Balancing Action and Reflection in Organizational Life

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Recently, I’ve found myself linking a number of people to a free Design Group International resource, The Tao of Action-Reflection. (You can get it yourself by clicking on the button below.)

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process

matthew-thomas-2The Tao of Action-Reflection describes the need for balance between doing and thinking in any group enterprise. Many times, organizations with long-term dysfunctions operate more in one of those spaces than the other, and then will periodically switch to the opposite – with disastrous results. Pendulums may be good for clocks, but they are pretty rough on entities trying to get things done.

The two imbalances between action and reflection are often seen as follows:

Shut-rut: often shows up as “Ready-Fire-Aim.” Repeating the same ineffective action without digging in to why it is ineffective, and then responding to the why.

Analysis Paralysis: often shows up as endless discussion that gets nowhere, sometimes punctuated by a shut-rut solution when a real emergency comes up. There is an institutionalized fear of taking action or even just a quiet refusal.

Check out our brief e-book on the topic and see how your group, or enterprise operates and responds. You might just see its way of thinking (or former way of thinking) in the examples. And we’d love to help as you discover how to break free from the old patterns.

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process


Groups behave differently based on where they are in their life cycle. Check out these posts on what happens in an entity's later years:

The Organizational Retirement Mindset and its Implications

Turning the Organizational Retirement Mindset on its Head


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Topics: Organizational Transformation, organizational systems

Personal (and) Organizational Transformation: Happy New Year!

Posted by Matthew Thomas

If you are like many people, you are at least considering making resolutions for the New Year. Others have decided to forego New Year’s Resolutions this year, and not without some level of guilt – the resolutions don’t tend to work out.

Every year it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Great, broad-reaching goals that fall flat within six weeks; small changes in habits from which we revert to our previous way of operating rather quickly; unexpected resistance or difficulty.

This applies to our organizations as much as to our personal lives.

Often our goals lack five things that would give us greater success. If we put these five things into our goals and resolutions, we will find we have much greater capacity for change than we think.

Specificity: Specific goals give us a chance of success because we know exactly what we must do to achieve them. This also means we have greater chance of failure, because we know what we must do to fail, too.

Measurability: If you can’t measure it, it’s hard to tell whether you are succeeding or failing. Even if what you are trying to measure is intangible, with no true corresponding widgets, dollars or noses to count, it is possible to measure success. Likert scales are great: Rate what you need to measure on a scale of 1 – 5.

Attainability: Can you do it? “I want to achieve world peace” is noble, but it is not really specific or measurable (in that form), nor individually attainable. Setting a smaller goal you can hit is better than an enormous goal with no chance of success. Nevertheless, set attainable goals one or two steps beyond what you know is possible, to give you a challenge. Then, when you meet the goals, take another step or two.

Relevance: Does this goal matter? If not, why are we doing it? If it does, why? Does it help us achieve a greater purpose, or is it merely an exercise in proving we can do something?

Timeliness: If we aren’t specific about the time frame in which something is supposed to happen, we don’t have a way to declare success or failure. Things will continue to get dragged out. Timeliness will cause us to have to declare an end date by which we measure our specifics. At that point, we can reevaluate our position and re-set goals.

Resolutions alone might not be worth it, but good resolutions can be extremely helpful. What are your goals for this year?

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Topics: Organizational Transformation, Matthew Thomas, Goal-Setting, Design Group International, The Tao of Action-Reflection

Organizational Transformation: Survival and Margin

Posted by Matthew Thomas

One of the most obvious symptoms of an organization in survival mode – or nearing survival mode – is a lack of margin for new ideas, programs, products or other innovation. A startup has little margin for new things beyond what it is doing – because everything is new. An established organization, however, with little or no resources allocated to new things – innovation, research, development, continuing education, outreach, and so on – is in trouble. When an organization gets to that point, it is entirely dependent on its established products, services and practices, with no room to adapt to changing conditions internally or externally.

Survival KitMargin is essential to give organizations poise and an assertive stance. Margin allows organizations to respond to changes internally and externally with a level of forethought, forecasting, or at least a level of freedom to think things through before developing an approach to a set of issues. The need for margin exists throughout all sectors of the economy – whether businesses and enterprises, non-profits, charities and churches, or government entities. If there is no margin, any minor changes to the system can send ripples throughout the whole organization.

Financial margin comes about when organizations budget revenue greater than expenses. This allows for money to be available for unexpected opportunities or crises. In addition, over time, this builds reserves so that the organization can initiate more significant undertakings that would otherwise be impossible in one budget cycle.

Organizational margin comes about when organizations prioritize all of those innovative practices we listed above: research, development, continuing education, outreach, training, and even vacation time for staff. This means scheduling time in for people to decompress and do something new, cross-disciplinary or discover something they hadn’t known before. It even gives room for people to practice something that they aren’t as good at as they need to be, in a lower pressure environment – which aids in learning.  As organizations staff their programs, services and products, this will require creating space for this kind of innovation in job descriptions, budgets, compensation, workspace and meetings.

Restoring margin will help move a survival-mode organization to a greater level of health and may help it to thrive again.

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Topics: Organizational Transformation, Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, Margin