Monday, September 28, 2015

There is more on its way. Stay with me!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Yay! Nine Assumptions and Ten Realities. The book is now available on Amazon. You can view it on your Kindle, or on a Kindle app on your computer or iPad. And you can also get a print copy, to read the good old fashioned way. And tell your friends!  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In or Out of the Box?

We've all heard people talk about "out-of-the-box thinking" in conversations, at meetings, or in the news media. But does everyone know the origin of this phrase? Maybe not. And not knowing, they have a slightly different concept in mind--different from its original intention or usage.

Hearing the term for the first time, one can guess at its intended meaning, or something close to it. Most people interpret the phrase to indicate an approach or perspective that is out of the ordinary or not typical. Or else they think of a particularly successful effort, akin to "hitting it out of the ball park."

What do you think it means?

The term actually comes from a simple but very effective exercise that is sometimes used in consulting, coaching, and teaching:

The group is given a puzzle to solve. It consists of nine dots, in the following configuration:

The challenge is to connect all the dots, using only four straight lines, and without lifting the pencil from the paper.

It seems a simple enough task, but they quickly learn otherwise. They try several approaches but they all end up not working; somehow there are some dots left over, no matter what they do:

Try it yourself before scrolling down. Remember: Only four lines, without lifting your pencil from the paper.

Eventually, the solution is shown to them:

They then realize that the lines they were drawing to try to connect the dots were all within an imaginary box--one that existed in their own mind only. It was an assumption they had made, without thinking about it, or being aware that they were making it. That imaginary box made it impossible to solve the problem. Only by transcending those boundaries, and thinking outside of the imaginary box they had assumed, could they find the solution.

We can apply this experience to any problem we're working on: Am I imposing any imaginary limitations on possible approaches I might explore? And if I become aware of those ways of limiting my own thinking and behavior, can I now explore possibilities that are beyond my own assumed boundaries--strategies that might turn out to be effective and successful?

Your responses are invited. Can you think of situations in your own life/work, in which you may be needlessly limited by your own assumptions about unstated limitations?

Click on Comment to post your response.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Collaboration" and Hope?

As I write this, I am watching news coverage about proposals to raise the debt limit for the US government. Intense debate in the Congress is being televised by CSPAN, and summarized in TV news programs, radio, and newspapers. The "sausage-making" process we've heard about is in full display. I desperately change channels in hope of finding more reasonable, understandable programming, and settle for trite fiction on the movie channel.

We are watching the strangeness of the adversarial process, showcased in the form of polarized congressional debate. Conflicting views of our social and economic reality are being presented with conviction by opposing sides. The best we can hope for, it seems, is a lose-lose outcome in which no side gets what it wants, and American society may suffer serious consequences.

How did we get into this mess? It is certainly not what one would have expected when President Obama was elected, under the banner of hope and collaboration. At the time, I remember wondering how he had learned so much about collaborative perspectives at the Harvard School of Law. Maybe he learned about it in his community development work in Chicago. But not enough.

I don't blame him for this. His intentions are certainly sincere and his behavior is honest and courageous. But the kind of shift he has been attempting to lead has not succeeded--in fact we seem to be in an even more adversarial political environment than before. How did this happen?

Obama's strong election win under the banner of collaboration did give rise to hope for Democratic voters, but it also elicited dismay among Republican voters--and legislators. From the perspective of the losing opposition, this promise of collaboration was so successful politically, that they understandably  became concerned. Within the perspective of competitive game-playing, this initiative was perceived as a very threatening ploy. If they Democrats kept that up, they were likely to win election after election. They had to be stopped.

In a social setting, collaborative offers and initiatives usually elicit gratitude, and similarly collaborative responses. This works among neighbors, for example. I return their mis-delivered mail. They offer to feed my cat while I'm on vacation. But in a competitive setting, collaborative initiatives are confusing, and often threatening. If a basketball player passes the ball to an opposing player, that player will be confused, but will quickly pass the ball to her own team-mates, or shoot the ball to score for her own team. And she won't return the favor later on.

In a business setting, passing vital information to competitors only leads them to use it, and ask for more. If the shop owner at the bazaar responds to my inquiry about an item by telling me the price, but offers to sell it to me for a lot less (because he likes my face), I know I'm being conned. Collaborative initiatives in competitive settings do not increase trust, or evoke collaborative responses; they elicit distrust and more competitive stances.

Back in the political realm, the recent practice of improving the Democrats' offers to Republicans before any discussion has taken place, tells the Republicans that the Democrats are patsies, or up to something, and leads them to toughen their demands. It also leads Republicans to fear the possible popularity of the Democrats' politics of collaboration, and to seek at all costs to undermine the chances of their success. Collaborative gestures within an adversarial environment thus lead the other side to respond with increased adversarial behavior, aimed at undermining the possible success of the other side's collaborative strategies.

In an adversarial environment, collaborative initiatives from one side do not elicit collaborative responses from the other. They do lead to greatly increased adversarial reactions.

So what to do? Rather than changing the moves within a game, both sides would have to agree to change the nature of the game, itself. It is necessary for both sides to discuss the game, including the disadvantages and limitations of adversarial relations, and then to agree to redesign the game itself.

But you are most likely to succeed in initiating conversations about changing the game if you are very good at playing it the old way. You have to be a better adversary than the other side, and then invite them to talk about changing the rules toward collaboration. Then the work starts!

Not a simple subject, is it. Your thoughts, questions, and examples are invited.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Game-Playing to Collaboration

Here is the second part of my summary of Virginia Satir's model of interpersonal decision making:

The three options we identified before--Disagree, Agree, or Change the Subject--are inherently based on game-like assumptions about winning and losing:

When I use disagreement, I'm trying to win, and to make you lose.

When I use agreement, I'm letting you win, and am willing to lose (while hoping for approval from you, etc.)

When I change the subject away from a decision, I'm willing to make us both lose, as long as we avoid conflict and unpleasantness.

Sometimes people think of compromise as a better alternative. We settle for half of what we want, but neither you nor I get what we want, or need. This is also a lose-lose option. We can see too many examples of this approach in political and legislative processes. Compromise, and its inevitable ineffectiveness for solving human or social problems, only makes people decide to fight harder next time. In this sense, compromise has a polarizing effect.

So what are we to do?

Satir pointed out that it's possible to shift from win-lose, game-playing approches, to win-win authentic interactions. This is not the same as compromise. Instead of working out how we'll split a small pie, we work together to bake a bigger one. The effect is to transform a limiting decision-making interaction into a constructive problem-solving conversation. Instead of competing for limited resources, we collaborate on creating new options that effectively respond to our respective or shared needs.

But how the heck do we actually do this? For most of us, it calls for new and unfamiliar behaviors. Satir found that it's important to be willing to put one's cards on the table, and to be the first to do so. Instead of "What would you like to do, dear?" (which is an agreement ploy), one has to be the first to take a chance and state one's preferences, needs, priorities, etc. And one has to disclose the underlying values, needs, or personal considerations. "Let me say what I've been thinking about this, and what about it is important to me."

One then has to inquire about the other's preferences, needs, and priorities, giving them equal importance and attention. Honest, active listening is crucial here, to understand the other's experience and point of view.

And one has to continually affirm the relationship in the conversation, by stating how the integrity of the relationship is more important than whatever gets decided.

This approach makes for a very different kind of interaction. Instead of game-like positioning to achieve one-sided goals, there is open, explicit consideration of both persons' perspectives. Given the superordinate goal to protect and affirm the relationship, it's possible to shift away from either/or decision-making. Instead, we can engage in creative problem-solving, no longer limited by initially-defined options, but working together to generate new options that increasingly respond to both persons' needs and priorities.

How often do you see or engage in this kind of win-win interaction? It is certainly not what we generally see in politics, or in schools, or organizations. It is thus counter-cultural. So engaging in win-win interaction requires continual learning, as well as perseverance, and courage.

I look forward to your comments!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Competition or Collaboration?

It’s useful to know the game we’re playing, and the rules that govern play. Sometimes we can be playing several games with the same people at the same time. We may be winning at one game, but we're losing at a more important one.

I remember being in a pick-up basketball game in high school, and having a good time, until I got an elbow hit to the nose. I had to walk around with a bandage over it for the next couple of months. I was surprised to discover an unanticipated benefit, though. The school’s star quarterback had gotten his nose broken about the same time, and suddenly girls started to notice me, probably thinking I was him, or at least associating my injury with his.

I wouldn’t want to get my nose broken again, though, just to get girls’ attention. But looking back at the incident, I had been a problematic opposing player, and the elbow to my nose had taken me out of the game, and out of the way.

So there were two games going on--competitive basketball between two teams was one. Getting rid of problematic opposing players was another game. This wasn’t part of the rules of the first game, though winning at the second game improved the first game for their side. Becoming attractive to the opposite sex was a third, mostly unspoken game, at which I had a painful but lucky break.

We human beings enjoy playing games--all sorts of games. In the US, as in many countries, we enjoy playing or watching games like football, basketball, tennis, soccer, hockey, etc. These are competitive games; if one side wins, the other side loses. The play brings together opposing individuals or groups, playing within the physical boundaries of the court or field, as well as the behavioral boundaries of agreed-upon rules. Each side has a goal, which it tries to achieve, while preventing players on the other side from achieving theirs. Eventually, one side wins and the other loses.

Virginia Satir, who trained family therapists and whose work influenced many OD practitioners, described patterns of decision-making using a simple model of a two-person interaction. Here is what I learned from her:

In the first example, I might want to get my way, even if it’s at your expense. In this case I would argue for my wants, needs, rights, etc. and discount your arguments or preferences, even if it means being particularly disagreeable: “We’ve always gone to mountains for our summer vacation; we end up traveling a long time to get there and back. We should go to the beach near our house!” I argue for what I want, and try to undermine or discount what you want. My behavior pattern is to disagree:

Under different circumstances the opposite might be true: When I interact with you around a decision we need to make, I might act as if I want to please you, so I’ll discount my preference and agree to yours. My behavior strategy is to be very agreeable. Typically, I would make believe there is only one party to the decision--you: “Where do you want to go for our vacation this year, Dear?” Of course, the catch is that I will expect some kind of goodies in return--maybe that you make believe I’m a really good person, but I never say so.

A third pattern emerges when this kind of decision-making and its potential for conflict raise so much anxiety for me that I’ve learned to avoid engaging in it at all. So when such circumstances emerge, I will neither agree nor disagree--I will do everything I can to get away from the situation. Most typically I will deal with it by changing the subject--sometimes in very creative ways: “You were asking about our vacation--oh, by the way, your mother called. She seemed upset about something and wants to talk with you right away.” Neither you nor I get what we want, but we avoid dreaded conflict.

Another version of this mode appears more positive, though it really isn't: Each of us gives up some of what we want until we can agree on what’s left. We call it compromising. It avoids conflict by the expedient that neither of us gets what we want.

Thus, Satir described these three modal patterns of decision-making behavior: agree, disagree, or change the subject--undermining, capitulating, or avoiding. She then pointed out an implicit aspect of these patterns--the underlying assumption that either I will get my way or you will get yours. It’s the win-lose assumption. When I argue with you I try to win by making you lose. When I offer to do whatever you want, I lose and you win (though I’m covertly hoping to win something else by losing in this situation). And when I change the subject or push for compromise, neither of us gets what we want and we both lose.

Most of us develop a habitual preference for one of these three strategies, though none of them is really satisfying. Do you recognize yourself in one of them? What can you tell me about your experiences with your own pattern?

I’m interested in seeing your thoughts and experience on this. And then I’ll share more about Satir’s perspective about it in the next post.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is it Resistance or Incubation? The Exponential Shape of Change

I was talking with a good friend today about her struggle to initiate positive changes in the organization she works in. She described the tendency of most people there to avoid talking about certain crucial subjects. This is not unusual--most organizations have certain "unspeakable" topics. There is a tacit agreement to not talk about the elephant in the room, or the emperor's transparent new clothes.

I was reminded of a novelty toy years ago that looked like a black metal box with a little red lever along the top front edge. If one pushed the lever, the box would start whirring and the lid on top would slowly open. A little metallic hand would come out of the box, moving toward the lever. It would push the lever back to "off" and then dart back into the box, the lid snapping shut behind it. I realized this is a metaphor for many organizations, whose unacknowledged culture cancels out any initiatives for improvement, because people think they're not supposed to go that way, or talk about it.

This pattern of automatic self-stopping can discourage managers and consultants from implementing improvements. Their constructive initiatives are non-verbally spurned, and they come to the conclusion that there is great "resistance to change." I think this is a misunderstanding of the way human systems change. While there are some events that result in apparently quick and transformative change, such as a change in the top leadership, or major disruptive changes in technology, most real change has the shape of an exponential curve, or a hockey stick. Nothing seems to be happening for a long while, then suddenly it becomes apparent that there has been slow quiet development over a period of time, and big changes begin to emerge spontaneously. The caterpillar in the cocoon has been invisibly transforming, and it emerges as a butterfly.
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For change agents, patience and perseverance is a wise strategy. Years ago, I was invited to Herb Shepard's house, which he called "Fort Courage," to celebrate his 60th birthday, along with many fellow alumni of the Case-Western Reserve U. doctoral program in OD. I was excited to see fellow alumni from many cohorts talking with great animation in small clusters, sitting at couches or standing around, holding drinks. My thought was, what an amazing repository of knowledge and experience about OD practice was assembled in the room! I imagined that soon, Herb would convene us, and the socializing would give way to serious exploration and discussion among the group as a whole. But after some time, that shift did not happen, and people just continued to chat, mill around in small clusters, and drink. Nobody was convening the conversation.

Finally, losing patience, I walked over to Herb and asked him, "Don't you think it would be good for us all to sit down and talk as a whole group about what we're doing and learning?" His response was a classic Herb Shepard intervention: He looked me in the eye and said, "So what are you going to do about it?"

I gulped quietly as I got the message. So I started to circulate from cluster to cluster, non-verbally and then verbally joining each conversation, and then asking, "Don't you think it would be good for us all to talk together about what we're doing and what we're learning?" They would usually agree, and then go on with what they were talking about with their two or three friends. I would shrug and go on to another group, etc. My initiative was not catching on. I kept going, though, until I got to the last group, standing in the kitchen, talking with great animation and energy about whatever. I began to do my routine of non-verbally joining the group and conversation, waiting for the first opening to speak my proposal. But this was a group of very experienced, first-cohort alumni. They were implicitly aware I was up to something and did not want to be interrupted. They were non-verbally keeping me out of the group.

I was feeling greatly discouraged. My change initiative had failed. At that moment, someone came in from the living room and said loudly, "Hey! We're all sitting down together to talk about what we're doing and learning! Come into the living room!" And we did.

What stories can you tell here about your own change initiatives?

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