Responsible Experts & Stewards of Intent

As creators, we bring new things into existence. The things we create require vision and form. They also require different kinds of expertise to manifest. As the things we create become more and more complicated, it’s  harder to stay an expert in everything needed to make a thing. And because of that ever increasing complexity, it is becoming more important to not only have a vision, but to make sure what gets created lives up to that vision.

Twice this week, the idea of stewardship has come up. First, with A.M. Bhatt’s discussion about the distinction between ownership and stewardship. And then again at Richard Poulin’s lecture on Graphic Design and Architecture where he talked about being a steward of design intent. This topic has me ask what it means to be a responsible creator.

In the complex work Fathom does, we can’t possibly be an expert in every single aspect of what it takes to build every element of  that work. Does that make us any less of an effective creator? I would say no, it takes 100’s if not 1,000’s of individuals with unique expertise to erect a reasonably sized building. It’s what else we contribute that has what we do be valuable beyond expertise. We serve as stewards of intent; assuring that the intent of what was to be conceived, is the measurable result of what we create.

As responsible creators, what parts of bringing new things into existence should we be stewards of, or qualified to be experts at? Saying you’re an expert, because you feel like saying no would put you at a disadvantage with your client, is irresponsible. Conversely declaring you will be the steward of intent carries its own massive responsibility. It’s the relationship between stewardship and expertise that needs to be continuously evaluated if we are to be responsible for the the outcome of our work. That relationship needs to be continuously evaluated with every project and with every client. We need to ask ourselves, expertise in what, and stewardship of what, am I best serving my client by taking responsibility for.

The cure for your business challenge might be the cause

There are as many warnings to the dangers of Self-Diagnosis as there are experts warning us. In my experience, it’s not good enough to heed their advice and “Don’t self-diagnose. Trust the experts.”

From our physical health, to personal finance, to strategic planning, we all have a tendency to want to figure things out ourselves. And with the plethora of case studies about expert solutions that worked for others to point to, its no wonder we not only self-diagnos, but self-medicate.

Organizations are particularly prone to this. They experience some kind of symptom, such as lower sales, and they immediately look to the latest cure, like a new website, or content marketing program because there is plenty of evidence online that says when X is the issue, Y is the cure.

When we point to past examples, we are limiting the possible solution to what has already been done. This assumes applying what has already been done for others, will be adequate for your business. This is one of the reasons organizations within the same market space are often hard to tell apart. They use the same solutions to the same problems and experience the same outcomes.

What if what you really desire, isn’t a cure that everyone else is using, but something that has never been done. Something that will not only alleviate the symptoms you’re facing, but will in fact set a new precedent and move you apart from the others. We know it’s possible. We see organizations setting precedents all the time. But why is it that we look at those kinds of organizations as rare and only for the “risk-takers” and “mavericks.”

Al Bhatt, from the Center for Leadership Studies talks about a fundamental flaw in the way we traditionally think about change. He states, “Most companies react to change as a disease that needs a cure.” He suggests we need to think of change as a condition that needs on-going treatment. There is no cure for change.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder organizations struggle to step beyond using the current  “cure” when most of the existing professional resources available to them are selling cures in the form of various proven services, tools or methodologies.  We all know the saying, “When you’re a hammer, all you see are nails.”

Stepping beyond using a known cure and into the realm of precedent setting requires a relationship with a partner who is a machine tool and can make custom tools to serve the real-time needs of your organization. Ultimately, this partner has experience taking organizations through transformative change and has a proven track record of creating new futures, not copies of existing ones.

They are rare indeed, but you can identify them because they don’t spend time telling you how their cure will solve your problem. They ask probing questions about the condition your organization is dealing with, and discuss how the experience of working with them will reveal the appropriate treatment. They aren’t interested in selling you some thing, they are interested in discussing the value of a relationship with them. They are motivated by mutually assured success not just installing a solution. They speak in terms of years not projects. They honor what exists and use it to build from, not to replicate with.

To determine if you are talking with a partner able to set a new precedent, share your idea of what you think you need to cure your organizations’ symptoms and see if your potential solution providers simply agree. Or, do they step back and challenge your self-diagnosis, and offer other possibilities, even ones that lie outside of their expertise? You will know clearly who is going to apply a solution that already exists and that your competitors can also easily purchase. And you will also know who is going to partner with you to create a treatment for your condition that will truely set you apart and make a real difference for your organization.

Brent Robertson Asks If Your Work Is Centered On Your Values?

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Seshu Badrinath for his blog  It seems a couple of blog posts I wrote about living your values at work resonated with him: Live Your Value At Work – part 1 and Live Your Values At Work – part 2

If you want to hear what its like to “Do what you stand for” take a look!

WestJet vs the Holderness Family

I’m sure by now you have seen or heard of these two holiday videos that have gone viral.

WestJet Christmas Miracle: real-time giving


#XMAS JAMMIES – Merry Christmas from the Holderness Family!

Why does one make me feel a bit of hope for us and the other make me feel a sense of doom? I don’t know about you, but for me, the experience of these two videos couldn’t be more strikingly different.

So what about them has this be the case. I believe it has to do with authenticity.

The WestJet video doesn’t apologize for the fact there is a business that is behind it. Right from the first few frames, I understood that WestJet produced this video. I was prepared to watch a cheesy attempt at a half-baked holiday promotion but I kept watching anyway because it was so well done. Then surprise, I was taken by the story, and the boldness and audacity of the idea. What company would actually do this? Who would put the time, effort and money to really do something like this?

The Holderness Family on the other-hand packages itself as honest-to-goodness family fun. At least until the video begins, and I start to sense something is not quite right here. It’s a little too well done. The family is a little too pretty, too perfect. I wonder where the video is going. And then, bam, it’s boldly declared as a promotional video with a call-to-action.

So, if both of these videos are promotional, what were they successful promoting?

The WestJet video wasn’t about them but it made me care a great deal for them. I want to be a customer of an airline who cares enough to do something so amazingly generous. I felt the video was an authentic attempt to demonstrate WestJet’s compassion for who it serves.

As for the Holderness Family, it’s all about them. How cool they are, how accomplished, how pretty. They even say, “to see more videos like these, visit our site.” Meaning, this was manufactured. A manufactured video of a manufactured family all for the self-serving purposes of hiring them to manufacture a video for me!

It could be the case that WestJet is fueling its planes with baby seal skins and the Holderness Family saves busloads of orphans. That all plays out in how consistent each of them are in living up to what the video says about them.


For WestJet it means they have to live up to the bold declaration of this video: Compassion for their customers. For their video to become something more than just a marketing stunt, WestJet needs to demonstrate  compassion for their customers as a part of their experience with the airline. No easy task but one we as consumers can relate to and care about.


For the Holderness family, what they’ve declared is much simpler: Live for yourself. And to do this, they can keep manufacturing inauthentic stories to bamboozle those of us willing to tolerate it into a marketing message. A message in the end we don’t really care about from a family who doesn’t care about anything but themselves.

What would these two videos need to be about for me to believe in them?

In the end I believe them both. I believe that WestJet is compassionate about their customers and I believe that the Holderness Family are all about themselves.

In the case of these promotions, it’s not about what story I believe, it’s about who I would want to do business with.

Authentic Portraiture

A recent photo-study of my family just being. Every year my sister and her husband host Thanksgiving. And it is always an interesting affair because they happen to foster children, refugees mostly, from all over the world, including Nigeria, Central America, and Columbia. Every year I take pictures, mostly to capture the event, how everyone has grown and all the happy antics. This year however, I was interested in capturing the individuals I have the blessings to call my family. The real, fully expressed, beautiful human beings not hidden behind an obligatory smile, or psychological veil of inauthenticity. So I strapped on a super fast 50MM lens that let me be at a bit of a distance and work well with low light, and these shots are some of the results.

Creating “Space” for success to manifest.

We are all so busy at work with our day-to-day job that when a new urgent project comes along, especially one that is in addition to our normal work, it gets done when we can get to it. It becomes the thing we have to do instead of the thing we want to do. If it is a project that is incremental in nature, or tactically aligned with your other work, this level of attention can suffice to pull it off. However, when the project you’re undertaking is break-through in nature, meaning that the nature of the project lies far outside of your day-to-day work and is designed to break orbit from your organizations center of gravity, this level of engagement will result in failure, and all of the associated side-effects. After enough failures, a culture of “Innovation Cynicism” will build until the organization itself fears trying new things, “We tried that kind of thing more than once, and it failed, so we won’t do that again”.

From our experience, accountability for that failure lies squarely with the project’s executive sponsor and is a direct result of the “space” required for the project to be successful was never effectively created, or once created was never defended. Space is the room for a breakthrough project to exist and thrive inside of an already busy organization. It includes space in time, budget, attention, team, resources, communication and most importantly space in the teams gut, heart and mind. If you can create space in the gut, hearts and minds of the team, the rest will take care of itself. The good news for executive sponsors is you don’t have to create this space alone.

At Fathom, almost all of the work we do is breakthrough. We are hired to grow organizations by helping them find their story and live their story. The story being the transformation an organization needs to undergo to ensure success in a changing world. As you can imagine, this work lies well outside the day-to-day activities of our clients. When undertaking our work, one of the first things we do is develop an understanding of what we are undertaking and why?

We ask our executive sponsor to share with us why this project is important for the organization, but also for them personally. How do they feel about it (gut), why do they care about it (heart), what makes logical sense for them (head)? What personal and professional opportunities does this project offer them? From this, we then develop the most effective way to communicate the meaningfulness of the project to the rest of the team. Using that communication as a framework to invite all of the team members (including ours) to share each of our own insights about what the project means to us.

The resulting composite story becomes the way the project is communicated out to the organization, and the reason why defensible “space” is created for it to exist. As the project progresses, this story unfolds to capture the journey, reinforce why the project is important and what it means to the organization and the team involved with it. The story’s continual telling allows “space” to be defended and sustained through the successful completion of the project. The “space” becomes personally and professionally meaningful, and when something means something to us, we spend time on it because we want to.

If your organization is experiencing “Innovation Cynicism” or you see patterns of breakthrough project avoidance, perhaps it might be a good time to have a conversation with us about creating and sustaining meaningful “space” for success to manifest.

Change your world, one thought at a time

Why bring your thinking forward?

It’s a remarkably interesting question that came up when discussing this subject with two thought-leaders for this post. One thought-leader is at such an early stage in sharing his thinking that he is reluctant for me to use his name. The other is Daryl Conner, a venerable legend in the Change Management Industry, who welcomes the exposure.

How each person wants to show up in this post relates directly to their unique stage of thought leadership development. Understanding why they are sharing their thinking with the world provides interesting insight for leaders who are wondering how one person can make a difference for their business and in their industry.

My early-stage friend is bringing forward a new financial model that is very disruptive. On one hand, it can help a lot of people, people like you and me be more successful with our financial planning. On the other, it requires the financial industry to change and adapt to account for it. In other words, it needs to be carefully introduced as to not have the industry squash it before it has a chance, but have enough exposure to all of us to show demand.

For Daryl, it was about “Claiming the Space.” Conner Partners, a leader in the Change Management industry for over 38 years had seen a rise in the popularity of blogs and then an eruption of content from a newer competitive landscape. Some of the newer competition was touting methodologies as their own without giving credit to Conner Partners. Daryl’s journey in publishing began by launching the Change Thinking blog to re-claim their leadership position within the industry. However, as time went by, and the goal of claiming the space achieved, it became about something much bigger. It became about promoting the profession.

For my early-stage friend, it’s all about disruption. Bringing this thinking forward had the potential to disrupt his current business, as it offered a distraction from the day-to-day management of the “Golden Goose” core business and, because of the costs associated with developing the model affected business capital. Being no different from any other new business model, it disrupts those that are satisfied with the stats-quo and can be met with friction, if not downright anger by the industry. However, in the face of all of this, it has inspired those who are dissatisfied with the status quo; the up-and-comers in the financial industry and all of us who want to have more control over our financial futures,.

For Daryl, it’s all about re-emergence. Bringing his thinking forward has resulted in the re-establishment of relationships previously lost. It has also allowed for Conner Partners to be seen as not only still in the game, but one of the powerful forces in that game. For Daryl personally, it’s been about being seen as an elder with wisdom to share with the industry. Interestingly enough, it has allowed Conner Partners to be seen as advocates for the advancement of the profession, not just the business, discussing domains of development previously never explored. In fact, Daryl has been able to create programs to help change practitioners from other organizations develop their practices with much success.

Finally, as you would imagine, their advice for anyone considering sharing their thinking is equally divergent based on where they are sitting in their thought leadership development.

Before bringing disruptive thinking forward, my early-stage friend offers:

  • Make sure you carefully protect the “Golden Goose” which could be a business or allocation of capital that is going to fund the development of your thinking
  • Be sure those closest to you know what you’re up to and that what you are up to will change over time
  • Surround yourself with the right team of experts and advisors and don’t be afraid to change them up as your needs change

Daryl Conner suggests the following for anyone “claiming their space”

  • Focus only on what you want to convey
  • Write to satisfy only one person – you
  • Make it pure substance — there is enough noise and streams of conciseness already

The underlying theme here that I see is to be clear about what you are up to. What are your intentions in bringing your thinking forward? Is it to disrupt an industry and bring a new and valuable model forward to replace one that is no longer useful, or is it to advance the development of your industry? What’s yours?

My reasons are simple. I bring my thinking forward to explore what it takes to actualize potential. For me, my writing provides provocations, frameworks and observations that invite us leveraging our best selves to make the biggest difference in our world. What I’ve taken away from writing this post is, as clear as my intentions are, sharing my thinking is an ongoing process. Each step is a chance to re-focus, assess and move forward with more and more clarity.

What is it you see for yourself as you bring your thinking forward? What impact do you want to have on others, your business or an industry when you share your perspectives?

Who wants what you do?

It’s challenging enough to create a relevant value proposition in an established marketplace. However, when what you provide represents a fundamentally new category of offering and has no precedent to establish a comparative value proposition, that challenge becomes exponentially difficult. The waters are murky because you are trying to express a compelling story of this new offering when the those who might want it haven’t been identified yet.

I was overseeing a video-shoot with a handful of business executives who were telling the story of a new global offering. Each executive was interviewed by the director and asked a series of questions. Depending on the quality of the response, we would re-frame and re-calibrate the questions until the richest, most passionate and clearest story came through. The reframes were subtle and took the form of diving into the various audiences who benefited and what difference this new offering will make for them. It dawned on me that there-in lies a short-cut to the process of finding the right audience or market and the right story to tell about your new offering.

Step One:

Interview (and record) the key subject-matter experts for your new offering, ask these questions:

  • What is this new offering?
  • How does it work?
  • What difference does it make?
  • Who benefits?

Step Two:

Re-ask the same questions but this time as one of the beneficiaries identified in the first round of questions.

  • I am (a beneficiary, identified in the first round). What is this new offering?
  • Ask the remainder of the questions

Step Three:

Repeat this process until you have exhausted all of the beneficiaries identified in the first round.

Step Four:

Identify which were the richest version(s) of the story and test them externally with each corresponding audience.

Step Five:

Identify the weakest versions of the story and get to work developing improved stories

Step Six:

Refine the stories, repeat the process, test with external audiences

You now have various version of the story targeted at different audiences. The richest story establishes key audience(s) you should be in conversation with to test if your offering and the accompanying story resonates with them. And the weaker stories can be developed and tested in future rounds. Of course when you begin testing, you will be able to validate or in-validate which audiences offer the most leverage to carry  your story and purchase your offering.

What’s unique about this model is it lets you establish these value proposition “tests” very early on in the development of a new offering. Try on, if you will, various ways of telling the story. This process should be conducted over and over through the market development phases of a project, each time, the story will become clearer and more targeted, and tested so by the time you are ready to bring the new offering to the market, you can be assured how you talk about it resonates with your audience.

Do What You Stand For – Part 2

In part one we looked at an inquiry that brings forward your values beliefs and commitments. In this next inquiry, we examine how it is you contribute to your world.

List out the things you provide for others, through work, family, and other communities that matter to you. Write down your thoughts on:

  1. What is it you contribute that you believe makes a difference?
  2. What is it you contribute that you feel isn’t making a difference?
  3. What is it you aren’t contributing, that if you were, would make a difference?

Consider the values, beliefs and commitments you established in part one and review your answers to the questions above. Now answer the following questions:

  1. To what degree do you feel you are able to fully express (and contribute on behalf of)  your values, beliefs and commitments in your work?
  2. If you were able to fully express and contribute yourself in your work, what difference would that make for you, your colleagues, your customers?
  3. What would need to be true to realize full self-expression and contribution?

You should now be able to not only see the delta between your values, beliefs and commitments and what you do at work, but also begin to understand if you were able to fully express and contribute on behalf of those values, what difference that might make.  Finally, you can see the limiting factors (what would need to be true) that stand in the way of you being fully expressed in your work.

This should provide you some clarity on what to take on and break through. And of course this is where the hard work of overcoming your fears and un-examined assumptions about what it is that has you say, “impossible.” It’s not impossible, it’s just exteremely hard work. The results are worth it – you actually can live your values at work, do what you stand for and make a real difference. And as far as I see it, in this world, we need all the real difference making we can get. Supporting others on this journey of self realization is at the core of I what get to do, and for me, that is doing what I stand for.

I am more than curious about your thoughts on this two part inquiry. Please, share anything that showed up for you as you consider these questions.

How to keep your finger on the button.

Integrating change requires a disruption of the habitual behaviors of the individual members of an organization. The longer an organization has been doing things, or behaving a certain way, the harder it is to change. Leaders of change need to be on top of every step, every move and every behavior of their teams until they can learn and adapt to the change. It has to be dealt with relentlessly, as our nature would have us return to old habits as soon as the pressure was off, or no one was looking, because change is uncomfortable. Change is never done, there is no finish line, it is an ongoing conversation. It’s keeping your finger on the button of change, until there are others who  realize the value of change and join you in the fight. The work is exhausting.

Often when change fails to realize its full potential it is a result of change fatigue. Leaders of change often are so busy taking steps to support their teams and organizations undergoing change, they forget to take care of themselves. And because this work is disruptive, and makes people uncomfortable, it can be met with not the kindest of reactions from those you are trying to lead. Leading change is often a lonely place for leaders to be and it’s understandable why they sometimes just give up.

Like any other strenuous activity, if you have a goal you are looking to achieve, you need to train for it. Leading change isn’t so much about gaining new capabilities and skills, although these are useful. It’s much more about developing the leadership capacity to stand strong in the face of change and grow into the leadership required to guide your organization forward. It’s building leadership muscle that you have never used before and it takes work to build it into something that can be wielded powerfully and effectively.

To develop and sustain this new leadership capacity, it is critical to surround yourself and the members of your leadership team with objective and insightful supporters who can traverse the unknown with you. And it isn’t just the developmental support required to prepare for change, but the ongoing, in the trenches support when the going gets tough as you wade through the hard work of realizing the change. Darryl Conner of Conner Partners and the Center for Leadership Studies refers to it as a “Foxhole Relationship.” In a foxhole on the front lines of change, you and your partner depend on each other for your very survival. When it comes to leading change, this partner needs to be an outside objective change agent that is willing to jump in the foxhole with you and declare that you will not fail with them.

This is a very special kind of relationship between a leader of change and a professional agent of change. In my work through Fathom and the Center for Leadership Studies, I operate as the agent of change and the foxhole partner for my sponsor and can attest to the level of commitment necessary to make this relationship effective.

If you are a leader of an organization undergoing change, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this post and if you resonate with it. Particularly if you have created a supporting team for yourself as you lead your organization into uncharted territory. What worked, what didn’t?  And, if you are about to lead a major change initiative and are curious about this idea, I would be happy to share my experiences with you.