Change Masters:  Harnessing the energy of difference


A glimpse at headlines provides enough of a reminder that our economic, political, social and security systems are not serving us well.  In times of crisis and flux what is needed is not more of the same, but innovative solutions.  New ideas are not generated by people who think alike or who have personal or economic investments in maintaining the status quo.  More heads are better than one and to find a way out of the mess we are in I think we need to tap into a wide array of perspectives and talents.

Harnessed, the energy of difference is synergy:  creative, transformative, inclusive and mutually beneficial.  But without wisdom differences can lead well meaning people down a path to chaos, misunderstanding and enduring conflict, which may be why less dynamic systems have prevailed to date.   To find solutions for the mess we are in we need creative collaborations but to collaborate at the highest level we need certain competencies. 

One prerequisite to harnessing the energy of difference is healthy self esteem.   Each party needs to know and value themselves. The first piece of advice on the temple at Delphi was “Know Yourself”. This means knowing your strengths and weaknesses; being aware of your bias and blindsides.  In North America, it usually requires resolving your issues with shame or pride or they will get in the way.

Another requirement is passion. Each party needs to be passionate about the mission of the team and see its relevance.  This provides intrinsic motivation for everyone to contribute their best.  Caring deeply about something encourages us to put our heart into it.

A shared vision of the desired outcome focuses intent and action.  Concrete, multi-sensory descriptors of the desired outcome can facilitate reaching the goal.  Agreeing on the method for getting there is not as important as continuing to hold the outcome in mind.  Trial and error will find the most effective path.

 The different gifts that people bring to the table provide the fodder for innovation through cross fertilization of ideas.  Varied talent and perspective offer more alternatives.  Mutual respect and goodwill encourage each person to bring their best to the task at hand for the benefit of the common good.

Synergy thrives in a context of adaptive leadership.  Leadership is not fixed but dynamic and adaptive throughout the process.  The party with the most relevant skill, or leadership style, takes the lead during phases and fades to follower during other phases.

Perhaps the most important skill that synergy requires is self-regulation.  All parties share responsibility for harmony of the group.  The second piece of advice at Delphi was “Nothing in Excess.”  One talking head that dominates the conversation can derail the creative process.   One bad apple can spoil the whole basket and a sour, negative, or high-maintenance person can drain the creative potential of a group.   All parties need to be attuned to each other; aware of and responsive to each other and take responsibility for information exchange. 

There are masters of synergy around us already, people who are already expert at harnessing the energy of difference to reach a higher potential.  I once took a class in musical improvisation with saxophonist Paul Winter.  I attended because I admired the hauntingly beautiful music that he and his consort created.  But as I watched him artfully open non-musicians such as me to the creative potential within and at the same time gracefully guide the musically accomplished to create space for others less accomplished than themselves, I realized that it was ultimately his humility that allowed creativity to flourish, and that as best as he could, he was guiding us to do the same.

Skiing in Colorado on a slope shared by service men in training I overheard a leader comment about a young man skiing down a precarious slope below the lift I was riding.  The leader referenced the younger soldier as a “wonder boy” and from the context and tone I gathered that the leader understood that what risked this young man’s life was not the slope, nor the missions that might await him on the other side of the world, but his own inflated sense of self.  Self-esteem and courage are essential traits in a warrior but bravado can compromise a team rather than complement it. 

Healthy attached families, lovers that honor their differences, masters of improvisational theatre and awesome sports teams also exemplify the capacity to harness differences for the common good.   We already have the potential; we just need to do it.


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