The Signal and the Noise

Ever notice how easy it is for conversations to be drowned out in a crowded place? It’s frustrating when you need to communicate with someone right next to you, but there’s too much noise to be heard. This video will help you cut through the noise and get your signals through in your corporate setting.

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Book Review-The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

What would it be like to have an organization that you could bring your whole self to? What would it be like to be comfortable in sharing all your thoughts in your organization? That’s what Amy Edmondson is trying to find and develop in The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Sources of Fear

What places strike fear in your heart? It is walking into a graveyard – even during the day? Perhaps there’s a sense of foreboding as you drive past a place where you saw a horrendous wreck. Maybe you get the heebie-jeebies when you walk into the principal’s office to talk about your child, because you remember getting called into the principal’s office as a child. Should any of these places make you feel uncomfortable or fearful? Maybe not, but it doesn’t change the feeling.

This is the fundamental problem with creating a psychologically-safe environment in your organization. While it is possible to create an objectively safe environment, both physically and psychologically, that doesn’t mean everyone will feel like the environment is safe. How they feel about it is more important than reality.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I explain that trust is a gift. It’s not a matter of being trustworthy – it’s a matter of someone deciding that trusting is the right thing to do. They’ve accepted a level of vulnerability on the chance that it will work out better for them. There are no guarantees, only hope that trusting will create better results.

We can – and should – make it easier for folks to trust by being worthy of trust. But, at the same time, we must recognize that fear comes from deep within, and sometimes it bears little resemblance to the actual facts of the situation.

Fear Beyond the Walls

In many cases, the fear that exists in the mind of employees doesn’t even originate inside the walls of the organization. It may be something they “caught” from their family of origin from their dad being laid off, turning their world upside down. It might be from the judgmental voices they expect to hear if they once spoke up and were fired because of it. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood speaks to the differing views that generations have to things like job stability and how our parents may have been more – or less – fearful for their jobs.

Too many people today live paycheck to paycheck. If they lose their job, it is a serious financial hardship that can have devastating effects. It’s easy to not be afraid when you’re secure – if you don’t need the job so it doesn’t matter. It’s quite a different thing if your family won’t eat in a week if you don’t keep the job. The fear level rises, and it’s outside of whatever may be happening in the organization.

Too many of us have heard us or our colleagues say “I have kids in college” when asked why they’re not speaking up. On the surface, this makes no sense. Kids in college has nothing to do with making a suggestion in a meeting. However, at a deeper, fear-based level, it makes perfect sense. They’re supporting their children through an expensive time, and if they lose their job, they won’t be able to do that. The fear extends beyond financial to their ability to provide for their children and even their identity. It’s a truth that pierces the very essence of their situation.

Fear of losing a job is present even when it makes no rational sense. The average tenure of the organization can be measured in decades (as it is for one of my clients). It’s possible that no one in the history of the organization has been fired – or at least fired for bringing up controversial ideas. However, that reality doesn’t matter. There’s still a part of the person who worries whether their idea or comment or suggestion will be the reason the organization breaks the trend.

Fear Inside the Walls

It’s been a stressful day. The news is there are new regulations that will hurt the business, and everyone’s jumpy. Jane makes an innocent mistake that costs the company a few thousand dollars. Under normal circumstances, it’s not even enough to raise an eyebrow. While mistakes aren’t desired, they’re understood. However, today isn’t an ordinary day. Sam berates Jane only for a moment before catching himself. The entire room stares at him in disbelief. He’s made a scene. He’s made a mark.

The problem with creating an organization full of psychological safety is that psychological safety is, fundamentally, trust – and the trust has been broken. Trust itself is a funny thing. It’s built over a lifetime and crushed in a second. Sam’s outburst will have far-ranging impacts on the perceived safety in the organization for years to come. Even if others can’t articulate it, they’ll feel a bit less likely to speak up the next time they have an idea. They’ll be a little less willing to take a risk, and the company will suffer for it.

The real problem is you can’t truly prevent every possible way that trust and safety will be violated. You can – and should – work towards lower levels of incidence, but, at some level, mistakes – including those made by managers – are to be expected. Instead of trying to prevent all failures, you’ve got to switch to a strategy that works on resilience and recovery rather than planning and prevention.

Courage

Fear is a natural part of life, whether we like it or not. It takes courage to overcome our fears and move forward. Courage is, in fact, that idea. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather moving forward in the presence of fear. (For more on courage, see Find Your Courage.) While Edmonson focuses on psychological safety, there’s a truth that nothing is completely safe, and therefore courage is required. There will always be some fear lurking around in the dark recesses of our mind, and courage helps us get past them.

It’s not that creating a workplace of psychological safety isn’t a good, noble, and necessary goal. It’s that it’s insufficient. What you do by creating a place of psychological safety is reduce the need for courage, not eliminate it. On the one hand, the idea is to increase safety and therefore reduce fear. On the other hand, we must accept that even objective safety can’t quell the need for courage to overcome whatever fear remains.

Learning

The role of safety in learning is multi-layered. There’s plenty of research on children who struggle to learn in school because the conditions of their home life are challenging. Programs like free and reduced lunches, before school breakfast programs, and a host of others are designed to mitigate the impacts of these extra-school challenges to learning. However, they’re not able to eliminate the factors. One of the biggest factors that these programs have a hard time mitigating is the fear that is felt by students. They know they’ll be fed at school, so there’s some level of knowing that they will have some food, but they don’t know whether they’ll have a place to live or whether there will be a life-threatening fight that night.

Most employees won’t face this level of fear in their organization, but fear still depresses some capacity for learning. Edmonson makes the distinction between learning activities that are done alone and those that are group learning. The learning activities that are done alone are relatively undisturbed by the lack of psychological safety, where those which require group interaction are substantially more depressed – presumably because the increase in interpersonal risk and the fear associated with it.

Invisible Acts

Learning is an invisible act. You can’t see it happening. It’s difficult to measure, as the measurement interferes with the learning process itself. While learning is a positive invisible act, there are many invisible acts that aren’t positive. Every time someone fails to speak up, it’s invisible, and quite often it means less value for the organization.

We can become fooled by the idea that we’re not facing negative news so everything must be just fine. The problem isn’t that there are no negative things happening in the organization, the problem is that we’re not seeing the negative things that are happening.

The unfortunate reality of organizations with low psychological safety isn’t that they report more problems than their comparison organizations – they often report much fewer. The problem is that the act of not saying what you think, not reporting a problem, and not taking a risk is invisible. While failure is seen, not trying is hard to find.

Failure Is Inevitable If You Try

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that she admired me, because everything I did just worked. From her point of view, I had no failures. From my point of view, I’ve got all sorts of them. For instance, there’s my $2,000 mistake ordering lights from China. I make mistakes every day. I’ve got a long list of failures. My only secret, if there is one, is that I keep my failures from becoming fatal.

It’s not that I like failures or that I look for them. I am not “pro failure,” I’m “pro learning” and even “pro trying.” I’d rather try and fail than not try. That’s a fundamental shift. Some folks are so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to risk it. However, I’m so afraid of not trying that I can’t imagine not risking it. In the long run, I know that taking risks will yield better rewards, assuming I can survive and keep taking reasonable risks.

Fear and Stress

In the end, psychological safety in any organization is minimizing the fear people have, so it’s easier to be courageous. The reduced stress means that they’ll live better lives, and we’ll get better results. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for stress’ impact on the person, and Drive for its impact on the organization.)

If you’re interested in better lives and better organization performance, maybe the starting point is creating The Fearless Organization.

Worm Hole Physics

You don’t have to understand physics to see some serious benefits of using a wormhole. Commutes are a thing of the past. Distance loses its inconvenience. This engagement video gives you a glimpse of what working with wormholes might look like when you use live video, audio, and screen-sharing with Teams.

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Book Review-Leadership

The title is simple. The book is long. However, Leadership is a comprehensive look at political leadership that James MacGregor Burns executes well. I’m not personally much of a fan of political books. However, as I read Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, it became clear that Rost derived a great deal of his thinking from Burns’ work, and thus it was important that I read it to understand more clearly Rost’s thinking.

Leadership, Power, and Relationships

In rapid succession, Burns explains that leadership is a special form of power, and power is a special form of relationship. Power is the ability to influence others. Burns explains that leadership is a non-coercive form of power. That is, there are no consequences for people to follow the leader. They desire to follow the leader, because they perceive it is in their best interests. Coercive leadership relies instead on the follower’s desire to avoid consequences.

Rewards and Punishments

For a long time, it was believed that rewards and punishments were processed as two different directions by the same part of our brains. However, the latest neurology indicates that happiness and pain aren’t processed the same way at all – and, as a result, rewards and punishments may not be processed the same way either. In 1985, Watson and Tellegen produced a model that maps emotions on a two-factor structure of affect. One definition of affect is “touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.” They separated the positive affect from the negative affect and created a diagram that showed the resulting emotions as various degrees of each. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more on the two separate systems that process positive and negative perspectives.)

Daniel Pink in Drive explains how subtle changes like time pressure dramatically change (reduce) performance on creative tasks. Burns seems to intuitively know that the results you get from a positive approach and the results you get through instilling fear might be radically different.

Authority

In generations past, things were harder – but also simpler. It was a simple matter of survival. You obeyed the leader, whether that was a lord or a monarch. The power of the leader was almost limitless. On a whim, they could exile you from the community, almost certainly dooming you to death. You accepted your place, as you toiled just to survive and for the survival of your family. Everyone worked because they needed to. The line between life and death was razor-thin and always too close for comfort. (See The Evolution of Leadership for more.)

Authority, then, was necessary to hold back the chaos and allow a single leader to direct the group. This was an organizing principle that allowed humans to work together and to slowly grab hold of control of the planet. Authority was power, and power could sustain the society. Everyone knew their place in the community, and little concern was given for upward mobility, as too much was focused on what it takes just to survive.

The complexity of our interactions has enhanced our expectations. Total authority like monarchs and lords isn’t possible any longer.

Reactivity

How people respond to rewards and punishments isn’t consistent. To some, pain is a nuisance; to others, it’s a critical issue to be addressed. Criticism bounces off some people like rain on a duck’s back, while for others it cuts deep into their core. Reactivity to coercion isn’t the same either.

In my career, I’ve been, at times, called difficult to manage. Looking back on this in the context of Burns’ work, it seems like I have a very low reactivity to coercion. I wasn’t afraid of losing my job, and, as a result, the coercive, veiled threats didn’t work on me. I do remember stunning a project manager by telling him I’d quit before doing what he asked – and I would have.

Coercive techniques lose their efficacy when people don’t react to them. Fewer people feel as if they’re at a precipice, therefore fewer people react in fear. The same factors that made me difficult to manage makes younger generations difficult to manage as well. They believe they can always return to their parents’ home, where previous generations may not have felt that way – at least not in such great numbers and with such surety.

Previous generations warned of the potentially dire consequences of quitting one job before having the next lined up, but, in some cases with younger adults, this seems about as normal as washing your bed sheets. That is not to say that they change jobs more frequently than we did – the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t bear that out. However, they feel much less fear about those changes.

The good news is that lower reactivity means that there’s a greater opportunity for healthy conflict.

The Role of Conflict

In our world, whether shaped by history or not, we generally perceive conflict to be bad. We think that nothing good can come from conflict. However, the truth is that most good things come from conflict. Conflict itself is neutral. How you respond to conflict makes all the difference.

The Christian Bible says that “iron sharpens iron,” revealing that we’ve known conflict and bumping into one another has the capacity to make us better. A more contemporary example might be the results that Pixar gets through conflict in their movie-making process, as Ed Catmull explains in Creativity, Inc.. Sometimes the sentiment of conflict is carried below the surface of our consciousness. We see examples of people who maintain inner conflict between their current capacity and their desire, resulting both in flow (see Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman) and peak performance in a field (see Peak).

Despite conflict’s obscure value, there are times when conflict, disagreement, and dialogue aren’t called for. (For more on how to dialogue, see Dialogue.) Sometimes, leadership calls for decisiveness. The mark of a good leader is realizing when this is and isn’t necessary. Every move toward decisiveness necessarily cuts off others’ opinions. They’ll have to trust that this is the special case – not the norm – to continue to want to bring their whole selves to the organization.

Self Esteem

There’s a delicate walk that good leaders take. On the one hand, they provide sometimes critical feedback that allows those they lead to grow. On the other, they build those they lead up in ways that allow them to have enough self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy that they can continue to function. Good leadership is mindful of the need for people to save face, no matter which culture they’re in. After all, The Ego and Its Defenses is clear that the ego is well-armed to protect itself should that become necessary. It’s up to the leader to not call the ego to arms.

When leaders can support the self-esteem of those they lead, they expose the capacity for them to hold others in high esteem and open the door to their learning.

Capacity to Learn and Be Taught

A long time ago as I was learning to lead, a brilliant leader and friend of mine explained that there are coachable – and non-coachable – behaviors. That is, sometimes, the things that get in folks’ way aren’t things that they are willing or able to confront yet, and, as a result, they aren’t open to coaching on that topic.

There’s a perennial debate about whether you should hire for experience or enthusiasm. Is it better to have the benefit of experience or the exuberance of youth? Should be you be focused on finding someone who has done it before or who is willing to run headlong into a problem and overcome it in a potentially new way? This focus hides the real question that’s burning inside the brains of hiring managers everywhere. Will this person be teachable – and teachable in ways that matter to our organization?

We want experience. It makes things quicker and easier. However, we don’t want bad experience, nor do we want to have to provide experience for someone who isn’t willing to learn. We see in the youthful enthusiasm a willingness to be taught, and sometimes that outweighs the hard-earned experience that the wiser members of the talent pool have.

Leaders need to find – and hire – the followers that can help to sustain them. Intellectual leaders are particularly in need of followers and patrons to keep them going.

Intellectual Leaders

Leadership isn’t often thought of as a state of internal conflict, but that can be the case for intellectual leaders who struggle between the pure approach and the practical one. They struggle with careful correction and encouragement. They walk the line between having the analytical data and the courage to proceed with their gut.

All this conflict takes a very large toll on the leader. They need followers who can help them sustain their resolve in the mission and the objectives to be met. They need patrons who are willing to support them while they’re working on the mission when it isn’t working yet. Without this company, we may find that the leaders fold under the weight of the task they’re undertaking and their own conflict.

Pressure and Relief

Internal pressure in the leader isn’t the only pressure in society. Whether it’s oppression of women and their right to vote or oppressive organizations that are choked by the poor quality of their leadership, not everything is right in the world. We find that, wherever pressure can build, it will be relieved. The relief is sometimes accomplished in peaceful ways, which help the oppressed accomplish their goals of more equitable treatment. But, sometimes, that isn’t the case, and entire societies are rocked by the explosive force as the system is blown apart.

In the Egyptian revolution of 2011, citizens used Twitter to organize and began a revolution on January 25th that caused President Mubarak to resign. It was a part of the Arab Spring that occurred in late 2010 and into 2011. The series of protests had profound effects on the region, and they demonstrated that the velocity and ferocity of people united in their struggle could be amplified and accelerated easily through the use of social media in ways that are difficult if not impossible to prevent.

Political leaders in non-democratic states were caught off guard by the ability for the populace to organize and activate their power. Organizations everywhere realized that authoritative leadership isn’t working like it used to.

Leaders and Followers

In the way that democratic leaders function, there’s an interesting question about who is really leading whom. As an elected representative, the politician is supposed to be working for the good of the constituents that elected them and the government at large. To fulfill this role, they must be constantly monitoring the needs of the people and then following the direction that they’re headed. This opens the problem of figuring out where the majority of the people are heading – and how to balance waiting for their clear direction and the expectation that you’re out in front leading them.

While Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century discourages the use of “follower” and “leader” as paired terms (because there’s no such thing as followership), Burns accepts that there are times when people are leading, and there are times when leaders are catching up to their followers – or adjusting their course based on the needs of their followers.

Burns also defines leadership as a special form of power and power as a relationship between people. Just like super-massive planets can tug on the stars they orbit and cause them to wobble, so, too, can followers shape the path of leaders.

The Need for Belonging

It’s lonely at the top. Pick up any leadership book, and you’re likely to find that quote or at least that sentiment somewhere in its pages. Humans – you and I – were designed for connection. Without that connection, we’ll find that we’re missing part of what it means to be human.

Leaders need other leaders who can support and build them up and followers who can strengthen their resolve. Without powerful followers, leaders eventually succumb to the pressures of the world and give up their quest.

If you’re looking for how to strengthen your leadership and find others to build you up, perhaps the first step is reading Leadership.

Talk to the Emotional Elephant

Yes, we do suggest talking to elephants. Perhaps not the elephants you’d see at a nature preserve, but instead the emotional elephant we all have within us. In fact, we suggest we talk to the elephant, not the rider supposedly “in control,” in this video.

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Book Review-Got Your Attention?

It takes more than a clever title and a tagline to connect with people. That’s just one of the messages from Sam Horn’s book Got Your Attention?. The chapters are short, just like the goldfish-sized attention span that Horn says we all have today. She’s not the only one. In Fascinate, Sally Hogshead sets the same expectation. Whether we’re literally as distractible as a goldfish, or it just seems that way, getting people’s attention is hard. In Got Your Attention?, Horn teaches you how to get – and keep – people’s attention.

Disconnection

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how technology has simultaneously increased our connection to one another and moved us farther apart. We can share screens and web cams with people on the other side of the planet – yet fewer and fewer people feel like they’ve got someone with whom they can share an intimate conversation. Horn quotes Stephen Marche: “We suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another.”

This leaves us all with a longing for connection – a connection that we crave ourselves and that we can offer to others. In offering connection to others, we can get their attention.

Intrigue

Connection comes when people are interested in each other, and the headwaters of interest start at intrigue. When we encounter something interesting, our reticular activating system (RAS) focuses our attention, so that we can move closer and find out more. (See Change or Die for more on the RAS.)

For some, they believe they don’t have anything interesting to say. For others, they can’t wait for the other person to stop talking, so they can start talking about themselves more. Neither end of the self-confidence spectrum serves us well when it comes to having a dialogue with the other person.

Dialogue

We know that our first step is to create intrigue, to get folks to want to know what we know – and we should simultaneously cultivate a sense of intrigue for what they do. However, it’s important to keep our end goals in mind. We want more than just an opportunity to sell or a chance at some funding we need. Our goal is connection. Whether we can help the other person in their business goals or not, can we find a way to connect with them?

The initial spark of interest comes from intrigue, and the result of interest is dialogue. Dialogue isn’t just communication. It’s not a barrage of words we inflict upon each other. Dialogue is the road on which we travel when we’re looking for the opportunity to connect with others. It’s a special and difficult form of communication that requires both parties be vulnerable with their whole self and who they are.

The ability to have a dialogue requires a degree of self-confidence. (For more on dialogue, see Dialogue.)

Self-Confidence

While Horn’s advice addresses the tactical issues surrounding getting people’s attention and how to maintain it, there’s a normal range that it works in – and sometimes people are outside of that range. I was reminded of an old chemistry class comment that chemical reactions often only happen inside of a pH range. As a result, you can put two chemicals together that should normally react violently, but if the pH is wrong, nothing happens.

The same is true of Horn’s advice. She recounts a story of an aspiring author whose meeting with a publisher goes horribly wrong, and the author doesn’t attempt to pitch her idea to anyone else – even when there were opportunities available to her. Her self-confidence and self-esteem were so crushed that she couldn’t continue to put herself out there in ways that someone else might be intrigued by. Despite this, other than a brusque comment that you must keep going, there’s little advice for how to build and maintain your self-esteem.

Before you can take advantage of Horn’s advice about the tactics you can use to increase your performance, you’ve got to find your courage. That is, you must find enough self-confidence to be able to step up to the plate and take a swing. One way to start that journey is to look to the advice of Find Your Courage.

The Introduction

If you were taught sales at any point in your world, it’s likely that someone taught you to perfect your elevator pitch. The idea was that, if you were in an elevator and someone asked you what you do, you have 30 seconds until one of you is going to get off the elevator. How do you express what you do in 30 seconds? If you were good, you were taught to say that you do A, B, and C, then end with the question about whether they know about those things or need them. The idea is to throw out three lines for potential connection and allow them to pick up one of them.

Horn’s approach is different. Instead of explaining three things you do – or three problems you solve – the idea is that you ask them three “did you know” questions. The point is to find something that is intriguing to the audience. It needs to be intriguing enough to want to know more. From there, Horn recommends transitioning to a set of “wouldn’t you like…” statements and finally close with the fact that you’ve already created that solution – so they don’t have to imagine.

This illustrates a difference in perspective. The elevator pitch isn’t really a pitch. It’s a summary and an open invitation for the other person to engage. Horn’s approach is what you would do from a platform, when you’re speaking to a group and you want to draw them into your line of thinking. Because this opening is so important, let’s look at it in more detail.

Did You Know?

Did you know that web articles can be read in about one minute? The average person reads somewhere between 450 and 600 words per minute, and most web articles now are only 600 words. Did you know that reading is 3 to 4 times quicker than listening? Most people speak at the rate of only 150 words per minute compared to the reading rate of between 450 to 600 words.

While you don’t know exactly where I’m going with these questions, didn’t it get your attention? “Did you know” engages your brain to test what is being said. “Did you know” can lead you to discovering the scope of a problem that you didn’t even know about. Did you know that roughly 100,000 people die each year from healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) in the US alone? That’s true – and now you have a sense for the scale of the problem.

“Did you know” can also provide a different perspective. Did you know that only 50% of the high-risk objects in a hospital room are cleaned during a standard “terminal” (between patients) room cleaning? Did this question move you to expect that the hospital room you’re entering is clean or dirty?

“Did you know” can also expose previously unconsidered possibilities. Did you know that you can reduce healthcare-associated infections by helping employees escape burnout? Most people wouldn’t directly make the link between provider burnout and patient outcomes – but the research says that there is a direct causal relationship. Most folks wouldn’t have considered working on employee mental health to improve outcomes, but that new possibility may be more effective than the standard training.

Wouldn’t You Like?

Imagine what it would be like for your audience to start leaning in and asking for more information. Imagine what it would be like to have a line of people waiting to speak with you after your presentation. This strategy of “Wouldn’t you like”-type questions and “imagine” statements decouples the possibility of the solution from the presentation of the solution.

The traditional strategy of telling someone that you can do something is met with initial resistance. Our initial reaction is to find ways that this can’t be possible. By using the keyword “imagine” or phrase “Wouldn’t you like,” you remove the constraint of whether it’s possible or not. This, coupled with a concrete vision, can be a powerful way to help to drive to your solution.

The Solution

The closing is to indicate that the solution they’re dreaming of isn’t a dream after all – it’s something you can do. It’s something that has been done and is real. After making it clear that it’s real, you simply need to apply credibility markers, so they know your claim of the solution is something they can trust in.

The Phrase-that-Pays

If you’ve ever watched infomercials at 3 in the morning, you’ve heard phrases that get stuck in your head. Ronco will forever be remembered for “Set it and forget it.” You may remember Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign or Calgon’s 1970s-era “Ancient Chinese Secret” campaign. These phrases got stuck somewhere in our consciousness.

Certainly, some degree of this is just the sheer number of times that we heard them due to marketing budgets behind these key phrases. However, there’s a bit more to it than just that. Horn recommends these tips:

  • Distill: Condense your call to action into eight words or less.
  • Rhythm: Put your words into a beat so they’re easy to repeat.
  • Alliteration: Use words that start with the same sound.
  • Rhyme: Use rhyme if you want to be remembered over time.
  • Pause and punch: Deliver your phrase-that-pays with distinctive inflection.

Undivided or Undevoted Attention

Horn admits that she doesn’t always garner the undivided attention of her children all the time. Most parents recognize that they sometimes get the undevoted attention from their children as they focus on their phones, a show, or a game.

The question becomes how you can convert the undevoted attention of your audience into undivided attention.In the service of the goal of getting people’s undivided attention to your message, you may want to see if Horn Got Your Attention? in her book.

Diversity and Inclusion Start with Acceptance and Appreciation

I was standing along the back wall with my thoughts on the session that I’d be giving in a little more than an hour when a friend of mine, Sue, walked up and asked if I’d join the panel that was about to start. She explained that the moderator was working on a microphone for me in the anticipation that I’d say yes. I looked to my left and saw the moderator and friend of mine, Heather, speaking to the technical staff. I answered Sue that I’d be happy to help. In truth, I was wondering what value I could offer. It was a diversity and inclusion panel and I felt like the “token old white guy.”

I think Sue sensed my discomfort, in part because I’d be speaking immediately after the panel in another room, and in part because I didn’t know how I’d help. She explained that without a man on the panel, it wouldn’t be very diverse. In my head, I heard without a man on the panel, it might degenerate into “male bashing.”

As I took my place on the stage, I recognized the wisdom in her words. It wasn’t the first time she’d done panels like this. I’d been in the audience more than a few times at these panels when someone wanted a place to express their frustration, and it was all the moderator and panelists could do to keep the conversation from devolving. As the session started, I held back the desire to identify myself as the token white guy and introduced myself as a man who had daughters who have a contribution to make to the world.

The Clarifying Question

I realized that, at some level, my presence was enough to help keep things from going off the rails; but, ever the engager, Heather made sure that some of the questions ended up on my lap. I’m rarely shy about answering any question, even with “I don’t know,” but this was different. The panelists were my friends. They were sharing how they’d felt held back in their careers and how the audience members could cope with the similar situations they were clearly facing.

Then, there it was, hanging in the air: “What can we do to change the culture?” The implied statement was that just talking about diversity and inclusion wasn’t enough. Things weren’t changing, and they weren’t getting better. The answer that thankfully flowed, as Heather lobbed the question my way, was simple.

Acceptance

Acceptance is the first answer to how we resolve the diversity and inclusion problem. I call it a “problem” because it is one. In technology, there are not enough women. In nursing, there are not enough men and, to some degree, not enough persons of non-Western, European descent. In both cases, it’s about accepting other people and making them feel like, well, people.

As I blurted out my answer, I knew I had to explain. Too few people had read David Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships – and it’s not the sort of book title you can tell people to read without them becoming instantly offended. Richo explains in the book that everyone needs five As: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing. Admittedly, it’s not a business book. It’s a book about being your whole self, so not everything applies to a business setting. However, the idea of accepting does.

Acceptance is a recognition that you don’t get to control the world, and your view of the world may be wrong. (See Compelled to Control for more on control and Incognito for more on perspective.) When you accept other people for who they, are even when their experiences and perspectives aren’t yours, you open the door for diversity and inclusion.

The Difference

Diversity of thought makes a huge difference in the outcomes you can get. The Difference explains the dynamics of how this works and why it’s important. It’s not just about limiting “group think” but is instead an expansive concept that creates value and opportunity if you’re willing to listen.

If you’re willing to accept people, you can begin to become aware of the value that they can bring in perspective, in experience, and in just being a fellow member of the human race.

Oblivious

My wife sometimes claims that I’m oblivious. Thankfully, she doesn’t claim it as often as we both didfor our boys when they were teenagers. However, there are times when I don’t pay attention. In most areas of my life, this isn’t a benefit; but in one area, it is very valuable.

I’ll be trying to explain how she knows a colleague of mine. I’ll describe what they’ll look like when she meets them at some conference or event. Or, rather, I’ll try to describe them. I generally do a lousy job. I’ll start by talking about how smart they are or how their view is really interesting before getting the look, which explains you can’t identify someone by looks if you’re talking about how witty their comments are. I often realize that I struggle to articulate how she’ll be able to know how to figure out who I’m headed towards for an introduction.

Sure, I can get tall or short and thin or “big boned,” but when it comes to ethnicity, I fail. I’ve quite literally, and somewhat embarrassingly, had a friend explain that he had been discriminated against as an African-American. The embarrassing part was that, to me, he was just a friend. I hadn’t given his ethnicity a second thought. We had known each other for more than a dozen years at that point. It was an awkward moment that eventually passed but one that made me recognize that I truly don’t see ethnicity differences.

I also don’t see men and women differently from the perspective of what they can deliver, and that can get me into trouble if I’m not careful.

Willow Creek

Whether you’re Christian or not, what Willow Creek Church (based in Barrington, IL) has done is impressive. Bill Hybels grew the church into one with massive attendance and respect across the globe for their mission. He, with others, created the Global Leadership Summit, where business and ministry leaders could come together to inspire leaders to be better than they currently are – whether they’re Christians or not. And then, as he was winding down his impressive contributions to society, scandal struck.

The board had investigated some claims by women and found them to be not credible – at least not to the extent they had claimed. While traveling overseas, Bill had invited a woman to his hotel room to work on some ministry planning, and it had made her uncomfortable. Bill, by most reports, had not at the time considered that she would be uncomfortable, and I believe he truly had no malintent. (I recognize that this is convenient when I don’t know Bill personally and am not directly involved.) When you see people only as valuable colleagues, team members, and contributors, you don’t always see where their fears may lie.

The press got the story, because the woman didn’t feel as if her concerns were heard by the church board In the end, Bill stepped down, both from the church he loved as well as the Global Leadership Summit that he had shaped for so many years.

For me, it’s a reminder that sometimes being oblivious to the differences isn’t safe. Sometimes, I must pay more attention not to minimize, limit, or constrain the contributions of my colleagues but instead recognize that, just like me, they have fears and concerns – and they’re not the same as mine. Luckily, my wife nudges me into awareness that not everyone sees the world the same way I do.

Mike Pence

I’m proud to be from Indiana. We do a lot of things right in the state – and more than a few that are wrong. I appreciate that Mike Pence can be vice president, and I applaud his commitment to his values in a career as a politician that makes it all too easy to bend to the public opinion.

Pence has drawn some criticisms from the remarks that he won’t dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. Some call this sexist and believe that it represents prejudice. I see it a bit differently. I see it as respect for his wife and protecting something that is for them alone. While I wouldn’t draw the line here, I respect and appreciate his right to do so.

More importantly, I see this as the opposite end of the awareness and concern spectrum as Bill Hybels. Where Bill in his belief in humanity didn’t worry much about improper appearances or accusations, Mike is more concerned. In my opinion, it doesn’t make either man wrong. It makes them human. They get to decide how much they trust others and how that trust is borne. Each man accepts people in their diversity, they just guard themselves differently. However, as I was sitting on the stage, I realized that acceptance wasn’t enough.

Appreciation

It’s one thing to have sympathy for someone and a different thing entirely to have empathy. Sympathy acknowledges where someone else is – but separates you from them. Sympathy says: “It sucks to be you.” Empathy says: “I understand this about you.” Empathy brings people closer, where sympathy pushes people away. Acceptance without appreciation is like sympathy in that it doesn’t bring them closer.

The missing component is another of Richo’s As: appreciation. While we must start with acceptance, because you can’t appreciate something you can’t accept, stopping there isn’t the whole picture. You must recognize that each person brings a unique and precious value to the world and the situation you find yourself in.

I’m not good with details, and while it may be frustrating to have them pointed out by our office manager, I recognize that I’m the one with the problem, and it’s a problem that she helps me work around. Her value in that situation is helping me see where I will get harmed if I’m unwilling to pay attention and resolve those pesky details.

I’m learning to be better to accept the feedback that I’m missing something and appreciate the person raising the issue – no matter who they are or what position they are in the organization.

Getting Off the Stage

As I was getting off the stage, I realized that we can’t teach diversity and inclusion directly any more than we can teach people how to be wealthy. We must teach people to be wise, and wealth will come. If want to develop a culture of diversity and inclusion, we can’t sit or stand on stage and extol the values of the diverse organization. To get to the culture we want – and need – we’ve got to start by working on the fundamentals of accepting everyone else and then move on to developing a deep appreciation for every human being.

I don’t know what the audience got from the panel, but I got a clarity that I get to carry with me.

Who Knows?

Have you ever had this happen? You have a problem, but it’s not an easy fix you can just Google the answers for. In this engagement video, we guide you towards Teams, where you can ask questions, ping people’s attention, and receive responses from your fellows.

If you want to share this video, you can get it ad-free. All you need to do is click here to sign up, and we’ll send all our engagement videos to you via email.

Book Review-Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual

I’m not a clinician. I didn’t play one on TV. I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. However, I did read Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual. It’s a toolbox for counselors and clinical psychiatrists for want to help clients reach their capacity for positivity in their lives beyond the ailment that may have driven them to seek help in the first place. It’s a recognition that just fixing the problems isn’t enough and the problems that people come in with are more frequently the result of other problems.

Seligman

In an indirect way, Marty Seligman suggested that I read the book. I had read Flourish and was preparing for our work on burnout (see ExtinguishBurnout.com). I wrote Dr. Seligman, and he answered. His brief response confirmed what I already suspected. Learned helplessness, a lack of hope, and burnout had the same root. They were, in imprecise terms, the same thing. I thanked him and eventually asked for places where I could learn more. The response blew me away. It had references and people to reach out to for more information. One of the people I should reach out to was Tayyab Rashid, who had some at the time unpublished guidance for clinicians trying to help patients with psychotherapy.

By the time I reached him (after reading The Hope Circuit), Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual was published, so I bought it.

Clinical Context

While I’m not a clinician, I’m very interested in the topic of psychotherapy and what does and doesn’t work. It was early 2015 when I published my review of The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering What Works in Therapy. It was 2016 before I returned to the topic of psychotherapy to look at how patients – and the public at large – were assessed in The Cult of Personality Testing. I followed that with a critical view in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. Finally, in August of 2016, I got around to House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, which had an even more critical view of the profession.

Despite the many critical pieces in my reading list, I’m generally very positive on the capacity for someone to be helped through talk therapy. It is my belief that what we make of the world is largely in our head. It’s the reality that we don’t see the world – we see, and then our brain creates the world (see Incognito). Helping refocus thinking can be powerful if done well.

Positive Psychology

Psychology got stuck. The problem was that it was focused on problems and their resolutions. Instead of asking the question about what people could become and how they could thrive, it was stuck in survival mode. Psychology became niched around dealing with the negatives of life’s equation, and it needed a push to get out of the rut. That push came when Marty Seligman took the helm of the American Psychological Association (APA). He made it his mission to drive forward the idea that it was just as important to help people reach their happiness potential as it was to address misery.

Mental health had come to mean a lack of disorders listed in the DSM (currently DSM-V), but health isn’t the same as the absence of illness. Mental health needed to be reframed so that it actually meant health.

Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual is designed to bring the tools that have been discovered and developed into a clinical setting for the benefit of the patients.

Strengths

Central to the practice of positive psychology is a focus on the strengths of an individual rather than their weaknesses. Instead of looking to fill in potholes in the road of the patient’s life, positive psychology builds new roads and bridges to places people never knew they could reach. It builds these on the strengths of the individuals. By helping the person understand their strengths, they can better leverage them. By understanding how to enhance strengths, they can get more benefit from them.

Strengths are largely defined as the strengths listed in the Values in Action (VIA) test, which is available for free at authentichappiness.org. Everyone has some strengths in the list of 24 in the VIA test. We all, in fact, possess some degree of these strengths. Our combination of strengths represents our ability to get things done.

The clinician manual spends a great deal of time in the session-by-session section, walking clients through what positive psychology is, evaluating their strengths, and confirming those strengths. It is from this firm foundation that other skills are taught.

Dealing with the Negative

It’s important to note that just because the approach is positive psychology doesn’t mean the negative event, barrier, or dysfunction isn’t addressed. Instead of overwhelming the conversation and relationship by focusing on negative aspects, the overall tone is more balanced by recognizing the positives and acknowledging the negative outcomes.

Despite the positive descriptor, psychology, done correctly, is rarely easy. It’s hard for someone to be vulnerable enough to allow themselves to see how they may be contributing to their problems and what changes they may need to make for it to get better.

Consider a physical example. Someone comes to a doctor because of tinnitus (ringing in the ears). The discovery is high blood pressure, and, in addition to a pill that is supposed to help, the doctor explains that weight loss is critical. Weight loss isn’t easy. It’s takes careful management of what and how much food you eat – and how much you exercise. The representing problem was the result of an underlying problem, high blood pressure, which itself was a side effect of being overweight. Losing weight is hard work – and something that not everyone is successful at.

In psychological terms, the hard work still must be done to address the core problems that are causing someone to feel bad.

Attitude of Gratitude

Some of the activities in the sessions aren’t focused around specific strengths but are designed to help change attitudes. Gratitude, whether in the form of a general approach or through the use of a specific gratitude journal, has far-reaching effects and acts as a lubricant for further clinical work. Barbara Fredrickson, another leader in positive psychology, in her book Positivity explains the power of gratitude. A three to one ratio of positive to negative experiences– which can be fueled by gratitude – can powerfully change your relationships.

She’s not alone, as Matthieu Ricard in Happiness explains the role of gratitude in joy. Rick Hansen explains in Hardwiring Happiness how gratitude can be a powerful force to wire happiness into your very being.

Open and Closed Memories

Much of the challenge that we have today is in the hurts encountered in the past that we’ve not yet healed. In the language of the clinician manual, these are open memories. That is, these memories haven’t been fully processed and still cause emotional disturbance or pain. Fully processed memories are said to be closed memories. Closed memories generate neutral or positive emotions. (See Changes that Heal for another perspective on these hurts.)

Here, I struggle not so much in the goal of working to minimize hurts and to address painful memories but in the concept that we can close all memories. There’s plenty of work that says how we feel about something is largely based on how we choose to process it. (For one instance, see How Emotions Are Made.) However, I am not convinced that some memories can ever be fully closed in the sense that they don’t trigger a negative emotion. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more on positive and negative valences to emotion.)

It’s been nearly six years since I lost my brother to an airplane accident. I did a great deal of work, both then and since, to come to terms with what happened, and the result that it had on me personally and on my family. For the most part, I’m OK and have been for some time. However, sometimes, small things will set me into a sense of monumental loss. The pain around the obvious clues are mostly gone. I can see airplanes and even fly without being overwhelmed by it. But, sometimes, it just sneaks up on you, and you feel an overwhelming sense of loss.

For the most part, the memory is closed. It no longer creates pain daily. However, I’m not sure that it will ever be completely closed, nor that it can be.

Post Traumatic Growth

Everyone is familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but few are aware of its mirror image, post-traumatic growth (PTG). Where PTSD debilitates, PTG empowers. Because there’s a focused awareness of PTSD and the pain it brings, few people consider that trauma isn’t always bad. Taleb in Antifragile explains that stress in a certain range can make people less fragile. Like muscles that are torn down in exercise and rebuilt stronger, mental health growth can come through the right kind of struggles.

One of the greatest challenges as a parent is in identifying which stresses to allow for our children so they may grow – and which ones to protect them from that would be too difficult for them to navigate alone. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for one aspect of this.)

Forgiveness

Holding a resentment towards someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die. Forgiveness relieves you of that poison with no impact – positive or negative – on the other person. Forgiving someone is an important step in healing but is too often misunderstood. Forgiving someone isn’t forgetting the harm they caused nor releasing them of their responsibility to make things right. It is just that you’re no longer holding the harm inside yourself.

While it’s often difficult to accept the power of forgiveness for the fear that you’re somehow making it OK for the other person to have harmed you, it doesn’t mean that. In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod explains that some of the best solutions for modeling behavior seem to echo what we see in life. A Tit-for-Tat program is effective when modeling what happens when two independent actors can choose to work in their own or mutual best interests.

Economists play a game called the ultimatum game, where one person is given ten dollars to split between themselves and another person any way they would like. But the second person gets to decide, based on the split, whether the money is returned, or both get to keep their portions. When the split gets too far out of balance, the second person generally prevents both from getting the money. This makes no sense to economists, because the second person gets something even if it’s small, and turning down the money means they get none, too. In the context of Axelrod’s work, it does make sense.

We’ve evolved with a sense of justice, and when someone takes advantage of us, we want to make them aware that their behavior isn’t socially acceptable. We want them to pay – and that’s part of what has allowed us as a species to develop our social relationships. Even John Gottman in The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples makes the point that the Nash equilibrium, where parties are looking for the best overall outcome, instead of the Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium, just their own interests, is preferred. That is to say that we’re deeply wired so that we keep people in line through consequences. Fighting that urge when it’s not helpful is difficult but there is hope.

Hope

Of all the positive psychology ideas, my favorite concept is hope. Martin Seligman in The Hope Circuit explains that the idea of learned helplessness should be replaced with the idea that we either learn we have control over our environments or we fail to learn that lesson. Hope, as it shows up as the placebo effect in clinical trials, is challenging to get past. Double-blind studies are designed to ensure that hope doesn’t influence the results. (See Acedia & Me and Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more on the role of hope as a placebo.)

The value of hope is its ability to hold off the evils of the world – or at least hold off mental maladies like depression.

Depression

Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers estimates that, by 2020, depression is projected to be the second leading cause of medical disability on Earth. It’s sometimes called “the common cold of mental illness” because of its prevalence. Depression is a big deal in terms of its impact on society and on people individually. Depression robs people of their ability to feel joy. Instead of being filled with a mixture of good and bad, they can only feel the bad.

Part of depression is the expectation is that the situation will remain the same or get worse over time. The result is a fatalistic point of view that denies the person can have any positive influence over the outcomes they get.

Positive psychology teaches, however, that depression isn’t a permanent condition. Through hope, it is possible to conquer depression and to use the values and strengths that the individual has.

Virtues

Though much is made of a person’s individual strengths, these strengths fit into a larger, virtuous framework. The information about these virtues and strengths is reproduced directly below:

  • Virtue: Wisdom & Knowledge—strengths that involve acquiring and using knowledge
  1. Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
  2. Curiosity: Openness to experience; taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
  3. Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
  4. Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
  5. Perspective: Being able to provide wise counsel to others
  • Virtue: Courage—emotional strengths which involve exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal
  1. Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, or pain
  2. Persistence: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles
  3. Integrity: Speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
  4. Vitality & Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things half-way or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated
  • Virtue: Humanity—interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
  1. Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people
  2. Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
  3. Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick
  • Virtue: Justice—strengths that underlie healthy community life
  1. Citizenship & Teamwork: Working well as member of a group or team; being loyal to the group; doing one’s share
  2. Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others; giving everyone a fair chance
  3. Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same time maintain good relations within the group; organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
  • Virtue: Temperance—strengths that protect against excess
  1. Forgiveness & Mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful
  2. Humility & Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not seeking the spotlight; not regarding oneself as more special than one is
  3. Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
  4. Self-regulation [Self-control]: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions
  • Virtue: Transcendence—strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
  1. Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to arts to mathematics to science
  2. Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things; taking time to express thanks
  3. Hope & Optimism: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about
  4. Humor & Playfulness: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people, seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes
  5. Spirituality: Knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort

Framework of Understanding

Learning about one’s strengths provides a mechanism to create understanding. By understanding zest as a strength, you can understand why you may sometimes be prone to jumping into things with too much energy. Unlike the Enneagram, the ViA assessment doesn’t speak of how your strengths can be overused. (For more on the Enneagram, see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery.) However, Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual makes a point to explain how you can over- or underuse your signature strengths and there by get less than optimal results.

The key is that, as humans, we are always trying to make sense of the world around us. The more tools we have to make sense in a positive way, the more possibilities we have to see the world as a positive place. Investigating our strengths gives us both a way to build on what we have and a way to understand how we may not have been successful as we would like. In a way, it helps our sense of trust in ourselves.

Trust

Trust is a critical concept for humans. It allows us to move to vulnerability and the intimacy that we crave. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) It also provides the framework for our societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and The Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) Positive psychology doesn’t discount the reality that sometimes trust is violated, but it builds upon our need to trust ourselves.

I trust that if you read Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, you’ll find something valuable, whether you’re a clinician or not.

Skunk Works Leadership

I finished writing my review of Skunk Works and I realized that beyond the amazing aircraft that they created, they developed a culture that managed to side-step the government bureaucracy and get things done. Somehow during the mountain of paperwork, they managed to be as agile as a gazelle. This is something that large organizations aspire to today. They feel the pressure to be more competitive, adaptive, and agile because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we find ourselves in.

The hope here is to find a few nuggets of how the Skunk Works was successful, so that other organizations trying to mimic the results have a blueprint they can use.

No Blueprints

The irony of trying to build a blueprint is that, often, the blueprints came after the part was made at the Skunk Works. There were many times when designers would work with machinists and assembly personnel to figure out how to make something work. They’d mock something up on cardboard, the machinist would make it, and then return the cardboard or part to the designer to get it drawn up.

From most perspectives, this is backwards. However, at Skunk Works, that’s just how things worked. The team worked together to address the need or solve the problem, and then they’d make sure that their individual commitments to the rest of the organization were met. Agile software development would take a page out of this book decades later in deciding that ceremony wasn’t important, people and interactions were important.

You Can’t Contract Your Way Out of Conflict

Own your own business for a while, and you’ll make friends with an attorney or two. It happens because they’ll save your bacon at some point – and because you’re going to be talking to a lot of them. A wise friend of mine explained that contracts are funny things. You write a contract, so it’s clear what should happen when things go wrong – and then you hope nothing goes wrong. You write a contract so you can trust what the other party will do – and you know that you can’t write a contract with someone you don’t trust. It just won’t ever work.

The point of this is that, at Skunk Works, the relationships people had mattered. It wasn’t position, power, or prestige. If you weren’t working together to solve the problem, you weren’t working.

Clear and Present Danger

The Soviets at the time Skunk Works was created represented a clear and present danger to the United States. What we didn’t know was the degree or aspects of the danger. That’s what Skunk Works would eventually end up solving for the US. They’d level the playing field with advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that provided the best understanding about what was really happening inside the Iron Curtain.

Skunk Works always had clear targets. At the largest level, it was to be able to protect the United States’ interests. At the micro level, the targets for the aircraft could be specific. The SR-71 Blackbird project was targeted to fly at over 80,000 feet and Mach 3. (For more see, The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) They achieved these goals, in part, because they were specific. They had something that the team could shoot for and desire to be a part of.

Secret Handshakes

Being a part of Skunk Works was something special. It was something that few people could say – and to some degree, it was something that even the people inside couldn’t say except to each other. It created a special sense of community inside that circus tent. This was the crack team. They were going to save the US from foreign interests. Everything was riding on them.

There may not have been any secret handshakes, but the secrecy of their projects bonded everyone together in a way that not every organization can accomplish. There was something to being a part of the group – it meant something. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

The Fewer the Better

While they weren’t many people, they were handpicked to be the best at their jobs. What was assembled became a testimony to Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The model that the Skunk Works operated under didn’t require more people. In fact, Johnson recognized early on that Skunk Works raises and promotions had to be different, because there wouldn’t be as many people for them to lead. The group wouldn’t require leadership in the same way that the rest of the organization thought about it.

Rather than focusing on empire-building by collecting the most people working for them, Skunk Works managers would focus on output and results. Instead of worrying about competing with others, they’d be focused on how to collaborate with their peers – and compete with the enemy. (This is a lesson that Richard Hackman would drive home in Collaborative Intelligence years later.)

Lessons for Today

It’s great that Johnson and Rich were able to build and maintain a culture at Skunk Works with such amazing characteristics. But how do the leaders of today leverage this wisdom to create a culture of their own that’s capable of incredible results? Here’s a few ways.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek explains, in Start with Why, that people need a shared purpose. While most organizations today don’t have an enemy the size of Russia to target, they can target a change they want to see in the world. This change provides a central theme for everything that the organization does. Organizing principles make it easier to work together towards the common good.

Clear, Compelling Goals

It may start with “why,” but it doesn’t end there. It ends with the specific goals that individuals and teams need to accomplish to allow the organization’s mission to be successful. The specific goals – sometimes very difficult goals – drove the engine forward. The SR-71 Blackbird was only 84% efficient at burning fuel, leaked like a sieve on the ground, and had a horrible habit of the jet engines “unstarting” during flight. Because the goals were clear, these “annoyances” were acceptable. When you’re building something that’s generations ahead of anything anyone else can do, there are going to be drawbacks.

In your organization, clear goals allow you to focus on the requirements, the “must haves,” and allow some of the other things to land wherever they need to.

Compete Outside, Collaborate Inside

Too many organizations have managers pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and power. The real enemy should always be outside the organization. Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence makes it clear that internal competition doesn’t create well-performing teams. Of all the things that we can learn from Skunk Works, I feel like this is the one we forget most often.

Results

Skunk Works wasn’t easy. It was hard, demanding work, and people didn’t “pussyfoot around” when there was a problem. Results – the ability to get things done – was always at the forefront of mind.

Communicate

In Johnson’s rules for Skunk Works, he made a point that evaluations (budget reporting) had to be timely – and problems needed to be disclosed as quickly as possible. Knowing bad news late does you no good. You need to know bad news as soon as possible, so you can mitigate the risks caused by it. If there was one thing about Skunk Works, it was communication – for better and for worse.

Collocate

For the first time, the people who needed to work together to get things done actually worked in the same space. Instead of designers lobbing designs over the wall and machinists handing them off to assembly, everyone worked together because they were close together. Agile software development learned the value of the product owner and the software development team being close together. It improves the measurable communication – and it builds bonds of trust that allow you to transcend the normal rules for working together.

Trust

Too few people in organizations trust each other or the organization. At Skunk Works, everyone knew that if you did your job to the best of your ability – even if you failed – Johnson (and then Rich) would have your back. You trusted the people you worked for and with. That makes all the difference. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

Failure

It seems odd that failure should be a part of success. However, it is perhaps the most important part of success. Without the ability to fail safely, you won’t know about failures until too late, and the organization won’t be able to learn from the failures. So, paradoxically, failure allows you to succeed – when you’re willing to accept and acknowledge it.

Back to Skunk Works

According to the current literature few organizations have matched Skunk Works’ level of functioning. Books like An Everyone Culture and Reinventing Organizations make it clear that our organizations are falling far short of their aspirations. Perhaps if we’re willing to take a look back to the Skunk Works, we can see just some of the ways that we can make our organizations more powerful.