Sarah Meyers

But What If? Hopeful in the Face of Reality

Poverty. War. Hunger. Climate change. Justice in freedom. Illiteracy. Overpopulation. The income gap… On many a day, I take stock of the state of the world and panic. Given the reality of these inextricable challenges, I sometimes wonder if it has to be this way, by necessity. Must this be our social paradigm because, like a law of physics, it is an underlying, fundamental principle of our world?

Thus I was struck with inspiration when I read Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, where the author-physicist explains that the universe in which we live may in fact be only one of infinitely many alternate universes. Indeed, the same fundamental principles of physics from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different, self-consistent universes with significantly different properties of matter and energy from our own:

“The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves.  Maybe there are,  they suggest,  many other worlds, some of them completely dry,  and everything in between.”

This “multiverse” concept is revolutionary for theoretical physicists, and the chapter reads a bit like science-fiction, teetering on the edges of philosophy, religion and science. The implications of this theory (if it turns out to be true) are enormous:

“If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here."

I read this with a mixture of mind-blowing awe and great relief. The fundamental principles of our universe may not be as fundamental as we believe them to be. It is possible that the underlying tenets of our economy and culture remain fixed (competition is good, capitalism is sacred, individualism is revered, etc.) and that a social paradigm drastically different than our current one exists within this axiomatic system.

If it does not have to be this way, how else can it be? I don’t know. But simply knowing that an alternative reality is plausible, I am hopeful.   

The Rewards of Consulting Work

As this is the holiday season, giving thanks and counting my blessings is on my mind. In my consulting work at Wellspring, these are the things that I am most thankful for:

  • My colleagues – Consulting can be mentally and physically challenging work, but when you’re in the trenches with great colleagues, it makes all the difference.
  • My clients – With each new project, I delve into a field of work that is entirely new to me, and as each project ends, I am always struck by how invested I am in this new world. It is the passion and dedication of nonprofit leaders that inspire this transformation.
  • My interviewees – It’s amazing to me that people are willing to give up an hour of their time to talk with a stranger in order to support our data gathering process. I have been honored to speak with some who are famous world experts and leaders. I am most appreciative.
  • Excel – Yes, Excel. I don’t get that thrill opening Word or PowerPoint, but Excel… ah.
  • Coffee – Amen. 

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions

Tennel_Cheshire_proof
Tennel_Cheshire_proof

This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.