Speed vs. Wholeness

Holacracy has always made me a bit uneasy, and I’ve had difficulty pinpointing why.

My first take looked at the contradictions inherent in a CEO commanding that their company adopt a system which itself does not condone managers or commanding. That article was more about the process of adopting self-management than about any particular self-management structure. But I think Holacracy is an enabler (even if unintentionally) of quick adoptions that are more likely to have these contradictory properties.

Inspired by Chris Clark’s article about potentially moving beyond Holacracy, it occurred to me that there is perhaps a fundamental tradeoff at work here. A central goal of Holacracy is to make it easier and faster for organizations to adopt self-management (in part by providing “off the shelf” solutions). The part of me that wants to encourage the world to move beyond traditional power structures loves the idea of speeding up that process. And yet I think this approach contradicts a core truth: that how things are done is often far more important than what is done or how quickly it is done. For example, the ownership and responsibility generated in the process of co-creation is often more impactful than the objective merits of the solution itself. (See: Peter Block)

So by shortcutting its way to a solution, Holacracy bypasses some of the vital ownership-, growth-, and community-building functions that a slower, more imperfect process of creating a solution together would have supported. This seems to be a fundamental downside of any technique to speed up or short-cut growth. That is, the tradeoff for getting something more quickly is that it’s less robust, less integrated, and less whole.

This is not an argument that Holacracy is “bad” — these are legitimate tradeoffs, and different contexts will call for different approaches. But that’s also part of the point. Truly understanding your context takes more time than adopting an off-the-shelf solution.

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Shadow work

“The ‘shadow’ is a term representing the personal unconscious, or the psychological material that we repress, deny, dissociate, or disown. Unfortunately, denying this material doesn’t make it go away; on the contrary, it returns to plague us with painful neurotic symptoms, obsessions, fears, and anxieties. […] One of the lessons that we learned the very hard way … is that if you don’t do shadow work, [all your other efforts] can get sabotaged by your own unconscious. […] Your shadow can accompany you all the way to enlightenment and back.”

-Ken Wilber (The Integral Vision)

So true, and yet it’s still unclear to me how this fits into Ken Wilber’s model of life, the universe, and everything.

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Metatruths

Some truths I’ve learned about truths:

  • The truth changes, sometimes frequently.
  • Truths that seem contradictory can both be true.
  • The only definitive truth is subjective experience in the present.

Do these truths also apply to themselves? (Metametatruths?)

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Fabric of society

“White segregationists said, ‘We can’t have integrated schools because black and white children might get to know each other and might marry each other and have babies.’ The Civil Rights Movement said, ‘This is not about marriage.’ But the white segregationists were right. You bring people together, they will actually learn to love each other. Some of them will marry and have children. It will actually change the fabric of society. When people worry that having gays in our community will change what marriage really means, actually, they’re right. When people worry that having a lot of Latinos in the United States will change the United States, they are right. We’re constantly making each other. … We’re going to create a bigger ‘we’, a different ‘we’.”

-John Powell (via Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 119)

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Light

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

-
Marianne Williamson (via Ryan Schoenbeck)

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Ready

“When you are ready to learn, a teacher will appear.”

-Zen proverb (via David Holzer)

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Small groups

“All [meaningful] change begins with a small group, for the small group is the unit of change. Even a large [gathering] uses small groups to create connection and move the action forward. The small group is the structure that allows every voice to be heard. [It’s irrelevant whether] everything has been said [unless] everyone has said it. ”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)

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Meetings

“A gathering is hosted; it is the product of an act of hospitality. [In contrast], meetings are called or scheduled. They are intended for production rather than hospitality. They are mostly designed to take the past and will it into the future. So they become one more version of the past. They either review the past or embody the belief that better planning, better managing or more measurement and prediction can create an alternative future.”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)

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Voting behavior

It is too difficult and time-consuming to make a “fully rational” voting decision, so we use heuristics (“rules of thumb”). In particular, we use:

The nature of the times heuristic: When times are good, you vote for continuity. When times are bad, you vote for change.

The identification heuristic: You are more likely to vote for people you identify emotionally with, with people who, you sense, “get you.”

Francisco Toro (via Evangeline White)

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Afraid to Think

“I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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Racism as squandered alliance

“I strongly believe that for all the ways white people benefit materially from racism, that we’re very damaged by it. [Many] poor white people see themselves as white before they understand themselves as poor. There’s a potentially very powerful alliance between poor whites and poor blacks in our country, and that alliance has been undermined. And ultimately, I think, who it benefits is a tiny, tiny little segment of the society — this is another way of talking about the one percent.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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Willpower

I’m starting to understand how the whole concept of willpower is a sham.

It’s sort of funny because I took an entire college course on the psychology of willpower. All sorts of experiments have been conducted on people’s ability to do things like “delaying gratification” (such as looking at but not eating a bowl of cookies) and voluntarily withstanding various types of pain (how long will you immerse your hand in ice water?). There are mathematical models describing how willpower is depleted and renewed and how it relates to the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the anticipated reward.

The first signs of brewing trouble came (for me) in the form of studies showing that diets, exercise programs, and other regimes of “do it because it’s good for you” (including some religious doctrines) generally speaking do not work. They often work in the short term, but in the long term are more likely to leave participants worse off than they were before they started.

Then I began to see that the whole concept of willpower is antithetical to mindfulness, wholeheartedness, integral psychology, Zen, etc. These approaches first and foremost teach us to get out of our heads and tune into the sensations and experience of the body in the present moment. We work to fully experience our feelings, our body’s needs like hunger and movement, and our spiritual needs like connection and compassion. We then try to proceed in life honoring those needs without overriding them with preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “proper” or “civil” or the way to fulfill some other role that we are used to occupying (student, parent, spouse, employee, caretaker, and on and on).

Willpower is forcing oneself to overcome one’s own instincts and needs. Mindfulness is compassionately accepting and integrating our whole self, as it is, right now. These are polar opposites.

Ironically, the creators of the diets and workouts — and the prophets who headline our major religions — most likely were enlightened. That is, in a compassionate and mindful way they discovered methods by which they achieved health and happiness. Then they wrote those methods down for the benefit of the rest of us. And then, the rest of us started trying to force ourselves and each other to do those things.

Clearly there is no intrinsic problem with eating healthy and getting exercise and being honest and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. The problem comes when we try to do those things by force of will rather than out of compassion and mindfulness for what our whole self wants and needs.

I say this as someone who has been more or less stuck in my head for my entire adult life and who is at the present moment deeply hungry but putting off getting food because my mind wants to write this article and is afraid of pausing even for a few minutes because the rest of my body might realize that there are other, more pressing needs.

If that’s willpower, I no longer want it.

 

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Good and Bad

One of the ideas that stuck with me after reading Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg, 3rd ed. 2015), is that words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’ can often be problematic. For example:

In expressing our feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions, rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say, ‘I feel good about that,’ the word good could mean happy, excited, relieved, or a number of other emotions. Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling. (p. 43)

Notice how Rosenberg very intentionally did not say that using vague words is bad or wrong — which would of course be a contradiction! Rather, he walked the talk and described a specific problem that can arise when such words are used. (Elsewhere in the book he describes all sorts of terrible problems that can arise from using judgmental language including “right” and “wrong”.)

Part of what’s poignant about this is how easy it is for my mind to jump to the simplified version: that using these words is bad or wrong. They appear frequently in conversation, social media, news, and books. So now every time I notice one, I have an opportunity — I can judge the wrongness/badness of the writer, or I can simply become curious and see if I can think up a more specific way to phrase what they may have meant (helping to improve my own communication skills). Sometimes my mind does both. Sometimes I end up liking the author’s word choice a lot.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Nonviolent Communication is that it is a self-help book (which we would presume to contain some ideas about what sort of behavior is good or bad) written entirely without resorting to judgmental language like “good”, “right”, “should”, and “must”. Instead, everything is framed as techniques that can be employed to achieve certain goals or qualities.

If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. (p. 81)

I think it is critically important to recognize that someone who does not practice nonviolent communication is not bad or wrong. They may be suffering unnecessarily, but they are doing their best.

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The realness of thinking

I sometimes wonder why our culture finds brain physiology so compelling. For example, I often see science writing that goes something like this: “After performing [some mental or physical task], subjects displayed improved [memory, cognition, sleep, mood]. But not only that, MRI scans showed that their brains literally changed size and shape!

That’s like saying: “After [some exercise program], subjects were able to lift on average 20 more pounds than they were at the start of the program. But not only that, their muscles literally changed size and shape!

Issue 1: If the goal is to lift more weight, then the details of what happened physiologically are irrelevant to whether or not the intervention was a success. (Either the participants got stronger or they didn’t.)

Issue 2: The fact that physiological change occurred should have been obvious, since any change in behavior or ability must be reflected in our physical bodies.

Similarly in the brain-training studies, if the goal is to achieve improved cognition, sleep, mood, etc., then the details of what happened physiologically don’t have any bearing (positive or negative) on whether the intervention was a success. (If cognition/sleep/mood had not been affected, even a radical observed change in brain size would not change the fact that the intervention failed. Conversely, if no brain changes had been observed, that wouldn’t detract from any success the intervention enjoyed — it just means that the anatomical aspect of the change has not yet been discovered.)

Likewise, the fact that a physiological change occurred should not have been surprising. Unless you believe that minds somehow avoid the laws of physics, they must have a physical representation in the body. So any change in thinking or behavior must be represented physiologically somewhere. While it is indeed exciting that neuroscientists are able to see some of these changes in brain scans, their existence is expected — it confirms the known laws of physics.

Yet it seems to be a continuing source of surprise that just by thinking, you can change the physical structure of your brain.

Perhaps it’s a surprise that thinking is that real.

As more of us learn how to observe and change our own patterns of thought — and witness the very real effects on our emotions, behaviors, and psychosomatic physical illnesses — maybe then the realness of thinking will become less of a surprise.

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Real life

“Kathleen was 35 years old and… came from a large Catholic family. She had been stuck in early adolescence for years and was destined to stay there for the remainder of her life, as many parochial school students do, having learned from the nuns that the most important thing in life was to put on an act for parents and overseers and live your real life on the side.”

-Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty (p. 45)

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The media

It’s interesting that everyone seems to be unhappy with the “mainstream media”. Those “on the left” tend to feel that the pursuit of “unbiased” reporting is lending credibility to candidates and stories that simply aren’t credible. Meanwhile, those “on the right” tend to believe that the pursuit of “the facts” is at best a distraction from what they care about, and at worst an elaborate scheme to cover up elitist conspiracies.

Is it possible for the media to address these concerns without going out of business or fragmenting into the “echo chambers” we are now seeing of special-interest news feeds that are not helping anyone to understand each other better?

  • Can journalists acknowledge that everyone is biased, and therefore that pretending to be truly unbiased is inauthentic?
  • Can scientists acknowledge that all facts are human creations, and as such are inherently prone to some uncertainty?
  • Can religious leaders acknowledge that all scripture requires human interpretation, and as such is also inherently prone to some uncertainty?
  • Can laypeople acknowledge that some important truths are difficult or impossible to understand without years of training and effort?
  • Can politicians acknowledge that they, like all people, have made devastating mistakes?

In short, how do we present the news of the day authentically, humbly, and realistically? (How would Jesus, or the Buddha, report the news?)

 

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Meditation on the “Four Immeasurables”

“Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship.

“Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion for your conflicted, struggling self.

“Then bring your capacity for joy to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life’s tiny pleasures.

“Finally, look at yourself with upeksha (“even-mindedness, non-attachment“). You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.”

-Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (p. 85-86)

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A definition of meditation

“Meditation… is a discipline that helps us to take greater control of our minds and channel our destructive impulses creatively.”

-Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (p.84)

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How does a manager abolish managers?

I’m deeply excited about the future of self-managed organizations, but I’m uneasy about the way some of these organizations are undergoing the transition. Perhaps this is captured in the opening paragraph of an article from The Atlantic: “This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution….”

There’s clearly something ironic about abolishing managers “by order of the CEO.” In the old system, of course, the CEO did have the power to declare such a change. But to begin a glorious new era of empowered employees by commanding it? That feels to me like a dangerous precedent, and a recipe for all the sorts of problems that self-management is intended to solve.

I realize that this sort of transition is going to be difficult no matter what, and I don’t claim to have any magic solutions. But I do wonder what alternatives might be explored that are more in the spirit of empowerment, wholeness, and purpose. Could the CEO invite teams to experiment with self-management, and support their efforts if and when they proceed? Could the CEO begin to practice self-management, at least within her own team of executives? Could the CEO share with the rest of the company his own authentic hopes and fears about a potential transition?

And what is a CEO to do if the company as a whole does not want the freedom, responsibility, uncertainty, and pain that comes with such a transition? Wouldn’t it be against the spirit of a compassionate community to force such a change? And anyway, wouldn’t such force merely arouse suspicion, resentment, and resistance from those who it is forced upon?

In Zappos’ case, anyone who did not want to transition were invited to leave the company with generous severance pay. I like the individual freedom in this, but again I worry about the precedent: not everyone is welcome in this community.

I suspect there is still a lot of opportunity for creativity and experimentation in helping organizations transition to self-management more gradually, organically, and compassionately.

 

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Change

“To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning towards disorder and surprise. How we open or close to the reality that we never arrive at safe enduring stasis is the matter, the raw material, of wisdom.”

-Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise (p. 67)

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5-hour workday

“When I tell people my team only works five hours a day, their response is always, ‘That’s nice, but it won’t work for me.’ The 9-to-5 is so ingrained in their minds that they can’t imagine anything else. But you can reduce your hours by 30% and maintain the same level of productivity.”

-Stephan Aarstol, The Five Hour Workday

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What is true?

The classic Zen koan goes: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Today I ask: “If there exists a fact but no one believes it, is it true?”

Science seeks to uncover objective truths — facts that exist independently of any given person’s beliefs. But scientists are still human, and humans make mistakes (logical and otherwise), so you can never be absolutely certain about any given scientific truth, no matter how many experiments we run. (As a scientist or science-minded person, it’s easy to overlook this depressing fact.)

Meanwhile, if someone believes something, then the fact that they believe it is, in and of itself, true. This is why journalists report on what people believe, even if there may be compelling evidence that the belief is faulty. As Simon Sinek puts it in his classic TED talk: “People will do the things that prove what they believe.” If you believe that global warming is a hoax, or that immigrants are responsible for economic decline, you will vote for a candidate who appears consistent with those beliefs. So in determining the outcome of the election, the belief carries far more weight than what happens to be objectively true (which no one can be absolutely certain about anyway).

A belief is our own subjective experience of what is true. It’s what’s real to us. It’s internally certain. And as such it often carries far more power than what may or may not be externally factual.

In this sense, you could argue that beliefs are more true than facts. Beliefs are the truest thing there is for the person that believes them. Moreover, if you are interested in taking action in the world, and inspiring others to act, then knowing what people believe is usually at least as important as knowing the facts.

So if there exists a fact but no one believes it, is it true?

And if it’s true, does it matter?

 

 

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Designs do not imply truth

“Often, what we have conjured [in the past] assumes the sheen of inevitability, as if its results were inalienable facts in the world rather than the product of someone’s ideas and actions. In other words, design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions, supplying form to the fictions by which we live. We rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by our paper money or the imagined national narratives engendered by borders. Unlike words, the meaning of which can be debated, the objective materiality of designed objects exudes a unique power. Once established, it’s difficult to think outside the systems and structures these objects represent.”

-Michael Rock, “The Accidental Power of Design” (NY Times)

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Not Knowing

“The vulnerability of not knowing is in fact the only portal through which breakthroughs occur.”

-Amy Whitaker, Art Thinking (2016)

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Many ways to meditate

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