Nov 19 2012

The Ultimate Paradox

I have been reading Margaret Wheatley’s latest book “So Far From Home” and have found no end to the learning available through it’s pages.

In the introduction, she is clear about what this book can and cannot do:

[This book can restore your clarity, energy, and enthusiasm for your work if you take time with it and read it slowly.

This book cannot serve you if you skim, scan, scroll, or flip through its pages hunting for a few good ideas.

This book intends to provoke and disturb, to console and affirm you. These strong responses require time and reflection.

I not only chose to read on, I knew that I needed to read what she had to offer in these pages to hopefully understand what I am experiencing in both the day-to-day and the bigger picture context of my work and life.

As I continue to explore and reflect deeply on the information and perspectives she shares in this book, I will continue to express through this online space any insights I reach as well as any shifts I make in my work and life that are more informed and are what Meg Wheatley refers to as “wise action”. Through this I invite any input, thoughts, comments you may have.

In Chapter 6, Identity: The Logic of Change, Wheatley refers to the Ultimate Paradox.

“Life is changing constantly, but change is never random. There are always causes and conditions. The reason that living systems change is in order to survive….

And here is life’s ultimate paradox about change: the only reason a living being changes is so it won’t have to change. It will do whatever is necessary to preserve itself.” [pgs 40-41]

How does this paradox show up in our lives, work and organizations? If we are changing, but changing to preserve ourselves/teams/organizations, how much energy are we putting into meaningful change and how much energy are we putting into change that preserves the way things currently are (even if they are not working)?

We change our processes, sometimes beyond recognition, to preserve what we do.

We change the team, sometimes beyond recognition, to preserve the project.

We change our location, methods, data, to preserve our support systems.

When do we question WHAT we are doing as well as HOW we are doing it? How do we question in a way that looks at both the CAUSES and CONDITIONS that got us to a place that required change? How do we truly observe and accept where we are to gain the perspective needed to see what most needs doing?

I’m asking these questions as points for reflection and as an opportunity to assess if the change and the WAY you and/or your organization are going about change is truly the change that is most needed or if it is change done to preserve the system as a whole.

Without reflecting on that meaningfully and with a willingness to possibly hear and see things you may not want to, wise actions are much less likely to be chosen. The change will happen, it just may have an impact you did not anticipate and may have even hoped to avoid.

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Oct 02 2012

Rats in a Cage

What do rats in a cage have to do with career, team effectiveness or leadership? Lots!

A fascinating study by Bruce K. Alexander at Simon Fraser University was done looking to better understand drug addiction and the results may surprise you.

Alexander had two groups of rats in his study. One group of rats was kept in a regular cage like most other lab rats on this planet. For the other group of rats, he built Rat Park, a 95 sqft housing colony (which is approximately 200 times the square footage of a normal laboratory cage). Within this space, there were all sorts of areas for engaging in regular rat behaviours including areas for play, foraging, mating and raising families.

Next, he gave both groups of rats morphine until they were physically addicted to the drug (57 days). They were then put in either the small cage or Rat Park. In their living quarters, they had access to a water bottle laced with morphine and to a water bottle with only tap water. Alexander observed which bottle they would drink from. Conventional knowledge about addiction said since they were physically addicted, they would drink more frequently from the water bottle laced with morphine.

For the rats in the cage, this proved to be true. However, for the rats in Rat Park, they drank almost exclusively tap water. No matter what the researchers tried, they could not get the rats in Rat Park to consume more morphine or produce anything that looked like addiction. When rats are given the opportunity to do what they were built to do, they do not generally choose to get high or engage in addiction related behaviours.

Rats in a cage do.

Their conclusion – stress and environment matter.

What does this mean for individuals, teams and organizations?

When you are engaged in work that requires you to be someone you are not, where you use skills you do not enjoy using, where you feel trapped or are not given the space to do what you were built to do, you are much less likely to be producing your best possible results which affects your team and your organization. You are also more likely to engage in behaviours both inside and outside of your working life that may be harmful to you simply as a way of alleviating that stress.

For teams, when you are engaged in projects that are not using the natural skill sets of the team members or have an environment that does not give the team the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities and work, you may find stress induced behaviours taking place as well which are counter productive to what you are working towards. This might mean that you are taking longer to get things done than you might otherwise, you may even be delivering a lesser quality product than is expected or the workload may lie disproportionately on the shoulders of a few which over time will definitely affect the quality as the few burn out or leave. Picture the stress behaviours of rats in a cage – lots of pacing back and forth (going nowhere); excessive drinking (extraneous activities, meetings); even fighting (destructive interpersonal dynamics).

For organizations, is the work you are doing the work you were built to do? Is HOW it is done in alignment with the values of the organization? What are the values of the organization and are they clear to everyone there? Look at the physical space in which you and your employees work. Is it providing space for people to be alone when needed and to congregate both professionally and personally? How are you helping employees determine what they are built to do and what opportunities do you give them to bring that to the organization?

Going even deeper – whether you ask these questions as an individual, a team member/leader, an organization:

  • What are the cages around us and our work?
  • What addictive behaviours are we engaged in? What processes do we continue to follow that no longer serve us? What projects do we take on that don’t suit us but we’ve always done them so we continue to do them? What behaviours do we engage in individually and/or collectively that drain our energy? What stresses are here? Which are external, which are internal? Which can we change?
  • What are the cages we’ve built ourselves?

The cages around you that are there from the market, community, culture, society you may not be able to take down. You can change how you view them, what you do within them.

The cages you have built, you have the power to take down. Get to it.

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Jul 11 2012

Lessons in Listening

Over the weekend I flew on an airline I had never experienced before. As many people seem to consider airline/air travel bashing a pass time, I am constantly watching for differences between the airlines and what may contribute to one airline being on the hit list while others may be the benchmark of how to do things right.

My initial impressions were of a very professional, efficient operation. The flight director was clear, concise, friendly and respectful. We were directed courteously and quickly. We were encouraged to sit quickly for the benefit of all the passengers and yet did not feel rushed – in fact I wanted to be as quick as possible to be part of helping us leave on time, maybe even early.

Things were going swimmingly well, everyone was seated, the door was closed, final preparations were being made…and then it happened.

The flight director had asked us twice, possibly three times as we were being seated to turn off our cell phones. After the door was closed, she made a clear announcement to ensure we had done so as we could not leave the gate until all cell phones were off.

I am not sure exactly what happened at this point other than the flight director asked a woman to turn off her cell phone. I heard a female voice say something. Then the flight director went back again and said very firmly, almost harshly to turn it off.

This is where I got very interested as I watched a break-down in listening and communication ON BOTH PARTS take place. In bullet points, here is what I witnessed:

  • the passenger (an elderly woman) raised her voice back to say something (which I could not hear)
  • the flight director raised her voice to tell her “No, turn it off now!”
  • the flight director went back to the front of the cabin
  • the passenger yelled “I was just checking to make sure it was off!”
  • the flight director called the pilot and tell him “a passenger won’t turn off her cell phone.”
  • the pilot got on the intercom and in a very professional manner told us all how important it was to turn off our cell phones, how it does cause interference, how we can all appreciate that he wants to be able to hear traffic control, etc, etc
  • the passenger had turned her head to look out the window
  • the flight director stood at the front looking straight down the aisle

Now, I did not see what the passenger was or was not doing to ignite the entire situation and I imagine that the cell phone at least appeared to be on when we had been told to turn them off.

I can appreciate that after having asked us many times as we boarded and once when we were all on board and seated that the flight director saw this as a blatant refusal to comply. I also imagine that this is not the first time the flight director has encountered this and that she likely felt she was not being listened to and even being outright defied.

I can also appreciate however that the passenger felt she was not being listened to either. She might have been ignoring the flight director or she might very well have not heard the first time or might have been checking to make sure it was off at which point it actually turned on and she had to turn it off again. I imagine she felt that she was misunderstood as she tried to explain why her phone was on.

From each of their perspectives they were mistreated and to a degree they are both right. To a degree they are both wrong as well.

Maybe the passenger did not listen and was defying the request.

Maybe the passenger is hard of hearing and did not hear the first few times we were instructed to turn cell phones off.

Maybe the passenger is not fully familiar with the technology.

Maybe the passenger just needed a few seconds to process the request made before she could respond through appropriate action.

We won’t know.

What I do know is if the flight director had been present and intent on listening, had understood fully that not everyone hears and processes information in the same way or at the same speed that a challenging, tense and embarassing situation could have been avoided all together with only a few seconds of silence to pause and LISTEN.

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Jun 18 2012

The Continuing Need for a Focus on Employee Engagement

Aon Hewitt released it’s 2012 Global Engagement report – a study on employee engagement and the numbers are up – slightly.

Overall, employee engagement is up from 56% to 58%. Aon Hewitt gathers this information based on their employee engagement model of “say, stay, strive” – what do employees say about working in your organization, how long do employees stay in your organization, do employees strive to go above and beyond for your organization?

The study indicates that this increase in engagement is a positive sign in the face of the continuing economic recovery. The authors and other experts in the field also indicate however that it does not reflect complete success in the area – with those numbers 4 out of 10 employees are NOT engaged.

Areas for Opportunity

Trust – levels of trust between employees and their employers have increased. Trust is at the base of an engaged workforce. Investing in building trust is a key element and area for opportunity – and it’s easier than you think.

  • share information with employees about where you are and where things are going
  • involve employees in creating better (and possibly new) ways forward – seek their input
  • acknowledge successes and take responsibility for your part in short falls

Communication – the study showed a perception of decreased effectiveness in communication. This can sometimes be overlooked in our culture of “doing” – we get so busy doing what needs to be done that we miss the opportunity to share the great work we are doing.

  • make it part of your design to communicate, budget the time
  • move beyond the company newsletter – there are innovative and effective ways available – talk to a communicator, they’ll know and be excited to help
  • not sure how it helps the bottom line? Engaged employees contribute better work, saving the costs to fix a negative message

Employee engagement is not a “nice to have” – it’s essential if your organization is to thrive now and in the future. As the study notes, the number 1 driver of employee engagement is career advancement. An easy win in this is to communicate possible career paths to your employees. The number 2 driver is recognition of their contribution and good work – that simply takes time and commitment to doing it consistently.


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May 10 2012

Detroit – A Case Study in Resilience?

“Detroit’s struggle matters, because there isn’t a tidy conclusion. Nothing is certain.”

What happens when the main economic drivers in a city disappear? Does the city decay and die or does new growth take shape?

The case of Detroit provides us with an opportunity to observe what can happen when decay results in fertile ground for new growth.

So, facts about Detroit:

  • Since 2000, population has dropped by 25%
    • Tax base has also dropped while geographic size of city remains same meaning upkeep remains largely the same
    • 60,000 houses sit empty
      • Vacant properties magnets for crime such as vandalism, drugs and arson
      • Only 11% of Detroit residents between ages of 24-35 have a college degree
      • 50% of Detroit’s population do not graduate from high school
      • Murder capital of the U.S.

As the population left the city, houses were left empty and the decline of the city continued. The manufacturing industry has been the main employer for the city since the 1940’s and even well educated citizens found themselves facing unemployment. People had to decide whether or not to stay in Detroit as it became evident that that industry was not going to revive.

Stories abound about Detroit’s demise – the poverty, the devastation.

Yet, there is another story taking shape – one about the resilience of the city and its people.

There is a concerted effort by government, non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and the citizens of Detroit to create something new in their city; something to fill in where others have left.


  • Entrepreneurs and start-ups are benefitting from the opportunity that low real estate values are providing to purchase space
  • Young entrepreneurs in particular are selling their assets in other cities and moving to Detroit where their dollar goes further
  • Green manufacturing opportunities being explored

Government (Flint, MI):

  • Created 20 year master plan for the city
  • Started the Genesee County Land Bank to buy vacant properties and encourage neighbours to buy these properties around their homes for alternative land use

Government (Detroit, MI):

  • Tearing down derelict buildings (though this is not without controversy)
  • Investing in public transit planning
  • Engaging the public in the conversation for future planning (though again, the effectiveness and effort of the city and state on this is debated)
  • Engaging in public-private partnerships for redevelopment


  • Foundations engaging in addressing systemic challenges
  • Investing to address gaps not met through other channels
  • Grassroots groups collaborating, amplifying impact of their work
    • Community centres, literacy programs, youth programs, computer training being built around urban gardens
    • microfinance

Urban farming/gardening:

  • Use of vacant land to grow food for own consumption and for sale
  • Cooperatives purchasing power being used
  • Reclaimed land usage; use of reclaimed materials
  • Larger scale farmers markets in operation; supplying small grocery stores that have opened to fill in where large national grocery chains pulled out of Detroit


  • Artists are moving to the city as it is an affordable place to live while creating
  • Lots of space available as studios, theatres, galleries
  • Open, vacant lots provide space for community art; adds to the vibrancy of the city and building new culture
  • Restaurants that are new and exciting are drawing tourists and locals alike

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Detroit stands poised to be crowned SuperMom. The key to their resilience is not any one thing, it is all of these initiatives and more yet to be introduced.

The reason for the creation of these initiatives may be that opportunity presented itself, it may be a desire to build the model for the reshaping of the American city and economy or maybe it was for shear survival. Whatever the reason, Detroit is a city to watch and learn from; an incubator of what is possible when the old is allowed to die and the new is allowed to take hold.

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Mar 05 2012

This Risk of a Hyper-Focus

Having a clear focal point is a great benefit to an organization, a team, an individual. Can there be a risk though?

Absolutely. A hyper-focus on any one objective or goal can lead to the organizational equivalent of a monoculture. In nature, a monoculture is highly susceptible to disease. In fact, in a monoculture, a single disease or meteorological event can wipe out the entire system.

We have seen this in companies time and again, often following the meteoric rise experienced with a new CEO who has “clear direction”. Think Enron – boil it down to the very simplest of terms and their focus was profit. It was such a focal point throughout the company that it became of culture of profit at all costs – the cost being the catastrophic collapse of the company with both economic and human repercussions that are felt by many to this day.

Enron is just one of many companies that exemplify the risks of a hyper-focus.

Your team fits into the larger system of your organization. Your organization fits into the larger system of your community and economy. Consider the greater landscape within which you reside and allow diverse, complimentary activities into your immediate landscape that actually highlight your focal point.

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Jan 10 2012

The Value of a Clear Focal Point

People don’t like change. Right?

In my experience, people don’t like change without clear purpose or intention.

That’s where having a clear focal point is essential. This is different from having a goal. A goal is a desired end result. A focal point on the other hand is more of a design element, a reference point that as things continue to unfold allows everyone involved to check and see how they’re doing individually and collectively.

Take Finland for example. They realized that there was a clear need for change in their education system. While other governments have a goal of excellence, they chose to have a focal point of equality.

Read more about the results they are achieving from a clear focal point of equality:

Through this focal point, they were able to design an new approach to education and prepare their teachers through conscious development programs prior to implementing new policies and programs. A focus on equality also allowed them to keep up the motivation and energy of the teachers and Finnish people alike as they nurtured the new approach, giving time for things to establish and grow.

The results speak for themselves.

posted by margo in innovation and has No Comments

Oct 13 2011

Lessons from Lindsay

We can learn a lot from Lindsay Blackwell – lessons that are both basic and profound.

Lindsay Blackwell read about a job opening – Director of Social Media at the University of Michigan. Lindsay LOVES social media. Lindsay is from Michigan. Lindsay wants that job.

So, she used her passion for social media and her skills of designing, public engagement and creativity to apply for that job in an innovative way. Check out After creating the site, Lindsay then used her skills of networking, promoting and campaigning to get her application in front of Lisa Rudgers – the person who may one day be her boss.

And it worked. Within 24 hours, Lindsay got a call for an interview. She made sure she is a candidate for the job.


So, lessons from Lindsay?

  • focus on your strengths – they will inevitably position you well for things you want in your life
  • follow your passions – you’re more innovative and creative when you do
  • know your audience – future boss, future users all know what she is capable of now
  • have fun – people like working with people who are fun to work with

Now, even if Lindsay doesn’t get the job she applied for, what are the chances that she will get noticed by someone else before long and have more than one opportunity? I’d say they’re pretty high.

Hats off Lindsay!

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