On the complexity of change: It’s time — now

Hey, Friend,

Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?

Time!
Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.

Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?

Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous?
We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours.
We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month.
We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly.
We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else?
We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?

Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.

Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.

Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.

Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.

Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.

Time changes and is the same all the time.

Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexity of Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.

That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.

Time is up.

In eigener Sache

Photo by Serpstat on Pexels.com

It was bound to happen. You can take Mat out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of Mat.
Addressing two challenges—one linguistic and one very worldly.

Challenge #1

In eigener Sache. It is what it is, but it is difficult to translate into English. Literally: in one’s own matter. Often used in company announcements that pertain to the company itself. Please note … does not really capture it. We are happy to announce … does not fit the context I am thinking of. Any suggestions that go beyond the the discussions in the forum of the online dictionary leo.org?

Until you come up with something better, I will just call it About us, which is

Challenge #2

Life goes on. Work piles up. COVID-19 has been confusing people, making many sick, and killing far too many. Too many lost their livelihood, feel frustrated and excluded, and wonder when and how this will end. And many say: I can’t breathe. Not now and not before.

And that is just the context. For this blog. On May 2, more than two months ago, I wrote the last post. Silence. Busy processing. Busy with busy. Busy learning, trying to understand. To understand what’s going on.

Doesn’t writing help? To process? To understand? Yes, it does. For me, it does. Reading also helps, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the challenge then? Finding the time to write, before one is overtaken by events. Having the energy to key in thoughts. Being focused on writing about one when a trillion is happening all at once.

But that is not all. Writing when everybody is talking is hard. Is anybody listening? Am I listening? Enough?

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

On the complexity of change: Initial conditions … … … do you like skiing?

I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.

First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.

Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.

In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.

Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.

Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Office Space Is A Function Of Our Head Space: How to stay motivated and make sure you’ve always got the memo …

Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:

Look for the cognitive and interpersonal boundaries that define Peter in this space…

What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:

Now what cognitive and interpersonal boundaries are at play for Peter?

So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…

In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.

Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…

For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.

Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.

So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?

Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…

What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.

But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.

And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…

Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.

There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.

While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.

Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.

I hope you found today’s post helpful, or at least interesting. Check out part 1 on Temporal and Kinetic Professional Boundaries if you missed it, and/or read parts 1 and 2 on Personal Boundaries. If you want the broadest of strokes, have a look at my introductory posts on the BASE model and Boundaries as its first component.

Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.

On the complexity of change: All these complications!

A good morning. I know what I want to do. I know I can do it. I am optimistic. I have sufficient energy. [Not as much as I used to have some years ago, but good enough.] All this makes me feel great. Then! I glance at my email inbox. I see the one email. Yes, that one. I read it again. It sinks in deeper. I sink deeper. I have seen “this” before. I have dealt with “this” before. I had fixed it. Was that not good enough? Really, “this” is coming up again? It obviously is. ∑√i†!!! I have to do “this” again and can’t do what I want to do. Again, there is no time to do what I want to do, what actually needs doing [or so I believed], because I have to go back. Again. And again. Really?!

Sitting here writing, I can see “this” as what it is: yet another one of my encounters with a complex problem. Why does it happen so often? Time to put on our theoretical lens to get both a little more clarity and some – also emotional – distance.

The four types of problems – simple, linear, complex, and chaotic – do not each arise with the same frequency. Simple problems arise far less often than linear problems. We encounter linear problems far less often than complex problems. [Since we all live in a good world at a good time, chaotic problems arise least frequently of them all. But that’s a topic for another day.] We often find complex problems complicated. We might even react with frustrated surprise. Normally, we are more familiar, more comfortable, and hence more successful (in solving the problem) when we have encountered something more frequently. Here the opposite seems to happen: the more often the problem occurs, the more complicated we find dealing with it. It gets more and more frustrating. Why is that?

Essentially, a problem is wanting to move a process from state A to state B, and there is a hurdle between the two states. Two states. This makes us think of “this” as a binary. It is either “this” or “that.” It is an If—Then; if I do this, then that will happen. Either “this” gets fixed now and will be in a “good” state, or “this” does not get fixed and will be in a “bad” state forever. [We as humans seem to have a preference to see the world in linear binaries: either—or, if—then, cause—effect, plus—minus, right—wrong, … female—male, black—white, we—other, native—foreign, … That is also a topic for another day.] In other words, we expect to encounter linear problems more often than linear problems do occur. And, complex problems, because of their complexity, are likely to look different every time they arise. And, they appear frustratingly similar at the same time, especially if one looks at their surface first and foremost.

How can we deal with a complex problem effectively? This problem type arises from us being one actor in a complex dynamic system, which is basically a process that has multiple interacting actors, components, and variables and that is (very) sensitive to its context. [In a later post, we will take a good look at complex dynamic systems.] Because of that, we – as the problem solver – have to be prepared to consider this emerging process thoroughly and comprehensively. We have to assume there is no best solution, as their is for both simple and linear problems. After careful consideration or analysis, there is a solution. It is unlikely – and it might actually be undesirable – that a solution will bring the whole process into a stable end state. This means, we implement a solution and need to be prepared and willing to keep observing the changing system, ready to repeat our work of consideration and analysis and to implement another solution. The complex process will change again. The change is unlikely to be proportionate to the solution. The reasons for that are in the complexity of the process. More on this also later. So, we will have to be prepared to observe the system, consider it and its context, and to implement another solution, as we did the first time and as we will be doing as long as we care. Although different facets of the system, the problem, and our solution are often self-similar, it is not the same over and over again.

No one steps in the same river twice.

On the complexity of change: What problem do you have?

It’s too difficult! Does this really have to be so hard? You are being complicated.

Have these thoughts crossed your mind? Every day? Each hour? Fleetingly? Or have they lingered, recurred? Made you swear or resign? Or you buckled down and tried harder? I know for me it has been all of the above. And more. I have to ask, though. All of these feelings and experiences are subjective. It depends on us whether or not and to what degree we perceive something – a task, a request, a plan, an experience, a process … – as hard and challenging or as easy and quick. Yet, many of the problems or challenges we face or see others tackling “contribute” in and of themselves to being more complicated than others. Why?

At first sight, the answer is trivial. Such processes are not only complicated, they are complex. Complex problems.

I believe it is useful to take a good look at their complexity. At bare minimum, we know better what we are dealing with; at best, we arrive at a path to a solution and—with a little bit of luck—get a feeling of ease and simplicity.

Let’s put on our theoretical lens. (Very helpful, remember?) What is a problem? And what makes many of them complex?

Let’s pretend you have not encountered the concept of problem before. Let’s take a fresh quasi-naïve look.

So, you stare at your very first problem … What is happening? The process you look at is in state A. You want to, have to, plan to have the process reach state B. There is a hurdle, an obstacle between state A and state B. It’s easy, right? Solving that problem involves overcoming the obstacle and getting the process from the current state A to the desired state B.

The management consultant and researcher David Snowden distinguishes four different types of problems. I will call them simple, linear, complex, and chaotic problems.

Simple. You get up in the morning. You want some coffee (desired state B). There is no coffee; the pot is empty (current state A). The obstacle is minimal: fresh coffee needs to be brewed. You have done it a thousand times. You know exactly what to do, without having to analyze the current state and its context, available tools and avenues, and possible solutions. This is a simple problem. It presents itself, you immediately recognize it, automatically know the details of the desired state B – a nice cup of dark roasted coffee, no milk or sugar because its acidity are low and neither is needed.

Linear. You have had your coffee. The day can start, but first you decide to immediately wash your cup. And! When you pour water in the sink, you realize the drain is blocked (current state A). (The desired state B is an unblocked sink drain, of course. The obstacle is the drain has to be unblocked.) You analyze the situation. You look and think, you poke around. What is blocking the drain? How stubborn is the blockage? You look at some contextual factors: how urgent is it? how much time do I have? what tools do I have at home? what am I able and willing to do? who could help? how much does it cost to call a plumber? and when are they gonna come? You do this analysis of state A and its context once. You know how to do it. You match the result of your analysis with an appropriate course of action, such as pouring hot water or drainage cleaner down the drain, removing the elbow underneath yourself and cleaning it, notifying the landlord or building manager, or calling a plumber … If this is indeed a linear problem, then this course of action will produce a result. With a bit of luck – and skill and effort – the drain is unblocked. And the cups of the future can be washed. A linear problem like this one requires analysis. Both the analysis and overcoming the obstacle require a skill set and some labor. Linear problems have a best solution, which is the one that most likely and most efficiently leads to the desired state B. You can consult an expert who will present, and often implement, the required solution to/for you.

Since the third type is called complex problems. You are assuming right: neither linear nor simple problems are complex. The general problem of problem-solving is, as David Snowden pointed out, that most problems we encounter in our daily lives, with our and other people’s’ health, at work, in relationships, in politics, with the environment, in history, … are neither simple nor linear.

I am going to hazard a guess: most problems you have encountered, witnessed, heard about are complex. So, in the next post—you have been reading for long enough—I will take a closer look at these omnipresent complex problems.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 2: Cognitive and Interpersonal

In part 1, we dug into the key questions and considerations that can aid us to better understand, establish, and enact Personal Boundaries in the Temporal and Kinetic aspects. In this post, we will continue in the same vein by exploring the essential points in the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Boundaries – Accountability – Support – Expectations are the four dimensions of BASE A model to improve any practice.

Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction. 

If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often. 

Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries. 

Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic. 

One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result. 

All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant. 

Resource Recommendations:

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…

“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.

“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.

“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-fred/id1477279443

Until next week, when we will explore Professional Boundaries and continue to build on our self-understanding practice together. 

On the complexity of change: How did this all start?

Something changes, I change something. I experience this change or I don’t (really) notice it. I anticipate or plan this change, I am surprised or spontaneous. I feel joy or sorrow or both about it, in it, after it.

We are all the same and all different in how we bring about change, experience it, and handle it. Some of us—and I am surely one—find it easier to start and sustain change, to enjoy and tolerate it, and to (co-)adapt and vary the speed and direction of ever-present change, if and when we—I—understand it, its context, and its origin, at least to some extent. And when this specific change feels familiar. It even seems to be secondary whether this change is perceived—at that moment—as positive or negative.

How can one gain a better understanding and more familiarity of and with change? The very simple answer is: Through sustained and reflective learning: we notice a “gap” or a tension between us and our context—the people, things, and processes, within this context, or within ourselves. If one then does decide to act or react, we begin to gain a better understanding through – mainly – repeated reflected experience of this and similar phenomena of change often in the realm of emotions, through action engagement (basically by doing stuff about it), and through rational thought.

All three—emotional experience, relevant action, and rational thought—are reactions to change. They also can induce change, and can help us adapt to and influence change. Of the three, I will continue in subsequent blog posts with rational thought. And this is where complexity comes in.

Change is a complex process. It has multiple actors, components, facets. Quite obvious, right? What is often less obvious, especially when change is experienced as pressure, stress, and/or adversity (at that moment or for longer periods of time) is that the actors, components, and facets are changing too, repeatedly. They “have to” change because they are in continuous, repeated, intermittent interaction with one another.

I am well aware that I have invoked a number of theoretical concepts (change/dynamism, complexity) in this text already, and I am sure so are you. This is deliberate because I believe that I can reflect better, more productively, and more constructively, when my reflection is informed by an appropriate theory. Of course, complexity in and of itself is complex. So I find it helpful to use theory both as a crutch and—more importantly to me—as a lens.

Since I am hoping you find it useful both to think about change and to inform and influence your thinking systematically, I have picked a set of related theories—Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory—and will be writing about these by making them the servants of understanding change both theoretically and practically.

More on this in later posts. The titles of these posts (will) all start with “On the complexity of change.” If you find this or a later one interesting, I am hoping you will want to look at the others. So, why not follow this blog, if you are not doing so already.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 1: What are they, and (how) do we understand them?

As promised in last week’s post, this week I will begin to dig into the first of the four areas of Boundaries as I outlined them under the BASE model: Personal Boundaries. In keeping with what is often the natural emergence of things as we begin the conceptualization process, we will begin with ourselves. What are our Personal Boundaries, and how consistently do we recognize and adhere to them? As we consider this key question together, I will offer some guiding questions to help us along in the reflection/discovery process. In part 1, we will examine and interrogate the first two of four aspects of Personal Boundaries: Temporal and Kinetic. Later this week, in part 2, we will dig in to the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Toward the end of each part, I will close with an invitation to engage in some ongoing work over the course of the rest of the week, and also provide resource recommendations where I have them to offer. Without further preamble, let’s begin.

Temporal Personal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Before we can properly understand this, however, it is necessary to better define our own relationship to time. We can begin by simply assessing our level of attunement to the passing of time. Consider your responses to the following questions in the context of not relying on a timepiece: How often are you confidently aware of what time of day it is? To what extent are you able to keep track of the duration of activities in which you engage? For instance, do you frequently feel misaligned, in terms of either mindset or activity/energy level, to the time of day in which you find yourself, whether late morning, mid-afternoon, or early evening? What about the passing of time? If you begin an activity, say sitting down to read a book or getting engrossed in preparing a meal, are you able to stop yourself in the midst of it and accurately assess for how long you have been engaged (in minutes or fractions of an hour, not seconds)? No particular answer is more or less valuable or important, but it is good to have a sense of this for yourself, as it can help you have a more faithful frame of how you personally interact and engage with time in your day to day life.

What about your sense of time as it relates to others? How often do you feel impatient when you are expected, or obliged, to passively observe and/or wait while someone else engages in an activity, whether it be thinking, talking, cooking, working, or getting ready to go out? How do your expectations vary between the time you can patiently allot yourself to do something versus what you can graciously offer to another? You don’t need to answer these questions with judgment. Just take a moment to reflect and see what arises for you in response, possibly jotting a thought or two down, or even taking a more full five to ten minutes to journal on it.

Kinetic Personal Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. The central question here pertains to what and who determines the activities in which you do, and do not, engage? This may seem like a very simplistic question, to which the answer can only be some version of one of three major types:

“only I decide what I will do”

“I live to serve and match my actions accordingly”

“it depends.”

The relative valuation given to each of those response types will vary, of course, according to the cultural norms with which you were raised, those that are in place where you currently live, or those you have integrated into your personal worldview. In any case, what matters most is to be mindful and aware of what most often drives you to, or keeps you from, taking action and if those factors change under different circumstances (that do not rise to the level of the extreme – almost everyone’s motivations change in extreme situations).

The purpose here is to accept that we will struggle to reliably understand and evaluate, much less consciously moderate or modify, our own actions and tendencies unless we understand where they come from. Here you may find it helpful to reflect on things like your activity levels in terms of socializing, down/alone time, physical and mental wellbeing (nutrition, fitness, meditation, sleep, etc.), personal development (reading, journaling, ongoing education), and service to others. Of course, you also need to examine the activities you engage in that are the unhealthy opposites of the favorable ones I have just listed. What routines and/or patterns emerge when you ask these questions? Whatever your answers about the amount and/or quality of activity you engage in any and all of those domains, it is at least as important to understand whether the catalyst for your Kinetic Boundaries comes from within, without, or a mix of both. Spend enough time in honest dialogue with these questions, meditating and/or journaling according to what works best for you, and I am confident that you will have moments of surprise and discovery.

Resource recommendations:

Insight Timer – A freemium meditation and personal improvement app for iOS and Android. Plenty of great free content for beginning and building on meditation and mindfulness practices, and paid courses and additional content to boot!

7-minute workout – A great, free resource for getting your fitness fix, no matter your current fitness level or exercise habits! Shows how to perform all movements, requiring only body weight and some personal drive.

The Miracle Morning – A wonderful book, not free, with ample web resources, by Hal Elrod. This book will help you reconsider the extent to which a lack of time and energy are really what stand between you and pursuing your life goals.

That’s it for today! Be sure to check back for part 2, focusing on Personal Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, in the next few days.

Putting the “B” in BASE: Outlining our boundaries for ourselves and others.

What better topic for the start of the New Year than boundaries? Liminal spaces are defined by boundaries and, if we stop and think about it, so are many of the crucial decision points in our daily lives.

Last week I provided an overview of the personal and professional leadership model I have come to conceptualize over the years as BASE. Yes, it is yet another acronym for us to consider in a world that seems to be quickly approaching, or perhaps even exceeding, a critical mass state of WTFs and SMHs. Nevertheless, I share this with you in the sincere belief that by reflecting on the thoughts that underlie each of BASE’s four principles, you can build a program for yourself that will aid you in challenging even the most powerful of the FOMOs!

Over the course of this month, each week I will outline some critical questions and guidelines for developing ourselves and our thinking around the “B” in BASE: Boundaries. Today I will quickly outline what I see as the critical elements of Boundaries, and offer a few reflection questions to prepare us for the work ahead.

So, in that spirit, I offer you this invitation: when you read or hear the word “boundaries” what other things (whether they be other words, images, or emotions) do you immediately associate with the term? Take a moment and write some of those down before reading on.

Now, armed with your list of associations, consider the following question: what are the relationships between the boundaries that exist in your life today and your “self”? Are they relationships of reassuring structure and congruence? Do they generate productivity? Tension?

Reflect on the things you jotted down just a moment ago and try to connect with the thoughts and emotions you may have experienced as you wrote them. Did you feel mostly positive and reassured, or were apprehension and friction also involved? For many of us, traditional boundaries are experienced as much as limitations on what we want and need as they are sources of security and wellbeing. This ambivalence, or the potential for it, is vital for understanding the power of boundaries in our lives. However, let’s return for a moment to the definition and question about Boundaries that I posed in last week’s post:

Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?

For me, the real core question has to do with the extent to which we are in charge of the narrative we hold for ourselves around the Boundaries in our lives. In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to think of Boundaries as falling under some different kinds of categories.

I divide my thinking on Boundaries into two major sets: areas and aspects. The four areas of Boundaries in the BASE model are: Personal, Professional, Physical, and Psychological. If we want to fully understand the nature and role of Boundaries in our lives, we must be able to identify and evaluate them across a spectrum of our existential domains. Do these areas and aspects sometimes, or even often, overlap? They almost certainly do, but Boundaries that inhabit two or more of these areas in our lives most likely originate in just one of them. Knowing the genesis of any boundary that permeates multiple areas is vital to our ability to (re)assume agency with respect to it.

Again, take a moment to consider these four areas and make a short list of the Boundaries, for yourself and for others, that you can already identify in each. Remember that there is no way to get any of this wrong. If you perceive it as a Boundary in your life, then it is! Feel free to underline any that are present in more than one area, as they will likely be ones that warrant greater consideration from you.

Once we have a sense of the way Boundaries in our lives work across the four areas, it can be productive to examine them in terms of their aspect(s). The four aspects of Boundaries that comprise this portion of the BASE model are Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal. When considered properly and kept in balance, each of the four Boundary areas will also entail some element of each of these four Boundary aspects.

Temporal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Kinetic Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. Cognitive Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, and Interpersonal Boundaries pertain to our interactions with others.

As one final reflection exercise for today, return to your list of Boundaries in each of the four areas, and try to label each with one or more relevant aspects. Once you have made a pass at this, examine the list again and notice the distribution of Boundaries across both areas and aspects. Does it already suggest anything to you about the relative equilibrium in your life in this regard? Does it challenge or reinforce any closely held ideas you may have about your “self” and the ways in which you engage with your world? Feel free to journal a bit on this (set a Temporal Boundary for it!) and see what surfaces for you. Hang on to these “notes” you have made, as they will prove valuable as we delve more deeply into each of the four Boundary areas each week for the rest of the month.

I will stop here for now. Over the course of the rest of this month, I will delve into a different Boundary area in a new post each week. Along the way, I will provide more detail and definition to my understanding of each area and the important aspects within it, as well as offering some additional reflection questions and, here and there, book, podcast, and/or app recommendations.

Until next week!

The danger of missed connections…

Anyone who has done some amount of air travel will be all too familiar with the destructive power of missed connections. Suddenly, a well-coordinated travel itinerary becomes a cascading, downhill disaster of cancelled reservations, revised schedules, and the best laid plans gone “aft agley.” But these examples are in the extreme, derived from the most compacted, intensive of situations. It should lead us to wonder if there aren’t other kinds of missed connections in our more mundane, everyday lives and interactions. If so, are the less salient, but still very real, consequences moment-to-moment missed connections diminishing the quality of our relationships and, by extension, of our shared existence? This is what I invite you to consider with me today.

In the world of improvisation, or improv as it is more colloquially known, there are a few simple rules that govern all interactions between players. The most well-known amongst these is the famous “yes, and.” In the simplest sense, this means that whatever a fellow improv artist does or says in a scene needs to always be greeted with the spirit and actions of “yes, and,” never “yes, but” or worse yet “no, but.” In order to prepare for performances, improv artists often practice energy exercises in pairs or in larger group circles. These exercises are predicated on each member recognizing, and then responding positively to the energy that their fellow players offer them. You offer unbridled joy? I recognize it and offer my best version of the same. You come with sober gravitas? Right back at you, but not in a serve-and-volley sense. Rather, in a “thank you, and yes, I’ll join you in that” fashion. The point is to connect and join with whatever your partner(s) offer up. Only in this way can true improvisational performance work for both the players and the audience.

What does this mean for us, as leaders, parents, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and friends? Well, ask yourself this: how often do you meet the energy of those around you with a genuine spirit of “yes, and”? How often do you return eye contact and connection offered to you by a subordinate, a child, a co-worker, or the cashier at the supermarket? More to the point, can you think of times when, likely without the benefit of conscious thought, you averted your gaze before that connection could be made? I know I can, and it is not just because I tend toward introversion (though that is certainly part of the equation). No, I believe that it is because, especially in contemporary society, we are increasingly conditioned to forego these micro-connections and fleeting offers of shared energy. Why? Well, because they threaten to distract us from our preferred distractions, which is to say they stand to draw us back into a world that we increasingly strive to escape at every turn, through the ubiquity of our cloud-connected devices and the non-stop push alerts that dominate our every available neuron.

In his book “On Tyranny,” historian Timothy Snyder encourages us to “make eye contact and small talk” as one of his twenty lessons for the 20th century. So, what I invite us all to do today is really quite simple. I am not suggesting that we should prowl, stalker-like through our day, seeking to establish eye contact with every person who happens to wander within arm’s reach of us (or worse yet, with people minding their own business from across the room!). No, instead I am presenting us with the encouragement to set an intention; to accept those small invitations to connect, which we all too often simply miss, with our fellow humans. In doing so, we may be surprised at what we find, and all that it has to offer us in this ongoing improvisational performance called life…

What were you thinking? And what do the tags mean?

This is our initial set of tags. We implemented them on the site first to have a guideline for ourselves.

Change is not just the first word alphabetically. It is the central concept we are thinking about. It’s a cliché to say that change is the only constant. It certainly will make a frequent appearance in our writing. The topics and concepts will change; the tags might change; our approach will change. And all that is good. Some of the concepts from the social sciences – coadaptation, complex system, development, dialectic, dynamic system, nonlinearity, social dynamics – help us to understand change better, enable us to to talk – and write – about change, and facilitate living and working with change.

We have been working in Language Education for some years. Our linguistic training is helping us to make sense of many things in this world. Thought and language are inextricably linked. Everyone of us also uses language to construct our identity. We all mediate our social relationships with language. So, concepts such as cognition, common ground, communication, discourse, discourse analysis, discursive construction, language development, metacognition, negotiation of meaning, rhetoric, textual analysis, transcultural, word meaning, will be central to our pondering of life’s and work’s questions.

People work in teams, are part of a smaller or larger organization, and are members of communities and societies. Some of us find themselves in leadership positions. Especially at times of change – and change is the only constant 😉 – such social concepts gain in importance. We will involve the following: leadership, management, org behavior, org culture, org theory, social dynamics.

Although we both think of ourselves as predominantly rational and pragmatic, we are well aware that we would not have a full grasp of this world in all its beautiful facets and not a full picture of a fellow human, if we only relied on analysis and rational thought. Therefore, we will ponder questions of spiritualism, spirit, energy, and emotion.

Why are we conducting such discussions in a public blog? Both of us have been teaching and training different groups of adults (and to a lesser extent also teenagers and younger children). We hope to be able to put our knowledge, expertise, and experience – manifested in this emerging blog – to good use soon by holding workshops, training, teaching, consulting, and coaching.

But first we will explore individual concept tags in individual blog posts and see where this leads us in our thinking, and what feedback and questions we will receive from you.

This was an empty post

About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):

  • We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful.  We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
  • At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.

We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …

This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.

First blog post

Everything has a beginning. Has everything? Probably not. Something that has been here forever, did it have a beginning?

Well. This philosophical question doesn’t really matter at this time and in this case. Because this website and its blog have not been here forever. Chris and Mat decided to build this site about a week ago. It started off as an empty shell, a downloaded template … and a bag of ideas. Ideas about which we want to write and to talk, which we want to ponder and debate, and which — most important to us — we want to share with you. Yes, we believe we have some ideas that are worth sharing.

So we decided to just have this site emerge. We realize this requires work, a sustained effort, and consistent striving. We are ready. Are you? We will always appreciate your comments, your input, your support and counterpoints, your feedback, …

So, let’s get started.

If you arrived through this blog, you could go to our homepage or look at the whole Panta Rhei Blog, starting with the latest post and going back in time.