Wise Action/Lasting Impact

These complex times call for meaningful involvement of people, tapping their collective intelligence and wisdom to co-create solutions that serve the common good. “Engaging Communities and Organizations for Wise Action/Lasting Impact: How to Convene, Design and Facilitate Meaningful Conversations Around Complex Issues” is a new program that I have designed and co-lead with my dear friend and colleague Brenda Chaddock.

Wise Action is a practically-focused, skill-building program for people who want to gain confidence in the process of convening, designing, and facilitating the engagement of a community or organization. It is for people who are in positions where they are already asked to be the guide in the overall process of engagement, and to lead in a whole journey from the call to the plan for action. The program is for facilitators and practitioners who want and need to understand the bones beneath the experience of hosting inquiry and conversation, to the methods, the principles, guidelines that often are tacit knowledge to a skilled facilitator. Wise Action is a blend of formal teaching, action learning, experiencing, understanding the key elements of each methodology, of design principles, and of blending methods to achieve a desired result.

The dates of our next offerings are January 18-21, 2009. A 3.5 day residential practice retreat on Bowen Island BC at the magnificent Rivendell Lodge (download PDF flyer – www.breakthroughsunlimited.com/wise-action.pdf). Register: myriam@myriamlaberge.ca

Understanding Complexity

Since last fall, I have been busily engaged with a group of volunteers across the country organizing the next Canadian conference on Dialogue and Deliberation – Facing Complex Issues Together, coming up in Vancouver BC, November 12-14, 2007 (do register if you haven’t yet done so!). Here are some key research pieces I compiled to help us understand complexity.

Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities identifies three types of complexity: dynamic, social and generative. Dynamic complexity relates to the lags that occur in time and space between the actions taken by organizations (causes) and their consequent social and/or environmental impacts (effects). Social complexity arises from the diversity, multiplicity, and interdependence of stakeholders from different social, economic, political, geographic or other systems. Generative complexity arises from encountering issues, realities, problems and opportunities that have never before been faced by human beings, and where past solutions and methods no longer work or cannot be applied. Adam Kahane will be a guest panelist at C2D2.

Dr. Brenda Zimmerman (co-author of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed) says that understanding whether an issue is simple, complicated or complex is critically important to how we go about addressing it. Solutions to complex issues require involvement of multiple views to gain as much of the whole picture as possible; dialogue methodologies are very helpful here. At best, it is important to recognize that we will likely only ever arrive at ‘good enough for now’ solutions to complex issues. At any time, dynamic, social or generative sources of complexity may cause today’s solutions to become ineffective or irrelevant. A good example of this is the case of BC’s interior pine forests. Hard-come-by plans to manage the forests sustainably have been dramatically altered by the arrival of the pine beetle due to climate change. The beetles are decimating the pine forests and transforming the landscape, ecology and local economies at a rate beyond anything previously envisaged. Such is the nature of complex issues.

  • Simple – the issue is known; there is certainty of the same outcome every time; e.g., a recipe, a puzzle; an oil change.
  • Complicated – the issue is knowable, even if very difficult technically; there is a high degree of certainty of the outcome; e.g., putting a spaceship on the moon; organizing a Live Aid concert.
  • Complex – issue is unknowable; there is uncertainty as to the outcome; e.g., raising a child, achieving sustainability, reducing world hunger, addressing homelessness, reducing drug use. etc.

(Definitions extracted from Dr. Zimmerman’s PowerPoint presentation, “Complexity, Mental Models and Ecocyle/Panarchy” delivered in Ottawa, 2007.)

Tapping Our Collective Capacity

In June, I had the fortunate pleasure to attend Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge’s workshop, The Art & Practice of Presencing: Human Purpose & the Field of the Future at the Omega Point Center in Rhinebeck, NY (US).

Weaving together the experiences and stories from their two groundbreaking books, Presence: An Exploration of Every Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, and Otto’s new book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, the workshop underscored how any profound change process, whether in a personal, organizational, or social setting, is the result of a journey that includes both tangible and intangible dimensions. This journey begins with the realization that novel, innovative and sustainable solutions require a higher level of consciousness to be tapped than that which created the current situation.

So many of our current attempts to address the complex issues before us fail dismally, suggests Otto, because of the ‘blind spot’ in our collective leadership and everyday interactions to the source from which effective responses and action actually come into being. A shift in the quality of leadership intention and attention is required from:

  • downloading (listening to reconfirm what you already know), to
  • factual listening (noticing to disconfirm what you know and notice what is different), to
  • empathetic listening (redirecting your seeing through another’s perspective), and finally to
  • generative listening (connecting to a deeper realm of emergence; the emerging field of future possibility).

There are practices to help leaders develop a new consciousness and to tap collective leadership capacities to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way. These involve developing an open mind, an open heart and an open will. The Presencing Institute has recently been launched to help refine this social technology, and make it available to change makers, innovators and communities.

Leading In A Complex World

What type of leadership is needed for wise outcomes to emerge from the engagement of communities and organizations? Some friends and colleagues are meeting this week in Belgium to ponder this question. I was also at a conference this week – “Changing Community Systems through Collaboration” where in many ways the same question was being asked. And the answer they came up with is about the importance of letting go of the ‘expert’ leader model and of inviting instead, diverse stakeholders to grapple with best solutions to complex issues along with them. Margaret Wheatley says,

“A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time. In fact, in this day and age, when problems are increasingly complex, and there simply are not simple answers, and there is no simple cause and effect any longer, I cannot imagine how stressful it must be to be a leader and to pretend that you have the answer. And a life-affirming leader is one who knows how to rely on and use the intelligence that exists everywhere in the community, the company or the school or the organization. And so these leaders act as hosts, as stewards of other people’s creativity and other people’s intelligence. And when I say host, I mean a leader these days needs to be one who convenes people, who convenes diversity, who convenes all viewpoints in processes where our intelligence can come forth. So these kinds of leaders do not give us the answers, but they help gather us together so that together we can discover the answers.” >Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Berrett-Koehler Publisher

Fragmentation & Coherence

The ability of a community to collaborate is eroded by fragmentation into parts – diverse social networks with different values, vocabularies, histories, goals and purposes. Social complexity increases fragmentation. The greater the number of stakeholders, the more views exist about the nature of the issue (i.e., what the problem or opportunity really is), and the appropriate response.

Fragmentation“, says Jeff Conklin, CogNexus Institute, “suggests a condition in which the people involved see themselves as more separate than united, and in which information and knowledge are chaotic and scattered. The fragmented pieces are, in essence, the perspectives, understandings, and intentions of the collaborators. Fragmentation, for example, is when the stakeholders in a project are all convinced that their version of the problem is correct. Fragmentation can be hidden, as when stakeholders don’t even realize that there are incompatible tacit assumptions about the problem, and each believes that his or her understandings are complete and shared by all.”

Collaboration is enabled by increasing the coherence of the group of stakeholders around an issue. Through respectful learning and inquiry, the shared base of understanding of the issue is built up, as is the shared commitment to wise action. Social coherence is the recognized sense of a larger integrity, unity or wholeness among the parts. It results in collective intelligence, where a larger picture than one’s initial view emerges from understanding the different needs, interests, language, roles, positions and interpretations of all the stakeholders. Collective capacity is another outcome of social coherence – the ability of stakeholders to generate and act on, or at least to recognize and agree upon, a mutually acceptable response to a complex issue.

Changing Community Systems Through Collaboration

Ali Grant, who is leading an innovative program on collaborative efforts in complex times, told me about the above upcoming conference on June 5 and 6th in Abbotsford, Britich Columbia. The program is very reasonably priced and offers great content and process value on how to build strong and vibrant communities (Sherri Torjman, Caledon Institute for Social Policy), how to support sustainable change through comprehensive solutions (Jay Connor, The Collaboratory for Community Support) and how to develop comprenhensive community initiatives (Mark Cabaj,Tamarack: An Institute for Community Engagement).

Please register right away if you are interested in attending – there is still space (click on title link to download the PDF flyer).

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.

There Is No ‘Right’ Answer for a Complex System

E.F. Schumacher, renowned economic thinker and statistician (author of Small Is Beautiful; A Guide for the Perplexed) pointed out that there are two types of problems: those for which there is a right answer (e.g., why is my engine leaking oil?), and those for which there is no one right answer (e.g., why are we running out of oil?). The more we learn about complex issues, the more we understand as Schumacher and Peter Senge (MIT Professor, author or The Fifth Discipline) say that “there is no right answer for a complex system”. To find our way through complexity, we need to be willing to invite, and enter into, learning conversations with a broad diversity of people who each contributes a partial view, from which a wholer view emerges.

Openness and curiosity help us probe beneath familiar assumptions and territory to explore multiple perspectives in the promise of achieving a more expansive view. “This”, says Senge, “is easy to say but extraordinarily difficult to do”. Eventually, the wise path towards greater wholeness requires not only that we open our minds, but also our hearts to see how we, and not just them, are part of the problem. One more thing is need of true leaders, the courage to act upon this broader understanding.

See: Systems Citizenship: The Leadership Mandate for this Millennium, Peter Senge, Reflections.Solonline.org

Working Together on Large Scale Change

Many thoughtful people who have been committed to profound positive change for many years are taking time to stop and reflect together on what may be emerging from the nearly countless gatherings of people all over the world. This was the focus of a recent conference I attended with several friends, entitled Nexus for Change. Peter Block, who sat beside me during one intense Open Space session, had this to say before attending, “Working on our own, valuable as that might be, we will never have the impact that working in concert on a large, movement level scale might have. This conference holds the possibility of clarifying what we are learning and creating transformation in a way we have not yet imagined.”

As Steve Cady (one of the authors of The Change Handbook -see reference in booklist below) opened the conference, he invited us to apply the notion of forgiveness as we move through an emergent conference design, remembering that emergent systems are messy, and require trust, learning and the willingness to stretch beyond our comfort zone so that something new can emerge. The conference was indeed messy at times, and it was also beautiful! We made connections with people whose work we have admired and applied, and with whom we’ve longed to engage with. We met exceptional and wonderful people who do this work all over the world, and forged new friendships and bonds that will surely last. We entered into passionate conversations and shared our stories. We shared the wisdom we have gained over the years. And we agreed that it’s not over!

Personally, I came to the conference with one burning question, “What are the underlying patterns beneath the methods and processes for whole system change?” A large group of us coalesced around just this conversation convened by Emily Axelrod and Peggy Holman during an intense Open Space session at the end of the conference. The contributions were thoughtful and diverse; many different aspects of the underlying patterns were explored. We agreed that the conversation is not over. In the final Circle of the conference, we committed, Emily Axelrod, Sylvia James and I, that we will convene another conversation on the topic, and invite the group to meet again to continue deepening our understanding of this work, so that we may be more effective in the arenas where we work and ultimately contribute positively to the world that needs this work. Peggy Holman said it best about our deeper intention, “The faster we can scale this up in our extinction world, the greater the chance that it will still be here.”

Advancing Human Capacity to Work Together

Recently I clarified my work purpose with the help of a wonderful coach. It summarizes down to this: To help advance human capacity to work together and co-create a desirable future. My specific contribution is primarily to design, facilitate, and teach about – effective, empowering, and inspiring processes where groups, organizations and communities can discover and take positive action towards wholeness, deeper purpose and possibility.

There are many others in the world with a similar focus and intent. The Collective Wisdom Initiative is just such a virtual community. Their Declaration of Intent states: “We know that people in groups can consciously generate collective wisdom and that individuals can cultivate their capacity to receive, to hear and to amplify wisdom in the communities they are called to serve. By coming together in groups to consciously generate collective wisdom, we believe we have the potential to heal conflicts that seem impossible to heal; embrace with compassion polarities and paradoxes that tear the fabric of our psyches and communities; and cultivate our capacities to love and forgive in groups splintered and polarized. We come together as artists, educators, mystics, practical idealists, scholars, activists, and especially pragmatists, bringing forward some of our own light and seeking to do together what is not possible alone.”

The growing list of dedicated world servers on this site is uplifting, and I am honoured to have my co-authored piece on their website: Co-Creative Power: Engaging Stakeholder Networks for Learning and Innovation.