My TEDx Experience

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“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”  -Ellen DeGeneres

I want to begin this piece by truly thanking Greg McWhorter @gmcwhorterVVUSD Phil Harding @pharding2 Matt Penner @mattpenner and Michael McCormick @ValVerdeSupt for the tremendous work they do to improve the profession of education for educators and students, as well as their ongoing positive support and encouragement they’ve provided me along my own journey. 

So, let’s set the stage…

I grew up with an unhealthy fear of public speaking, an almost paralyzing problem that would have me looking for any escape route available when the faintest possibility that I may have to get up and speak reared its ugly head.  As a student, when a presentation assignment required it, I would most assuredly find a way to be absent or sick on that day.  A ritual of avoidance that followed me into my college days.

Which followed me just as relentlessly into my adult life and career.

As an educator, I learned to come to grips with this fear in the classroom, however it did not stop me from finding the need or excuse to exit the room when it was apparent that the moment or occasion may be warranted in a meeting or professional development situation.  This is not to say that I felt comfortable with these avoidance behaviors, rather I was unable to find any relief or remedies from the debilitating anxiety and fear that public speaking arose at my very core.

As I moved from the classroom into administration, the need arose more regularly and in larger arenas.  I was slowly becoming more adept at handling these opportunities, which is not to say that knowing I had to speak to a large crowd at an upcoming date did not make the in-between time any less anxiety-riddled, often bringing on deep levels of stress and shortness of breath.

Yet, over time it got better and better.

Jumping to current circumstances, public speaking has become a large part of the work that I do, both in and outside of my regular day job.  Now, this is not to say that the shortness of breath and moments of deep anxiety do not still exist, but I have found ways to cope much more effectively, even as the events and opportunities get bigger, including my first keynote opportunity this year in front of several hundred educators.

While I will not say that my first inclination isn’t still to look for a way out of the opportunity when they arise, I have come to a place where I am much more willing to push through and not allow this fear to turn into future regret, of opportunities found and then ultimately lost.

Which takes us to now…

One of the greatest driving forces for squelching my avoidance of public speaking, was the way it debilitated my ability to bring ideas to the table.  I don’t want to be able to speak to be a speaker, rather I want the opportunity to have a voice at the table of transformation.  To be engaged in the discourse that leads to positive change and collective impact for individuals and organizations.  Unfortunately, for years, my fear was removing my voice from being engaged in that space.

So when I received a call a short time back to see if I was interested in taking part in a TEDx event, I was humbled, overwhelmed, and thankful not only to be a part of the event, but to even be considered.  So even though fear was gently tugging away at the back of my mind, I thankfully accepted the invitation.

However, sometimes we have to be aware of what our conscience is telling us as well, and sometimes it is more than the fear of speaking, or even public failing.

My gnawing conscience was trying to tell me that I was already on overload at work.  Not only were the last few months a heavy lift that had left me feeling cognitively drained, the upcoming time to the talk was filled with an even heavier lift and trainings.  However, it was just not something you say no too (or do you), as the opportunity may never come around again.  So you push through.

Arriving backstage…

Arriving that Saturday morning, after a week of very little sleep, mentally heavy trainings out of town over the last few days and the wear and tear of travel, I was still feeling energized, albeit a bit scared and definitely wound tight.  But here was a chance, a chance to engage ideas that I am deeply passionate about, ideas that I believe are worth sharing.  But I also new the relentless pace of the last few months had left very little time, physically or cognitively to plan for the talk, which had me very nervous.

On the stage…

The thing that we often forget, is that we always see the big opportunity as the game-changer, but sometimes the big opportunity doesn’t play out as planned, or envisioned.

Sometimes you crash and burn…and learn.

So here are a few of my take-aways from being in the TEDx moment, when it crashed and burned:

  • I allowed fear to overrule my better judgment.  Instead of getting out there and providing an authentic talk, I created a presentation.  I let my speaking bias’ get in the way of the indicators that were warning me that I was not approaching the process in the best way possible.  I tried to choose perfection over authenticity, and it just didn’t work (and not because the slides delayed).
  • I was so focused on relaying the intent and the message, that I lost my ability for connection (and let’s be honest, maybe the fact that it was being recorded did have a bit to do with it).  I found myself pushing, trying too hard to present this perfect message, when I should have been  focused on the story, which cost me not only the opportunity for greater connection, but greater overall impact.
  • I missed the “in the moment’ opportunities for engaging what was happening (which I know I attribute to being filmed).  Unfortunately, especially since I did not take the opportunity to use it as learning moment, a fly followed me out on to that TEDx stage, and it continued to relentlessly pursue the back of my head and face throughout the talk (which made me think of the HD film that it was being captured on).  So instead of using the fly as a story touchpoint, I tried to become more focused, leading to more frustration as I felt the message of what I was trying to engage slip through my fingers.

In the end, I allowed my focus on an outcome and the urgency to achieve that outcome to make me blind to what the environment and the indicators were telling me.  But that does not mean that I am not grateful for the opportunity, in fact I probably learned more than if it would have went off without a hitch.  It has allowed me an opportunity to be reflective, to reach into my core for resilience, and it has taught me a variety of lessons.  And it has made me much more aware of being open to listening to those indicators and of blindspots that we are all open to as leaders and learners.

Leaving the stage…

While there is a deep level of frustration and cognitive devastation as you walk through the curtain, the one thing I do know is that the level of connection I failed to achieve on that TEDx stage, will come forth in my day to day work.  For, it is in our failures, that we are able to gain the empathy to support those around us who are dealing with the same struggles.  And while I will probably never guide people to the link for that talk, the lessons learned, and how I will share them with others, will carry on much longer than the impact of any successful talk.

“Failure isn’t a necessary evil.  In fact, it isn’t evil at all.  It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”  -Ed Catmual via Creativity, Inc.

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At The Intersection Of Adaptive Leadership, Design And Systems Thinking

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“We can’t impose our will on a system.  We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”  -via Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

We live in a world relentlessly pushed forward by the velocity, volatility, uncertainty, disruption, and disequilibrium of constant change.  As the pace of change accelerates, so does the shelf-life of our strategies, processes, frameworks, and systems.  The rapidity of change now requires an expanding and continuously evolving breadth and depth to our repertoire of problem-solving strategies and leadership skill-sets.  Yet, even in the face of this rapidity of change and the disequilibrium it creates, too often, we find ourselves as individuals and organizations siloed in and dedicated to only one way of doing and working.  In many ways, we continue to approach the problems we are trying to solve in very limited and one-dimensional manner.

If it worked before, we believe it will continue to work…even when it doesn’t.

In many ways, we fail to adapt, both as individuals and organizations, especially in the midst of this shift from technical problems to adaptive challenges.  As Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line, “Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

In the article, Becoming an Adaptive Leader, they share seven ways to know if you are facing an adaptive challenge:

  • The solution requires operating in a different way than you do now
  • The problem AND the solution require learning
  • The solution requires shifting authority and responsibility to the people who are actually affected
  • The solution requires some sacrifice of your past ways of working or living
  • The solution requires experimenting before you’re sure of the answer
  • The solution will take a long time
  • The challenge connects to people’s deeply held values

While it is vitally important to determine and distinguish between whether you are facing a technical problem or adaptive challenge, it is no longer enough without expanding, evolving and innovating the ways in which we will respond and react to these new and growing challenges.

It is at this intersection of recognition, that learning and improvement can exist.

It is at this intersection, where adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking meet, mingle and begin to coexist, that will eventually allow us to adapt and intervene towards  more improved problem-solving processes to today’s growing list of “adaptive” challenges.  To allow us to approach these challenges in a much more expansive and effective manner, both individually and organizationally.

Especially as we consider the phases or steps of each of these individual processes and frameworks.

Adaptive Leadership: observation, interpretation, intervention.

Design Thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping

Systems Thinking: interconnections, linkages, interactions

Visually seeing these three processes and frameworks together side by side, not only shows how similar each of these are, but how they can support and build upon each other, as well as fill in the gaps that one or the other may be missing.  In many ways, they are best served not as building blocks for each other, but as blending blocks that provide a more integrated approach.

For example, as design thinking may push to disrupt the status quo of doing and working, systems thinking fills in by allowing us to determine how that shift can and will affect the whole, while adaptive leadership presses forward to prepare us for how people will interpret and be affected by that change and prepare interventions for the push-back that will eventually come from the uncertainty and possible loss of that change.

It is also when you look at Peter Senge’s ideas on systems thinking and learning organizations…

  • Deep, persistent commitment to real learning
  • Be prepared to be wrong, reflecting on mental models
  • Gain a diversity of thinking and points of view, collective
  • Understanding the problems we are dealing with and gain some perspective on those problems

That we see not only the intersection, but how the coalescing and fusing of these three processes and frameworks for problem-solving and adaptive change support an environment that is constantly evolving and continuously improving.

It is at the intersection of adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking, we are able to engage empathy, allow for our observations to lead to deeper connections and interconnections.  To not only interpret those observations and connections, but allow them to better define the real problem or problems we are facing and to see how they link to the entire system.  While providing the space for ideation and divergent thinking that will provide more relevant solutions and prototypes to those problems, while trying to understand how people will interact with these changes and consider  possible interventions that will allow for us to overcome ingrained status quo habits and behaviors that impede progress and change.

It is at the intersection of these three forces that not only better futures are imagined, but the tools are provided to help bring those possibilities to realization.

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for.  Leadership is exactly the same thing-building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”  -David Kelley Found of IDEO