Are you lateral?

I read a lot of business books. I buy them new or used as some of them have been out of print for decades! Some are more academically oriented, some are almost too simple to make an interesting reading … most provokes cognitive jolts. I love this. I use book darts book darts to allow me to quickly go back to those stunning passages or quotes. Most of the books I have read have a few darts sticking out discreetly. Some have literally dozens. Since each dart is worth $0.2, the value of some books literally doubles because of the numbers of darts sticking out!

What am I saying?

Mary Parker-Follett
Mary Parker-Follett, Prophet of management

This is grossly false … if I add dozens of book darts on a book it means this book is invaluable!!! How much is a good idea worth? How much is a great life lesson worth.

Some books are invaluable!

Especially if your brain explodes after reading them and that you … just … have to stop reading to

  • write down a few thoughts.
  • A few workshop topics, add a new exercise for your next task,
  • Or a new paragraph in a proposal or a monthly report or
  • prepare an unbeatable argument for your next performance appraisal!

These books also had a profound effect on my thinking since I started reading them. Oh yes know when I started reading business books! I used to see my brother-in-law’s book shelf during family meetings and I would think, pff … reading business books during the weekend and evenings? Not me … too many sci-fi and fantasy books to read before I waste my precious time reading work-related books.

But then, in early 1998 I had to go to a time-management training and there was some pre-workshop reading suggestions. I was really committed to this training and I decided to read the damn book…

And I was hooked!

I then sneaked in my HR director office to see what books I could borrow … boy was I pleased to see the book shelf … most of the books he had purchased but did not read … his loss!!

Funny thing, I started writing down the titles and the date I finish (some never get there!) reading the books. A habit I had started with my Sci-Fi books a few years prior to 1998. I still do this… I even set myself some reading goals nowadays …1 book a week. I know… Elon Musk reads 4 books a week. I do this only during our vacations, bathing in the sunlight with sunglasses on … and only for leisure books.

But along the way, with hundreds of books read since the early 1998, I picked up several concepts. And this data slowly evolved into some interesting bits of information that mutated into knowledge and ultimately took a new form … some of those concepts evolved in my mind to suggest a new description of what I was doing as a self-employed professional: I became an organizational biologist.

At first I did not even know the specifics of it. I would talk to people, mention my new and sexy title and they would go: “Huh? Interesting!” They would provide me with their perspective of what it meant and slowly, with the Universe’s zeitgeist helping, it all started to make sense for everybody at the same time, reminding me of the 100th monkey effect, (a great book!)

This prompted a new train of thoughts influenced by the 3 laws of Robotics first enunciated by Isaac Asimov .

the three laws of robotics

A colleague of mine, Jocelyn Gagnon from Espace Stratégie, a wise man among wise men, used this concept to formulate the laws of management, the foundations of his organization. In a flash of insight, I rapidly created the 3 laws of organizational biology (more on that later!)

But all these books also inspired what I now call the concept of Lateral leadership … ah, we are finally coming to the title of this blog post!



For some weird reason, my brain does not work in a linear fashion. I started to understand my cognitive process after reading about lateral thinking, a concept first bought up by Edward De Bono

Thinking outside the box was simply not enough! Thinking sideways was more like it! I always have that weird thought popping into my mind when people are discussing serious topics. I frequently have these bubbles, you know, like speech bubbles in comic books, and what is in the bubble is a weird twist of what is being said. Frequently in a funny way … if you see me smile during a meeting, you will know a bubble popped up in my brain!



Lateral thinking reminded me of the Wizard of Oz and the Yellow brick road. In the movie, Dorothy is told very strictly and repeatedly to walk ON the Yellow brick road, never to leave the path, if she wanted to reach the wonderful city of Oz in order to meet the all-powerful Wizard.

the yellow brick roadI could not keep seeing the similarities between this scene and the corporate life where we are told, again and again, to follow the strategic plan, to keep our KPIs in mind, to reach our annual goal if we were to reach the wizard … or our bonus! And like the corporate life, the bonus or the Wizard in the movie is never as good as expected.

But, boy, are we reminded to follow the path and not ever deviate from the norm!

And here I was, ever since I remember trying to follow the path, always questioning the path, asking about “the way” and why not go another way … and being reminded to go back to the path … and in some cases, just shut up!

The weird part of this story is that I also kept seeing Dorothy succeed in the movie by going off the road. And looking back on my professional life, every success, small and big, was obtained because I veered off the path. Because I thought of new ways of doing things.  This was the story of my life…

From the days in high school when I realized there was no way I could memorize the History lessons if I were to binge study in the last week before the exam (the preferred way used by my school buddies)… I simply could not memorize under pressure … so I studied every day after dinner for a maximum of 2 h.

In college, I kept studying reactions in organic chemistry in graphic forms…I even took up the challenge issued by our teacher to create a new series of graphic reactions to help others study the new material…I later learned that my graphs had been used her after by generations of students! I was the only one weird enough to try! But it made so much more sense to do it that way!

From my years in University where I would study again for a maximum of 2–3 hours in a row then take a 1 h break, then back at it … then another break … studying biochemical pathway by drawing them, pushing electrons in my mind and drawing them (yes , using the same Organic Chem drawings from college!), again and agin until, it made sense … but not the way my buddies would do it … buy was I weird, never going to parties…

During my Ph. D studies in molecular biology, I would read scientific papers on those new regulatory proteins called transcription factors and argue with the professors about their tertiary structure and interactions with the genes they controlled …and got continuously rebuffed …”Young man, if it were that simple you would not be doing a PhD to try to understand this”!

I would read the “recipe” from peer-reviewed published papers and modify the prescribed way of doing experiments, under the watchful eyes and dark looks from my thesis mentor and lab director. And finding along the way a new way of extracting DNA in a gentler way from the atrial cells’ nucleus to study the histone-DNA superstructure and DNAse hypersensitive sites. Boy was it tough…bad results, unexpected findings…meaning not what my director expected therefore …bad results… Apparently, it was not enough to let me reach the Ph.D. program … so I quit the program, found a job and ended up writing my Master Thesis while working full-time as a scientist for a Wine Yeast manufacturer. By looking at the data using new scanning devices from my work, I could confirm a link between my results and secondary DNA structures that the then-current computer programs could not find. There had to be a link! I found it by “reading” manually a few hundred nucleotides of the available DNA sequences and imagining a lollipop sticking out of the chromosome! But again, although it made sense, it was not according to the “correct” way of seeing the gene and its regulatory apparatus.

“Chromatin structure of the ANF gene”, Francois Lavallee 1990, McGill University.
“Chromatin structure of the ANF gene”, Francois Lavallee 1990, McGill University.

Yeah right, if Barbara McClintock had followed the “correct” way , her jumping genes would not have revolutionize the field of genetics and earned her a Nobel prize…ah well, I had started to think of myself as a deranged and mis-adapted individual…certainly, I did not fit in their box!

During my first job, I developed a method to modify the DNA fingerprinting procedure in place from a 3-day process to a 3-hour process to determine the identity of yeast strains. And then help implement the PCR methodology with a colleague from Bordeaux, France. Yes, the same PCR everybody talks about in these pandemic days … this technique was developed during the days I was doing my master degree … we used to do it manually in the beginning … a tedious process!


By making a mistake, I speeded up the radioactive detection process from 12h to 20 minutes, increasing at the same time the resolution of the X-ray image and facilitating the computer scanning and analysis. Serendipity, here I come! Without the lateral thinking I was unknowingly using, I would have trashed the very “hot” results obtained on that day!

But each time, I had to fight with my bosses. To convince them, to try it anyway, to show it worked and … ultimately to leave because they could not accept the way I worked. I was never a docile employee even though I was very productive.

The next two years proved eventful and I could not find my place. I had started to feel like a corporate deviant or an authority rebel but at the same time I always had the good of the organization at heart.

In the summer of 1994, I had an encounter with a new type of life: jobless!

Funding suddenly stopped for the lab where I was working at the time and I ended up spending the summer with my 3-year-old son, attending interviews for a job that was promised but longed to happen. This was a great summer! My son enjoyed his dad and the long bicycle rides. And I tremendously enjoyed it too!! A unique experience! When the job offer came, I was relieved but sad at the same time. Spending time with my son with no job preoccupation was a gift and it ended too soon…although the financial pressure were being felt!

The first 18 months at the new job were a shock! Not only was I working the evening shift, I had to comply with the Good Manufacturing Practices of the pharmaceutical environment but working with unionized employees was a new territory. Boy, did they know their collective agreement! I was trying to use common sense and they were quoting their CA every time to let me know that they could not do what I was asking. The Union vs Company game was not at all to my tastes! Looking back on those days, I also have to admit with utter dismay that I fell into the management trap, the command and control type of management that was in use at the time … and still is to a large extent!

In summary: I was a bad boss. It took a few years to go over this.

But then I started working under a new boss in 1995. This guy had a low gravity center (his words) and was practising judo. Basically, he was grounded. No large ego but a lot of self-confidence. Having a supervisor like me who wanted to do things differently did not phase him … at all! As long as I could deliver, he was OK with everything. And I was delivering. He was a great boss and a great teacher. And then he left…

I was devastated. He had helped me so much! Had so much trust in what we were trying to accomplish! He called me a year later to ask if I could help their team deliver a training program… I innocently asked him why the current trainer could not do it… I knew the training guy and he was very capable. He then admitted that their trainer had resigned. It clicked really fast in my mind…” are you looking for a replacement?” The rest is easy to guess. I joined him in this new adventure. It last 7 years until I created my company.

He was my boss for 3 of those years and the same level of trust made us achieve our goals. He was then promoted and his successor did not have the same level of self-confidence or ego … those were not pleasant years. Her successor was not better, neither the following one. Was I the cause of those unfortunate years? I had not changed, the environment did. My team and I were still doing a great job but I ended up being a typical manager, writing monthly reports, doing performance appraisals and attending boring meetings with an utter lack of vision for a dismal 2-year period.

I ended up being pushed from my job as a training manager to become a “special project” manager. In other words… I was shelved! I did not even realize it! After a few depressing months and a close-call burnout I came to a conclusion: we had a great project that had to come to fruition before the next 2 years and we could not succeed doing things the usual way. If I were to burn out, I would go out with a bang and I would do things my way, for the right reasons and not the corporate bullshit I was spoon-fed every day.

My very cold boss at the time, during a Teambuilding activity, assigned to me a sentence chosen among dozens of bits of paper randomly distributed on the table top … she smiled wickedly and gave me my “sentence”, (what a great pun!): “Francois, she told me, you make the impossible possible”.

Oh? My position of “special project” manager came with a budget of … nothing. I was managing a team of … me.

No money, no resource? Making the impossible possible?

To quote one of our famous Canadian PM: just watch me!

I will not go into any details here. The one thing I kept was my official authority level 45… I could sign up to $5000. I simply “forgot” to ask permission before I signed for “stuff.” I frequently begged for forgiveness … and a budget number from other departments. Hey, the nitty-gritty of it all will have to wait!

Suffice it to say that we succeeded. We. Not I. Oh yes I have to humbly admit that I pushed here and there, but we had a great team and a great goal. My great boss was still at the helm but far removed form me  as a VP … he kept on trusting me and defending me at the management committee meetings. And only today can I explain what happened.

Lateral leadership happened.

Lateral leadership is to follow the yellow brick road but not by walking on it. Dorothy walked on it to reach the Wizard of Oz and ended up walking in a field of opium poppies … and would have died if the witch Glenda and not kept her cool and froze the field … that’s keeping one’s cool! She succeeded afterwards by NOT walking on it.

I take the analogy one step further. Imagine a railroad track. Where is it safe to walk? NOT on the track! But the track is a great way to see the way. So, lateral leadership is to follow the track by keeping off the track without being sidetracked! There are some caveats as the road is rocky and not always levelled besides the track. The main advantage, however, is that when the train comes down the track, it does not hit you! A great way to survive!

Lateral leadership is more than a metaphor, however. To loosely quote Steve job, I could connect the dots by looking backwards … the reason I could achieve any success in the past was always because of 3 components:

  • The will to do it,
  • the courage to continue and
  • the curiosity to walk a path that did not exist before I took a step on it!


How much time are you willing to spend every week on this project, this vision? Malcom Gladwell mentions 10,000 hours to become a champion and you still believe that thinking about your project 10 minutes a day will make it happen? Think again! A rough way to evaluate your “will” from 1-10 is to evaluate the time you spend on your project each week, 1 h? 3 h? Or 10 hours or more? Very rough estimate but a telling one…


How many times will you take “no” for an answer when you want or need something from the organization or your boss to achieve your goals? More than 5 or until your boss threatens to fire you? (They won’t by the way!). 2, 3 “NOs”?  Only one refusal? Less than 1? Yes, it is possible … all those times when you thought about asking but then assumed the answer would be no … and you believed yourself and did not even ask! But then, remember when you were a teenager and you kept pushing the curfew deadline, five minutes at a time … or when you were a kid and really, really wanted that toy … yep, you kept asking Mom … and strategically asked Dad when that did not work out … ah bright and persistent kid!

How persistent are you today? Can you face more than one “no”?


Do you always park at the same spot? Do you always use the same route to work? Have you ever tried eating with your other hand … you have two hands you know? Do you always use the same font on your computer? What if you changed what you eat at your favourite restaurant or sit at a different table with a different group of colleague at the cafeteria? What if you asked for help instead of pretending to know it all and trying to come up with great ideas all by yourself for endless hours in your dimly lit office? What if you were to co-create a project plan and your budget with y9our team instead of simply digging ever deeper into your usual methodology? What if you were to attend a networking event with absolutely no expectation except human interactions, weird, random and spontaneous interactions? What if you dumped all you know and ask your 10-year-old kid for advice on how to design your next strategic plan? What if…?

Be honest, evaluate yourself , on a scale of 1-10, how curious are you? How ope are you to weird and wonderful ideas?

I often ask my clients and participants of my Think Tanks to evaluate their level of WILL, COURAGE and CURIOSITY from 1–10. And multiply the 3 numbers to determine their level of lateral leadership. We have a challenge if their result is less than 125 (or 5 for each of the 3 scales).


My goal is to make their leadership go up! One manager at a time, all together at the same time!

I love concepts and metaphors… I love this one

Lateral leadership : 

to follow the track by keeping off the track without being sidetracked!

I have found that most managers have a low lateral leadership, or laterality, index. They do not really want to change, they have limited courage to face their fears and organizational resistance and they are not ready to try something new.

I even thought of asking potential customers to rate themselves BEFORE asking for a proposal … because I know that if their level is not high enough they will not like what I will offer them! Too scary!

A few years after I coined the term “organizational biologist”, I found a definition on Facebook

organizational biologist

Organizational biologist: someone who solves a problem you did not know you had  in a way you don’t undersrtand…and I add  “with a solution that did not exist before we co-created it!”

Today I can add two more aspects to it

Organizational biologist: someone who will help you develop lateral leadership in your organization.

Organizational biologist: someone who will help you implement the laws of organizational biology, the study of life in organization.


What are the 3 laws?

Ahhhhh…. Do not miss the next chapter!

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