Mixing Old with New

Mixing Old with New?


Mixing old familiar ways with new ideas to address new situations like change, may seem like a good idea, but that might not be the best way. A more thoughtful approach might be better.

Traditional change management borrows from traditional scientific research methods that have been successful in the past. It seems logical to continue to use the process of defining the problem, asking a good question worth researching, and developing a generalizable solution that predictably fixes the problem. Mixing traditional processes to solve today’s new problems seems efficient. Is there a trade-off sacrificing thoroughness?

In his book, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again, Bent Flyvbjerg, Ph.D., begins to help us see that a different approach to social science is available, albeit forgotten, and necessary. Instead of trying to emulate the natural sciences and create a kind of general theory, he argues the strength of the social sciences lies in their rich, reflexive analysis of values and power.

Organizations are not machines, but sociotechnical systems filled with human beings in relationships with one another acting together for a purpose. It has recently been discovered that social science itself, trying to emulate natural science to produce explanatory and predictive theory is an impossible task. A comparison of natural science with social science is misleading. Each have their respective strengths and weaknesses along fundamental different dimensions, the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest.

Reframing our perspective, shifting the focus and language from deficits and problems to one of hope and possibilities based upon strengths and what is already working, adjusts the spirit of inquiry away from “fault finding, harsh judgment, or culpability to what might be if changes were made” (Elliott 1999, p.51 in Preskill and Catsambas 2006, p. 26). When organizations use traditional problem-solving approaches to address challenges and issues, they make several underlying assumptions. “According to Watkins and Mohr (2001, p. 196), these assumptions include:

  • There is an ideal way for things to be.
  • If a situation is not as we would like it to be, it is a “problem” to be solved.
  • The way to solve a problem is to break it into parts and analyze it.
  • If we find a broken part and fix it, the whole will be fixed.

And, most problem-solving approaches involve several more common characteristics according to Preskill and Catsambas (2006, p. 27):

  • Identifying what is wrong
  • Analyzing the causes
  • Deciding on goals to fix these causes
  • Making a plan that will achieve the goals
  • Implementing the plan
  • Evaluating if we fixed the problem

Problem-solving approaches are effective in some contexts. For example, if your complicated vehicle’s engine starts to sputter, you have a problem in need of solving, so you want fault-finding, fault-analysis, and fault-fixing for that mechanical system.

But this approach is not the best or only way to address critical issues in our organizations. “Cooperrider (quoted in Zemke, 1999) suggests that the problem-solving approach is painfully slow, asks people to look backward at yesterday’s failures and their causes, and rarely results in a new vision…[They] are notorious for placing blame and generating defensiveness. They sap your energy and tax your mind, and don’t advance the organization’s evolution beyond a slow crawl” (Preskill and Catsambas 2006, p. 27-8).

Discussion of problems will surface and don’t have to be avoided, but several authors recommend replacing deficit-based problem talk with positive language and possibility talk.

The traditional approach of problem solving in developing a research question, is reversed in my approach to relational leadership research using Appreciative Inquiry, that is, looking at solution processes to develop a question that merits investigation. Traditional problem solving is usually a deficit-based approach that begins with seeking out the problem, the weak link in the system, the gap created by what we don’t have. Cause analysis often then leads to a diagnosis and alternative solutions are recommended. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) “challenges this traditional paradigm with an “affirmative” approach, embracing an organization’s challenges in a positive light beginning with what we do have and want to study to have more of. AI offers an alternative – to look for what is good in the organization, its success stories.

More on AI and the New View (NV) in my next blog post.


Written by David A. Christenson, MA, MSc, Ph.D. Candidate
CEO Christenson & Associates, LLC DBA O4R: Organizing For Resilience


Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Preskill, H. and Catsambas, T. T. (2006). Reframing evaluation through Appreciative Inquiry, Sage Publications, Inc., Thousand oaks, California, USA.

Watkins, J. M., and Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination, Josey-Bass, San Francisco, California, USA.

Context, Mindfulness & Relating

The context of people going to work everyday.

Context, Mindfulness and Relational Leadership

Let’s begin with thinking about context, “Why I believe this information is valuable and not just more stuff to think about.” Some people are only “getting on the company bus” every day going through their lives without really paying much attention beyond where to get on or off, not giving or needing from each other much more than a polite hello, and just waiting for the weekend.

But I think that the rest of us want to really live 24/7, continually improve, and connect with others in our teams, organizations and communities. Many of us realize that we need to engage in order to cope in today’s crazy world. In fact, we’re pretty sure we’re not going to be able to go it alone very well. We sense it. We need each other. Our relationships are really important to our “live long and prosper” objectives!


Conditions in Context

You may have heard that many professional people describe our world today with the acronym VUCA. The US government is good at coming up with acronyms. This one arrived after the fall of communism and “the notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world which resulted from the end of the Cold War. The acronym itself was not created until the late 1990s, and it was not until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that notion and acronym really took hold” (Lawrence 2013, Kinsinger & Walch, 2012).

I have had the honor and privilege to work with wildland/structural firefighters and law enforcement officers since 2002. Many of those people serve overwhelmed communities and regions on incident management teams (IMT) that respond to wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and more. My experience working with emergency response organizations has provided the special opportunity of engaging amazing people dedicating their lives to the service of others in need. I admire them. They have a genuine outgoing concern for others that deserves the best of what can be created for their teams and organization’s functioning. They tell us that the VUCA world is reality, and not only that it isn’t going away, in many ways it’s getting worse.

Much of their management and human performance interest has been based upon Taylorism and hierarchies designed to produce efficient command and control. For example, firefighters created the Incident Command System (ICS) in the 1970’s to help them interoperate effectively in these environments. Predictability and the removal of uncertainty is the temporary impact, and often illusion, they strive to produce in complex and ambiguous environments.

“The VUCA Prime [model] was developed by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and the author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Johansen proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility – the “flips” to the VUCA model. The VUCA Prime can be seen as the continuum of skills leaders can develop to help make sense of leading in a VUCA world” (Lawrence 2013, p. 6). I wrote about developing vision in a recent post about creating a connection culture. Let’s press on with looking into developing understanding, clarity and agility for a few minutes.



Many emergency responders have studied the writings of Roberts, Weick, Sutcliffe about High Reliability Organizing processes creating mindfulness. “Good management of the unexpected is mindful management…people organize themselves in such a way that they are able to notice the unexpected in the making and halt its development…[or] focus on containing it… [or] focus on resilience and swift restoration of system functioning. By mindful, we also mean that systems strive to maintain an underlying style of mental functioning that formulates increasingly plausible interpretations of the context, the problems that define it, and the remedies it contains” (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2015).

Some firefighters also have Dekker, Woods and Hollnagel on their professional reading lists to learn more about developing and integrating advanced risk competencies through Safety Differently, Just Culture, The New View, and Resilience Engineering.

Through The New View and Resilience Engineering we hope to discover that there are more ways to see and learn than what one initially perceives. Second and third-order learning activities not only look at “how we are learning from failure,” the second-level of maturity (Dekker 2006, p. 220, 2011), but we should also expand upon that idea by appreciating what is best about our approach.

Most of the time people are very successful in creating safety in the midst of uncertainty (Dekker 2006, p. 16). “In a world of finite resources, of irreducible certainty, and of multiple conflicting goals, safety is created through proactive resilient processes rather than through reactive barriers and defenses” (Woods & Hollnagel, 2011, p. 3). There are many more learning opportunities in events where things could have gone very badly but did not because people intervened to protect other people, system processes and products. Their stories of effective adaptations to threats in the environment contain practices worth noting. Since the exact same series of events is unlikely to reoccur, even more important lessons lie in the conditions that enabled people to anticipate, maneuver, adjust, and recombine their resources in resilient ways. Purposefully developing and continually enhancing capacities to try to create those conditions within individuals, teams and organizations are worth the effort to learn from all of our activities, not only when things had bad outcomes.

Like many organizations, the wildland fire community has had a singular way of looking at failure to solve failure. We have used a deficit-based approach to create change.

“…in the error counting paradigm, work on safety comprised protecting the system from unreliable, erratic, and limited human components (or more clearly, protecting the people at the blunt end – in their roles as managers, regulators and consumers of the systems – from unreliable other people at the sharp end – who operate and maintain those systems)” (Woods & Hollnagel, 2011, p. 4)

We have focused our efforts to learn primarily from retrospective investigative reports of failures in which hindsight has had the very durable effect of quickly making paths to error in events very linear and narrow. Fortunately, we are now moving toward a very different, holistic approach to learning from events through the Learning Review and Coordinated Response Protocol.

Ellen Langer wrote, “To treat information as context-free, that is, independent of circumstances, places us at risk for mindless thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. Placing information within context leads to mindfulness” (Langer 1997, 1989).

Mindfulness welcomes new information. It becomes curious about the process used and the environment actors are in, rather than only on the outcome. Both continual scanning and peripheral sight of what is actually happening can increase one’s understanding of the situation and help us change our interpretation of the context we experience. Sharing those perceptions with others we trust and can confide in brings people together in relational experiences primed to generate possibilities and potential joint actions. This inclusive approach often allows the reframing of problems resulting in creative recombination of resources and innovative solutions. Multiple points of view enhance our efforts and how we view the situation together. Mindfulness then develops. (Langer 1989)

New information, a variety of human processes, and multiple points of view lead to creativity and innovation, which contribute to the state of mindfulness. Situations that are novel to the beginner benefit from mindful thinking just like situations novel to the expert. People with a variety of experiences and capabilities can contribute to the multiple insights possible.

Previous planning may fail and even endanger people as the organization rigidly follows the plan in a newly emerging or unexpected situation. Many will operate in “planned continuance,” carried along by a dysfunctional momentum; hoping things will begin to unfold according to what they had expected to see. (Barton and Sutcliffe, 2009)

The research on mindfulness shows that mindful work becomes more absorbing and pleasurable but most of all provides satisfaction. Pleasure and happiness are passive emotions that happen to us while satisfaction involves an active pursuit. Satisfaction results from adapting to a new situation or solving a novel problem. Mindful learning and problem solving are more likely to bring satisfaction and self-motivation. In dynamic states mindfulness develops a new dimension (Langer 1997, Goleman et al 2013, p. 103).


Relational Leadership

There are several straight forward ways to increase human value where people begin to trust each other and share ideas. I believe that we can build upon our successful relational experiences and develop even better coping mechanisms that are collaboratively self-designed through improved dialogue and relational leadership. These human processes might also be co-created for the purpose of altering conditions that influence a team’s functioning in real-time. We can move beyond the problem talk of limiting human factors and move forward into human processes that are co-developed and proven effective through utilization by their creators.

Together we can make sense of our world, make meaning and define clarity for the moment. Why for the moment? Things change! Decisions stop the conversation and silence alternative voices.

“If I make a decision it is a possession. I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. If I make sense, then this is more dynamic, and I listen and I can change it. A decision is something you polish. Sensemaking is a direction for the next period.”

— Paul Gleason

Personal communication (13 Jun 1995). In Karl E. Weick, ‘The Experience of Theorizing: Sensemaking as Topic and Resource’. Quoted in Ken G. Smith (ed.) and Michael A. Hitt (ed), Great Minds in Management: the Theory of Process Development (2005), 398. Weick writes that Gleason explains how leadership needs ‘sensemaking rather than decision making.’ As a highly skilled wildland firefighter he would make sense of an unfolding fire, giving directives that are open to revision at any time, so they can be self-correcting, responsive, with a transparent rationale. By contrast, decision making eats up valuable time with polishing the decision to get it ‘right’ and defending it, and also encourages blind spots. http://todayinsci.com/G/Gleason_Paul/GleasonPaul-Quotations.htm [1]


Relational Leadership is about skillfully participating in communicating more effectively as a process of mutually molding meaning – a process of continuous coordinated action. “Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul of the speaker or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener” (Valentin Voloshinov in Herestead and Gergen, 2013, p. 9). Traditional educational practices focus on content and the transaction between the teacher and the student. Transformational learning happens when people are invited into the process of creating knowledge. “Relational leaders are open to the present moment and to future possibilities, they engage in questioning, provoking, answering, agreeing, objecting dialogue rather than dialogue that finalizes, materializes, explains, and kills casually, that drowns out another’s voice” Cunliffe & Eriksen 2011 in Herestead and Gergen, 2013, p. 11).

We know that small shifts in how we word a question can make a huge difference in how we answer (Schein 2013). Skillful relational leading is a new skill that is required in the VUCA environment as we confront the challenges of creating organizational culture, leading teams, handling change, unlearning, relearning, reducing conflict, grappling with emotions, stimulating creativity, combating indifference, and coaching team members. These challenges all require sensitive, flexible, agile and creative movements in dialogue. Relational leadership bringing people together in productive dialogue is a critical 21st century skill.

Resilience is more than flexibility in an operational sense. Agility in leading dialogue is a new form of resilience that enables us to navigate a dynamic and potentially dangerous VUCA world. “Ambiguity can be countered with agility, the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions” (Kinsinger and Walch, 2012). Reading about relational leadership is one thing, practice is required to develop any real skill.

The world becomes what it is for us by virtue of our relationships. We, people, constructed our world of dynamic socio-technical systems. Together we can change them.


Written by David A. Christenson, MA, MSc, Ph.D. Candidate
CEO Christenson & Associates, LLC DBA O4R: Organizing For Resilience



Barton, M.A. and Sutcliffe, K.M. (2009). Overcoming dysfunctional momentum: Organizational safety as a social achievement, Human Relations 62, no. 9: 1327-1356, see 1329.

Dekker, S. W. A. (2006). The field guide to understanding human error, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.

Dekker, S. W. A. (2011). Drift into failure: From hunting broken components to understanding complex systems, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., and McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Hersted, L. and Gergen, K. J. (2013). Relational leading: Practices for the dialogically based collaboration, Taos Institute Publications, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, USA.

Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012 July 9). Living and leading in a VUCA world, Thunderbird University. Retrieved from http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/research/2012/07/09/kinsinger-walch-vuca/.

Langer, E. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning, De Capo Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness, De Capo Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Lawrence, K. (2015). Developing leaders in a VUCA environment, University of North Carolina, USA. Retrieved from http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/~/media/Files/documents/executive-development/developing-leaders-in-a-vuca-environment.pdf.

McNamee, S. (2010). Research as social construction: Transformative inquiry, Saúde & Transformação Social, Florianópolis, v.1, n.1, p.09-19

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, California, USA.

Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2015). Managing the unexpected: Sustained performance in a complex world, 3rd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA.

Woods, D. D. and Hollnagel, E. (2011). Prologue: Resilience engineering concepts, to the book Resilience engineering in practice (Ashgate studies in resilience engineering), Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.


Trusted Connections

Blog Trusted Connections

People in audiences I have spoken to on the topic of High Reliability Organizing will often ask afterwards, “HRO sounds like what we want to be doing. But I’m not sure we really can!” When I ask them to tell me about what they like about where they work and the people that they work with, they often reply with, “That’s weird. I thought you were going to ask me, “Why can’t you?” But you want to know what I like!?”

I want to get to know people through the good and meaningful relationships they have created with others. Through their positive stories we can get a sense of what is strong in their environment that they already anchor to. These are foundational connections to build on.

“People with a strong sense of connection to others are more cooperative, empathetic, enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, and better problem-solvers. Build the “Connection Development” elements of vision, value, and voice in your organization” (Stallard 2007).


Intentionally Create a Connection Culture

“Culture is the predominant beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people. A connection culture therefore, is a culture that embraces the necessary beliefs and behaviors that enhance connection among people and meet universal human needs.” (Stallard 2007)

Vision + Value + Voice = Connection

In a connection culture people have Vision when everyone is united by common values, proud of their unit’s reputation, and motivated by their mission.

Value exists in an organization when everyone understands the basic psychological needs of people, behaves in ways that appreciates their positive, unique contributions, and acts to help them achieve their potential.

Voice exists in an organization when everyone seeks the ideas of others, share ideas and opinions honestly, and safeguards relational connections.

Michael Stallard writes about a current next step in the evolution of organizations because people are recognizing that, “Most organizations today have become masters of task excellence, that is hard, quantitative, and analytically oriented aspects of business implicit in areas as Six Sigma (a statistically oriented quality improvement program) and competitive benchmarking (the practice of comparing objective measures such as sales, profits, and inventory level to those of one’s competitors). Unfortunately, organizations that focus on task excellence alone will fail to meet the basic human psychological needs that maximize employee’s contributions to the organization.” Some leaders are beginning to see that with “task excellence” alone, success is fleeting. (Stallard 2007)

When we adopt the mind-set that we are in a community with one another through mutual respect, we begin to build internal relationships that create trusted colleagues rather than internal competitors. I know that the reality is that we may not like all of our co-workers. But creating a healthy self-esteem, mutual respect and strong working relationships, is common sense, yet often uncommon in practice.

Leaders know that their main responsibility is to inspire the people they lead.

Vision represents the cultural element of inspiring identity in both individuals and in their organization in ways that satisfy the sense of purpose, significance and pride that we all crave. Without it, people just show up for duty, do what they have to, and look forward to the weekend, their vacation, or retirement.

Many of us are truly fortunate in that we are bringing something new to the world, or have an opportunity to significantly improve what we have been given charge of. Some of us have a history filled with stories, images, facts and figures, sayings and quotable quotes. Share that history and the challenges you currently have repeatedly, keeping this inspiring identity in front of your team. People need to see that their unit’s identity adds something to their personal identity.

Human value in a culture is, first of all, about treating people with respect and dignity, and second, about empowering them to achieve their potential. Leaders need to identify and remove the obstacles that make people feel devalued. Delete what devalues by:

  1. Eliminating disrespectful, condescending and rude behavior.
  2. Going easy on criticism.
  3. Minimizing unnecessary rules and excessive controls.
  4. Eliminating excessive signs of hierarchy.
  5. Getting rid of devaluing managers.


Add elements that enhance people’s value by:

  1. Making a human connection with as many people as possible.
  2. Treating and speaking to employees as partners.
  3. Helping employees find the right roles.
  4. Educating, informing, and listening to employees.
  5. Decentralizing decision making.
  6. Recognizing the human need for work/life balance

All of these efforts to remove what devalues and increase what does value people will increase trust in your people, among work groups, and between units throughout your organization. Stephen M. R. Covey writes in his book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything,

“Trust impacts us 24/7, 365 days a year. It undergrids and affects the quality of every relationship, every communication, every work project, every business venture, every effort in which we are engaged. It changes the quality of every present moment and alters the trajectory and outcome of every future moment of our lives – both personally and professionally.”

“Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create – much faster than you probably think possible…I contend that the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is not only vital to our personal and inter-personal wellbeing; it is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.”


Written by David A. Christenson, MA, MSc, Ph.D. Candidate
CEO Christenson & Associates, LLC DBA O4R: Organizing For Resilience

Article originally posted by David Christenson to his Linked In pages October 13, 2015



Covey, Stephen M. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything, Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Stallard, Michael Lee (2007). Fired up or burnt out: How to reignite your team’s passion, creativity, and productivity, Thomas Nelson, Inc.


Relational, Appreciative, & Motivational Leadership

Recently a firefighter from Belgium asked David Christenson, O4R CEO, about relational, appreciative, and motivational Leadership. “Are they really all the same thing?”

Let’s start with AI

The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach to change management (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005), is included in Appreciative Leadership (Whitney at al, 2010) as it builds on the foundation of success AI has had for several decades. Recall that AI organizes projects with people in phases of discovery, dreaming, design, and destiny.
AI 4-D Relational Leader Process
Appreciative Leadership adds practical and proven positive power tools that start with AI and then expand in ways to illuminate, include, inspire, and increase integrity. Diana Whitney, Ph.D., and her co-authors, provide many practical “how to” education and training exercises on the development of these leadership skills in their book on this topic by the same name.
Motivational Leadership, in my opinion, is the result of effectively applying relational leadership resources. Practices for dialogically-based collaboration are often very successful when leaders begin to carefully consider and change the ways we talk with each other. Much has been written on this by a Dutchman! Dr. Sidney Dekker writes on the topic of the New View, “It begins with talking about things differently, with using a different language, taking a different perspective.” When people are no longer perceived to be problems to control and are instead included, even inspired to become solutions to harness, they are motivated to collaborate and co-create new ways to move forward together with others.

The ultimate purpose, again in my opinion, is to grow capabilities of resilience. A contemporary of Dekker is Dr. Erik Hollnagel from Denmark! He writes on resilience in ways very compatible with New View thinking, “Resilience is “the ability to succeed under varying conditions…the ability to respond to events, to monitor ongoing developments, to anticipate future threats and opportunities, and to learn from past failures and successes alike.”
Both of these men, and several others including you and I, are driven by the real need to change our organizations approaches to safety in safety-critical, high-risk occupations. More on that next time.
Human Performance Optimization benefits from all of the above and can be expanded significantly to include much more (nutrition, exercise, etc.) but needs to begin with fundamentals of New View communication. Many of the ways we treat each other need to change. We need to stop doing destructive, limiting things and start co-constructing new more effective ways to move forward together.