Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Who decides someone should do anything?

That was the question I posed recently during a lively debate over a latte or two (OK, three) with colleagues. The entire conversation started when a friend asked us for advice about an opportunity she was considering. “You really should do it” was the chorus from most everyone, but not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total relativist believing there is only gray in the world, nothing but ambiguous space in which any decision can be legitimized as an acceptable one. But this whole notion of should is something I have always found to be a bit suspect.

When individuals believe something should be done they often make the statement as if some omnipotent God has issued a decree on the topic. In fact, what we should do can often be traced to a few perspectives: (1) the prevailing social norm; (2) what those offering the suggestion to us would do if they were in our situation; or (3) deeply engrained mental models we have grown to believe and accept over time.

Let’s use my friend’s situation for further illustration. She was trying to decide whether or not to accept a major promotion at her company. Doing so would significantly increase her visibility with the movers and shakers, as well as bring a fairly hefty pay increase. It also, however, would require a dramatically increased workload, significant travel, and an apparent reduction in her overall quality of life. So who can says she should move in that direction?

Operating under the dominant mental model that tends to declare all hierarchical advancement in an organization to be good, she should take the plunge. But when examined through the lens of her own personal values and priorities, the decision may not be quite so simple. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

This is the challenge we all face on a fairly regular basis. Deciding what to do based on our own internal barometer. Trouble is, prevailing social norms and dominant schools of thoughts are so pervasive and so powerful, we often succumb to their notion of what we should be doing.

And too often, we blindly enable the tradition of socially accepted “shoulds” without questioning their relevance or appropriateness for the matter at hand. Example: just because someone has been vice president of an organization doesn’t mean she should become the president. Yet that advancement is too often seen as inevitable. Organizations frequently fail to even assess the candidate’s skills and interests against the position’s demands and the organization’s needs.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. It’s time to put on a better critical thinking cap as we approach our decisions. Just because one of your competitors is engaged in a particular action, doesn’t mean it would be a viable business opportunity for your organization. Just because your neighbors are adding on to their house, doesn’t mean doing so would be a good investment for your home. Just because one of your colleagues is jumping at a new position, doesn’t mean taking on that role is the right choice for you.

The next time you find yourself feeling you “should” do something, take pause. Dig a little deeper and assess whether you are responding to someone else’s notion of what is right for you, or a set of criteria more internally driven. That’s the only way we can make decisions true to our own individual and organizational purpose and values.

Believing Without Belonging

One of the apparent trends in religion is believing without belonging. 

While the number of individuals identifying themselves as believers in some religion or spirituality might be increasing, that increase has not necessarily resulted in more people joining faith-based institutions. Many reasons for this disconnect exist but one of the most significant appears to be a lack of identification with, or faith in, the institutions (churches, synagogues, etc.) themselves.

Believing without belonging

It speaks to the need to convert belief into action and commitment, a need ever-present in any organizational change effort. But similar conversions occur in a variety of settings:
  • Fundraisers try to convert believers from nominal annual fund contributors to more significant levels of donation, investing them deeper and deeper in the organization's mission. 
  • Salespeople try to turn browsers and window shoppers into purchases. 
  • Going even further, Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles talk about turning customers into Raving Fans in their book of the same name. 
  • And way back in high school student council I remember attending a workshop that discussed turning joiners into members, making the point that just because someone joined a committee or organization, doesn't automatically mean they will become an active member.

We need to include more discussions about this conversion process throughout the various departments and functional areas in our organizations. 

We should determine ways to describe the various levels of commitment or action we might desire from members and customers and then (1) determine where individuals currently are on that continuum, (2) identify the value propositions that might convert them to a more significant level of activity and action, and (3) determine the best conversion strategies to engage individuals attention and interest. 

And we also should do the reverse: consider the various levels of commitment or action our members and customers might desire and what organizational changes (think policies, programs, positions, and processes) would be needed to fulfill them.

Similarly, it would be instructive for any organization (nonprofit or otherwise) to spend some time discussing its true believers. These individuals represent a reservoir of trust, interest, and passion that most of us probably do not leverage to its full potential. It strikes me that the true believers are probably a part of the emerging trend of engaging customers (members) in the co-creation of new products and services.

On the interpersonal level, we should examine the leadership traits, skills, and attributes that enable individuals to convert others to deeper levels of commitment. At minimum, all of us should be asking ourselves, "Do I model for others the level of believing and belonging I would like to see from them?"

And finally, any strategic thinking in this area would be remiss if it did not focus on the converse: belongers who aren't believers. Who among your ranks has joined, but is not truly engaged by, or committed to, the mission, vision, and products and services you offer?

Go Boldly: A Personal Learning Manifesto

To boldly go where no man has gone before. This Star Trek proclamation stayed in my consciousness after seeing it on a TV commercial, so I determined the mantra must hold some meaning for me and my work as a facilitator, teacher, and learner.

When did you last approach a professional development opportunity with a willingness to boldly go where you had not gone before?  

Or let’s dial it down a notch to the personal level:  when did you last try something other than “your usual” at your favorite restaurant, walk or drive a different route to work, or hit shuffle for all your music files and listened to whatever played?

We tend to be creatures of habit, regularly revisiting places we have been.  The end result?  As author Margaret Wheatley has noted: “Gradually we become more certain, but less informed, and far less thoughtful.” In times when uncertainty seems ever-present and innovation ever more desirable, none of us can afford being less informed or less thoughtful.

In a meeting I facilitated last fall, I observed an individual invited by the conversations to dance with uncertainty.  He respectfully declined.  His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed, his facial muscles became taut, his arms crossed, his posture slumped, and his focus moved everywhere but the topic being discussed.  He shut down before he allowed himself the chance to get turned on by learning.  I can identify moments when I have been this person.  Can you?

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Wheatley again offers possible insight:

“The only way to see more of the complexity (present in the world today) is to ask many others for their perspectives and experiences.  Yet if we open ourselves to their differing perceptions we will find ourselves inhabiting the uncomfortable space of not knowing. 

“It is very difficult to give up certainty—these positions, beliefs, explanations define us and lie at the core of our personal identity…. By holding on, we destroy what we hope to preserve; by letting go, we feel secure in accepting what is.”

Perhaps we need a Star Trek villain like the infamous Q, who mercilessly transported the Enterprise and its crew to new places, leaving them to manage a previously unimagined circumstance.

Or we might be best served by upgrading our own internal software that shapes our learning beliefs and behaviors.  Try this personal manifesto on for size:
Learning, while often done in community with others, begins with me.  If I am unwilling to interrupt my assumptions, closed to the value in the opinions of individuals with whom I disagree, or unlikely to engage in new experiences, I cannot learn and should not pretend otherwise. 

And while I seek out learning environments and experiences compatible with my learning preferences, I must assume responsibility for my learning no matter what the situation, who the presenter, or when the program occurs.  This may require discarding what I expected or hoped to learn and instead seeking the learning available to me at that moment, in that setting, with that content.

Because everyday moments offer important learning, I will reflect daily, considering the following questions:  What happened today?  What observations can I make about what happened?  What transferable learning is available in those observations?
We often speak of uncertainty or new experiences as “risky or requiring courage.”  While this may be true, I wonder how this description helps the cause. Maybe we just need to let uncertainty and differences be what they are … an integral part of our daily lives and critical to our growth and development. Perhaps in this characterization we can find the security we so frequently seek.

As Wheatley observes:  “When we are willing to be disturbed by newness rather than clinging to our certainty, when we are willing to truly listen to someone who sees the world differently, then wonderful things happen.  We learn that we don’t have to agree with each other in order to explore together.  There is no need to be joined together at the head, as long as we are joined together at the heart.”

Maybe then, just maybe, we will be able to boldly go where we have not gone before.

This is an update of an earlier post.

Four Innovation Lessons with Staying Power

More than 10 years old, the ABC Nightline episode in which the innovation gurus from IDEO redesign the grocery store shopping cart still offers timeless insights about the innovation process.  Here are a few I have found useful in helping groups understand and move forward on innovation.

Involve more people in research.

Innovation begins with unbiased observation of the end user, watching their actions with the Zen practice of a beginner's mind: In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

Too many organizations delegate observation and field research to a very small subset of individuals as opposed to engaging a wider cross-section of those who will actually create the improved or new product or service.  Expanding the field research team reduces the likelihood that those not involved in the data collection process will dismiss the observations: "Well that hasn't been my experience."

Involving more people in research also increases what likely gets noticed, as well as the variety of perspectives through which observations will be filtered, reducing the likelihood of groupthink, implicit bias, or confirmation bias.

Identify stakeholders' core needs or wants and optimize your solutions to them.

After observing shoppers in action and talking with store owners and other stakeholders, IDEO's staffers share everything learned, covering the walls with ideas and insights.  They then hone in on four core themes that the reinvented cart should address: safety, finding what you are looking for, avoiding theft, and getting through the checkout faster. 

They break into four groups, one for each of the identified needs, and again generate expansive ideas and possibilities before ultimately combining some of the best approaches from each of the groups into the final cart.  

This constant expansion and contraction of input and ideas, generating possibilities and then selecting ones on which to focus, ensures rigorous thinking limited to the most important needs or wants instead of broader shotgun efforts.  

I find that establishing decision-making rules in advance to inform how choices are made can accelerate the process and help minimize any potential personality conflicts.

Fail often (experiment more) in order to succeed sooner.

This powerful IDEO mantra (shared by most innovative organizations) exemplifies the deep bias for action.  I prefer to reframe it from as failing often (which focuses on the outcome) to experimenting more (which focuses on the process) and expecting and being OK with some things not working as anticipated. 

Once the appropriate level of investigative research is completed, you should rapidly develop prototypes and involve end users in testing them.  This field research yields more powerful learning than a committee continuing to study and perfect a lone pilot effort ever could.  Similar in spirit is an approach known as the MVP, Minimally Viable Product.  But as Seth Godin notes, the MVP may not be appropriate for all your efforts.

Be OK with organized chaos.

Innovation is neither tidy nor predictable, and you can't schedule your brilliant product insight to occur at exactly 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.  What you can do is ensure that all of your colleagues support a common process and principles that provide focus and self-organization to what could otherwise be misconstrued as chaotic.  

Those facilitating ideation sessions must restrain themselves from unnecessarily shackling the conversations and explorations to a predetermined structure.  Instead they should remain present and intervene only when the group begins to lose focus or energy for a particular stage of the process.

Nov. 14 Webinar • Say Yes Less: Why It Matters and How To Do It

While organizations often have me present webinars for their members and volunteers, this was my first that was open to the public.

You can listen to an archived recording of the webinar here. Doing so may require providing your name and an email address strictly for tracking number of viewers.

Say Yes Less: Why It
Matters and How To Do It

As individuals we want to be helpful.
As organizations we strive to serve others.

Both intentions cause us to say “yes” to too many people and opportunities. Saying yes all the time simply is not sustainable. In trying to be all things to all people, we may end up being not enough of anything...for anyone.  

This webinar explores saying yes less, why it matters, and the beliefs and behaviors required to do it. While the principles discussed in the webinar are relevant for individuals and organizations, our time together will focus almost exclusively on their individual application. 

Specifically, we will explore the following questions:
  • What beliefs influence your philosophy of yes?
  • To what offers or opportunities would you definitely say no?
  • With what people or in what situations do you most often feel obliged to say yes?
  • What are potential pitfalls of embracing the improv philosophy of yes and?
  • What are helpful ways of saying no that lessen any potential negative consequences? 
I also present on this topic in keynote and workshop formats.  
Schedule either for 2019 by completing this interest form.

Rules Divorced from Values Have Little Value

Some people think of values like anchors: they hold you in place so you don't stray too far in your decision-making.

Others think of values like the North Star: they are directional guideposts to help steer you in the right direction.

It's not unusual for organizations of all kinds—educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofits, or companies—to have a statement of core values, the ones that are meant to guide and shape behavior and decisions.  Most organizations also have employee rules or member codes of conduct.  When behavior doesn't correspond to the rules, more rules get made.  And that's a problem. 

Do you always drive the speed limit?  Probably not.  But when a squad car sits on the side of the road, no doubt you drop the pace of your travel to conform to the law ... or rule.  So you're not really committed to the value of safety, but you will comply with the rule when punishment is likely.

I worked in an organization once where a rule on the books was that every phone call had to be answered in three rings.  Theoretically, you could grab the phone on the third ring and scream "Whhhaaaaat?" into it and be in full compliance with the policy.  While I don't think that was the intention behind the rule, we also never discussed why answering the phone on the third ring was important or how it related to our value of outstanding customer service.
Unless you want to be the cop in the car, evoking fear whenever you are nearby, you need to create an environment in which people have genuine commitment to the core values of your organization instead of offering mere compliance with its rules.  Unless you want to make a rule for every single action employees must take, you need to spend more time sharing stories about values in action and why they matter.

Need to have a conversation with someone whose actions have not aligned with a core value?  Focus first on connecting their behavior to the value with which it was inconsistent rather than any policy violation. Help them understand how aligning with that value would have produced a different choice.


Because compliance appears only when the threat of punishment is great. Commitment stays present because people understand "it's the way we do things around here", and they genuinely value doing things that way.  

We want commitment to the value, not just compliance with a rule.

Influential Reading: Six Books I Return to Regularly

A meeting I recently attended had participants introduce themselves by sharing a book that influenced our thinking about leadership and organizations.  Just one we all cried?

It was a great question though, and I immediately jotted down some of the dozens of titles I might have used as my answer.  From that list, here are six of the books I find myself returning to and re-reading regularly (in alphabetical order).  These books have influenced and contributed to my overall worldview.  The takeaways I gleaned are incorporated into the overall DNA of how I think and feel about whatever I encounter.

a simpler way
by Margaret A. Wheatley and Myron-Kellner Rogers

I actually own two copies because my first is so highlighted.  It is well-designed both in content and form, offering beautiful poems that complement kernels of insight about life and organizational dynamics:
"We encourage others to change only if we honor who they are now. We ourselves engage in change only as we discover that we might be more of who we are be becoming something different" (p. 50).

Built to Last
by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras

Generally regarded as a seminal work in the business and management genre and included on a myriad of "best of" lists, Built to Last has influenced many in management and leadership, as has the subsequent writing of Jim Collins in Good to Great, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, and How the Mighty Fall.  Their simple yin-yang framework of "preserve the core (values and purpose) and stimulate progress in all else (culture, operating practices, goals, and strategies)" is a critical part of how I approach strategy development.

The Leadership Challenge
by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

A well-researched, repeatedly valid, and easy-to-understand leadership framework tied to individual behaviors as opposed to personality or charisma … what's not to like?  Very little when it comes to this book and the Leadership Practices Inventory that assesses how frequently you engage in the leadership behaviors associated with the 5 practices and 10 commitments in the model Kouzes and Posner created.  It's also one of the few models that has been validated for students as well.

Their definition of leadership alone is packed with leaning and insight: "Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations."  That's good stuff.

Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest
by Peter Block

Block's definition of stewardship helps shape how I contribute to the communities and causes I care about, as well as how I approach my consulting and facilitating:  "Stewardship asks us to be deeply accountable for the outcomes of an institution, without acting to define purpose for others, control others or take care of others" (p. 18).

Block is anti management suggesting those that do the work should manage it and that organizations should not compensate individuals who do nothing but "watch, measure or define what is best for other human beings."

Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work
by Debra E. Meyerson

While I often feel a bit revolutionary in my thinking or aspirations, when it comes to getting this done I see more of myself in the language and framework of tempered radicals as defined by Meyerson.  While many draw on the book's diversity and inclusion implications in terms of ethnic and cultural differences, the basic principles are more far-reaching.  Meyerson explores what it means to have to function as an insider when you feel like an outsider.  In doing so she illustrates how individual acts of deviance from the norm or dominant culture can ripple throughout the enterprise and be amplified into significant change.  Money quote: “Whenever people refuse to participate in their own subordination, they resist the way power asserts itself in organizations and society.”  This Fast Company article gives you a nice preview of the book's thinking.

Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change
by William Bridges

All our lives undergo numerous transformations and transitions.  Bridges' book is one of the most popular resources for thinking about how to navigate them, as well as support others in doing so.  His three-part transition process (endings, the neutral zone, and the new beginnings) offers great insight for how to manage personal or organizational change.  Too many people get stuck (either because of their own mindsets or because of ill-structured organizational change efforts) in neutral and fail to move forward.

What book (s) about leadership or organizations would you add to this list based on what you return to re-read regularly?