Building Sustainable Legacies


How CEOs can inspire personal change

Imagine you had 30 minutes with 4 renowned CEOs in front of several hundred business practitioners and you wanted to use the time to create change in the audience. What would you do? I recently had the opportunity and here is what happened!

At the Swiss Green Economy Symposium, the largest event among sustainability enthusiasts in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I could facilitate a CEO panel. I had about six months to prepare which was necessary given the busy agenda of the CEOs. I contacted more than a dozen to have a confirmed gender balanced panel of 4 CEOs. One of the female CEOs had confirmed early and said she would participate with one condition: that there would be at least as many women on the panel as men. What a great condition! Imagine how things would shift if all women (and men) would demand this!

I wanted to create a panel that would serve as a trigger for change in the audience rather than a the usual story-telling inspiration sharing success stories of their organizations. Would I be able to convince the CEOs to give up the opportunity to position their company in front of an attractive audience in service of creating a space where change could happen in the audience? Yes, imagine that. CEOs were open to that idea, once I shared my idea with them and had talked them through the concept. Wonderful!

Figure 1: The Circle Model connecting the inner world of personal development with the outer world of organizational development as a transformative journey towards a world worth living in (Katrin Muff, 2016)

We split the 30 minutes in three parts. After a short introduction where I framed the conversation with a simple concept (see figure 1), we started the first part. Each CEO shared a personal story illustrating the question: “which challenges have influenced them personally and how have these shaped the way you are leading your organization?” As the audience collectively leaned forward, topics such as gender stereotypes, work-place injustice, product waste and power abuse were discussed with courage and vulnerability. I invited the packed auditorium to take moment and to individually reflect on what has shaped them most in your past and how this influences their priorities at work. Both in terms of what they currently do and what they wish you were doing. People came to me afterwards and said they have never experienced a room so quiet and so focused. The magic was starting.

In a second round, we had selected only two of the four CEOs share examples of what issues were challenging their organization in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and what long-term business opportunities were emerging concerning the Sustainable Development Goals? To grant time to the audience, the generosity of the other CEOs to stand back was really touching. We were one and we had one common objective! I invited the audience to turn to their neighbor and to discuss what options their saw to implement change for their organizations to embed the SDGs into their strategy. On a background slide, I shared a support website for those needing help. The room exploded. Everybody talked and shared and exchanged. We sat in our chairs with our jaws wide open. What an energy in the room. And how were we going to get them back to listening to us? When the time was up, the CEOs and I spontaneously stood up together and loudly applauded the audience. They look up and stared at us in surprise. They stopped talking and we could continue.

In the last round, all CEOs shared which issue concerned them most in our society and where they saw opportunities to connect these to future business activities? Their stories addressed the top burning societal issues of Switzerland as addressed by the Gapframe: CO2 overuse, equal opportunity, sustainable consumption, social integration and clean energy. I invited the audience to take a moment and choose one action that they could implement in the next 3 days to close the gap of where we are today vs. where they thought we should be in an area important for them. I offered an online tool to share these actions, if anybody felt like it.

I wish we had more time at the end, the final reflection was a minute shorter than I had hoped but our 30 minutes were up. Nonetheless, I was happily surprised when I discovered the personal commitments coming in. Figure 2 provides an overview of them grouped into some categories I hope are helpful in reviewing.

Role modelling

  • I commit to dedicate my working time to a project that serves 100% to make our living more sustainable
  • Lead a topic coming out of SGES 2017
  • I will define my personal SDG‘s to be achieved by the end of 2018
  • Break the barriers, create sense of urgency and implement the much needed change
  • Prepare presentation about the legal implications of a meat tax as a ghg heavy good

Encouraging others for action

  • Communicate knowledge to peers
  • As corny as it may sound: foremost change minds
  • I commit to also encourage others to live more sustainably
  • Talk with my Patents about their travelling
  • Poll others on these questions
  • Roll out the sdgxchange in a world wide level
  • Make my sons understand that they also have a big responsibility for Equal Opportunity and that they must contribute to achieving it

Community building

  • Organize a non-hierarchical roundtable for a common sustainable mindset within my organization and outside
  • Partner to strengthen the capability to act
  • Launch SDSN Switzerland on 2 Nov, the network that mobilizes the Swiss research & innovation community for the SDGs
  • Keep engaging people for a sustainable future
  • I’ll ask my fellow Entrepreneurs how they care about Sustainability! And I’ll publish it later on!
  • Organize the startups around me in a matrix to share sustainability progress

More time for the soul

  • Slow down. I will lower my expectations towards myself and spend more time speaking with my employees
  • I will observe better!

Aligning corporate sustainability goals with national priority issues

  • Identify lacks in our sustainability goals by comparing them with the topic of gapframe.org
  • Build our new 150kW PV project in Bern – Solarify
  • Verity the strategic goals of my organization against the Agenda2030 for Sustainable Development and adapt if needed
  • I will create a personal project on how we can introduce GTDs with local partners and stakeholders in our projects worldwide
  • Make sure that we also talk about social innovations.
  • Apply the standard for sustainable construction (SNBS) in the area of buildings

Social integration action

  • Partner up to reach higher employee diversity (age, gender, education, etc.)
  • I would like to support employees who lost their jobs with improving their skill-set and find a new opportunity or career path.
  • Transparency and equality

Reducing the CO2 consumption (Switzerland’s no 1 sustainability issue)

  • Only travel by train to destinations in Europe (always!)
  • Rain or shine, I’ll bike to work.
  • I commit to eating only very little meat and buy organic food, to fly as little as possible and compensate my flights
  • Compensate my flight
  • No more elevator – taking the steps, staying fit and saving energy
  • Exchange my diesel into an electric car
  • Conscious Consuming
  • Cook local
  • Eating less meat
  • Renovate our old Windows in order to create more insolation
  • Commit to an organic “vegetable-abo” in order to support sustainable and local agriculture.
  • Before I buy something, to ask: what is the harm when I buy this?

Figure 2: List of shared personal commitments as a result of a 30 minute transformative CEO panel

I don’t think I have ever spent so much time preparing for a 30 minute intervention. I think I spent 30 hours, or 60 times the intervention time, in preparation. I needed not only prepare the CEOs, I also needed to get the organizer onboard. Among the CEOs, we had spent two months carefully scripting each statement of each person so that we could create an overall story that would hopefully allow a change in the audience. This resulted in a 3500 word document that everybody had approved, outlining minute by minute who would say what. If you attempt something similar, ensure you have plenty of lead-time available! It is worth it though!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

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Walking the path of change: from the invisible hand to the invisible heart!

Kate Raworth left me with a question I could not answer: “How do we transform the ‘value-extraction’ mentality of the 20th century with the ‘designed-in benefits’ mindset needed in the 21st century?”. I walked home after a lovely dinner with her and pondered about why arguments that make total sense to some of us can be dismantled so easily by those who follow the profit-maximization drumbeat that has brought havoc to the world and economics in my lifetime. Kate had shared a story of well-regarded expert who proposed a cleverly designed building able to extract CO2 from its environment to a CFO. The CFO killed the genius idea with as little as: “But why should I do such thing? It doesn’t serve me!”

Kate was in Lausanne to inspire our graduating students along with Peter Bakker, President of the WBCSD, both recipients of BSL Dr. Honoris Causa awards. And they did! Peter shared a story of when he was CEO at TNT and his purchase of two long-haul planes doubled the CO2 footprint of his company in one year. The planes served to fly mobile phone from China to Europe – customers like their orders fulfilled overnight irrespective of the cost to nature. He reminded the graduates that the origin of leadership is “path finder” and that they were more than ever required to serve exactly that; as pathfinders to bring organizations to be the positive force our future needs.

Kigen Moi, the BSL Valedictorian, talked about Ubuntu, a word well known where he grew up “Humanity”. Or, as his story illustrated, the idea that no one can be happy, if the others around him are not. Such a profound thought which stands in such stark contrast to Kate’s struggles we had debated the night before.

I am struck by an oldish HuffPost blog entitled “There is no trade-off between profit and purpose” and that Paul Polman had recently retweeted with the words “To reach the land of profit, follow the road of purpose”. I have been a long advocate of using the right language to talk to various audiences. And that it is necessary to talk to those who see profit maximization as the holy grain by pointing out the immediate opportunity and risks of embracing business ideas that go beyond serving the interest of shareholders but at the same time also serve other stakeholders, society and the world at large.

To hell with it! Why should we adjust a values-based argument to a value-disconnected audience. Why cannot we not shake the CFO in Kate’s story to senses by responding with utter disbelief and exclaiming with wide-open eyes: “But how can you be happy if around you so many are unhappy? And let him reconnect with the humanity that undoubtedly sits inside of him, maybe underneath much dust and fast asleep, but most certainly alive and ticking. Why argue that purpose leads to profit, as if following purpose needed any excuse? Why having to point out there is no tradeoff between making money and doing good?

Why not shake the hearts and minds of those stuck in the 20th century logic of the misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand? Take a look at the state of the world, the state of any single country of your choice and you can clearly and without a single doubt see that the profit-maximization argument has gotten it wrong. We have spent the last decade trying to twist purpose and values-based arguments into the ill-fatted logic of the past century and we have gotten nowhere. If we want to change the mindset that Kathy Miller and I are trying to figure out how to change, maybe the time is now ripe to start talking the truth. Kathy ended her last blog with a deep insight of Mahatma Gandhi: “You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Why not point out the amazing power and the beauty of the invisible heart that is beating in every single living thing and that connects all of us into a humanity across all living beings. Why not question empty values and fake arguments, and why not replace them with the wisdom of Ubuntu and insist that we can only rest if all of us are happy that that we will no longer take part in a race against each other but in a journey towards a place where all of us can be well on that gorgeous planet we are living on. Why not?!


Be the Change and Act Fearlessly

As the summer doldrums set in amidst the disharmony and dysfunction here in the USA, I’ve begun looking for inspiration on how to effect constructive change. While achieving change – especially social change- has always been very difficult, it currently seems to me next to impossible in my country.  Here, amidst the everyday claims and counter claims of “fake news”, everything and everyone is so polarized we all feel stuck in our separateness.

In her May blog, Katrin addressed how this schism strikes her and what she thinks we can do as we live through these discouraging times. She concluded that when mass protests don’t work and institutions are too easily by-passed, each of us must step up.  She said that we must “do what is right every single moment every single day” even when we don’t see immediate results. And how do we know what is right?  Katrin suggested that we use our values and our commitment to a common well-being to guide us.

Katrin’s words reminded me of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  I immediately thought of the following quote which has been attributed to him:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Many question whether Gandhi spoke these exact words.  Nevertheless, he said many things that implore us to first look inward before we attempt to change the world.  For example, he said the following:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Gandhi’s teachings include some specific advice about how we might change ourselves.  While his words of advice are simple, the actions he recommends are not. For example, he directed us to seek harmony in thoughts, words and deeds. And he advocated for individuals to pursue truth selflessly and with enormous humility. The pursuit of truth is hard work and takes time.

We should form our convictions with care. Gandhi said that we must defend our beliefs and not ever compromise on fundamentals such as showing others respect and honoring the dignity of every human being.

Even so Gandhi warned us to avoid arrogance concerning our own wisdom. He said, “It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

Gandhi acknowledged that people may diverge in what they see as truth. However, he suggested that when we pursue truth humbly, with selflessness and tolerance, we may find that our varying perceptions are all part of a larger truth:

“…where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.”

Of course individual change without action is not enough. Gandhi claimed that we should act fearlessly, selflessly, with dignity and without violence.  He, like Katrin in her May blog, reminded us that we must take action even if we don’t see immediate results.  He believed that it is the action itself rather than the fruit of the action that is most important.  And he wisely observed that even if we may not see the results of our actions, if we do nothing, there will be no results.

Clearly Gandhi’s words and teachings have had a powerful impact on the world. Not only did he achieve enormous changes in India and in the world in his lifetime, other great change leaders such as Martin Luther King claimed to have been guided by his teachings. And Martin Luther King is arguably the greatest leader of social change in my lifetime.

Gandhi’s teachings are universally profound. His words transcend the boundaries of country and culture.  His wisdom is equally relevant to individuals, organizations and entire societies.  And for me, one of the most significant results of my readings of Gandhi is that I found the inspiration that I was looking for:

“You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

I plan to repeat this quote to myself every time I am exposed to the relentless onslaught of disquieting news across the globe.

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

 

References

Rosenburg, Shaun.  Mohandas Gandhi Quotes and Their Meaning.  http://www.shaunrosenberg.com/mohandas-gandhi-quotes-and-meaning

Allen, Douglas. The Phlosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the Twenty-first Century. Lexington Books, 2008.

Nirupama, Rao. Gandhi’s Light Guided MLK.  Politico. 3/07/2013. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/mahatma-gandhis-lightguided-martin-luther-king-jr-088581

 

 


The Myth of Organizational Culture

There is no such thing as organizational culture there is only people culture

I am curious to explore the difference between a role and a person, an organization and its people. This difference can be illustrated by considering a familiar scenario: What is the culture of the White House? I am suggesting here that it is not the White House that has a culture – the White House is an institution that has a purpose. Those who live and work at the White House represent the people of the White House and these people, how they work together and how they are together define the culture of the White House as an institution. A different set of people will result in a different culture, even if the institution remains the same in its purpose. Individuals may have an influence on the appearance of an institution or organization and depending on the governance structure, also have an influence on the purpose. And yet, the culture is an attribute defined by a group of people, not an institution or an organization. This insight may influence our understanding of how a culture may be changed. Could it be that cultural change is much more about changes that take place at the individual level, rather than those that can be master-minded at the organizational level? Let me attempt to reflect this by considering our lessons learned through the cultural change at Business School Lausanne.

There is a seemingly small but possibly substantial difference between what Organizational Development experts call an “Organizational Culture” and what is really going on. I have become aware of this difference in a reflective talk with BSL’s Holacracy implementation coach Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller of evolutionatwork. We reflected on Business School Lausanne’s (BSL) biggest difficulty and darkest hour in the transformation from a hierarchical to a self-organizing organization that somehow relates to the people space.

As you may recall, Holacracy is a highly sophisticated operating system for self-organization that explicitly takes care of organizing decisions around the “work” that relates to the purpose of the organization and how it very clearly does not organize how people work with each other. Despite hearing and reading everything we could about this, we entered into this transformation and felt entirely unprepared for what was waiting for us.

As we focused on organizing work-related decisions in a power-distributed, non-hierarchical way, learning the complex and sophisticated Holacracy rules that provoked and forced a behavioral change in every single person taking part, we did not pay attention to something crucial: what do we do with our personal relationships above and beyond strictly work-related discussions. In our darkest months, busy negotiating the shadows cast by difficult change, we entirely neglected these personal relationships, trusting that all we needed was work-talk.

With hindsight, we now know that there is a huge need to deal with and find solutions for personal relationships. This is not something a “tribe meeting” can fix as Holacracy may suggest. It is one-to-one work, not something that can be masterminded and implemented across the board. Personal relationships are apparent in every single moment that people work together – in the same space or around a common purpose; rather than being an occasional moment around the coffee machine, they dominate all interactions. Purely work-related decisions form the exception in such exchanges, something we have become able to distinguish thanks to Holacracy, which forces a particular and awkward talk-protocol when work is concerned. As such we would start work-talk with a sentence that sounds like, “In my role of ….., I would like to talk to you in your role of … about …”. And this is where the conversation shifts from a personal talk to a work-talk where the two people share specific accountabilities they can expect within their cooperation.

Such a situation is in stark contrast with the more typical situation where a person with a superior position casually strolls into an office of one of her or his subordinates, leans against the doorpost and in a collegial tone starts a friendly conversation that, depending on personal affinity, is either relaxed, hearty or a bit tense. Typically, somewhere towards the end of that nice chat, the boss comes up with some new expectation, deadline reminder, urgent action to be embraced or a long-term project to ponder. Depending on the managerial style of the supervisor, she or he either checks back about the feasibility of this requests or just strolls out of the office, fully expecting the subordinate to take her/his request as an order. This is a normal mix of personal and work relationship that all of us who work in a normal hierarchy are used to and know by experience in all of its wonderful – and less wonderful – shades of conscious or unconscious manipulation.

Self-organization crushes such situations by rendering them inacceptable in one way or another. It is impossible for any individual to walk into the office of anybody else and expect them to do something just because his/her seniority dictates that their “great idea” becomes an action on someone else’s to-do list. Anybody who has not lived self-organization has no means of truly understanding the implication of this. It makes no sense and any straight-thinking person wonders how anything that needs to get done, does get done. This is where Holacracy and other self-organizing operating systems tend to fail. A leader cannot fathom giving up her or his power and truly trusting that other individuals will not only step up into the space created by defining clear accountabilities in roles, but will have so many more ideas in these roles than could ever have been imagined by one supervisor alone. This trust is a leap of faith that seems to be a big ask for leaders.

At BSL, we were lucky that this was not a problem. As a leader, I was very keen to let go of the implicit power my position held and to focus on activities I could not spend enough time on but where I felt I could add true value for the organization. Given that letting-go was not our main issue (although, despite my wish to let go, I had to check my instincts for a good year!), a deeper issue emerged as a potential deal-breaker in transforming organizations. This is what I am fascinated by: the distinction between what an organization is and what a group of people is.

An organization is indeed NOT a group of people that works together. An organization, and this distinction is crucial, is a “thing”, a legal entity with a very specific purpose that subsequently serves as a vehicle to employ people and resources to realize that purpose. A group of people consists of individuals who, together, form the group. An organization possesses a “culture”, no more than my teacup can possess a culture. My teacup may look a certain way by having a certain shape and color and material, but it has no culture. In the same way, an organization may house its employees in a certain type of building, paint its walls a certain color or serve food of a given quality in its canteen; however, these attributes do not constitute culture. The only aspect of an organization that can have a culture is the people. There is people culture, not organizational culture. If you want to look at what it takes to change culture, you need to look at what it takes to change the individuals who, together, are the people. This is an insight that is not fully embraced in organizational change theory or organizational development. Organizational change in this sense would imply a change of the organization’s purpose or structure, activities or locations, but not of its people. Organizational development cannot mean that its people develop but that the organization grows through new products and services, locations, contracts, partnerships etc.

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that I have a hunch that, by peeling back this layer called “organization” when we talk about changing the culture, we may discover true levers of change to enable cultural shifts in organizations. I am fascinated by this as I still don’t know how our own cultural change came about at BSL. And I was there closely observing it! What happened in these dark months and what came out and into the light after it? When trying to answer this question, examples of individual human actions come to mind. Acts of courage, love and care. All of which are entirely unrelated to any role or accountability. These acts of humanity are what have touched me and possibly others – as individuals, not in a role or a responsibility. Alex sharing his new Chinese tea leaves and showing me how to pour a cup of tea as I walk in tired from a long outside meeting. Denitsa standing up and giving me a big hug as I walk in to say hi. Yasmina cracking a joke as I walk by that makes me stop and see how she is doing, as a person not as a colleague delivering her to-do list. It is Aurea that closes her work notebook and shares how her friend is doing.

These moments which are entirely and totally disconnected from any follow-on comment that says, “and hey, would you mind printing me x and quickly running me this or that report?” or, “hey, since we are chatting, have you heard back from x on y?”. We don’t do that anymore. We were forced to separate these kinds of conversations by learning how to have power-free conversations among roles in a journey to replace our hierarchy. Awkward, coded language that has nothing human or fun in it. But it does its job, it provides a safe space for anybody with a certain responsibility to do the very best she can to embrace this responsibility with all the passion and knowledge and freedom to innovate that she can put into it, given other priorities of other responsibilities she may also have. What happened in these dark hours is that we reduced all of our conversations to such coded, awkward language, and next to that each of us dealt with the pain and the frustration that such cold exchanges created in our own ways. To all the varying degrees of incapacity that humans possess. Some started gossiping, others started to moan and complain, some formed small groups that tried to super-analyze it all and solve it for the team, some retreated in their caves, feeling alone and rejected by a system that was inhuman. All of us, in one way or another, felt alone, helpless and overwhelmed, and all of us reacted to it through the large variety of dark shadows that are a part of our human characters.

Until the human light started to shine through and some started to reach out in caring conversations, daring to question endless complaints by asking, “do you want help or do you just want to complain?”; some started to share their pains and how they went about dealing with them with their coach or in therapy. Somebody organized tea for everybody. Somebody else brought in a homemade cake. Some people started to have really honest and painful conversations with each other. In these early days, everything felt raw and we were all exhausted. Emotionally affected. Small groups of individuals formed who felt more affinity for each other and much energy was spent discussing a problem nobody that nobody could name. Pockets of resistance against the transformation became loud and forceful and the pain was in front of all of us, all the time. The atmosphere was dim, and some people fell ill. They could not understand the coldness of Holacracy and the inhumanity it seemed to require. People who didn’t perform were suddenly very exposed and position power didn’t protect anymore. Difficult talks requiring courage were needed to end long working relationships that probably could have been addressed long before but were hidden due to an overlap with personal relationships. More and more we learned to separate these relationships and slowly, very slowly, too slowly, the benefits started to emerge.

We had focused on identifying work benefits – and we reported many of these, experiencing them with increasing rapidity. The degree and extent of self-initiative is simply mind-blowing. We have moved from a group of people who each felt overwhelmed with the amount of work we needed to do to a group of people open to listen to new ideas, suggestions and opportunities, and ourselves coming up with innovative new, additional things we can do. Where did this space suddenly come from? Our plates were full before – I had long stopped daring to bring in new projects as I feared the reaction of a team that was clearly already overstretched. How come these same people now had ideas far beyond what I had ever dreamt of bringing in? How come, solutions for problems nobody even acknowledged before suddenly were implemented without anybody even knowing? How come costs were reduced where before there was no alternative? How come a suggestion for improvement was suddenly met with “tell me more” rather than “I have no time”? These are all “just” work-related benefits that brought tremendous benefit to the organization and these deserve being studied to be better understood.

What we didn’t focus on was what would happen to our relationships. And this is where more miracles happened. Our human relations have deepened; we know today more about each other than we ever did before and we are forming more of a family in a true sense than ever before. It is wrong to use “we” and “us” as a term. This phenomenon is an individual one and builds on the individual care for somebody else. Massimo and I are sharing the difficult moments we both experience right now seeing our parents with health issues. Carlo and Branko share their worries about their kids during our upcoming company ski-weekend. Denitsa inspired us with daily emails in the holiday months sharing insights about positive psychology from her current Master’s studies. As I present a key note at a big business event, I see the faces of my colleagues in the audience whose smiles encourage me to say what I want to say in clear language. We are all signed up for a course in non-violent communication. Our stakeholders (students and faculty) tell us that it is easier to engage with us, that we listen better and have more time and space for them as human beings, not just as transactional problems. I notice myself that I am careful in responding with a personal comment to emails that I receive. I am friendlier, warmer and more open, and I like that very much.

In our team, a feeling has spread that says “we are cool” and we are proud to belong together. Strength-spotting has become a past-time. Laughter is easier, humor more present and even after a long, tough day at work, I walk out feeling much better in my body and certainly in my heart and soul. Denitsa had asked me midday, “how is your day going” and I was profoundly touched. What a nice question and rather than complaining about all the things that I had going on, I took a quiet breath and I realized, I was having a really good day!

There is a miracle that has happened in front of my eyes and I don’t understand it quite yet. I remain curious and do want to understand it better. For if I can describe it better, others can benefit from such “organizational change” that really is “people change”, and that would be just great! My hunch is that the differentiation between the organization and the group of individuals that make up the people is key. When I worked for Alcoa, it was not the organization I admired and adored as much as its people. It was not “being the best aluminum company in the world” that made my soul sing, it was the positive opportunities I was given, and the leader’s interest in hearing a twenty-four-year old’s opinion on strategy.


Opinions or Alternative Facts?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Here we are in 2017; and at the beginning of the New Year.  Last year, as a consequence of the USA presidential election, many in this country and around the world tried to grasp the concept of “post-truth”.  It is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “debates framed by appeals to emotions rather than facts”. And now, before even a month has passed, we are confronted with the claimed presidential authority of “alternative facts”.  While both “post truth” and “alternative facts” claims have been scorned in the political realm, haven’t we all experienced similar dilemmas within our organizations?  In this blog, I will reflect on the importance of differentiating between opinions and facts, in order to tackle organizational issues with clarity.

Facts vs. Opinions and Beliefs

Beliefs and facts are not equivalent. Beliefs are convictions that we hold to be true while facts comprise information backed by verifiable evidence.  Beliefs can be based on facts; however often they originate from our values, our identities and our assumptions about the world and hence meet, and arise from, some of our deepest human needs.  Consequently, beliefs, rather than facts, often inform our opinions about specific matters.

Being mere humans, we unconsciously confuse our opinions with facts.  It is almost our default mode because our world-views, the underlying framework for our opinions, have become like the operating system of our thinking.  Thus we likely believe that our opinions are true merely because they are our opinions.  And the level of certainty with which we hold our opinions does not correlate with whether we have based them on facts.  High confidence does not equal objective proof.[1]   This confusion becomes an issue as we join with others to solve problems and resolve our differences both in our personal and organizational lives.  

Importance of Differentiating Facts from Opinions  

Many times over the years I have been asked to work with groups in conflict.  Often the groups are paralyzed due to the members holding fast to their own arguments at the expense of entertaining the opinions of others.  I have seen a common pattern running through these situations.  The most rigidly held opinions tend not to be based on evidence and often are actually immune to it.  Contrary facts may actually strengthen their convictions!  This observation is supported by research reported this month (Jan. 2017) in the Scientific American:[2]

“When we are presented with facts that contradict our world-view we are likely to feel threatened and may merely double down on our beliefs.  The conflicting data presents a threat.2  Facts become the enemy to be slain.”

When faced with this intransigence, I have noticed that those involved have not identified the difference between facts and opinions, thus, again, believing that their opinions are true merely because they hold them.  To resolve these conflicts, we work together to uncover the assumptions that underlie the opinions.  Likewise we focus on exploring the evidence, or lack of it, related to the problems at hand. If the individuals involved are willing to suspend their assumptions/emotion for that limited time and purpose, then this process can lead to the resolution of some of their differences.  And as the facilitator, it is my job to ensure that members can own their emotions without feeling unduly threatened or disrespected.  Ideally the discussions lead to a greater understanding of the basis for an opinion and the motivation that underlies resistance to any contrary opinion or facts.  So-called “alternative facts” are examined within the context of beliefs, emotions and evidence.  Of course this approach is not guaranteed to succeed.   After all, strongly held beliefs can be tenaciously resistant to evidence.

My Facts vs. Your Facts

Everyone has the right to hold his or her own world-view.  However, I believe that all of us must attempt to understand the premises upon which our own and others’ views are based.  Of course our values, feelings and beliefs will always be the beginning point for our arguments and our actions.  However, I do believe that we should seek to understand and acknowledge the origins of our opinions.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Nevertheless, facts matter.  Of course no one will ever corner the market for facts. Individuals may have access to different facts.  Sharing this information can add to the collective pool of knowledge that allows good decisions to emerge.  However, some facts are more valid than others depending upon their basis. And alternative facts, to the extent to which they are stated without evidence, are never acceptable for justifying our opinions.  Rather, we should acknowledge those cases, where our opinions and conclusions are based on our own values or needs, rather than conjuring false evidence or stating our opinion as fact just because we believe it.  To do so requires self-insight and maturity.  As scientists remind us, science can never promise knowledge of absolute truth but it enables us to eliminate what is false.[3]

Organizations are complex and diverse. If we are to contribute to our own organization’s success, rather than hinder its progress, each of us should seek self-awareness.  As we understand ourselves, we will become more capable of appreciating the diversity of others.  Our ability to move forward together depends on mutual respect, which comes from understanding.  The future of our organizations, and indeed our societies, rests on our ability to leverage our differences to meet our common goals.  We have no room for post-truth or alternative facts.

[1] Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts. Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/the-delusion-of-alternative-facts/

[2] Michael Shermer. How to Convince Someone when Facts Fail.Scientific American,  Jan 1 2017 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/

[3] Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts.Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/the-delusion-of-alternative-facts/

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

How do companies grow into new cultures? Can a given culture be changed? How palpable is a culture anyway? And if you wanted to change it, how would you go about it? These are questions that occupy Organizational Development consultants and researchers alike. At Business School Lausanne (BSL) we have decided to prototype new forms of organizations as a way to offer a living case study to our students. For the end of the year, I would like to offer a self-reflective piece about our organizational journey, from my own personal (and obviously, limited) perspective.  

On 30 September 2015, BSL had formally implemented self-organization (Holocracy) as its new way to organize itself. Now, one year and three months later, we are looking at ourselves in disbelief. We have become a living and breathing organism with its own distinct culture and sense of purpose. And we wonder: how did this happen?! This blog attempts an analysis by looking at six distinct time periods in the course of the last 15 months.

Step 1: October to December 2015 – We can learn this. The initial three months of implementing Holacracy were colored with a tremendous (good) will to learn this new system. I think every single one of us put in discipline, time, energy, and an open trust. We learned the technique of Holacracy, got burned by what it unveiled in us regarding how judgmental and close-minded one is, and we stopped and wondered, does this work? Some of us masterminded a massive systems-change that we proudly introduced in December 2015: from two circles, we shifted to five circles – in one go (a “circle” is something like a “department” or “business unit” – those roles that work together organize in a circle). Only later would we learn that this is absolutely not the way to go about solving “tension by tension”. We were still operating from a paradigm of hierarchy, quite unaware and unconscious, but willing to try. We attempted to separate “role” from “soul” and forgot about the “soul” in the process, without knowing what to do about it. Holacracy told us – “just trust the system”.

Step 2: January to March 2016 – In the deepest of darkness. After these initial three months of openly learning the mechanics of Holacracy, our team dove into a dark place where we lost our previous natural sense of how to maintain personal relationships as a part of our professional collaboration. Suddenly, everything felt mechanic, cold, and distant and there seemed to be no place to connect from person to person. Our Holacracy coach kept on telling us: “Holacracy structures how you work together; how you want to relate to another, what we call ‘tribe space’, that is up to you to define.” We didn’t know what to do with this advice – “tribe space” was a term that didn’t resonate and sporadic attempts to create a “tribe space” were mostly left unattended. Critical colleagues raised concerns about a serious loss of trust in the team saying we have a big problem.

Step 3: April to May 2016 – Addressing dormant people issues. These dark three months forced some previously unaddressed and uncomfortable people issues into bright daylight. We had learned to talk straight and to listen to one another – one of the great benefits of Holacracy’s very mechanic technics. This dialogue culture enabled us to openly address pain points that we didn’t have the courage to address before. We realized that not everybody would make it and we made generous offers to those that would not be able to dance this new journey of self-responsibility and co-creation with us at a much heightened innovation speed. These talks didn’t help the sense of darkness in the team, to the contrary, now the problems were in the open and things looked and felt bleak.

Step 4: June to August 2016 – Inventing a new recruitment process. Connected to step 2, we were facing some serious recruitment challenges that resulted from having addressed the people pain points. Quite unknowingly, we stumbled into a number of new practices that entirely overhauled our recruitment process. We started to ask very different questions to candidates, asked them to write an essay about how they might do in a self-organizing structure, and we used new strength-based assessment tools. We formalized a policy that the committee should consist of concerned colleagues that were intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the roles a new-hire would take. The blog “we are hiring for DNA” explains this well.

Step 5: September to October 2016 – Questioning the performance evaluation and bonus system. During the busiest time of our year, we also had to do our performance reviews. Given that we were new at self-organization, we didn’t quite know how to do this in our new setting. Those partners who cared formed a committee that defined in a few pragmatic sessions a process that seemed reasonable and time efficient. The result: a small disaster! By now, our team was entirely comfortable to discuss uncomfortable issues collectively and we quickly assembled a list of things that didn’t work. We agreed that we no longer wanted to tie our financial bonus to our peer-based performance review. So how to advance? Simply, a call to those among us to self-organize and propose a better system for the coming year. This is an excellent example of what is called “safe enough to try”. We tried, it didn’t work so well, we still all accepted and embraced the consequences and vouched to do better next year. No hard feelings! As you can see, the goodwill and the trust were back – in a very new and different way. Not a trust in a boss or a hierarchy, nor a need to plead for personal favors, a trust in our way of making decisions, a trust in the ability for everybody to speak up and be respected, a trust that the others cared.

Step 6: November to December 2016 – The real test with titles and new-born authority.With our new-hires in place and with priorities cleared for the coming months, the question arose as to what to do with our old titles, in particular, “the Dean”. We recognized that our outside world demanded such a title and position, even if, internally, we had delegated its accountabilities into a variety of roles and circles and the Dean was no longer a reality for us. There were four of us with external roles that at times resembled what is traditionally called a “Dean” role. In a governance meeting we discussed, argued, considered, reflected, rejected, improvised and eventually agreed that we shall be having the “Dean” title available to those who have an external representation need, clarifying that four people can use the title in four different special areas, such as academic programs, executive education, thought leadership, applied research. The website adjustment is still underway and shows how hot a potato titles are. Meanwhile, new authority arose elsewhere: we will be making three significant leadership changes on 1 January 2017 in three key circles. Leadership in the sense of ensuring that resources and competencies are directed at realizing the identified mission. As my last act of “letting go”, the BSL Company Lead Link (a position even the Holacracy inventor Brian Robertson still holds at his company) will be energized by Carlo Giardinetti, while Branko Saintakes over the School Lead Link and Massimo Baroni takes over the Support Service Lead Link. All of these appointments are announced as being intended for the year 2017, and we shall be seeing who has appetite and talent to embrace such roles thereafter.  Denitsa Marinova has risen to be our inspiration in her new people role, offering daily positivity challenges during the Advent months. David Kibbe says that he feels that partners take more time to connect personally, creating a foundation for getting things done so much more easily. And last but not least, our newly invented Gap Frame Weeks have transformed the way the administration and the faculty interact with the student body, something that was palpable at our Holiday Season Party, which was a huge success. We are closing the year on an unprecedented high, “looking back at the pain with appreciation and understanding” (Aurea Almanso) and “feeling new wind beneath our wings” (David Kibbe). Welcome 2017 – we are ready to embrace whatever is thrown our way!

Are these six steps necessary? Could we have anticipated or planned for them? Can you learn something from these? Do these steps provide insight into cultural transformation? I am not sure. Yet I am curious to continue with our “action research” to see if there is anything we and others can indeed learn, if only in hindsight. And that is one of the purposes of a year-end reflection, too!

To my blog correspondent, Kathy, I wish you strength to continue with your own personal journey of sense-making, most particularly in the coming year. It is a privilege to co-write this blog with you as it brings my own reflection about how to enable organizations to become sustainable and to contribute to taking the common good to new heights. Thank you for that and thank you for sharing so authentically your own journey in your last blog.


When Values Collide

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

In looking back over the blogs Katrin and I wrote this year, I noted that “change” is a theme connecting most if not all of them. We discussed the urgent need for change, various levels of change, forces that propel change as well as those that hinder it. We examined the need to understand our own change-related assumptions. We offered suggestions for how to become change experts. And last month Katrin described an engagement with a client where she facilitated a change process. All along we have acknowledged that change is difficult. This month I will reflect on how recent change-related challenges have confronted me personally and what I have learned as a result.

When Katrin and I were together this past summer, we discussed how differences in strongly held values complicate a change process requiring commitment. Just as we aren’t willing to compromise our own values, neither are others whose values diverge from our own. I came away from our conversation with a firm belief that that this dilemma deserved significant attention. Soon thereafter, I was faced with the very quandary that we discussed. Currently I am still looking for a clear path towards a solution.

While only just barely surviving emotionally from the U.S. presidential election, I am struggling to find a way to respond to others who welcome a political change that I believe violates my deeply rooted values. To make matters worse, many who seem to be embracing these changes are my childhood friends and family members. My unanswered question is whether we can find a way to move forward together.

I must admit my first inclination has been to avoid any uncomfortable interactions with those whom I perceive to be on the “opposite side”. Of course, readers of this blog know that I have argued against this behavior repeatedly and in fact throughout my entire professional life. I am not unaware of the dangers in adopting avoidance as a long-term solution. However, while my emotions are still high, ducking these uncomfortable interactions may be healthy for the short term.

As I look to the longer term, I wonder if I will ever be able to bridge what feels like a yawning gap dividing me from many others. Of course I am all too aware of the advice that I have offered others in this same predicament over the years. I have consistently advocated acknowledging the legitimacy of varying worldviews. I have urged others to accept the fact that some core values are deeply embedded and are difficult, if not impossible to challenge. Therefore the best approach is to seek to understand and perhaps find some overarching common ground.

Thus I have proposed that the best way forward is to engage with others in open and nonjudgmental conversation where each respects the other’s points of view. I do still stand by all of these suggestions for many if not most conflicts that rest on values differences.

However, at the same time I believe that some changes are worth resisting. It seems to me that occasionally we will be confronted with opinions and behaviors that are not worthy of respect even if they do represent the values of others with a different worldview. This is a conclusion that I draw reluctantly. I like to think that there are always avenues for finding common ground.

Nevertheless, I have concluded that sometimes we may face circumstances where respecting the values-driven opinions of others violates our own moral codes. Undoubtedly these situations are rare. And the trick is in recognizing them. Personally, this task is difficult for me. I, like most, am very good a rationalizing my own attitudes and behaviors. My avoidance of engaging with dissimilar others around the issues raised by the recent election could in fact be a rationalization. Or it could represent my being true to myself. I do believe that, at times, resistance is not only acceptable but also imperative. And, of course, I am aware that avoidance is not the same as resistance. Therefore to choose a path I must question my own motives and delve into actions that my convictions justify.

I am ending this blog with no firm conclusion concerning which path is the right one for addressing my current challenges. What I do know is that I must continue to ask these questions hoping that I will find an answer that I can embrace with conviction.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.