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Denise Morris Kipnis, Founder & Principal of ChangeFlow Consulting, Found the Right Answers in Books

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For the past 11 years, Denise Morris Kipnis has been at the head of the company she founded, ChangeFlow Consulting, an organization development firm specializing in change and inclusion.

Using behavioral science, change management, project management, and process consultation, ChangeFlow Consulting helps companies become more agile and effective. Their clients range from small-sized enterprises to multinational corporations, such as: PayPal, Credit Suisse, BHP Billiton, Mondelez, Terracon Consultants, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and others.

In 2017, Denise became a founding member of KeyNote – Asia’s Women Speakers, with the goal of bringing more female speakers to stages that lack this diversity.

Both of these projects have one important thing in common: Denise’s curiosity. She has always been curious about change and inclusion. Wanting to know more about the human nature, she learned how to apply this knowledge to organizations which are, first and foremost, groups of people. You first need to understand the atom, to begin learning about quantum physics. 🙂

Prior to starting her own consulting business, Denise worked as an Intranet Site Manager for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The book recommendations below are a tiny glimpse into Denise’s learning path, the challenges she faced, and the questions she asked herself. Learn about the books that either answered those questions, or pushed her into wanting to know and read more.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Business: Process Consultation by Edgar H. Schein – This book really put into relief the options we have for how we help organizations. Whose needs are we really working? Are we consulting for ourselves, for them, or a combination? Are we creating codependency or building capacity? I first read this book in graduate school, and whether intentional or not, it served as a great counterpoint to Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting. While Block presents a practical (bordering on mechanical) approach to consulting, Schein throws you right into the complexity inherent in human dynamics. It can get messy, and we need to not shy away from that.

Non-Business: No particular book comes to mind…I’m often inspired by science fiction; usually novels but sometimes graphic novels. Essentially, these are sandboxes that offer an alternate view of the world; spaces to explore human nature outside of the usual constraints. And It’s really interesting to see who or what gets thrown out, and who or what remains.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

Happens all the time! Most recently, I was working in a climate I found personally challenging. There was bad behavior, excessive secrecy and politics, dishonesty…And the impact of all this was that the very loyal corps of employees were increasingly demoralized and fearful, which in turn negatively affected innovation and productivity. As I was interviewing one of the employees, trying to put them at ease but also surface important data, I asked ‘what’s your ideal vision for what happens next? What’s your dream?’ And that triggered me to pull Appreciative Inquiry by from the shelf. Although I’m a natural born problem solver, using positive psychology with this client system gave us all the room to discuss the undiscussable, without devolving into more bad behavior or getting mired in negativity.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

  • Built to Change by Lawler and Worley. Dr. Worley was my professor in grad school, and his sessions as well as this book seeded the concept behind ChangeFlow: that change is non-linear, in motion, complex. And approaches to organizational change that entertain stasis just don’t work.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler. This was a tough book for me, brought me to tears. Imagine having to save your slave master, because he’s your ancestor? A wonderful study in empathy, the nature of humanity, and how we’re all intertwined. After reading this book I refocused my practice from diversity to inclusion.
  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. My undergraduate studies focused was on English literature and Communication. I developed an affinity for 18th Century literature, can’t really say why…This book struck me because of the strong female lead. In an era where there were few options for women, the lead character puts her independence above all else, uncompromisingly. I reread it when I need reminding that feminism means being able to make choices, especially unconventional ones.
  • Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I was serving on the board of a prestigious and exclusive school when I first read this. As part of the school’s commitment to inclusion, every group, including the board, went through diversity training. Our consultant, Glenn Singleton of Pacific Education Group, never let us forget why we were there: that improving outcomes for all our students was a business imperative. As a result of this experience, I blended organizational development and diversity and inclusion for my graduate thesis, and this is still the bedrock of my consulting practice.

What five books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

In addition to Built to Change, Process Consultation, and Flawless Consulting, I would add:

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

I would like to read more books… I read all the time, but usually not books. I scan the headlines several times a day – Quartz, Apple News feeds, SyFy. And I always have a fiction book on my phone, via Overdrive. As an English major, I miss the feel of paper books, but it comes down to practicality: I can read on my phone or iPad while I’m on the ellipse without having to worry about propping pages open, and there’s less bulk to carry as I scurry around to client meetings.

How do you make time for reading?

I designate time to read over morning coffee and right before bed. I start with a scan of the headlines and my LinkedIn feed to see what’s trending and discern patterns. I need to stay current on a variety of topics so I can offer my clients the freshest perspective, but it’s not realistic to try to read everything. If something catches my attention, or feeds an immediate personal or professional need, then I’ll make time the time to read the whole thing either on the spot or in pieces as “brain breaks” throughout the day.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

Funny you should ask… I still have all my notes from grad school: the physical notes in a box under my desk, lugged all the way from the US; and the electronic files in Dropbox. I also keep research associated with important projects. For a while, I was saving pdfs and downloading books, but I found I wasn’t going back to read them, I was just hoarding. This is an old an unnecessary habit from back in the day when research was scarce and/or behind a pay wall. But times have changed. Now, what I really want is access to (not ownership of) a broad base of information, especially since I draw inspiration from a variety of disciplines. There is soooo much information available now. To manage it, I use bookmarks, reading lists, and I keep lists in Notes on my iPhone. When I need something, I search for it. If it’s not where I can put my hands on it easily, l can reach out to the mavens in my networks and usually have a solution within a day or two.

How do you choose what books to read next?

For business, I start with my go-to stash and then fan out as necessary. If I find something interesting and outside of my usual resources, I’ll read it and the source material to check for accuracy, rigor, etc. For example, if I read an article on Harvard Business Review and something doesn’t quite line up with what I’ve heard elsewhere, I’ll chase the cited source material. I’ve found even the most revered journals and researchers can be sloppy with methodology, especially when it come to accounting for cultural differences. In the work that I do, it’s important to draw the distinction between “this works in the US or Europe and it should theoretically work elsewhere,” versus “this works globally.”

For non-business, I’m a creature of habit. I have about 10 favorite authors, and I wait impatiently for the next installments in their series. For example, I read the first 20 Jack Reacher novels back-to-back during my pregnancy, and now it seems like forever until the next one will come out. I experiment with new authors during the lag.

Do you prioritize the books recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I tend to go my own way more often than not, but I will take notice if someone I respect makes a recommendation within their field of expertise. I have a healthy skepticism of management consulting books—I haven’t seen a genuinely new idea in a long time, just variations on what we already know but for some set of reasons, continue to resist. But sometimes the variations are enough to either deepen my awareness or jolt my thinking so I can intervene more creatively.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

I’ve just finished Y is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton. I’m bereft because of her passing, and because her Alphabet Mysteries series is unfinished. I was expecting, and I got, the satisfaction and comfort of visiting a past and parallel version of a place I know well (Santa Barbara, CA), and connecting with a beloved character who is doing a job the old-fashioned way. Kinsey Millhone is a private eye in the 80’s-her process is stripped down, no fancy technology, no Internet—just brain power. It’s a reminder for me that I am not the tools I use, and neither are the people in the client systems I work with. We’re all fallible and powerful in our own way, the way we connect the dots can be nerve-rackingly slow or lightning fast. And that’s exactly how change happens.

Links where you can follow Denise Morris Kipnis or find out more about her projects:

All books mentioned by Denise Morris Kipnis in this interview:

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