#19: Squares and Circles

Image of building made up of square blocks with round windows

So what were you doing this time last May? Well I know exactly what I was doing as the external release of the #GoodSave news had just been made and the results of being an outcomes ready and collaboration ready organization were about to be realized. Albeit stepping into an unknown space collectively we shared with the world the pending merger between Good Beginnings Australia and Save The Children Australia. Together we unveiled our shared bold goal that as a result of our actions more children in Australia would be able to become school ready. So what might this experience have to do with squares and circles?

Time is such an interesting concept and having taken time over the last year to reflect (including writing the findings of my PhD thesis) I have become most interested in how to lead the tension that exists between structure and spontaneity. At the same time my interest is heightened and reflects on the importance of squares and circles! No this blog is not the result of a PhD mind gone astray it more presents how I see the entanglement between structure and spontaneity in action.
Two sayings that form part of this conventional wisdom include:

  •  Squaring the Circle
  • Square pegs and round holes

Squaring the circle…
This saying actually stems from a problem posed by ancient geometry. Going as far back as 1882 this particular theory was proven to be impossible well only impossible in single moves but possible when using an infinite number of steps. So what has this squaring of the circle concept got to do with my interest in top-down and bottom-up tensions such as policy directives for citizen engagement or the actual implementation of decision making and empowered action at the local level?
The analogy of the shapes is obvious to me (possibly why I have been so keen to spend the past five years deeply analyzing them)! Ensuring communities particularly those not already engaged become engaged requires multiple approaches, which won’t necessarily be finite or the same. Just like squaring the circle the need to use infinite approaches must be the mindset of those setting policies (if in government) or rules (if in organisations). So where does this go wrong well this is where the second concept of squares and circles enters….. Square pegs and round holes!

Square pegs round holes…
Again a concept from the1800’s square pegs round holes was used as a term to not only describe a moral philosophy but was also the way the early Settlers built buildings. In building they would pound square-cut pegs into round holes to ensure longevity (maybe these could be described as the early disrupters). Again the relevance to the tensions that exist between those setting policy directives and those being at the end user tangent can often became tenuous – especially if there is too much pounding! For example when requests or demands of gaining successful employment are made (i.e. get a job) when in reality the issue is more systemic such as an inability to read or write or even master the basics of life (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are simply not being met). In cases like this the desired sustainability is not reached and the wedge becomes bigger.

So my interest in these shapes is more around how we can in the 21st century be better equipped to solve these equations. Over the past year I have created my own cause based business (JMTinc), which focuses on teasing out the tensions such as squaring the circle and/or square pegs in round holes. Interestingly there is a common denominator between them both, which is the importance of clarity of outcomes. Having been a champion for outcomes for as long as I can remember I continue to champion them as I continue on this PhD journey and learn how best to turn the joys of academic rigour into practical application. I spend much of my days talking about outcomes and remind us all to not get caught up into measurement before the clarity of the outcome has been agreed. In remembering the squares and circles metaphors taking measurement action without firstly identifying an outcome is like squaring a circle in isolation of the square or placing a square peg next to a round hole!

The last year and this month of May has gone by quite fast and the podcast for this month is a great example of how policy and citizen engagement or how the circle can be squared. I had the fortunate opportunity to interview Susan Pascoe AM the Commissioner of the ACNC. In the interview I asked Susan of her experiences of STRADDLE™ (the way I describe the squaring of the circle in action). I really enjoyed hearing Susan make reference to an experience prior to her role in the ACNC and it is clear that her past and future success is based on her ability to be successful in adapting. Her ability to apply structure whilst embracing spontaneity and being clear of the anticipated outcome has enabled her to successfully ‘square the circle’. Along with outcomes these are all important ingredients when thinking about leading to success.

I would go as far as saying that when it comes to social purpose or systemic change whether the task ahead is revision of vision and mission or creating a theory of change or setting a program logic be very clear on outcomes first. My logo of JMTinc (square peg and round hole) is my reminder to do this in all that I do and likewise I encourage you to do the same – embrace those squares and circles by considering outcomes first (and a little PhD spice for those crazy enough!)


Maslow, A (1954) Motivation and Personality, Pearson (3rd edition 1997)

JMTinc “Square pegs round holes” or “Squaring the circle”

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