Mindfulness and the Business of Change

Fugio Cent

A parent, guardian or other familial caregiver might have provided your first instruction in mindfulness:

Mind your manners!

Or, often with more raw emotion, a third-grade playmate, shouting:

Mind your own business!

before stomping off in a huff.

A less likely source: the obverse of the first official U.S. coin, known as the Fugio cent, which carries the aphorism, a favorite of coin designer Benjamin Franklin:


None of these phrases might occur to the modern meditator and mindfulness adept, but the concept of attention is fundamental to each and to mindfulness itself.

Pay attention!

(I heard that just today in the grocery store, mother to son, who was dashing off.)

Paying greater attention is exactly what mindfulness awareness coach, Daron Larson, suggested at a recent meeting of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP), Ohio Chapter, in February, 2018, when he spoke on “Exercising Your Attention for a Change.”

Larson asserted that we live in an “attention economy,” a view supported by the dramatic rise in the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in children.  Increasingly, we live in a society that both demands–and rewards–our attention, creating addictive habits of low, or at least unknown, value.  And as we now know with greater scientific clarity, habits arise because of changes in the brain.

That’s what’s at stake: your brain, your habits, and ultimately, your well-being.

With the conviction and simplifying clarity of a years-long practitioner, Larson offered mindfulness as a “natural capacity for direct, frictionless awareness or real-time sensory experience,” while simultaneously admitting that no definition can describe or substitute for subjective experience and awareness.

Living fully in the now, being fully present in the moment, is your experience alone.

Why is living in the moment so difficult?  In large part, it’s the brain.  As an advanced prediction machine and memory maker, the brain is almost always looking ahead and drawing upon memory.  This is essential to our well being, of course, but this default activity can overwhelm the present moment, which, I think we can all agree, is the only time when we are actually alive.

By learning how to quiet the internal conversation through mindfulness activities, “we switch from narrative mode to experience,” said Larson. “This is what it feels like to be alive.”

But being alive, as it turns out, is not without its difficulties, nor is practicing even very simple mindfulness exercises such as listening to ambient sounds, following one’s breath, or feeling bodily sensations head to foot.  It’s just at these moments when the unschooled noise in our brain, which, for the most part, is just trying to be helpful, arises and we find that our attention has drifted.

Drifting away is not surprising, though often discouraging for new and experienced practitioners alike.  Becoming aware of the drift: that is the beginning of mindfulness.  And returning one’s focus without judgment and condemnation is an act of self-compassion.

“Mindfulness does not solve problems, it makes you a better problem solver,” said Larson, who went on to suggest that we can learn how to experience difficult feelings without making them worse.

For the organizational change management practitioners in the audience, this seemed to resonate.  Change can be difficult.  Unwanted.  Uncomfortable.  Untimely.  Convincing others that they should think or feel otherwise seems futile and can actually increase resistance.  But by allowing discomfort to simply be, with mindfulness practice and attention, we can be less disturbed and better able to act in the moment more authentically and beneficially.

“I do not practice mindfulness so that I can be better at sitting on a cushion in a quite room,” said Larson.  Mindfulness is not for those special moments, but for every moment.







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Just What is OD?

Editing MarksThe following definition of Organizational Development has been around since at least 1969:

Organization Development is an effort that is:

  • Planned
  • Organization-wide
  • Managed from the top
  • Increases organization effectiveness and health
  • Through planned interventions in the organization’s “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

(Bekhard, Richard. 1969. Organization Development: Strategies and Models. Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley.)

Served us well for almost 50 years? No doubt.

But when I wondered if it could be refreshed, the copy editor in me emerged:

Updated OD Definition

Here is the revised definition without the editing marks (and a few additional edits on the fly):

What is Organization Development?

A change leadership strategy, model, and method that is

What do you think?

If this inspires you to edit, sharpen your pencils!

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

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There Is No “I” in “Team”?


There is no “i” in team? Of course there is.

What first-person pronoun might any team member use?  How about me, myself, and I?  If that troika is not on your team, please tell me who is.

With respect to “me,” organizational change management practitioners are advised to

… clearly articulate what is changing, how the change benefits or affects the organization, and how the change affects him or her individually (often referred to as “What’s In It For Me”). If people see progress they can relate to, then they are more likely to continue the change effort and help to reach the future state and sustain the change.  (ACMP Standard for Change 5.2.1)

Prosci puts it this way:

Making a change is a personal choice, no matter what senior leaders believe. Communications about change must resonate. To be effective, communications must get at what an employee cares about and values. To gain their support, you must provide a compelling case for how they will be better off or what they get out of engaging in the change. Answer WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) early and often in your communications. (Prosci Change Communication Checklist)


OK, so we do need to recognize each individual team member and somehow answer for each, “What’s in it for me?”

With knowledge of a proposed change and its expected business benefits, we could imagine how individuals might be better off or what they might get out of engaging in the change:

  • You’ll have a single sign-on
  • Forms will pre-populate and eliminate duplicate data entry
  • Metrics will appear on a new dashboard
  • You can drill down to view data in customized ways without creating a custom report format
  • System response time will improve
  • Customer records will now include a lifetime value score
  • And on, and on, and on, including
  • You will still have a job

Who wouldn’t love all of that?

Does this list of new or improved system functionality and related processes and policies really get at what an employee cares about and values?  And will stating this or any list of imagined–or even reasonably expected–benefits early and often (seven times in seven ways) create a compelling case for any particular individual?

How are we to know, for each individual, what they care about and value, and if we were to know, how could we incorporate that information into anything but hundreds or thousands of highly individualized and personalized communications?  Both the possibility and practicality of such an approach seem problematic.

Another Approach

Ask, don’t tell.

Let’s move from a transactional approach (here’s how you will be better off; here’s what you will get out of the change) to a relational approach (how do you see and value the change?).

In the former, I’m telling you (and mostly guessing) in exchange for your support. That’s the transaction. In the latter, you’re telling me (and you know you best), identifying your values, and offering your support.

Rather than seeking to compel through artful communication, what if we seek to elicit, engender, and engage?  Rather than describing potential benefits, what if we allow for their discovery?

It could work like this.  Leaders closest to affected employees present clear and consistent statements of intended business benefits (something like the list above) and then, perhaps in a team meeting, invite each employee to question, consider, and respond.  A worksheet would encourage respondents to externalize thoughts and feelings while preserving privacy if desired.

What appears on each worksheet, for each employee, are highly individualized, personal responses that are much more likely to include what’s really important and valued.

Now we know what employees care about and value, and how that aligns with proposed changes, because each one has told us.  Better yet, each employee knows in their own words from their own point of view. No guess work. Deeper employee engagement through participative discovery. Voluntary alignment and commitment to support and achieve what’s valued. And opportunities to reveal unforeseen impacts or concerns.

Some say “There is no I in team, but there is me,” and as for me, that’s most important.

Have you implemented a similar approach?

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.


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A Change by Any Other Name


‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What is in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell just as sweet.
–Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

So says Shakespeare’s Juliet, suggesting that the name of Romeo’s family house, Montague, should not be enough to keep them apart.

Romeo likes her suggestion, and replies:

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

I wonder if the same argument works for change.  Would change by any other name be just as [frightful? hopeful? positive? energizing?].

The Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) Standard for Change sensibly states:

Successful communication of the Case for Change occurs when business rationale communications are sufficient enough that each type and level of stakeholder can clearly articulate what is changing, how the change benefits or affects the organization, and how the change affects him or her individually (often referred to as “What’s In It For Me”). (5.2.1)

Prosci suggests much the same in a Change Communication Checklist:

To be effective, communications must get at what an employee cares about and values. To gain their support, you must provide a compelling case for how they will be better off or what they get out of engaging in the change. Answer WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) early and often in your communications.

Were we to heed these recommendations, we might use the word change less and instead focus more often, or more clearly, on some positive attributes or expected outcomes that an individual, group, or firm might realize such as:

achievement, advancement, benefit, capability, competence, contribution,  development, expertise, future, gain, growth, improvement, innovation, insight, involvement, know-how, learning, opportunity, potential, proficiency, profit, skills, success, understanding, value, vision.

Of course, these and any words must be authentic, realistic, truthfully used, communicated with aplomb.

To me, they all smell sweeter than change.

Do we use these words enough?

Rose created by Store Black from the Noun Project.  Used under the Creative Commons Attribution license.





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Leaders are Learners

Explore Learn

I and others (Forbes, HBR) have suggested that leaders are readers.

Yes, reading can expose us to a world of thought, ideas, and findings that are often condensed, carefully crafted, well organized, and sometimes documented with references to supporting research or sources. This is good.

Audiobooks, podcasts, webinars, instructional apps and games, virtual reality, and other media and modalities can spark curiosity, multiply sources of information, and reveal potential opportunities for learning. This is even better.

I say “potential” because information delivered regardless of the medium is not learned until our brains commit the input to long-term memory.  Perception and awareness are essential but almost always not sufficient for meaningful learning.

If we expect leaders–or anyone–to be learners, then we must ensure that leaders learn how to learnCoursera‘s MOOC, Learning How to Learn, has attracted more online learners than any other Coursera offering, and for good reason.  Taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning, McMaster University, and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Learning How to Learn presents practical insights into how the brain learns and how we, as brain operators, can learn better and benefit more fully from the time and effort we invest.

Reading widely, or, more generally, ensuring frequent exploration and steady exposure to a broad array of new ideas, is a great starting point.   We can then choose more purposefully what we want to learn.  Learning takes intention.

Learning creates “future memories.”  Learning is what enables us to recall, and these recollected memories enrich our ability to think and decide at the time.  Learning makes information available and actionable. This is the best!

As a leader, as a learner, explore for breadth.  Learn for Depth.

But whatever you do, learn to learn.

Learn, Do, Teach, Lead.





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New Habits Need Help

Reinforcement Dimensions

Reinforcement Power Zone

‘Tis the season of resolutions, promises, commitments, or simply an unbridled redoubling of effort to “break” or make habits in the hope of becoming a better person or achieving some goal.

Here is a snippet from and actual conversation I overheard at the gym just recently in late December:

It will be busier around here [in January] for a couple of weeks.

The next part of the conversation was not verbalized, communicated instead only by an exchange of knowing glances:

Don’t worry. Things will return to normal around here as soon as the zeal of new members wanes or the revitalized well-intentioned efforts of current members fade.  And that will not take long.


Everyone knows that gym memberships often go unused and home gym equipment too often serves as nothing more than oversized valet chairs draped with clothing.

Why is this so?

Because habits have roots and new habits need help.  Lots of it.  Without it, new habits fail to form or soon decay, giving way to older, stronger habits, the ones with deep roots and squatting rights.

Who Needs Habits?

Habits are the brain’s way of saving time and energy, relieving us, thankfully, from the sheer burden of having to think of everything every time we do anything.

Efficient and effective, habits benefit us in countless ways at nearly every moment.  Right up until we decide to do or to think something different, something outside a particular habit’s well-worn neural pathways.  At just that moment, habits can become a barrier, an internal inertial gyroscope of sorts, returning us to the former, but now, according to our own intentions, less desirable former state: the old habit.

The brain is just trying to help.

New Habits Need Help

At their best, our habits add an effortlessness to life, but creating such effortlessness itself took effort, often involving strong cues and powerful rewards, which themselves became habituated.  In a beguiling meta-efficiency, habit and habit formation itself slip from consciousness and we forget that forming habits can take both time and significant effort.

We quickly rediscover this reality, however, when we set out to form a new habit or to change one that exists.  Having forgotten that new habits need help, we do not know how to help ourselves.

While many factors contribute to habit formation, one key principle is positive reinforcement, which has three dimensions:

  • Polarity (positive or negative)
  • Temporality (immediate or future)
  • Certitude (certain or uncertain)

In behavioral studies using animal subjects, scientists sometimes use negative reinforcement to induce learning and to habituate a learned response.  It’s highly effective.  Let’s leave that approach to the scientists.

Happily, positive reinforcement is also powerful, and its habit-shaping power intensifies when positive reward can be expected with certainty and realized promptly.  This combination of factors creates the reinforcement power zone.

Reinforcement Dimensions

Reinforcement Power Zone

Unfortunately, this power zone does not exist automatically.  This is where we can help ourselves tremendously.  Having focused on an intended new habit and its potential benefits, we must now create for ourselves a reinforcement power zone by identifying meaningful positive feedback that we could realize quickly and with certainty.

Create the Zone in Your Head

We should not wait for external circumstances to provide this desirable positive reinforcement, although extrinsic reinforcement is an added benefit.

Instead, we must create the zone in our heads.  This is not necessarily easy because our head is the very place where our old habits live, but it is close at hand and at least somewhat under our control.

By simply thinking to ourselves as follows after making some effort related to the desired new habit, we can begin to create our needed reinforcement power zone:

  • Great job! I did it. I’m on my way. (positive)

Now, if we can remember to do this as soon as possible after we practice our new habit, we increase the power.  And if we remember to do this every time, we multiply the force.

This itself is a habit!

But now you know that new habits need help and you have the first step to begin creating your own reinforcement power zone.

How have you changed your life through new habits?

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.



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Need a Place to Lead?

X Marks the Spot

Leading and leadership are often described in positional terms such as:

  • From the top
  • From the front
  • From the middle
  • From the center
  • From the inside out
  • From the heart
  • From behind
  • From the rear
  • From the back
  • From the bottom
  • From the edge

Google any one of these phrases and you will find insightful and well-articulated  perspectives, many from well-known personages, shared in numerous blogs, videos, books and other learning media that are worth reading and contemplating.

The leadership position I like best, however, is wherever you are right now.  And when you stop to think about it, wherever you are right now is the ONLY place from which you will EVER lead. Continue reading

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