. If we’re on track after three weeks, we set another goal, if needed, in a twenty-seven week cycle of spiraling accountabilities and developing skills.

The goal is always for the client’s success to leave me unemployed. That’s what success looks like.

It’s also why my work succeeds with folks for whom traditional therapy has failed. I draw on my extensive counseling background to surface and address issues from the client’s past, the client’s family – all the important deep stuff that needs to be addressed. But my clients understand they are doing that work toward a discrete goal, and that they have the autonomy to decide if and when that goal has been met. It’s all the power of therapy with none of the waste.

This digression into how I ran my shop when I was actively working has an important takeaway, I think: it serves a a litmus test for any idea, program, or set of principles that promises to help you develop a richer, more satisfying life.

The first two questions we need to ask, it seems to me, are:

  • Does this system acknowledge and provide me the support I need as I learn new habits?
  • And, at the same time: does this system guarantee its own eventual obsolescence?

Because as we change we need both: the third leg to hold us up as we manage the energy that new stuff generates, and the guarantee that we won’t become dependent upon it.

In The Evolving SelfRobert Kegan describes these needs developmentally as “embeddedness”: a continuous cycle we all experience as we mature. It has (of course) three parts: confirmation (holding on), contradiction (letting go), and continuity (staying put) for reintegration. The qualities of those three states evolve as we grow older; the needed “holding on” a parent must provide looks really different with an infant than it does with an adolescent, as does the duration and intensity of the “letting go.” But to grow in relation to others is to have each of these three states in constant flux, creating energy that propels growth. Juggling.

There’s something so similar going on in a change process. We need those who support us to do all three things: hold us as we do new things, let us go to develop independent capacity, and remain available as new things become habitual.

We aren’t meant to be stools, always dependent upon others: we are meant to be bicycles, autonomous and self-directed.

I know I have done my work well when I am no longer needed.

Are you working with ideas, organizations, and people that are ultimately focused on your own well-being and independence? If not, I’d suggest you take a hard look at who is benefiting from your dependence, and what choices would let you step more fully into your own power. Those with our best interest at heart will always most want to see us powerful and independent.

Choose your supports wisely: ones who are reliable and flexible, and committed to disappearing when you don’t need them anymore. That’s the way change really happens.

Image from the Attitude of Gratitude Project blog, with thanks. 

20090807_kangaroo_250x375That’s the title of a terrific children’s book by Mercer Mayer my youngest grandson is enjoying these days, and our kids enjoyed decades earlier. It’s back in my head as I consider the applicability of my stuff to the challenges we face every day as we seek to live according to our deepest values. Stick with me – this will be worth it.

Here’s the first couple of lines of the book:

What do you do with a kangaroo
Who jumps in your window,
Sits on your bed,
And says,
“I never sleep on wrinkled sheets,
So change them now, and make them smooth,
And fluff up the pillows, if you please”?

It’s an outrageous scenario to open a children’s book. Out of nowhere, something large and frightening invades and interrupts you – and presumes to tell you what to do next, to boot! The drawings are funny, of course, but the premise is always a little disconcerting, to both reader and child, every time I encounter it.

Can such things happen? If they did – if our borders were crossed so flagrantly, so completely – what would we do?

The book quickly affirms the young reader’s right – and capacity – to reassert that she is the master of her life, thanks very much:

What do you do?

You throw him out, that’s what you do!
“Get out of my bed, you kangaroo!”

And the little girl throws the kangaroo out. And on it goes, with the repetition (possums and llamas and raccoons and moose etc etc) that kids love and that makes kids’ stories so instructive.

But the critters pile up. They are adorable and amusing in their whimsy (possums in the bathroom sink, moose blocking the door) page after page, until the bed and the room and the house are completely full of them. Finally, the little girl, after one more tremendous heaving effort, has to ask herself the question that’s been waiting:

What if you can’t throw them out?

And there’s only one answer:

You let them stay.

There’s three lessons here for me to learn, and I recommend them to you as well.

  1. We can throw out anything we want to.
  2. Maybe we don’t really understand who or what we are throwing out. Maybe what most annoys us is actually there to teach us something new and important, or give us a perspective we couldn’t have before (if only by ruining our other plans). We have an opportunity to learn about what we want to throw out first – to see it differently.
  3. And there are some things we don’t throw out, after all that. Some things we choose to make peace with, and let them stay.

That’s a lot (or alot). Let’s take it step-by-step.

Let’s begin with the first lesson: we can throw out anything and anyone we want to. This lesson is easy. There’s an insult – to our stability, to our autonomy, to our integrity – and there’s a response: you make it right! Some outrages will not be brooked, however cutely they are drawn. Even if we love kangaroos, we can kick them out if we judge their presence or attitude unacceptable.

And it must be mentioned that most kangaroos are not cute or cuddly.

Here’s one: the Mormon church recently handed down clear guidance to its local leaders that LGBT members’ children are not to be baptized until they reach adulthood, presumably an age when they can autonomously make such decisions themselves.

The pronouncement sent shock waves through both the faithful and the spheres of Mormon watchers and commentators, many of whom swiftly denounced the statement as an oblique wound to the same LGBT members the church seemed to have been taking pains in recent years to support and welcome, in its own tin-eared way.  This pronouncement deeply alienated LGBT Mormons from the covenants and blessings of family unity that are paramount in that faith system. It was quickly denounced by many as punishing the children for the sins of the parents. A great deal of pain ensued, and a lot of energy was generated.

Anyone affected can simply do a stage 1 on this issue: just throw this decision out. Mormons can throw it out by choosing not to support the Church any longer, voting with their feet, or their pens, of their wallets. Many have, and will continue to. Church watchers can do what they will, as well. And everyone can say their piece.

But what has most struck me is how the #2 stage has played out in this issue – or where it might. I know from my other work that the way we engage an upsetting new fact is pretty predictable, based upon our Quadrant preferences. Remember: The contextual (yellow) quadrant of the brain asks “Why?” It wants to see the reasons an organization or solution is even needed. The logical (green) quadrant asks “What?” It is interested in the structure of a solution or organization. The action-oriented (blue) quadrant asks “How?” It wants to see the way in which the goals of the concept or organization will be achieved. The emotional (red) quadrant asks “Who?” It is oriented toward relationships and connection.

In this case, there was a powerful reaction from the “Who” quadrant: so many people began by considering the people they knew, family and friends, who would be affected, and a lot of energy went into foregrounding their pain and expressing the empathy that it called out.

But to make a constructive difference in a charged situation, it’s essential that we foster discussion among all our brain’s quadrants. Diagonal cross-quadrant conversations are the most fruitful: between What and Who, and Why and How.

These quadrants are the most diametrically opposed and therefore give us the best context in which to think and act well. So if your preferred quadrant is Who, you’ll want to start thinking in the What quadrant. The energy generated by the emotion of personal impact is important, and always will be – but for those who find it the most ready-to-hand, it is more productive to begin by being sure the actual statement, and its implications, are well-understood first.

On the other hand, those who start in the What quadrant may not be thinking about how actual people are being affected, so they would need to start reading the experiences from those who are personally affected by the policy, as well as those of their friends and family.

Similarly, a conversation between Why and How is productive. Why is certainly a huge question for this new policy as, from an organizational perspective, it seems to have many pros and cons (most of the pros being legal and most of the cons being blows to the diversity of Church membership). And eventually we need to start talking about how to implement the policy, especially considering its human and public relations cost. A discussion between Why and How is very productive on the ground level. Is there a way to implement the policy locally in? It may sound like an absurd question to those in the Who quadrant, but it forces us to do creative thinking that we would not have done otherwise—and it will help us to make the best of a difficult situation instead of denying or running away from it.

In fact, this may be the most productive place for Who-quadrant people to work. It may help them find ways to turn the policy to more constructive ends—or at least mitigate its damage. Generally, if you find yourself in a charged situation and you want to avoid being taken over by one quadrant as you respond, I have found that you should start your thinking in the Why quadrant (to understand why you feel the way you do), move to the What quadrant (to separate facts from assumptions), then to the How quadrant (to identify the steps you personally want to take), and lastly to the Who quadrant (to bring your actions into conversation with their effect on real people).

But at the very least: it is immensely useful to realize that if you predictably engage a challenge through the same lens, it will behoove you to consciously choose to try instead to engage it through its obverse.

It is so instructive to realize how much better equipped we are to make decisions after we do stage 2 work. We can always do stage 1 with something that offends or troubles us: throw it out! We are powerful, and we can decide what we will accept or not. 2 doesn’t preclude doing 1. But if we do 2 first, we will know what we are throwing out, and on what grounds. We’ll have thought through all the consequences, and be more prepared to manage the sequelae, both anticipated and un-.

And finally, 2 opens us up to see 3: the parts of the world that we might choose not to throw out, despite their discomfort. What we might decide to keep and accommodate – if only because we want to spend the energy throwing them out would consume other things, or because we have decided that making peace better helps us toward our own goals.

  • Maybe we need to sleep now, not fight the kangaroo.
  • Maybe a new idea will become clear after a good night’s sleep.
  • Maybe we decide we’d miss the kangaroo terribly, after all, if we threw him out (even though he also annoys us), and the next morning decide to apply ourselves over the long haul to teaching him to sleep on the floor.

Because some things are too precious to toss, and we need to give ourselves the “hang time” we need to make a good decision with such valuable cargo.

It might seem paradoxical for a change agent to maintain that there are some things worth not changing: that some kangaroos you’ll want to keep. Maybe “change agent” has outlived its usefulness, as a term: maybe “helper to deep consideration of what is real in order to proceed accordingly” is better. (Though good luck fitting it on the business card.)

But the fact remains that knowing what NOT to change is crucial too, sometimes more so. What we need is not a one-size-fits-all Change-O-Matic laser blaster, but rather a predictable algorithm we can use to take things smooth slow, and steady – especially in the moments when everything inside us wants to go fast and hard and blow something up.

I had hoped that juxtaposing something light (a children’s book) with something really heavy (a major religion’s pronouncement on one of the hottest-button issues in faith today) would make something visible at their intersect: that it would cause a spark. I think it does.

You might not have skin in this particular game, but I challenge you to ask yourself, right now, where you DO.

  1. What challenge in your life are you compelled to throw away? Immediately, without any further consideration? (You can, you know.)
  2. What don’t you understand about that challenge? What parts of it have you been functionally blind to – because you have only seen it, up until now, through one of the lenses available to you? What else do you see when you take a different perspective? How does it change what you want to do with it?
  3. Now that you know it more fully, what parts of that challenge will you elect to hold onto, despite everything?

I invite you to feel the power you have in all three stages:

  • The power to act;
  • The power to consider;
  • The power to act differently.

You never lose power by stopping to think. And in almost every instance, you actually gain.

Maybe even a whole kangaroo.

26-anniversary-michael-jordan-slam-dunk-contestFOMO – “Fear Of Missing Out” – is the scourge of the socially media(ted) world.

Wikipedia describes it with scattershot definitions from other sources, including:

– ”a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent…
– “[a] social angst characterized by a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”…
– “a fear of regret, which may lead to a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, profitable investment or other satisfying event…
– “the fear of having made the wrong decision on how to spend time, as you can imagine how things could be different”.

So it has become possible to know, intimately, what else you might be doing, with real-time updates from the other thing-you-might-be-doing providing data to confirm or disprove your hypothesis about how best to spend your time right now. Perhaps this is the logical next step for the well-tempered life: in a time when biofeedback to your watch lets you know how well you are metabolizing, sleeping, and exercising, shouldn’t the social dimension also be included? So you will know conclusively – scientifically – “how you are”?

My snark is slipping through, clearly, and probably not very helpfully. But I definitely have deep-seated suspicion of innovations that claim to “close the gap” between doing something and experiencing the results of what you just did. In my experience, human animals like to disconnect from the results of our actions pretty much whenever possible.

Once you’re tuned to watch for it, you realize that FOMO is just the beginning. If we have chosen to sit down on a bus next to someone we find unpleasant, we may not get up and choose another seat (that would be rude) – but we’ll definitely tune out, nod without listening, let (make) our minds think about something else, anything else, even while are physically present and apparently in conversation. We like caffeine when we are tired, instead of sleep, and alcohol instead of relaxation. Anything to convince us that we are in total control of what we are feeling right now, regardless of the consequences our actions have created.

I guess I am scared of the technology that makes FOMO possible because it makes disconnection seem like real connection – makes it seem BETTER than real connection. We exercise and see the calories burned, rather than feel the endorphin rush and subsequent fatigue. It’s better than the real thing! But actually, it’s distancing us from the real thing, and making the real thing that much more remote from our experience. I wonder sometimes if the effect is like that of diet soda: we taste sweet, but are not sated. So we go and get more experience…that we don’t really feel either.

The wiser path, it seems to me, is actually to WIDEN the gap between what we do and its effects, and to leave the resulting space open for the actual results of our actions to be fully understood and felt. Our appetite for the real thing has been weakened, either by seeking something stronger or seeking something to deaden it. But recalibrating ourselves to notice – and then appreciate – the real thing opens us up to new experiences and new possibilities, both in our connections to ourselves and our connections to each other.

How can our appetites – and our ability to be satisfied – be recalibrated by “feeling the spaces”? I think the “slow journalism” movement agrees with my conviction that learning how to find something more substantial than the Next Big Thing matters, quite a bit. As the web site of Delayed Gratification magazine states,

Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.

So Delayed Gratification seeks to publish syntheses of what has happened in the previous months that tries to place events in context – not just what happened before and after, but the long arc of development, so the reader can see the underlying themes. It seeks to be the “last breaking news,” in a beautiful phrase: it acknowledges that our first reactions and our first judgments aren’t always the most substantial ones, since they are frequently responding to novelty or the mere sensation of having something to say. Digging deeper takes time. It requires us to step back from the forces that encourage us to be always on, always responding, always engaging. It asks us to go slow, to go – well, not fast. But to go different.

I used to describe a slowing-down process to clients as their PHIREing Order. It’s an acronym (like most of my stuff), as follows:

  • Presenting problem or issue
  • History
  • Implications and Options
  • Recommendations
  • Execution

It’s power lies in its capacity to slow down the reactions that we have when engaging a new situation, especially one that raises our positive or negative anticipation. Note that either positive or negative feelings distance us from reality: either we develop an appetite for something we want, like praise or reward, or we develop avoidance of something we don’t, like pain or guilt. Both have the effect of taking us out of the really real, and increase the chances that whatever we do next won’t be productive because it’s not based in reality.

PHIREing Order requires us to slow down and regard all the aspects of the really real situation: its What, Why, How, and Who. It makes us give each of these essential aspects of any situation its full due and importance – even the aspects that we would prefer to ignore because of our own preferences and dispositions about which part of a situation to favor and which to discount.

PHIREing order brings a ton of good stuff to hand in a moment when we habitually reach for the same old ways to respond – the ways we seek to amplify what we like and discourage or undermine (or eliminate) what we don’t. Huge rewards result when we interrupt our desire to imagine the world as other than it is and embrace it on its own terms. That’s the bread-and-butter of a lot of my work: helping people open themselves to the reality of the world, rather than the story about the world that they prefer to tell themselves, to their own detriment.

But as FOMO has become first a possibility, and then an actual side effect, of our increasingly connected world, I have begun to see the value of PHIREing Order in a new light: it opens the gap between stimulus and response. It’s a way to increase your hang time, as skateboarders (and Michael Jordan) describe it: the moment in the air when you could do anything. FOMO is an invitation to show up more fully for the reality in which you live right now – and an opportunity, maybe, to make better decisions in the future about where you want to be, and with whom, and what you want to be doing.

Or maybe – and here’s the real kicker – it can lead you to a new encounter with the life you are already in. It can invite you to value the parts you want to keep as-is, and give you tools to change the parts that you want to let go of.

Even the parts you fear you never could.

SkydiveI saw the reboot of Point Break a few weeks ago on video, and didn’t care for it. I am not alone. The film currently holds an abysmal metascore on Metacritic, and those who cared to review it were not kind:

If the original Point Break itself is any good, it’s thanks to Bigelow’s vigorous direction and the breathless, almost romantic chemistry between Keanu Reeves’s hotheaded young FBI agent Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze’s Zen bank-robber/beach bum/surf-god Bodhi. The film is a stupid idea made sublime. Take Bigelow/Keanu/Swayze out of the equation, and you’re just left with the stupid idea.

Say what you will about the film’s narrative or lack thereof, or the patched-up special effects: what most got my attention was the action, and the queasy, disoriented sensation all that base-jumping and motorcycle-chasing left me with.

Explosions in movies aren’t a problem, for me: ever since Buster Keaton, watching something impossibly dangerous unfold before us without actually being in harm’s way has been a large part of the attraction of cinema, and I’ll be first in line to see some. What does bother me is not knowing what is going on that leads the viewer into, or out of, the explosion, and Point Break has come in for a ton of heat regarding the confusion of its action. (Here’s a snide representative sample:

As for the action scenes themselves, they are little more than an over-edited assemblage of random bits of footage that only rarely give viewers any idea of what is going on—not only do they fail to live up to the impossibly high set-piece standards set by “Mad Max: Fury Road,” they even fail to live up to the visceral thrills provided by “Carol.


“Sensation without Orientation.”

That’s how critic Jim Emerson describes the experience of being lost in a poorly-edited action sequence. The quote comes from his terrific exegesis of a chase scene from 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” He is wondering aloud (around 8:00) how the editing inconsistencies of a garbage truck rear-ending a police van might have made sense in a comic book, but not in a movie. Even giving the editor the benefit of the doubt – assuming he is making some gesture to Batman’s comic book original maybe, with simple left-to-right kineticism, “Bang! Pow! Bam!” – isn’t really merited. Shaking his head, the critic mourns: “The Dark Knight plays by some continuity rules some of the time, but it doesn’t do so consistently…does this flipping between three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality make the chase more exciting, or just more confusing?” The latter, it becomes clear.

It’s such an evocative phrase: “sensation without orientation.” It sums up for me all the ways that we try to distract ourselves, and those around us, when things don’t feel right but we don’t really want to understand why. There is a long list of things in my life that I would rather not think about, and will go to astonishing lengths not to:

  • the consequences of my words when I speak carelessly and do harm;
  • the possibilities I miss when I mentally strike someone off of my list of “people worth listening to” because they say something I don’t agree with;
  • the aspects of my life that I feel powerless to change, but are actually the result of decisions I make while pretending I am not making them.

Most of us live life as a constant Whack-a-Mole game, never knowing when the next reminder of something that we are trying to forget will pop up and send us racing with the hammer to knock it down again.

I think we sometimes seek out sensations for the express purpose of letting them disorient us – giving us the experience of losing ourselves and our fears and regrets in a swirl of overwhelm that let’s us, if not forget our fears, at least misplace them for a while.

All this thought about bad film – ways of telling stories that make them more confusing than a life without stories at all! – has me thinking about what the opposite would look like. What would it mean to have “sensation WITH orientation?”

In other words, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying responding to stimulus. To do otherwise is not to live! And as I grow older, seeking out exciting experiences becomes more and more of the life in my life: finding new planes to jump out of, or depths to dive to.

But I am aware of how many folks of my vintage and means end up doing similar stuff: spending their money in order to find some new way to amuse themselves for their last act. I am trying to seek experience and truly be present for it: to really have my perception of the world rearranged by having the ground rush up at me after jumping out of – as the original Point Break described it – “a perfectly good airplane.” I feel like intense sensation can tune us more keenly into life, or it can numb as out as a way to avoid what we don’t wish to regard. I am reaching for the former.

I suppose I could be fooling myself; it wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m grateful for the poor adrenaline rush of this crummy movie to help me seek out and tune into the good ones. And more importantly, to help me want to show up all the way to all the experiences in my life – not just the fancy ones and the intense ones.

That would be the real challenge: to regard all of life as worth living, to enter into the real sacredness of each moment we have. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of my work. It approaches what Parker Palmer calls an encounter with “the numinous,” and everyone’s mileage may vary.

What I DO know how to do is help people identify the persistent mental habits that keep them apart from what is “really real” in their lives, and reconnect with themselves once those old habits are interrupted. I am convinced that is an essential part of fully showing up for your life – and I am grateful for the insights the work has brought me, and the thousands my work has touched.

This all reminds me of one of the quasi-mystical lines that comes out of Patrick Swayze’s mouth in the original film:

Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.

Which actually makes a lot of sense: fear of experiencing what is really real drives us to seek out false sensation, which in turn distances us even more from our actual lives. The answer isn’t in jumping out of perfectly good airplanes: it’s in coming fully face-to-face with our perfectly good lives, and deciding what we want to do with them.

Little hand says it’s time to rock and roll. Are you ready?


elasmotherium-1In the fourteenth century, Marco Polo wrote of his travels to “Java the Less” (Sumatra) and the wondrous creatures he saw there, including “numerous unicorns”:

They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. ’Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, ’tis altogether different from what we fancied.

There’s a laugh to be had here at a foolish man from the past confusing reality with fact. His “unicorn” is clearly a rhinoceros. We recognize the described shape of the head, and the massive size; we probably don’t know much about rhinoceros’ coats, or tongues, but figure what he says mostly matches up with what we’ve seen on the National Geographic channel. Point made, and well-played: how silly ancient people were, and how much more enlightened we are. Of course there are no such things as unicorns.

Read more deeply, though, and things become more interesting.

  • Apparently, the only rhinoceros on Sumatra at the time had two horns, not one, and only the two-horned type is hairy.
  • Their tongue isn’t any pricklier or more threatening than, say, a horse’s.
  • Really, the only bit of MP’s description that’s accurate is the creature’s size, and its fondness for mud.

Either MP is completely making stuff up, or he’s misremembered what he thought he saw. In other words, for Marco Polo, there are no such things as rhinoceroses either.

A few years ago, every thing political was “optics.” The word became a scientific-sounding replacement for “appearances,” implying that whether a leader’s decision or statement were perceived in an unflattering light had as much to do with the technologies brought to bear on its public presentation as with its substance. Those who used the term asserted themselves as seeing the gap between appearance and reality, and subtly included themselves in the elite group that massaged the gap.

The technologies of optics are rooted in physics, but French users of the term (apparently even more popular in Canada) also understand optique to mean a perspective, a point of view. Either way, we see that optics are way more than appearances: they are related to something’s physical, demonstrable characteristics, and they are related to the point of view of the looker. Both reality and POV can be changed, but both are also usually considered unchangeable, when they are considered at all. Things are as they are, and I see things the way I see things.

All this woolgathering connects up quite dramatically to Marco Polo’s experience and its report. He saw what he saw, and his perspective rendered to his memory the version of reality that matched his point of view.

  • A horned thing with its horns in a straight line (reality) became a single-horned thing (point of view).
  • A thing with a tongue (reality) became a thing with a dangerously raspy tongue that could be used as a weapon (point of view).

In the process of translating reality to POV, that ACTUAL thing is lost. The deeper problem isn’t mixing up a fictional creature for a real one; it’s failing to SEE the real creature because of the your intent to square it with your perception of what it should be. A unicorn gets invented, yes – but a rhinoceros also gets erased.

The art of “optics,” in the political sense, is the supplanting of a less-desirable appearance with a more-desirable one. When done deliberately, to others, this is manipulation (or propaganda, or advertising…differences of degree, not kind).

But here’s a question: when we do it to ourself – when we supplant something we can’t see with something we want to – well, what is that? Is that a problem?

It was a problem when Marco Polo did it, because his was the sole record of a new world returned to the old for a long time. But is it a problem to “fix the optics” for ourselves – to see things more like we want or need or expect to see them, and less as they really are?

I think it is a concern – a human one, a part of our condition – but one that we need to guard against. At least, it is if we are committed to learning from new experiences rather than staying hemmed into our own stories, which usually prove themselves needing revision as we carry them into long and rich lives.

Why do we conform what we see to what we already know, rather than take it on its own terms? It’s deeper psychological water than I can really plumb here, but it seems to have mush to do with our tolerance for discomfort. Not physical discomfort – more existential discomfort, the calling-into-question of what we understand the world to be that results from really bellying-up to something completely new. (If that’s NOT a unicorn, well then what is it? And what ELSE don’t I know about the world?) We can get into collective unconscious ideas, and the need for us all to tacitly agree to a “reality” that makes sense even if it is false. The real world is much more an agreed-upon story – “well worn hammers we use to bang each other into shape” – than an empirical reality.

Which is great for maintaining comfort, for continuing to recognize things as familiar rather than to really see them. But note how helpless we are to really change anything if we remain in service only to our comfortable stories, not the stories the world is really telling.

So the challenge becomes how to realize when we are telling ourselves stories, and how to choose something different. That’s my life’s work, understanding really how to make that a new habit of mind. But for poor old Marco Polo, I think it has a lot to do with comfort.

Re-read his description again. Do you note the comfort – the certainty – the declarative authority with which he creates the world by naming it? Part of this might be translation and elapsed time, but I hear in MP’s words the same overconfidence and assertion of the right to “tell it like it is” that has dogged so much history; the tendency that erases the stories of those who didn’t have the right to talk that way, for example (another ways rhinoceroses become unicorns, and invisible ones at that).

How different would MP’s experience have been had he instead turned UP his observational powers, and turned DOWN his need to be able to understand and name what he was seeing? If he had been able to recount a real, accurate description of what we know the thing was: two horns, and hairy; big tongue that did no more or less than other critters’ tongues. The possibility of DISCOVERING something new begins with the ability to SEE something new. And, then, DESCRIBE it, in the best detail possible, Still remaining agnostic regarding what the thing IS, notice: the second we jump to labeling something with the categories we already have, we have cut ourselves off from the possibility of knowing something new.

It’s uncomfortable, this describing instead of naming. But once we begin to identify that not-knowing space and work in it, we discover amazing things begin to happen.

Those who know me see where this is going. We bang through our world on autopilot, blithely “naming the world” according to what we already “know it to be”:

  • there’s a busybody;
  • there’s a micromanager;
  • there’s someone who can’t see the forest for the trees;
  • there’s someone who doesn’t even know we make trees;
  • there’s an engineer who doesn’t understand that machines are run by people;
  • there’s an HR VP who doesn’t understand that people get in the way of well-designed machines…

…and on and on. And on.

If we have tools to understand all these easily-labelled people on their own terms, then whole new kingdoms and phyla of possibility open up. But they remain hidden, as good as invisible – unless we learn to see them as what they are first, free of our own filters and compulsive need to wrestle strangeness into a label and subdue it. “The optics will be wrong” for a little while, as you let yourself off the hook of controlling how everything looks in order not to upset or disorient your most important audience: YOU.

Gift yourself with a new optique. And be amazed at what you can see.

Elsewhere on this site I share powerful tools to help you slow down, escape your need to categorize, and see things as they really are. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover once you do that. Why not try it?

Image from the Equinest, with thanks.

top-teamwork-booksI read with great interest an article on Google’s “Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” I anticipated an over-the-top celebration of the capacity of big data to crack the toughest codes. I expected what a friend used to call a “lord of the obvious” conclusion: great effort and expense marshaled to prove what everyone knew already. And I expected rampant, breathless use of the word “disruption,” to no great effect.

Happily, I was wrong on the last two counts. And their outcomes are really exciting.

First: yes, Google did deploy big data (their workers are among the most quantified and measured in the world). The article described “Project Aristotle,” a 2012 internal effort “to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared.”

I was excited by how resistant their granular analysis of the interaction patterns of Google teams was to an easy hypothesis. Personal affinities between group members didn’t chart, and neither did intellectual capacity (this being Google, it was pretty tough to control for that anyway). “The ‘Who,’” the researchers said, “didn’t matter.”

The only lead that began to materialize was that effective groups had “norms” – unwritten rules, tenets of “them culture” – about how they would interact with each other, and that those norms provided another variable among how groups worked together.

Their eventual findings seemed slight, at first, but far from obvious. As I consider them, they think they are galvanic for our understanding of how best to collaborate with others.

Here they are. Good teams share two traits:

  1. The effective teams all had “quality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” Which is psych-speak for “everyone gets to talk about the same amount.” If only one or two people did most if the talking, the group’s “collective intelligence” declined.
  2. The good teams “all had high ‘average social sensitivity’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. They tested highly on instruments designed to intuit how another was feeling, measured by showing them photos of people’s eyes and asking them to describe that person’s state of mind.

The article describes these findings as paradoxical:

The technology industry is not just one of the fastest growing parts of our economy; it is also increasingly the world’s dominant commercial culture. And at the core of Silicon Valley are certain self-mythologies and dictums: Everything is different now, data reigns supreme, today’s winners deserve to triumph because they are clear-eyed enough to discard yesterday’s conventional wisdoms and search out the disruptive and the new…The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

I think they are pulling their punch: these outcomes are far more transformational than that. They assert how many ways there are for disconnects to happen between people, and how urgent it is for productive groups to make conscious, deliberate choices to cross out of their preferred ways of interacting in order to connect with others.

It’s exciting to think about how the insights of the Quadrants and Motivators put meat on the bones of the findings. Consider:

If only a few people are talking in a group, it could be because the manager is accustomed to only listening to one kind of speech. Maybe she only hears “What” and “How” language as relevant, and interrupts “Who and “Why” statements without realizing it. Maybe she values interpersonal and purpose-driven communication, but sees it as “nice to have,” not “have to have,” and therefore unconsciously discounts it.

Google’s data shows that productive groups share the AMOUNT of talk…but as reported, it doesn’t show what KIND of talk is happening. If members of less-successful groups became aware of cross-quadrant disconnects, they’d have a powerful new way to explain and remediate their “conversional turn taking” issues. And already successful groups would have ways to be sure that their communication that was already equitable in TIME was also equitable in KIND, among Who, What, How, and Why topics.

 If social sensitivity is such a core competency of highly effective groups, then the urgent question becomes how to remediate team members who don’t have it. Again, Quadrant and Motivator insights enable a level of self- and other-awareness that most people have never experienced. Becoming aware of one’s possible blind spots and mixed messages, and those of others, has the secondary effect of tuning you into others’ reactions to your communication, and theirs to yours. The ways that communication is being decoded, internalized, and responded to can become an explicit process, around a shared set of terms and commitments, rather than a vague “horse whisperer” – type aptitude that some have and others, sadly, don’t.

In short: yes, these findings affirm the skills that “great managers” have cultivated for years. But the huge question left on the table is HOW do we strengthen EVERYONE’S capacity in both areas? The article notes that “the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place;” an issue not just at Google, but with engineers and Green /Blue types generally, who experience a deep and mutual disconnect with Red / Yellow types reliable enough to set your watch by.

Both sides of this divide need to find discrete, actionable, measurable, accountable ways to talk about these competencies seriously and work individually and together on how best to strengthen them. If Google’s got that part going on as well, I am not reading about it in this article. I hope they are…or maybe I should give them a call.

I mentioned I was wrong on the “disruption” count. Happily so: as quoted above, this work supplants what is becoming the traditional tech-startup wisdom that getting the best idea to market first is all about being brilliant, overdriven, and self-promoting. It gives a focused and actionable path forward to hitch the power of collaboration – not lip-service, factotum stuff, but REAL working together – to the power of data in service to the big idea. It’s thrilling to see.

Can’t wait to learn what Google does with these hard-won insights. In the mean time – what will you do with them?

Dreadfully cheesy stock image of a “team,” apparently “working well together,” because it’s very hard to depict these insights in an image. In sort-of Google colors, anyway. Borrowed with thanks from the readytomanage blog.

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