Todd Hoskins is the founder of Canopy Gap, an organization whose mission is to ignite customer relationships and energize teams & leadership using a set of unique tools and processes he and his team have developed.
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Todd and found we share a similar vision for the future of organizations and the human forces that drive them. At my request, he graciously agreed to work with me on a blog post to further explore the insights I gleaned from our conversation.
While this is a rather lengthy read, I’m confident you will find it worthy of your time.
What led you to start Canopy Gap?
I worked for a number of years in a corporate role, then jumped into the startup world at some early and mid-stage tech companies. I hit a wall after my fourth startup, that was partly working too much, and partly a spiritual awakening. With the entrepreneurial itch and some broad experience in relation to responsibilities and industries, I launched Canopy Gap in 2009.
At first, Canopy Gap was solely delivering strategy to startup companies. After some trials and errors, I started to realize that the best ideas, plans, and people did not always result in success. So, I became more and more curious about the intangibles – organizational dynamics, stakeholder and community engagement, and ways of working together.
There was this convergence about five years ago where I started to sense that all of the wisdom and knowledge paths I had been following were all relevant to creating a dynamic organization. I was seeing lightning bolts of connection between personal work, interpersonal work, and professional work.
The leadership training I was doing meshed with what I was learning about ecology, and the graduate work in psychology made sense in relation to network science. The work I was doing in coaching and community engagement fit with what I was learning in tantra, tango, and even systems thinking. It all started to come together.
How would you describe the mission or purpose behind what you do?
Dynamic organizations feel alive. They are creative, responsive, powerful, and adaptive, just like dynamic people. That’s what I want, and I believe what the world needs – vibrant people who are serving vibrant organizations and communities. So many people are suffering professionally, personally, and communally in the current system. It doesn’t have to be that way. We are less stuck than we think we are.
I wake up every morning energized to make the world of work more meaning-filled. We can debate whether we need a revolution or a renaissance. Either way, organizations need to act if they want to thrive in the decades ahead. The data is startling on employee engagement and customer service.
Tell me about the cycle of awareness, convergence, and action.
The cycles of awareness, convergence, and action are a framework for working with a client, but it’s also a way of being. In my personal life, I can do a quick check to see if I’m moving through a cycle, or just staying in my comfort zone by converging without taking action or taking action without sensing deeply the impact of those actions.
In work and in life, I am also trying to increase my capacity for each part of the cycle. That’s a large part of the work of Canopy Gap – helping build capacity for becoming aware (sensing), converging (sense-making), and quick action at an individual and organizational level.
What data are we collecting? How do we understand and make decisions? How can we be more experimental? This touches upon learning, analytics, organizational design, collaboration, and innovation when we look at the big picture.
These cycles can be shortened and lengthened depending upon context. Plus there are often cycles embedded within cycles. You can be sharpening the vision while you reorganize, or build a new product or service. You can seek higher levels of employee engagement as you tinker with reporting structures or meeting formats.
I love what Peter Senge says, “Reality is made up of circles but we see straight lines.” One of the reasons that organizations are not very responsive to people’s needs or data is that we are accustomed to processes that are linear and slow, even in startup companies or small non-profits.
We assume that you have to start with a layer of bricks and then build one layer at a time. I hear, “We have to figure out our strategy before we make that decision.” Why not question that? Sometimes it makes sense to start with action and then move into awareness, especially once your capacity for right action and broader awareness has increased.
What are some of the key strategies you apply when working with organizations?
That’s a tough question! Every organization is different. I become more and more convinced that applying best practices doesn’t always get the desired outcomes. We favor applying best principles rather than best practices.
We have a set of principles that we work with, but then we also assist the client in exploring their own. As an example, we might ask, “So, given that we have decided to move towards increasing participation, what does that look like in this scenario?”
The scenario could be experience design, business modeling, budgeting, or marketing to name a few. We are essentially wanting to turn the dial in a certain direction, only it’s not just one dial. It’s a dial on every panel across the organization. That’s a huge endeavor, but worthwhile because it gets us into a cooperative action mode that starts to shift the energy of the organization.
Another tool we use is polarity mapping. To keep with the metaphor, we often think in on/off switches rather than a dial. It’s human nature that when we want to change, we often turn our backs on history, or what has successfully brought us to this point.
An organization may say, “We want to be more distributed or decentralized in our decision-making.” Great! But you don’t flip the switch to on. There really is no decentralization without keeping a center.
Other polarities may include planning/improvising, privacy/transparency, control/autonomy. The goal is to become aware of where we are between the polarities on an ongoing basis, what adjustments we need to make, and then the ability to make those adjustments.
Most organizations could benefit from giving employees more autonomy, but that doesn’t mean you give up all control.
Why is this good for business?
We all can sense the difference between walking into a store, office, or even an email from an organization that is dynamic, and one that feels dead, unresponsive, or mechanical. In this world of fast-moving transparency, the organizations that are dynamic are going to be more able to listen, adapt, and serve. In the long run, they will be more sustainable and profitable.
If people have a choice, over time they will choose the product, brand, or experience that offers more care and enjoyment. I’m not talking about the projection of care and enjoyment, but the truth that the best innovation and customer service comes from companies that actually care and enjoy what they’re doing.
The unresponsive companies that make quality products will have a harder time keeping up with the market and the quality will decline if employees who are designing, manufacturing, shipping, and selling those products are not doing so from an orientation of care and enjoyment.
We see the diminishing returns of advertising as manipulation. We’re going to continue to see the demise of organizations that don’t care, or care for their people.
Right now there are a lot of people in survival mode, financially and emotionally. There are not as many choices of products, services, and experiences when you’re fighting to survive. The same is true of employment.
There’s a lack of meaningful companies offering meaning-filled jobs. That’s the long-term competitive advantage – to offer an environment to workers and customers where care, enjoyment, and meaning are possible.
What are the challenges you typically encounter?
One of the mistakes that we’ve made is trying to push or pull the client towards a better future that we see is possible. Sometimes it’s a shared vision; sometimes it’s our vision. The pulling doesn’t work, as tempting as it is for consultants or leaders. So, I have my own challenge in being patient, curious, and invitational.
On a personal level, I have the same tendency. I want to push myself toward the goal of who I want to be. I can be relentless with myself, and that’s not the way lasting change happens. It does require fierceness, but gentleness and acceptance as well.
Another challenge is the perfectly understandable desire to quickly implement large-scale change. Organizations often want a master plan with a timeline and milestones. There is this belief that if we get the right insight, strategy, or leader, that we can flip the switch. There’s also this belief that if we can establish “point B,” we can draw a straight line from where we are right now, “point A,” and get there on schedule.
There are so many difficulties with this. First, there are too many complexities and constant change to establish a dot on the map that represents where we are now. Second, the minute we set the destination, the destination will start to shift based on the same factors. Finally, the line is never straight, nor predictable.
This being said, it is important to establish the intentions, the priorities, the overall direction. A project needs parameters, but it also needs flexibility. It’s one reason why cycles work well because we are getting more frequent feedback. We can tell if we’re moving in the direction we want to go.
Do you have a success story you can share?
Last year we worked with an international non-profit that was doing great work in a number of areas but lacked cohesion. Like many organizations, they were having a difficult time becoming effectively whole – they had effective parts that did not feel connected to a whole. There was incredible energy, and that energy was jetting all over the place.
There is this inescapable tension between moving in the direction that one person or group wants to move, and moving in the direction that the organization or network wants to move. How does a large organization channel that energy towards a productive, common purpose? It requires deepening and broadening ways of relating and making space for that tension which can be incredibly productive.
The work of establishing their principles, identity, and narratives led to the understanding that their fundraising, marketing, communications, and leadership structures needed to change. The leaders and members were the ones coming up with ideas, jumping into action quickly, and rapidly re-forming the organization.
We were just providing some feedback and structure to the process they were catalyzing. Because they were so eager to weave the organization into something more powerful, it was a beautiful experience to be a part of.
What advice would you offer to a person who wants to effect changes of this type in their organization?
Start with yourself. I feel like I’m stating a cliché here, but I have a strong conviction with years of evidence. Ask yourself, “Am I willing to change? Do I know what direction I’m headed? Am I willing to face difficult truths? Can I change my perspective? Can I change my behavior?” Then experiment, collect some feedback and do it again.
The good news is that it’s within your control. The bad news is that it’s hard.
I recently attended a workshop on Respectful Confrontation with Joe Weston. His work is primarily about developing the foundation for “meeting another,” more than the effective tactics of confrontation. He’s doing great work, both with theory and in the field.
If I can become more powerful in a holistic sense – grounded, focused, strong, and flexible (Joe’s framework) – then I have a greater capacity to be fully myself and impact another. It’s great to seek out some training, coaching, or reading, but we could all start by just slowing down and opening our senses. It helps to lessen activity and noise, and also creating and protecting space for whatever needs to come – questions, explorations, and inspiration.
For me, so much about change is about building the muscle to lean into my discomfort. I don’t need theory, though it helps. I need experience.
I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing teachers, mentors, partners, and clients, including Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Peter Block, Bill Isaacs, Jerry Michalski, Jean Russell, Kevin Clark, Vyana Bergen, Harold Jarche, Sam Keen, Marti Spiegelman, John Welwood, Lawrence Stibbards, Cristian Graca, Parker Palmer, Fritjof Capra, Martin Buber, Paola Bordon, Pia Kealey, Joel Shapira, Nance McGee, and so many others who have impacted my heart and mind.
One other thing I’ll say is to find sojourners, whether they are inside or outside your organization. The heroic leader who singlehandedly changes an organization is a myth. It can start with one person, but it always takes a team or community.
There is a network out there of people (like you, Scott) who really care about this work, who care about the direction we’re all headed.
If you would like to learn more about Canopy Gap or contact Todd, you can find all the necessary information here.