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Zentangle

I randomly stumbled onto the world of Zentangling a few weeks ago when browsing the local library. It’s a meditative type of drawing where you follow a loose set of repetitive instructions to create art, from doodle-like scribbles to rich textures and designs.

Trying it out, two thoughts came to mind.

First, it reminded me that there are many ways to meditate (besides deep breathing in lotus pose, which gets boring after a while)! Many types of art, music, exercise, rest, caretaking, dialog, and ritual can be meditative.

Second, it reminded me of sketching user interfaces. Since software tends to deal with significant amounts of data, when you sketch interfaces by hand you end up needing to draw the same basic component many times. Perhaps there are many items on the screen (as in a long list or data visualization) or perhaps you are drawing the same screen many times to test changes in state or different variations on an idea. Either way, I sometimes get impatient or wonder if it is really a good use of my time. Zentangling was a reminder that it’s indeed ok to spend some time on repetitive tasks, to relax into it, and to enjoy the beautiful results that inevitably come when you put care into your work.

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Budgeting

The word “budget” tends to make me cringe. I think that’s because budgets have mostly been something that I was subject to as an employee or volunteer. They were yet another tool (and symbol) of power and yet another grounds for politics and resentment. At best, they were something I simply didn’t have to worry about when there was generally enough money to go around.

But budgeting can be a source of great creativity and can hold deep meaning if framed as an answer to the question: How can we best use the resources we have in service of our organization’s purpose? The answers are profound in that they reflect our deeper priorities and beliefs about what seems possible and what is most worth pursuing. And there is always creativity to be applied in finding ways to make progress — both with and without significant funding.

What’s preventing the budgeting process from reaching its full potential? I think one of the more interesting impediments may actually be the widespread use of grids of numbers — i.e., spreadsheets — as the medium for the task. Focusing on raw numbers and arithmetic emphasizes scarcity — literally the zero-sum nature of allocating money. If our goal is to be generative and in touch with our deeper aspirations, we need budgeting tools that emphasize instead the infinite possibilities for how the money can be spent and the flexibility with which we can adjust the plan in response to new information and ideas.

The numbers still have to add up, of course. But computers can do the math faster than we can blink. Software can alert us to any problems and mismatches — and even better, it can support us in exploring the space of possibilities. It just might help us take budgeting to the next stage of its evolution.

As you might have guessed, I have some ideas for such a tool. Let me know if you are interested in contributing in some way to its creation. For starters: how would you like to evolve the way your organization does budgeting?

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Why don’t organizational best practices get adopted?

Five years ago I wrote (with more than a little frustration): “I’ve read quite a few books related to organizational psychology and culture. All of these books use scientific evidence to support ideas that in many ways fly in the face of conventional wisdom. What’s surprised me most is that many of the clear best practices have still not been widely adopted, sometimes decades after first publication. Culture and habits are difficult to change.”

But why? Why is it so difficult to adopt practices that clearly work? When I pose this type of question to innocent bystanders, they tend to chuckle and tell me how idealistic I am. (A visiting Congolese elder once replied, “You have a pure heart.”) The implication, I suppose, is that human nature is self-centered, ignorant, and lazy. But I’m not the only one who questions that assumption. Certainly in my own life I’ve found some types of change to be very hard. But I’ve also worked very hard to make the changes that were important to me, and I’ve seen others do the same.

One explanation for change resistance I eventually honed is what I call “the Pope’s dilemma.” It goes as follows. Suppose you are the head of the catholic church. Your institution has for decades discriminated against LGBT members. You now realize that there is an avalanche of evidence showing that homosexuality is not a “choice” and your past policies and behaviors have caused incalculable suffering amongst the very congregants you hoped to serve. To make a change implies acknowledging the terrible mistakes of the past. How do you do this in a graceful way that does not upset the very credibility of the institution?

I eventually learned that this process has a name: reparation. Clearly, most of us are not yet very good at it. The hardest step in the reparation process is to forgive ourselves for the pain we have caused. There are all sorts of mind games we use to avoid thinking about that pain at all costs and to cast doubt on even the clearest of evidence that change is both warranted and possible. Although the suffering caused by outmoded business assumptions is not usually as dire as in the textbook cases of reparation, I do continue to think that this is a major factor holding up the adoption of many beneficial business practices.

But more recently I’ve realized that there is an even deeper answer provided by the theory and practice of next-stage organizations, many of which apply all sorts of best practices — sometimes seemingly effortlessly — while also continuing to invent new ones. Curiously, these companies tend to implement these practices for reasons that have little to do with any experimental evidence showing increases in employee retention, customer satisfaction, or profitability. Rather, they do it because that is the type of world they want to create and live in. A world abundant in generosity, compassion, connection, and wholeness. Next-stage organizations appreciate that those things often turn out to be good for business, but it’s not the motivating factor. These cultures choose generosity regardless of its direct impact on sales.

In other words, these new business practices tend to flow naturally from a certain world view (specifically, the view that has come to be known as “teal”). Conversely, those new business practices tend to react like oil and water against the world view of mainstream business. I can imagine plenty of managers who read these business advice books and want to implement some of their well-reasoned recommendations. And then: the organizational antibodies set in.

  • Some of the ideas seem too risky. (“Maybe it worked for some, but our business is different.”)
  • Some seem too expensive. (“We can’t justify spending money on something so peripheral to the core business.”)
  • Some seem too uncomfortable. (“We don’t talk about emotions at work.”)
  • Changes that do make it through get so watered-down as to be useless, or get little enough buy-in to be irrelevant, or quickly get cast aside when the next crisis or crunch comes along.

And thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation where mainstream business fully accepts the value of science and experiment and yet cannot integrate some of the best practices that result from these experiments! Meanwhile, in the emerging world of next-stage organizations, those very same scientific results are viewed as largely irrelevant, and yet the best practices they support are adopted eagerly and authentically!

For me, it was the scientific pursuit of best practices that helped me uncover these paradoxes and the understanding that there are other, perhaps more important ways of discovering best practices. (Are they generous? Compassionate? Do they build relationships? Are they authentic? More broadly, do they promote the type of world you want to live in?)

And, perhaps less importantly, it helped shed some light on why business advice books continue to fly off the shelves with little apparent effect on the day-to-day culture of business.

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Our shared commitment to finding truth

Suppose you and I have fundamentally different views on an issue of the day. (For example, let’s say one of us thinks climate change is caused by human activity and one of us thinks it’s not. Or one of us thinks immigrants improve the economy and one of us thinks they weaken it.) Let us have the grace to put aside for the moment the question of which view (if either) is true. Instead, let us share in our outrage that at least one (and perhaps both) of us is receiving fundamentally misleading information!

We all seek truth, and we all hope to act in a way that leaves the world better for our families and communities. We desperately need each other’s help in finding ways to sort out what is reliable and what is not in this internet age of fake news, corporate spin, echo chambers and political grandstanding. And we all fall victim to confirmation bias every day of the week. The truth is out there — but it is increasingly complex, increasingly context-dependent, and increasingly difficult to untangle from all the surrounding noise. Information is power, so what strategies can we use to seek reliable sources of information? How can we be reliable sources of information? Sources that admit and actively correct their own mistakes?

Suppose one of us has been advocating all our life for greenhouse gas reductions and it turns out that climate change is no big deal and all we have accomplished is to destroy good jobs in the oil and gas industry and upend the surrounding communities. Or suppose one of us has spent our life working to protect the oil and gas economy and it turns out that the resulting greenhouse gases are leading to floods, droughts, famines, war, and destruction all over the world. Or maybe the truth is somewhere in between. We all need each other’s support and compassion if we are to find truth together and grieve and forgive our own culpability in it.

 

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Algorithms as a way to avoid conversation

“My observation is that these algorithms — they don’t show up randomly. They show up when there’s a really difficult conversation that people want to avoid. Like, ‘We don’t know what makes a good teacher, and different people have different opinions about that, so let’s just bypass this conversation by having an algorithm score teachers.’ Or: ‘We don’t know what prison is really for, you know? Let’s have a way of deciding how long to sentence somebody.’ We introduce these ‘silver bullet’ mathematical algorithms because we don’t want to have a conversation.”

-Cathy O’Neil (via 99% Invisible)

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Esteemed discipline

“Valuable collaborators in the evolution of this book have been the people in my [psychotherapy] practice who have worked so unreservedly to develop themselves and their lives. I am obliged not to name them. Perhaps, in another era, entering into psychotherapy will be defined not as remediation for personal failure, but as an esteemed discipline for evolving one’s ability to contribute.”

-Rosamund Stone Zander,
The Art of Possibility (Acknowledgements, p.203)

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Observing a system

“Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves… Learn its history… If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system — peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing… Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others…

“It’s especially interesting to watch how the various elements in the system do or do not vary together… Every selectman in the state of New Hampshire seems to be positive that growth in a town will lower taxes, but if you plot growth rates against tax rates, you find a scatter as random as the stars in a New Hampshire winter sky. There is no discernible relationship at all.”

-Donella H. Meadows,
Thinking in Systems (2008, p.170-171)

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Confirmation bias II

What keeps coming up for me when I think about recent news is that we are all victims of confirmation bias (yes, including scientists!). In certain contexts, sexism and racism simply appear reasonable to our susceptible brains. I am grateful for the work of experts who have tried to help everyone learn more about these issues and overcome some of these biases — but I caution that very, very few of us are willing to change our minds in an environment of hostility, including subtle academic mockery. It does not work to force or shame people into accepting ideas like equality and diversity.

It is possible to cultivate authentic empathy with those who disagree with us. For example, under what situations would you be drawn towards the ideas of white supremacy? It is easy to call others “evil” and pretend that you are somehow better-than. It is much more difficult, and much more healing, to look deeper into your own vulnerable, human self.

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Visions for possibility

“A vision becomes a framework for possibility when [it] is free-standing — it points neither to a rosier future, nor to a past in need of improvement. It gives over its bounty now. If the vision is ‘peace on earth’, peace comes with its utterance. When ‘the possibility of ideas making a difference’ is spoken, at that moment ideas do make a difference.”

-Rosamund & Ben Zander, 
The Art of Possibility
(p. 169-170)

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Spreadsheet Errors II

I’ve posted about this before, but it continues to amaze me.

“More than 90 percent of corporate spreadsheets contain material errors. The European Spreadsheet Risk Group was set up in 1999 purely for the purpose of addressing issues of spreadsheet integrity. [The] disastrous consequences of uncontrolled use of spreadsheets are always disturbing, and make for somewhat gruesome reading. [I] believe that errors in spreadsheets are a regular occurrence in most organizations.”

-Danielle Stein Fairhurst,
Financial Modeling in Excel (for Dummies) (2017, p.23-26)

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Corporate responsibility

The ultimate business response to the need for sustainability:

Be generous by creating an enterprise that is regenerative by design, giving back to the living systems of which we are a part. More than an action on a checklist, it is a way of being in the world that recognises that we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better state than we found it. It calls for creating enterprises whose core business helps to reconnect nature’s cycles, and that gift as much as they can.”

“The most profound act of corporate responsibility for any company today is to rewrite its corporate by-laws, or articles of association, in order to redefine itself with a living purpose, rooted in regenerative and distributive design, and then to live and work by it.”

-Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics (2017)

 

 

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Outside the model

“The most important assumptions of a model are not in the equations, but what’s not in them; not in the documentation, but unstated; not in the variables on the computer screen, but in the blank spaces around them.”

-John Sterman
(as quoted in Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics)

 

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Rule Number 6

“Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘kindly remember Rule Number 6,’ whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws.”

After a number of similar scenes occur, “the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: ‘My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?’ ‘Very simple,’ replies the resident prime minister. ‘Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.’ ‘Ah,’ says his visitor, ‘that is a fine rule.’ After a moment of pondering, he inquires, ‘And what, may I ask, are the other rules?'”

“‘There aren’t any.'”

-Rosamund and Benjamin Zander,
The Art of Possibility (2000, p.79)

Is it number 6 to emphasize that as one rule among many, it doesn’t take itself so seriously? (Meta-Rule Number 6.)

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Heroism

“It’s easier to armor ourselves than to step out of our armor. … Staying present with your shame takes far more courage than riding it into aggression. Staying present with your shame, neither indulging in it nor avoiding it, furthers the authentic warrior in you, the one who can sit in the fire of deep challenge and difficulty, and remain present without numbing himself or disconnecting from others. Remaining present with your shame takes guts. Doing so deepens your capacity for vulnerability, and therefore also your capacity for being in truly intimate relationship.”

“If men want an arena that calls forth their full heroism, this is it: to heed the call to face our planetary disasters and disaster-making with huge resolve and stamina and compassion. Imagine all the energy that goes into armoring and overprotecting ourselves (overbudgeting for defense) instead of going into truly facing and cleaning up the mess we’ve made of our home—and our own inner terrain.”

“Remember that emotion and reason work best when they work together.”

-Robert Augustus Masters, To Be A Man
(p. 38-39, 127-128, 282)

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Scenarios vs. predictions

“Dynamic systems studies usually are not designed to predict what will happen. Rather, they’re designed to explore what would happen, if a number of driving factors unfold in a range of different ways.”

-Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (p. 46)

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Time and Money

“The argument against great design is always cost and speed. The discussion about cost and speed is not really about cost and speed. It is an agenda that declares that human experience is a low priority. […] Don’t ever take the argument about no funds and no time at face value. Our stance about cost and speed is simply a measure of our commitment.”

“There is more than enough time and just enough money.”

-Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging p.162)

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The Paradox of Control

“The deep challenge here is… letting go of our comforting illusion of control, the illusion that we’ve done our job as leaders: we’ve done all the analysis, we’ve got the plan, things are going to go according to plan. Paradoxically, it’s only when we give up the illusion of control that we get the real thing, by shifting to sense-and-respond.”

-Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
(illustrated version, p. 118)

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Uncertain predictions

In 2009, a researcher surveyed 35 quantitative analysts who build forecast models across a variety of industries and government. Out of those, “just one respondent stated he had ever attempted to check actual outcomes against original forecasts.” In other words, almost no one actually checked to see whether their predictions came true. Even the one respondent who did say he checked didn’t keep any hard data about the level of accuracy.

The inevitable consequence is that “fundamentally flawed models that don’t even come close to matching the eventual observations may be used without question indefinitely.”

It’s easy to imagine why model builders may not proactively want to check their past predictions. For one thing, if the results are poor enough, it could make it hard to justify hiring the model builder in the future.

But why don’t businesspeople who use the model forecasts in their decision-making specifically request such retrospective analysis?

It’s possible that some model users do that tracking themselves, so it didn’t show up in the survey of model builders described above.

But I also suspect it has a lot to do with the discomfort we feel around uncertainty. Mainstream business culture is oriented around the concepts of “measure, predict, control”. So the less accurately it turns out we can predict, the more that entire world view is undermined. If you are committed to the world view, if indeed your entire career and belief system is predicated on the world view, you will tend to do whatever you can to avoid potential disconfirming evidence.

Fortunately, next-stage organizations are beginning to appear, with an entirely different world view characterized by “sense and respond”. Prediction is far less critical, and uncertainty is far less problematic. This indeed makes quantitative models themselves less important (but by no means irrelevant). In situations where these models continue to be used, I hope to see more acceptance not just of retrospective analysis, but of other indicators of uncertainty such as confidence intervals and statistical significance.

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“Have to”

“I suggested that [a teacher in one of my workshops] translate her statement ‘I have to give grades because it’s district policy’ to ‘I choose to give grades because I want…’ She answered without hesitation, “I choose to give grades because I want to keep my job,” while hastening to add, “But I don’t like saying it that way. It makes me feel so responsible for what I’m doing.”

“‘That’s why I want you to do it that way,’ I replied.”

-Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 21)

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Disillusionment

“To cut through illusion, we have to get disillusioned — the more thoroughly the better — so long as we do so at a pace that allows for proper digestion of the shifts we’re making.

“A crucial challenge is to stop treating disillusionment as a problem or something negative, and use it as an awakening force. To be disillusioned is to see through illusion, in conjunction with releasing its hold on us. We thus become disenchanted, no longer spellbound.”

-Robert Augustus Masters, To Be A Man (p. 61)

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The mind-body connection is no joke

A remarkable thing happened to me about a year ago. The simple act of reading a book healed the intermittent back pain that I had lived with for almost ten years — pain that had resisted multiple rounds of physical therapy, massage therapy, yoga, stretching, standing desks, and ergonomic chairs.

Again: I merely read a book, and the pain was gone within about a month. Moreover, this was not “all in my head”: my physical therapist and massage therapist both found significant changes in my physical muscle tissue during that period.

I know it sounds ridiculous, because it sounded ridiculous to me when a friend of a family member relayed her own similar story. But as I read the book she recommended — Healing Back Pain: The mind-body connection by Dr. John E. Sarno (and there are other similar books) — I began to understand the emerging science of mind-body interactions and it all started to make a lot of sense.

Megan summarized the findings this way: “Most recurrent or long-term pain in the neck, shoulder, back, and buttocks is caused by your autonomic (unconscious) nervous system restricting oxygen flow to these regions, and this oxygen deprivation causes pain. Your autonomous brain does this to distract you or relieve you from having to deal with difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear, especially when these emotions are not deemed acceptable by you and/or your society (e.g., it’s not ok to be angry).”

It turns out that the unconscious nervous system controls a vast array of body systems, including the regulation of blood flow, digestion, healing, immune system activity, and many more, so there are plenty of plausible pathways for the mind to create physical pain and discomfort. Meanwhile, our cultures have a tremendous number of ways of encouraging us to repress and numb our emotions. So the ingredients are all there, bountifully. It turns out that this isn’t pseudo-science — nor ridiculous at all.

Yet the idea of psychologically caused pain is still so foreign to the Western world that no doctor or physical therapist in ten years ever said anything to me about this area of study. I’m not here to vilify them — on the contrary, I had some wonderful physical therapists who taught me exercises that I still practice for general strength and health. But I do feel a responsibility to spread the word, because so many others also experience chronic back, neck, shoulder, stomach, and other types of pain and related conditions.

Unfortunately, I can’t summarize in a short blog post the core of the cure — namely, learning to face the emotional difficulties that are the true cause of most chronic pain. But Dr. Sarno says that the material covered in his book was sufficient to help the vast majority of his patients. I count myself among them.

 

 

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Crossing the Atlantic

“When [Jewish immigrants fled their villages in Eastern Europe in the period 1881-1918], they moved to the most advanced industrial cities in Europe and America, but also away from an atmosphere of medieval [living conditions]. They found a world where many of the ideas they had brought with them could not stand up to scrutiny. In the Old World, women had learned to accept that only half their children would survive. A serious illness was a physical catastrophe whose cure, as everyone knew, lay in God’s will. […] Even the astonishing physical combination of lights, steam, and power that drove them across the Atlantic in ten days could hardly prepare them for the new Industrial Age of elevated railways, street lights, sewage disposal, safe drinking water available at the turn of a tap. In crossing the Atlantic they had made a leap of centuries in time.” (p. 118-119)

“All my friends came from identical immigrant families, [so] I was prepared for all kinds of revelations [the first time I visited] a non-Jewish family. The first surprise that awaited me was how the parents treated their children. Their style was something that I did not know — good-tempered, considerate, gentle. One day the mother observed that one of the little girls was not looking well. She had no fever, but did not seem to be her usual self — somewhat subdued and limp. Her mother suggested that she would make up a bed on the sofa where her daughter could lie and read and be comfortable. The little girl agreed, and snuggled down on the sofa under a paisley shawl with a sigh of relief and contentment. I watched all this closely and, I must confess, with a pang of longing for the quiet attentiveness I had never experienced.

“Here, the child was regarded as someone who had wishes and thoughts and desires — all of which were legitimate and to be considered in any dispositions made concerning that child. As to the child’s sickness, the mother was responding by taking a simple first precautionary step. But what impressed me was that she was thinking about the child. When I considered the world in which I had grown up, I saw a remarkable contrast.

“When I was sick, my parents responded first to the sickness — and always with alarm. They then took measures to allay their fears, but they were too frightened, paradoxically enough, to think about me. They watched the thermometer to see whether the fever was going up or down. But they did not ask me how I felt. My mother would wander white-lipped through the house, wringing her hands and murmuring in alliterative Yiddish, ‘Dear God frighten me, but do not punish me.’ On such occasions, my parents did not trouble to make fine distinctions between a fever brought on by a chest cold or by diphtheria; the response to illness was always to declare a state of emergency. Even as children, my friends and I perceived the disproportion between our common ailments and the storm of concern that they aroused. We mistook this intensity for love.” (p. 9-10)

-Ruth Gay, Unfinished People (1996)

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Uncertainty

“We want desperately to take uncertainty out of the future. But when we take uncertainty out, it is no longer the future. It is the present projected forward. Nothing new can come from the desire for a predictable tomorrow. The only way to make tomorrow predictable is to make it just like today. In fact, what distinguishes the future is its unpredictability and mystery.”

-Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging p.105)

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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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