Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Account - Ability

It's a big week for accountabiity in the news: election campaigns in the States and Canada and financial meltdowns are on everyone's minds. As always, we are looking for someone who can tell us a compelling story about what is happening and what can be done to change it.

Who is account-able in this election? Increasingly, we wonder if anyone can tell us a story we will believe. We hear so many clashing accounts that none of them offer true accountability. None of them convince us. None of them catch our imaginations and make cause-and-effect into something real and tangible.

Some of this is the way we are made. Complex psychological processes ensure we will tell a story that we can live with - whether or not anyone else can believe it. The role of our stories is only partly to convince others. The other part is to allow others to notice that the stories we are telling are deeply, remarkably flawed. They are flawed because we protect ourselves - and in protecting ourselves, we inevitably pull back a little from the world as it is and walk into the world as we wish it were. We are able to give ourselves endless accounts of reality - and none of them are true.

That's why the real essence of account-ability is found not in the individual, but in the community. Wherever we come together and function with tolerance for difference, we produce multiple accounts of every situation or event. These multiple, different accounts overlap and combine to give us a truer perspective than we can find - or trust - from any individual psyche. In order to be accountable, the stories must overlap and they must be different. We all have different blind spots.

This is why a team is the basic unit of accountability. A team is a group whose stories overlap. The whole story told by all the members is always a more satisfying account than the account offered by an individual - including the team's leader. This does not mean that the leader is not responsible - it means that any leader owns only a part of the story.

Your story is your story because you are at the centre. This is why it is useful for you to give your account - because it puts your actions and reactions and impacts in the spotlight. This is why other people can hold you accountable through the account you give. And it is also why your account is never accurate. Accountability requires more than a great defence. Account - ability requires difference, tolerance, and community.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What would you take to a dessert island?

One way to think about what keeps you moving is to ask yourself this question: "If I knew I would stranded alone somewhere (food and medicine provided), what would I take with me?"

Pretend you are going to a space station or some other remote posting. Leave aside the issue of the people you need, and think about the tools that you use to keep yourself moving. Is it music or books? physical exercise or the tools and materials necessary for a particular craft? If you were packing to be self-sufficient for a long time, what would support you?

You might wonder why you need to know. Wonder how much of those essentials you are allowing yourself now. Wonder how you could use them more effectively to keep you resourceful and motivated and fully alive. Wonder why something so important gets left out of your schedule so often.

You are stranded alone. It's the nature of life. Sometimes other people help; sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they give you the push you need, and sometimes they pull on your ankles. You are the only one who lives inside your skin. You are the one who lives with all of your decisions. Make a decision to pull together precisely what you need to keep moving.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Telling the truth about accountability

All of our systems are built on the presupposition that people will avoid accountability if given an option.

How did that happen?

Being accountable means doing two things as a member of a group or community:
1) observing performance against specific, measurable criteria
2) telling a story (giving an account) of how specific behaviours contribute to specific results.

Here's what we know about human beings:

1) normally functioning human neurology has multiple, sophisticated capabilities that exist only to observe other human beings in relation to ourselves. We observe minute changes in the state and behaviour of the people around us and track how those changes relate to changes in our own neurology, physiology or behaviour. We do this automatically and continuously.

2) human beings are the creatures who tell stories. We tell stories naturally, easily and often. We get huge benefits from telling our own stories. We enjoy telling stories.

If we stop making the observations that allow us to be accountable, we stop functioning as normal human beings. We lose track of the information we need in order to make decisions or take action.

So what does it take to stop people from being accountable? It's a huge amount of work to overcome automatic functions that are part of how we think and respond naturally. We have to really want something - or really want to avoid punishment - if we are to overcome what we do naturally. Think about breaking any habit - it takes will power, exerted continuously over a period of time.

We have to be really motivated to break the accountability habit.

Someone has to be offering us huge rewards for not noticing or keeping silent. Or someone has to be punishing us harshly for noticing or speaking up.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Accountability and the problem of advertising

I am coming to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to make a session on accountability sound energizing or fun or engaging. Accountability is an ugly word for a concept that people find hard to trust. It too often means being punished for not giving more than 100% or pulling a miracle out of an overcrowded desktop.

Account-ability. The ability to tell a story or demonstrate the costs and benefits of an influence or action. The ability to trace the difference that one person makes. The ability to own what you have done.

Actually, it doesn't sound so bad. Dangerous - yes. Edgy - often. But. . . meaningful, even purposeful.

The ability to trace the difference that one person makes. Even in - especially in - the kind of organizations that tend to muzzle or dwarf or overwhelm individuals. Even in - especially in - the kind of organizations that are so big or so small it seems impossible that one person could make a difference.

Account-ability. To give an account is to tell a story. As human beings, we are born telling stories. We are born to give words to the existence that slips through us and past us. We are each account-able for the unwinding of our own lives.

Account-able.

Story able. Effect able. Change able.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Step up. . . in a moment

You know that moment. The problem is intractable. The tension builds. You see what is needed and hope that it will fall to someone else. It seldom falls to someone else. You can give up or step up. So you step up.

Stepping up means picking up your feet and moving. It means loading up the weight, so that you feel the challenge in your back and your thighs. It takes a lot of energy to step up. It takes strength and focus and letting go of whatever you are leaving behind.
Stepping up is hard work.

What if you could make a third choice in that tiny space of possibility between the moment the crisis appears and the moment you choose to act?

Take a breath. Allow yourself to notice that you have what you need. Allow yourself to notice that other people will offer some pieces of the puzzle. Notice that every step requires that you lift your foot. Every step begins with a step up - and you have taken millions of them already.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Handling disappointment

You wake up the day of the big meeting, primed and ready. The phone rings. The meeting has been rescheduled.

You wake up on your birthday. You have no plans.

You go out for dinner at a favourite restaurant. The service is unusually harried and the same dish you always order is less satisfying than usual.

What do you do next?

We are all disappointed - perhaps because we expect life to be imperfect and perhaps because life is imperfect whether or not we expect it to be. We all want things we do not get exactly as we want them or exactly when we want them.

Do you cry it out? Blame it on someone else? Suck it up and deal with the rest of the day?

I wonder what would happen if you tried an entirely new strategy. . . if you stepped out of the frame and into a new, clearer space. I wonder how long you could stay in that other state - focused or energized or simply aware of your body in this place and this time. I wonder what would happen if you noticed what you expect and then surprised yourself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sometimes you don't need a solution

There are times when you are pulled in different directions, times when you have questions that require answers and problems that require solutions and you're not entirely sure where to find what you need. What happens if you stop looking?

At moments when I have just enough energy and resolve for one more thing, I sometimes am wise enough to use that energy to go to a place where I do not need answers. Sometimes, I don't even close my eyes. I just take my attention back to the rocks at Cavendish and watch the waves of the ocean as they pound into the rocks. I breathe deep. And I allow myself, like the rocks, to dissolve just a little bit. I become part of a solution of salt and water and sea creatures and sand and me. I smell salt in the air and on my skin, and breathe in the spray and breathe out the tension.

Then I look with clearer eyes and see that the beach has been replaced by the one thing I need to do next.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Shake it up! It's time for a change

You can feel it in the air. . . it's not quite summer anymore (in Toronto, it was not quite summer all summer, but even here we feel the transition). For many people (teachers at all stages, parents and students) it is the real beginning of the new year.  Even people far removed from school feel the momentum as people return from the summer break and get back to work.

It's easy to drive our heels into the ground and refuse to let go of summer.  It's easy to claim every available moment to pretend that we are as relaxed and easy-going as we were in July.  It's easy to notice the fall without engaging it.

Change is coming.  You can jump in with a splash and enjoy it - or you can be overwhelmed by it. So why not look around and make change you like. Rearrange the furniture; paint the walls (or the town!) and move your body - to the gym, to a class, to a gathering of smart, interesting people.

Start preparing for a year you will like.  Get busy!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Drawing on strengths

From time to time I teach young students at our local community college.  They are bright and energetic and full of plans and hope.  And they are heartbreakingly fresh and new and vulnerable.

Today I asked my class to interview each other to discover strengths.  It took less than five minutes for the first person to ask if they should also discover weaknesses. It also took less than five minutes for me to demonstrate that if they truly focused on discovering strength they would not have to worry about managing weaknesses.

Still - every group in the room was following the same pattern, knowing strength by weakness.  It takes energy and focus and good will to keep them on track for noticing that they are already strong and that collectively they are even stronger.

I understand the argument that by knowing our weaknesses we can somehow compensate for them and keep ourselves safe.  I understand that every personality typing scheme makes allowances for people who need to move away from, who crave negatives.  I am not sure I buy in anymore.

Watch what happens when you focus someone's attention, repeatedly and precisely, on the specific ways in which they are strong.  Then tell me that some people just like to wallow in fear. If you can still make that argument.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Every new beginning

"Closing Time" (by Semisonic)  says that "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."  Too true, especially on Labour Day.

Summer is over. Summer is in full bloom. It's finally hot and sunny - just in time for September. 

Childhood, like summer, is short and sweet and a time to build memories to last through cold, dark days.  It ends in stages - often marked by a change of school in September or that first September when there is no school.  It ends with beginnings that are eagerly awaited and celebrated with new clothes, new activities, and sometimes a new place to live.

It's hard to tell whether an event is an ending or a beginning, a graduation or the first day of school.  The lines blur.  We move on to new things by moving on from known things. Sometimes we will the change and sometimes it happens to us. 

What beginning are you living and what ending are you leaving as summer winds down into fall? All change - the ones you plan and the ones that you accept - require energy.  Where will you find yours?  Are there friendships you need to make or to deepen? Are there memories you need to tap? Are there spaces you need to make ready?

Take a moment as one beginning ends and find the resources you need to step into the next beginning.  They may be packed away with the fall clothes and the school supplies, and they may have gone up in price (like the gas in your tank).  Find them. Make ready.  Tomorrow will be time for another new beginning.