There’s no such thing as ‘just talking’

I admit, I get impatient with people who say ‘that’s just talk’, or complain about meetings where ‘all we do is talk’.  It shows a lack of appreciation for the idea that conversation is almost always generative – it is where work gets done, it is where things happen.  There’s no such thing as ‘just talk’ – as though action takes place somewhere else.  Organizations are reflections of the conversations among the people who exist within the organizational structure.

Why is this important?  Because if you want to change the organization, you have to change the conversations that construct it.  And you do that by…. talking!  So the next time you think a meeting is ‘just talk’, stop and think about the work that is getting done, and see what happens then.

Reminded of the great Elise Boulding today


I’m attending the Engaged Communication conference in Aspen, Colorado this weekend. During the kick off, Dr. Gregg Walker gave a great keynote about his work with collaborative learning. He included a great reference to Elise Boulding, and her work (before it was cool) on organizational connectedness.  I’ve always loved her thoughts on complexity, which reminds me to continue to resist the managerial reductionist instincts that seem to be so tightly woven into my professional affiliation.

Here it is:

“We can’t simplify the world. There’s no wand we can wave to remove the complexities
around us…  So, in a profound sense, we have to take responsibility for  living on the planet.”

Making a decision is critical – being right is only a bonus

I saw a quote today in an e-mail from a departing colleague.  He referenced Teddy Roosevelt saying “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

It is a great quote about being willing to take chances and to make a change in your life even when the outcome is uncertain.  Our greatest progress often comes in moments when we have the least amount of clarity about what the results will be of our actions.

Change management is about giving people the intellectual ability to understand what is coming with reasonable clarity, but change happens when people are willing to take an emotional leap to commit to something new, even though they don’t know what it will feel like until they do it.  Think about some of the biggest changes you’ve made in your life – did you have all the answers before you moved on it?  Did you know exactly what would happen? Did it all work out as you planned?  Probably not.

The emotional commitment to change is tied to yesterday’s blog post on curiosity.  You have to be curious about what will happen, because you won’t always know for sure.  Sometimes you have to simply step up, take a chance, and make a decision based some parts on data and information and other parts emotion.  Striking the right balance is the secret for sure.  What has happened when you’ve made decisions based on the right balance of data and emotion? Anything exciting?  I’ll bet those were the best decisions you ever made, even if they were intellectually ‘wrong’.

I'm not sure riding a bull moose is the best decision Teddy ever made, but he probably had a ton of fun doing it!

I’m not sure riding a bull moose is the best decision Teddy ever made, but he probably had a ton of fun doing it!

I’m curious today about curiosity

For a long time now I’ve been writing about needing to change how we change – as individuals and as organizations.  Again and again I hear clients and colleagues talk about how hard it is to change. Here’s the thing. For naturally curious people, change isn’t all that hard.  One of the hardest things for me to accept in an organization is a lack of curiosity – about what could be if change happened, but also about what’s happening on the other side of the cubicle wall.  So maybe we need to think about how we foster curiosity in people, so when change comes, it isn’t quite so daunting.

Too often I encounter organizational structures where everyone is so focused on their own thing, and they let years just slip by without growing. It is the consultant that has stayed on the same account in the same type of role for 10 years, or the operations manager who runs a top notch call center but doesn’t know the company stock price, or the Sales VP who drives a world class sales organization, but isn’t really sure how the product works. It is OK to specialize, for sure, and there’s great value in it – it isn’t that these people aren’t are high performers. Their focus has value, and they easily offer 101 rationals for not knowing more about the business – not enough time, under resourced, pressure from management, leadership doesn’t model the right behavior, etc.  But at the end of the day, we can all make an individual choice to be curious about what’s happening around us. I meet people every day who haven’t learned anything new in 10 years except by happenstance – they happen to be standing around when something new hits them in the head. They are bright, energetic, hard working, and committed people – good people.  But they just don’t find ways to explore what’s going on in other parts of the world that is their company. Sometimes they don’t even know the name of the person who has been sitting  two doors down from them for years.  And we wonder why organizations struggle with collaboration, innovation, and growth.  If people aren’t curious, those things will always remain elusive.

In the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of working with two of my company’s largest clients and interacting with some very curious people.  Like their less curious counterparts, they are bright, energetic, hard working and committed. But they have that extra spark that makes them wonder about what could be, and they know that to visualize that, they have to be willing to learn about other parts of world around them.  Both of these clients are global, complex, and daunting, and the people I’m talking about are under resourced and over taxed by their leadership, just like everyone else. But curiosity is in their DNA, and you know it as soon as you meet them. One is in his 20s, another is in her 30s, and two are in their 40s – age doesn’t matter when it comes to being curious. And it isn’t about getting distracted or having trouble focusing – these people soak it in and apply what they learn every day to their task at hand, and they use what they take in to think critically about the problems they face in their own roles. They aren’t going around getting into other people’s business – quite the opposite.  They focus on excelling at what they do while understanding the larger context in which they exist.

Working with them over the last few weeks has reminded me of how very critical curiosity is to the success of an organization.  I want to surround myself with people who continually push themselves to learn new things, to explore what others know and do, and who put themselves in positions to do different things.  People who go to classes in random subjects, or who go spend a day in a different office just to find out what’s happening over there.  People who are curious.

When was the last time you moved yourself to a learning place?  What happened when you did?

Critical Thinking

Trusting people who think differently

I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last 48 hours about the idea of trust.  It is a difficult concept to unpack – you know it when you see it or feel it, but it is hard to explain. I often have clients who say “we just don’t trust each other”, or “the leadership team has trust issues”, but when it comes to explaining what that means, they struggle.  “Oh,” they say, “it isn’t that I don’t LIKE so and so….  and he/she is a nice enough person, but….” and they trail off.

We often have a natural trust for people which whom we have a shared affinity.  Republicans hear and trust Fox News to be ‘fair and balanced’, while Democrats look at the Huffington Post as a source of ‘truth and honest reporting’.  I think in the workplace, operations people often ‘trust’ other ops people, because they understand how they think and what they are trying to accomplish.  When the sales person enters the room, there can be a natural distrust of their motives because they think and act ‘differently’.  Trusting someone who is different from you is a much bigger step than trusting someone who is similar.

Unpacking this concept and learning how it influences us all in the workplace, in our relationships and in life is a difficult task, but it can shed light on how we all behave, and explain the choices we make.  Think about it for yourself – what happens when you extend your trust to someone who is quite different from you?  Do you feel a little queasy?  What happens in the interactions you have with that person?  Are they warm or cold? Are they generative or practical?  If they feel a little distant, you may not be really opening yourself up to trusting them.  Try it tomorrow – you might be surprised by what you discover.

Changing the Way We Change

I’ve been writing for a while now about the need to change the way we change in organizations.  The notion that change can and should be managed has resulted in “change” becoming a rote exercise in project management. I think we have developed some wonderful insights, tools, techniques, and approaches to infusing project plans with better communications, better training, and a better understanding of managing stakeholders. The results in terms of adoption are great.

But when it comes to culture change, or what we like to refer to now as “engagement”, something different is required. Culture is socially constructed through dialog between people, and it emerges through shared experiences. It requires different techniques to cultivate and grow.  As Peter Senge said, we need gardeners, not mechanics, to truly change a culture.

Sue Morhman is hosting a webinar on changing change through the Center for Effective Organizations.  It looks like it will be interesting – check it out if you have a few minutes:  Change Management is Obsolete: Learnings from Research and Practice about What’s Next.

Cultivation takes time, variety, and attention.

Cultivation takes time, variety, and attention.

Thank God It’s Monday!

A few years ago my friend and colleague Sam Douglass told me he knew he was in the right line of work because he was as excited for Mondays as he was for Fridays.  That always stuck with me because I felt fortunate to have the same experience.  Work isn’t always fun, but I do look forward to it for a lot of reasons.

This past week I had the pleasure of catching up with a friend and graduate school colleague, Margaret (Durfy) Murray.  She has a fantastic blog: Thank God It’s Monday that you will enjoy checking out.  Her commitment to building workplaces that are inspiring to come to and where people look forward to Monday is grounded in theory, inspired by personal experience, and informed by practical experience. I look forward to hearing about the places she goes!