Conversation: Antidote to Stereotypical Thinking

January 23, 2011

Bore: one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation..”

Benjamin Disraeli

About 125 Nashville residents gathered last night on the 27th floor of the First Tennessee Bank building to explore creating a more peaceful community.  Members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities sat at mixed tables of eight to socialize, eat a meal and discuss making Middle Tennessee less like the Middle East.  Rabbi Kliel Rose of the West End Synagogue, Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Nashville Islamic Center and Dr. Lee Camp of the Lipscomb University theology faculty called their respective faith communities to dialog.  In addition, 10 Humphrey’s Fellows from Vanderbilt University attended representing countries including Kenya, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bahrain, India and the Philippines.

It was a remarkable event in many ways.  Most remarkable was the overwhelming desire for more respectful communities.  The conversations were rich and wonderful.  Although dialog was an important focus of the evening, the primary purpose was to create an action plan for building more respectful interfaith relationships and mobilizing the community in opposition to hate and violent rhetoric.

The religious leaders were passionate and articulate in their appeals for respectful dialog.  Imam Mohamed spoke of the irony that the building of a mosque could generate fear in a city where churches can occupy all four corners of a single intersection.  Rabbi Rose spoke of his desire to create a community where his four children need not question their value or acceptance.  Dr. Camp spoke of his hope that the truths Jesus articulated can be realized in the behavior of his followers.  Truths such as “love your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and if asked for your shirt, “give them your coat also”.

Of course, this was not a newsworthy event.  Media were invited, but apparently determined more important news items needed coverage.  Muggings, car wrecks, celebrity hyjinks and political hyperbole make for better news than citizens mobilizing for peace.

Ideas were generated for improving interfaith relations.  Ideas as simple as “take the Imam to lunch” and “invite each of your neighbors into your home” were easy steps toward understanding.  Others required greater commitment and resources.  All were the result of thoughtful dialog.

Conflict managers know one thing for certain.  When people with differing views on any topic sit down face to face and seek to listen, the physiology of thought changes.  The path to peace is less focused on treaties than on talk.  Self-promoting monologues are not conversation.  Learning to listen is the power of dismantling stereotypical thinking.

Last night’s event was not an end, but only a beginning.  As most in attendance made specific commitments to engage in action, the journey begins.  If one person left with a better understanding of people unlike herself, the destination is closer.  If one person left more willing to accept that extremism on the part of any faith is not the norm but the exception, the path is more clear.

To all who came, thank you.  The stars shine brighter because you chose to listen.





Fundamentalism: Death by Choice

January 21, 2011

“All our problems, all our disputes, all our disagreements can be resolved quickly to mutual satisfaction if we address the question.”  Benazir Bhutto

A church confessional stands draped to protect it from the elements.  A sanctuary is empty and unused.  The Mary Queen of Peace Church in Habbaniya Cece lies vacant in a city which was once vibrant in its diversity and life.  Today Christians are leaving the cities in Iraq and elsewhere due to fundamentalist violence despite living for generations in peace with their Muslim neighbors.  However, not just Christians, but Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites all lived together for decades without friction in cities like Habbaniya Cece.  Now it is no longer satisfactory to be an Iraqi, a Muslim, an Arab, a Kurd, Sunni or Shiite.  One must choose the right label to coexist.  Exits from ancestral homes are occurring not based on national origin or religion, but based on the prevailing view of the “correct” perspective of faith as enforced by coercion and power.  See: Last Christians Ponder Leaving a Hometown in Iraq.

As tragic as this story is, it is symptomatic of the last gasps of a dying world view.  As Harvey Cox proclaimed in The Future of Faith, “fundamentalism is dead”  That is not to say that fundamentalism has been eradicated.  Instead, when threatened, power fights back with an unequaled vengeance.  The rise of terrorism born of fundamental belief is evidence of its death struggle.  However, it cannot survive as a prevailing political force.

Habbaniya Cece demonstrates why this is true.  When the circle of acceptance is drawn in ever decreasing size, eventually only I stand inside its permissive bounds.  And I have doubts about even me.  Absolute agreement on every “jot and tittle” is impossible.  Our ability to comprehend absolute truth requires us to accommodate our differences and learn how to generate dialog about the things on which we disagree in the pursuit of more complete understanding.  Fundamentalism make the faulty assumption that there is no room for diversity.

Once we accept that diversity is the nature of life and all living things, we are forced to discover how to accommodate and explore the differences.  Doing so requires us to embrace and learn to appreciate the differences in the search for relationship among opposing thought.

Neuroscience is teaching us that the brain processes the conflict of disagreement by learning how to listen and seek understanding.  Fundamentalism as a brain function operates at the level of fear (fight/flight/freeze) in the brain regions of the amygdala (autonomic) and hypothalamus (emotions) as unconscious “thought” processes.  Higher level thinking which occurs at the frontal cortex of the brain can assimilate contrary ideas and create meaning from the tensions of opposing thought.  The path to the frontal cortex requires discussion, dialog and respectful listening.  Thinking people are not victims of their emotions and the reptilian responses to conflict.  Physiologically, respectful conversation changes the thought processes of the brain and invokes frontal cortex thinking which is creative and prone to problem solving.

Disagreement is the first level of conflict which if not addressed can escalate through increasingly hostile responses to the point of violence.  Fundamentalism permits no disagreement.  Difference of opinion becomes an enemy which must be denied or destroyed.  Failing to address disagreement is the path to increased conflict and ultimately the violent use of force to eliminate the potential for divergent thought.

In contrast, those who promote peace are proponents of dialog and discussion.  Moving people out of fear and into executive level thinking is the work of conflict managers and peacemakers.  Fundamentalists are threatened by conversation, sharing ideas and seeking agreement.  That is why they cannot survive.  They are victims of their own primitive thinking.

Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto and countless others have given their lives in the pursuit of peaceful, thoughtful dialog.  Others will follow.  Although many will die in the pursuit of peaceful co-existence, the alternative to respectful consultation which seeks understanding stands no chance of survival.  Fundamentalists of any persuasion, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Jew, destroy life and their own prospects for living in the process.  Fundamentalism is not sustainable.

Will we chose thoughtful dialog, or will we run everyone out of town with whom we disagree?  The answer should be obvious.

Change Sponsors: The Change Agent’s Best (or Worst) Friend

January 15, 2011

“Sin is the refusal to keep growing.”  Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394)

I recently had the privilege of meeting with the Executive Vice President of a major medical center whose title encompassed responsibility for strategic initiatives.  He said of himself, “I have become a perpetual change agent.”  In health care there is simply no option.  However, in what industry or profession today is maintaining the status quo ante a prescription for anything but irrelevance?

As resistant as most of us are to the suggestion of perpetual change, innately we know the absence of change is death.  Living entities will always be changing or they will cease to exist.  The only question is whether the change is moving us in a positive or a negative direction.  Positive change is innovation and improvement.  Negative change is decline and deterioration.  What this “perpetual change agent” understood is that because change is inevitable, being the proponent for positive change will advance the organization’s interests and those of all who labor in it.

A great piece posted this week on the Gallop Management Journal adds some significant instruction on managing change in organizations.  It is human nature to resist and fear change.  Change challenges our desire for clarity and control.  Change breeds uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear of the unknown.  In organizations, the fear of change becomes magnified and exponentially increases resistance.  Complex adaptive systems are “hard wired” to resist change.

Ushering change in organizations requires conflict competent leadership.   As David Jones in the Gallop journal interview indicates, being a change agent is essential, but not enough.  Organizational change is most effective when it is incremental rather than transformational.  (See Adjacent Possibilities post.)  Changing an organization’s “stripes” is extremely difficult work and should only be attempted when the organization’s livelihood or survival is at stake.

More commonly, change amounts to constant improvement on the current state of affairs.  Incremental change is the most effective method of innovation,  but still leads most people to exclaim, “Will change never end!”  Of course, the answer is “No, the alternative to change is unacceptable.”  Change agents must constantly encourage, empower and equip people for the inevitability of change in their organizations.

Command and control organizations are the least well equipped to effect change.  Unless the people responsible for implementing and maintaining organizational change are autonomous, internally accountable and self-motivated, change will be resisted successfully.  A workforce which is not trusted and resourced for success cannot implement change.  Most change initiatives fail not because of an ineffective change agent, but due to the absence of a leader willing to serve as a change sponsor.

Change sponsors are the organizational leaders who can articulate the vision, reinforce it over time and reassure the organization that the change desired has top level support.  More change initiatives have failed due to uncommitted leaders than any other reason.

When the inevitable heat is generated by unwanted change, change sponsors will either stay the course or run for the hills.  All of us have seen organizations (churches, schools and businesses) in which the leadership announces a new direction only to reveal that when the critical commentary emerges, the engines are reversed.  When that occurs, change in that institution has become virtually impossible from that point forward.  No change agent can possibly succeed.  The change sponsor “didn’t mean it” and the resistance to change was rewarded.

Successful change in complex adaptive systems requires multi-level conflict competence.  The change sponsor must know how to weather the innate organizational resistance to change and opt for survival rather than death of the organization’s capacity to innovate.  The change agent must know how to induce and increase the likelihood of incremental change among those responsible for implementation.  The organization must have systems which encourage the positive processing of conflict heat generated by change.  Finally, the people responsible for change implementation must be provided the requisite level of autonomy and authority to accompany their responsibility and be encouraged to be totally accountable for the outcome of their tasks, good or bad.

The culture of consultation needed for perpetual change in organizations today does not naturally occur.   It requires leadership of the first order.  Change agents and change sponsors must work in close coordination and the system must embrace the resulting conflict in order to process it in healthy fashion.

Although most of us would prefer to press the “no change” button, the rate of change is such today that to do so would insure ejection from the cockpit of a supersonic jet without a parachute.

Don’t press that Easy Button!


Tragedy in Tuscon: Monday Morning Musings

January 10, 2011

Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair.
TS (Thomas Stearns) Eliot

As the Nashville Blizzard of 2011 picks up steam, one is left to consider the imponderables of life and death.  A few inches of snow in Nashville will immobilize this city, its education and commerce for days to come.  What better time to contemplate the senseless tragedies of our culture, our time and our human condition?

A deranged gunman, a murdered federal judge, a beloved Congresswoman and a nine year old girl born on September 11, 2001. They and seventeen others are all victims of what seems to be a world gone mad.  Mass murders are not new.  However, they have grown increasingly symbolic of a society that has lost its bearings.  If we seek meaning behind the tragedy in Tuscan on January 8, 2011, meaning loses its meaning.

The picture emerges of an increasingly disturbed young man with obvious pathologies the “system” was unable to protect or to protect others from.  “Odd” behavior in college classes led school authorities to insist that a condition of re-admittance would be an psychological assessment that he was not a danger to himself or others.  That solution was not forthcoming nor sufficiently motivating to prompt the pursuit of help.  The school could do no more and assumed legal risks to do even that.  The rights of the criminally insane are no less sacrosanct than those “the rest of us” enjoy.

A young girl was at the supermarket parking lot excited to see her Congresswoman.  To her family she was the bright spot in a bleak era.  Born on 9/11, she offered promise that all is not lost.  Hope springs eternal and to her family she represented life from the ashes.  Indiscriminately gunned down, her family struggles to understand why.

A federal judge, no stranger to controversy was himself the target of death threats for decisions he had made from the bench.  Yet he refused to be intimidated by “the crazies”.  A random victim, he was not the target of the gunman’s wrath, but merely an innocent bystander.

A Congresswoman, not noted for controversy, but for statesmanship.  She was considered a legislator concerned about the problems most people face and especially focused on the marginalized in society.  Her synagogue gathered in prayer for her recovery on Sunday morning following the shooting and lauded her courage, her compassion and her commitment to her constituents.  She seems to have made few enemies in her public service.  To the contrary she was loved by many.  She was gunned down at one of her trademark Congress on the Corner events where she took government to the people she represented.

There were sixteen other gunshot victims as well.  The ironies of this tragedy are poignantly illustrated by these few.

Some suggest that this event will mark the low point of intolerance in our culture.  I hope they are right.  Some say that incivility has reached its limit in this tragedy.  I support them in their aspiration.

However, search for both meaning and systemic solutions may be equally illusory.  Insanity has no reason.  Irrational behavior neither can be predicted nor bounded by social convention or security measures.

Instead, cultivating a culture of consultation might assist our society in better addressing the ills of the Tragedy in Tuscon.  Clearly, Congresswoman Giffords was dedicated to this work.  Her rabbi stated that she was engaged in the work of “repairing the world”.  The Saturday event was organized by the Congresswoman’s organizer of community outreach, Gabriel Zimmerman.  Of him it was said, “He was great with really difficult people, with people who were angry and upset; he was a peacemaker.” Mr. Zimmerman died in the onslaught working as a peacemaker.

There are no guarantees that the work of peacemaking is safe, comfortable or appreciated by all.  However, giving up is not an option.

Our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims of the Tragedy in Tuscon.  Let’s work hard to not let the work of peacemaking be another victim.  That hope can be our anchor “on the other side of despair.”

Adjacent Possibilities: The Only Path to Innovation

January 4, 2011

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”  Chinese Proverb

While in Atlanta recently for a weekend getaway, I was attracted to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution which profiled Dr. Donald G. Stein who had noticed the significant difference in the ability of women to recover from brain injuries in striking contrast to men.  Suspecting a gender based distinction rather than random chance, Dr. Stein spent 25 years studying the clinical data.  Finally, it was determined that the causative factor in the ability of women to heal more rapidly is the hormone progesterone.  Emory University is now engaged in full scale clinical trials to bring to men the natural capability women have to heal from brain injuries.

What impressed me was the doctor’s recognition that great discoveries never occur in large leaps.  Instead, significant innovations occur one contiguous step at a time.  Although he long suspected the link, it wasn’t until a clinical study first established it would be safe to experiment with progesterone in men, that the link was clearly established.  As stated by one of his colleagues, “In some respects, Don’s discovery was hiding in plain sight for decades.”

This describes the principle of “adjacent possibilities” as best developed by Steven Johnson in his great book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From.  The Wall Street Journal cited Johnson’s book as one of the best business texts of 2010.

Johnson analogizes the process of effective innovation as moving from where we are to “the next room”.  It’s as if we find ourselves in a room with four doors, each of which leads to a new room.  Once we choose a door we find ourselves in another room with three new doors.  As we explore each new room we can only do so from the perspective of the room we left.  Innovation does not occur by “leaps and bounds” but by the next “adjacent possibility”.  Otherwise, the best ideas are simply “ahead of their time”.

For example, mediators only incrementally help people caught in conflict move from the place where they find themselves to a solution to their problem.  Parties who agree to meet with a mediator have taken the first step, but only the first step toward resolution.  Agreeing to ground rules or norms of expected behavior in the mediation room is another important step.  The Chinese had it right, “The journey of thousand miles begins with a step.”  As agreements are reached on “small” items, larger concerns can be addressed more readily.

It seems that the legal services industry is ripe for a next step, which ten or even five years ago would have been unthinkable.  All business people, and most lawyers, know that the legal services business model is unlike any found in the client corporations or businesses the lawyers serve.  While business has been moving steadily toward a business model which rewards efficiency, law firms have been stuck in the “billable hour” conundrum by which the more time spent on a matter, the greater the fee and the more economically successful the law firm.

Clients have been recoiling at this incentive system for decades, but law firms have known no other way to budget or reward success than through the billable hour.  However, the recession of the last few years has significantly altered the leverage.  Corporate clients have called a halt to the ever increasing hourly rate and have begun to insist on no rate increases at all, even demanding discounts on prevailing hourly rates, some as high as 25% off standard rates.

As a result, law firms are now looking for ways to modify the profitability paradigm.  For the first time, law firms are examining quality management system, lean production principals, and Six Sigma training for clues about incentivizing efficiency and improving quality.  Project management skills and cost estimating strategies have found their way into the law firm manager’s lexicon.  We are in a new room and the adjacent possibilities are exciting.

When law firms follow the path of innovation to the next room they will discover what their corporate clients have already learned.  Enterprise technology solutions can improve efficiency (good for the client), reduce time spent on legal matters (good for the lawyer), improve the quality and delivery of legal matters (good for the client and the lawyer) and improve profitability while actually decreasing the cost of services (great for the law firm and the client).

For more information about these exciting adjacent possibilities see The Legal Services Industry White Paper.

Music City Miracle: Sport or Trascendent Experience?

December 31, 2010

“If I can’t outrun a placekicker, I don’t belong in the NFL.”

Kevin Dyson

I was present. There in the Club Section on the West side of the stadium looking down at the 2o yard line where it happened . . . right in front of me.  Really!   You can ask my son.  He was standing beside me.  Since that January day in 2000, I think I have talked with at least one million other people who claim to have been there.  But I really was.

We were almost out of hope, the clock was winding down on the Titan’s season in the Wild Card game which was our team’s last chance.  Only 16 seconds showed on the clock and the Buffalo Bills had just scored a field goal leaving them in the lead 16 to 15.  Following the kickoff, there was no option but to get out of bounds and hope against hope that a single play from scrimmage would generate the score needed to take the lead, win the game and move on in the playoffs.  But, there were only 16 seconds.  It would take a miracle.

The Bill’s kicker Steve Christie kicked off to Titans’ kickoff receiver Lorenzo Neal who (against all my shouting to the contrary) handed off the ball to Frank Wychek.  “No!!!!”  I shouted, “The sidelines, get to the sidelines and stop the clock.”  Then horrors of horrors, Wycheck passed the ball  to Kevin Dyson and the goal line was 75 yards away.  “No!!!! You can’t pass on a kickoff return.”  It seemed like an eternity passed while the crowd, first silent, then began to realize that Dyson was making his way down field with a phalanx of blockers in front of him. We erupted in a deafening roar as doctors, lawyers, bankers and factory workers began jumping up and down, hugging each other, crying, spilling their beer and just plain “loosing it”.  The mandatory official review of the play for a possible violation of NFL rules took another eternity.  Finally, the pass was ruled a lateral, the touchdown stood and the Titans were on their way to their first and only Super Bowl to end their season.

And I was there!  (Along with a million other of my closest friends.)

I’ve thought a lot about that day since January 8, 2000.  I have wondered how buttoned up business men and women could lose all sense of propriety in that setting.  I have wondered why church is more reserved and less transcendent than that moment.  I have asked myself why that experience was as transformational as the birth of a baby.  I have questioned my good judgment, my morality and even my sanity.

I need worry no more.  David Brooks made it all make sense today.  His New York Times column The Arena Culture was sent to me by my friend Dr. Eugene Regen and I don’t feel so guilty anymore.

Brooks points out that our increasingly secular culture has served to transform the religious experience into moments like the Music City Miracle.  Community can galvanize around an event like those last seconds of that playoff game in 2000.  Transcendence still lives because humanity needs it.  If religion can not provide transcendent experiences, people will find them, celebrate them and remember them for decades.  As Brooks writes, philosophers call this experience “whooshing up”.  We might find them at sporting spectacles, civil rights rallies or religious events.  The fact remains, we need them.  Our lives are given meaning through them.  Perspective is gained, exhilaration achieved and the Glorious Impossible becomes more real to us.

We can’t whoosh up individually.  It only happens in community.  Our highly individualized culture tries to convince us that whooshing up is unnecessary, unsophisticated and only enjoyed by the lowest forms of human life.

That’s simply not true.  Just ask the other million people with me and my son on the Club Level at Titans stadium that January 8 day in 2000.  We will never be the same.

When was the last time you “whooshed up”?

Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead

December 29, 2010

In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
Tell a FriendLaurence J. Peter

The author of the Peter Principle reminds us of the limits of hierarchical structures. One need look no further for an example of the powerlessness of hierarchy than the snowstorm that paralyzed New York the weekend after Christmas 2010.  The three main airports in the immediate vicinity of New York City began closing as the snow storm gathered force and by the day after Christmas, hundreds of flights had been canceled.  Restarting the air travel system following this regional storm was a simple matter of clearing the runways and re-booking the passengers, right? Wrong!

Air travel is a perfect example of how complex adaptive systems do not respond to hierarchical command and control methods.  Because aircraft were diverted from the New York vicinity airports to avoid the storm, the entire air travel system was adversely affected as operational efficiencies took as much as a week to recover. An air traveler seeking to leave Nashville to work in Kansas City three days later encountered the reality of how complex adaptive systems operate. Neither city had the slightest weather related difficulty. Nonetheless, flight delays and cancellations were the norm far from New York. Families stranded by canceled flights far from the storm were no more able to leave Chicago for Los Angeles than a family stuck in New York City.  Flights world wide were impacted by a storm in the U.S. Northeast.

The total interdependence of the airline system explains how suffering in one segment affects it all.  Just like a human body, a sore toe can impact the functionality of hip, back and spine leaving the entire body impaired.  The head cannot simply dictate to the body to “get over it”.  Neither can any complex adaptive system respond to hierarchical command.  The system must heal itself holistically.

As our culture becomes more infused with complex adaptive systems (health care, criminal justice, poverty, homelessness), the less any single source of power can address and resolve the problems presented.  Problem solving in complex adaptive systems must take place at the cellular level.  In human systems such as businesses, communities or religious orders the only power leaders possess is that of influence and credibility.  Command and control will not force change in a system that is not convinced of the value of change.  The chief architect of the air travel system had no power to get the system back in running condition by simply ordering it to happen.  The system of air travel could only achieve normalcy as the individual segments of reservations, mechanical repair, logistics and people movement began to function normally again.

For organizational leaders, these lessons of leadership should become clearer as our society’s complexity approaches infinite dimensions.  Building competence at the individual level, encouraging employees in enhancing their skills and acknowledging the value of each person in the work they do are the tools of leadership in complex adaptive systems.  Instilling systems of accountability and providing trustworthy methods of managing the conflict inevitable in organizations are critical leadership skills today.  Leaders who lack personal credibility or are untrusted cannot by force of power influence change.

It is no longer sufficient to simply be “in charge”.