The Developmental Family


The last number of posts, dubbed “The Endgame Series,” are in many ways integrally tied to this post. While not technically a part of that series, this is not disconnected from them. As one looks at the scenarios of “Familial Preservation” and “Growth”, each requires a certain kind of developmental mindset within the family. This article is an attempt to unpack what that looks like and how it comes to be.

This should be divided into two posts, but since this is likely the last post for awhile, it is going to be a single long post. It will not be for the faint of heart, but hopefully, it will be useful and worth the time it takes to move through it. If it helps to peak your curiosity, this takes a  very hard poke at the notion of “preparation” and argues that looking at family transitions through that lens, at best, misses opportunities and, at worst, dooms the generational transition process to failure.

Family Culture as Social Software

One way to look at family culture is to view it as the “software” that drives family dynamics. When families engage in any collective economic activity – a business, a philanthropy, a trust structure, a set of common investments – the cultural software is running in the background. It remains largely invisible to the participants and yet touches everything they do. If the outer activities and behaviors are cross-wise, the software comes to the fore, and one can almost always trace some of the root causes of the evident issues back to cultural “software glitches’ running in the background. Conversely, families that flourish have good cultural software.  Whether you agree or disagree, it has been my core contention that the success of family transitions hinges on the resilience and adaptation of family culture. Good cultural software – good results. Bad software – bad results.

When the culture software is “glitchy” it seems that many families take one of two basic approaches. The first is to try to control the effects and dynamics of the culture by imposing structures to contain it. This is the default of most first generation family leaders and professional advisors. The approach seeks to moderate an unwieldy culture through a kind of rationalization of process. In this view, the family is nuts, and you should be able to squeeze out the problem by imposing rational systems to supplant the problematic family dynamics. In our software analogy, this is like buying a new computer in hopes that it will fix the bad software.

Structures are often imposed in non-participatory fashion on the family system – one person creates the structure, and the rest are expected to tow the line. These brute force solutions rarely work. They either fall apart (the culture eats the structure for breakfast) or there is a great deal of drama and acting out (as players push boundaries they never wanted nor agreed to). The use of structural solutions to address cultural problems frequently leads to families flying apart – often in ways that do great damage to both human and economic value. (This is not to say that structure is bad or should be ignored – they are essential and absolutely necessary – but in good situations, the structures are well-suited to the family culture.)

A variation on this theme of imposing structures is to create “fail-safe” planning approaches.  This is a favorite of advisors and consultants. Here plans presuppose a single desired outcome – typically results driven by the desires and concerns of the plan-makers. Often people look to successful families and attempt to reverse engineer that sort of outcome for themselves. This is the world of vision, purpose, plans, best practices, and so on. Unfortunately, the planning horizons are so long and the groups so complex, it is almost impossible to anticipate accurately the future conditions in which the plan must be executed. Not only that – but every family that is now studied as a paragon of success actually muddled their way to get to that point. Families don’t function well with “fail-safe” approaches.

With this kind of predetermined outcome approach to planning, what seems like a good idea in the moment is shown to have been a woefully inadequate solution set twenty years on. Often it turns out that there has been very little solid work between the planning and the execution with a result of more or less catastrophic failure arising from failures of competence, communication, and collaboration. Here the family is not fractious; it is just woefully inept.

I call this gap between planning and execution The Chasm. The costs of failing to bridge the Chasm are also high – they are however typically not as pyrotechnic. Plans are insufficient to cross it. Here we have a slow erosion through entitlement, failures to launch, drift, substance abuse, spinning, over spending, speculation, and a long, slow dissolution of the family and its wealth.

Apart from failures of capacity, plans often fail because the people expected to follow the plans do not create flexibility or authorization to adapt the plan to changing circumstances (what we called in our last series of posts Advisory Preservation scenarios). Inflexible plans can deny the family the power to adapt the planning to fit the circumstances – the plan is inapt and falls apart.

Because family cultures are complex, they are often not amenable to what most might call “rational” solutions. Mere analysis and the application of expert solutions or “best practices” are not enough. What is required in place of structures and planning are adaptive interventions that change patterns of behavior in ever deepening cycles of transformation.

Rewriting the Code

Another option when faced with cultural “software” issues is to engage in a collaborative process of “rewriting the code” of family culture. This sounds hard, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, when done well, it often involves having a lot of fun. There are social interventions that work to alter and shift the patterns of behavior in groups. These techniques can be used in all sorts of environments where the stakes are high, the social dynamics are complex and flourishing outcomes are important. There are specific interventions for families that also tend to work well.

In examining this issue, it is worth doing a brief tour of how people have thought about this problem of cultural transformation and resilience in the business world. People in that world have spent a great deal of time, attention, and money on getting a handle on this very human set of problems around cultural change.

A World of VUCA

Many companies find themselves competing in environments of rapid and continuous change. These environments are filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. An acronym for this type of environment, coined by the military for battlefield situations, is VUCA (pronounced “voo-ka”). Some companies are relatively shielded from VUCA – they are in stable industries with stable markets. There are, however, fewer and fewer places to hide.

As this new landscape of near universal VUCA came more sharply into focus in the late 1980s, people who thought about such things realized that this almost hockey stick curve in the rate of change required different models of leadership and the development of new ways of conceiving organizations. Companies could no longer afford to be hierarchical, stable and lethargic.[1] They had to be adaptive, innovative and empowered. As a matter of long-term survival, they had figure out how to reliably pivot on demand to meet shifting conditions. They had to learn and had to learn quickly.

Companies turned to their HR departments for help. Too often that was a dead end. HR had started out as a hotbed of innovation and intervention in the early 1970s but they were ahead of their time.  By the late 1980s, they had been coopted to become moribund departments serving an ossified status quo. Most HR departments came to be focused on compliance, reviews, training, and procedure – not learning, empowerment and innovation. They served interests of institutional legacy and risk management – they were impediments to what was needed.

In the mid-1990’s companies began to turn a corner when they tumbled to the importance of organizational learning. Books like “The Fifth Discipline” (Senge) and “Adaptive Leadership” (Heifetz) inspired, fed and nurtured the trend. This shift led to a relatively widespread adoption of the Chief Learning Officer position – a C-Suite desk.  It involved a conversion to a belief that people were not “resources” to be used as another input to execute strategy, but a recognition that the organization’s people represented a core strategic and competitive advantage. In a sense, the people were the strategy. It became evident that how a company learned – and paying attention to workers as a core strategic driver of performance – was mission critical to the company’s ongoing relevance to the market.

The Problem is People

There were, however, limitations to this view.

The core problem, not surprisingly, was people. Most employees tend to like the status quo – it is comfortable, predictable and often quite effective in achieving immediate results and doing one’s job with a minimum of fuss. Learning decreases efficiency. This pits long-term corporate viability against short-term comfort. (Slap. 2015.)  Employees become weary and skeptical of management fads, corporate mandate,s and change initiatives that most often flounder and fade out in the face of stubborn apathy and passive resistance.

Beyond that, accelerated rates of change can be scary to people – constant VUCA is not conducive to peace of mind. VUCA is not Zen. VUCA scares employees and particularly middle-managers who view power shifts as a near existential threat. The stress and resulting anxiety shuts down brain function and basic rationality. Continuous VUCA is exhausting.  And so, people being people, very much like to pretend it doesn’t exist.

So, while people were deemed “strategic” assets in theory, organizations were in fact stuck with the raw humanity of the actual people they had – not an idealized version of their workforce. The result was that change efforts and attempts to convert organizations into learning entities often floundered on the shoals of resistant corporate culture. The failure rate has been high.

In the face of this, there is the beginning of a new wave of thinking about adaptive organizations. It is in its early stages and may well be another fad or passing management fancy. Even if it sticks, it will undoubtedly partial because, when it comes to socially complex organizations, there are never silver bullets. That said, learning has been a durable corporate concept despite its imperfect execution. There is enough progress to believe that this refinement may have some legs. Even more encouraging, for once this is a trend that has a lot of well-understood science behind it– it is deeply rooted in over 100 years of study and observation of human development.

The Science of Adult Development

The basic idea behind human development models is that people thrive not when they are externally pushed to action, but when adaptation is seen as an integral part of their own personal growth and development. (Kegan, Lahey, 2016.)  It turns out the human brain likes this kind of personal challenge to become better at things. We are hardwired to be challenged and to grow.

There is a common belief that most adults stop developing in early adulthood. While it is true that many people do plateau in some important ways, there is ample evidence that there are between 4 to 8 stages of development that people could traverse in their adult lifetimes. These stages can be seen as basic patterns, frameworks or personal operating systems.

While various researchers have identified greater or fewer stages, there are two things that are common to all the developmental models – the first is that the perspectives and skill sets progress in a common pattern. These capacities build on each other. Research shows that certain patterns invariably follow other patterns, and later patterns don’t become stable until earlier patterns are integrated. We don’t see the stages emerge out of order.[2]  So while I may slice the pie into four sections (stages) or you may slice it into eight, and we may disagree about where the pie is being sliced, everyone agrees they are looking at the “same” pie and  at the same basic progression. The debate is at the margins, not the theoretical core.

The other stable and widely accepted aspect of the science is the universal observation that people do not permanently regress to earlier stages of development. Once a certain framework or mindset is established, people do not go back to earlier ways of looking at and interacting with the world.  When temporary reversion does occcur it is in moments of stress or social mandate – that is, their current way of looking is beyond the reach of those around them and they have to revert to be understood or accepted. Each level of development involves greater cognitive complexity and each stage involves a deeper and more nuanced understanding of other human beings and social systems. [3]

These two things – a clear progression of skill sets and the lack of permanent regression – confirms the validity of adult development.[4]

People Can Change

What all of this means is that the age old argument of whether people can change is largely answered. Some aspects of our basic personality traits and styles don’t change all that much[5]   That said, we are actually capable of growth and development that allows those basic personalities to adapt to new and challenging situations in ways that rather dramatically shift the structures of our individual consciousness. We can grow. We can develop. And we can change.

This grounding in well-accepted developmental research is fueling what is being seen as the next wave of organizational adaptability. There is an emergent notion that organizations, to thrive, must become hotbeds of personal growth. The days of workers as drones are fading fast. What is replacing the “cog-in-the-machine” view is a world in which those who don’t constantly develop, learn and grow will fall behind. The notion of “knowledge workers” is being replaced by “adaptive workers.”

Before now, the focus has been on developing skill sets, knowledge and capability of the workforce on the assumption that trained, skilled, capable people will know what to do and how to do it in rapidly shifting environments. This perspective on “learning” has been about molding exterior action and knowledge of the exterior world.

The problem is that tweaking at the edges of capabilities is not enough when facing VUCA. Subjecting workers to tune-ups for better and more efficient action is insufficient – all this does is better equip people for more of the same. It doesn’t foster rapid adaptation to uncertain and emergent futures.

What is required is a workforce gains the capacity to be “self-authoring”– that is to adapt and grow in response not to centralized mandates, but to the ever-evolving challenges they face. This approach is becoming a flywheel of personal growth — not set in motion from the outside — but fueled by internal engines of personal development.

Two of the more obvious expressions of this transformation in the corporate arena are “mindfulness” and the emphasis on “emotional intelligence.”  More and more corporations are creating positions such as “Chief Mindfulness Officer” — which has a very different tone than Chief Learning Officer. Likewise, “emotional intelligence” is now seen as an essential component of competent leadership. Both of these are highly focused on the interior, subjective experience of the employee.[6] These kinds of focal points are only the leading edge of what corporations are beginning to explore as horizons of internal development and personal growth.[7]

So what?

So what does all of this have to do with families and the cultural “software” with which they operate?

Most of us think that when families are “dysfunctional” they are “stuck” and that the likelihood of getting them unstuck is low. This conclusion is often based on a particular psychotherapeutic lens that suggests that the patterns of the past are set and must be “processed,” ”worked through,”  or “integrated”  with “closure” for the family to move forward. In this approach, you have to dredge dark stuff up, process it and then clear it.  That work is unpleasant, difficult and hard and so people will avoid it. I don’t believe that that model is “wrong” – and it is certainly remarkably helpful in some circumstances – but I often find there other perspectives or other ways of seeing that hold much greater utility and impact.

Not Dysfunctional, Just Complex

I have worked with several families that wanted me to know at the outset that they were not “dysfunctional.” In every case, I found that they had worked with other consultants who pathologized the family patterns.[8]  The families telling me they weren’t “dysfunctional” were also picking up on common cultural memes of familial dysfunctionality and saying that, while they had problems, they were not crazy like “those” families.

What struck me about these families was that they were actually quite self-aware – they weren’t clinically dysfunctional. They were clearly challenged and they were fractious, but they weren’t riven with alcoholism, abuse, anger, splits, unhealthy patterns of domination and submission, and so on. It finally dawned on me – slow learner that I am – that what was going on was that these were normal families faced with complex problems. Their concerns were principally problems of social complexity, not psychodynamics. As such, they had simply not yet developed the adaptive tools necessary to deal with the social, governance and economic complexities they were facing. In short, their issue was not an issue of “dysfunction” but of “development”. They had simply outgrown their old, previously well-worn  patterns and operating systems and had yet to develop new higher order patterns and operating systems to cope with the emergent demands of familial complexity.

So now, after a long lead-in, we get to the heart of it.

“Preparation” is a Broken Schema

I see many advisors taking about “preparing the rising generation.” In this model, the rising generation members are semi-empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge and skill to get them ready for new responsibilities. The role of the senior generation is to find ways to impart this information by “engaging” the rising generation and then conveying all this information, knowledge and wisdom into their eager minds and hearts. This model is analogous to the old corporate model that suggested we just needed to create “learning organizations” to get our workers to gain skills and, if that is done, they would be good to go. Hone their skills and they will perform. And while the demands of business are corporate, and the demands of family are tribal, the core issues are quite analogous.

This preparation model seems broken.

How do I know?

Because it doesn’t work in real families.

The rising generation truly bristles at this notion of preparation – they find it demeaning, stilted and awkward. The resent it. The older generation has no idea how to do it – so they are flummoxed and fumbling. No successful family I have ever encountered is actually doing what is advocated in the  numerous books on “preparing the family.” (The families may talk about “preparation” but it is only because they don’t have the language to describe what they are actually doing  – and what they are doing is decidedly not “preparation”). So, I would suggest, this schema of “preparation” is a fractured model that is not a particularly useful way of looking at the problem.

Stop Preparing, Start Developing

What is required in a family is not that one generation prepare the next. Indeed, “preparing heirs” is tantamount to fighting the last generation’s war. It too often assumes that the problems of the future faced by the rising generation will be roughly the same as those that faced their parents – and that is simply not the case. The challenges of the rising generation will always be unique to that generation and will not be the challenges faced by the leading generation many years before.

Instead of this notion of “preparation”, I would suggest a shift to thinking about this area in terms of “mutual development.”  The family, as a whole, must develop together. This means that the leading generation and the rising generation are both challenged to find new operating systems. The leading generation can’t sit on its laurels – it must change and probably change more radically than the rising generation in some ways. They both have to “change their game” and they must both “level up.”  In this sense, the leading generation grows and develop at least as much as the rising generation, if not more so. They are not only teachers, they are students and learning participants. Everyone in the family recognizes that they must evolv to play the challenging game of “Transition” together.

Creating a developmental family – one that takes charge of building its own capacities and capabilities at every generational level – is in a very different “game” than the one played by the “preparation” family. When you observe families that are paragons of what most advisors might call “preparation,” they are actually doing this work of mutual development and growth. The leading generation is growing at least as much as the rising generation. It is a reciprocal process of intra-generational and inter-generational development. When done well this work allows the family to create an adaptive culture that is well-positioned to meet whatever future challenges it might face.

So how might the family play this new game of “Development?”  Let’s turn to our friends who are looking at this in the corporate world and see what hints there are for a more tribal solution in the world of families.

Some Clues About the Deliberately Developmental Family

I will borrow heavily from the writings of Kegan and Lahey, but also modify that work a bit so that it makes more sense in the family context. Kegan and Lahey have been perhaps the clearest in articulating this trend and have delineated one model of what they have dubbed the Deliberately Developmental Organization. (Kegan & Lahey. 2016)  Theirs is only one point of view, but it is useful to consider, in part because it is an early attempt to comprehensively pull various threads together. By way of background, Kegan teaches at the Harvard School of Education, is a developmental psychologist, and one of the leaders in developmental theory. Lahey is on the Harvard faculty, focused on change leadership, and is a longtime collaborator with Kegan. Kegan and Lahey suggest that there are a few key elements that exist in organizations that are focused on the growth and development of the individuals within the organization. The three legs of their stool are, in my words, Commitments (they call these Principles), Practices and Communities (which in the family context, I call Culture).

Developmental Commitment 1: Key Principles

The first developmental commitment is that these organizations operate out of key principles. There is a subtle but important distinction to be made here between “values” and “principles”.  Principles can be seen as the operational expression of values. Principles, in this sense, are “negotiated values in action”. To highlight this, you and I may be committed to common principles even if we don’t share the same values. For example, I may support freedom of speech because I believe deeply in the right of self-expression for every individual. You may support it because you believe the collective well-being of the nation requires the ability to express divergent points of view. One is an individual value of self-expression and the other a collective value of multi-perspectival inclusion. We might argue until the cows come home about who is philosophically “right” at a values level. However, we can agree on a principle that will allow us both to protect freedom of speech –  our core common interest – despite this underlying personal difference on the level of values.

I have seen that families that spend less time agreeing on their supposed common values (which can become a morass of ambiguity and semantics and generates weak force motivation) and more time on committing to operating principles and accountabilities they want to implement together often get quicker, deeper and more lasting results. Families that focus on common interests rather than common values tend to make more progress. Of course, in arriving at principles, conversations about values can and should be part of the discussion, but the focus in these conversations is about gaining a common understanding of principles that the community can agree to as “negotiated values in action” designed to identify and further common interests.

These negotiated operating principles create what I refer to as a “moral” fabric for the functioning of the relationships in the familial community. In my experience, families members do not truly share similar values – they are too socially and personally complex and diverse for that – but what they can do is agree to operating principles that will allow that diversity to exist in an interdependent web of committed relationships. When done well, the development of principles (and the moral fabric of relationship those principles express) actually builds resilience into the family system.[9]

Developmental Commitment 2: People Can Change

The second commitment Kegan and Lahey point to is the belief that adults can grow. This is what makes their model “developmental.” This means that the principles in play are not just any principles, but rather principles that foster individual and collective growth. They ensure that people are sharing (within boundaries) their own personal aspirations for growth. These organizations pay a great deal of attention to “growing edges”.

To ground this, the role of the principles discussed above is not to lock behavior in place and to control it, but create a platform for learning and development. The principles above are not rules to be followed – they are not a collection of “Thou shall nots”, but rather a collection of “We shall strives.”  Good principles do not exist to regulate behavior, but to open possibilities for individual and collective growth.

A weak principle would be “We will be respectful.”  A better principle would be “We will continually seek to be ever more respectful of one another.”  The first principle shuts down growth with a series of “gotchas”, the second invites growth through deepening dialog and practice. In the first, accountability looks like punishment. In the second it looks like learning. The first sets up a finite game of “Respect.”  The second, an infinite one.

One family I worked with adopted the principle “We will seek to be more professional.”   The family used this principle as a guidestar to change many things it was doing that had previously been embroiled in what they perceived to be more “unprofessional” practices. It became a call for personal and tribal maturation and as such it worked very well. When it was violated, there were often conversations about it and when there were tough decisions to be made, people would ask the question of which approach to resolution was the more “professional.”  People were committed to this principle from very different values sets and even different positional interests, but their agreement on the operational principle was effective to foster both individual and collective growth in an environment that was not punitive, but developmental.

Developmental Commitment 3: Error Offers Opportunities

The third developmental commitment is a belief that weakness is strength and error is opportunity. In most organizations and families, people seek to preserve or enhance their personal standing. This results in hiding weaknesses and protecting a status quo. Collective weaknesses are shoved in closets and personal weakness are shameful and hidden. Conflict is avoided and elephants in living rooms are ignored.

In developmental organizations (and families) there is a more open embrace of failure and a willingness to attend to weakness. In practice, this looks like a simple, direct statements of observation. With practice, these statements don’t come across as emotionally “loaded” – they are simply offered and accepted as “data.” In this sense errors, weakness and mistakes are not opportunities for self-judgement or condemnation by the community, but rather practical feedback to be acknowledged, addressed and used as grist for personal and collective development.

It is not that people in these systems seek to fail – but that there is a mature recognition that all human beings, organizations, and families mess up from time to time. It is in these points of collapse that the growing edges are revealed. These are not always easy or comfortable to confront, but when messing up is normalized – seen not as personal weakness but as an opportunity for collective learning — there is the possibility of creating collective growth that can replace the cramped and miserable world of self-aggrandizement and hiding in shadows.[10]

What emerges is a more liberated environment in which people can be themselves. They are simply more direct and much cleaner in their communication about thier thoughts, feeling, motivations, each other, the past and the future. In its purer forms, this kind of communication doesn’t hedge, prevaricate, allude or imply. It does foster a kind of non-judgment that decreases reactivity.

This kind of clarity and matter-of-factness drives coherence. In businesses, this movement towards directness and clarity tends to create exhilarating work environments. People know where they stand because they don’t have to guess and speculate. People get honest feedback that they can trust and in fact getting difficult stuff out in the open makes the social environment far more trustworthy – trying to hide crap, it turns out, destroys trust. People are not isolated in their own thinking, but connected and thinking together. As a result, these environments are hotbeds of experimentation, engagement, and innovation. People are more cleanly honest with each other. With practice a great deal of the drama simply falls away – drama has a hard time existing in the light of direct, honest communication (particularly when it is seasoned with kindness and good intent).

For families that struggle with engagement, I would ask them to deeply explore the question of whether failure is basically punished or rewarded in their family system. Is learning by failure in that family relatively playful and light (or at least embraced and open), or is it dramatic, dark and hidden. If it is the later, is it any wonder that people want to avoid, disengage and even flee?  Who wants to expose themselves to that? Developmental families are actually fun families. They have a good time together and their work together has a sense of serious playfulness about it – not that it is always easy, but it is intrinsically rewarding to be so challenged and engaged. It feeds the soul by meeting the need for personal growth and development in a trustworthy environment of candor and openness.

Developmental Commitment 4:  Interdependence

The final core commitment is a recognition of an interdependent bottom line. When developmental companies are confronted with the question of whether the core priority is profit or human development, these companies suggest that the premise of the question creates a false choice. These are not trade-offs to be made, rather development and profitability support one another and are flip sides of a coin. This has been shown over and over again. Corporate cultures that are resilient and adaptive radically outperform more rigid cultures. (e.g. Kotter. 1992.)  Deliberate development gives rise to profitability and profitability fuels development.

It is similar in families. There is often a false choice between individuation and family unity. Too often in our independent Western cultures we focus on differentiation at the expense of interdependence. In the United States, we often buy into a false myth of the rugged individual. In fact, the most individuated people are the ones who are fully integrated into social networks to which they contribute and from which they benefit. They are well-adjusted people – not social misfits, anti-heroes and cowboys. Individuated people are not entangled, but they are deeply engaged. To pit individualism and collectivism against each other as polar opposites is a false choice that actually degrades the quality of both. Families that succeed recognize that they are all individually better off together. Participation in the family actually makes each individual a better human being because of that participation. And as each person matures, develops and grows into that better individual, the family develops, grows and adapts as a tribe that is grateful for the contributions of its individual members.

Beyond Developmental Commitments

If core beliefs are the first leg of the three-legged stool of deliberately developmental organizations, the other two legs are developmental community (or in the family’s case – family culture) and developmental practices.

Let’s take developmental culture first. I have written extensively elsewhere on the development of family culture and I will leave it to the reader to poke around my blog to get my sense of how this work can be done. There are some operating guidelines that are worth summarizing here in no particular order. First, collaboration is key to healthy family. Anyone who can meaningfully participate should be included in a meaningful way – in planning, in designing, in learning, in deciding, in implementing. Why? We support what we co-create. (And we resist what we have been excluded from.) Second, find small changes that create outsized, leveraged results – so called “keystone habits.” Third, remember that families are tribal kinship systems that function on stories, rituals, councils, and in tribal roles. Families are tribal and we forget that at our peril. Fourth, family enterprises are not tribal – they are corporate – and therefore they require muscular operating systems that stress performance, not inclusion. Fifth, the moral fabric of the family is the starting point of real growth – though you may not be able to start there right away, you will not make real progress until these question of moral purpose are meaningfully addressed. Sixth, recognize that one useful perspective is to view what families are doing through a lens of “games” they are playing; make those games explicit and then invite the family to consider how they would like to play the game differently. Seventh, family capacity building is developmental with a number of key components to that development. There are more observations, but these are a few of the more useful tools.

The Path of Practice

The final leg of the Kegan-Lahey stool is practice.  The practices that they advocate are destabilization; gap closure; growth, not certainty; and focus on the interior life. It is worth spending just a bit of time on these.

In their model, companies actually promote destabilization to combat complacency.[11]  I don’t want to opine on this in a corporate environment, but in families, I don’t find that destabilization is a useful tool. Families face enough natural instability, and the problems are usually those of safety, not complacency. That said, this natural instability in developmental families is what ignites the developmental impulse. It is often these instabilities that spark the request for outside intervention. If families are coached to embrace their wobbles as opportunities to learn and grow, then the family can create a solid platform for becoming a Deliberately Developmental Family. Families don’t need to disrupt themselves, but they do need to gain the cultural capacities to metabolize disruption. Part of this is gaining a sense of safety and trust in the family system.

Kegan and Lahey also speak of gap closure – too often in social systems gaps are not recognized, acknowledged and talked about.  This is a primary origin point for what makes familial environments “unsafe” and untrusted. These gaps become “elephants in the room.”  We might call the gaps performative contradictions – there are gaps between what we do and say, what we feel and say, what we say informally and formally, what we know is right and how we actually behave. When directly and cleanly faced, these gaps can become fertile opportunities for personal and collective growth. Facing these gaps routinely gives rise to a culture in which it is “no big deal” to openly address them. Gaps are seen as regular occurrences in any group and addressing them is just part of the ordinary course of the way the group functions and learns together. This does not make the family unemotional – in fact, emotions are part of it. But rather than emotional reactivity, emotions are recognized as essential and normal components of family function and are talked about as openly as anything else. Addressing these kinds of gaps allows the family to be deliberately developmental. (Here is an example of where a core principle as described above might be “We seek to identify and close gaps as a normal part of our family practice.”)

In “growth, not certainty” Kegan and Lahey are adopting a principle that the family has to “go slow to go fast”. Most often issues in families provoke a kind of anxiety that calls for knee-jerk solutions. Often these decisions a flavored with a kind of finality and “certainty.” What Deliberately Developmental Families do when faced with a challenge is intentionally slow down and not make quick decisions. They spend time poking at the problem, examining it from different angles, looking at it in different time scales, hearing different points of view. They make haste slowly. Their core goal is not to “solve the problem” but to “grow as a family”. Ironically as families get good at this, they find that they actually get unstuck much more effectively, and they stop wasting time. Issues that might not have gotten resolved for years now get resolved in months. They get really good at moving through challenges rather than having every challenge replay another version of a now well-rehearsed painful, protracted series of actions and reactions. They come to see that knee-jerk solution turn out to be costly because of failures of buy-in or shoddy thinking. As families slow down, they find out quite quickly that they are actually rapidly accelerating their development. They make better decisions that stick and that build on each other in ways that previous reactive solutions don’t. This “go slow to go fast” approach can be highly effective. It takes some patience in the beginning – and it is useful to have a consultant involved in this – but it does not take long for people to see the value it creates.

Finally, Kegan and Lahey suggest that focus on the interior life is critical. Not everyone in the family is enough of an introvert to “get” this. But managing personal reactivity, developing mindfulness and emotional intelligence is critical for family leaders. In one family meeting, a rising generation member led a guided meditation on both days that set the tone for the ensuing conversations. At the end of her first session, she gleefully and playfully stage-whispered: “I can’t believe it – the Smith family actually mediated.”  One normally cynical guy told her that while it was not ordinarily his cup of tea, the meditation had really moved and grounded him.  This is what paying attention to interior development looks like – mindfulness, awareness, attention, responsiveness.

All of what we discussed above requires onoing personal growth and development. It is a practice. This approach to the inner game of growth is itself another infinite game – one where practice is ongoing and never ending. When this becomes inculcated in family culture it looks like “good boundaries”, emotional intelligence and maturity. People are less entangled and enmeshed and the relationships and interactions are “cleaner.”  There is a kind of directness and candor, but there is also compassion, tolerance and kindness. There is a lot of empathy and presence. Conversations and decisions tend not to leave a lot of “wake” that must be dealt with later. Of course this is the ideal, but as families practice the developmental principles, they move towards self-management, boundaries, trust and openness. And drama diminishes.


This paper has argued that families that frame their work as deliberately developmental are more likely to succeed. In this schema, development replaces preparation. It is undergirded with core commitments, defined practices and the development of an increasingly resilient culture. It is not easy work to move in this direction; however, when done well, it becomes its own virtuous cycle of personal and collective growth. In the end, this is about embracing VUCA and generating an environment that promotes happiness based on wrestling with meaningful challenges in community with other family members.

Families that do this well will tell you that they face challenges and hard times, but they would also say that this is intensely rewarding and even “fun” in the sense that moving through any challenge that requires growth and development is one of the most intensely rewarding experiences we as human beings can enjoy.


Post-script:  As many of you know, I will be joining Merrill Lynch in their Center for Family Wealth Dynamics and Governance. This is likely the last of my blogs (but not the last of my writing). I want to thank everyone who has taken this journey with me. I have so appreciated the kind words and warm thoughts of so many of you. I hope this as truly provided “food for thought.” I look forward to crossing paths – this is no hard goodbye, merely a grateful fare-well.


[1] The military saw the problem in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and began addressing adaptive leadership in the late 1970s.They have evolved a whole set of practices designed to quickly adapt in battlefield situations.

[2] This is what differentiates developmental stage models from typologies. Typologies are not progressive whereas developmental models are.

[3] This is different from “intelligence.”  These cognitive mindsets are a matter of complex perspective taking- or seeing issues from multiple points of view. First seeing from your own perspective, then the other’s, then from within a rudimentary system in which you both participate, then from within complex systems, them from the social context in which the system exists, then, from very broad contexts of time and space, then from perspectives of near universal holism, and so on. (Loevenger, Cook-Grueter, O’Fallon.)

[4] For a thorough survey of most of the theories of adult developmental, see Integral Psychology by Ken Wilber.

[5] See, e.g. The Big Five (

[6] There are deeper roots in this – particularly in the embedded notion that “reality” is fabricated by the interaction between the inner world of the subject and the outer world of objects. This post-modern philosophical assumption is finding pragmatic expression in these kinds of corporate initiatives. Understanding these postmodern notions helps to provide a heuristic for why internal experience is so important in creating performance. Increasingly the world is turning to the subjective to understand performance. One of the early expressions that grabbed the popular imagination was Tim Galloway’s “The Inner Game of Tennis

[7] Beyond the science of development, it also seems that this is well rooted in the science of happiness. It turns out that people are often happiest in a zone where they are challenged but not overwhelmed and where they are connected with other people doing something they believe is meaningful. This is the core of developmental organizational thinking. In this sense, developmental organizations are happier or more satisfying places to work.

[8]Of course, there are many families that are too stuck to change, but there are many who can who believe they can’t. If I could, I would expunge the notion of “dysfunction” from this work – not because it doesn’t exist, but because it is unhelpful to look at what is going on that way. It is label that all too often thwarts further inquiry and dulls the sense of compassion which is one of our greatest tools as agents of change. I have found that every family functions in ways that allow it cope with what it is facing. It might look nuts form the outside, but from the inside it makes some sort of sense. Assuming that people are doing the best they can from within the frameworks they have created and then trying to understand how that social system is working is, in my experience, far more useful than pathologizing the situation by labeling it.

[9] In other places I have suggested that mission statements should be burned. I am offering the same suggestion for values statements. The point is not that these are “bad” but that they don’t work. Mission statements rarely galvanize action and values statements don’t change behavior. I am supremely interested in what actually changes family culture quickly and effectively. I am not interested in exercises unless they have a high probability of actually moving the needle. I have found that accountable operating principles do effect rapid and “sticky” change far more frequently than values statements which are often too vague, anemic and sentimental to do much good. As for the argument that principles can be developed from the values statement, I ask why not cut to the chase and backfill if necessary.

[10] A key issue in this development is the question of “ego.” (Here I am using the term ego not in its psychological sense but in the colloquial sense of that part of us that, in Bernadette Robert’s phrase, “throws a tantrum when we don’t get what we want.”  In the end, families that are growing and developing have a healthy sense of ego and the capacity to get over the inevitable patches of egoic rug-burn fairly quickly.

[11] John Kotter in his book, A Sense of Urgency, makes a similar point. He suggests that must be urgency to generate change.

The Problem with Planning

Last week I was in a conversation with a friend and we were noting that, when it comes to succession work, the emphasis by most advisors is on planning. It seems that on websites, in marketing materials and in conversation advisors talk about the time they spend with clients on clarifying objectives, goals and values and then on developing strategic plans aligned with those values, goals and objectives. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but as near as I can tell, the process typically ends there. Planning is the norm. It seems to be the current state of a best practice. However, in my experience, it not enough. Not by a long shot.

The Focus on Planning

Indeed, it seems that in succession work this exclusive focus on planning can be catastrophic. As we all know, with any plan, the rubber hits the road in execution. In corporate America, it is evident that most strategic change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives (most studies of C-suite sponsored change show that 80-90% of these initiatives fail to achieve the expected results). Increasingly this is being seen as an issue of too much time spent in planning and too little time spent in preparing the culture to adopt the desired change. The assumption has been that if you plan really well, you will have taken culture into account, and the people will respond. This type of planning involves clarifying objectives, strategic thinking about complex issues, discussion about alignment, seeking input from various stakeholder groups (including employees), communicating the plan and so on. Months are often spent on the planning and launch phase of these initiatives – only to have those months of preparation fade into obscure institutional memory and soon to be replaced by the next big initiative. In the corporate development world, it is assumed that planning is enough. It turns out the assumption is daft.

Turning to the world of family succession (as a form of inevitable change), the situation is not so different. There is an old estate planning joke (of sorts) where an attorney is being arrested standing over the dead body of a client with a smoking gun on his desk. When questioned as to his motive, the lawyer says, “That plan he just signed was so complex and elegant, with so many moving pieces, I just had to see if it would actually work.”   As morbid as that is, it is uncomfortably close to the truth of what most planning attorneys do in reality. They may have a pretty good idea that the plan will save money, but whether the plans will actually enhance the lives of the people most affected by them is almost always near total guesswork by both the attorney and the clients. The plans will reduce taxes (which often seems to be their core objective), but beyond that it is Russian roulette. Will the family be able to make those plans work? Will trusts work as designed to realize the deeper intent of clients to help their children lead productive, connected and happy lives? Or will the estate plan foster conflict, pain, entitlement, waste and ill-will? Will the estate plan support the sustainability of the family and the enterprises they own or will the entire edifice crack and crumble under the strain of transition? Will a life’s work have a net positive impact or will that legacy be dissipated? In short, will the plan foster greater well-being or will it breed suffering? Too often the answer is “We just don’t know – we’re guessing”. People know the outcome they want, but they have no idea if they will achieve it by the plan they create.

Structural Solutions

Recently, I heard about a leading attorney in the estate planning field who ran a little experiment. As told to me, he gave one group of attorneys a written scenario and asked them to design a plan. He give the same scenario to another group and showed them a video clip of the hypothetical scenario family arguing and asked them to design a plan. He expected that the attorneys who were shown the video would be more sensitive to family dynamics in the planning they did. Apparently, to his real surprise, the attorneys who were shown the clip created much more restrictive plans with far less flexibility. Their response was to double down on what they knew – namely create more structure and exert more control through restrictive documentation. We know from family dynamics that this emphasis on control only exacerbates anxiety and its all too familiar responses – fight, flight, flock, freeze and fix. Adding more restrictive structures serves only to perpetuate reactivity and drama – and with it, emotional suffering and financial loss. Exacerbating the problem, clients, who feel out of control themselves, often grasp at structural solutions and thereby collude with the advisors’ impulse to impose greater restrictions.

Under these conditions, is it any wonder that estate planning often becomes problematic? What we know is that most estate planning does not work in its main purpose – namely preserving financial wealth for generations. It’s success rate on that score is dismal – roughly the same as the corporate failure rates. Most great fortunes are squandered rather quickly, not because they are taxed or mismanaged by professional advisors but because the human dynamics render the plans dysfunctional. Wealth is lost for non-technical reasons and most families can’t get it right. They stand mesmerized by the wrong things. Those families that manage to sustain wealth are few and far between.

The Missing Link

Between planning and execution of the plan lies a profoundly important step that is almost universally ignored in all but the rarest of estate planning processes. Yet this missing piece is probably the most important aspect of transitions. It marks the difference between success and failure.

Let me illustrate. I follow the Seahawks and the season has just begun. Whether you like or hate football, the Seahawks have been a team that plans well and executes well enough to keep bringing home divisional and league championships year after year. It is a team that is well coached. Pete Carroll generally is good at what he does. While I have never heard him asked this question, I do wonder what he might say if he was put to the choice of having either the best game plan in the history of football or the best-prepared team in the history of football. My suspicion is that he would choose preparation over planning without giving it a second thought.

There are reasons for this. The first goes back to the famous saying of the renowned Prussian Field Marshall, Helmouth Von Moltke, who famously said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or perhaps less elegantly, what Mike Tyson said about boxing, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.” In football, players practice the same plays over and over. They rehearse situations through visualization. They watch film of the other team. They even meditate and do yoga. They talk about the situations that will arise with coaches and teammates and within their unit. They physically and mentally prepare to deal with those situations individually and collectively. They practice the skills of their positions and they know their assignments. They rely on their teammates to do their jobs with skill and ability and work hard to come to trust their teammates to do that. If a teammate is in trouble, they know what they will do to support that player. They know what they will do if the entire play falls apart in the middle. They study the opposition and know their weaknesses. The game plan is the least of it – often discarded or at least back-burnered after the first 10 scripted plays once the real game begins. Players and teams triumph not because of their exquisite game plans, but because of their relentless preparation.

By analogy, wealth succession can be seen as demanding sport. It is not played physically, but it is played against the backdrop of people’s emotions, personal histories, family narratives and the sense of moral justice among family members. If the stakes are high, the financial wealth is often imbued with the freight of need, insecurity, anxiety, past hurt, and a host of other concerns practical and ephemeral. Is it any wonder that plans that are designed to do the lightweight lifting of saving taxes cannot do the heavy lifting when it comes to the weight of family culture? In the face of this complexity, it is preparation that creates both resilience and flexibility. It is preparation that allows family members to flex with the inevitable vicissitudes of transition and to adapt to fluid and challenging situations. Preparation, when done well, shifts a culture to ensure that it has the capacity and the capabilities to move through the choke points of generational succession.

The Difficulty of Preparation

So if this gap between planning and execution is so evident – if it is clear that preparation is key to successful generational transition – why does it get virtually no attention? There are a number of reasons:

First, it takes time. People are busy and they don’t see the importance of preparation. Preparation takes a degree of commitment and work on the part of the people involved to communicate and work together. They must learn and learning involves making mistakes and evolving to new levels of competence and ability. Families often lose focus and motivation to do the necessary work.

Second, it takes the family leader stepping off the field and assuming the role of coach. After being the quarterback for so long, this transition to the role of coach is not easy for many matriarchs and patriarchs. Those who successfully navigate this transition are far more successful than those who insist that they will capture the spotlight to the very end. The successful leaders view their job not so much as preparing individual children for the responsibility of wealth, but as developing a team of family members who can address the relational and financial complexities of transition.

Third, it  is demanding work. Successful transitions often require difficult conversations and the development of skills and capacities that are not currently in place. It requires skilled facilitation and commitment over time. It requires learning new things about the nature of family and how wealth successfully moves from one generation to the next. This means that families must constructively confront their own anxieties – not avoid them.

Fourth, it typically requires that someone outside the family take professional responsibility for preparation. But there are few professionals who are incented to take this on. Why is it that no one tells the parents that the critical difference between success and failure in generational transitions lies in preparation? Why is there a deafening silence on this issue? I suspect that it is because no professional is paid to pay attention to it. Lawyers are not paid to prepare the family, only the plan. Financial advisors are constrained by business models, skill sets and compliance restrictions from doing much beyond rudimentary education, coaching, and facilitation. Most accountants have their eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror and have little interest in this part of the process. Exit planners are working on deal making because that is how they are compensated. In short, no industry is being paid to pay attention to this and consequently no one is motivated to take on the deep work of preparation. Without incentive, the most important aspect of successful transition gets scant attention.

This is a case – at least in part – of following the money. No profession’s business model supports this deep work. No profession is specifically trained in it. Even more troubling is that the skills required to prepare a family are not the skills these professions have developed. And, to make matters worse, many professions face both ethical and compliance requirements that discourage substantial involvement in this area. Consequently, the message in the marketplace is all about planning – pay attention to the ads and websites and you will notice that it is universal. Because the incentives lie in planning, everyone focuses on planning and the planning process. The market gaps around preparation mean that very few talk about it in meaningful ways.

The Evolving Market

More and more families are tumbling to this gap and looking for professional help in their work together, but it is hard to find those who truly know what they are doing. There is a slowly growing supply of advisors who are competent to deliver these services, but they are a scattered and rare breed. The very wealthy are finding their way to the handful of people who do this work well, but the skill sets of those who are effective are uncommon and the work often require high degrees of what Dean Fowler calls inter-disciplinary fluency.

The ratio of planning to preparation in most families is typically 98% spent on planning and 2% spent on preparation. For successful transitions to become normative, that ratio probably needs to be reversed.

To shift that balance, what is needed first is some common sense. It is as simple (and as complex) as recognizing that the gap between planning and execution must be filled with preparation. What is needed to fill that gap are professional advisory networks that empower family leaders to do the right things to prepare their family for succession. What is needed is a revolution in the mindset among advisors and clients that planning, while clearly necessary, falls far short of sufficiency. What is needed is a deep recognition of the fundamental moral obligation by all who touch the family system to shift family culture through that preparation. What is needed is a rising and expanding profession of skilled inter-disciplinary advisors who can help families do that foundational work of preparation. What is needed is a commitment to ensure that financial wealth – when passed on – will do good in the lives of those who receive it.

Otherwise families suffer.

Advisors, it seems, agree that they have a moral obligation not to add to that suffering. And family leaders – at all generational levels – would most likely agree that they have a moral obligation to ensure that the lives of family members will be enhanced and not damaged by the plans their advisors create. Change is in the wind – the revolution of deep preparation is beginning to take root. It is the wave of the future. The work is no longer pioneering. Families and their advisors are rapidly climbing the innovation curve. There are questions of scale and there are market inefficiencies, but the shift is underway. If you have read this far, you are clearly part of this growing movement that believes in a better way and you are part of the emerging solution, not the problem.

The Shapes of Time

The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed. William Gibson

The gathering consisted of 21 family members, the executive director of the family foundation and a few key family advisors. Everyone was eager to find out what the future would hold for the family. To date, the family had made good progress and there were also some points at which they were quite stuck. Our goal for the weekend was to find a path for real progress.

I began the retreat with two quotes – one being the William Gibson quote cited above. I suggested to the group that within the room, in the present moment, were all of the seeds for multiple potential futures. I proposed that the future was, in a sense, already here. I also suggested that how they paid attention to the present would shape the future. This kind of attention required that they deeply scan the present situation for potential clues as to various possible scenarios of what could happen. I noted that, from my experience, these “seeds” of the future were not evenly distributed. Some seeds were large and obvious, some were sprouting and some dormant, and some were small and quite subtle. I offered the possibility that each person had different, but quite valuable, information about these various futures. And finally, that their individual and collective ways of observing and perceiving these clues were not evenly distributed in the group as a whole which in turn meant that valuable information had to be uncovered through deep listening and open dialog.

While all of this could have seemed abstract, it immediately resonated with the group and as we worked through the day, we uncovered four quite distinct paths forward, all of which were rooted in present “facts on the ground” but, depending on what was consciously curated, would take the family in radically disparate directions.

This question of time is a question every family must deal with. As human beings, we tend to view the past as fixed and view the future as uncertain and infinitely variable. Yet more and more neither of these propositions seems entirely true.

Perhaps the easier entry point into this question of time lies in the examination of the “past”. The “past”, of course, does not “exist” except in the form of individual and collective mental constructs. (It may have existed as concrete reality at one point, but it certainly does not exist in that same way now – even five minutes ago is no longer what is real.) We remember selectively and ample research shows that our memories actually shift and change over time as new experience modifies and alters memory. Our minds are not like videotape or photographs. They are not faithful recordations of the experiences of our lives. They are far more plastic than that. In this sense, human memory is more impressionistic than it is representational. This non-existence of the past except as pliable memory is profound in its implications. Families that can create new meaning – who can manage their collective memory – actually change that memory and its meaning in both the individuals and the family as a whole. History, in this sense, is not destiny. Indeed “history” is not even fixed. It is fluid. Through work in the present we can alchemically shift “history” in ways that are more conducive to our own growth and development. There are of course limits to this – our neural pathways are often quite set and the memories are, thankfully and quite usefully, persistent – but there is also a great deal of wiggle room in this work. Shifting family narratives actually changes not only the present experience of things, but actually alters the “past” itself (keeping in mind that the “past” after all, is merely an idea with no independent, non-contingent existence beyond the memory in the presently constituted human mind).

Perhaps more controversial is a notion of the future as being accessible in the present. There are deep questions in philosophy and physics about the direction of time. Why is that we experience only a forward progression of events? Such questions are the province of quantum mechanics and the architecture of the world of particles, Planck lengths and vacuums. No one has truly solved the issue of the arrow of time, but it seems axiomatic to our experience that linearity is how we experience the world (at least in our normal waking state). That said, under some credible theories of a holographic universe, there is some reason to believe that the future is not merely figuratively present, but actually present as part of the fabric of what we experience as the present moment of “real” existence. Experientially, it seems that there are ways in which the felt sense of the future is known somatically, subconsciously and, at times, even consciously. By shaping individual and collective attention it is possible to do more than merely guess at the future, but to tap into a kind of sensory knowing of variable outcomes. As Otto Scharmer suggests, when we approach the world not merely with an open mind and an open heart, but an open will we can be liberated to begin to “act from the emerging whole”. This is not mere guesswork – it is a kind of knowing, giving rise to emotions of tentative certainty. This concrete emergence of the future (and its tendrils in the present) is no more fixed than memory is, but it is accessible and can actually be brought forth with a kind of radical openness and an attention to the future. This requires that we pay very close attention to how that future is already here, but just not evenly distributed. In this sense, as Scharmer suggests, how we shape our attention actually shapes outcome. In this sense the future is adumbrated in the present.

This is not to say – as some New Age philosophies would have it – that what we think becomes reality, but rather that future possibility and even the trajectory of the history of tomorrow can be expanded or contracted by precisely how we pay attention in the present. Clues to possible futures are littered around us. To the extent that we can collectively focus our attention broadly, to feel the emergent futures, we create the preconditions for liberating futures that admit greater human and cultural potential. By contracting our attention, we limit those possibilities through failures of imagination and curation.

For those of us who are working with clients and with families, these questions of sensitivity to time – past, present and future – can become a fertile ground to movement from merely the provision of services in the face of unknowable risk and uncertainty to moving into more trusted and more effective engagement that works creatively with the plasticity of time.

The Fine Art of Action

My last post focused on lostness. In that post, I sought to avoid the implication that acting decisively is beside the point — or worse that wallowing in the melancholic miasma of lostness is somehow noble. In the post, I decried a kind of conformist, unthinking certainty that masks attuned awareness and effective compassion. But that could have left the reader thinking that other forms of certainty are suspect as well. While I aspired to thread some needles, my sense is that there is real value in explicitly exploring the converse of lostness. This piece serves as ballast for the last by overtly addressing the art of focused action.

The Pace of Life

Before we get to the art of action, it is worth speaking more generally to the role of action in the context of the times in which we live. In our hectic post-modern world, most of us operate at the ragged edges of our existence almost all of the time. We are in scrambling states of pervasive action and experimentation. Our attention is forever outward. Like primeval sharks, we are in constant motion at every moment. This shows up for many of us in the busyness of our lives – in the constant need for engagement and activity. As a result, we find ourselves living within a massive matrix of cultural and individual ADD to the point that we frequently measure our worth and even our identity in how active we are. The common answer to “how are you” in the business world is “I am busy” – a statement worn as a badge of honor and which, if not true, would be a source of potential shame or at least concern. Even our organizations are constantly on the prowl; seeking to grow, hunting, living at the edges. Why? Because we are convinced to not be in obvious action is to risk becoming existentially irrelevant.

Our client families are overwhelmed by the onslaught of activity as well – constant motion all the time. Too busy to meet. Too busy to focus. Tyrannized by the urgent. Foregoing the significant. Swirling, spinning action everywhere we turn. Action items. To do lists. Accountabilities. Paperwork. Social connections. Information flow. Electronic communications. People depending on us. Chores to do. Weekends jammed with activity. Late nights at the office.

Media feeds this jangly, fractured buzz of action. Politics panders to it. News cycles thrive on it. Commerce attempts to harness and exploit it. Markets feed it. These calls to action are everywhere. It is an inescapable carpet bombing of the senses. And, weirdly, it is highly, highly addictive. We go through shaky withdrawls if we must sit still. Periods of silence and stillness are alien to us and we are even frightened by it. Leaving our “smart” phones behind can trigger waves of fidgeting anxiety for many of us. We are a culture that is high on action and in constant need of the next fix.

In the end this post-modern morass means that we live in perceived worlds consisting of only surfaces and without a lot of depth. We are miles wide and operating on razor thin margins – personally, professionally, familially, culturally. The result of all of this can be a kind of brittleness and narcissistic trappedness. We are in a hall of mirrors with no way to orient to ourselves and one another.

One way to view every post in this blog – all that is written here – would be to see it as an attempt to address this core problem with respect to wealth in families. There are no 10 tips for this or 5 signs of that or facile list of “bite sized how to’s”. There are few action steps by design. The posts are long. The language assumes intelligence. The ideas are divergent and meandering but ultimately attending to a core challenge. It requires a focused mind and a bit of stillness to get through these posts. The entire enterprise is designed to challenge this impetuous addition to unreflective movement. To my surprise, I have found that there is a very real hunger out there for this way of thinking and writing that reflects it. I have been amazed at the reception to this long-form blogging and the deep thirst it seems to quench. And, in full transparency, part of this project is done selfishly. I too am as caught up in this headlong rush as anyone else – perhaps even more so. These musings force me to slow down, take stock and reflect.

With all that said about the post-modern dilemmas that drive our lives, the problem we face is not in acting per se. We are embodied creatures. We cannot not act. We are in action all the time. It is simply impossible not to act – we eat, we sleep, we breath, we walk, we run, we write, we talk, we listen – we are constantly doing something. Even when we are sitting still, we are sitting still. To be alive is to act and to act is to be alive. The problem thus lies not in action per se, but in the dawning of the realization that our action isn’t coherent – that it is desperately fractured, unmoored and untethered. Is it any wonder that we can often find ourselves floundering?

The Roots of the Problem

In all of this, it seems we are finding ourselves in the midst of a great cultural shift. In the 20th Century, modernism – by which I mean largely a complex worldview based on scientific materialism – seemed to have outgrown its moral compass. Rooted largely in the Renaissance revival of humanism and an Enlightenment inspired rational view of the universe, modernism gave rise to technological advances that came to outpace the ability of the culture to assimilate them. Medicine, commerce, government, technology and even war simply overflowed the banks of what old moral systems founded on individual human dignity and self-sufficiency could contain. We ended up with raw action unrestrained by larger frameworks that oriented us within these actions. As societies, we did things because we could. We could extend life, so we did– despite staggering economic costs and an inability to calculate the human consequences of doing so at the extreme margins where death is inescapable. We forged ahead with commerce – without an ability to account for the burgeoning externalities of human, societal and environmental consequences. We careened from political nightmare to political nightmare with no sense of a larger strategic or moral framework. We waged war indiscriminately and even preemptively without contemplating the far larger societal unraveling that follows. Modernity – which was deeply rooted in human values at the start – simply outstripped its ability to cope. In the end, the entire humanist notion of social contract lay in tatters, mocked by its own ultimate impotence in the face of technological juggernauts that cared not a whit about such niceties as moral engagement.

What arose in response to the alienation and amorality of modernism has been a kind of discursive post-modernism. Post-modernity seeks to deconstruct the social order and offer everyone a place of relative significance. This willingness to include every voice substitutes for definitive moral structures. While post-modernism honors every perspective, it offers no real solution to the problem of action. That you experience reality differently than I do is no doubt interesting and because you are a human being and I am a human being, neither of us has the edge in taking focused and directed action. Beyond that relativistic perspectivism, post-modernity has given us a profound overlay of extended psychotherapeutic self-examination and absorption with the inner sense of self-process. The harbingers of post-modernism, at the individual level, are the shadow selves represented by the neo-gothic characters Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray and the more reasoned legacies of psychodynamic analytics explored by Drs. Freud and Jung. Thus, at its worst, post-modernism finds itself mired in a kind of moral relativism and potentially endless self-referential interior examination that freezes us in indecision, doubt, and the inability to act. Post-modernism is a consummation of a modern age run amok. It tells us that at least social reality (and perhaps all of the human experience of “reality”) is socially constructed. Through our biology, language, culture, and so on, we have simply created what we experience. Because reality is constructed, truth is myth and certainty is hubris. Everything is narrative – and often smallish, individual narrative at that. Grand narrative is dead.

There are many philosophers who are trying to find a way out of the intellectual morass of post-modernism. There are some promising clues in developmental perspectivism (e.g. Habermas), critical realism (e.g. Bashkar), and, my personal favorite, process philosophy (e.g. Whitehead). But we seem far from a coherent intellectual framework that will take us to new structures of consciousness. And without a framework it is difficult to sort this morass out in our heads – we are relegated to dealing with bits and pieces in the meantime.

The Water in Which We Swim

Many of you may be asking yourselves what does cultural critique and high philosophy have to do with the work we do every day? My answer is that, like fish, this is the water we are swimming in. We don’t see it because it is all around us and it affects every little thing about how we think and what we do all the time. It is inescapable. It shows up in the assumptions we make, the way we talk to clients, the way we relate to friends, the way we raise our kids, and the intimacies of our closest relationships. Almost everything of consequence in the way we experience ourselves and the world around us is made of this stuff. To me, this is the invisible problem I am dealing with at every turn, in almost every interaction and at the heart of every system I engage in. Wholesale relativism and distraction are universal.

Now that I have described my idiosyncratic view of the nature of the modern human condition, it is time to turn to the implications of all this with respect to our work with families – and the fine art of action.

Here lies the central question of this post: because we must take effective action, how do we do so in a world with the kind of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity we face? When outcomes are inherently unpredictable, when perspectives are diverse, and when the present is entangled with a very complex past – how do we thoughtfully, morally and coherently act?

The prior post was about taking stock. The woods in the opening poem were a metaphorical stand-in for the post-modern dilemma. In the face of that sort of complexity, there is value in simply stopping. But that can only be a momentary pause. We have to move if we are to get out of the woods. I offered in the prior post that wandering is what people do to orient themselves again. One lens through which to see this post is as a guide to wandering well. What follows is a proposed set of the governing principles for this movement– nothing more, but also nothing less. I have shared this with a few people and they have found it helpful. One Tiger 21 group[1]I was with in Aspen actually wrote down one portion of what I write about below – and when highly accomplished and successful people write down one’s ideas as potentially useful, it is humbling but also somehow affirming of the wisdom at play.

The Futility of Planning

What I suggested to that group was that I had come to a point in my life where I realized that all my planning didn’t seem to work. I would set goals and objectives. I would be strategic. I would have a vision or a mission. I would then get tactical. I had action steps, to do lists, and so on. And to some degree these things seemed to help, but more often I found that my life didn’t cooperate with the templates I had devised. The world was simply too non-linear to oblige itself to comply with my straight line desire to move from point A to point B.

Planning, as it is traditionally done, is a modernist tool. It is founded on notions of linear cause and effect. It is premised on simple feedback loops and longish time horizons. It presumes a world that is rational and predictable. Planning does not explicitly take into account the subjective. It rarely manages complexity. It is not well suited to flux. And it has no way to even begin to acknowledge mystery, beauty or truth. It grows out of a materialist world-view where pieces on chess boards are moved to achieve measurable outcomes. Yet given the world in which we live – filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), plans are almost universally gutted very shortly after the ink is dry. As von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until the first punch.”

I am sure with von Moltke firmly in mind, Dwight Eisenhower noted, that while plans are useless, planning itself is indispensable. Why would this be so? What is the value of planning if the resulting plans are without value? I believe it has to do with what Otto Scharmer points to that I mentioned in the last post: that the shape and quality of our attention determines outcomes. Those who study such things tell us that to survive VUCA (which is a nomenclature that grew out of military planning for “kinetic” situations –known to us civilians as combat), we must 1) anticipate issues that shape conditions, 2) appreciate the complexity of systems, 3) acknowledge alternate realities, and 4) be quick to recognize relevant opportunities and threats. Good planning helps us to extend our vision and particularly opens up our peripheral vision. That peripheral vision is critical to acting well. Yet with all this, plans still don’t survive.


One form of alternative engagement that I have seen on numerous occasions discards planning entirely with a kind of haughty, almost spiritual, distain. This approach is based on a kind of action explicitly based on “emergence” or autopoesis (self-organization). In this there is a sense of co-operation with what is happening in the moment and a kind of inner and behavioral responsiveness to that emergence. It is highly sensitive and even hyper-alert. This form of action is very “in the moment”, based on “presence” and acknowledging the power of “now”. By analogy, it is like a potter shaping a pot – the wheel is turning and the clay is moving and the hands are responsive to the spinning clay. What is usually forgotten in the practice of this model of action is that the potter has something in mind and is being responsive to a purpose. Too often I see the “emergence” school failing to recognize that if everything is “in” emergence, then everything is almost inevitably an emergency. In practice, this results in a kind of organizational bypass and an institutional establishment of patterns of dysfunction that remain unseen, suppressed or avoided and therefore unaddressed. These systems seem to lead quite predictably to high drama based on a rather pedestrian categorical confusion between tactical and strategic action. Emergence is clearly a profound tactical response to VUCA. However, because this approach is a wholesale capitulation to “emergence”, it seems to be a poor ground for overall sustained collective action. While few families have adopted this approach consciously, it is this approach that I see a lot of families take by default. They react “in the now” with less than ideal consequence. Being in the now is great, but if the “now moment” is not seen as the eternal now – with past and future woven into the fabric of that present moment – it is simply a capitulation to chaotic chop.

Design Thinking

I would humbly suggest that the strategic antidote involves a shift from “planning” to “design thinking.” While on the surface they may seem similar, design thinking is not the same as planning. Planning assumes linearity. Good design accounts for chaotic, non-linear systems. In design thinking, people intentionally generate divergence before converging. Design work is multi-vectored and multi-faceted. It is nimble, agile and iterative. Good human design flexes and explicitly incorporates processes by which to gain that flexion. It takes into account the needs of people and stakeholder groups. Not only that, design brings in aesthetic and even moral dimensions that traditional planning does not. Beauty, elegance, balance, and inclusion are all important in design thinking. The very process of designing (unlike the traditional process of planning) is integrally important to outcome and a great deal of thought is put into the process of how design happens. Human consequences and externalities are factored in.

It is important to note that design thinking is not airy, but is highly disciplined. It is not new age whimsy, but found on sharp thinking. As such, it moves through very specific phases: definition, research, ideation, prototyping, choice, experimentation and learning. Design, I would submit, is the decidedly post-post-modern answer to planning and it is hugely important to any person who wants to be effective in the post-modern world. Most modern companies – especially tech companies – are founded on this approach to action. In my work, I have found that families that “design” are far better off than families that “plan”.

Yet design alone is not enough. In the end, design must be animated by some deeper guidestars. The first of these guide-stars (and what my Tiger 21 friends wrote down) is the way I find myself navigating these days with the life I am designing for myself. I tend to pay a lot of attention to three things on a day-to-day basis: synchronicity, people and energy. When spooky things, coincidences or patterns of events start to show up, I pay a lot of attention and move towards those things. I am also finding myself paying a great deal of attention to doing things with people I trust and like. Who one chooses to act with is almost as important as what one does. Finally, I am paying a lot of attention to the energetic feel of things – with “energy” here being a gloss for intuition, attraction, aversion, resonance, and the like. I am seeing these three pillars as harbingers of good design. These are the tactical “tools” for paying attention to emergence.

Moral Imagination

Beyond these guidestars, and perhaps the big idea that sits over all of this, is that I have come to believe that there is tremendous power in what John Paul Lederach refers to as “moral imagination” (and he is openly borrowing this term from others). It is at the heart of almost all great religious traditions that action separated from the centered Source (whether that source is conceived in form as divinity or the formlessness of pure awareness) is without meaning.

While we can find moral frameworks in fundamental religion or idealistic humanism, the post-modern world, it seems to me, has outstripped the leaden application of such principles. What is required is a re-kindling of a higher order of moral imagination to guide action. Such moral imagination arises in groups and I have written about that work elsewhere. The core of this work lies not in rule sets, but in the creative weaving together of relationships in ways that support life in its core dimensions. It is highly networked and highly relational. In individuals, I have found that moral space lies in authentic connection between centered inner stillness and vulnerable engagement at the edges. Under this approach, that which enhances life in communion is moral. That which degrades human experience and fractures community is not. If how we use ourselves as instruments of moral creativity – as moral artists as it were – is the lodestar of action, then it seems to me that we have come to something important that will carry us individually and in small groups out of the morass of both modernism and post-modernism on a practical, if not intellectual, footing. How one exercises moral imagination in these endeavors occurs in unpolarized dialog and the collective creation of new stories about a common future.

In my experience, the process of exercising moral imagination results in agreements that arise in the form of stories. These story/agreements are inherently embedded in a notion that we are better off when we act together. Acting together, in concert and attuned to one another, requires a kind of moral commitment to higher purpose that transcends but includes individual agenda. As Orland Bishop asks, “Who must I be so that you can be free?” In the answer to this question, we find our own liberation. And to answer that question we must see one another in ways that create a kind of free and mutual consent within a mutual story in which we both participate. I have often said that the motto of a successful second generation family is the same as the famous affirmation of the Three Musketeers, “One for all and all for one.” This is an ancient truth, expressed in a million different ways through the ages, but it is a key to effective action. To define the common good and then act consistently with it shapes effective action (not merely concedes to post-modern activity and solipsistic narrative) and it can help to begin to move us beyond the meaninglessness and alienation of a post-modern world.

In Summary

To sum up, each of these strategies of action depends on one thing – moving from reactivity on the surface of things to a connection between the inner sense of things and the outward world of action. The fine art of action, in my very humble view, requires the pause before action which I described in some detail in my last post. But from this pause must emerge a strategy grounded in design thinking. The seeds for that design lie in paying very close attention to synchronicity, people and energy. The strategic intent that arises then takes shape through tactics of emergence, resilience, adaptation and learning. And all of this inevitably occurs within community and therefore requires the tacit or explicit creation of agreements and consciously shaping stories in a conversation infused with moral imagination. When action is governed by intent, moral agreement, consequential narrative and good design, it seems much more likely that action will be truly effective and will likely avoid both the rougher consequences of raw modernity and the dizzying distractions of post-modernity.


[1] Tiger 21 offers peer-to-peer experiences for very wealthy investors, much like Vistage or YPO.

The Inestimable Value of Being Lost

Stand still.
The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows Where you are.
You must let it find you.

A First People’s elder story/poem rendered into modern English by David Wagoner

As the poet and corporate consultant, David Whyte, recounts the context of this poem, he tells us that it was told by elders to children who might find themselves “lost” in dangerous and foreboding woods in the Pacific Northwest. This was not an esoteric existential reflection on the nature of being, or sentimental new age navel gazing, but a very practical instruction set about fear and finding the necessary wherewithal and mindset for survival. He goes on to suggest that the sense of lostness can give rise to a heightened sense of attention rarely found in other situations. That we find ourselves in the unfamiliar and the mysterious can open us to a kind of receptivity and awareness that sharpens our capacities and reveals new possibilities.

I have recently read a beautifully written book by Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Hers is a series of essays on the fine art of lostness and what happens when we enter that space physically or psychically. In her work, she suggests that people do not cease to be lost by returning, but by turning into something else. They gain a new orientation and new ways of being in the world.

So here we are working with clients and working within families. Here we are clothed in a veneer of certainty and expertise. Yet, with even the smallest bit of self-awareness, we know that this professional persona is a mask – a false promise to a world that demands hype and hyperbole. We do good work that can be hard and demanding. In the midst of that good work, we can find ourselves pretending certainty, but just as often recognize that we know better. We think we understand what the world wants – it wants to be less lost – it wants to be more certain. So we allow our adorned certainty to become the strategic face we present to the world. Yet when the veneer is tested and scratched through (which is not hard to do) we find we are in the middle of “mystery” and “not knowing”. In this place, our confidence, if we are fortunate, slides into courage and our certainty into curiosity. We become humble – which comes from the Latin “humus” or earth – and therefore grounded in ways we were not before. We come to touch the elemental in these places.

Our clients and their families are often lost. They traverse familiar paths – often moving in well-worn circles, passing the familiar landmarks and looking for the never appearing signs of their liberation in what is already known to them. This seems a kind of lostness bereft of hope and it often gives rise to disillusionment, cynicism and profound resignation. What they seek is not Here. It is to be someplace different – to be emancipated from a kind of confusion and even suffering. And we want to help them.

The curious thing is that often the first useful step is to stand still. To recognize that for all the fear and uncertainty and pain, this space is not a space of lostness, but of deep familiarity. In one family I worked with, a family member said that the conflict in their family was the familiar and the real fear was who they would become without it. They held tightly to their dysfunction because to release it was to lose themselves. This sort of insurgency is common. Moving from the familiar invokes a different relationship with “lostness”. It requires a move into what cannot be known except at the edges. Is it any wonder that this movement engenders fear?

And here is what the truly good advisor does. She does not bring” answers”. He does not bring “solutions”. She does not bring “products” or he “strategies”. Rather, she brings courage. He brings wholeheartedness. The truly good advisor enters the mystery with empty hands and thereby gives the client permission to move more deeply into the mystery as well.

There are certain clues we find about how to be lost well. The first is already present to us in what is described above – it has to do with courage – the ability to stand still, to breathe, to observe and thereby to metabolize fear and anxiety. Our evolutionary reptilian instinct is to panic. It is natural to do so. But that is not a strategy for mammalian survival. As the first people’s poem states – the world has made a place for us and it is Here. We are not lost, we are invited to know and be known. Solnit’s book explores this in wonderful, wandering detail.

Other clues are found in the recognition that lostness exists most unmistakably at the extremes of autonomy. When we are lost we are alone. We are disconnected from others, from our environment and even ourselves. We are so autonomous we have become unknown even to our own psyches. The timeworn method of finding ones location again has been to wander. But wandering is not aimless – it is about a kind of emergent orientation. And in that orientation comes connection. Good wandering exposes one to new situations, new people and new connections. And often this wandering does not have us leave where we are at all. Rather it involves looking with fresh eyes at what we had assumed was familiar. We observe our environment and see things we never imagined were there. With clear vision, unencumbered by assumptions, we see the people in our lives in a new light. We feel into the uncertainty with curiosity and find connections we had ignored or taken for granted. Our world becomes not new, but re-newed. In this way our world is transformed and we along with it to the point that it is sometimes difficult to tease these apart – did we change or was it the world? And so we migrate from the extremes of autonomy into a recovered sense of belonging. This is the deeper value of facilitation in families: when done well, it gives permission to wander and in that wandering discover new worlds and new selves. Powerful facilitation creates new ways of belonging out of whole cloth.

Yet another clue lies in the senses – both internal and external. For most of our lives we sleepwalk – we lose ourselves in the trances of everyday life. We follow our routines on automatic pilot. The mindfulness movement seeks to break this thrall through a kind of willful concentration, but as one who has meditated for years, the notion of paying complete attention all the time has struck me as a fool’s errand and in fact, the process itself in Buddhist circles is designed to be self-defeating for a purpose. What arises in these Buddhist practices is first a recognition of its futility and then a deeper inquiry into what is actually going on. This act of willful attention self-destructs and in that immolation something else emerges. In contrast, when we are lost we become unmistakably, organically and acutely attentive. There is nothing forced about it. We simply awake from our dream walking. When we are lost, we can become conscious even of the shape of our attention in ways we rarely do when we are wedded to our certainty and otherwise asleep. As the MIT Sloan School of Management professor Otto Scharmer suggests, the way in which we shape our attention actually determines outcomes. And so when our attention is focused and sharp – when our internal and external senses are naturally alive – different outcomes become available that were not even possibilities before.

The role of silence provides yet another set of clues. Silence often gives rise to a new way of seeing. In art and philosophy a great deal of attention can be paid to what is figure and what is ground. The figure is what normally grabs our attention – it is the object we are focused on. The ground is what we ignore. The two faces that make a vase are the classic example of the reversal of figure and ground. Our language is about figure – our silence is about ground. When we are lost and lapse into silence, the ground – the context – often comes into sharp focus while figure recedes. In that sense, we come to pay keen attention to what we have ignored and inevitably start to shed our obstinate ignorance. In fact, one way you know you are lost is when this reversal spontaneously appears and figure and ground have reversed themselves. And when you get really, really lost you can find that the relationship between subject-object-ground disappears and the sense of boundaries between these evaporate as the stuff of illusion. This is what Buddhists and Hindus call enlightenment (or at least one aspect of it). Thus to be lost – and to become silent in that lostness as a way to host an incipient revelation – opens us to deep wisdom and even immanent acceptance. This state of raw being can give rise to a kind of liberation that, in turn, my actually shift the fundamental relationships of things in a way that makes the more immanent revelation a transcendent, transformative exchange.

A final set of clues arises from the practice of inquiry. Once the panic subsides, once we have stood in stillness with heightened senses, once we have confused figure and ground, and once again have begun to make new connections in silence – we are well-prepared for the discipline of inquiry. Here we can start to ask the really good life-giving questions – the questions, that, if answered well, will “change everything”. (I often ask my client families to identify that core question – the transformative question – the answer to which would both become the path and the destination of their collective aspirations). It is in living with these everyday disciplines of deeper inquiry that one begins to find true solutions and answers worthy of great questions.

Of course there are other clues and other ways to navigate this lost space and the fundamental humanity we share allows us to tread on this familiar ground and describe it together. Modernity wants to banish lostness from our lives. Post-modernity wants to drown us in it. Yet there is an experience beyond suppressing the lostness or being subsumed by it. In this field beyond, we will instead have befriended lostness as our guide. Families that can enter this place almost inevitably find their way and indeed may have found it already. They are not lost.

© 2014. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.


When Wolves Change Families

There is an interesting video that has made its rounds on the internet called “How Wolves Change Rivers”. Before reading on, I would encourage you to watch this brief video – it is fascinating in its own right and the rest of this post will make more intuitive sense for having seen it.


To sum up (for those who didn’t watch the video), the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park created a “trophic cascade” that drove elk* from the valley. That change in elk behavior resulted in the introduction of new wildlife which in turn very quickly shifted the patterns of vegetation. These changes created wide-spread and substantial transformations of erosion patterns throughout the valley. The end result was that, in a few short years, the river courses changed. All of this started with the simple addition of a very small pack of wolves to the ecosystem. This change at the top of the food chain created widespread and dramatically disproportionate effects on a comparatively wide scale.

As it turns out, this sort of phenomena can be found in human systems as well. When Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa in 1987, he announced to shareholders at his first annual meeting that the core focus of his work was going to be worker safety. He declared that the sole measure he cared about was the decrease of worker days lost due to injury. The interesting thing is that, by industry standards, Alcoa didn’t have a safety problem; it was already quite a bit better than average. Wall Street was confused and angry – they wanted the focus to be on measures of financial success and profitability. People sold their stock. High performing leaders of very lucrative divisions were fired for failures to focus on safety. Compensation schemes were changed to reflect this mono-maniacal focus. But within a year, Alcoa hit record profits. When O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s net income was five times greater than when he arrived. During that time, Alcoa’s accident rate dropped dramatically from 1.86 work days lost per 100 workers -which was already far better than industry averages – to less than 0.125.

What O’Neill knew was that focus on safety would force efficiency changes in processes, create a focus on quality, shift mindsets and awareness levels of management, generate better communication and new feedback loops, amp up workplace engagement and employee loyalty, and so on. Charles Duhigg (the author of The Power of Habit), who recounts this story in his book, refers to this as a change in a keystone habit. While he doesn’t use the term “cascade”, the change of keystone habits creates the analogy of a trophic cascade in human systems.

So how does all of this apply to families?

I have found over and over again in my work with families that very small changes can have disproportionate effects. These changes act – and feel – like the trophic cascade in the video above. For example, one family I worked with created a clear, simple statement of their business goal which was to wind down, over a course of 15-20 years, the 5th generation family business. In a large family, with many branches, this created a kind of clarity and focus which resulted in a very deliberate, significantly more civil, and, ironically, longer term approaches to governance.

Another family made a commitment to include in-laws as enfranchised members of the family. This resulted in greater transparency at all levels, increased creativity and innovation, more tolerance and use of divergent perspectives, and deeper buy-in that has translated into more active next generation engagement.

Two other families made commitments to be “more professional”. In both of these families, this changed the governance structures. It radically altered the way advisors are being utilized, prompted the inclusion of outside directors on boards, affected the administration of trusts, and most importantly, subtly morphed the way these families now converse and talk about the issues they face.

In another family, the small change was a shift in how money flowed from parents to dependant children. This created change in communication patterns, anxiety levels and the formal and informal agreements between parents, their individual children and the sibling group.

Most of these changes seemed small, but meaningful, commitments at the time. Most were debated and discussed to be sure, but the family members had no clear idea of how far reaching the effects would be. They focused mostly on the immediate consequences and discomfort of adopting the change. All of them concluded that the change was “the right thing to do” and as such it was an exercise of moral, not practical, imagination. But the decisions had effects far greater and more pervasive than most in the family would have imagined when they were adopted.

I would note that none of these changes were smooth or easy. As one might imagine, there are a number of metaphorical “elk” that die in these transitions. Some family members can sense the impact such decisions are likely to have and will resist them. The transitions disrupt well worn patterns of family behavior and can result in fireworks, tantrums and displays of deep emotion. Some are threatened by these changes. But these changes often feel right to the family as a whole and they often produce some “quick wins”. Those wins do come at a price because, for the resisters, they see that their own power is shifting in the family dynamics and they are not sure how they will engage effectively under the new rules.

I have heard from others of too many cases where a cascade resulted in a great deal of damage and pain. Most often these disasters seem to arise when structural “solutions” were imposed in an attempt to create substantial and rapid transformations. Too often there was not enough focus on the development of the capacities and skill sets necessary to build resilience sufficient to handle the pace of family evolution. These interventions leave the family worse off than it was before and the consultants or advisors who initiate them can, with all the best intentions, do more harm than good. For these reasons, the introduction of such changes is best made with the involvement of someone who can help the family navigate these processes through the development of adaptive capacity and core competencies.

While family dynamics tend to be quite durable and stubborn, family systems are often out-of-balance or fragile. This disjunction means that small changes can become the occasion for breakage of brittle family systems as family dynamics become reactive. Because these small changes can have disproportionate impacts both positive and negative, advisors who cannot be involved with family systems on an almost daily or instantaneous basis, and who are not equipped or experienced enough to deal with the inevitable eruptions (the “dead elk” as it were) are best served by not initiating or trying to create the structures that generate such cascades. In my experience this work of helping the family through disruptive, but ultimately positive change, becomes one of the key roles of the family consultant.

The consultants who do well in these situations are those who help families develop the competencies within the family system as a whole to address the disruption. This is not therapy as much as it is engaging in capacity building conversations through education, debriefing, conflict resolution and a number of other whole group interventions that are designed to help the family learn and grow from its own imperfections. It is based not so much on helping a family reach an ideal state, but to adapt and change and learn together in the midst of its own imperfection.

The end results of trophic cascades in nature are not a kind of perfection. Yellowstone is not now “perfect” for the introduction of wolves, but it has changed. Families find the same sort of thing. They find themselves in a different state that feels healthier, more dynamic, more interesting, more flexible and a bit more adapted. Change will still occur, imperfections will still exist, but all of it will exist in a different context. In families, this context looks a lot like greater acceptance, a little less drama and a bit more love. For members in the family, it never feels finished; but where before it seemed they were always holding their breath, they now find themselves better able to breathe.


* The narrator of the clip refers to “deer” but video depicts mostly elk.  In fact, it was the behavior of elk that the wolves effected most which initiated the  cascade.


A Shout Out for Those Who Hate “Process”

Last Wednesday was one of those beautiful summer days most people in Seattle live for. Blue sky, perfect temperature, glistening water, snow-capped mountains in every direction. It is these days that make the grey, wet days of winter a mere discipline of anticipation. On this beautiful day, Matt sat with a fellow at his home on their patio talking about the family he had married into.  It is a remarkable family.

In many ways this family is very close and deeply connected to one another. Over four living generations, despite occasional spats and personality conflicts, they truly care about the well-being of everyone in the family. There is also a remarkable lack of entitlement and a track record of solid accomplishment across the generations. Very few are living off the fat of the land – children and grandchildren have advanced degrees, are holding down great jobs, marrying well, and are productive. This is not to say that there isn’t trouble in paradise. They clearly have problems, individual and collective, but they are close and committed to one another in ways that are quite rare. They are not one of those families who are in crisis.  At the same time they are facing some very significant challenges.

Most of these challenges involve the history of how power and control have been exercised within the family and a deeper recognition that what has gotten them to this point is not sufficient to take them to where they need to go. As the founders are passing away and the next generation is nearing retirement, their historic approaches to governance are inadequate to meet the challenges these transitions represent. The adult children of G3 are telling their baby-boomer parents that they need to “up their game” to make things work better or they will be forced to face cleaning up some pretty difficult situations. G2 gets this and wants to make sure they don’t saddle their children with problems their own dynamics have allowed to languish. The external generational changes are calling the family to develop new competencies to meet these challenges.

Almost all of the families we work with are facing what might be called “adaptive challenges”.  These are challenges that serve as inflection points in family history. If the family meets this challenge they will do well, but if they fail, the likelihood of creating sustainable inter-generational success becomes far less likely. These challenges are “adaptive” because they require the family to adapt. That adaptation requires the development of new capacities and capabilities. Sometimes these challenges are quite painful, sometimes not. Some families are muddling through and some are overwhelmed. Occasionally these families are being proactive, and often they are reactive. Most often they are a bit of both.

What these families implicitly realize when they call us is that what has gotten them to this point is insufficient to get them to where they want to go. They are often eager for solutions, for things to do and for action. They want to make plans and move forward. They want to resolve things. They want to “fix” problematic situations and, often, problem people. This can be a terrific impulse, but it is almost always a bit misguided. The interesting thing is that families are almost always wanting to do these things from the same levels of awareness and the same capacities that they have been using to date.

By their nature, adaptive challenges requires the systemic ability to “raise the game” to a different level. This is what makes these challenges “adaptive”. They require the system and the individuals within it to learn and grow together. That kind of adaptation requires the family to develop new capacities and capabilities. It requires the family to operate at a new and unfamiliar level of functioning.

While Einstein apparently never said it, a wise quote often attributed to him is “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  To move to a different level of consciousness, you have to develop new ways of thinking and acting in the world. External challenges require the development of new disciplines and new competencies. For families facing these types of challenges, the same patterns they used in the past – their collective structures of consciousness – are insufficient to address the challenges faced today.

In talking with this family member on this beautiful summer day, he spoke to the family’s skepticism for doing process work. They want to get on with the work at hand. They are a practical people. The problem is that what they have been doing – as good as it is – has gotten them to where they are today facing challenges that are currently over their heads. They will hopefully discover that, when done well – process work is nothing more or less than developing new skills to meet those challenges. We believe that process for the sake of process amounts to unproductive collective navel gazing. Process work that builds awareness and develops new skills creates first the capabilities and then the full capacity to meet the core adaptive challenges a family faces.

As a very concrete example, playing tennis is a “process”.  When one first learns to play, the “sub-process” of the tennis swing is awkward and requires a great deal of thought and attention. It requires explanation, self-awareness, observation, trial and error, good coaching, and hours of practice to truly understand the process of a good tennis swing. It seems wildly cumbersome and awkward at first. In the beginning, all of the focus is on the process itself and has very little to do with results or even what we would consider “playing tennis” – indeed in the early stages the results are almost incidental. The point is the footwork and the approach to the ball and the backswing and the follow-through. It is nice when the ball goes exactly as it should, but the value of this intermediate feedback lies in what one has learned about a good tennis swing and the encouragement it provides to continue the practice. The point is almost entirely about the process itself, not the game. At some point, however, the process becomes automatic – the process simply occurs almost on its own and one finds oneself playing tennis at a different level. The process is largely forgotten and lies in the background as one simply enjoys the game. The aspiring tennis player has “upped the game.”  At that point, process has become automatic, not a matter of mindful attention.

Awhile back Matt was talking to an older friend. This fellow had founded a co-housing community many years ago and Matt asked him to reflect on that journey. At one point he said, “When I first started this place, I thought leadership was about getting stuff (not the word he used) done. After about ten years, I realized that leadership is almost always about the quality of the process of how stuff (again, not the word) gets done.”  For Matt, that was a keen insight. This man was speaking about the development of his own skills and the skill sets of those he was leading. At the end of the day it is about results – it has to be – but to retain connection with self and others and sustain efficient and effective results over time, it also has to be about the quality of how those results were achieved. The quality of how results are achieved depends almost entirely on “process”.

In families, process work is the development of new skills necessary to meet the adaptive challenges of the future. Process, we believe, should never be an end in itself; instead, it should serve in the creation of capacities and capabilities the family didn’t have before but comes to attain.  It is about creating proficiency and a kind of consequent excellence. This work is about calling forth the best possible future for the family and calling upon the highest and best selves of the people within the family system.

Stage 1: Entangled Families

The first stage mindset of families is what one might call “Entangled”.  Typically a family in this stage has a strong figure who holds the family together and ensures that it is moving forward. Often this person is a first generation wealth creator. People in the family often define themselves – either by identification or differentiation – in relationship to this powerful figure.  This situation can actually be quite positive in building strong, capable people if handled wisely, but it can also be very destructive to long-term individuation and the independent success of the members of the family.   Often this central person defines values and serves to focus the energy and efforts of the family.  The danger, of course, is that when this person is gone, the family has lost its “glue”.  Often families that have not transcended this mindset fall apart when the last of the powerful matriarchs or patriarchs passes on.

When this stage is not handled well by the family leaders, the family can be characterized by significant dysfunction.  These families often are dealing with issues of addiction, entitlement, endless drama cycles, and games of power and control. In the end, these families fail at rudimentary levels and the wreckage of human capital is simply too great to overcome.  The wealth cannot be replenished and the skills to even sustain it are missing.  The failure of the family to create successful, well-adjusted and independent children dooms its chances for success early on.

Moving into higher gears is essential to longer term family success. About half of the families that are entangeld simply cannot be helped – the damage to family culture is too great to salvage by ordinary mortals.  The best work to be done for these families occurs in individual therapy for those who are interested and perhaps, for the families who are interested in healing, intensive family therapy. That said, many families that are entangled, and particularly those with well-intentioned family leaders, have a strong enough base to move to the next stage of family development.  These families need strong facilitation and frameworks for developing new skill sets.


  1. In looking at your client families that have strong first generation leadership, which do you see as healthy enough to succeed and which are not?
  2. What are the patterns you see in these two types of families?

Family Mindsets as Preconditions for Success

Much of my perspective on my work comes from developmental frameworks. I tend to see that individuals and groups grow and develop in recognizable patterns.  While each individual and group is unique, the various stages of its growth and maturation have certain characteristics. Like other groups, research shows that families develop progressive mindsets or stages. Understanding the dynamics of these mindsets is critical to a family’s core capacity to adapt and survive as a family group.   It can be said that the effectiveness of the family in its own relationships with one another and with the world is actually constrained by its collective mindset. Moving into higher stages of family development thus becomes critical for long-term family success.

In our work, we typically see families “upshifting” through five basic mindsets or “gears of development.” These shifts are often a function of greater competency and deeper alignment. These developmental shifts become path of a particular kind of evolution that allows families to sustain inter-generational success.  This success, which is broadly defined to be more than merely financial, sets the stage for the collective family and individual family members to create much deeper forms of significance and connection.  These become platforms for ensuring deeper levels of success across generations.  In the coming entries, we will look at the five mindsets in greater detail.


1.  What mindsets to do you see the families that are successful across generations?

2.  In your experience, what causes families to “upshift” to higher forms of functioning?