Why Pulling Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps is Hard

I used to suffer from a particularly bad version of one part of the human condition—a tendency to see things as all about me. I tried like crazy, in many ways, to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I’ve gotten, well, better; but it wasn’t because of my bootstrap pulling.

I also reached a difficult point once years ago in studying the pedal steel guitar. I was taking private lessons from a real master, and trying very hard on technique. He gave me tons of advice (including most particularly to lighten up), and I tried my darnedest hard to take it all—pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. I never did get better, and finally sold my guitar a year ago.

Pulling On Our Own Bootstraps Just Burns Leather and Calories

Think about the physics of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s an impossibility–which of course is why we like it as a metaphor. But life is not a metaphor, while it is constrained by physics.

So—why doesn’t bootstrap-yanking work? And why do we keep trying it?

The Pedal Steel Story

In my guitar case, the immediate cause was clear. I was trying too hard. I’d try to play free and easy—I’d try so, so hard. Which of course was the problem. 

My hands would cramp up, I was trying to so hard.  And I knew trying so hard was the problem. That made it worse, because I knew it was ‘just’ a mental issue. Which made me worry more, which made me try harder. (Substitute golf if you prefer a more conventional metaphor).

It was a vicious circle; a negative feedback loop as bad as any that Jimi Hendrix generated. And knowing the problem didn’t help solve it. It was not one of those unconscious incompetence things. My knowledge got in the way. It was one of those “you can’t solve a problem at the same level the problem was created” problems.

I still love pedal steel music. (Everyone knows Jerry Garcia’s lick on Teach Your Children, but Garcia knew he was a rank hack by Nashville standards: go listen to every note played by Tom Brumley on Buck Owens‘ original version of Together Again.) I just don’t try to play anymore.

The Life Story

In mid-life, I became aware that a lot of my problems were caused by my tendency to overly see things around me as being about me. In the terms I later developed in the Trust Equation we use at Trusted Advisor Associates, I suffered from high self-orientation.

A few years ago I suddenly remembered something I used to say back when I was “in it.” When someone close to me would say something critical about me, and I took it way too personally—even though I knew I was taking it too personally–I would describe the condition as “like having someone point a gun at my head and telling me to calm down.”

At the time, I was just trying to explain to people why I felt paralyzed to think my way out of my self-obsession. Now, in the rear-view mirror, I see it differently.

I see now it was the perfect metaphor, because the metaphor, and my own use of it, were both stuck squarely in my old paradigm. Because everything was about me, I just didn’t have the tools to imagine something that wasn’t about me. My prison was self-limiting because it was self-defining. 

The Bootstrap Story

You can’t talk about this sort of issue in a linear kind of way; you have to deal with metaphors and paradoxes. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems probably apply here, though frankly the math is beyond me.

I’m reduced to platitudes, which I find reassuring in their simple memorability. In addition to “you can’t solve the problem at the level it was created,” I like:

·    When you dig yourself into a hole, first, stop digging;

·    A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client;

·    Try not thinking about pink elephants, and

·    You empower what you fear.

My only solutions boil down to three:

1.    Give up. Really. Just stop. If it’s not meant to be, stop fighting. Universe 1, you 0. You’re really not at the center, after all; act like it. Just go be you.

2.    Laugh.  Make sarcastic jokes about it. Get a kick out of your insanity. Find the sick humor in it all, and focus on the humor, not the sick.

3.    Ask for help. Not with the problem, but with the meta-problem. Then accept it. See step 1.

What the Obesity Dilemma Tells Us About Corporate Change

Breakfast at the Dolphin, Disney World.   I’m seated next to two women, each about 5’6”, each 250 – 300 lbs.  They’re tucking into their French toast with syrup, bacon-cheese omelets and sticky buns with butter, when one woman’s cell phone alarm goes off.  “Oh, time to take my pills,” she cheerfully announces to her companion.

Many of you will read the above paragraph with some degree of moral disapproval; I wrote it to elicit that reaction. Others of you will blame Big Food.  Others, who sympathize with the difficulty of losing weight, can be further broken down into those who seek:

a. better drugs for appetite suppression,
b. various forms of group or self-help programs, or
c. self-worth through affirmations—“Fat Power.

All of which suggests total lack of agreement about how to address obesity.

But maybe it suggests even more.  The obesity problem is a subset of a larger problem: how to get human beings—and companies–to change.

Options for Dealing with Obesity

It is a statistical fact that we have suddenly—like in the last 20 years—gotten significantly, massively, undeniably, across-the-board fatter.  If you have any doubts about this at all, read the New Yorker’s XXXL: Why Are We So Fat?   Believe it.  The Dolphin is America.  We have recently  become Big Time Fat.  And we are dying way younger, driving up health care costs massively, and lowering life quality by doing so.

You could, of course, go for the structural solution.  The Dolphin also has a store called Sugar3. The Dolphin doesn’t offer microwaves, and they don’t sell plain popcorn. But you can buy caramelized, sugared popcorn in the stores.  Change all that.

But fixing an industry that is laser-focused on profitable hi-calorie product creation is just not gonna happen in the US.  We believe too strongly in other values—self-will, freedom of choice, individual responsibility. When these iconic values get into the hands of purely self-aggrandizing corporate profit machines, we are putty.  We do not have the aggregate political self-will to systemically ‘just say no’ to the purveyors of deep-fried-quad-stacker-twinkies.  

(It isn’t just the food itself, either. Bra sizes (I’m told) have been gradually getting smaller (i.e. the old B is the new C).  Lady’s dress sizes have gone the other way (the old 8 is the new 6); I heard of one (highly educated) woman who only shops at one store, because only there is she a size 2.)

If the social and political system is inadequate to deal with this public health issue, then how about self-will?  The growing magnitude of self-help books is testimony to the failure of self-help books. 

What about groups?  Whether Nutri-System or Weight-Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous, it works if you work it.  (Oh, that darn ‘if’ clause).  And we watch motivated, powerful people like Oprah or Kirstie Alley fail to work it—publicly, all the time.

Drugs?  Been to a managed care facility for seniors lately?  There is a several-times daily routine; the wheelchairs line up at the meds-dispensing window like obedient dairy cattle.  Many of us very much want to believe there is a penicillin for everything; if the evening news tells us we can treat restless-pinky syndrome, then weight-control ought to be a piece of cake (sorry). 

The obvious truth is: none of these solutions works with anything near dependability.  There are no silver bullets; bullet peddlers also rep lines of snake oil.  For a few souls, one solution works; but even then, it’s after having tried others.

The best answer seems to be: d. all of the above. 

Now–what’s this got to do with organizational change?

Options for Dealing with Organizational Change

How do you change an organization?  How do you improve sales, customer service, or total quality?  How do you increase employee engagement, customer loyalty, or trustworthiness?

  • •    Structure helps.  Close the sugar-cubed stores, aka monetized mini-metrics and weekly quotas; sell fruit next to the Fatitos, i.e. talk to customers, role-model good behavior.  Make it easier to be good.
  • •    Keep it simple.  Every diet ever invented is subject to Newton’s Law of Conservation of Energy—it is simply about calories.  Every company ever invented has to sell something good to someone who wants it.  The further away you get from the basics, the more people forget the basics.  
  • •    There is no pill.  There is no pill.   There is no pill.
  • •    Fat Power is no better than Alcoholic Power, Smokers Power or Victim Power.  The Brotherhood of the Similarly Fat is just another self-deluding drug.  Spandex is not your friend.   
  • •    Will power alone is necessary but not sufficient: white-knuckling is sometimes required, but it’s a helluva way to live a life.  Make the daily stuff of business itself the carrot, then use fewer sticks. 

Corporate change isn’t only like personal change, it is personal change.  Becoming fully adult and fully human is a lifelong pursuit.  Ditto for companies.

Choose d. all the above.


How Business Underestimates the Power of Belief

The other day I had a conversation with a client about how to change belief systems in an organization.

In Hellhole, a disturbing article from the March 31, 2009 issue of The New Yorker (may be accessible online only to subscribers),  Atul Gawande writes about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners, convincingly arguing that it amounts to torture.

The story has a lot to tell us about psychology and civil rights. It feels almost like trivializing to draw conclusions from it about business, but I’ll do so anyway.   It is an object example of the power of ideology—beliefs on steroids—to overcome data. So it has lessons for changing corporate beliefs.

Gawande describes rhesus monkey experiments from the 1950s, which evoked public revulsion against animal rights abuse. The monkeys—acquired as infants—were raised like hospitalized infants of the day. They were kept in isolation to prevent infection. This meant, however, they were raised without mothers.

They ended up obliterated socially, permanently withdrawn, incapable of social interaction.

Prisoners of war put in isolation routinely describe solitary confinement as the worst form of torture. What John McCain described about his North Vietnam experience was what Terry Anderson described in Beirut: severe mental debilitation. And it is precisely what we in the US impose on prisoners—more than any other country in history, and more than our own country did only 20 years ago.

The question Gawande poses for us is:

If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

The US now keeps about 25,000 to 100,000 people in solitary confinement. Worse yet, as Gawande says, “It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years.” A federal court ruled it torture back in the 1890s.

Does it work? The overwhelming answer is, no. It doesn’t reduce violence. The UK has abandoned the approach, and now has fewer prisoners in solitary than we do in Maine alone. It is hugely expensive. Most state prison commissioners are against it. A federal study recommended against it.

Yet even John McCain won’t label it torture. Nor has Barrack Obama. Prisoner commissioners won’t speak openly against it. 

Why? Because the people—meaning the American electorate of the last several decades—don’t believe it. If a politician were to suggest isolation is torture, he or she would rapidly become an ex-politician.

Instead, the American people have come to believe that bad behavior deserves punishment. Very bad behavior deserves more punishment. And a subtle jump occurs here—from arguing that people “deserve” punishment to arguing that punishment changes people or conditions.

This is wrong, as in "incorrect." Solitary confinement doesn’t change behavior or conditions. It doesn’t cure people. It makes it all worse.

But the fact that it is wrong is a pitiful thing compared to people’s beliefs.

In today’s business, beliefs are belittled. What matters is results, behaviors, outcomes—facts. We get there by data, numbers, analytics, metrics. Great managers are data-driven.

They are not. 

Most business people are as belief-hobbled and ideologically blinkered as any other human being, which is to say, a great deal.

Worse yet, one of the strongest belief systems in business today is that centering around corporate change: that it is driven by altering stimulus and response. Not unlike monkeys, or the reward-punishment cycle in prisons. This model is true generally—often not true specifically. It matters how we handle it.

Believing that we are primarily rational creatures is one of our more irrational of our beliefs—and one of the strongest as well.

Trust and Corporate Change

Close your eyes and make a mental list of models for corporate change.

There are models of “what is needed.” One such model posits three needs: pressure, vision and first steps.

There are models of “types of change.”  For example, linking participative management to incremental change, and directive leadership to transformative change.

There are models of tools to leverage for change: a favorite of mine is People, Structure, Systems, Culture.

There are "how to" models.  One  emphasizes leadership; another, vision or intent; a third, alignment.

Then there are descriptive models—they use OD frameworks, or industrial economic models, to classify and distinguish types, levels and genres of corporate change.

But you don’t hear much about linking trust to corporate change. Nor is corporate change the first thing most of us think of when we think of trust in business.

Which is curious, because the presence or absence of trust within an organization can greatly affect a company’s ability to change.

Let’s say you need to make an acquisition; or enter a new business; or up your growth rate by four percentage points. How would a low-trust organization go about it?  How would a high-trust organization go about it?

Low-trust organizations are typically run on the basis of either consensus, fear, or contracts. All three have their problems.

—Consensus-based organizations can be very thorough, but slow to adapt—since trust doesn’t exist between parties, it has to get re-created by consensus each time.   If fast change is required, that’s a drawback.

—Fear-based organizations can be efficient at implementing change, but there is a big burden on the few fear-drivers to be right—they are deprived of the value of direct input from others, who fear them. The more complex and fast the change, the greater the risk of the leader getting it wrong.

—Contract-based organizations substitute a market in place of consensus. For any given transaction it may be more efficient than consensus.  But there get to be an awful lot of contracts and transactions made, all of which require time and people to track them.  It’s an expensive model to maintain, and even more expensive to tweak.

Then there are trust-based organizations. In such an organization, if your partner says he’ll do something, that’s it.  You don’t need a consensus session. You just trust he’ll do it. And your partner  will do what he said, because that’s how you get to be trusted.

You also tend to trust your partners’ judgment—because you trust they will tell you if they don’t know something. You take their word at face value.

Unlike a fear-based organization, you trust that you partners will raise issues that need raising; and they won’t raise issues not worth it.

Best of all—unlike a market-based organization, you trust that everything your partners think and do will have your interests at heart for the long run; they will not be distracted by the short-term transactional commissions, bonus points or other "incentive" schemes based on the improvement of an individual’s own short-term self-interest.

In such organizations, you don’t need nearly as many contracts to make sure your partner will do what he says. You don’t need so many measurement systems to track and distribute agreed-upon incentives and outcomes.  And the whole organization is not hostage to the judgment of a few people.

Which kind of organization will most easily change on a dime, and get it right? The answer is pretty clear.

Trust pays off when it’s time to change.


When Business is Incontinent

No, not that kind of incontinence.

The term is also used in philosophy to describe a certain situation (I’m reaching back a few decades on this one, so someone check me) roughly like this:

He knows what the good is; he knows that he ought to do the good; there is nothing standing in the way of his doing the good; and he wants to do the good. Yet he does that which is wrong.

As I recall, Aristotle’s explanation was, roughly:

That’s silly. If he didn’t do it, then it’s just because either he didn’t really want to do it or something prevented him from doing it.

Plato’s—which I greatly prefer—was:

That’s life. That’s the beauty and the idiocy and the pain of being human.

David Maister’s recent post What Gets Fat Smokers on the Diet? reminded me of this issue. David’s topic had to do with what prevents organizational change.

My take on the subject is that both personal and corporate change are similar to dealing with addictions: it takes repeated attempts, which in aggregate show improvement, but which in particular instances are weak. And there are no guarantees.

Best practices, in personal as well as organizational life, probably include:

> envisioning—constantly keeping in mind goals, outcomes, tangible pictures of the desired to-be state of affairs

> specific next steps—tactics, mantras, tips and tricks that move the ball in the generally right direction

> no-no’s—things that are warning signs of "bad" behavior, a la if you don’t want to get hit by trains, don’t play on the tracks

> values—a clear set of guiding principles, enunciated frequently by people who understand them and practice them

> a medium-to-long-term view of the world that infects all behaviors—negotiating, pricing, relationship management, compensation, investment evaluations

> a strong preference for intrinsic motivational approaches over extrinsic approaches. Getting people to behave in ways that support others by giving them money (in effect, paying them to be unselfish) is as close to oxymoronic as you can get.

> at the suggestion of Stuart Cross I’d add one more: A sudden shock – for an organization this may be a decline in profits, the loss of a customer, the entrance of a serious new competitor, a price war, or a rise in costs. In addiction, it’s a divorce, a disinheritance, a DWI, a death in the family (ever notice how many disasters being with the letter D?).

For change in corporate life, the challenge is to generate the powerful motivational effects of, say, a tragic car accident—but through genteel, socially acceptable means like corporate training programs.

The mother of the new boy in kindergarten says to the teacher, "Johnny is very sensitive. If he does something wrong, just slap the child next to him—he’ll get the message."

But Johnny Adult isn’t quite so sensitive. And the Adult Next to Him tends to hit back. It’s hard to change habits; it’s hard to change thinking; it’s hard to change incontinence.

It’s almost enough to believe Aristotle.


But not quite.