I Change — The New Book of Changes, Part I

“Do not turn and run, for there is nowhere worthwhile for you to go. Do not attempt to push ahead into the danger… emulate the example of the water: Pause and build up your strength until the obstacle no longer represents a blockage.”

― Thomas F. Cleary, I Ching (Book of Changes)
There is no beginning to this, no start points (other than a starting awareness, perhaps). And no labels either, like teleological or evolutionary. When one decides to create change or toy with it, or when one becomes aware that change might be necessary, those old categories and constraints don’t fall away so much as bleed together like colors in the laundry. And if there is no beginning, then must we not agree that change is constant? When we endeavor to create it, then, we do so against a backdrop of existing change. Change is the way of things, an infinite regression — turtles, all the way down.

Consider that when we say, “One Mississippi …” (or “one Piccadilly” or “one one-thousand”) — in that split second anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 cells in our body perish and are replaced by new ones. Exact replicas, or are they? You’re not the same person you were a second ago, much less when you started reading this article 60 seconds ago. (My, how you’ve changed.) We experience ourselves as unchanged, continuous. But all it takes is a look in the mirror, or in the photo album, to remind us that continuity is an illusion.

But the change we feel in our bones and in our guts, be it a change in the weather or a change in our status, is not so constant. It’s rather episodic, sometimes cyclical, sometimes rhyming with fits and starts.

Putting perception aside for a moment, change is more like a trajectory or a thread being stretched. Change is not the fabric of space-time so much as a tendril running through it, coming around on itself like a spiral orbit. But not an orbit that returns us day after day, year after year, to the same eternal point in the heavens. The earth revolves around the sun but does not return in a year’s time to the same place it once occupied. The sun is on the move, too. The whole solar system is — we forget that. Everything is spiraling, moving. So is change; it’s on the move. And it will happen regardless, if only because the future so desperately wants to emerge. Change isn’t coming so much as it is becoming. And there are so many tendrils: you, me, everything.

This seems clear: In returning home after many years on the road, it’s not only we who’ve changed but so has our home. It, too, was on the move. As such, change is spatial, temporal, variable. It can be both a point in time and a period of time. Change is quantum.

That’s the weirdness of change, like playing with electrons. One second it is in your hand, and the next it is smearing through it. If change obeys a set of laws, we haven’t yet uncovered all of them. But we don’t necessarily have to define every nuance of change to play with it. When it comes to creating change, we have some choices, albeit a modest palette of actions. We can step aside and let change (and the future) come to pass, unbidden and unchecked. In this case, we are not so much resigned to passivity, though that is possible and perhaps favored by some. But we are not such a species; rather, we are like a boxer, slipping change’s jab or rolling with its punches, and sometimes, getting rolled by them. On dark days, change is the overhand right we never saw coming.

We can also lean in gently and push against the arrow of change and, if the surrounding skids have been greased (because people have been encouraged to participate in the change), nudge the change trajectory toward a different, more inviting destination. Like an aikido master, we can effortlessly redirect the trajectory’s aim by tapping on it here and there ever so slightly. Little inputs can have massive effects. Go easy.

More often than not, though, change is not so easy — even when the skids have been greased — and we must put our shoulders and backs against the trajectory’s ingrained path, grit our teeth, and heave. But beware, because trajectories often have minds of their own and seek a return to the old paths and the old ways. All systems seek to return to their lowest energy state, humans included. To change the path and sustain the course thereafter takes energy — in the form of care — applied over time, sometimes a long time.

Lastly, and similarly, we can put our shoulders and backs against the very same path, only this time dig our heels in and absolutely refuse to let that trajectory’s path change even one iota. Inertia is on our side here: While onerous at times, it’s still easier to keep a thing from moving than it is to get it moving. It’s easier to stay the course than it is to change it.

These options are, of course, not mutually exclusive, not really. What barriers that exist between the choices for change, positive or otherwise, are often those that we conjure and create. We like to categorize, we humans. Yet, we can be all these things at once, pushing here, pulling there, bobbing and weaving as required. And when our change efforts are fruitful and the new path is a good one, or when we get lucky and get it right, we tend to say, “I did that (or we did that). I changed that.” But when we get it wrong, we tend to say, “There’s nothing I could have done. It wasn’t my fault. The situation conspired against me. Who would have thought …”

Biases both amplify and diminish our desire for change, as well as our efficacy — our ability to bring it about. The forces for and against change are often one and the same, the gas pedal is the brake pedal, and only the context in which they are applied is different. One day we are an agent of change; the very next we are an agent of the status quo. You’ll get used to the paradoxes after a while.

And when we are heaving and hauling against that trajectory’s path and trying to redirect it, which choice of modestly bright futures and workable solutions is the right choice, which path is the correct one? “There are many roads to Rome,” we say. Better to answer that with more questions: What is our purpose? Or we might ask ourselves, “If we could be any shape, what shape would we like to be? A cube? A sphere? And what shape is our environment? Do we match up?” So much of the microscopic world, like the proteins that comprise us — so much of that world relies on shape for its function. Shape is function and vice versa. Should we not emulate that world and aim for a better fit with our environment? Becoming fit — getting into shape — has new meaning in the world of change.

We might also ask, what matters to us right now? And if we can name it — that which matters most — can we then concentrate on it? The change required might not be external (to our teams, our companies, our communities, our families, and ourselves) but internal. Like a samurai sword, the paragon of annealing, are our atoms — our people and teams and subcultures — are they all aligned and focused, even if only for a time? When it comes to focusing on what matters most, the distractions are legion. Breathe them away.

Or, we might consider what variations in our story, personal, cultural, tribal, or otherwise, do we wish to select and retain, and which do we wish to cut away? Who are we; who do we want to be? And are our narratives pretty things we hang on the wall — core values and what not? Maybe our values make for a nice catchy acronym: Sincerity, Humility, Integrity, Temperance. Sounds nice, but it’s all SHIT. Or perhaps our narratives aren’t merely a script to be read but one to be acted out: All things are known by their behaviors. How are we known — by what behaviors?

Examine your world calmly. Build up your strength. And answers will emerge. But they won’t be elegant. Mostly we muddle through change, but we can still muddle well.

Put that on your t-shirt: Muddle excellently.

Here, read the I Ching, I say. Now you have some understanding of change, if only because you see that the universe is a set, perhaps an infinite set, of patterns — patterns that we can divine from time to time. But never perfectly, never fully. Now you understand change, if only because you have more questions than before reading the ancient text. If only because you’re more confused and uncertain. If only because you understand that change is difficult. It’s hard, and our resistance to it is hardwired.

Smile at it, this resistance. Give it a curt nod and wink at it. But don’t do as some do in the face of change and uncertainty and curl into a rigid ball, accepting no new information unless it conforms to the shape of the old ways, the comfortable ways, the mediocre ways. Instead, breathe, expand, and look straight into your resistance. Is there something you fear in there, some loss perhaps, like status? That’s ok; we all dread it. But courage emerges in spite of fear, even because of it.

On the way to acting courageously, you can perhaps shed the linear — the mindset and the causal models. Shake off the westerner in you — in all of us. I shake my head when I read the change books. For some, change progresses from step to step, neat and tidy-like, in six or eight or ten distinct leaps. We were once atoms, then cells, then tissues, then organs, then systems. That makes me chuckle — we were indeed, but we were, and are, all of those at once. And even if we progressed, it was not in a linear fashion but in a complex one. With each new turn, we found ourselves more interconnected and more interdependent, more diverse and more entangled. “More is different,” we say.

When creating change, concentrate on relationships, not steps. When changing our habits, for instance, we need not return to the atom and start over, progressing linearly. Instead, imagine what it might be like to co-evolve, to start everywhere at once, to expand outward and inward. Generate solutions and test them, explore, get creative. And get help. Linking arms with tough-minded, gritty accomplices is cool. It’s also necessary.

Start your expansion here, perhaps: Practice what you wish to become. Start small; try to embrace the courage to say no (it’s harder than you might think). And for those around you on the practice field, those who are willing to fumble and get back up, reward them mightily, and do so with nothing more than attention — a hug, a slap on the back, or an arm-pumping handshake. They are as free, these rewards, as they are invaluable. Do that, and you’ll see more of those sought-after behaviors (and more people willing to practice, perhaps). But be careful; ignore the wrong behaviors — in yourself, your boss, your peers, your kids — and you’ll see more of them as well. So, don’t ignore the poor behaviors, but do but spend your time resourcing the good ones (and the people who practice them, naturally). To the “practicers” go the spoils. Play with resources like autonomy and choice; lend trust as you would a hand. Let mastery emerge. And tell some stories.

Maybe you can tell the one about that person on your team who took a risk and spoke up. Perhaps they called attention to something uncomfortable but something that needed to be said. Or maybe you tell that story about the person who always seems to listen so intently, like what others are saying is just the most important thing they’ve ever heard — because it is. Maybe you tell the story about how so-and-so responds, never jumps to conclusions, never reacts, never interprets another’s behavior without first trying to understand the other’s intent. Maybe you tell a cool story about that person on the team who shares information just as readily as they share their experiences — the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, the home runs and the strikeouts. Ooh, maybe you tell a story about someone who doesn’t just talk SHIT but actually acts it out every single day (Sincerity, Humility, Integrity, Temperance — in case you forgot). Maybe you tell a story about someone on the team who consistently asks for feedback, who waives away the praise and says, “Give me something I could have done better, something real to try out.” Simple rules might be hip these days, but feedback is still where the magic happens.

These are really just stories about people who create relationships that hold the world together. No biggie. They are also stories about people who can change that world. Ask them to lend you their backs and shoulders.

I’m assuming you can tell these stories, right?

The Change Leaders a change in the weather

A Change in the Weather: Cities after the Great Infection [1]

An old joke in 2030 goes, “What does the change industry have to offer in a pandemic?”

“Everything! Just a month after it was needed.”

The emails broke in Hokusai-like waves.[2] Bombardments of leadership advice landed on shores lacking leadership. Change champions failed to staunch the austere and populist tides of institution-gutting; promulgated a fascination with eddying narrative at the expense of the lunar tides of systems; created enough TED heroes to stock a surfer movie; published stay-at-home advice after the virus had already spread, issued “how to work from home” blogs after people had figured it out; ushered in Zoom fatigue at the speed of Zoom (another team meeting, yoga or salsa, anyone?); watched the belated beach landing of online retail through binoculars; and applauded from balconies as citizens adapted personal habits to distance.

Those of us in the business of change have questions to ponder about missing the boat. Lacking herd immunity while possessing herd mentality, the change industry veered from topic to topic, paddling not too far behind the edge of chaos.[3] Management consultancies and MBA schools whitecapped us in the salty spray of reassuring reports. At this late hour, three million cases into the pandemic [4], I add to this pile of missed trends my work about change afoot in transforming cities. I thought we might look at:

  1. Cities after the Great Infection
  2. Change models in the works
  3. Useful tools and perspectives

Summary: How will cities respond to the novel coronavirus? In the two-year near-term pandemic rescue and three-to-five-year human and financial disruption recuperation, dramatic changes will come about in cities administering scant resources to resilience, sustainability, and adaptability.

In an environment of constrained budgets and economic dislocation, resilience comes at the expense of creating cities of culture, thereby reducing attention to urban quality of life amenities. [5]

In the medium (2030) to long-term (2050), cities hope to return to existing plans and trajectories, with emphasis on resilience and public health, with re-imagined economies and infrastructure to support it. Still, amid the crisis, public pressure to re-negotiate the social compact is not yet cresting the horizon, from the point of view of entities that drive change in cities.

Cities on the Cusp of Change

Since the 1980s, medium-sized post-industrial cities that had suffered deindustrialization began to come back to Europe and North America.[6] These cities share common characteristics and recovery strategies. The takeaway is that interdependent economic development and quality of life factors catalyzed change. “Eds and meds” and technology drive economic transformation in these cities, while quality of life bundles improvements in city lifestyle, culture, and city functions.

An everyday example exists in recruiting the best scientists to build a world-class College of Computer Science. Carnegie Mellon University shows off the historic city park and greenhouse across the street from campus. To coin an algorithm, technology plus park equals economy and quality of life in sync. Synergies attract talent that leads to spinoffs and tens of thousands of new technology jobs, sometimes in industries that did not exist. [7]

Change Leaders will be familiar with the physics beneath the structural steel, the models underpinning sectoral change: the human side of adaptive change leadership, systems analysis, the structures of power, adaptive leadership models, and participatory methods.

To understand large-scale systemic change such as in cities and nations [8], look back 35 years and ahead thirty-five years; connect a host of broad and deep interdependent factors; facilitate complexity thinking regarding the complex adaptive living systems that comprise all human orders, and lean on the pillar of adaptive leadership. The heart of this work is helping cities envision long-term futures, then building adaptive frameworks to help get work in motion that delivers on vision. The task of cities emerging from Covid19’s human and economic damage is to jujitsu one’s town from infection to inflection.

After Covid19: Resilience Elbows Arts & Culture

In the wake of Covid19, quality of life drivers (nascent city lifestyles of walkable, clean, and green functional cities with excellent transit and downtown cultural attractions) will be de-emphasized while, at the same time, resilience is emphasized [9]as city-development focal points.

Cities will shift gears [10] from creating great cities of culture towards building resilient cities. Resilience means enhancing cities’ ability to withstand shocks. City budgets are getting knocked by about 20% this year at the time of this article. [11] In the short-term, hard choices must be made. Large events, festivals and concerts, and improvements to theater districts are not possible until the waves of Coronavirus recede. This makes for a somewhat rapid shift from arts and culture to resilience. With devastating effects to arts institutions and artists, civic and philanthropic organizations are racing to soften the arts’ landing.

Resilience efforts underway since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy have helped cities respond to Covid19 [12], just as other great cities, like Miami, New Orleans, and Houston, turned to resilience after a disaster, after being shocked into action to survive and thrive. With roots in climate change, research has revealed that cities have to likewise prepare for economic, conflict, human health, and demographic shocks. [13]

City visions to develop arts, culture, and entertainment will contract in the face of higher priorities than food for the foodies, beer for the beery, and constant entertainment for the weary. A sustained contraction in arts and culture, dragging in museums and theaters, is inevitable under weakened financial models, small gatherings spaced more widely, and a shift in focus to essential life and work functions until financials recover in about five years. This is bad news for efforts to make cities cool for youth to remain, and for parks, concerts, and downtown theater districts.

Sustainability shifts to being subsidiary to resilience: lower energy use, more attention to climate change, and more training for people for adaptive careers that may shift more often than desired.

Spending more in one area at a time, budgets have been hammered by 20% or more, leading to the de-emphasis of other efforts, like culture. Models of touristic cities of learning built around large events and iconic destinations, a staple of city transformation since Bilbao’s resurgence under the Guggenheim Museum, will suffer. Big events are going to be difficult to host.

City design shift from amenities (new sports stadium? — not likely) to fundamentals implies transit that is inclusive, multi-functional, and healthy. This suggests nuance and subtlety, with stronger transit links to shifting work patterns in a work-at-home era. Staggered work shifts suggest cramming fewer people into disease containers at rush hours.

The indictment of the density drop is premature [14] and may serve as a distraction from pressing socio-economic factors of poverty, not density. Instead, density will be rethought to give space as well as proximity. Complexity thinking suggests designing for more than single-statistic arguments. Washington (comprehensive, underfunded, unreliable Metro) and New York (serving more passengers than any US city) leave a lot to be desired in cleanliness, peak times, and connection to airports.

What breathes life into these efforts to tackle urban complexity? Systems, power, resources, and policy. City work requires deep dives into the human data of functional systems, citizen sentiment in political and other forms of power, competition for scrambled financial resources, and details of public policy and advocacy. These factors interact to regulate the level of successful response and to cap change.

Cities adjust efforts to build “eds and meds” and technology economies

The health and fates of cities are subject to every change afoot in health, education, new technologies, existing economies, and social change. As such, cities offer a set of lenses to examine and poke multiple, interconnected, non-linear factors associated with complex adaptive living systems, and the adaptive behaviors and leadership actions needed to adjust and thrive. [15] In the complex adaptive living systems that are cities and nations, ripeness leads to over-ripeness for change, which arrives in concentrated or accelerated bursts — rotting fruit and all, to extend the metaphor — as we have seen in New York’s struggle with the Covid19 pandemic.

In US cities, medicine has driven transformation in essential post-industrial cities. In the wake of Covid19, cities that depend on research hospitals will advocate boosting federal medical research. Funded figures will fall off from fatigue and forgetfulness around 2025. [16]

My thirty years working in national and metropolitan regions demonstrate that domestic governance matters in national health; government performance differs dramatically in broad categories that affect medical research and readiness. Part of our work involves helping cities perceive their critical relationships with federal entities. Whatever happens, we will see reshaping international affairs and influence that inevitably shape the fortunes of metropolitan regions. In terms of health transformations, anti-science populists will face a popular and electoral backlash in Washington and abroad. [17] Populists will damage medical research should they endure. National authoritarians will weaken as the case for control weakens [18]; Petro-authoritarian states will emerge with weaker health systems while demand for oil remains low. [19]

The years of living large and easy on campus are in question as “eds” encounter challenges to campus, business, and financial models. US universities built up in the heyday of growth replaced declining numbers of American students by attracting full-fee international students primarily from South and East Asia and the Middle East. Little future planning was done for a restrictive US immigration stance (university presidents spoke up months after plans were known and implemented), and none for a disease that restricts student travel. This convergence of factors prompts uncertain remote learning and financing models. The consolidation underway among weaker, smaller, outlying schools in rural areas will accelerate. “Eds” rely on research largesse in STEM [20], which has been comparatively easy to come by and may see reductions in coming years should anti-science positions endure at the federal level, which provides most research funds.

How to Fail: Short millions of PPE? Crowdfund. Medical systems strained to collapse? Applaud at 7PM. Leadership in crisis? Advise how to “lead in a crisis.”

Murphology,” The Study of Failure, as in a Tolstoy novel, one boring way to succeed is outmatched by unlimited dazzling ways to fail. In the “One-Shot” Olympic Moment, the archer let’s fly: Hit the target or fail after years of training. Some things are an all-or-nothing proposition. While creativity is required in unprecedented times, a pandemic is too fraught to risk failure by flirting with ill-fated ideas.

A Change Agent’s Multiple Lenses

Oxford and HEC Paris Consulting and Coaching for Change Program (CCC) provides multiple lenses to apply to cities facing epochal, dramatic, and sudden change. In selecting from an ecosystem of change paradigms, my projects employ various systems approaches gleaned from my time in CCC, the Change Leaders alumni group, Adaptive Leadership at the Kennedy School, and five specific deep plunges in the experiential ocean since 1985. [21]

Confirmation bias. We are guilty of seeing things the way we’d like to see them. The thoughtful insist climate must be attended while the thoughtless plow ahead. Those who see pent-up demand for change in capitalism are convinced capitalism will depart or be dispatched, never fixed. Vegetarians, meat. Feminists, paternalism. Atheists see god in trouble this time, while the faithful pray harder. Analysts point to factors, post-facto explaining away what just happened to us and why they did not see it coming. The inept point the finger. Those inclined to kindness see kindness rewarded, in the hope of cruelty being banished. Everybody seems to have a bad pet they would abandon on the highway.

Revolution is rapid evolution. Things continue the same, only more so. We see sudden breakthroughs in those things which were long overripe for change: remote medicine and learning, remote work, business, and retail catalyzed. Change processes are accelerated, not altered, unless things fall apart, which countenances consequences of upheaval no responsible person would seek. This meets the true definition of a catalyst, which accelerates but does not alter a chemical reaction.

Systems and organizations. Transformation is a time to think less about ourselves and more about systems. Change still happens in organizations. The organization is the entry point. From the organization, we may strategically work up to assemblages of organizations and systems, and handily work down to individuals in the organization. The change agent seeks out the places where system nodes interact.

Creativity. When doing something over and over the same way, follow a procedure to perfection. When doing something often, with variations, resort to a checklist. When doing something for the first time, be creative. Creative solutions, opening systems, trying new things, asking for ideas, listening to new voices — all are needed in an unprecedented pandemic. Calibrating creativity and failure hang in the balance.

Conflating individual and organizational. Ask people what changes they wish to see, and personal wishes emerge. Ask people what they are doing for those changes, and we see a gap in talents applied to organizations and systems. Organizations — city and state governments, business associations, and the like — are rocketing ahead, planning recovery, priorities, budgets, and projects. The change agent not in those conversations is not in the change. One option is to get political. Politics, after all, is the legitimate art of competing and debating for resources, priorities, and policies. Those in the fray are where it’s at.

Think politically. We are called to be profoundly political and lightly partisan. Agents of change who wish to be at the nodes where change happens, learn how to navigate power and politics. Work in systems implies understanding all of the levers, including power. Moreover, systems that gain higher quantitative and qualitative participation perform better, not least in civic and government spheres, as well as in business.

Plausible futures. The exponential advance of disease is the essence of non-linearity and uncertainty. Proper situational assessment starts with listening, learning, and perceiving. Subject matter expertise matters in recovery. Facing a sheer blank wall of a future, cities are tempted to respond in programmatic mode. Preparing for several plausible futures via scenario development is of value. Variations in drivers of economic upset, public health danger, and scale of potential social disruption suggest at least eight scenarios developed and examined for reasonableness, with preparation for at least three plausible future stories using methods we have learned from the leaders of the Oxford Scenarios Program, generously updated for the time of corona here.

Power analysis. Where does power lie in institutions? Where are the six categories of resources available? Looking at business recovery, for example, I hear no single clue that business wants to move on low-cost labor. The organizational definition of inertia is that the future will continue as the past unless and until acted upon by an organized force. That organized force would be labor, pressing to nudge the giant boulder of business from its downhill path.

Collaboration over go-it-alone leaders. Time to trim the feathers of those who would wing it, tame the biome of the “gut” reflex, and park the moon shot. Complex crises call for collaborative responses that fully acknowledge complexity. To be useful in a pandemic, the individual takes a backseat, and collaboration takes over.

Decision Cats over Data Cowards. City fascination with data and metrics will continue with different emphasis. Purveyors of the Smart City somehow convinced cities that technology is the solution, yet still can’t organize beyond a prosaic Beta traffic light test. The shift towards Big Data sets in health, nutrition, and public access to resources will continue. Data cowards are those who insist on waiting for incontrovertible proof via clear evaluation metrics before making any decision. The Covid19 crisis is likely to demonstrate the benefit of an 80/20 rule, to act once data makes 80% certain, as long as the do-no-harm rule is applied too. Applying gumption, guts, and grit, decision cats get on with it and get to effective action. Here we see health care workers, first responders, dynamic mayors, and governors leading in cities in crisis. Where exponential curves are too steep to surf, these citizens, managers, and leaders revert to what they know best, tried-and-true strategic planning. The difference is rapid iteration and regular adjustment to the updated situation. It is as if decision cats lay short classic linear project-management tangents on the curve. Iterated decisions quickly re-lay a new linear tangent to simulate adaptively surfing the exponential curve of change.

A Change Agent’s Assets

One can’t escape the self-help article without a handy list of tools and to-dos. I succumb.

On the arts. All of the arts are relevant for complex, intractable, and unknown challenges.

Only the poets know it. Who can really know all the dimensions of a city? Only the poets have come close.

Literature. Tom Gilmore shared the unknown through a Salman Rushdie novel at CCC. An architect at work in organizational psychology taught literature of a threatened fiction writer from India, persuasive of the multiplicity of change paradigms required for new, unknown phenomena. A medical doctor’s undergraduate literature and medicine course covers pandemic novels from Ibsen through Camus’ “Le Peste.” [22]

Photography. Without documentary and street photography, we would not understand the city. Photographing the city opens the person to wonder and spirit that can become a form of enlightenment. [23]

The Art of Conversation from two meters away is in resurgence. [24]

The city demands to be walked. To be effective, one must know the city intimately, care for it, love it, over many years, and walk it to know it. Talk with others who love it. See its history in its bones and remnants.

Breakthrough: We are experiencing punctuated equilibrium in complex adaptive natural living systems — our cities.

  • Punctuated equilibrium happens under a unique nexus of change conditions.
  • Punctuated equilibrium happens after a long period of pressure for change.
  • Like fruit too long on the vine, pressure for change without change over a long time implies not only ripeness for change, but over-ripeness for change: things have been too long without change. Good healthcare, decent wages, a stuck minimum wage, a venture-capital system of investing in wants over needs, a concentration of wealth at the top versus the erosion of ownership of companies among those who produce the wealth, an exploitative innovation ecosystem that — by purpose, design, and profit objectives — squeezes the earnings of those who do the work.
  • An over-ripeness example is an overdue comeuppance for irresponsible politics
  • Efficiency starves redundancies needed for resilience
  • Believe in government; pay your taxes (we invest in us)
  • Punctuated equilibrium: the cap on a turbulent system, bursts. POP! That’s where we are now.

If you read this far, you made it over the dune and down the sandy slip-face of the change-agent coast in a community that favors a reread over a quick read. The sweat of your experience and mettle can contribute to cities forging futures for all. Please let me know what you are doing. I invite you to take and use what’s here, and to share your perspectives and tools.

Editor's Note: We invite you to contribute. Send us your piece on change to [email protected]



Mike Staresinic

Mike is a leader in international affairs, democratic governance, and organizational development. He helps those advancing change in rapidly changing countries worldwide. Mike studied at Penn State, HEC Paris, Oxford (UK), and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Masters of Science in Consulting and Coaching for Change.



[1] Bob Dylan lyric about the pain and agony of change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PGfm6KE_pg. I wish I coined “The Great Infection,” but unearthed citations for this pandemic, Hookworm, and a 1683 reference to the plague.

[2] Hokusai’s The Wave https://www.artic.edu/artworks/24645/under-the-wave-off-kanagawa-kanagawa-oki-nami-ura-also-known-as-the-great-wave-from-the-series-thirty-six-views-of-mount-fuji-fugaku-sanjurokkei

[3]With respect to “Surfing the Edge of Chaos” by Pascale, Milleman and Gioja https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/127153/surfing-the-edge-of-chaos-by-richard-t-pascale-mark-millemann-and-linda-gioja/

[4] 3,292,966, according to https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ on April 30, 2020.

[5] Where are our ideas? More than fifty Change Leader members and mentors have written for our community and the public

[6] Among many excellent books on city transformations, Don Carter’s Remaking Post-Industrial Cities offers comparative case studies of Bilbao, Buffalo, Detroit, Liverpool, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Rotterdam, Ruhr Region, Turin. Routledge, 2016. https://www.routledge.com/Remaking-Post-Industrial-Cities-Lessons-from-North-America-and-Europe/Carter/p/book/9781138899292

[7] Prof. Luis Von Ahn was recruited from Guatemala in a worldwide competition for talent. He created ReCaptcha and DuoLingo — tech companies that employ well over 1000 computer scientists.

[8] I founded the City50 Project to help cities in transformation share experiences in planning for adaptive futures. I devise and employ tools from our common backgrounds in complexity, adaptive methods, and civic participation. [9] This is a description of what is occurring, not advocacy for this shift of emphasis.

[10] “Gears” are classic project management topics of people, time, and money: this is how city governments are built to react. Municipal governments keep the public safe, pick up the trash, and pave streets.

[11] Consolidating notes of news articles covering city budgets.

[12] Sandy prompted the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org to launch the Resilient Cities Initiative. https://www.100resilientcities.org

[13] New York has endured recent shocks in each category: conflict, economy, climate, and public health: 9/11, the Great Recession, Hurricane Sandy, and global Covid19 pandemic epicenter, respectively.

[14] https://blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/urban-density-not-enemy-coronavirus-fight-evidence-china, among papers defending density, and “coronavirus has caused some to question the validity and safety of population density and transit. But the real culprits lie in crowding, poverty, pollution, and other socioeconomic factors.”

[15] My change practice is in the “breakthrough” of equilibrium in the complex adaptive living systems that are cities and nations. The scope and underpinnings of those concepts are beyond this paper and are limited to the description in this paragraph.

[16] An arguable point. Debate is welcome. When will attention fade? This is my WAG based on work in large systems.

[17] not least Brasilia, Ankara, Budapest, Beijing, Belgrade, London, elsewhere

[18] Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, sad to include the Administration in Washington among authoritarians by behavior, underway at the time of this article. See Freedom House https://freedomhouse.org/country/united-states on the erosion of US democratic institutions.

[19] For background on the dynamics of petro-authoritarianism and oil prices, numerous articles at the Journal of Democracy https://www.journalofdemocracy.org and Foreign Affairs https://www.foreignaffairs.com. Both sources may be held up to debate: the journal for its unabashed pro-democracy and human rights stance; and Foreign Affairs for a long-standing pro-US editorial policy and a pro-establishment emphasis. Arabian Gulf capitals, Moscow and Caracas, Lagos rose on rising oil prices. Their fortunes decline with the fortunes of oil, although their futures are not linked in a direct time relationship to oil futures.

[20] Science Technology Engineering and Math

[21] Change agent asset “Murphology” was brought to the Change Leaders by Jerry Ravetz circa 2012.

[22] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-plague-perfectly-captures-the-risk-in-returning-to-normal

[23] https://medium.com/@NickTurpin/street-photography-feel-the-force-339cabd6edbc

[24] a la Theodore Zeldin who has engaged CCC and the Change Leaders over two decades

The Change Leaders volcano and dinosaurs

Lawyers, Volcanoes, and Change

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!’’ Henry VI, W. Shakespeare

Opinion by Roberto Saco

We have a problem in America, and it has to do with change. Consider the following data. Thirty-nine percent of the members of the House of Representatives are lawyers; fifty-seven percent of our Senators are lawyers; all of our Supreme Court Justices are lawyers; thirty-two percent of our Governors are lawyers; our current VP is a lawyer; and so is our past President. And yet, attorneys comprise less than one percent of the US workforce. Some could argue, I guess, that it makes all the sense in the world for the legislative and judicial branches of government to be chock-full of lawyers.

But does it really? People trained in the law can be articulate and logical for sure, but maybe a bit too predictable in their thinking, no? Do Law Schools teach students to be creative? To be agents of change? To be future-oriented? Perhaps they should.

I have not studied the comparative numbers for other countries, but I do know that the formidable German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a Ph.D. quantum chemist. Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, is a mathematician with a long stint in the military. Early in his career, Justin Trudeau was a teacher. Simonetta Sommaruga, the Swiss President, studied music and language. The lack of professional diversity in the American political ruling class is an issue. It is true that outside of politics — in technology, business, the arts, and science — there is much greater leadership diversity. But what if we had the artists, and the scientists, and the teachers, and the technologists in Congress? What if Bill Gates were President?

Every professional discipline has professional training. It teaches its subjects to think in a certain way; they’re marked when they’re young. While life experience and family background, as well as personality and passions, all have their influence, professional training plays a crucial role in how people envision the world. So, what’s the issue?

Imagine a problem-solving session by two different groups of people, one a coterie of attorneys and the other a diverse group of professionals. Will anyone venture a guess as to the results of the session? The attorneys will come up with a neat, tidy, and logical brief on how to solve the problem. The diverse group will, of course, actually solve the problem.

Question: “What are 500 attorneys at the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good beginning.”

So the old joke goes… But before anyone at this juncture accuses me of being a lawyer-basher, the point is not that people who practice the law should be unceremoniously dumped in the ocean. My point is that professional diversity in ruling classes is a good thing. The US Supreme Court has nine judges, all attorneys, which, by the way, is not a prerequisite to be a Supreme Court judge. But in addition, of the nine judges, all of them went to two Law Schools: Harvard and Yale. All of them. We can have racial, religious, and gender diversity, but what if they all think the same?

I am reminded of these structural barriers to societal change by the uncanny times we live in. We have black swans and grey swans, we have climate change and political disruption (Trump, Brexit), we have single-issue lobbies dancing around political parties, we have the promise and threat of AI, we have new, large-scale, complex problems and mediocre, almost farcical global leadership. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, we have intractable 21st-century issues being faced by 20th-century leaders.

On a personal level, I have retreated from televised news channels. I cannot bear to watch the talking heads, the know-nothings frothing at the mouth, leaders with lots of bravado and very little science, and now to boot, we’re being bombarded by the prediction game. Already politicos are talking about easing up on the lockdown. People with lots of time on their hands are using the future as a Rorschach test on which to project their own personal dreams and fantasies. “We’re going to have telemedicine in every home!” “No more commuting, as maybe half of the workforce will work from home!” “The time has finally come for online education!” “You actually go shop at a market? How quaint!” And in the meantime, of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 168 are lawyers.

Who knows what life will be like after COVID-19? Too many people are working on solutions (good!), and at the same time, too many people itch to misbehave (not good) and head to the beach for beer and volleyball. Some, rightfully, are headed to a job bank, desperately looking for a steady paycheck. These are opposing forces. What I think I know is that whatever emerges, it won’t be nice and tidy, like a lawyer’s brief.

You know, it would be grand to have telemedicine, so I won’t have to waste four hours of my time to see a doctor for a 10-minute routine check-up. For those who can, it would be great not having to commute two hours a day and to give up the payments on one of the two or three cars parked out front. Since I’m going to be at home more often, maybe it does make sense to do more things from home. The micro-changes, which could well accumulate into constellations of changes, are welcome. Many changes will happen quickly and relatively effortlessly.

Now, the hard stuff.

It seems that the more vulnerable one is, the harder this pandemic is hitting. Be it the poor, the minorities, or the elderly abandoned in nursing homes, they are suffering disproportionately. The question remains: of the plausible societies that could be, what kind of a society do we wish to be? There’s always the notion of self-interest — the tragedy of the commons — but such fragile societies simply don’t pan out. The next pandemic, with a much higher case fatality rate, could wipe out an entire country. And let us not forget climate weirding, as the weather turns more unpredictable and more violent with every passing season. As a denizen of hurricane alley in the Straits of Florida, I look forward every year to the hurricane forecast of the Colorado State University, and this year “the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Is Expected to Be More Active Than Normal.” Great. Maybe out of a need to preserve our homes — all of them, not just yours or mine — we will create a more resilient society. This would have implications regarding income inequality (lower), tax burdens (higher, possibly on the wealthier), consumption (lower), and social isolation (probably higher, at least for some populations).

I cannot help but think that we’ve been living in a bubble for too long. We have come to accept the unacceptable, like homelessness, as the cost of doing business in society. In 1816, Europe had “the year without summer.” A natural disaster the year before on the other side of the world, namely the volcanic explosion at Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, was the culprit. The eruption, known as the VEI-7 event, sent ten billion metric tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, some of which eventually traveled to Europe. Weather patterns were disrupted for months, the skies darkened, crops were decimated, and there was widespread famine. That’s the same summer Lord Byron vacationed with his bohemian posse at Lake Geneva. With horrendous weather and probably bored silly, they decided on a parlor game. All of them had one night to write a ghost story to be read the next day. Mary Shelley, a precocious 18-year old, wrote Frankenstein, or the story that later became the novel. If you do read the book, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, you will not escape the nature of the cautionary tale Mary spins for us. Our supreme arrogance, she warns, and self-contented inattention as a species promises to be our downfall. I learned all of this at a glorious exhibition a couple of years ago: “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” at the Morgan Museum & Library on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Today, socially isolated, I wonder when I’ll ever go back to the Morgan or to any museum exhibit for that matter.

This brings us back to the lawyers.

You see, micro-changes also require macro movements. We will require big and bold structural changes. And we cannot rely on structures designed for the 19th or 20th century to hold up very well in the fluidities of today. Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish philosopher and author of Liquid Modernity, has said: “Real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you.” Or, I may add, who think the same way as you. If it’s simply too hard to redesign our institutions, like Congress with its too many lawyers, then we may have to harness our political imagination to create new ones.

The Change Leaders crisis 2020 graphic

Framing a Crisis: How You Get There Matters

Within the rhythms of life, the swinging gateway opens and novelty emerges spontaneously to revitalize the world, tempering whatever has moved to an extreme, and reclaiming whatever has strayed from the path. Whatever is most enduring is ultimately overtaken in the ceaseless transformation of things — Tao Te Ching

In the welter of threads that make up the tapestry of our world, we are so very fond of naming each and every single strand. This thread is you. This thread is me. These colorful threads are us. Those drab threads are them. These threads comprise our economic policy, these are our monetary policy, and these here are our regulatory policy. We forget that the threads are all wrapped up with one another, interacting, impacting, and changing one another in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.

Of the threads that make up the science and art of leadership, we do the same. This changeling thread is transformational leadership. This lovely thread is authentic leadership. This one here on the bottom supporting everyone else, this is servant leadership. This thread running throughout an organization and helping to solve problems is adaptive leadership. Even my colleagues who’ve taken up the mantle of complexity science and theory have embraced the practice: This thread, the one that is scanning and anticipating, the one that is empowering the collective and harnessing its intelligence, the one shouldering ambiguity and uncertainty with grace, the one that is collaborating, adapting, and tailoring, this one is complexity leadership.

So be it.

But what of the thread we call crisis leadership — have our enduring notions of what it means to lead in a crisis been overtaken by today’s circumstances? Does our understanding and our practice of it need to change? Let’s pull on some threads and find out, shall we?

We asked a group of experts — academics, business leaders, and practitioners, all alumni of the University of Oxford Said Business School and HEC Paris, their thoughts on the subject, starting with, “What do we mean when we say ‘crisis,’ and what kind of crisis might we be experiencing right now?”

Of course, what rocks one person back on his or her heels might be but a nuisance to the next. I remember my mom once left a casserole on the stove for us boys, my dad included, to eat. Ah, but the dish tasted like what I’d imagine roadkill to taste like. What to do? This was the only dinner we had — a veritable crisis indeed. But my dad just shrugged and said, “I can fix this.” He opened up the fridge, grabbed a bottle of ketchup, and squeezed a liberal amount into the questionable casserole, mixed it all up with a wooden spoon, and voilà! The casserole was now more than just edible, it was delicious. Crisis averted by Dad, who never once sweated, and Heinz. Personal leadership behavior combined with a ready-made technology (ketchup) to avert disaster — or at least hunger.

What about a firefight — the exchange of rockets, bombs, bullets, and enmity between two peoples bent on destroying each other? Some might call that a crisis. It can be a bit unnerving. But I have been in those situations where I’m sure had I measured the breathing and heart rates of my teammates, they would not have budged much beyond the normal range. The bullets whizzing by were no real cause for concern. But what if I took those same steady teammates and put a ticking bomb in front of them. Would they react so calmly? Probably not. They would likely, and rapidly, call for the explosive ordnance disposal expert — another teammate, and one who might not be quite as comfortable in the gunfight but thinks nothing of the ticking time bomb in front of him. Just another day at the counterterrorism office.

What’s going on here is rather simple: Mastery in any domain can help us avert a crisis or keep us from framing an event as a crisis in the first place — so long as the crisis occurs in that domain. If it does, then mastery is a resource we can draw upon to mitigate the stressors in the environment and put us back on the path to recovery. In other words, an event or series of events is only a crisis, or often only framed as a crisis, if mastery is not an option in averting or solving it. As such, true crises are typically novel in some way, if only to the participants directly involved.

Hearken back to the Great Recession of 2008. It was a systemic banking crisis that came about because of emergent circumstances (or emergent greed?) brought on by new, or novel, deregulation, which then precipitated an economic crisis. Lots of things coincided in the economy, some novel and some not, that put us in a Clooney-esque “tight spot.” (See “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou”). “Lots of things coincided” is just my imprecise way of suggesting yet another aspect of an emerging crisis: turbulence or volatility. But in 2008 the turbulence — and the mess — stopped there, at the economy.

Today, no systemic banking failure exists (although such a failure remains a possibility, even if only remotely). Instead, we have a healthcare crisis that has precipitated an economic and geopolitical crisis as well. A lack of supply (of tests and PPE mainly) has led, strangely, to a lack of demand. Businesses are failing because people are staying at home. Talk about entanglement, only in this case it’s turbulence and novelty, not subatomic particles, that are all tangled up. This is Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” but that distance is now at arm’s length. It’s on our doorsteps, in our nursing homes and hospitals, in our places of work, worship, and study. And yet no mastery to untangle the mess exists, or if it does, it’s in short supply, which only adds to the uncertainty and the ambiguity.

And therein lies the broad framing of a crisis. This is known to us — it’s old hat, as it were. Some call it VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). Some say TUNA (Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, Ambiguous), if only because VUCA is redundant. “Complex” necessarily entails volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Regardless of the term we choose, though, we are saying the same thing regarding a crisis: a situation that is to varying degrees turbulent or volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and novel. Those are the threads — the ones we can see and conceive of anyway.

To be sure, there are other threads, or aspects in our environment, that we don’t see or can’t see or don’t want to see that also contribute to not only the framing of a crisis but to the emerging crisis itself. For instance, several economists presaged the financial crisis of 2008. And Bill Gates did the same in 2015 when he declared, in a speech, that it would not be a nuclear war that upended us but a pandemic. And Ian Goldin, the former VP of the World Bank, predicted not only a pandemic, but an economic crisis as a result of it. In none of these cases, though, did any of these budding Nostradamuses know the details of the impending crisis. They glimpsed an emerging trajectory, and they anticipated vague outcomes, but they couldn’t see the nitty-gritty. Ah, this is complexity: We’ll never accurately see the long-term details, but those among us — in our families, teams, companies, countries, and planets (heck, why not?) — those with the gift and skill of fore-sighting and anticipating are worth their weight in gold several times over.

But why didn’t we listen to them? The signals were there, so why did we miss them? Was it merely because the signals were too weak to rise above the noise? Maybe. That’s certainly part of it. But it is also because the whole of who we are, as individuals and collectives, decided those signals and those prophets were unimportant. The “why” of it — why we, or many of us, deemed those signals irrelevant — is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, though, that as we attempt to make sense of our experiences and the situations we find ourselves in, we each of us tend to see and hear not only what we want to see and hear but what our social networks want to see and hear as well. Our narratives, as compelling as they can be, as uplifting as they can be, sometimes not only limit what’s imaginable and achievable but also what’s believable and worthy of our attention. And it takes a heady degree of collective wisdom, courage, mindfulness, and humility to overcome those biases.

You’ll see these words again — wisdom, courage, mindfulness, humility, and collective— as they comprise some of the inner tools of leadership that, imperfect as they are, can help us prepare for and lead through a crisis, regardless of how we frame it. They are the focus of future articles in this series.

But for now, the biases such inner tools help us manage also wend their way into our framing of a crisis. I have suggested TUNA as a broad means of framing what is and what is not a crisis. And I have suggested there are other threads as well, other variables, some that we see and some we do not, like Bill Gates’s warning. And of the variables we see — time horizons and constraints, the degree of immediacy in our actions, the complexity of the ramifications of the crisis or lack thereof, and the role that inequality plays, as the poor and minorities are often disproportionately affected—for all of these variables and more, our personal and cultural biases will dictate their order of importance. This is Aristotle’s pathos — the preconceptions of the spectators, those who are the recipients of the message. And mixed up in all that diversity, in all those many threads, are the seeds of both solution and conflict. I suppose that means we can add paradox to the threads as well.

Even our perceptions of the damage a crisis might engender are dictated, to some extent, by our biases. Those in the throes of an optimism, outcome, or normalcy bias might suggest opening up the economy and going back to school and work pronto, as that “2% death toll” isn’t that bad. Moreover, bad things only happen to other people — the “thems.” While others wrestling with attentional or interpretive biases might suggest heading for hills because the whole thing is about to come crashing down.

Unfortunately, there’s no single person or group with the mastery to tell us how to frame a crisis. I sometimes wish there were. Instead, we look to people we trust to help us with that. And that’s fine — we all do it. If you believe Bill Gates manufactured this virus in 2015 to further his other business interests, so be it. But we should all do ourselves a favor when it comes to framing: Challenge it. And when new information comes in, we should continue to challenge how we are framing the crisis in light of that new information. And we should resist setting out to confirm or prove that our framing of the situation is correct; instead, we should set out to disconfirm it. Challenge your assumptions and look for alternative sources and explanations. Hopefully, you will judge those sources based on the science behind them, science that includes not only results and conclusions (which can be manufactured or misconstrued) but methodology and limitations as well. And beware the extremes — find the virtue of the middle ground, as vast and shifting (and uncomfortable) as that middle ground may be.

A personal story: In 2011, when I was “read in” to the bin Laden mission — to the fact that bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad that is, I went up to one of the lead analysts and asked, “What have you done to disconfirm that it’s him?” I did that because it’s so easy to confirm our biases — too easy. And this mission wasn’t my first bin Laden rodeo. The very first time we went after him, nearly 10 years prior, the decision was made to drop cluster bombs on the “tall guy wearing white robes,” a decision that was made despite the protests of the operators. The outcome — as a result of the oldest bias in the books, the confirmation bias — was a score of dead women and children. And the tall guy wearing white robes, also dead, was only tall because the people around him, the women and the children that is, were so short. We see what we want to see, or, as we sometimes say, “Believing is seeing.”

So in 2011 when I questioned the lead analyst, I was pleasantly surprised when she unfurled a laundry list of things she and the team of analysts had done to disconfirm that the man in the compound was bin Laden. Each of their attempts failed, leaving all of us, though, with a framing we could work with: There was a man cloistered in that compound who was, for various reasons, very likely Osama bin Laden. Not 100 percent, but very likely. The rest of that uncertainty, to include what the Pakistanis might do if they caught us in their backyard, the guys on the ground could deal with through the responsible use of their own mastery.

Framing matters, but how you get there matters, too. And that framing, then, becomes the platform for action. And as the crisis unfolds during that critical period and new insights are gleaned and the framing of the situation is adapted, so to must our actions be changed and adapted.

Alas, change is hard.

In the next article, we’ll address the kinds of approaches to leadership that are useful in a crisis.

Contributors: Rachel AmatoDarine NajemRoberto SacoUte BockMark Clark

Editors’ note: If you wish to contribute to the Change Leaders Lab, please contact us at [email protected]. We’d like to hear what you have to say.



Dave Cooper
Dave is a former Navy SEAL, proud member of the Change Leaders, and the founder of Verge. He specializes in facilitating change for organizations big and small.

The Change Leaders Evolve

Graeme Findlay — Evolve: How Exceptional Leaders Leverage the Inner Voice of Human Evolution

This is the fourth article in The Change Leaders series: Reimagining Work

The Change Leaders owe a debt of gratitude to Graeme Findlay, one of our very own and the author of Evolve: How Exceptional Leaders Leverage the Inner Voice of Human Evolution.

Borrowing a line from Dr. Jean Boulton (Cranfield University, UK), Graeme reminded us that: “The future is path-dependent. How we got here matters.” From this fundamental tenet of complexity theory, he took us on a whirlwind tour of our cognitive evolutionary history, pointing out key tipping points in our non-linear progression through the ages that have led us to where we are today concerning our collective ability to lead groups of various sizes and collaborate in ever more significant numbers.

Graeme’s insight is not in the standard (i.e., tired) deconstruction of leadership behaviors over the millennia, something that can be rendered in a 2x2 matrix, but in viewing our ability to cooperate through an expansive, systemic — and even holistic — lens. When viewed through such a frame — the synergistic human ecosystem — patterns of leadership behavior have indeed emerged over vast stretches of time. And those patterns have much to do with our evolution as a species.

What I’m trying to say is this: consider an ecosystem. It does not set out, per se, to be resilient. Rather, resilience emerges from the interactions of a diverse set of actors or species in a given environment, each of which is struggling to survive. Leadership is similar: we do not set out to produce leaders necessarily, yet leaders and leadership emerge as higher-order patterns nevertheless. What Graeme maintains is that our ability to cooperate at levels unheard of anywhere else in the animal kingdom is tied, directly and indirectly, to the coevolution of our language and cognitive skills. Specifically, the ratio of the size of our neocortex to our overall brain size is perhaps a fundamental cause of our ability to work together in ever-larger groups. And those larger, more cooperative groups of our ancestors, with some leading and some following, outcompeted other groups, like the Neanderthals and Denisovans perhaps, that cooperated less well and, consequently, didn’t live to tell about it (though they do live on in our genomes).

Here, chimpanzees offer us a contemporary example. Living in fission-fusion societies where subgroups break apart during the day to hunt and forage for food but come back together at night to sleep and socialize, a chimpanzee subgroup (or troop) will reach a certain size before breaking apart. Some simple math reveals that relationships grow exponentially with each new member added to the group. Thirty individuals produce a possible 435 pair relations, but when the number of individual chimps grows to 50, the number of pair relationships shoots to 1225. At some point, the number of relationships becomes so vast that the leader (or alpha male in this case) loses control, and the group breaks apart — and not happily either. If chimps had such things as separation agreements, theirs would likely read: “irreconcilable differences.”

We humans, of course, are much more complex than our simian cousins — and we’re more complex than our human forebears as well. A human from 200,000 years ago might look like we do today, but his or her brainpower was nowhere near ours. For about 150,000 years or so, humans marched along in groups of about 30, but about 50,000 years ago, we experienced a step change. In a flash, relatively speaking, the size of cooperative human groups went from 30 to 150, or thereabouts (Dunbar’s Number).

Why? Because of evolution. Namely, the random mutations in our DNA that accrued and were selected over time and engendered greater linguistic and cognitive capabilities. And those enhanced capabilities rendered unto us the ability to manage burgeoning numbers of relationships over the eons. The first and second cognitive revolutions that took place thousands of years ago (not the intellectual movements of the 1950s and 80s) produced at their height 100 million Romans cooperating without the means of electronic communications. Today, we are in the midst of what some call the third cognitive revolution, one characterized by advances in technology that are speeding up the pace of change beyond what evolution can conceivably match.

What that means for the future is uncertain. But Graeme offers an insight into what he calls the four modes (or outer voices) of leadership that proved critical at different points in our evolutionary past as groups grew in size, and the number of relationships between and among people increased exponentially. As Graeme tells it, these four modes or voices got us to where we are today — they matter — and exceptional leaders and leadership teams have mastered each one of them.

The foundation of this modal hierarchy is what Graeme refers to as the Heartfelt Voice. Leader narratives that create strong relationships based on trust among their closest allies characterize this mode (and recall that narratives aren’t just scripts, they are acts as well). This is the place of psychological safety, that mix of trust, respect, and care that affords people the opportunity to take interpersonal risks and to speak their minds without fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The Heartfelt Voice is the stuff of high-performing leaders at the team level.

Next up is the Command Voice. While this outer voice certainly compliments the Heartfelt Voice, it’s more about planning and execution through the responsible use of power. Leaders and organizations adept in this mode are disciplined operationally. That is to say, they get things done responsibly.

The Prosocial Voice is next and marks an egalitarian advancement over the Heartfelt and Command Voice. Characterized by shaping a collective sense of identity, and by helping to instill a deep sense of belonging and commitment, Leaders adept in the Prosocial Voice build relationships across traditional silos and tribes to create synergistic wholes, where different teams not only interact well but celebrate each other’s successes. The Prosocial Voice is far-reaching and includes formal and informal channels of communication. Organizations that are a reflection of the Prosocial Voice, then, can be measured by how people treat one another when the boss isn’t around.

And rounding out these evolutionary modes is the Futurizing Voice — a leader’s ability to weave a story of the future. But not just any story. A future-story is one that draws people in and invites buy-in and commitment. This is the voice, as Graeme tells it, of complex adaptive systems where communities of people are inspired to embrace change and strive toward the achievement of shared goals.

While mastering any one of these modes is easier said than done, effective leaders and leadership teams, whether they subscribe to Graeme’s terminology or not, master all four domains. I tend to think of this multi-modal mastery, if you will, as an ode to requisite variety: if the problems thrown at us by our environments require different levels of cooperation, from teams to countries, then as leaders we need at least an equal number of leadership tools (or voices) to be effective, to be resilient, and to not only sustain but to keep growing. In other words, one-trick (or one-voice) leaders will be hampered by an inability to evolve beyond a specific level of leadership, while the multi-modal leader will continue to adapt, learn, and thrive.

As for what comes next in our evolution, though, even Graeme doesn’t profess to know. But recognizing that the more complex the problem, the more people you need to solve it, he begs your assistance in helping him decipher the future of human leadership.

The English statistician George Box famously said, “All models are false. Some models are useful.” Even the vaunted Standard Model from physics is an incomplete rendition of the known universe. Still, it’s a powerful model, and powerful models, while they might exist in only two dimensions, help us make sense of our experience of the world — that’s the useful piece. And Graeme’s model is most certainly useful, not only because it helps us make sense of how we got here, which undoubtedly matters, but also because it fashions for us a useful metric: Which voice or voices have you mastered? Have you created a space where it’s safe for people around you to openly share their opinions without fear of embarrassment or ridicule? Are you using your authority — even if it’s only in your own family — responsibly and executing with discipline? Are you building relationships broadly and inviting belonging and commitment? Are you constructing a vision of the future that inspires others to embrace the change and chase after it freely? How do you know?

Editors note: If you would like to submit a piece to the Change Leaders Lab, contact us at [email protected]



Dave Cooper
Dave is a former Navy SEAL, proud member of the Change Leaders, and the founder of Verge. He specializes in facilitating change for organizations big and small.


The Meaning of Work with Professor Katie Bailey

The Access to the Webinar

This Webinar ran on Tuesday the 3rd of December 2019 from 5:00PM to 6:30PM CET.

The full Recording is available for tCL Members. Please log in and access the recording here.

The Session

The Meaning of Work
Do you find your work meaningful? Why (or why not)? And does it matter? Research tells us that the quest for meaning in work is a natural human impetus and is linked with important outcomes, but it also tells us that many people fail to find much meaning in what they do. Moreover, organisations and managers seem to get in the way of meaning rather than create environments that foster a sense of meaningfulness.

In this session we will zoom in and explore together what meaningful work looks like. We will consider the seven deadly sins often committed by managers that undermine a sense of meaning in contrast with an ecosystem that encourages a holistic approach to meaningfulness. Finally, we will zoom out and question the future for meaningfulness in light of the fundamental changes affecting work today.

The Speaker

Katie Bailey is Professor of Work and Employment at King's Business School, King's College London. She is fascinated by work in all its forms. Her research aims to shed light on what work means to people and why. Her studies on employee engagement, strategic HRM and meaningful work have been published in many journals such as the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review and Academy of Management Perspectives as well as books and the media. She is Co-Editor of the Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work (OUP, 2019) and Lead Editor of Employee Engagement in Theory and
Practice (Routledge, 2014). Katie has a PhD from London Business School and she is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, HEA, RSA and CIPD as well as an Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. She has held a number of editorial posts and, from January 2020, will be Co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Management Reviews. Katie often speaks at conferences and workshops challenging people to think about whether their own work is meaningful, and what they can do to help create meaningful workplaces. She is currently building a consortium of organisations to co-create an in-depth study of purpose and meaning at work.

The Suggested Reading

What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless?, MIT Sloan Management Review, Research Feature: Summer 2016 Issue
The Five Paradoxes of Meaningful Work: Introduction to the Special Issue ‘Meaningful Work: Prospects for the 21st Century’, Journal of Management Studies 56:3 May 2019

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