Focusing on process to achieve outcome

A while back I decided I wanted to learn how to juggle. I had wanted to since middle school but had been unable to do it. Even the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz did not help at all. I would try and fail, and try their tips and fail, and try again and fail. The desire to figure this one out lay dormant for many years, and then on the verge of my 40th birthday I decided to give it one more try. I asked my team if any of them knew how to juggle, and if they would be willing to coach me. I promised to juggle in front of the whole department at a staff meeting if I was successful, with credit to the coach. John, one of my direct reports, stepped up. He was a fantastic coach – he would pop in to my office 2 or 3 times a week, watch me for a few minutes, and then give me just one or two things to work on.

But I remained very frustrated, unable to keep the balls in the air beyond the first 2 tosses. It was driving me nuts, the same problem I had always had. I was focusing on the outcome – my goal was to be able to keep 3 balls in the air for at least 7 tosses. And I would fail, again and again.  Then something shifted. I can’t remember if it was John’s idea or mine, but I realized that I was focusing on the wrong thing. I had no control over whether I could juggle. But I could control how much I practiced. I changed my goal to practicing 10 min a day, regardless of how many times I dropped the balls. That small shift changed everything about my experience. As long as I put in my 10 min, I was no longer a failure. I relaxed into the process. And then, within 6 weeks (yes, it really took that long!) I could keep 3 balls in the air past a count of 10.

I had learned a lot more than how to juggle. I had discovered the power of focusing on process measures you are trying to achieve. Turns out you can’t influence outcome directly (at least most of the time) – you have to get there through some process over which you do have control. That learning is serving me now, as I seek my next position. It is still very challenging – I have a clear idea of my desired outcome, but I have no direct control over when, or even whether, I will attain my goal. All I can do is focus on the search process, show up in my life every day to do my part through action (thanks, Jeffrey, for that sage counsel), practice trust, and be patient. Some days I find it relatively easy to do that and I find joy in the process. Other days I find that trust and patience take real effort. It is a daily practice.

I am not waiting, I am just here.

Mooji, as shared with me by Grace Bell

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Designing my next step

Well it turns out that cocooning took longer than I thought it would – the process of dissolving your external identity and going within to explore what you might want to become is non-linear and does not go according to plan, filled with unexpected twists and turns.  However, here I am – emerging back into the world.  This is still an exploratory phase, but more focused.  I am looking for organizations where I would like to show up every day and contribute to success with the skills I bring.  But this post is not about what I am looking for, it is about the process of exploring.  As I have spoken to people and imagined myself in different organizations, I received a book recommendation that has shifted my thinking and given me a surge of energy: Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

I have always been a fan of design thinking, using it for any number of things from visual display of information to business processes.  There is so much freedom and empowerment in trying something through a prototype, in learning through experimentation, in making the change you want to see real and testing it.  But it never occurred to me to apply this method to myself.  How do you prototype your life?? But in reading this book I’ve learned I can do exactly that. I am excited by all the ways I can discover things through this new frame.

The challenge is how to decide what to explore next through life prototyping.  Luckily the authors help with that as well, offering self-reflection exercises to help you articulate your life view, your work view, and how you are doing right now in work, life, play and health. This “compass setting” provides good ground from which to launch into design, along with processes with just enough rigor to help ensure you learn by articulating the questions you want to answer and the hypotheses you want to test – just as with prototyping products.  One of my favorite take-aways is that there is not just one right next step, rather there are several good-enough options.  This frees me from the anxiety of choosing “right” and instead allows me to focus on the process of choosing, which the book also provides a framework to support.

The final chapter offers suggestions for putting together a Design Team – a group of people who can support each other with ideas and insights as they walk their respective paths.  I look forward to the first meeting in a couple of weeks of a few friends I invited to join me in this process. This approach would be great for anyone in transition, who just feels stuck or left wanting more from your life in the present, not in some ideal future. Now that I have adopted it, I think I will be using it indefinitely, not just for work but for any part of my life where what I want and what is aren’t fully in sync. It has generated a mind-shift that I believe will be sticky.

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Leaders are humans

doors-1613314_1280Early in my career I was in a front line management job.  I had a small team, and interacted with each of them on a daily basis.  I was full of thoughts about how senior management and executives were ineffective, and how they could do their jobs better.  I saw actions, experienced the results of some decision process to which I had no visibility, and passed judgment.  I was convinced that the senior management team was driven by ego, turf wars, and wrong thinking, without regard to impact on the front line employees.  I promised myself that if I ever rose in rank I would not be one of those types of leaders.  I would care about the impact on the front line.  I would consider and take input from a wide range of stakeholders.  I would be more transparent about my decision process.

And then, when I actually arrived at a director-level position, I found out the hard way that all my certainty about the kind of people who are leaders was wrong.  Because there I was – a person.  A human being.  Often tasked with making decisions that I knew others would not like at best, and at worst could have a huge negative impact on their lives.  My organization paid me to do that job.  To make those decisions.  I had to consider the health of the organization or the team over the impact of any individual employee, to the best of my ability.  I took that responsibility seriously, and I am sure I made some poor decisions.  Some of those decisions were impossibly hard – such as how to achieve a mandatory 10% budget cut when the only costs in my department were people’s compensation and benefits.  I tried to be transparent, to share my rationale, so that people could understand.  But the reality is that decisions that look reasonable to one person can look totally crazy to someone else.

We each have our own unique perspective, influenced by so many things – our personal history, our implicit assumptions and expectations, where we sit in an organization, who we interact with.  We often make the mistake of assuming that we have all the information available to us – I know I did.  Here is what I learned about leaders’ decisions: no matter how much you think you have all the information to understand a decision, you probably don’t.  And even if you did, you cannot know that you would make a different decision with that same information until you are actually standing in that position, with requirement to decide.  People have absolutely questioned my decisions, and I totally understand why, having done the same to others. After having lived in both positions I had a deep and humbling realization that it was not my place to pass judgment on leaders as people.  I could have my opinion, sure, and think that I might make a different decision.  But all leaders are human beings, and it is kinder and easier on yourself to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are doing the best they can – and recognize that you might not have all the relevant information, because no one does.

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Racism, sexism, and systems of oppression

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-light-sky-silo-windows-lillyphotographerI have been diving in to others’ thoughts on systemic patterns of oppression, and the insights offered are so rich that I want to share them with you, along with my own reflections.  Recent public discourse, or lack thereof, about Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, what is being said (and not said) in the presidential campaign about race, gender, ethnicity – all of this led me to want to grapple with the question of prejudice, oppression and privilege.  Following this thread, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Lindy West’s ShrillThese two books will give you much to think on, to sit with and contemplate.  Whether you agree or disagree, is not so important.  What matters, or what mattered to me, was the courage of the authors and speakers to speak the truth of their own lived experience in a manner that exposes and challenges the status quo of systematic privilege.

As a sociologist, I have studied racism, sexism, and all the other ways in which a dominant group establishes and maintains their position of privilege.  But the academic literature can be somewhat clinical.  It is easy to distance from actual people when talking about systems.  Yet you need to be able to see both  the system and the individual.  Too much focus on the individual and you miss the vast subtle ways in which systematic oppression constrains and shapes lives.  Too much focus on the system and you miss the impact at the personal level that makes the human cost clear and real.  Coates and West risk vulnerability when sharing their personal stories, while connecting the truth of their lived experiences to the broader patterns of racism and sexism.  Both address control of the body as a primary method for control of the individual.  They paint in clear, stark colors the way in which threat of bodily harm and actual violance is used to constrain members of an oppressed group.  The facts of this control are not new to me – but the way in which Coates and West write allowed me to connect with their stories in a fresh and very personal way.  They were unapologetic, completely authentic, and inarguable.  As a result, I find myself seeing others differently, with more understanding or at least greater awareness of what I might not understand.  In their writing, Coates and West created space for me to connect across the divide of different identities.

We all have prejudice – we cannot avoid making up stories about others based on what we first see.  But we can strive to bring awareness to our biases, and in particular to not act but rather to get curious.  A fantastic dialogue about the difference between prejudice, discrimination and racism is part of a Liturgists Podcast on  Black and White: Racism in America.  Listening to the discussion between two white men and two black men helped me become more clear about how prejudice manifests into racism, and what might be done by individuals to generate systemic change.

I encourage you to read or listen for yourself, and I welcome your own reflections.

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Systemic constraints, individual autonomy

bicycle bridgeI have spent the past few weeks reflecting on my life’s work – the highs and lows, the times when I have been most energized and engaged – toward identifying the purpose of my next life chapter.  What I am discovering is both surprising and very familiar.  I have spent most of my career at the intersection of human systems and individual action.   My doctoral dissertation and academic research was the study of organizational constraints on women’s work force and childbearing behavior.  I spent the past 17 years in leadership positions, practicing how to create effective change for organizations and learning how important it is to connect with individual people.  I believe that all individuals have the power to make a difference – to choose what they do and how they do it.  This is particularly true for people in leadership positions, who have been granted power by virtue of their positional authority.  I have seen individual leaders make a significant difference.

And yet, I have witnessed an organization turn over most people in leadership positions, with new leaders coming in with bold visions and mandates to create change, only to have the same behavior patterns repeated.  Culture beats strategy, or eats it for breakfast (a saying often attributed to Peter Drucker but without clear attribution).   The only thing I could conclude was that the organization as a system had enormous power to resist change.  Mental models passed on to new hires, incentive structures both internal and external, processes both implicit and explicit – all the ways things get done in the organization – induct individuals into the system and create inertia and resistance to change, both passive and active.

And yet, change does happen.  Usually slowly, sometimes at a dizzying pace.  You see it in social and political trends at the national level, within organizations and teams, and within individuals.  People themselves are systems – complex beings made up of different parts, beliefs, and habitual behaviors.  Change, whether within a person or for an organization, can be very difficult to create and even harder to sustain, but everything I have learned points to one common truth: lasting change can only occur with deep understanding and acceptance of what currently exists.  And an important related truth – leaders must be willing to go first, to embody the change they want to create, to live the values they speak.  Because people watch what leaders do, and dismiss what they say.

Most people working in transformation know this – it is not new insight.   Yet many seek to make change for others without seeming to fully embrace the change for themselves.  They seem to have already arrived at answers.  A positive holistic approach to change means seeking the right questions, rather than bringing answers.  It means coming with an open heart as well as an open mind.  It means being willing to look at your own role in maintaining the status quo, even while that is uncomfortable.

My life’s work has been to understand, practice and become highly skilled at intentional system change, which sits at the intersection of strategy and culture, of organizations and individuals.   The purpose of my next chapter is to share what I have learned and my skills with others, as I continue to learn and grow.  How or where I do that, I am still not sure.

“you are perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.”  – Shunryu Suzuki

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This precious life

giftPrecious: of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly; beyond price.

As I move through this process of cocooning, one of the things I am working on is owning my gifts.  Nancy, my coach, encouraged me to practice really getting how precious I am, and what I uniquely bring to the world.   These words made me uncomfortable.  I want to distance myself from the idea that I am precious – it sounds so self-absorbed.  And yet the principle that we each have unique gifts to offer the world is something I readily embrace – at least for others.  For the past few years I had a quote from Marianne Williamson on my wall from her book A Return to Love:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I have shared this with people who came to me, struggling with their sense of value and fear of being an impostor.  I did not realize that their struggle was my own, until my coach gently pushed me.  This is an old pattern for me, this shrinking.  The work of both Brene Brown and Tara Mohr goes right at it and is very helpful, but changing the pattern takes practice.  It does not happen overnight, especially after years of doing the opposite.  So I am working as best I can to honor my gifts.

There is another way in which I am actively not owning my gifts – in the sense that they are not mine to own.  They are truly blessings.  I am participating in an online class with Pema Chodron called the Heart of the Matter on the practices of a Bodhisattva, in which she talks about how special it is to have this precious human birth – a very unique gift in the views of Buddhism, one in which we have the opportunity to awaken into full consciousness.  In this frame, I (meaning my ego) did nothing to deserve being born at this time and place and with the resources I have.  The question “do I deserve this?” makes it about me, about shoring up my ego.  The question that moves me to greater consciousness is: “how might I use what I have been given for good?”  If this is the question, then denying the gifts is not helpful.   My playing small, as Williamson says, does not serve the world.

My practice today is to sit with that statement, and notice the resistance that comes up.  Not doing anything with it or against it, just noticing.

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butterflyThere is a name for the process I am engaged in – Cocooning. The name comes from Frederick Hudson’s cycle of renewal. His theory is that we all go through a process of four phases. The first phase is called Go for it, when you dig in with high energy to a new definition of success after a new beginning.  You are learning new things, meeting new people, focused on achievement, know who you are and have a relatively high sense of self confidence.  After some period of time in phase one, you move onto a plateau, where you have a high level of competence in your new domain, you are better able to have life balance, and can rest a bit more in place because things require less effort.  The second phase, called the doldrums, occurs when something changes.  The impetus can be either internal or external – regardless, it initiates a time of frustration, dissatisfaction, uncertainty, feeling out of sorts and erosion of confidence. These first two phases make up what Hudson calls a Life Chapter, and they tend to last 7 to 10 years.  The Life Transitions part of the cycle occur between chapters, typically last one to three years, and are made up of the third phase and fourth phases, Cocooning and Getting Ready. Transitions start with a loss – a little death.  This is where I am now on this map of human growth.

I felt a bit lost when I started – adrift, a bit fearful.  But I was blessed to connect with a coach who knows this map well and can serve as a wise guide – Nancy McCaughey.  As soon as I started working with her, I felt reassured and more at ease.  As she explained the cycle of renewal, I realized that while I recognized many times when I had been in the other three phases over the course of my life, I could not remember ever spending any significant time Cocooning.  In fact, I am not sure I have ever done it at all, definitely not intentionally.  Nancy suggested that without giving this phase the time and attention it deserves, there is a tendency to repeat, to go back to old patterns that may be dissatisfying, rather than to move forward.  I have a very strong sense of that, and of the importance of giving myself time to be in this phase.  It is characterized initially by grieving what is lost, letting go, and acceptance.  Then comes a focus on going inward, listening to and reclaiming your own voice, a time of resting, reconnecting with what brings you joy, and self-nurturing.  I like the analogy – caterpillars actually dissolve their structure completely while in their cocoons and reform as a completely new being, and yet made of the same material and DNA.  The process takes time, cannot be rushed.

So I have given myself through the end of the summer to cocoon.  I don’t know if that is the right amount of time – we shall see.  It feels like a real gift, and I seem to be able to relax into this space, thanks to Nancy, my coach and guide.

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Structured un-structure

to-do-listAt the beginning of this year I wrote about my desire to shift my focus more on Being and less on Doing.  In practice I found that very difficult.  My perception of the demands on my time, primarily from work, got in the way.  I am now out of the job, and out of all the structure and routine that job created for me (or I created for the job).  This is an exciting and unknown domain.   I notice that even though there is no external requirement to do so, I still make daily “to do” lists.  I find the structure comfortable, and more importantly, very valuable to set my intention for the day.  The daily ritual of my “to do” list creates an opportunity for me to pause and reflect on what it is that I want to do, or not do, that day.  I must confess, sometimes I put “take a nap” on the list. Regardless, I keep the list short.  Some of you may marvel at this, perhaps those who are in the “P” realm of the Myers-Briggs type indicator.  Those of you who are fellow “J”s may recognize yourselves in me.

The irony is that while I want to practice just being, I need some structure to do so – otherwise I keep myself busy with activity that just fills up my day.  Paradoxically, I find a little structure very helpful in exploring what unstructured time feels like.  I am currently participating in an online course with Pema Chodron, and in this past week’s lesson she spoke about the need to practice meeting yourself where you are; allowing your experience to emerge without either rejecting or condoning. She also discussed the need to practice stepping out of your comfort zone and into your challenge zone, without pushing yourself into excessive risk, where it might be too traumatizing for learning to happen.  This grows your capacity for challenge, and expands your comfort zone.  What defines each person’s comfort, challenge and excessive risk zone is highly personal, dependent on where you are in your own journey.

So for me, I am practicing un-structure.   Technically I am un-employed, but the Latin root of “employ” means “to infold, involve, engage” and I feel very engaged in this process.  I suppose I have become my own employer.

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Head, Body, Heart

I started my careHead body hearter completely in my head.  I spent all my energy and attention developing my intellect, growing my capabilities in my head center of intelligence.  I lived in the world of academics, and a separate world it was.  I then moved into the world of health care, where book smarts also reigned supreme.  Status was granted based on where you went to school and what kind of degree you had.  Meetings were often debates similar to the intellectual sparring contests I witnessed and participated in as an academic – a battle to see who could make the best case, using logic and data.  While I enjoyed this, having been well trained in this particular game, I also grew tired of it.  I wanted action, forward movement.  That, after all, was why I left the world of higher education and research – because I wanted to do something, to make a difference in the world.

This was the beginning of my body phase – a time when I learned to take action, even when I did not have all the facts or logic figured out – supported by coaching from my manager, James Hereford (now COO at Standard Health Care).  I practiced “good enough, press on” thinking, learned from one of my leaders, Matt Handley (still at Group Health) – a fantastic physician whose intellect was excellent and who had an even stronger bias for action.  I developed resilience, or some might call it stubbornness, to keep coming at a problem from different angles.  The problems I was attacking were organizational, not individual, and so I learned that successful action required me to build effective, strong relationships with others.  I brought this head and body skill set with me when I moved into philanthropy, and continued to grow these skills through application.  My new organization proved to be very head-centered, just as in health care, so intellect combined with action proved to be very useful.

But over time these two started to seem just a bit hollow.  About two years ago, I realized that while I had strong relationships, they were not as deep as I wanted them to be.  So I set out to deepen my connections to those I saw and worked with on a day to day basis (see previous post on paying down relationship debt).  The result was that I opened my heart to people in a way I had not done before – both the number of people and the depth of the connections grew, and kept growing.  Looking back now it seems obvious that this would be the result, and yet I still find it somewhat surprising.  I have spent a lot of my life a bit defended, proactively preventing pain from grief and loss.

Now here I am, poised to depart and leave behind the web of relationships.  I am deeply grateful to have had the chance to know people more intimately, to see and be seen.  And I am feeling the loss keenly.  However, in spite of the pain, I have no regrets.  I can only hope that I bring my relatively newly developed skills of the heart with me wherever I go next.  And that I maintain connections as I move on.

“Do not grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form.”  – Rumi

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Letting go again

leapingLast summer I shared reflections about a decision I made that had a significant impact on my life – the choice to stay at my place of employment through a significant change in strategy, structure and role.  I also wrote about the impact of those changes at work, that ended my regular interactions with many people and thus disrupted my relationships with them.  Over the past year I have leaned in to helping lead the changes at every level – with my head by planning, creating new processes, organizing teams and work, figuring out solutions to problems; with my heart by building new relationships and deepening existing ones, bringing empathy to those who were struggling with change, supporting those who were excited or wanted to grow in their personal development; and with my body by taking action, working long hours and being decisive.  I have grown so much, both personally and professionally.  I have developed experience and expertise beyond my familiar domain of data and analytics, with organizational change and development, business processes and leadership at a completely new level.

And now, after a year, I have come to the realization that it is time for me to move on.   I know in my heart that this is the right move for me.  But that does not make it easy.  Walking away means letting go of one choice and committing to another choice, one that is much less known.  It means changing relationships again as my connections with people shift.  I am in a period of grieving, and I expect that to continue for a while.  I have been part of my organization for nine years, and it has grown to be a part of me, of my identity.  I have fallen in love with the people I work with, over and over, and the difficult times we have gone through together have just strengthened our connections rather than weakened them.

I think I need to rest for a while, before I discover what is next for me in my career. No doubt this change will shift what I write about, so it seemed important to share with you all.

Thanks for reading and for you insightful comments.

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