Change: Interview of Madelyn Blair – Creating the Container for Success

Interviewed by Seth Kahan

Madelyn is expert in organizational development, knowledge management, instructional design, and research technique. She developed the first content analysis of written performance evaluations, designed and created the methodology of Information Flow Analysis. She has extensively researched gender in the workplace, working with more than 20 organizations to develop programs that address the needs of women and men working together.

She spoke with me by telephone from her beautiful office in Maryland’s rural countryside.

Madelyn: I want to tell you about an exceptional work-team with whom I had the opportunity to work. They were about 35 people; very multi-cultural. The group had been together just three years. They were in a large, international organization and had been brought together to fulfill a special function. They had been quite successful in this regard.

Because they were a fairly new group, they had developed their work processes informally. Theywere doing excellent work, but had never codified the ways they worked together. So, their individual roles, planning processes, and underlying objectives were not yet explicit. Then, they learned they were going to go through a leadership transition. This is when they did something quite remarkable: the team, including the current leader, began to prepare itself for the transition.

Seth: How did they do that?

Madelyn: This was a tremendously self-motivated group. They cared deeply about what they did. Like many work-teams their interpersonal communication ranged from very precise to hardly spoken at all. Social relationships within the group covered a wide spread: some were very close with each other and others had purely professional relationships. The amazing thing was they knew they had to get beyond their day-to-day focus to successfully move from one leader to another, losing as little productivity as possible. They decided to have a retreat, bringing me in to help them create the smooth transition. They wanted to optimize continuity as their leaders changed.

Seth: What happened? Tell me about it.

Madelyn: I worked with them to design a retreat that leveraged their initiative and motivation. We used Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, storytelling, and other methodologies that work especially well for a group that is self-motivated and facing a complex situation. Each of these processes relies on the group to self-organize, work collaboratively, and think together on difficult issues.

The first thing we did was establish the group spirit. This may sound silly, but it really made a difference! I knew this would uplift and inform all our efforts. Each person in the group introduced another through a true story that captured that person’s capacity for success. By the time the stories were done, the energy in the room was so high; it could have burst the ceiling! That energy stayed with us and gave us what we needed to do the tough work of defining their business processes, roles, program and strategy.

Beginning with personal success stories did a very important thing. It broke any remaining barriers between them or among them. Collaboration of this caliber requires a voluntary response. You can’t make people work together at peak level of performance. They have to choose it. They are not going to give their best unless they feel it is going to be accepted.

Let’s be clear. No one was looking for agreement or consensus. The work they were involved in was complex, and everyone recognized that there were differing perspectives. But, people need to know they will be both heard and accepted. By heard, I mean that there has to be receptivity and stance of genuine interest. By accepted, I am saying each person’s point of view is considered legitimate by the others, even if it’s not what others think.

The positive stories had a very important impact. They created what I call a “container.” It is a time and place where people feel safe, where they can talk frankly, revealing perceptions they hold dear.

Seth: How did this impact the work of the retreat?

Madelyn: Each person summarized their partner’s story in a single word, such as “courage” or “creativity.” Each word has to be interpreted in the context of other background information and behavior. There are worlds within the words. I collected the words and made a list that was posted. It was a visual depiction of the team’s essence.

It is simple, but profound. These words imbued the group’s work spirit as they applied themselves to their most difficult work. The words informed their identity, both individually and collectively.

This team of 35 did an excellent job preparing for their new supervisor. They worked hard and long. Ideas developed, sometimes with great effort. More than a comprehen-sive package of documents, they created a group experience that was irreplaceable. They articulated and defined the way they work. The container we created made this possible.

Madelyn on the web:

Madelyn’s email:

Check out “Mental Espresso!” Madelyn regularly publishes these email postcards, designed to be read in less than a minute. Sign up at:

Papers by Madelyn:

  • Renewable Energy: How story can revitalize your organization
  • Changing Leadership Regains Productivity Fast
  • Conflict and Trust: Expressions of culture and keys to organizational success

These papers and more available for download on under “Immediate Resources”