Moving Forward With an Imperfect Plan

The conventional lens puts great emphasis on planning and control. For many good reasons, we plan extensively. Yet there is an old saying that a plan never survives its first contact with implementation.

The positive lens values knowing but it also recognizes the value of learning. They are not the same. The positive lens seeks to integrate knowing and learning. It calls for the nurturing of collective intelligence and discovery in real time. Since many people do not know how to nurture collective intelligence or facilitate learning in real time, they engage in dysfunctional patterns. My son-in-law recently told of a work experience:

“Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, I had multiple conversations about a process at work that we’re trying to improve.  Each time I thought we reached consensus, members of the group brought up additional concerns–or changed their mind and expressed a different position.  It has been frustrating and discouraging at times.”

He took his discouragement home. He tells of using his personal disciplines to elevate himself. He was successful in his self-elevation efforts and returned to work with a new outlook. His account is instructive.

“I tried to listen more sincerely to my colleagues.  I proposed a path forward that would incorporate all of the feedback in one way or another.  As I did, I felt a renewed energy for the project.  It was almost like I realized we didn’t need the perfect plan going forward; we just needed to go forward.”

In this account he is integrating the conventional lens with the positive lens. In the positive lens we enrich relationships and build trust in our ability to engage uncertainty and learn in real time. When trust is present, faith and energy emerge. We go forward. Moving forward generates feedback. Processing the feedback leads to learning and the development of new organizational competencies. We begin to believe in our collective ability to move forward while learning in real time. People who learn to do what my son-in-law did, evolve into effective facilitators and they begin to be seen as organizational magicians. We stand in awe of their ability to get difficult things done.



  • How common is the conflictual process described here?
  • What are the consequences of seeking to create a perfect plan?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Key to Transformation

Managers make conventional assumptions. One of those assumptions is that people will change if they are given a rational explanation of why they should do something. Information will bring transformation. People of transformational influence recognize that transformation requires more than information.

Carl Rogers, the famous psychiatrist, understood this. Yet it took him years to make the discovery. He claims that in his early years as a therapist he asked himself how he could change his clients. As he matured, he came to a new and more effective question. He found himself asking how he could provide a relationship that the other person could use for his or her own personal growth.

Scott Peck, another noted psychologist, described growing into the second perspective. It took him years to discover that his clients tended to transform themselves when he cared enough about the relationship to model the self-change process. Only when he stepped outside the comfort of his defined role, only when he was willing to risk doing new things, did the client seem to change. When he cared enough to do the unconventional thing, the risky thing that enriched the relationship and brought love to the relationship, did other person change.

The leadership lesson is clear. The effective leader places the great value on the good of the community. The leader sacrifices for the collective good. The community becomes enriched. The people put more value in the community and they begin to experiment with making sacrifices for the collective good. As they do, they enter the elevated life state and they are also transformed. The key to change is not seeking to change other people the key is seeking to create a relationship or community in which the other people can better flourish. This means increasing my commitment to the collective good.


  • Why did it take two trained psychologists so long to learn how to help people?
  • What does their discovery imply for leaders?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Positive Culture and the Common Good

One of the key capacities of a positive leader is the ability to create a positive culture. It begins with the ability to subordinate one’s self to the collective good.

I know a man who is the CEO of a positive organization. He told me a story that is therefore highly instructive. His organization was invited to bid on a huge contract. Obtaining it would shape the company for years to come. Preparation took a year and involved many people from across the organization.

On the appointed day, the top management team made the presentation. It went perfectly. The hosts then asked if the project could be up and running in 90 days. The CEO assured them that it could. His COO spoke up. “That is not accurate. In 90 days we can be meeting a fraction of your needs but it will take 180 days to be in position to do what you are asking.”

In reflecting on this moment, the CEO said he was devastated. He was sure the contract was lost. Yet he did not say anything about anger.

When asked what happened to the COO. He said, “The COO was doing what I expected, he was telling the truth. Everyone on our team is expected to tell the truth all the time. That is what makes us a great organization. I was not mad at him, I was sad because we were going to lose the contract.”

Given conventional assumptions, this claim is radical. What happened next is instructive.

The people in the potential client organization had never seen anything like what they had just witnessed. It certainly would not have happened in their organization. They concluded that if the top management team functioned as they did, the odds were that they would be fully truthful and highly collaborative in all their future interactions with the client company. They were awarded the contract.

The awarding of the contract adds a nice ending to this account. It is not important. The value of this account is that it demonstrates that some human beings evolve into positive leaders. They create teams that also evolve. A culture emerges in which everyone puts the highest good first. This is rare, and the existence of such a reality jolts us. It is an important jolt. It is a jolt from the reality of possibility. It is an empirical manifestation of what we are all capable of doing.

In the end, positive Leaders see the ecology. They recognized that they are a part of the whole. More significantly they realize that the whole is more important than the ego. They continually attempt to clarify what the collective good is. They work to continuously subordinate themselves to the collective good. People in the network respond to a person who is honestly committed to the collective good. The person attracts the respect and trust of increasing numbers of people. They become more willing to take risks with the leader.

Eventually, as larger numbers of people begin to subordinate themselves to the collective good, the network becomes a community. Internal competition and antagonism decline. Cooperation escalates and the community becomes capable of doing things that are extraordinary. The essence of leadership is less about designing organizations and more about developing communities. One key to the process is the abnormal act of subordinating one’s self to the collective good.


  • What is positive leadership?
  • Why does it produce positive culture?
  • What do I know for sure about these two topics?




Seeing the Whole

Jody Hoffer Gittell is a researcher who studies coordination in organizations. She once told me, “Collaboration creates value and silos are not conducive to collaboration.”

Jody believes that coordinating relationships can be viewed from two perspectives. In the conventional perspective the organization is a hierarchy and the emphasis is on the parts. People have functional goals, specific knowledge, and a tendency towards the lack of respect for others. Communication tends to become infrequent, delayed and inaccurate. This leads to silo behavior in which people become increasingly isolated and conflict grows and destroys value.

In the relational perspective the organization is not only a hierarchy, it is also a social network. The network is dynamic. While we think of the hierarchy as stable, the social network never stops changing. Every phone call that comes in, every conversation that occurs, every decision that is made, alters the social network. Connections are continually becoming enriched or depleted and the social system is gaining or losing energy. The social network is always operating as a dynamic whole that is becoming more unified or is becoming more splintered.

Jody’s work suggests that when connections are enriched, organizational performance improves. Enriched connections require shared purpose, shared knowledge and mutual respect.

When people embrace shared purposes they transcend the silo mentality, they take the perspective of the entire enterprise. They can see how what they are doing contributes the whole and as they share and receive knowledge. As this happens everyone may come to better understand their connection to the dynamic whole.

Mutual respect means that everyone, regardless of their status, is valued and this facilitates the sharing of knowledge. Shared purpose, shared knowledge and mutual respect work together. Communication becomes more frequent, timely and accurate. Silos melt and the enterprise begins to flourish.

Normally relational quality and financial efficiency are seen as tradeoffs. When the relational perspective is added to the conventional perspective, Jody claims that quality and efficiency can be improved simultaneously. Employees can achieve better outcomes for customers while better utilizing resources. This is possible because the responsibility for coordination no longer lies at the top. Instead adaptive networks operate close to the customer.

While Jody is advocating the value of the self-organizing processes that emerge in the social network, Jody does not reject the value of the hierarchical structure. The two can reinforce each other. Spontaneous actions are influenced by the existing structures and organizations can create structures that bring forth high collaboration. They include:

  • Selecting participants for cross-functional teamwork
  • Measuring and rewarding cross-functional teamwork
  • Proactively resolving conflicts across functions
  • Developing work protocols that span functions
  • Designing jobs with flexible boundaries
  • Designing boundary spanner roles that support the development of networks

Jody tells interesting story. She did a workshop for surgeons. One indicated that the findings in her scientific papers and her presentation convinced him that focusing on collaboration could improve medical outcomes. Being convinced was not the issue. The issue was his paradigm or world view. Never had he considered the whole social network, all the people who surrounded the process of operating on a person (there are many). Improving the social network was one of the most foreign ideas he had ever encountered. He was not sure how to proceed.

I appreciate this story because the surgeon represents so many individual contributors. They can only see the parts. They have not imagined the importance of the whole. So they cannot attend to the whole and the whole tends to disintegrate over time. It is crucial that leaders see and continually improve the condition of the existing social network.



How well do I see the whole?

What would change, if I continually improved the condition of the social network?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


The Limitation of Experts

An expert is a specialist, authority, professional or connoisseur who has knowledge and skill and is adept at solving problems. When we go to a mechanic, a plumber or a dentist we expect that they will use their knowledge to resolve our problem. Our trust in them is based on our expectation that they can solve problems.

In organizations most people believe that maintaining the image of expert is critical to survival. When someone enters a supervisory position they often spend great energy to maintain the expert image.

When it comes to leadership and change a difficulty emerges. Change often requires an alteration in the culture. Cultural change is deep change, a shift in the collective assumption set. Cultural change cannot be led by experts with the right answers. Culture change is led by facilitators who stimulate collective learning and the co-creation of the emerging future.

Leading deep change involves abandoning expertise and authority, and walking naked into the land of uncertainty. For even the experienced change leader this is often a terrifying choice, often involving a dark night of the soul. It is therefore natural for each of us to deny that there is any need for deep change. Fortunately, making a deep change is not something we need to do every day. In today’s world of constant change, however, we need to do it more frequently than we have in the past. It is a key to turning a conventional organization positive.


How often do I play the expert role?

How often do I play the facilitator role?

How could I use this passage to create a more positive organization

Where Positive Organizing Begins

In biology there is a concept called quorum sensing. In our bodies there are large numbers of bacteria but they do us little harm. When a population of bacteria increases in density it is possible to reach a tipping point or critical mass or quorum. The bacteria begin to signal each other. This leads to coordinated effort. The individual bacteria begin to operate as a whole. The collective phenomenon has pathogenic impacts on the human body, meaning you and I may get very sick.

Some people developed the idea of quorum quenching. Instead of killing the bacteria, it might be possible to simply cut off the communication or signaling process. This suggests an exciting new way to heal diseases.

My friend became the CEO of a company designed to do research on using quorum quenching. He and his partner fervently believed, based on compelling, early evidence, that they could change the world of antibiotic drugs by finding a new drug that targeted the bacterial signaling system. They enthusiastically declared their shared vision and many people and resources were attracted to the company.

In record time they created a new drug that shut down the signaling mechanism in bacteria. Unfortunately, achieving the objective caused an unintended problem.   The impedance of the bacterial signaling system caused the exacerbation of an internal chemical pathway that bacteria use to resist antibiotics.  This was a very big problem.

My friend and his partner, however, had a back-up plan that enabled the creation of another antibiotic compound not involved with the original signaling pathway. This reflected good science and good planning. Yet they encountered a most surprising problem.

The original vision was so simple, clear, and appealing that it easily attracted money and employees. The new, revised vision, although only slightly different, did not have the same appeal and did not bring the same level of response. The two men unfortunately had to sell the company for what little they could get.

In reflecting on the experience my friend particularly speaks of how much was accomplished in a very short time. The large drug companies often expressed amazement at what was accomplished. He says, “It was because of the coordinated team effort put forth by people with disparate scientific backgrounds. They were fully committed to a shared objective and they unselfishly collaborated.”

Here there is an important irony. When bacteria act alone there is little impact. When they communicate and act as one, there is great impact. This same pattern holds in organizations.  In conventional organizations we expect people to act as self-interested individuals. Our experience keeps us from even imagining, much less calling for the sacrifice of self-interest.

Yet in the real world, there is sometimes a shift and the people become connected to a meaningful vision. In this case, for example, the original vision was simple, clear, and persuasive. People could understand and believe in it. This was true for outsiders who invested their money and it was true for employees who invested their hearts as well as their heads.

In such a situation the employees can begin to sacrifice for the common good. Differentiated people become integrated people. The collective intelligence climbs. Efforts become self-organizing and hierarchical direction is much less necessary.   In this high state of collaboration, the group flourishes and exceeds expectations. They become a positive organization. When this happens, observers marvel. In fact, there is often a sense of awe.

Observing a positive organization can alter expectations. If we believe that people can respond to a vision, engage in sacrifice for the common good, self-organize, increase their collective intelligence, flourish and exceed expectations, then we may be tempted to engage in leadership instead of management. We may choose to do the very difficult work of formulating a meaningful vision, we may commit to it, and we may communicate it with relentless and effective enthusiasm. As others accept the vision we then may ask them to accomplish things we would not normally dare to ask. Because of belief in the vision and the power of increased collective intelligence they may flourish and exceed expectations. This is where positive organizing begins.


What is collective intelligence?

How is it created?

How could we use this positive passage to get better?

The Work of Positive Leadership

I once heard a story about a woman who kept a garden.  It looked like a work of art.  When asked about her success she explained that she disciplined herself to go into the garden every day regardless of how convenient is might be.  When she is in her garden she looks for small problems like weeds, insects or soil conditions and immediately deals with them.  She explained that the secret of gardening is a total commitment to the process of growing great plants.

This story reminds me of another.  I was talking to a friend about positive organizational culture.  He understood and said that organizational culture is like the soil in a garden.  The culture can give rise to great performance but the gardener has to care enough to fully invest in the work of gardening.  A positive culture requires constant attention.

My friend told me; “For years I tried to grow tomatoes in my garden, and they never did very well. Then last year my mom visited. She insisted that we buy compost and other soil additives, and we spent a really long time mixing everything in before planting.  The tomatoes thrived for the first time ever. I had thought all I needed to do was to put the seedlings in some dirt, any dirt, and nature would do the rest.”

My friend went on to say that in his company there is a similar mentality. An external practice is identified, imported and transplanted. The people are given some training and a checklist and are then directed to implement it. The practice often dies and authority figures are surprised.

The process fails because the managers make technical assumptions.  They want to import the seed, plant it, and walk away.  An organizational culture is not a technical system.  It is a living system.  For an organization to flourish, the cultural soil must be carefully prepared. It must then be constantly examined and improved.  It is not the word of technical management.  It is the work of positive leadership.

Collective Intelligence

“I have two mental maps. When I am ego centered I seek to act upon others. When I transcend my ego I seek to act with others. The first view focuses on the part. The second view focuses on the whole. When I become humble, curious, and open, others tend to join me in authentic conversation. Collective intelligence increases and learning accelerates. The whole then has power to do things the parts cannot do. When I am an integrated part of a purposive and energized whole, I tend to become more than I thought I could be and I realize that I am doing what I was meant to be doing.” – The Positive Organization