What is Your Relationship to Your Environment?

I find that there are 4 dominant approaches:

Appease the Environment – The assumption here is that the environment is hostile and unpredictable. The best way to cope is to appease whatever “God” controls your environment. (ie: your boss and/or other people in a position of power; any higher power – gods, goddesses, spirits, etc)

Control the Environment – Most leadership training is about “controlling your environment.” Evaluating the environment so you can change it – ideally so that it works the way YOU want it to. Process improvement and system thinking approaches tend to fall into this category. The implicit assumption is that your way is the right way.

Become One With the Environment – This approach deals with the tension between what is best for the environment that surrounds you and what is best for you. It helps to know exactly what you are “becoming one with.” Most people who talk about “becoming one” approach it with an idealized vision of what the environment they are working with is (or should be – which starts sneaking into “control.” It’s good to have this idealized vision. It’s also good to be realistic about what you are working with right now. Sometimes, the best option is to go find an environment that best matches you and will help you thrive.

Get Perspective On the Environment – This approach aims to gain perspective, then optimize.

Key questions – What are we trying to accomplish? What does the environment look like right now? Is there enough within that environment where we can accomplish those goals – or do we need to set either preliminary goals OR set entirely new goals? What are the components within that environment that we can optimize so that it works for EVERYONE within that environment and still achieve our goals? What do we need to “weed”?

This approach reminds me of permaculture. Permaculture aims to use the environment you find yourself in and grow plants that will work best in that environment.

Depending upon your goals (such as – “I want a vegetable garden”), you plant seeds.

There are parts of your environment you can’t control – such as the weather.

There are other parts that you can – such as the seeds you plant

Some vegetables will thrive in your environment. For example, I live in Virginia. Lettuce does well here in the spring. If I were in the tropics, lettuce is do-able but more challenging. Lettuce (particularly varieties such as Iceberg) will bolt or rot in the heat and humidity.

What is your default?

Does your default change based on your context?


Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics has shaped my thinking around “fit your solution to the environment you find yourself in” vs. “solve the problem”

Two books provide excellent examples of “fitting your solution to your existing environment”:

  • Memenomics – Said Dawalbani’s analysis of the evolution of economies. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
  • Spiral Dynamics in Action – A series of case studies for applied Spiral Dynamics. The Case Studies focus on national-level solutions, but there is much here that we can pull for smaller-scale efforts.

Links are Amazon affiliate links. I earn a few cents if you purchase through these links. Thank you for supporting my work.

We are ALWAYS Learning

The discussion of “Learning Organizations” and their various consultant-defined flavors is starting to get to me.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Each time I talk to a person, I am learning something.

Each time I step into a meeting, I am learning something.

Each time I enter an environment, I am learning something.

But am I learning what you WANT me to learn?

When I talk to you – am I learning that you are a jerk?

When I step into a meeting – am I learning that my ideas aren’t valued because I am not one of the ‘chosen ones?’

When I enter your environment, am I learning that your environment is hostile?

Is this your intent?

If you want people to learn that you are a jerk, that their ideas have no value, and that your environment only works for a select few – great!

Call it “selective,” “exclusive,” or whatever floats your boat. At least be honest and clear about your intent. Be mindful that this is what you WANT people to learn about you and your organization.

The question is not “How do I develop a ‘learning organization.’ “

The question is “What are people currently learning, do I need to change it, and what do I need to do to best support what I want people to learn?”

Please stop treating it as something separate and apart from day-to-day life or as something special.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Are we learning what you want us to learn?

Building a Container

For those of us who find ourselves in “informal” positions of leadership (trainers, project managers, team leads, event organizers, etc) – it’s important to understand that we, too, are responsible for building a supportive container for the teams and people we work with.

I purposefully use the concept of “container” because we are often trying to protect our students or team members from the stresses of the larger organizational environment during the time we have them.

Containers have boundaries.

Containers, when built well, provide the safety and security people need to do the work they need to do.

Since much of my career has been spent inflicting unwanted change on people, I’ve become mindful of the container I have wanted to build.

The build starts with one question:

How do I want individuals to feel when they leave my container?

When I’m training, the answer is “confident.” Confident that they can function once the change hits. Confident that they are capable of learning new things in the future. Confident that they have a path to mastery within the new environment created by the change.

In project teams, the answer is “comfortable.” Comfortable that they have the resources needed to do the work. Comfortable that their work is valued and appreciated. Comfortable with the knowledge that they are being set up to succeed and (when possible) thrive. Comfortable with asking questions and with sharing challenges.

In a recent workshop, that answer was “safe.” Safe to explore potentially sensitive areas of themselves and their world. Safe to share with others. Safe to reach out for help.

Once you determine the desired emotional outcome (the Why), you can then consider how you want to encourage these outcomes (because you can’t control how others feel, you can only create a space where those feelings are more likely).

  • How do you wish to model this outcome?
    • Remember: your students and team members are looking to YOU for what this looks like.
    • It is hard to model when you are a ball of stress. I’m not asking you to pretend you have it all together. We’re human and we live in interesting times. Instead, I want you to make sure that you have your OWN support network as you do this.
  • What are the behavioral norms you need to set?
    • This is the core question behind “Classroom Management.”
    • What behaviors will you encourage?
    • What behaviors will you discourage and how will you address them when they appear?
  • What are the boundaries around that container?
    • Who are your allies outside of that container that can help you hold and maintain that container? Who can help you “run interference” as you and the others within the container do the work?
    • What exceptions will you need to make?
      • There WILL be exceptions. I have found that defining these exceptions up front makes it easier to maintain the boundaries of the container overall.
      • Example exceptions (these are IT examples because that’s where I came from): Power outages, Core application outages, the CIO wants something from the team ASAP.

These containers aren’t built to hold forever. YOU can’t hold the container together forever (unless you are a CEO). The containers I am describing are built to provide a temporary space to get real work done. They are built to provide the safety, security, and confidence that allows learning to happen.

Resources

Aaron Dignan’s Organizational Operating System Canvas works at the CEO-level. It’s overkill for the containers we are trying to build, but he provides some interesting questions for us to consider as we build our temporary containers – https://medium.com/the-ready/the-operating-system-canvas-420b8b4df062

Amy Edmonson’s research emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Containers are, fundamentally, all about creating that safety in often hostile environments. – The Fearless Workplace: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. (Amazon affiliate link)

The domain of Classroom Management (even in the K-12 space) contains many techniques I find useful when dealing with teams of professionals. Many K-12 teachers are masters at creating containers within hostile environments and without choosing who goes into the container. Better than Carrots or Sticks (Amazon affiliate link) specifically addresses the K-12 classroom. I would argue that what we observe as kids in school carries over into our adult lives. This book contains ideas that we can transfer into the workplace. Even encouraging people to bring their favorite “security blanket” may not be such a bad thing.

Thinking in Containers

What does it take to create a culture?

What does it mean to design an environment that facilitates culture?

A recent project provided an opportunity to explore these questions.

In this project, I needed to create an environment where a group of relative strangers would feel safe exploring potentially sensitive changes.

Some questions surfaced as I sat with the challenge.

  • What are the demonstrable outcomes I want to achieve?
    • My answer: People feel confident and secure both in the new environment and with each other – no exceptions.
    • I will know this by watching how people interact with each other.
      • Are cliques forming?
      • Is someone being shunned by the group?
      • Is someone isolating? They don’t need to participate all the time (I was trying to make the event introvert-friendly), but it was worth quietly asking if everything is OK if they appeared distressed.
      • How are the conversations? Open or guarded? You can tell a lot by observing body language.
  • What is a “safe” environment? What does “safe” mean?
    • I decided that, in this context, “safe” means that people are unlikely to be hurt physically, mentally, and emotionally by the environment or by other people.
    • Any “risks” (we worked with fire) would be identified and mitigated. Participants were responsible for following safety protocol for the physical risks and taking care of themselves for the mental and emotional risks.
  • What expectations do I need to set? What behaviors do I need to demonstrate?
    • Since I was one of the organizers, I was also one of the de-facto leaders. I knew people would be looking to me for both expectations and modeling.
    • The organizers set the expectation that we would be mindful and protective of each other in this space.
    • A pre-existing rule in our code of conduct for this particular group was “impact is greater than intent.” Emphasizing this rule seemed and being clear on our main environmental principle guided people (and myself) to right behavior.
    • My personal behavioral goal – Be Peaceful. Easier said than done.

Fundamentally, we were trying to create a container where people felt safe exploring what change means to them and how it manifests in their lives.

The feedback we received from attendees was that we were successful.

Now that I have some distance from this project, I have been thinking about what we may have done to create the container we did.

When I think about “containers” in this context, I think in terms of the combination of:

  • The people we attracted to join us in the container
  • The environment within which we placed this container
  • The behavioral norms the group established within the container
  • The behavioral modeling the creators of the container demonstrated

Admittedly, we only had to maintain this container for a few days and we were not trying to do this within a legacy organization or group that had to still keep meeting older obligations such as serving customers and executing projects.

Looking at singular, short-term events, however, can help us see what we are working with and potential tools we can use to build these containers.

Let’s explore this further in the next post.

The Myth of “Fearing Change”

I hear so much noise about how “people fear change” and “people don’t want to change.”

I don’t think that’s true.

They just don’t want to be herded through YOUR change.

They don’t want you inflicting your change onto them.

The people you are trying to lead aren’t stupid.

When I hear resistance, I hear variations of the following:

  • I don’t see what’s in this for me OR I see how this will hurt me.
  • You have not provided enough time or support to guide me through this.
  • I don’t feel like I can succeed with the way your change is structured.
  • Your expectations for what this change is going to do for us are unrealistic.
  • Your change is disconnected from the vision/values you claim to espouse.

I’ve witnessed individuals make dramatic changes very successfully.

Pivoting to new careers, building new skills, developing creative solutions, adapting to new environments and requirements.

They do these things often in spite of “leadership” and the systems in which they work.

Workers seem to be more adaptive and optimistic about the future than their leaders recognize. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that workers fear that technology will make their jobs obsolete. But our survey revealed that to be a misconception. A majority of the workers felt that advances such as automation and artificial intelligence would have a positive impact on their future. In fact, they felt that way about two-thirds of the forces. What concerned them most were the forces that might allow other workers—temporary, freelance, outsourced—to take their jobs.

https://hbr.org/2019/05/your-workforce-is-more-adaptable-than-you-think

The authors of this Harvard Business Review article found that the lower-income and middle-skilled workers they surveyed had a more nuanced perspective of the forces changing the economy and the workplace, and their role in it, than their managers did.

What the workers are looking for is support and guidance to prepare for future employment. They are looking for environments where they can learn and grow. They understand the necessity of change and of learning.

The workplace offers opportunities to embed learning into the day-to-day.

This can be done through project selection and design, work assignments balancing the skill of the employee and the complexity of the task, incorporating regular performance and learning reflection opportunities at key milestones, and opportunities to discuss organizational strategy and share perspectives.

There’s no big, new systemic change involved here. It’s all things we are already doing (or trying to do). We work on projects. We perform tasks. We have performance reviews (either formally or informally). We discuss strategy and share perspectives (both horizontally and vertically).

The shift is in perspective.

Do you see the people you lead as people or as a “resource” to be “maximized?”

I suspect that if you see people as a “resource” – any talk of “how to make my employees more adaptable” is a waste of time.

What ‘Decision Criteria’ Looks Like in Action

I’m going to share some of my decision criteria when faced with choices.

Remember the 4 questions from last week:

  • What area of your life are you focusing on right now?
  • What are your goals – long and short-term?
  • Which relationships are important to you?
  • What values do you wish to demonstrate?

Here are my current answers to these questions:

  • What area of your life are you focusing on right now?
    • I am currently focusing on career and my business.
    • If something comes up in regards to my health (mental or physical) or my family, I will change my focus.
  • What are your goals – long and short-term?
    • My short-term goal is to embed with a team. I enjoy working solo, but I learn when I work in a collective. The evaluation process has two questions:
      • Will I enjoy spending time with these people?
      • Do I align with what they are trying to accomplish?
      • What do I think I will learn from this engagement?
    • My long-term goal is to develop expertise in change management – both personal and organizational
      • I have some already from my years as an educator and project manager, but I feel that the paradigm is shifting and some of the old-school theories provide only partial answers
      • I have theories from my time away from the collective and research. It’s time to put the theories into practice.
    • The decision-making process will bias the long-term. I am working to establish a solid foundation for this next phase of my working life.
    • The big vision is to establish something that can follow me anywhere, provide value no matter what my age, health, and energy levels, and is independent of the vicissitudes of the economy and the workplace.
  • Which relationships are important to you?
    • Family and partner first. Who do I want to show up at my funeral and say nice things about me?
    • A big question with each opportunity – How will this help me practice developing positive, healthy relationships? It’s a test in how strong I can make bonds.
    • Another question – What am I attracting? What am I seeing in these people? We spend most of our waking hours in the workplace. Life is too short to spend your days with assholes.
  • What values do you wish to demonstrate?
    • Am I learning something through this engagement? Is it something I actually WANT to learn? (Learning)
    • What work am I supporting? Do I agree with their vision of the future? (Integrity)
    • Can I bring my whole self into this engagement? (Integrity)
    • Am I clear on how this choice will impact my relationship with those who are most important to me? (Family)

There are a few other questions I am also asking as I size up my choices:

  • What is the opportunity cost if I take this opportunity?
    • What gets deprioritized?
    • What will I NOT be able to say “Yes” to?
  • What are the “success criteria” for this opportunity?
    • What do I want to get out of this experience?
    • What are their expectations of me? Are they realistic?
      • I am retiring from playing the “rescuer.” This goes for both individuals and organizations.
  • Am I clear on “scope of work?” Is this something that plays to my strengths?
    • I’m a researcher and educator at heart. Seeing what is lying around and using that to prototype solutions to a problem is my happy place.
    • Clients inform me I am great at seeing patterns and identifying actionable steps.
    • I need help with sales, marketing, and extrovert skills and I am best when surrounded by people with these talents.
  • Am I clear on my “outs?”
    • I’m nearing 50. Life is too short to continually bang my head against the wall.
    • There are environments where it’s not worth wasting my (or their) time in trying to engage. I’m (slowly) learning how to identify these environments early – ideally before I say “yes.” It’s a work-in-progress.

These questions sound very career-driven and group-focused, but they also apply to other areas.

I’ve used variations on these questions for workout programs, nutrition initiatives, hobbies, and other personal endeavors.

  • Do I like the environment I am in as I engage in this activity?
  • Do I like the people in this culture and the guidance I am receiving?
  • Am I getting the results I am expecting from this experience? Both short and long-term?
  • Is the time I am spending on this activity enjoyable?
  • Am I clear on when I should stop because it isn’t working for me?

Your questions, values, period-of-life, and circumstances are likely different.

It may be worthwhile to sit down and determine what are the important questions you have to ask yourself when you make a decision.

Developing Decision Criteria

When faced with a new idea – what decision criteria are you using?

Have you defined it?

Or are you just saying “yes” to whatever is in front of you?

Not that saying “yes” to whatever is in front of you is a bad thing. At certain times of life, it’s a great way to discover new interests, have new experiences, and learn a lot very quickly (including a lot about things you never want to do again).

However, many of us default to “yes” because we can’t think of a better option, we want to please someone else/get them out of our hair, or we haven’t figured out any decision criteria to say yes/no against.

Your decision criteria should be based on what is important to you.

  • What area of your life are you focusing on right now?
  • What are your goals – long and short-term?
  • Which relationships are important to you?
  • What values do you wish to demonstrate?

For example, one of my decision criteria centers around “How does this impact my relationship with my family?”

Do I have a previous family obligation that the opportunity impacts? That’s a hard “no” in my book.

Is it unclear what the impact will be? That’s an “I’ll get back to you by [date/time] with a decision (and/or alternative).”

Your decision criteria will likely be different.

It will likely change as you move through life.

You may find previously set decision criteria no longer apply (ie. your kids leaving the house, so you no longer need to worry about driving them around).

You may find that your defined decision criteria doesn’t work for you and you need to iterate again. That’s OK too. There’s a lot of noise telling us about all the things we “should” do.

Start with something simple. A clear yes/no answer for you.

Being clear on your decision criteria pays big dividends in making room for the people and experiences you value.


I’m doing a quick poll on my Facebook Business Page.

What specific topics should I cover in Dealing with Ideas that Distract? The course will be 3-weeks and the videos will be 1 hour long with an hour of live Q&A.

Comment by number. Choose your top 3.
1) How to intake a new idea
2) Saying “no”
3) Periodization – what should I focus on during this period?
4) Important vs. Urgent – Telling the difference
5) When should the new idea take priority and how to pivot
6) Scheduling and Backlogs – Making room for new ideas

You can respond here or on Facebook. I personally moderate the comments on this blog so it may take a few hours for your comment to appear on this page.

Thank you for your feedback.

How to Pause

Just do it.

OK, maybe it’s not that easy.

Others get uncomfortable with the silence.

YOU may be uncomfortable with the silence.

It’s OK.

We’re trained to talk and be experts and be “influencers” and all that.

We’re trained to DO. Preferrably immediately.

We’re NOT encouraged to pause. To observe. To allow ourselves to think.

To take the space and the time to think through the consequences of the “yes” or the “no.”

To remind ourselves what is important.

To analyze whether the opportunity or idea in front of you moves you towards or away from that thing that is important.

You make multiple decisions throughout a day – whether you know it or not.

Do I have coffee this morning, tea, or something else this morning?

Pause.

Should I wear the red shirt or the blue shirt this morning?

Pause.

Do I take public transit, risk driving the Beltway, or call in sick?

Pause.

Each day is filled with these decision opportunities.

I invite you to allow yourself to pause each time you see one.

It makes for great practice when you are faced with higher-stakes decisions.


I’m doing a quick poll on my Facebook Business Page.

What specific topics should I cover in Dealing with Ideas that Distract? The course will be 3-weeks and the videos will be 1 hour long with an hour of live Q&A.

Comment by number. Choose your top 3.
1) How to intake a new idea
2) Saying “no”
3) Periodization – what should I focus on during this period?
4) Important vs. Urgent – Telling the difference
5) When should the new idea take priority and how to pivot
6) Scheduling and Backlogs – Making room for new ideas

You can respond here or on Facebook. I personally moderate the comments on this blog so it may take a few hours for your comment to appear on this page.

Thank you for your feedback.

Move to the New or Stick with the Old?

When you have hit a sticky part of your project and a new opportunity or idea presents itself, what is your default?

Do you quickly move to the new and get started – abandoning the thing that you were trying to do?

OR

Do you keep plugging away at what you are doing, even if the new thing is a better way to get there?

Many of my clients are in the first group. My more ambitious clients try to do both the new AND the old, then wonder why they finish neither of them and have a pile of unfinished projects in front of them.

I, and a few of my other clients, land in the second group – doggedly executing that original plan, even if the new idea is a better way to get there, then wondering why we’re burnt out and regretful.

In more mindful moments, you can make that choice conscious.

In this age of busy, and with the increased pressure to “do it all,” it’s even more important that you get clear on the opportunity cost of saying “yes.”

It’s important to pause long enough to see whether the option in front of you provides a better way to get you where you want to go than what you are currently doing.


I’m in the process of developing a new course on Dealing with Distracting Ideas and I need your feedback.

  • What questions do you have about setting priorities and maintaining focus?
  • What outcomes do you expect from this course?
  • What topics would you love for the course to cover?

Please add your comments below. The comments are personally moderated and will appear after I read them.

Thank you for your help.

Dealing with the Siren Song of Distraction

It was amazing.

The deeper I got into the book writing process, the more I wanted to distract myself.

I had to keep reminding myself that we were past the point of “just one more source” and keep writing.

I had a couple of epic ideas that just wouldn’t die, despite my attempts to keep them in the backlog or just say “no.” They kept demanding “research” and “ideation” and “action.”

These distractions come at a cost.

The cost is the energy and time it takes to get the thing I started done.

The cost is the risk that I will NEVER manifest the thing I want to manifest.

There are two parts to opportunity cost.

The first part is the cost to take advantage of the opportunity presented.

The second, and most overlooked, part is the cost of the opportunities we cannot take because we are working on THIS opportunity.

Remember: we live in a time and in a culture where opportunities are abundant (despite pressure to believe otherwise) and personal time, energy, and resilience are scarce.

So what do you DO with this siren song?

First, recognize that the siren song isn’t going to stop.

I’ve personally found that the more important the project I am working on is, the louder that song becomes.

Second, ask whether the siren song is just another, sneakier, form of resistance or whether you need to ask deeper questions about your current project.

The appeal of the siren song is a test of why you are doing your current project.

Is the siren song attractive because you have hit a rough patch? Or is the new idea truly a better option?

Third, how urgent is the siren song? Are you truly staring at a “once-in-a-lifetime” “first-mover” “never-gonna-happen-again-unless-you-act-right-now” opportunity?


I’m in the process of putting together a course on this topic and would love your feedback.

  • What questions do you have about setting priorities and maintaining focus?
  • What outcomes do you expect from this course?
  • What topics would you love for the course to cover?

Add your comments. The comments are personally moderated, so I will see them before they post. Thank you for your help.