The wind-driven rain poured down the windows on yesterday’s rainy, November afternoon.
On a break, I looked out the window and saw the last rose of fall. With a snip of the shears …
it was inside, filling the room with its color and fragrance.
In the mist of work and life, I’m contemplating a variety of ideas that have crossed my path in the last few days. I’m still integrating them into my mental map. So for now, I’m going to point the way to them:
Writing about leadership roles in emerging systems, Peggy Holman has updated her proposed list. Read about system roles including Bridge, Artist, and Disturber. I’m considering what roles I play and have played as well as asking her question, “What roles would you add or change?”
Petsy Fink writes about her encounters at a senior citizens home in Germany. One of my questions in reflection, “How do our organizations not only honor our elders, but actively engage their wisdom in creating our future?”
Another interesting thread comes from the Interpersonal Neurobiology world. David Rock wrote about a new study that shows we human beings are on auto-pilot about half of the time. We live in the stories we tell in our brains – which is useful for “goal setting and strategizing” – and live in the experience of the moment. Being focused on the here and now makes us more flexible in our responses. The question is, “How do I increase my awareness of which mode I’m functioning in at any given time in order to be most effective?”
What is on your list of unfinished threads that you’re integrating into your map of the world?
Tom Wujec gave a short TED talk: 3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning. His point is, “We make meaning by seeing.” Here is a summary of how the brain makes meaning with the brain subsystem activated in parentheses:
- Use images to clarify ideas. (ventral)
- Interact with images to create engagement. (dorsal)
- Augment memory with persistent and evolving views. (limbic)
Using images to create shared mental models leads to better communication, learning, thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. He uses Visual Strategic Planning as an organizational example of the idea that we are all visual developers and learners.
As I consider what this information means for organization development, I go beyond his example to considering how we run meetings, communicate information, and deliver training. How can we increase the visual component of what we do in order to increase the building of shared mental models and shared meaning?
Waiting for the Winter Wheat
In Kansas, the winter wheat is planted. We watch and wait for it to emerge, wondering if the weather will support its life. We wonder – and all the while every human being is born with a preference for predictability. We want to know when and where we will sleep and eat. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. We learn more when we are given an agenda or syllabus that tells us what’s coming. Yet life remains uncertain; we can’t control everything or get all of our questions answered.
In our organizations we like certainty too. We create five-year plans, develop key performance indicators, and post weekly metrics on the bulletin board in the cafeteria or coffee area. Yet, here too, the unexpected and uncertainty continually get in the way. Or do they? What if we changed our perspective, paradigm, assumptions, or way of seeing?
As organization leaders and organization development practitioners, our role is to engage uncertainty, to engage what is emerging. I’ve used the Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology processes to successfully engage organizations and individuals in emerging possibilities. As often as I’ve used these processes, I’m still amazed at the unexpectedly innovative and surprisingly positive outcomes – ones that could not have been imagined when we started.
Peggy Holman, coauthor of The Change Handbook, suggests that when we engage emergence, we become more inspired to pursue things that matter, form new connections with other people, and create new possibilities. The challenge is choosing to engage the disruption, chaos, and upheaval rather than spending our energy trying to fix and maintain the existing system. Practical questions for engaging the possibilities in uncertainty:
- What is most important?
- Given the unexpected circumstances, what is possible now?
- Given the broken process, what would it look like if it were working successfully?
- What could we do together as a team that we can’t do by ourselves?
- What would you most like to do?
As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands
The days are getting shorter, and my to-do list is getting longer. In the last week, I’ve talked with several people who feel stressed and overwhelmed. Indeed research shows that our first reaction to stress is fight, flight, or freeze. This reaction happens in a microsecond in the limbic region in our brain – before we are even aware of it.
Over time, with enough stress, we can start defaulting to freeze, to being just plain overwhelmed. This goes by many names, analysis paralysis, choking under pressure, or worry.
So here are a few strategies that I use to get “unfrozen”:
- Create a status list. Start with a checklist or to-do list and briefly outline status, timeframe, and next steps. This frees up working memory, allowing better processing of tasks at hand.
- Outsource what you can. Instead of trying to “do it all yourself” find items that can be managed by others. Letting go of control offers others the opportunity to develop and frees energy for focusing on where your time is needed.
- Take a break from the computer and cell phone. Go for a walk. Taking a pause from the things that consume you allows for incubation, a fresh perspective. Exercise or just time away can allow our neural pathways to make new connections, allowing new patterns to become apparent.
- Modify thoughts and reactions. Accept things as they are, without expectations and preconceived ideas about how we think things “should be”. Observe our roles in events and our reactions to them. Remember that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs are temporary.
My goal is to live successfully with stress, not frozen, not rushing ahead for more of the same – engaged in getting unfrozen and enjoying the seasons of life around me. How do you get “unfrozen”?
Check out Deborah King’s post today on play. She offers a detailed review of the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. She reflects:
We all realize the world is a much more complex place than it used to be. Solving the problems our businesses are facing requires viewing the problem through different filters, and being open and innovative to try things we haven’t tried before. Research indicates that play can be the key to improving our abilities to work collaboratively in a process of fact-finding, brainstorming, and innovating solutions.
Exploring the idea of “play” in the workplace can help us create the future.
How much do you remember from your last meeting or training session? There’s a story in the New York Times Magazine about a new technology called Livescribe. As someone who recorded lectures and then fill in class notes from the recording, a pen that records the audio lecture and automatically links it to handwritten notes is revolutionary.
Years of research demonstrate a strong correlation between academic achievement and detailed note taking. The best students are able to take notes and mentally process the information. They take the information and process it through working memory, while integrating it with what they already know to determine most important points.
Even the most intelligent, fast note taker has difficulty keep up with a speaker. So do we all need “smart pens?” Buried in the article are two important concepts that go beyond technology. Further research by Kiewra at the University of Nebraska looked at teachers who provide handouts with concepts along with blanks for students to fill in during the lecture. They found that “students using partial notes capture a majority of the main concepts in a lecture, more than doubling their usual performance.”
The second set of research looked at using handouts of the lecture notes. Findings? “Those who heard the lecture and took (their own) notes scored 51 percent on a subsequent test, while those who only read the instructor’s notes scored 69 percent.”
What does all of this research have to do with organization development? Every organization I’ve been involved with has meetings and many have training departments. Giving complete handouts that can be reviewed before and after the meeting or presentation, taking and distributing good meeting notes, and even simply providing a written agenda that covers the key points with space to fill in the discussion have the potential to improve understanding and communication.
Read the entire article: The Pen That Never Forgets and let me know what comes to your mind about how to implement these ideas in your organization.
In Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Neustadt and May* tell about their encounter with Avram Goldberg, CEO of Stop and Shop in New England. He told them that his approach to problem solving is, “When a manager comes to me, I don’t ask him, ‘What’s the problem?’ I say, ‘Tell me the story.’ That way I find out what the problem really is.”
Once the story is told, it’s time for the conversation participants to use critical thinking skills:
- Use the reporter’s checklist for inquiries: who, what, why, when, where, how, with what effect?
- What is the story advocating and assuming?
- What is the central concern or challenge and the corresponding opportunity?
- What is the history of the situation? Who are the key players? How have they interacted through time?
- What new facts, if presented, would cause you to change your assumptions, direction, or decision?
Beginning with a story and following with these clarifying questions works can develop a deeper awareness of the factors influencing the situation at hand. Collaborative conversations that look deeply at a situation allow for learning and good decision-making. And, beyond improving performance, research by Dr. Richard Boyatzis* from Case Western Reserve University demonstrates that leaders who spend time coaching and mentoring others reduce their own stress levels.
*Neustadt and May, p. 106.
*Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M. L., Blaize, N. J. (2006). Developing Sustainable Leaders through Coaching and Compassion (pp. 8-24). Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Yes! I know how to make to-do lists. I schedule a specific time in my day to return telephone calls. I have my e-mail flagged for follow-up. I use my Blackberry to keep my Inbox cleaned out on evenings and weekends. Great! … but …
For all of our time management strategies, there are never more than 24 hours in each day. While we are busy trying to manage our time, it goes by apace. Everyone gets the same amount. The truth is: Time is something outside of our control.
Is it possible that we need to stop trying to manage our time better and start managing ourselves? Try keeping a tally of how often you are distracted by another e-mail or text message. Or keep track of how many times you start a task only to take a phone call. Or tally how many times you postpone doing something you value like spending time creating a new work strategy, connecting with friends and family, or going on a walk. What if you intentionally disconnected for 30 or 60 minutes to focus on an important task or to have a significant discussion?
What if we stopped blaming our inability to manage time and started actively managing our selves?
Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of living out of the ordinary. Today, I’m going to take the neuroscience a step further by applying it to learning environments. To review:
Neuroscience research demonstrates that when we break out of the routine and enjoy something new, our brains reward us with a dopamine flood. We essentially give ourselves a pat – not on our head, but inside our head. If we continue to do the same thing over and over, the dopamine flood recedes and eventually dries up – the routine deadens the response.
The research shows that the same reward response – dopamine flood – is produced when we make mistakes and errors. Why? Because our brain is stimulated by surprise, by the unexpected. Our brains are built to detect errors; they really go nuts when something unpredictable occurs. We are immediately motivated by the dopamine surge to seek out new solutions and ways of understanding. As Stephen Hall says, “Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning.”
In a learning environment, this is an argument for the importance of actively engaging participants through a variety of methods – including learning from mistakes. The dopamine system fires in surprise not only at new information, but at any moment when information doesn’t fit our existing patterns of understanding. Our brains drive learning when we encounter the new and unexpected – and make mistakes.
In practice this demands that the facilitator or instructor be well-prepared. Pre-tests or pre-course surveys can stimulate participants brains with questions before the session begins. Dividing participants into small groups to brainstorm stories and ideas stimulates their thinking through encountering others’ patterns and solutions. Using a variety of media, activities, and props can make the experience memorable as brains sit up and take notice. When mistakes are made, use critical thinking questions and techniques to further stimulate the brain’s drive to make new connections.
What other ideas do you have about creating an environment that wires participants’ brains to learn?