You Want Innovation & Transformation? Try ‘Un-Learning’

I used to be an avid jogger. 10k 4x/week. Until I encountered painful problems with my middle foot bones. An excellent sports orthopedic doctor told me: “If you lift towels from the floor with your toes every evening, for about three years, this can get better.”

I quit years of jogging and eventually switched to Nordic Walking, because I thought: “Three years?? You can’t be serious!!

I also love to play table tennis and used to play in a club. I still play okay, but when, a few years ago, I got to play against a former semi pro, he commented “You’ve taken on bad habits in posture and movement that should be unlearned and completely retrained.”

Once again, I shied away from the tedious effort it would take. Learning something new? Not so hard. Un-learning something old, something I practiced over and over? Much, much harder. Tedious indeed. (Perhaps you know that by now ‘classic’ case study of riding the ‘backwards bicycle’ – abbreviated clip here – it takes people one week for every year of their life to learn how to ride it when the wheel turns left while you steer right … That is why a three year-old will master it in three weeks, while a 50 year-old will take a year …)

That is also one of the reasons why in our new digital world, kids learn so much faster than us – they simply have not repeated ‘old stuff’ over and over. Our older brains are rather set in their ways, and clogged with old ‘ways of doing things’, from literally countless repetitions. Un-learning and re-training takes time – and once again literally countless repetitions to overwrite the old learning. And who of us finds the time – and patience – for that?

Already in 1970’s ‘Future Shock’, so 50 years ago (!), Alvin Toffler quoted: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” 

Take that last part: “Un-learn and re-learn”. You might be willing – but how do you do it?

What’s more: Un-learning becomes even more relevant when it comes not to our doing, but to our thinking, and to our deep-seated mindsets and attitudes. How have we been influenced in our early years – subconsciously, without even noticing? And not yet capable of questioning? Which deep-seated, never examined assumptions from that time (and zeitgeist) served us well for a while, but are simply not timely any longer?

We may not be able to simply take the ‘Tarzan swing’ to switch to a different way of looking, understanding, learning, thinking, doing – our ‘how?’ may take the tedious path of endless repetitions, trying again and again and again in order to let go and un-learn the old, and overwrite with the new.

In the meantime, that ever-so-fast-paced (digital, innovative, transformational) future might quickly pass us by …

So young people may have to be our guides, showing us the way … You may want to find yourself a (much) younger mentor to stimulate your personal innovation & transformation process!

Paradigm Change: Accepting Help is the New Work/Career Trend

For the longest time, we were raised in a ‘heroic’ and ambitious spirit of ‘going it alone’. “You have to manage by yourself!” / “I want to manage by myself!” In a spirit of competition, we tried to ‘outsmart’ each other, use our elbows to get to the top, as ‘loners’. And for the longest time, society rewarded that attitude.

I increasingly see a change here, with a myriad of articles popping up in various media – it is apparently becoming more acceptable, as a new ‘zeitgeist’, a new trend, to actively ask for and accept help.

Just a few examples:

An over 100 year-old fashion empire recently publicly celebrated not the leaders at the top, but generations of its employees for ‘working together, joining hands, contributing innovation and handing over to those succeeding them’.

A billionaire, top woman entrepreneur acknowledges: “My initial success is owed to the support I received from other women – and I needed that support at the time!

Asking for help is still alien to so many of us. We’re not used to it. It might feel initially ‘shameful’ – we might be afraid to ‘lose face’.

A successful athlete and actor who ended up in a wheelchair and had to learn to accept the finality of his fate said: “I had to learn that true independence is the freedom to be able to ask for help.” Get your head around the apparent paradox in there …

He explains: “If I can’t do it alone, I have lost. If I manage with the help of others, I am ‘on top’ like everybody else.”

Asking for help is becoming more acceptable – just like sharing the experience of having had help along the way. It is not a weakness – it is a strength. A collaborative strength. And if you receive help, that will strengthen you to eventually ‘pay it forward’ – and later on help others when it can be your turn …

Strong together. Don’t go it alone. You don’t have to.

Collaborative Impact Requires Collaborative Competencies

Language keeps evolving – where we talked about ‚Corporate Citizenship‘ in the late nineties, we soon spoke about ‘Corporate Responsibility’ in the early 2000s and then about ‘Sustainability’ as of the later 2000s.

Cross-sector collaboration has also been an evolving field. For the longest time, we spoke about ‘cross-sector partnering’. Nowadays, what matters most to us is ‘collaborative impact’.

It should be obvious – yet still is not to some: Collaborative impact can only be achieved through collaborative competencies, such as:

  • An attitude of ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’
  • Collaboration at eye level
  • Mutual transparency, rather than ‘wearing a mask’, ‘holding your cards close to your chest’ or ‘having a hidden agenda’
  • An understanding of equity, where what different partners ‘bring to the table’, be it monetary funding, technical expertise, community networks, is valued equally
  • An enabling environment for mutual benefit
  • Being a trustworthy collaborator who demonstrates always having the other parties’ best interests at heart as well

These collaborative competencies are, quite simply, a part of competent project management. As a sub-section of project management, they are part of collaboration management. Any collaboration across organizations and sectors will have structural aspects (e.g. roles & responsibilities, decision-making procedures, meeting processes) as well as qualitative aspects of how well the parties collaborate: Is the quality of collaboration ‘in the plus’ or ‘in the minus’? Both structural and qualitative aspects require close attention and appropriate ability. Regarding the latter, mere ‘lip service’ will, in the longer run, definitely not suffice …

Keep Your Spirits Up During Corona – Simple Exercise

From Somatic Coaching:

It’s natural/normal for each of us to eventually have a ‘reaction’ to lockdown/quarantine. No matter how mentally resilient – in our bodies, the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our body, is active with two strands: One down along our spine, and one down all the way through our tummy.

The one along our spine is usually for ‘fight or flight’ activity. When it cannot do that – like now – it tends to go into ‘shutdown’/‘freeze’. Then we often just want to ‘hang around’, lie in bed/on the sofa and not do much anymore, going ‘stagnant’. You might feel kind of numb, temporarily ‘hopeless’, or depressed – you might binge-eat, or binge-watch Netflix.

That’s why it’s so important to consciously focus on the other part of the vagus nerve that runs through our tummy. All you need to do is: Focus on your tummy, just above your navel. Bring your breathing there. Repeat in your mind: “I’m keeping my energy in my tummy”. Imagine it there. Keep doing that – also if/when awake at night. Comfortably lie there, eyes closed, direct your attention to your tummy, keep repeating the phrase.

Your mind can’t do two things at once – so you get to choose where to focus it consciously, instead of subconsciously letting it wander! And that’s so relevant, because: Every thought immediately has a ‘psycho-neuro-immunological response’.

So you can ‘self-regulate’ by consciously keeping your energy on your frontal vagus nerve.

A rant for the new year (and decade)

Over the past few days, on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been sharing articles by George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, from the ‘New Republic’, the ‘Guardian’ and ‘Der Freitag’, on democracy and the climate crisis, and how it’s all related. This morning, it occurred to me that – just as I wrote in my master’s thesis in 2007 – I seem to find myself once again in a ‘parallel process’:

For my health recovery over the past eight years, it was ‘a change consultant tasting her own medicine’ – tasting what it really means when massive change comes on from the outside and is painful; when you’re caught unguarded on the ‘sundeck’ of the status quo; go through the ’typical’ denial; try to go back to the old ways (“but I’ve always done it like that”). When new solutions eventually emerge from where you would never have expected them; when you reluctantly start noticing them and experimenting with them; when you eventually go “oh, this could actually work” and gradually become more confident with adopting and practicing what has emerged. When you fully experience the quite normal ‘messiness’ of these processes, as you keep ‘falling off the wagon’, feel like you will never make it through – but eventually … start seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. You eventually emerge transformed.

Thought this morning how my own eight years of struggling with health and neuro-endocrinological transformation seem so parallel to how societies globally are now struggling – with how ‘the old ways’ no longer work, but large parts of societies still try desperately to cling to them, doing ‘more of the same’. How they are in utter denial of having to come around to the inevitable change and keep doing ‘more of the same’ purely out of habit, although they already somehow ‘know’ it’s not going to work any longer. How intense, long and painful the struggle through from the old to something new will be – that we can’t just ‘snip our fingers’, ‘take the Tarzan swing’ – and at the same time, how necessary and inevitable it will be, no matter how much we instinctively pull backwards, trying to reach out for the railings that ‘held’ us in the past.

How we will see emergence – more movements like the ‘Fridays for Future’ one and like ‘Extinction Rebellion’, and a lot of stuff that we cannot possibly even imagine now. How that emergence will feel so unfamiliar and will require ‘trying out’ and ‘experimenting with’. How messy all of it will be, especially on such a large scale. How it will often feel like ‘jumping off a cliff’ into the unknown, learning to categorically not look back anymore and reach out instinctively for the old railings behind us.


How it might sometimes, or often, feel like we might not ‘make it through’ — and how we actually might not make it. Because that risk is there. It also was for me. Because it’s so hard. And so tedious. And so slow. But then, how in the end, we actually might. Very differently than we initially thought. To our own surprise and amazement.

And how we will need to learn in the process, on our way, ‘building the bridge as we walk on it’, what I also had to gradually learn: humility, patience, perseverance. And ongoing mutual support.

Greta, Jeremy, or – you?

On Friday, September 20, we saw the Global Climate Strike, organized by the Fridays for Future movement as a kick-off for the

Global #WeekForFuture September 20-27, 2019

Also on that day, Greta Thunberg addressed the US congress, powerfully referring to Martin Luther King Junior’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and leaving listeners with the clear message to remember: ‘I have a dream – but it’s time to wake up – this is an emergency!’

The next day, Saturday, September 21, was International Peace Day. On that day on Facebook, I wrote: “You needn’t be 16 and assessed with Asperger’s to start a global movement 😉. More than 20 years ago, in 1998, a young man in the UK had an idea – and three years later, he got the UN to unanimously declare International Peace Day. 👏 His start-up from the time, the NGO ‘Peace One Day’, has gone from strength to strength creating global awareness and mega initiatives, also winning over famous spokespeople like Jude Law and big corporate supporters like Unilever’s Paul Polman. Here’s the story in just 5 minutes on YouTube, if you want to be inspired – so be it Greta now or Jeremy then, be it climate crisis, peace, education or democracy: Just get moving. We all can do this! 👍What’s important is: To get beyond grassroots initiatives, and to institutionalization and systemic #change!”

Today, I’d still like to add: Look at the power of excellent communication! Why do certain campaigns work so well? Jeremy Gilley is a documentary filmmaker – he uses the art of (visual) storytelling. Greta Thunberg’s speeches are so carefully crafted that I wonder who writes them for her – and who trained her to deliver them in such a measured, professional, effective way. Words have meaning, rhetoric is powerful, pictures and video clips speak a thousand words …

In the year 2000, the then cult advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in London published the coffee table book ‘Social Work: In very creative and provocative ways, advertising was used to really draw attention to critical social issues and address much-needed change of mindsets and attitudes. Innovative and disruptive then – still very relevant now!

Screenshot 2019-09-23 at 11.19.06

Saatchi & Saatchi claimed that they were contributing ‘world changing communication ideas’ – and I think they actually did. And that’s my invitation to you: Be creative. Contribute world changing communication ideas. Get out there with your message – social media are at your fingertips. Cut right to the heart of issues – like Greta. Like Jeremy. Every one of us can do it.

Change, Transition and – Acceptance?

Be it in our personal or our professional lives, #change tends to most often be brought on from the outside – and it can be welcome or unwelcome. If it is welcome, we embrace it much more easily – just like positive change that we choose to bring into our lives ourselves. However, if change is unwelcome, forced upon us, we are not necessarily willing to embrace it – we resist. We find the psychological transition it takes rather unpleasant – we don’t want it.

Yet that change may be inevitable – there may be nothing we can do to avoid it. However, adapting to the new context and situation is a process. None of us can just take the ‘Tarzan swing’ from our previous ‘place in the sun’ to complete new adjustment and fresh ‘flourishing’. Each of us goes through what Claes Andersen so aptly described as the ‘Four Rooms of Change’, with lots of confusion – some do this faster, some more slowly, some get stuck for a while or for good … but we all have to move through, in the exact same sequence.

Being a trained change consultant myself, I had of course thought for quite some time “Sure, I can do this – in terms of personality type, I tend to welcome change and novelty anyhow, and I have learned to sit with uncertainty, too.”

Well – life can teach you some humility there … If the change is big and unwelcome enough, also as a trained change consultant you really get to learn to ‘swallow your own medicine’ …! And then you go “OMG, is that me trying to deny this is happening? Is this me feeling lost? Is this me clumsily trying out different new paths …? And trying in vain to somehow bargain my way back into the old situation …?”

And what, you can proudly sit with uncertainty for … six weeks? Try three years! Really accept a profoundly changed situation and context? Having to notice that you can’t just snip your fingers and be there? That you can’t just mentally ‘teleport’ into a new situation?

In my case, acceptance that external interference changed my health context, which profoundly changed my professional situation, took much longer than I thought. I remember that young doctor who eventually scolded me “I want you to finally stop hoping!” (that you can go back to flying around the world as an international consultant). I remember how angry I was at her for being angry at me. And then … after more than seven (!) years, I suddenly noticed in myself one day “Oh – I think now I have finally stopped hoping. Now it’s okay. I have arrived at acceptance.”

And taking/needing that time is okay indeed. “It is as it is” and “It takes the time that it takes” are actually – deep wisdoms.

Already in 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kuebler Ross pointed out the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Nowadays, we know that also this is not a linear process – that people might go back in circles to any of the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. That reaching acceptance the first time around may still require reaching it again and again and again, at better and deeper levels. That ‘super-resilience’ and ‘just sailing through’ are rather rare …

Therefore, regarding big changes of that kind – have you experienced a serious illness yourself? A divorce? Betrayal by a (business) partner? A death in the family? Having to care for an elderly parent? Losing your job or your company? Having to move to a city or country you don’t necessarily like because of your partner’s new job (or your home country’s unfavorable political developments), having to leave friends and family behind? Experiencing professional disability? All of these experiences are – normal. Human. May eventually hit us – because we are not different from other people. From everybody else.

And then, what happens is that you do experience the four rooms of change and the five stages of grief, in some form. Lighter – or harder.

Eventually, it helps to actually – mourn enough. Yes, you read that right. It is necessary and healthy to mourn endings. Eventually, you may also have to consciously look at what you may have to let go of in order to adjust to your new context. And yet later at how you can integrate your new experience with your life narrative as it came before – simply because even with disruption, we long for some kind of coherence. So we try to eventually (re-)construct some coherent narrative.

I just want you to know, especially if your ‘big change’ situation is still rather new to you, that all this is normal. And that you are not alone. Feel free to write to me privately if you would like to confidentially share your own story. And feel free to seek support through coaching and/or therapy – it can help hugely to look at everything with somebody well-trained who can competently look in from the outside, so we can now start constructing what we so far used to consider our ‘self’ and our life – slightly differently.

Literature recommendation

William Bridges: Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change

‚Being Right Is Not Enough‘ – How to Be a #Change Agent as an ‘Invisible Leader’

My then-client Nick Lakin and I wrote and published our Book ‘Corporate Community Involvement – The Definitive Guide’ for Greenleaf and Stanford University Press in 2009/2010. The final chapter was about how to instigate #change and #transformation inside the company towards sustainable business practice.

We were honored to interview for that chapter Dr. Mark Wade, who,

Dr. Mark Wade
Dr. Mark Wade, interviewed on implementing effective #change and #transformation processes

with his passion for developing responsible leadership, had been Shell’s Head of Sustainable Development Policy, Strategy & Reporting until 2003 and then Shell’s Head of Sustainable Development Learning within the company’s Leadership Development Group until 2006. In those two positions, he was recognized internally and externally as a key player and architect of Shell’s Sustainability journey. Until his retirement in 2006, Mark was also Shell’s Liaison Delegate to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Chairman of the Business Network of the European Academy for Business in Society (EABIS – nowadays ABIS), where he later became a member of the Supervisory Board.

Coaching a client recently on leading intersectoral partnerships in sustainability innovation, I found myself drawing on and recommending this interview again – ten years later, I find it has lost none of its relevance; quite to the contrary. There are so many gems in there; really every single aspect you need to cover for the complete process.

So I am posting it here for the first time as a free excerpt from our book – over four pages of interview, enjoy the opportunity of learning directly, step-by-step and very hands-on from Mark Wade about how he worked a.o. with Scharmer’s Theory U and Wilber’s Integral Model of Change to combine, as he writes himself, “both the ‘hard-wiring’ (reporting, governance, key performance indicators, systems and processes) and the ‘soft-wiring’ (winning the hearts and minds of leaders) to generate the ‘will, thrill, skill of sustainable development’ “.

Lovely Rant by Introvert in Extraverted ‘Dominant Culture’

For once, I’d like to link to somebody else’s blog post:
To a lovely rant by an introverted scientist in an extraversion-oriented culture, where mainly ‘Americans and Dutch’ are simply too loud for that person. Interesting: The observation about ‘more extraverted cultures’ like the American one, in which many introverts – and have I ever heard that before – feel obliged to ‘fake it’ in order to somehow fit in and be as ‘loud and superficial’ as the others, ‘try to behave like they are’ extraverted like the supposed majority around them. (Side note: I confess to having an extraverted preference, but when holding a course in the US a few years ago, coming from Europe, course participants considered me an introvert and even called me out on that – as for what they were used to in terms of levels of ‘entertainment’ also in class, I was simply not loud enough to rise to that expectation! Or to say it differently: Looking at it culturally, an American introvert might still come across as ‘louder’ than e.g. a Finnish extrovert …)

Also look at the comments underneath the blog by people ‘feeling the same pain’ – perhaps us extroverts should/could make a bit more of an effort to notice people with an introverted preference and respect their needs for less noise, smaller groups and meaningful conversation, including the occasional pause for thinking.

Enjoy this post, especially if you have an introverted preference yourself!

Are you a ‘highly sensitive person‘? A little note to you

These days, there is a lot of talk about empathy – and indeed, for quite a few people it would be good to learn and develop their empathetic abilities more. Projects that focus on practicing empathy already with first-graders in school, whose brains still develop, are certainly good and useful. One example here is Roots of Empathy.

However, there is a flip side to that coin that we rarely – basically: never – hear about, and that is: too much empathy. Empathy to the degree that one literally ‘feels’ other people too much or even only other people, but no longer properly one’s own needs.

This can be an issue in helping professions, it can be an issue in coaching and consulting, and it can be an issue in our personal lives. It can go to the point of self-sacrifice.

The medical basis for empathy lies in the number of mirror neurons one is equipped with. Mirror neurons help us with the ability to imagine things/contexts. And yes indeed, some people have difficulty imagining things. They literally ‘lack imagination’, find it stressful to even attempt to imagine things/concepts. They prefer observation of what is, what they can see, hear, touch. Fair enough. Also much needed, especially in hands-on professions.

Some other people though are so richly equipped with mirror neurons that they imagine things too well – they hear somebody talking about a tooth ache and literally feel that tooth ache themselves. They read about somebody fainting from pain or illness and almost faint themselves. They tend to say: “I feel other people too much” or “I’m just a highly sensitive person”.

I have had to learn the hard way that it is indeed much less ‘poetic’ than that: It is simply so that there is too much ability to imagine things. To anticipate: “What would it be like?” In full complexity. You are not actually ‘feeling’ the other person’s pain or emotion or anger. You are just too good at imagining/anticipating things.

So sometimes, it helps to step back, look inside yourself and ask: “So what do I actually feel? And what do I actually want and need right now?” And to stop thinking about that person or that situation that triggers the imagination/anticipation. Literally take your mind off it – let go of anticipation. Switch and return to yourself.

For people with ‘too much empathy’ that can be a necessary exercise. It doesn’t mean that you will lose your compassion. It’s simply about consciously developing ‘good enough’ boundaries, turning away a little instead of turning towards. We’re supposed to be connected – and sometimes it’s okay and even healthy to be a bit separate. Try and find your own good ‘middle ground’.