Why I am changing the focus of BIG IDEA

The map is not the territory

In the past, I wanted to offer people big ideas that would give them a map out of the wilderness. People usually call it “dysfunction.” In professional language that means, “I / we are suffering here.” Of course, some times I work with people who are standing on a plateau of accomplishment. They can see even higher peaks in the distance. They would like a map, too.

But a map is not the territory. Big ideas are no more than conceptual ways of orienting ourselves. When we step off the trail, or are forced there by forces around us, how do we find our way?

My mission is to support, accompany, and guide leaders and other good-hearted people who want to explore the territory without a map

I have changed the focus of my work from map salesman and tour guide to orienteering teacher and field guide. I did this because I needed to find my own way. I wasn’t exactly lost, but I felt that I was walking in circles. Here are three ways I knew I needed to find another way of knowing how to make a positive impact.

  • I noticed that following other people’s examples proved to be a dead end for me.
  • I put a lot of effort into re-making myself into the image of my role models. That included attempting to banish facets of myself that didn’t match those models.
  • I believed that someone else had an explanation, description, or model that would show me how to be the sort of person and professional that I wanted to be.

You could look at my list and say that I was naive. But we all look to each other for clues about what’s valued, who gets ahead and who’s admired around here, what fits in this organization or culture, and what connects me to this group of people I work with. Your list may look very different than my reasons for looking elsewhere. But you may find that you could write your own list.

Finding a different way to know

The big ideas that I used to try to change my own circumstances did give me a thrill of hopefulness. But they didn’t change my patterns of thinking and behavior. I needed a different way to know. You read that right: “a different way to know.” I knew plenty, but I didn’t know how to understand my situation. “What am I not seeing in myself that’s having so many effects I don’t want to have?” I needed help with that.

I’m sure I’m not alone. We tend to think that that should be resourceful and competent. It’s hard to admit that we’re not sure about the right direction for ourselves or those we’re responsible for. We live in complex times. To pretend that we’re certain might be riskier than admitting our doubts and the discomfort that goes with them.

We underestimate the power of attention

and we overestimate the power of action

At the heart of the shift in focus here at BIG IDEA is my confidence in that statement. It’s not an idea. It’s an observation borne out again and again in experience. Not just my own, but those who are practicing attention themselves through programs and coaching with me.

Here’s what I know we get out of developing attention, which produces the different way to know that I talked about earlier. We:

  • Enable skills and talents that we already have and broaden their range
  • Develop new way-finding abilities in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Develop abilities to connect with others genuinely and honestly
  • Become less reactive, which helps defuse unseen, persistent patterns
  • Foster a sense of clarity that isn’t based on what someone else would do or what someone else has said

If some of what you’ve read resonates, I hope you’ll pay attention to the inkling you have that something is up. It’s just one clue. You’ve probably noticed others. They often add up to something important, like pointers about what’s growing, what’s neglected, where to go, and maybe even what to leave.

I hope you’ll stay in touch, too. My mission is to support, accompany, and guide people who want to explore the territory without a map.

To hear about programs, coaching, and other resources you could sign up below.

Take a look at The Equipoise Project and the events coming out of that work. Let me know what you think.

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

If you hate what you do, get out now!

Get out now!

Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist at Cornell University who’s spent years interviewing thousands of people age 65 and over about, well, about all sorts of things. On the topic of work, Pillemer’s senior sages were clear: If you hate what you do, get out now.

“Spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake,” Pillemer writes in his book 30 Lessons for Living. “There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful.”

From Wired by Dan Pink

 What led you to say, “I’m out,” rather that suffer through a job that others may have envied?

Parting: Lessons from Leaving

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a group that I’ve belonged to for about eighteen months. It was not easy make the decision. I was nervous as I made the announcement. The group includes coaches and consultants striving to learn and serve our clients better. I did learn a great deal, but I did more than acquire knowledge. I learned to appreciate other’s points of view. And my own.adieu

With this group, I came to see more clearly that my point of view was limited. And while that’s obvious, working with and being challenged by others who see the world differently gave me pause. I stopped and listened. It was uncomfortable. It took real effort. I believe I’ve learned that a wider view is the best place to start most things. That openness is also the mindset to adopt when facing ambiguity and confusion.

But I also came to recognize that my own point of view is a solid home base. I don’t mean that my view is simply where I’m most comfortable. I didn’t conclude that I had been right all along. I found that I could trust my self as a learner, a coach, a teacher, and a consultant. As I write this now, I wonder how you’ll hear that.

Think of times when you felt at ease and could listen without busily working out what to say next. Think of the times when you felt your feet solidly underneath you and felt ready to move at any moment. That’s something of what it feels like to know your home base. If a memory of home base experience comes to mind, hold it there, notice how it feels in your body. That’s a footing to step onto when you’re feeling blown around.

I recognize that I owe those colleagues a great thank-you for their generosity. They challenged me to listen, most often by their example. And in turn they listened to me. When people really hear us, we recognize the sound of our own voice.

These are all lessons learned in parting. Not leaving exactly. I’ll be hanging with these folks in other ways for years, I hope. But the lessons of membership are different from the lessons of parting. It is a sweet sorrow because it is leaving and also pressing on, a future vision clearer every day. Marking these parting lessons is one way to bow in respect to the time and attention of those who were members with us. Imagine me bowing low and long.

Keep looking for the openings

Insight for practical tailored solutions

A friend recently quoted this advice to me. She’s right. When we’re aiming at a goal, the route between A and B is rarely clear. The way forward requires determination. But there will be openings that help confirm that we’re on the right track.

When we’re building something new – expertise, a project, a business, a movement – we’re changing our interaction with people, organizations, and markets. And they’ll talk back. The wisdom in looking for our openings is that there is data in the encounter. It holds out clues about the conditions for success: preparation, offerings, expectations, supporters, communications. It also points to you: what you thought, what you intended, what you aimed to accomplish, and how you reacted. What you hear when you listen to the response become the germ of guiding principles.

But the openings we look for are the ones we’re able to see. Once we’ve seen an opening or two, we keep on looking. We want determination to carry us forward without narrowing our view. The openings are clues. They may be just out of view to the left.

Experience and openness to learning will show us more windows and doors. Now we’re really headed for daylight.

My hero is a success and a quitter

Karen Olivo is one of my heroes. Last year, she quit.

She felt under-used, narrowed, and constantly angling for her next gig. The work she’d loved had to come to rob her of day-to-day satisfaction and genuine connection with colleagues and friends. She was, by many measures, a success.

Olivo won a Tony (2009) for her performance in “West Side Story” and has been singled out for performances in other notable shows.  “It took a good look at what I was capable of to see that what I was giving away for the price of a ticket was a fraction of me.” That blog post sent ripples through the theater community because it is an honest description of what many people feel. And it is what many people feel about other challenging, high stakes jobs, and many that are less so.

If Olivo felt that she wasn’t using all of herself, she also felt that she was playing a role that wasn’t authentic. “I was operating like an actor in my life,” she added, “which is scary – constantly wanting people to like me and thinking that I had to promote myself and the truth is, in life, you don’t have to do that.”

What’s important?

Today, she teaches musical performance at the University of Madison, writes for Theater Lila, and is working on a CD. She recently returned to the New York stage to play a role in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and reviewers loved her.  She doesn’t seem tempted to ride those reviews to another round of anxious stardom.  “…Every show ends and the only things that really stay current or are substantial are the bonds that we have with people.”

Olivo’s my hero because she saw that using her considerable skills cost her a great deal of her soul. By “soul,” I don’t mean her immortal, pre-existing, Platonic self. I mean “soul” in the sense of “genuinely human.” Think soul music, full of guts or heart or feeling. I mean the self that’s aware and mostly at ease. A self that’s very different from the watchful, wary, what-must-I-do-to-get-advantage self that Olivo felt she’d become. Sure, we can blame her for thinking about her predicament in ways that were bent by forces we don’t know about. But if she took steps to sustain her soul, she had to exercise a kind of courage.

As she wrote in her blog post upon leaving: “I leave behind the actor and start learning how to be me.” If that sounds too much like the way actors speak, and not enough like people with regular jobs, ask these Karen Olivo questions:

  • Am I using just a fraction of myself on the job?
  • Am I playing a role at work that doesn’t feel real?
  • Am I constantly reshaping myself to fit it, get people to like me, position myself for what’s next?

What’s that important to you?

Read the story here.  Quotes above, The New York Times.

Photo: Playbill

Where are we going?

Are we making progress?  It seems like we’re stalled.  You’ve had this experience, too, I suspect.  We push on and deliver as promised.  The project ends with vague success. Maybe we made a few too many compromises.  Maybe we lost support for the effort along the way.  Maybe it was, after all, the necessary work.  Period.

Why does this never happen to the writers of leadership books?  Some work doesn’t wow. Now one likes to admit it because that’s not what we aim for.  But much good work has to be done every day.  By all means, look closely at whether you’ve made missteps.  But since great leaders and managers just don’t stall, and it seems that you’re stalled, obviously, you’re not doing your job; you’re no leader. Or maybe today’s project is a drop in the bucket, which in time is certain to tip the scale of transformation, is just another drop.

Unlike the storied leaders, you have not had your breakthrough revelation.  I mean the big insight that turned a stagnant situation around and prevented ever repeating that situation again.  We want to be that leader. Today, though, there’s a lot of unexciting work to do.  This is what it takes to change things, without a swelling string section. This is the source of big revelations: just doing the work.

The sense of being stalled, accurate or otherwise, challenges all the thinking and planning that led to this moment.  The big ideas and deliberate influencing started the momentum.  People climbed on board.  Now they’re not seeing the benefits you promised.  They’re recognizing how hard the work is.  They’re not seeing the visionary end state.  You’re questioning it it, too.

This is the big challenge in choosing ideas as tools.  There is no way to be sure they’re the right ones until conditions are in place and the results start coming in.  Right now, they are hypotheses.   Everything in the system – too little time, obstacles to communication, the people who are involved, your own planning, other priority objectives – is testing whether this idea is the  the right idea right now.  It would be easier to strike a compromise and choose another idea that looks easier to implement.  And I concede, there is a time for compromise.  But this isn’t it.  This is a time to go deeper into relationships with the people who are testing your hypothesis.  This is a time for listening.  This is also time to review and refocus on the destination.

Stay loose, be clear…Stay loose, be clear

This is the leader-manager’s dilemma.

John Kotter makes a distinction between leaders’ and managers’ focus. Leaders’ domain is complexity, identifying opportunity, scanning the environment and spurring change to address it. They’re focusing on answering, “What’s right for this organization?”

Managers (paraphrasing Kotter) are focused on answering, “How do we do this right?” They stand out as the ones who can make the most of the system or develop new systems to get the most out of people and processes in ways that are repeatable and motivating. I’ve met a few of these geniuses of consistency and operational clarity. They always open my eyes to the profound value of managing.

You can disagree with Kotter if you like, but practically speaking, every manager needs to be an operational genius all day long and still provide leadership. The ambiguity that comes with steady change means that there is no steady state or equilibrium that we can call rest. The chances that we’re going to end up back in that comfortable position again are nil.

Every one of us have to be leaning forward and sniffing the air for change. Stay loose, be clear is my advice to myself as we begin to hire folks and create a training SWAT team, so to speak.

What do you tell yourself to keep your eyes on being a both a leader and manager every day?

Know where you’re going

I had dinner with an old friend a couple days ago and he told me this story.

My son – he’s four – has been going to a great daycare this summer.  They organize some kind of learning around theme days.  Last week they chose pirate days.  I’m not sure what they learned, but he brought home a little plastic compass.  Apparently you need compass on the bounding main.  I was leaving for work the next day.  I said goodbye and he offered me the compass.

“Here, Daddy,” he said.  “Take this with you so you always know which way is North.”  You know how that turns your heart to loving mush.  But he didn’t want me to get lost and knew that pirates use a compass to find their way on the open sea.  I was delivering training to new managers that day.  I started class by assuring them, “Thanks to my son, we can”t get lost, no matter what happens, because I have a compass and I know where I’m going.”


Not a verbatim account, but that’s what I heard.

We are all our own leaders

Every day the demands on the job threaten to distract us from the few simple good things we’re aiming at.  Thanks to a four year old, I’m reminded of the two most important principles to live and work by, no matter what you do or what level you’ve achieved in the organization.

Principles for being your own leader (Thanks to Cap’n Jack)
  • Stick to the heading the leads to your destination.
  • Be a pirate!


You know you’re onto something when you start encountering resistance.  But like stubbing your toe in the dark, after the swearing, the first question is, “What is that?”

If what you’re doing is going against the grain of  “how we do things here,” you’re challenging the corporate culture.  That stony thing in the dark is, in fact, the way the organization makes decisions, or the way it takes up and digests new initiatives, or some other norm that had not come to light yet.  If it’s culture, you need to recognize that it’s a firm object.  No matter how wacky it appears to your newcomer’s eyes, you won’t change it quickly.  You may not change it at all.

Even after a year with the organization, I’m new.  Most of my colleagues have been around for a number of years.  That means Continue reading “Resistance”