Powerful Transitions

Leading from the Spaces In Between

Sun becomes sky, sky becomes ocean, ocean becomes stone. Castlepoint, New Zealand.


I love conceptual models. They help me make sense of the world around me and give me ways of responding more effectively to the complex environments that I tend to work in. But I also want my theory to follow my experience. In other words, I don’t think theory should define your experiences before you can even have them.

In 2004 I came across an amazing book called Presence by Peter Senge, Betty-Sue Flowers, Joseph Jaworski and Otto Scharmer. The ideas it contained and in particular the mental model (an early iteration of Theory U) that it contained gave me another way to understand some of the experiences a group us were having in our learning community. I was grateful that we found a model that helped us think more clearly about the work we were doing but was also grateful that we had the experience ourselves first.

Since then I have worked with a number of groups and individuals who were also excited about Theory U, but when I asked about their own, first hand experience of ‘presence’ I was often met with a blank look. They resonated with the ideas in the book and it excited them enough to recommend it to their clients, or sign up for an online course, but it seemed to me that they hadn’t necessarily had their own personal experience of being deeply present with a group of people. It was like the ideas and the theory were a proxy for the experience itself.

Next week I am fortunate to be spending five days in dialogue with a group of peers to explore these issues first hand. While we will be using a range of conceptual models to support our work, the intention of the retreat is to have an experience — not simply to theorise or talk about ideas.

Coming Full Circle

The Full Circle Leadership Model developed by my colleague Alanna Krause is another one of those conceptual tools that helps me make sense of complex ideas and challenging experiences.

Here’s a personal example. Last year I finished three years working with Auckland Council, the largest local government organisation in New Zealand. Like most people working in large government agencies, we were challenged on a daily basis to deliver real value to the people we serve, and to deliver this through a conventional corporate structure of departments, managers, and business cases.

Applying the Full Circle model to this experience, I see government agencies struggling with the prototyping stage in particular. Spending public money on ‘trying something out’, especially when we know in advance that the initiative is likely to fail, is seen by many as irresponsible. This focus on avoiding failure makes it very difficult for government organisations to learn, and in particular to learn by doing. I suspect that this is the reason that so many government agencies attempt to go directly from envision to operationalise, bypassing the vital prototype and evaluate stages. The Full Circle Leadership model makes it possible to diagnose this pattern and gives us a shared language to talk about it.

States and Transitions

As much as I love conceptual models, like the Full Circle Leadership framework, I've noticed a tendency to focus on identifying particular states or stages (the things), and ignore the importance of transitions (the space between the things). States are really important — we need to understand what context we are operating in — but from a social process perspective, much of our ability as leaders to influence outcomes depends on us being able to shift from one state to another.

In this model, there are four things. The most important thing is that they are separate and different. The next most important thing is that they occur in a certain order.

The ‘state’ paradigm is a bit like seeing the world as a map with countries on it. The most important things are the countries. Boundaries matter, but only because they separate one nation from another. If you want to move from one state to another you need to cross a border, and you might need a passport or visa for this (generally an officious, stressful process).

Models like this contain really useful information. They help me identify which state I might be in now, and prepare for where I might be going next. This kind of map makes possible what we could call ‘passive navigation’ — I am better equipped to know where I am and where I might be headed. But in this world I am not necessarily able to make decisions or change states if I wanted to. To do that we need a map for exercising ‘active navigation’. This is where transitions become important.

In this model there are still four things. The most important thing is that they are connected. The next most important thing is that we can use this connection to move from one stage to the next — and sometimes to go back again.

The alternative to a ‘state’ paradigm is a ‘transitions’ paradigm, which is more like seeing the world as a railway or a highway. The most important things are the towns but at the risk of using a cliché, it’s all about the journey. Another metaphor might be birthdays. We demarcate our lives using years, but I actually only spend one day being 7, or 8 years old. Most of my year is spent transitioning being between being 7 and 8 years old, and that experience of transition is what actually makes up the vast majority of my life.

In summary — I think stages inform but transitions enable. This is not intended to be a criticism of either stages or information — both are really useful and important — rather my intention is to try and describe why we need to pay attention to transitions and how they can serve us in our work.

Transitions in Full Circle Leadership

The Full Circle model describes 8 stages that we have observed over and over again, both at Enspiral and other organisations we work with. In my experiences working with the model, I am starting to understand more about the nature and importance of transitions between the stages and I am happy to share this emergent thinking here.

In this next section I describe the 9 transitions that I think are most effective in helping people and groups to move from one stage of the circle to another. Each transition is described using a couple of personal questions that may be useful in unlocking the leadership needed to move on to the next stage.

1. Open
The transition to Sense
Barrier — Staying with old ideas, beliefs, situations and realities that are known and familiar
Question — “Am I open? What am I not aware of?”

2. Pursue
The transition from Sense to Inquire
Barrier — Staying with new ideas, new experiences, and the excitement of endless potential
Question — “Am I excited? Is possibility present?”

3. Share
The transition from Inquire to Envision
Barrier — Being shy, scared, selfish, and wanting to hold onto my gold
Question — “Am I connected? Who am I inviting in?”

4. Experiment
The transition from Envision to Prototype
Barrier — Staying with the raw potential, being unwilling or unable to risk manifesting something (that might not work)
Question — “Am I creative? Can this idea be tested?”

5. Test
The transition from Prototype to Evaluate
Barrier — “It’s not finished yet!” Being stuck making yet another version of the same thing
Question — “Am I curious? Can I be rigorous?”

6. Implement
The transition from Evaluate to Operationalise
Barrier — “I need more data!” Wanting to be 100% certain before moving forward
Question — “Am I dedicated? What outcome am I committed to?”

7. Integrate
The transition from Operationalise to Maintain
Barrier — “This is complex and everything is interconnected!" Seeing the real reason this is an issue for the first time
Question — “Am I effective? Is my approach systemic?”

8. Resolve
The transition from Maintain to Optimise
Barrier — “Don’t change it yet!” Holding onto the original vision
Question — “Am I responsible?” "Who will care for this?"

9. Complete
The transition from Optimise to Sense
Barrier — “We can make this even better!” Staying with the original vision/opportunity/project rather than being open to more new ideas
Question — “Am I complete/ready for the next thing?”

Moving Backward to Move Forward

I think transitions are about movement, flow, and momentum. In other words, living things need to keep moving. When projects bog down, people lose interest, budgets blow out, and the problem remains unsolved. In an ideal world, all our projects would move smoothly from inception to implementation. However, when reality inevitably interferes with our dreams we need to know what to do about it.

The Full Circle Leadership model provides some important guidance — not just about what stage is coming up next, but options and pathways to loop back if you encounter blocks. In other words, if you can’t move forward, move backward. I suspect that transitions backward are more generic in nature. They generally involve us asking the question “Am I agile/flexible?” The barrier is usually sticking to a preconceived schedule or project plan, rather than doing what the project actually needs.

Some Fundamental Questions for Leaders

In writing this I have been reminded of some ideas I think of as fundamental to leadership of any kind. I think that every project asks us a big question — “Am I powerful?” It might be useful to qualify this a bit — “Am I powerful enough?”

Every project exists in a context of difficulty, and the relative likelihood of success. Some projects are so challenging that no matter how much smarts, money, time, or people I can muster, the odds of succeeding are a gamble at best. Some contexts are so enabling that very little energy is needed to get the job done — in fact, too much active leadership can actually be counter-productive to the natural emergence taking place.

I think that often the inner dimension to this thing we call leadership involves both permission and desire. “Am I allowed?” and “do I really want the outcome?” These are the two questions I think every leader needs to answer.

External permission can be an important part of the context too, but I think it’s more productive to focus on the internal state. Bold, disruptive, visionary leadership often involves bending, breaking or inventing the rules. If we need to wait for external permission before we can imagine a better future, it’s going to be a very long journey!

Once we have the internal permission, I think the next task is to connect with our desire. Most projects include that challenging moment when we ask ourselves, “Is this really worth it?” The bigger the project, the more salient this question is. If we don’t have ready access to our desire — what we want and why we want it — this moment of questioning can turn into a crisis of confidence, both for us and for the people we are leading. Being able to share our desires in a way that enables other people to see a new possibility, and to connect with their own desires can be a real gift.

The Power of Transitions

Full Circle Leadership calls on us to get better at the many kinds of leadership required at different stages of the project lifecycle. We also need to practice the skill of transitioning from one state to another, and understand these transitions as a source of considerable agency and personal empowerment.

Doing transitions really well may require that we actually hand the project on to another person or group. It may involve leaving behind a preferred role within your team or organisation and trying out a new, less comfortable role. It may involve partnering with another organisation or bringing in someone with skill and experience in that particular area of leadership.

Whatever your approach, I invite you to pay attention to the transitions. Celebrate each transition and mark it in some way so that you, your team, your organisation, and your partners know that progress is being made. Celebration also invites in the new kinds of support and contribution that will be needed on the next leg of your journey. Travel well!