Thursday, March 26, 2009

We are all 7, after all.

For as long I can remember, I have always thought that there was something more to life than what I was living at that moment. And I still do. I would say that I am a person that is open to possibility. In fact, I live in the realm of possibility.

Taking a trip down memory lane, I remember being 7 and wondering what was happening in that exact moment on the other side of the world in some one's life? What was that person experiencing? Was he or she happy? Was he or she wondering about me too?

I also imagined what the world was like when I wasn't looking. For a time I wondered if my dolls came to life at night when I slept. So I tested my wonderment. I used to place my dolls strategically in precarious positions and places before I went to bed, and then when I would awake in the morning, I would try and catch them in a different position or location. Sometimes I would pretend to sleep and try to catch them in the act. But to no avail. I never did catch them. My experiment was inconclusive.

The Easter bunny was also a point of contention for me (and still is). Not did he exist, but what strategies would I need to catch him in the act of his Easter morning activities? Every Easter at my grandparent's farm near Westbend, Saskatchewan, I would dart of out my bedroom and run to the kitchen window that overlooked the main road to try and see the Easter bunny leaving. I never did see the Easter bunny, but I think about that every Easter.

So, what does all this mean, a reasonable adult might wonder. Well, I would say that nothing has changed, and that we are all 7 at heart. We all want to believe that someone is thinking of us while we are thinking of them. We have a need to connect with other human beings, if not physically, then emotionally or intellectually. We all want to believe that those things we imagine can come to life, and we all get up every day ready to discover and be amazed.

I believe this to be true.

I believe in the possibility of the unknown and the yet-to-be-experienced. Yes, sometimes I lose faith. Sometimes I encounter buzz killers. These are the same people who took great joy in telling the other children that Santa didn't exist, and that the Easter bunny was a lie.

The truth is in order to discover new worlds and new ways we need dreamers, creators, thinkers and builders. Dreamers and the inventors together can literally breathe life into a vision, and make it real. We just have to learn to play nice.

We are all 7 after all.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Falling, Landing and Humility

I have been thinking of late about change, falling and learning how to land. There is a lot to talk about change. Buzzwords and concepts like "Change Management" used in the Corporate world are about guiding people through change.

Change is hard, whether it's a personal change, or an organizational change. It requires constant care and attention, every day, every moment, at every turn. Change is purposeful. We like to think we can manage change because we have to think that, or we would be terrified to get up in the morning, make a decision about coffee or tea, or choose a direction. But let's be honest. Most attempts at change fail, or at least falter. There is evidence of this every day. Failed mergers. Failed marriages. Failed attempts at peacefulness.

I have been doing some thinking about this of late, and I have come to a Revelation. Change cannot be gradual or passive.It is usually brought about by a cataclysmic event or at least the risk of one. It is profound, at least for someone. It is permanent and for a time, earth-shattering, quake - making chaos. True change occurs when something alters the current state such that it is no longer acceptable.

When changes of this type occurs, we react out of need and instinct. We are essentially jolted out of our complacent coma. This places us in a state of crisis, at least for a time.

If you follow any reading about change, you will have seen titles like, "Take the Step and the Bridge will be There," and "Ready, Aim, Fire", or my personal favorites, "Full Leadership Development" and "A New Life," just to name a few on my own book shelf.

All of these books say the same thing. They are about changing course, or taking charge of one's life. They span every possible theory from the management school of hard knocks and Peter's Drucker's ideas, to understanding the meaning of the universe and alignment of the stars. Change is something that will happen inevitably, yet we are daunted by thought of it.

And I wonder why that is. Are we afraid to lose everything we have a know? Are we afraid the cost is so much more than one can bear? (Quote Sarah McLachlan, "Fallen") Are we afraid of being revealed for the failures that we fear we are deep down inside? Do we want to risk it all to do something that could change our lives and possibly the lives of others for ever?

With all this talk and fear of change and falling, I think there is a bigger question. What about the logistics of landing?

I am discovering that it is not taking the step that is the art form, or even knowing there is a step to be taken. Falling isn't really that tough either since it's really just an act of gravity.

The art is in learning how to land - and then how to heal. It's also about accepting the fact that there will be debris no matter how effective you are at "change management." There will be losses, and yes, there will be gains. There will be memories of times past, and there will be exciting new discoveries. There will be those moments that pull at your heart, leaving you solitude and somber, and make you wish you were back "there", and there will be times when you know exactly why you had to fall.

The art of falling and landing is one that we as humans will continue to fumble through. But when it's all said and done, all we can do is do what is right for now, for this moment, and know that this too shall change. For to think that we are ever in total control of the present and the future is pure arrogance. Successful landing, I think requires humility, and thankfulness.

One of the most memorable poems about falling and humility is "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Recognizing that kings of kings fall, and so do we. Not a heroic thought, but one worth thinking.

Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Perfect Risk and the Perfect Question

In J-school (that's journalism school), we learned how to ask questions, and get answers. A good journalist never asks a question unless he or she knows the answer. The question is merely context for the story. It brings the reader into the story, and provides a stage for answers, or news, to be delivered. This little piece of trivia is something that I have found useful in my post journalism world.

The answer is the question. I know that I am lost when I can't think of the question. Here's a scenario to help you visualize what I am talking about.

You are are in the woods, with a compass, and the needle is pointing in a direction. If you turn, the needle will move to another direction. But what if you are directionless? What if you are one of those people who can't tell north from south? What is right and left is all you know about direction?

My point is this: You have to know which direction you need to go before you use the compass, but the compass only tells you where the future is in relation to where you are standing at that moment.

So, therein lies the problem. Most of us ask the question, what direction should we go in? This then leads to lots of guessing brought about by a bevy of clues combined with instincts, intuition and sometimes personal agendas.

I would suggest the first question should be: What could possibly happen that I have not yet imagined? What events could happen, and what could lead up to the event? Sometimes you have to ask a blunt question - what could someone do that would be unimaginable that we would be shocked and dumbfounded. The answer to the questions is what I call "perfect risk".

Perfect risk is the risk that we can't see, didn't imagine, or perhaps couldn't articulate. It is rare, has extreme impact, and generates "retrospective predictability" - the need to explain it after the fact.

For example, perfect risk is 9-11. To think that someone could devise and execute such a devastating plan is beyond the realm of human behavior. If one looks back into our history, we see other examples of this too: People whose horrific actions set the benchmark for all of mankind; massive devastating floods.

Vision can be deceiving if one's vision is daunted with what I refer to as personal noise - such as beliefs, agendas and causes of the day.

Narrow mindedness and narrow vision is historical. Those who believed the world was flat were ignoring a reality because all they could see was an edge at the horizon. What if someone hadn't said, hey, what do you say we sail this baby over that cliff on the horizon? They never would have discovered that there is no cliff, and indeed, a whole world.

The book, "Black Swan" is about the impact of the highly improbable. The writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writes that the sighting of the first black swan points to a "severe limitation to our learning and observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge." He goes on to say that one single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennium of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. The single black swan changed all that.

He points to three attributes of a "black swan."
1. It is an outlier - it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can point to its possibility.
2. It carries extreme impact.
3. It is retrospective. (We feel the need to explain it after the fact, as if to prove that we are not surprised after all.) Kind of like saying, "I meant to say I thought of that one day, but the moment passed and it never came up again, and probably this is an anomaly due to possible environmental conditions that are unique to the species."

So the question in seeking out the black swan is this: What are the events that could shake the foundation of our very being?

That brings me to the definition of risk and the quandary for today's leaders.

Risk is the unforeseen and the unknown. It is what you have not yet imagined. Yet, we are focused on focused on the minutia, the details, the tactics and the to-do lists.

Perhaps the reason for this is that we have a higher level of control that way, but it is not an active way of preventing such events, or on the upside, creating a cure for cancer.

I think one of the problems is the way we approach strategic planning in organizations. We always begin with the direction (what we need to focus on), and then targets (what do we need to achieve by when) and then strategies and initiatives (what we are going to do first.)

In order to see beyond the moment, and imagine the perfect risk, or the black swan, we need to begin with two things - research and information that will catapult us from our comfy chairs to help us to identify possible events, the courage to say it out loud at the board and executive. table.

Then do this: count the black swans, or significant events, that you have seen in your life. These could be inventions, catastrophes or technological changes and personal experiences.

It's frightening to think in these terms, because events of this magnitude change our lives. But we can't avoid them. They are are often forces beyond our control or at least our vision. Once we see the possibilities, taking action gets interesting.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Wisdom of Being 2

My cousin's 2 year old son had a birthday today. He received a wooden train set, which his father dutifully began to assemble so his son could play with it. He started trying to assemble the bridge, and then build the tracks up the bridge. However, his 2 year old very quickly had a train on the track, and pushed it over the edge.

My cousin then switched to a more stable bridge contraption, but the same thing happened. His son pushed the toy train over the edge of the track. So my cousin came up with a brilliant idea. Realizing that his son just wanted to push the train around the track, he built a round track and set his son up with a set of cars. The baby was immediately engaged in pushing his train around the track and cheering about the fun that that he was having.

As the baby was pushing his train around the track, he began to have difficulty getting the trains to move. So his dad did the most ingenious thing that I think I have ever seen. Instead of taking the child's hand and showing him how to push the train on the track like most would, he moved the track in a circle underneath the train, just so that his son could see the train move, and understand how to do it himself.

My cousin is also a professional coach, whose goal it is to help others to become the best athletes they can be and achieve their personal objectives. He applied the same approach to helping his 2 year old son learn who to push a train along the track. He focused on helping his son to be successful.

As I looked on, I realized how much this parallels the world of grown ups and my role as a corporate strategic planner. I have heard people say the reason they dislike planning is they never see results. But the results are not in the planning. The results are in the implementation and how easily one can adjust to the environment.

Sometimes in the business world, we start out too big with our visions and plans but we are not so good at breaking it down into baby steps and making adjustments along the way to make it work. We want to build the bridge failing to realize that all we really need is stretch of road to gain some momentum, and some time to build the bridge.

This made me think about my work. My job is to help people build plans that will get them from A to B. I facilitate the process, just like my cousin did for his son and probably does for his team as well. My job and my team's job, is to focus on the helping others to be successful by understanding what they are trying to accomplish, and by making adjustments that show them another perspective so they can realize their objectives.

Like my cousin who facilitated his son's discovery of how to move a train on the track, a good facilitator is a good teacher and leader. Sometimes we have to pick up the track and move it counter to the direction that they are trying to go so that we can help them generate momentum.

Most organizations do not have a fully dedicated strategic planning resource, let alone a team. I think the reason is the powers that be don't realize that planning may be in a manager's job description, but not all managers make good planners, at least at first.

The corporate strategic planning team is there to help build the competency of planning among the management group. We are there to guide not only the process at the enterprise level, but also at the individual manager level so that he or she can be successful in building a good plan, and then implementing it. We do not judge the manager's skill level, we help them build it. And we help them to be successful in developing a plan that they are proud to present to their boss and their team.

Like my cousin, good facilitators know when to adjust the track and shift the process so that it makes sense. That's our job.