New Book! What Matters in This Moment

I am pleased to announce my new book! What Matters at Work: Leading Groups Through Uncertain Times was released in late 2021 and is now available in both paperback and Kindle versions. This new effort builds upon themes first developed in What Matters at Work, adding new strategies, tools, and processes to lead groups and organizations through the complex, often uncharted waters we are now called upon to navigate. In addition, this is a call to action to see our place in the world, as resources to our communities so we can make a difference in addressing the complex challenges of our times. I invite you to join me in this effort…


What Matters at Work eBook on Sale This Week!

Please excuse this promotional announcement… The eBook version of What Matters at Work will be on a special sale on the Amazon site for the coming week. It started at $ .99 today, November 26th, then increases to through the next seven days before returning to its usual $9.99 price (still an excellent deal) on December 4th. If you’ve been waiting for an eBook version — or if you have friends and coworkers who might appreciate such a gift — this is your opportunity!

Consider the Risks of Global Networks and Build in Buffers

Connectivity is a fact of life in 21st Century economic, political, and social systems. We are now inextricably related to one another through networks that provide immense opportunities for leveraged scale and benefits, but which also expose us to the dark side of being unable to protect ourselves from the destructive actions of others over whom we have limited awareness or influence. 

Nassim Taleb has been examining these phenomena throughout his career. He is best known for coining the term, “black swan,” which identifies major unanticipated permutations of events upon these complex systems. A survivor of the Lebanese civil war growing up, he has been preoccupied of late with the responses around the globe to COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the dangerous underbelly of global networks and “just in time” supply chains, which must be instructive to business and political leaders as we move forward to build the post-pandemic economy.

As Bernard Avishai reported from his recent interview with Taleb in The New Yorker, the pandemic isn’t a “black swan” but an event that reflects the dangers of global connectivity: 

“The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.

Covid-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.”

When now looking at our efforts to deepen our efforts at What Matters, Taleb’s approach offers great wisdom: We need to create systems that include buffers, those protections that insulate risk factors and limit their ability to infect the entire system. We must do so while staying true to our Values and Intentions, especially:

Transparency: By demonstrating openness in our deliberation processes, we engender trust among those constituencies and partners who must take the risk, with us, to address concerns that are Upstream and which, most likely, do not seem tangible.

Integrity: We must constantly dare to question ourselves and be open to hearing criticisms and concerns from others. This discomfort is essential to navigate the inherent uncertainties of such times, and comes with a big dose of Humility. 

Communication: When in doubt, let people know what you know and (more importantly) what you don’t know. Share the burden of knowledge with others whose perspectives may inform your own. 

Inclusivity: Hear from all voices, especially those typically marginalized and feeling pain that may be caused by the actions of those with traditional privileges in the organization or community. This is a “long game,” and it requires resources that may not be immediately apparent. To insure those resources are available to solve emerging issues, an inclusive approach to problem-solving is a key value. 

Creative Flexibility: Consider options and ways to frame situations that have never been tried before. These are far more likely to emerge if Inclusivity is actually occurring, as this builds capacity for creative thinking. Facilitate processes that encourage divergent thinking, adaptability, and the capacity to defer judgment as long as possible. 

Compassion (and Forgiveness): Make a genuine effort to understand the pain being experienced in the present time, as well as the trauma triggered from past events by unanticipated crises being experienced in this moment. As you confront your own harm and pain, seek a path of reconciliation that may allow you to move forward and fully experience the opportunities of this new moment.

In a practical way, we may apply this thinking at a few different levels: 

  • In our Project Teams, we need to be sure the integrity of the team’s work is protected through documentation (including version control), transparency of decision-making and inclusive deliberation processes, with continuous communication among team members and with other teams within the system being impacted. At every opportunity, deliver on promises and deadlines and be honest regarding when they are not being met so all can come together to determine how best to proceed… This is in contrast with a common practice to withhold such information until few options remain or the consequences of mistakes are already being felt elsewhere.
  • In the larger Organization: There are inter-dependencies that are both necessary and beneficial, yet there are risks that may be reduced by allowing “warnings” to be conveyed routinely, coupled with a shared commitment to understand emerging problems and address them without blame, finger pointing, or shame. This is akin to “pulling the chord” above an assembly line, made famous through Toyota’s “Kaizen” continuous improvement program and the specific “Andon” approach for signaling problems to others that should be addressed quickly and cooperatively. In fractal, interconnected systems, we may not fully appreciate the value of slowing things down, but to do so as part of a commitment to risk reduction can prevent disproportionate difficulties from overwhelming the system.
  • In the Industry or larger Community, it means that we examine the underlying assumptions built into our most robust and far-reaching systems and understand their current and future purposes. While they may have served us in the past, they may have evolved into systems that do not serve current needs. An excellent example is the role of police in ensuring public safety: There were very different priorities and dominant political voices in the 1990s than today, so those under-served and even oppressed by police actions are now being heard and understood by the privileged dominant culture in very different ways. Over time, police services (along with the criminal justice system) shifted from a community policing approach that had some commitments to rehabilitation in the 1970’s and 1980’s to a more militarized and punitive approach through the past 30 years. As a result, those with drug-related issues are prosecuted, rather than medically assisted, and those with mental health concerns are met with force and domination, rather than compassionate caring responses.
  • The future of public safety and violence prevention requires a re-imagination of these systems and their relationship to the communities being served, which includes coming to terms with uncomfortable truths about how racialized and marginalized communities in particular have been systematically deprived of basic human rights and dignity through this evolution. Making available resources to prevent and manage conflict, as well as restorative justice processes that can help people become “whole” in their lives as they go forward, will be essential buffers during this significant reconstruction of our public safety systems. 

As Nassim Taleb also points out, such approaches also require an acceptance of lower short-term profits on the part of businesses and investors (including those investing in public efforts). These lower initial returns are more than offset by reducing losses that are more likely to occur in fractal systems, so this risk reduction actually will result in increased profits over the long-term. In addition, if we keep in mind the “triple bottom line” previously discussed on this Blog, the social and political stability reduces the costs of significant upheaval and its associated relocation and restructuring efforts. If fewer of us live in the floodplain, for example, there will be reduced need to deal with the associated costs of increased flooding events that once were “one in a century” but which now occur every few years. 

Beyond Capitalism

In focusing on What Matters, it is crucial that we transcend previous constraints and parameters that limit our thinking about What’s Possible. Most of us have a tendency to view our own experience as “normal” and to extrapolate from our own realities to assume the “normal” for many others. This blind spot (previously explored in the Johari Window and Ladder of Inference discussions) is also true in our theories and practices in our workplaces and in the development of public policy: 

For example, as an American now living in Canada, I am acutely aware that my experience with the US healthcare system limited my understanding of how a universal healthcare system might operate, as it does in Canada. Furthermore, since our news sources are locally focused and biased, we often fail to receive information from other perspectives that might inform those blind spots. So when responding economically to healthcare challenges, we might not recognize options and opportunities that are well-established in other countries and regions, overlooking potentially beneficial responses.

It is like that with Capitalism. The dominant American model defers great amounts of power to large corporations and other private entities. Through public policy and regulations, there are advantageous tax incentives to such organizations that have resulted in the terrain we witness today. There are routine cycles of prosperity and depression (“boom” and “bust”), all of which are framed as normal business cycles. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, as well as accumulation of capital in small segments of the population, all reinforced by a cultural narrative that the resulting investment, employment, and “trickle down” benefits accrue to your overall quality of life. This privately controlled and highly individualized framing of Capitalism also accepts that there are very few “public goods,” where the government must provide service and production. It is also accepted that there are few costs that exist beyond the system — “externalities” — which are then minimized in our economic models and analyses. Unfortunately, these biases and omissions are not inconsequential; they result in significant failures of the system and, given the dominant role of the US in the global economic and political system, the impacts are felt throughout the world.

Concentration of wealth has been a long-standing barrier to addressing these flaws in the system. In his 1949 essay, “Why Socialism?,” Albert Einstein wrote: 

“…Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society...”

Externalities: A Fatal Flaw 

I have previously alluded briefly to “externalities” and the opportunity to address them in the triple bottom line. What are externalities? Why do they represent a fundamental flaw in our usual forms of Capitalism? How might we re-conceptualize Capitalism and create a new economic system that addresses these critical failings?

Externalities are those costs not integrated into the valuation of products and services in the economic system. A common example is pollution: If nobody is held accountable for the cost of dumping garbage into a river, then its consequences are not addressed and there is no incentive to clean it up. That’s fairly obvious, and most people recognized this flaw, but there was no mechanism to address it until the 1970’s.

But there is a more insidious aspect to how Capitalism fails to deal with externalities: Because the costs aren’t addressed in this current transactional space, they are passed down to others in the future to address their consequences. Those pollutants leach into the ground, affect the water table and the future costs of remediating it so it can be used for an economically valued purpose. The carcinogens that result from toxic runoff (a non-point source) belong to nobody as well, so the health care consequences that accrue to sick individuals or entire communities (recall “Love Canal”?) become a burden for those future recipients. While the companies or farmers who caused the problem are only held accountable by the Environmental Protection Act and similar legislation of the past 50 years, the system inherently avoids addressing such issues.

Furthermore, we have the aforementioned issue of Public Goods. This has at least two dimensions that are worth noting. First, there is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” the natural consequence of over-consuming natural resources that should be held in common. This concept was first offered by the British economist William Forster Lloyd (1833) and popularized by American philosopher and biologist Garrett Hardin (1968). Hardin updates the idea of the traditional English meadow being grazed by sheep, with each herd owned individually and nobody owning the Commons. The sheep naturally overgraze until the entire Commons is stubble, and the resource is destroyed. The Public Good is what we share in common but which is not owned, like the air around us, the oceans, outer space.

The other type of Public Good identified by economists is the natural monopoly; these are certain services that cannot be developed and delivered by the private market, whether due to excessive barriers to entry (e.g., costs), scale, or risk (e.g., much basic research). Public transportation systems, public education, and interstate highways and bridges, for example, needed to be federally funded because of these factors. They have little “Return On Investment” in most cases, so they are left to the public sector for the “profit” of the Public Good.

In most of the world, public health care is seen this way. While there is room for private corporations to provide a wide range of services, healthcare is viewed as a basic right, and the economic system is seen as the wrong place to defer such a critical responsibility. 

Social democracies do a far better job than the U.S. of internalizing the externalities and recognizing the intrinsic nature of certain Public Goods. But even there, the U.S. is limited by a preoccupation with Independence that obscures a greater need and reality: Interdependence (see previous post, “A Declaration of Interdependence.”) We need to reframe our system so it transcends Capitalism, fosters Interdependence, and creates spaces in our economy to recognize a far more significant role for Public Goods.

Reflections on returning to work in the midst of a Pandemic

  by Lisa Z. Webne-Behrman, Ph.D, C.Psych.

I’m pleased to welcome my Partner in What Matters, Lisa Webne-Behrman, as a Guest this week! Her insights and experience are most welcome at this unique time…

After four months of working remotely, many businesses are preparing to have staff return to their usual offices. This is causing anxiety for many, uncertainty regarding how clients and customers will respond, and organizational stressors as both leaders and staff members attempt to grasp concrete plans in the face of deep uncertainty. 

Living things seem to naturally desire movement and growth.  My indoor and outdoor plants move toward the light with what seems like a strong desire to produce, to perform, to do.  We are in the throes of a worldwide event compelling us to consider how we “do” our work, why we do so, and in what manner we will reopen our physical places of employment.  We reflect on these important questions in the midst of the Pandemic from a position of incomplete information about the future and not a small degree of current chaos, adding significantly to the complexities of the problem.  Given this, and the need to plan, produce, and do, the following guidelines are offered with humility and as a place to start:

A.  Create a framework for re-opening.  Share the information with all involved in a concise and clear manner.  Provide the broad strokes without getting too stuck in the weeds.  Procedural details of safety are of course important, though try not to lead with this detailed information.  Convey the basic framework including:

  • Affirm the Values and Intentions that form the foundation of the framework; 
  • Name the broad phases of reopening; and 
  • Clarify the criteria required to identify progress and determine when to move from one phase to the next.  More on this below.

B.  Identify criteria that are easily understood, identifiable to all involved.  The criteria guide the process. In this case with reopening, we move forward as specific criteria are met.  In some cases, they indicate the need to slow down or even reverse course.  Developing specific criteria also pits the problem against observable and agreed upon metrics as opposed to a group of individuals/ leadership/ managers.  

C. Develop markers or signposts that signify desired outcomes relevant to the specific work being done.  Signposts let you know where you are (… next signpost up ahead, “Twilight Zone”).  For example, I work at a social service agency with a fairly large community mental health component that might find it useful to develop signposts related to the variables of content and time.  Signposts also need to work in concert with the established criteria per B above: Assuming specific established criteria are met, ~20% of staff may have the option to work in the office beginning August 1, 2020 continuing to offer remote tele-health services. Tele-health services will continue to be offered remotely (from home) and will be further reviewed by October 1, 2020. 

D. Address this time as a complex transition, with focus on managing the stages of transition (following Bridges).

  • Communicate regularly with staff.  
  • Provide information that addresses real needs in a calm and caring manner.  
  • Seek input and listen well.
  • Acknowledge that the framework and next steps are being developed in the midst of a crisis vs. re-building following a crisis.  As such, transition plans to re-open and return to work are being developed while squarely planted in the “Neutral Zone”, a place of uncertainty and some murkiness. Name it.
  • Manage the Neutral Zone, this period of ambiguity and uncertainty, with
    • Create space for feeling unsure…it’s normal.
    • Identify some meaningful short term goals.
    • Maintain supportive connections with colleagues.
    • Help each individual understand how they might positively contribute to the change moving forward and the importance of their role in the organization.
Bridges Transition Model | William Bridges Associates
Bridges’ Transition Model

E. Capitalize on the creativity of the time. It seems that the combination of novelty and necessity sparked some creative approaches to our work that we can capture and further continue moving forward.  As we approach the return to work conversations, make room to discuss the opportunities this time has also afforded.    

Reopening our workplaces is a critical challenge we need to address. Let’s do so by acknowledging the uncertainty that exists while also clarifying our collective purpose, with meaningful communication, and respect that people should be provided specific frameworks and options. This may offer us a chance to get it right.