Archive for October, 2013

Accountability at the Top: Leadership Lessons From the Debacle

NUGGET : Leadership in change is not just a matter of vision. For people in formal management roles, vision and policy are just the beginning. The true test is in the less glamorous and often messy work of execution.

big_adapt_25th It disturbs me to hear that a project as large and complex as appears to have been badly managed. It’s not the fact that there are technical problems – there are few big system implementations that don’t have them. What concerns me is the apparently poor change management along the way.

I’m not privy to the details, so at this point I can only comment generally about the change management lessons that are emerging.

Here are some management rules that do not seem to have been followed:

Rule 1a: Keep communication channels open so that you anticipate issues rather than are surprised by a crisis.

Rule 1b: Overtly seek out the bad news – be sure it is an invited part of the ongoing review and dialogue. Encourage, don’t shoot the messenger.

Rule 2: Don’t skimp on coordination and integration, for any complex initiative is more than the sum of the task lists. Put your best and brightest in a position where they have a continual big picture view. In fact, everyone on the project can benefit from a holistic view. Remember the blind men and the elephant.

Rule 3: Sometimes facts should be king: it’s extremely risky to close your eyes and wish for success. Most of the time you will lose.

Rule 4: Treat your customers like adults. They can take delays and bad news if there is an explanation and you let them know before things fall apart. Besides, everyone knows this is a complex technical challenge. This relates to Number 3.

Rule 5: Don’t blindside the person at the top. The Secretary of Health and Human Services admitted that Mr. Obama found out about the problems with the website at the same time as the public! If it is true that he was kept in the dark, she should resign or be fired – now.

But then…

Rule 6.
I would ask myself (If I were President), “What is happening in the culture of my administration that makes it difficult for people to bring me the truth?”

I have worked with many competent leader/managers in my consulting with government agencies. But I am also aware of the extreme difficulty of ensuring truly good management and governance – especially when change is involved. Part of the problem is the difficulty of merging political appointees with civil servants. Too many people without leadership competence and expertise are appointed to top roles solely for political reasons. Add the uncertainties, distortions, and changes due to political infighting and you have… well, disaster. And we have another example today of what that looks like. Please send comments to

The SHADOW side of the Pyramid Organization


NUGGET : Be sure that the way you draw your organization corresponds to how you want it to work – and be aware of both the “light” and the “shadow” of the assumptions that underlie your mental model.

In leadership programs I often ask people to draw their organization. Before you read on, imagine how you would draw yours.

Your drawing reflects your implicit assumptions about how the organization works.

Most people draw a pyramid or a cascading organization chart. Many organizations today – possibly including yours — are managed as a traditional “pyramid.” The cascading organization chart within the pyramid shows job boundaries and where people fit, maps how communication normally flows, and shows who has what authorities. The efficiencies of this design are well known: functional excellence, division of labor, role clarity. However, this traditional organization often has a pretty powerful shadow side: hidden or repressed qualities that hold the organization back and negatively affect a variety of internal and external stakeholders.

Carl Jung introduced the “shadow” in an essay in 1917, describing it as a powerful unconscious force that contains negative but repressed energies. Over time, the shadow concept expanded to include undeveloped or unused positive qualities. The “shadow” also began to be applied to civilizations, organizations, and groups.

I am exploring the shadow in many blogs, for the shadow is a fascinating and important force that holds keys to organization and individual evolution as well as destruction. If we don’t face into and do something with this shadow energy, the recent recession, the Arab Spring, and the power plays in governments will be puny explosions in comparison to what may lie ahead.


Think for a minute about the shadow side of the traditional pyramid organization. What qualities does it reward and what qualities does it marginalize? Here are a few:

• Rewards action, suppresses reflection
• Rewards rational argument, suppresses creative, intuitive, non-standard approaches
• Favors short term benefit, suppresses longer term focus
• Rewards competition, suppresses collaboration
• Relies on information control, is suspicious of information transparency
• Focuses on financial success and stakeholders over other kinds of bottom lines
 (customer, future, environmental, etc.)
• Supports authoritarian/power-over vs. participative, power with approaches and mindsets

Okay, these are extreme polarities, and the real world operates somewhere on the continuum. However, few would doubt that the suppressed energies of the right side of this list are knocking at our doors, demanding to be let out, and pulling us into a new paradigm of organizations. The price for keeping the lid on these forces is very high: economic collapse, loss of talent, poor organization performance in the longer term, demoralized and underperforming workforce, destroyed reputations, proliferation of fraud and other white collar crime, loss of public trust in business and governments, and in some cases – violent revolution.

We see evidence of a better balance trying to take hold as organizations begin to take on some new forms – supply chains, virtual teams, and more networked relationships that cross levels and organization boundaries. These emerging forms are placing lots of stress on the traditional pyramid structure and the “command and control” methodologies that often accompany it. Processes are increasingly taking on the role of structures as the rather pliable glue that aligns people and work.

Here is a key point I will expand on in future blogs: there is huge energy locked up in the shadow. Like the electricity that lies latent in wires and generators, it is waiting to be unleashed — to expand people’s skills, to bring better information to decisions and problems, to create great products and services, to solve bigger problems, to create immensely greater value, to even ensure the survival of civilization.

Our challenge is not to replace hierarchy with anarchy (unfortunately, this is happening in some parts of the Middle East*), but to capture the benefit of hierarchy in decision making, organizing and aligning work, and supporting functional excellence – while also supporting the free flow of relationships and information to get work done with the least bureaucratic interference.

I’d love your thoughts about this very important topic of the Shadow. For more, take a look in the book section on this site:The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons For Leaders – just released in paperback and on Kindle.

* I plan to go into this dynamic in future blogs. Stay tuned.

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Think BIGGER About Change The Case FOR Failures

NUGGET : Failure is a critical ingredient for complex change and today’s “failure” may be an important step in a larger journey. Don’t give up when somebody says, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Rather check whether the change is worth pursuing now. Then ask, “What worked and didn’t work last time? How are our needs today different or more intense? What did we learn that can help us be successful this time?


Some people are surprised about the emerging global policy changes related to Syria and Iran.  I am not.  When seen through the lens of larger change dynamics, the new openness and global consensus related to both of these hot spots is quite predictable.  And this lens is relevant for ALL complex changes, including the changes occurring today related to US health care policy.

What is this lens?  In my blogs I will often share frameworks that, as a change agent, I find very useful for figuring out and even predicting what is happening.  These frameworks apply to any big change — in our lives, in organizations, and among nations and societies.  Generally these frameworks contradict the idea that change is a rational, step-by-step process that we can control with plans, carrots and sticks.


Change Framework #1: Failures before Successes.

The “new” (the emerging red curve above) is always tested (resisted) by the “old” (the black curve).  Before something new becomes the way of doing business or relating or being, it inevitably fails.  This is true for all complex changes–a new relationship with Syria or Iran; a new process in your business; a new way of managing that supports a virtual organization; a change in career direction.  In all of these cases, failures are a key part of the process and serve several important purposes.  Failures test the change (is it really a good thing to do?).  Failures help refine the change (few changes are right from the start – thus I question “do it right the first time”) — rapid prototyping of approximations recognizes this.  Failures build and hone capabilities.  And failures signal that something interesting is happening that may lead to a major change later on.

I worked in South Africa before during and after the end of apartheid and have studied and participated in that fascinating and prototypical change process.  South Africa’s relatively peaceful but radical change in government (and in how organizations work and people relate to each other) was not, as many of my friends believe, caused by sanctions.  Rather, there were many diverse experiments and changes and apparent failures that led to the tipping point of the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections (I’ll write about this in a later blog, for it is fascinating).   The failures built capacity and created many of the conditions that led to a new kind of society in that beautiful, diverse country.

So, failure and experimentation are critical ingredients for complex change and today’s “failures” are often important steps in a larger journey.  Don’t give up when somebody is resistant and says, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Rather check whether the change is worth pursuing now.  Then ask, “What worked and didn’t work last time? How are our needs today different or more intense?    What did we learn that will help us be more successful this time?  How can we build on the capabilities we built in the past?

Having said this, I always also say, “Given a choice, I would like to be the leader or consultant at the end of the cycle of failures – at that tipping point where the new becomes the norm and the red curve above takes off (the new relationships with Syria and Iran?).  But that is often more a matter of timing and building on past lessons, rather than genius or superb change management capability!

Watch for more frameworks that you can use to help you sort out what is happening in all kinds of complex changes–at the individual, group, organizational, and societal level.

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Think BIGGER About Change: The Case FOR Polarization

NUGGET : We demonize polarization (it does have its dark side) but it’s an important dynamic that helps fuel complex change processes. When it is most intense, it is a signal that the likelihood of breakthrough may be near. So, don’t be afraid of polarization. Stimulate it, and then find ways to transform it into more robust and next generation solutions and agreements.

Okay, we in the US (and you in the rest of the world) are probably fed up with the polarization in the US Congress. It is befuddling, frustrating and could leave a long tail of destruction even if and when compromise or new kinds of solutions occur. It’s an example of polarization that seems to be an end in itself – and thus gives this very important part of the change process a bad rap.

It’s easy to see disagreement and polarization as bad, threatening, and something to control. This view leads to sending potentially powerful points of view underground where they fester, waiting to reappear later to block, sabotage, and destroy (think Syria, many “Arab Spring” revolutions, Enron, many divorces, US Government shutdown… the list goes on).

Looking closely at major changes, acute polarization often happens before major breakthroughs. This happens often enough for me to conclude that polarization is important for the change process. Examples today: Syria, Iran, and even North Korea vs. most of the rest of the world; US Republican and Democratic legislators. In companies there are common polarizations: short vs. long-term priorities; participative vs. top down decision-making for an important agenda, sides related to virtually any complex decision.

Process-oriented psychology, which I have been studying for years, provides a powerful and useful perspective on polarization as part of the process of change:

• Something in the environment triggers roles and perspectives to form (e.g., the current financial crisis has awakened people to the need for new controls and spending models)

• The perspectives crystalize and are defined partly by being different and often opposite to other views (e.g., Tea Party libertarianism vs. extreme Democrat socialism in the US.)

• People merge with their positions and don’t dare diverge from the “party line.’ Those with the opposite view become the enemy.

• Meantime, people who have moderate and more integrative views drop out, creating an increasingly larger group that is not engaged but has a lot of potential power if increasingly frustrated.

• Polarization is inherently unstable and can’t last forever. Resolution may occur in a number of ways: 1) one side destroys the other, 2) the polarization creates a crisis is resolved through strong-arm tactics or temporary compromise, 3) people with moderate views who have dropped out become active and move in to break the logjam (“throw out the incumbents”), or 4) polarized views soften as people begin to see that the other side has points they agree with; both sides begin to move toward a compromise or a higher order solution.

Although polarization is frightening, uncomfortable, and seems to waste time, it is not the enemy. It helps raise change energy to the surface. It wakes people up. It creates lots of alternatives. It calls on everyone to engage, even though, for a time many people drop out of the dialogue. It helps prepare people for the inevitability of change.

So, stimulate different points of view and don’t be rattled by polarized views and dynamics. Support and create a place for conflict to occur (this is one good role of media talk shows). When the heat of change reaches fever pitch, help all sides see where they agree and find ways to bring the dropouts back into the system.

In change, what we thought was good (no conflict, minimum resistance, smooth and quick acceptance), is actually not so good. Conflict, resistance, polarization, failure – all of these are inherent in Nature’s evolution. Manage these forces by encouraging them, providing a space for them to play out, and resisting the urge to send them underground. Know that when the polarization is most intense, you are on the edge of breakthrough. Then help channel the energies for productive purposes.

I welcome your comments to