Category Archives: Change

Words Fail Me

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while but it’s difficult to know what to say. So many horrible things have happened around the world it’s hard to keep track. Although I still believe that measured using decades and centuries–not months and cable news–humanity is demonstrably improving, we are nevertheless suffering through a difficult period. I would call it a patch but that implies we know it will end soon, and we don’t know that at all.
I was cheered when French President Macron won and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was humbled. (I’m always encouraged when any grand political figure is skewered by their ego-driven calculations.) I don’t find anything in the US cheering. Partisan politics, having created this situation, are unlikely to help resolve it. Although it is tempting to blame President Trump for our problems in the US, he is undoubtedly a symptom of the pathology, not the fundamental illness. The anarchist in me says that it’s the very fact we have a political process which is the problem. Powerful institutions attract huge egos and make partisan, petty monsters out of all of us…and each of us.
The conviction that there exists a right side and a wrong side is, in my opinion, a disastrous delusion that costs us dearly. There appear to be two fundamental secular ways of thinking about the human condition, about the best way to live our lives. (I say secular because there are other religion-based approaches which I don’t dismiss; they essentially argue that our secular concerns are irrelevant.) One is that humans attain their ultimate greatness as individuals. The other argues that humans attain greatness in community with others. Where I think we veer off-base is when we think one of these philosophies is destined to prevail. I suspect the truth is that both are right to some degree and that both are wrong  in excess. Given that the two appear irreconcilable, the job of our political process is to mediate the tension between the two, regulating the pendulum to avoid abrupt and destabilizing swings.
This is not a new idea. In the book The Discovery of Chance, the biography of the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen by Aileen Kelly, she writes about the French philosopher Pierre Leroux who insisted on an

ineradicable conflict between the human drive toward social solidarity and the individual’s urge for self-realization. In this…perception he was ahead of his time…In the next decade {Pierre Joseph} Proudhon asserted that conflict between the individual and society was not a temporary aberration but “the very condition” of social existence.

Methinks that gets it just about right.
Can anything be done? Perhaps we need to pull together a corporate board for America. Its membership would be comprised of individuals who each side hates the most but who don’t currently hold political office. The so-called conservatives could identify their bete noires, perhaps Tim Cook, Oprah, Bill Gates. The so-called liberals could name theirs: the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel, Peggy Noonan. The job of the corporate board would not be to make policy but simply to issue statements that they can all agree to. And when they can’t come to an agreement on a policy question–say health care, they issue a document that dispassionately lays out the most important areas of disagreement.
I’m being completely silly in making this suggestion. My only point is to demonstrate how unhelpful, in fact disastrous, our current partisan political process has become. And how difficult it is to come up with an alternative.
Ideology is the enemy of common sense. And the competition for political power has become a destabilizing arms race. It is long past time to demobilize. But no one knows how.

Sisters Are Doing It for Others

I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.

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Some of the artwork, mostly by the Sisters, in their chapel.

It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.

But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.

There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.

It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.

It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.

Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.

Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.

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When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Explaining the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity

(RecoveringFed has been less than robust this past year, in large part because of the push to complete the book by Lois Kelly and me: Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. largecoverThe good news is that it’s with the publishers–O’Reilly Media–and we’re expecting it to materialize before the end of the year–with luck perhaps even before Thanksgiving. You can pre-order from O’Reilly here and from Amazon here. And now for some new RecoveringFed content!!)

Because the world is generally inhospitable to Rebels at Work, the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity continues unabated. You can see the conspiracy in operation every time individuals and organizations settle for less than they should. I think most of the members of the Worldwide Conspiracy are unwitting. Oftentimes they believe they’re doing good. They would hate to be called settlers.

Stories torn from recent headlines illustrate how the Worldwide Conspiracy gains its adherents. Like many malevolent forces, the Worldwide Conspiracy sometimes uses innocuous, even noble words to disguise its true goals. Words like Consensus and Career.

For example, the word Consensus pops up frequently in the recent reporting on former Federal Reserve bank examiner Carmen Segarra’s secret taping of workplace conversations. The tapes indicate that the desire for consensus made it difficult to express contrary opinions. Consensus is one of those noble-sounding concepts that are actually not so attractive when you try to implement them. Consensus, by its very nature, is a way to avoid making decisions–a way of settling.

Career ambition is another dynamic that the Worldwide Conspiracy uses to its advantage. Of course, you want to succeed in your career; you want to be a high performer. And we’re told all the time that success in the workplace is as much about relations and emotions as it is about substance. And that’s how the Worldwide Conspiracy begins to capture you. Your desire to remain on some important person’s good side leads you to hesitate when something difficult needs to be said. Whatever you do, you don’t want to ruffle that particular set of feathers.

Formula is another interesting tool of the Worldwide Conspiracy. For the sake of efficiency, tasks are routinized, parameters are set and formulas are established. Staff are rewarded for applying the formula effectively. But the problem with formulas is that from Day One, their alignment with reality begins to slip. As the divergence grows, organizations delay reconfiguring the formula for fear of all the lost productivity and inefficiencies such a process entails. And so the organization settles.

Finally you get Complacency. Everyone becomes comfortable with doing well enough. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The Worldwide Conspiracy’s most popular slogan. And thus you end up sincerely believing that mediocrity is the practical solution.

I am reminded of Pogo

Being Open to the Serendipity of Sharing

A good friend (almost 40 years younger than I am) asked me last week what I thought of the message in this vide0.

I wrote my friend back yesterday and what I’ve posted below is my response unedited.

“So as someone who has essentially lived by herself her entire adult life–I have absolutely no problem with being alone. At the same time there is nothing I value more than having good conversations with people I know well–and also with new people who bring some interesting new dimension to the way I think.

I have personally found social networks very enriching because I learn so much more about people, both the ones i know in real life–though truth be told most of them hardly use social networks–and the ones I have met NIRL. I don’t think I’m confused about the difference between conversation and connection; that said I think some of my on-line relationships are quite substantial. These individuals appreciate the way I think and I appreciate the way they think and we bring interesting ideas to each others’ attention. If I post something unusually negative for me, they notice and ask me if something is wrong. This is not something that replaces IRL friendship but is an interesting and developing complement to it. (It is very helpful when I’m sitting in an airport waiting for my flights, for example. I always have the best on-line conversations in that hour at the gate.) I’ve often heard the 150 number and while I generally think there is a limit to whom we can know, the 150 number is based I think on experiments done before the advent of these new technologies. I’d like to see research done about the conditions we find ourselves in now.

The video doesn’t talk about what I think is one of the great new phenomena today–how near or complete strangers can delight each other through things they share online. I share a slice of my inner dialogue on-line. I see something interesting that makes me think; now I post many of those in case someone else might find it interesting as well. Some great exchanges happen as a result of being open to the serendipity of sharing.

What I actually think has been much more corrosive to the quality of people’s lives, much more so than sharing and the online life, is the culture of entertainment, which long predates Facebook and Twitter. I’m really troubled when I see people seemingly living their lives through the entertainment they consume. It drives me nuts really. Living your life as if the purpose of it is to be entertained is my definition of hell on earth.

Hope you have a great weekend and thanks for asking me what I thought about the video.

Your IRL friend,

Carmen”

The Glass Edge: Lots of Pictures

My First Week with Glass

Positive Impressions

  • Many serendipitous conversations.

This employee at Bed, Bath, and Beyond who turns out to have a very interesting background. I almost got it on my first guess.

The shoppers at the local HEB in Texas

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Two charming young girls, and their cool Dad, at the local steakhouse in Texas

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A collage of pictures I’ve taken. You can’t zoom with GoogleGlass yet, and that means some people don’t even know they are in the frame. I also like the non-posed quality of some of the shots.

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Overall, there is a more honest quality to many of the pictures.

  • People are comfortable speaking to me when I’m wearing GoogleGlass

Huge surprise here. People of all ages have been very relaxed. We talk for many minutes and it’s clear they’ve forgotten about them or at least processed their presence. Kids of course are no problem. Texans (I’ve been here this weekend) are quite enthusiastic. Even my 78-year-old mom was happy to try GoogleGlass and ended up reading a text on it wishing her a happy birthday yesterday.

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Of course many people pretend not to notice them.

  • Even if you have imperfect vision, you can make them work.

I wasn’t sure how GoogleGlass was going to work for me as I wear glasses and have a particularly weak right eye, and at least as of now the prism screen sits only over your right eye. But I’m happy to report I don’t have any problems using it or reading simple text (which is all you’ll ever see really) and I’m actually hopeful the new exercise for my right eye will finally get it to pull it’s weight.

Downsides

  1. They get warm, perhaps even hot. You tend to forget that GoogleGlass is a small computer and when you ramp it up to do harder things—like recording a video, it heats up. Just a bit uncomfortable but I have thick curly hair so I’m padded.
  2. I really wish they bent in the middle like regular glasses. You can’t easily tuck them in the V of your shirt. As I said I need to wear regular glasses in many situations so I’m constantly trading them with my GoogleGlass. Unless I’m going to put them away in their nifty carrying case (size of a quality paperback), I’m left to put them on the top of my head. Because the right arm of Glass is heavy, the slight pressure on my head tends to give me a little headache. The exact same kind that I would get in my youth when I tried to wear headbands.
  3. Short and mysterious battery life. Not always clear what’s drawing the power or why the power level can drop precipitously at certain moments.
  4. Touchpad and voice controls are both uncertain. I’m much better at it than I was a week ago, but both are still quite buggy. Of course voice controls can’t seem to distinguish nuances among words so there are just some things you can’t make it understand.

Stay tuned for more reports from the Glass Edge.

RecoveringFed is a #GlassExplorer

Friday I was in NYC to pick up my Google Glass at the Glass Basecamp. Google did a good job making it fun; the mimosas helped for sure! I chose the tangerine color. I talked to people who advised choosing a color that blended in, but thinking to myself that “blending in” while wearing Glass was not an option, I opted for “Standing Out”.005

Glass Basecamp is a loft/warehouse space in Chelsea Market. Not too many people were there at one time so it had a comfortable feel. My Glass Guide, Kirsten (sp?) said she handled 2-3 people a day.

She reviewed all the essential starting out and survival skills for Glass, but of course within an hour after leaving I had forgotten most of them. I’m beginning to consolidate my skills now on my third day.

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My impressions in less than 48 hours:

  • Still buggy and/or I’m still on a learning curve. Almost all of the control over the device is through voice commands and swiping across the touchpad (the right spectacle arm) with your finger. Both of these are sensitive and sometimes even crotchety.
  • I think #GoogleGlass has a much broader range of uses than I imagined.
  • Very few people know what the heck you’re wearing so they leave you alone. The ones who do recognize Glass are eager to know what you think about them.

I asked a friend of mine to tell me what it was like to talk to me while I was wearing Glass.

I intend to use RecoveringFed to document my #Glass adventures. My Glass Guide asked me what my tweet had been to qualify and I told her, a little more than slightly embarrassed, that my tweet had been very kumbaya. To which she charmingly said that the world would be a better place if more of us were kumbaya. So here is how I intend to use Glass going forward:

#ifihadglass I would help us see a future full of potential, joy, trust, and the New Wisdom we can find together when we look more clearly.

Kumbaya to the Max!! (As an inveterate editor, I would now change that “look” to see. It is more grammatically correct.)

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(PS: I know I haven’t posted to RecoveringFed in almost 2 months. But I have been posting elsewhere. Check out my essay over on Deloitte University Press on why Decisionmaking is Overrated . If you have a comment, or better yet, disagree with me, please do post a comment. We can really only reach clarity when we embrace disagreement. And of course check out RebelsatWork.com where Lois Kelly and I post pretty frequently.)

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Please do wander over to Rebelsatwork.com for my latest musings on being a corporate rebel. Here’s the link: The Rebel Life

Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour

A couple of Sunday morning metaphors, one illuminates why change is hard.  The second is Lessons from a CIA Manager #23: Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough.

I actually just posted some quick words over at RebelsatWork.com on why rebels need to stop advertising themselves as destroyers of the status quo. By making that your focus, you risk confusing the means with the ends. But you can read more about that here.

In that piece I used some garden metaphors to describe the more subtle relationship between forward change and the status quo. And I was reminded of what people say about home remodeling. Builders always say it is easier and cheaper to build a new home from scratch than it is to remodel extensively an existing structure. And they’re right. Making structural changes while retaining that which is good or necessary of what already exists has got to be just about the hardest of organizational activities. But sometimes that’s the only path that’s available to you as a rebel.

  • To build a new business from scratch you have to stop doing the work and providing the services that presumably people still need. A non-starter.
  • To gain enough backing to start making at least some of the necessary changes, you have to take into consideration the views of those who love the organization and its culture in a Billy Joel kind of way or Bruno Mars. Unless you can figure out how to fire them all, or transport them to a parallel universe, you have to make change happen with the talent you already have.

Second Metaphor. Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough. Here I was inspired by a tweet this morning in the regular Sunday morning tweetchat #spiritchat .

Too much compassion w/o healthy detachment from another’s processes leads to compassion fatigue #spiritchat

 It’s from Debra Reble. (now that’s a cool last name.) And it reminded me of the difficulty I had in senior positions trying to reconcile the desire to be compassionate with the larger responsibilities of leadership. The last ten years or so of my Agency career I actually had an articulated goal of being MEANER, although a coach I worked with convinced me to think of it as becoming more powerful. (That was helpful.) I thought of it as being less sentimental, not having less compassion. But it’s the same thing. I recognized that my responsibilities to a broader group of people meant I sometimes had to take actions or make decisions that were harmful to an individual, perhaps even someone who was a good friend. (You can justify your actions by saying that you are promoting a greater good, but really, are we that confident of the causality between our actions and desirable outcomes? I’m not.)
But the answer I learned was that you can’t abandon compassion/sentiment. You have to balance them constantly against the demands of management like you need to balance water and flour in a dough. Water makes the dough stickier; flour makes it less so. And anyone who has made any pastry or pizza crust from scratch knows that its’s a process of constant adjustment. There is no school solution. It’s all in knowing the feel of the dough in your hands. And only experience will enable you to translate that tactile feel into knowledge for making better decisions and interventions.
Too much compassion without detachment from your personal attachments leads to decision mistakes.
Too much leadership without compassion for human realities leads to group misery.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to Rebelsatwork.com but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.