Archive | December 2011

To Sum It Up! — Part 2

My natural tendency is to think holistically.  I often have images in my mind, just like painting, but when expressing thoughts in words which must be strung together in discreet linear fashion, my analytical ability kicks in to take charge, not unlike the “System 1” and “System 2” I mentioned in my last entry. System 1 is intuitive, and System 2 is effortful.  Indeed, it is definitely not an either/or framework!

forlorn no more…take me to the top!

Kenwyn Smith’s definition of organization resonates with me the most:  “Organization is the collective entity based on the relations among parts, and relations among relations.”   While we do need an analytical frame to better grasp some of the complicated organizational dynamics, I prefer to ground the understanding in the system framework.  In system framework, it isn’t just about parts being all interrelated, but about how each part informs the others, and vice versa, and all parts live in all of us.  One of the influential thinkers for system thinking is Jurgen Habermas, and he wrote:

I consider it philosophical enlightenment when doctors learn from sociological and psychoanalytic studies to appreciate the influence of the family environment in the genesis of psychoses and the thereby also learn to reflect on certain biologistic assumptions of the tradition of their discipline.  I consider it philosophical enlightenment when sociologists, directed by professional historians, apply some of their general hypotheses to historical material and thereby become aware of the inevitably forced character of their generalizations.”

 He continues in this fashion at much greater length, but I think you get the gist.  So, what’s this to do with organizations?  Organizations are really a microcosm of the world, in which sociology, psychology, economics, politics, mathematics, biology, class, race, biases, etc., all melded together, or sometimes live side by side.  To view the tension between a Hispanic female secretary and a black male boss as “only” the result of a sloppy personnel performance review filed with HR (and to assume further that each of the protagonists has no particular history with the various players in HR) is laziness, pure and simple.  Okay, that may be a bit harsh.  I do believe that most people, managers included, are so overwhelmed and overstressed at work these days, that often they fall back on the default of intuitive judgment provided by System 1.

a bit grooming, and we opened for the season!

It takes concerted effort to set aside some time to grasp the complicated world around us, so that when the next crisis hits, we are better equipped to use more sophisticated skills.  If people in an organization seem to be in crisis mode constantly, that organization is in big trouble.

Some of these skills can be nurtured by employing Appreciative Inquiry which is based on abundancy mode and employs holistic storytelling as a major tool.  If we desire to be more creative in our thinking or decision-making, why would we look for individuals, companies, or industries that are viewed as “troubled” for inspiration?  Wouldn’t we be better off to seek out entities or stories that are based on successes?  But most of the time, we seem to gravitate toward the negative examples as “warning” for “how not to be like them.”  Scarcity mode does not give us energy.  The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) isn’t Pollyanna; it’s about allowing more room for individuals to explore, and thereby giving organizations more collective skills to grow and actually achieve something.  There are a few examples in my earlier entry that I encourage you to visit/revisit.

One of the tools AI uses is asking people to recall a moment of success and offer the full spectrum of the story behind this success.  Though a seemingly simple tool, it allows people to express themselves fully, where the storytellers are viewed in multidimensional complexity, rather than the usual “either-or” type of brush off.  Yet, there is a paradox in AI:  It uses these retrospective reflective stories to encourage people to engage in forward inquiry, such as, “In what ways can we bring out-of-box creativity into our design?”  Or, “Based on our skills and potentials, what do we envision as our next phase of development?”  Yes, these are very generic inquiries, but we can fill in with our own specifics.  The point is that using AI, organizations can learn to bring future possibilities into reality.

all that virgin snow, can’t wait to put my tracks in it.

Having sung the praise of AI, I have to acknowledge that there is value of occasionally using “compare and contrast” method for learning as well.  This is one of the strengths of Jim Collins’ popular books, such as “From Good To Great,” using data of organizations including both success and failure.  We are so ingrained in our negative ways of thinking, or scarcity mode, that it’d be difficult for most of us to just jump into the AI frame.  Knowing some cases of failure can help; the trick is not letting such knowledge develop into hidden fears.  Knowledge is only a tool, albeit a powerful one; the real challenge is always in the doing, the how’s.  In this sense, I concur with the “Knowing Doing Gap,” by Pfeffer & Sutton, in which one important lesson is about letting actions teach us; letting the doing offer knowledge.  Personally, only by painting more, writing more, cooking more, or skiing more, will I gain more understanding of my own likes and dislikes, how to strengthen what I already am good at, or where to go next.  And yes, sometimes, taking that step to actually do seems to require monumental effort!  So, I think we need to keep peeling the onion and make “how to actually take that action step” the next research agenda.

either left by impatient people or patrollers preparing for the opening day

I think one of the reasons why so many organizations are stuck, and the people within them are restricted from trying, moving about, playing, thinking wildly, even going off the program once in a while, is that they are too programmed.  Organizations that adhere too rigidly to their strategic plans may inadvertently box themselves in and fail to realize their plans, and those that do recognize this trap and shelve their plans when they become obsolete or ineffective find other means to restrict their employees.  When I wrote about this children’s book, Harold And The Purple Crayon, a friend asked if I could expand that theme of “explorative play while allowing solutions surface as one evolves.”  I didn’t feel I was in a position to do so, until later I hit upon the theme of “arts and leadership.”  While I had plenty to critique on how the academics write about this topic, I do cherish the idea.  I just want to see the idea expand to include everyone who’d like to explore her creative side, other than always focusing on the managers and/or top ranking officials.  After all, creativity is about process and should not be treated as a goal, and that process by nature is inclusive.  But to be true to the spirit of diversity, I think those who might feel intimidated by the concept or simply do not want to be bothered with it, should feel just as comfortable and appreciated in an enlightened organization.

what a glorious scene!

Hey, it’s the end of year, why shouldn’t I dream about ideal organizations?!  May your organization come closer to your ideal.  Till 2012,

Stay Healthy, Be Contended, Be Safe, and Cherish Your Loved Ones.

Direct Contact:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

Enhanced by Zemanta

To Sum It Up!

After fifty-two posts on this blog, I thought a summary, with an attempt to provide some synthesis, is in order.

ever fascinating sunset

From my notes, I quickly found one fundamental attitude that seems to accompany, and perhaps account for, many of the ills in management issues:  the either/or dichotomy that splits people and issues, e.g., management vs. employees being one prominent split.  In this culture, we seem to prefer adversarial stances in people, especially ones who attempt to coalesce leadership roles around themselves, as opposed to those who embrace a more inclusive approach.  We-vs-them is scarcity mode thinking, aka deficit thinking, which at best results in a win-lose outcome, and just as often ends in lose-lose, but never win-win.  Yet we keep doing it.

I understand that the world seems to be spinning ever faster and people at work don’t have time to breathe normally, let alone take the time to reflect.  But I fear that we push on at our own peril if we don’t slow down a bit, take some time to think, and note the many shades of everything developing around us.

a l-o-n-g fallen tree serving as pathway

Organizations are about relationships, per Kenwyn Smith’s definition, and without relationships (and all the associated tendrils) no amount of capital, equipment, fancy buildings, etc. can generate sustainable products, be they goods, intellectual property, and/or services.  So, how can we view relationships in either/or frame?  We don’t turn a relationship on or off.  Of course, the majority of us don’t usually think nor operate that way toward fellow human beings, but when we are under stress, or in a crisis, we seem to jump into that frame by default.

I just started a new book, Thinking, Fast And Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel prize in economics, particularly remarkable because his background is in psychology.  He and his colleague Amos Tversky (now deceased) made some ground-breaking challenges to economics by demonstrating that people are not rational all the time, and most of the time their decisions are made with built-in biases.  In this latest book, he created two “agencies” to illustrate what goes on in our brains, calling these agencies System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is in control of our automatic responses, immediate reactions, quick judgments or “intuitive” perceptions, such as when we put on our clothes, buckle our shoes, avoid an incoming car when crossing the street.  System 2 gets suggestions from system 1 and goes into more deliberate effort to analyze, process, synthesize for more complicated tasks, such as parallel-parking in a narrow space or controlling our irritation or temper when conversing with someone with whom you can’t afford to cut the tie.

So, either/or thinking lives in System 1.  Even though what constitutes “complicated” or “simple” tasks varies from individual to individual – what is natural to a chess master would cause grey hairs on most of us – we are all capable of educating ourselves to make the content in System 1 more sophisticated, and to seek System 2 more often.  When we overly rely on System 1, we exert less effort in making distinctions, and let us (for example) confuse “authority” with “authenticity”  as when managers or leaders say things loud enough or often enough believing this will make what they say become true.  Or, someone who is good at making provoking statements becomes viewed as complicated or smart.  Or, managers who tend to be contentious let themselves assume they are effective.

Another example, which we commit frequently, is not distinguishing between winning and succeeding, and this gets into the competitive frame, which is based on deficit mode.  I am not saying that competition is necessarily bad (see “Acting on Knowledge” for more nuanced analysis) but we overdo it.  In a competition, most lose and morale suffers, except for that one winner, from “employee of the month” (how lame!) to “making the biggest bonus of the year.”  As if those who have worked diligently and intelligently (but did not quite produce the “top” outcome) just aren’t worthy of mention?  Just look at the Olympics; true amateurs no longer have any place in the game, and silver medalists look dejected?!

This brings me to the topic of “goals.”  In the entry of “Play & Reason,” I discussed how we treat all goals equally.  We don’t take the time to contemplate how goals come about, which goals are more worthy than others, and – even more important — we don’t allow goals to evolve.  If a goal is set for a long horizon — even “a year” in these days maybe regarded as long-term — we need to allow circumstances to result in alterations, as well as consideration of new data, information, technologies, and many other unexpected development to modify our original goal(s).  Why are we so uncomfortable with “I changed my mind?”  Especially managers?  By definition, learning is about changing or evolving.  Of course, this isn’t symmetric; in other words, changing one’s mind for no good reason doesn’t mean one has learned!  What I am saying is that I am suspicious of those who claim to never change their minds, or who value consistency over versatility and accomplishment.

But of course, changeis a very complicated topic to which I devoted two entries and cannot possibly summarize in the short space here.  Which is to say, please go and read the earlier entries!

really? now that i see this warning….

To ask others to change or to ask ourselves to change seems a big deal; it usually evokes discomfort because it inevitably involves discordance, between what has been and what will be.  Any kind of difference requires System 2 to process, and according to Kahneman, part of System 2’s nature is laziness.  If System 1 can handle it – we don’t like changes – why bother engaging System 2 for reflections?  Yet, the same System 1 often complains that we need change.  Internal conflict is bad enough; conflicts with others are really beastly.  Yet another area that we often fail to distinguish:  Differences don’t immediately translate into conflicts.  One can work with differences, but most of us avoid conflicts because they are so trying.  But once differences become hardened into actual conflicts, chances are that what we see and experience as “conflicts” may have originated elsewhere.  This “parallel process” is one of my favorite topics. We need to practice seeing and resolving conflicts by not focusing on where the conflicts are presently manifested, but rather on where they originated.

Two physical examples help illustrate the above point.  When my massage therapist was working on my lower back pain, instead of targeting point A where it really hurt, she was working on point B, the opposite area.  And I didn’t even realize that I was hurting there too, albeit different sensation!  Her point is that to compensate target A’s hurt, my muscles in target B were overworked.  Sure enough, by working on target B, the A’s pain did ease up.  The other example concerns the Andromeda galaxy.  In order to see (by eye) the galaxy at night, you can’t try to focus on where it is located.  Only by looking around it, using “averted vision,” will you be able to see this galaxy.  Neat!

So it is with most of human beings’ conflicts, or problem areas.  Not only because the true conflicts may lie elsewhere, but also when the focus is laser-like on a few individuals, they become defensive, and trying to change their behavior, let alone their minds, becomes much more difficult.


This post has largely been about my pet peeves, and I feel my energy is rather diffused as a result.  In the next entry, I will bring into focus perspectives that can bring us more positive energy.  A much better way to end the year, isn’t?!  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contac:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

Creativity, In Business Or Otherwise: Can it apply to the collective? Or is it just for individuals?

If creativity can be defined simply as “something new, different, outside the accepted, that catches your attention,” then, I think a group of individuals definitely can be viewed as creative based on what they offer.  But we’d get into some murky water about whose idea first sparked the group effort, and how the idea got further developed, and when creativity morphed into diligence, and so on.  It just seems easier to judge whether an individual is creative or not.  So perhaps I just answered my own questions.  Putting the best creative minds in one room does not guarantee an outcome of the most amazing product, whereas a motley crew might offer the most ingenious creation.

I came across this book some months ago, Creativity in Business, by Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers.  It was based on a popular course taught by the authors at Stanford University.  Ray is a professor in psychology and Myers is an artist and musician who has worked in the business world.  In their introduction, they write, “…without the involvement of some very deep personal sources of creativity, idea-generating techniques used alone could produce confusion – or at best, short-term gains.”  Further on, they used a wise man’s saying, “Art is basically the production of order out of chaos.”  Many business leaders (yes, I’ll allow calling them “leaders…,” at least the ones who have succeeded by being thoughtful) have mentioned, in various manners, that business environment in general, and some elements in particular, are by nature chaotic, e.g. personnel dynamics, moving market targets, various resources, etc.

So, is management like art, attempting to bring order out of chaos?  To some extent yes.  But there is the issue of control which also looms large in management.  What’s the difference?  Control is a tool with which to bring the objective, order and profitability, into fruition.  Order is a dynamic ‘thing’ which should evolve over time.  I love painting the sky precisely because it’s always different.  So, my objective is the different renditions of sky, but the control lies in the years of practice with watercolors.  We all have witnessed and experienced those managers who are into power and control, with less emphasis on leading their groups to achieve a certain order, or outcomes.  These managers confuse control/power with order.  One important ingredient in creativity is curiosity, and some managers seem to go out of their way to avoid being curious.  Control doesn’t, or shouldn’t, become synonymous with eliminating all discretionary actions by their employees; used artistically, it’s an interplay between providing structure and allowing people to explore.

There is an old movie, “Operation Petticoat,” a comedy starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.  The captain’s (Grant) role was to decommission a submarine, and Curtis was his first mate.  On route to their destination, they ran into all kinds of difficulties, and the captain allowed Curtis and his crew to acquire resources and assistance in a number of unconventional ways, including painting the submarine in bold pink.  (Was the captain ineffective in exercising control, or brilliant in enabling a desired outcome?)  I know, it’s a movie; it can’t happen in real life!  But the point I make is that management needs to learn to turn people loose to try different avenues.  That’s the equivalence of artist’s need to learn to let go.

Ray and Myers, while acknowledging the impossibility of capturing the creative process in words, do give some outlines for orientation; they call it “Essence,” that “inner resource” living in us.  There are five elements in this Essence:

  • Intuition
  • Will
  • Joy
  • Strength
  • Compassion

Wonderful and expressive words, but oh so difficult to act upon, even individually; and combining all five of them?!  To be creative is a process and a journey; it is a way of life; it is not a goal.  The goal is a song, a painting, a mural… and getting there is about being creative.  An artist friend related a story:  When asked how much time it took to paint a particular painting, her answer was 20 and 30, 20 years to get there and 30 minutes to paint.  Other companies in the computer industry might look at Apple with some envy, in that they seem to churn out awesome consumer products every year.  But it is so much easier to admire what the eyes can see, isn’t it?  Yes, it is a cliché to talk about going beyond the surface, that there is a lot more beneath the surface, etc.  It is always the “how” that eludes us.

This particular book has brought me a lot of pleasure; I love this type of book with its exercises to help me probe into my own potential and contemplate my soul.  The book provides volumes of testimony by well-known business leaders; Steve Jobs was one of their guest speakers.  It is also refreshing to read the MBA students’ and executive students’ “aha’s” at which they arrived after struggling through some seemingly simple exercises, such as watching the movement of water.

There is a wonderful study cited in the book, an analytical study of the process of creativity.  The study was done in a prestigious art institute.  Student were brought individually into a room with two tables, one with 50 or so objects on top; they were told to select one object and set it on the other empty table and do a painting of it.  They were given 2 hours to accomplish the task.  The process was filmed and the paintings were judged by experts.  Those paintings judged to be not very creative were done by students who came in, picked an object, brought to the other table and promptly painted a painting of it.  The ones judged to be more creative were done by students who would change seventeen times.  These students never seemed to be through with their modifications; they seemed always to be trying to find another perspective.  This seemingly muddling-through process, as if not knowing what to do and being without a plan, without a vision, isn’t really random.  These students had some ideas in their heads, but were trying to find expressions approximating what they tried to visualize.  Visions and paintings interplayed through several iterations.

So, creativity is very personal.  I have no doubt that there are books and exercises out there attempting to help the business community learn to break loose in a   collective manner.  I have facilitated such exercises.  The funny thing is that while in my heart of hearts I do believe in the value of some of these exercises, I have never felt at ease facilitating them for groups.  It just feels forced and hokey.  In hindsight, I think this disquiet for me lies in the nature of creativity; as I said, it’s very personal. Participants in a workshop designed for business are seldom there willingly and usually full of skepticism, so whereas these exercises might be tolerated and even fun to do in this classroom environment isolated from the noise of work, participants have difficulties bringing the lessons back to the “real” working world.  The root of this difficulty is that you can’t cram ten-years’ worth of experience and journeys into a three-day workshop and think/hope there will be much staying power.

But I remain hopeful that people in business world will keep trying.  Expand that Essence for yourself, won’t you?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent