Coming Out

by Joe Flower

International Copyright 1997 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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It's a bracing sight for anyone involved in health and healthcare -- or for anyone concerned with the way things change.
I'm standing in Sharon Meadows, a wide open space among the trees of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, looking out over a sea of faces. The stage behind me overflows with dignitaries, stacks of loudspeakers, and great arches of colored balloons. Mayor Willie Brown is greeting TV star Don Johnson. Banners and signs pop from the crowd. Booths at the sides sell lunches, T-shirts, and drinks. The largest banners identify dozens of big companies: Marriott, the Gap, United Airlines.

It's the annual San Francisco AIDS Walk. These 25,000 people have come together to raise $3.5 million in one day to fight AIDS and to support those who are infected. After a brisk round of short speeches about everything from the recent progress in therapies to the troubling spread of the disease in Africa, all 25,000 will traipse off for a 10 kilometer walk around the park. But what catches my eye and sets me thinking on this particular morning is the peculiarly ironic mix of denial and candor in the message on a T-shirt worn by a man in the front row. In large black letters, the T-shirt says, "I'm not gay but my boyfriend is."

One thing AIDS has done is to force many people, gay and straight, into greater candor about their sexual orientation and practices -- which touch surprisingly close to the core of who we really are. For many people, owning up to the realities of their sexual life opens a big door into an overall integrity, into accepting and living with their real selves. When we maintain a false front for the world, the first person we have to fool is ourselves.

"Coming out of the closet:" this image has dominated the gay world for the last quarter of a century. But the image does not serve only gays.

We all
have our
own closet.

We all have our own closet. It's full of the things that we know but won't admit, not even to ourselves -- and the thousand ways that we don't know ourselves. Self-knowledge is the beginning of integrity, of coming out of the closet, and is a prerequisite for dealing well with change.

Integrity is not just about not lying. Integrity means "as on the inside, so on the outside." We speak of a building having structural integrity when its parts are strongly knit, so that it can withstand shocks. We speak of visual integrity when what we can see (the building's surfaces, roofs, windows, and walkways) reflects what we cannot see (its purposes, the community with which it is connected).

The Latin roots of "integrity" refer to touch. To have integrity is to be untouched, undivided, whole, integrated, integral. The Taoists refer to "pu," the uncarved block of wood.

There is a tight relationship between integrity and the ability to change, because integrity is about knowing yourself, about being transparent. Our need for information increases as the square of the increase in the turbulence of the environment. The wilder things get, the hungrier we get for anything that will give us a clue about what's happening.

When you look at an organization under stress, are there lots of rumors flying? That's why: the need for information is increasing faster than the supply. So people "improvise news" to make up the difference.

Integrity shows up in two of the "skills of change" -- "wholeness" and "aligning the center." Integrity allows you to move with tremendous speed when the time comes to move.

This is
why the
diver points
his toes.

This is why the diver points his toes: if he is to whip through the rapid changes of a complex dive, his whole body must move as a unit. He must have command of every part. Watch a novice diver, a tyro golfer, a klutzy tennis player. What you'll see is the body moving every which way in the joints. As one arm swings the racket, the other hand is flailing off in the other direction, the hips going somewhere else entirely. The movement has no integrity, so it lacks power and speed.

The same lack of integrity plagues people, families, organizations -- and even whole societies. We can see it in the difficulties of former communist states. "Reforming communism," writes the Polish Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, "is like trying to bake a snowball." It turns out that the collection of behaviors, people, and policies that we called "communism" was not one thing at all, but a congeries of wildly different elements -- bureaucratic inertia, nationalism, the will to power, idealism, individual ambition, clique politics, the hopes of the poor and their bitter memories. When you try to move the whole mess in a new direction, it comes apart. Each element has its own agenda, its own forces and dynamism, and you can't get them to turn a corner together.

We all have had this experience as individuals. Try to change something (go back to school, marry, move, have a child . . .), and suddenly other things come apart. Just when you get the alligator's mouth closed the tail comes up and whaps you on the blind side.

You may have had this experience in an organization as well. Managers trying to steer an organization through some change find themselves facing consequences that are not only unintended but seemingly unrelated -- invest in new printing technology and the delivery drivers stage a sickout. Settle with the drivers and the state starts a reimbursement investigation. Deal with the reimbursement problem and the head of public relations quits.

"I should
have known
about that.
Why didn't
I know?"

"I should have known about that," the manager finds himself saying. "Why didn't I know?"

Often, you did know -- or someone in the organization did, but no one ever asked them. Even worse, no one let them know that their information, their opinion, or their point of view, would be welcome.

The people in our organizations know vastly more -- and can generate vastly more knowledge -- than any of us as individuals. For an organization to truly know itself, it must bring all that knowledge out of the closet.

This is not just a matter of sending a memo around, saying, "Let me know if you have any good ideas, or any information that I should know." In most organizations most of the time, information and opinion are part of the currency of politics. The value of a piece of information depends on who is saying it, and who their friends are, and what we think they stand to gain by saying such a thing.

An organization that wants to learn to dance with change must come to know itself and its environment thoroughly. To do this, it must make use of all the knowledge of every member -- and all of their learning capability. It must be built into the culture that new information and different points of view are powerful, are welcomed.

At the end of his book, The Art of the Long View. Peter Schwartz outlines the value of "strategic conversations" and tells how to have one. He pictures an ongoing series of informal meetings within an organization that feed into the more formal planning process. Narrowly, these meetings bring a richness and flexibility to planning and decision-making. More broadly, they engage the entire organization in a long-running conversation about the group's purpose, goals, prospects, and opportunities -- and turns the whole organization into an information-gathering organism.

With Schwartz' permission, I'll share with you the six steps that he outlines:

  1. Create a hospitable climate: Make it clear, regularly and loudly, by actions as well as words, that the organization welcomes dissenting opinions, minority reports, new information, and unconventional wisdom.

  2. Establish an initial group, including key decision makers and outsiders: Key decision makers must be involved in the discussions, not merely handed a set of neatly edited "options papers" when it's all done. They need the full richness of information that the discussions entail. Beyond the key decision makers, the discussions need as wide a variety of people as possible. Finance people, technicians, "suits," people of different departments, campuses and parts of the organization, as well as different races and ages, will bring far more information and perspective to the conversation than would a homogenous group.

  3. Include outside information and outside people: The thinking of any organization becomes inbred. Outsiders (consultants, "experts," even visitors from other organizations) and outside information (articles, studies, books, web searches) provide a leavening that cannot be generated inside. Benchmarking (intensively studying the methods of other, highly effective organizations) is one powerful method of bringing in outside knowledge.

  4. Look ahead far in advance of decisions: The best time to think about a decision is not when we are under the gun of a deadline or a present crisis. We often have a general idea what kind of big decisions we will be facing far in advance. These may be coming new technologies, shifts in markets, or the loss of key raw materials. Our conversations about these things will be far richer and deeper if we begin them now, instead of waiting for events to catch up with us.

  5. Begin by looking at the present and the past: To figure out where we want to go, we have to know where we are and how we got there. This discussion should also include our feelings: if people in the organization have a lot of passion about the past and the present, that will likely power its future, for better or worse.

  6. Conduct preliminary scenario work in smaller groups: The discussion works best when it starts and ends in the larger group. But individual issues (Internet strategy, marketing, technical improvement) are best dealt with in smaller, more tightly focused sub-sets of the main group.

  7. Play out the conversation: Now that you have gotten beyond the "conventional wisdom," brought in new information, and generated a number of future scenarios in the sub-groups and the main group, you are ready to play these out into the future: What if Scenario A is true? How would we surf that particular wave? Would the strategy we have been discussing work in that scenario? Would it work better in Scenario B? How would we know?

  8. Make it permanent: Once you have made one decision, don't close down the conversation. Keep it going. Focus on new topics. Invite in new people. Hold workshops for other people in the organization, so that they can hear what has been going on. Make these discussions the core of the organization's "learning strategy," rather than delegating that strategy to a strategic planning department or a group of consultants.

These "strategic conversations" are not weekend exercises. They play out over months and years. They are not a break in the organization's routine. They are the organization's routine, an expanded way for the organization to talk to itself and think about its future.

Rapid change in the environment requires deep transformation in us -- as individuals, as families, as organizations. To thrive in an uncertain world, we must know ourselves. We must become transparent. We must learn to move as one organism, with an integrity that reaches to our toes. We must talk to ourselves, and each other, and we must listen.

How change works | Change happens | The five fundamentals of change| What is your goal? | Core concepts | Skills| Skill-building resources | Touching what is, touching what might be | Paradox | Heading for the open space | Habits of mind | Scenario spinning | Breaking the trance | Finding a new path | Why it's important | Four quadrants | Psychological roots | Change Processes | Main Page