“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” — W. Edwards Deming
Talking about synchronicity; this morning I found this quote in the book that I’m currently reading, and it would be the perfect summary of a conversation I had yesterday afternoon. I was talking with a friend about the role leaders play in the change processes within their organisations.
The image that keeps coming back for me is “a piece of cloth”.
An organisation can be seen as a piece of cloth, an intricated system of interwoven threads. Every organisation has its own unique size, material, fabric and texture. So, each piece of cloth will react differently to changes. If you pick a point in the fabric and lift it, depending on the strength and elasticity of the threads and the weight of the material you may be able to lift the whole piece from that one point. Or you may be able to hold it only for a moment before it is pulled back in place by the strength of the texture.
So, if you lift the cloth from one single point, the rest of the material will follow with some delay. And, no matter its unique characteristics, the parts that are farther from the lifting point, will be left behind. Sure, that lifted point will stand out, but what happens when it is released? It’s highly probable that the whole piece of cloth will fall back in the previous flat state.
What if instead of lifting the piece of cloth from one point, we lift it from many points at the same time? Or even better, what if we create a system, like a frame, that will allow raising the whole piece of cloth at the same time?
Just replace “piece of cloth” with “organisation” and “lifting point” with “leader”, and I believe the questions still work.
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear presents a concept called the “Three Layers Of Behaviour Change” to describe how we approach change.
Going from the outside-in, the three layers are outcomes, processes and identity.
“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”
All levels are useful to create a change.
What really makes a difference is where we start from; the direction of change.
The need for a change something in our life is usually triggered by the desire for different outcomes. We want to have something different, so we start a process to change what we have.
This focus on the outcomes sparks one or more outcome-based interventions; projects aimed at changing what we have.
Some of us are wiser, and they understand that if they don’t change how they do things they won’t get different results. So they review their processes so they can generate better outcomes.
Indeed, changing how we do things is more effective in creating the desired results but, as we know, when our behaviours (processes) are not in tune with our identity (beliefs), they are not sustainable on the long term.
“In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your repeated beingness.”
Behind every action that we make there is a set of beliefs. The beliefs that define our identity. The reason why many change projects fail is that we focus only on the outcomes or the processes while bringing in the process the same beliefs that create the reality we want to change.
A sustainable change must start from our identity.
This morning when I wrote the date in my journal’s entry, I suddenly realised that one-third of this year is gone.
Time is a tricky thing. One hour can feel endless while months just flow away in the blink of an eye. Probably this is why I always add too many goals to my daily plan.
“Men historically have tended to overestimate achievements in the short run and to underestimate what can be achieved in the long run.”
This statement was said by Alfred Mayo, an aerospace consultant for the NASA, in a 1969 interview to a newspaper for an article about humanity’s future activities in space.
I have this tendency. When I sit down to plan the months ahead, I try to squeeze in as much as I can. It makes me feel productive to look at a plan packed with clear goals and tasks.
Until one morning I realise that one-third of the year is gone, a good chunk of that plan is untouched or forgotten while a lot of unplanned things had happened and some unexpected results have been achieved.
Does this mean that planning is useless?
Not at all.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
Planning is vital to define your direction and, most of all, to prepare yourself for the journey ahead. To choose what you will need to get where you want; people, skills, tools, structures and so on.
And some times, it is a good idea to stop to check your journey against your plan. Are you getting closer to your goal? Do you need to adjust something? Maybe you need to review the destination. What have you learned so far that you can use to move forward?
The International Workers’ Day seems a good opportunity for a journey’s review.
Sometimes I catch myself stuck in the “outcome” mindset.
The typical sign is the feeling that I’m pushing hard, but I’m going nowhere.
It is like trying to walk while keeping the gaze locked on the destination. As a result, I’m not paying attention to what’s around me and where I put my feet. I begin stumbling even on small obstacles, and I lose the joy of walking. It’s all about getting there.
Ironically, I’m not getting where I want.
It looks like my destination moves with me.
In those moments, frustration kicks in.
In the past, I’ve quit some projects due to this attitude.
Over the years I’ve learned that when I catch myself in that place, I have to shift my focus. I must redirect my gaze from the final outcome to my next step. Once the direction is set, I focus only on the next thing to do.
Even better. I design a new habit. Something I can do every day knowing that if I am consistent, it will take where I want to go.
Lately, I’ve been feeling that sense of frustration with some of the projects I’m working on. Today’s card reminded me that I need to stop thinking about the outcome and focus on “how do I show up every day“.
“Hence, in order to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it.” – Herbert Simon, 1983, Reason in Human Affairs
Every decision, even the one that we perceive as very rational, is an emotional decision. Neurologists have discovered that people with damages to the emotional centres of the brain that impaired their emotions and feelings, lose the ability to make decisions and act even if they can list many reasons to do it.
Logic can help us find the reasons to act, but it’s our emotions that compel us to take action.
“It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” – Antonio Damasio
Emotions and feelings transform what we experience into things we want to cultivate or avoid in the future. Anytime we perceive a cue, emotions tell us what the action or decision that will make us feel good is.
“You learn what to do in the future based on what you were rewarded for doing (or punished for doing) in the past. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.” — James Clear
I often got trapped in endless thinking trying to understand what the right decision is. I created spreadsheets, tables and complicated systems. All in the hope of making a rational choice. And it helps. Don’t get me wrong, the reasoning is essential in decision making. But it’s only when I take care of my emotions that I really move forward.
“I agree with Schopenhauer that one of the most powerful motives that attract people to science and art is the longing to escape from everyday life.” — A. Einstein
I’d be curious to understand how “everyday life” was for Schopenhauer or Einstein. But I can relate to their point. We all go through many moments and situations that we don’t like. When it looks like things are conjuring against us and the only thing we’d like to do is to escape from our present reality.
We may decide to escape backwards or hide from reality, losing ourselves in mindless entertainment or using substances to disconnect from reality. Unfortunately, this route only brings temporary pleasure as it doesn’t really change anything.
As Schopenhauer and Einstein suggested, we can choose to escape forward by creating a new reality through art and science, learning and growing. The good news for me is that we don’t need to do what Einstein or Schopenhauer did to change reality.
We just need to focus on our own craft because when we change, our reality change.
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” ― Anaïs Nin
At a conference about sustainable development, climate change and human rights that I attended a few weeks ago, one idea was shared in different forms by many speakers.
One said that “all wars start in our head“, another that “borders exist only in the human mind” and someone else said, “without peace at the individual level there can’t be peace in the world“.
It all starts within you.
Every change, every transformation.
The world that you want begins within you.
This unique superpower exists within you.
I’m writing this as a note to myself too.
Sometimes I got heated thinking and debating about things I’d like to change in the world, in my community, in others.
And I forget about the one thing I can always do; I can change myself.
It was almost the end of the day when we finally cross the Chilean border. The sun’s light was already fading from white to gold.
We thought, like with the previous borders that we crossed, that the Argentinian checkpoint was a few minutes away, just behind the turn.
We were wrong.
We drove for a good 15 minutes that looked like an eternity before we found the first sign of the border to enter Argentina.
Fifteen minutes in no man’s land.
It’s a powerful feeling to know that you are in space between spaces.
In our lives, every space is owned by someone, or it is dedicated to something. The threshold between spaces is so thin that you can’t really stand on it and take a pause.
We exit something to enter something else.
We finish something only to immediately start something new.
But that day, we’ve been in no country for a while.
A space that doesn’t exist and yet it is so real.
And now I realise that it was also the sunset; that space in-between the day and the night.
There is magic in no man’s land.
Next time that you are crossing a threshold take a pause and breathe in the energy of the space in-between.
I wrote a very thoughtful piece about health, performance, goals and systems. I included two brilliant quotes from the book I’m reading. And then, when I got almost at the end of my 15 minutes writing slot, I realised that it didn’t feel authentic at all.
Yep, a good exercise, some cool words but my soul was not there.
So, I threw everything away.
Now I have only a few minutes to finish my daily apple.
And I may not be able to write anything significant.
Years ago I was visiting a vineyard in the North of Italy. The owner told me that the year before, he had to throw away all the wine made from a particular type of grape. It was not good enough. He could have sold it, but that would be shortsighted. He wanted to be a great winemaker not to sell a lot of wine.
I’m far from being as courageous as that man, but I’m doing this daily practice not to increase the number of posts but to become better at writing. To do that my words must feel authentic to me.
Ah, and in the end, I have also found a fitting quote.
“Having lower standards for something is bad for your soul.” — Ed Catmull
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon “The Parable of the Prodigal Son“. You’ve probably heard about it even if you don’t have a Christian upbringing.
It’s a story that Jesus shares with his disciples about a father who has two sons. The younger one asks the father for his inheritance and then leave wasting his fortune (prodigal means wasteful and extravagant) and becoming a beggar. He then decides to return home begging his father to take him in as a servant. The father instead welcomes him back with a huge feast. The older son, envious and resentful, refuse to celebrate and he complains with his father. He has always behaved rightfully, but he never had such a celebration for him. The father reminds him that one day he will inherit everything and that they must celebrate the comeback of the younger brother because he was lost and now he is found.
I listened to this story many times, and I always thought it was about the love and graciousness of the father. But this time I was struck by the loneliness and misery of the older brother. By being so judgemental, he had trapped himself in a cage.
When we judge others, we are also judging ourselves.
And when we put others in boxes, we reduce our own space.
Anytime we create a wall between right and wrong, we are reducing our space even if we put ourselves on the right side.
To do what we feel right without being judgmental is indeed a challenge, but one that can create freedom.