Two quotes came across my field of vision today, both speaking to the art of working in groups in a living, present, emergent way, mirroring some of my own thinking over the past few years.
“One primary qualification for guiding others in a living process is less on what we know and more upon our capacity for holding presence with the unknown; that is, to be curious and open to whatever is emerging in our awareness that appears to be fuzzy, ambiguous or unclear. This capacity for sense making is amplified when we are together and diminished when we are apart. There is a power that comes to us when we meet as an ‘ensemble’ where, for a moment, we forget ourselves and work for the benefit of the larger whole. Creating spaces for exploring what we do not yet know, spaces where we can be present to what is unformed and incomplete, sets in motion a process of unfolding order, a practice which has always been familiar for the artist but unfamiliar to others whose have been educated into a more parts-based mentality that is common in the industrial world. Once this living process is initiated, it will follow along the trajectory of its own unfolding potential—one that is natural, organic and unrepeatable—and which reflects the expression of wholeness as it appears to us in that particular moment.” — Michael Jones, Roots of Aliveness, Fieldnotes
“Humans in relationship with each other are, after all, living systems, and as such even a group of two people can be an incredibly complex system, bouncing between high degrees of chaos and order. So there is nothing whatsoever mechanical about human beings, and therefore any approach to working with humans – and life in general, is by definition a living systems approach….And so I am led instead to think about the attributes of living systems so that I might better understand effective ways of working with people.” Chris Corrigan, Parking Lot
Chris and Michael’s words echo the thinking I have done with my colleague Ann Svendsen as we’ve developed our Co-Creative Multi-Stakeholder Engagement model, which is grounded in a living systems view, and suggests that new ways of thinking, leading and engaging are required for innovative outcomes. Some of the characteristics from living systems that are important include:
New Ways of Thinking
- Systemic. A shift in thinking from a mechanistic consideration of separate parts to the relationships and dynamics of the functioning whole.
- Network-Based. Recognition of networks as the fundamental pattern of all living systems, and of human networks as complex adaptive systems. A ‘community’ is created over time around shared purpose, language and meaning , and the development of shared values, reciprocity and mutual trust in the longer term from being and doing together.
- Holistic. An integrative mindset where the aim is to evolve the whole system while allowing each “part” to retain its unique core identity and purpose.
- Sustainable. A focus on the social, environmental and economic considerations and impacts in both the short and long term.
- Inclusive. Engagement of all relevant and affected members of the system, rather than just those stakeholders who meet the test of credibility, influence and urgency. The organizing assumption is that there is strength and innovative potential in diversity.
New Ways of Leading
- Voluntary. Stakeholders are free to set their own priorities, and to contribute when and how much they wish. They engaged because they are motivated to do so, rather than ‘compliant’ and forced to participate.
- Relationship-Focused. Building connections, trust-based relationships, and mutual understanding is essential for effective system-wide action. Relationships between members of a network are dynamic – they grow, change and die out over time.
- Egalitarian. A co-creative approach is egalitarian where members of a system come together as equals to address shared issues and opportunities. Shared contributions, shared benefits, and respect for the contributions of all are important features of this approach.
- Common Good Focus – The focus is on seeking a common good and on finding common ground where stakeholders are willing to take action together in ways that integrate perspectives and benefit the whole.
New Ways of Engaging
- Learning-Focused. Creating opportunities for learning together about the history and points of view of other members, developing shared language, vocabulary, interpretations and mental models are all important aspects of building the will, intent and capacity of diverse networks to act together. Collective learning starts from the assumption that no one organization or individual has all the answers, and that addressing complex issues depends on integrated, innovative solutions co-created from all parts of a system.
- Authentic and Meaningful Dialogue. Transformative and learning conversations between stakeholders that support genuine interactions and communication are emphasized, rather than debate-based and polarizing appproaches.
- Self-Organizing. Ultimately, though there is usually a convenor, responsibility and leadership for outcomes is shared; leaders emerge rather than being assigned. This reflects the property of emergent systems to self organize and evolve to higher levels of orders that are both more complex and more capable.
For more information, read: Convening Stakeholder Networks