Why It Matters

My intention in writing this material has been to offer ways we can work together that promote the best instincts within and among us: We are naturally curious and creative beings, inspired by beauty and connected through caring, compassion, and respect. We have constructed organizations that often tend to stymie such instincts, built out of a narrative of Fear that suggests we must control others in order to protect those things that are most important to us… whether that is status, power, economic opportunity that we “deserve,” or actually protecting our lives, this Fear is the dominant force behind the absurd levels of security built into our social, political, and economic cultures. We cannot eliminate Fear, nor should we ignore it: Indeed, protection is a core instinct for survival and it is important to our ultimate success. But to be controlled by it, rather than to channel it constructively in service of higher aspirations, is a way of thinking that must be left behind in many of our institutions. And in business and the world of work, it is now a critical juncture where the imperative can have significant ramifications for other segments of our lives. The workplace I seek is one where we use our best intentions to organize ourselves to work collaboratively, respecting independence and personal priorities while aligning our resources towards a renewed understanding of common good. This workplace facilitates meaningful communication across departments and projects, as well as up and down necessary hierarchies (though far fewer are necessary than are currently perceived). This workplace is nimble, creative, and ultimately productive with innovations emerging in ways that dwarf our current processes. There are errors, to be sure, but there is also a cultural attitude that welcomes such missteps as opportunities to learn, improve, grow, and ultimately succeed in service to our mission, consistent with our values. In short, everything is organized to notice What Matters, and our energies are devoted to making those things happen.

World Café Method: An Important Approach to Collaborative Problem Solving

Another aspect of collaboration is the ability of organizations to foster communication among diverse sets of stakeholders. This could be needed because of typical bureaucratic relationships that prevent cross-company communication, or it may be required because the “usual suspects” can benefit from engaging new sets of eyes upon a given problem. World Café Method is an excellent approach in such situations. World Café was first developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995 (see Brown and Isaacs, 2005, 2016) and it has been applied to thousands of challenges throughout the world. The “seven core principles” are worth reviewing and are important foundations for any efforts in this area. World Café is especially beneficial if you seek to bring together diverse perspectives in a creative, collaborative, low-risk environment, and it is great if this is an otherwise highly charged issue. Basic steps (which can be varied and adapted) include:

Step 1: Randomly assign participants to tables of 5-8 members. Pose an initial question that is within the knowledge of all participants. Assign or have the group identify a Host to facilitate the discussion. Seek lots of ideas and generative energy (see other approaches to problem solving). Use flip charts, either standing or as the “table cloths,” to record ideas. For example: “Brainstorm possible topics our group might discuss in the coming year, issues that are important to address and which would engage many of our members.”

Step 2: The Host remains at the table. Other group members then seek new tables, reassigning themselves so no more than two members of the previous groups now arrive at their new tables. The Hosts all welcome new members, reviewing the results of the previous round of discussion. New members are then encouraged to briefly share any salient points from the prior round that helps inform and improve thinking at this table (this serves as a functional “report out” of the previous round). This group then moves on to address a second question related to deepening understanding of the problem. For example: “Review the list generated by the first group, then add any other ideas that the new members feel are worth bringing from their prior discussion. Then identify 2-3 of the “best ideas worth developing” that excite the group.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2, moving on to new groups… Hosts always remain at their original tables to welcome new participants and guide the discussion. Post final ideas from the group on the walls of the room so they can be easily viewed in the next step of the process. For example: “Take one of the ideas previously identified. Develop this idea more fully, so others would understand what it is, why it matters, and how it might be implemented within our organization.”

Step 4: This variation on World Café is one I have used many times with great success… it’s called a Gallery Walk: Invite all participants to silently walk around the room, viewing the results of the previous efforts. After a few minutes, invite all to share what they noticed from the results of the their deliberations (you can use ORID as a way to guide discussion), then determine next steps that align with the role of those assembled and the issue at hand. For example: Participants quietly walk around the room, noticing all of the “top issues” that have emerged. After 5-10m, invite them to stand in place (or return to final tables) and call out, “What did you notice? How did you feel about it? What are some qualities of the ideas that are emerging, and why do those matter to you and the group? What might we do next with the ideas that have been offered?

It often follows that the Hosts then follow-up with conveners to form ad hoc planning committees to further prioritize ideas that have emerged from a World Café Process. In that way, ownership is broadened beyond the “planning committee” that may have been in place before the event, and this energy translates into a powerful force for action and follow-up that many organizations tend to lack. I’ve utilized variants of World Café in many contexts.

One favorite experience involved about 350 finance experts, meeting to sort out areas of improvement in 35 topics related to accounting and other financial reporting. Through WC, they were able to collaboratively and creatively develop dozens of improvements, then use a Gallery Walk to observe and comment (with sticky notes) on relationships among ideas generated. All results were then transparently shared and a planning committee implemented many of the ideas over the next two years. It is still reflected upon, several years later, as a major breakthrough in how this organization addresses financial issues.

I love teaching World Café to others simply by doing it, then later providing the name of the process and the theory. As noted elsewhere, Kolb Learning Theory informs much of how I work with adult learners, as engagement leads to reflection, curiosity, and application to real challenges learners are facing in their workplaces.


An Alternative to SMART Goals

I had a colleague refer me to a worthwhile article regarding an alternative to SMART goals. The author, David Creelman, offers a new acronym for our consideration, WISE: Wide-Spanning, Insightful goals that are Sensitive to the ever-changing Environment. While there are certainly plenty of situations that benefit from SMART Goals and their ability to help us stay focused on measurable, timebound objectives and activities, Creelman recognizes that there are many occasions in which our journey is sufficiently vague that such constraints are at odds with our needs, metrics, and ultimate evaluation of outcomes.

This is especially true in any activities in which we are leading Emergence.  We must be nimble, open to the ever-likely possibility that we will have to make significant adjustments based upon what we are learning along the way. Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze first wrote about this several years ago, and since that time numerous authors have incorporated such thinking into leadership literature (most notably Boone and Snowden in Harvard Business Review): In order to gauge the true impacts and results of our efforts, we require WISE goals that are capable of integrating learning about the unknown and understanding that some of the most powerful consequences of our actions may have been thoroughly unanticipated.

In practical terms, this requires us to set aside the proffered wisdom of “Backwards Design,” where we presume to understand learning outcomes (for example) before offering a given course. Yes, it’s nice to anticipate likely results or even desired results, but we might instead engage in a process like “Design Thinking,” where we empathically co-create the course (or course of action, in a project design) with those most likely to be effected by the results and other stakeholders. In IT, this shift is akin to the shift from “Waterfall” to “Agile” thinking and design.

In a problem-solving process, this also suggests that such innovative thinking and goal-setting aligns with increased prototyping, through which ideas generated by an iterative, divergent process may be collected, combined, and then tested before proceeding further. We may find that our initial criteria are spot on, but we may also find that new criteria are emerging that are more powerful for assessing the actual results. We may also find we have combinations to try that hadn’t previously occurred to us, leading to still more ideation before convergence and decision points.

In these and other examples, there may be benefits to leaders to follow a WISE path, rather than a SMART one… thanks to David Creelman for his article, and to Sarah Carroll for pointing it out to me.

– Harry


Integrated Dispute Settlement Systems: Addressing Conflicts Constructively

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively? 

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work. 

Conflicts and complaints naturally arise within most organizations. We tend to respond, however, by either channeling such issues to formal grievance processes or by ignoring them as much as possible until they are too big to manage effectively. Our organizations require an infrastructure for addressing conflict that contains, channels and synthesizes resources effectively. As a result, true integration of dispute settlement processes and systems will develop holistic, adaptive responses and longer-term solutions to such disputes. These structures are essential (both formal and non-formal) vehicles for bringing forth new ideas, managing conflicts that naturally arise and to serve as incubators of experimentation and reform. In turn, they become accessible tools for questioning the new status quo and continuing to hold all members of the community accountable to its Core Values. Three types of practices are suggested to facilitate the development and sustainability of these systems:

Informal Systems: All organizations have those “go to” people that everybody relies upon to listen well, offer solid advice, and otherwise be a presence in solving problems and settling disputes. This practice builds upon this naturally occurring phenomenon: Survey staff to identify overall perspectives on conflicts in the workplace and how empowered they feel they are to address them. Such a survey can be connected to a broader climate survey or employee engagement effort, for it helps us understand training needs that we can act upon to address priority concerns. But let’s add one more question: “Please identify up to 5 people in the organization you believe are especially skilled as listeners and as people who help solve conflicts as they arise.” Once collected, use these results to invite members of this nominated group to a meeting in which they can be recognized and thanked for their natural contributions, and from which they can be asked to offer suggested ways we can improve the company’s ability to foster communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution efforts. Then be prepared to follow through on those suggestions that have resonance with organizational Core Values.

Non-formal Systems: This is a term that may be new to many readers… “Non-formal” systems refer to intentionally organized approaches that largely depend upon peer leadership and agenda-setting. They can be contrasted to the informal systems that simply arise and end naturally, or the formal systems that tend to be integrated with policy, governance, and top-down leadership. Non-formal practices include communities of practice and similar learning communities. In dispute resolution, they include peer facilitation and peer mediation projects. In these systems, a cross-section of staff across the organization is trained to mediate staff disputes, and is promoted as being available for such efforts. While the project can be connected to HR or other management processes, their reputation and success depends upon their abilities to be perceived as impartial sources of service, and that any negotiation among disputing parties is voluntary and self-determined. Peer facilitators can be available to mediate conflicts, facilitate complex problem solving sessions around difficult issues, or simply as peer listeners available to individuals who want to sort out concerns before engaging in other efforts to address them. These efforts can complement services offered through Employee Assistance or an Ombuds Office, as well.

Formal Systems: Grievance and appeals policies, as well as other channels for formally addressing concerns, are an essential element of organizational governance. Boards of Directors should establish standing committees in cooperation with leadership from both management and staff perspectives, so rights are understood and protected and needs are addressed in effective and relatively cost-efficient ways. All involved in hearing such concerns should be trained to do so, and there should be external resources that add another level of professional skill and review to such processes. This level of investment and review is basic and fundamental to the democratically managed organization. From such a vantage point, systematic understandings of the corporate culture can be acted upon; for example, if we find a particular division or service area more commonly has issues that escalate to formal grievance resolution, we can investigate the underlying contributing factors and see if there can be systemic solutions that can prevent such conflicts from developing into formal grievances.

At a more detailed level, some organizations have created numerous “governance circles” that follow the rules of Holacracy or Sociocracy. The largest company taking this approach is Zappos, where it is now embedded in the corporate culture. Other examples are described by Frederic Laloux in his important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014).

Exercise: Create a map of your company’s various places and spaces where disputes are addressed. How do they relate to one another? Is it clear to staff and customers what these various approaches to conflict are, and how they are accessed? You may want to create an informal meeting with colleagues in order to construct this picture. Have fun and be creative in your map-making abilities. Then, create a “key” that helps tell the story of your various informal, formal, and non-formal dispute settlement systems.

Recall the initial question and answer at the start of this article:

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively?

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work.

How are you doing with this leadership challenge?

The Coat of Arms: Representing Our Core Values


For centuries, families, governments, and companies and have represented their essential qualities and values through a Coat of Arms. While rooted in feudal military history, this tool has been readily adapted to illustrate to the world those things that matter, how we wish to be known, and a legacy to further generations of our family. Combined with a Motto, we capture our values artistically and elegantly.

Exercise: What are your Core Values? To what degree do they consciously guide your Intentions? Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions. Then briefly illustrate your responses, using the Coat of Arms worksheet provided (or making a copy to complete separately). Once completed, return to the last exercise and your emerging Core Story… is there now more that you can say about it?


In each box, represent a value that matters to you in your life and work. It may be a picture, phrase, or other artistic representation. At the bottom, insert a simple Motto that captures the essence of the values that guide you.

I’ve used the Coat of Arms activity in a number of contexts over the years, whether as a concluding course exercise to reflect upon what has been learned or an opportunity to consider our priorities as we embark upon a longer project, just as we are doing here. It always sparks good conversation and often informs participants in ways that are uniquely accessed by its more artistic aspects. From a coaching/mentoring perspective, the Coat of Arms allows a pair to clarify What Matters at Work in some more personally revealing ways that may otherwise be difficult to express together.