2016 – Tackling Reality

We may doubt that we’re up to being a warrior-in-training. But we can ask ourselves this question: “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear? 

– Pema Chodron

Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work 

Carl Richards “Learning to Deal with Imposter Syndrome”

It may be cheaper and easier in the short run to ignore failures, schedule work so that there’s no time for reflection, require compliance with organizational norms, and turn to experts for quick solutions. But these short-term approaches will limit the organization’s ability to learn.

– Francaseca Gino and Bradley Staats “Why Organisations Don’t Learn

Let’s add one more detail to the picture
the much longer,
much less visible chains that allow us freely to pass by. 

Chains by Wislawa Szymborka trans. Clare Kavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Leading into year end, I have been reflecting on what I learned in 2015 and what it means for 2016. All of the quotes above appeared in things that I read today. Reading these quotes clarified for me one of the key insights of 2015 that I had been considering (but perhaps was ducking) – life is far better when you are dealing directly with reality.

Tackling Reality Personally

Life as a solo consultant has its challenges. Over two years into that journey I have come to better understand, accept and deal with its ups and its downs. Work isn’t always consistent or predictable. The point at which you need to give up is usually when things change. The best work arrives all at the same time. There are human limits in time and capabilities. Some times you have to say no. You don’t get to do everything you want or need to do. Others will do differently. Things never go quite as planned. Big risks are essential to progress and so are the small (& big) failures. 

Accepting these realities has made me far more comfortable in my practice. Accepting these some times harsh realities has made me more ready to take advantages of the opportunities that are created.  These opportunities might be the chance to play a larger role in Change Agents Worldwide or another community, the new work that comes unexpectedly or the ability to leverage down time for reflection, connection and new projects, rather than panic.

I have found too that a better & richer focus on what is really going on for others and for me has strengthened both the personal and work relationships in my life.  Taking the time to really understand reality of the situation matters more to me than ever. Confronting reality isn’t always easy. Engaging with some perceptions and beliefs can be painful, some of these are deeply hidden and it can take a long time to accept some of the more difficult realities. However, reality will not and cannot be ignored.

My lessons from applying this effort with others have been equally insightful. So many times in our busyness, we assume we know what is required, we rely on expertise and miss the opportunities to really engage, to really help and to make a real difference. Our ability to work and collaborate with others depends on a rich shared context based in reality. Don’t accept things at face value. Take the time in 2016 to probe and to query the reality of the situation. Without feet planted firmly in reality, we have no way to step forward alone or together.

2016 will be another year of working deeply connected in reality for me. 

Helping Organisations Tackle Reality

In 2015, I blogged in a number of different ways about the need for organisations to better engage with reality. I called our hierarchical organisations dumb. I talked about hierarchy as filter failure. I highlighted that these organisations ignore complexity and even need satire to prick their bubbles some times. Change Agents need a good grip on reality and pragmatic skills to move organisations forward. There are many more examples of the battle to hold organisations accountable to the reality of their situation in the blog posts this year.

The future of work demands organisations step out from their cloisters and engage the reality and the pressures of the world inside their organisation and the world around them. Effectiveness of purpose demands that we look to the real human costs and benefit of that which we do. Internal efficiency or narrowly defined success metrics are no longer enough. Global networks and dynamic disruptive global competition will hold us to account for our failure to confront and leverage reality. 

The better organisations are learning how to use the reality of their people, their capabilities and their networks. They leverage the human capabilities of the people, their networks and their capabilities to continuously create change to grow and be more effective. These organisations recognise the reality that they are a human organisation, that they must base their actions on real conversations and real human capabilities for success. The future of work must be much more human to deliver their purposes. 

The need to tackle reality more effectively is why I focus on learning, leadership and collaboration as core enablers of the future of work. I believe that these three are essential to my personal purpose of making work more human. 2016 will be a key time helping organisations improve their effectiveness and better deliver that purpose in the real world.

ICYMI: 2015 Top 10 Posts by Popularity

The over 10,000 people who have visited this blog in 2015 enables us to review 2015 by popularity of each post. This blog has covered a lot of ground in 2015 in 206 posts so it is interesting to see what rises to the top of the social sharing. The practice of learning, leadership and collaboration for the future of work top the lists as they are the focus of my work and my interests:

  • Competency or Capability Mindsets Matter: I am a little surprised to see this post do so well. When I wrote it I thought of it as more of a technical post dealing with a key HR and management issue. Clearly the need in the future of work to focus on capability and move from strict competency resonates deeply.
  • The Last Thing We Need is an Enterprise Social Network:  This rant of a post from 2014 continues to circulate, educate and amuse
  • Working Out Loud 3 Tiny Habits: The growth of Working Out Loud in 2015 with the release of John Stepper’s book and two Working Out Loud Weeks has made this post from 2014 (and its various forms of content: posters and videos) enduringly popular
  • Big Learning: I see this post as another pillar of this blog ongoing. The idea of organisations needing to arrange systems to accelerate learning and capability development remains as urgent as ever. Big Learning is the next big challenge. In 2016, I am looking to bring Big Learning further to light with clients.
  • Beyond Adoption to Value Creation: The foundational post of my work in collaboration and probably the most linked post within this blog. Also widely used by others to explain the development of collaboration in organisations.
  • Why Hierarchical Management Survives: Institutional Filter Failure Struck me in a flash. Still surprises. As long as our organisations are deliberately dumbed down we will miss out.
  • The Growth Mindsets of Collaboration: I love Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets. Let’s hope more managers are inspired to consider & encourage them.
  • Double Loop Learning of Working Out Loud: This world has got to complex for single loops. Let’s help people to reflect on whether they are doing things right and even in a triple loop whether they are doing the right things. Working out loud will continue to be a key focus of my work in 2016
  • The Lean Startup of Me: If the circulation that this post received on Linkedin was added to its stats, this likely would have been #1 post of the year. It is certainly the post I get most questions about. This is still the way I approach my practice and life.  It has been invaluable to me and to those I coach on following the independent path.
  • The Future of Work is the Future of Leadership: Another foundational post from 2014 that benefited from a lot of links in 2015. Leadership work will be a big part of 2016. We need change and we need leaders at every level to get us there.

If I take out the 2014 posts, the next most popular 2015 additions would be:

This list of posts is a wonderful encapsulation of the focus of my work in 2015 and the areas that I will be focusing on growing in 2016. There are a few much beloved posts that failed to make these lists.  There are also many posts on the blog that probably should never have been written. That’s the journey of blogging consistently and working out loud on your practice and learning.

Thanks for your support in 2015 and I look forward to sharing more posts in 2016 and being involved in the great conversations that they inspire.

Bet on Change #wolweek

Change is work. It is not a game of trumps played with opinions. If there’s debate, even more reason to seek to make change and see what happens.

Those trying to stop your change will tell you the job has been done, can’t be done & isn’t worth doing. They can’t be all right, so maybe they are all wrong. You won’t know the answer if you don’t try to make change happen.

People will demand clarity. Others will say you need to be less prescriptive. People will say you are too narrow and too broad. People will say you need to name your change. Others will call your change a fad or dismiss it as mere marketing. The diversity of human opinions challenges all change.

Change agents need to recognise these views for what they are, opinions. Those opinions need to sit alongside your opinion that change is required. Many of these opinion leaders will want to engage you in a long debate at to the absence of merits of your plans. Sadly debates based on opinions are rarely productive.

Remember momentum is your friend in creating change. Action solves the issues of debates. The obstacles are the work and will be overcome as you adapt and experiment forward. Clarity can be refined as you work forward. Value will either be proved or fail. Action helps you recruit more change agents.

For all the people saying there was no need for International Working Out Loud week, there was a far larger group engaging for the first time and learning how to make it valuable. For all the debate about different views of the future of learning and development last week, there was still a need for people to back their views on how to make learning more effective and engaging which won’t happen on a blog or social stream.

Debates are fine. You can learn in a debate when they compare facts and experiences. When debates are just an exchange of opinions, it is far better to move forward, test your opinion and help everyone learn through action.

Practices vs Procedures

I have been asked by a few people who have seen the slides only whether the audience at The Change Management Institute found my talk practical. At first the question made no sense to me. How could a talk recommending four well documented practices not be practical?

Some of the issue is missing the text of the talk. You don’t get the whole story through pictures without the accompanying stories and discussion.

Then I realised the point of the question. In the presentation I talked about moving away from rigid process to adaptive learning. It would have been inconsistent with that theme to outline a 5-8 step procedure. The practices I recommended are about fostering mastery. The involve choices and learning. They are not procedures to be executed.

We are so used to the process mindset that a process is seen as the only practical option. I am very pleased the members of the Change Management Institute embraced new practices and saw the potential to learn and adapt through practice.

Learning and adaptation is the only practical way forward.

The Future of Work is Flexible Talent

Your organisation has amazing talent. They want to grow, develop and make a big impact on the world. So why risk losing them over the constraints of a job.

Little boxes

You want digital talent but your employment agreement prevents their involvement in any other business activities or any forms of collaboration externally. You want thought leaders but your media policy prevents people from speaking externally. Your top talent wants development but it’s hard to find an internal program to meet their needs but you can’t pay for an external one. You ask your talent to report to people they don’t respect and wonder why they leave.

Your little boxes are killing your talent.


On the street today I ran into a former colleague who works full time and consults on days of unpaid leave. Another friend is a global thought leader who speaks on days he’s not being paid by his global organisation. The list of people who dabble in businesses on the side is huge.

When innovation is at the edge and learning happens mostly by experience, these are the opportunities that your talent craves. Release the shackles. Let them after it.

Set some ground rules. In each case above the successful examples involve simple ground rules against double dipping, conflicts and confidentiality. These rules are so obvious your talent will sort it out anyway.

None of these people worry about delivering their performance expectations because they are managed to outcomes. They have the autonomy, the coaching and trust to get the job done (& do more).

Remove the boxes and you will be thrilled with what your employees bring back to the organisation. Most importantly, create a flexible mix that is unique to the pair of you and they will stay.

Speaking to Senior Managers

Senior leadership engagement in change is a hot topic. Social collaboration makes the absence of leader engagement obvious. I’m often asked to speak on collaboration, learning and leadership to senior executives. As I used to be one, people want me to share a little of my passion for these topics. Here are some suggestions to guide you in your senior leadership engagement.

It’s not a priority

Collaboration, leadership and learning is unlikely to be a priority for your senior leaders. Sure they’ll discuss it but they don’t want to do it. They don’t know anyone who got made a CEO because his team was the most collaborative or the most agile. There is always a bigger business or customer problem that is on their mind.

Rather than engage in an argument as to why this mindset is wrong (it is – see Big Learning), I start with understanding the real business problems that they want to solve. Once we understand the business problems we can connect collaboration, learning and leadership as solutions to that problem.

Avoid Capitalised Nouns

Senior executives are busy and distracted. They don’t want jargon and hype. They are allergic to empty captalised nouns. The more you use words like Collaboration, Leadership, Engagement etc without making them tangible the less credible you are. The more it sounds like a futuristic vision or a quixotic quest the less relevant you are to their world.

Tell Stories

Stories make change tangible to busy & smart people. Ben Elias of ideocial.com remarked to me recently that it is hard for people to conceive of how their organisation could be highly collaborative. They have never seen it, so the ideas and practices don’t connect with their reality. Specific stories make that connection. Tell rich and engaging stories of how things can be and how to get there.

Ask for something specific

There’s nothing worse that taking the time of senior leaders, winning their support and not being able to define exactly what you want them to do. Always have a specific ask of them ready to go. Have two in case they say yes to the first. Better yet have a personal ask that is framed as something simple that they can agree to do to sustain change. The 3 simple habits of working out loud was designed as one such example.

When you are done, Stop. Leave.

Senior executive time is precious. Give it back to them. Tempting as it may be to bask in the glory of a good meeting and deepen rapport, you will win more credit by leaving when you have done your job. Remember when something is not a priority you are always on borrowed time.

From satire to change

Satirists rule debate now. John Stewart may have retired but satirists like John Oliver are hailed as a leading critiques of government inanity. The Onion and its peers struggle to describe things that aren’t actually happening. Political candidates & business leaders satirises themselves with their strict focus on ideology, message, image and popularity. Some of our greatest satirists are accidental ones.

The need for satire has also been fostered by the extent to which our institutions no longer engage with reality. Science is attacked. Data is scorned. Ideology rules. When a president needs to literally show his people melting glaciers, satire seems easier than persuasion. Satire is also a way to have the ‘in joke’ and bind a community against those who won’t change.

Satire has always been away to have the awkward conversation with power. The jester is often the voice of reason. Humour can lead us to see the hidden elements of culture and to discuss the elephants in the room. Those arguing for change need to use as much mockery as they use conflict. At least a good joke can keep a smile on people’s face and embarrass the corridors of power as we fight for change.

However, satire has its limits. Satire can expose but it rarely proposes. We need to combine our satirists with debate about new models and new approaches.

We can keep our satire. We need to help our institutions back to reality. We need to start conversations from facts. We need new hypotheses and we need to be able to test and learn our approaches. We need to engage conflicting views and move them. We should keep our snark and our smiles but let’s use them to foster change not move in comforting circles.

Manage Portfolios of Capability – #BigLearning

In strategy, we often think of organisations as portfolios of capability. Capability creates options. The set of capabilities in an organisation enable you to do some things and not others. Managing that portfolio to allow for performance, adaptation and growth is critical to success in changing environments.

The same principles apply to learning for individuals in organisations. We can help our people see learning as a way to manage their portfolios of capability. This approach creates options and adaptability for the individual and the organisation. Individuals who manage their own portfolios of capability will have richer and more purposeful careers.

Traditional Learning

Traditional learning approaches borrow from the industrial management mindset. What matters is the role, which is an input in a production process. The role has to have certain fixed capabilities. Therefore we recruit and train our people to have those capabilities.

When something changes, we have a problem. We focused on a fixed role, not the people. We treated people as cogs in a process and hoped we could find or stuff them with the capabilities required for a role. This learning largely happens independent of the individuals purposes, hopes or dreams. Their desire to have a role requires them to learn fixed capabilities.

Managing a Portfolio is Adaptive

Nobody is in perfect identity with the capabilities listed on their role description. We all have diverse portfolios of capability. We have different education, experience and networks. We are hired because we bring more to the role than others.

How often have you seen someone with skills required elsewhere but who doesn’t get to apply them? An IT manager once challenged me to demonstrate that new employee profiles couldn’t help him with his need for a programmers in a particular language. “I know all the programmers here”, he said. The first name that came from a search of employee’s profiles highlighted a financial analyst in the same organisation who had a masters in computer science and had declared their experience in programming in that language. The analyst was unknown to the IT manager. What secret talents are hidden in your employee population?

Let’s manage people, not roles so that we can leverage our individual and collective portfolios of capability. People adapt by drawing on additional skills and capabilities. People can look ahead and learn for the next role or the next challenge. Importantly that allows our employees to manage their own portfolios of capability beyond this role and into their whole life.  

A Capability Portfolio Approach for Organisations and Employees

  • Start with your employee’s needs: Use Design thinking to understand your employee journey before, during and after their time with you. What does a new perspective do to help you change the way you enable them to learn?
  • Manage a portfolio strategy: You have business needs for certain skills. These become the priority areas for your portfolio of capabilities in the organisation. However, they will not be the only areas you have skills in the team. Re-weight the priorities of the portfolio constantly as the business needs change.
  • Encourage employees share their full set of capabilities with you. Enable them to disclose the skills and experiences that they have that can help you with your business challenges. Look for options that can be created with these additional capabilities for employees and the organisation. Make capabilities searchable, encourage collaboration and create clearing houses to enable projects to call on those skills as needed.
  • Let employees develop to their purposes and their needs: If you are clear on your business needs, employees know what skills need to be developed. If they don’t want those skills, it is better they don’t want to stay. Finding the alignment between employee purposes and your portfolio needs will strengthen the organisation
  • Hire and Encourage Diversity: Diverse people bring diverse capabilities into the organisation. Everyone of these is a future option. That’s an option that comes for free when you hire someone whose capable of doing the job.
  • Employees are accountable for their portfolios of capabilities: This has always been the case but we lost focus on development in some of the paternalistic HR models. Organisations should support and enable development, but they can’t do it to an employee. Leveraging PKM, working out loud and 70:20:10 models enables employees to take greater control of their learning.
  • Use employee’s capabilities and watch them grow: The best way for a capability to stay current and grow is to be used. How do you let employees step outside their role and use skills on a project, a secondment, helping out a peer in a collaboration, on a hobby project or volunteering externally.

Enable Employee Careers through Learning

There is no organisational strategy without the capability to execute it. The demands of a disruptive economy mean organisations need to create systemic approaches that scale learning through every role, Big Learning. However, organisations need to build employee capability in their interests and not just for the sake of the organisation.

Holding on to a Wooden Box

Imagine you asked a friend to hold a wooden box for you.  If they are a good friend, they might hold it for an hour or so. Some will give up and take it home to return it later.  A great friend might put it down and stay by for a little longer. Very few would bother with the box for more than that without some further instructions, some value to them or some better proof of the worth of the exercise. 

Yet organisations continue to ask employees to learn knowledge and skills for the sake of the organisation. Worse still, these approaches to learning are often rolled out with little communication as to the value of the learning for the organisation, let alone the employee. 

Consider mandatory role and compliance learning. To employees it is as mysterious as the box request and it is cannot be escaped. The signals sent remind employees that it is designed to protect the organisation as part of a compliance system, rather than helping the achievement of employee goals. 

The employee is left to complete the learning for the organisation and then forget it. There’s little surprise that much learning is wasted and is not applied to help organisations achieve strategic goals.

Enable Employee Careers & Purpose

Imagine you had a friend who shared that they wanted to develop a career as a public speaker. You might explain that practice & feedback is a critical part of developing as a public speaker and you could help them see that a wooden box would let them speak at a speaker’s corner whenever they want. There’s a far greater chance your friend is going to make an effort to carry their own box. 

Organisations can do more to make their key strategic learning a part of a process of creating greater career options for employees. Learning that advances employee goals first is more engaging, more effective and more likely to endure. Very few people will seek mastery in a skill that is imposed on them. Mastery requires purpose.

Working in this way begins with employees goals and enabling the employee learning journey through all their work. Learning in this approach means thinking beyond tasks & roles to lifetime needs and career lattices.  In addition to specific technical skills, learning must develop portable skills that increase the diversity of an employee’s career options. 

Designing first for the employee journey while still achieving the organisations strategic needs will improve the effectiveness of learning. Importantly it is a key part of creating an Big Learning environment where every employee contributes to the ability of the organisation to learn and improve

Big Learning

Organisations need to rethink their approach to learning. It is no longer a function and an oft-neglected subset of the role of HR. Now it is clearer than ever that learning and the realisation of human capability is the function of organisations.

Why do we come together?

Organisational models are changing. There is much discussion of the potential of new ways of working and organising work. We are thinking about the post-work economy, the Uber-economy, holacracy, responsive organisations, the human-to-human economy or many other forms of the debate on the role and shape of organisations.

What is clear is that in an era where the friction of information, interaction and collaboration is reducing is that organisations to survive must enable people to be and do better together than they can be on their own. Realising the human potential of individuals and teams becomes a critical part of the rationale of organisations, whether that simple rationale is in turn justified in lower transactional costs, trust, scale, access to funding, need for community, collective security or some other rationale.

From Execution of Processes to Learning

When we focus on our organisations existing to better realise human potential we shift the focus of organisations away from the traditional rationale of efficient execution of stable business models. We must recognise that as our people’s knowledge, skills and capabilities grow so can the ways we work, we engage others and we create value. Highly competitive markets and fast followers will compete away value that is not based on organisations continuing to improve their ways of working, their value for customers and that takes collectively learning.

Start-ups are just one example of organisations designed for the purpose of learning. First a start-up seeks to learn what problems need solving. Then it starts to build business models that more effectively address these problems and create value.  All the way through this journey, the people in the organisation are challenged to work in better ways, to learn more and to realise their potential.  Start-up organisations have become innovators in the ways of working as they have found ways that better enable the potential of their lean teams to be realised. Many of these work practices are now becoming commonplace e.g. agile delivery, lean, customer centred design approaches, experimentation, data analytics, holacracy, collaboration, etc. 

From Learning to Big Learning

Increasingly large organisations are seeking to apply these skills to their work to compete and to grow. Slowly learning is being seen as it should have been seen all along, as a critical capability to enable the delivery of strategy and ensure organisational survival against disruption and entropy. 

However, learning in this context is no longer a function of HR. Learning becomes a function of every role, every process and every action in the organisation. We are not applying 70:20:10 with the goal of making learning programs better. Now the entire organisation seeks to use the capability of every individual to learn and improve to better achieve its goals and better create value. Organisations will succeed on the extent to which its group of individual learners outperforms the learning going on at competitors. This is Big Learning. 

Individual practices like lean thinking, agile, design, experimentation, analytics etc are not implemented to perfect a practice or make work more efficient. Each of these practices are part of creating step changes in performance through learning, a mindset of Big Learning. These practices are developed to enable the organisation to realise its purpose of enabling its people to realise their potential faster and more effectively than competitors.

Big Learning takes a new System

Big Learning takes a new systemic approach to the development of people’s potential and the processes of work in the organisation. Declaring your organisation a learning organisation or increasing funding your learning team won’t cut it. There is no one product or service to purchase. Every organisation needs to develop its own Big Learning system. The changes will involve every role, process and function. The approach will depend on its customers, its strategy, its people and its culture. The answer will depend on what best realises its ability to create increasing value over time.

A New System Takes Change Agents

New approaches to help organisations and their people to learn and share their capabilities, and work in new ways are being created every day. Managers and workers already have a wide range of tools and approaches available to begin their experimentation. Change agents need to be enabled to start to make this change happen. Organisations need to start challenging themselves today whether they are realising the potential of their people to create value for customers and the community.

“Work is learning and learning is the work” – Harold Jarche