Transcript: The Culture of The Living Organisation (EP48)
Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things Podcast. I’m your host, Brendan Rogers, and this is episode 48. Today, I'm talking with Norman Wolfe. Norman is the founder and CEO of Quantum Leaders. He's a leading voice in bringing about a transformation of the core paradigm of business. Norman is a 15-year veteran of Hewlett-Packard. He's led companies large and small, being a public company director, and has over 30 years consulting and mentoring leaders in a wide range of industries.
He's the author of the Living Organization which is an application of the core principles of how the world works to how organizations and individuals can create extraordinary impact. The focus of our conversation today is The Living Organization Framework and how it can help leaders in organizations achieve the results they’re aiming for.
Norman, welcome to The Culture of Things Podcast.
Norman: Thank you, Brendan. It's nice to know you and it's been a pleasure getting to know you. It’s nice to be here.
Brendan: Thank you for coming on. We've had a bit of a chat before the podcast as I always like to do. We continue to get to know each other. You're a mystical sort of person. You told me about your love of pottery. Tell me a bit more about this.
Norman: I'm a philosopher by nature. That's the core center of my being and in that world, I'm thinking about big picture things, small, how do you apply it to daily living and all that. I was blessed to marry a woman, my wife Jane, who is a creative type. She's an artist. She's an eclectic artist. She gets involved in all different kinds of art forms, which has really been wonderful, challenging at times because we literally live in two different worlds and see the world from two different lenses if you will.
That's also been a beautiful thing because I've expanded her world and she has certainly expanded my world. Learning to see the world through a different set of eyes. Through her, we built a ceramic studio a year ago because she likes to sculpt in clay and I was always drawn to this mystical notion of the pottery wheel, throwing plates and dishes. I don’t mean throwing against the wall. I mean shaping cups, mugs and vases, and dishes out of clay.
That's how I got into it and you're right. It does have a mystical and spiritual aspect to it. There’s something about working with clay that has taught me a lot about working in life. There’s a corollary between molding clay and molding life outcomes. The thing about clay that I'm learning is if you try to force it, it's not very cooperative and every piece gets messed up. It just gets out of round, off-center, it collapses, it’s too thin in one place, too thick in another.
But if you learn to be in a relationship with the clay, if you learn to communicate with the clay and listen to the clay and sense the clay, it almost becomes a dance. The clay wants to form into your hands if you let it. It becomes easy and magical and beautiful all at the same time, which is very similar to other things in life I do like golf. Golf is a 90% mind game. Once you learn the basic physics of the movements and body movements, most of life becomes this kind of dance with life. I'm a mystical guy. I see life through that kind of lens.
Brendan: We’re going to dive into that. The interesting thing when you started talking about clay and how it doesn’t always hold upright when you force it. It sounds a bit like people. When you force them into doing things, they don’t always play the ball game that you want. Let's talk about that and the Living Organization. First of all, I just want you to explain fundamentally what is this Living Organization Framework, and what is this book you’ve authored?
Norman: Well, to understand The Living Organization Framework, it's useful to have a contrasting point of view and if you think about the way we go about creating outcomes in life, we focus a lot on the things we do to get what we want. Certainly, in business which is where my passion lies is people in organizations coming together to try to accomplish an objective or goal to serve our community or our customer base.
If you look at how we think about getting the outcomes we want, the results we want, it's very mechanistic. I’ll go back to the clay example since we started with that. I want to make a ball, what I'm going to do is I'm going to put the clay on the wheel. I'm going to spin the wheel. I'm going to simply put my hands and it's going to magically center itself and I'm going to open it up. I'm going to just shape it right into it and that's it. Off you go gentlemen and ladies, go make it happen.
That's the way we run businesses. It's very rational, logical, organized, sequential, what we call activity-based. If people have the right skills and the right knowledge and the right understanding, they would just do what's necessary and get the job done. That would be nice if organizations were really machines and people were really the component parts of the machine that I am able to tweak each person and then just plug them in and then off the machine goes.
Unfortunately, that's not the way it works. We struggle to get the results we want because we're dealing with only one dimension of whether it makes how results get creative. In our earlier conversation, I was mentioning, if I was a coach—let's say I was coaching for skiing or golf or just coaching you in marketing, whatever you are trying to achieve and I was your coach—I would look at your skill set, your activity, what you do and how you do it, your form and then I'll make suggestions about how to change that.
Also probably since no man is an island or no woman is an island, I would probably look at the relationships you have and what’re your interpersonal skills—when you're talking to somebody, what's your tone, and what's your sense of connection, how well do you listen and all that—because you're not going to accomplish your goals if you're golfing or you're on the course and you piss everybody off. Your caddy doesn't want to help you and you're not getting the advice you need during the round and you know it all. Who needs anybody?
Your relationships will impact how you get things done. I also, as a coach, recognize that your mindset, your belief systems, your assumptions about what is and is not possible about how life works and what happens when XYZ, how are you supposed to respond because you've been programmed through life experiences to respond that way, what we call the context of your life.
As a coach, I'm going to worry about all of that. If I don't I'm not being a very effective coach. If you look at the greatest coaches of teams or individuals, they pay more attention to the context that you bring into the activity than the activity you're doing. You reach a certain level of competency. It's not your skills anymore that's getting in your way. There's not one pro golfer on the golf course, or skier, or product who doesn't have the basic skills necessary to achieve the goals.
There's nobody in marketing or sales that has been there a couple of years that doesn't have the basic skills. We can write off the activity as the dominant problem. That's what we keep focusing on. Let's improve the processes. Let's improve the activity. Let's streamline the machine then let's make it more efficient. We ignore the relationships and context.
Brendan: Yeah, again a great perspective. Sometimes leaders falling into those machinery taught pots much easier to measure than the context relationship parts. I want to tap into that, given that we're a culture leadership and teamwork podcast. You mention context a bit and relationships. You've also used the term human dynamics, not in that conversation but previously in reading up on some of the stuff. Can you just explain that a little bit more because context is just so important in life?
I know in the work that I do, I talk a lot about situational awareness and it sounds like context situational awareness is quite similar. Can you share a bit more detail around that for us?
Norman: An easy way to understand and to understand culture since you talk a lot about culture on this podcast, if I look at an organization as a living being, as a person, people have certain attributes. They have certainly certain skill sets. They also have a personality. You can tell this. Think back to the Apple and Microsoft commercials. Apple was represented as this cool guy and Microsoft was represented as a stiff suit-and-tie kind of person. You can almost see that play out in the way the products operate, in the way the company itself operates.
They have personalities. Every organization has a personality. Go inside an organization and ask the CEO, what's the sales department like versus the accounting department? They will have absolutely zero problems explaining the personality. They will call it that, explaining the personality. You can think of culture as an organizational personality. Because it is. What makes up our personality? One might call beliefs, my assumptions about life, the choices I'm going to make, and behaviors that stem from those core assumptions.
Those core assumptions, those foundational beliefs, those deep-seated values and beliefs about what the meaning of life is. To really send them stories. It’s the stories of life that I walk around with which guide my behaviors. The reason I call them stories is because stories can be changed. That's a key point. Every coach knows that. Call it reframing your context or reframing your stories.
Think about it, if I have an outcome I want to achieve as a leader, I'm doing A and I want to start doing B. Pretty much every leader knows that if I'm going from A to B but we don't change the behaviors, we keep doing the same thing over and over again, I'm not going to get the outcome. The oldest definition, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
We do everything we can to try to motivate the change in behavior, but the problem is behaviors are natural outflows of context. We're trying to change behavior, but not addressing the context. You can call that double insanity. I mean how would we ever get the outcomes we want if we don't understand the existing stories as the company grew and how that has reinforced certain behavior patterns? How that context has created the systems and processes we fall into day after day, the rituals, the informal systems and processors, the meaning behind the activities?
If we spent time reframing those underlying stories and creating a new one, a new scaffolding, new rituals, and processes, how are we ever going to get them? We can't. Do you want to know why 70% of all strategic initiatives fail to achieve their objectives well? There’s probably a pretty good reason behind it. The good news is and this is where I spent time creating and building an organizational model, it was really designed to answer these questions.
The good news is that there is another way that makes achieving results so much easier. Just stop thinking of it as a machine and start thinking of it as a human being. One little problem is you got to learn some new skills. You got to learn the skills of a coach not the skills of a business leader in the traditional sense. You got to learn how to develop, mature, nurture, grow the shifting context, help the collective develop a new way of being. I had one CEO, when he finally clicked with him when I was talking about it, he said, oh my God, If I change the context of the collective it will change the context of all the people in it.
I go, now you're catching on. Everybody comes in and does culture change or try to change the individuals and start at the grassroots and work their way up, we worked the other way around. We change the context of the collective. People will leave the shift with the context or self-select out to do anything. If a person doesn't want to play rugby and they'd rather play football, they're going to choose a different game. If we’re all of a sudden a rugby team and now we're playing football, some people aren’t going to want to play that. That's okay.
We shouldn't force people into being something that they're not. At the same time, when you open up new opportunities, you get a whole lot of people who love to play football to come join your team and then really flourish in that environment. With the Living Organization, we actually solve two problems. Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. One is, we make organizations much more effective at creating the outcomes they want because we understand all of the dynamic forces that are affecting it, what we call an activity relationship in context.
The second problem we solve is we create an organization where people flourish. The more they flourish, the more they contribute. The more they contribute, the more the organization achieves its goal. The more it achieves its goal, the more people flourish. You got a positive vicious cycle if you will. That's the beauty of The Living Organization Framework.
Brendan: There are not too many leaders around that wouldn’t have thought that they wouldn't like some of those outcomes every day in the businesses they're working in. Let's go into the parts of The Living Organization—there's energy, there's a living being, and there's the Living Organization approach. Can you talk a bit about those three areas and the importance of them?
Norman: The first key thing is to recognize that these three forces—activity, relationship, and context—are constantly playing off each other, constantly in a relationship. You have to understand how they work. First of all, you have to accept that they exist and that they're present whether you are paying attention to them or not, that they're having an impact. It’s like sailing a boat across the river, you can say I don't see the current. It doesn't exist.
I don't know what to do with the current. It doesn't exist, good luck. The current exists and it’s going to impact you. You should learn about the current. We teach about activity, relationship, and context forces and how to address them. The one that's least addressed or most uncomfortable is context because for a lot of people that's like, wait a minute I'm getting inside a person's head. I shouldn't do that.
There’s an old implied rule of the existing leadership paradigm, it’s you don't talk about attitude. You don't mess around with people's belief systems and all of that. That's really silly because the belief system is what's driving that behavior. Now, how you do that is another skill set you need to learn. I want to be very clear about it. You just don't go in them and mock with a person's belief. It doesn't belong to you to mock with. But you can make it visible and you can bring people to a place of choice where they can choose whether they want to hold on to their belief system or shift it so that they become more effective of what they want to do. This is the coaching notion I was talking about.
One of the key theories behind the Living Organization and we call it the three-dimensional view of an organization is recognizing that it’s got an activity relationship in context operating all the time. Because everything flows from context, context has the highest leverage fact for a leader.
If you're learning to work with context energy, which has to do with understanding the beliefs, understanding the stories that formulate those beliefs, understanding how to engage people in releasing old beliefs or assumptions and adopting new ones, these are skills everybody can learn. I wasn’t a great coach when I was starting. I learned how to do this stuff. I teach other people how to do this and it’s not rocket science. That's the first part of it.
The second part is to recognize that a lot of the elements of managing a business are still very valid. Take strategy, for example, or your traditional SWOT analysis. What are my strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? If we just look at it from the traditional way, we’re going to leave off relationship and context. What if we did the SWOT analysis, instead of one-dimensional, three-dimensional?
We look at what are your strengths and weaknesses, what’s the underlying context that's creating that. If I can just change that, how would changing your strengths and weaknesses shift the balance of power? We take existing frameworks, existing tools, lean operations for process improvement or any sort of process improvement Six Sigma or Lean, whatever you want to use, total quality management. We just incorporate into that, this framework. We allow leaders to use the tools they know and just add the three dimensions to it rather than just one dimension. That's the second key.
The third key to this is the skill set that leaders need to do this. How do I walk into an organization and learn how to sense the context? You walk into most companies, just walk into the lobby of the company and you typically can pick up something about the company. There’s a feel to it. Walk into any restaurant and one restaurant will have a different vibe to it than another one.
What's happening is you're sensing some energy field. That's giving you a lot of information about what's going on. What if we can train you as a leader to be able to walk into a department and sense what's going on, pick up the vibe, pick up the personality vibration that's going on. Use that as additional information to guide you. There are some skills you have to learn as a leader. This sounds very airy-fairy maybe to a lot of people but when I was at HP, we learned this wonderful skill called management by wandering around.
It wasn't just to wander around aimlessly. Actually, we were taught, literally taught how to wander around to pick up information that will tell us before the reports were in, what the reports were going to say at the end of the month. I remember sitting down during our division reviews where we had all the sales managers and the salespeople come up and give us their business plan, how much they were going to do this coming year, how they were going to meet their quotas, and all of that. I’d listened to them. One guy would say, I'm going to do $1.9 million.
He’s sandbagging. He’s going to do more like $2.3 million. Another guy would come in and would say, I'm going to do $1.5 million. He's blowing smoke. He's going to do $1 million. I add up the numbers that I got from what they got. My boss who taught me how to do this would do the same thing. He and I would come up with almost the exact same number and that's the number we ended up doing.
You can sense when people are puffing things up when they're sandbagging. You just learn to sense this. It’s not what they say, it's just there's something about how they say it that comes across. You run into this all the time. You see somebody on the air and that just talking in a certain way and you go, [...]. BS meter, off his charts. Where is that information coming from? What if you can actually learn the skill of using that as a critical data point in your decision-making?
We teach certain skills, we call this skill heart-centered wisdom because really it's learning to tune in to the heart or the body's wisdom, the energetic field of the body, and learning to tune the data-gathering devices, the receiver to a different frequency. Then taking that information adding it with the head, the logical rational part with the other data, and then making a decision from the head and the heart. That's one of the skills we teach. That's really a critical one because from there you learn how to do heart-centered communication for example which is taking active listening to a whole other level.
Where I'm actually creating this field of energy around me as I'm listening to you and you're feeling it. You're feeling safe because I’m really connecting to you energetically, not just what I'm hearing. I’m not processing what you're saying and trying to figure out how I'm going to convince you with something. I'm just letting you be you. You want to talk about creating psychological safety in companies, that's probably the only way you're going to be able to do that.
These are the skills. The three parts are activity, relationship in context, learning to apply it to the existing tools you're already using, and learning some new skills as a leader to facilitate engaging and working with context and just picking up new information not only for people but from the marketplace and from the customers.
Brendan: Let's focus on the skills part. We can get people some actionable items and context—if there’s one takeaway for me today, it's the importance of context in the whole Living Organization Framework. You talk about the vibe, the personality. I love what you’re saying about culture as the personality of the organization. You've also mentioned heart-centered wisdom. I love that term.
Learning heart-centered wisdom is one of the skills and we’ll go into a couple of the other skills that you believe the most impactful to start with. How does a leader become better at heart-centered wisdom?
Norman: The first step that we teach is to understand, I used the word understand, but it's really more like accepting the reality that you are an energy receiver and transmitter. When I'm in a heavily mental state, I'm transmitting a certain frequency being in that state and people pick up. If I am upset, I don’t have to say anything, I just have to walk into the room. People know what it is. The concept is not hard to understand. Once you accept that then the question becomes how do I learn to manage that? How do I learn to tune my body?
Emotions and frequency are very highly correlated. One of the key emotions that we find and one of the reasons we call it heart-centered, one of the key emotions we find that allows the body to settle into a state of openness, curiosity discovery, trans-judgmental, knows without judgments or preferences, accepting things as a this is the state of love. I don't want to get to sound too airy-fairy because love is just a frequency that we vibrate at.
Just think of it as a specific frequency on a dial. It's easy to do. All you have to do is think of times when you feel loved, or inspired, or in awe like watching a beautiful sunset or seeing the smile of a baby just that pure innocence of a baby smile. I can see it in your face already. It doesn't take a lot to learn to shift the frequency of our body. That's one of the practices we teach in our workshop. It’s how to actually consciously choose to shift with the frequency of the body.
We call it learning-to-pause-center shifts. You pause your current blah, blah, blah, whatever is going on, bring your awareness to the center of your being—typically the heart, that's a good place to just visualize. Then bring in an image, a situation, an event that allows you to re-experience that state of being that you want to experience. All of a sudden, you're there. All of a sudden, life looks different. They all come to the workshop with a challenge. Our workshops are very practical in nature, very concrete and we apply all of these principles to that particular challenge so they can actually experience it in real life working.
We have them look at the challenge from this place. Actually, we have them do two things. One is to think of everything you've been thinking about and that's the challenge. Because it's not solved, they're still ruminating about it. We ask them to continue to ruminate about it. Then we say pause, center, shift. Now, enter into a relationship with the challenge like the piece of clay I was talking about earlier.
Let the challenge speak to you and see what shows up. Play with it. Dance with it and see if something new comes up. Seventy-five to eighty-five percent of the time people get some insight or wisdom on how to shift their thinking so that they now have new options to solve the challenge in ways they never thought of before. That's the power of it. It's an easy skill to learn. Of course, it requires practice. Things like mindfulness, meditation, other tools people can use to stimulate that.
Our approach really is just to get people to taste it, to have a positive experience of it so they're encouraged to practice it every day. Just spend 5-10 minutes centered in the heart and it gets so comfortable and so easy, that when you're in the middle of a crisis, you go, pause, center, shift. See it differently, and boom, you're there. I do it all the time. I'm not immune from getting really pissed off and upset at things. But I've learned the art of shifting myself and it allows me to engage the person, the situation with different quality, and that changes the outcome. That's one skill set. It's a key skill we teach.
Brendan: I'll get you to talk about a couple of other of the skills in a minute. But what I want to pull it back to and again, talking context, in the context of a leader or leaders being in these hustle and bustle workplaces that we suppose you're working, how do you give them a context where they need to make space for this, that they're seeing the benefits in making space for this in their busy lifestyle? How do you encourage them to give this a crack?
Norman: Well, I do it two ways. One is through our workshops, specifically. I'm giving them a taste of solving problems from a different place, that's got a whole lot less stress to it. The second place is if I'm coaching the leader which obviously I do a lot of, I'm inviting them to look at their context of why they feel they need to be in such control, such activity-based control. Then I invite them to experiment. I don't ask them to change the world overnight, but we find places where they can experiment a little bit and see how it changes the outcomes.
Are they getting the outcomes with less stress? Are they getting the outcomes with a sense of calm about it? Are they getting more insight? Are they learning a sense of pacing? Are they still achieving things? Are things happening faster or slower? I mentioned during our earlier talk, this is counter instinctual. I was talking about skiing and how leaning downhill is counter instinctual to everything. Every fiber of my body knows leaning downhill would kill me and yet, we know that leaning downhill, when you're on skis make going downhill a whole lot less effort, and really fast and just easy flowing.
I take them on bunny slopes. I don't take them to the top of the mountain and ask them to change overnight because that's silly. It's also dangerous. I take them on bunny slopes, experiment. Let's try it. Let's take one situation you're facing and see if this works or see how it works. How does it help? What belief systems are you holding that are preventing it? A lot of leaders have beliefs that they were conditioned within. They don't even know what they hold about what their role is. They don't know they can do something different and get better results. They're just operating from what they know is possible or what they can and cannot do.
We do a lot of coaching to help them and to help their organization shift as well. I have one leader who was talking to me like, I've been so busy. I'm just getting involved in some of the challenges led by people in and out of. He's going on and on and I said, wouldn’t you like to have an organization that can just handle that by themselves? His eyes rolled up and his body loosened and said, that would be so sweet. I said, that’s possible if we treat this department as a living being and we help mature them.
It's just like you got kids who keep coming to daddy asking you what to do. Sally over here is not behaving the way she should and she's getting in my way. You'll get sucked into all those day-to-day problems. What if you have people, individual organizations as a person, and you help mature them so they know how to talk to each other and solve their own problems, and manage the conflicts in a way that's good for the whole? Just like you do with your kids and the family. Wouldn’t that be [...]? Can that really be possible? Off we go, we teach them how to do that. That's how we deal with it. We try to help them see a new way of thinking could be possible.
Brendan: A little while ago, you mentioned control and flow. Once again, can you talk to that a little bit in the context of The Living Organization Framework, and just the mindset around leaders that come from this place of control versus flow, and what a difference flow actually makes?
Norman: Well, you keep bringing me back to some of my metaphors like skiing and pottery.
Brendan: They are fantastic metaphors. Maybe that's why I'm in the flow of bringing you back to those.
Norman: The funny thing about my life is I'm a control freak. I spent my whole life trying to control the outcomes I get. Like everybody else, I want what I want, when I want it, and why wouldn’t I? When something flowed really easily, and it was almost effortless, I go, I want more of that. When things were really hard and I struggled, I got what I wanted but, boy, was it a struggle and fighting, I’d go, I like the outcome but can I do it more like the other way than this way?
I spent my whole life basically seeking that. It goes back to pottery as I talked about. The clay wants to move to the shape of my hands if I don't force it. I just ease it into it, flow. I ski much better if I don't force the skis around. But I allow the skis to do what they're designed to do, flow. I can create better results if I work with these energies of life, especially the energy of context, knowing how it shapes behaviors. I can shift that context so that my belief systems and the underlying assumptions from which my behaviors flow naturally, and the outcomes flow from my behaviors.
If I can shift my context, then I will behave the way that gives me the outcomes I want. I don't have to work on that. I don't have to use a lot of muscle and willpower, and control over things. It's just the way I believe. If that's the way I believe, that's true. That has a lot to do with people’s mindset or our thought patterns, and how we think, and what we're thinking. Control, I've learned, comes out of the fear of me not getting what I want. Flow comes out of the belief that what I want will naturally happen.
Call them two different mindsets, but one is really easy. It's almost like miracles happen, like how did that happen so easily? I didn't even work hard. Some people have a belief system that if you don't work hard, it's not supposed to happen. I've got to work hard. But think about that belief system. If that's my belief system if that's what I think and that's what I'm going to do because I can't create any other way, life's going to be hard.
They're going to complain, oh God, life is so hard. Why is it so hard? Well, it's so hard because you believe it’s so hard. It's that kind of understanding that allowed me to create more of what I want, and work with the flow of life. Stop fighting against it and invite the clay to form into the way I want it to form, and let it do its thing. I will just be a container holding it to allow it to do it. If leaders thought about the job like that, like they were a container shaping and letting the energies flow into that shape naturally, they wouldn't have a lot of effort to get what they want.
In Frederic Laloux's book, Reinventing Organizations, he talks about my model and he talks about how leaders who follow this plan basically, lead with context make things happen in such an easy way, it almost happened by magic. It’s the way his quote goes. That's what I've always believed. It's magic only because it looks so easy. You can't possibly be in control of it. It's just happening by magic, but really it's a skill we can learn.
Brendan: Yeah, beautifully put, mate. The scene that keeps coming into my head crazily but I think when you talk about flow and, is this why it's such a famous scene in people's heads, Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, in that movie Ghosts? The pottery didn't end up too well but some other things flowed. A risk of making this episode the wrong type of episode. We won't go into that. But I can sort of feel what you're saying just having that thought come back into my mind. How about you give us a couple of other what you would consider the most impactful skills, keys around context to help leaders get better in this area?
Norman: We have three other core skill sets besides heart-centered wisdom. Obviously, heart-centered wisdom is learning the foundational skill of tuning the frequency of the body. It's in tune and can pick up information and can transmit the energy that will facilitate people feeling safe and wanting to get involved in some of those things, increase engagement, increased psychological safety, and all that. We’re learning certain skills around centering the heart.
The next key skill set is what we call storytelling and ritual. This is critical to understand how we create the stories of our lives that give life meaning. Learning how we create them allows us to learn how to reframe them. Learning how we build what we call scaffolding to support our existing stories, rituals, reactions, responses to life. It's not just a story, but it gives the story meaning. I'm typically an organized person. Organization is one of the stories that I create that says if I want to be successful, I want to not waste time.
Getting things organized, having things put in a particular place is a good thing. Well, a creative person, an artist, for example, doesn't think putting things away isn't really important. Getting things done efficiently isn't really important. It's allowing that freedom and the creative spirit and a little bit of chaos. Their lives are oriented completely differently. It's not one is better than the other. It's just the story I tell about how I'm going to be successful as an engineer—logical, rational, scientific—is very different. I want to eliminate chaos. Artists want to swim in chaos because out of chaos comes creativity. Two different worldviews and they're both valid. The question is how do we dance with both?
Storytelling and ritual, understanding these stories and how they get created, and how to work with them, and how to give them meaning, and how to support them with different structures for the organization as a whole, the person of the organization, is the second skill set.
The third skill set is what we call an improv mindset. If we really think about life today versus, whatever, 20, 30, 100 years ago, people talk about a vulgar world. Well, volatility comes out of uncertainty. Complexity creates ambiguity. If we're living in an uncertain world and we really can't predict and control what's going to happen next, what's going to be around the corner, how new competitors going to show up out of nowhere, how technology is going to shift the dynamics and taxi companies are going to be threatened by Uber who doesn't have an asset to its name and yet, they're having all the traffic or Airbnb, who doesn't own a hotel, you don't know what's going to come and hit you.
Facebook in the 1990s or 2005 whenever they came out, changed the whole dynamic of marketing overnight. Everybody had to throw out their marketing plans. We are not trained to deal with uncertainty, to deal with these interruptions to our normal patterns. But there's a group of people that literally trained themselves and it's an art form that's been around for well over 3000 years dating back to the Roman times called improvisation.
You got Improvisation Theater, you've got an improvisation comedy which most people think about improv is comedy. You get the improvisation music which is jazz. You've got improvisation all over the place. Improvisation art. My wife is an artist and she does a lot of improv quilting, which is quilt without following any pattern. Just improvising it. Improv is a wonderful skill set and one of the things it teaches you is how to accept whatever shows up and deal with it as it is, without getting fallen off-center.
One of the skills that are very helpful in doing that is heart-centered wisdom. Being able to stay centered and who you are, without preference or judgment to whatever shows up is a state of being that you can learn. We teach that, and then how to build on that, how to riff off of that and to create something beautiful. You can think of brainstorming on steroids when we do improv problem-solving. It's like really getting into the juice of creating something absolutely crazy and then finding some magic in all that. That's exactly what everybody has been looking for. Improv mindset and how to utilize that, and how to work with it is a third skill we teach.
The fourth skill we teach really addresses this issue of complexity, and the ambiguity that it creates is, and we call it, integrating opposites. It comes a lot from Barry Johnson's work on polarity thinking. I want to give a shout-out to his work because we draw a lot from that. Basically, it's the recognition that the physical world is naturally made up of duality. You talked about how I’m a mystical guy. I'll jump into that a little bit. Think about everything—a yin and a yang, a black and a white, an up and a down, an in and an out.
You can't have a coin that's just a head. It's got to have the tail. But everything in life has its opposite. We think of opposites as opposing forces, and one is always better than the other, or one is preferred over the other. That's like saying, hey, I want a coin with only a head. I don't want any tails or vice versa. Okay, which one do you want? You know that's not possible. They go together.
Integrating opposites is learning how to make opposites complement. How do they play with each other? How do they dance off each other? When is the negative of one the positive of the other? How do I learn when to shift the balance? A couple of the classic ones in business is stability versus change. If all you had was change all the time, there'd be nothing ever settled. You wouldn't have a sense of who you are, what do we believe in. It’s always changing. There's no substance there. It’s just mush.
If all I had was stability, that'd be great. I'd have all those things I'm missing. There could be no dynamism. It's boring. It's the same old, same old every day. Human nature, life, itself flows naturally from one to the other and being able to sense where you are in that flow. Another big one is centralization versus decentralization. There are times when we want to centralize the hell out of the organization, and then we want to let it go. Then we want to bring it back and then we want to let it go, and then we want to bring it back.
You got to get into that flow—again, there’s that word's flow. The reason flow keeps coming up is you'll see everything is energy. You just can't get away from it. It's everywhere. We're learning more and more that life is nothing but energy. The Living Organization Framework is just really grounded in that concept in saying we as humans as living, creative, imaginative species, which makes us usually different from other living systems, we got this thing called imagination. It's phenomenal, but it's just energy.
It's the way we create and if we learn to work with these energies, we can do things a lot with a lot less effort, like going down the hill on skis is a lot easier than trudging through the snow foot by foot. That's what we're trying to accomplish. Those are the four skill sets—heart-centered wisdom, storytelling and ritual, integrating opposites, and improv mindset.
Brendan: Four fantastic skills. If we had time, I'd like to dive into each. The first three, I guess the heart-centered wisdom, or storytelling and rituals, and the improv mindset, to me, seems like such a foundation of connection with people. The opportunities to connect which is a real key for me in that link to context. But the last one you mentioned, integrating opposites, how challenging or not do you find that nowadays in getting leaders especially to think around integrating opposites? Why I asked that is, society seems to be one way or the other nowadays. You're either left or you’re right or you’re this or you’re that. Talk about that a bit.
Norman: You're right. Integrating opposites is probably the most significant thing we can learn to do and it's all relationship-based also. You point out that you see it in society all the time, but you can take it back to an organization. I said individuals create their own reality by creating their own stories. They create a sense of right and wrong, and how I should behave in any given situation. There are two dynamic forces.
One is, how can I make sure I'm safe in this crazy world because it's going to eat me up if I'm not? And two, how do I be successful? I want to be successful in life. Whatever that looks like, however a person defines success, they want that. We create what I call a worldview or literally think of it as a world. In that world, in that bubble, if you want, everything works really nice.
Then I come across and I meet somebody that's not inside my world. Usually, it's called another human being and they're beautiful but they have a different world shape or worldview and they live in their world. It's beautiful in their world, and everything works well. Now, these two people come together, and two worlds collide. Some people call that conflict and that's what conflict is—two worlds are colliding. Most people view conflict as not so good. We should avoid it, or minimize it, or mitigate it, or manage it. I say, no. Let's play with it. Let's dance with it. Let's embrace it because what that really does is it gives me as an individual the ability to expand my world by appreciating that other world.
I'm an engineer, logical, rational. I come across a person who's an artist, totally chaotic. If I open myself up to understanding the beauty, I can play with chaos once in a while. That's not too bad and look at all the creativity and the inspiration that comes out of it. Then I can take the chaos and organize it in my nice little world. The chaos person or the artist person says, oh, I get a little bit more efficient than what I'm doing if I add just a tiny bit of organization to my chaotic world. I don't have to give up my old chaos.
That's called integrating opposites. To put it in practical terms, my sales department has one personality, one worldview. In their worldview, the rest of the organization has to operate to fit their worldview and the classic thing is, hey listen, without sales, you don't get the lights on. Do it our way. You're here to support us. We’re the kingpins. You can almost see that in almost every sales organization in one form or another. They're right in their world, but operations who want to help sales, simply say, if you really understand what we're trying to deal with, if you just give us somewhat accurate forecasts, we can actually give you a product and time to deliver.
Again, two different worldviews. All it takes is learning to integrate the opposing points of view. Integrating opposites is really another very critical element. I hope I gave you some practical insight into how that gets applied.
Brendan: You did, mate and once again, you articulate things really well. I love that whole dance with conflict. I'm a believer, too. Conflict is a good thing provided to round issues and topics that we really want to get a great outcome for. As soon as it crosses that boundary in a personality it gets a bit dubious.
Norman: Here again, I'll just get back, heart-centered wisdom opens us up to being able to listen. We don't feel threatened. We have psychological safety within us when we're in that state of frequency. We can open and explore and discover with the other and we're creating that sacred, safe psychological safety space for them to share their point of views because we're not going to jump on them. That's why heart-centered wisdom is really a foundational skill to almost everything.
Brendan: Great link back. Thank you very much. Look, to start to wrap this up. All of these years of experience you've had and all of this wandering and pondering that you've done to come up with the Living Organization approach, what advice would you give, a single bit of advice you'd give to leaders in helping them go forward in looking at their organization as more of a living organization versus some mechanical machine, as you put it?
Norman: Can I give two pieces of advice?
Brendan: Why not? It's Friday. Let's relax a bit.
Norman: The first is to play with the notion, see the organization, each department, or each business unit—whatever reports directly to you as a leader, if you're a business unit leader, you have sales and marketing and operations reporting to you—see each of those departments as a person. Just play with that. Give it a name. See if it feels more masculine in nature or more feminine in nature. I'm not talking about male-female roles but more of the energetic. See if it's more logical, rational or if it's more caring or nurturing. See if you can identify its personality traits. Play with that concept and open up to that.
The second one is I'd ask them to imagine life as a flow. If they were creating the results with ease and effortlessness, what would that mean to them personally? How would their life be? They can deal with all of the struggles and challenges of their organization that they're facing now. It just looked like an easy flow down a river.
A couple of maybe white water things, but you’re confident that the people in the boat with you can navigate that. You can develop them to navigate even more challenging ripples that will come along. What would life feel like for you? That'll begin to hopefully open curiosity to want to explore some more.
Brendan: Mate, just sharing that has put me in a nice calm mental state, actually. I look forward to continuing that. People who want to learn a bit more about you and The Living Organization Framework, how can they do that?
Norman: Well, the easiest way is to go to our website, obviously, www.quantum leaders.com. We always give away a free gift for anybody that joins your podcast. Just go to quantumleaders.com/podcast and you'll get the first few chapters of my book for free. If any of the leaders listening to this podcast is interested, we have workshops available, webinars available. We have an events page on our menu screen.
Just go to our menu and look up events, click on that. We put on a workshop for leaders, people who are in charge of a group of people to make things happen. We also put on workshops for consultants who want to learn how to influence leaders to lead in a different way. That's all available on our website. We have a Q&A session for our workshop coming up on March 25th. That's also on our website on the events page. You can sign up for that if you want to learn more and engage with me on what is actually covered in that workshop, and how we can help you.
That's available and we have our webinars on the second Wednesday of every month, starting at 8:00 AM Pacific Time. That might be a little challenging for people in Australia. We haven’t found a way to cover the whole globe in one time slot. Somebody is going to get up really early or by the bed really late.
Brendan: It’s tough.
Norman: Those are some of the ways you can get ahold of us.
Brendan: Thank you very much, mate, and thank you very much for the kind offer of the first few chapters of your book. I know I've downloaded the book. I haven't had an opportunity to read all of it yet but for me, it certainly worth the download and read, some great concepts in there which you've shared with us today, mate. Once again, we'll put all those links in the show notes. People will be able to get a hold of you and make it really simple.
Norman, it's been a while coming, mate. I know that you and I spoke some time ago and connected through LinkedIn a while ago. You've been very patient with me. I've had a bit of a backlog of guests to work through. But today's your time, you've shone fantastically. I really appreciate the information you've shared with us. I've felt that this conversation has just flowed nicely. I hope you have.
Norman: I have, too, absolute pleasure today. I just love dancing with hosts like you and just make it easy. Thank you.
Brendan: I really appreciate it. Once again, Norman, thank you. It's been a privilege and thank you for being a guest on The Culture of Things Podcast.
Norman: Thank you for the work you do. It's wonderful. We're all trying to get life better for everybody. Thank you so much, Brendan.
Brendan: A pleasure. I found Norman to be such a calming presence. His soothing voice combined with his worldly experience and wisdom made me feel like he was moving with me, or should I say, dancing with me. It allowed for the conversation to flow.
Norman's also a man of many analogies. He shared a number during the conversation. I've always felt when people can explain frameworks or concepts through the use of analogies, they really know their stuff. They know it well enough to simplify it so anyone can understand it. Creating the organization, not like a machine, but as a human being, I think was one of his best.
Straightaway, this gave me an understanding of the Living Organization. These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Norman. My first key takeaway, culture is the organization's personality. What an elegant simple phrase that explains what is culture perfectly. Like people, every organization has a personality. We'll get on better with some people than others based on whatever we value about a person's personality. It doesn't always mean that the personality is bad, just different, and not one that resonates with who we are. Organizations and their culture are no different. Align yourself with an organization that has a personality that best aligns with you.
My second key takeaway, leaders must understand and work with context. According to Norman context is the least addressed and most uncomfortable for leaders to deal with. For me, context is about connecting with people and having some common sense around people and their behaviors. Many factors can impact context and if a leader cannot work with context or learn how to work with it, they should not be leading people.
My third key takeaway, the greatest leaders will embrace integrating opposites. We seem to be in a world where opposing points of view are the norm. There’s an ever-growing mob mentality mindset of where it's all okay, provided you agree with what the mob agrees with. The hardest thing to do is listen and seek to understand a point of view that you disagree with. Leaders who can use the skill of integrating opposites will stand alone as the greatest leaders.
In summary, my three key takeaways were, culture is the organization's personality, leaders must understand and work with context, we all need to be better at integrating opposites.
Don't forget to download the first three chapters of Norman's book, The Living Organization for free by going to www.quantumleaders.com/podcast.
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