the primitive brain becomes part of an overall gestalt of thinking and being. This is how we experience ourselves as a totality rather than as a mass of unrelated parts, feelings, and functions.
Our view of the brain is largely hierarchic. It follows the kind of thinking that gives us machines and computer programs which build up in blocks. Reductionist thinking. So the evolution of the brain is nearly always seen and described as being a hierarchic construction over time arriving at the current state. Roughly divided into three parts still because those three parts cover coherent spheres of functionality. The primitive brain, the emotional brain or limbic system, and the higher cortex or higher brain. This is not a bad general structure with which to understand. However I think that the brain along with the whole of the rest of nature and existence is holistic and systemic.
So, whilst the brain stem, the primitive brain may have evolved in order to deal with fundamental survival requirements, breathing, sexual activity etcetera, as other layers have been added to the system the interactions mean that the primitive brain becomes part of an overall gestalt of thinking and being. And in being part of a greater whole becomes more in itself. This is how we experience ourselves as a totality rather than as a mass of unrelated parts, feelings, and functions. Nature reuses everything and I believe there is no reason to suppose that exactly the same thing does not happen with our brain. Circuitry, capabilities and functions laid down initially for one purpose may now serve multiple functions in the larger systemic whole.
This relates deeply and powerfully to the role of the limbic system and the emotions in the human being. As work by Antonio Damasio and others has shown people who have had lesions in the limbic area of their brain so they no longer feel, become incapable of making decisions even though all their higher brain functions are still working perfectly well. It is the limbic system centred around the amygdala that actually gives a value to experiences, possible courses of action, and our thoughts.
We see a completely different vision of the significance of different parts of the brain and the body and the nervous system when we look at them as being part of an interwoven systemic totality.
However, the predominant hierarchical model privileges higher brain thinking and cognition as being innately and inherently superior thereby creating a conflict where the primitive and emotional brains are experienced as being something that must be eternally battled in order for supreme reason to eventually prevail.
As a result many of us ( the majority in my experience ) are not taught how to develop or value our emotional constitution. The very idea that we might need to develop and refine our emotions is at odds with the dominant modern vision of what it is to be successful as a person which can frequently involve the tacit or explicit numbing of emotion.
I suggest that the emotional brain and the higher brain are already deeply involved in and interwoven with one another in such a way that it simply isn’t possible for either of them to develop to their best level without deep reciprocity. So the current default attitude towards our emotional being promotes unhealthy conflict instead of creative reciprocity.
That doesn’t mean that we are stuck with it though, given what we now know about the enormous plasticity of the brain and our ability to change our patterns of thinking if we wish to. A good place to start is with noticing our feelings and naming them. I would say ‘being mindful’ but that word is now associated with such a mass of different meanings and practices I find it almost unusable. Dan Siegel's definition of mindfulness would be closest to what I mean.
Check out Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence” for a characteristically well researched view of the neuroscience and psychology work in this field.
To return to the opening theme, the holistic nature of the brain and re-use, the integration and value of the emotions in the whole is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considering how we might be able develop the systemic capabilities of our brains.
Guided by neuroscience, psychology and abductive reasoning these are some of the things we work on at Liminal Coaching, producing special focused modules on intuition, empathy and solution creation amongst others. If you’d like to know more or just chat I’m always happy to do that. Just drop me an .
Suggestibility is often seen as weakness, yet the facts tell a very different story
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
To learn you have to be suggestible. To be suggestible you have to be relaxed. If the primitive brain, centered around the amygdala, is on constant high alert for any potential threats it will be very hard if not impossible to learn anything.
We are routinely taught from an early age that being suggestible is something to grow out of as we become adults.
In some ways this is an essential protective mechanism in a culture which often prioritises adversarial relationships. Competition is embedded in the everyday language and situations we find ourselves in such as business, sports, and even the world of dating. We need to compete to survive and thrive the system may be telling us daily.
Our culture does not perhaps pride itself quite so much on exploitative and usurious relationships - but nonetheless definitely promotes them as a necessary evil.
Against this background it is hardly surprising that most of us regard being suggestible as a weakness. You may be "taken advantage of", or "be a pawn." It can be seen as a threat to be suggestible, a sign of lack of character or weakness.
And yet the facts tell a very different story – that suggestibility is our friend and ally. How else do we learn, if we do not allowed trusted teachers, mentors, and advisers to plant new seeds in our minds?
The orientation response is sometimes politely referred to as the “what the heck?” moment. This occurs when we are confronted by experience or incoming data which makes no sense in terms of the patterns that we are currently using to interpret what is happening in our world.
When the orientation response occurs it actually flips the brain into a state of increased suggestibility while it does a super-fast search for a new sense-making pattern, including reviewing any pattern suggestions from outside.
This phenomenon is routinely exploited by stage and street hypnotists, the advertising industry and manipulative politicians. Long ago they learned the technique of presenting something that makes the audience do a double take and then punching their sales message into the momentarily more suggestible state.
So is not hard to see why we are often well advised to be cautious about being too suggestible, we are surrounded by exploitative uses of our suggestibility superpower.. Though we should bear in mind that the orientation response is so quick and so automatic we may very often not even notice that we have temporarily been made more suggestible.
Additionally it is not only the orientation response that increases suggestibility. Naturally occurring states include: daydream, mind-wander, staring absently at the TV and that borderline state between sleeping and waking. We are also more suggestible during the REM phase of our sleep.
Most importantly, here’s the thing. It is our ability to drop into a state of suggestibility that allows us to learn and to reframe current and previous experience in light of new information and/or new sense-making patterns. It is a key factor in our developmental ability to change ourselves and learn to adapt and thrive with new information in new environments.
We rightly regard children and young people as needing some protection and guidance about what influences mould their thinking. During this phase of life we are ultra-suggestible much of the time in order to learn the massive amount of material that we need to function in the world.
As we grow older we often come to regard suggestibility as a liability and do everything we can to minimise it. That’s a big problem if we need to learn to see things in many different ways in order to be able to find solutions to complex problems.
There is a great need for us to do rediscover ways of being appropriately and creatively suggestible. You might note this in the recent trend towards play and creativity in business skills required to build our future within a world of evermore complex challenges.
New learning and creativity are some examples of how powerful and effective receptivity can be. Active deep listening is another. Such receptivity rarely occurs naturally without conscious development and training. The benefits are well evidenced in many fields including psychology, conflict resolution and anywhere that real human connection is a benefit.
To learn you have to be suggestible. To be suggestible you have to be relaxed.
If the primitive brain, centred around the amygdala, is on constant high alert for any potential threats it will be almost impossible to learn anything. This also applies to studying. If you are in a state of constant anxiety or stress, you can read an entire book from cover to cover and take absolutely nothing in. So being able to consciously and deliberately create states of relaxed receptivity is a great skill to develop.
It’s not that hard, unless you are convinced at one level or another that any time spent relaxing is either dangerous or wasted.
You could just sit down, relax and do some easy steady breathing from your abdomen. Counting 4 in and 6 out. That will soon make you quite relaxed and probably more open.
"all of the things that we do and the way we behave and how we treat people finds its way, one way or another, into our product or service "
This episode of Liminal Leaders is with Shawn Askinosie who left a successful career as a criminal defense lawyer to start a bean to bar chocolate factory and never looked back.
Askinosie Chocolate is a small batch, award winning chocolate factory located in Springfield, Missouri, sourcing 100% of their beans directly from farmers. The only chocolate maker working directly with cocoa farmers on four continents, Shawn travels to regions of Ecuador, the Philippines and Tanzania to source cocoa beans for his chocolate. This allows the chocolate to be traced to the source and labelled authentic single origin. It also enables Askinosie Chocolate to profit share with the farmers, giving them a “Stake In the Outcome,” a principle he learned from author/entrepreneur Jack Stack.
Recently named by Forbes "One of the 25 Best Small Companies in America", Askinosie Chocolate has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, on Bloomberg, MSNBC and numerous other national and international media outlets.
I was delighted to be able to speak with Shawn who is co-author with his daughter Lawren of the book “Meaningful Work” which I can vouch for being well worth a read. Shawn was kind enough to take a break from his busy day to talk about organizational change.
And it means me not delegating relationships with cocoa farmers to someone else, but me doing it myself. It means putting ourselves in a place where we’ll be exposed to the needs of the world in our industry.
Mike: I know from reading your book that you made a big career change from criminal law to founder of Askinosie chocolate. And I'm guessing the subjects of culture and the future of organizations is something that you probably take a deep interest in. And I'd like to ask for your thoughts on a few key questions in that area.
Mike: Do you see major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over? Do you think we're moving in to a time where there has to be major change in organizations?
Shawn: I do. I believe we are not only moving there, we are there. I've been thinking a lot about poet philosopher John O'Donohue lately, who wrote a lot in his life about this concept of threshold. And I believe we are absolutely in the midst of an in between space right now, otherwise known as a threshold. I think sometimes it’s hard to observe at least for ladies and guys like me, because we're in the midst of it. You know, I'm in the trenches and I'm a very, very small company with only seventeen full time employees and so I don't have a lot of time to really observe from a high altitude, but I do believe that we are in the midst of widespread organizational change. I think some of the change that is happening is driven by entrepreneurs and leaders who believe that this is the best course. I think some of the change is being driven by the market. And consumers and people who buy things, who won't accept anything other than that. I think some of the change is being driven from the bottom up. That is, the demand of employees in organizations who say, "This is the only way I'm going to work. I'm only going to work in this kind of place." And then finally I think that change will happen by perhaps some kind of directive or regulation at some point. And so I think that the change is inevitable. Some of it will happen painfully. And for others who embrace it, I think, it will be a much smoother transition.
Mike: Thank you. What part do you see the kind of work that you guys do playing in those changes? Because I know you do a lot of stuff which goes way beyond just producing chocolate, right?
Shawn: I think that for us, it's an opportunity for us to participate in this world of capitalism in a way that approaches life and business with non-duality in everything that we do so that we don't compartmentalize profits over here and good works over there. Instead we try to find ways where both of those things coexist with each other as just a kind of part of the day. Part of the life of the business. For us, it manifests itself in me going on origin trips every time. So in April it will be my 42nd origin trip since the start of the business. And it means me not delegating relationships with cocoa farmers to someone else, but me doing it myself. It means putting ourselves in a place where we'll be exposed to the needs of the world in our industry. So it could mean that I'm in fill-in-the-blank village in whatever country and if I'm there then I need to put myself in a position of observing need. If I, as the leader of the company, have this chance to observe need and see it then it almost means that I have the chance to engage with it. It means that I have a chance to establish mutuality with whomever it may be. Whether it's my cocoa farmer partners who are living nearby this need or the people themselves that need us for some reason or another and we have a chance to participate in that. So those are just some of the ways that I see us being part of that space.
Mike: So it's a very living and integrated approach to doing that. By doing that it seems to me you avoid the philanthropy charity thing completely, right?
Shawn: Yeah, I mean of course we have certain philanthropy that we support. Mainly it's our Chocolate University Program, which is now its own entity and I needed to do that because we raise money well beyond what I could provide as profits of the company. But we raise money for people to make tax deductible contributions to support our work.
Mike: Oh right, that’s great.
Shawn: And so that's definitely reached its own level. But we don't, for example, say to our customers, "Buy this chocolate bar and if you do we will give X dollars or X percent to drill a water well or whatever." I don't subscribe to the Tom's Shoes approach to this kind of method of doing business. And so you're right, it kind of integrates together. The other thing I would say is, is that all of the things that we do and the way we behave and how we treat people finds its way, one way or another, into our product or service.
Shawn: Not just me, but everybody. And so I think that the quicker we can recognize that and see the true benefit in that, the better off we'll all be.
Mike: Yeah, great, thanks. You seem to agree that we're going through almost an awakening with people, saying, "Okay there needs to be more meaning in this and it needs to be more connected to every other kind of aspect of life and existence." What part do you think that leaders in organizations changing their own thinking, their own mindsets, play in that kind of change?
Shawn: The role that leaders play?
Mike: Yes. Leaders actually engaging with exploring and changing their own thinking. What kind of role to you think that would play?
Shawn: Well I think leaders have a responsibility to both pursue the evolution of their own consciousness in whatever way they can and never stop. And at the same time I think it's incumbent upon those leaders to do what they can to bring others along in that pursuit as well in a way that fits that person. So I don't think it means we need to ascribe our own views to our employees or make them, but I think it's important for us to just give opportunities to the people that we work with as best we can to elevate and evolve their own consciousness.
Shawn: Maybe that means they don't stay working for us, which is fine. And they go somewhere else to spread that kind of possibility. But I think that ultimately as a leader, we have to do this and I feel very strongly about this. There is no destination that we're trying to reach. It's not there. It's not on this earth, and so that means that the awakening is there for us to be part of. And the question is do we want to join it or not? I think that one of the most important aspects of this kind of evolving consciousness is the realization of a kind of almost cosmic oneness that is possible for us to have some limited understanding of, and the result of that, I think is better products and services and a greater ... hopefully greater access around the world to those products and services. And anyway, I think that we're moving that way. And we have been for some time.
Mike: Yeah, I think I'd agree with that. I've had a lot of conversations with a lot of people and I've done a lot of research and investigation into organizational design and especially with the kind of thinking in mind that you're talking about. And I've come across the terms values and higher purpose in a lot of different contexts. So I'd really be interested to know what those terms mean to you. Do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organization?
Shawn: I do. I think that it's important that leaders who talk about these things are defining terms. And so if they're going to talk about them organizationally, it's important that the message is clear about what those things mean. And it could be that the so called values are memorialised somewhere and that’s it. I think it's important that it not be put in a drawer or in a folder on Dropbox and never looked at again. I think it's important then that if you're going to have stated values that there's a way to live those out and to practice them daily. I think that then the story needs to be expressed internally. The stories, plural, need to be expressed internally, so that those who you're working with will then be able to understand via story what those values look like.
Mike: In action.
Shawn: Yeah. In action. But the caution there in my mind is that we express the values, that we live the values, but that we don't punish people that we work with who don't necessarily share those values in the same way that we do or express them in the same way. And I think it's important as leaders, that if we're going to have stated values and we're going to live those out and we're going to tell the stories internally and externally, then it's important that we remain open to an alternate expression of those values in ways that we as leaders maybe never even thought of.
Shawn: I think that's really important. And the second word I think that you said, was is purpose?
Mike: Higher purpose.
Shawn: Higher purpose. I think that that is absolutely critical as you might imagine. And t I would say this notion of higher purpose will be the driving force of the change of capitalism in the next century.
I think it's going to unfold in surprising ways to us, and I think capitalism, in its current form will be unrecognizable a hundred years from now. And I think it will be good. I don't know what it will look like. But I do think it will be good, and the reason I think it will is because if we can all work together to evolve our consciousness, as leaders, as entrepreneurs, as business people, teachers. Then the only result of that will be good. How can it not be because if our consciousness is evolving then we will, without question, have a great understanding of this idea of what I mean of cosmic oneness. I think that we will see ourselves in other people to a greater degrees, a hundred years from now. That's one of the main reasons why I think that this notion of purpose is important.
Mike: Everything kind of pivots around that whole idea of the evolution of consciousness doesn't it?
Shawn: Yeah it does. And I also think too that when we start to see ourselves in kinship with each other more and more and more and more and as we see it and our children see it and our great grandchildren and our great great great grandchildren see it, then it will just happen. This will evolve. Just as it has over the last hundred years. So I think good things are happening and coming down the pike.
Mike: Okay. I know that your work in Askinosie Chocolate, is always full on, I know you're incredibly busy. So thanks for making time for this. I know you've got a busy home life and you've got a serious commitment as a family brother at Assumption Abbey.
Mike: Would you like to just give us a brief summary of what a day might hold for you? If there is such a thing as an average day.
Shawn: Well you mean just a day in my work and everything? Yeah. The day begins with kind of ... my own liturgy if you will that is guided by my own rule of life, which I talk about in the book, which is nothing fancy. It's really just what it sounds like, but it is loosely based on the rule of Benedict, which has been governing monasteries around the world for the last 1,500 years. And maybe some would say the oldest continuously used management document in the world. But anyway, that kind of governs what I do when I wake up. So there's a certain prayer routine that I follow straight away in the mornings. And it involves intercessory prayer and scripture and music and candlelight. And then most mornings I have a period of meditation after that prayer time. We recently moved to a little house. So I have a really tiny house now but on a lot of land. We have 43 acres. Sometimes depending on what day it is, I'll have chores to do on that land and things that I like doing physically. And so I get a lot of exercise on that property. Splitting wood and that kind of thing, which I love to do. But if it's during work time, it could really be varied. I travel a lot. And as I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy it. I love travelling. I don't mind airports and those kind of things. I suspect there will come a time where I will hit the wall and I'll know it that I don't want to do that anymore, but so far so good. I just got back from the Philippines actually. But if I'm here at work then I'm going to be doing my rounds in the chocolate factory, which is two doors down from our offices. As I said, it's pretty small but I'm checking in with people and checking in on our roaster. They're always roasting cocoa beans over there, so I'm testing those beans by tasting them. And then just checking with people on how the equipments running and how they're doing and it's just a quick check in for me. And then from there it's anything. Who knows? We're working on new products all the time and so there's a constant research and development going on because it takes us a long time to develop a new product. And then for instance in the last couple of days I've had to deal with an issue related to our school lunch program in the Philippines. We launched a new program, a third school where we provide school lunches for children. It's all sustainable. No donations. Not part of our charitable foundation. We sell a product called Tableya which is a hot chocolate product. Well at the school, the teachers make this product and they put it on my container and I found out a couple of days ago that the Philippine FDA made us remove that from the container because we didn't have the right certificate, which nobody told me that we needed in the last nine years we've been doing it. So that meant that I was not going to have that product to sell. So I had to quickly figure out what we're going to do to fund 400 kids getting school lunch every day. So that has occupied a lot of my time and we've come up with a solution. So it's things like that.
My daughter, who is my co-author in the book, Lawren, she's in town this week. She works remotely from Texas. And so she's in town this week, so I'm getting the chance to spend a lot of time with her. She's our chief marketing officer, so it's fun to work with her on these projects. And yeah, so a lot of it is different. I'm also very actively involved in a grief center that I co-founded about 19 year ago called Lost and Found that's for children and families who've experienced the death of a parent or sibling. And I'm not only on the board but I also am a volunteer facilitator in the teen group. So twice month I'm meeting with teenagers in a group setting who've experienced a death in their family and that is something that's near and dear to my heart.
Shawn: And I'll try to work my schedule around that.
Mike: Wow, you do so much and you still find time to sleep. I'm impressed.
Shawn: Well you know what? And I also watch a lot of T.V. My wife and I like to watch T.V. And ... You're in the U.K., right?
Shawn: So we've been watching this Public Broadcasting thing lately on Queen Victoria. Which I've loved watching that. And we watch all of the queen shows. There's another one called The Crown on Netflix. And then we just finished watching this series on Jamestown, where settlers first came to the United States to Jamestown and so I like those historical shows. So yeah, I watch T.V. and do all that. You know and it's funny when people say, "Well how do you do ..." It doesn't feel like that much. I feel like I watch too much T.V.
Mike: I guess you’ve built up everything you are doing over time right?
Mike: You must find it profoundly satisfying to have developed relationships in all those different parts of the world.
Shawn: Yeah. That's true. And that's one of the things that I love about the travel. Is the people I get to meet and know for so many years. I've been doing this chocolate business for 12 years, 13 years really. I really enjoy just seeing those people again and again and working out all the ins and outs of things that can go wrong and just solving those problems together. I do enjoy that. But you know, the one thing you'll know from reading the book that is an aspiration for me and a challenge and that relates to my work at Assumption Abbey. (I was there last week just for one day to meet with my spiritual director). And that is that my aspiration of course, is to live a life of being inserted by doing. Not a life of doing inserted by being.
Shawn: And a lot of times that changes. So sometimes it means just be. Don't do anything for the results and what's going to ... And that is a challenge. But it also can mean in a deeper sense, what is the reason that I'm doing the thing. So what is the purpose, to use your word again, what is the purpose for me to start a third school lunch program in the Philippines. Because that requires a lot of doing. There's a lot of doing in that, and so I have to be very, very careful that the purpose for me, this is just me, this is not what I push upon people in my company. But the purpose must for me be grounded in my faith. And so if it's not, and if it's for my own ego, it's for my own personal ... more likes on Facebook or whatever, than I have to really check myself. Because even though if it might be for a good end, it will not be good for me. And so I'm in a constant state of checking. It's one of the reasons I depend on spiritual direction as the really central thing.Because I can be very challenged by that.
Mike: Right, I remember you saying in your book that your spiritual practice is a real help to you.
Shawn: It is a real help, yeah.
Mike: I understand that because I think it would be very easy to say, "Wow, another great project, another great mission"
Mike: And then start losing sight of where you yourself are.
Shawn: Yes. Indeed. Well and that's why I talk about that a lot in the book. And this is where I think one of the interesting sort of paradoxes that I subscribe to, in relation to organizational change, is that I think in fact one of the greatest, most sustainable ways that this will happen is not through scale. I think the way it will happen is when, as consciousness evolves among leaders and others, they will be reminded of the thing that drew them to this organization in the first place and they'll want to keep hold of it. And the way to keep hold of it is through human connection.
Shawn: It's through mutuality, the expression of compassion and kindness. Not mutually exclusive of scale, but if the pursuit is scale then it often will require of us ... It will require another toolbox that can sometimes be apart from the expression of kindness and compassion. Because why? Because the sign posts that we see along the path of scale often point us in a different direction than the sign posts that bring up back home to these things that we've been talking about.
Mike: So in essence you manage to keep the quintessential human value.
Shawn: Yes, yes indeed.
Mike: So if there was one piece of advice that you had to give to organizations who wanted to actually move to towards being a new and more complete kind of organization, what might that be?
Shawn: That would be to collectively find ways to create more human connection. Without the expectation of anything in return. This is the paradox. This is what Gandhi taught us. And others. It seems counter intuitive, but that's what I would say. Roll up your sleeves. I'm not talking about writing a check, contributing money. I'm talking about human connection. That's what I think.
Mike: Great. Well thank you so much for making the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.
Shawn: Well my pleasure. Thanks for the questions. I love these questions. And thanks for the interest.
"We have a really good culture that is human centric"
I have been following with great interest and a real degree of admiration my friends at Innovation Design Studio The Moment as they roll out Holacracy in their own rapidly expanding organization. I had the pleasure of catching up with one of the key figures in the implementation, Innovation Designer Simon Mhanna to ask him how it is all going.
I think there’s still some work for us to do to answer some critical questions such as: How do we balance role and soul?
Simon Mhanna is an Innovation Designer at The Moment. His mastery of the innovation process enables him to bring diverse stakeholders together to solve complex problems, induce system change, and better engage the humans we serve. In addition, Simon has been leading conversations on the Future of Work in Canada, believing the future can and should be more human. Currently he teaches at The Institute Without Boundaries at Georges Brown College, OCAD University and is Programs Lead for the DesignTO - Canada’s largest cultural design week.
Mike: Simon, thanks for making time for us to catch up on how the rollout of Holacracy has been going at The Moment How long have you been rolling it out exactly?
Simon Mhanna: In practice, I would say it’s been three months. We've been preparing for this transition for almost a year. We started with some research first to understand really what we wanted out of Holacracy and how Holacracy will actually serve us, before we got into the actual implementation. Now we are at a point where it's being implemented, the whole team has been invited into the practice, and it's getting real.
Mike: That brings me to my next question quite neatly, which is, how far along are you in the implementation?
Simon Mhanna: I would say we are now ready to hit the ground running. The thing is that, in terms of practice, we are not all at the same level. Some people now have a bit more experience, they have been more exposed to the practices and the tools. Overall the whole organization has a good awareness. The whole team really understands what Holacracy is, and what it's intended to do. People were invited into their roles, and we're now having the tactical meetings on a weekly basis, dabbling in governance meetings but I wouldn't say we're at a point where we're all fully engaged yet.
Mike: How long do you think it will be before you consider it to be in place and reasonably finished?
Simon Mhanna: I would give it maybe another couple of months. I think now we're at a point where people are starting to internalize it, and really understand how to engage with it depending on their personalities and comfort levels.
Mike: You think just two or three months, and it will be mainly in place by then?
Simon Mhanna: Yes. I would say hopefully by March/April of 2019 we should be in a good place.
Mike: So you actually started looking at doing this over a year ago (beginning of 2018) now, and you spent a lot of thoughtful and responsible time working out what your organization was going to get from Holacracy and then you went into the implementation?
Simon Mhanna: Yes.
Mike: That's great. I know that the Moment is a really values-driven organization, and has a strong vision of the part it has to play in the world. Would you say that Holacracy is helping, or will help to deliver that vision and purpose?
Simon Mhanna: Definitely. The intention behind implementing Holacracy is to enable the team to deliver on the purpose that we have set for the organization. We are value-driven, we have a really good culture that is human centric. Through our research we learned that some aspects of our culture are holding us back though, and we felt that Holacracy will enable us to separate personal relationships and the level of care we have for each others as humans from the tasks (work) in order to move much faster towards achieving the purpose that we envision for the organization as a whole. In that sense I think it's going to deliver on that goal. At the same time I think there's still some work for us to do to answer some critical questions such as: How do we balance role and soul?
It is an interesting place to be. It’s creating a burning platform for us to review our rituals, practices and processes to triage what works and what doesn’t moving forward. And this is where I think we're starting to notice some shifts in behaviors and mindsets that will be really helpful in pushing our practice and getting us closer to what we want to achieve.
Mike: Sounds great. What do you think the main challenges are that you have overcome in the implementation so far?
Simon Mhanna: I believe the first main challenge was to really understand what we wanted out of the Holacracy structure. We took time to reflect on it. We conducted some internal research with the team and a general scan not only to understand the drivers behind our behaviors but also to map those against some of patterns we identified in the literature review. This work helped us bring more clarity and more focus to set clear organizational goals. The second challenge was, when we started the implementation, we had to set up an initial base, which meant that some people were invited to start shaping the new structure , and others were not. The hardest part was to maintain people’s patience in order for them not to feel left out of the process. It created anxiety, as people were not sure what was really happening or when they could expect the next steps. Although we talked about it as an organization, the experience itself was limited to a small group. That was a very challenging period to go through. The third challenge was the roll out. It triggered a lot of emotions as the team members were trying to make sense of the new structure, and how it worked for them. I would say there will always be challenges and things will unfold as we go, but I think these are the three main ones so far.
Mike: Right. Roll-out is obviously not complete, and you have a fair way to go yet. But would you say that you are already seeing benefits from it?
Simon Mhanna: Yes, especially when it comes to the clarity around roles and accountabilities. Team members are already speaking to the benefits of having more clarity which enables a better process for decision making. Now I feel like we're really making a step towards liberating people to be able to make decisions that they are entitled to make from their roles. From that perspective, team members are able to see the benefits. Meetings might not feel the most intuitive now, but the learning curve will accelerate as we hone in on our practices.
Mike: It sounds good. Obviously it's a complex, intricate thing to introduce any kind of new management structure into any organization, so I would imagine it would be impossible for it to be without it's problems and challenges. It sounds as if the Moment has done a really good job so far in looking at what these challenges are and working out how to use them constructively.
Simon Mhanna: With the culture we have in place it doesn’t feel like a disruptive change, it is more of an evolution of the practices we have and the level of trust that we've been cultivating over the years. We are able to have honest conversations about what's working and what’s not working for us. We have moments where we struggle so we stop, debrief, and reflect. This is key to enable people to deal with their challenges wherever they are at in the journey, to continue to improve their practice and energize their roles.
Mike: Right. The Moment has always had a very open and egalitarian culture or ambition if I can put it like that? Do you think it would be more difficult for a more traditional, more old style organization to be able to implement Holacracy? One that didn't already have that kind of background?
Simon Mhanna: Well, I'm going to say yes and no. I think our culture has been really good in helping bring everyone along on the journey. But sometimes this level of openness sets an expectation that you have to wait for everyone to be ready. That can be difficult, and I feel sometimes it slows down the process and creates tensions or confusion for people who have a greater degree of readiness. And I think it creates frustrations and impatience, and it becomes really challenging to juggle tensions between those two groups and the organization as a whole. But in the long run the benefit of this process is that people really buy into it and they feel supported and willing to engage in a more productive way. I think in other organizations where people are not empowered to really voice their opinions or speak to the human aspect of their experience around the workplace, things might move faster, but there's always a risk of losing people along the way, because if we're not also working on the individual level, some people might not be able to cope with the change and catch up with the rest of the organization.
Mike: There's a fine balance there and you need to be pretty thoughtful I would think.
Simon Mhanna: Yeah, correct. But I think also sometimes we play “too nice” anyway, and with the intention of enabling every single person on the team we might sacrifice some of the overall benefits. But then again, I think our choice of doing it in this thoughtful way -- always engaging people, bringing that empathy forward -- might feel like it's slowing us down now. . In the long run though it will aid in setting up the future of the organization to have a much more solid base.
Mike: Yeah. It's a good point. So finally, you guys have gone through a huge amount of thinking, experience, and experimentation, with this and at the same time building and expanding a successful consulting organization which is quite an achievement. Do you think Holacracy is likely to be something that the Moment would offer us part of a program of work for its clients?
Simon Mhanna: I have to admit that it is a lot of work, and it's a big investment for us as a small organization to take that on and put time and resources into the transformational work we do. It is great though, but definitely we had to make some hard decisions. It is something that we consider on a daily basis, and sometimes the question “are we doing the right thing?” is something we wrestle with. Our commitment to pushing boundaries and the thinking we’ve put towards the future of work along with the willingness to use the organization as a platform for experimentation and learning to develop new models of working and organizing give us expertise and learnings that we believe will serve other organizations and potentially our clients in the future. We are already starting to work with our clients to think about it from an organization design or a team design perspective to enable the innovation work they want to do. And we feel there are many lessons from what we are experiencing, prototyping, and creating together as a team, that are very valuable for our clients. So yes I think I would even be a bit provocative and say, "That kind of change becomes a prerequisite for the organizations of the future to do the innovation work that they aspire to do."
Mike: Right, one of the things which seems to be fundamental to The Moment’s successful implementation of Holacracy, is that you actually spend time in the thinking to see how it would serve the values and spirit of the company, rather than trying to say, "Okay, here's the book, this is a cookie cutter approach, this is what we're gonna do, implement it." Would that be right?
Simon Mhanna: Yes, we made that crucial investment first. The excitement and the intention of taking on Holacracy came from the founders I would say, from their vision of what the organization could evolve into. My colleague Karen and I took some time to interview the founders, and interview some of the founding team members to understand some behaviors and dynamics of the team, and understand the challenges they experience. Then we assessed whether Holacracy is the right thing, and what aspects of Holacracy are really key to take the organization to the next level. And I think from that perspective we're always evaluating and thinking about what are the core practices that are really serving the goals that we want to achieve. But I should also say that since we have the tendency to be very experimental and generative, we made the decision to try to prevent that from getting in the way, and to follow some of the holacracy practices that are agreed on before we really shape it into what we want it to be, to make it more ‘Momenty’. As an organization we cannot avoid adding our own flavor to everything we do.
Mike: You're building in the conceptual technology of Holacracy into the Moment, pursuing the vision of what a new kind of organization would look like. Is that right?
Simon Mhanna: Correct.
Mike: Brilliant. Any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Simon Mhanna: I'm just going to say again that the changes involved are a lot of work, and they are big investments for any organization to take on. As long as people have clarity in terms of what it's serving and how the changes really enable the team to deliver on a clear purpose, it would be a smart investment. It's a lot of hard work and, as we always say about innovation, there's no magic recipe. There's no quick fix and things take time. And that's okay.
Mike: That's great, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate that and I think everyone out there's going to be really interested to see what the Moment is doing and how far you have come.
Simon Mhanna: Thank you, Mike. It's always a pleasure to chat.
"if culture has changed, why hasn't software changed? "
In this interview of the series asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change, I spoke to Amit Kothari, CEO of innovative startup Tallyfy.
Amit Kothari is the CEO of Tallyfy. He spent over a decade in London, working on process improvement projects and disruptive technologies for some of the largest companies in the UK. Tallyfy is beautiful workflow software that turns your daily tasks and approvals into automated, repeatable processes – freeing up your time. Tallyfy went through the top two accelerators in Silicon Valley - 500 Startups and Alchemist, and has raised $2m to date from top investors in St. Louis and Silicon Valley.
Consumerization of enterprise software is a manifestation of that trend where it’s just about “I Google something, I sign up, I use it”
Mike: Amit, as co-founder of innovative business process management service Tallyfy I know you're pretty busy so I appreciate you taking the time for this interview.
Amit: No problem, it's my pleasure.
Mike: Would you say that the culture and future of organizations are things you take a deep interest in?
Amit: Yes, and I think I'll break it down to software being a manifestation of that culture which begs the question - if culture has changed, why hasn't software changed? Yes, I would say I take a deep interest in that and try to break it down into the pieces we can control and can't control.
Mike: Do you see major change in the way organizations run as being something which is pretty inevitable and probably essential to most organizations as we go forward?
Amit: I think that in the largest companies there have been attempts to change culture and I also think there's cross cultural businesses. A business in the US would probably be quite different to one in, say, China, or India. There's that to take into account but if we focus down to say “The West” for arguments’ sake then in answer to your question - I think people are battling with the self-governing or self-service type of expectation that employees have around what they expect at work when they get hired.
It is not just a millennial question, or a GenX or GenY question. I think it's entirely different. Many people, especially at the top, are trying to do a top down approach to that change and in many cases investing millions of dollars in innovation, culture change and so on but I don't think that you can manifest that in a top down manner. I think that it's a grass-roots effort. Now, what we're trying to do is different. I guess we're trying to enable that grass-roots movement to happen without making the people at the top feel that they have no control whatsoever. It's a bit of a game between the three rungs of hierarchy in a company I suppose.
Mike: Do you think that perhaps it's not either one thing or the other? but there needs to be something happening on both sides?
Amit: I think there is stuff happening on both sides. I think the danger is the middle management sometimes who are stuck between this no man's land of them needing control because they're middle management - and yet people at the top are telling them not to be more innovative or to embrace cultural change and yet they have teams below them that are that way. Many of them are not as senior as the people above so they're kind of stuck in that sandwich I suppose.
Mike: Do you see the kind of work that you're doing at Tallyfy having a part to play in those changes?
Amit: When we take all these observations and then say "Okay, what does that mean?" then yes - understanding the dynamic is important to us. If every rung of the ladder could be getting a piece of software without asking IT, great. That means that the entire model has changed. Consumerization of enterprise software is a manifestation of that trend where it's just about “I Google something, I sign up, I use it” which also means that UX expectations are entirely different. It's not a list of features anymore. It's about “do I understand it in two minutes? Otherwise, I don't care.”
So, yes, it's a great opportunity for us by seeing that this is the new way, that people want to work differently - and enabling that new way to happen. In our case being a BPM tool we had to remove the rigor of BPM as well. We feel that flowcharts are very 18th century because you're not really going to pay someone a six digit salary to look at flowcharts and just follow them. We think the new wave of tools will embrace collaboration of course but the chat extreme of that collaboration - towards Slack and things like that are actually “too free” in the sense that you can just post whatever you want. I've seen channels of 50 people on Slack degenerate to 70 messages a minute where no one has any sense of what's happening, or what is currently being talked about.
Mike: Like a mush.
Amit: Yes, and so that's where the organization piece has to work with software, not just chat but how can you constrain it into a context and then say "This is about this workflow" but it's still a loose chat. It still has a structure where you see who's doing what. I think what you lose is predictability in work when you have too much free form in terms of your communication styles because the whole point of a process is that it's predictable. I know who's doing what next and if that is lacking entirely in something like chat then we're the answer to that. We've got to fill that vacuum so that's our mission - to make work predictable and easy.
Mike: So anyone can sign up for Tallyfy. Somebody in an organization could decide "Hey, maybe this'll help me organize this process. Now I want to put this together with these three or four other people" and they can sign up and get the other people signed up to it and just start doing their own processes without a huge learning curve, or enterprise software licensing or anything like that, is that right?
Amit: Yes, precisely and I think that such easy software, such needs that people have, should be at the bottom of a business “Maslow hierarchy of needs” if such a thing existed. Yeah, it's not just servicing that they want to do this but the fact that they need it as a well-known pain point. They had to go to IT in the past. Now they don't and we're positioning for that do it yourself era.
Mike: Do you think leaders in an organization changing their own mindset is relevant to or necessary to making that kind of change feasible?
Amit: That's an interesting question. It is contextual to the leader's style, and their DNA and what beliefs they have but if we say in a mid-size company (rather than a large company) a leader had to embrace all this - it's very difficult If they're a middle management person. They're stuck between what IT tells them to do and what their team really want. I think the real question is not what they want but how they can counterbalance those two forces. Leaders are supposed to be enablers for others.
Mike: Do they need to change their thinking from being monolithic to being more open?
Amit: Absolutely, like the classic leader that just says "Hey IT, buy some software and everyone will use it", clearly has to change the way they think but the non-software side of leadership I think doesn't change - aspects like humility, motivation, encouraging people. Humans haven't changed even though software has. It's just that the tooling which has changed substantially has to enable a human to be who they want to be.
Mike: In that context what do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them being spoken about in this context quite a lot but do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations?
Amit: If we take higher purpose to mean a mission statement for example I think the most tremendous mission statement is written in plain English in ideally one or two sentences and that's it. “We believe that people should not X, Y, Z, fill in the blanks” - it’s about the change you want to see in the world. I think that it's also customer facing. It's not about the organization. It's about what the organization believes customers should have which also simultaneously puts a stamp on their differentiation to what they bring to the world. In our case we think we want to be the only workflow tool that anyone can understand in 60 seconds. In contrast to many BPM tools that take sometimes months to implement and so on. I think that the mission statement has to be the product of service combined with the customer need combined with differentiation.
Mike: That's interesting because if I take Tallyfy as an example and your mission to produce this very easy to use business process management software, that does have values embedded in it in a way doesn't it? What values would you say a company might be expressing by going down a route like Tallyfy?
Amit: They'd have to be bold in knowing that flowcharts are not the way forward or perhaps they've tried them and no one looks at them ever again. They'd have to embrace that this whole “ready in 60 seconds” idea is actually possible. They'd also have to embrace that integration to other tools is actually drop dead easy now and you don't need an army of engineers to write code to integrate software A to software B any more. Such a leader, such a thinker probably is a good fit for us. We are quite selective in knowing that we picked those people out because we know we sit in that bucket.
Mike: What kind of values do those people tend to have in common do you think, or are they all different?
Amit: A typical such person tends to be looking for innovative things. They're sometimes embedded in the start-up space. They get excited when they contact us. We can tell when it's the right person. They then elaborate their pitch to us as if we don't have to say anything. We just say "Here's what we believe in." Then they say "Well, that must mean X, Y and Z." We just nod our heads and say "Yes, it does." Then we know it's a good fit. Sometimes we do have to convince people because they have constraints from IT or so on but I think when they get excited they become the champions. They relay that to their teams and we actually make them a custom video after we talk to them once to say "Here's a custom intro just for you that you can share in your team to build consensus for this approach." I've recently taken to sending custom videos of me speaking to that person for just two or three minutes to introduce myself and tell them what I believe we can do together.
That partnership works but it's a slice of all the people out there. I would definitely say there's a whole ocean of people who are stuck in that decades old, "Well here's a list of features and I don't care what users want". I hope that the pressure that users bring to IT help them realize IT isn't a castle that manages service any more . IT has always been a cost but they've been an essential function in a company and leaders there, or CIOs, probably have to understand that as Software As a Service becomes Everything As a Service there's no physical service to maintain. Their job will become running contracts for SaaS companies not running services any more - which is a very interesting change for IT as well. Many organizations then aren't looking at technology-first transformation in that respect and I think it's the tech that changes a culture because sometimes the culture reflects the tech and no one wants to work in some place where horrible, ugly software is normal. It tells you what the place is like. It's almost as if leaders are thinking "If the tools you use are cool and make everyone happy then our culture will be cool and everyone will feel like they're in a cool place." It's really just like a tool-first thing because every day you're staring at a tool. If you work eight hours a day - how many hours are spent staring at a software tool? It's the manifestation of culture I think, the tooling itself, asides from all the human factors which exist.
Mike: Do you think the technology choices that people make will tend to embody their understanding of the human values as well?
Amit: A technology choice ... Well, it can be a mishmash. Many companies don't have a universal platform but there's a fight going on between the old and new all the time in big companies and, yes -the fighters will manifest their views as technology. They'll say "Look, this other thing sucks. We need to get this new thing. Can someone please buy it?" Then at that point somebody will say "No, because we have this enterprise wide license" for some other software and therein the battle begins. It's an ongoing battle but I think in 10 years from now people will look back and realize that this was the age when self-service and the consumerization of software changed everything. And that includes changing the culture from top down to just bottom up.
Mike: Right, I have actually seen a very large organization spend 40 million pounds on buying a whole bunch of enterprise licenses (which were completely useless for what they wanted to do) because they were reduced from a hundred million.
Mike: If you were going to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to move towards a new and more complete kind of empowered organization. What would that piece of advice be?
Amit: Let's assume this advice goes to the top, to someone who can control everything. There's basically just two pieces to work out in my mind. One is does our technology actually enable people? That doesn't mean keep the lights on and just run IT. Does it actually enable people to believe in what they want, what we believe in as a company, but also - do they work faster, easier, better? That's first and the second I think is - are we in a place where we can change? I think everyone wants to change and be innovative but if you have to run a nuclear power plant then there's not that much scope to be innovative. It better not blow up, right?
Amit: It just depends on what sector you're in. If you're a tech company of course you can embrace this. You should embrace this but it's hard sometimes for retail supermarkets say.
Mike: Or running cash machine networks.
Amit: Right, so that's the second question. Are you ready? Is this even a fit? Then a third question is would all the middle management or the way they think, not the top - but the middle - actually accept this? That's where I think the examination of what is real should occur - not what you think the culture is. If you walk around and actually ask people face-to-face about things then you learn the truth and too many people rely on trickle-up management reports to understand things. I think that's my core advice, just literally walk around and ask the specific kinds of question to people who are actually at the coal face every day and say "Do you really think that we can be innovative? Do you think we can change? Do you think we have changed or should we change?"
Maybe you would not introduce yourself at all and not say that "I'm the CIO", "I'm the CEO" or whatever. You would just say "Hi, I just walked in here. This is my first day on the job. I just wondered what do you think about this?" That's when you get the truth and that's when a leader should know this is the truth. Not just what I want - but this is the real truth, on the ground. Being feet on the ground on this is the only way to really understand how to change (for a leader that is). It's ideal if no one knows your face or name.
Mike: Thanks for that. You're a busy person. Do you want to give us a brief summary of what a typical day might hold for you or is there no typical day?
Amit: Yeah, I guess it varies but I think a lot of customer demos. My day starts at 6:00 AM CST on GitHub. GitHub is a tool that we run all our source code, and an hour or two is spent with our devs - since we’re a product-first company. I use an hour or two to just catch up on tickets and answer questions and then the day starts - which is demos, mostly. Then I try to have an hour for just whiteboarding. I tend to just draw things for no reason. I go into a room alone and just draw things. Most of them don't make sense. I take photos of the ones that do make sense and then always sleep on it until the next day to understand them.
Lately we've been thinking about an app store - so how would Tallyfy have an app store where you can install apps inside Tallyfy just like you can on the Apple store and what would that mean? How would it work? I suppose it's not so typical.
I plan my day around understanding that there's three buckets of knowledge. (1) what you do know (2) what you know you don't know and (3) what you don't know you don't know. I really try to spend my time understanding that third bucket by having advisers, and having investors help us. By just asking a question that I know is wrong but knowing that my question will be rephrased into another question - will be much more illuminating.
Mike: You do an awful lot of exploring in fact.
Amit: Yes, I suppose I have to so that we can differentiate ourselves. I do sometimes have an issue with the rest of my team who have to do what they have to do, their operational stuff. I have to be careful presenting ideas to them especially if they're not fully fleshed out. That's not my day but I guess that's roughly my week in some way.
Mike: Thank you very much. What kind of question should I have asked about organizational change that I haven't asked you that you would really like to answer?
Amit: I think you've asked fantastic questions. I think you've covered the human aspect of the cultural change and I think that would be the Ying. I think I've come in with a Yang - with the tooling aspect of that change, which is my end of the bargain I suppose. I don't claim to know much about the actual cultural change that occurs but I do think that some exploration around what real users want and their true motivations around the tooling they use to manifest culture is something that's understudied and not really understood too well because culture isn't just "Hey, here's a culture, please use it." You don't buy a culture from a supermarket so what is it really? Is it the tooling or is it the mission statement?
Mike: Maybe it differs from organization to organization as well.
Amit: Precisely, so is there a sectoral difference? Does size make a..
The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
Benjamin Gorelick will be ordained as a Rabbi in January 2019. He is the Executive Director of Mifneh L’Kedusha, a school that seeks to explore our relationships with self, community, and God in religious ritual and prayer practice.
He moved to Alaska the day he turned 17 and attended 4 colleges over 6 years, receiving degrees in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Science.
Early in college, he got a summer job as a mountain guide and continued that line of work after graduation. In 2005, he founded the Mountain Guide School, a 4 year college for mountain guides with a curriculum centered on human skills - empathy, self awareness and self control, creative problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.
He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, Pookey, and his dog, Stromsmoe.
at the end of the day, the job of any good leader or manager is to help their employees be the best people that they can be
Mike: I know you have a history of building businesses and I believe you are about to embark on a new venture. Given that, I guess that culture and the future organizations are something in which that you might take a deep interest, so I'd love to be able to ask for your thoughts on a few key questions in that area.
Benjamin: That sounds wonderful, yes.
Mike: Do you see a major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over?
Benjamin: I don't think the change is inevitable. I do think that change is what will keep organizations alive, happy and healthy. That said, there is this tension between what I'll call order and chaos that exists within business. The ordered side is basically things performing as you expect them to. The chaos side is where things are not, and usually seen as a negative. However, that's where the innovation and adventure side of things happens, when you push to change what is “normal”. I think that within any organization, you need one foot that is firmly planted in the order side of things, one foot that is firmly planted in the chaos side of things, and you walk that very tight line between the two of them. That's where organizations are most likely to succeed, by challenging and pushing themselves without tipping themselves over so far that they get overwhelmed.
Mike: That's interesting. The reason for that question is that a lot of people that I've spoken to in this series would say that we are experiencing such a high rate of change in the environment that businesses are operating in that it is no longer possible to ignore the chaotic side as much as may have been possible in the past.
Benjamin: I’m not sure I’d agree with that. There are plenty of businesses out there that should do nothing more than just continue to exist and feed their owners with cash for as long as they can and then go away. There are a variety of reasons why that might be the case. Sometimes, it might be that the owner's passion has moved on, so there is the classic cash cow scenario, which is where you have something that makes money and you can kind of step away from it and set a management team to run it. Other times it might be that the industry is changing but the cost of changing a particular business is so high that it might not be worth it. You might think of something like the hotel and tourism industry, where you have so much built in infrastructure already that, for a large hotel chain to pivot to something that looks like Airbnb would be impossible. There might be some smaller innovations a hotel could make, like more efficient check ins, better amenities for your guests, having them feel a little bit more warm and more welcome, etc, but generally the model for that industry itself, a place you rent a bed, is going to be very, very difficult to change. Serious innovation is probably not worth it to those organizations, even if they die a very slow death. To summarize, there are lots of times where being static is okay and it might even be the right choice for business.
Mike: I agree, but let me ask a slightly different question. What I’m interested in is whether you see social and cultural change as requiring changes in the way that businesses operate. For example the push for different types of fulfilment and objectives and a different way for people to be involved in the business that they are working in.
Benjamin: Yes, I think that the kind of connection between the values that we have and the work that we do has gotten a little bit more explicit. I think that people have always searched for meaning in their life. It just so happens that work has become one of those places where we search for meaning now. It used to be that you would find that within family or within religion or within community. It's funny that, in such a hyper connected world, we have become more unconnected from a lot of things. For whatever reason, we don't seem to have an understanding about how to connect, deeply and meaningfully, with each other so we fob those responsibilities off on the organizations that we either work for, and we ask them to recreate what, once upon a time, family, religion, and community gave to us.
Whether we like it or not, whether a boss or owner feels like employees are owed meaning through there work or not, the idea that a job should provide that has become reality. That seems like an awful lot of responsibility to fob off on your middle management boss, but I think that businesses have to do it if they want to keep people around, and businesses have to understand the needs of their employees if they are going to help those employees be their best selves. Because at the end of the day, the job of any good leader or manager is to help their employees be the best people that they can be.
How that is accomplished looks different than it used to, but the fundamental principle of “help your employees be the best people they can be” has been true for a long time.
Mike: Right. Do you think that actually the mindsets of leaders is very important in dealing with this change?
Benjamin: Tell me what you mean by mindset of leaders.
Mike: The orientation of the leaders themselves, how they do “leadering”, how they see themselves.
Benjamin: We have seen that there are lots of different kinds of management or leadership styles that can work: Everything from the gung-ho type A kind of leader who has a strong vision and moves people forward with rallying cries, all the way to what we might call a silent leader, somebody who quietly role models certain character traits and silently goes about the work of making it possible for other people to step up and be themselves. I think that any of those can be effective. If we go back to the theory that a leader's job is to help other people be their best selves in any given situation, there are a few different ways that you can help them do that, but fundamental idea that your job is to empower other people to be their best selves is true. If you have that key principle in mind, the strategies and tactics, the ways that you go about executing that can be fairly diverse.
It's a shift from leadership whose vision revolves around profit to leadership whose vision revolves around systems. You have to understand that all those things are based around people and so people have to have that prima facie place.
Mike: Would you say that that's absolutely the key thing then?
Benjamin: Yes. That is the key thing, to recognize that you're dealing with systems of people.
Mike: Here's a good one for you. I think you'll like this question. What do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them spoken about in this context quite a lot. Do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations? Let's start with what do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you?
Benjamin: Yeah. That's a great question. Values are a series of behaviors, actions, and beliefs that we commonly agree is most likely to yield the best result for an individual, group, or community. We talk about that in terms of higher values. Sorry, did you use the term “higher values”?
Mike: A higher purpose. A lot of companies have enshrined values and many of them now are saying we are purpose driven. We have a higher purpose beyond just profit.
Benjamin: Yep. That almost happens out of necessity because profit isn't a vision for a business. Making money is, at best, a benefit that comes from creating something that people will buy into. As we discussed earlier, we find ourselves in this world where we are searching for meaning. It seems silly to say that we are searching for meaning in our laundry detergent, but that is kind of what it has come to. When they talk about a purpose driven business, what the business is hoping to achieve is that the purchase you make or the company you work for is consistent with the larger values that you try to live by. That might sound a little bit cynical on the surface of it, but I think it's both appropriate and important for us to recognize that there shouldn't necessarily be discordance or disharmony between the businesses that we work for, the choices we make as consumers and the choices that we make as parents or as teachers or other roles that we have in our life. We are in a place now where information is available, enough so that we can make educated choices on that front. So, again, to come back to the question do businesses need to articulate those things so that they can survive? Yeah, they do because people are looking to create some harmony with the choices that they make across all these facets of their life. In doing so, businesses are stronger and more capable because they are extensions of our best selves.
The tricky part is that they actually have to live those values, and that means they have to live those values in the way they treat their employees and in the way they create their product, etc. I think that's where we start seeing some trouble, when they purport to have these values but don’t, or can’t, actually live them on a day to day basis. Being held to higher and higher standards we have a tension between becoming more and more pure and then more and more pragmatic in some of those choices. In a push to become more and more pure, it puts a lot of stress on corporations who live in the real world and have to make pragmatic choices, daily.
Mike: Yeah. There was a guy called Chris Argyris who described this as the difference between espoused values and values in action.
Mike: Also, Carolyn Taylor when I interviewed her, spoke about this very interestingly. She said, basically one of the things I have to do every time I go into a company is to look at what their stated values are and then to examine what they are actually doing. Two ways you can examine people's values is to look at what they actually spend their money and their time on.
Mike: Which is an interesting perspective. She also spoke about the tension that you described and I think suggested that we need to be reasonably compassionate with ourselves and other people in terms of developing, reviewing the values that we have, how well we actually apply them and then maybe modifying some of the values so that they are more practical and more achievable rather than having value statements on the company wall no one ever follows. They've just given up because it's unachievable.
Benjamin: Yeah, and it's really interesting. It's something that we do very naturally with ourselves and with other people. We are empathetic when people don't live up to their highest potential. They don't live those value statements in their most pure form most of the time. I would say that at least the bell-curve-middle of the population gets that idea. The problem is that businesses aren’t people so we don’t have any reason to give them human empathy. Therefore, the pressure on them to act out those values all the time is tremendous. We don't have the same sense of empathy for businesses or for leadership within businesses that we may have for other people. I think that that's where businesses can get themselves in trouble. If they articulate a set of values that is too aspirational and then have to make compromises , they get held accountable to that in ways that are different from the way that we might treat another person.
Mike: Yeah. That's very interesting, actually. Well, I know that you're super duper busy all the time. Would you like to give us a brief summary of what an average day might hold for you?
Benjamin: Yeah, and I will say that in the last, let's call it three months, I have stopped using busy-ness as an excuse for anything. As you said, if you want to know what a person is like, you have to look at the way they spend their time, their money, their intellectual capital. It's been a very interesting two or three months as I've really started to explore that process of “How am I spending my time? What does it mean about my priorities for myself, for my family, for my work?” I have started taking a lot more time for myself and that is both in terms of self-care and also in terms of giving myself time and space to think and to process and to be creative. I used to work 90 - 100 hour work weeks, and that is not an exaggeration. I was one of those people, and doing that filled a lot of needs for me. I felt important. I felt valuable. I felt powerful because I was working that much, and only really important people have to work that much, I guess.
What I found is that by putting that much time into keeping going, I wasn't taking the time to systematize things to empower other people and then also to empower myself. More recently, I'm working more like 60 hours a week which feels much more like vacation. I guard for myself somewhere between three and four hours every morning. I don't turn on my computer, I don't look at my telephone. There is a special phone number for people to call if there is a dire emergency but otherwise it's ‘leave me alone’ time. I start every day and get up before dawn. I go for an hour long walk with my dog. That's some of the most productive time that I have during the day because it just gives me a space to think a little bit about whatever question it is that I'm asking myself for the day. Sometimes, that has to do with work. Sometimes, that doesn't. That's a good place to start. Then I go either back to the house or come into my office in town. I will sit down with a pad and paper and I will just write. It's time for reflecting.
I will often try and start my day with what is a bigger picture question that I'm trying to answer. I'm currently exploring a little bit about the relationship between Biblical stories, particularly Adam and Eve, and our modern ideas of love, meaning, and connection. That's a question I've been working on for about a month now. I have a stack of 13 books sitting in the corner of my desk that I've read. I'm just writing out an essay and it's nothing to do with anything other than it was a question that I wanted to explore, and so I'm exploring that. What has come out of that are a whole bunch of lessons both about myself and the way I relate to some of the other folks in my organization around what you were just talking about. “How do you articulate a set of values and how do you live that set of values? How do you help other people connect to the values that you have within your organization?” That usually takes me about three or three and a half hours in the morning and then at that point in time it's usually around nine or ten o'clock a.m. and I'll be back up at my computer.
Mike: You're finding taking that time is a significant contribution to all the other stuff that you're doing?
Benjamin: It is the most significant contribution to the other stuff that I'm doing. I think we often find, in roles where it's helpful to have some creativity, where it's beneficial to innovate, the only time that you're going to be creative is when you're not doing anything. Like an artist sitting in the studio until inspiration strikes. That never happens while I'm sitting there checking my email. It never happens while I'm sitting there reading a stock ticker. For a long time, I lived in that world of reading my emails, putting out fires, working on that side of things without creating a space for myself to begin creative activity. Within the last just three months, I've put changes into the organization where I work. We've increased our revenue by something like 23% in the last three months just from a couple of creative ideas that I pulled out of my head. Then I intentionally created space for other people to be creative, some other leaders in management within the organization.
I've also come up with going into business for myself again. I, in fact, have just turned in my notice at this particular job so that I can explore more fully some of those creative ideas with the confidence that it's going to work out okay.
Mike: Fantastic. Finally, this series of articles tends to focus around organizations looking for, and wanting to move to, a new and more complete kind of organization. Several people have mentioned the idea of a Teal organization. I just wondered if there was one piece of advice you have to give an organization which had that kind of ambition, what would that be?
Benjamin: It would be to remember that your organization is about people. It's about putting people into a place where they can be their very best selves. What that looks like will probably vary on an individual basis, but if you want to talk about being that kind of Teal or an organization that really lives its values, that does come down to an individual level. It's not something you can implement department by department or organization by organization. Every individual will have different ways in which they can become their best selves. Remember that prime directive, that you are an organization that's made up of an awful lot of human beings, so be human.
Mike: Right. Thanks very much. What question have I missed?
Benjamin: You missed “How do you do that?”
Mike: How do you do that then?
Benjamin: That's an even better question. It's a harder question to answer. The hardest thing, I think, for a human being to do is to be introspective, to take a look at their own strengths but also weaknesses and figure out how do I either sort my weaknesses so I can become the best version of myself or how do I at least minimize those weaknesses and accentuate my strengths. I think, again, different people will respond to those two ideas in different ways. The challenge that we have as leaders is to figure out how do we prod our employees into being introspective and gaining the confidence and the desire to engage in self growth. It's something that ultimately you want them to take their own responsibility for. What does growth look like for you? There are a variety of ways you can both stimulate and then reward that behavior within individuals; but I think it happens in stages: help people be introspective, to take responsibility for who they actually are, aspire to something better than themselves, and then you can help them if they say, “To be a better version of myself, I need a little bit more training or education or time or space or it's important to me if I feel engaged with my family a little bit more.” Then you, as an organization, can react to it, but you need those first few steps before you try and impose what you think might work. They have to come up with that plan.
Mike: That may be similar to this theory I have, which is that the growth and evolution of an organization has an intricate and inextricable link with the evolution and growth of the individuals that comprise it.
Mike: Thank you so much for that really interesting interview and set of ideas.
The sweet core value in Liminal Coaching on 2 pages
Welcome to Liminal Coaching. There are 2 main levels to Liminal Coaching, the first clears unprocessed subconscious material and the second focuses on developing specific strengths and skills.
Liminal Coaching Level 1
Your subconscious has a major effect on what you notice, what you think about, and what you do.
You may rationally and consciously decide you are going to do something but if your subconscious is not aligned you will be fighting yourself to do it.
Liminal coaching works directly with the subconscious through a focused daydream state which is the same as REM sleep.
This short video explains how Liminal Coaching works to help you achieve what you want to with calm, clarity, insight and deep engagement.
Our program is built around one-on-one sessions delivered in 4 or 8 session blocks. In a few cases where a lot of subconscious material needs processing, more may be required. This requires a weekly commitment for the period.
Level 1 Liminal Coaching forms the basis for more advanced work in Level 2. If you buy an 8 block package and complete Level 1 with sessions to spare we move straight into Level 2.
Liminal Coaching Level 2
Level 2 Liminal coaching develops and strengthens particular and specific skills, and capacities depending on what you prioritize and wish to focus on. We give you new tools to practice applying in the real world between sessions.
As the practice evolves, the assortment of tools and developed applications continues to grow, informed by research, joint discovery and successful engagements in keeping with the principles of continual improvement.
The ability to work directly with a practitioner to target the subconscious reaches to roots which are largely inaccessible to techniques focusing on conscious thought or mindfulness. The Liminal Coaching program enables us to affect deep patterns engraved as habits such as involuntary reactions to triggers. It also enables new and different patterns to be seeded in a way that makes it much easier to embed desired new habits and reactions.
We have successfully used these techniques to deal with:
Serious long-term phobias
Obstructive behaviour patterns arising from chronic abuse and adversity
Over-empathy leading to emotional overwhelm
Cognitive fuzziness due to stress and work-load
Difficulty entering creative flow-states
Boosting capabilities to solve complex problems
Level 2 is is entirely non-prescriptive. We work with you to achieve the goals and outcomes that will be most helpful for you. Finding and refining these goals is very much a part of the process.
"We don't thrive on structure. We don't want structure. We want things to be in the present. "
The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change. I was delighted to get some time to talk with Noah Rosenberg for this article on organizational change and design.
Noah had a long career as a Digital Creative Director running a number of agency offices before making the leap to serial entrepreneur, starting and selling multiple high-impact startups. As a lifelong learner, he’s always seeking chances to increase impact, maximize performance, and reach a higher peak. New skills and new environments drove him to create an entirely new kind of agency, to develop companies in the same way a team would a product, and ultimately to create an entirely new product category in Pikazo, an AI-powered art application.
He's been lucky to lead some incredible teams that have gotten to really incredible places — Top 20 on the App Store, keynoting Intel's AI conference, creating artwork live at the Museum of Modern Art, and most recently changing the way advertising and content interact. Noah loves helping everyone on the team reach their own peak experiences. Noah is currently immersed in the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction, defining new ways that algorithms can make digital experiences more valuable and humane
I think if we can look at those stages of development and say that intuitive awakening leads to a lot of other really good outcomes. So, with that as a guiding principle, it helps inform a lot of the other decisions we’re going to make in terms of what type of product we develop next
Mike: Do you want to say something about that latest creative departure?
Noah: I can explain it a little bit. It's still pre-launch, so there's nothing to go look up and read about online, but here's a super easy explanation of it: We're creating a tracking system for free weight exercises. So, you have these basic five exercises that people think are the best for you, squats, dead lifts, bench press, shoulder press. In the past they have not been tracked, whereas if you go for a bike ride or a walk, there's all this great tracking that you can use. But this kind of weight training hasn't really been tracked.
So, we stumbled on a couple pieces of technology. One is something called pose detection where you can kind of see the skeleton of a person from a video of them. The technology can guess where your bones are and in that way, monitor your form.
Then, the second thing is from the older area of psychology called operant conditioning, the BF Skinner stuff. What we love about that is that it really speaks to the intuition (experienced as conditioned response) and goes through a higher bandwidth channel. So, when I'm at the gym and my coach is saying, "Oh, good form, Noah," I'm in verbal mode and I'm thinking, "Oh, he likes me," and, "Oh, am I doing it right?" and, "Does everybody else in the gym see me doing it right, and what does that look like?" It has nothing to do with completing the actual exercise. So, what we're trying to do is introduce other feedback methods that are a lot more useful and speak to the intuition or muscle memory.
Mike: Sounds interesting.
Noah: Here’s a really concrete example: if you are an iPhone or Apple watch user they have this new mechanism in there that gives a little thump. It's different than the buzzer in every other phone. In the camera app, there's a click to tell you when you have the camera held vertically. What starts to happen is it speaks , through your hand down your arm and into your intuitive, liminal muscle memory. So, even with the screen backwards facing out, you can still make the phone level. In fact, when I show it to people, they don't find that very interesting. They're like, "Of course. Yeah, it clicks when it's level. That makes perfect sense. What are you showing me?" But I never say anything. I just hand them the app, turn it around, and say, "Make the camera level," and they can do it. There's no dialogue. There's no explanation. There's no confirmation from me. They intuitively know where that is, and then I turn off the click and it turns out, yes, you can get it back to level again because that communication went through your muscle system. So, you can take that idea of the nonverbal feedback and look at what other ways you can apply it. We're just starting out with strength training because fitness is such a rich category already.
Mike: So, are you interested in neurofeedback in general?
Noah: We haven't built this yet, but I had this notion that it'd be really nice to make an app that lets you draw a perfect circle because there's no verbal way to describe that. Somebody says, "To the left more, up more." It's completely unintuitive, but if we could train you so you could feel where those boundaries are and draw this perfect circle, I think it would be a great example of neural feedback, and then there are many other applications throughout interpersonal connections, and business.
A sandwich shop wants to have their employees put the right amount of beef on a sandwich. A coffee shops wants to know how much stirring you do in the water, these sort of things.
Mike: So, you've got something which can apply that to the basic weight exercises?
Noah: Yeah, it's all workout stuff, so we can track weights, crossfit training, these things that are really hard to track using accelerometers but easy to track with cameras.
Mike: Oh, yeah, that sounds great. So, as you're thinking about setting up your new company, I know that you've got a lot of experience in start-ups and being the CEO of a start-up. So, I just wanted to ask you as you approach creating another organization, are the subjects of culture, the future of organizations, and how they're designed very much on your mind?
Noah: Yeah, that's absolutely the high order bit. Honestly, that's been the challenge of everything I've worked on in the past and this day job I've got right now, it's blocked by the culture. It's blocked by the scenario and the setup and all of the mental models that go into what we think of as a workplace requirement.
The simplest one, a boss, right? If a boss has an idea or let's say a comfort zone, the whole company has to align around that comfort zone because ultimately, if the boss in that role is outside of their comfort zone, they can't make strong decisions and then they're no longer the boss, but the org chart then is lacking leadership.
So, there's a functional reason why that happens, and I'll give a real specific example. This engagement that I'm on now has a combination of business process, technology and customer experience, and the manager, there's five tiers of managers on this thing out of eight people. It's a best practice for how not to do things.
Mike: I was going to say, it sounds like there’s no one to do any real work.
Noah: Right. So, the guy at the top of this pyramid, his strongest muscle memory, his most intuitive reasoning, his most intellectual agility is in business process. So, finally, he said, "Look, I know some of the technology, but I'm not that strong on and know very little about customer experience. I've done technology enough that I can trust those guys to create outputs that I can use in business process, but I have never done customer experience. I can't trust those outputs. How can we make customer experience outputs look like business process?" Does that make sense?
Mike: I understand what you're saying. It obviously doesn't make sense to do it, right?
Noah: So, in relation to the culture of a new company that behaviour is really interesting and a problem that I wouldn't have intuited without experiencing it first-hand. That's the first order observation, but the second order observation I got from working in that environment has really given me a lot of better understanding of what it is that I do.
Mike: I was going to ask you, against the background of what you just said, do you think that for organizations to be able to succeed in functioning, whether they're existing organizations or new ones, that major change is necessary and inevitable in the way that we look at organizations and what we do with them?
Noah: Well, that's a bit of a loaded question, but the answer of course is yes. I think that change is going to happen, but what's interesting is on some level, this engagement was still functional for the manager at least, right? So, he can still point arrows, but I think to your point, there is always this generational shift where that top layer of managers will peel off. They will retire. Then, you have the next tier coming in who hopefully have a little bit more of a developed sense, so the next tier are going to be all those Gen X people who are kind of deeply nihilistic. We're a short window. There's only 10 years of us, right, and then it shifts over to the millennials, but this little nihilistic part of us that says, "Yeah, I don't care about the organization at all. I grew up punk rock and I hate all structure, so I don't value the org chart." There's nothing to preserve. Preservation of old structures is the opposite of the Gen X ethos, but the correlation of that is we also don't create new structures. We don't thrive on structure. We don't want structure. We want things to be in the present.
So, I'm thinking about creating my own company and this is probably going to sound counter intuitive but instead of designing the organization, what I I've learned from the last few years at work is that what I really need to design is the choice of my frustrations.
Vankatesh Rao writes a lot about organizational stuff and a lot about different mental models. He has this notion about your intellectual diet that I really like. It says a writer is going to write about whatever information they're consuming. There's always your own flavor to it, but a lot of your thought processes are based on what you're inputting. I really resonate with that. I think that's probably pretty true.
So, I think of it as my diet and I think heading into being a startup creator where you get the chance to have an empty canvas on how you want to build your company, the first approach is the unconscious incompetence approach, you don't know what you don't know, you go, "Well, I'm just going to make this be flowers and cotton candy. I'm just going to pick my absolute favorite things. Why would I put anything else in there? If I get to make it, it's just going to be what I want."
It's sort of a childhood fantasy land. You'll start to see offices with playground equipment inside. They look more like daycare centers than offices. Right away, you can see that's what was on their mind. Why would I put anything that I don't immediately like? That's sort of a diet of junk food. If I let my 10-year-old eat whatever she wanted, it would be Cheetos and Kool-Aid, but as you mature you start to realize you need other things in your diet, and particularly fiber. Fiber is by definition things you can't digest.
I started to realize how much I'm motivated, and how much I'm informed, by intellectual situations that I can't digest. I can't digest this guy wanting to make a customer experience engagement fit a business process. Customer experience is about understanding the environments a customer might encounter, what they may see, hear, feel, and do. What makes the, feel a service is trustworthy, valuable, repeatable, and enjoyable. Business process is a simple flow chart. So it’s kind of like saying “Chess is hard. Let’s use the chess pieces, but let’s play checkers, kids understand that game better”.
So that idea kind of gets into my head and I examine it and think about how to make it work. And I get a non-answer on that. It's kind of like it does not compute. I just kind of don’t see a way to make it make sense. If it's what this guy's comfortable with and he's just going to force it, that’s what we’re going to have to do and that's how organizations have to work, okay, fine. but that's a dead end.
You're not really doing customer experience. You’re not playing checkers if you use chess pieces. You're just agreeing to not play chess, you’re doing something else. You’re playing horsey hop hop, it’s neither chess or checkers. Mentally that becomes this intellectual dietary fibre. You can’t incorporate the idea, you can’t do much with it besides let it pass. It's these ideas that you don't digest, that you don't incorporate, but maybe build other ideas around it, or maybe it helps you flesh out your own ideas. So there is value in ideas you can’t digest. The ideas themselves may not be valuable but mentally chewing on them can be.
What that's informing for me as I'm heading into creating another start-up, is that I don't so much want it to be, a platform for ego magnification, like probably my first one was. I thought, "If I'm leading an ad agency, I want to make a famous ad agency. I want to prove to them that mine is more famous." I want to do that job of ad agency better and I want to become some sort of important person from it. Having gone through that and rung some of those bells, hit those achievements and realized there is no achievement there, you move onto the next of all these other kinds of self-deceptions you could create. My current self-deception is that I can create something not cool, but that is functional and sort of mature, I hope. I think that final output is just a creative thing that has room for me to keep creating.
Mike: Right. So, do you think then that as we move towards this new period of organizational design where a lot of structure's being thrown away because people don't want it anymore and react against it, do you think that means increasingly that the organization will tend to reflect the mindset and the thinking of the leaders who form the organization?
Noah: I think that's a very interesting question. Yes, that could happen, but I think that's actually a regression, that's not progress, because what that does is say we just require a chieftain who is a really great chieftain, but it's still a chieftain model.
Mike: What do you think progress would be?
Noah: I think we've seen what's happening to organizations happen in art and in some other places. So, you have an interesting analog in art. In the Victorian era, art was this game of being exactly digestible to the upper class. That was defined in a certain way. It was very naturalistic. The more realism you could get, the better. The crisper you could get, the better. The more pedigree you had, the better. This was what was going on in the salons in Paris, in the environment into which Gauguin and Picasso entered. So, it was really understood what counted as a good painting. It was very defined in everybody's mind and they knew it exactly when they saw it and you could write theses on it. It was very specific.
I think organizations have gotten to kind of point; there's the big four consultants that define what a good organization looks like and it's really specific and it's really measured.
Mike: It's all still rooted in the 150 year old tradition of Taylorist scientific management?
Noah: Yeah, or the Prussian army, early military structures. What is a vice president but a lieutenant?
Mike: What do you think the new thing looks like or could look like?
Noah: So, let's look at what happened there with Picasso where he had all that training, but then he came in and he started changing in a really specific way some of the requirements of a canvas in terms of meaning. You could look at Picasso and say he cleared the way just for Picasso, but also that it left room for Kandinsky. It left room for other cubists. Their work is very distinct from Picasso's, but it plays in that same space.
So, I guess what I'm getting at is once that tradition is shown to be fractured, it opens up room for other rules to be violated, but it also opens up room for other things to count as being a manager and for other structures to count as being companies. So, Picasso eventually did lead to something like Rothko, no structure at all. It led to Pollock, no subject matter at all. It really doesn't make sense to talk about a Pollock painting in terms of the subject matter. So, I think we're going to start seeing organizations that are so loosely organized but so open to possibility that it won't make sense to use the word manager any more. They'll still function and still include groups and still have an ethos.
Mike: Right, but don't you think there will still be a leadership owner in a sense in organizations? Would it be more of a function that anyone can do?
Noah: What a great question. This is a perfect thing for us to be thinking about. So, the higher order bit in my mind right now from this most recent experience is rather than choosing what you want to work on or even necessarily choosing how you want to fit into the organization, I think the structures will start to appear where you're choosing your frustrations. You're picking the grain of sand under your tongue, the thing that you're going to work on and work on and work on and turn into that pearl. So, for instance, I'm spending a lot of time with Martha Valenta lately. Are you familiar with her?
Mike: Coincidentally I just interviewed Martha a few days ago.
Noah: Oh, that's terrific. I just had lunch with her yesterday. The sort of grain of sand under her tongue is meetings and how meetings are done. That's not really on the surface a company level problem, but she could create a company around that where she could go into organizations and solve for that very narrow problem. So, as a leader, you would describe her as the person who most has that frustration. Since she's most driven by that frustration, she's going to be the one who puts the most energy towards solving it. In that sense, I think that might be how we define leader. In the sort of military sense, which has become corporate sense, the leader is the person who structurally you have to listen to.
Mike: Okay. I wasn't confining the use of the term to that.
Noah: Yeah. I think in that sense, there will always be people who are further out than others who have been working on the problem longer and have more view into the problem's space. So, in that sense, that's probably a fixed constraint.
Mike: Let me ask you about these two terms, values and higher purpose. If those things have a place in an organization, what do you think they are and how well do you think they can work rather than how well do they work, because my experience would be it's very easy to say that you have a particular value and then never apply it.
Noah: I've been working on a way of describing this because I have this intuitive mental model about it. That's really been chewing away at me on this engagement with this day job. There's that analogy of you can't see the forest for the trees. It sort of describes not being able to see the big picture, meaning you're so focused on an individual aspect of something that you're not really thinking about how it operates as a whole.
So, let's work with that for a minute and talk about it. A forest, the way you would describe a forest is something like acreage, maybe location on the planet or within a larger area within a nation or a state or a county. None of those have anything to do with trees yet.
Mike: Providing you with breathable oxygen?
Noah: Yeah. Yeah, that would be a nice way to think about it, but then you're like, "Well, what counts as part of the forest and not," right? Is the tree outside or is the grass part of the forest? You're thinking of this large global area, and I think that's where vision comes from. So, if we can make that analogy that the vision doesn't necessarily have to describe anything about the company in particular, but it describes at the meta level what it's trying to do.
That's the forest, and then the trees are the individual aspects of the company, right? So, those could be the things that go on your business model canvas. It could be your distribution. It could be your suppliers. It could be what your product is. It could be who your customers are, but they're still pretty high level objects.
Then, unfortunately in business, we jump down to leaves. So, we go from forest, which is really global and non-descriptive of anything internally, then we go to the individual elements, but then we go to the leaves. I happen to have a nice view of trees out the window. I can't even tell what leaves come from one tree or the other, much less which branch they're on, what direction they're pointed. Even a camera can't represent those leaves because even if you got every single leaf and every single orientation and direction, there's some behind it. There's no possible way to characterize all the leaves of a tree. If you did, they have moved by the time you've finished. It's just a pointless endeavor, right?
So, what that describes is the idea of getting into too much detail in your thinking. That's what's happening in this organization I'm in where they're sort of working from the bullet point out, from the middle out, from the most narrow degree out.
There's a lot of reasons I think psychologically we do this. Part of it is maybe where our own mental safety zone is, where we know we can think strongly, but also know that we can befuddle and confuse somebody else and nobody else can really do it so there's some safety there. Nobody could really tell you you're wrong because they would have to zoom into that detail, too.
So, you have forests, you have trees, you have leaves, but then you can go back again and you can go leaves, branches, trunk. So, a trunk almost any of us can draw really simply, right? It just looks like a box or a cylinder. The trunk is sort of the guiding principles of your company. It's the first principles, the base area of what you're trying to do.
The new company I'm trying to start is based on the principle that we make dumb things smart. That's our fundamental guiding principle. There's no big picture stuff there at all. That's just what are we looking to do, and anything that's dumb, physically dumb and has no software in it yet, we're going to add software to it and make it intuitive. That's a really base principle. It can go a lot of directions, but that's our first principle.
Then, our branches are, well, we're going to do with cameras and we're going to start in the fitness space, and so that's kind of how that main idea is starting to define itself, but it still isn't too specific. Then, when you get into the leaves, we start talking about what software libraries we're going to use, what hardware, who are we going to sell it to, how are we going to install it, is it 5 or 10 feet away from the workout equipment. These things matter, but they don't matter. I can't go to somebody and say, "Oh, I'm really specialized in the 5 to 10 foot space away from a bench press machine." That's meaningless, right?
What you end up seeing is this diamond progression where you go from forest, really broad, very broad generalizations of your mission (and..
The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
On this occasion I connected with Al Curnow. Al is a Senior Consultant with High Performing Culture (HPC). HPC helps organizations create, drive and maintain high performing cultures, with a proven system that’s straightforward, practical, and easy to use. He works with organizational leaders of many diverse industries. Al is a skilled Consultant, Writer and Presenter. He’s spoken to numerous industry groups including General Motors, PACE, Chambers of Commerce, VISTAGE International and Athletic Interscholastic and Coaches groups.
Prior to his consulting career, Al was a senior leader for more than 20years in the employee benefits industry. Al received his Bachelor of Arts from The University of Rhode Island and completed graduate work in Business Administration at The University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Al is married with two children and resides in East Greenwich, RI.
Good leaders tend to hire good people. They tend to do things the right way. And yet they never really considered that there could be ways of systematically improving their culture to an even greater extent.
Mike: My first question is do you see major change as being inevitable in most organizations at current time?
Al: Absolutely, Mike. We do. I don't think it's just at this time. I think change is one of those things that's just inevitable. The pace might be a little escalated at this point in time, but I think change has always been an inevitable part of any organization.
Mike: Do you think it's essential as well?
Al: I do. I think our ability to change and/or adapt to, and/or take advantage of opportunities that present themselves are critically essential. We talk about this with our clients all the time. It's like death and taxes; change will happen. What's most critical is how do we respond to it. More importantly, how do we look for and leverage the opportunities that change brings?
Mike: So what kind of opportunities do you think we're seeing at the moment? It seems to me there's an increasing amount of pressure for companies to make fairly significant and radical changes in their cultures. Do you think so? Or is it just something which has always been there, do you think?
Al: I think it's always been there. Culture exists in any organization. Frankly, in any group of people, there's a culture. There are always social dynamics. I think the reason culture has become such a hot topic is because people are beginning to understand the importance of it. The impact of it. There are psychological studies, that go back to the 1930s and probably prior to that, which speak to this. At that point in time they didn't call it ‘culture’, They called it Organizational Climate. Today, ‘culture’ has become a buzzword. There's been a recognition that yes, it's important. What's been lacking historically is what to do about it, How do we influence and/or change it? Culture has often been perceived as this fuzzy, ambiguous concept. Our philosophy, our whole approach is that it's not. You can actually shape and define the culture that you want. You just have to be intentional and systematic about it.
Mike: Do you think there's more pressure for change now than say, 10 – 15 years ago?
Al: I do. Things are changing at a rapid pace. We work with an incredibly diverse group of organizations from construction to law firms to high tech, and low tech, but the common denominator with all the organizations we work with is that the leadership within those organizations understands the importance of culture and they understand that their culture has to be alluring and structured in a way that puts them in the best position to take advantage of opportunities and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. We have close to 300 plus client organizations across the U.S. and some in your part of the world as well. And I would say every, single one of them recognizes the importance of being able to change and take advantage of the opportunities that change in the environment brings. It’s a common thread in all of them.
Mike: And do you think that leaders being open to changing their own mindset and changing themselves plays a part in that kind of change?
Al: Without question. In fact, the most important ingredient required when looking to change the culture of an organization is leaderships’ sponsorship and reinforcement of this change. Organizations that hire us are lead by leaders that understand this.
Mike: So they already have decided that if they're looking at improving their culture, then they are probably already considering their own awareness of it and so on.
Al: Absolutely. And ironically, Mike, a large percentage of the leaders that hire us already have cultures that are actually quite good. They know how important it is and want it to get even better. The recognize that they need to get better because of factors, like change, like saturated marketplaces, and budgetary pressures. They realize that there's real power that can be harnessed within a culture. They just never realized they could be systematic and intentional about it. They've grown good cultures almost by accident. Good leaders tend to hire good people. They tend to do things the right way. And yet they never really considered that there could be ways of systematically improving their culture to an even greater extent.
Mike: Right. In terms of culture, in terms of people wanting to develop really good cultures, what do the words, values, and higher purpose mean to you? How do they fit in there?
Al: Great question. Our take on values qnd mission might be a little bit different from most. We feel that if the values and mission truly reflect and align with what actually happens within that organization and they're paid attention to and all employees are mindful of it, great. However, with that said, what we tend to find is most organizations, although their intentions are quite good, have mission and values statements that are nothing more than a poster they hang on a wall.
Mike: So do you actually do an assessment of what the values in practice are?
Al: We skip the assessment and actually go right to the behaviors. We try to get at the most essential behaviours that are critical to the organizations’ success.
Mike: Right. So what you're saying is it's better to specify what kind of behaviors you expect to see rather than having a list of values everyone's supposed to live up to which may be quite abstract.
Al: Yes, again, unless you have a robust list of values that really is integrated into your organization.
Al: We focus on behaviors, actions you can see, coach and teach. If it's just this abstract poster on a wall, let's skip it. Let's go right to the things that will take your organization where you want it to go as a leader. We do have some clients who have invested the time and effort in developing a meaningful mission value statement. It means a lot to them and they pay attention to it and they reinforce it. The distinction with those clients is that we say “OK, that's a great start. Now how do we take that, and as an extension of that begin to identify the specific behaviors that speak to it” ? We're not throwing away all the good work you've done. Rather, we're incorporating it. We're taking from it and then driving a bit deeper into things we can see, measure, coach, and teach on.
Mike: Thank you. As a senior consultant in a culture change and development company, you must be pretty busy, right? Could you give us an idea what a day might be like for you?
Al: Absolutely. And as you might imagine, no two are the same. I have a healthy mix. Being part of a small organization, we handle a wide variety of tasks. This includes everything from new business development to the actual consulting work with clients with some project management throw into the mix! So no two days are the same. Most days are split between two primary roles. One is working with leaders of organizations, CEOs, or Executive Directors (for non-profits) and their leadership teams. I help them first define what type of culture they want. That’s where it all has to begin. Organization must identify, with incredible clarity,the type of culture they want. Another large percentage of my time is spent working with all team members and employees introducing them to our process to help them to stay focused on the most critical behaviors. . Both of those responsibilities involve a lot of travel. Our clients are all over the place. We do some work online and virtually but I'd still say the vast majority of our work is in-person with clients.
Mike: A lot of the clients I've been seeing in the past couple of years are looking at different models of organization design. They want to move to a new type of organization design. Something like the idea of Teal perhaps. If there was one piece of advice you had to give organizations who were wanting to move towards something they see as being more empowering for staff and a more complete kind of organization, what would that be, that one piece of advice?
Al: I would say being incredibly clear in terms of defining what are the specifics of what you want. It's one thing to say you want to build a certain type of organization.,Yet if you're actually going to be able to have real impact on creating it, you first have to begin at the beginning, which is defining what that organization will look like. What would be going on around there in terms of how we treated each other internally, how we treated our customers, etc. And again, what would that look like in terms of specific behaviors.
Mike: That sounds very much like one of the key questions I ask my coaching clients, which is, “if you woke up tomorrow morning and you were exactly where you really wanted to be, what would be happening”?
Al: Yeah. That's a great question. It very much gets at the heart of this because you have to start with that thinking in order to be intentional and have impact, you first have to be mindful and aware. Then I would say there's a step two or a part B, which I feel is just as important. It's one thing to be able to define it, but it's a whole other thing ... to meaningfully impact it in a sustainable way. Once you define it, you then have to figure out how to put practices in place to help coach, teach, lead, and reinforce all those things we've identified as being critically important. To me, that's the secret sauce.
Mike: And that's what your company helps people to do?
Al: Yes. That’s what we do. We help our clients define the behaviors that are most Fundamental to their success. Then we help them design a framework that allows them to stay focused on (and get better at) these behaviors while making them stick. Again, Culture has often been thought of as something vague and ambiguous. It isn’t. It can be shaped and influenced.
Mike: That's very interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights around this.
Al: My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you.
"It's never done. We are constantly innovating, and we should be "
For the latest in the Liminal Thought Leaders series I connected with Martha Valenta in St Louis.
Martha has been a Human Centered Design consultant for the past 14 years, with a focus on the financial industry.
She has collaborated on strategy, experience, and interaction design with business stakeholders, development teams, and users to create or improve processes and experiences.
Martha is presently a Human-Centered Design Lead with 1904labs. She is the President of the St. Louis Experience Design organization (STLX) and she teaches UX at LaunchCode CoderGirl. An artist advocate and prolific painter in her free time, she recently founded I Need That Art, where she connects artists with buyers.
I was lucky enough to grab some time from Martha’s busy schedule to get her views on organizational change.
Authenticity implies that you actually spent a lot of time thinking about what you’re really good at and delivering it well and being honest with people. And that should be looking for win/wins because you think there’s no other way to do business.
Mike: Thanks, Martha, for making the time to do this. I'm guessing the subjects of culture and future organizations is something that is of interest to you in many respects?
Martha: Yes, it is. I've been in many major corporations (now I'm in a smaller company), and I've seen things be very difficult. I've seen big organizations have so much trouble getting anything done well, and then on a smaller level, things tend to get done well. I think, because we're truly agile. We're able to make changes as needed.
Mike: Right. From that point of view, do you think that major change is inevitable and necessary for most organizations at the moment, even the large ones, because of changes in the environment?
Martha: Well, innovation by definition is change. Correct? So, change is how we innovate and so yes, I do think there is a need for ongoing change, right?
Mike: Right. So it's absolutely not enough for an organization to say, "Oh, okay, we're going to unfreeze, we're going to do some change and then we're going to re-freeze and there we are. We've done it."
Martha: Yeah, I think that's the trap that a lot of organizations get into and I see it with software development all the time. This is why waterfall was the way that we developed software for so long was because it's going to be finished in two years and then it's done. But it's not done. It's never done. We are constantly innovating and we should be. So, that mindset needs to be fully adopted by all organizations. I see it very much from my software development viewpoint, but many larger companies still want to approach things in their ingrained legacy way and not fully embrace this idea of self organizing teams, continuous development, and continuous improvement. In some cases there are good reasons to be cautious. For example in financial institutions, where there's a lot of regulation and there's a lot of need to be regulated because these systems are dealing with people's life savings or their regular income. Likewise in health care there needs to be a lot of caution around change and development, but they still need to innovate. Because playing it too safe leaves companies in these industries at risk for disruption. Mike: What part do you think leaders play in changing their own mindset in order to improve the kind of situation you've just described? Do you think that's an important factor?
Martha: I think leadership is a huge factor in all companies and especially in larger companies. They're setting the tone, right? If they set the tone of “anything is possible and I expect you to work together” and then they show that things are possible and that they are working together with others then it's not just words, but also actions.
When they do that they show that it's safe to do these innovative things, to continuously change, to speak up when something is wrong, and to fail. Failure is still not fully accepted in the majority of large corporations. But when leaders show an example of that then people are inspired. I think you could do things like give an award to someone who fails. Make it a positive thing. You know? "Hey, you failed at this, and because of that we saved, 10 million dollars because we didn't keep going down that path." So you get this gold star and $100 bonus or whatever it is.
Mike: So if you adequately explored it and it didn't work out, then thanks for doing that because it saved us.
Martha: Exactly. And too often, the leaders get caught in their own ego. They built this thing and they don't want anybody to say the baby's ugly. Or, they don't want to go over the time allotted for developing something. Or they don't want to hear what the users have to say. And that seems all crazy to me because if these leaders would start really listening to all the users and how the thing fits together through the entire process, then we might be able to see that upfront we can do something to alleviate a problem that's happening downstream and save a lot of time.
Mike: This is the importance of being open to recognizing that change is actually the life blood of your organization in a way?
Martha: Exactly. And being open to that at a leadership level really opens it up for the employees. And while I've seen, and been, an employee who tries to help make those changes at a lower level, you can only go so far with that. Eventually you get stuck or stopped.
Mike: It requires things to happen both ways. From the bottom up and top down.
Martha: Yes. And you know, part of leadership is making decisions to hire people that will do what's best and not necessarily what's easiest, or at least try to nudge things along in that direction. And I say this with a grain of salt, there's always understanding how far you're going to get in this quarter or in this year or what have you. I've been that person that's so passionate. But we need to learn where the sweet spot is of just moving forward enough, because sometimes we want to move it all the way forward and a good leader will say, "Hey, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but we're only going to get this far right now, and let's document these other ideas you have." But it all takes leadership for this type of positive motion to happen. And it affects the entire organization.
Mike: Right. So, can I ask you what the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? Because I hear them being spoken about in the context of organizations, the things they want to change towards better values and higher purpose. Do you think that those are core to being a successful organization?
Martha: I'm so jaded right now. I've seen companies where they truly have these incredible core values and really altruistic desires. You know, they want not only what's best for them as a leader, but for the company and for all the people in the company and also for the effect that the company has on the world. I've seen it where it's true, it's just honest and you know that there's no way that they would be doing business the way they're doing business if they didn't fully believe in that. If they weren't fully bathed in it.
I just saw a speaker. Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, discussing his whole business model and how it's just such a beautiful thing and he has such a positive effect on himself because he feels good about everything he's doing and on the people he's employing and the kids that he's bringing along with him on this journey. And then the farmers in all these countries that are raising chocolate and the effects on the communities there. It's just amazing.
Mike: Sounds great.
Martha: I strongly encourage you to look into what he's doing because I think that you'd be very interested in it. But then I see leaders of major corporations and sometimes I think they really believe that they're trying to do good things. But there are so many pieces at play, there's so many bits, and I wonder if they've thought it out and how they're really going to dig in to each little part of the company and make sure that the beliefs are being carried out in the way that they imagined.
Mike: Maybe we should avoid mentioning Nike right here.
Martha: I mean, it's such a neat idea, right? To have a Kaepernick and talk about these things. But then, yeah, you turn around and where are the shoes being made and how are the employees being treated? And it's just, it leaves me very jaded.
Mike: It’s a very big organization, isn't it? One of the things I really liked about Argyris’ work was his definition of the difference between espoused values and values in practice. And what he said was, you have the espoused values of an organization, but actually you then need to look at what people actually do to see the values in practice. And then you can look at the gap between the two and you can say, "Okay, well, do we want to try to bring these two closer together?"
Martha: Yeah, it would be neat in the case of Nike, and this is a great example because they've never been a client of mine!
What would be wonderful would be to see them come out with, "Hey, it's come to our attention that while we do want to be thought of that as leaders of social change, we are in fact guilty of this, and we are going to do our best to overcome this. And so we are actively seeking manufacturers who treat their employees well and if you have a shoe shop and you would like to work with Nike, please come forward. We're actively looking for you." I don't know, but there's something that could be done and it takes leadership to say we failed. We failed and now we want to fail forward. You know?
Mike: It would be a stunning response, wouldn't it?
Martha: It would be incredible. And who could deny that?
Mike: I wonder what that would do to sales?
Martha: Right? It'd be incredible. And what if they moved all, or half, or 75 percent of manufacturing to the United States? Or what if they moved a percentage and then said, "Hey, we're building more factories in the United States and we're going to pay this and our shoe prices are going to go up because of this, because this is what this is. Are you in?"
Mike: Yeah. It would be interesting, wouldn't it?
Martha: Who knows what would happen? But that's leadership, right? To me, that's leadership.
Mike: I think the story about the chocolate guy is very interesting. I'll definitely look into that. It underpins one of my main thoughts on the subject that there is a big difference, quite often between having something up on the wall and actually living the value. And in a sense, I actually have some sympathy for people who end up in a position where they've defined very high flown values, but in practice they ended up not being able to execute them. In my mind it's actually better for a company to look at its value statement and look at it in terms of what it knows it can actually live up to.
Martha: Yeah. I wonder if these companies would have leadership meetings annually and say, "Are we living up to these values that we've defined?"
Mike: Oh yeah. That would be interesting.
Martha: It'd be incredible. I will do a shout out for the company that I currently work for, 1904 Labs. I'm thrilled to work there because the managing director, Sean Walsh, is a man of real integrity. He read the Covey book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and he lives it, and he wants all of us to live it. It is the company handbook and he doesn't want a client that isn't a win/win. He wants to do the best for our clients and he only wants to take on clients that we can do the best for. It's beautiful to me this clear definition of what he's expecting and of what we're trying to do for our clients.
Mike: Yeah. That's great, isn't it?
Martha: Yeah. And it's leadership. That's leadership, right there. I'm telling you this is what I want and I'm going to go ahead and do it too. Even sometimes if it might not be what I thought it was going to be or whatever. He sticks with it. He follows through.
Mike: Sounds like a great place to work, do you think?
Martha: It is! He encourages us to do kind of our own thing for four hours per week. So two hours on Monday afternoons, two hours on Thursday afternoons, we have innovation time and he expects us to all be doing our own thing. It might be charity work or it might be our own start-up or it might be our own growth or learning. It's fantastic because we've got developers that want to learn more about a particular framework or particular language or something is exciting them about a start-up that they want to do and it only enriches the work we do the rest of the work week because we're so excited, we're able to do those things that we wanted to do.
For me on Thursdays, it's charity work that I want to do. We do a lot of work with this school called Lift for Life Academy, and we've been teaching the kids how to code and teaching them how to build rockets and also just being involved in fundraising efforts for that school. It's enriching and Sean's been a leader in that, right? But he also, every Monday and Thursday is actively asking us, what are you doing for your personal growth? What are you doing for 1904 with your free time? What are you doing? What start-ups do you do? Do you have? Or, what small business have you started on your own? And he challenges us every Monday and Thursday to have a win/win. To take this opportunity and make more for ourselves.
Mike: That sounds to me like a pretty lucky place to work and quite rare, I would say.
Martha: Very rare. I do feel very lucky every day. I really do.
Mike: Speaking of start-ups, you've got one going, I think now you're in the art business as well, is that not right?
Martha: Yes. My husband's an artist. I intended to be as well, now I'm finally doing it. He and I have been painting a lot and along the way, I got married last year. We dated for a couple of years. My relationship with him brought me deep into the art community here in St Louis, Missouri. I started to realize that a lot of the artists end up hanging out with a lot of other artists and they don't tend to want to network too much outside of the art community. Some may have social anxiety. And I thought, well, I network rather well. I don't have a problem talking with people. I also know a lot of people. Maybe I can help them network. I started with the work my husband and I have creates. I've been working on how we can market ourselves better. Then I started thinking, this might be good not just for my husband, but for other artists as well. Maybe I can connect with the people who would be really interested in purchasing art.
This idea just started to bloom and now I've got a couple other artists that I'm looking to bring on board soon. We're slowly building up something here. Very exciting.
Mike: Yeah. That sounds exciting. That's great.
Martha: This is something that I'm afforded the opportunity to work on by having some of those business hours during the week.
Mike: Yes. You can actually think about doing it, and start to actually get it going.
Martha: Yes. And if I have any technical issues with the website, I happen to work with a lot of brilliant, technical people.
Mike: Yeah 1904 is a software development company, right?
Martha: Yes. We create software using an HCDAgile methodology that we’ve developed. HCDAgile is the fusion of Human-Centered Design best practices and a structured Agile process. It ensures that we build the right thing, the right way.
Mike: So I've got one more main question here.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to move towards a new, more complete kind of organization, that might be something like, but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal, for example, what would that piece of advice be? What would be the one thing you would say to them? "Okay, you want to have a really great organization. This is the thing."
Martha: It would really just come to being authentic. I think, being authentically who you are and letting the company grow from that. Maybe that sounds simple? I don't know.
Mike: It's a simple enough sentence, but I think has got an awful lot of complexity under the hood, hasn't it?
Mike: Authenticity implies that you actually spent a lot of time thinking about what you're really good at and delivering it well and being honest with people. And that should be looking for win/wins because you think there's no other way to do business.
Martha: Yeah. And that honesty. Honesty about yourself, with yourself. Knowing where you might need help and being open to it.
Mike: I think that's a great answer. Thank you so much for a great interview. I'm so happy to hear about the art gallery and hope it goes from strength to strength.
Martha: Yes. I'm thrilled and I'm really excited about it. I think it'll be a fun venture and hopefully we'll move some art.
Mike: I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.