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Community Building Wednesday Whimsy

Trust what I do

I just finished reading Trust by Pete Buttigieg. He is amazingly thoughtful and insightful for a politician. One of his points is that trust is best seen in behavior. A short passage:

If we think of trust as the belief that someone will do what is hoped or promised, the most basic human way to decide whether to trust that person is to notice what they have done before.

Without putting it so eloquently, I followed this maxim with colleagues when we spoke with small-town residents interested in learning about our self-help approach to getting needed water or wastewater improvements. We noted that while we could take five meetings to develop trust that this would mean five more weeks of their carrying or boiling water. Instead, how about we each (residents and my organization) promise the other something and meet again. We will trust each other if we deliver. That worked.

Pete goes on to describe many more philosophical dimensions of trust in the book but none take away anything from the simple truth of trusting what I do more than what I say. As he notes, this is about performance. We speak of our “trusty” knife, friend, or steed because they are predictably there for us.

Many other words can also boil down to behaviors. Holler if you want my take on behavioral definitions of empowerment, self-esteem, collaboration, and other abstract terms. And trust me if I respond!

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Wednesday Whimsy

On Categorizations

Greetings. Before the Wednesday whimsey, I wanted to acknowledge the eventful days in our country. In addition to insurrection at the Capitol we have COVID raging, racial injustice persisting, and an economic situation that is widening the gap between those doing well and those doing poorly. My fervent hope is that the country turns from handwringing over its great divides to a way forward to solve problems that face all of us. At heart, our miseries—and their solutions—are a public good. The Country starts with us. May we begin with civility and a respect for our rule of law. And may we reduce our assertions to each other and increase the questions that are essential to discovery.


Few of us can keep many separate elements in mind unless it be a matter of great passion—such as my diverse collection of comic books in my youth. Instead, we rely on categories—groupings with some logic that let us retrieve information and make sense of patterns and connections. I was reminded of how tricky this is a few days ago when my IT guru sat with me to reorganize the icons on my iPhone. My granddaughter had done this for me years ago and I found her organizing principles enduring and yet unclear. I simply cannot readily find the icons in the categories in which they have rested for years. So on to organization!

Some choices were easy, such as Spectrum, HULU, and “Watch ESPN” in the category of “TV.” Others were more complicated. Here are some examples:

  • YouTube. Does it go in TV, entertainment, or instructions? I decided I used it most frequently for amusement, so put it in entertainment.
  • Strava. Should my bicycle computer app go under health, sports, or GPS? I decided on health because I think that should be the primary value for me.
  • Cars.com. I love to see prices and descriptions of older cars for sale. Should I put in hobbies or transportation? I chose transportation sensing I would remember it better given the natural link to cars.

As I think about it, my decision rules are ad hoc. With YouTube the choice was based on primary purpose. With Strava, I shifted to value and selected aspiration rather than function. And with Cars, I let ease of word association override both purpose and value.

Categories are important in they create what linguists call frames—ways not just of organizing but of thinking. But they also in my case expose different criteria for different choices. I hope you have more clarity than I do on the rules used to put your life in order. It does seem important. Then, I remember the philosopher Emerson writing: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That seems important, too.

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#leadership Community Building Wednesday Whimsy

The Result View of Trust

My colleague Robyn Faucy-Washington just emailed me the new Give.org Donor Trust Report produced by the Better Business Bureau.  Based on surveys, it looks at changes in trust factors that influence charitable gifts.  The top-line finding: “The importance of financial ratios as a signal of trust has declined steadily, from 35 percent in December 2017 to 18.6 percent in August 2020.  Meanwhile, third party evaluations (36 percent) and name recognition (34 percent) have become relatively more significant than accomplishments shared by the organization (30 percent) or financial ratios (19 percent.)”  The report also noted a finding that younger generations attribute less importance to trust before giving and that overall, the importance placed on trust has dropped from 73 percent to 63.6 percent.

While these findings are interesting in their own right, the article renews my question: Just what is trust? I can for example, trust a group for money, time, or other form of relationship because:

–it spends all its money in legal ways.

–it offers the programs it says it does 

–it is fully compliant with all local, state, and federal requirements

–it is led by people I know and admire

–it has a wonderful mission, vision, and values statement

–the community considers it a valuable resource

–it has won awards from groups in which I have confidence

What’s missing in this list? Accomplishment! In my view, the most important factor is a trust that the group will achieve strong results for those it helps.  That trust is earned by behavior. I either get a report with clear evidence of high accomplishment or I do not.

As with most subjects, establishing trust becomes simpler, faster, and more accurate in a result frame.  An example comes from my work at The Rensselaerville Institute using a self-help approach to community revitalization.   We started with a tool that let the community—and us—assess level of capacity and readiness for the major work involved in this approach. In the Appalachian small village of Stump Creek, Pennsylvania, we met with the residents not long after a national foundation had been in town pitching a leadership development program. In that program, several Saturdays were devoted to “trust building” among residents and between the village and the town and county governments.  The residents declined the program. We arrived and were asked if we had a similar approach. No, I said.  We like to boil this down a simple question: Do we keep our promises to each other?  If each group pledges to do something before we meet again and then does it, we will trust each other. If one of us says, “so sorry we did not get around to doing that” we will not.

These residents were mighty tired of drinking unsafe water from shallow wells and two persons promised they would spark a survey to see how many residents would commit to giving at least 50 hours of time and pay up to $20 per month for good water from a central supply.   We promised we would talk to the Appalachian Regional Commission about possible grant support. We both kept our word. Not only did we have trust, but we also had emerging commitments to make the project happen.  In a results frame, trust is about what you do more than what you think.  

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#leadership innovation Wednesday Whimsy

The Path of the Calf: Part 2


In my last entry, I shared Samuel Foss’s poem, the Path of the Calf. It is cited by me and others who seek innovation as its opposite: getting in a groove and staying there. This week let’s turn that coin over to look at the limits of more free-form traveling.

First, consider the value of staying on a path long enough to really learn it. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers sums up the remarkably congruent reflection of persons world class in many fields. They tend to agree that about 10,000 hours of practice was needed to make them great. That practice was assuredly repetitious. Whether playing basketball or carving stone or wood a craft is typically built by digging deeper. Comparative advantage is won by increments far more than breakthroughs.

Second, consider that the volition to follow a path does not mean you were compelled by outside forces to do so. We can choose clearly marked crooked paths as well as straight ones for good reasons. The French novelist Marcel Proust wrote that “The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Enrichment and novelty are not equivalent.

OK—I think I have pushed the limits of quirky thoughts. Next week, we shall hit the ground with some practical thoughts on promoting innovation in yourself and your organization.

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#leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Follow the Cow?

Listen to this excerpt from a wonderful poem called “The Path of the Calf” by Samuel Foss:

One day, through the primeval wood,

   A calf walked home as good calves should.

But made a trail all bent askew,

   A crooked trail as all calves do…

The trail was taken up next day

   By a lone dog that passed that way,

And then a wise bell-wether sheep

   Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him too

   As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o’re hill and glade

   Through those old woods a path was made.

And thus, before men were aware,

   A city’s crowded thoroughfare.  ..

A thousand men were led

   By a calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way

   And lost one hundred years each day.

For thus such reverence is lent

   To well established precedent.

Foss died in 1911.  Not all insights are new ones.

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#leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Questions and Inquiry

I just read Doing Justice by Preet Bharara.  Here is a passage by this highly regarded former federal prosecutor:

People are forever using acronyms they can’t expand, spouting jargon they can’t translate, trafficking in concepts they don’t grasp.  They parrot shallow talking points and slogans and other people’s recollections. When you take at face value everything said to you—even from supposed subject matter experts opining with great confidence—you are at risk of perpetuating everyone’s superficial understanding of the matter at hand.  There is no shame in asking basic questions, in virtually any context.  In fact, it is essential to your personal understanding of any issue.  ….find the person in the new job who asks the fewest questions and there’s your problem.

We think of prosecutors as at the high end of conviction (pardon the pun).  Preet speaks of the power of simple questions to unseat certainty.  How many do you ask each day?   I find it highly useful to differentiate questioning something, which typically starts with a viewpoint, and asking questions where you are open to different answers.

Quick aside:  this book also reflects the power of examples.  The author uses actual incidents not just illustrate his points but to make them.  Examples and questions—vs. generalizations and assertions.  Let curiosity reign! 

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Wednesday Whimsy

Empowerment

There’s a nice word. Presumably no one is against it. But the term does not readily lend itself to verification, especially if gradations are involved. Just how will we know if a person is more “empowered” as a result of this or that program? Or is the question irrelevant? Could empowerment be an all or nothing proposition?

The question I like to ask of this word and other nice but abstract terms such as “collaboration” and “self-esteem” is just what is it that an empowered person does and achieves that an un-empowered one cannot? I often take this further to ask what you see and hear that reflects empowerment in a person or team.

An example of a great response comes from a nonprofit with which I worked at the request of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The group wanted money for its program to empower at risk youth. I asked my questions and a program leader said that empowerment to them meant that a person had and made choices. I liked that. Nothing much happens without intentionality. We rather quickly looked at the areas where they wanted to see a sense of choice and of choosing and devised two questions for each of their programs:

  1. I see that you did ______ (a behavior related to program goals). Why did you do that?
  2. What other choices, if any did you think you had?

The nonprofit found that it took little time to establish the extent to which empowerment by this definition was present. The young person either said that they could of done x or y and chose x. Or he or she said “What else was I going to do?” Sometimes we make things too complicated.

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innovation Wednesday Whimsy

Innovation Comes from Immaturity

This assumption is based on a limit and on a rediscovery. The limit is the concept of growing up, which implies acceptances of convention and tradition that innovators avoid. Indeed, the designation of “immaturity” is frequently applied to innovators of all ages who constantly question the rules. To be mature is to become habituated to life’s prevailing norms, values and habits. In many cases this is the definition of mental health as well as of progress in cognitive, social and other domain where scales anchor in “age-appropriate” behavior.

Some writers see this as a progression from toying with many possibilities to an acceptance of probabilities to an accommodation of certainty. Innovation cannot thrive with this context. Certainty precludes options.

The rediscovery part of the assumption moves from the conformance of progression to the enthusiasms of childhood. How many times do children ask “why” and remain unsatisfied by our answers. And consider ideas. Having one as a child does little for the ego. But building one…and then using it—there’s the fun. Childhood projects often begin with a preference, a whim, an impulse. Calculations come later as the route unfolds. Surprises abound while zigging and zagging. Correlations and causalities are in suspension. For adults, the itch is to try something new and build on what works.

“Act your age” in conventional thinking is a blessing. For innovation it is a curse. This is a realm in which childhood’s end is another beginning.

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Wednesday Whimsy

Listen Twice as Much as You Speak

Are you listening? Or waiting to speak?

Focus on listening over speaking is another adage with as much power as the last Whimsy, Hustle While You Wait that was posted last week.

I was asked by a major bank CEO to help them win the coveted Baldridge Quality Award. My assignment was to document how they were a great learning organization. I decided to sit in on a wide variety of meetings, many with the senior leadership team. I defined two columns with tally marks for the number of statements made and questions asked at each meeting.

I then reported to the CEO that I was not successful.

What I had found was a ratio of about 100 statements—participants asserting things to others—for every question asked. My reflection was that learning is not separable from curiosity and inquisitiveness. Both come from questions.

A longer blog post will soon look more deeply at the power of questions to guide thinking by others in ways that statements cannot do. Meanwhile, ask someone to use a tablet to keep the same tally I did for some meetings in your organization.

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Wednesday Whimsy

Hustle While You Wait

Last night I was re-reading a few sections of Stephen Covey’s classic 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and came across an intriguing four word sentence.  It came in an example of a personal mission statement and said:  Hustle while you wait.  I love divergent thoughts, which as prompt me to question conventional wisdom. In this case the convention comes from adding an adverb:  Wait Patiently. Beyond raising the question of when patience helps or hurts comes the question of how I can hustle while I wait.  I am resolved to try these steps:

  1. Accelerate intentionality.  Shift from distress to a good look at what I will accomplish in the rest of my day.  My body at rest is distinct from my mind at rest and most forms of intentionality help me to settle down.
  2. Observe. If I am in any form of waiting room or line, use the time to see how the organization is supporting waiting and what it could do better to reduce agitation.  Insights from what I see and hear may well come from the times when I have little else to do.
  3. Reflect.  So what is going on that defines waiting?  For me, reflection often leads to an understanding that what I glibly see as an external factor causing my wait is actually something that I can at least to some extent control.   While it is easy to say that the ball is in someone else’s court, the reality is often that I am waiting on myself.