Category Archives: Emergence

Heroic Leader or humble gardener?

Serendipity…that is only way I can explain it. How else can you describe Joi Ito and General Stanley McChrystal both saying that being a leader in the 21st century is more like being a gardener?  I was finishing “Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” and starting “Whiplash – How to Survive our Faster Future” and the analogy of “leader as gardener” is prominent in both. I was not shocked to read it from Joi Ito as the Director of the MIT Media Lab but I was somewhat surprised to see that General McChrystal, a retired four-start general whose last assignment was commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, embrace the idea.

I think what led them both to this concept was their understanding that we work and live in ecosystems and the very nature of an ecosystems makes the “command & control” theory of leadership obsolete. (If you are interested, you can read what Harvard Magazine, Forbes and Accenture all have to say about business ecosystems.)

Following is what General McChrystal wrote about the challenge inherent in addressing a new paradigm and I think it will resonate with many of us.

“Although I recognized its necessity, the mental transition from heroic leader to humble gardener was not a comfortable one.  From the first day at West Point I’d been trained to develop personal expectations and behaviors that reflected professional competence, decisiveness, and self-confidence.  If adequately informed, I expected myself to have the right answers and deliver them to my force with assurance.  Failure to do that would reflect weakness and invite doubts about my relevance.  I felt intense pressure to fulfill my role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime preparing.”

I think Joi Ito’s transition was a bit smoother due to his background but here is how he described it.

“In fact, in many ways, the word leading probably invoked the wrong image, since we often think of our leaders as having a tremendous amount of control and direct power.  Leading the Media Lab is more like being a gardener than being a CEO – watering the plants, tending to the compost, trimming hedges, and getting out of the way so that the explosion of creativity and life of all of the plants and wildlife in the garden are allowed to flourish….We have to become comfortable with the idea that we are not in control, that we can’t anticipate or even know everything that is going on, but we can still be confident and courageous. This allows us to embrace a diversity in thinking, approach, and timescales, and not force everything to be over-synchronized.”

These thoughts on leadership are not a stretch for me because I have long believed that the act of leading is like farming (gardening on a larger scale I guess) for the following reasons:

  • Control and ownership – You don’t really “own” the land as much as you work symbiotically with it to produce a result.  The only one in control is nature as many of the variables are far outside of your control and you can only develop a plan and contingencies but what actually happens is well beyond your ability to control.  It is much more about stewardship that anything.  You are entrusted with resources and the goal is to care for it while you are there and leave it better than you found it upon your departure.
  • Preparation & perseverance are key – There is definitely a cycle you follow and you have to be ready when the weather breaks and then you work till the work is done.  Your timeline really does not matter because the crops are ready when they are ready and not when you have the time to take care of them.  Prepping the soil, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting happen when all of the conditions are right and not before or after regardless of what you might have going on.  Also, once the works starts there is no stopping until the task is done…that’s why there are headlights on tractors.
  • Nature & nurture – It is obvious early on that you need to be aware and understanding of the “signs” that nature gives you if you are to be successful.  If you are aware, you can develop an understanding of the natural process and also accept that it happens on its own schedule without regard for your needs and wants.  That does not mean you can abdicate your responsibilities.  It means that you sense when opportunities arise and you continue to nurture the crops in an effort to produce the best possible outcome.  Nurturing is delicate work because you must strike the balance between ignoring and smothering.
  • Doing all the right things but still failing – There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you have the right things on the list and checking them all off…and still failing!  This is the ultimate lesson because it is when the universe lets you know that there is a master plan and you are not the master planner.  This is also when you finally realize that you cannot “make” anything happen and sometimes the harder you try to worse it gets.

I could not agree more with General McChrystal and Mr. Ito.  The interconnectedness we experience today will only continue to increase so we have to develop the skills that will enable us to succeed in an ever widening ecosystem and these are not the industrial age management and leadership skills we still see employed today.  Ecosystem leadership skills will be:

  1. productively disrupting the system
  2. internalizing feedback
  3. reorienting and recalculating
  4. leveraging energy (generated from the disruption) to move ahead
  5. rinsing and repeating

Question:  Are you ready to transform from “heroic leader” to “humble gardener”?

Answer:  It doesn’t matter because the ecosystem is not waiting on you because you are not in control.




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Filed under Emergence, Leadership, Looking in the mirror, Organizations

Musashi strikes again

Miyamoto  Musashi was a Japanese swordsman & samurai who lived approximately 370 years ago (1584-1645).  He wrote a book on strategy called “The Book of Five Rings” (Go Rin No Sho).  One of the more famous quotes from this book is the “From one thing, know ten thousand.”  Musashi believed that concepts could (and should) be applied across many disciplines.  A central discussion in the book exemplifies this as he compares carpentry with swordsmanship. 

With this concept in mind, I think businesses should pay attention to the changes occurring in the strategy of the U.S. military.  In the article, “Pentagon Shifts Its Strategy to Small-Scale Warfare”, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is challenging the traditional theory that we need to be able to fight 2 major wars at the same time.  He believes this is an outdated concept and focuses to heavily on conventional warfare.  He is moving toward a strategy that favors an expanded focus on low-intensity conflict.

What can we leverage from these learnings?  Should businesses be more attentive to danger of continuing to use traditional approaches within dramatically changing environments?  While the fundamental rules of business have not changed, there are significant differences to the environment that we need to be cognizant of.  If your actions are no longer as effective as they once were, what can you do?  I would suggest taking a look at USAF Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop.

If, during your planning process, you do decide to re-align your resources to support a more agile strategy; you may run into some of the same problems Secretary Gates may face:

  • A system built to support the traditional way (read this as many people who like it the way it is & have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo)
  • Unwillingness to confront the possibility that we have been viewing the external environment through an outdated frame of reference
  • Multiple stakeholders with a multitude of “metrics for success”
  • Just like the NFL’s instant replay, there must be incontrovertible evidence to overturn the call on the field (give me 100% assurance it will work before I agree to do it)

These are not the only challenges you may face but they are a start.  The key is to never let the fact that others may not agree prevent you from looking at the facts with a fresh set of eyes and providing logical & candid feedback.  Remember what Einstein said, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.”

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Filed under Adaptation, Emergence, Strategy


This past Friday, I had the pleasure to “sit in” on a webex presentation from Mike Henry Sr. who is the principal at the Lead Change Group.  I had originally stumbled across Mike on Twitter and have since connected with him on LinkedIn as well as Facebook.  Even though Lead Change Group talks about leadership & change, Mike’s heart is about people.  This is an easy thing to determine if you have the opportunity to speak with Mike for more than 5 minutes.  He is definitely on a mission and that is I wanted to share with you.

Mike started the Lead Change LinkedIn group on 3/30/09.  He jokingly told us that he sent 300 invites and 50 people joined (+15% is not bad).  As of today, there are nearly 600 members in the group they are holding their first f2f meeting February 19-20 in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

LeaderPalooza is an “un-conference” and the content will be driven by those in attendance…talk about a interesting meeting!  Very cool method of leading by example and actually using the meeting itself to drive home the very principles being discussed.

Not only am I interested in the Mike’s group & the terrific content that flows from it but it also represents an opportunity to watch this “emergent system” come into being.  (Now a short digression – I have posted about tribal learning and, after listening to Mike’s presentation yesterday & some great conversation today with Nate Riggs from Social Business Strategies, that concept has evolved into emergent learning & that is one of the reasons Leaderpalooza piqued my curiosity) Essentially, emergence is when complex patterns/systems arise out of simple interactions between agents in a system.  This also implies these interactions produce characteristics that cannot be found as characteristics of the individual agents – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Mike Henry Sr. has created an environment where we can engage with others who are believers & practitioners of character based leadership.  This will lead to the creation of new knowledge which is also and indicator of an emergent process.  One where the behavior of the system as a whole can feed back on the parts that make it up, changing the behavior of the parts…pretty cool, huh?

I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about character based leadership to take the trip to Ft. Lauderdale this February and check out Mike & the crew as they rock the leadership boat!

Here is the link to LeaderPalooza in case you missed it earlier.


Filed under Emergence, Leadership

Connecting the dots

I will warn you in advance that this post will take a few twists & turns and you may need a score card to keep track of all of references and connections, but at the very least it will be interesting.

I want to start with a list of the people/articles/events that served as the genesis for the idea of this post:

Over coffee earlier this week, Nick & I were talking about how business is changing.  We were discussing the impact of the notion of businesses as  “complex adaptive systems” and how this will affect how people work in the future.  Nick referenced the Digital Darwinism article in the context of how the people needed in businesses now are integrators and/or conductors. This stemmed from the fact that there was a need for people who can work across organizations and speak intelligently with people from any/all functional areas.  There are 2 very specific reasons for this:

  1. As we continue to embrace and understand that individual actions affect people throughout the system, it will no longer be acceptable to take action based solely on your needs without regard for others in the system.
  2. If the previous point is true then we will also need systems thinkers to assist in developing & executing initiatives as the pace of business continues to increase.

Nick had run into this recently with a client as they (dynamit) were discussing a new project.  Nick told his contact that they needed to have the CIO in the room to ensure their current system could handle the changes they were discussing.  There was shock all the way around but he CIO was called in and was appreciative of being included on the front end of the discussion.  In this case, Nick is the integrator and he is conducting the process.  This is the additional value he brings to the client because he does “get it”.  Dynamit has taken the approach that they do not just want to build a wonderful website but they also want the client to be able to maximize the impact of the changes.  As Nick said, “What good is increasing the traffic by 30% if it is either the wrong goal or there’s not sufficient infrastructure to support the increased business.  Either way, it’s bad news.”

Later in the day as I reflected on this, I read an article talking about how it will be quite some time before the jobs come back and many never will.  What really stuck in my mind was that in 2003, Alan Krueger calculated that 25% of US workers were in jobs the Census Bureau did not even list as occupations in 1967! As I reflected on this in context of my discussion with Nick, an idea began to take shape.  I guess it was more of a potential problem than an idea because the thought centered around the challenge of preparing for the future when it is evident we do not know what the future holds.

Later that same day, I was facilitating an MBA class on succession planning and the predicament became even more clear.  One of the more significant challenges in succession planning is determining what future competencies will be needed by the leaders in the organization to ensure they can move the business forward.  In addition, there is a need to balance polishing existing competencies for the current state and developing new ones for the future state.  This fits right into the old adage, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

What this led me to was the idea that what we really need is a list of meta-competencies that work in any business at any time and will truly be the foundation for anyone who wants to survive as the future catches us.  Here is what I came up with:

  • Generalized specialists – There will be a need to have a working knowledge of all areas of the business.  This goes beyond the ability to carry on a conversation and into the realm of functional literacy.  You will have to know enough so you know and understand these intricate relationships and how to leverage activities to produce results
  • Pattern recognition – The core of being a strategist is being able to “see” how all the pieces fit together sooner than everyone else.  A significant part of leading is solving a problem before it impacts the organization on a large scale and this is how it is done.
  • Knowledge aggregator – Being able to take what is learned and apply it entirely different scenarios enables one to be extremely efficient.  Seeking out new and different information and data strengthens your ability to recognize patterns as well.
  • Thrives in ambiguity – There is nothing certain and constantly wrestling with the fallacy of control only frustrates people.  We live in a complex adaptive system and there is not control.  I can disturb the system, but I cannot predict the results of that disturbance with any certainty.  I can, however,  leverage the energy created by the disturbance to get assist me in achieving my goal if I chose to.
  • Nimbleness – Being quick to learn, move, think, act, etc.  We have all heard the phrase “Light on your feet”, this is being “Light on your mind”.
  • Use data intuitively – Engage both sides of your brain and do not let one overtake the other (see nimbleness)
  • Play classical & jazz – Finally it is important to be able to follow both follow the music as it is written but also be able to improvise when the opportunity arises.

There is one thing I can say with certainty, it will not become easier unless we allow it to do so.  It is my contention that we make things more difficult than they need to be by trying to impose our will on the systems.  As Vollmer says in Digital Darwinism,  organizations are like ecosystems and they have their own set of rules.  We can choose to maintain the fallacy of control or we can embrace the opportunity that comes with being free of the need for control.

Just like Neo, you have to choose…red pill or blue pill?


Filed under Adaptation, Complexity, Emergence, Futuring

Why people will not change

I know that some will argue that I am getting into a semantic discussion but in this case I believe it entirely appropriate.  As we know, we are bombarded today with the need for change as it pertains to both individuals and organizations.  There is constant talk of the increasing rate of change and that we need to be able to adapt and embrace change in order to thrive and survive.  I agree in concept with those observations and accept that things are changing at an almost alarming pace and that we can, in fact, be left behind if we do not engage in the process.  The gauntlet that I am throwing down is that people should not, can not, and will not CHANGE.  Having said that,  I do believe in an individuals capacity to GROW.

Here are a few definitions to get the conversation started


  • To become altered or modified
  • To become transformed or converted
  • To make the form, nature, content, future course etc. of something different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone


  • To increase by natural development, as any living organism or part by assimilation of nutrient
  • To arise or issue as a natural development from an original happening, circumstance, or source
  • To come to by degrees

After reading these, how many people would rather be “changed” or given the ability to “grow”?  Here are some thoughts on one versus the other:

  • Change is done to us while growing is a choice.
  • Growing is a natural process that is done over time.  Change is usually on a much tighter time table
  • Most people like who they are and do not really want to change.  If given the proper feedback and support, many of these same people would embrace the opportunity to grow.

I know that changing the word choice is fairly insignificant but it could be extremely impactful if people began to embrace the implications of the terminology.  There is so much talk about changing organizations, the cultures within companies, the way we do business, the business model, the business strategy, and a myriad of other things but the the talk that is missing is about the real issue.  Any and all of these “changes” requires the PEOPLE that comprise the organization (the definition of an organization is “a group of persons organized for some end or work”) to DO SOMETHING DIFFERENTLY.  They will have to act, think, and/or believe differently if the organization is to be successful.  It is the cumulative result of all of the individual actions that may or may not produce the desired effect.  That is why change initiatives so frequently fail.  We forget we are not changing a THING we are trying to change PEOPLE and that is something most are not prepared to tackle.

Change is ubiquitous and perhaps the real issue we face is that acceptance that it is our need for growth that will never stop.  Human beings innately seek homeostasis or stability.  We like when things are predictable so we can fool ourselves into believing we have control.  That is the fundamental truth that is being challenged so we take control wherever we can and sometimes that is when others try to make us change.

Some time ago I heard this saying that has made a regular appearance in my lexicon, “A rising tide raises all boats”.  Perhaps if we changed our mindset and began to see the ultimate goal as striving to help each other continuously grow & improve, there would be less need for change initiatives?  Just a thought…


Filed under Adaptation, Emergence, Leadership, Systems Thinking, The Human Condition

Change is not coming, it is here!

This is a great video that I saw on Twitter compliments of Forefront here in Columbus, Ohio.

It is can be  exciting, awe-inspiring, or terrifying…it all depends on your perspective.


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Filed under Adaptation, Complexity, Emergence, Futuring

we are ants one and all…

antsI cannot help but be amazed at the “virtual anthill” we are all a part of on linkedin, twitter, facebook, et al.  When you read about the theories and ideas of emergence, one of the most consistent examples is an ant colony.  The reason for this is there is ruler of the colony only an collective intelligence that is gained from individual ant’s actions.  We know that ants are highly specialized but this is not directed but a result of a few simple rules.  The key is that if there were only 10 ants in the colony, it would not work but with thousands it becomes a highly effective strategy.

This is what we all do using technology.  We know our own simple rules and we connect and talk each day with people and apply our rules to these interactions.  Just like ants and pheromone trails, when we find someone or something of “value” we talk to others and that path becomes more heavily traveled as others follow us.  The alternative also holds true.  I was re-reading Steven Johnson’s book Emergence  and he points out 5 fundamental principles for building a system designed to learn from the ground level:

  1. More is different – In order to build it, there must be divergent points of view
  2. Ignorance is useful – Don’t think too much 
  3. Encourage random encounters – Thousands of individually arbitrary meetings can produce amazing results
  4. Look for patterns in the signs – You don’t need to be brilliant, just pay attention to the what you see
  5. Pay attention to your neighbors – Local information can lead to global wisdom

If you like these concepts, pick up his book as it provides some tremendous insights into emergent systems and will make you look differently at what we do each day…and why.

In the meantime, get our there and make some arbitrary contacts and see what happens!

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Filed under Complexity, Emergence, Real Life, Thinking about thinking