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Choosing at the Crossroads” by Jeff
De Cagna, Executive Update, April 2002

The Innovation Equation,” Executive Update, December 2001

Unlocking Learning’s Power to Transform” by Jeff De Cagna, LiNE Zine, Winter 2001

The Attention Economy: Understanding the New
Currency of Business
by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck (Harvard Business School Press, 2001) Also see

Experience Design by Nathan Shedroff (New Rider, 2001) Also see www.experiencedesign

New Ideas about New Ideas by Shira P. White with G. Patton Wright (Perseus, 2002) Also see www.newideasaboutnew

The Chaordic Commons

The GWSAE Center for Association Leadership

The New York Rangers Official Site

Principled Innovation LLC



Whether or not the unprecedented global events of September 2001 bring about an enduring change in our national psyche remains an open question. Even now, nearly a year after that horrific Tuesday in September, our emotions are still too raw, too fragile to know whether our determination to think and act differently will stay with us, or whether we’ll eventually return to the familiar routines of our lives before. Although I don’t claim to possess the wisdom to know what will happen, I am trying to remain hopeful.

In conversations with family, friends, and colleagues over this last year, I continue to pick up the same theme. “Everything has changed,” they say. “Our world really is different, and I will never be the same.” While there is a plaintive quality to their words, there is also a sense of pleading to be believed. It’s almost as if we’ve finally realized that our years of “crying wolf” about change are now over for good. The intensity of these conversations produces the strong scent of determination, a willingness to do the difficult work of fundamentally re-orienting and re-ordering the priorities of our lives, our organizations, and our society.

The words may be encouraging, but simple intent isn’t enough. We must find the courage to act, in much the same way that America’s truly heroic soldiers are doing for us even as I write this article. Having a serious discussion about what it takes to re-create our organizations for a new reality is no longer sufficient. We need to act boldly and without hesitation. 

It will not be easy. In turbulent times, it feels much simpler to retreat to the comfort of what we already know so well. And even though we can try to lead our organizations to new places using old approaches, we will not be credible as leaders if we do so. Our cognitive dissonance may allow us to say “everything has changed” out of one side of our mouths and “we’ve always done it this way” out of the other, but it simply won’t fly anymore. And if we, the followers, accept excuses and tolerate timidity, then we deserve to face all the consequences of our own cowardice.

So the questions we must answer are really quite clear: what do we believe in and what are we prepared to do to make it happen? For me, answering these questions came out of necessity last fall when a staff re-structuring at my organization led to an unexpected transition out of full-time work. This sudden change was quite a surprise. I left my office on Friday afternoon with a job. By the following Monday, my job was gone. I was crushed, and I felt repudiated by the decision.

But as I moved beyond my initial emotions, I began to ask myself the two questions I’ve posed here. Everyone who knows me well is clear on the idea I believe in most strongly of all: learning. I’m a learning fanatic. I love to engage people in conversations about why learning is so important in our lives and how most of us have never really learned how to learn. For years, working inside the non-profit association community, I’ve tried to spread what I consider to be the “gospel” of learning, encouraging colleagues in the education arena to think differently about how learning occurs, and to consider embracing different ways of supporting it.

Now, in this watershed moment of my life, I needed to re-connect with my own convictions about learning and think very carefully about what I was going to do to live up to them. To be honest, it was not a difficult decision. Even though I knew it would be easier for me to find a new job, I recognized that I had to follow my own compass and become my own person. Even though I didn’t have the greatest economic conditions in which to start a new venture, I knew I had the powerful desire to find my own voice, as well as a responsibility to help others find theirs. Even though I risked letting down my wife, my friends, and family and, most of all, myself, I knew I had to find my own courage, if only to pay homage to all those who have been demonstrating their courage in the face of immeasurably greater danger.

To some, my decision seemed completely counter-intuitive. “Why put yourself on the line right now? Why not work for another year and then see how things shake out?” The answer was very simple: because everything has changed, because our world really is different, and because I will never be the same.

In a time when the country of my birth is battling both at home and abroad against those who oppose our way of life, all of us who cherish freedom must demonstrate our conviction to that freedom by totally embracing its rights and responsibilities. As a free person, I have made a choice to live my life, and to try to create something better for others. With luck and a great deal of hard work, I’ll be successful. But even if my business doesn’t work out, I will still be a success in my own heart because I’m standing up for what I believe in and trying do something to make it happen.   

So how can you translate your intentions into action? I suggest that you not be afraid to “grope” for a while. No one expects you to have all the answers right away. Instead of trying to solve every problem you might face moving forward, consider allowing some of those problems to “solve” you. Allow your innate curiosity and enthusiasm for the future to flow through you every day, instead of only when it is convenient for the organization. Refuse to live a life divided between what others think and the truth you know in your own heart. If what comes next for you and your organization is going to be built on belief, then this kind of passion is a workplace must.

But remember: we still need more than passion. In the absence of inspired decision-making, our passion remains a latent force. Even though it might feel more comfortable for us to defer our choices during this challenging time, it is actually the worst thing we can do. When we put our lives on hold in anticipation of a “better time” down the road, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn that even if a better time never comes, we will always have now.

Some of you may be wondering what this essay has to do with “organizational readiness in turbulent times.” Well, possibly nothing. Then again, maybe it is our individual and collective willingness to live up to our espoused beliefs that will be the central factor in determining how ready our organizations will ever be for a vastly more uncertain future. As I’ve already written, I don’t pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that without courageous choices and bold strokes today, tomorrow is likely to be bleak. I suggest we commit ourselves to not permitting that possibility. Instead, I think we should honor those who are sacrificing for all of us by making the most of our different world and our different selves right here, right now, today. Will you?

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist for Principled Innovation LLC.  Based in Arlington, Virginia, Principled Innovation LLC offers provocative strategic insights to tradition-oriented organizations, including associations and libraries, trying to capitalize on the emerging opportunities of an uncertain world.  A Fellow of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), Jeff is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities. Contact him at


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