Sunday, June 1, 2014

At work I've been running into people who say "Gee, you are still here? I thought you'd leave a long time ago."

TJ was the last person who asked me that.  I asked him "What do you mean by that?"

He said, "Well, I didn't think you'd last in this frustrating bureaucracy working in the bowels of an organization with no visibility.  After working with such high-powered consulting clients."

Interesting perspective.  It has gotten me thinking. About staying, leaving, or just being two places at the same time.  The dilemma of an insider / outside consulting orientation.

You see, I work with a government bureaucracy - but not really in the bureaucracy.  I'm "Not A Fed" - which means I'm not quite a second-class citizen but close.  Arms length away enough to help them realize their aspirations, close enough to make a difference.

I've had opportunities to move into more visible positions in other parts of the bureaucracy - but I'd have to move away from what I love and am gifted at.  Covert operations. Working the system so the system can work. Helping people learn what they need to know. Helping people who are caught in a never ending swirl of political winds keep an orientation towards long term goals. Helping structure long-range milestones that might lead towards the realization of impossible dreams. Staying the course towards completion of this cathedral-like effort that will span multiple generations of efforts.

I've been enjoying being 'inside' and playing the edges of influence as an insider.

But I've been missing the opportunity to teach, to set up learning experiences for leaders, teams, and individuals who are wanting to gain new perspectives, attain new vantage points, climb out of the same-old box to experience and live real out-of-the-box thinking and acting.

I think I'm ready.  Now, the question is whether the world is interested.  Or ready for me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shift Happens - and sometimes it's Tectonic

The earthquake in Haiti has been tragic. Hundreds of thousands killed, injured, left homeless, their lives disrupted beyond resolution. Tectonic plates shift and nothing is ever like it was again.

It's been eighteen months since I last posted. Eighteen months since my experiment lapsed - my experiment to see if I had anything interesting to say, often enough, to make a blog. My tentative conclusion, at least from the lapse, would be to say that I apparently didn't have anything interesting to say.

Or, as likely, nothing I was interested in saying. Those eighteen months carried with them too many unspeakables - hospice and death, business failure and bankruptcy, recession and depression, despair and hopefulness, redemption (or so I glimpsed and pretended).

Now, I post as an employee - of a National Lab. Not sure what the rules are about blogging - so I'll leave the details vague. For those who want to know, there are easy ways to learn given social media, Linked-in, Plaxo, and other such sites. A new stop on the journey - a journey looking more like a psychopathic roller coaster - the chaos of the change cycle.

Funny, the plateaus of the status quo get shorter and shorter. I thought, as I got older and older, they'd get longer and longer.

Now I work with a Federal program - helping them figure out who they are, how they are, what they're up to, and how they can go about changing the world. Of all things, turning grass and wood chips into fuel. Who'd a thunk it?

Problem is, that even if we succeed, it's still taking carbon from the soil and turning into CO2 in the atmosphere. Better than mining it from deep below the surface (?) Now we mine it from the top soil.

Humans are such strange beings. Infestations, really, on the planet.

And DC is a very interesting place to live.

And I love getting a regular paycheck.

And I miss consulting - and all of my wonderful clients. And I love my new work family.

I've been here ten months now - and the hardest parts seem to be smoothing out. Maybe I'll write about that later. The tearing world of bridging two very incompatible corporate cultures.

Shift Happens.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stupid Human Tricks and System-antics

In David's recent PureSchmaltz blog post Going Organic, he fleshes out a notion he calls "management-ism", and recommends the ethic of "working the system so the system can work" - something that often feels like benevolent subversion.

In the comments responding to the post, Glen Alleman, a frequent commenter and sometimes harsh critic of David and my work, comments "The notion that systems work themselves is held only by those with no understanding of the theory of systems. But once understanding is in place, systems can be made to serve those who devised them."

This elicited my own comment on his comment that "It is always useful to remember that we humans are shaped by the systems in which we find ourselves - often inadvertently. So, once THIS understanding is in place, people can be made to serve the system. And, it is always best, in my humble opinion, to design the system with humility and awareness that I am likely to become co-opted regularly by that which I create."

As each of us work the system so it can work - both for our greater, common purpose and for ourselves, we shift the system ever so subtly (or not so subtly). And the system changes and grows, these changes effect each of the agents - or humans, in the case of these systems in which we live, work, and have our being. And the recursive cycle continues.

When we stay modestly awake to this dynamic in the system, and of the dynamics of the system working on ourselves, we might be able to affect real change. This awareness of the nature of the system is part of what Maturana calls "radical acceptance". It combines with our focus on purpose and intention for ourselves and for the common, broader purpose and demonstrates the fully human ability to create lasting systemic change.

When we lose addressability to this dynamic and go into the normal trances of life and work, we can (usually later) discover the surprisingly inhuman actions we may have inflicted on others, and which we put up with being inflicted on ourselves. Such is the subtle "Master / Slave" dynamic that can lead us, no matter how well schooled in the theory of systems or practiced in the application of systems into feeling like we have no control, no influence, and no latitude at all. Or leaving us looking to a manager for direction or railing against a manager for what they never could have known enough to direct. Or railing against the creator of the system as if the originator is really the ultimate creator of the system in which we are engaged - as a community - in co-creating every moment. Whether or not we are awake and aware of what we are doing.

Such is yet another of what I generously call a "Stupid Human Trick". And remind myself again that no matter how conscious and capable I feel, I will succumb to the co-opting effect of all of the various systems in which I live, work, and have my being.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mapping Relationships

David's been blogging at Pure Schmaltz about the usefulness of (and some techniques for) mapping the relationships needed to make work work well.

Lately there has been a lot in the trades about social network mapping. I find all of it interesting and my inner data geek really is fascinated by the methods for tracking email or other communication in an organization. A piece of me wants to pull out and dust off the old data gathering / research chops and get to work selling companies mapping packages. And, an older, wiser me realizes the folly in this.

Folly? Huh?

Okay, if what you want to do is spend a lot of time and money (and the time and money of a company) mapping things, then go for it. It would even be interesting and provide some insights. However, as interesting as this would be on a large scale, the sort of mapping that is most useful can be done in the small and on the fly.

Besides the time and money spent, in the shifting sands of our organizations how likely are you to wind up with a map of current reality? More likely, you'll get a gold-plated, out-dated map of how it used to be - interesting for archival purposes but not terribly useful in navigating your work today. Unless you are in a pretty stable environment with meantime between reorganizations of more than twelve months, by the time large scale mapping studies are done, the map is likely to be pretty much useless for day to day work. Anyone who has tried to get from point A to point B using an outdated map (one in which they have a heavily investment) knows, you might be better off having no map at all.

Although we've not called it social network mapping, the techniques we've taught for years for dealing with the human elements of work certainly seems to fit the description. My favorite technique is subculture mapping.

In subculture mapping we consider the patterns within the organization and its sub-organizations - down to whatever is the relevant group size. We look for the over-riding patterns of group dynamics and ask "What does safety seem to entail for this particular group?"
  • Do members flee into the safety of following a strong, charismatic or, perhaps, autocratic leader?
  • Do members flock into a clan or clique that, from the outside, can seem impenetrable but feels perfectly rational and well functioning inside?
  • Is this an every wo/man for him/herself chaotic culture - with management and organizational structure showing little effect on the way things get done?
  • Is the predominant metaphor competing - with safety defined as being on the winning side of skirmishes and battles and besting your opponents?
  • Oh yes, I must include the illusive, textbook, congruent culture in which safety is in speaking up, doing the right thing, balancing interests, and pursuing results through rational and explicitly agreed upon process. (Warning: if you think you are inside a congruent organization check from someone outside your group)
To be clear, each of these types can accomplish great results - none is better or worse, more or less functional. And, if you approach one of these organizations assuming it will act like a type other than it is, you are likely to leave with disappointed expectations.

Within each type of organization, there are more and less useful and effective ways of approaching getting work done, seeking support or resources, and feeling accepted and valued. Recognizing what you're working with is the first step in devising useful strategies. In our workshops we spent a bit of time reflecting on what we know about the do's and don'ts of working with each type.

And I've never seen anyone, after a bit of reflection, who couldn't pretty accurately size up the 'type' of various groups. And, I've not met anyone yet who, when comparing notes, couldn't come up with a half a dozen more useful strategies for getting things done with /within that group.

If you've got a giant budget, go for the study. If you just need to get work done, take a look at what is there. As Yogi Berra said "You can see a lot by looking!"

More on other strategies for understanding relationships more usefully in future posts.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Shifting Metaphors

These days, every time I get in front of a group, the topic of shifted metaphors comes up. Inevitably, whether at a gathering of Agile practitioners in San Francisco, a Stanford class of Program Managers looking for ways to better integrate their programs, or Austrian executives and consultants looking for ways to be more effective, the topic comes up.

It starts with someone mentioning their current intractable challenge: BUILDING an organization, IMPLEMENTING a change, BROKEN DOWN operations, quests for EFFICIENCY, or failed attempts to make things run like CLOCKWORKS.

At that point we bring up what seems so obvious - that they are approaching what seem like essentially human challenges as if they were simple mechanical problems.

I ask, "Do we work in an essentially mechanical organization infested with pesky humans? or Do we engage in an essentially living organization that uses mechanical tools to work better?"

The distinction is very important. Perhaps the most important distinction there is for those who want to really become effective and bring out the generative best in their organizations.

Our day-to-day language implies that we are operating in an essentially mechanical system. We measure performance and goodness based on mechanical standards of efficiency and productivity while getting stumbled up by the very elements that can provide the real solutions to our questing - generative productivity that delivers returns only seen in the organic world. Consider the kernel of grain that, if planted, tended, and harvested with consciousness and care will yield a hundred-fold return. Consider the germ that, once it finds a receptive place to lodge, rapidly replicates and infects the host.

Such are the potential yields of a shifted metaphor.

Understanding this distinction, and mindfully using the distinction appropriately allows individuals, groups, and organizations to leverage the principles of living systems, and for individuals to exercise the essentially human elements that unleash the full power within the system.

This is NOT to suggest that if you are, indeed, operating in an essentially mechanical operation - a production line is one example - that you try to reform it into something it is not. However, you might discover that those pesky human elements are the ones that most need tending to ensure that the living elements of the system are interacting with the mechanical elements to produce the highest value results. And those highest value results are ALWAYS measured in human terms - if only in terms of the biggest bonus, the nicest house, the flashiest (or most fuel efficient) car, or the biggest portfolio.

Generative projects, growing and learning organizations, and thriving and engaged workers require this one small shift. Interested in learning more? Stay Tuned.

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.