Values Ecosystem


I actually enjoy it when someone causes me to re-examine my core assumptions and values.  I never know what I will find and the exercise is always invigorating.  A recent post by Dan Rockwell, The Most Important New System You Could Implement in 2016 stimulated the most recent trip down this path.   You can read the post for yourself –it is an excellent one – at your leisure.  In it, Dan makes a strong case for linking values with behaviors.  Essentially, values that are not acted upon are valueless.  You will have no argument from me on that point.

There was one sentence in the post that caught my eye and triggered a response from me.  He wrote: “The most important new system you could implement is one that enables you to evaluate and align behaviors with values.”  I added my thoughts to the comments following the post and Dan responded.

Steve:  I like to think of it as an environment or ecosystem of values and behaviors. There needs to be room for evolution and adaptation, supported by the alignment meetings and such. Terrific post, Dan.

Dan:  Thanks Steven. I’ve read that our values don’t change. Your comment suggests that they could. I know mine are evolving. Perhaps the core ideas don’t change, but expression might.

Dan’s thoughts made me stop to consider the question of changing values.  Can they really change or are the core ones foundational and essentially carved in stone?  In general, I would be willing to admit that core values are relatively static for most human beings.  And yet, there are many documented instances where external events have shaken a human being’s core values at their foundation and consequently wrought a tectonic shift. While not perhaps tectonic, I have my own story to relate by way of example.

At one time, I despised many individuals with viewpoints – and more important, values – in radical opposition to my own. I devalued them as human beings and I had a rhetoric to accompany that viewpoint.  My act of devaluing was a behavior, but it was driven by a core value (expressed if not precisely perceived or understood) that linked their worth as human beings to my set of values.  Consequently, I was in the habit of judging other human beings in black and white terms which allowed me to dismiss their point of view on anything out of hand.  One day, an event occurred that afforded me a glimpse into the life of one of these people in a way that demonstrated clearly that no human being has a perfect monopoly on evil or good – right or wrong. The insight was transformational and some of my core values changed that day.  It has altered completely the way I work with adversaries. (This link is an articulate follow-on to that self-revolutionary idea).

In articulating this example, I come back to Dan’s reply.  On the surface, I would aver that values do sometimes change.  But that statement represents just one viewpoint. Another equally valid one is that perhaps we don’t really know or recognize all of our core values at a point in time, and that life is the process of testing our values against circumstance and context, stripping away the misperceptions and irrelevancies to reveal the true nucleus, much the same as Michelangelo “released” his figures from the raw marble.

I think this is a useful distinction when working in a leadership role.  Just as personal values may be an evolutionary process, most certainly shared group values are as well. Groups are more fluid than individuals, with members joining and leaving and thus continually changing the mix of shared and unshared values. The successful leader, therefore, engenders an ecosystem wherein these values may be tested together against circumstance and context, evolving a shared value set that is more life affirming for the group.  Such an environment nurtures those behaviors that create true value in the real world.

The reason that I chose “ecosystem” over “system” is because the word implies not so much a structure as a sharing of balanced nourishment that allows the sum of the parts to flourish.  The value-based behaviors sustain the environment for all of the shared values, while allowing adaptation or evolution when context and circumstance demand.  An ecosystem may require tending, not merely management.

How that ecosystem is created and managed is as individual as the group.  However, the shared values can’t be imposed from without.  The group members need to discover and articulate them together.  Leadership provides the opportunity for this through periodic facilitated retreats and review meetings.  Leadership can also provide positive reinforcement for those behaviors that align with the values.

I have to hand it to Dan.  He manages to stimulate my thinking on a regular basis.  This time, he inspired me to test my own assumptions regarding core values.  Just being able to articulate a different point of view regarding their mutability will be instantly useful in my work as a consultant and facilitator.  So thank you, Dan.

Do you have a shared values ecosystem in your organization?  Do you think core values are mutable?



Cat in the Hat at The Exchange

CatHat_HeaderLet me state up front that this post is about accountability.  It could have been an indictment of the Affordable Care Act, a political party, a specific company, or a member of government.  It is none of these.  This is solely about a characteristic I consider to be the single most important component of personal and organizational integrity.

In November 2014, I overpaid my health insurance.  It amounted to one month’s premium and occurred because of a unilateral decision made by a computer system at the Washington Health Benefit Exchange (The Exchange).  It was an individual health plan so it was a meaningful amount of money.

My experience with the The Exchange has been an unhappy one from the beginning.  This is because the systems were implemented based on a sloppy design driven by sloppy thinking and followed by sloppy delivery.  Key systems that ordinarily share information did not do so in timely ways.  This left consumers – forced to transact all business through the web portal – looking at incomplete information.  Presentation of data made it impossible to determine exactly how the balance due was calculated.

The most important flaw in this technical hairball was that the systems were designed to apishly implement the law without any human oversight or accountability.  Thus, if a consumer were accidentally to drop a zero from his annual salary when entering the requisite financial information, he and his family would be summarily put on Medicaid and his regular insurance terminated without his knowing it.  There would be no notice that this was happening either at the time the computer made the determination nor later in written form.  The consumer was left to find out the next time his Primary Care Physician tried to bill the insurance. It happened to us, and it took months to set right.

It was a similar situation that resulted in my overpayment.  The computer made a unilateral decision behind the scenes without any requirement to share that decision with the consumer, leaving the consumer (in this case me) to figure it out weeks later.  At this point, I did what any reasonable person would do and called customer service.  The answer I received – that The Exchange could not issue refunds and that I would get it credited as part of my income tax return – was utter hogwash. There began my personal Odyssey Through the Land of Zero Accountability.

Enter The Cat in the Hat (with apologies to Dr. Seuss).  Do you all remember the big pink bathtub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back?  Well, hang on to your hat.  My next step was to call customer service again and open a ticket requesting a refund. The agent informed me that it might take three to four weeks.  After four weeks had elapsed, I called to find out the status of the ticket.  “It is in process.”  “Where in process is it?” “I don’t have visibility to that.”  I played this game for a number of weeks until finally I convinced an agent to escalate the ticket.

It turns out that escalating a ticket at The Exchange is akin to one of those fake knobs on TV sets back in the fifties that were just on there for show; you can turn it but nothing happens.  Over the ensuing weeks, I “escalated” that ticket three times.  I talked to supervisors.  Nothing.  “Well, what’s happening with this issue now?”  “It’s over in Finance.”  “It’s been there for six weeks.  Where in the process is it?” “I don’t have visibility to that, Sir.” “Please transfer me to Finance.”  “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”  “Let me talk to your superior, then.” “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”   “Then put me in contact with someone who is accountable.”  “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”  Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not making any of this up.  There is no service level agreement of any kind at the Exchange.

Being resourceful, I decided to perform an end run around customer service.  But it turns out that when it comes to accountability, The Exchange was designed like a medieval keep.  There is a single drawbridge and that is customer service.  On the website, it is the only phone number.  If you want to register a complaint the number is the same.  There is not a single shred of accountability anywhere.  All of the executives and board members have bright smiling pictures along with glowing biographies, but no contact information.  There is a web interface for filing a complaint, but without any service level agreement.  Dead end.

In desperation, I wrote to my state legislators.  I was stunned two days later when my representative’s legislative assistant called me.  I was the third such complaint that week and she was preparing to walk them across to The Exchange herself.  Accountability at last!  Within a week I was in contact with a real live human being at The Exchange in the form of an Operations Analyst.  Within another two, she had researched the records, determined that the money had been paid to the insurance carrier, worked with the carrier to calculate the exact amount owed (they actually found an earlier overpayment I had given up on), and agreed that the carrier would issue the refund within two weeks.  Wow!  Talk about accountability.

It turns out that what happened only made the pink cat stain worse.  When no refund materialized after a few weeks I called the carrier and started over.  All anyone could tell me was that it was “in process.”  Once again I began demanding accountability and talking to supervisors as the weeks accumulated.  Finally, I was able to get someone’s attention.  At first, it appeared to be more of same as there were several phone calls with no actual information exchanged.  But she seemed genuinely hurt when I suggested that the next voice she might hear would be that of my lawyer.  Low and behold, she called back within the hour.  As it turns out, the carrier had refunded the money to The Exchange two weeks before I even opened that initial ticket.  Would you be surprised to learn that The Exchange has no record of this transaction? My contact at the carrier has promised to follow this up and to send me a status email weekly.  I think she means it this time. Besides, it’s my management style to give folks enough rope either to own the solution or to hang themselves.  And in the latter case, my legislative contact is ready to step in again.

Here’s the score.  A large amount of money that has been out of my control for 56 weeks cannot be adequately accounted for by the State of Washington AND a major health insurance carrier.  In my mind, the picture looks like this; the good Doctor captured it perfectly.

Cat2What this teaches us is the importance of personal and institutional accountability. The Exchange itself is organized in a manner that banishes accountability altogether.  Nevertheless, it is that single Operations Analyst from whom the organizational model should derive instead of The Cat in the Hat. For those of us who understand the difference, our customer’s problem is our problem and we must mobilize at our inconvenience to own the solution.  We need to empower our employees to make it right for our customers now (with appropriate controls), and worry about squaring the general ledger later.

I think that The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is the perfect parable for this lesson and I am delighted to have rediscovered it after so many years.  As for my personal pink cat stain, we may only be at Little Cat M.  I will amend this post as events develop.

Are your employees empowered to own customer solutions?  Do you have a pink cat stain story to share?






Recorder_HeaderDramatis personæ
Fred: Director of IT (the meeting owner)
Heather:  Senior Business Analyst
Oscar:  Accounting Manager
Ben:  Accounting Specialist
Cheryl:  Marketing Manager
Dablu: Senior Software Engineer
Other Stakeholders:  Corps de Ballet

Fred:  Okay, let’s get started now that everyone’s here.  We’re already ten minutes behind.  I’d like to pick up where we left off on Monday.  We had just decided to proceed with a custom application rather than an off-the-shelf package and…

Oscar:  Wait a minute, Fred.  You know I wasn’t able to be here on Monday and so I couldn’t be part of that decision.  I think we need to revisit that first.

Fred:  Oscar, I think we really need to move forward.  We spent the better part of Monday’s meeting putting the pros and cons of off-the-shelf versus custom in columns on the whiteboard and then prioritizing them.  Heather, you got a picture of the whiteboard, right?

Heather:  Well, no, actually.  I took a call on my cell right at the end of the meeting and by the time I finished, the folks in the next meeting had already erased it.

Fred:  Did anyone get it down on paper?

Dablu:  Well, I managed to take notes on some of it, but once we were up out of our chairs working at the board, I don’t have anything.

Ben:  Yeah, it was all moving pretty fast.

Fred:  Wow.  Well, okay, let’s quickly review what we remember the top reasons for our decision were.

Cheryl:  The top reason we had was that our custom information pipeline would not be supported by any packaged solution right out of the box.

Dablu:  I don’t think that’s right.  I remember it being our in-house expertise on the pipeline and the fact that we would be able to reuse code.

Ben:  No, no.  I think that changed when we started talking about the source control problem.

Stakeholder 1:  I don’t remember that at all…

Sound familiar?  A common challenge in most meeting formats is to produce documentation appropriate to the event.  When I am a participant in a meeting, I am the world’s worst note taker; my attention is on the meeting content.  In my experience, I am not alone.  Most others in the meeting are in the same boat.  In fact, good meeting notes require a focus and objectivity of their own.  Unless there is someone in the room dedicated to taking notes, meeting output gets lost just as it did for our intrepid players here.  In mere hours following the end of a meeting, the participants have developed diverse perspectives on what actually occurred.

Different meetings have different requirements with respect to documentation.  For daily standup meetings, the need is minimal.  For more formal meetings with prescribed decisions or output, the need for a published record of some detail is much greater.  For meetings of civic or governing bodies, precise documentation is legally imperative. As the need for documentation increases, so does the desirability of having a dedicated chronicler in attendance.

Facilitated meetings have a more complex requirement for documentation. Except in very rare cases, the role of facilitator must be focused on the process.  Because this requires 100% attention on the participants, the mechanics of appropriate documentation conflict with the role.  This is why most facilitators employ at least one trained recorder.

Role clarity is critical.  While the roles of the facilitator and the recorder are complimentary in practice, the requirements of the two roles tend to conflict with one another if one person is trying to perform both. Three key factors make them generally mutually exclusive.

  • Focus: The facilitator is responsible for keeping the process moving.  This requires minute attention to the individual participants and where each of them is with respect to the process.  The recorder, on the other hand, is responsible for listening accurately and transcribing in some medium with equal accuracy.
  • Orientation: The facilitator needs to be in constant personal contact with the participants.  This means not only making eye contact, but with a body orientation that is open to them (3/4 front to full front).  In most meeting situations, the recorder is working on a white board or wall at the front or sides of a room.  This means that his/her back is consistently turned toward the participants.
  • Pace: The participants set the pace of the process and it is the job of the facilitator to regulate that pace.  Depending on the activity, it is important for the pace to be consistent throughout the activity and not stalled by external constraints.  The recorder is constrained by how quickly he or she can transcribe oral statements to written form.  Often, more than one recorder is required to keep a process flowing.

The facilitator and recorders need to have a firmly established working relationship.  The recorders need to understand the meeting process thoroughly and be attentive to the facilitator’s instructions as well as the needs of the moment.  These team members should establish a repertoire of subtle visual and vocal signals to indicate the need for a course correction.  For instance, if the recorders feel that they are falling behind, they might parrot back the last idea as they transcribe to indicate to the facilitator that they need a little more time.  Conversely, if the facilitator notices one or more participants squinting, he might ask, “Do we need to be recording a little larger?”  The recorders would automatically adjust without stopping the flow of the meeting.

The recorder role is more than merely writing down what is said.  There are many characteristics of the ideal recorder, but here are the most important ones.

  • Impartiality: The recorders should not color what they are documenting with their own viewpoint. The process becomes contaminated if the content ceases to belong to the participants.
  • Accuracy: The recorders should record in the participants’ own words. Rewording invalidates the participants’ contributions.
  • Legibility: The recorders should strive to make the output large enough and clear enough to be read by the participants. This includes changes of color or format when necessary.
  • Inclusiveness: The recorders should record everything, even if it is “off topic.”  The group can later decide if an idea needs to be reclassified or moved to a “parking lot.”
  • Knowledge: The recorders should familiarize themselves with the terminology of the business ahead of the facilitated sessions.  The concepts need to flow from mind to wall with minimal need to interrupt for explanation.
  • Flexibility: The recorders need to go with the flow and not get hung up on details such as spelling (which can be corrected later). Also, they need to understand that if the dynamics of a meeting so dictate, the facilitator may change the process from what the team rehearsed.  The recorders must be able to take the change in stride and support the new process.

Being the recorder for a meeting, whether facilitated or not, requires detachment from the meeting content in order to capture what is actually occurring in the room.  The recorder needs to understand the level of detail required in the documentation for that particular circumstance.  Following the meeting, the recorder needs to complete and submit the documentation for distribution as soon as possible so that the results may be validated by the participants and stakeholders.

Meeting planning consists of much more than cranking out an agenda.  Meeting documentation is one of the key considerations in preparing for and leading a meeting process.  At the minimum, it should reflect decisions, issues, and accountabilities that resulted from the meeting. At the end of a facilitated process, it also needs to reflect group input and consensus at each stage of the process in order to support the process outcome.  In this, skilled recording is essential.

Let us return to our drama which began above.  You get the idea from what was said that in the prior meeting the team had followed a productive process even in the absence of a facilitator.  Nevertheless, the value of the work and accomplishment of that meeting was lost.  Let us look in again and see how Fred refloats his team’s sinking boat and sets it once again on course.

Fred:  Hold on, everyone.  It’s clear that I’ve dropped the ball on this process.  We had a pretty effective meeting on Monday, didn’t we?

Cheryl:  I thought so.

Dablu:  Me too.

Fred:  Well, by failing to preserve the output of that meeting we’ve lost pretty much everything we did together.  So here’s what I propose we do.  I’ll adjourn this meeting and reschedule for early next week.  In the meantime, I’ll talk to the Project Management Office and contract for a Recorder and a Scribe.  When we meet next week, we’ll see that everything gets recorded so that we can always pick up right where we left off.  The Recorder will get everything down on flipcharts and butcher paper and the Scribe will get everything else.  We’ll publish the meeting notes within twenty-four hours of the meeting and at subsequent meetings we’ll rehang any relevant output from the preceding meetings.  Does this make sense?

Oscar:  It does to me.

[All heads nod agreement.]

Fred:  Right, then.  Thanks, everyone.  Meeting adjourned.


Do you employ dedicated recorders in your meetings?  How does your organization determine the level of meeting documentation required?



10 Reasons to Hold That Big Meeting Away from the Office


Meetings are an essential element of running any organization.  Even in an Agile world, the necessity to bring individuals with diverse viewpoints, values, and needs together to arrive at a single, agreed upon decision or solution is inescapable.  Further, not every meeting can be conducted as a 30-minute standup.  Some require several hours or even a couple of days.

Effective meetings do not happen by accident.  Any meeting – be it a daily scrum or a two-day planning retreat – requires both purpose and structure.  Meeting objectives and output need to be clear, and the participants need to understand their roles.  Further, meetings that are more than merely informational benefit from facilitation, whether formal or informal.

In general, institution-level matters are the ones that demand meetings of longer scope.   Annual planning retreats are a good example.  These are usually conducted by Boards of Directors and/or senior management.  Of course, there are other reasons for retreat-style meetings.  These include institutional problem solving, task force deliberations, project or product road map development, and team building.  Each example has a specific objective, concrete outputs (e.g., documents, decisions, plans) that must be delivered, and require that the participants have achieved some level of consensus by the end of the meeting.  In each case, objective facilitation is a key success factor.

An equally critical success factor is the need to move this category of meeting away from the normal place of work.  This is not a trivial consideration and it deserves thoughtful planning.  For instance, moving the meeting to the office building across the street will do little to help you achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead, the meeting location should be treated as a destination, some place special where the participants will thrive and unexpected synergies can emerge.  In fact, locale is almost as important as the process itself in achieving success both for the meeting and the organization.

Following are the top ten benefits I have observed over the years when key meetings have been moved to an offsite destination.  Taken together, these benefits are powerful.

  1. Eliminate Interruptions: Critical meetings can suffer from the distractions of the work environment.  It is just too easy to reach someone and ask them to “step away for a few minutes” to put out a fire.  Off-site meetings send a strong message to both participants and non-participating co-workers that this time is important and is not to be interrupted.
  1. Boost Morale: Off-site meetings boost morale in a variety of ways. Just being included in such an event can provide a lift to a person’s attitude.  But imagine a group of individuals returning from a successful retreat with a body of successes to share with their co-workers. This is value that will penetrate across teams and departments throughout the organization.
  1. Recharge Your Batteries: As it is, many of us do not take sufficient time off.  Getting away from the grind and commotion of the office environment is a way to clear our heads and open our souls up in fresh new thoughts.  If the meeting is truly located at a destination where the participants spend a night or two in a hotel or retreat center, it almost becomes a mini-vacation while still being a working “holiday.”
  1. Change Your Perspective: New vistas and experiences always change one’s perspective.  We cannot help seeing things differently when we have new input.  By taking away the familiar sights and sounds, the brain is more open to new ideas while creativity is boosted.
  1. Enhance Meeting Focus: Interrelated with all of these benefits is the increased focus that the group will have as a result. The usual distractions are gone and the increased effectiveness of the participants can create additional energy and focus for what might otherwise be a grueling and tiring experience.
  1. Nurture Social Capital: When individuals come together in retreat situations, they begin to work together in new and different ways.  Combined with the social events that accompany destination retreats, new relationships develop, trust is heightened, and stronger teams materialize.
  1. Optimize Your Tools: Destination retreats offer tremendous flexibility with respect to meeting tools. Spaces can be reconfigured (sometimes on the fly) to be able to respond to the distinct requirements of the process.  Technology components (e.g., projectors, file sharing, sound systems) can be customized. Unique or different tools can be incorporated that might not be possible at the home office.
  1. Generate Energy: Remote retreats, properly conducted, are energy factories.  New experiences, achievements, and fresh viewpoints all generate excitement that is simply infectious across the participants.  It is not unusual, in fact, to see an energy boost at the end of a long day even if that leg of the process is running overtime.
  1. Embrace Flexibility: One of the true benefits of the destination retreat is that the time “boxes” become elastic.  A process segment that runs a few minutes long does not impact someone else’s meeting.  Participants do not have to be out the door at precisely 5:00 to catch the train or ferry.  The process can evolve to meet the group’s needs as they change over the course of the retreat.
  1. Build Your Team: Whether or not specific team building exercises are incorporated into the retreat experience (although I heartily recommend them), the process of working together more effectively and creatively will enhance your team’s long term performance.  Every member will have a clearer idea of the strengths and capabilities of their teammates, and will be better able to contribute to team success.

On the surface, destination meetings are expensive.  There is the cost of travel, food, lodging, facilitation, and ancillary activities to consider.  But viewed in the light of the overall value that the enterprise ultimately reaps from the meeting output – value which is measured not only by the desired objective and products but also by the ten benefits discussed above – the return on investment is high. Consider these when planning your next big meeting.

What other values do you see from off-site meetings?  Do you have retreat success stories to share?



The Business Zen of Pooh


This will probably be very bad for business, but I have a confession to make. I am a four-year-old at heart. This is a fact with which my long-suffering wife will concur. I am often completely self-absorbed, I oscillate between total immersion and a short attention span, and I will find myself playing with the oddest things. Despite all that, I am reasonably well adjusted. I claim a modicum of self-awareness, I have no trouble wearing a kilt in public, and I am not ashamed to talk about the wisdom of life that I have gained from reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, is the anthropomorphic teddy bear penned in the early Twentieth Century by A.A. Milne. He made his first appearance in a single poem from the collection When We Were Very Young (1924). He was the central character in both Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and also found his way into Now We Are Six (1927). And with apologies to any of my friends still working for The Mouse, I rebuke the Disney “adaptations” right out.

I grew up with the lovable bear and his companions, hearing the poems and tales read aloud when I was small, and then again for my younger siblings. Years later I read them to my own children over a span of fifteen years. And while I must have been absorbing some of that wisdom all along, I only really connected it with a larger picture about twelve years ago.

I was editing the quarterly newsletter for my employer at that time. It was our custom to head each issue with a pithy quotation that was relevant to the contents of the particular issue. The source of the quotation was not necessarily related directly to business or technology. The banner on our inaugural issues read, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for people to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” This seemed relevant to sending our newsletter out to present and future clients rather than waiting for them to come to us. At the very least, it linked my inner four-year-old to the cynical consultant.

One of our readers saw it a similar way, quipping, “You know you are secure in your position when you can quote Winnie-the-Pooh in a business publication with impunity.” She remains a good friend, a reader of this blog, and an insightful sounding board for my musings. I can visualize her now, rolling her eyes at the memory and grinning at my fresh assault on the seriousness of the adult business world.

There is elegance in these wisps of wisdom. There is neither jargon nor pretension. There are no twenty-dollar words to cloud the meaning. They are delivered straight, as from one friend to another. And since they require no interpretation, I will merely point out the connections that I see.

One of the reasons I really like the quote above is the suggestion to go out in the world and connect with people. I suppose one way to look at it is in the form of business development, but I think just stepping out into the community and picking up a hammer to help at the barn raising is equally valid. As I have observed repeatedly, it is all about the people. “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

I think I could teach an entire class about this next little wisdom mote. While it might seem to fly in the face of J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal line, “Not all those who wander are lost,” it doesn’t at all. Some objectives are more diaphanous than others, and the paths to them are rarely a straight line no matter how distinct the goals might seem. Nevertheless, I agree with Pooh Bear. “Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.”

Years ago, one of my mentors used to tell me, “Steve, never let best get in the way of better.” He was right, of course, but Winnie-The-Pooh takes this sentiment further by adding an extra cup of joy to the recipe. For me, this takes the prize for the deepest Zen of all the canon of Bearish observations. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

I hope to incorporate this next fragment of insight into my class next year. In truth, one rarely knows precisely why someone doesn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps it is because he is speaking and it is I who should be listening. But then, perhaps the Bear is correct after all. “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

In my line of work, perspective is everything. After all, the beaver tail one man sees and the duckbill that another man sees may be neither beaver nor duck, but opposite ends of the same platypus. The ability to look at a problem from an acute perspective may be the first step on the road to wisdom. Says Winnie-The-Pooh, “I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”

This next one is rather an advanced class Poohism from the standpoint that it requires self-awareness. It is why I rarely write anything important and then send it out into the world before I have had at least one set of eyes review it. Sometimes it is style, sometimes tone, but being able to see what a thought looks like to someone else before someone else sees it has saved me from harm many a day. I’m with the bear on this. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I offer a word of caution about this final observation by Master Pooh. He is not exhorting his humble pupils to overthink a problem. Rather, he is suggesting that we look at it from one side and then sort of get ourselves under it and look at it from the other. You have to admit that only auto mechanics are in the habit of seeing things from that perspective. “Think it over, think it under.”

I hope that these quiet musings on the Zen of Poohisms has made you stop and think for a moment, and perhaps also brought a smile to your face. Perchance these thoughts will be useful to you in the future as well. For me, they have taken me back to my past when I shared these timeless stories first with my parents and then my children.   Isn’t it wonderful how something so modest can tie the past, present, and future together so simply and effectively?

Do you have a favorite quote from Winnie-The-Pooh that you would like to add? How seriously do you take the business world?



Spring Housecleaning


On the whole, I am a tidy person. Clutter makes me crazy and disorder makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Granted, while I am deep in the creative blood fever of a project I might not notice that seventeen layers of artifacts have insinuated themselves upon my workspace. This includes both my physical desk as well as my computer, where I have sometimes amassed upwards of 200 open tabs on my browser as I research a topic.

The older I get (I am not unaware of how frequently I use that phrase), the more I am finding myself capable of pushing detritus to the corners of my periphery where it can accrue at an astounding rate if unchecked (meaning ignored). And again, this detritus can be virtual as well as physical. While those stacks of unread books, newspaper articles, magazines, and whitepapers grow on both ends of my desk, the list of to-do items, long neglected and not written down, accumulates at the edge of my unconscious mind.

These days, it takes some major event to propel me into housecleaning mode. It could be an important guest threatening to drop in. It could be some object desperately needed and known to have been seen since the last move but now nowhere to be found. It could be that pesky cancellation notice from the business insurance carrier that comes after the renewal notice slipped unread into the lower depths of one of the to-be-read stacks. It could be a dust bunny of Schwarzeneggerrian proportion rising from a dark corner of the office and threatening swift and total annihilation.

The most recent event was the realization that as a consequence of having completed my first term teaching business analysis at UW, my web site needed a facelift. In fact, it needed more than that. It had been a long time since I had done anything with it. The language had grown stale while the visual style was decidedly archaic. More important, I had found a sharper focus as a result of my recent work and needed to bring that to the forefront.

I started by performing a near total rewrite of the web site content. Before publishing, though, I had several people read the new material for focus, clarity, and readability. I also wanted as many eyes as possible looking for spelling and grammatical problems. Then I took the material to a web designer who explained some of the realities of the online presence in 2015. The designer’s advice took two forms: visual and textual.

Of the two, it was the textual advice that was the pill of profound bitterness. It is a sore point for me, but I cannot deny the truth. Web sites are not for reading. Rather, they are for gathering as much information in the form of impressions as rapidly as possible. My revisions, while substantially shorter than the original, still presented three times too many words. Never mind the beautiful prose, I needed to whittle these ideas down from complete thoughts into bullets and sound bites.

The visual was infinitely easier. That is not my trade. My knowledge of current fonts and design concepts is limited and likely to remain so. My consultant gave me straight advice that I was able to implement easily. I will be going back periodically to pursue an ongoing program of incremental improvement. In the mean time, I continue to find ways to sharpen the image and reduce the drag of the well-crafted paragraph.

Updating the web site also meant that I needed to synchronize the balance of my web presence. All of my social media presence (primarily Facebook and LinkedIn) needed to be reworked. As I proceed to fine-tune the web site, I need to keep these other media in mind.

By this point I had the spring housecleaning bit in my teeth. I also attacked my desk, sorting through the stacks of unread material and addressing all of the unsorted paper that represented issues unaddressed. I reduced the mound of reading to a single pile of about six inches in height. I punched through the entire to-do list and addressed, filed, or sent to recycling every last piece of paper.

It is a good feeling – almost cathartic – to have returned order to my office and my professional life. A sense of calm has descended and I can look past my laptop screen and see the corners of my desk. This affords me a renewed precision of focus that I cannot recommend too highly. I almost feel as if I have returned from a two-week vacation and not found two-weeks of accumulated work waiting for me. If I were not such a cynic, I would say that I was downright light-hearted.

There is one aspect of the spring housecleaning that slipped through the cracks this time around. I did not deal with the dust bunnies of unusual size. They still lurk in the dark corners of the office, waiting to pounce. If I concentrate really hard at looking at this screen while I write, I cannot see them. I suppose I will have to deal with them sooner or later, but in the words of Scarlet O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day.”

When was the last time you gave your message a touch up? Can anyone suggest a method for conquering the dust bunnies without professional help?






Shared Values

Values_HeaderEach one of us has values. Values are those basic concepts and beliefs about life that we as human beings consider to be fundamental. In theory, they are the guiding principles that shape our decisions, our behaviors, and our relationships. Each person’s set of values constitutes his or her moral and ethical compass. Values are as essential as they are deeply personal.

No two people, now matter how close they might be, share an identical set of values. Human nature alone makes the distinct set of values as wide as the earth’s population. As people we probably have several “big rock” values that are the non-negotiable principles, and we have a host of “lesser rock” principles that help guide us day-to-day but may be more directional than absolute. An example of a “big rock” principle could be one’s faith, which can be the justification to decline an opportunity or resign from a good job. A “lesser rock” value might be a person’s belief in the importance of picking up litter encountered on the street but which is not one over which to jeopardize a job. “Gosh, J.P., I’m sorry I missed the sales presentation to the client this morning but…”

Indeed, values are powerful and complex. Every time you step into a meeting situation, you are sharing space with an array of value sets that are different from each other and your own. And in many respects, these differing value sets often drive conflict and dysfunction in meetings. There are other important causes as well, including personal style, viewpoint (e.g. the engineer’s as compared to the marketing specialist’s), personal power, perceived threats, and sometimes just a person’s mood on a given day. Nevertheless, most human beings do not make a practice of leaving their personal values at the door when they enter a meeting.

This is a good thing, because understanding and identifying values is an important aspect of the job for the process consultant or meeting facilitator. In fact, it offers the facilitator an effective means of addressing differences in personal style, needs, and viewpoint. Most people are more likely to recognize and respond to their conflicting values, but the facilitator or process consultant shines light on the shared values.

By way of example, consider the Acme Sprocket Company, which is struggling with a new line of titanium cogs that has suddenly developed a reputation for unreliability. Recognizing that the company needs to get in front of the problem quickly, the CEO has brought together the key players from sales, marketing, engineering, and manufacturing to identify the root cause and craft a solution. Recognizing the degree of finger pointing that is already going on, she has worked with a process consultant to design and execute an effective meeting process.

The antagonism between the departments turns out to be worse than the CEO had imagined. As part of his preparation, the consultant meets with leaders from each of the departments and learns first hand how deep the divisions truly are. Engineering points the finger at sales for having “over sold” the product specifications. Manufacturing is blaming engineering for providing a faulty design. The sales team is accusing manufacturing of shoddy production and marketing is faulting everyone. The consultant is aware that when these groups sit down together, dysfunction will prevail without some intervention.

The consultant also knows that establishing meeting ground rules, while essential, will not be enough. He needs to get the warring factions onto the same page about something right away or they will never make it through the meeting process. He decides to focus on the group’s shared values about the Acme Sprocket Company. In fact, he has designed an exercise that leads the participants from the continental breakfast directly into the identification of shared values without anyone actually being cognizant of it.

Even before presenting the agenda, the consultant reveals the shared values that the participants have gathered unawares. The question he had posed was, “What is the most important aspect of your work at Acme Sprocket? What is the highest value for you at this company?” Here are some examples of the values they came up with.

  • Seeing that every customer has a high quality experience
  • Knowing at the end of the day that I’ve contributed to our success
  • Making the company profitable
  • Being part of a terrific team
  • Ensuring that every sale benefits the customer as well as Acme
  • Making the best sprockets in the industry
  • Customer satisfaction

The revelation of these values is transformational for the group. Nobody can dispute a single one of them, and it has changed their collective reason for being in the room together. They can now engage in the day’s process knowing that their fundamental purpose for being in the meeting is to uphold these shared values, and to do so together. The problem they must solve collectively is merely a means to that end.

This illustration is a fictionalized synthesis of several examples from my own work where the detection of values common to a group has transformed collective viewpoint at the beginning of a challenging meeting process. In most cases, the method of deriving the list did not need to be as seemingly guileful as in this example, but in all cases it was an immediate and major win for the group. The biggest win was that it generated trust that one’s fellow participants were also there for all the right reasons.

In this example, none of the shared values were probably any one person’s “big rock” value. Nevertheless, when brought together in this fashion, they became the big rock value set for the team, the compass against which to check direction throughout the process and beyond. Clearly, values-driven process is a powerful factor for success.

How does your team manage shared values? Do you have value-driven stories to contribute?