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!

Eng and Corney’s “Navigating the Minefield: A Practical KM Companion”

When approached to support knowledge management (KM) in my consulting practice, I often reply “I don’t believe in KM!” This flippant but heartfelt comment reflects the failures I’ve observed as people tried to reduce the complex processes of learning, creating, sharing and applying knowledge into a set of “best practices” and databases. It was as if KM was a mechanical but glorified tool, like a fancy food processor, admired while new, and then left on the shelf. Most KM approaches failed to understand that at the heart of creating, sharing, adapting knowledge is embedded in our entrained human behaviors and rarely successfully redirected by rules. Especially for busy people. Yes, I am a skeptic of of many KM approaches.

So when Paul Corney and Patricia Eng invited me to take a look at their new book, “Navigating the Mindfield: A Practical KM Companion,” I had a glimmer of hope. Why? I have interacted online with Paul for many years via the global community of practice on KM in international development, KM4Dev, and have found him sensible and practical, while also pushing and looking forward. Those are all good indicators of a viable KM approach. 

Eng and Corney’s book is at first a somewhat basic and “obvious” book. It ticks the check marks around understanding what KM is and it’s diverse value proposition. It is a GREAT introductory text for someone who has just been handed a KM responsibility. It is filled with common sense, which we know from experience isn’t always so common. Usefully it is grounded with stories exemplifying the ideas provided: a real world check. 

For me, as an “old hand,” the book sings in Chapter 7 – What Surprised Us. After analyzing all their interviews and research, Eng and Corney put their heads together to identify the surprises that ultimately spring from what they describe as KM being “all about people.” People are not orderly, obedient and prepared to live in the (fantasy) land of “best practices.” Their contexts are diverse and often complex. In describing these surprises, the authors sketch out the reality that KM is a complex practice and requires complexity appropriate strategies and adaptations. My favorite is #2, “Operational KM to the fore, strategic KM to the rear.” This is a classic polarity, a wicked question. How can we be both operational and strategic? Focus solely on an operational challenge, KM dies when that operational imperative ends. Strategic only and buy in at the front line rarely happens. KM, at its best, dances within these two polarities, rather than tries to resolve them. 

The issue for me is to be always thinking forward about KM and how it can add value in ways the generatively move a system in the direction we want it to go. If we rely on a single model or framework, that task is impossible. So watch out for the trap!

If you are just starting out with KM, read the whole book and absorb the stories and lessons. If you are an old/jaded/in-a-rut practitioner, start with Chapter 7 and be prepared to discover lessons you probably already know, but haven’t applied. That darned old common sense isn’t always so common. So let’s start practicing it again. Let’s get more creative … or maybe that isn’t the word. Let’s use, for example, complexity frameworks to understand and expand what works and ditch the failing old plans. Maybe KM can be real!

Matthew May Swats the SWOT (Amen!)

This is an older quote from Matthew May from 2015. Ironically, he has stopped blogging and participates through social media networks,
a topic for another of my “still in draft” blog posts. But I wanted to get this quote up here as it is related to a longer piece I am writing about Facilitating in Complex Contexts. So here it is, food for thought today.

I used to be agnostic on SWOT. No longer. I’m violently against it as the starting point for strategy.

I now think it’s far better to think through various strategic choices, ask what would have to be true for those choices to be good ones, and explore those hypotheses through valid experiments, before ever locking and loading on a strategy. It’s creative and divergent thinking, which is the polar opposite of the convergent thinking that fuels planning and analysis.

The difference between divergent and convergent thinking is the difference between chess and checkers. Both games are played on the same board, both games have the same number of players. With checkers, though, you really don’t have much to think about, the players are all the same, and the moves are single, linear steps. Chess has far more kinds of players, far more possibilities and options to consider, including the competitive response to a single move. That’s why when you watch the chess masters play (not sure why you’d want to do that), the “action” is mostly invisible…they’re thinking about their choices and and the possible reactions to those choices.

If you want and need a new strategy, swat your SWOT. Forever.

via MATTHEW E. MAY | creative facilitation » Swat Your SWOT…Forever.

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: