Quick Take: Puppies and Butterflies

My wife is committed to helping animals. At various times we’ve fostered puppies and helped caterpillars develop into moths or butterflies. Either process can be very messy.

Both puppies and butterflies undergo change as they move toward their adult/more-developed state. But the processes are very different.

Puppies grow incrementally. They play, learn, discover, and progress toward their adult selves. The change is gradual and you won’t see visible, significant, obvious changes from one day to the next. But the progress is there.

Caterpillars don’t ‘grow’ into butterflies. They transform or metamorphose (today I learned ‘metamorphosize’ isn’t a word) from one state fully into another. The caterpillar creates a cocoon (chrysalis) and later emerges a butterfly. At some point in the process, the caterpillar deconstructs itself and ceases to be a caterpillar. It then creates a new form for itself and emerges as a butterfly.

We use the word ‘transformation’ frequently in professional settings when we talk about change, especially organizational change. Often, those leading or supporting transformation use this language to generate energy, excitement and focus for the difficult task of changing an organization.

But what if all ‘transformations’ are not best thought of like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly? What if many ‘transformations’ won’t entail deconstructing what was there before in order to form something new…something new that might look unrecognizable when compared to what came before?

What if instead of a ‘transformation’, an organization, business unit, or team needs incremental growth and change. What if instead of destroying what they were before to create something new, they can develop incrementally. Like a puppy, they can play, learn, discover, and grow toward a better, more mature, and more effective form.

Incremental change will never help a caterpillar become a butterfly, just like metamorphosis will never help a puppy become an adult dog.

When you think of the group you’re helping to change, what kind of support do they need from you to move toward a more effective form? In this moment, do they need help transforming or support in developing incrementally?

What Are The Things ONLY You Can Do?

Of all the ways we can spend our time, we want to spend it in a way that is most valuable to us and most impactful to others.

Too often we fall into the trap of focusing on the urgent rather than the important and that can distract us from those things we do or could do that would be most beneficial.

Sometimes focusing on the wrong thing can be a fun distraction, but other times we may be doing work that is valuable, but it is work that others could be doing instead.

So if we’re doing work that is fun or is valuable, what’s the problem? Well, it isn’t about what is getting done, it is about what isn’t getting done.

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You Don’t Need “Role Clarity”

As I work with leaders and teams undergoing change, the two most common themes that emerge, reemerge and never are quite resolved to everyone’s satisfaction are prioritization and role clarity.

Prioritization is a topic for another day.

Role clarity is the most common complaint for people working in a team environment. It is a topic that comes up over and over.

Well meaning coaches and leaders react to the complaint by putting together additional materials describing the responsibility of each role. They create more meetings and training to re-explain the expectations of each role, etc.

And yet, the complaints continue. Why?

Because the root cause of the complaint isn’t a lack of role clarity, it is a lack of alignment on a shared goal.

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“I’m working on…” vs “I’ve finished…”

When you speak about the work you are doing, what language do you use?

Many of us describe what we’re doing using the language of activity: “Yesterday I worked on the presentation for the plan for the next quarter. Today I’ll continue working on the presentation. I don’t have any blockers standing in my way.”

This conversation might happen 1:1 with a colleague or manager. Often it happens as part of a daily or weekly sync meeting where a team gets together to communicate about their shared work.

Less frequently, people use the language of completion when describing their work: “Yesterday, I finished the slide showing the budget for the next quarter. Today, I’ll finish updating the list of unprioritized initiatives up for discussion.”

Do you hear the difference?

One approach, using the language of activity, describes effort. The other approach, using the language of completion, describes accomplishment. Said another way, one approach demonstrates you are busy, the other that you are effective.

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