Leadership in a Complex World

Love this quote:

“In this day and age, when problems are increasingly complex and there are no simple answers, and no simple cause and effect – how stressful for leaders to pretend that they have the answer. A life-affirming leader is one who knows how to rely on and use the intelligence that exists everywhere in the community, the company, school, or organization. Such leaders act as stewards of other people’s creativity and intelligence. Today’s leader needs to be one who convenes people, who convenes diversity, who convenes all viewpoints in processes where our intelligence can come forth. These kinds of leaders do not give us the answers; rather they help gather us so that we can discover the answers together.”

– Margaret Wheatley, author, Leadership and the New Science

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.

Starting With Engagement Purpose

I have been a long-standing member of the International Association of Facilitators, and enjoy the benefits of the Group Facilitation Forum. This morning, I contributed to a thread related to my previous blog post on Stakeholder Engagement and Purpose. One of the contributors, Penny Walker from England, had offered this distinction which was very helpful to the IAF thread on Deliberative Events:

  • Broadly, the market research gang are interested in understanding the group so that they (the consultant / client) can better design the product / service / policy and better communicate it to people once it’s been designed.
  • The participation & involvement gang are interested in helping the group to develop its understanding, share perspectives, air differences and find ways forward, so that they (consultant / client AND stakeholders/public) can jointly design the product / service / policy and better implement it.

(Here is my posted response) This thread underlines the vital importance of understanding one’s broad purpose for engaging stakeholders, and then adopting the appropriate method to support it. Our sister organizations, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation in the USA, and the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation have been examining these issues for some time. Building on their work, I have developed a table that may further contribute to this conversation, see Best Methods for Engagement.

Following Penny’s categorization:

  • The “market research gang” as she refers to them, often have as their purposes for engagement: to tell their story and to obtain input. Certain methods are more appropriate here such as Focus Groups, Town Hall Meetings, Open Houses, Public Hearings, Surveys, Websites. The methods that fall under these forms of engagement in general tend to be one-way and to some extent can be viewed as initially transactional in that they mainly serve the convening organization, though ultimately, the resulting products, services, policies should be better, if in fact, they have listened well.
  • The purposes informing why the “participation/involvement gang” may engage stakeholders (including citizens) are various, from building awareness and trust, learning together to build common ground, resolving conflict, collaborating, and working together over time. The methods that may be appropriate here are quite numerous and diverse. For example, the 21st Century Town Hall meeting that Gary spoke of is appropriate when input from large groups of people is desired to help formulate and decide upon the best course of action. Methods such as World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Charettes, Future Search and so on, are all exceptional in the results they can produce when chosen with care to serve the purpose, context and needs of the engagement.

A high degree of transparency about engagement purpose, how the results will be used, and whom they will serve is vital in my view to the success of any of these endeavours. As facilitators, the more we know about how various methods serve different engagement purposes, the more helpful we can be in assisting our clients create appropriate expectations with participants, and also in understanding the role that we may be called upon to play.

Two useful additional resources on this topic of engagement purpose may be found at:

Finally, for anyone interested in learning many of these engagement methods, including when and how to apply them for better outcomes, please visit Facilitating Wise Action for Lasting Impact: Engaging Groups in Meaningful Conversation Around Complex Issues for an upcoming learning intensive in January, 2009.

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

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

Effecting Systemic Change and Profound Innovation

When Adam Kahane was in town for the C2D2 2007 Vancouver conference, I was fortunate to be invited to a small invitational workshop hosted by the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University to explore some of his experiences and theories. Through his international consulting work with Reos/Generon Partners, and his colleagues Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge at the Society for Organizational Learning, Adam has contributed to the development and application of Theory U – a conceptual framework for thinking about deep collective change capable of bringing forth new realities in alignment with people’s deepest aspirations.

Theory U is a helpful visual for understanding three smaller movements or ‘spaces’ – co-sensing, co-presensing and co-creating – representing the journey we must go through to effect systemic change and achieve profound innovation. Typically, in the face of simple or complicated issues (where the problem is knowable, even if difficult socially or technically), our habitual reactions are a linear progression or extrapolation of past standard responses to similar challenges. The journey to addressing complex issues as illustrated by the U can be thought of as these three broad, not necessarily sequential, movements:

  • Co-Sensing – observing and listening with your mind and heart wide open through immersing yourself in current reality.
  • Co-Presencing – retreating from current reality, to reflect and connect to inner knowing, inspiration and will, for what life calls you to do.
  • Co-Creating – acting in an instant from a deep understanding of the whole, to prototype and embody new co-created and co-evolved approaches, solutions and responses.

In this framework, co-creation proceeds from agreement on a common purpose, but not necessarily on a common vision. Consistent with the philosophy of Future Search, parties agree to take action on perceived common ground, despite potential areas of significant disagreement, and learn by doing, that is, through fast-cycle prototyping where the extent of goodwill, commitment, understanding and trust are quickly establish in fact, rather than as possibility.

If we are trying to change reality, says Adam, then until we start to do something together, we haven’t really done anything to truly change reality. The imperative in co-creation is to begin to act together much sooner than we are normally comfortable with, because until we do, what might be possible remains merely a theory.

Enhancing Capacity for Collective Action

Recently, I came across the term “civic agency” which in many ways is closely related to the term “co-creative power” that I’ve coined with my colleague Ann Svendsen. “Civic agency”, according to Harry C. Boyte, the founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and author of Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life, is “the capacity of human communities and groups to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems across their differences of view. It involves questions of institutional design (that is, how to constitute groups, institutions, and societies for effective and sustainable collective action) as well as individual civic skills. Civic agency can also be understood in cultural terms, as practices, habits, norms, symbols and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.”

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute has developed a framework for building civic agency based on their theory of public work, which they define as “a sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process”. The public work framework moves away from the dominant paradigm model of one-way expert interventions, to a citizen-centered approach that taps and develops diverse talents, and also away from the illusion that professionals can – or should – control processes and outcomes. Five key elements that underpin the public work framework include:

  1. Surfacing the irreducible plurality of interests and ways of seeing the world which is part of the human condition, and understanding that at times interests can be integrated while at other times, merely mitigated.
  2. Conceiving of the citizen as a co-creator of a democratic society – a problem-solver and co-producer of public goods, which is a far more robust definition than volunteer, voter, protestor, client, or customer.
  3. Rooting action in the life of places and reconnecting it to mediating local institutions like schools, businesses, congregations, unions, and non-profits with local communities.
  4. Re-conceptualizing the role of professionals from service deliverer and outside expert to collaborator, organizer and catalyst (on tap not on top), and recognizing that knowledge is co-produced by diverse groups, not simply academics, with the purpose of helping to animate the public world, and not mainly securing commercial gain or communicating to other academics.
  5. Shifting the definition of democracy – so that it is not mainly about elections, laws, and institutions but rather about a society, a lived cultural experience; “not just out there in the public sphere”, “but in here, at the very soul of subjectivity,” and re-conceiving government not as prime mover but as catalyst and resource of citizens.

Wise Action That Lasts

The challenges of these times call for collective intelligence. We must co-create the solutions we seek… It is common sense to bring people together in conversation when you seek new solutions for the common good. When human beings are invited to work together, they will take ownership and responsibility for moving their ideas into action.” Margaret Wheatley

Engaging Communities and Organizations for Wise Action That Lasts: How to Host, Convene, Design and Facilitate Meaningful Conversations Around Complex Issues is a program I will be co-leading with Brenda Chaddock on July 9-11, 2007 at Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, British Columbia. The practice retreat is for those who aspire to engage their communities and organizations in focused meetings and conversations around real and pressing questions, and has grown out, and is in many ways an integral part, of the learning communities of Art of Hosting and the Nexus for Change. This experiential program combines theory and practice on meaningful and effective methods for engagement, using four participatory group methods used around the world for breakthrough thinking, decision-making and collaborative action: Dialogue, World Cafe, Open Space and Appreciative Inquiry.