Trillium Leadership and Gracious Space Transform Horizon House

December 2nd, 2011 by Patricia Hughes

Pat Hughes of Trillium Leadership Consulting was recognized for helping to transform the culture of a retirement care community in Seattle, Washington.

‘Guided by Pat Hughes of Trillium Leadership Consulting, Horizon House leaders learned to approach their mission by creating “Gracious Space” – a concept Hughes articulated in a book by that name.  Developing a common language and a joint stock of problem-solving strategies paid off when the Horizon House communication system failed. “If we hadn’t had the leadership training, and the experience of working across department boundaries, we wouldn’t have had as good an outcome,” says CEO Bob Anderson.

The community has made the leadership program – initially set to last only 18 months – permanent, and has widened its impact in several ways. Says HR Director Gloria Riggers, “At the end of every leadership-development team meeting, we have a practice of asking, ‘What out of our learning today can we take to our departments or our line staff?’ We have also involved our residents and our board of trustees in the vocabulary and principles of Gracious Space. It’s now woven into the culture of life and work at Horizon House.”

See the entire article at

Surprise! Responding to VUCA in Organizations

March 7th, 2011 by Patricia Hughes

Last issue we explored our attitudes toward surprise and how we can change habitual responses by focusing on corpus, curiosity and cognizing.  This month we consider how organizations respond to surprise.  How can your company become more resilient in VUCA territory?

VUCA is an acronym that means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA describes situations where:

  • Change is dynamic and never-ending
  • There is a lack of predictability and frequent surprise
  • Multiple forces confound issues resulting in chaos and confusion
  • Reality is obscured and confused by misreads
  • There are mixed meanings
  • There is no clear cause-and-effect between actions

Sound familiar?  These elements present real challenges for organizations and can cause the people in them to feel overwhelmed.  Typically organizations view surprise as an unwelcome occurrence, and take actions to avoid or manage it through quality control, planning and standardization.   Often we believe surprise should be avoided and that if we do get surprised, it’s because someone did something wrong.  This is not usually the case – life happens!  Best laid plans cannot possibly consider all factors in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Surprises can be unwelcome, but with specific skills organizational leaders can become more resilient in VUCA territory.  Furthermore, you can learn to see VUCA situations as opportunities for innovation.  Here are a few ways to increase your organization’s resilience in VUCA times.

Communicate!  Communication is often the behavior organizations need to improve most: top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side, etc.  The spread of information increases the likelihood for moving ahead in smarter ways, especially in untested territory.  Use the informal grapevine to communicate in all directions.  Share information, decision making, leadership and power.  Create a culture of courageous conversation and welcome the “elephant in the room.”  Then, listen.  Listen to people on the front lines, to your competition, your customers, your critics, and people on the “fringe” who often see change coming before those in the mainstream.

Generate Leadership at all Levels.  An organization’s ability to adapt to surprise and change doesn’t come from sweeping initiatives dreamed up at headquarters, but from many micro-adaptations throughout the organization.  Distribute and push responsibility for leadership into the organization.  Mobilize everyone to generate observations and solutions about what works and what doesn’t.  Leverage diversity of perspective by inviting the stranger’s perspective.  Host leadership development initiatives and involve a cross-section of players to maximize cross-pollination and innovation.

Embrace Disequilibrium.  Rather than reflexively quelling the discomfort that accompanies surprise and shock, take a breath and stay with it for a while longer than usual.  Get “on the balcony” to see patterns of the big picture.  Question the organization’s loyalty to legacy practices.  Run numerous experiments and reward risk taking.  Know what is non-negotiable and what is expendable.  Learn to develop next practices for tomorrow while excelling at best practices for today.  And, keep your hand on the thermostat of volatility: if the heat is too high, people may become paralyzed with fear; but if the heat is too low, people won’t be motivated to take risks or make difficult decisions.    

Promote Wellness.  Let’s face it: working and living in VUCA times is exhausting.  You and your people need to find sanctuary to reflect, regroup and re-energize, alone and together.  Reach out to confidantes when you lose hope.  Make sure employees have outlets such as discussion forums, retreats, exercise, time off and chocolate.  Celebrate successes, be transparent with goals, and don’t forget Rule #6: Try not to take yourself so seriously.

By practicing even one of these four behaviors, your organization will become more resilient to surprise and change.  You can turn VUCA on its head:  volatility yields to vision, uncertainty yields to understanding; complexity yields to clarity; and ambiguity yields to agility.

Where to begin?  At the next director’s or all-hands meeting, describe the basics of VUCA and engage people in this conversation:

  • What is VUCA about our work right now?
  • How does this organization typically respond to surprise?
  • What can this organization do to be more resilient in VUCA times?

For help being more resilient in messy times, contact Pat at

 © Trillium Leadership Consulting

Surprise! How we can better withstand surprise, shock and stress

February 8th, 2011 by Patricia Hughes

An elderly man hurried into the veterinary office and announced that his goldfish had a terrible disease.   “He shakes all over!” the man said, clearly distressed.  The vet examined the fish, which was calmly swimming in its bowl, and replied, “He looks all right to me.”  “Oh, but I haven’t taken him out of the water yet!” said the man.

Oftentimes we are swimming through our days, when something yanks us out of our comfort zones.  We become like the fish, shaking all over.  At the very least, it is annoying.  But a shock can shake our wellbeing and cause dis-ease.  Stress has been shown to trigger everything from headaches and stomachaches to sleep problems, forgetfulness and depression, not to mention fear, anger, and the resulting loss of work, poor parenting and fights with significant others. 

Finding ways to deal better with surprise, shock and stress is an indispensable survival skill for leaders.  Noticing how we respond to surprise and making choices about our (re)actions, can make us happier, more resilient and effective people. 

  • Corpus. The first rule for dealing better with surprise is to recognize that we are feeling something.  Corpus is our body, which responds first to external impulses.  Check in several times a day to notice how your body is reacting to people, situations, or life in general.  Do you lean forward with eagerness or backwards with fear? Do you have knots in your stomach or an excited flutter in your chest? The goal is to recognize the feelings, acknowledge them, and use that information to act wisely. Freedom is the moment between stimulus and action.  In that moment we have complete freedom to understand our body wisdom and choose an appropriate response rather than a knee-jerk reaction. 


  • Curiosity. Feelings quickly translate into a story we tell ourselves, which may or not be true.  Curiosity can stop the automatic reaction and enable us to choose a new response.  One way to be more curious is simply to say, “Oh, is that so?”  Not in a challenging way, but with an attitude of watching something intriguing go by.  This works well with my six-year-old.  Like many kids, she often spills, smudges and creates crumbs while she eats.  I should hardly be surprised anymore when she knocks the yogurt to the floor.  But I am!  My reptilian brain clenches in rage, and I become a basilisk, able to cause death with a single glance.  Enter curiosity.  Rather than breathe fire, I simply breathe once or twice.  I look at her and the mess as something interesting that wandered into the kitchen.  I say, “Oh, is that so?”  My heart rate slows downI choose to be curious rather than angry.  And once she knows I won’t slay her with the look, we clean it up and she actually sings.


  • Cognize. Once we recognize our feelings and can be curious about surprise, we can treat the unexpected as something to learn fromWhen we cognize, we perceive, know, or become aware of something.  Surprise offers opportunities to learn something new. Rather than see surprise as evidence that we did something wrong or didn’t plan well, we can see it as information.  What can we learn from the stranger, the other, or the odd idea?  We can choose to see surprise as our teacher, not something which set out to ruin our day.  


Life is messy. Just when we think we’ve got life under control, something happens to shake us up.  The good news is we can learn to treat surprise as an opportunity rather than a threat.  We will feel less shaken up at the end of the day, and we will learn and grow.  

  • Check in with your corpus several times a day. Our bodies hold feelings and valuable information about how we perceive the messy world
  • Be curious about surprises and shocks. Rather than get upset, say, “Oh, is that so?”
  • Treat surprise as something to learn from. New information is not the enemy; it’s an opportunity to get smarter!

For support in becoming a more resilient leader in messy times, contact Pat at

© Trillium Leadership Consulting

Welcome to Trillium Leadership blog

March 16th, 2010 by Patricia Hughes

In these blog pages I (Pat) will share short essays, book reviews, and resources related to leadership, coaching and facilitation. Many of the insights will be inspired by my experiences working with groups over the past 20 years, where I have learned about passion, action and making a difference.