Yin and Yang Leadership

As I head into the fourth quarter of my first year as NASA CIO, I find myself in somewhat of a struggle between competing forces.  I have cried more in one month than I have in one year, but the tears are not bad tears, they are good tears actually. 

In a misguided way, we think that this leadership journey is supposed to be easy; that good leaders always have two choices – the right answers or the wrong answers; make the right decisions or make the wrong decisions; and do it with a smile and with courage like we all see in photographs and press releases.  But at the point of difficulty maybe right there in the tears and in the midst of the struggle, problems are solved…the impossible is made possible…and dreams become reality. Symbol of Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang describes opposing forces which flow in a natural way and always seek balance.  The two opposing forces flow in such a way that they become merely two aspects of a single reality.  Yin and Yang talks about extremes such as “dark” and “light”, “male” and “female”, “low” and “high”.    

From an organizational perspective, I see these opposing forces in issues like:

·         “being the best IT organization in Government” versus “just delivering service in an acceptable way”

·         “being innovative” versus “meeting expectations”

·         “delighting the customer” versus “meeting customer expectations”

·         “mission obsessed” versus “mission aligned”

In looking at these aspects of NASA’s IT strategy, folks on both sides have valid concerns.  Why should we strive to be the best when we can barely deliver email? Why should we think “out of the box” when we don’t have our box in order?  How can we delight our customers when we can’t even meet their expectations?

The management technique for bringing together such extremes and arriving at supernatural problem solving is called Force Field Analysis.  This management technique was developed by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social sciences, for diagnosing situations. The technique used a method of weighing pros and cons of a suggested plan of action. The pros and cons are called the Driving and Restraining forces.

This analysis is characterized by:

• clarifying and strengthening the “driving forces” for solution

• identifying obstacles or “restraining forces” to a solution

encouraging agreement on relative priority of factors on each side of the balance sheet

Driving forces are those forces affecting a situation that are pushing in a particular direction; they tend to initiate a change and keep it going. Examples of driving forces for implementing a plan include an identified business need, support from the leadership team or the availability of skilled resources.  Restraining forces are forces acting in opposition to and restraining the driving forces. Examples of restraining forces against implementing a plan include time pressures, lack of enthusiasm and competing demands.  Lewin says that equilibrium is reached when the sum of the driving forces equals the sum of the restraining forces. 

Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh describes how Winnie the Pooh takes similar but unconventional look at finding a solution by looking for the thing he didn’t want to find.  Here Pooh and Rabbit are trying to get home and keep ending up at a small sand-pit.  Pooh finally suggests:

“Well … we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we’d be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren’t looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

 Perhaps said in a non-Pooh way, driving forces by themselves don’t always yield a desired outcome.  Certainly, restraining forces which move you away from the outcome isn’t the place to be either.  It’s the equilibrium of the competing actions – the place where the tears often fall — where the problems get solved, where the impossible becomes possible and you can find your way home. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

4 thoughts on “Yin and Yang Leadership”

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

    With the *right* new tech, older, more obsolete (and ultimately more costly) solutions will fall away by attrition.

    Look at how Facebook and Twitter have dominated the social media market over the last couple of years: Facebook is #2 now, just behind Google.

    The challenge, of course, is finding the diamonds amid mountains of cubic zirconia…

  2. Saying as that:

    What not governs Yin not governs Yang.

    Each one has its own manner, its own iniciative, the question is the interUnion between them.

    The impact is sanation, the cure!

    But not only energetic, it’s a way of Life.

    Life is Energy???

  3. Interesting. It’s tough to keep a balance between opposites. Usually we want to exceed that for us look good and avoid what looks bad. Unfortunately when the dreams are very ambitious in life encounter much opposition. The consolation is knowing that if they do not give up, in this quest we become bigger, stronger, more capable. I believe balance is the maintenance of half the distance between the opposite extremes, with the least possible variation. The perfect balance, static, it is very difficult. To our sorrow (or joy) always find new factors in the course of life, which tend to unbalance us. Foot on the floor. Head in the sky. The heart at a level that everyone can feel the pulse. This creates a natural balance. Imbalances are caused in the majority of the time for ourselves when we get off the ground, the head of heights, and when we close our hearts. I consider myself an unbalanced person. I take your feet off the ground. My dreams are far beyond my modest capabilities. And just for being unbalanced, I could accomplish everything I think. Part of life is what drives us. It is the imbalance that makes us take a step forward. And that also drops. Its text is actually very good for thinking …

  4. Linda,

    Very interesting post. I liked the discussion of Lewin’s model.

    Some observations: One of the largest impediments to change is organizational inertia. I think the things you mention, like time constraints and competing priorities contribute to that.

    However, there are other things that contribute to this inertia:

    – Organizational and budget structures that incent wrong behavior (Scenes of the seagulls from Finding Nemo come to mind here: “Mine, Mine, Mine…”).

    – Entrenched thinking. Either “because that’s just the way we have always done it” thinking or “I know it’s wrong, but what can I do about it” thinking. To be fair most people probably recognize that things could be improved, but don’t feel they are empowered to bring these suggestions forward or do anything about them.

    The biggest things that can be done to overcome this inertia are:

    – Develop a shared vision for the organization that your leaders own (because they helped develop it). That vision should have quantifiable goals and timelines beneath it, though. This will help align everyone’s priorities to a prime standard.

    – Help establish a culture where people are encouraged to bring forth ideas to improve things. In other words, it is okay to be candid about something that is not working, but they don’t get to gripe unless they also talk about how to solve it.

    – Thinking outside of the box, especially if the existing box is broken, should be strongly encouraged. There’s always a more efficient way of accomplishing something.

    – To the degree you have the power, help move the organizational and budget obstacles out of the way of your leadership, so they can do their jobs better.

    With respect to the comments about delighting customers vs meeting expectations, I am a firm believer in setting the bar high and striving for excellence. High standards and expectation in terms of execution/delivery and personal integrity should be core values of the organization.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work.

Comments are closed.