Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Acquiring New Habits

This is a great article from the New York Times shared by Jane Pearson from the St. Luke's Health Initiative with the Consultants Learning Community.

Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?


Published: May 4, 2008

HABITS are a funny thing. We reach for them mindlessly, setting our brains on auto-pilot and relaxing into the unconscious comfort of familiar routine. “Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd,” William Wordsworth said in the 19th century. In the ever-changing 21st century, even the word “habit” carries a negative connotation.

So it seems antithetical to talk about habits in the same context as creativity and innovation. But brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.

Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.

“The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder,” says Dawna Markova, author of “The Open Mind” and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners. “But we are taught instead to ‘decide,’ just as our president calls himself ‘the Decider.’ ” She adds, however, that “to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities.”

All of us work through problems in ways of which we’re unaware, she says. Researchers in the late 1960s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. At puberty, however, the brain shuts down half of that capacity, preserving only those modes of thought that have seemed most valuable during the first decade or so of life.

The current emphasis on standardized testing highlights analysis and procedure, meaning that few of us inherently use our innovative and collaborative modes of thought. “This breaks the major rule in the American belief system — that anyone can do anything,” explains M. J. Ryan, author of the 2006 book “This Year I Will...” and Ms. Markova’s business partner. “That’s a lie that we have perpetuated, and it fosters mediocrity. Knowing what you’re good at and doing even more of it creates excellence.”

This is where developing new habits comes in. If you’re an analytical or procedural thinker, you learn in different ways than someone who is inherently innovative or collaborative. Figure out what has worked for you when you’ve learned in the past, and you can draw your own map for developing additional skills and behaviors for the future.

“I apprentice myself to someone when I want to learn something new or develop a new habit,” Ms. Ryan says. “Other people read a book about it or take a course. If you have a pathway to learning, use it because that’s going to be easier than creating an entirely new pathway in your brain.”

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.

“Getting into the stretch zone is good for you,” Ms. Ryan says in “This Year I Will... .” “It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Continuously stretching ourselves will even help us lose weight, according to one study. Researchers who asked folks to do something different every day — listen to a new radio station, for instance — found that they lost and kept off weight. No one is sure why, but scientists speculate that getting out of routines makes us more aware in general.”

She recommends practicing a Japanese technique called kaizen, which calls for tiny, continuous improvements.

“Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain,” Ms. Ryan notes in her book. “If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we’re trying to do. The small steps in kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.”

Simultaneously, take a look at how colleagues approach challenges, Ms. Markova suggests. We tend to believe that those who think the way we do are smarter than those who don’t. That can be fatal in business, particularly for executives who surround themselves with like-thinkers. If seniority and promotion are based on similarity to those at the top, chances are strong that the company lacks intellectual diversity.

“Try lacing your hands together,” Ms. Markova says. “You habitually do it one way. Now try doing it with the other thumb on top. Feels awkward, doesn’t it? That’s the valuable moment we call confusion, when we fuse the old with the new.”

AFTER the churn of confusion, she says, the brain begins organizing the new input, ultimately creating new synaptic connections if the process is repeated enough.

But if, during creation of that new habit, the “Great Decider” steps in to protest against taking the unfamiliar path, “you get convergence and we keep doing the same thing over and over again,” she says.

“You cannot have innovation,” she adds, “unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.”

Janet Rae-Dupree writes about science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley.

How does change happen?

This article is reprinted with permission from the Gifted Leaders May Newsletter. For more great information check out

Change happens, not in a top-down manner, but as networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. Change isn’t something we can mandate by getting other people to “buy in” and “motivating” them through rewards and punishments.

Emergence is the process by which all large-scale change happens on this planet.

How Large-Scale Change Really Happens By Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, The School Administrator, Spring 2007

Highlights from the article:
Traditional change theory includes several sequential steps. You create a vision, develop a strategy, write a policy, design an implementation plan, structure a timeline of activities and desired outcomes, design assessment and evaluation tools, then parcel out the work. In terms of relationships, you seek allies and change champions from senior leaders, use policies and legislation to enforce the new behaviors, develop rewards and enticements to achieve buy-in, punish those who don’t buy it, and develop a communication strategy to create good press. This has been and remains the primary way we do change in all types of organizations.

This theory of change has several embedded assumptions:
• Change is top-down and requires top-level support
• Change requires careful planning and good controls
• Change happens step-by-step in a neat, incremental fashion
• Behavior can be mandated
• Rewards and punishment motivate people to change
• Large-scale changes require large-scale efforts

To facilitate change we don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; we need to focus on connecting those kindred spirits who share a common vision of a better future. Large-scale changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high. Instead, they begin as small, local actions.

If these local efforts remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond there locale. However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system. This sudden appearance, known as an emergent phenomenon, always brings new levels of capacity.

Emergence has a life cycle. In each stage, connections become stronger and interactions more numerous and diverse.
• Stage One – Networks: Networking connects people who are often so busily engaged in their own efforts that they have no idea what’s happening beyond their own sphere of influence.
• Stage Two – Communities of Practice: The second stage is when people realize that they can create more benefit by working together. Relationships shift from casual exchanges to a commitment to work together in some way. Personal needs expand to include a desire to support others and improve professional practices.
• Stage Three – Systems of Influence: This is the sudden appearance of a system that has real power and influence. Pioneering efforts that hovered at the periphery suddenly become the norm. The practices developed by courageous communities become the accepted standard.

For any issue, the solutions we need are already here. If you’re looking to solve a problem, look inside the organization or system and you’ll find someone who’s already worked out a solution or created the needed new process. Change via emergence happens through a strengthening of connections and a linking together of these disparate efforts. With emergence, it’s not critical mass we have to achieve. It’s critical connections. Anything that strengthens connections is important.

For the full text article, go to ...

Emergence and the Importance of Networks

Emergence violates so many of our Western assumptions of how change happens that it often takes quite a while to understand it. In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas.

Networks are the form of organization used by living systems on this planet. These networks result from self-organization, where individuals or species recognize their interdependence and organize in ways that support the diversity and viability of all. Networks create the conditions for emergence, which is how life changes.

Because networks are the first stage in emergence, here are some guidelines to help us catalyze critical connections:
• Name - focus on discovering and recognizing pioneering efforts.
• Connect these efforts to other similar work on a larger scale.
• Nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through creating opportunities for learning and sharing of experiences and shifting into communities of practice.
• Illuminate the work of these pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them.
By working intentionally with emergence we can help small, local efforts become a global force for change!

See the related article Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale by Wheatley and Frieze

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Gas Hole – Connections between our unsustainable energy consumption and unsustainable human energy consumption in the Social Sector.

Find out how you can see this movie at I saw it Friday night at the Fox Theater in Tucson. This movie has a lot of information about the business practices of the oil companies, and how this results in incredibly high gas prices.

One of the things that struck me while watching the movie, was the connection between the thinking that leads to our unsustainable energy consumption, and the unsustainable human energy consumption in the social sector. What language is used when we talk about our energy consumption? Phrases like “meeting our energy needs” or “increasing energy demands.” When we really think about this – how are we thinking about energy needs? Do we need to drive RV’s, to drive to offices when technology would make it possible for much of the workforce to work at home, to drive at all when we could ride a bike or take mass transit? Since oil is a limited resource, even if we drilled every drop on the planet – if we don’t consume less and reduce the demand - we will run out. We can consume less, and one of the many ways we can consume less that was featured in this movie is by driving car engines that get more miles per gallon. It was somewhat unsettling to see how many engines have been designed that get 100 miles per gallon and more – and yet are not available for people to buy.

One of the messages of hope in the movie is that if we as a country focus our resources on achieving a goal, we can do it. They gave as examples how our country responded to World War II, the building of the atomic bomb by the Manhattan Project, and the commitment to reach the moon. All of these things were accomplished by focusing our resources on achieving a goal we felt was important as a nation to achieve. And which is technically more difficult, reaching the moon or building an engine that gets more miles per gallon? Really - reaching the moon is more difficult. If you see this movie you will learn about the many people that have actually built engines that get very high gas mileage, that have been bought by oil companies, and are hiding somewhere.

When you look at the parallels to this in the social sector, the language that is used when talking about the delivery of health care, education, or social services is also “meeting the needs” of the clients. Well how are these needs defined, who defines them, and how is the method of meeting them defined? Often, it isn’t by the consumers of these services. And just as unsustainable as our consumption of energy, is our consumption of human energy in our current attempts to "meet people's needs" rather than helping people develop their own resiliency and use their own resources. We can reduce the demand for human services by building on people’s strengths instead of trying to meet their needs. What connections do you see?

Promoting Resilience in Yourself and Others - How Attitude Affects Achievement

by Jennifer Abrams - excerpt from Jennifer's May, 2008 newsletter

With May around the corner, everyone thinking of summer, and most of us having a just a few weeks left in school, I have been spending some time thinking about how we can help each other and our students continue to work to our full potential. How can we persevere, and show up as our best selves as the school year comes to an end? How do we keep our sense of discipline and rigor, especially if we are thinking things are ‘wrapped up’ or have a sense that whatever we do from here on out might not make that much of an impact at this point? This type of thinking is prevalent around this time and it doesn’t serve.

At moments like this, positive self-talk for ourselves and for our students really matters. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has written a book about this very topic. Dweck’s book, Mindset, is an incredibly readable study of two mindsets – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In a nutshell, most of us fall into two categories in terms of how we perceive our abilities – either that we have the smarts (or not), or that through our effort we can increase them. Her research on how living in the growth mindset will ultimately help us succeed is validating work for those of us who work with students – we need to teach them that their effort (and ours) will make a difference.

The fixed mindset can sound like this:

Either I am smart or I am not

One is born with a certain amount of intelligence and I don’t have enough

Smart is making no mistakes, going fast, and about the outcome being perfect

Failure isn’t an action - it is an identity – I just don’t fail, I am a failure

If I fail, I might not just be judged, but I might actually be unlovable

At this time of the school year, the idea of ‘giving up’ sounds awfully tempting. And for those of us who ‘default’ to the fixed mindset, the overwhelm that happens now can really push us to not push.

The growth mindset is a more optimum frame of mind to be in, not only at this point in the school year, but all year. It can sound like this:

I believe effort is a positive, constructive force

Growing and progress are important to me – not just the product or outcome

I can substantially change, stretch, and grow

Challenge is good

Being on my learning edge is the smart thing to do

This way of looking at the world seems so logical when I put it out like this. So why don’t we live here?

The larger society has said for such a long time that “success is about being more gifted than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t make it on talent.” (Dweck)

We don’t talk about vulnerability and struggle as good things – in our ‘insta-success’ society everything must sound “Great!” It just isn’t comfortable to admit we are having a hard time.

It is hard for many of to sit with someone who is struggling or trying to cope.

What can we do to foster the growth mindset?

As writer/educator Denise Clark Pope, author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, has said, we can live in a ‘culture of redemption and revision.’

We can work with Martin Seligman’s concepts from Learned Optimism and think of failures or struggles as short-term, localized moments over which we do have control.

We can deliberately and consciously teach ourselves, and our students, the habit of mind of persistence. (More information on this topic to be found in the books on Habits of Mind by Art Costa and Bena Kallick.)

Have conversations in which we ask ourselves:

What mistake did I make today that taught me something?

What did I try hard at today?

What did I do today that I struggled with and what did I learn?

Helping students and ourselves to end the school year with continued effort and strength is a goal worth striving for.

If you’d like to have more information about how to effectively praise for effort and live in the growth mindset more effectively, please contact me. We can organize a parent or educator training on this topic in your school, district or organization.

For more information on Jennifer Abrams go to

Mission Statement as Haiku

This is a great article from the NonProfit Quarterly about the advantages of writing mission statements as Haikus. This is a great idea. Anyone that has ever been involved in writing a mission statement knows that wordsmithing a mission statements is one of the most painful experiences and it sucks the life out of a group.

As a result, mission statements are rarely inspiring. Mission statements at their best -- communicate and express to others the excitement and passion that the people working in an organization feel about their shared vision and purpose. This article describes a great way to make mission statements useful and maybe even inspiring.

Printed in NonProfit Quarterly

Mission Haiku: the Poetry of Mission Statements
Written by Chris Finney

Your organization’s mission statement deserves to be elegant, precise, and even poetic because these words embody the reason your nonprofit exists. History has seen few more exacting wordsmiths than the great haiku poets, and nonprofits can learn much from them.

The mission statement is a cornerstone of both external communications and internal vision, and deserves your attention whether you are a grassroots startup or a generations-old foundation. Because mission statements represent the reduction of a complex vision into a few carefully chosen words, they are similar to Japanese Haiku, poems that capture concrete images with metaphysical implications in just 17 syllables.

Why Focus on the Mission Statement?

Your organization’s mission statement deserves to be elegant, precise, and even poetic because these words embody the reason your nonprofit exists. The mission statement will be your north star when sailing stormy boardroom seas; when discussion gets contentious, we look to the mission statement for clarity. These few words will guide future generations of our organizations’ leaders. Outside the organization, we can use a strong mission statement to communicate the core of our work in just a few lines. To serve these purposes, mission statements must be carefully crafted. History has seen few more exacting wordsmiths than the great haiku poets, and nonprofits can learn much from them.

Poetry is reductionism at its most powerful, cutting away everything from an image except the content of a few words, but leaving its complexity intact. Haiku, the Japanese form consisting of only 3 short lines (totaling just 17 total syllables) exemplifies this reductionism. Consider the following haiku by Matsuo Basho, one of the form’s preeminent authors, translated by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass.i

The old pond—

furuike ya

a frog jumps in,

kawazu tobikomu

sound of water

mizu no oto

With remarkable precision (the original Japanese poem includes only seven words), Basho establishes not only a concrete image, but also a sense of our fleeting impact before the immensity of the universe. Without diving too deeply into the pond of literary interpretation, we can see that Basho uses his 17 syllables fully, presenting multiple meanings. In fact, the Buddhist priest Moran wrote in 1765 that this poem “is indescribably mysterious, emancipated, profound and delicate. One can understand it only with years of experience.”ii

Basho’s haiku is an excellent example of the multiple levels on which we must employ language to communicate effectively. On the surface, words have denotations; this haiku is about a particular frog that jumps into a particular pond. Poet Chijitsuan Tosai wrote that Basho’s haiku “describes a scene exactly as the poet saw it. Not a single syllable is contrived.”2 Your organization’s mission statement must be similarly concrete. The first test of a poetic mission statement is whether it conveys the honest, uncontrived truth of the organization’s purpose.

On another level, every word has connotations, or suggested meanings. Basho’s frog has often been read as evocative of the ephemeral nature of human life. Similarly, every word in your mission statement carries connotations, and those connotations must be carefully managed in order to communicate everything you want (and nothing you don’t). Basho’s frog evokes solitude and a brief moment in the long course of time; what does your mission statement evoke?

Mission Statements

On a concrete level, how can we apply the craftsmanship of poetry to mission statements? Think carefully about each word of your mission statement, about the range of denotations and connotations it carries, and about the effect it will have on readers. As you write or revise, consider your mission statement a poem, that is, a carefully-worded piece in which every syllable holds meaning. Interpreting an existing mission statement as a poem can provide meaningful insight into your organization’s purpose and approach. The Nature Conservancy’s mission statement is a good example:

“The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”

First, the word preserve is powerfully precise; preservation (as opposed to conservation) refers specifically to maintaining natural lands intact, TNC’s main mode of action. Second, the Nature Conservancy works to preserve communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth. This is an important phrase. Ecological communities consist of all of the species that interact in a particular place and time, and communities, not species, are the basic unit of a functional ecosystem. Larger and more complex than individual species, but still small enough to be readily preserved, communities are the ideal unit of science-based environmental protection. These communities are said to represent the diversity of life on Earth, because TNC works at a global scale, preserving representative places from diverse ecosystems. Further, life and diversity evoke powerful ethical concepts that are almost universally accepted. Finally, TNC addresses the lands and waters these communities need to survive, underscoring the importance of land preservation, the organization’s main program. The Nature Conservancy’s mission statement is powerful because its precise language distills the essence of the organization’s wide-ranging work and vision into a few key phrases. In doing so, the mission statement provides a banner for environmental protection rooted in science and ethics. Your organization’s mission statement can provide a similar rallying point if well-crafted and well-applied.


If you are writing or re-writing your organization’s mission statement, approach the process as if you were composing a purposeful poem, keeping each word’s denotations and connotations in mind. If you are reading an existing mission statement, you may recognize imprecise language, and a revision might be in order. The process can even provide an opportunity to engage in a meaningful discussion of your mission. If your mission statements is already what you want it to be, examine the wording carefully, it will probably conjure the spirit of your organization more clearly than a decade of year-end reports.

Finally, once you have crafted your mission statement and understand it fully, give it life. Make sure everyone involved in your organization knows the mission statement by heart and can use it to describe your work and vision. Sometimes we have only a few seconds to capture the attention of a potential ally, a poetic mission statement may be exactly the tool you need.
An example: have fun with your own mission statement, or someone else’s.

The mission of the American Library Association is as follows:

“The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”

Two possible haiku are:

Ensure access to

Develop, promote,

Information and

Improve library service

Library services

To enhance learning

The first haiku focuses more strongly on the inclusive nature of quality library services, one final result of the ALA’s work. The second haiku stresses the ALA’s direct work on improving librarianship. Neither poem alone includes the full extent of the American Library Association’s mission, but each captures a different understanding of its essence.

About the Author

Christopher Finney is a candidate for the Master of Environmental Management and Certificate in Latin American Studies at Yale University. Michael Finney is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography at the University of Arizona.

i Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Ecco Press 1994. Hopewell, NJ.

ii Ueda, Makato. Basho and his Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford University Press 1991. Stanford, CA.