An Experimental Conversation

I’m going to propose something that may seem a little off the wall.  What if we had a conversation in the workplace that we may not have had before?  It could be kind of weird, kind of awkward at first.  It might not even work, but hear me out.

Think of it as an experiment.  I’m wondering what would happen if we tried an experiment with a different kind of conversation, just to see what happens.  There’s no risk.  If it doesn’t work, no harm done.  We can just move on and try other things.  If it does work, then we all benefit because we’ll develop a new capacity and maybe new skills to work together, and we’ll contribute to making our workplace more like we want it to be.  So it’s all up side and no down side, as far as I see it.

The experiment I’m suggesting is to discuss something non-essential in our workplace.

Why pick something non-essential?  Because we want something that’s not entirely hypothetical but doesn’t hold a significant emotional charge.  The intent is that, by picking something real, people will actually be willing to invest and engage in the conversation.  But by selecting a topic without a lot of baggage attached to it, something where the stakes are relatively low for the participants, we can use the subject as a kind of conversational practice ground.  If it’s a topic that generates a lot of heat or triggers people or where there’s a lot of polarization, people probably won’t be able to open up and practice in a productive way.

For the purposes of this post, let’s use the hypothetical issue of how we handle our workplace common areas and housekeeping-type situations (this may or may not meet the above criteria in your workplace).

Here’s the unusual part: let’s not jump right into talking about the actual substance of the issue, such as the expectations or rules, at least not yet.

Instead, let’s first discuss how we want to handle conversations about these situations.

So, rather than having a discussion along the lines of, “I think that a certain writer of blog posts should vacuum up the crumbs that fall on the floor when he’s shoving donuts in his mouth,” my proposal is to try having a conversation about how we want to handle conversations about our shared expectations and how we want to handle holding each other accountable for those expectations.

Does that sound strange?  Does it sound like a waste of time?  Does it make you uncomfortable and irritated to even think of having a conversation like this?  Are you thinking, if there’s an issue, let’s just deal with it and get on with business?  If so, that makes complete sense.  I understand that approach, and I applaud your practicality.  That is efficient—at least in the short term.

But let’s think this through together in a little more depth.  In this scenario, there are probably a variety of ways to approach just getting on with it and dealing with common area matters efficiently.

One way might be to just not deal with it directly and let things work themselves out. That has the advantage of being efficient because you spend virtually no time on the matter. This can work really well in “uniform” groups—groups where everyone pretty much shares the same expectations. The downside is that the more differences you have in the group, the more friction there will be as a result of different expectations and different behaviors. Another downside is probably the added uncertainty created when these irritations arise. There’s more uncertainty because no shared expectations have been established that can be pointed to, and there’s no agreed-upon mechanism for dealing with these differences. This uncertainty can create stress and animosity if the issues remain unresolved. And when animosity and resentment go unresolved, the environment can turn toxic, and relationships can be damaged. Let’s call this the disorganized approach.

Another way to approach it, which is probably at the opposite extreme, would be to have someone in a position of authority establish and enforce a set of rules. This approach has the advantage of clarity in terms of both the expectations and the mechanism for addressing violations. This is undoubtedly pretty common and largely unquestioned in many of our workplaces. Among the downsides, I suspect that the system doesn’t always produce the consistent accountability it seems to promise, and the experience of holding or being held accountable in that system tends to not be uplifting. Let’s call this the top-down approach.

Presenting those two extremes was obviously an oversimplification of the alternatives, but I’m not above oversimplifying to make a point. The point I want to make is that neither of those contrived-yet-not-entirely-unrealistic “efficient options” represents an ideal kind of workplace. Some of us probably lean more towards preferring one of these alternatives or the other. But I imagine that neither of those pictures is entirely consistent with our vision of what we want for our workplace.

So, if we don’t want our workplace to look like either of those alternative efficient scenarios, it might be productive for us to ask ourselves some questions as we consider how to move forward: What do we want our workplace to look like? What kind of relationships and interactions do we want to have with each other? What’s important to us? What values do we hold that might relate to those questions?

“Hey, mister! You’re tricking us into talking about shared vision! But we’re not going to fall for your silly ploy because this is just stupid, insignificant housekeeping (or some other non-essential) stuff that we don’t want to waste our time on!”

Fair enough. This is just housekeeping (or some other non-essential thing). But let me ask, how do we figure out which stuff “really” matters? More to the point, can we be a certain kind of workplace when doing our core, externally-focused work and simultaneously be a different kind of workplace when dealing with each other on internal matters?

I don’t believe we can. I don’t think people can compartmentalize that well. No group of people trying to accomplish something meaningful together can be dysfunctional (Note to reader: I’m not saying you’re dysfunctional.) in their internal operations without sacrificing effectiveness in their external operations.

That’s just to say that, while in the big picture it may not matter much whether there’s a persistent trail of donut crumbs leading to a certain blog writer’s office, it does matter whether his team has the systems and the collective and individual capacity to address crumb-gate effectively when someone sees it as a problem. It matters not because the crumbs themselves are necessarily a big deal but because being able to deal effectively with a “small thing” like that is a reflection of the overall culture and health and functionality of that group.

We need to spend time discussing the discussion because it’s not the [insert non-essential issue] that really defines and reflects the quality of our culture—that stuff is just on the surface. The question of whether and how we can go about working together to establish a set of shared expectations is a key in determining whether our workplace is the kind of place what we want it to be. Whether and how we handle this deeper conversation is the key because it will be reflected in other aspects of how we do our work together.

That was a long-winded way of saying, “Yeah, it really is worth taking some time to talk about this.”

In order to carry out this experiment, I think we’ll need to consider together a number of questions. I’ll go ahead and throw out a bunch of questions that might be helpful to consider.

As you ask yourself these questions, consider what’s most important to you and what you really want for yourself and the company and your co-workers.

  • What values do you hold that are related to this discussion?
  • It may also be valuable to consider what concerns you, namely, what do you worry about and what fears do you have in connection with this conversation?
  • What negative outcomes are you afraid of for yourself or for the organization?
  • Going back to those two alternative approaches, if we don’t want the problems of disorder or the rigidity of a top-down system, what principles do we need to keep in mind in order to approach this conversation effectively?
  • What would it look like for us to handle this conversation in a way that matches our vision for our workplace?
  • What principles do we need to keep in mind in order to approach this effectively?
  • What’s your vision for how the people in an ideal company would handle setting expectations for themselves?
  • How would it handle differences of opinion and different perspectives on such issues?
  • How would it handle holding each other accountable for those expectations?
  • What would these conversations sound like?
  • What kind of systems and structures and mechanisms would need to be in place to support this going forward?

There’s no need for everyone to answer every single question. Just have everyone pick a handful that stand out to them and share their thoughts.

Most of all, like I said, try to remember a couple things: One, remember that it’s just an experiment. Two, remember that we’re really talking about more than crumbs on the floor (or whatever non-essential issue has been chosen).

Engaging in this kind of conversational practice will likely expose thoughts that and ideas that are important elements in developing a high-quality workplace.  You may even be able to take the results from this conversation and use them as a foundation for other conversations about more important topics.

If you’ve tried this in your workplace, what came out of it? What was valuable? What worked, and what didn’t? How would you do it differently in the future?


Mental Models – Thinking About Thinking

Let’s shift gears away from shared vision (“FINALLY!”) and talk about a different topic.  Hold the enthusiasm, pal.  It’s still related to shared vision*–mainly what stands in our way of achieving that vision, for ourselves and in our workplaces

As a disclaimer, this post is long and will be something of a 30,000 foot overview of mental models, so the focus will be more abstract than practical and concrete (“SHOCKING!”).

Short Version

If we’re serious about wanting to make changes to improve our lives and workplaces, we need to understand what mental models are, what influence they have on our thinking and behavior, and how to work with them.

Mental models are the beliefs, assumptions, and generalizations about the things that we carry in our head and that shape how we see the world like a pair of eyeglasses.  Since they operate under the surface, we don’t normally see them and their effects.

We wind up as prisoners of these models when we aren’t able to see and work with them because we can’t see that our mental models are always incomplete and inaccurate and often unhelpful.  These unhelpful mental models can be the source of the difficulty we face in trying to accomplish our vision and trying to do the things that we say we believe in and that we want to do as individuals and as an organization.

Long Version

Why Is It so Hard to Fix these Damn Gaps?

When discussing shared vision, we talked about the gap between current reality and our aspirations (what we want to be and do).  But we didn’t discuss what causes those gaps or how identifying a gap can help uncover a hidden problem we face in our personal and organizational lives.

You see, when we invest the effort to identify what we want, and when we’re honest with ourselves about current reality, our reward is that we come face to face with what can feel like an insurmountable barrier.  And I’m not talking about the gap itself.

The gap is certainly a problem, but it’s not the REAL problem.  The gap may just be a symptom of the real issue we’re facing.  Since it’s only a symptom, focusing exclusively on closing the gap may not get us what we want.  The bigger, thornier, trickier problem, the real underlying issue, is actually this: our inability to close the gap in spite of our best efforts and best intentions.  The problem is that we can’t make the changes we want to make.

I’m going to suggest that the roots of this issue may not lie in our skills and abilities.  We may know what we need to do to close the gap, and we may even be able to do those things, yet we may still find that the changes necessary to actually close the gap just don’t happen.  With some of our most important challenges, we need to go deeper and do some thinking about our thinking before we can get the results we want.  Specifically, we need to work on something called a mental model.

What Is a Mental Model?

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge describes mental models as “deeply held internal images”–typically assumptions or generalizations–“of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.”

A common metaphor for mental models is the eyeglass lens.  Like eyeglasses, we see the world through our mental models.  They are how we make sense of our experiences and ourselves.  We always think we’re viewing “reality”–we think that what we see is the way things really are–but understanding the nature and role of mental models reveals that we can only ever see the world as shaped by our mental models.

For instance, if we put on a different eyeglass prescription, we’ll experience a different visual image of the world around us.  This happens even though “the way the world is” hasn’t changed, only our lens, and therefore what our mind sees, has changed.  Similarly, if we revise our mental models, we’ll perceive and therefore understand and relate to reality differently.

Some of these mental models may simply be a generalization such as, “accountants are boring” or “Brad doesn’t like me.”  Other mental models may be more complex theories and may include something like assumptions about what kind of workplace we’re in or what our clients want and why they interact with us the way they do.

Another key feature of mental models is that they are almost always “implicit.”  This means that they’re not out in the open.  They operate below the surface of our conscious mind.  We don’t normally see them, don’t even realize that they’re there, and don’t recognize the effect that they have on our thinking and behavior.

In spite of some of the issues we’re going to discuss, which may make mental models sound like a real pain in the butt, it’s important to appreciate the valuable role of mental models in our lives–they’re indispensable.  We couldn’t function without them.  This is because the world–even a single human being–is too complex for us to understand fully.  Mental models address this complexity by simplifying the world into something manageable.  They help us make sense of the things we experience, providing order and meaning so that we can get out of bed (at least on most days).

Why Should I Care About Mental Models?  Seriously, Why Should I Care?

At this point, you might be thinking, “This is even more impractical than the vision stuff!”  But here’s the thing: it’s not just a fancy-but-useless theoretical idea.  The concept takes on real, practical significance when we recognize that our thinking produces our actions and that our actions produce outcomes, or, as The Fifth Discipline puts it, “mental models are active–they shape how we act.”

Like we discussed at the beginning of this post, we have all experienced frustration when we can’t make effective and lasting change in our actions in the ways that we say we want to.  To reiterate, we feel forever stuck with the gap between what we say we want and what we believe in and what we actually do.  Mental models help shed light on this phenomenon.

The key thing to recognize is that while we don’t always act congruent with what we say we want, we ALWAYS act congruent with our mental model.  So when we say we want something or believe in something that’s inconsistent with our mental model, we can be assured that our mental model will always win.  And conversely, when we can’t seem to do what we say we want to, that’s a good sign that the cause and the best route to a solution lie in our mental models.

Understanding this helps us see the importance of mental models in any change process.  So, to answer your totally legitimate question, you should care about mental models because, unless and until we address the thinking that is at the root of our actions, we’ll most likely find it impossible to actually make the changes we say we want to make in our lives and our organizations.

Some other points about mental models are also worth noting.

One is that they’re “implicit,” as we discussed.  Because they’re implicit, we don’t notice, with respect to our accountant mental models from earlier, the leap that we made between observing specific accountants acting in specific ways at specific times and the generalization that we then drew about all accountants being boring.  Once formed, these models color and shape what we see, how we see it, and how we react to what we see.  And we don’t even realize it.

Even more troubling, our accountant co-worker may be fairly engaging by some objective standard, but we’ll be less likely to notice things that may support that conclusion and may be less likely to give him the chance to prove it because of our “accountants are boring” mental model.  So we become more or less immune to information that’s inconsistent with our mental model.

Furthermore, since one person’s mental models differ from another’s, this helps explain why two people can share an experience yet perceive, understand, interpret, describe, and react to it so differently.  Many conflicts and communication problems can be traced to these inconsistent mental models.  It can seem like we’re operating in different worlds, and in a very real sense we are.  Mental models help explain how that can be.

Ok, Now that I Care, What Do We Do About This?

As mentioned before, mental models serve an important function, and we couldn’t live without them.  They’re not the enemy.  They’re not a problem to be solved.

The problems we experience arise because these invisible mental models, whatever they are, effectively run our lives in important ways.  For practical purposes, we’re basically prisoners of our mental models and don’t even realize it.  We’re prisoners because (a) we’re not choosing them and (b) we’re bound by the consequences that flow into our lives because of them.  We’re stuck in the sense that, as mentioned above, we really don’t have the option of acting in ways that may contradict them.

Beyond this, the even more practical problem with mental models is the one we keep returning to: some of them simply aren’t very helpful.  While the benefit of mental models is that they’re simplifying, the cost is that they’re limiting.  So we often end up with models that prevent us from, or at the very least don’t help us, do the things we say we want to do in our lives and workplaces.

In terms of unhelpfulness (not a real word), some of them are merely incomplete.  Some are almost entirely wrong.  Some are partially valid but apply only in limited situations.  Some are outdated ideas we picked up in childhood that need to be left behind.  Some serve mainly to protect us from a perceived threat but produce dysfunctional results.

But again, the answer isn’t to get rid of our mental models.  That’s impossible.  What we need is to somehow figure out how to make them more functional and less dysfunctional, to make them serve us better.

To make our mental models more functional, we have to bring them to the surface, test their accuracy and completeness and applicability, and improve them as necessary.  We need to be able to refine them in order to make them more consistent with current reality–more accurate, complete, and applicable to our situation.  Doing this requires a combination of individual skills and practices as well as organizational systems and structures that support the use of these skills.

The Fifth Discipline refers to these key individual skills as reflection and inquiry.  Reflection is mainly an intrapersonal skill.  It’s about becoming more aware of our mental models, including how they form and the ways they influence our actions.  Inquiry is mainly an interpersonal skill.  It is involves how we interact with other people in order to better understand each other.

Application of these skills involves asking questions such as:

  • What important thing am I not admitting that I really don’t know about this situation?
  • What do I believe or assume about how people/the world works in this situation (likely connected to what we don’t know)?
  • In what ways is this belief or assumption likely accurate?
  • In what ways does this belief or assumption help us?
  • In what ways might this belief be inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading?
  • In what ways might this belief or assumption be limiting and/or unhelpful?
  • How could I run a test to see whether this belief accurately and completely reflects the real world right now?

This Mental Models Business Sounds Like Kind of a Rabbit Hole.

Yep.  But an important one.

That was a long one.  Thanks for sticking around.  In future posts, we’ll bring in some more concrete examples to try and make the idea more tangible and better illustrate the concept’s connections to real life and to enhancing the quality of our workplaces.

In closing, I’ll invite you to consider these questions about working with mental models:

  • What kinds of systems and structures would you need to have in place in your workplace in order to regularly think about these kinds of questions and examine our mental models?
  • What kind of changes would you need to make in your workplace to be able to do that?
  • What would your workplace need to be like for that to happen?
  • Do you think it would be beneficial to make those changes?  In what ways?

*I’m just going to keep on including this disclaimer: Feel free to use the term goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, target, etc.–something reflecting a desired future state.

People Like Us

Seth Godin occasionally uses the phrase, “People like us do things like this” when talking about how people mobilize to accomplish something together.  I think the phrase can be taken in a couple ways.  It could mean that people like us to this kind of thing.  It could also mean that people like us do things in this kind of way.  It’s probably most useful to think of it in both ways.

Either way, that phrase raises some important questions that relate to the idea of a shared vision.  Approaching this vision business really is about considering certain kinds of questions.

The common line about the educational goal of law school is that it teaches you how to think.  The approach law schools use to try and teach students how to think is the Socratic method.  The Socratic method is basically the process of asking a student a question, getting a response, which produces another question, and continuing the cycle until exhaustion or the end of class.  So a key part of the this popular and long-standing approach to teaching thinking skills involves the asking of questions.

And if the creation of a vision is about certain types of questions, I would suggest that what we’re really doing is using the asking of particular questions in order to think more deeply about certain things.  It’s about asking questions to facilitate deeper thinking about what we really want and what’s really most important to us.

If Seth’s phrase is accurate and certain kinds of people actually do certain kinds of things in certain kinds of ways, I believe it would be worth giving some thought to the implications of this assertion.  The relevant questions that arise in this inquiry would seem to include: What kind of people are we at our workplace?  What kind of people do we want to be?  What kind of workplace is this  What kind of workplace do we want this to be?  How would people like this operate?

There’s no shortcut to deeper thinking.  Thinking, especially the kind that asks difficult questions for which there’s no easy answer, can be hard, time consuming work.  For this reason, asking these kinds of questions may be inefficient and may be frustrating.  But I would suggest that it is less inefficient for someone in a car to ask where we’re headed, why we’re going the direction we’re going, and whether this route will get us where we want to go than to simply ignore those inefficient questions in favor of the seemingly more efficient act of simply driving.

What are your answers to those questions?  What other questions need to be asked about your workplace?

Vision and Personal Responsibility

Vision* is a matter of personal responsibility.  To help illustrate that point, consider a few rhetorical questions:  Who’s responsible for what happens in your life?  Who’s responsible for your workplace?  Why is your workplace the way it is?  What do you want it to be?  What would it take to make it better than it is now, and what does “better” mean?  Who’s going to make it better?

Defining and expressing a vision is a first, and essential, step in the process of taking full responsibility for ourselves and our lives.  It’s ultimately about being a participant and not a victim.  It’s about being a participant in our own lives rather than a victim of our circumstances.  It’s about being an active participant in our organization, participating with our colleagues to contribute to the quality of the place, and not a victim of the people we work with and the way things are.

Fantasy and Irresponsibility

One of the knocks against vision is that it’s just indulging in fantasy.  And that’s exactly what it often is.  Other than the waste of time, the problem with fantasizing is that we do it in an effort to avoid facing reality.  It’s about avoiding responsibility for actually dealing with life and the world and people around us on their own terms and in a constructive manner.

Fantasy in this sense is about wishing.  Those alleged vision statements hanging on company walls all over the world aren’t really visions at all.  They’re empty wishes–wishes that we operated in a certain way, that we treated our colleagues and customers a certain way, that we accomplished certain things.  And because they’re wishes, they’re guaranteed to never become reality.

That’s because wishing is easy.  Wishing is cheap.  Wishing asks nothing from us, and we give nothing for our wishes.  Wishing instead demands that the world and life and other people become what we want them to be without any effort on our part.  Wishing turns us into victims of the world and other people, neither of which will ever live up to our demands.

The real problem with wishing is that it denies personal responsibility for taking action to get what we say we want and to be what we say we want to be.

The Responsible Choice

Dismissing the vision question, however, isn’t the answer because it actually suffers from the same flaw.

Dismissing vision and getting back to work may seem like the responsible choice, but it’s not.  It’s fundamentally irresponsible because when we do that we’re actually refusing to take personal responsibility.

We tell ourselves that we dismiss the idea of vision because we’re so busy.  We’re working so hard doing “stuff”.  There’s no time or attention left for that kind of luxury.  We’re expending so much effort and energy.

But giving energy towards what?  Where is the energy taking us?  (We’ll set aside the question of why for now.)  What are we creating with all that energy?  Without previously defining for ourselves what we actually want, our effort isn’t in service of taking personal responsibility for producing anything or getting anywhere in particular.  We’re just keeping ourselves busy.

We can’t get what we want by chance.  There are too many other people and organizations trying to influence and act on us.  Their goals are to get us where they want us to be, not to help us get what we want.  We also have our own natural drives and instincts, motivations and fears, influencing how we show up in life.  These natural tendencies don’t typically produce our best selves.

So, these external and internal forces aren’t likely to lead us where we really want to go.  If we don’t first decide what we want, we’re basically just letting the currents of life and our own lesser nature take us where they will.  We’re leaving the outcome to chance and to someone else’s agenda.  That’s not being mature and realistic.  That’s being irresponsible with our lives and our organization.

The Demands of Vision

On the other hand, a vision (one that’s not mere fantasy) makes a demand on us.  It forces us to face reality and demands a response.  It asks what we’re going to do about the distance between where we are and where we say we want to be.  It demands that we take responsibility for doing the things required to fill that gap.  Then it convicts us if we refuse, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.  That’s what vision does.  That’s all it can do.

If we refuse to accept this responsibility and act, then we don’t have a vision.  We just have a fantasy–a wish, and wishes don’t do anything.

We May Not Have Caused It, But We’re Responsible for It

Another tricky thing about all this responsibility stuff is that we often confuse responsibility with causation.  We didn’t cause our workplace to be what it was when we arrived.  But now that we’re there, we, along with everyone else, are responsible for making it what it will be tomorrow and next year.

We’re responsible because our workplace will be something tomorrow.  It will have a certain culture and climate and a certain way of doing things and a certain degree of effectiveness.  It will be what it is because of the choices each one of us makes, what we choose to do, and how we choose to do it.  The question is whether our actions will contribute to making it more or less like what we say we want?

We’re responsible because we’re all there is.  Our workplace is just the sum of us.  There’s no “they” that we can blame for what happens here and what becomes of this place.  There aren’t any elves or fairies to express appreciation or do considerate things for each other or do our jobs better or fix our mistakes.  There aren’t any gremlins who act inconsiderately and ruin everything for everyone all the time.  Look around.  No one is going to save us from ourselves.

None of us individually caused our workplace to be what it is, but each of us has responsibility for what it will be.

*Again, we could use the term goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, target, etc.–something reflecting a desired future state.

Creative Tension – The Energy to Do the Work

There are some other ideas that are important to talk about along with shared vision and aspiration. These other ideas are important because I recognize that in the prior post about the value of talking about shared vision* I basically just asserted that vision,if approached in the right way, can be connected to and can influence what we do and how we do it.

I made that claim, but I didn’t back it up.  I didn’t actually make the connection between the abstract, academic idea and the concrete, practical world of getting stuff done.  I want to try and connect those dots because I understand that talk of vision can still seem irrelevant to the concerns of real life.

One idea that helps make this connection is something referred to as “creative tension” in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Here’s the short version:

We always want something.  When we decide that we want something at Point B and we realize that we’re at Point A, that creates a gap.  The existence of that gap creates tension.  That tension is uncomfortable.

We have a couple options when faced with the gap.  We can give up our desire for Point B and surrender to apathy.  We can deceive ourselves and try to believe that we’ve already achieved Point B.  Either of these may help reeducate tension for a time.

Alternatively, the tension can be a source of energy and creativity and motivation to help us do the work required to move towards Point B. That’s the value of creative tension.  Without explicitly articulating the aspiration for Point B, we may not have experienced the tension and may not have had the energy to do that work.

Here’s the longer version:

There’s a problem that we get into when we head down this road of aspiring towards something better.  The problem is illustrated in one of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Grapes.  In the fable, the fox comes walking down a road (let’s assume he’s walking on his back legs and wearing human clothes, including pants, like any respectable story book animal).  During his walk (maybe it’s a saunter) he comes across a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine over his head.  He’s hungry, and he can see that these are excellent grapes.  They’re plump and juicy and the perfect ripeness for picking.  He can imagine (in his strangely human-like fox brain with a neo cortex) how delicious they’ll taste.  They’re beyond his reach standing on the ground, so he jumps to grab the bunch . . . and misses.  He jumps again and misses again.  The grapes are father away and harder to get to than he first realized.  So he takes a few steps back, gets a running start, and jumps again.  No matter how hard he tries, the grapes are just out of reach of his little fox paws.  Eventually he tires himself out from all his jumping and gives up.  As he walks off, he tells himself that those grapes were probably sour and that he didn’t want them anyhow.

After the fox aspired to get his paws on a bunch of ripe, delicious grapes to ease his intense, gnawing hunger (he skipped breakfast), he learned that there was a gap.  There was a gap between the height of the grapes he wanted and how high his nimble yet diminutive fox legs were able to jump.

That’s the situation we find ourselves in whenever we entertain any kind of aspiration in any area of life.  The nature of an aspiration is that it’s something that we don’t now have or some quality or state that we haven’t achieved.  So in any vision or aspiration there is always a gap between the current reality and what we want.  And the presence of that gap always sucks or, as we’ll refer to it here, it creates tension.

We can picture the gap as a rubber band stretched between two poles.  One pole is our current reality–where we are right now.  The other pole is our desired end state (who we want to be, where we want to be, how we want to perform, etc.).  The farther apart the two poles are, the more the rubber band is going to be stretched, and the more tension there’s going to be in the system.

In our lives, that tension is a form of cognitive dissonance, and it’s not comfortable.  In fact, it can be intensely uncomfortable.  It can be awkward.  It can feel yucky.  It can taste like the bitterness of failure.  It actually shows up as feelings of physical discomfort and mental anxiety.  We feel uncertain and vulnerable.  It can trigger our fight or flight response and all the physiological stuff that goes along with that.

Going back to the rubber band analogy, we also need to recognize that the rubber band that’s stretched contains potential energy that wasn’t there when it was just sitting limp on the table.  The same goes for the tension in our gaps.  We call it creative tension because there’s energy and power in the gap between current reality and what we aspire to.  That energy is what helps us do what’s necessary to create what we’re shooting for.

Like the fox, in the face of the gap and the discomfort we experience when we recognize how far we are from what we want, we can give up, and we can claim that we didn’t really want that goal and that it probably wouldn’t have been that good anyhow.  We can also try to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re better than we really are.

With that in mind, it’s also helpful to look at what happens when there’s no creative tension.  Without the tension, either because we aren’t aspiring to anything different or better or because we don’t accurately understand where we are, there’s just satisfaction with the status quo.  With no motivation to change or to work for improvement, there’s stagnation.  When we abandon our aspiration, we’re left with apathy, disinterest, and disengagement.  And deceiving ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved something that we haven’t produces an off-putting smugness.

The alternative is to expect and even welcome the discomfort.  We can come to recognize that the discomfort is ok, to see it as something positive because it’s a sign of energy in the system.  And to then remember that we can use that energy as a creative force to help us do the work that will get us closer to what we want.

The fox had options.  There were ways to be creative (story book foxes are clever, after all).  He could have found a stick to knock down those grapes or found a fox ladder (that’s what anthropomorphized foxes use) or found some climbing friend (perhaps a tree sloth) or taller friend (like a bear) to help him, but he didn’t.  He couldn’t hold the tension, and he couldn’t cope with it effectively.  And he didn’t get what he wanted.

That’s why we say that it’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.  If the vision is going to actually do something, we have to let it produce creative tension; we have to tolerate the discomfort of that tension; and we work with the energy in that creative tension to figure out how to get closer to what we say we want and then actually do the work.

Going back to the earlier post about shared vision, I think part of the problem with a lot of vision exercises is that they don’t actually produce much creative tension.  Or, if they do initially, then we don’t hold it and don’t use it, and it disappears.  That could be because people don’t fully understand current reality and don’t see the gap.  It could be because they don’t actually invest in wanting what they say they aspire to–maybe in reality it’s just a bunch of fancy words that we use to make us feel good about ourselves but don’t really want that badly.  Maybe we don’t believe it’s achievable.  Whatever the cause, it’s clear that there’s no creative tension in the system, so there’s no energy, so the vision doesn’t actually “do” anything, in spite of what the words say.

Does this help you make the connection between the abstract idea of vision and the concrete of daily work?  What’s your experience with creative tension?  How does that gap feel?  How do you deal with the tension?

*Again, feel free to use goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, target, etc.–something reflecting a desired future state.

Shared Vision: Waste of Time or Essential for Success?

One of the central themes of A New Workplace is the effort to define a vision* for the places we work.  The value of developing a shared vision is sometimes taken for granted.  But it’s not without good reason that we often run into resistance when trying to undertake these exercises in the workplace.

Do we really need to talk about vision, or is it just a waste of our time?

Here’s the short version:

We’re all busy.  We all have plenty of “real work” that needs to be done, all the time.  So, yes, talking about our vision can be a frustrating waste of time that could have been spent doing something productive.  This happens when we emphasize what the vision says.

The way around this is to focus on what the vision actually does.

We have the ability to make things better than they are right now.  But any improvement to the workplace requires that we first articulate a vision of what that something better actually looks like.  So, yes, visions are necessary for improvement.

But visions aren’t magic.  They don’t automatically produce the desired results just because we write them down.  The vision needs to actually do something or, more precisely, to cause us to do something, consistently, for a long time.  After we take that first step, we then have to figure out how to use the vision.  We have to actually get to work and take action that moves us towards making that vision a reality.

Here’s the long version:

Bringing up “vision” evokes different responses from different people.  Some people get excited because to them the topic is fun and inspiring.  Others groan or roll their eyes, remembering hours of wasted time, time that they’ll never get back, time spent on meaningless fluff when they could have been doing actual work.

Who’s right?  I suspect both perspectives are legitimate.  I wouldn’t disagree that many millions of man hours have been wasted in organizational visioning processes.  I’ve been part of some excruciating experiences in the name of drafting a vision statement.  And, at the same time, improvement can and does happen, and real value can flow from people who hold a vision of something better for themselves and their group.

In my past negative experiences, part of the frustration came from the effort put into the wording and trying to get consensus on “perfect language.”  Inevitably, some people demanded that we include their pet phrases.  We would go round and round (and round and round and round) trying to get the statement just right.  (Cue images of people searching for sharp objects to jab through their eyeballs.)  To add insult to the injury, we wound up forgetting about the statement we put all that effort into.  It just didn’t make any difference to what we did or how we did it.  I’m not alone in those experiences.  With all that baggage, it’s easy to understand anyone’s skepticism about vision statements.

So where does that leave us?  Do we just write off visions as a frivolous emotional indulgence?  Do we try anyway, blindly hoping that things will work out differently this time?

I think part of the answer lies in our intention for the process–what are we actually trying to accomplish and why?  Like I said before, in my bad experiences, we worked a lot on what the vision “is”–debating the specific wording.  In spite of that effort, the end product had no effect on our behavior.  We produced “a vision,” but it didn’t actually “do” anything.  We approached the exercise as if the words themselves were what mattered most without much thought for what effect the words would actually have on us.  That looks like a recipe for cynicism.

I think the solution is found in this statement from the book, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge:

It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.

There’s no doubt that visions can be maddening and their results impotent.  But there’s a fundamentally different way to approach a vision, and the above statement captures this difference.

Visions aren’t magic.  Writing out a vision isn’t like waiving a magic wand that turns us into what we say we want.  Defining the vision is just the very first step of what’s probably a very long journey.  It’s got to be followed by a lot of hard work.

So, instead of wordsmithing, we can choose to concern ourselves with what the vision does to us and what we do with the vision and as a result of the vision.  We can choose to be less concerned about getting the wording perfect.  We can be less focused on producing something worthy of a plaque to proudly hang on the wall.  We can instead be more interested in whether the statement, even if it’s not eloquent, captures what we actually want for ourselves and our organization.  We can honestly ask ourselves whether it portrays something we’re willing to put effort into and to consistently and persistently work toward.  We can put effort into figuring out how to make sure we actually use the vision to help shape our actions.  We can then do the painful stuff that the vision requires of us.

It’s about aspiration.

At its best, working out a shared vision is about connecting with our capacity for aspiration.  A capacity for aspiration is the ability to recognize that there’s something better than what we now have or now are.  We realize we want something different.  We give that recognition some shape in our our mind. We believe that it might be possible to move a little closer to that image.

A capacity for aspiration is essential for any change, for any improvement, and for accomplishing anything meaningful in life.  Aspiration for a shared vision can actually “do” something for a group of people.  And that’s why it’s worth our time and energy to work towards forming a shared vision.

I don’t particularly care what our vision looks like.  I don’t care if it would win an award or how it would look in fancy vinyl lettering.  But I do care about the quality of my workplace and what it could be, and I do care whether I work in a place where people share an ideal that motivates them to give the effort and do the work that’s required to actually improve things for each other and the clients they serve.

Give this some thought.  What kinds of experiences have you had creating a vision with a group?  What could have made those experiences more positive?  How do you feel about spending time discussing your vision for your workplace?

*If the word “vision” turns you off, feel free to choose a different word.  Use goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, or target.  Any word that brings to mind a desired future state will work.