Dream the Impossible.


iStock_000004817114verysmallI spent this weekend fostering dreams. No, I wasn’t working in a sleep-deprivation lab… I was facilitating an intent workshop for a client. They are a small nonprofit, founded to memorialize and honor the victim of a hate crime. In their early years, they focused on creating a physical memorial (a bench with a plaque) in his name, and provided victim services. They testified on behalf of hate crime legislation. Everything was done by volunteers. Most of them moved on. The organization languished.

However, one person kept the spark alive. He knew the work wasn’t done. He wasn’t ready to let the memory fade, or the underlying causes of the attack be left unchallenged. He still feels the pain of loss, the shock of a friend dead because of who he was.

He struck on an idea: produce children’s videos that address issues of difference and acceptance. He found a college teacher who was willing to make this a class assignment. An educator offered insights into key elements of the content. Students storyboarded, presented, and produced two videos.

Now, where do they go from here?

The typical response would be to “grow bigger.” Establish a funding stream. Find money to hire a staff. Produce more videos. Market them. In fact, this was the approach a graduate student in nonprofit management recommended as he helped them to produce a strategic plan. The plan is sound. It highlights many of the challenges that the organization faces, and provides practical guidance for addressing them. In fact, we will be drawing from the plan as we move forward with the process that started this weekend. But, we are not moving forward by figuring out how they “grow bigger” and produce more videos. Instead, we started off by dreaming. We took to heart the counsel provided by George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” We became unreasonable.

It is 2020. We are fostering social change in thinking and action, moving beyond tolerance to embrace diversity, empathy, acceptance, and non-judgement. What are we delivering to children, to their parents, to teachers, to learning systems (schools, youth groups, etc.), to our funders, and to the organization itself? What do we need to put in place to produce the outcomes that we are seeking to achieve?

We spent two solid days in the world of the future.

(Sometimes, when I am working with individual clients, I will ask them to not only visualize the future, but to describe what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, tastes like, feels like. It’s the difference between saying, “I plan to move to the beach in three years,” and saying, “Here I am…my first morning waking up in my beach house. The sound of the surf guided me to sleep last night; as I wake up, I can smell the ocean on the breeze that is blowing across my bed…”)

We clarified the organizational intent. We defined, at a high level, how they will deliver on that intent. We developed principles for decision-making and design as they move forward. We validated our work.

We have a lot of work ahead of us before they “begin building the organization.” We need to figure out all of the pieces that need to be put in place to actually deliver on the intent we have shaped. We need to determine which ones they can hope to achieve, and what it means if they don’t achieve the others. We need a roadmap forward. We need the story of how they get from here to there, and what life will be like when they do.

But what we have put in place is the foundation for a “there” that is much different than a video library. It is a future that focuses on results, not actions or products. It is a future that builds strength through diversity. It is a future in which the organization is an exemplar of its own message, and is a leader in helping us as a society move toward oneness: not a oneness of homogeneity, but one of an integrated and diverse community.

How far will they get in four years? That remains to be seen. What I do know is that it is infinitely further than if they hadn’t dreamed of living in that 2020 world, if they sat down and began by planning to move forward from 2016 rather than dreaming the impossible, if they hadn’t had the courage to be unreasonable.

Your comments are welcome below.



Listen to Henry Ford…


untitledToday’s post is more personal than most. It is a story about my son, Brandon, and holds an important lesson for each of us.

As you may recall from an audio post I made to my blog last year, Resilience Is Critical When Facing Challenge, Brandon is adopted. I first met Brandon when he was 15 years old. He reached out to request an interview for a photography project he was doing in school. He had to write the biography of his favorite photographer and, he told me, “I Googled gay photographers, and you’re my favorite.”

During the course of the interview Brandon learned a bit about me, and I learned a bit about him. Most importantly, I learned that he was living in an abusive home environment, and attending a school where he was getting assaulted on a regular basis. Moreover, he didn’t have an adult figure in his life that he could turn to for guidance, and whom he could trust. I offered him the opportunity to stay in touch, and he accepted.

As time went on, I learned that at home Brandon was told that because he is gay, he would never amount to anything, that he would end up living on the streets. School was not much better. Students would stand outside in the morning, praying for him. A teacher once asked whether he was ever going to “get better.” And he was told he would end up as a hairdresser or florist.

When I first began talking with Brandon about his future, he was already committed to moving beyond the “guidance” he was receiving from others; he had identified a one-year photography trade school that he hoped to attend. As a sometime photographer who knows how difficult it is to make a living that way, I encouraged him to think in terms of “both/and.” What would he like to study in addition to photography?

By the time Brandon graduated high school, he had been thrown out of his home, and I had taken him in. He had been accepted into a five year BA/BFA program at The New School in New York City, with plans to major in psychology (BA) and photography (BFA). Midway through his sophomore year, he made the decision to discontinue the photography major, and focus fully on psychology.

The next year he applied for, and was admitted to, a BA/MA program. This program allowed him to take graduate-level courses his junior and senior years, and granted him provisional admission to continue on for his masters degree without going through the traditional GRE and admissions process. His senior year courses would also be credited toward his MA. This fall, Brandon was notified that he was admitted to graduate school at The New School. Last month he completed his BA; while he doesn’t yet have all of his grades for the semester, his final undergraduate GPA will be in the vicinity of 3.9. At the end of this month he begins his final year of the MA program, majoring in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling. And, over the winter break, he has begun training as a professional mediator.

The journey has not been easy for Brandon. If he had believed in the future that others predicted for him, he may never have even reached out to me. But he shut out those voices in favor of his own. And, despite the negativity of so many people in the first eighteen years of his life, Brandon is creating a positive future for himself…one in which he will be helping others to believe in themselves as well.

Brandon hadn’t heard this quote of Henry Ford’s until well along in his journey. Nonetheless, he has shown us all how true it is. “If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t, you are right.”

As you move through the challenges of the new year, think you can!

Comment below.

“What Would Steve Do?”


iStock_000015325710SmallSome of us have trouble figuring out and committing to a path forward. The reasons are varied. We may not have all the facts we think we need. We may not be certain that we can get those whose support we want on board. We may feel uncomfortable with making decisions in general, or this decision in particular.

It is then that we all too often turn to someone else (a consultant, a coach, a therapist, a friend…) and say, “What would you do?” As a change mentor, I hear it all the time.

When I hear this question, I often think of a quote from Matsuo Basho: Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old, seek what they sought.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the question. It is a way of gaining different perspectives, especially if you are asking a diverse group of people who bring different backgrounds and experiences to the table. What does this look like through a financial lens, through a magnitude of change lens, through a market lens, through a feasibility lens? What does it look like through an interpersonal lens, through a spiritual lens, through a personal alignment lens?

Ask the question. Gather the insights. Weigh them.

It’s what all too often happens next that concerns me. Sometimes the decision is to not decide; there are too many divergent perspectives to commit to a path forward. Sometimes, it becomes a “hop scotch” of trying one thing for a bit, then jumping to the next, waiting to find something that seems to stick. And, sometimes we have someone else to blame if the chosen direction or actions don’t work out. “John got it wrong.” “Steve put us on the wrong path.” “How could Hannah have been so off?”

The truth is simple. If it is your change, you need to own your decisions. You need to own the correct ones. And, you need to own the incorrect ones. You ask John, Steve, and Hannah because they are bringing something to the assessment that you don’t have. None of them has everything you bring to the table either; none of them own the change in the way you do. You shouldn’t be asking them if you suspect they may give you bad advice, intentionally or otherwise. But what you are getting is advice, not instruction. If you choose to go forward with it, that is your choice, not their responsibility.

As Basho suggests, don’t follow in their footsteps, follow in their wisdom. If it will be helpful, go ahead and ask “What would Steve do?” Then have the courage and strength to make the decision, and to hold yourself accountable for the consequences.

How do you request–and respond to–counsel from others? Comment below.



Don’t Just Leave!


Cirrus clouds and a blank directional sign. with Clipping PATH

Too many change journeys start at an ending. They are about leaving the current situation: a relationship, a job, a career, a shifting market, an outmoded product line or production process.

This post looks at “just leaving” at the personal level. What surprised me in writing it is how many parallels exist at the organizational level. Next week’s entry will address organizations “just leaving.”

As I’ve often posted before, change does require letting go; there is stopping and releasing some of the old to make room for the new. The challenge is this… Many roads might lead you away from where you are. But if you don’t know where you are going, which is the right one to take?

Sometimes it is important to leave before knowing your destination. For whatever reason, the situation is untenable: an abusive partner or boss; bullying from co-workers or classmates that cannot be stopped. Sometimes the choice isn’t yours: a layoff or termination, a divorce announced, a career choice no longer in demand.

When this happens, find the nearest safe way-station in your journey. This may be physical: a shelter, a family member’s home; I have one friend who–upon being laid off–set up “office” in a corner of the local Starbucks the next day; she was there five days a week as she prepared for her journey.

Your situation may require an economic way-station: finding a new job, finding new clients so you can fly solo, going to work for a temp agency.

I have been let go from my job before; I have been dumped by a long-term partner in a relationship before. It isn’t easy! As I reflect back, I remember the counsel of one of my mentors:

Don’t confuse the present with the total. It is a moment, the one you are in now. But in another moment there will be a different present. Each present is real. But none is forever.

Find your way-station. Then use it as the launching pad for your change journey. Know it is not forever.

If circumstances allow, don’t leave until you are prepared. As Phil Cousineau (“The Art of Pilgrimage”) writes, “Being ready mentally, spiritually, and physically makes us lighter on our feet, more adroit at making decisions, and perhaps even helps keep chaos at bay.”

For me, being prepared requires several things. It requires knowing your destination, and knowing it in your heart and gut, not just your head; it means creating your change story. Being prepared means planning the journey once you know the destination. It will most likely be long, and arduous. While you can plan some things, other things cannot be anticipated. How will you know that you are making progress? What milestones will you be looking for? Being prepared means doing what is required mentally, spiritually, and physically so that you can face the challenges–expected and unexpected–that you will face. It means doing whatever you can to lighten your burden as you step out on the road. Being prepared means having the belief in yourself–and in those people and things that will anchor you on your journey–so that you have the courage to take that first step, and then the next, and the next, without turning back.

Every change, whether it be individual, family, organizational, or societal, requires different preparations. Yet if you know the patterns that lie beneath those change journeys they are remarkably consistent. Being prepared means learning the patterns, and how to navigate them.

What do you do to prepare for change? What advice would you give others? Comment below.


How Is Your (Change) Hearing?


big earsMost of the time when people talk about change communication, they focus on what you are or should be saying. I know I have blogged about that on several occasions. A good change mentor, coach, or practitioner will also talk about the importance of having open communications channels, and about fostering dialogue; I’ve written about that as well. What is generally missing in discussions about change communication, however, is a focus on listening. Today, that is our topic.

If you are responsible for the execution of a change, no matter what the setting or your role in it, you cannot succeed without listening, and hearing. While the listening and hearing I will describe in a moment are always important, they take on oversized importance during change.

There are three things that you should always be listening for.

Listen for what is putting your change at risk.

Previously we have talked about the importance of taking counsel from people that tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear. This is not about being paranoid; it is about being sure that you have every bit of information that you can get to inform your decisions.

You need to not only empower people to tell you the bad news, you need to encourage them to tell you early. One of my mentors refers to this as a “red is good” culture; it is good when risks are raised early, and leaders act to mitigate them. Hearing the bad news early gives you the best opportunity to mitigate it without jeopardizing your change.

Listen for what is not being said.

During major change, resistance is inevitable. If you don’t see it, one of two things is taking place. Either it is underground, or you are going through the illusion of change rather than actually making progress.

Resistance happens. Hear it. Hear what it has to say. It is the voice of resistance that will surface many of your risks, and offer many of the solutions to mitigating them…if you hear it.

In order to both listen for and hear resistance, you need to slow down the conversation. All too often, when we listen we are in the process of formulating our response as the other person is speaking. We are hearing our answer take shape before we hear–or fully grasp–what they are saying.

Listen, and ask clarifying questions. What do you mean when you say that? Can you help me understand why? What are you seeing or hearing that leads you to that conclusion? What are you not telling me?  Etc.

Listen for the seeds of success.

There is a wonderful line in Anthem by Leonard Cohen. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

A lot of your focus during change is on the struggle, on the risks, on the challenges. It has to be; those are all part of big changes; you ignore them or give them short shrift at your own risk.

But don’t let that be your only focus. Also listen for the seeds of success. Where are those cracks? Where is the light getting in? Where are the seeds of success being planted?

You need to listen to them, because at first they may seem very small. Too often we tout the milestones: we’re on budget, we’ve run the training programs, we have launched the new benefits package. But we don’t see the real seeds of light that say we are on the way to realizing the full results of the change.

Maybe its a halt in the decline of customer satisfaction ratings for the Smithville call center. Or its a small turnaround in patient outcomes in the clinic that moved from line of service to patient team care. Maybe its overhearing someone who had been an early voice of resistance now talking up the change in the cafeteria. Or, its knowing for the first time that you have the courage to carry the change through to closure.

Listen for the seeds of success. And when you hear them, shine a light on them. Applaud them. Herald them. Help them to germinate, and to spread.

What counsel are you able to share on change hearing?

What’s In Your (Internal) Change Toolkit?


Picture1When people think about change toolkits, they generally think about things like assessments, guides, white papers, and the like. Those may be important, especially when engaged in organizational change. But that is not what I am talking about here. I am addressing those things that are inside of you and help or hinder you as you navigate change.

In June 1990, I was laid off. It wasn’t the first–or last–time I was out of work. This instance stands out in my mind because of one particular question in a book that I found helpful at the time. The book was Fired for Success. The question was, What do you do like breathing?

What an important question to ask as you think about your change toolkit! What do you do like breathing? What is it that comes so naturally to you that you don’t even know that it is there? What do you do with such unconscious competence that you don’t even see it as a strength?

One challenge of unconscious competence is that you can’t call on it when you need it… Either it works, or it doesn’t. On a bad day, it doesn’t. If you raise it to the level of consciousness, you can intentionally apply it when it is needed.

Below are some of the most significant “tools” in a strong change toolkit. Some you may “do like breathing,” others you may be okay at, and others you may not do at all well. You definitely want to know your strengths, and be prepared to apply them. Use this as a checklist for determining what is in your toolkit, what you need to strengthen, and what you have to add. Remember the old adage, If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

(Note that it doesn’t matter whether the change is personal, organizational, or societal, and it doesn’t matter whether you are leading the change, or are playing another role in its execution, these tools are all important. The list is in alphabetical order.)

Accountable: Whether this is a personal change or a global transformation initiative, if you do not hold yourself personally accountable for how it unfolds–if the organization and/or the people around you do not do likewise–it is unlikely to go well.

Ambiguity: Whatever your change, if it is big, you will be dealing with a great deal of ambiguity. Get used to it. You need incredible clarity on where you are going. You need incredible clarity on how you will know you are making progress, and how you will know when you have achieved success. And along the way, you need the ability to move through ambiguity. If you need “all your ducks in a row,” or to “know what’s waiting around the corner,” undertaking major change is not for you.

Big Picture; Little Details:  You need to be able to see the big picture: Where is the change going? What will the journey be like? What is required to achieve success? How will we know when we have gotten there? And, you need to be able to define (and execute or have executed) all of the infinite number of steps required to successfully complete the change. You can fudge on the little details, if you have people that you can trust to fill in the gaps in your toolkit; if its an organizational change, you should step back from the details so you aren’t micro-managing. If you are in a leadership position, you can’t fudge on the big picture; you have to own that.

Boundaries: Know when to work, and when to step away.

Courage: Big changes are not for the timid; you will be stepping into the unknown over and over again. There are risks, many of which can be mitigated if you “know the patterns” (below); but they are real, and they can be scary!

Decisive: If the change is big, you need to be able to make decisions, and act on them. And, you need to be able to do so even when the information available to you is insufficient.

Hold On; Let Go: If you are to succeed, no matter what the change or what your role, you need to know what to hold onto, and what to let go of. And you need to know when to hold on, and when to let go. (also, see Mistakes)

Know the Patterns: This tool is fundamental to all the rest; in some ways it is “Tool # 1.” There is a clear set of patterns that underlie the human response to change. If you know the patterns, you can apply the other tools to help you successfully navigate your way through them. If you don’t, you are “flying blind.” You have tools, and you may be applying them…but you don’t really understand what is going on.

Mindful: Are you one of those people who remembers getting into the car in the driveway, and then finds yourself parking it at the office? Never assume anything about your change is so routine that you can do it on autopilot; you need to be mindfully attentive every time you touch it.

Mistakes: You will make mistakes along the way. Success requires recognizing them, admitting them (which may need to be a public process in some cases), learning from them, applying the lessons learned, and moving on.

Open to Diverse Perspectives: If you surround yourself with people who see the world through your eyes, they are going to miss the same things you miss. You need to be open to hearing a wide range of perspectives.

Pay the Price: Big change isn’t cheap, no matter what. There are some changes that may not cost a lot of money, but they still require an incredible investment of time, energy, personal power, etc. You cannot avoid paying the price, so it is better to pay it in prevention than in healing.

Reflective: Step back and think about your change periodically. Have things shifted in the environment that require adjustments to the plan, or even to the desired end state? What is going well, and what isn’t? How effectively are you executing your role(s) in the change, and what do you need to do differently?

Reframe: How many lenses do you have in your tool kit? Can you reframe how you see things? Can you reframe them so that others see them differently?

Resilience: How well, and how quickly, can you recalibrate to changes in expectations? For more details, see Resilience Is Critical When Facing Challenge.

Resolve: It may be that this is the best idea you ever had. It may be that you loose sleep every night over it. It may be that you “can’t afford to fail.” All of that may be, but in the absence of resolve, it will fail. Big change means a difficult journey; you will need resolve to get through it successfully.

Story Telling: You need to be able to move people’s hearts, and their guts, not just their heads. All the logic in the world cannot accomplish that. Story telling can.

Teamwork: You can’t do it alone. Even the most personal of changes, if it is major, requires skills and insights beyond what you possess. Day-to-day you may pride yourself on being an independent spirit. At work your people may love you because you protect them at any cost. But when it is time for change, you can’t be independent; you can’t be siloed.

Trust: You are not going to get through big change alone. It’s that simple. Even the most personal of big changes affects–and is affected by–others. You need to be able to trust, and you need to be trustworthy.

What You Need to Hear: Some people surround themselves with others who tell them what they want to hear; to some degree I guess we all like to have cheerleaders. But you also need to seek counsel from those who will tell you what you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it.

What do you do like breathing? What else do you have in your change toolkit? Comment below.


Ready? Your Next Big Change Is Coming!


iStock_000007574711verySmallI almost titled this post Death, Taxes, and Change. When Ben Franklin wrote that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain but death and taxes,” change generally came at a more leisurely pace. There were respites in between. The changes were for the most part far less complex. Though it might not have seemed so for those who were experiencing the changes back then, those were “the good old days.”

For you and me, a year or two from now (or perhaps sooner), today will be “the good old days.” There is another big change heading your way. It may be of your making, or not. It may be on your radar, or not. It may be business-related, or personal, or driven at the societal level. It’s unlikely that it will be the last.

Who knows what it will be. Who knows when it will get here. Who knows how it will disrupt your world, your worldview, your experience of life, of work, of… Who knows what its impact will be.

Get ready.

But how do you get ready for what is coming your way when you don’t know what it is?

That is one of the things that I love about change. As unknown as the change might be, how you respond to it is predictable. How I respond to it is predictable. How those around us respond to it is predictable. As I have written before, it doesn’t matter what the change is; it doesn’t matter where the change is; there are underlying patterns in the human response to change. Some of those patterns lead to success; others lead to failure.

The first thing you do to get ready is to learn those patterns. The good news is that in over four decades of this work, and close to three decades of intentionally learning the patterns, I have never had to “unlearn” any of them. Our understanding gets deeper, and broader. New patterns continue to emerge as we continue to research and experience change. But, even a fundamental understanding of the patterns is better than approaching each change like it is unique. Whatever that next change is that is heading your way, having an understanding of the human response patterns will stand you in good stead.

Next, ensure that those around you know the patterns.Those with whom you work should know them. Those to whom you report should know them. Those who report to you should know them.

But don’t stop there. your family, friends, and others in your communities should have an understanding of them. I am personally beginning to think about how to advocate for “change education” in school curricula. Perhaps your child is her high school valedictorian. She heads off to the Ivy League and suddenly finds herself in the middle of the pack…and unprepared for the change in status she experiences. Or, she is a state All Star in her sport and heads to college on an athletic scholarship only to sustain an injury that ends her ability to compete. Wouldn’t it be great if she knew how to navigate this difficult change journey, instead of being surprised and caught off guard by it? Our children, our families, our friends…none are immune to the disruption of change. Shouldn’t we all lessen the disruption by knowing what that experience will be like, and learning how to successfully navigate it?

Consciously develop your change skills. Understanding is necessary, but not sufficient. You understand that resistance is inevitable, even when people perceive a change as positive…but how do you respond to it? You understand that there is a difference between installing the components of a change and realizing its promised benefits…but how do you deliver realization? You understand that there is a replicable process for building commitment…but are you prepared to adhere to it?

Know that you will not succeed without courage and discipline. If big change were easy, everyone would be making it happen. They aren’t. Whether professional or personal, most big changes just don’t deliver what they have promised. The reasons are both simple to state, and challenging to address. First, those responsible for success don’t understand the underlying patterns. Second, even if they do, they don’t approach the change with the courage and the discipline necessary to do what is necessary, without exception, every time.

Learning the patterns of change doesn’t make you immune to the disruption change will cause in your life. By definition, that is what change does. However, it does decrease the level of that disruption by helping you know what to expect in terms of your own response and the response of others. And, it increases the odds that you will move through the change successfully.

What are you doing to prepare yourself and those around you for the next big change? Comment below.