Avoiding the quick fix

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, “So-and-so is such a problem. If we can just change person “X”, our lives will be so much easier”.

Let’s just come clean, shall we? We’ve all thought this at one point or another. In an attempt to taper or avoid conflict, blaming the problems of a work team or family on “Person X” is one popular avoidance tactic.

And, because we don’t like conflict, and because we think “X” and only “X” is the problem, we zoom in on this person and their faults, or we hope the problem will go away with attrition.

Whether we’re part of a family or a work team, it’s easy and natural for many of us to pinpoint the problems of the group on one specific person or cause. Let’s admit it, blaming another person is a reflex, and sometimes that behavior is even reinforced or rewarded.

Often there is something else brewing.

When it comes to change (at the individual, group, or organization level), …the person that we think is the problem…? Well, they are sometimes (read: usually) merely a symptom of something larger.

We call that something larger “the system”.

Successful change interventions take into account a system-wide view. We know that changing one part of the system will often (and must) result in changing something else. It’s about pulling the right lever at the right time and understanding that a change in one person or lever, doesn’t happen in isolation.

If your work team is blaming one person as “the problem” and that person leaves, chances are another “problem” person will arise because the group needs that “problem person” in order to function. Sometimes it’s a scapegoat, sometimes it’s a different role. The group will re-create that conflict and dynamic until it no longer needs it.

The person and the environment work in conjunction, not in isolation. We all contribute to the culture, the dynamics, and the “problems” of a team.

What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.

What’s the drill – September 12: And because of that…

Remember the Story Spine? The fantastic tool we use to apply elements of storytelling to a plethora of organizational situations and cases?

  • Once upon a time …
  • And every day …
  • Until one day..
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day ..

Today specifically we can talk about the Story Spine as a means of discussing risk and reward.

Take the phrase, “And because of that…”

Improvisers are taught, and become more comfortable with taking risks. They feel on stage, experientially, what it’s like to get out of their comfort zone. And because of that, they stretch, grow, and so much more.

Sometimes, off-stage, we take a risk (“until one day”) and wait for the reward (“because of that”). We see risk taking as a means to an end. It’s got to be something tangible, right?

“Where is my ‘because of that‘ already?”, we ask. Show me the reward! Let’s flip to the end of the story.

In truth, the other, “because of that’s” might not have been written yet. We often can’t see them coming although we hope they appear. It may take months, years for you to recognize what they are. You might find there are more than 3, perhaps dozens of “because of that” phrases. All we know sometimes is that the risk moves us forward, certainly in learning, and hopefully in tangible results.

If we are taking risks solely in pursuit of the reward we might never be satisfied with our story spine.

The point is that we as organizations and the people who run them have a responsibility to keep the story moving forward. Choosing to take risks and to use the call to action of “until one day” moves us forward, compared to the glacial, steady, predictable pace of “and every day”.


Leadership as Jazz: Becoming an Improvisational Leader

Sometimes articles pass through your news feed that, when you read them, make you nod your head so consistently you fear you’ll give yourself a headache.

If Miles Davis Taught your Company to Improvise

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.”

How do we as individuals, leaders and organizations prepare to Improvise? It can be done. In fact, here are 5 tips.

It’s why Improvisers rehearse, warm-up, and spend a lot of time building trust. We learn the structure first, and then find the freedom within the safety we’ve created.

1.  Approach leadership tasks as experiments – Be open to what emerges by suspending a defensive attitude. Improvisers are skilled at withholding judgement – with both our own ideas and the ideas of others.

“An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery”

Being more open and receptive to the ideas of those around you also helps to break up a routine or automatic habits that may be weighing you, and your team down.

2. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – Saying “no” is a habit for many of us, for many different reasons. To use what’s in the room, and accept all offers is to heighten and find the positive in what is already available to us. In improvisation, wishing things were different is truly a useless game.

“Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.”

3. Everyone gets a chance to solo – Learn the give and take. And, at the same time, if you’re passionate about an idea, do you have the freedom to go solo and experiment beyond your comfort zone?

4. Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

5. Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory. – Competence versus a learning and growth mindset? Is there a happy medium?

“The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see people’s potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.”

What’s the drill – August 15: Failing on purpose

What’s your focus?

Competence, and being right? Or a focus on always moving forward?

Can you focus on “getting it right”, being okay with failure and moving forward? It may depend what “getting it right” means to you, but I believe you can have your cake and eat it too (and rhyme!).

The truth is, we can still move forward when we don’t get it right, and we can move forward faster, quicker, and hopefully cheaper than when our singular focus is just on being correct. 

No one wants to fail.

But, there are some times when we need failure to keep us moving forward – it is often where our best learning and growth (i.e. innovation) comes from.  We can choose to manage our reaction to failure, to greet it with a smile and use it to our advantage.

We may end up preferring failure to get us closer to where we want to go.

You can build competence by creating a safe place to make mistakes and fail.

Getting it right versus getting it completely wrong may just be in how you view failure.

Yes, and you failed. Keep moving forward. 




Once upon a time…Integrating story tips into your organization

“But one day”… is what’s known in storytelling as the tilt. The moment everything changed and our characters, world, and story transformed.

It’s just one part of what’s known as The story spine, by Ken Adams.

As someone who studied screenwriting in college, I have always been fascinated by how the worlds of storytelling and human behavior collide — essentially, studying how screenwriters craft powerful narratives built on human emotion, connection and transformation, and using some of those same secrets to positively affect human and organizational development.

Today I came across this blog, which shares some story rules pulled directly from Pixar Animation. I’ve posted them below. Which ones resonate and connect most with you – whether it pertains to leadership, transformation, presentation skills, or more?


#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

The organization of the future – Pull vs. Push learning

Inspired by the Wisdom 2.0 business conference, this week we’re focusing on the organization of the future.

The organization of the future is:

  1. One where failure is an option
  2. A learning organization

In this learning organization, the focus is on “pull” rather than push-driven learning experiences — learning is interactive, engaging, and full of connection, where processes are set up for employees to learn from each other as much as they are learning from leaders in the field.

Focusing on a pull methodology allows for greater learning experiences and a higher ROI – because the individual can control their motive and reasoning for learning.

When we are genuinely motivated to learn, and pulled to an event (perhaps even through word of mouth, excitement, buzz, rumors of a wait list, etc) we learn faster, retain the information longer and are more likely to apply this knowledge – all creating cognitive connection points in our brain for future learning experiences.

In a pull learning environment, learning is a choice, driven by the individual.

This learning environment encourages other students to interact, pulling content to each other, creating social, perhaps virtual learning communities to harness the collective intelligence of the company all while building connection and empathy along the way.

The organization of the future – where failure is an option

Last week, San Francisco hosted the Wisdom 2.0 Business conference – a gathering dedicated to harnessing the innovative mindset at work and creating the conditions for innovation to occur.

Key to this  mindset is having the courage to fail.

The definition of failure is changing and innovative companies of the future believe failure is an option, a necessity.

Organizations of the future will focus on what failure builds, instead of what it destroys.

Organizations of the future believe you can  train the courage to fail, and the ability to manage fear around that “failure”.

But it all starts with the organizational mindset.

Training the courage to fail is something I learned (and still actively practice) in Improv classes.

It was there I learned:

  1. How to fail happily, visibly, and how to embrace failure
  2. How to view mistakes as gifts and use it in a productive fashion
  3. How to use a failure mindset or mistakes as a way to gain trust, connection, and support across a team
  4. The more risks I take, and the more I fail – the more I learn, grow, change, improve.
  5. How to own up to my mistakes and to not be afraid to try again.

I was trained on how to fail. But, I was in an environment where failure was an option so my learning and development was accelerated.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. But make sure the failure mindset you train extends outside the classroom.



What’s the drill – April 3: Is your organization battle-ready?

Did you know there is a “war” going on? And, according to some blogs and books, a crisis as well?

Sure, I may kid. But the headlines around organizational development write of the war to retain and attain top talent, and the current crisis of leadership and constant push for innovation? Seems scary out there.

Here are some questions for you and your organization to ask to help assess how you are doing in the “battle”:

  1. Do you have processes in place that support people in experimenting more and taking risks?
  2. Does your organizational culture value and promote openness, trustworthiness and transparency?
  3. How collaborative is your organization?
  4. Are processes in place to allow for continual growth, learning, and development?

I believe, part of winning the “war” includes a tangible shift towards creating a more human organization. What shifts can you make today?