Seth Kahan
Author, consultant

Seth Kahan

Change expert and author who has advised executives in 50-plus organizations, including Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps and NASA. He can be reached at


Ups, downs, breakthroughs

Q: Carla Cohen, who died recently, was as well-known in the D.C. area as a bookstore owner could be. But before she co-founded the renowned Politics & Prose decades ago, she lost her job, and it took her a couple of years to resolve to pursue something "that would bring nothing but pleasure to other people." Have you ever had a fallow period that eventually led to a breakthrough? How did you get out of it?

Have I ever had a fallow period that eventually led to a breakthrough? All the time.

In fact, I feel like I live in a perpetual sine wave of fallows and breakthroughs. I always chalked it up to my temperament. I figure the peaks and troughs of my emotional moods correspond pretty well to periods of dormancy and stagnation followed by inevitable advances.

So, how do I get out of it? Well, I've designed elaborate schemes and rituals, but I have a sneaking suspicion they all boil down to waiting for time to pass. Ups and downs are part of my life.

That said, in my work I help leaders generate breakthroughs all the time. I do this through a special kind of meeting that brings people together to pool their know-how and experience, bringing to bear their collective intelligence and a shared spirit of ingenuity on the problem at hand. These two factors combine neatly and powerfully to overcome obstacles, going beyond them and generating significant achievements.

What's the secret? Well, if you want to know in great detail, read Chapter 7 of my book, "Getting Change Right." But, here's a major clue: You've got to get your scope right.

Setting the proper scope is often more confusing than it seems. Ultimately it has to do with paying attention to the boundaries of time and impact. Initially scope seems pretty straightforward: You have a problem and you want to fix it. But as you begin talking to people and asking them what they think about your problem, you will find that two things happen.

First, the sense of what the issues are varies greatly from person to person. Each person will point you toward a locus of concern stemming from his or her point of view. The challenge is to decide which of the areas the various people point toward should be part of the scope and which should not.

Second, you will find yourself zooming in and out like a microscope, focusing on both finer and coarser levels of granularity. Choosing the level that is appropriate can be a trial in itself.

To help you set your scope, turn first to time. How fast do you need a solution? This month? This quarter? This year? Identify the time envelope you need to operate inside, and refer to it when issues of scope challenge you. If you need a solution this month and someone asks you to consider expanding the scope to a set of issues not likely to be solved this year, make the decision to cap the scope so you reap the timely result you need.

Next, consider impact. What kind of impact are you looking for? You usually do not need to address a panoply of circumstances. Instead, there is something specific that is driving the current problem. Focus on that single need, rather than trying to take on the world.

By confining your scope through precise time and impact requirements, you concentrate your efforts and increase the odds that you will generate a breakthrough that fits your needs.

By Seth Kahan  |  October 18, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Adapting to change Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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