Integrated Improvement: adopting a “both…and…” mindset for org improvement

Tomorrow I am having the latest in a series of conversations with people who, like me, have had lengthy and successful careers in managing government agencies.  We will be talking about the challenges right now in crafting new narratives of mission and strategy.  New lenses of core values, and operating principles.  New ways to define the results of coordinated action.

In 2009, while working with a consulting firm in Virginia, I developed my own framework for what I called Integrated Improvement.  A way of understanding and using a “both. . . and. . . ” mindset for engaging different types of challenges.

Below is the set of questions I first posed for any manager and employee (we are looking at the Federal government, but frankly this applies to any organization):

As you shape an agenda, I would offer several questions that may be useful:
How can managers and employees best coordinate thinking and action to achieve objectives?
How can managers and employees best distinguish between challenges that are complicated (where experts can offer reliable solutions), and complex challenges whose ambiguity and uncertainty make solutions presently unknowable?
How can managers and employees best define appropriate measures of action and outcome for complicated, and complex challenges, respectively?
In an era of relative chaos, where meaning and response is unclear to many, and the status quo is in doubt, how can managers and employees best create shared meaning and purpose for effective coordinated action?

AND. . .  Below is the response I sent to my colleagues, when one, a person strongly rooted in the use of “best practice” global measures,  seemed to question the notion of complexity in my framework:
It is not merely my belief, but I believe it is science fact, that systems and challenges are not all the same, and that there are both optimal patterns of response for each type, and optimal forms of metrics and assessment. The biggest cause of failed change and improvement initiatives is the treatment of challenges for which no solution is now known or knowable, and acting as if some expert knew a reliable and predictable way to solve it.  
The single best source I would put in the hands of every person, is the book “Developmental Evaluation” by Michael Quinn Patton. A short valuable reference is the award-winning 2007 HBR article “A Leader’s Framework For Decision-Making.” 
This is not about persuading people that complexity is real, and must be treated differently than complicated technical stuff. It is as real as the sun and the moon. Best practice and expert practice are critical in the domains of the known and knowable solution. Emergent and novel practice are what we experience when we act into the uncertainty and ambiguity of other stuff. The reluctance to act knowing that failure is possible or even likely, hampers true adaptive capacity and success.  
Constructing a coherent narrative and shared purpose is the first task of an organization. Who are we, and what are we here to do? Why it is important, and how we will do it, follows next. Then. . . Yes. . . How do we measure the impact of what we have done. Developing a global set of measures is possible. But it is my clear belief that this must take into consideration the realities of different types of situations. To ignore the reality is to program for failure.

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It Costs to Cross the Bridge: the foundations of respectful dialogue

The following is published here, in response to a blog post from the well-known wroter/thinker on leadership and change, Jesse Lyn Stoner.  My great appreciation to Jesse for her daily insights, and for her asking me to put my FB comment on her blog.  My expanded reply and comments are below.

Jesse, thank you for asking me to post my comment originally from FB on this, to your blog. The original brief comment is below, followed by some further comments on this topic:
My FB Comment:
Yes, And. . . Is dialogue contingent on a sufficient commonality of language and thought? Are shared knowledge, understanding, and rationality fundamental criteria, without which respectful, generative dialogue can not exist?
Additional Comment:
My belief is that dialogue is indeed contingent on a minimum level of shared language, and some minimum level of shared rational thought, with the capacity to listen, learn, unlearn, and relearn. Since the Brexit vote, and now with the American campaign/election, I believe a fundamental shift has occurred in our societies. To me, it appears that a significant mass of citizens have accepted a dominant narrative counter to that of the prior status quo. In this counter-narrative, many see themselves as victims of the “system” – the prior socio-political status quo. The power of this (arguably false in my view) counter-narrative has been so strong as to make many people act contrary to the values and beliefs they have historically espoused. The result has been a tumble over the edge from the presumed stability of our status quo, into a time-space of comparative chaos. A time in which multiple new narratives are competing to make sense to a new critical mass of people. If and when that happens, we may again have a basis for generative civil discourse. In the meantime, I believe we are seeing a retreat to a tribal/guild sort of affinity clustering- people finding those of similar mind and values, with whom to associate and act.
So. . . for dialogue, my concern is that absent a sufficent basis in fact- and shared-values thought/action, respectful dialogue may not be possible. I have personally experienced this with some of my own family members. My greater concern is that new dialogue may require a shared experience of a catastrophic nature, to sufficently catalyze new sense-making.  
Thanks and I look forward to your further thoughts!

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Let It Go: A Frozen Federal workforce isn’t the answer

For years we have heard some politicians complaining about government being “too big” and wanting to make it smaller. 
Have you ever once heard anyone say we need RIGHT-SIZED government?
What does this mean?
Private businesses decide what they are going to do. Then they decide how they will do it. They get the right technology and people to efficiently and effectively get it done. 
Government is no different, except. . . 
We don’t really have an open dialogue about what products and services we need or want from government. Congress does that by passing laws. 
We don’t really have an open dialogue about how we’ll pay for the government we have. Congress does that by passing appropriations bills. 
What government does do, is set performance objectives in annual plans; measure results; and publish all this so everyone can see how things are going. And like private business, most agencies meet their goals. A few are working to improve, like the VA. Some exceed their gials and are excellent. 
We wouldn’t expect a private business to achieve its goals without sufficient people, and then responsibly hold those people accountable for doing their jobs. Government is the same. 
Arbitrary claims of “waste” and arbitrary hiring freezes only achieve two things. They diminish our confidence in government without valid evidence. And they diminish government’s capacity to achieve their mission. That hurts us all. 
Can we support RIGHT-SIZED government that works well for everyone?

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Status Unquo: presumptions, tribalism, and emergence

I have been writing for months that both Brexit and the deep divide in America reflect the end of one “status quo.” I believe that the emergence of a critical mass of citizens unwilling or unable to inquire, question their beliefs, learn, and adapt, has resulted in these folks adopting a new narrative. A narrative that is arguably false, but nonetheless powerful. A narrative of victimization by “them” and “other,” that can only be set right by elevating authoritarian leaders, and diminishing “otherness.” The very significant differences between this new narrative, and the prior dominant narrative, have broken the agreements and patterns of civil discourse. The presumption of relative stability for the existing status quo contributed to that status quo being less resilient and robust than expected, and susceptible to major disruption. We have gone over the Cynefin cliff from the relative stability of the old status quo, into a new time of chaos.  
So, in this chaos, I believe people will – already are, I think – forming tribal or guild-like affiliations and networks. Over time, these clusters and networks will put out their own new and revised narratives. Pockets of coherence will emerge. With luck, a new narrative will emerge that is sufficiently compelling and resonant, that a new set of agreements will form for a new and far-reaching civil discourse. But when, how, and if. . . are not knowable.
So what do we do right now? I take some comfort in advice I got from Margaret Wheatley way back in 2002. She told me then – fourteen years ago – that she saw troubling signs on the horizon. She said she would “look for fellow tellers of the new story.” Put another way, what do we believe? What are our core values? What is our purpose? Who shares in our values and intentions?
The status quo for here and now becomes seeking our tribe, and doing the work we believe in, with the people and resources we have here and now- the core of the Asset-Based Community Development approach.  
As I wrote five years ago after a retreat on a mountain ridge with a group of remarkable people,
“We journey alone, together.”

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DonT and Lucifer: into the next circle of chaos

Bill Eggers is a well-known and very successful reasearcher and writer on government improvement.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Bill several times over the past few years.  This morning Bill commented on the content and style of last night’s Republican Convention.  Among other things, Bill noted that former candidate Ben Carson had mentioned Lucifer in his remarks.  

Personally, I have not watched any news coverage, debates, or the convention this year.  This marks a significant change for me.  I was eight years old in 1960, and remember watching the remarkable Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the conventions that followed.  I had been an avid follower of presidential campaigns. Until this year.

Following is my first reply to Bill Eggers’ post.  This reflects my current thinking about the underlying FLUX dynamics that are dramatically disrupting the status quo of our capacity for civil discourse:

Bill, I completely agree with your comment and analysis. What I see behind all of this is the same dynamic as in the UK Brexit vote. I believe that we have a critical mass of citizens today, whose opinions are primarily informed not by facts and data where available, but by the opinions and rhetoric of others. The same internet that puts the knowledge of the world in our hands, also gives us the immediate access to false narratives, false claims, and false hopes. We have seen a division not only in belief and ideology, but in the ability to “learn, unlearn, and relearn.” We see this manifested in DJT’s awful/brilliant refusal to acknowledge facts, or his own lies.  

And so, we see the consequences, in the breakdown of the framework of civil discourse. The inability to be compassionate, curious, and courageous in hearing the ideas of others, and the inability to enter into respectful dialogue. We have fallen over the cliff of complacency about the stability of the status quo, into a period of chaos. A new coherence and order will eventually emerge, but when and how are unknowable (see the oft-ignored little catastrophe cusp in the Cynefin framework on this). 
From unknowing, unlearning people, it is easy to craft narratives of fear and blame. The arguably false narrative that ascribes some evil intent to “them” (as if there WAS some coordinated plot), in which some wrongs have been perpetrated upon the people. Wrongs that these people believe can, and will, be set right by a Nietzsche “uber-mensch.” A perfect storm to give us DonT and Lucifer.

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From “I AM” to “We ARE” – All Relating to Each

Last February I attended a wonderful concert near St. Augustine, Florida. The concert was with the legendary country-rock-bluegrass musician and singer Marty Stuart, and his band, the aptly-named Fabulous Superlatives. Each of these musical artists brought incredible skill to their playing of guitars, bass, and drums. Each got the spotlight in solo songs. Together, they blended their voices on moving a capella gospel numbers.  
It was evident from remarks I heard among audience members before and during the show, that many were of a particular religious and political perspective. Their values and beliefs did not necessarily match my own, or those of other segments of the audience.  
Back then, before Brexit, before the FBI Director’s address to the nation about emails and servers, and before divisive tweets that may have been anti-Semitic, I listened to the great music that filled the concert hall. The theater was itself a made-over church, on an isolated strip of land along the thin barrier island separating the sea from the bay. The particular symbolism of all of this was heightened by Marty Stuart’s most recent album, from which the evening’s show drew heavily. A double-album set called “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” The rollicking raucous profane songs, and the hushed reverential sacred songs. Both equally important to Marty Stuart and his band.
As I sat in the audience, and listened to the strongly-held views of some, about God and politics, I couldn’t help but think about the different divisions in this place at this time. A former church, now a pop music haven. In a place by itself, between the land and the deep ocean. With an audience that might well find itself split between one side of belief, and another.
In that experience, I realized what could help people reach across the divides that separate them. In the music of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, people found a common space of appreciation. Not necessarily a space of full agreement. But a space in which everyone present could, and would, cheer for every beautiful note.
What would happen, I wondered, if the people in that audience, were all taken after the show, to a large room with close concentric circles of chairs. Maybe some coffee and cookies. And the simple directive to sit together in circle, and talk with one another about the show they just experienced.
“Music expresses that which can not be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo
About a week ago, in the midst of the chaos following the Brexit vote, I saw a show on television. It was a performance of Beethoven’s famous 9th Symphony. An astonishing creation, whose complex harmonies and countervailing melodies were composed by the composer when he was deaf. The words put to music in the last movement, “alle menschen werden bruders…” All sentient beings might become as brothers.”  
What would happen, I wondered again, if that audience who came to hear Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, came together to hear Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? What would happen after, if they came to the place with the circles of chairs, some cookies and coffee, and just shared with one another what it all meant to them?
We know that the varied dynamics of our lived experience– what we call FLUX — shape how we feel, what we learn and understand, and how much we are willing and able to expand our exploration of the possible. We have also learned that at the social level- in our communities, organizations, and societies – that our ability to navigate the rough currents of significantly disruptive experience, depends greatly on our ability to negotiate meaning and coordinate action together. This was the lesson of those trapped in the Mann Gulch fire, and those trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Two Questions we seek to answer every moment of our lives: “What does this mean?” and “What will I/we do about it?”
When we are FLUXed at the social level- in our communities, organizations, and societies – we may temporarily lose our ability to respond together. We may disagree on what is happening, and what to do together about it. At the worst, our complacency and presumption of stability in the world around us goes over the edge into chaos. We don’t know what is happening. Some of us think it means one thing. Others have a totally different interpretation.  
At the worst, we lose not only a reasonable consensus about meaning and action, but we lose the ability to engage with one another in respectful dialogue. This is the lesson of Brexit, of America’s current political discourse, and over the past days as I write this, of the response to white police officers apprehending and killing black citizens in Louisiana and Minnesota.
What happens when we lose the ability to sit with coffee and cookies, in circles together, and respectfully share what we think is going on, or what to do about it? What happens when the beliefs and expectations of many, are informed by opinion, where fact is available? When the same internet that puts the knowledge of the world in our hand, also amplifies ignorance?
We are seeing the breaking of the rules of civil discourse. The consequences of FLUX at its most socially catastrophic. How can we help every person be compassionate, caring, and courageous in their curiosity? How can we help every person manage their feelings so they can learn, understand, expand, and explore new possibilities for successful outcomes together?
What if I. . . AM? What if we shared the experiences of Art and Music, and sat together to talk about what it meant to us? How would that feel? What would we learn? What would we understand? What could we then explore. . . together?

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Heading For The Br(oken)exit: FLUX And The Dissolution Of Dialogic Relating

The insight for us and FLUX is that FLUX in an organization or group is not just “experience with a degree of difference beyond our capacity to understand and respond.”

At the social level FLUX is seen in that little catastrophe cusp – the curled “cliff” in the Cynefin drawing – that represents the dissolution of stability in the ordered domain (Snowden shows it as being between Simple/Obvious, and Chaotic) and the resulting chaos of the unordered. Perhaps in both natural and social systems, things are FLUXED when either individual agents (people) or the system as a whole, can not negotiate meaning and purpose in relation to the system.

The practical response to knowing and understanding FLUX in this way, at the social and organizational levels, is to work continuously at maintaining respectful, dialogic relationships. We then face the challenge of establishing new rules and patterns for relating and coordinating sense-making and action.

Yesterday I was listening to the TED radio hour. I did not get the speaker’s name, but there was a segment on mindfulness as a key practice in not only presence and observation, but in curiosity. This is the first step in relating to one’s environment (physical and social), which in turn, is the first step to inquiry, learning, understanding and expanding our response capacity.

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It’s Always A Day Away: BREXIT, FLUX, and “tellers of the new story”

Remarkably, it is 14 years since an email I sent about lighting on her DVD, resulted in an invitation to meet Margaret Wheatley for breakfast. We’d met briefly a few times at presentations she had done in the D.C. area. But this was just the two of us, talking for hours over breakfast at the Washington Hilton.  

This was post-9/11, and just as her book “Turning to One Another” was coming out. Meg’s earlier books, “Leadership and the New Science” and “A Simpler Way” were widely praised, and were at the forefront of applying understanding of complex adaptive systems science, to the dynamics of organizations and change leadership.During our conversation, Meg told me a story about the initial success of her first book, “Leadership and the New Science.” She said that the praise and publicity had brought her a lot of attention. “I thought I was going to change the world” she said. “But I quickly learned that the world didn’t want me to change it.”
Meg went on to say that she was noticing emerging trends and patterns in the world, suggesting that “dark times were ahead.” Remember that this was in 2002. I had a sense of what Meg was getting at, and I asked, “so what are you doing now?” Her reply was simple and elegant, even as it was frightening in what it might mean for society. “I’m looking for fellow tellers of the new story.” Quite a few years later, Meg wrote about this sense of what is happening to us, in her book “So Far From Home.” Its basic premise and observations flow directly from what Meg Wheatley said to me that day over breakfast.
Today the world awakened to the news from the UK. A slim majority has voted for the UK to withdraw from the EU. World markets have reacted very negatively to the news. What drove the majority of voters in the UK to make this choice? Some factors seem fairly clear, such as fears about the impact of immigrants and refugees. Some consequences will take time to emerge, such as the new border arrangements and trade arrangements the UK must now implement.  
As in the U.S., voters do not always seek the full set of facts and data that are available. The same internet that puts the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands, also serves to rapidly amplify lies, opinions, and misunderstanding. Not knowing is easily and quickly turned into a shared fear, and the fear, in turn, becomes amplified into hate and even violence.  
If the vote in the UK is a sign of the “dark times ahead” that Meg Wheatley foresaw 14 years ago, what is likely to happen to society? H. G. Wells cautioned us about the rise of dictators and the denial of science and knowledge in his book, “Things to Come.” You can watch the entire 1936 film on youtube. In the story, decades of war, fueled by an egotistical dictator known only as “The Boss” are further ravaged by a spreading plague. Knowledge and science are gradually lost, and the capacity to make fuel, and operate airplanes, are likewise gone. But one day, a sound not heard for many years, come over the city. A plane brings the keepers of knowledge and science. These were keepers of the old ways, and yes, “tellers of the new story.”
Will we recede into more localized communities, even tribal groups? Will the globalized patterns of culture and trade give way to more basic competitive behaviors? Will mutual gains yield to positional negotiation and conflict?
Are we “so far from home” that we will cluster with others of like mind, even into isolation from those whose thinking is very different? Is a level of complacent ignorance pushing us over the cliff of relative stability, into a time of chaos? How will we re-organize and be together, in compassion, curiosity, and courage. How will we find the way back to inquiry, learning, and understanding, in respectful dialogue together?
Tomorrow’s just a day away.

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The Single Biggest Mistake: a key cause of failed change initiatives

I’ve posted about this before, but here is a piece I wrote recently.  If there is one piece of advice I’d give to managers and leaders about what NOT TO DO, it would be this.

So again, re-posted here:

The single biggest mistake I have observed in organizations over the last 30 years, is treating what everyone usually knows to be a truly complex problem and system, as though it was a technical or complicated problem. The latter can be broken down into component parts to be studied and changed. The latter can be analyzed and understood in terms of causal relationships (if we do this, then that should happen). The latter then allow for comparatively easy metrics of outputs and outcomes.

But the former- the complex challenges- can not be broken down. Can not ascribe causality prospectively. Can not be managed or controlled or made predictable even though we wish it so. Can be prodded, explored, observed, influenced, and eventually stabilized as understanding and coherence emerge.

The fear comes from the understanding that we do not, and can not, have the solutions to these complex problems. Leaders have to admit they aren’t sure what to do, or how to do it. So we count things that are easy to count, but not really important, relative to the real underlying issue. We set goals, and hold people and programs accountable, for solutions and outcomes that are often impossible to achieve given the current system, respurces, and approach to change.  

We’d be better served by thinking about baseball, or soccer. When my son started little league baseball as a kid, he was upset each time he made an out instead of a hit. I told him about the best hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. I asked my son, “out of every ten times Ted was up to bat, about how many times did he actually get a hit?” Of course, my son assumed that the best ever hitter, must have had a hit 9 out of 10 times. Nope. Not 8, or 7, or 6, or even 5. The best hitter in history failed 60% of the time. Today, if you can hit the ball just 27% of the time- failing 73% of the time- you’ll be a major league millionaire. Teams on the soccer pitch all know what the objective is- get the ball i to the other team’s net. But in 90 minutes of play, it is not uncommon to have just one team score just one goal. It’s hard. The dynamics are complex.  

So too with many organizational challenges. At SAMHSA, I recall discussions about the NSDUH data on teen drinking or prescription drug abuse. Surveys could tell us the approximate rates of substance abuse in certain populations, in certain areas. The surveys could not tell us the full underlying causes, or point to optimal solutions.

There is a way forward. People must learn the basic dynamics of the complex as opposed to the complicated. There are very different ways to approach problem-solving and change, in each principal domain.

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We’re All FLUXed: Deming, Darwin, and the challenge of change

W. Edwards Deming was perhaps best known for his application of statistical analysis to the work of quality and business process improvement. But he was also a brilliant and insightful teacher about human dynamics in any organization and endeavor. Paraphrasing Darwin, Deming famously quipped, “Learning is optional. Survival is optional.”
To survive and thrive in a world of turbulence and uncertainty, we must accept Deming and Darwin’s challenges. We must think. . . 

. . . About the capacity to be ever-curious, and to seek real facts, real knowledge, and real understanding

. . . About courage and confidence overcoming fear born of ignorance 

. . . About being the hero of our own story and life, instead of looking for some swaggering person who we think will “make everything all right” because of what we’re told “they” did to us

Darwin didn’t really say “survival of the fittest.” Rather, he wrote that those best able to survive will be “those best able to adapt to changes” in their environments.

Will we accept the challenge?

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