International Copyright 1997 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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