Monday, November 19, 2007


Last week's Mastering Projects Workshop was, once again, magical! What started as a group of strangers rapidly coalesced into a community of interest. When we finished we were walking on a cloud, finishing each others' sentences, and, the best thing of all, had reached our collective objective and each of our individual objectives for the journey.

For more about how the week progressed, check out the Mastering Project Work Yahoo group at A short registration is required to take a peek at our remarkable, brief journey together. And, honestly, as much as we try to explain, and as hard as you look and try to understand, as with all magic, if you weren't there, you may never be able to understand.

Have you ever engaged on a project that turned magical? If so, you'll be able to relate and fondly reflect on that certain something that happened together. And you'll understand that feeling of magic.

How can you make magic happen on every project and initiative you engage with? How can you turn your difficult assignment into something remarkable? How can you take a disparate group of strangers (who may have worked together for years) and transform them into a real community in only three short days?

Drop us a note and find out how you can learn the secrets of how to bring the magic alive for you and your organization!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Human Centered Project Design

Last week at Stanford we again saw the subtle and pervasive impact of shifting the metaphor for our collective efforts from mechanical / industrial to living / human systems. We pose the fundamental question:

Are we pesky humans infesting a machine-like organization
or are we humans working (and thriving) within living organizations
that use mechanical support for our generative, creative, and productive efforts?

This cuts to the core of True North's distinctive difference. And what a difference it makes!

If you are interested in learning how this shift in perspective can infect every project you touch, we invite you to join us this fall in Spokane and Portland.

Human Centered Project Design

Portland, OR November 13-15, 2007 (Sign up by October 15)

Are you getting the best from the human elements of your project?

Join the hundreds of project managers that have learned the True North secret to tapping the human elements of their projects - aligned expectations, successful communication, political support, and real motivation - to deliver exceptional results with greater engagement, confidence, and satisfaction.

Designed from best practices of innovation-oriented projects, Mastering Projects amplifies the effectiveness of any development or project management method. Learn why Nike's product developers, the New York Stock Exchange's system developers, and Los Alamos National Laboratory's research scientists all agree that Mastering Projects delivers more capability with the essential people-side of leading initiatives.

In just three days learn to:
  • Design stronger, more flexible project structures
  • Use organizational politics to your project's advantage
  • Refocus energy and action within shifting goals and pressing urgencies
  • Maintain the engagement, motivation, and confidence of your team, your sponsors, and your customers.
Learn how to leverage the people issues that make or break project success.

Sign up today!

Interested in what the human perspective of the Mastering Projects Approach could do for your organization and your projects? Call us and discover how to design breakthrough results into every project and key initiative. For special team discounts or to bring True North's Human Centered Design on-site, email us or call 509.527.9773.

True North pgs, Inc. is a pioneer in applying leading edge dynamic human systems theory and practice to the organizational problems of innovation and projects. True North helps organizations realize breakthrough results from projects and initiatives by designing and leading more satisfying, more engaging, and more innovative efforts.

True North principals, David Schmaltz and Amy Schwab bring over fifty years of practical, hands-on project experience and over twenty-five years of work with dynamic human system theory and practice. Whether assessing a struggling initiative, facilitating a project start-up, or preparing sponsors, leaders, and teams for challenges beyond any they've experienced in the past, Amy and David deliver rapid results. Amy and David have personally helped transform difficult, complex, and very human projects including ERP implementation, business process reengineering, fast time to market product development, information systems and technology, research and development, and organizational development.

Learn how your organization can benefit from the True North difference today.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Good to Great Decision Making

I just ran across a great article from a June 2005 Fortune magazine interview with Good to Great and Built to Last author Jim Collins. Collins went back through his research to see what it says about decision making and leadership. Here are the key points from the interview:
  • What isn't very important -- who is. Over and over Collins makes the point that it isn't terribly important what a leader (or project manager) does while it is terribly important how that leader works with people and who s/he works with. Welcome to community -- real community -- relationships, humans, and their aspirations.
  • Being clear about who one is. He talks about how this applies to companies -- know what your real mission is, and what you are uniquely positioned to do, and then do it regardless of what anyone else says. It also applies to humans and to projects. "Who are you and what do you burn for?" is the key question. Some who read The Blind Men and the Elephant were taken aback by this notion -- as if it isn't very important instead of absolutely essential.
  • Saying "I don't know". Asking questions is more important than appearing to know all of the answers. You couldn't possibly know. Tied to this is asking first, not posing your opinion and then asking for reactions.
  • Gather all points of view and then make the decision. It isn't about consensus (at least not most of the time). It is about opening up the conversation to gain the wisdom of those around you to inform the decision and nurturing constructive conflict.
  • There are so many decisions to be made that it doesn't matter if you get many of them wrong. How you adapt to how it is different than you expected is what matters more than getting it right the first time.
I was reminded of this article when encountering yet another group of project managers in an organization seeking salvation in their methodologies and applying them as if they were prescriptive magic pills that would make everything okay. Here's why that doesn't work.
  • They tend to focus on what -- what to do, how much it will cost, what workers, and treating those workers like objects rather than real people. Even the so-called 'human-centered' methods often relate to humans as 'whats' not 'whos'.
  • They don't ask "What are we best at?" "What are we really up to?" and "What do we want?" They silently assume that this either is really clear and everyone sees the same thing or that this doesn't really matter (after all, we're only dealing with objective, verifiable whats). This misses or down-plays the important influence of context and intention.
  • They try to answer all the questions at the beginning (as if this were possible) and focus on reducing things into a totally known set of whats. This obscures the fact -- the feature of creating new things -- that much depends upon much and, when doing something really novel, thinking that we have the answers blinds us to the real unknowns.
  • They pose a recipe, instead of seeking a heading. They promise certainty instead of exercising resilience. They focus on authority instead of relationships and influence. They wind up delivering a fragile sort of certainty that blinds them to reality and leaves them over-responsible for reconstruction when the collision shatters their brittle certainty.
Thanks Jim Collins for the great reminder!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thinking about Design Thinking (and Doing)

When I meet someone new, especially a potential client, there is one question that always comes up and, as simple as it seems, has been very hard to answer.

"Just what do you do?"

Sometimes I talk about our adaptive approach to projects and initiatives, sometimes its about helping people innovate well together. Up until now, I've not been satisfied with either my response or with the puzzled looks on the face of those seeking clarification.

I think I've 'got it'!

Our good friend, Bill Burnett, who is executive director for Stanford University's world reknown product design program, recently cut through the haze when he told us, "You guys are all about Design Thinking!" He's right. And, Bill is, after all, one of the best qualified in the world to make this call!

David met Bill years ago when Bill designing products at Apple. David was called in to consult on a product design effort that was widely expected to fail. What really happened instead was an award winning PowerBook computer, and a model design effort that laid the foundation for Apple's success in laptops. Bill has become a good friend. A couple years ago, after The Blind Men and the Elephant was published, he invited David, as visiting author, and me, to co-teach his design class session where we played with the context to create a visceral 'out-of-the-box' experience.

So we trust Bill's nose - his credentials are impeccable, and his friendship is genuine.

We've spent a lot of time over the last few years trying on various labels to try to explain to prospective clients what we do and how we do what we do - this dance between the medium in which new things happen, the things that result (new products, new projects, organizational innovations), and the stuff people do to make those results occur (often expressed as methods, or processes). Because we bring a different mindset to these dimensions of getting things done - acknowledging how things are so we can work within that environment to create the results that are needed - we too easily get lost trying to explain an approach and a mindset that produce results that still amaze even us.

Design thinking - and doing - is a very apt way of expressing the way we approach our work and how we teach others to approach their work. Design thinking is an intentional approach by which individuals can effect change in whatever context they find themselves. The outwardly observable behaviors and processes are emergent from a set of principles and mindsets that are fundamental to design thinking.

Design thinking is applicable in all facets of organizational life. Capable executives might recognize what they do in the description of this term - observing what is going on and finding ways to step into the slipstream to let the current carry them along towards success. Savvy managers and leaders in all areas of an organization know these keys to success - and how to dress up what they have learned works in the common parlance of process, productivity, and efficiency. However, they are always clear that the description is not really what happens - it is only a politically correct representation - absolutely necessary and necessarily incomplete. Most often tacit knowledge.

My current project will be about observing these principles differently, distilling them into a language of design thinking in order to share them with our community in our new Design Thinking Series.

In the True North Design Thinking Series we will help executives and leaders, teams and work groups, projects and business initiatives, and individual contributors learn about Design Thinking and how they apply it to their situations. Whether framed as a workshop, an executive retreat, a strategic planning session, team building, or training session, the design thinking series will help leaders, teams, and organizations develop the capability to innovate intentionally.

Stay tuned for more details or contact us to learn more.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Presence and Intention - Why Bad things Happen to Good People

I've been following with interest the phenomena of The Secret and the stories and philosophy behind the people featured in this movie. Although the movie is, as one friend put it, "Over the Top" - over-dramatized (or melodramatized) the principles behind it seem to fit nicely with the principles of intention, presence, and action behind my work and with the explanations I've found for how these work in the areas of second-order cybernetics, and radical constructivism.

The biggest point of heartburn that people seem to have with The Secret and the Law of Attraction (besides the somewhat hokey woo-woo mystical presentation) is the notion that, in some way, we each have drawn into our lives the experiences we have had or are now having. The objections are usually framed as "What! So you say that those people who were victimized by Hurricane Katrina deserved it or intentionally put themselves in harms way?" This link to the Masters of the Secret Blog featuring Bob Doyle, one of the featured "Masters" in "The Secret" link provides a very nice explanation of this objection - one that tracks perfectly with my own experience. I invite you to consider this idea in your own life and in the lives of those around you.

Bob's explanation of how the Law of Attraction works - at a cultural and societal level - resonates deeply with my own understanding and experience with creating change. Having seen the invisible power of family systems and business systems as contexts that elicit unconscious individual behaviors (unseen by the individual without some outside perspective), I am convinced of the power of these invisible and unconscious patterns and attractors in the small and in the large. Each of us is literally shaped by the environment into which we were born - both biologically and physically. Coming to terms with those originating patterns - not with blame and victimization but with awareness and acceptance - allows us to more consciously choose our steps, learn from our choices (and our context), and move with intention towards the life we want from the life we've had.

As for erasing or changing the originating imprints (the subject of the prior post), I think our original imprints are important to acknowledge - as point of fact, informing our present, not as defining our future. We each begin where we begin which leads us to this moment now. Only in this moment can we access the choices that will influence our future. The fact of any past experience is just that, a fact.

That said however, when we find this moment's choice and access it, we have an unlimited ability to change the meaning of past experience - by first acknowledging that we have choice over that meaning and choice over our relationship to that past event. It is first a full acceptance of our past - including the meaning we've ascribed to those events - that provides a solid foundation to consciously use that past as a resource towards what we want - not just as an invisible trajectory to everything that we experience.

The hard work for me is constantly noticing and accepting my unconscious, invisible patterns as they arise, integrating them consciously into my story of who I have been up until now, and using that awareness to inform my next step.

Anyone who has had a partner or spouse point out some odd family patterns at a wedding (especially those that elicit strong emotional or uncharacteristic behaviors) knows the importance of having an outside supporter lovingly point out these 'quirks'. You probably also, should you reflect for just a moment, have experienced the difficulty accepting the testimony of someone sarcastically, unkindly, or critically pointing out these same patterns.

Finding a trusted counselor, someone to provide that extra-dimensional perspective to help you see what would otherwise be invisible - in your work, in your life, or in your family - can be a powerful ingredient to moving towards what you really want. Even better, finding someone to help you transform those difficult, but often very available, messages (sarcastic, unkind, or painfully critical) into a useful perspective to help you identify your most powerful choice points, could be truly magical.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bring Yourself to Work Day

On the fourth Thursday of May, the 24th, we invite you to Bring Yourself To Work Day™. This is an invitation to experience work in a really different way and an opportunity to create with others a workplace that’s engaging, motivating, and maybe even fun!
For more information, including warm-up exercises for everyday practice visit the Bring Yourself to Work Day site.

On Bring Yourself to Work Day, we invite you to set aside the five workplace inhibitions and engage in The Five Freedoms instead.

The five workplace inhibitions are patterns that we pick up early in our work lives. These are the parts of our nature we too often learn to omit from our public selves. What begins as innocent attempts to fit in, repeated over time, can become work life-limiting patterns.

The Five Inhibitions
  1. To see and hear only what should be, was, or will be, instead of what is here now.
  2. To say only what one ought to say instead of what one feels and thinks.
  3. To feel only what one ought to feel instead of what one really feels.
  4. To ask only for what one is supposed to want and then wait for permission to act instead of asking for what one wants.
  5. To choose to be “secure” and not rock the boat instead of taking risks in one’s own behalf.
Bring Yourself To Work Day is intended to disrupt this pattern. We invite you to exercise Virginia Satir’s Five Freedoms for just one day and see what happens:

The Five Freedoms
  1. To see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was, or will be.
  2. To say what one feels and thinks instead of what one should.
  3. To feel what one feels, instead of what one ought.
  4. To ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission.
  5. To take risks in one's own behalf, instead of choosing only to be “secure” and not rocking the boat.
For Bring Yourself To Work Day, consider adding a sixth freedom:
  1. The freedom to choose when, where, and how to exercise the other five freedoms!
Fully exercising these six freedoms is widely believed to be career limiting. We’re betting that it won’t be.

Visit the site to find warm up exercises, ideas for team and organization wide activities, and links to others' experiences.

Share your Bring Yourself to Work Day with others. View others' ideas, questions, and comments at our Google Group. If you'd like to add your questions or comments, you'll need to navigate a brief registration.

Let's see just what sort of difference one day might make - and whether we might turn Bring Yourself To Work Day into an everyday sort of experience.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bring Yourself to Work Day - May 24

The Five Freedoms Network™ is sponsoring a great idea this year. On May 24, join us for Bring Yourself to Work Day™, a day dedicated to showing up more fully by exercising the five workplace freedoms. It might seem risky - after all, what if they really heard how you experience work? What if they knew how you see things? What you are hearing? How you feel?

I don't know about you but I learned dozens of subtle little ways to censor myself in the workplace. How not to notice certain things. How not to speak up. How not to show up.

Only when I learned the magic of really showing up - and learned how to catch myself NOT showing up - did I learn the impact I could really have.

What do you have to lose? Try it for just one day. For more information visit And join others like you around the world!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Initiative - Intention and Presence in Action

"Initiate - to introduce by first doing or using"
Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary

Lately David and I have been considering what our clients gain from working with us. Where does the magic come from? What elicits the fire and the drive that seemed so distant from their work before? How do we adequately describe that magic we create in their world? The word that we keep rolling across is initiative.

Initiative seems to capture both the individual and the organizational aspects of what we unleash into play. Initiatives are often under the radar efforts or skunkworks. Many never get formal organizational sanction or recognition. Those that do most often trace their seed to an individual, subversive seeming idea that found its first roots in a benevolent little conspiracy before growing to a point where it pokes its heads above ground for a little sunshine and rain. Initiative is the key ingredient to innovation, creativity, and the deliberate, consciously induced change that individuals and organizations seek.

But something about the word Initiative doesn't sit right for me. It just doesn't capture the real sense of what really happens. It seems too, I don't know, static.

There seems to be something faulty about the language we have for describing systems and change. Our words seem to connote some certain 'is-ness' about things that implies that if we just got it right, we'll arrive at our perfect destination. (This is the point I think of as where I will ultimately write my magnum opus, "Amy's Five Easy Steps to Nirvana - And You CAN do it Too!")

So we describe what we invoke as initiative. We ask about intention. We deeply consider presence. As if doing those 'things' or reaching those mystical states (holding an intention and being here, now, with full acceptance of how it is) would get me what I want.

What is missing in these static seeming descriptions is action.

So, it's not about initiative but about Initiating.

It's not about intention but Intending

It's not really about Presence but ??? Presenting?

Hmmm, that doesn't quite get it either.

Maybe the missing factor that brings it to life is action - the doing, the using, the acting? Perhaps it boils down to acting with intention and presence. And, on the flip side, being present to all that intention and presence attracts.

Ah, gerunds. Aren't they great!

Acting - conscious, deliberate, sometimes courageous, sometimes foolhardy.

Webster's, once again, gives good counsel - initate by introducing into first using or doing.

Initiating - first doing or using, taking that first step. Again. And again. And again.

Monday, April 9, 2007

In the Beginning was Intention - or was it just really showing up?

Warning: This post contains likely mis-use of navigational references. I hale from the middle of the land sea of North America's great fly-over zone. I profess no expertise with sailing. However I do know wind. So, treat me generously when I use the sailing metaphor. I think you'll get my drift!

"All change rests on the full, albeit temporary acceptance of the status quo."
Virginia Satir

The beginning of every engagement, so I often teach, is intention. Some authors call it source energy. Lately it's all over the news as The Secret. Most often, for me, it starts as a vague sense of a change in direction usually noted in the area of my solar plexus.

But is this really the beginning?

Here is a chicken and egg question: what comes first, our Intention or our Presence?

Intention without Presence seems like a wind with no sail. Presence without Intention seems like a sail without a breeze.

Humberto Maturana, the noted Chilean biologist, postulates that the two things that make humans different from all other biological entities and living systems are the two things that allow us to effect deliberate change in our environment.
  1. The ability to accept things exactly as they are - radical acceptance/love (what I call Presence - with a capital P).
  2. The ability to form and hold an Intention for things to be different than they currently are.
Too often, we focus on intention without really considering the importance of genuine Presence. We wish, we hope, we intend. But we don't notice that we're trying to move without unfurling our sails. Or we're trying to sail in the exact opposite direction of the prevailing air currents without adjusting to the real situation (often cursing the damn wind, the stupid boat, the clueless captain, or the limiting water). Or we just aren't 'there' enough to turn the tiller or adjust the sail or even notice that faint breeze that could take us out of the doldrums onto the next leg of our adventure.

As I start this new beginning, I am announcing my Presence - feeling more tentative lower-case p than proudly unfurled upper-case P. Regardless, my full (uncomfortable) awareness of this tentative sense probably shouts loudly PRESENCE. So, I'm guessing that this constitutes a radical acceptance of how it is. Damn!

So I announce my Intention, to share what I'm learning and what I've learned about making a difference. And this is the beginning. Such as it is.

Maybe someone will find this interesting. Maybe it will make a difference. Maybe I'm simply sailing to my next port of call.

Anyway, it's my adventure. Join me?