Archives for category: Insights from Leaders

At the 2012 Bessie Awards, the New York dance “community of communities,” as organizer Lucy Sexton put it, reaffirmed itself on many levels while honoring its standouts.  One question wove in and out of the remarks from the stage: “How lucky am I?”

As in: how lucky am I to be doing what I love?  How lucky am I to be allowed to work with such amazing collaborators?  How lucky am I that people see my work?  How lucky am I to be able to live my passion?

On an obvious level, this is a ritual of gratitude.  Listen closer, and it rings as a statement about belonging.  It sounds like, “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

The award presenters and recipients made another act of belonging that night at the Apollo Theater: an affectionate rub of the golden tree stump positioned down right as each took the podium and prepared to speak.

I know there is a deeper story here than I’m prepared to tell.  Suffice it to say, this was an “insider” tree stump, and rubbing it an insider thing to do.  The performing arts are full of such things.

So are other fields.  I happened to catch world-class Alpine climber Conrad Anker at Yale Law School as part of The North Face Speaker Series.  He related how he and his two climbing partners, Renan Ozturk, and Jimmy Chin, promised the Hindu mountain dwellers for whom Himalayan summits are sacred that they would bring them back rocks from the very top to share their joy.  Last fall was the third time the three Americans had tried to scale the direct line up the Shark’s Fin of Meru (Garwhal), and they were successful.

What insider-type rituals go on in your workplace?  How could it become a place of adventure, a place of belonging?  And how often do YOU ask that golden question in the company of your colleagues, “How lucky am I?” 

In his book On Dialogue, physicist and theorist David Bohm famously describes thought as not an individual act but a collective stream of meaning that is shared within a culture.  He suggests we strive for “proprioception” in our thought processes, which he defines as the perception of self-aware movement.

Proprioception is the kind of sixth sense that enables a bike rider, for example, to perform the required  slew of nano-corrections that support the body’s forward motion.   Bohm proposes a corresponding set of mental processes that enable avoidance of dead-end patterns (chief among them, aggression and suppression), improving the flow of meaning and the success of a culture.

What might this have to do with the Scrum framework for project management?  One striking thing at the recent Scrum Gathering in Barcelona (see was an emphasis on the role of Product Owner in many of the sessions.   Getting that particular role “right” comes across as a critical lever for many Agile companies.

For those who aren’t familiar, a Product Owner is someone who works closely with a development team representing the needs and interests of the customer.  The Product Owner is chiefly responsible for articulating the project’s goals and acceptance criteria,  providing feedback and approving finished work at the end of each sprint.

According to the internal logic of Scrum, then, a Product Owner is engaged in a Bohm-like dialogue  with the team.  The degree of consciousness and subtlety of this dialogue can enable a kind of group proprioception, improving the quality of the team’s creative output.

With the right feedback, corrections can be achieved throughout the development process, making a product more powerful in its construction of a coherent set of meanings.  Because these meanings have been agreed-upon by the makers and those for whom a thing is being made, their realization in form is a kind of cultural success, a “win” for the culture.

This was evidently the case for Ericsson, a world leader in providing technology and services to telecommunications companies, as described by Peter Madden in his session Significance of Feedback Loops on the Journey to Agile, part of the “Engineering Wars” program track at Barcelona.  It wasn’t until they had made the Product Owner role full-time that his teams had enough customer feedback to be particularly effective in transitioning away from a waterfall approach.   For Madden, the urgent need to do so is primarily about velocity.

Because it can achieve creative proprioception by virtue of structured feedback loops, Scrum is capable of bringing thought into form – and into the marketplace – faster than traditional methods of project management.  These days, throwing work “over the wall” from one team to the next, as proscribed by the waterfall style, just can’t carry a dialogue forward fast enough.

What inspires more trust?  Someone promising the “best” way?  Or someone promising a “better” way?

(Must interrupt briefings from the Scrum Gathering in Barcelona to offer the following passage from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  It can be read as a love letter to the creative workplace, pulsing with people who see “perfect” as a verb.  ENJOY!)

From A Song of the Rolling Earth, 3-4


I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,

It is always to leave the best untold.

When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,

My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots,

My breath will not be obedient to its organs,

I become a dumb man.

The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow, all or any is best,

It is not what you anticipated, it is cheaper, easier, nearer,

Things are not dismiss’d from the places they held before,

The earth is just as positive and direct as it was before,

Facts, religions, improvements, politics, trades, are as real as


But the soul is also real, it too is positive and direct,

No reasoning, no proof has establish’d it,

Undeniable growth has establish’d it.

Delve!  mould!  pile the words of the earth!

Work on, age after age, nothing is to be lost,

It may have to wait long, but it will certainly come in use,

When the materials are all prepared and ready, the architects shall appear.

Change equals loss for many people.  Accordingly, a period of adjustment is required and can be aided with communicative leadership.  This was one of the messages delivered in “Not Your Mother’s Agile Transformation,” a Wednesday morning session at the recent Scrum Gathering co-presented by Katrina Bales & Keely Killpack.   It is no longer reasonable to expect change simply “because I said so.”

At the individual level, how about hearing this from your boss:  “What do you need to feel safe?”

At the group level, how about being asked to rate each individual aspect of an Agile transformation at work as if it were a feature of a new product?   E.g., collaborative work spaces: love it this way? hate it this way? expect it this way? feel neutral/indifferent?  Customer involvement at all stages of the development process: love it this way? hate it this way? Et cetera.

That is the crux of what this pair has devised – a means for measuring a groups’s feelings about systemic organizational change coupled with methods for addressing individuals who may have an especially hard time adjusting.  In an interactive exercise, we tested the idea that segmentation into subgroups of business and technical personnel can yield further insight into unlocking the requests hidden inside change-resistance.

These requests may be as simple as “Let me get used to one new thing at a time!” or “Give me some control!”  Sometimes the requests may be a bit more complex, as in “Help me find an alternate role in the company.”   This, too, can be interpreted and managed.

The important thing is knowing that the human brain responds to change emotionally first, logically second.  For the pattern-seeking amygdala, something new is generally perceived as “wrong,” i.e., an error.

Participants in well-functioning, creative workplaces must come to terms with paradoxes.   Learning often requires unlearning.   And when it comes to adjusting to the changes this calls for, hard conversations make things easier.

Katrina’s email is  Keely’s is .  Contact them to be kept informed about iterations of their work-in-progress.

Creative Placemaking Funders Symposium

It has been an exciting journey as Connecticut builds its platform for articulating the relevance of cultural vitality to just about every other part of life, urban and otherwise.  Grant guidelines are now complete – colleagues in the arts community and I have had a hand in shaping them over the past year through meetings and forums held across the state, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater and elsewhere.

The main question has been: how do we link cultural activity with specific economic drivers to make Connecticut’s places more livable?  As the Department of Economic and Community Development defines the resources it will bring, local Arts Councils activate their networks, and other sectors engage, the conversation gets bigger and more interesting.

I will be attending this upcoming event at the Bushnell Center in Hartford – happy to customize notes for anyone who wants a briefing.

A new approach to leadership that includes stewardship of the living rather than management of the machine?  If the idea interests you, please familiarize yourself with the Stoos Communique, prepared by Agilists and creative thinkers who gathered in Switzerland in January to determine common ground in launching a true revolution to make work more human.

After all, what’s more punk rock?  To stand outside of a building and hold up a sign that says “occupy,” or to actually physically occupy a spot within an existing set of social relations in the workplace and transform these relations by bringing your very best self to the occasion and demanding nothing less from others?

I, for one, believe in a better way…

The DIY ethic that has fueled underground scenes since the 1980s is alive and palpable in artist-run spaces across the country.  Despite much handwringing at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado – – many creative people do still believe it is important to bring people together face-to-face in a physical space to experience art and find ways to make it happen.  Whether evolving incrementally or borne from a conceptual vision, these spaces are an important part of the ecosystem on which innovation depends.  Here are two I visited on my recent Agileseed Tour.  (Please see previous post titled Agileseeding! for more background on this.)

Agileseed Tour Destination: Omaha, NE

Omaha is an unexpectedly quirky city, where the editor of a local weekly put in a mayoral bid as a kind of performance art.  On the main drag of Dodge Street, a handful of painters and scupltors including Dave Jenowe (pictured below with his work) share studio space in a split-level storefront.  After critiquing each other long enough, they decided to invite the public in for periodic Saturday night openings.   Says Jenowe, “It was a simple thing, originally.  It started with just three of us.  We made work, and it needed to be seen.”

Social media brought people in the door, and the venue, called Studio…Gallery, has since built a solid reputation among an alternative downtown crowd.  Step by succinct step, it has added a jazz music series and comedy nights.  The space itself has evolved to accommodate growing programs, now sporting a tiny stage downstairs with superior acoustics.  Meanwhile, a core group of colleagues continue to pursue independent artistic investigations in a shared workspace.

Jenowe continues, “We are always tweaking, but we continue to have a good time.  It’s great to see new people discover the space and be surprised by the quality and diversity, to have it surpass their expectations for what they might find here.  Jamming with musicians from New York and mixing with local artists, it just makes you feel glad and inspired to keep going, to keep making new work.”

Agileseed Tour Destination: Twin Cities, MN

The Bindery Projects, named after its location above a longrunning book bindery in St. Paul, is the brainchild of Caroline Kent and Nate Young (pictured below).  Their mission is “…to show dope work and validate practice through dialiectic democratic social disourse.”  The pair has a curatorial calendar booked through spring of 2013.

When I visited in early August, Nate and Caroline were prepping to hang 47 drawings by Nyeema Morgan, whom Young met at the Skowhegan Center in Maine.  The Dubious Sum of Vaguely Discernable Parts, closing Sept. 2, 2012, uses textual variations on cake recipe instructions along with abstract photographs of individual baking ingredients to explore the search for a perfect system.

Says Young, “We might not have a ton of people coming through, the space isn’t that big.  But the ones who do are key people, influencers.  They’re paying attention.”  In fact this is true, as I heard about The Bindery Projects long before arriving in the Twin Cities area, from the Director of ArtSpace in New Haven, CT –

Art galleries conduct their business in an inherently networked and iterative manner, releasing work to the public in regularly scheduled increments.  Exhibitions take place over and over in the same space, and as they do, a body of knowledge develops around how to succeed and improve.   Artists intuitively seek to assemble the most viable chunks of work for release, even at small scale or in-progress stages, because it makes good sense.  What they may not know is that, in Scrum circles, this is known as the vertical slice.

Running a gallery on a DIY basis should be recognized as one of the most authentically agile ways of working.  People and interactions are reliably more important than tools and processes.  Those who run such spaces deserve credit and support as incubators for creativity and innovation, nimbly adaptive yet true to what they represent.

The Agile teams forming in today’s workplaces are essentially trying to function like artists.  Those leading the charge towards Agile business transformation should seek out these creative and highly productive scene-makers, talk to them regularly, and make it a point to visit the exhibitions and other programs that artists have developed and released in their communities.

At the height of its fame in Detroit, Motown was an agile co-work environment.  This made the company’s culture conducive to high-productivity and greatness beyond individual talent.

PROXIMITY: Berry Gordy purchased nine houses on the same downtown block to ensure collaborators could be physically close.

SPRINTS: While records were being made, artists had 24/7 access to the studio.   No sleeping on a good idea – artists were encouraged to get in there and work in out no matter what time of day.  This led to a high-energy intensity that comes across in the finished product.

CUSTOMER FEEDBACK: Kids from the neighborhood were regularly invited in for beta testing of new tunes, and to play around with rhythm and help compose  by doing what they loved.  This was part of the local culture of Detroit: if they weren’t in school or dating, kids were usually making music together.  Motown tapped into this natural, ongoing dialogue as a force guiding its development.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT:  Talent came in raw and got developed.  Healthy competition ensued as styles were refined and acts tightened.  Artists were constantly checking out each other’s work and using these observations to strive to best themselves.

COLLABORATION:  After recording the first mix of  a new song, all the artists would come in and have a listen.  The QA criterion was this – “if you were down to your last dollar, woud you want to spend it on a sandwich or this record?”  If long pauses were evident as people thought this through, then it was worth spending some time on it remixing.  If people were considering which type of bread they would order while the music was still playing, a tune was scrapped.  After much time working together, these opinions were mostly unanimous.

SAFETY:  A bad decision, a bad day or a bad record would not break the label’s trust in an artist.  The label nurtured talent over time and was relationship-focused.

RETROSPECTIVES: Time was regularly  set aside to discuss what worked and what didn’t work about a given project.  Opinions were invited from across the board.

LEADERSHIP: At the end of the day, Berry Gordy was accountable to his team and for his team of artists and managers.  The family-style structure of the organization meant that high levels of personal commitment were at stake.

In today’s co-work spaces – cities like New Haven (The Grove), Toronto (The Centre for Social Innovation) and Minneapolis (Coco) – welcome start-ups, creatives and nonprofits to co-exist and learn from one another.  Agilists can be encouraged by the example of Motown and its innovations in co-branding of place, company and industry that still make Detroit worth visiting.

On the Agileseed Tour, I appreciated Motown’s legacy of creative placemaking tied to aggressively focused development of collective talent.  MANY THANKS to the Motown Historical Museum for its rich interpretation, and to Paul Eley who encouraged me to stop in and consider these connections.

Bates Dance Festival presented a luscious performance by Kate Weare Company on July 28th.  Wisely, the Saturday night programming included an Inside Dance pre-performance talk by dance critic Debra Cash.  Ms. Cash took just the right amount of time to illuminate the choreographer’s approach and give us some reference points.

Kate Weare has built a white hot trending company that does not count beats.  Instead, the dancers co-locate their highly synchronized parts by listening to each other’s breaths.

From the front row, at performance time, I could also hear them breathing.  Knowing their lungs were the bellows to propulse minds, tendons and ball-joints toward precisely executed micromovements added new layers of sensory information and interest.   This is hypersensitivity at its best, derived from the very seat of our animal intellect.

At a certain point, the medium of contemporary dance approached in this way triggers a particular sublimity.  Embodied skill becomes the material from which art is made.

Giving people permission to be creative together in groups, that’s what Scrum Masters do.   On the receiving end, it can feel like a challenge or an invitation, depending on a host of ephemeral factors.  The important thing is for the Scrum Master to have trust in the power of self-organization to come up with solutions that are far better than any one mind in isolation is capable of generating.

Catalyzing group intelligence is my mission this evening in Hartford, CT, where I will present to the board of directors of Hartford 2000, a coalition of the City of Hartford and its 13 Neighyborhood Revitalization Zones.  The topic? Staff and Board Roles in Nonprofit Fundraising.  We are not following cookie-cutter plans, we are being artful, and that requires a bit more thought and engagement than the average meeting attender is likely to expect.    HINT: color coded gumdrops are involved.

Self-organization takes getting used to, for sure.  However, it is the pattern and flow that best matches today’s thoughtwork and helps us grow beyond an industrial mind-set.  We’ve been post-industrial long enough, time to trigger what’s next!

In my view, that’s a matter for self-organized teams –  supported in working creatively and collaboratively – to decide.

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