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Learning Together for Better Results
Hi, I’m Bruce Waltuck and I want to tell you a little bit about myself and then I’m going to talk for a few minutes about what really matters most to me and the things that really drive me and that I’m passionate about. Most of my career over the last thirty years has been as a public servant primarily in federal government.
I’ve been asked to talk for a couple of minutes about what it is that if I could tell people in the world that they should know and understand and be aware of perhaps that would help them and what would that be? The thing that has been uppermost in my thinking, teaching and work in the last couple of years, is exactly a response to that question, so it’s an easy one for me to talk about. And it’s what I call, “as if” thinking and “as if” behavior. And fundamentally, and I’m certainly not the first or only person, there are far smarter people than I, who’ve recognized that challenges and problems that we face in organization and in community, in our personal and social environments, really fall into two fundamental types, and this is something that I draw here on the work of Ron Heifetz, who teaches leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Ron talks about a distinction fundamentally between what he calls technical problems or challenges and adaptive challenges. And by the technical he means, those things that are fundamentally complicated but if you know the right knowledge and have the right resources, the right machines or technology, or people, you can solve the problem. It’s about known knowns and known unknowns, and the knowable, and we can adapt and fix that and improve that, simply through this kind of technical response to a technical problem.
The key thing I would hope that we would all begin to see is that, it is not an either or, but that the challenges and problems we face both business and organizational life, and in our personal, social, community and family lives, come in always with some human component, always with some mix of the technical and the adaptable, of the complicated and the complex, and that we need different patterns of inquiry, and sensemaking and analysis to be able to successfully respond, adapt and design interventions into the future.
The next question I’ve been asked to talk about is my sense of what’s coming for all us into the future. There’s a couple things I want to talk about, no one’s got a crystal ball and none of us can really predict with any degree of accuracy what’s going to happen, but we can begin to think about how we see the patterns, the things that are emerging that may point to broader trends and certain specifics as we go forward. The other piece I want to talk about, is, if we are dealing with an unknown future, what kinds of capacities can each of us, individually and collectively, work on strengthening that will help us be better able to meet these new and emergent and previously unknown developments as they come out into our world.
So even as we are feeling the pain of that, in terms of long term unemployment and massive loss of jobs in manufacturing in our society and culture as a whole, and the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available to new college graduates and to older veteran workers who’ve been laid off, we’re seeing these changes and we’re seeing the patterns of change that are beginning to emerge in our culture and in our society as we think about how to respond to this. Certainly the future will bring, I believe, significant differences in the way that we model and structure our economic endeavor. We’re going to see changes as the global oil supply sooner or later begins to diminish, depending on the reports, some folks have said that we’ve reached and are past peak oil production and supply globally. And so, the inevitable decline in this will drive up the price of oil, which will drive up the cost of goods that we import as we heavily do in America and many countries do around the world. So that, this will necessitate, for example, we could predict probably with accuracy now, it’s already happening, the return of the need for manufacturing here at home in America. This has been reported recently in Business Week and elsewhere. That will only become magnified as the cost of oil and transportation continues to escalate over time. That’s just one example, that I think the crystal ball is clear on this.
I’ve talked in other venues before about this using the example of the folks who are both trapped in the towers on 9-11 and the first responders, who were the emergency, police and fire and other workers who came to that scene. When you’re caught in the middle of this catastrophic event, this immediate urgent shift, you have incomplete and frequently inaccurate information, you don’t know everything that you might want to know or need to know, and things are rapidly shifting and changing around you, in the literal physical environment and in your ability to understand tactically and strategically what’s going on.
I have a cousin in Boston who’s an expert sailor, has been all his life, and teaches sailing. I had the pleasure of being out with my cousin on the Bay near Boston a few summers ago, on his beautiful boat. When you’re sailing you cannot sail straight away into the wind, you have to zig and zag, “tacking” it’s called, you cannot go directly to your goal and towards the home port. I think in the same way our resilience, our agility and our adaptability, and our flexibility, is not unlike that of a sailor moving their boat against the wind, against the tide. And yet, it’s able to be done. We’ve invented the way. We have discovered the way forward. While it may not be as direct, or as immediate, or as seemingly productive in the short term as we would want it to be, it’s those skills of being flexible, adaptable and resilient that enable us to succeed and to grow into the future.
With regard to The Innovation Framework that I-Open advocates and talks about, my focus in a way, spans several of the categories that they have in this model. Fundamentally, I’m particularly interested in Dialogue and Inclusion, in the connections and sharing, what Dr. Glenda Eoyang, from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute calls, “transforming exchanges” in which we are changing one another by virtue of our conversation, what Ralph Stacey from the UK calls, “complex responsive processes of human relating” -it’s a bit of a mouthful (see Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation (Complexity and Emergence in Organizations) by Ralph Stacey). That’s what interests me above all, are these interconnections and exchanges that we have in which we are constructing meaning and purpose together and so the vehicle for that is conversation. The gesture and response that we use when we are communicating one to the other, back and forth. I believe that these conversations that we have, the ways in which we gesture and respond in communication, the give and take of our exchanges, that this is what builds relationship, engagement, trust and respect, and that these are the foundations upon which we can build any other form of innovation or change. The way that this ultimately manifests, which is also part of the framework here for innovation, is through narrative, through story. And the way that we share with one another is not only in specific facts, but we frequently, and in many ways most effectively and most powerfully communicate knowledge and information is through our stories. Through the narratives of what we have lived and experienced, and the sense and the meaning that our experiences have to us that then inform each other in which we can then weave together into collective tapestries of understanding and meaning and intention and purpose to act into the unknown future.
So, I’m just going to take a minute and talk about a couple of ideas that have informed and can now better inform how we think about things like economic development and innovation. I don’t think that this is in fact, only what is applied in economic development. I think that the patterns and trends I’m going to tell you about in a second, really are universal and have been the dominant paradigm in our culture for centuries. I make the distinction between what I call the “old mind” and “new mind”. The old mind that has been so dominant in our culture and society and has helped us achieve incredible things, is the world of Isaac Newton, whose discoveries in the natural sciences of gravity and calculus enabled us to do so much to get away from the world of interpreting nature and the universe around us as mysterious, and making it something that we humans could predict and control. We tend to like as humans, processes and outcomes that are stable, predictable and controllable. It’s enabled us to build factories and to go to the moon using the very kinds of calculations that Newton enabled us to do. If we shoot a canon or if we send a rocket to the moon, or the space shuttle out to the space station, we can calculate very precisely how this is going to work. But when we get to certain kinds of complexity, in human behavior, in the subatomic world of quantum physics, or the world of super large black holes in space in the middle of a galaxy, Mr. Newton’s discoveries and science and theories, in fact, don’t work.
And so the new mind of the quantum physicists like Niels Bohr and Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg and others, they found an entirely different kind of reality which never the less informs how we can think about or even things like, economic development.
In this new view, in this new world, we see that things are not just either or, they’re not just linear or closed systems, rather they are open and our own social interaction with these systems, the mere act of observation, they discovered, alters and affects and determines the outcome. So, when we think about things like economic development, we are well served to take a deeper look into the new mind and into this new paradigm of complexity in which the ways that we interact one with the other and the patterns of our interaction and sharing, open up entirely new possibilities, these are the engines of innovation. Not so close to certainty, not so close to agreement; in fact, not a whole lot of agreement or certainty, a certain level of ambiguity and uncertainty, turbulence and interaction in which we are puzzled by and feel the discomfort of our not knowing precisely what it is and not being able to agree on exactly what it means and what we should do, and it is from that very level of ambiguity and uncertainty and our open interconnection in dialogue and in learning together in which we have the best opportunity, and we know this to be so, for new ideas and innovation to emerge that will help us to grow, adapt and succeed into the future.
One of the things that’s taking a lot of my focus and energy right now, kind of a secondary aim that is more or less primary and right up there with my desire and commitment, is helping improve government. My partner Dale Weeks and I have formed the Institute for Government Improvement and we just signed a partnership agreement with the folks at State University of New York in Buffalo, New York at the Center for Industrial Effectiveness, where they’ve done great work with Erie County New York and others, to help government improve results. One of the things that strikes me in this work, is that the traditional methods of quality and process improvement, Six Sigma, “lean” methodologies, Toyota production systems, other similar kinds of processes, aim primarily at what we think about we see in the literature all the time, both in business and government, we want it better, faster, and cheaper. One of the things that actually came to me from one of the women who worked for me in a position in government at SAMHSA (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), my friend Brenda Bruun. We were thinking about strategic aims one day, we obviously have the desire that things be better, faster, cheaper, cost less, take less time. Brenda said, “You know, there’s something missing here.” And what she said was missing was more smiling faces. More smiling faces at the end of the day and she was saying this tongue-in-cheek. For me, it was a tremendous “Ah, Ha!” moment. I said, “That’s it! That’s it! That’s what’s missing!” We’re only getting three-quarters of the way because we’re not thinking enough about making people more satisfied. At the end of the day, how do our employees feel about working here? About being in these processes of work, in government, or elsewhere, that we’ve designed for them? And not only our employees need to be more satisfied and happy with us, but so too the citizens who are the beneficiaries of the work that we do in government, and our suppliers in government with whom we deal.
Today, we read in the papers, and this is one of my objectives with IGI, the public’s perception of government and government workers is not very good. And yet the reality is, the real fact, is that government has pockets of excellence now and has in the past, that are as good as the greatest companies that we know about and perceive in the private sector. Government can and does achieve excellence at the same rate and to the same degree as everyone else. So, we want to work to shift the public’s perception and understanding, we want to bring that story to everyone. That government that you deserve as citizens, great government, not just good government, not just okay government, not just better, faster, cheaper government, but government that will make you as a citizen, proud, satisfied, happy - make the people who are doing the job for you happier, more smiling faces at the end of the day. That’s something I’m deeply committed to right now.
So, what’s next in how we need to improve our capacities and our abilities to innovate, and to build economic and social opportunity and success? As I’ve said in other segments for this interview with I-Open today, I’m really concerned about the distinctions that I call “as if” thinking and behavior, building our capacities to distinguish successfully and better between those kinds of problems and challenges that are simply technical or complicated as opposed to those that are complex or chaotic, they require different kinds of vision and different insights and different ways of seeing what’s going on around us and making sense of it.
My hope is to see and perhaps in some small way contribute to the development of new methods and new ways to help people build that capacity, build the opposable mind that can simultaneously hold two opposing or different views and ideas and sets of options and somehow, as Roger Martin wrote about, “synthesize and innovate in an entirely new direction” (see, "How Successful Leaders Think" by Roger Martin, Harvard Business Review). Or, the methodologies of adaptive leadership that Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard write and teach about in which, we distinguish between the technical and adaptive challenges and understand how we have to be able to shift in the moment from one perspective to the other. My hope is that we can together begin to build new ways of teaching and learning and strengthening these kinds of capacities because that to me is how we’re going to be more successful in our ability to act together into the unknown future.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Strategic Doing cycle. And in particular, I want to talk about exploring and networks in this. To me, two of the challenges are, we don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know who we don’t know. So when we think about exploring what Michael McMasters calls, “possibility space”, or what Stuart Kauffman refers to as the “adjacent possible”, we aren’t always sure of what we don’t know. We don’t know what we don’t know. And so our ability to explore and potentially discover, the promising options and ideas and innovations that may carry us forward, may be limited by the lack of our own knowledge of options and innovation that may be in fact already be there, we may not have to invent the new but we simply need to find and discover and exploit the new.
Hand in hand with that, is the social aspect of that: where do we go to find that knowledge that we don’t already possess, if it is in fact already there? So we don’t always know who we don’t know. In terms of building a successful and strong and robust social network that can help us produce this innovation and new opportunity and economic and social growth, the challenges then become, how will we then explore that possibility space? How will we discover and find and exploit the stuff we didn’t know and the people who have it that we don’t currently know? So, we need to do that.
The other side of that that I also think is worth mentioning is how we will overcome the fear of exploring the unknown, our ability to act into that unknown future with our good and positive intention and seeking to do that. We have to pay attention and act with intention in those ways. And we have to be able to do it so that it overcomes our fears of failure, our fears of success, our fears of change, fears of embarrassment and all the other aspects of manifestations of fear. The best source I know to explain fear in our organizational and personal lives, comes from Margaret Wheatley and you’ll find it in her book, A Simpler Way, a very elegant and I think very profound description about how we got to this in the first place, and in fact, how the universe really wants us to succeed. Nature succeeds through variety, through experimentation and through the exploration of what Stuart Kauffman calls, the “adjacent possible”. And that’s what we need to do as well.
Read, Margaret J. Wheatley: Capacity Building in Emergence at I-Open
So, we’re talking about the Execution part of Strategic Doing, the actual doing and when we try to have improvements in results, we want to talk about moving from theory and framework and model, to changes in our beliefs and our actual behaviors to get the better outcomes and results that we all want. And for me personally, the Doing piece right now, is in starting up the Institute for Government Improvement with my partner Dale Weeks hoping to help government and public organizations commit to sustained process improvement as a way of achieving better results that government organizations, and the citizens that they serve, need and want and deserve.
Hand in hand with that is knowing, How are we doing? The former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, was very famous for, his metric, his measure was to literally walk the streets of New York and ask the people on the street, “How am I doing?” This was his famous catch phrase. And by that he was assessing and literally gathering data and input about the feedback of the results of what he did.
I would put this in a slightly different way, when we are working with technical processes and we want to know, Did our city improve its ability and cycle time to fix potholes and respond to citizen complaints? An example that’s widely been touted in the City of Baltimore, in the City Stat and that other cities have implemented, similar systems. So we know and we can measure how many, how much, and how long did it take? But I believe that when we’re dealing with more complex problems, the kinds of things that are inherent in the systems, and our greatest challenge is change and improvement, the way that I would measure and assess this is a kind of qualitative measure because we need to know how well, not just how much or how many, we need to know the, How am I doing? I believe the way we can think about or begin to think about that is by taking a look at our core values, core operating principles. We can through survey and qualitative research, begin to assess the congruence, the extent to what we actually do, measures up to, conforms to, is in alignment with, the very values and principles that we say are what matters to us. So, we need I think to begin to measure, Are we doing it? How am I doing? How are we doing? and, Are we doing what we say we do?
So, what are some of the next steps that we’re going to be doing? For me personally, the work we’re starting with the Institute for Government Improvement, the very first step is going to be a collaborative step. Even though, we think we know what the core operating values and principles ought to be, we want to convene a roundtable in Washington, D.C. later on this year in which we hope to bring to the table thought and practice leaders in government improvement. We are fortunate to know a lot of folks who have great experience and great networks of knowledge and influence in this regard, and we hope to bring them to our table in Washington in which we’ll be able to define together what the core operating values and principles will be, a charter for what a continuous and sustained government improvement. That’s the first collaborative piece.
The next part that will really help to bring this knowledge and this new awareness out into the world and to people, is through our new partnership agreement with the Center for Industrial Effectiveness at the University at Buffalo in New York. With them, we’re going to be convening in July to sit down and really develop the content for half-day and full day introductory workshops on government improvement. And then we’ll start to develop and to market those, and hopefully people will come, and we’ll begin to tell them the story, and if they get it, then we’ll be willing and able to help deliver facilitation and consultation services and help to bring these new ideas into development and into practice, and hopefully achieve positive results for those folks in the world.
How’s all this work begin to impact people? Impact society, and particularly the difficult challenges these days in various sustainability indicators? So, the work I’ve been doing and the work I’ve been focused on for thirty years, is about better government. Improving processes of government, improving results, bringing a greater diversity of input of ideas from citizens to policy makers, to the people inside the government organizations that are going to be doing the work. So, I believe that if we get better people with better ideas to create better government, we’re going to get better results.
So that when we talk about issues like sustainability and some of the extremely difficult challenges that are facing us, if the voice of the citizen is brought to the table, the ideas of the citizens and the people who are best able with the best knowledge and the most promising ideas that may succeed and help us adapt and grow and succeed into the future, if those ideas get heard, and I hope they do, through things like I-Open Civic Forums, public dialogue and deliberation, and if we can get our policy makers to, again, adapt as a core competency - one of the goals and objectives of the Institute for Government Improvement, is to make the knowledge and practice of sustained government process improvement a core competency for managers at all levels. So we believe that if we can bring this kind of knowledge, competency and practice into the work of government on a daily and global basis, we will be able to better respond, design and hopefully more successful interventions and responses to these extremely difficult challenges ahead.
When we begin to think about workforce development, I can’t help but think back to my undergraduate studies in Economics, and the thing that most interested me when I was an undergraduate student, was the differentiation or specialization of labor. How is it in our society that all the different people, from the time we get born to the time we get into the workforce and get a career, how is it that we get undertakers, and teachers, and rocket scientists in our society to meet the complete and total need of our economic system? To meet those needs?
Well, right now we’re in a situation where we have this massive cognitive surplus, we have all of these people, and I’m one of them, who have been out of work for a period of time, who have great skills, knowledge, experience, who have had a proven record of achievement, but we’re not finding our way because the jobs that we once held are not the jobs that our economy needs today and tomorrow.
And so the question that is on my mind in this, is, What can we do in government, in our society, through our businesses? Can we coordinate better? And I will tell you that other countries do, the U.S. is perhaps the only, was, in the 1980’s, the only industrialized democratic nation that did not have a very advanced system to coordinate between organized labor, government and vocational education.
So, what can and should we do to help those of us who have perhaps been displaced, or those of us who are graduating from schools now, our young who are seeking to enter the workforce and make a contribution, and earn a living and have a life, so that we can meet the needs of our economy and society? How can we build and develop the workforce that we need today and tomorrow?
Bruce Waltuck, M.A., C, C, and C
President & Owner, Freethinc. . . For A Change
Services on Organizational Change, Employee and Labor Relations, Collaborative Dialogue, and Story-gathering for Insights and Action
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