Saturday, November 26, 2016

You're not writing to a computer; you're writing to a person

From time to time, we are all writers. We all post and email and some of us prepare documents to communicate ideas or information. Writing can be a lonely activity: it feels like it's just you and the computer screen. As you try to wrestle your information into words, your vision might close in until there is nothing but you and the screen you are filling with your words.

This is a terrible way to think about writing. Even your personal journal will make a better contribution to your well-being if you look up and around. You are not writing alone: you are writing because you are not alone. Even if the person who will read your writing is another version of you, you are writing so that someone can read what you have written and make sense of the world differently because of it.


If you were writing code for a computer, the computer would carry out your instructions. The interchange might get ugly if you wrote ugly code, but there would be no escalation of bad feelings and bad feelings would not lead to bad judgment. Human readers are very different. Your words inspire a mood or attitude, and that attitude colours their response to the information you present and to whatever response is required of them.

Good writers remember that the mood they inspire in the reader is likely to generate the response they get. They don't wrestle with words: they wrestle with the responses that words or strategies are likely to get from the human readers who will receive them. Their communication is not a flow of words; it's an unfolding interaction where words trigger perceptions and perceptions trigger responses.

There is no content so simple that it cannot alter the mood of the person who reads it. Remembering that your words will trigger a response and that response will trigger the way your ideas are interpreted is the first step towards writing that works better for you.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Between stimulus and response, there is a space


"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  
Victor Frankl

It's hard to feel comfortable in the space between stimulus and response. It's a passageway, not a resting place and not a highway.

As this fall turns into winter, we are aware of being in that space of uncertainty and possibility. It is time to make some choices, to move through the passageway and into new action. A new season, a new year and, possibly, a new era are almost upon us. It is time to choose.

If you're not sure what choices are possible, begin to label what is real right now. What do you feel? What do you know? What do you want? Find a way to record your answers: write on paper or on a computer, sketch them, talk them through with a friend.

Then look at what you have written and ask for each point: "Are you sure this is real? What else could be true?" Record those answers for what you feel, what you know, what you want.

Now clear your head. Go for a walk; clean a room; cook something; play some music. Do whatever engages you and gets you moving. Let your mind dive into the middle of something. This is an easier way to take a break than sitting still and telling your mind to be quiet.

When your mind is quiet, when you are feeling relaxed and focused, return to your list. Read everything you've written, and then let it go. On a clean sheet or a blank screen write: "this is what I choose. . . "  And then imagine it as if it were already real. See what you will see; hear what you will hear; feel what you will feel when you take action and make your choice real.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The US Election: The meaning of your communication is the outcome it gets

No picture in the post this week, and no politics. Just three communication principles applied to the US Election results.

The first principle: matching states (pun unavoidable) creates rapport. Trump matched a mood of discontent and anger that is apparently epidemic throughout most of the states (as in United States). Literally, he won because he matched the state in more states (that's the way the Electoral College works). It's not clear to me that Trump did more than mirror: I haven't seen evidence that he can lead from the state he has matched into a more useful state. But when people looked at him, they saw their own state reflected back. Since states shared are states amplified, he has successfully created a wave of anger and discontent and that wave has carried him into office.

The second principle: repetition creates reality. This is basic to advertising: if we hear something repeatedly, it will stick in our brains and when we are not actively engaging our critical faculty, we will act as though the repeated thing is truth. Trump used this principle to repeat a few key phrases ("crooked Hillary" comes to mind) over and over again. In debates, this made him sound dumb: he wasn't answering the questions or laying out policy: he was repeating playground taunts. But by identifying a fear (matching states) that had already been voiced elsewhere (FBI investigations and Bernie Sanders supporters), he stuck to a script so that script would stick. Reality was irrelevant (I make no claim to know the reality and neither should you - we don't have direct access to the facts). Just as we don't really believe that the right jeans will make us skinny and sexy, we didn't have to 'really believe' the claims for them to sink into the layer that filters our perceptions.

The third principle: The meaning of a communication is the outcome it produces. The meaning of Trump's communication was that he became President. The meaning of Hillary Clinton's communication was that it was complicated (what else can we say about winning the popular vote and losing everything that mattered  - and yes, I just said that the popular vote didn't matter). The meaning of Bernie Sander's communication was also that Trump was elected. Like Trump, he matched discontent and suspicion and his followers were sure that the system was rigged against them. The result is that those ideas were repeated and people acted as if they were true.

You probably don't like the third principle. I often don't like it much either. When I get a result I didn't expect and don't want to own, I struggle with the notion that I had a role in making it happen. Unintended consequences are sometimes painful consequences. When we fail to own them, when we fail to believe that what we communicated had an impact in the world, we also fail to own our ability to create different results.

And if we don't think hard - think with will power - then we will inevitably act as if the strongest states and the most often repeated beliefs are true.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Don't be misled by the acronym: you can do VUCA for fun

Mike Malone Sextet at The Steel City Jazz Festival
There are two good reasons that I both sponsor and attend The Steel City Jazz Festival. One is that my kid runs the festival. It was his dream and he has made it real for the past four years. Hanging out with anyone who has achieved a dream is inspiring. Hanging out with your kid while he makes his dream real is a rare and wonderful opportunity.

The second good reason that I like to listen to improvised jazz is that it reminds me that a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) situation could be really good fun. I took this picture last night while watching a sextet stand in the shoes of giants as they played the music from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue recording. If you're not a jazz fan, here is what that means. For more than an hour they played very famous jazz pieces and they were improvising.

Notice that,  in language, this already doesn't make sense. How can you play a well-known piece and improvise? In music, it does make sense and it happens all the time.

The second part of this paradox is that although the pieces were originally recorded in 1959, when six jazz players with real chops approach this music, no one is entirely sure what will happen. It's a VUCA moment.  Earlier in the festival, Mike Malone introduced the pianist, Adrean Farrugia as both wonderful and kind of scary to play with. As each soloist dives into the music, everyone else has to listen up and keep up.

They do it for joy. The band last night was obviously thoroughly enjoying the chance to play this music together, and to play it for a packed audience.  We were all in it together, and not knowing exactly what to expect was part of what kept everyone in the room - musician and audience - completely engaged.

Certainty is a little dull. VUCA can inspire the best kinds of attention and curiosity.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

VUCA: It's not as new (or as scary) as it sounds

Have you heard about VUCA? If you're not a business guru, you may have missed this management acronym. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It's a slightly terrifying description of what is really business-as-usual in a world of change and interaction.

Management theorists might think VUCA is new, but here's how the 19th century poet John Keats described the quality that made writers great:

'At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'

VUCA has been with man a long, long time, and the best of our thinkers have found ways to embrace it. If it's still too complicated for you: consider this picture. Is it health food? (No). Is it healthy food (Possibly).

In one category or frame, this is not clean, healthy food. In another category, this represents an experience that might be a healthy antidote to stress or a celebration of good things. Both are true at the same time. That's what a paradox is: a situation where opposites are equally true at the same time. If you've ever felt a treat would be good for you, you've engaged in paradoxical thinking.

Paradoxical thinking, the ability to move easily between apparent opposites, is the way that people have always navigated VUCA. When you're overwhelmed by complexity, the answer is to identify the times you have already accepted contradiction without stress:
  • a time you thought for yourself as part of a great team
  • a time when music left you feeling both focused and flexible
  • a time when energy kept you glued to a task instead of sending you bouncing
The more you are curious about your experience of paradox, the more you are likely to find ways to navigate VUCA with grace, productivity and satisfaction.