Is Santa Real in Your Organization?

During this holiday season, the usual holiday TV shows, movies, and conversations abound. An interesting one surfaced yesterday. “What do I tell my young daughter about Santa Claus? I’d like her to experience the joy that comes from believing, but I know she’ll hear from at least one of her friends that Santa isn’t real. And what do I say if she asks how there can be so many Santa’s available at the same time? Shouldn’t Santa still be at the North Pole?”

Tough one. Should we be positive or negative? Whimsical or realistic? Literal or figurative? How is a parent to choose?

Organizations face the same struggles in the stories they tell – to themselves, their customers, their stockholders, and the increasingly connected world. Is it more fair/ethical/ helpful to tell only the cold, hard, unvarnished “truth” of quality problems, declining morale, and poor prospects? Or do we exclusively focus on the uplifting story– new products in the pipeline, aggressive business development efforts, successes of high performing teams and continuous improvement training initiatives? Perhaps a mix would be best – but how much of each?

Stories are one of seven Catalysts in the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF). In the CSF, Catalysts are the short-term, intentional actions we can take to influence organizational patterns of thought and behavior. Think of them as chess pieces we need to move to keep the game going. We move them intentionally, with a strategy in mind, recognizing there are no guarantees we will accomplish our ultimate outcome.

Which stories does your organization tell? How many? Who tells them? How consistent are they? How frequently are they told? Who listens to them? Each of these questions invites both an invitation to engage in a conversation and try an experiment – What happens when you change the answer to one or more of those questions?

When conducting an experiment or moving a chess piece, the goal is to consider your strategy carefully before actually making the move. What might be the impact – intended and unintended — on other elements of the CSF?

To end this post where it began, “What do I tell my young daughter about Santa Claus?”

(With credit to the TV show Family Feud …)

Audience answer #3: “Yes, darling, Santa is real. He is at the North Pole now. These others are Santa’s helpers, collecting lists and spreading joy.”

Audience answer #2: “Santa is a symbol that represents happiness, joy, and giving. All these Santa’s you see are here to remind us of those things.”

Audience answer #1 (drum roll, please …): “Ask your [other parent or caregiver)!”

Culture Is as Culture Does

There is an old Native-American saying that goes something like, “If you want to know where your enemy is going, don’t look at their eyes – look at their moccasins.”

The same can be said for culture. Many organizations talk/brag about their friendly, people-centered, transparent, honest … (fill in your adjectives here) cultures. The question becomes, how do they behave? Do they put those words into action? Every level of the organization looks to the levels above (especially their direct supervisor) to see if their daily behavior is consistent with the cultural values being espoused.

If (when) they don’t, employees are reinforced in the belief that “talk is cheap,” and that “actions speak louder than words.” Even worse for the organization’s leaders, they talk to each other about this – a lot!

What is an organization to do? First, “under-promise and over-deliver.” Be cautious of creating and publishing lofty statements that read well but are not likely to be followed.

Second, leaders at every level need to hold themselves and each other privately and publicly accountable for their daily, “business as usual” behavior. By the way, this means celebrating the desired behaviors as much as calling out the bad. Only after this is done consistently and with appropriate consequences, should they do the same for those who report to them.

Finally, everyone would do well to realize that culture isn’t a discrete entity. It can’t be pointed at, counted in any meaningful way, or changed through a PR campaign or training class. It is a shared mindset; a byproduct of accumulated history, stories, and behaviors. It’s “what and how we do what we do when no one is looking.”

Where are your moccasins pointing? Only if your moccasins are moving towards your stated culture can you expect others to change the direction of theirs.

Some Changes are Bigger Than Others

not-just-rsA colleague recently shared that his aerospace engineering and manufacturing facility had just   announced a major layoff at. We had worked there together in the past, so I was familiar with the facility and organizational ecosystems.

After the initial shock and disappointment (former colleagues had suffered major disruptions to their livelihoods) wore off, I realized I was not at all surprised. The seeds for this disruption were sown in the decades that preceded it.

Do any of these indicators resonate for you?

  • Senior “good old boy” leadership team that had remained largely intact for years
  • Business benefiting from significant barriers to entry for new competitors
  • “Cost plus” pricing model where process inefficiencies can actually be profitable
  • More profitable than other divisions in the corporation, so more likely to be left alone while corporate leadership dealt with more urgent business needs
  • Lots of talk about the need for continuous improvement but little real commitment by the leadership to implement it

In the Complexity Space™ Framework, we introduce the concept of “Ecosystem Dimensions.”  Dimensions are enduring, system-wide patterns of thought and behavior. I applied the four categories of Dimensions to my colleague’s organization:

History: The company has been in business for a long time, helping to pioneer major advances in the aerospace field. “This must be the right way to do it – after all, we invented it!”

Context: The business exists in the context of being a prime contractor to the defense industry. Highly regulated. Slow to change. Few competitors with significant barriers to entry. “Cost-plus” pricing.

Culture: The organization is comprised of rocket scientists (really!), engineers, and high-tech manufacturing personnel. “The smartest one, with the best pedigree wins” – whether or not their idea is actually the best solution for the problem at hand.

At the leadership team level, an additional dynamic is at play. Since the universe of organizations in this market niche is small, everyone knows everyone else, with many having worked with one another before. There is a strong network that results in a “one of us/not one of us” mindset if someone new is introduced to the leadership team.

Motivation: Many employees believe that, “We’re an essential part of keeping the USA and its allies safe and will always be needed.” Because of the barriers to entry, “We’re too big (important) to fail.” And for the highly tenured leaders, “Don’t rock the boat – let’s ride the status quo into (a very nice) retirement.”

Notice each of these makes perfect sense from the perspective of those in the organization. However, those same perspectives made it more difficult to see and deal with:

  • Cost-plus pricing being replaced by fixed cost pricing
  • An increasing intolerance for chronic quality problems by the customer
  • The emergence of competitors with the resources to fight through the barriers to entry
  • Increasing amounts of “group think” and intolerance for new thinking
  • Mergers and acquisitions shifting the balance of power at the corporate level

Using the “lens” of Ecosystem Dimensions, it is (unfortunately) easy to see how plummeting business results could result in major reductions in force. And to make it even worse – Larry saw the same set of organizational dynamics result in the closing of another aerospace facility he worked at 15 years ago!

We invite you to “step back” and view your own organization through the lens of these four Dimensions. Learn more about them by visiting our website at or by purchasing our book, Complexity Works! Influencing Patterns of Change in Teams and Organizations at


I Didn’t Realize There Was So Much Going On

We received a phone call from one of the principals in the financial services company we profiled in the case study of our book, “Complexity Works!” He had just finished reading the case and was shocked that our brief time together had resulted in 46 pages of evaluation and commentary.

“I had no idea that all of that was going on. I just thought we were having a meeting.”  While we were intentional in applying the lenses, distinctions, and tools of the Complexity SpaceTM Framework for the purpose of writing that part of the book, we could have applied the same level and depth of analysis to any team or organization.

Any and all human interactions always have complex dynamics at play. Whether a routine team meeting or complex corporate-wide transformation, each of the elements of the Complexity Space™ Framework is always present.

csfEach Ecosystem holds enduring, pervasive, and hard to influence Dimensions

Linkages connect various elements within systems, and connect internal and external entities

Interactions take place in the context of over-arching meta-patterns we call States

Those States are constantly being challenged by internal and/or external Disruptions

People take intentional action – in the CSF, they leverage Catalysts – to influence patterns and make change happen

Indicators provide continuous feedback on how the actions taken are impacting objectives


Throughout this always-present, constantly evolving process, everyone involved can’t help but have an intentional guide or approach, a Navigation Process, for getting from where they are now to where they want to be.

If your change efforts are not delivering the results and transformation you desire, we invite you to explore how the Complexity Space™ Framework in your unique organizational situation creates new possibilities for thought and action.

How Does Your Organization Engage with Risk?

We have been researching how and why an organization integrates behaviors and actions that introduce “Risk” to an organization. We feel this is critical because it has significant impact on growth and profitability.

Two LinkedIn posts offer very different perspectives. The first post is by Sir Martin Sorrell, Founder and CEO of WPP and is titled, Want Success? Think Long-Term and Take Risks. Sorrell suggests that long term thinking and smart risk taking in many large corporations has lost out to an emphasis on retaining earnings and a “bunker mentality” emphasizing maintaining the status quo and avoiding risky ventures.

The second post is by Rob Alston, CEO of Access, and is titled, Company Culture Improvements in 4 Not-Exactly-Easy Steps. His post described how Access intentionally opened their “Pandora’s Box” by conducting a company-wide survey on benefits and how that led to significant and beneficial changes for everyone.

In both cases responding to a disruption resulted in the ensuing behaviors and outcomes. In Sir Martin Sorrell’s post, the post-Lehman meltdown, the geopolitical turmoil created by Brexit, and increased global instability made C-suite decisions less about taking smart risks and seizing the future and more about surviving persistent uncertainty.
Access, on the other hand, sought feedback from the employee survey as an opportunity to proactively confront the issues that could hold the company back from leveraging the commitment of everyone as new opportunities emerged.

4-stepsAccess modeled a willingness to take a risk across the entire company as demonstrated in their four “steps” to improving corporate culture (shown in the graphic). Each step is a clear commitment to total engagement with each and every employee – from asking tough questions to receiving tough feedback through the resulting actions taken to make a change (or shift a pattern).


These different perspectives illustrate several different aspects of the Complexity Space™ Framework. The CSF focuses attention on the patterns of thought and action in organizations. It recognizes that in complex systems, how risk is managed has implications for both the short and long term health of the organization.

To the extent the “Four Questions” are actually implemented, our belief is that Access was trying to reinforce a core dimension in their “organizational ecosystem” — a clear commitment to total engagement with each and every employee. It seems to be working — the results for Access have been significant, an average growth rate of 44% per year over the past seven years.

In the Complexity Space Framework, our definition of Motivation is: What was the “attractor” that brought the organization into existence? What is the “glue” that holds it together today? Sir Sorrell’s post suggests that the motivation of maintaining the status quo results in an aversion to making the type of investments in innovations and change that prepare the organization for the future.

Mr. Alston highlights a different motivation, one built around the sticky note posted on the bulletin board in the graphic above: “Reject complacency and commit to continuous improvements!”

What motivates your organization to take a risk?

Changing Patterns in 2017

How can anyone not be struck by the unique challenges and opportunities that have been ushered in with the new year?  Those challenges include aligning the needs of employees, the environment, shareholders and customers;  establishing a new level of security across our physical and digital spaces; addressing challenges from inside as well as outside of an organization that we cannot control; and influencing shifting tensions in a healthy and healing way.

The opportunities are equally significant across the systems, people, processes and technology found in every organization.

At Complexity Space Consulting, we view both the challenges and opportunities through two unique and integrated lenses — the Complexity Space Framework (CSF).

The CSF provides a dynamic blend of traditional change management and new, non-linear concepts and tools. The Complexity Space Framework is designed to shift underlying patterns of thought and behavior to provide organizations struggling with multi-faced, “wicked” problems with new possibilities for action.

We have seen how the CSF acts as a powerful lens through which any organization gains new language, distinctions, and tools for uniting strategy, operations, innovations and the people who make it all possible.

During the first several months of 2017, we will be writing about applications of the CSF within an organization’s Human Resources and  Professional Development strategies. We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we will continue to make sure Complexity Works! is keeping the conversations open and relevant.

Are you Affected or Infected by Change?

You have probably heard of the riddle, “What is the difference between a pig and a chicken at breakfast?” The answer is, “The chicken is engaged, but the pig is committed.”


I would like to advance the proposition that the same is true when it comes to change initiatives. There is one category of people for whom a new change is the “flavor of the month” — an empty promise that will never amount to anything. The appropriate response, therefore, is to smile, nod one’s head in an up and down direction — and continue to do exactly what they are doing now. “This too shall pass.” These people are (marginally) affected by change.

There is another group of people who react to change in a very different way. They “buy in”, engage, choose to invest in making the change be successful – or not. They are infected with change.

Here is the thing about being infected. It can be contagious. Others may “catch” whatever position the infected person takes with regard to the proposed change. The investment in the change is obvious to others by the passionate tones of voice and the non-verbal and facial gestures of the infected person. These things “rub off” in much more powerful ways than words alone.

Think about the changes you are trying to help bring about – or scuttle – in your work and/or personal life. Are you affected or infected with change?

“A Better Way to Fish”

Many people have heard the old adage, “If I give you a fish, you eat for a day. If I teach you to fish, you’ll eat for a lifetime.”  In this article, we’d like to propose that traditional learning and development paradigms focus far too often on “giving participants the fish,” with poor results in both the short and long terms.

Think about typical training design. We start with “behavioral objectives.”  “By the end of this Workshop the participant will: ….” Said differently, “Here are the fish you should expect to have in your creel at the end of this fishing trip.”

There’s a problem here, though. The fish spoil quickly! Especially in today’s internet-enabled, “real-time” world, the half-life of information continues to shrink. Working with obsolete data (fish) can cause similar problems to eating spoiled fish. Indigestion at best – life/business threatening food poisoning at worst.

Recognizing that the new game isn’t catching a particular fish is a good start. Recognizing that the new learning skill is “learning to fish” is critical. This is obviously not a new concept. “Learn to swim in the white water” was made popular by Charles Handy in the mid 1990s. The issue we have is that we try to “teach people to fish” using the same tools we use to give them a fish!

The “Complexity Space” is a paradigm that integrates complexity theory, adult learning theory, brain science, and contemporary change management to offer a different way to “learn to fish.” It focuses on patterns.  The information processing patterns of the fisherman. The eating patterns of the fish. The patterns of the weather, water, and fauna. The patterns of information sharing that occur between fishermen.

The Complexity Space is based on the premise that complex systems – human systems – are non-linear; that is, they don’t operate in strict “cause and effect,” “do this and that is guaranteed to happen” ways. Rather they operate over time in larger patterns, patterns that can be identified, analyzed, and influenced – though not necessarily with the results we intend.

Recognizing how the fisherman talks to him/herself upon first seeing the water matters.

Being clear about what information is available – now – today, this minute, about the species of fish being sought matters.

Accessing past experience regarding “When the weather was like this, that happened, matters.

Change one aspect of an interconnected, complex system, and the rest of it will most likely change in some way as well. Becoming a better learner, through greater recognition of learning patterns and knowledge of how to influence them, may well be the survival skill of the 21st century.

Learn more about the Complexity Space at

“It’s Always All Here”

In a recent conversation with a client, she spoke about the ONE thing they were going to focus their attention on in order to fix a significant problem. “It’s a matter of focus,” she said. “We have smart, motivated, dedicated people. If they bring those skills to this issue, we can’t help but be successful.”

Sound familiar? We’ve all been led to believe that applying “laser focus” to a problem is essential for its resolution. The assumption is that we maximize the potential for quick solutions by removing distractions, unnecessary options, and extraneous resources.

Yet, even operating with our highest levels of attention, we don’t always get the results that we want. Perhaps the problem is that we are too focused.   In paying so much attention to what we believe is the most critical item, we forget we are enmeshed in larger systems. Those larger systems are characterized by many variables, all of which are interacting with each other all of the time. It is often by recognizing and attempting to influence this larger set of interconnected variables that the potential for a viable solution to the original problem emerges.

So perhaps what we need is less laser focus and more of a “wide angle” lens. This greater appreciation of the interconnected elements of a complex system continually provides new possibilities for action.  While some differences may be more significant than others, it is impossible to know with certainty which interactions will ultimately contribute to the desired outcome. Rather than shut things out, perhaps we need to let more things in. Rather than exclude what appears to be the important data, perhaps we need to include the small “differences that might make a difference.” It’s in the recognition that “it’s always all here” that our conversation and patterns of problem solving can be enhanced.

“Sometimes More Gets You Less …”

I was just watching a series of DVD lectures titled, “Understanding Complexity” by Professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan. In one of those lectures, he discussed the differences between positive feedback (doing more of a thing gets you more of the same thing) and negative feedback (doing more of a thing gets you less of the same thing).

A classic example of positive feedback is putting a microphone in front of a speaker. micThe mic sends amplified sound to a speaker, which makes it louder and sends it back to the mic, where it is made louder again … until the sound is no longer intelligible.  An example of negative feedback can be found in waiting on a line in front of a restaurant. The longer the line, the less interested (most) people are in joining it.

These distinctions resonated for me as I think about how we (try to) “change the culture” in organizations. We state the need for change. We write about it in our newsletters. We ask (force?) first-line managers to discuss this in their staff meetings. We are clear that these changes are critically important.

Taken individually, these are all certainly good things to do, supported by many mainstream change management theories and models. The question that arises for me is, do these efforts make people want to change the culture more?  Or less?  In light of the feedback models described earlier, I wonder if employees interpret these well-intentioned ideas as:

“Here we go again. Another management spasm designed to convince us that the issues we face today are really our fault; that we need to change rather than they. It is clear they don’t mean this – nothing has changed the last four times they’ve trotted out the same old message.”

So I challenge all of us to think differently. What could we do more of that would encourage others towalk_the_talk  do more of as well? “Walk our talk?” Admit that we don’t know? Ask for help?

Hmmm …