Shifting Conditions That Hold Problems in Place

Two of my colleagues/friends have written very useful posts reflecting on practices that can enhance any year end reflections and new years planning you may be cooking up. Many of you who know me how much I value what emerges from practice and my learning path is to understand these things from a complexity perspective in various systems. Recently a client pointed me to a FSG blog post which had a link to a quote that has enlivened this path.

Social Innovation Generation in Canada defines systems change as “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.

Savor that one for a minute.

For me, the blog posts noted below give us some ideas about shifting those conditions that are holding our problems in place!

First, Mike Parker of Liminal Coaching shares a great set of ideas framing the complexity of todays work world (work in the broadest sense!) What is wonderful is that if you keep reading, you will get to Mike’s gift: the value of daydreaming in helping us navigate our complex worlds. Yes, daydreaming. He riffs on the time management Pomodoro practice and creates Liminal Pomodoro – a practice to relax and let your mind do its work in that daydreaming state of mind. This might be helping conditions in our own minds that are holding our problems in place. Read the post – seriously. Then go take a Liminal Pomodor break and come back and read the rest of this post. Who knows, you may see it in a whole new light!

The second post comes from Michelle Medley-Daniel from the Fire Adapted Network Community. I had the chance to work with Michelle and hear team last year and we played with many complexity informed practices such as Liberating Structure. Michelle informed me that what she learned during that retreat had continued to add value over the year – which of course made my day.

Michelle’s reflections came around the US Thanksgiving holiday and reflected one of my favorite themes, abundance and ditching the scarcity mindset. To me, these are not Pollyanna-ish practices, but survival skills. When you take a different perspective, you have the chances of shifting the conditions that are – yes – holding the problems in place. I’ve snipped the high level essence of 2 pieces of advice below, but let the beautiful pie picture lure you into her full posting.

How Practicing “Enough” and Looking Ahead Can Support Social Innovation

Idea 1: Adopt an abundance mentality and give scarcity thinking the boot!

  • Give freely.
  • Check your pace; make space for your priorities.
  • Practice gratitude.

Idea 2: As you reflect on the strategic opportunities that lie ahead, consider how people think about the future.

In the times of the immense wildfires in California, and the work that Michelle and her colleagues do at the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, this advice seems urgent and important.

Let’s shift the conditions that are holding the problems in place!

Transitions, Plumbers and Poets

In this season of immense natural disasters around the world (fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, war, famine, drought…) and here in the northern hemisphere, with a shift in the seasons themselves, I woke up thinking about transitions, and how we use them as plumbers and poets.

As a group process facilitator and change agent (or as Keith McCandless says, a “structured improvisationalist!), transitions are where real progress or failure happens. They are the moments when more is possible – often much more than we ever imagined. Disasters are transitions at a grand scale. Moments in a meeting are often at a subtle and even unnoticed scale. Both can and do change our future trajectories.

Transitions are often messy. Sam Kaner and his colleagues coined the term, “the groan zone” to describe a critical transition in group process. It is part of his larger “diamond of participation” from the “Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Makers,” an essential facilitation tome.

The groan zone is the transition from the opening, divergent part of group process to the convergent, decision making and acting part of the process. Think about the energy of ideation at the start of a project where people are flourishing in possibility (or not!). Then reality comes —  we move into decision making and, hopefully, action. In this liminal space we are often uncertain, confused, and lack confidence or momentum.  Intellectually and  viscerally the groan zone concept and its expression in my work  has always resonated for me. It named a transition that is critical for groups to move forward.

The wisest piece of advice from Kaner’s book was to name this discomfort and use it. I use that advice daily. But there is more to the practice than acknowledging discomfort. I want to reflect on both the intellectual and visceral, or intuitive aspects of this practice of working with transitions, especially groan zones.

This is where the plumbers and poets reference in the title comes in. Stephanie West Allen is a colleague who is constantly spotting and sharing resources. when the poets and plumbers link passed across my screen I paused. YES. Here is the quote from James March that Dale Biron shared in his blog post:

There are two essential dimensions of leadership: “plumbing,” i.e., the capacity to apply known techniques effectively, and “poetry,” which draws on a leader’s great actions and identity and pushes him or her to explore unexpected avenues, discover interesting meanings, and approach life with enthusiasm.  ––James March, Stanford Professor Emeritus

(I am looking for the original source. I think it is from “On Leadership” by James March and Theirry Weil)

The metaphor applies far beyond leadership roles. Here I explore it from the facilitator process, but think about it for leaders, for followers, for disruptors and peace makers.

The facilitator as “plumber” comes prepared with intellectual knowledge of how humans operate socially, and the context for their work.  This is a great place for the application of complexity theory, such as Brenda Zimmerman and Dave Snowden’s work, along with a sorts of socio/relational frameworks. This is often linked to theory, but I recognize some start with theory to build their approach, and others end with it to understand their work.

The groan zone is also an essential space for understanding and using differing views, contradicting view points and  embracing diverse possibilities. Dave recently wrote about this and one snippet from the post offers a good taste:

The use of parallel safe-to-fail experiments over short timescales based on differing and ideally contradictory hypotheses about what is happening and what is possible.  But critically any such experiment, which is ’nudge’ should only be to shift things to an adjacent possible, to something sustainable at the point of intervention.

Note the words “nudge” and “shift to an adjacent possible.” This is not only experimentation to identify next steps in complex settings, but they increase the diversity and its possibility within the group process. Sound like a possible transition or “groan?” Yup. So the work of my complexity teachers is essential for the technical “plumbing” work.

Technically we come prepared for transitions with skills on how to design them to meet goals and adapt to changing circumstances. So when I design with Liberating Structures, I assemble a string of structures that support the diamond of participation, including the groan zone, with options prepared and improvised as needed. Structures that support the groan zone include TRIZ, Wicked Questions and Ecocycle, which help to unmask polarities, “elephants” in the room and dig deeper into sensitive and challenging issues, 9 Whys to explore assumptions, 15% Solutions and Troika Consulting which allows us to quickly iterate and reflect on options with peer input, Helping Heuristics for when our interpersonal dynamics are slowing progress, among many others.

That said, intellectually and technically prepared is not enough for me. I can never be a good enough plumber (technician) without the poet side of things. The poet has to be present in every meaning of the word, with senses alert, intuition as open and calm as possible. Even the stance of my body can be part of the poet. For example, when I’m sensing disruption, confusion, fear or people feeling rejected and unheard, I stand or sit as straight as I can, arms and legs uncrossed, palms forward. Deep breaths. Most often I have no intellectual idea of what I should do at this moment beyond listening and being present. As I literally shift my stance, something changes for me. My observations and intuition tell me sometimes something changes for people in the room as well. Maybe it is mirror neurons at work.  We CAN be changed and influenced by what we see and perceive with our senses. Regardless, this is part of the flow of energy in group process. Can I measure this? No. Can I fully describe it in purely technical terms? No, not me. But it is inextricably linked to both self-awareness and something I find inexpressible.

Of the many masterful facilitators I learn from, the visual facilitator Kelvy Bird has most clearly articulated this presence element in her work here on scribing, and here on opening,  with a clear recognition of the “social field” within which we work. (No surprise as she is a key partner in the Presencing Institute! I am waiting for her book!)

Here is an example of what Kelvy helped me see. There is a distinction of presence and openness as compared to neutrality. Neutrality used to be one of the core values of facilitators (as previously espoused by the International Association of Facilitators and others.) As I’ve gotten further in my career, I’ve felt more and more like describing my stance as neutral was not only disingenuous, but it was false. I may be a listener at one moment, a provocateur in another, and a co-creator in yet another. I am happy that the language of neutrality has been left behind with a greater emphasis on attending to influence. The latest IAF facilitator core compentencies describes this as “Vigilant to minimise influence on group outcomes,” and “Maintain an objective, non-defensive, non-judgmental stance.” This resonates with my sense of stance and presence – even while I still struggle with objectivity and our ability to always be objective! This is far from technical “plumber” work, but it is useful to observe that the best plumbers I know have “hunches” about what they can’t see behind a sealed up wall! So the plumber and poet are not two, but one.

By being part of the process, I am changing the outcome. I am not neutral and I am influencing in certain ways. While I am strict with myself to clearly call out my own opinions, “take off my facilitator hat,” I do have influence. And it is only when I’m open and clear, self-aware and fully present, that that influence can be in the service of the group and influenced by the group itself, not to my espoused beliefs and/or ego. This is most important at transitions: the start of an engagement, during the groan zones, and as we move into resolution and reflection. It is a dance between the technician and the poet, between clarity and beauty. Between words and images.

I’m not sure this all makes sense as I struggle to write about it.  I guess the only way I can express it is to say the poet in me keeps evolving. Early on, I stuck to clearly proscribed forms (Limericks! Haiku!) Now my poetry is in process, words, images, and my own presence.

Let me be clear. There are many risks to this stance. If my self awareness weakens and fails, I can cause failure around me. If my openness cracks me open and I fall apart, I cannot serve. If I come without enough clarity and energy, my services suffers. This is not just a technical nor “expert” practice. It is all in. All. In. Again, from Kelvy:

We learn through copy. We advance through integration. We master by tapping into our own source.

So how does this relate to transitions? The technician, the plumber, can spot most of the the structural transitions. The poet senses the subtle ones, energy, hunches, buried treasures, that are often the ones that take us to new places, that help us make progress in complex or even chaotic contexts.

At this point in my career, I’m deeply interested in the poet. How about you?

Group Process Design Principles in Times of Turbulence

Ready for a thinking ramble? Payoff isn’t until the end. Fair warning!

I have found myself pointing to Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Places: Where to Intervene in a System” more and more these days.  First surfaced in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1997, and expanded in 1999, the essay resonated with me then and continues today. Read the whole thing, but if you just want to scan the leverage points, check out the Wikipedia article. When I mention the article, everyone starts pulling out their pens, phones or electronic note taking devices. People are hungry for clues about where to intervene in the complex systems within which they work and live. Here are her leverage points:

PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM (in increasing order of effectiveness)

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
7. Driving positive feedback loops.
6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

Her number one leverage place: 1. The power to transcend paradigms. From the Wikipedia article:

Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others.

A bit more from Meadows’ essay on #1 and worth savoring, slowly:

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

People who cling to paradigms (which means just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything they think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the notion or experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is probably a lot better informed than your will.

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Hold that thought for a moment.
A while back I happened on The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas – Evonomics, and another in the Atlantic about US post election responses, both of which resonated with my reading of Meadow’s essay. First, the snippet about Ostrom (another one of my compass points, like Meadows!)

“Evolutionary theory’s individualistic turn coincided with individualistic turns in other areas of thought. Economics in the postwar decades was dominated by rational choice theory, which used individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. The social sciences were dominated by a position known as methodological individualism, which treated all social phenomena as reducible to individual-level phenomena, as if groups were not legitimate units of analysis in their own right (Campbell 1990). And UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became notorious for saying during a speech in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.” It was as if the entire culture had become individualistic and the formal scientific theories were obediently following suit.

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.”

Notice Ostrom’s core design principles. See any relation to Meadows’ leverage points?

Now switch to the Atlantic  article titled “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing” by Eri Liu. Commenting on the need for work in the social sphere following our divisive presidential election, Liu suggested we needed three things:

  • Listen more to each other (in listening circles”)
  • Work more together (national service)
  • Argue more. But do it well (“We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones.”)

Liu gives us three concrete ways of unlocking the patterns and leverage points.

My work has clearly been situated in ever increasing turbulence. Traditional strategic planning? Throw it out the window. Focusing on mission and vision? Unless tied to concrete, actionable purpose, throw it out the window. It is too easy to be lost in our own abstractions and old/stale paradigms. (Thank you Donella!) Building knowledge management systems to capture everything? Fuggedabout it if we aren’t listening to each other (Thank you, Eric!) Trying to work just top down and with existing, rigid governance systems? Do you have all the time in the world? NO, ditch it! (Thank you, Elinor!)

So how am I designing now? Quickly, iteratively, and ruthlessly reflective. My group process practices in the last 18 months reveal a pattern where groups are getting more traction into creating insights on their work, and slightly increased  traction on acting on those insights.  I attribute this two two things: the application of Liberating Structures and other group processes that are informed by complexity sciences, and the use of emergent visuals to help show the path of thinking, understanding and action. The processes devolve power and responsibility to, as LS says, “unleash and include” everyone. They focus on immediate steps rather than waiting for certainty and perfection. They ask us to question our assumptions, measure our experiments and understand negative and positive feedback loops (Meadows again!) They seek to sidestep the barriers of traditional governance as much as possible without rejecting the participation of those institutions.

People get it. Quickly. The visual practices help bookmark the moments of insight and support telling the story to others.

The traction for action is still a bit elusive. Our reward systems punish many of the behaviors of emergent practices. Power is challenged. And just getting a grip on all the working parts can serve as an excuse to throw one’s arms up and give up. But we won’t give up. Nope. Sadly, Meadows and Ostrom died too young. But their words continue to feed us.

Stay tuned. Share your thoughts!

Edit: See this great post by Chris Corrigan on Prototyping and Strategic Planning. I had THOUGHT I had linked it in, but clearly that was in my dreams! Dave Pollard also recommends the work of Nora Bateson.

Responding to Clark Quinn: Technology or preparation? 

Clark Quinn has a great provocation on his blog today. I ‘ll share a quote, then reply.

So, many of the things we’re doing are driven by bad implementation. And that’s what I started wondering: are we using smart technology to enhance an optimized workforce, or to make up for a lack of adequate preparation?  We could be putting in technology to make up for what we’ve been unsuccessful at doing through training and elearning (because we’re not doing that well).

To put it another way, would we get better returns applying what’s known about how we think, work, and learn than bringing in technology? Would adequate preparation be a more effective approach than throwing technology at the problem, at least in some of the cases? There are strong reasons to use technology to do things we struggle at doing well, and in particular to augment us. But perhaps a better investment, at least in some cases, would be to appropriately distribute tasks between the things our brains do well and what technology does better.

Let me be clear; there are technologies that will do things more reliably than humans, and do things humans would prefer not to. I’m all for the latter, at least ;). And we should optimize both technology and people. I’m a fan of technology to augment us in ways we want to be augmented. So my point is more to consider are we doing enough to prepare people and support them working together. Your thoughts?

Source: LearnletsTechnology or preparation? – Learnlets

While Clark’s question is in the context of workplace learning, it is resonant in far wider contexts. I see it when I’m asked to design group process and gatherings. We are constantly putting “band aids” on instead of addressing underlying issues. We don’t really “prepare people and support them working together.” Why is that? Is it the continued desire for a quick fix, or the deep denial that how we work together matters and making it work more effectively might challenge too many things: power, status quo, cost?

The observation of this problem is neither new nor unique… it is how things often work. So the question  is how do we better shine a light on the underlying issues and take immediate steps — however small – for remediation? Rather than throw up our hands and say it is too messy, hard or difficult?

This is where complexity-informed practices come in. From the deep dives into understanding what is happening with sense-making tools like Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker, to simple, reproducible group practices like Liberating Structures, we can stop shrugging our shoulders and saying “that’s out of my scope of work” or “I can’t do anything about that.” The point is we have to do SOMETHING. Not just plow on from tech innovation to tech innovation. Here are four possible sets of practices that could help us go deeper and do better. Here are four possible sets of actions.

 Creative Destruction to Make Space

What one thing, no matter how tiny, can we stop doing to make space for the things we want to try? Before we add a new technology, do we stop using another one? Before we seek a solution to an efficiency problem, can we find out what to stop doing that caused the problem? Cue up Ecocycle or TRIZ, and make some of these now-useless activities visible. So often we strive to manage and scale when we have either grown past the things we are scaling, or they are no longer fit for purpose. We operate in mostly dynamic environments, yet we try and shoehorn everything into an ordered domain. (The complicated and simple in the Cynefin framework. In an ordered domain “cause and effect are known or can be discovered.” Complex and chaotic domains are understood as unordered, where ” cause and effect can be deduced only with hindsight or not at all.”).

Space for Uncertainty and Experimentation

Maybe certainty and obsession with technical fixes is overrated. Earlier this week I participated in an online gathering hosted by Johnnie Moore on Unhurried Conversations. He offered five principles to support unhurried conversations and one was The wisdom of uncertainty. We can use uncertainty to experiment our way into useful solutions, rather than coming up with a “brilliant idea” that may inadvertently build on past weakness. We may miss the underlying preparation. We can use Improv Prototyping to “act our way into knowing.” We can use Helping Heuristics to strengthen our listening before we pounce with our own (half baked?) ideas, giving space to considerations that are lost for those of us who “think by talking.”

Leadership for Spotting and Picking Up Promising Experiments

When we start getting seduced by technological innovation, it reminds me that there are people who see the world differently and can look within and beyond the tech itself and spot the ideas for promising experimentation. Not everyone has these skills to imagine things. We want solutions and we tend to foreclose on them too quickly, or fail to do, as Dave Snowden loves to say, “safe fail” experimentation to test our assumptions and asses the complexity (or not) of a situation. Sometimes that means we are smart enough to notice others with these strengths, and not try and be the “solution maker” ourselves. Approaches such as Wicked Questions , Discovery and Action Dialog, and Critical Uncertainties can help us spot the things we might otherwise rush by.

Right Management of the Right Things

I do not want to dismiss the Ecocycle domain of “maturity.” When there is a useful technical application, we want to bring it productively into the work. Same for process issues. Not everything is uncertain and shifting. The critical issue is HOW we manage these things into maturity, and how do we ensure we don’t repeat the cycle of “getting stuck” when that thing ceases to add value. And how leaders and managers can both work in this quadrant of maturity while at the same time supporting the other three areas of creative destruction, networking and birth. Great leaders and managers do their magic in the maturity quadrant AND support others to deploy their strengths in the unordered domains. Keep a critical eye on what must be destroyed, reimagined/imagined and birthed, even if it is not their own area of expertise and comfort.

What are your ideas?

See also:

Wanderings of a Liberating Structures Practitioner – Part 2 the practice

This second post will describe the Liberating Structures string used at the Fire Adapted Communities Network three day retreat in Ashland, Oregon earlier this month to demonstrate the application of LS for strategic planning in contexts that are portfolio based, complex and full of (good!) people, all mentioned in part 1 where it all started.

FAC missionThe Fire Adapted Communities Network springs out of  work sponsored by The Watershed Research and Training Center and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The network is dedicated to working with peope helping communities live safely with wildland fire. They have a very clear mission: “We work with communities across the nation to create a more wildfire-resilient future. A “fire adapted community” consists of informed and prepared citizens collaboratively planning and taking action to safely co-exist with wildland fire.”

A key strategy for the network at it’s birth was to work through communities of practice (CoPs). After a year and a half, it was time to look at the progress so far and develop a learning agenda within and across the CoPs going forward, since the core function of the network is to identify, spread and apply good fire adapted community practices. Learning is always at the core.

I was initially invited in to do an afternoon’s training on CoPs but after a short conversation, I suggested that a CoP approach, woven across their three days, might be more meaningful than training. You know, that stuff which can often go in one ear and out the other. Additionally for me,  a CoP perspective is more useful than simply focusing on the form of CoPs themselves.  This idea of a CoP perspective is from Etienne Wenger-Trayner and basically asks us to consider the domain – what we are interested in learning and applying learning, the community – who we learn with, and the practice – how we learn and apply our learning. To look at whatever we are doing from that social learning perspective.

As the meeting concept evolved, the team eventually invited me to help them design and facilitate the three days, giving them a chance to step back and participate themselves, and see Liberating Structures in action. I in turn promised to weave in little CoP “meta moments” as issues and opportunities arose.

We proceeded to plan a lovely agenda for an amazing group of enthusiastic, smart and dedicated volunteers and staff. I had my string of Liberating Structures and back ups all designed. I had my adapted visual Strategy Gameplan sketched out. The gameplan is something I learned from Keith McCandless and which I’ve been tinkering with over the past six months. It builds off the foundation of a visual process templates developed by David Sibbet at the Grove, then adding the LS twists and questions. What used to be the “first steps” in the middle of the arrow (traditional first quarter, second quarter planning)  has now been replaced by the LS Ecocycle to hold the portfolio and to recognize what is in or ready for scaling, what needs destroying/stopped, what needs to be imagined and birthed.  This final twist is what has broken new ground for me. More on that in a minute…

Anchor Questions

I continue to tinker and modify the questions. In an actual application, they are customized to the issues/domains of the people using them, but the generic ones can offer us some insight. What you see above are actually draft questions for a LS Immersion Workshop in February with BC Campus on the use of LS in higher education. (IF this is relevant to you, JOIN US!) If people are interested, we can share our string once we finish it and I hopefully will debrief the event with a blog post afterwards. For the FAC communities, obviously the questions were about FAC!

  1. What is happening around us that demands change? (Often the words growth, adaptation can come into play.) This question has a long lineage through facilitation and planning practices and I find it particularly energizing to help identify purpose. Keith has said he has stopped wasting time with vision and mission and uses this sort of question to sharpen PURPOSE. I’m heading in the same direction. Then values and principles – really important aspects – are worked on in the context of the purpose, not as stand-alones. See Purpose to Practice for examples of the purpose/principles link.
  2. What paradoxical challenges must we face to make progress? This to me is the reality check and often the ground shifting conversation in working in a complex environment. It is not “if we do X, Y will happen.” It can be competing priorities, uncertain futures (classic example here in the US with a wild card president-elect!), antagonizing circumstances etc. Dealing with this up front in the context of the sub-question makes it more stark: What happens if we don’t change? In other words, how do we keep moving forward in this land of “wicked questions?”  Paradoxes are not things to defeat us, but to change how we view a problem. To shift our mindset. What is not very obvious from my image is that those circles are yin/yang containers for these paradoxes.
  3. Where are we starting, honestly? This question can have many layers and options, from identification of strengths (things in our “Maturity area” of the Ecocycle) , positive deviance, as well as the challenges, the things we have resisted or feared discussing, the light and the dark. Speaking our truths, sometimes just between ourselves, sometimes “to power.” This question surfaces the things we have to work with. AND the things we need to creatively destroy in the Creative Destruction are of the ecocycle.
  4. Given our purpose, what big ideas seem possible now? (Remember, question 1 surfaced our purpose. I keep wondering if I should add that label…) What big opportunities do we see? What is ready to be imagined and then stewarded into birth. This frames our shared impetus forward.
  5. How are we moving away from the current state to our desired future state? This is the practical piece. What are the next steps? Things we can decide and do. Start now. Do something. Don’t wait to plan for perfection. ACT!

Anchor Structures

For each question in the gameplan there are a variety of Liberating Structures we can use. Because this image is small, I’ll also add a list below as a starter point, but one of the heaven/hells of LS is that you have many options to use a structure in different phases and in different ways. That comes after building your overall LS practice! 🙂

  1. Impromptu Networking to quickly get people talking about real issues. 9 Whys to make sense of initial insights. 1-2-4-all to see diverse viewpoints and synthesize patterns. User Experience Fishbowl to surface perspectives. 8 Word Purpose Statement (which is an LS in development and not well documented on the website yet) to hone down to the most important part of the purpose, to clarify and compel. What, So What, Now what (W3)to move the process to question 2. Often in my first use of W3 I’ll weave in Argyris’s Ladder of Inference as documented on the W3 LS page. This all drives the Ecocycle.
  2. Critical Uncertainties to move us away from some fixed perception of the context and future and build robust, resilient and anti-fragile possibilities in our work. Wicked Questions to tackle the paradoxical challenges. W3 again to reflect. Sometimes these identify where we are stuck in the rigidity or poverty traps of the Ecocycle.
  3. Min Specs to identify and sharpen principles, TRIZ to surface the real issues if we are still avoiding or not being able to see them, Shift and Share to spread strengths, Discovery and Action Dialog to identify positive deviants, Appreciative Interviews to surface strengths. Generative Star Relationships or What I Need From You to surface team issues… plus so many other LS! Map on the Ecocycle.
  4. 25/10 Crowdsourcing to identify big ideas. 9 Whys to sharpen big ideas. Improv Prototyping and Troika Consulting to both develop,  test and improve ideas. Put them all on the Ecocycle.
  5. 15% Solutions to get stuff we can do NOW. Purpose to Practice to develop discrete projects within the portfolio. Plus a ton more LS! The team building LS mentioned in #3 may come into play here as action moves forward. (Edit: see also Social Labs’ piece on prototyping.)

Now of course you aren’t going to do ALL of these. I have been using about 2, sometimes 3 structures per question and I always have alternatives in my “back pocket.” This is my own emerging edge.

Noticing Turning Points

I’ve uses this approach three times now in the past three months and each time there has been a moment in the gathering where all of a sudden we notice a turning point. For the TNC folks it became clear when we could not nail down a clear purpose. The energy up to that point had been on building the people side of the network and its constituent CoPs and the turning point shifted the focus to what strategic learning agenda or agendas would move the network forward. From that some of the CoPs found clarity for their forward movement, some because obsolete and were targeted for sunsetting, and some new needs and forms were identified. The current portfolio was better understood, and then the group could then go through the process of identifying their new and emergent elements of the portfolio. What is scaled to its next level of maturity? The well defined CoPs. What is destroyed? The fuzzy CoPs? What new ideas are imagined? New forms and focus for learning.

Be warned that this is a powerful string for creative destruction. DON’T go there if you are not prepared to have your past assumptions blown away, and your plans may change. DO go there if you are in a complex and uncertain environment, or when you have audacious ambitions that require powerful thinking and doing.

Documentation

The Graphic Game Plan + Ecocycle gives you a place to harvest the most important parts of the process and provide a base documentation for going forward. It has been nearly impossible for me to include the fully developed Ecocycle in the game plan (unless you have a ginormous wall) so I have the full Ecocycle on a separate page and just harvest out the key ideas and turning points.  I also use a Kanban chart to track the LS as we go through them, and our tasks as we go through.  There are three columns: Backlog (what is to be done), WIP (work in progress and make sure you keep this LIMITED. Thank you Jim Benson) and Done! (track and CELEBRATE!). My Kanbans are very dynamic, and role model how we adapt as things emerge. Here is a picture of a Kanban from the FAC gathering:

What, So What, Now What?

Walking my own talk, what I have observed in the use of this approach is:

  • people get confused. Uncomfortable. And playful. And engaged.
  • issues are made visible
  • it can get messy
  • I did not always lead/invite/explain well

So What, or why I think this is important is because the approach:

  • is flexible and adaptable
  • people quickly see and own it (visually, emotionally and cognitively)
  • making confusion visible is a useful thing
  • it provides a container for surfacing and using discomfort and diversity
  • IT REALLY HELPS US find some solace in the complexity that might otherwise overwhelm us
  • it takes practice and I still have my sticking points

Now What?

  • I’d like to improve the harvest and graphic container for the harvest.
  • Keep practicing
  • Get YOUR feedback. That’s what the comments are for, ok?

Edit: For a great read on planning in a complex world, see Chris Corrigan’s post.