Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Where Does the Magic Come From?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Clarke's Third Law

In my career, I have at times run a successful project, built a high-performing team, or conducted a stunning class. Each time, though, I knew that my technology seemed like magic even to me, because I didn't really know how I did it. I do like to succeed, so perhaps I should be content with success alone. But I always worry:

"If it's indistinguishable from magic,
how do I know it won't go away next time?"

The Double Bind

When I worry, I'm reluctant to change anything, no matter how small, for fear that the magic will flee. I feel trapped between the fear of losing the magic by change and the fear of losing the magic by failing to change - a classic example of the trap known as a "double bind" (damned if you do, damned if you don't).

Double binds often result in paralysis or ritualized behavior. For example, I'm often called upon to improve meetings, but then find it difficult to persuade my clients to change anything about the meeting. "If we move to another room, it might not be as good as this one." "If we don't invite Jack to the next meeting, we might need something he knows." "If we change the order of the agenda, we might not get through on time." "If we vote in a different way, we might make a poor decision." "We must order our donuts from Sally's Bakery or we won't have a successful meeting."

The "Magic" of PSL

I'd find this behavior even more frustrating if I hadn't experienced the same double bind myself–for example, when faculty considers some potential improvements to our Problem Solving Leadership workshop (PSL). Over the years, lots of people have experienced what they call "the magic of PSL," and we're proud of that. But each time we consider a change, someone raises the fear that the change might make the magic disappear. Fortunately, each time we do this, someone is able to prove that the magic is not tied to the factor under consideration.

For instance, we've worried about changing the hotel or city where PSL is held. We do attempt to find magical sites, but then we remember that many PSLs have transformed mundane hotels in mundane cities into magical sites. This proves to us that the magic can't be in the site, and frees us from that double bind.

Or, we've worried about changing the faculty who teach PSL. We certainly don't choose faculty members at random, but every faculty member has led many, many magical PSLs. So the magic can't be in any particular faculty members.

Or, we've worried about the combination of faculty members. We don't choose our co-training teams at random, either, but all combinations experience magic. So the magic can't be in the faculty combination.

Again, we've worried about the materials we use. We certainly don't choose materials at random, but we do change materials from class to class, and each class deviates from the "standard" materials in a variety of ways. Indeed, there is no single item of material that's in common between the very first PSL (back in 1974) and the most recent one. So the magic can't be in particular materials, either.

Breaking the Bind

The same approach can be used to break other double binds - by finding a counter-example to match each objection:

- "If we move to another room, it might not be as good as this one." "Ah, but remember when they were painting this room and we met downstairs? We had a good meeting then."

- "If we don't use Microsoft Project, this project might fail." "Could be, but we did project X with other tracking software, and we did a fine job."

- "If we change to a new version of the operating system, we might have crashes." "True. But we had a few crashes the last time we upgraded, and though it was some trouble, we dealt with them."

- "If I clean up that code, the system might fail." "That could happen, but the previous three times we cleaned up some code, we caught all the failures in our technical reviews and regression testing. So let's do it, but let's be careful."

The Effective Use of Failure

What can you do if you don't have a counter-example and can't create one in a safe way? In that case, it helps if you can demystify the magic and understand its underlying structure. To do this, you need examples where the magic didn't happen. In social engineering, as in all engineering, failures teach you more than successes.

For instance, the PSL faculty became more aware of the source of PSL magic by observing a few times that the magic didn't "work." Usually, people come to PSL voluntarily–but not always. Once in a while, someone is forced to come to PSL to be "fixed," but people who have been labeled as "broken" may resent the whole experience, and may not feel much PSL magic at all.

From these rare failures of PSL magic, we have identified one key component of the magic of PSL:

People are there because they have chosen to be there.

Curiously, the same component works in creating magical meetings, magical projects, and magical teams. When people are given a choice, they are the magic. Or, more precisely, they create the magic.

When people choose to attend a workshop, to participate in a project, or to join a team, they plunge themselves fully into the experience, rather than simply going through the motions. Consultants can thus have a "magic" advantage over employees: They always know that they've chosen this assignment, so they can always throw themselves into it without reservation. Employees can have this choice, too, but they often forget–just as some consultants forget when they feel forced to take an assignment out of economic necessity.

Keep this in mind the next time you choose an assignment. If you feel forced, you won't do your magical best. You won't have access to the magic that lives inside of yourself.

Do You Want to Experience the Magic of PSL?

Esther Derby, Johanna Rothman, and I will be leading another PSL (Problem Solving Leadership) March 16-21, 2008, in Albuquerque, NM.

PSL is experiential training for learning and practicing a leader's most valuable asset: the ability to think and act creatively. PSL is the gold standard for leadership training, and I'm thrilled to be teaching again with Esther and Johanna.

See <> for the syllabus. If you're interested, please send Esther an email, [Esther Derby <>]. We'd love to have you help us create some more magic.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Career, An Interview

Magnus Ljadas has just published an interview with me on the Citerus (Sweden) website (

I've been interviewed many times over the years, but Magnus is the best interviewer I can remember. I hope it's as fun and informative for you to read as it was for me to write.

Or you can use tiny url = <>

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Developing Emotionally, Part 3

William Responds to Melissa:

Melissa, my secret is this: I have learned to really enjoy interaction on the emotional level. Perhaps "being emotional" was an innate need, but before and during high school I only had 2 close friends (ever), and I was very controlled–I didn't let anything out (if I could help it). Then I had a life-changing experience: I went to a summer program for high-ability science students, and the program director wanted to develop our little personalities as well as our big brains! So he included a simulation–we were stranded (in groups of 8) on a desert island, and had to solve all sorts of problems, which grew more and more personal. I was lucky enough to land in a very supportive group where we related to each other on a very personal and emotional level...and I was hooked! I realized that personal interaction needed to be a part of my life.

This experience really was life changing. For example, it resulted in my changing my college goal to a small liberal arts college instead of the US Naval Academy. And it resulted in my adding a second major to my academic program, Psychology as well as Computer Science. But the experience itself was relatively simple: 16 4-hour sessions over a period of 8 weeks.

Since that time, I have participated in a number of self-development groups, of all flavors. I have worked to develop my consulting skills and my counseling skills (quite related!). And this stuff is learnable: it just requires practice. Perhaps I had an innate ability for empathy–I get it from my mother! But when I was in college, I participated in a basic training session for drug counselors (lay people, not professionals), and the model they used involved practicing empathy. For several hours a day. That's what got me started in that direction. And believe it or not, practicing this stuff really can help to improve your ability to detect and "process" signals that other people are sending out. At least, that has been my experience.

Today, I really enjoy relating to people as people. I find it most satisfying when I am in a situation where it is "permissible" to relate on an emotional level. (I admire Jerry W., who seems to be able to establish this permission in almost any situation!)

So, I guess my secret was participating in a number of self- development exercises in "safe" situations, where I could take more and more risks and learn to enjoy being more open. I have done this at various times over the past years, and even PSL counts in this direction, because it shows you your emotional limits and helps you to realize what you might need to work on.

Like I said, I don't know if this helps, but it is my story...

Forest Responds to William's Story:

I am so grateful that you shared this story with everyone. It was wonderful to read, and allowed me to feel a number of things that I had recently closed off again.

I identify with how you are most comfortable when you can relate emotionally in a situation. I used to struggle more than I do now in balancing my desire to relate emotionally, with what those around me were comfortable with–or, perhaps it is what I perceived the situation to allow. In the 'professional' world, I have perceived that emotions are frowned upon, and that people are to keep them out of the office. My inclination is to balance emotion with the rest, but I tended to lock them up in many situations.

At my first AYE conference, I learned that the emotional aspect is necessary to connect with people. And notably, that it was okay. During that experience I allowed myself to be more open in connecting with people and to be myself emotionally. I prefer to operate in an environment like that, so I give myself permission to create environments in my life where I am able to (work included). I feel like my true self when I am able to, almost like the mask comes off. I have found the AYE and PSL communities to be extremely supportive and safe in this realm. Which is why I keep going back... I can be myself, and I can recharge my energy to continue to be myself in my day-to-day life.

And William Replies to Forest:

Thanks very much for the affirmative feedback. It is music to my ears, balsam for my soul, etc.! [The writers among you are cringing at the cliches, I'm sure... :-) ]

Theoretically, the workplace is devoid of emoitions. But in real life, that's never the case. And in fact, emotions often have a much higher effect on productivity than almost anything else. I really enjoyed my 5-year stint as an internal consultant, because one big part of consulting skills is being aware of your own emotions and (trying to) understand what is triggering them. It is almost always something in the current situation. Identifying that cause can often lead to a breakthrough in consulting. My favorite book about this is "Flawless Consulting" by Peter Block, which has a prominent place on my bookshelf, right near "The Psychology of Computer Programming." And acting as a consultant, you (often) have permission to name or surface those underlying emotions in one way or another. In fact, sometimes that is your #1 job.

Many management trainings also concentrate on identifying your emotional reactions and using those in the workplace. It is often more OK to be yourself than we realize. In fact, sometimes openness is what is needed to break a "logjam". But I agree, for many people this is very unexpected, and it is a risk to be the first to try it.

Perhaps you can give yourself permission to establish yourself as a "whole person" in your new job, able to relate to your new colleagues and employees as a real and open person. I must admit, I am not currently doing that in my job! So I don't claim it's easy. But perhaps it can be done. (Then again, on the other hand, I just recently read an article from a German psychologist that claimed that being open and authentic is career suicide, and that the guys who get ahead are the ones who manipulate the best! In my cynical moments, I believe this might be true, but I prefer to ignore it...)

Jerry Comments

If this is what "getting ahead" requires, I would question whether it's really "ahead" at all. You might make more money, and have more authority to order people around (which they'll ignore as best they can), but you're really falling back. And, for a consultant, "ahead" and "up" are not synonyms anyway.

In any case, whatever direction you want to travel, studying your emotional system and practicing to improve your understanding of it—those are keys for most consultants to improve their effectiveness. The emotional system is your priority analyzer. Without it, you don't know what's important. And with it, if you don't know how to understand it, you'll act like a robot who doesn't understand the difference between the important and the trivial.