Stay in the Swamp

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People are fleeing the swamp of synthesis – that terrible, magical, challenging place where we birth new ideas.  It is a swamp filled with discomfort where we look at our research and the hundreds of Post-It notes on the wall and search for patterns and insights that lead us to the “aha” solution.

In IDEO’s project “mood map” this is the synthesis phase. And as depicted in the map, it is where our spirits are the lowest. This is the hard, hard work of design and problem solving.

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And because it is so difficult, many of us rush through it. We want to get out of the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty – and the feeling that we may never get it right.

Is this why we “fail fast”?

When we rush this phase and the initiative turns our mediocre or a bust, we have logical reasons to justify the “fail.” Not enough budget for research. Unrealistic deadlines. Customers aren’t ready for that much innovation.

The most popular and ridiculous excuse is putting on the badge of honor of “failing fast.”

I speak at conferences around the world and this year it seems as though every speaker is urging people to fail fast.  Aside from this meme starting to sound trite, I have a hunch that a lot of the fast failing is because we spend too little time in the swamp of synthesis.

The beloved Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has famously written that “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Similarly, suffering through the synthesis phase of ideation is necessary to grow our ideas. There can be no innovative ideas without wading through the mud in the synthesis swamp.

How long to slog, when to get out?

But how do you stay in the swamp long enough, despite the discomfort, and how do you know when it’s time to get out?  I have no definitive answers here, only observations from facilitating creative teams and doing my own creative work.

First, it’s important that leaders understand the importance of the synthesis swamp and that they need to allow time for this phase. Most are too impatient.

 A CEO once said her company hired me for “creativity on demand.” At first, I was honored by the compliment, but then I realized why the company’s people were so frustrated and exhausted. Creativity on demand is not sustainable, nor is it sufficient for complex problem solving.

Perhaps we need to educate executives on what to expect. Maybe it’s a 30/40/30 model: 30 percent research, 40 percent in the swamp, and 30 percent testing.

My personal challenge when I’m lost in the swamp is beating myself up. “I’m not creative enough. I take on projects that are impossible. Maybe I’m just getting too old for work this intense.”  You get the gist.

Borrowing advice from Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, I speak to my brain as though it’s a group of children, and tell them, “Stop it. You’re making a racket and not being helpful at all. Whining solves nothing.” A little self-compassion and shutting down the “whining children brain” helps me think clearly.

With that clarity, I ask questions like:

·      Are we trying to solve the right problem?

·      Asking the right questions?

·      Looking at the right research? (Often there’s too much.)

·      Have the right people in the swamp with us? (Groupthink often blinds our ability to fully see.)

Call your wild pack

I also call people in my wild pack, those friends and colleagues who are what Adam Grant calls “the disagreeable givers.”  They interrogate my thinking, challenge my assumptions and ask difficult questions that jolt me out of my critical thinking and creative rut.

Like the synthesis swamp, these wild pack friends make me uncomfortable.  And they are invaluable because the stretch my thinking, point out sloppy work, and dare us to take different approaches.  

Most of us have plenty of colleagues in our support pack -- people with compassion and kindness urging us on – and not enough in our wild pack.

When I was writing my first book I asked a well-known author and brilliant and cantankerous consultant to read the first draft. I was in the swamp and knew something was off. He told me that the first two chapters were so boring and ridiculous that he frankly couldn’t stomach reading any more.

I was crushed. And he had done me such a favor. The book eventually won awards, but it could have been a disaster if I had rushed the manuscript to completion.

 Document your time in the swamp

My final observation is to write about your time in the swamp after you’ve once again emerged from wading through the mud, self-doubt and frustration, and developed an excellent new idea.

What helped you stay in it? Who and what helped you get through it? How and when did the “aha” s emerge?  Keep these notes so you can refer to them the next time you’re in that synthesis phase.

And when you’re really stuck, try to extend the deadline, turn everything off, go for long walks, and have your support pack give you a little TLC.

No mud, no lotus.

 

 

Dream Teams

 One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

Teams with diverse viewpoints, approaches to problem solving and life experiences outperform groups of the “best and brightest,” as researchers like University of Michigan’s Scott Page have long shown.

BUT diversity isn’t enough. In fact, diversity can contribute to organizational silence, where people hold back from speaking up and offering their ideas.

Consider the studies by David Maxwell that found 90% of nurses unwilling to speak up to physicians even though they knew a patient might be at risk. Or the 93% of people who said they don’t speak up when they know there’s a risk of an accident of work.

How could they not speak up? Being different is uncomfortable and when we’re uncomfortable we tend to hold back. Especially in cultures that allow abrasive behavior and abusive bosses (and physicians). It’s not safe to dissent, so people don’t.

Diversity also increases conflict, which people abhor. Every time Carmen and I speak and ask people about their greatest challenges when introducing new ideas, conflict tops the list.

“If organizations embrace diversity, they risk workplace conflict,” says Dr. Nigel Bassett-Jones of Oxford-Brookes University. “And if they avoid diversity, they risk loss of competitiveness.”

Add to that the research from Harvard, Berkeley and University of Minnesota that found most corporate diversity programs have “no positive effects in the average workplace” because when employees become scared that they might offend someone, they disengage, which contributes to more organizational silence.

The reality is that our brains are hardwired to want to be with people like ourselves – and naturally fear strangers or the unfamiliar. (Google “xenophobia” and “amygdala.”) That’s why so many of us naturally gravitate to groups, neighborhoods, and work teams with people like ourselves – and avoid the different.

How DO you create Dream Teams?

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So how do you create Dream Teams where different people come together, overcome the tension of their differences, and work in open, direct ways that keep you in the magical “Zone of Possibility?”

That’s what Shane Snow explores in his excellent new book, “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.”  Shane is a great storyteller and weaves together fascinating research and stories from music, business, police forces , sports, and the gaming world to provide ways to embrace cognitive friction.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

Cast your teams: “Routine problems don’t require much (or often, any) cognitive diversity, while novel problems benefit from it greatly. Based on that do a casting session for who you need on the team. When  you take this approach we start to think of our differences as gifts.” (HT to Keith Yamashita.)

Bring in more rebels: Having a naysayer in a group shakes up thinking in valuable ways.  “Dissenting views by a minority of individuals stimulate the kinds of thought processes that lead to better decisions, better problem solving and more originality,” per Dr. Charlan Nement of UC Berkeley. The presence of a minority viewpoint helps groups look at issues “on all sides.” In other words, you need people to provoke group think and kick you out of inertia.

Play more: “Neuroscientists have demonstrated that play and laughter can actually change our brains to be less fearful…Playing can physically help the brain to get braver…and make us less afraid of cognitive friction.”

Don’t value your values too much: Shared values make us more likely to think the same, stop searching for better solutions once we have solutions that work, and add to organizational silence. “Seven out of ten American employees in companies with strong values hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors,” according to research by Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California.

Cultivate intellectual humility “Intellectual humility makes one more correctly judge when it is time to change” and is a predictor for openness to changing important opinions, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to detect the validity of persuasive arguments. In other words, a more open-minded culture needs people with intellectual humility.

Activate oxytocin and empathy with stories: “When our brains release oxytocin for a person who is not in our in-group, the bias we have for them disappears. And one of the key ways we can do that is through sharing good stories.” This is why it’s so helpful for teams to share their personal stories, from hardships growing up to who in their life helped them achieve a dream.

(Conversely, don't get played by stories and language that is intended to light up your amygdalae. "One of the most effective ways to rally people to do unspeakable things to other humans is to use stoies that take away their humanity and make them the enemy.")

Read more novels: “People who read a book or more per month, the data shows, are significantly more likely to have high intellectual humility than those who rarely read.” Stories cultivate empathy.

I highly recommend Shane’s book. And don’t miss the footnotes.

Facilitators and psychics

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I hate telling people that I love facilitating board and leadership team off-sites.

Because most really good sessions lead to uncomfortable situations and conversations. And I have to let people feel that discomfort.

If we move on too quickly and keep things “nicey-nice,” people won’t see the real issues that are causing the discomfort.  More importantly, they won’t feel the issues. Without that emotional disturbance, nothing will change.

Inevitably the executive who hired me gives me a worried look like, “Hey, this meeting is going off the rails. Get it back on track.”

But clients don’t hire me to keep things on track. They hire me to help them figure out obstacles, opportunities, new ways forward.  To find clarity from complexity.

I almost always find that clarity by observing what – or who -- is causing the train to derail. 

In many ways, good facilitators are like psychics.

We see the issues people are avoiding. The assumptions that are blinding them. The big opportunities that they so desire – and yet are so afraid to commit to. We see looming danger. Extraordinary and overlooked talent. Strategic goals that sound brilliant, but people don’t really care about. (Or they’re the wrong people for those goals.)

In other ways, good facilitators are messengers and truth-tellers.

We ask pointed questions to make sure people focus on the real issue at hand.  We tell people what we are observing from their conversations. And, especially uncomfortable for us, we often have to challenge the alphas in the room so that they tune in to what’s really being said.  So that they listen to their colleagues.

So much discomfort, so much clarity

During a recent session the chairman of a non-profit historic preservation group announced out of the blue that he thought the offsite was a big waste of time. Yet what came out of the meeting was a bold, electrifying new vision, grounded in activism, that has transformed a once-stodgy non-profit.

The owners of a $250 million private company wanted to figure out whether they should invest in the company or sell it. “Can our management team take this company to the next level?”  After the offsite meetings with the management team, it was clear to the leaders that they couldn’t. The thrill of building a business was long gone. 

Should we stay private or do an IPO, wondered the founders of a software company. Once we moved beyond the rational discussions about capital and got into how it would feel working with investment banks, institutional investors, and financial media, the founders found their own answer. The privately held, multi-billion enterprise continues to thrive.

Can our Church Council become a creativity and innovation think tank, the Bishop wondered. Can we re-imagine the purpose of the council to do important, new kinds of work?  Apart from the fact that one participant fell asleep during the retreat, the answer was a resounding “No.”   Though they participated respectfully in the day’s exercises and conversations, people simply wanted to come together to hear from the Bishop, share news from different parishes, and take care of Diocesan financial and administrative business. Starting and ending meetings on time was especially important to them. No, these committed churchgoers wouldn’t be the think-tank creativity source.

I’m reluctant to say I love facilitating leadership retreats because it’s such intense, emotionally draining work.  There’s nothing fun about it when people give you the skeptical eye for leading them into difficult conversations or exposing truths that they wish they could avoid.

Or maybe even falling asleep on you.

But I do love facilitating because it helps people see clearly.

Like any good psychic.


(NOTE: some leadership retreats are intended to be relational, others are for learning something new. The ones I’m talking about are for coming together to address a strategic issue or opportunity. When bringing people together, be clear about the purpose.)



 

Nike: How a Covert Group Forced Change

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The breaking news of women at Nike revolting and forcing change is a case history in how good Rebels at Work succeed.

First some backstory.

When women at Nike brought their concerns to managers who they were supposed to be able to trust, they were ignored. When they went through formal HR processes to report harassment and unethical behavior by male colleagues, HR also ignored them. While many executives were aware of the problems, they "looked the other way."

So the toxic work environment continued and women were repeatedly passed over for promotions by less qualified men, publicly demeaned and called things like "a stupid bitch," sexually harassed, and excluded from being part of an inner circle of male decision makers. 

But a couple of months a go a small group of women banded together and revolted. Six top executives have resigned in the last month, the brand's reputation is tarnished, and the CEO is under pressure. 

Using "good rebel" practices to revolt

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While our "good rebel/bad rebel" chart is not definitive, it has helped us spread the word over the past eight years on how to make change in large organizations even if you don't have positional authority. Here's a look on how Nike women put some of these practices to use.

Attract support, do it together:  The first rule of all effective change is to not go it alone. But rather create your own Rebel Alliance, just as the women at Nike did.  There is power in numbers.

Overcome reluctance: Like most Rebels, these Nike women revolted reluctantly. They loved Nike enough to tackle an ugly, pervasive problem and a group of powerful men. But there was fear about retribution from male executives and hurting their reputations. Few of us gleefully want to rebel. Rather, it's a duty.

FOR vs. just against: According to Amanda Schebiel, a former Nike employee, "No one went to just complain. We went to make it better." Rebels don't just complain. They want to create solutions to problems that are effecting the success of their organizations and team mates.

Get evidence: to get attention, Rebels find data and proof to back up their claims. The Nike women covertly surveyed their peers about whether they had been the victim of discrimination or harassment. Once the CEO received that survey data, several top executives "resigned." Numbers count. Demonstrating the magnitude of an issue with data helps make the issue real in ways that are more difficult for executives to discount.

Change the rules vs. break the rules: The Nike Rebels didn't want to break any rules. They wanted to create new rules, oversight and diversity commitments that would allow everyone to flourish at Nike, not just the cabal. They wanted Nike to live up to its mission and values.

Rebels forcing companies to address problems

We recommend reading the excellent investigative reporting on the Nike revolt by New York Times writers Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper and Rachel Abrams.

It's a story all too familiar to many Rebels at Work.

And it is a story that reminds us of the power of people who love their company enough to band together, get the data, persevere and be heard.

“The kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems. ”

— "Women at Nike Revolt, Forcing Change At Last," The New York Times, April 29, 2018

Make dodgeball an Olympic sport (outside of work)

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Many are calling for dodgeball to be made an Olympic sport. In fact, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) granted observer status to this non-traditional sport last fall.

But to become part of the games there needs to be proof that dodgeball is a widespread sport.

Dodgeball organizations need to include proof that the sport is practiced in more than a certain number of countries on multiple continents by both sexes, and they have to be compliant with the regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
— Global Association of International Sports Federations

No problem! These are so easy to prove for dodgeball, unlike say, pole dancing, which has also been granted observer status.

Dodgeball is the unofficial Olympic sport of workplaces around the world, with tens of millions of people playing every day, sometimes all day.

 From my observation, women and men are equally skilled and excel with only mild stimulants like bad coffee, looming budget cuts, or a bad financial quarter.

The bigger, more bureaucratic and hierarchical the organization, the more likely you are to find people who could easily qualify to be part of a gold medal team. They’ve been training on the job for most of their working lives. They are so outstanding at playing at work that I doubt there will be too many problems with doping. Then again, the Russians might have another view considering their bureaucratic mastery.

Dodgeball rules and the 5D’s

For those of you who didn’t grow up playing dodgeball in PE class or on the street as I did in Boston, it’s a simple game: two teams try to throw balls at each other while avoiding being hit themselves. The objective is to eliminate everyone on the opposing team by hitting them with balls or catching a ball thrown by someone on the other team.

The balls are usually foam or rubber, so you don’t get physically hurt. Lots of running around and a simple strategy: don’t get hit and hit as many on the other team as possible.

It’s like a lot of meetings you’ve been in, right? Or when you’re trying to get more budget for your department. Or meet any performance metric that means someone has to lose for someone else to win.  (One CEO of a $70 billion company calls it “competitive collaboration.” Oy.)

Proficiency in dodgeball is all about mastering the 5D’s: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. Again, people at work excel in all five.  Every day you find people at work:

1. Dodging the elephants in the room.

2. Ducking uncomfortable conversations.

3. Dipping under the radar to avoid being asked to change how they work or to replace old systems and processes.

4. Diving for cover when a courageous team mate speaks up to the boss and you would rather seek cover than to be associated with your Rebel friend.

5. Dodging giving – and getting -- honest and helpful feedback.

A dodgeball disadvantage for Rebels at Work?

While Rebels at Work are proficient in dodgeball – how could you not be if you’re employed and work with people -- Carmen and I find Rebels are better at playing offense, throwing the ball to get their change resistant colleagues and bosses out.

Dodging and ducking, not so much.

We call out what no longer works and try not to duck difficult conversations and the general discomfort of change, as difficult as that may be.

While we’re always trying to support and promote Rebels at Work, I’m afraid we and our friends may not make the cut for the dodgeball Olympic qualifying teams.

But I like to fantasize about how much real change we could get done while our stuck-in-the-mud colleagues are off playing at the Olympics.

A straightforward mission

While it may take a while for dodgeball to become an official Olympic sport, the 2018 Dodgeball World Cup competition will be held this year in one of the office and bureaucratic capitals of the world: New York City.

The mission, per The World Dodgeball Association, “We want to achieve something straightforward.”

Don’t we all.

Nothing Gets Approved Without This

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There’s a bad habit pervasive at work: not knowing what’s important to your boss and/or other people involved in approving your projects.

You keep sending project updates, adding more data to your PowerPoint presentations, researching additional industry best practices, writing emails warning that you need approvals now so as not to incur greater costs or fall behind deadlines.

And you hear nothing from your boss or client.

You complain to your team mates and become more and more frustrated. It’s like spitting in the wind.


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I’ve heard this story over and over again in advising project teams and self-identified Rebels at Work.

‘Do you know what’s most important to your boss? Is your project or proposal addressing what’s most important to her,’ I ask.

Silence.

And then a quick, "Wait, what?" and recognition of something so obvious people can't believe they have forgotten to do it.

They don’t know what’s most important to their boss. (As an aside: there’s often a disconnect between stated goals and what’s most important.)

This is why so many good ideas and projects get stalled. Bosses focus on what’s most important and ignore ideas that they don’t see as relevant.

Some suggestions:

1.     Ask your boss (or clients or others with whom you need cooperation) what’s most important to them and why.

2.     Show them how your idea supports what’s important.

3.     When seeking feedback, ask how important on a scale of 1-10 the proposed idea is to them. If it’s six or below, realize you're probably not going to make much progress. It’s not a priority. Put your energy somewhere else.

4.     Ask what would move the idea from a six to an eight or nine.

5.     During a meeting when people start talking why an idea won’t work stop the negativity quickly by asking, “How important on a scale of 1-10 is this idea to us?”  If it’s not important, move on to a different topic. If it IS important, reframe the conversation to “this idea will work IF we…” vs. “this won’t work because…”

Lastly, remember that bosses love learning what the organization can STOP doing. When you have a clear understanding of what’s important, earn credibility and trust by recommending what to stop.

It’s disappointing to learn that a great idea or new approach isn’t important. But the sooner you know, the sooner you can focus on what does matter.

ps – For all you bosses out there, be proactive and explain what is most important on a regular basis. You have no idea how much work and wasted energy goes on by bright people on your team.

Grief and Growth at Work

 Appalachian trail: photo by ian matta

Appalachian trail: photo by ian matta

All change involves loss and some degree of grief, but we rarely help people – or ourselves -- process loss at work. Never mind learn ways to recover and become stronger. 

Losing a job. Losing work mates from downsizing. Losing the respect of executives because we challenged their beliefs -- beliefs that we know will soon cause problems. Losing the confidence in our employer because they sacrificed beloved organizational values to gain another two percent growth.

We deny our sadness and say things like, “It’s just a job, not brain cancer.”

We suffer. Beat ourselves up.  Become bitter. Curse our bosses and the rigid, hierarchical bureaucracies posing as progressive organizations. We get riled up and think, “Somebody should sue the bastards, for God’s sake.” 

Or we choose to find meaning and learn from what happened, which not only eases suffering, but can potentially transform our careers.

Post traumatic growth

Admiral Jim Stockdale was repeatedly tortured for eight years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He didn't have much reason to believe he’d ever make it home. He said he survived by framing the experience as something that would define the rest of his life. 

Rather than denying reality or taking on a victim mindset, Admiral Stockdale lived each day in prison trying to help the morale of his fellow prisoners. The overly-optimistic POWs without this mindset, however, didn’t fare so well.

Stockdale came out of the war experiencing post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological change resulting from adversity. (As opposed to the more commonly written about syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

People who experience post-traumatic growth find a new appreciation for life, new perspectives on work paths, and a renewed sense of meaning.

In fact, some psychological research shows that finding benefits from a trauma can lead to personal transformation, according to University of California/Riverside professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness.

“Focusing on the lessons you can learn from the ordeal will help soften its blow,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky. “The lessons those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity or self-control. Research shows that with post-traumatic growth you not only can you survive and recover, you can flourish.”

Social support, meaning and self-compassion

Three proven practices to experience post traumatic growth are social support, finding meaning, and self-compassion.

Carmen and I have always said that having a trusted tribe of friends is essential for all who identify as Rebels at Work. While your Rebel Alliance can help make your ideas better and move them through the bureaucracy, these friends can also help you recover from setbacks.

“Social support is pretty incredible, a strategy of almost magical proportions,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky.  “Talking to others about a traumatic experience not only helps you cope and see the event with a new perspective.”

A second strategy for coping is to find meaning and new perspectives by writing about the experience. 

Expressive writing forces us to organize our jumble of thoughts and feelings and construct a new narrative.  Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who has been studying the benefits of writing for 30 years, found that it is a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had imagined.

Writing for just 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can produce lasting results in health, happiness and outlook. His recommended approach and writing prompts can be found here.

The trick, he says, is to not keep writing about the negative incident in the same way.

“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way,” Dr. Pennebaker advises in The Secret Life of Pronouns.  “How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist? “

The third strategy is self-compassion, accepting that you’re human, acknowledging failures and frustrations and not dwelling on mistakes.

“Rather than relentlessly condemning ourselves when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

 “We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat ourselves kindly," she says. Maybe we weren't able to put our best foot forward, but we tried, and falling flat on one’s face is an inevitable part of life. An honorable part, in fact.”

If we’re really pushing the envelope to do great work, we will fall.

Friends, self-compassion and finding meaning from what happened can help us rise up and push even further.

The Last White Trabi: My Fearless Failure

 Before the fear paralyzed me.

Before the fear paralyzed me.

Oh, the shortsightedness of leaders who espouse fearlessness. Especially when you find yourself in a fearlessness team building exercise and you keep stalling out on a major Berlin street at rush hour because you can’t get the clutch of your 40-year-old, East German Trabi car into second gear. 

Horns blare, BMWs cut you off, bicyclists appear out of nowhere. Fraulein, what are you doing? Get off the road.

I freeze in fear. How was it that I was driving this crapbox of a car for the past 10 minutes and now I am paralyzed, unable to move from 1st to second to third to oops, stop for a red light, don’t hit the bicyclists, and back to first and oh shit we’re stalled again. And, oh the crappy brakes. Will someone plow into us? Mein Gott, I’ve got two people in the car who are parents of young children.

A half an hour earlier 100 people from the company offsite were in a parking lot, dividing up into small teams of three, with one of the three volunteering to drive an old Trabi. To where we did not know. Oh, the fun of team building excursions.

Fearlessly volunteering for a team building exercise

Remembering how much I loved driving my first car, a red Fiat 128 with an amazing sound system and quirky stick shift, I volunteered to be the driver. How hard could it be?

Angela, Todd and I get in the car, me in driver’s seat. The jovial Trabi tour guide shows me how to work the shift. “See, one, two, up and in for three, then like this for reverse.” Not on the floor like my beloved Fiat, but on a 3-on-the-tree column shift. He points to a faded, peeling diagram on the dashboard that supposedly shows how to shift the gears. It is useless.

But I am fearless.  I know how to drive a manual transmission car. I know how to drive in a crazy city. I learned how to drive in Boston.

So what if it is dusk. And rush hour in a big, foreign city. And that I need to drive in this rush hour and listen to navigational instructions on an ancient car radio full of static. And that we are the last car in a long line of Trabi cars and the exhaust from the cars is engulfing us in noxious fumes we EPA babies have never experienced.  Let the fearless adventure begin!

Off we go. I’ve got this.

And then I don’t.

Stopping for red lights, bikes passing in front of the car, being in the wrong lane. The voice on our radio commanding, “Take the next right. Stay in the middle lane.”  Every traffic light, shifting, braking, engaging back into first gear, then second, then stalling in traffic. One, twice, three times. Now panicking. Throughout it all my team mates are supportive, reassuring, masking their worry, offering to drive.

The white Trabi is lost

The man in the radio comes back on, “We have lost the white Trabi. Everyone, pull over at the next intersection and we will hope that the white Trabi will catch up.”

My prefrontal cortex has shut down in fear and I can’t even get the crapbox Communist car into first.  Someone else has to drive. I pull over and Angela jumps into the back seat. I climb into the passenger seat and Todd climbs over from the backseat to the driver’s seat. It would be hilarious to see this human jungle gym if we weren’t all so rattled.

The gears grind but Todd gets our white Trabi moving, catching up with our crapbox caravan.  We’re supposed to be seeing the beautiful historic sites of Berlin as we drive around.  But our team can only focus on the Trabi.

After missing a turn, we lose the caravan. Todd bravely makes a U-turn to try to find the other Trabis being driven by our teammates, those lucky ones who seem to be easily driving, following instructions and enjoying the tour.  How are they learning about fear? Our car’s gears groan and we stop on a side street. The Trabi tour leader finds us and pulls up in his electric car.

“Ach, zee two cylinder is only catching one cylinder,” he tells us. “Do you want to take my electric car and I drive the Trabi?”  Not wanting to fail the fearless exercise, we decline. The nice Trabi tour guide reaches into our car, yanks on the clutch, and then somehow the driving is a little easier.

The voice from the radio tells the others to pull over and wait. The last white Trabi is coming.

Fifteen minutes later, like an oasis in the desert, we see a beautifully lighted restaurant and a long line of Trabis in a parking lot. It’s over. As we climb out of the car waiters serve us very good rose champagne. I drink two glasses, probably too fast.

I want my fear

At the end of the evening I tell the executive what I think about his “Be Fearless” mantra for developing a more risk-taking organizational culture. To his credit, he listens intently and with an open mind.

Telling people to “be fearless” and “fail fast” is superficial and lacks empathy.

Fear is one of the basic human emotions.  We shouldn’t deny its existence or value -- in ourselves and in others. Fear provides important data. Our desire should not be about having less fear but understanding what we can learn from our fears. 

Sometimes fear signals what we desire, motivating us to figure out what we need to do to get there.  Fear has preceded every major accomplishment in my life – saying yes to stepping off a corporate career track, saying yes to starting companies, saying yes to marriage, saying yes to becoming a mother at 40, saying yes this past summer to doing an improvisational monologue in front of an audience. Fear propelled me forward. 

Other times fear is our personal sonar system alerting us to danger, indicating what we need to learn, warning us from toxic situations, or giving us the energy to say no to commitments that sap our energy. Or that ask us to be someone we are not.

Fear gives us courage. It helps us to be fully alive and awake to the world in a way that confidence and bravery do not.

So yes, I hated that team building exercise because it made me fear FULL.

And I loved the exercise because it reminded me to ask for help, let my vulnerabilities show, and know that team mates are there to help. They want to help. 

We’re all in this together, especially when we see a Berlin city bus barreling down the street at us when we’re stuck in a stalled Trabi.

On BIF2017 and giving a shit

There's enough to go around BIF2017.jpg

My big takeaway from the #bif2017 annual innovation conference is this:

Look at what you really give a shit about and then go do something about it.

This is the best way to feel fully alive and leave the world a better place. Nothing changes when we sit on the sidelines. Or worse, it does change, but not how we want.

  • More people starve from poverty. (@eastvanbrand)
  • Crazy, narcissistic, self-serving billionaires get into office. (@alanwebber)
  • Teachers check out. (@100kin10)
  • People with cardiac issues don’t check back in with their doctors. (@MGHHeartHealth)
  • Systems of inequities and injustices oppress and kill people, bodily and/or in spirit. (@taliqtillman, @carrolldesign, @tenygross)

Complacency and apathy create danger. 

Accept the offer, know you are enough

Oh, but when we “accept the offer” of what life dishes out (@jazzcode),

recognize that we can’t go back to what was (@CajunAngela),

free the talented blue lobster people (@dscofield),

realize we are enough (@taliqtillman),

we can move mountains.

Especially when we get clear on what we fiercely care about.

The "give a shit" litmus test

When it comes to getting clear, the “give a shit” litmus test is a much better decision filter to me than the soft, passive words like purpose, passion, personal brand (gag). 

Language is powerful. It can oppress, judge, bore, shake us awake and kick our ass.

A Fortune 50 client today asked me to help her articulate a clearer purpose for her organization. Emboldened by BIF2017, I asked what she and her colleagues really “give a shit about” beyond the polished brand narrative. Now we were talking, for fu*k’s sake.

As an aside, if you’re someone who is offended by swearwords or think it’s lazy to use them, I urge you to read “Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr.

People swear about what they care about. As Carmen Medina (@milouness) said, some people deserve to be called assholes. And sometimes those assholes can open doors for you if you're looking forward.

Mohr tells us that “swearwords are the most powerful words we have with which to express extreme emotion, whether negative or positive…we need irreproachably formal and unassailably decent speech, but we also need the dirty, the vulgar, the wonderful obscenities and oaths that can do for us what no other words can.

I give a shit about helping people be heard.

Helping people to challenge the status quo and advocate for positive change in their organizations?  Well sure, that’s part of it, but that doesn’t mobilize anyone, including me.

In today’s world we have to stop the yak, yak, yakking and do something. No more waiting around for the proverbial “them” to save us.

Live your name as it's in the stars

In his story about courageous conversations Courtlandt Butts (@CC_AboutRace) talked about how he was ridiculed about his name in school. When he looked up the meaning of his name he learned that it is “messenger from the island.”

“You will live up to your name as it’s in the stars,” he said.

Today I looked up mine and found it means “Better Warrior.”  No wonder I so love the Rebels at Work tribe.

Following Angela Blanchard’s wise counsel I will continue to help people do the right thing, not the rule thing.

And I will honor grief and gratitude, forgiving the past so that we may all go dancing today.

Who knows, maybe Philip Sheppard (@PhilipSheppard) will be playing his cello.

 

 Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

 

 

 

Honoring the Elephant Matriarch

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Miss Smarty Pants here thought she was pretty clear about what courage means to her. In fact, for the first day and a half of Courage Camp I was like one of those straight-A girls in school who zips through the reading exercise faster than any one else.

Maybe I default to reflections and responses that I’ve used before because I lead and have participated in many convenings like this.

Or perhaps I was so enthralled in listening to others’ stories that I didn’t have the energy to dig any deeper into my own obstacles and aspirations.

Or maybe I have written so much about creating change and showing up naked-hearted that I thought I had figured things out.

Oh, girlfriend, you are so wrong.

About halfway through of Day Two something blurted out of my mouth that shook me awake. An idea that I’ve kept in the back of my mind for four years because it seems so risky and hard to do.

In the exercise four people got together as if it were 2018 and we were all back at Courage Camp sharing something that had happened in the past year.

“You wouldn’t believe what I did last year since Courage Camp 2017. I actually, finally did ___________, and it felt ______________ because ______________.”

This playful approach allowed really scary yearnings to jump out of who knows where. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone in my group was bragging and laughing and reveling in what they had done.  Even though, of course, it was all make believe.  We imagined what we’d love to do.

My hunch is most of us will attempt to make those things happen.

And so I surrendered to playfulness, and told the controlling me to step aside, sweetheart.

You are way too old in your thinking.

By old I mean you think you’ve figured things out so you stop really thinking and experiencing and imagining.  Even though I like to think my ideas are creative, they’re not if I’ve thought and used them before.  They might be interesting but they’re not fresh and new.

Had I started coasting on good ideas in my life?  Was I subconsciously cutting myself off from the playful, new ones?   Well, that was a big enough epiphany to make the entire Courage Camp experience worthwhile.

But there was a second one about being old that rattled me awake, too.

Being called a elephant matriarch.

Sometimes I catch myself being ageist – against myself.  I noticed at one point that I was probably oldest person at camp. It was fleeting, but still I had pangs to be 20 years younger and so that all the wisdom I was gleaning could be used for years and years. Instead of just for years.

In passing while we were drinking wine and dancing on Wednesday night someone said I was like an “elephant matriarch.”  When we wrote our appreciation notes at the end of camp, the same person again thanked me for being a matriarch elephant.

Really? Can’t I be a playful gazelle? A graceful egret? A resilient willow tree?   Anything other than an old elephant.

When I got home from Camp I researched elephant matriarchs. They are wise, unselfish, nurturing. The males take off, but the matriarch teaches, models how to respond to threats, balances the needs of the group, avoids unnecessary travel, and remembers where good resources can be found.

So the other epiphany was accepting – no, honoring – how other people see us vs. how think we want to see ourselves.

Learning with and from a community of openhearted, wise people is more expansive than anything we can learn on our own.

Slowing down to listen to others and to ourselves reveals surprises.

Cuts off our usual self-narratives.

Wakes up an inner voice that wants to sing.

Invites us to believe in our manhood, finally.

Tells the shitty roommate in our heads that dorm life isn't for you anymore.

Yodels to the adventurous spirit that is lost in bureaucracy.

Commits to Plan A and tosses the Plan B safety net into the Atlantic.

Confirms the wisdom of wearing a corporate mask as you simultaneously transform the corporation.

Convinces us to cut our hair and let it blow wild and free.

Assures us that our deep hurts are what make us deep healers.

Urges us to go find that beautiful, wild alter ego abandoned long ago.

Reminds us of what saves us, be it God, tango, Zumba, or leaving a bad relationship.

 

And so I will playfully attempt my creative risk --  and honor myself as an elephant matriarch.

Knowing that none of us have it all figured it out.

But together we can surprise ourselves.

 


For two other insightful perspectives on Courage Camp 2017:

"What Happened at Courage Camp" by Celine Schillinger

"So You Think You Are Courageous" by Simona Ralph

 

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