Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
          For I have known them all already—known them all—
          Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
          I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

 
Here comes another predictable year—the same people, the same problems, the same patterns played out over the months. Before you know it, it will be the end of December already.
 
Except for this: someone—maybe you—steps in and intentionally and thoughtfully disturbs the status quo. You do not do this for your entertainment or because of some perverse schadenfreude, but because there is a small and insistent voice in your head that says we can do better, we must be better.
 
          And should I then presume?
          And how should I begin?
 
Look about you. Do you see chaos, efforts in all directions? Call people to a clearly defined end and provide a means to get there. Is a tidy rule-following culture suffocating everyone around you? Add a touch of chaos by breaching a useless, discriminatory practice. Interrupt the prevailing West Michigan Nice with a question that makes you and others uncomfortable. Bring forth that radical idea you’ve been pondering and expose it to public dialogue. Wonder out loud about orthodoxies to which you no longer pander.
 
          I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
          I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
          And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,
          And in short, I was afraid.
 
Of course you’re afraid. We all are. You’re unprepared for the consequences, too. And you’re probably not the smartest cookie in the jar. Speak firmly to the monkeys in your head and do it anyway.
 
It is time to disturb the universe.

 
Title and quotes from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
RUTH / CHANGE / Jan 5, 2012, 12:14am / Comments (4995)
What Color Was Your Year?
You know how on a rare morning or evening the light takes on a certain quality that gives everything greater depth and intensity? How you look in awe at the way this light has transformed the natural world of grass, trees, and sky and even everyday objects? How you imagine capturing those saturated greens and blues and reds and browns in clear bottles and storing them in a neat row on a white painted shelf so you can feast your eyes on them during a string of bleak winter days?
 
Those were the colors of my year.
 
Since January, 2011, my world has been populated with people of deep grey, stubbornly clinging to the past, people greening up with new tools and whole new paradigms, and people fiery red with passion. I was enchanted by the variety, the spicy mix.
 
During this past year, I’ve held ideas up to the light at different angles and watched themes emerge as if by magic. I’ve tinkered with the subtle shades of leadership. I’ve played with the colors of visual meetings. I’ve mixed hues from the worlds of business and nonprofit.
 
Indeed, my imperfections have been cheerfully exposed. I’ve taken old failures off the shelf, dusted them off, and gave them a new sheen. I’ve practiced new skills awkwardly in public. I’ve created products and shipped when they were still flawed.
 
A new role, a new heaven and a new earth: I’m seeing it all fresh again.
 
What color was your year?
RUTH / Jan 3, 2012, 6:38pm / Comments (881)
Leading from the Balcony
Most of us find ourselves dancing to a technical beat: incoming and outgoing text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn updates. The beat is relentless, indifferent to people at our door, events and trainings to attend, or reports to write. We sit in meetings with an eye to the smart phone and one ear to the conversation. On the one hand, we long for a rest—an interval of silence. On the other, we’re as addicted to the accelerando of technology as we are to our morning caffeine.
 
But it’s hard to lead from the dance floor. A number of thinkers and writers, among them renowned negotiator William Ury, talk about the importance of going to the balcony. From the balcony, we can see the big picture, the patterns, and the players. From the balcony, we can ask:
  • Is this boogie or ballet? (What are we doing? What is our culture?)
  • Are we dancing to same music? (Are we aligned?)
  • Who are these dancers? (Who are my stakeholders? What’s important to them?)
  • Could we design a new dance? (What opportunities do we have?)
  • Is this the dance for me? (Is this work consistent with my values, needs, and interests?)
 
In six weekly small group sessions, participants in THINC’s Leading for a Change are learning ways to go to the balcony. They are exploring a current challenge and designing a thoughtful plan that takes into consideration their leadership, assumptions, organizational culture, and stakeholders. They are discovering and practicing new tools. They leave each session with a broader perspective and renewed energy. They are becoming leaders who engage their employees, not just manage them.
 
Could you benefit from a balcony experience as the next step in your leadership development? Call us!
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Oct 12, 2011, 4:56pm / Comments (5)
Winnowing the Harvest
It's the sweetest little graveyard on earth, a quiet spot off a side road surrounded by trees, casually maintained, with mowed crabgrass as a tough groundcover alternative to the pampered lawns of city cemeteries.
 
I come today to Overisel Cemetery to bury my father and will come again someday to be buried here myself. The modestly-sized gravestones bear familiar names—Immink, Folkert, Koopman, Wolters—my Sunday school and catechism teachers, uncles and aunts, neighbors who applied discipline liberally and fed me sugar cookies warm from the oven, who offered their barns, fields, and creeks for exploring, and who, with their calloused and tender hands, shaped me and sent me into the world.
 
As I stroll past these stones, I wonder, who are we, really? To what extent does our genetic makeup define us? How do grace and opportunity determine our path? How much do our family and community of birth influence who we become? Is it possible to pull up our roots and move on? How far can we go without losing some core part of what grounds us?
 
Overisel's soil is rich for farming—for the oats, wheat, and corn my father sowed, tilled, and harvested. This rural village is also a fertile place for cultivating a powerful work ethic, fervent and often unquestioned faith, and a commitment to careful stewardship of one’s gifts and resources. It’s a stronghold of conservative politics. Generosity and caring for one’s neighbor and community are central values. It’s a place that invests in education, seeding doctors, teachers, scientists, musicians, missionaries, and ministers and transplanting them in distant soil.
 
Sifting through and winnowing this cultural harvest is an ongoing and dynamic process in my adult life. I tenderly honor and celebrate treasured traditions, beliefs, and values while discarding others as useless and irrelevant chaff. Time and again, I spin new threads of knowledge and understanding that, woven with the old, create an ever-stronger fabric, rich in texture, color, and design.
 
Certain questions haunt us when we lose someone we love: What from our past is essential to keep and savor? What do we cast off? What do we create anew?
 
These are questions to ponder in our lives, in our work, and in our leadership. These are questions that matter.
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Aug 15, 2011, 7:57pm / Comments (441)
Dumbledore's Source of Magic
“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic,” says Dumbledore from the grave in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, released at midnight last night.
 
Dumbledore joins the tradition of great leaders whose words resonate beyond death to influence our thinking and behavior. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said JFK. “I have a dream that one day my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Martin Luther King preached. Gandhi told us, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” These words are part of us, written first on our doorposts and then on our hearts.
 
Effective leaders craft words that work magic. Their words point to a preferred future, create a desired culture, or build a brand so palpable that people live it every day, in every action. These chosen few words carry deep meaning internally, and they have power to align and focus people on what to do next, how to do it, and why. These are the words leaders repeat often, highlight in stories and well-designed feedback, and even use to decide who will stay and who must go.
 
Leaders I spoke with this week were searching for language that would cast the right spell on their organizations—compelling, powerful words imbued with deep values and rich connotations. In these conversations, I heard phrases like “unpretentious leadership,” “covenantal partnerships,” and “transformational engagement.” These leaders, committed to the not-urgent-but-essential task of finding the right words, are using an iterative process that includes both private reflection and the perspectives of others.
 
Have you employed Dumbledore’s powerful and inexhaustible leadership tool? What words are shaping your organization?  
 
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Jul 15, 2011, 5:48pm / Comments (1)
Does My Omniscience Bother You?
Amazingly, our culture is full of omniscient people.
 
Or so it seems from people whose behaviors I observed over the past week:
  • All-knowing people who freely shared their truth—the truth, which they had in abundance—informing lesser beings about what they should think and do.
  • People with no questions, only answers.
  • Those who, instead of listening, reloaded, preparing to fire off their next rejoinder.
  • People who filtered incoming data for that which confirmed their worldview.
Tune in to popular talk shows, listen to our colleagues at work, and reflect on our own conversations for more of the same. At one time or another, we all have engaged in these kinds of unconscious behaviors to show that we are smart, capable, and right—maybe even god-like.
 
And frankly, it's annoying (not to mention bad for business, which is a topic for another blog).
 
Inquiry is an important antidote for omniscience. Inquiry is not asking questions that can be answered with yes or no—questions that begin with phrases like “Don’t you agree that…?” or “Have you considered…?” Neither is it asking questions to which we believe we already possess the answer.
 
Inquiry is asking open-ended questions and then listening—truly listening—for the other’s perspective. Inquiry requires listening with curiosity and readiness to hear ideas that may challenge our worldview.
 
“What is your understanding of the situation and how we might address it?”
“What leads you to think that? What experience or data can you share?”
“What is your thinking about what we should do next?”
“What is important to you, going forward?”
 
Let's stop sitting in for God. Inquire of someone today, and then shut up and listen.
RUTH / INQUIRY / DIALOGUE / TOOLS / Jun 27, 2011, 7:21pm / Comments (16)
Construct Culture for Results
What makes it so difficult for paying customers to get a response? At our house, we have been waiting two weeks for a quote on sealing our exterior brickwork. It’s been three months since we asked our builder for a kitchen update plan. A friend seeking a repair to his boat can't get a return phone call from the marina.
 
What makes these behaviors acceptable?
 
Every workplace has cultural issues that diminish the company’s results, such as poor customer service, wasted time at meetings, delinquent reports, workplace drama, finger pointing, and lack of personal accountability.
 
Employees have two versions of culture: “company handbook” culture and “here’s how things really work around here” culture. Bob, the brick repair guy, may have been instructed to submit bids to the customer within two working days. However, company practice is to give the biggest clients preference, so he figures this little job on Lawrence Avenue doesn’t matter much. Also, the boss regularly rants about annoying and ignorant clientele, devaluing the importance of the customer in Bob’s mind. Finally, his peers talk incessantly about how far behind they are in their work, legitimizing poor customer service.
 
What might convince Bob to change his behavior?
 
Culture has a layered construction: at the base, employees have experiences at work—what they see and hear. From these experiences, they select certain data, often based on past experiences. Next, they build assumptions and draw conclusions about "how things work around here." Finally, they act on their conclusions in ways that either enhance or diminish the company’s ability to achieve its objectives.
 
It’s a leader’s role to define the culture that will get results and then develop employees’ beliefs about what’s important through language, stories, behaviors, and practices. This process requires careful thought and reflection, considerable input from others, a clear plan, and the discipline to implement the plan consistently over time.
 
Once Bob internalizes the belief that customer service is important, I’m sure I’ll receive his bid. Meanwhile, I’m calling the next guy on the list.
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Jun 13, 2011, 12:26am / Comments (316)
Lentils, Language, and Leadership
This is the time of year college-aged offspring grace their parents with their presence, now that the spring semester has ended and they are low on cash. I recall a conversation between my boys when they were of this age, as they discussed the relative merits of living home for the summer. The obvious factors were access to a car, a free place to sleep and eat, and handy laundry facilities just in case they were inspired to use them. “Plus,” they joked, “there’s Mom’s lentil soup.”
 
I make lentil soup for reasons understandable to most people my age. First, the price is right: legumes are cheaper than meat as a protein source. Also, lentils cook in 20 minutes, lower LDL cholesterol, and the added spinach and tomatoes keep blood pressure in check. Not to mention the fiber content.
 
You can imagine that this didn’t translate to my young men. “LDL?” they scoffed. “You mean LOL. And what’s a legume? Sounds like a place you swim in the moonlight.” We lived in the same house and shared the same genetic information, but we didn’t speak the same language.
 
How might we cross such divides in our conversations when our words carry different meanings?
 
We can begin by checking on what important words mean. Roger Schwarz, in The Skilled Facilitator, considers this an important ground rule for effective groups. For example, I might ask my colleague from a partner organization, “When you use the word ‘partnership,’ I take it to mean that we design our work together and have equal say in decisions that affect both of us. Is that what you were thinking or did you mean something different?”
 
Next, we can simply adopt the language of others, appreciating their words and meaning rather than trying to change them. When working with clients around strategic planning, once I learn their meaning of “goal” or “strategy” or “tactic,” I can assume their language instead of imposing my definitions on them.
 
Finally, leaders have a special role in shared language. In his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte says, “The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real. The conversations of captaincy and leadership are the conversations that forge real relationships between the inside of a human being and their outer world, or between an organization and the world it serves.” A leader’s job, in other words, is to employ conversations that explore meaning and connections between the leader’s vision and how others see the world. This requires inquiry and listening, not just talking, and it is essential to energizing commitment to good work.
 
These kinds of conversations will strengthen the bonds with my boys too, though it’s unlikely they’ll appreciate my lentil soup strategy for many years.
RUTH / DIALOGUE / May 27, 2011, 11:27pm / Comments (825)
An Easy 80 IQ Points
Back in high school, I aspired to be a sensitive and reclusive artist-type, but I just didn’t have the talent or temperament. Yet, I’m a visual learner and thinker—I see relationships spatially, love charts, and can play for hours with Adobe Ideas on my iPad.  
 
Recently, I discovered that I could engage clients in a fresh, visual way by graphically drawing meeting agendas and themes—even with virtually no innate artistic ability. It’s amazing how a few rough sketches can bring our imaginations to life.
 
I owe this inspiration to a couple books from which I shamelessly copy images. Visual Meetings, by David Sibbet, and Beyond Words, by Milly Sonneman, are full of hand-drawn graphics and a “come on, just try it” approach, starting with little building blocks like basic shapes and star people and then gradually walking the fledgling-artist-reader through shading and movement and metaphor. The tools are simple—lots of colored markers and big sheets of butcher paper or even just a white board in a conference room.
 
Is visualization worth 80 IQ points, as stated in Visual Meetings? OK, maybe not 80, but surely, for the 60% of people who prefer to learn visually, images and colors help us see differently, think creatively, and remember more.
 
Try a sketch for your next meeting. Then snap a picture of your results and share it so we can learn from each other. Let’s see if we can raise our collective IQ by moving from stuffy linear black-and-white declarative thinking to seeing how our ideas connect with a simple, accessible palette of colors, pictures, and designs.
 
RUTH /TOOLS / May 13, 2011, 4:54pm / Comments (1855)
Bumper Sticker Blunder
“Love Wins,” declares a bumper sticker often glimpsed in West Michigan. I like this message and celebrate its ubiquity. Maybe love is gaining a foothold.
 
Or maybe not. Recently, my son passed a car with this sticker prominently displayed. As he glanced back, the driver of the Love Wins car flipped him off.
 
As organizations and individuals, we are all guilty of this—proclaiming one thing and doing another.
 
Here’s a gentle reminder: consistency wins, too. Let’s flaunt our bumper stickers—our guiding principles, core beliefs, values, brand identity, or whatever—and live up to them.
RUTH / Apr 29, 2011, 1:07pm / Comments (1)
THINC Fast, but not Too Fast
One of the urban legends from a well-known Zeeland furniture company is that for a time, employees had to scan their IDs when entering a meeting room. The scanner logged each meeting participant’s salary, and a screen in the room displayed the meeting’s total cost in wages as the minutes ticked by.
 
I love this not-so-subtle reminder that time is money. Would a price tag help us think fast together, make good decisions, and move on?
 
I’m big on efficient meetings. Most companies waste a good portion of salaries in meetings that go in all directions. Every meeting has participants who painfully walk everyone through a complete history before making a point, jump from topic to topic, trot out useless exceptions, and cover old ground just to hear themselves talk.
 
Yet, we want to be sure to get the essential contributions, explore thoroughly, think creatively, and make decisions that will engage the energy of the participants.
 
So how do we go fast, but not too fast? At THINC, we encourage an approach to decision-making that is comprehensive, penetrates the issues, and, most importantly, keeps people focused on one part of the process at a time.
 
This focus requires discipline from everyone, particularly the facilitator.  First, identify the goal of the meeting. Then examine the current reality related to this goal. Next, brainstorm options without analyzing or evaluating. Finally, examine the options to find those that generate interest and are feasible to complete. Specify next steps with a measurable, achievable, time-oriented goal that identifies who is responsible for what. Overall, proceed sequentially and engage as deeply as needed before moving to the next step.
 
Even without a salary meter running, a good process faithfully followed can help us think fast, save money, and produce better results.
 
RUTH / EFFICIENCY / Apr 15, 2011, 4:35pm / Comments (3)
Profiles in Community Courage
I spent the last three days observing community and business leaders in action – a few of whom personified profiles in courage. These individuals took a stand on a critical community issue and articulated a bold, inspiring, game-changing vision.

I wondered why so many leaders lack this quality.

Some seem so encumbered by “what is” or “what’s impossible” that they struggle with “what could be.” Perhaps some leaders simply do not take the time to ponder the big questions about the future. Some may be convinced they are not gifted with visionary thinking. Others appear to be waiting for someone else to set the direction. Supposedly, the nineteenth century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin said, on seeing a crowd marching through Paris, “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”

How does one discern and shape a compelling preferred future?

Let’s try it. First, intentionally carve out some quiet space and time for this essential, but not urgent, task. Next, identify a couple of big questions about your business or life that are keeping you up at night. Now, put yourself 10 years into the future and imagine, with no limits, what could be. Think about what kind of future could address these big questions by maximizing the unique value and passion you or your company can offer. Visualize the specifics of day-to-day life, the people involved, and how you are engaging with them. Write this up in present tense, as if it is happening now.

Of course you’ll want to develop alternatives to this first draft thinking. You’ll want to be mindful of trends. You’ll want to test your thinking with wise people. You’ll want to refine your ideas.

But for now, practice this activity. Get nimble at thinking forward, seeing possibilities, and setting your sights on something good and grand.

Begin building your personal courage profile today. Soon, you will be called upon to help solve our biggest community challenges, and you’ll be ready to step up.
RUTH / MUST-READ / Apr 4, 2011, 5:57pm / Comments (1)
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