New is not the opposite of Old

R. David Cummins
Dec 11, 2019 · 8 min read

The following is an adaptation and translation (from German) of the speech I gave at the NWF conference 2019.

There were a couple of special situations this year. As an organization we had had a very painful year since the last conference. This pain had led to a huge amount of personal learning for me. My slot was at the end of the first conference day, instead of at the beginning as in the former years. I still felt I had the job of setting up an atmosphere of openness and honesty about new ways of working, but I knew the audience would be tired and that their heads would be full from all of the great impulses of the other speakers. So I decided to be very open and personal, in order to grab their attention and move their hearts, even if their brains were above capacity. This is what I talked about:

This is the fourth year that we are holding this conference. My partner Andreas has already explained why we created this conference: we wanted to get good impulses and have exchanges with our peers — we started it for quite egotistic reasons. At the very first conference we didn’t even reserve a slot for ourselves. Only after the feedback of many participants that we should, did we decide to have our own slot the second year. And then we decided that we should use the slot to set an atmosphere of openness and honesty. Therefore, then and since then, we have openly talked about what we have done badly in our organization. But we also spoke about what we have learned and what we believe to be true, so that others could be helped by our experiences.

That is the way I started the last two conferences, but today I am speaking at the end of the first day instead of at the beginning — at the end of a day with a large amount of input for all of you.

Probably you have had enough already!

For that reason, I have decided to tell you about a very personal journey — personal for us as an organization but also very personal to me.

Maybe I can provoke some thought. Perhaps it just allows some of you to relax, but especially I hope that I encourage you with my openness also to be open with each other for the rest of our time together — today and tomorrow.

Last year was for us as an organization a financially bad year —a really bad year. Although we have survived it, the price for survival was high. Today we have a third fewer employees than we did a year ago. We had to terminate the employment of some of the team members and others left on their own as a consequence.

Of course, the market is at fault. The majority of our income is generated through client projects and one project after another was put on ice last year from the clients. And the start of many new projects were delayed indefinitely. There seemed to be quite a bit of insecurity out there. We weren’t the only organization that experienced this.

In the summer of 2018 there were a lot of reasons for organizations not to look positively at the future: Brexit, conflicts between the EU and Italy, and between the USA and China, are examples. The result is insecurity which is not good for any company and the reaction is typically to reduce costs. The quickest way to do this is to reduce the marketing budget. Unfortunately in 2018 that is the budget our companies most relied on for our projects.

Of course this was hard to see at the time — it could have been temporary, often business is bad in the summer time. How long was it going to be this way? Our problem is that our largest cost is also the source of our value creation: our people. We sell creativity, and that comes from the members of our organization.

In order to reduce costs, we would have to let people go and at the same time we would weaken our source of creating value. So, of course, we waited as long as we could before taking measures to reduce costs — but it soon became unavoidable: the market forced us to become smaller.

Can we really put all of the blame on the market?

In no way do I want to shift all of the causes away from the market situation. The world is changing. The market is insecure. But weren’t we on our way to creating an organization that could adapt and find new ways in our insecure world through collective intelligence? Weren’t we building a learning organization? Why weren’t we more able to deal with these changes, then?

To find out, we started looking for and examining hidden beliefs in our system. Some clues came from sentences that were heard among team members. These were things like:

  • We do New Work. We don’t have rules!
  • Everybody can do whatever they want.
  • We decide everything together.
  • We don’t have hierarchies. No one is allowed to decide anything.
  • There are no consequences (for bad behavior/for bad quality work)

How is this possible? Those ideas are pretty much the opposite of what we have been saying in the last few years. We have talked about how important rules are and we have set up a framework so that teams could create their own meaningful rules. We defined a “Delegation Board” that we gave the title “Who decides what” and have had regular meetings with team members in order to inspect it and see if it needed to be adapted. And one of our most important sayings is: “A decision should be made by those who have the knowledge and experience necessary for making the decision” which is definitely not: “everyone decides everything.”

So how is it possible that these beliefs exist in our organization?

At first, my hypothesis was that it had something to do with opposites. If I don’t quite grasp some new idea, then I compare it with something that I already know. If it is different then I jump to the conclusion that it must be the opposite, e.g. Old Work had rules, so New Work must not have rules.

But could that be the entire explanation? “New” is not always seen as the opposite of “old.” Concluding that New Work doesn’t have rules, because Old Work did, would be like assuming that if you bought a new car, your new car must not have wheels, because your old car had wheels.

After much thought, I have come up with three theories that might explain the phenomena we perceived. They are actually questions phrased as statements to examine possibilities and they are inclusive not exclusive (that means all three could be possible at the same time):

  1. It is difficult to understand nuances that are not yet popular understandings. It is hard to grasp: “We have rules, but we create our rules differently” or “We have hierarchies or leadership, but they differ from classical structures and concepts.”
  2. We (possibly mostly I?) have left too much at the theoretical level. The explanations we have provided are good and probably understood at a certain level, but living according to them is a whole different matter. In the past few years whenever I have given speeches about “New Work” or “Agility,” I have always stressed the point that it is important to start with principles and not with methods. And I still believe that. But maybe we have done too little at the method level in our organization. We need to find a way to live the theory — we need an operating system.
  3. We (I!) have hidden belief systems that do not harmonize with our theories. That is the case when espoused theory differs from observed behaviors. The latter is what members of organizations really perceive — much more than any words. It is extremely hard to find out what these belief systems contain, but we are currently working on it and in the process, I learned some things about myself and my partners. The following are two examples.

1 Feedback

I and my partners (the four owners of the Ministry Group) are (were) incredibly bad at giving feedback to each other.

Maybe (Maybe!) that had some influence on the behaviors we observe in the teams: a large desire for harmony and an avoidance of conflict? Avoiding conflict can lead to feedback not being given (or sought for), which hinders learning. Harmony is not always bad, but creativity also needs some tension.

Does our behavior as the owners and leaders have something to do with that? Perhaps directly? It is hard to tell, but generally we —as well as many other leaders— tend to underestimate our influence on the organization and to judge the behaviors of others without seeing our own participation in that behavior.

It is certainly worthwhile to examine the topic — and we are — the four of us and the whole team.

2. Negativity & “Amygdala-Überfunktion”

Before I start on the last example, I just want to clear up one point:

I am not a negative person! Not at all!

Possibly, I see lots of problems and think a lot about solutions. I also notice a lot of things that are not “right.” But that is my strength: I’m good at recognizing problems and at solving them. I think a lot about what could go wrong — but I wouldn’t call that worrying. It is planning for the future, seeing all possibilities, and well ….

It seems, that what I just described is pretty much the same as fear and anxiety for our brains. Apparently the same region in the brain is active as when we are afraid or feel insecure and are protecting ourselves from danger: the amygdala.

The problem with this is that when the amygdala is active, the brain develops much more slowly — fewer new connections are made — less is learned and there is less possibility for creativity and innovation.

Okay, I admit it: I suffer from “Amygdala-Überfunktion*” — and it is extremely contagious. It rapidly spreads through teams, especially if leaders have it. And especially then, when there is a serious crisis and insecurity in an organization. And that is the situation we had this last year.

How can I get out of my own negativity and start new “brain habits?” How can we fight Amygdala-Überfunktion in our organization? That is the stage in which I find myself now. It is said, that recognition is the beginning.

And why am I telling you all of this? I think it is important to show how easy it is to hide your own beliefs from yourself — because you always have very good reasons to think the way you do. In order to get to the bottom of things, you need a willingness as well as external input — for example, books have always been important for my learning — but also the exchange with people who have a certain distance to my systems. And so we are back to the reason for this conference.

I am looking forward to the exchanges with you this evening and tomorrow — to learning from you and contributing to your learning. But before we end, I just want to stress the point again:

I am not a negative person!

Illustration: © R. David Cummins

*over-functioning of the amygdala — sounds cooler in pseudo-German, and I made it up. I hope all neurologists and psychologists and other experts who happen to be reading this will forgive me that and my oversimplification of the topic of negativity and the brain.

R. David Cummins

Written by

Consultant, writer, speaker, entrepreneur |

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