Engaging Groups Around Solving Tough Organizational Problems

Yesterday in conversation with a client who leads Six Sigma projects to enhance operational excellence in his organization, a moment of clarity emerged around a distinction that is not always apparent on what is needed for successful implementation. (The Six Sigma methodology is a proven and rigorous approach for systematically identifying problems, examining root causes, generating possible solutions, and eventually selecting the best according to objective criteria.) Essentially, the insight boils down to this:

  • Six Sigma processes are appropriate for studying and analyzing processes and systems. Underlying this methodology is the assumption that: 1) operational and production processes can be viewed from a problem-solving lens; 2 the problem though complicated, can ultimately be known; 3) through appropriate analysis and study, the problem can be solved, i.e., a ‘right’ answer can be found; and 4) a good implementation plan can then eventually be designed and implemented. Most Six Sigma teams devote the bulk of their attention and energy on getting this right.
  • Organizational change and transformation processes are based on different assumptions: 1) organizations and people are systems; 2) systems are complex and therefore are inherent unknowable; 3) complex issues and systems cannot be solved; at best they can be aligned with a common direction and purpose; 4) successful implementation in a system requires the alignment of individual and collective, as well as personal and organizational/community systems and structures. Even if the Six Sigma gets a 100% correct answer to the problem, implementation may not succeed unless conscious attention is also placed in parallel during the project on engaging the people within the organization for alignment with the eventual change.
  • Conversational methods are uniquely suited to help people grapple with the complexity of the need and implications of change, to understand and embrace diverse points of view, and to gradually gain a larger system’s perspective. Such methods are also effective in drawing out insights, generating creative ideas, and obtaining contributions from the people affected by the change that the Six Sigma team can incorporate or address in such a way that it may make a big difference in the eventual acceptance of the proposed changes. Adding conversational methods to the Six Sigma toolkit, and learning how to attend to the dimension of change from start to end can go a long way to enhance the eventual success of a Six Sigma project.

Learning Community

Just finished co-leading an intense, transformative, and profoundly satisfying 3-day program for advanced practitioners (The Inspired Facilitator: Achieving Mastery Engaging Organizations and Communities) at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver. We came together initially a group of strangers willing to be vulnerable and learn together in public, and quickly gelled into a powerful learning community. This poem by StarHawk describes some of the energy of that circle.

Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us
whenever we come into our power.
Community means strength that joins our strength
to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing. A circle of friends.
Someplace where
we can be free.”

–StarHawk, Dreaming in the Dark

Whosoever Wishes to Know the World, Heraklietos

“Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its
particular details.
Knowledge is not intelligence.
In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected.
Change alone is unchanging.
The same road goes both up and down.
The beginning of a circle is also its end.
Not I, but the world says it: all is one.
And yet everything comes in season.”

–Heraklietos of Ephesos, 500 B.C

The Road Ahead, Rainer Maria Rilke

“My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance.
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke

On the Other Side of the Door

A hopeful poem in a time of chaos and upheaval…

On the other side of the door
I can be a different me,
As smart and as brave and as funny or strong
As a person could want to be.
There’s nothing too hard for me to do,
There’s no place I can’t explore
Because everything can happen
On the other side of the door.

On the other side of the door
I don’t have to go alone.
If you come, too, we can sail tall ships
And fly where the wind has flown.
And wherever we go, it is almost sure
We’ll find what we’re looking for
Because everything can happen
On the other side of the door.

by Jeff Moss, found in Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach

Key Questions in Large System Change Solutions

I love technology! I had been taking Otto Scharmer’s online Presencing course with some 125+ folks from all over the world (a most worthwhile course by the way that I highly recommend!), and had not been able to complete the last couple of classes. So I just signed in yesterday, and there was Otto, as vital and interesting as the morning he originally taped the lectures live.

The fourth class topic is about the right-hand side of the U-curve, and prototyping, or how to put vision and intention on its feet with experiments that would allow an exploration of the future by doing. Otto shared seven great questions to ask in order to sort out which of the many possible ideas/solutions to prototype. I share them here, because I believe they have applicability not only in this type of situation, but also for just about any type of implementation planning. Here they are, with the source fully acknowledged as: Otto Scharmer, Presencing Global Classroom, Session No. 4, Prototyping, Weekly Thursday Sessions, March 20-April 17, 2008.

  1. Relevant: Does it matter to the key stakeholders involved?
  2. Revolutionary: can it change the system – the structure that created the problem in the first place?
  3. Rapid: can you do it quickly?
  4. Rough: can you do it small scale? Is it doable and doesn’t cost millions? Can you pull off in a couple of weeks or months?
  5. Right: have you got the right dimensions? Does the microcosm mirror the whole? Do you see in the experiment the core issue that really underlies the fundamental situation you are wishing to address?
  6. Relationally effective: are you leveraging the existing networks and competencies? When you deal with a number of other organizations and players, you want to come up with something where you can leverage the existing competencies in the network, and doing so will give you a jumpstart in addressing the challenge.
  7. Replicable: can you scale it up? Could this go viral?

Collective Learning & Co-Creative Engagement

“None of us is as smart as all of us. …the problems we face are too complex to be solved by any one person or any one discipline. Our only chance is to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines who can refract a problem through the prism of complementary minds allied in common purpose.”

Whether our quest is to solve complex social issues and wicked environmental problems, or our need is to create sustainable value in partnership with the entire value chain of suppliers, employees and customers, Collective Learning is an essential process for integrating and aligning diverse perspectives and knowledge. Over the past 25-30 years, our collective grasp of the interconnectedness of economic, environmental and social systems has risen greatly. We increasingly recognize that more synergistic, innovative and sustainable solutions can ultimately be developed when the collective intelligence and multiple perspective of many minds is focused together.

Collective Learning occurs though group conversations around questions that matter. Such conversations can take place either through one-time, multiple or ongoing activities involving in-person meetings or workshops, online- or tele- conferencing, or multiple engagement processes involving a combination of all of these. The goal of Collective Learning in an organizational or community group is to increase the collective knowledge, understanding, and capacity of members around the issue, such that independent individual action and decisions, as well as any collective action, can be aligned with the system’s interests.

Collective learning involves thinking and reflecting together about complex issues in order to generate new insights and possibilities. Such thinking must rise above the lowest common denominator of understanding often associated with debate to tap the full potential of collective intelligence and wisdom in the group.

Read the full paper I wrote in 2006 about Collective Learning and Co-Creative Engagement including such topics as:

  • Collective Learning Antecedants
  • The Art and Practice of Collective Learning
  • Collective Learning Questions & Practices
  • Co-Creative Engagement Methods

Dialogue – Do’s & Don’ts


What are the keys to enhancing the effectiveness, outcomes and impact of our Dialogue and Deliberation practice, no matter what the methodology, scale and approach adopted?

This question was the focus of the Saturday morning plenary session at the first Canadian Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation in October 2005 in Ottawa Canada. The session was facilitated and designed by myself and Miriam Wyman, with input from Diane Abbey-Livingstone and Ray Gordezky, and Graphic Facilitation provided by Christine Valenza and Sara Waldston (whose image is shown here). The previous blog on the importance of purpose reminded me of this valuable work, and I want to ensure that the results are known and shared broadly. (What follows is extracted from the pdf report I co-authored and can be downloaded by following the link below.)

From the outset, we intended to offer the results of the Dialogue & Deliberation: Principle and Design Do’s and Don’ts plenary results as a ‘work in progress’ for continued refinement by the global D&D community, as part of C2D2’s contribution to the growing body of collective intelligence around D&D practice. After the conference, I compiled and consolidated the data, then met with Jan Elliott and Miriam Wyman by phone several times to further analyze and summarize the raw data into this Summary.

For the most part, we came out of this exercise feeling that indeed there are principles that are inviolate – things that must characterize any dialogue or deliberation process; these actually do underpin our work and guide us in design, implementation and follow-up. These include things like transparency about purpose, accountability, inclusivity, commitment to feedback – what Dr. Peter A. Singer has called “procedural values”. Design relates to aspects of the dialogue or deliberation itself, like matching approach to situation or numbers, ensuring comfortable and conducive physical arrangements, creating guidelines for engagement, etc. In general, design flows from principles, and careful design is essential to ensuring that principles are ‘lived out.’ That is, principles and design are very closely connected and not always easy to distinguish. So we found ourselves moving away from our initial idea of first identifying principles and then talking about design.

I invite you to download and use the Dialogue & Deliberation: Principle and Design Do’s and Don’ts Summary we compiled as a platform for further reflection and conversation.

You Were Made For This

This message by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (author of Women Who Run with the Wolves) seems perfect as we move into the darkest and longest days of the year: “there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.” This is the full text:

“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails. We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these—to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D
Author of the best seller Women Who Run with the Wolves