Big Vision From the Low Country: Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills

What do you do, if your mother was a wonderful home cook, steeped in the traditions of the Carolinas’ low country ingredients and cuisine. . . and those ingredients were disappearing?

If you were Glenn Roberts, you change the course of your career, and follow your dream.  Glenn began Anson Mills, where they both grow, and mill remarkable organic grain products.  If you have ever watched A Chef’s Life, or The Mind of a Chef on tv, you may have seen the segments on Anson Mills.

For my birthday, I got a selection of Anson Mills products. Two bags of the amazing blue corn grits, that I first had at Rat’s restaurant.  A bag of grits made not from corrn, but from Carolina Gold rice.  And a bag of classic grits from the Pencil Cob corn variety.

These are not the “five minute” quick-cooking grits that most home cooks know.  To cook Pencil Cob grits, takes forethought.  Last night I soaked a half cup of the grits and left them in the water overnight, as directed.  

This morning, I cooked them at first in the now-starchy water.  Then, as the water evaporated and the grits began to soften, I added leftover hazelnut coffee, that had both sugar and cream in it.  The grits turned a light brown color, and the pot thickened.  At the end of the 25-minute cooking time (if you do not soak them, it takes 45 inutes!), I added a pinch of New Mexican red chile powder.  The result was a bowl of remarkable flavors and textures.

Thanks, Anson Mills.  Thanks, Glenn. 

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“It’s What Ya Know That Just Ain’t So” – Strategic Planning and Complex Challenges

For over a year, I’ve been consulting with managers and staff at a Federal regulatory compliance agency, on their evolving strategic plan. Several factors, including employer power in a down economy, and the fear of immigrant employees (legal or otherwise), have made enforcement and compliance more difficult than ever. 

In working with this group, I have talked with them about several different ways to think about planning– and its “partner” — evaluation/measurement. 

We learn and think together about:

— what aspects of the challenges are fully known, or knowable?

— what aspects of the challenges are not now knowable?

— who we can invite to talk with and learn from, to improve our knowledge and understanding (and thereby, improve the odds of successful outcomes)?

— how can we overcome the “fear factor” — typically fear of failure — as we act into ambiguity and uncertainty?

— what are the core values and operating principles that can best assess our set of promising options in facing our most complex challenges?

— what are the ways to assess and measure outcomes, both for challenges in known/knowable domains, and in unknowable problems?

— how will we learn continuously together, to improve our adaptive capacity and results?

— how will we hold ourselves and each other accountable for acting in congruence with the core values and operating principles we express?

As I tell people, it’s important to learn “The Problem With Problems” (that they come in different types, which require different patterns of response for optimal results), and avoid “The Single Biggest Problem” (treating unknowable complex challenges as if they were technical and solvable).

In this, I am reminded of a quote which I believe is attributed to Will Rogers: 

“It ain’t what ya know that gets ya in trouble. It’s what ya know, that just ain’t so.”

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Just the Facts, Ma’am: Opening space for the “difference that makes a difference”

In the long-running radio and tv series Dragnet, the main character, police sergeant Joe Friday, became famous for his direction to witnesses. In his own minimalist, deadpan style, he always asked for a brief telling of the most important points. “Just the facts, ma’am,” became a cultural cliche.

But… how did Joe Friday know what the witnesses knew? How did he know what they might tell him, that might lead to a better, successful outcome. On Dragnet, Joe Friday always got the criminal (and understanding that these stories were hand-picked actual cases from the L.A. P.D.).

“Time is money” is as much a business cliche as Joe Friday’s request for “just the facts.” But. . .

We know we are often constrained by time. Challenges arose that require a response right now. Or soon. Or maybe.

We know we are easily overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information that are instantly available to us today. Search the web for any topic you can imagine, and in seconds, you have more information than you can digest in a week.

Ideas compete for our attention, and our time. The boss needs your report by noon tomorrow. You have to pick up your child at school but there was an accident on the highway. How can you be the first to market with your amazing new food truck concept?

In a recent conversation, I was consulted for advice on a particular IT product. The person asking knows me exceptionally well. they have spent most of their career inside large and very well-known corporations. They are a specialist in a highly complex set of international laws and regulations. Right answers and optimal strategies can mean millions in savings or penalties to their employers and clients. This is a person accustomed to being ordered to deliver Executive Summaries to C-level bosses.

I had done a bit of research on the IT products in question. A product I am very familiar with. I knew there were a handful of basic questions I could ask, that would quickly narrow the field of options. I also knew that future needs might change, and should be considered in making a choice now. So I prepared and made my response with a bit more than “Just the facts.”

In return, I was told (and in a very friendly and nice way) that I should have given a more brief “Executive Summary.” And so I asked:

How do you know if you know all you need to know to make your best decision?

How do you know what Iknow?

How do you know if something I am going to tell you might be the critical piece of information that would make the difference in your thinking, decision, and outcome?

Yes, I saiid, “time is money.” But, I added, “so too is information that makes a difference.”

Joe Friday only had 30 minutes to solve the case. Confining witness comments to the bare facts might have worked for him. But even when we are pressed for time, we should consider the source – and the odds that if we simply invite someone to inform us – we might Gregory Bateson’s well-known meaning of information – “a difference that makes a difference.”

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To B or not to B: Bullies, Beliefs, and the Fear of Different

What does it mean to be a “bully?” I have worked with a public high school, and a Federal agency on bullying issues. In the latter, we used the American Psychological Association “psychologically healthy workplace” framework and standards as a guide.

A bully is someone who doesn’t respect others. They don’t respect differences between them and others. They won’t suspend their judgment long enough to give any consideration, let alone respect, to the characteristics of others such as race, gender, or religion. They won’t give any consideration to what others may think about issues. They only want their own way. Their own beliefs. Their own values.

Yesterday, Chris Christie gave an interview at the large conservative CPAC gathering, at which he defended himself against the claims that he is a bully. He said, according to the article in the Times of Trenton, that his being called a bully “comes from the fact that he won’t mince words or back down” (the words of reporter Jonathan Salant).

Mr. Christie went on to say that “the word they miss is passionate. If you really care about something, you need to go all in.”

No. No, Mr. Christie. We can be passionate. We can be committed to our beliefs and values. But literally telling citizens who dare to disagree with you to “shut up and sit down” is not about the passion of anyone’s beliefs. It is about your lack of respect for the citizens you are supposed to serve. It is, sir, with all due respect for the commitment you have to your beliefs, about you being a bully.

Your explicit intransigence and unwillingness to respectfully analyze and consider facts and opinions of others may not be bullying. It may indeed reflect your commitment to your own values. Such intransigence will be welcomed by those who happen to agree with you. In my experience, it is not a positive quality in anyone seeking a leadership position, and having to deal with complex challenges where the “one right answer” is neither known nor knowable. Regardless of one’s passionate beliefs to the contrary.

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Into the NeXT: Steve Jobs, Joe Juran and Quality Improvement

A remarkable video of Steve Jobs, discussing the teachings of his quality improvement mentor, the well-known Joe Juran.

– this comes after Jobs’ initial success at Apple, as he tries (ultimately unsuccessfully) to market his NEXT computer brand.

– it is during the period when Japanese companies were dominating the global marketplace by using the methods of Total Quality Management to produce superior goods, services, and value.

– we see the confidence of the young Jobs, mixed with very personal details about how he thinks, and what he values.

– it is quite surprising that while Steve Jobs has learned much from Joe Juran, he has not so much as read or apparently investigated the ideas of the other towering figure of the Quality movement, W. Edwards Deming.

– Jobs notes that Juran’s methods and approach are at once very practical and process-focused (which Mr. Jobs says resonated strongly with his engineers and staff at NEXT), and yet, notes Juran’s emphasis on distributed responsibility for awareness and improvement. Jobs tells a compelling story of how Juran treats every person in an organization, and values every and any question. Compare this to Jobs’ own well-documented treatment of others as he advances in his own career.

In all… A MUST-SEE video, documenting a unique moment in Steve Jobs career and life.


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From Vulnerable to Courageous: A New Lens For Facing Uncertainty

A recent post by my friend Thaler Pekar, was her call for “an end to ‘vulnerability chic.'” In recent years, the work of researcher Brené Brown has brought a great deal of attention to the dynamics of vulnerability,,and related issues of shame and guilt. Brown’s book, and TED talk, have been enormously popular, with many millions of readers and viewers.

In my own responses to Thaler, I noted that while I understand what Brené means, and I agree with the need to be open to the ideas and emergent (even unwanted) possibilities life can bring, I wished Dr. Brown had used a word other than “vulnerability.”

Here is my response:

Bruce on vulnerability:

And so, vulnerability. While I understand and appreciate what Brene Brown has done in shedding light on this human condition, I personally wish she used a different word. To me, “vulnerability” suggests too much of the negative, too much of the narrative of fear in our lives. I agree that to relate and build trust and possibility, we must be “vulnerable.” But not necessarily weak, and not necessarily subjecting ourselves to shame, defeat, and suffering. To be vulnerable in its broadest sense (and to her credit, I do think Brené Brown does mean it this way) is to be open in the gestures of communication and relating that we make to others. It is a way of saying “I am not certain what this is, or how to respond.” It is a way of saying “I may not know, but perhaps you do. Perhaps we can do something about this together – even if it means abandoning my ideas in favor of yours (or someone else’s).

Personally, I talk and teach and write about the needs for knowledge and understanding that acknowledge, accept, and embrace the inherent ambiguity and complexity of being alive. We can choose to accept the challenges of living not through the primary lenses of vulnerability as fear, but through the lens of courageous explorer. The more we experience, learn, and understand, the better able we may become to respond in adaptive, even successful, ways in the moment. In my writing for the book I am doing with Denise Easton on disruptive experiences and response capacities, these issues and dynamics are central to our thinking. We often use the examples of certain athletes, like martial artists. One can never know everything; never know exactly what will come at you next. But you can be prepared to the best of your abilities. You can be confident both about what you know, and what you don’t know. You can be able to use what you know in ways that you never thought about before, to engage the surprising, and hopefully learn and survive even in the experience of failure.

And so…

How will you rewrite your own narrative, so that you can be simultaneously “vulnerable” and… A courageous explorer of the unknown future?

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Do You Listen To Your Food?

Do you listen to your food as it cooks? Your food talks to you as your baby does from across the room. “What?!” you say. Yes. When we pay attention, when we listen and observe over time, we learn and understand every signal, every nuance. The cry that is frustration is not the cry of pain. The bubbling that is just-right for your tender-crisp carrot is not the dry crackle of water gone to steam.

And.. if we can learn so much from listening to the home fries in the hot pan, or the pasta as it boils, how much more can we learn and understand if we pay attention to… each other?

Change. It’s natural.

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A New Day for the Global Voice of Quality

It has been a while since I explored the world of those committed to improving “quality.” My own work at the U.S. Department of Labor was focused on this for nearly 15 years. The quality improvement movement grew from the need to rebuild shattered economies and industrial capacity after the second World War. But the brilliant pioneers of the quality improvement movement, Deming, Juran, Feigenbaum, Scholtes, and others, all saw that improving manufacturing processes to improve results, was only the tip of the iceberg.

The real goal is a combination of continuous improvement to organizational processes, and the relentless inquiry-exploration-observation-adaptation necessary to influence outcomes and coherence in the most complex systems and challenges. This is a form of “both…and…” thinking and doing, that requires leadership awareness, shared commitment, distributed cognition and accountability, and the fearless journey through uncertainty.

For many years I worked within ASQ as a member-leader. I have seen the “global state of quality” rise and fall in both government and industry. Today, as ASQ turns the page to new executive leadership, it is my hope that we may see renewal and new directions not only in the movement for organizational improvement, but in ASQ’s own processes and outcomes, as the global champion of change.

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Integrated Improvement Initiatives: Addressing Both the COMPLICATED and COMPLEX Challenges of Government

Following is my submission to the challenge on improving Federal government performance management, processes, and outcomes.  The opening points are not on the submission itself, but provide additional context and background.


So, a few key concepts, in no special order:

..the dominant discourse, or paradigm, in government management today is essentially that of goals and measures. This is the basis for GPRAMA, and in fact harkens back to the Management By Objectives model, taught to Fed managers for years by OPM and OMB.

..Einstein famously noted that “there are things that are easy to measure that are not important. There are important things that can not be measured.”

..our predominant culture focuses on the things that are easy to measure. These are mainly outputs (how many or how much). We have a harder time with outcome measures (how well..) because these are inherently harder to measure.

..everyone knows that many of the policies and programs of government are in fact clearly complex. Middle East peace. Teen abuse of prescription drugs. Development of highly complicated IT systems. National health(care).

..everyone knows that measuring outcomes in these complex programs, policies, and processes, is difficult if not impossible.

..and yet… Stakeholders and managers commonly treat what are truly complex, and difficult to measure, challenges/processes/programs, as if they were the sort of technical and complicated problems that can be easily controlled and measured. the 2013 GAO report noted, a small percentage of Federal agencies currently uses traditional methods for policy and program assessment. Fewer still use the analytical data to drive improvement. Although the GAO report mentions him in a footnote, nowhere does GAO acknowledge or recommend the use of Michael Quinn Patton’s Developmental Evaluation methods in addition to traditional formative or summative methods.


To transform Federal agency performance, I believe we need…

..a Presidential mandate for a SUSTAINED COMMITMENT TO IMPROVEMENT. Everyone empowered. Everyone informed. Everyone aligned. Everyone involved. Everyone responsible. Everyone providing feedback and data. Everyone learning and adapting continuously as needed.

..a core methodology that is built not on a single improvement architecture, but on a short set of core operating principles (small teams as the basic unit of change. Top leadership support and involvement. Decisions informed by quantitative and qualitative data wherever available. Decisions by consensus. Etc.).

..implementation through open collaboration and partnership between management and union leaders. Change processes built on the foundations of trust and full. Engagement. Empowerment, responsibility, and accountability on both labor and management sides.

..the recognition that not all processes, policies, programs, and problems are the same. There are two basic types as described by Harvard’s Ron Heifetz. Technical, and Adaptive. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework goes further, with Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic domains for our challenges. Critically, each has its own optimal way of responding. Federal agency leaders must learn the differences, and the various methods and tools now in use globally, to address each type of problem in its own fashion.

..the commitment to relentless open and honest gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data on process results. Yes, the stuff of GPRA- in those cases where we can establish that a given program or process even has the capability of achieving its stated or assigned goal. But also narrative and related qualitative data, that is best interpreted by human sensor networks- the people working in the system (and note the connection here to the actual people-centric Toyota Production System, which is the presumed basis for current Lean practice).

..the use of both traditional (formative or summative) assessment methods ONLY in cases of Simple and Complicated processes/programs, and Developmental evaluation, with its constant loops of feedback, reflection/analysis, and adaptive change in theory, goals, and measures as needed.

This is a critically-needed paradigm change. It does in fact reflect an underlying reality that has always been present, and which everyone knows in fact. But it is easier to set simple and allegedly measurable goals, and hold people accountable for results, than it is to journey through the ambiguity and uncertainty of influencing outcomes in complex problems.

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Negentropic: The 2d Law of Thermodynamics and Sustaining Improvement Efforts

ASQ has “graduated” me to the status of a “Voices of Influence Alumni” blogger.  Hopefully my advanced studies in Blogology have helped me, and those reading this blog :-)

Recently, in his monthly “View From the Q,” ASQ Executive Paul Borawski raised a great question about how organizations can sustain their quality and organizational improvement efforts over time.  Paul cited the example of Corning, and you can read his post here:

The issue of sustaining and even growing success over time, points to a unique characteristic of human systems.  In both mechanical and many natural systems, if the system is closed, then over time the system will “wind down” and eventually stop.  Think of a classic grandfather clock, for example.  Unless you keep winding it periodically, the clock will stop.  This principle in science is called ENTROPY, and is known as The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The tendency of a system, absent any new input of energy, to dissipate and stop over time.

But human dynamic systems like communities and organizations seem to defy the Second Law.  Not only do we keep going in our evolving social endeavors, we tend over time to adapt and evolve to higher levels of complexity and order.  We have NEGATIVE ENTROPY, or in other words, complex human dynamic systems are NEGENTROPIC (and note that this is one time being “negative” is actually POSITIVE!).

How do we do it?  Well… physical systems need to be open, and keep receiving new energy to stay in gear.  Where’s the energy to keep human systems – like improvement initiatives – sustained and “negentropic” over time?  Maybe you have already figured it out…  our COMMUNICATED IDEAS are the “energy” that keeps feeding our systems.  The collision of ideas old and new can spark the innovation that will help us leap to a new level of performance.  Words of encouragement and support can fuel our ongoing motivation and even perseverance in tough times.

The path to sustained excellence and improvement is clear enough, even if it is at times very challenging.  I encourage organizations to follow this four-dimensional approach:


  1. COMMITMENT: This has to be clear to everyone.  If some are committed, but others, through words or actions, give up, your improvement efforts will suffer.
  2. CONNECTIONS: The energy that will sustain your improvement efforts has to be able to flow throughout your organization.  As a change leader, make sure that everyone is connected.  Enable connections without fear.
  3. COMMUNICATION:  Remember, this is the energy that enables growth and sustained success.  If it isn’t coming in positive ways from you, why would it flow from others? Enable both the connections and the communications among your people to be open and without fear.
  4. COURAGE:  It is not always going to be easy to lead and sustain change and improvement.  Noted Harvard Professor of leadership, Ron Heifetz, teaches that “leadership is dangerous.”  Sometimes the idea you send out will not be what some people agree with, or want to do.  Sometimes some people will resist, or even actively work to undermine or sabotage your efforts.  They are adding ideas and energy to the system, just as you are.  But colliding ideas, like other kinds of collision, don’t always end up creating something bigger and better.  In the classic words of the Cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What’ve they got that I ain’t got? COURAGE!


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