Recently, a colleague asked, “Who has most influenced your thinking and practice as an Organization Development consultant?” One of my chief influences was my mom.
She had a lot of sayings. “No good comes from fooling” she would say, admonishing us unruly children to behave, lest our ruckus cause some household mishaps. She had many other maxims that, as I think back, formed her view of life. These sayings, many of which I am sure she learned from her parents and grandparents, represented her “working wisdom,” a set of principles for navigating the currents of life.
My mom was a simple farm girl, the child of immigrants who had made the momentous decision to come to America. Fleeing oppression in Russia, they left their old lives behind, and set out to seek a better life in the New World. So my mother knew something, deep in her bones, about the nature of choice and of change.
She would say “You make your bed, you lie in it” to make sure we understood that our conduct had consequences. So we had better think before choosing a course of action.
In my work as an Organization Development consultant, coaching leaders and teams to become more effective, and facilitating my clients through transitions, I have been a gatherer of good principles. Some are common wisdom, others I can attribute to individuals whose work has had a direct influence on me.
Here is a sampler:
- Seek first to understand. This one simply says, before anything else, be sure to listen. In Zen Buddhism, one is taught to remember the Beginner’s Mind, having an attitude of openness, eager to learn, and a lack of preconceived notions when approaching a new client or problem. Be receptive. Listen to your client, your team, your customer. Listen and you will learn. Listen well and you will be in a better position to help. This principle comes from the author Stephen Covey in his now-classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, itself a testament to the enduring value of having a good set of hardy principles to live by.
- Start small, think big. There’s a great little adage about organizational change that starts with a question: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: One little bite at a time. Sometimes, as we face a big challenge, we know we are going to have to “eat” the whole thing, but no way do we have the capacity to do so. So we “think big” and set our goal for the entire elephant. But then our tactical plan focuses on the many “bites” or small steps that we will take to get there.
- Think global, act local. Systems theory has taught us the so-called “Butterfly Effect” which says that changes, even small ones, in one part of a system can have large impacts elsewhere, even at a distance. So we must “think globally” about the entire system we are working on whenever we “act locally” on it. Do both at the same time, whenever you are engaged in organizational change, to be more aware of the outcomes, intended and unintended.
- When planning to change things, find out what is working well already. Change consultants Jerry and Monique Sternin, in their work with intractable social challenges like hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, coined a concept called Positive Deviance which says, “Look for the positive deviant, the person or group that has already found the better way.” Someone somewhere in the system is doing something “right.” You should look for him or her, study what they are doing, and plan how to spread their practices to other parts of the system.
- Remember that all solutions generate new problems. Quality engineers, like W. Edwards Deming, who first formulated TQM (Total Quality Management), understood the fact that no solution is ever once and for all. Rather, the truth is, that any solution, no matter how elegant or how clever, will itself trigger a cascade of new problems. This wisdom is built into the roadmap to problem solving I first learned years ago as a TQM facilitator. The roadmap always ended with the step called Start Again which implied that there is always a new set of problems to be solved.
The Change Agent
Perhaps the one saying of my mother’s that impacted me the most was “Life is what you make it,” a principle that I have carried within me to this very day. In a nutshell, with this principle, my mother taught me that “If it is to be, it is up to me.” That I am the agent of change in my own life. That I cannot sit around waiting for things to happen. That I must make it happen.
So, how about you? What principles have you used to guide your efforts as a leader? Thanks for your comments!