Not long before I did my solo retreat in nature, I took part in a visioning exercise. The facilitator invited us to sit in our chairs, close our eyes and forget the rest of the group. He asked us to transport ourselves—alone in our chair—to a beautiful meadow, surrounded by mountains and forests, with a stream running through it.
As we heard the burbling stream and inhaled the crisp mountain air, he described a boundary on one side—a dry-stone wall with a country gate leading out of the meadow. When our scene was vivid enough, he asked us in our mind’s eye to rise from the chair and walk slowly but confidently through the gate. We were told we’d now crossed a threshold and were our future selves looking back on the person sitting in that chair. What did we see? What did we have to say to that person? What was our intent as we crossed the threshold?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
When you engage deeply with the U Journey process, you emerge from that time alone revitalised, strong and confident. You have a powerful vision which pulls you forward and you’ve let the old self die for the birth of the new. The alone time in nature is an exercise in scattering seeds across a fertile field, and though you don’t know what will germinate when, you feel confident in the deep knowing you have of the future you’re ready to will into being.
You’ve had the opportunity to think and feel deeply about your learning journeys and have synthesised their lessons into a more complete picture of how you will act to create meaningful change in the world. The natural anxiety you feel about having to lead yourself and others into a brave new future is tempered by the sense of mission you have about your life. In the words of Zig Ziglar, you have found your way to become a meaningful specific rather than a wondering generality.
“You’ve let the old self die for the birth of the new”
It’s a wonderful time to bring your whole being into the world, confident that you have explored yourself more deeply than you might ever have thought possible. From your learning journeys—including your visits to other organisations—you have come to really understand what it takes to be your best and to inspire your team to do likewise. There’s a particular potency that emanates from anyone who is being fair dinkum about what they are trying to bring into the world, and you become that kind of attractor to your boss, peers and subordinates. As you access the silent stillness you explored when alone, you can instantly bring that state of being into whatever it is you’re doing. You are forthright without being dogmatic, committed without being attached. You have stored in your way of being a key to a calmer, more deliberative and compassionate sense of self.
The journey so far
There are many lessons you have learned in the months prior to your journey to the bottom of the U. How important it is to have all the resources necessary to do the job: human, material, financial and informational. You understand the fundamental need for effective communications and an operational cadence suited to the nature of the work at hand. You feel more acutely the need to build effective, high-performing teams who develop trust through integrity, shared intent, the development of specific capabilities and the reinforcing virtue of stellar results.
You know that people work better when they have a sound structure, predicated on an aligned vision and a clear understanding not only of roles and responsibilities but, importantly, how work is to be effectively conducted across the functional silos. You know what it takes to build this requisite accountability hierarchy and the importance of matching what you are asking others to do with the authority you give them over the resources they require to deliver the desired outcome. You know of the importance of developing camaraderie and the capacity we all have to put aside our egos and work for each other to achieve something much bigger than any of us could achieve on our own.
You’ve heard the mantra ‘plan the work then work the plan’ many times, but you feel connected to the idea in a new way. It is the means by which you bring your vision into the world. It’s the way you get to answer the question: ‘What does the world call on me to do?’ You want to develop a stable team so your vision has the best chance of being developed, extended and strengthened through the participation of others. Yours is the spirit that transforms the cynics and the tyrants—or at least holds them at bay whilst you create an opening in which those committed to more visionary action have the chance to exercise their will.
“You no longer see yourself as a cog in the wheel of the mechanical construct…but understand in a profound way what it means to be part of a more deeply connected whole”
You know that measurement drives behaviour and you move confidently to articulate systems-based metrics which look to optimise the whole rather than strangling progress on the false promise of local efficiencies. Measurement is there to help you understand where you are and not to provide a reason to persecute those trying to deliver an outcome. You and your team have skin in the game, not because there is a financial reward for what you are doing but because you’re so deeply committed to being the change you want to see in the world. That you may get rewarded anyway is just an added and sweet bonus, not your primary motivator.
Ready to commit to change
More than anything, you understand how the organisation as a whole needs to understand and be engaged in what you are setting out to change. You no longer see yourself as a cog in the wheel of the mechanical construct of a project but understand in a profound way what it means to be part of a more deeply connected whole. In the words of the cognitive psychologist, Eleanor Rosch, as quoted in the book Presence:
In the ‘analytic picture offered by the cognitive sciences, the world consists of separate objects and states of affairs, the human mind is a determinate machine which, in order to know, isolates and identifies those objects and events, finds the simplest possible predictive contingencies between them, stores the results through time in memory, relates the items in memory to each other such that they form a coherent but indirect representation of the world and oneself, and retrieves those representations in order to fulfil the only originating value, which is to survive and reproduce in an evolutionary successful manner’.
By contrast, ‘primary knowing’ arises by means of ‘interconnected wholes, rather than isolated contingent parts and by means of timeless, direct, presentation’ rather than through stored ‘re-presentation’. Such knowing is open rather than determinate, and a sense of unconditional value, rather than conditional usefulness, is an inherent part of the act of knowing itself. Acting from such awareness is spontaneous, rather than the result of decision making, and it is compassionate…since it is based on wholes larger than the self.
The visioning exercise that began this article was one of the few occasions I found myself in a lucid dream that I remember to this day. When I saw myself sitting in that chair, I was wearing a cape. The cape was made of a kind of thick black linen and had stitched onto it pieces of earth-coloured ceramics in the shape of inch-long, two-dimensional diamonds. They were the most exquisite rustic colours, with a depth of texture I had never seen in reality. These were the living, earthy colours of the valley I sat in. But there was something missing. The pattern on the cape was incomplete—only something like a third of it was covered in the ceramic diamonds. I have no idea how I intuited what that dream was telling me, but I instantly knew the story.
It was talking about me and my incompleteness. I had until then always looked outside myself for those virtues best described as deeply humanist. As an engineer, I thought I could make powerful connections through the use of reason—those were the pieces already on the cape—and it would be up to others trained in the world of sentiment to complete the garment for me. However, I realised only I could make myself whole. I would have to let go of that safe engineer’s place and venture into the unknown. I, and no other, would have to risk looking stupid in my quest to find the missing pieces and make the cape complete.
My immersion in nature gave me the will to find those qualities within myself to be the whole person—just as I was on the day I was born. My intent was crystallised, and I knew that I could no longer dodge my destiny. The world, it now appeared, was made up of indissoluble wholes and I could step courageously into being the person wearing the completed cape. That sense of purpose inspires me to this day.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
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