The Risk of Unquestioned Utility

Measuring cups are essential resources for cooks, mixologists, and scientist. They are cornerstones of a kitchen, bar, and lab. Remarkable functionality and easy to use. Except when they are not.

Measuring cups have a lifespan. The uniform scale erodes from sight, they break, or get lost. Suddenly we are confronted with the reality that we must perform a skill that once was automatic.

The same is true with the individuals on our team. The highly reliable and omnipresent volunteer that filled a key position moves away. The Board Chair who served sensationally for years announces it is time for succession. A sustaining donor develops a new passion and shifts their considerable contributions towards a different enterprise.

We take for granted the utility of the reliable. How might it benefit our efforts if we think aloud, ‘I wonder what would happen if….?’ Perhaps the succession plan is obvious and the next individual is ready to ride. Or, we see challenging terrain ahead that we must navigate before reaching stability again. Celebrate the utility of the marvelously positioned individual but remember their tenure is not without limits. Be ready to adapt and adopt when needed.




Boarding a United flight from Chicago to Paris, Charles de Gaulle last Friday evening was a test of resolve.  Passengers intently studied smart phones; United representatives repeatedly turned to the PA; overwhelmed travelers disembarked after boarding uncertain as news of the terrorist attacks ebbed and flowed.  France was closing its borders; our flight would divert to Brussels if sunrise over the European continent denied us permission to land.  My ninth grade daughter and I reviewed our options.  There was no correct decision, just consequences to our choices.  “How flexible do you want to be?” I inquired.  She thought we should commit.  Soon we were jetting into arctic air, away from the frenzy of real-time updates and towards the scene of tragedy.  Committing to an uncertain future required preparation for disruption.



During our first night in Paris, we navigated the desolate streets to a classic vantage point on the River Seine.  The Eiffel Tower stood devoid of the iconic illumination show; the searchlight beacon dimmed as if incapable of penetrating the tragedy.  Closed museums, off-limit playgrounds, gated parks, fortified landmarks, bag and torso checks at the entrance to public buildings were omnipresent.  A couple checking-in to the hotel and being informed of the numerous closures responded, “That is the right thing to do. Of course, everyone needs to be safe.”  Few cafes and restaurants opened. Yet, the hashtag #portouvert trended on twitter offering the displaced housing, food, and safety.  While fortification and security prevailed, the French citizens opened their doors to strangers.


Forever Changed by Hope

Our third night in Paris was marked by the illumination of monuments.  A chance for a deep breath and a stroll.  A partially opened Eiffel Tower permitted ascent to the second level and the vantage to take in the architecture of shadows as waves of rain washed across the city.  Parks and museums accepted culturally starved visitors.  The spirit of the city raised from catacomb to cafe.  We departed forever changed by Paris.  We had walked among sorrow and witnessed spirits bend in torrential circumstance, only to rebound with hope.

Moving On

IMG_6952Base camps are a way great to support expeditions.  If we wish to ascend an alpine peak we rarely need to haul all the equipment and supplies to the summit.  Therefore, a well provisioned base camp is an ideal mechanism to serve a mountaineering team.  At some point, the village in miniature is disassembled and moved to a new location for another adventure.  However, base camps can become permanent when the team leaders do not trust that the rest of the expedition members will readily move on to another quest.  A small group starts making longer journeys to climb peaks in other ranges and returns with magnificent stories to entertain the assembled crowd who remain at the original base camp.  The base camp no longer serves the needs of those climbing and becomes a venue for entertaining the non-climbers.

The question for the team leader is to decide what is the purpose of base camp?  Is it to support the expedition?  Then it requires frequent relocation.  If the purpose is to entertain those looking for good stories but who have no interest in climbing then the base camp stays but future expeditions suffer.

Many enterprises get into the debate between moving on to the next adventure at the risk losing members from their expedition.  Changing locations serves as a quick mechanism to sort out those who are interested in climbing and building from those who are only seeking entertainment.


John Kotter outlines an eight-step hierarchy to create change and build a new culture.  If we isolate the first three steps, it is often the starting ground for a strategic initiative.  Developing a strategy if there is not a sense of urgency or critical people are missing from the team has less likelihood of maximizing its impact.  Just because we think an opportunity or challenge is urgent does not automatically make it so for others.  If we have a personal experience that illustrates the opportunity for change, we are much more likely to act.

How to think like a scientist but talk like a truck driver

Net Neutrality can be complicated.  I was struggling to fully understand the ramifications of the currently proposed FCC legislation.  I spent a couple minutes watching ViHart’s video and was persuaded to act.  When complex ideas are presented in a meaningful way that are easy to use we empower those that are inspired to act.  According to John Kotter if we wish to affect change, we need to create a sense of urgency, build a coalition, and present a compelling vision.  If all of this can be embedded into a narrative that intersects with our own world view, we are liberated from a sense of fear and the unknown.