Are Our Systems Really Broken?

In my twenty years of consulting practice the idea that our systems are broken and need to be fixed has been ever-present. This was/is true of healthcare, finance, the environment and more. This has never been more true in my life time than right now when the question maybe is not about whether systems are broken but whether they are dying. Dying as part of normal, natural cycles of birth, growth, decay and death, including the last desperate gasps.

In the work I have been involved with over the last two decades (change management, systems thinking, strategic direction and culture shift), there has always been a curiosity and, more accurately, a fear about whether systems need to collapse entirely before something new emerges. We constantly want to fix things – systems, organizations and even (maybe especially) people.

Yet we know in times of crisis normal patterns of relationship can be interrupted; rules, policies, procedures and ways of working circumvented and results achieved faster than in normal, day to day circumstances where, even if the pace is fast, things do not seem to be accomplished quickly. These are conditions that consultants and organizations all over keep trying to replicate without crisis with varying degrees of success and more often failure.

Jerry Nagel and I often remind our clients that systems are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting and cultures are self-perpetuating. So, technically, the systems aren’t broken, but many are no longer delivering results we hope for or are satisfied with. Brexit, the US election, are perfect examples.

What happens, might happen, in total collapse? What ground would we stand on? How would we pick up the pieces and move forward? What if the collapse is so great there are almost no pieces to pick up – like the scenarios in the popular genre of dystopian novels and movies? In most works of fiction, no matter how desperate the aftermath of catastrophe, there are always some pieces to pick up.

Lately we have been using the 2 Loops of Systems Change, offered by Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze of the Berkana Institute, with our clients and there is an immediate resonance with the concepts and roles described.

Systems work in cycles – just like life itself. The length of time of the cycles may vary from a few years to decades to centuries and maybe even eons. There is a time of birth, growth, maturity, decay and eventually death. Think, for example, of farming. Originally it was hunter/gather, then people began to deliberately plant crops and farming in the form of small farms existed for a long time. It grew into industrial farming where it is almost impossible to sustain smaller farms. And we are back to a point where people want to track their food from farm to table, plant community gardens and eat organic.

New life is already being brought forth long before death, during the maturity or peak phase of a system. The seeds of the new already exist within the structures of the old. slide1

Innovators, trail blazers and pioneers are always playing around with new ideas. Some of those new ideas seem completely off the wall to many who are still reveling in the old system and do not yet see the need for the new or innovation. Think energy. During the oil crisis back in the 1970s and 80s, there was speculation that oil had peaked. During that time, there were people and small companies experimenting with other forms of energy – solar, wind, water. It was slow going for decades, some of the experimentation was expensive and there was not a lot of support for ideas that seemed crazy or impossible to some, especially to those attached to the old system. Forty years later, many of these forms of energy are now more cost effective and environmentally friendly than oil. It was not easy to see or believe in this possible future at the time.

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Embodying the 2 Loops of Systems Change

Innovators are often alone in their quests and many of their ideas fail. Since no idea is offered in complete isolation – others are also conceiving of ideas to address the same or similar challenges – a first step is in naming the innovators and beginning to connect them in networks. In this way they begin to learn with and from each other. They learn together through both success and failure and they are no longer in it alone.

As the need for innovation becomes more apparent and urgent, there are people within the mature or peak system who take notice and work within the current system to steward or champion the new ideas and the people who generate them to provide protection so this work can continue to advance. Sometimes the role is as a toxic handler – to keep the dysfunctionality of a system that is moving past its prime from interfering in the development of the new.

At the same time, one of the greatest roles in the mature system as it declines is in hospicing the old so it doesn’t completely collapse into chaos and so that that good is not thrown out with what no longer works. The biggest challenge in these days is who are the protectors, the stewards, the hospice workers? Will they/we be able to do this work or will the burden be too great, the rate of collapse now so swift that it will be a deep move into chaos?

As the tentative new innovations and ideas gain more strength and more form, as they begin to coalesce into new networks and communities of practice, it is critical to nurture the emerging life force that will influence and shape the new system. As momentum grows, this grows into a system of influence where choices become clear. Illuminating the choice between the old and the new gives curious and reluctant adopters of the new the opportunity to make this choice and as more and more people choose the new, the new system takes hold.

While I carry some anxieties in these early days of 2017 about our systems and our future, I also carry hope although I am not sure what it will take to release the old and gravitate toward the new. I do know 2017 is calling on us loud and clear to not be silent, to not just watch, but to stand up and be involved in the new systems that will call forth and support our humanity.

The pressing question in the days ahead is who are the innovators and trailblazers? How do we keep connecting people, ideas and networks in ways to build strength, momentum and opportunity? How can the old systems of influence, and people grasping for power, be prevented from crushing the new? And how do we create the stories of the new in ways that brings more people on board.

Are our systems failing us? The answer would appear to be yes. But not because they are broken, because they are coming to the end of their time. Will we be courageous enough to fight if necessary for what is waiting to be born?

Leading Through Learning and the Art of Apprenticing

The Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter is a self-organized global network with no head office, no staff and no central authority or decision-making body. It can be an incredibly effective way to get work done – really important work – in addition to providing structures and processes to host conversations of any size. A few colleagues have recently been writing about what it – Art of Hosting – is – again.

Self-organizing is not to be confused with no organization or structure-less, which is what confounds some people and organizations as they try to understand what it is and is not. The seeming lack of structure always evokes the questions from participants like, how do I do what you do? How do I get involved? Who do I talk to? The seeming simplicity of many of the processes, when they are hosted well, makes some people believe that very little preparation time is needed and/or that anybody can do them. And, anybody can do them. But, good preparation goes a long way to ensuring good process and succcess. So does skill, experience and expertise. One Art of Hosting training does not a practitioner make.

There is a structure of involvement or engagement for the Art of Hosting that seems hard to describe, is not always obvious but is pretty simple. It does require some initiative and determination by people who want to be more involved since there is no official leadership development track like there might be in an organization. It can be harder to involve people in existing opportunities for a variety of reasons and many who truly want to deepen their practice create their own opportunities, whether that is internal to their organization or jumping into organizing an open enrolment program and inviting stewards (a requirement for an AoH training) to come and work with them (which is how both Jerry and I began our AoH paths).

In the lightly held AoH structure, there are Stewards, Practitioners and Apprentices. Some of us are all three of these things. In Philadelphia, where Jerry Nagel and I recently co-hosted an AoH training with two new colleagues, Rich Wilson and Mike Ritzius, we heard the term “leading through learning” and it seems a beautiful way to frame some of the AoH leadership and learning structure.

We are all learning even as we lead. Some – those of us who have been around longer and have been deep in the practices on an ongoing and regular basis – have more learning and experience that we can share with others even as we continue to learn from others, including new people in the practices. Others, on balance, may have more, sometimes much more, learning to do. We are not all “equal” in knowledge, experience or depth of practice although all are invited “equally” into the field and the key question may well be, where are we, each of us, in our own learning journey.

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Rich Wilson, Jerry Nagel, Mike Ritzius

The experience Jerry and I had in Philadelphia with our two new apprentice co-hosts was exemplary – which got us thinking a bit about what makes for a good apprentice. This story is a good one to illustrate some things that work well.

A year ago Rich and Mike came to an AoH training in Minnesota that Jerry and I were co-hosting, having been introduced to Open Space through EdCamp, seeing the power and engagement of the structure and curious for more. Rich describes being persuaded to bring an idea he was pondering into the Design Process on Day 3. He says after the session he folded the paper up – really small – and promptly hid it when he got back home – the ideas generated were, in his words, “terrifying”. And yet, they worked on him and in him as the two of them went back to their jobs at the New Jersey Education Association. Mike and Rich began bringing the practices to every initiative they were involved in – with greater and lesser degrees of resistance and lots of successes.Philly Open Space

Because they embarked early on with Jerry and me in creating a call for an AoH training in their area, which largely drew people involved in education and organizing, we got to hear about those successes along the way and we offered mentoring or coaching from time to time on their processes and approaches in the work they were doing. They were willing to ask for what they needed and they kept doing their homework and kept bringing the patterns and practices to the people they were with – leading through learning.

When the four of us sat down to design our three day AoH offering, Mike and Rich jumped at the opportunity to lead and co-teach some of the patterns since they had been using them in their work and developing a good understanding of them – teaches like the Chaordic Path, the Chaordic Stepping Stones, Divergence-Emergence-Convergence, The Four Fold Practice, Theory U, Reflective Listening, Two Loops.

As they offered the teaches, what struck Jerry and me was how well they understood the basics or foundations of the patterns they offered. They explained them clearly. They made room for input from the whole team. They did not unduly embellish what they offered and thus did not get lost in the teach as we have seen apprentices do from time to time. They did not feel the need to prove themselves as “experts”, they were not competitive with each other or with us and they were clearly excited to be working with us to deepen their learning. They value the learning field and they value deepening their learning with and from Stewards on the patterns, practices and processes.

They understand that in order for something to look simple – like a good World Café, Open Space or full on Art of Hosting training – you have to be well versed in the foundational steps, before embellishment, and do the planning and design work in advance. They have had each other to co-design and co-host with and now they have “infected” more people with the desire to have better meetings and get better, more engaged results.

They exemplify leading through learning and we are already planning what’s next. So, stay tuned.

A Decade of More People “Stepping Up”, Engaging in Nova Scotia

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Stepping Up Conference – 2015

On January 11, 2005 (what later become fondly known as J21 within Envision Halifax), I walked into a day long community gathering hosted by Envision Halifax, along with more than 100 other people, at St. Matthew’s Church Hall on Barrington Street, and my life and the way I work were forever changed. And, more than that, a movement began, sparked by a mission to “ignite a culture of civic engagement”.

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A visual depicting the Envision Halifax Leadership Journey – 2007 – which used Theory U as the journey and Art of Hosting as the “operating system”.

I had cause to think of that moment earlier this week when I walked into the new public library in Halifax for the Stepping Up Conference (#StepUpNS) hosted by Engage Nova Scotia, along with more than 350 other people in Halifax, even more gathered at 10 other locations in the province with an additional 500 or more people at their own computer screens following the live streaming.

A decade ago it was Envision Halifax. Something new and meaningful was sparked. Then a sabbatical to check back in with need, purpose and approach, some work in the background and the emergence of Engage Nova Scotia as a next iteration ~ different, stronger and with greater reach.

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

During the Envision days, Danny Graham and I had a chat about whether we were just “preaching to the choir” as many liked to say or was it something more? Maybe it was preaching to the choir, but I wondered then and I wonder now, is that so bad? Is that not a good starting place? I thought about this because I overheard someone remark at the Stepping Up conference that “we are only preaching to the converted”, since that is who shows up. That may be. But something happened over a decade to grow the number of “converted” in this province by at least 15 fold and probably more.

I was honoured to facilitate the group conversation focused on a new attitude. There were many gems of wisdom in that conversation including: expand your own bubble and do more of what you can, ignore naysayers and time how long it can take you to shift a negative conversation into a positive one. These gems are reflective of “new attitudes” sparking all over the province as individuals recognize their own circles of influence and focus their attention on what they can do and impact.

What struck me in a deep and meaningful way, reflecting over a decade is – more. More people in Nova Scotia are paying attention. More people are asking questions. More people are longing for a future that looks different than the past. More people are Stepping Up. And that is a very exciting ongoing evolution over just one short decade of quiet but growing change in and across our beautiful little province.

A decade ago and this week (and in many other places and times in between), Danny quoted a favourite poem of his:

If you always believe what you have always believed,
You will always feel the way you always felt.
If you always feel the way you always felt,
You will always think the way you always thought.
If you always think the way you always thought,
You will always do what you’ve always done.
If you always do what you have always done,
You will always get what you have always gotten.
If there is no change there is no change

Well, in Nova Scotia, if you stop a moment to reflect, it is clear that beliefs, feelings, thoughts and actions are changing. Thank you Nova Scotia, thank you Engage and thank you to everyone who played, and continues to play, a role in changing the future in the place I am delighted to call home.

Itasca County, MN – Art of Hosting Works – Background, Application and Impact

In just over one year, community citizens of Itasca County, who were not familiar with the term Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, went from showing up at the first three day training in November 2013 with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, to hosting a one day community wide conversation at the first ever Grand Gathering of Itasca County just one year later that attracted over 85 people who engaged in 50+ conversations that mattered over a five hour period.

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How does a community do this? By being passionate about influencing their future and believing it is possible. Support from the Blandin Foundation, (and thanks to the vision initially held by Bernadine Joselyn) made it possible for Jerry Nagel of the Meadowlark Institute and Kathy Jourdain of Shape Shift Strategies Inc. to offer (with other AoH practitioners) five three day Art of Hosting trainings, two Community World Cafes, one Grand Gathering using Open Space Technology and nine days of Advanced (or more in-depth) Training on specific topics. The Community Cafes and Grand Gathering were brain childs of participants in the trainings who stepped up to community engagement and hosting in beautiful and collaborative ways.

Participants understand that good community conversations on important issues offer everyone who shows up the opportunity to speak openly and without fear, to be listened to authentically and respectfully, and to leave feeling an ownership in the outcomes of their conversations. Community or civic engagement is also about accountability and commitment, a request not only to show up but to engage. This is happening in Itasca County in abundance now.

A report on the background, application and impact was compiled for the Blandin Foundation to show the value of the investment made in this series of program offerings for the community and you can access it here: Blandin Harvest 2013-15. (It might take awhile to download as it is full of pictures and stories that Highlight AoH in Action.)

Because Blandin supported this initiative, it made it possible for diverse cross sections of the community to participate – including artists, teachers, business people, not-for-profit staff, government staff from the county commission, natural resources, corrections and more, people from the Leech Lake Nation, people in transition, volunteers and more to participate. People met new friends and brought a variety of worldview perspectives into the room, where people “met” each other in the most interesting and sometimes unexpected places because they brought their curiosity to the conversations.

The stories of impact are still being collected. It is the stories that bring alive what is possible. The stories convey both subtle and large examples of bringing the practices to life. The last set of deeper dive trainings is happening in August 2015 and the programs are filling fast with previous participants, many of whom are planning to bring more people with them.

Itasca County is a beautiful example of the ripple effect that emerges as people change the way they approach meetings and conversations to get to the heart of what matters quickly, to evoke action that impacts, lasts and makes a difference across the region.

Front End Load Your Planning Process – Need and Purpose

“If you are at a meeting and you don’t know why you are there, why ARE you there?” I have heard Jerry Nagel say this often enough when he teaches the Chaordic Stepping Stones at a training. The same goes for a planning process. “If you don’t know why you are doing something, why ARE you doing it?”

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

Many planning processes jump right into logistics (the 8th Stepping Stone, by the way) – budget, where the meeting will be, what the agenda is, important people who need to there. Then, when the planning team tries to decide what should happen during the meeting or planning process, people are unclear and sometimes confused or there are too many ideas floating around as meeting agenda is fitted to logistics rather than fitting logistics to the purpose of the work.

Purpose imagePurpose is the invisible leader. It keeps a  community engagement process, planning process or meeting agenda on track. Purpose arises out of Need. Taking the time to reach clarity on need and purpose is, what I often tell my clients, a front end loaded process. It takes time. It can get messy – anyone resonate with, “Let’s just make a decision!” And it can change the quality of the whole process. It is part of what we refer to as slowing down to go fast.

Need is an understanding of the current situation – the reason you have decided that something should be done, planned, convened. When the Need is clearly understood, the articulation of Purpose is often easy. Getting to the root Need can take some exploration and conversation because sometimes the Need that appears most obvious is fuelled by less obvious underlying patterns, behaviours or structures.

Jerry often shares a story about a school district he worked with. School funding comes from area rates and the community had refused, several years in a row, to increase the area rate to address some maintenance issues in the school – the roof needed fixing, the seats were broken and there were other maintenance issues. As he asked the planning team about need they repeated these things several times until someone finally had an insight. The relationship between the school and the community was broken. This was the deeper need to be addressed. Recognizing this changed the whole approach to the planning process.

A few years ago, I worked with a group in Nova Scotia focused on breakfast programs in schools. There were some changes in the environment impacting the organization that delivered these programs and prompting the exploration of a new means to deliver breakfast programs. The most obvious need was to ensure and organizational structure for ongoing breakfast program delivery. The deeper need was a recognition that children who had breakfast were better learners. The planning team recognized the need to nourish the children so they could learn better and the idea of nourishment was expansive, offering the possibilities of broader interpretations (but still very focused) into the future which led to the development and name of a new organization – Nourish Nova Scotia.

Nourish Nova ScotiaUnderstanding the need led to this purpose: To cultivate generations of healthy eaters. And, to this  vision: All Nova Scotia children and youth are well nourished to live, learn and play. With a bit of extra clarification: We aim to support the nutritional well-being of children and youth and desire to build their food knowledge and skills so they can feed themselves well into a healthier future.

Need and Purpose conversations often take a group into a groan zone which is one of the reasons people want to cut it short to get to the “important” tasks of planning. When this happens, it is common that the groan zone just gets transferred to some other part of the process, slowing it down somewhere else. Holding people in the space of a groan zone is a leadership skill.

Also, in any given project there may be multiple layers of need and purpose identified. For a project I’m working on with the United Way in Halifax right now, we are planning a community engagement event in September. That event has a need and purpose identified. There is a desire (even a need) to recruit a planning team representative of the community to ensure success. The need for the planning team has been identified as well as the purpose. And there is a meeting planned to invite potential planning team members  to step up and the need and purpose of that launch meeting has also been identified. The need and purpose of the planning launch meeting and the planning team are aligned with the need and purpose of the community gathering (I want to say, of course) and having this clarity at each step of the process keeps the whole thing on track.

KJ explaining something at WC table CA Women's leadershipSometimes the conversation is iterative as understanding of Need and Purpose may evolve through the course of the planning process. Yet, when these two stepping stones are clear, the rest of the planning process can unfold quickly.

A Small Town Grocery Store Renewal Thanks to AoH Patterns and Practices

It is always a pleasure to share Art of Hosting success stories. This comes from Angie Benz who attended an AoH training in Bismarck, North Dakota in November 2014. The AoH training was supported by the North Dakota League of Cities and the Bush Foundation, co-hosted by Jerry Nagel and me.

Angie Benz

Angie Benz

She writes:

I wanted to share a success story.  After taking your AoH class in Bismarck I was so moved and excited.  I knew these were principles that I wanted to implement, I just didn’t know where or how.

Fast forward to last week.  I am a director for our local grocery store board and we have been struggling to say the least!  Our sales were 15% down from 2013.  Our manager, understandably, was a bit disgruntled.  The board members, myself included, had checked out.  And the worst part…this was all being seen by the community.

Then I remembered the principles taught at AoH!  We started out slowly……and grew into something bigger…….and I am hoping that we keep growing!

We started by sending out a survey asking two very important questions:

  1. Is the store important to YOU to have in YOUR community?
  2. Is it important enough to YOU that YOU are willing to pay a little higher price for groceries?

The responses were a resounding YES to both and we knew we had work to do.  We restructured our management team, creating a co-manager position with two people that will do great things together.

Then we had a planning meeting.  Everyone was dreading it!  I sent out an email inviting the management team and the board directors.  I gave them some ideas of what would happen that day. Then, I shocked them all by asking them to bring something that represents their journey with the grocery store….and I left it at that.  (Enter the sound of silence from the group.)  It was so loud that I could “hear” it through email.

The day of the meeting we started out with Check In using a circle setting.  It was AMAZING!  There was emotion, meaning, and most importantly….understanding.  Understanding of all the frustrations we faced in 2014.  We were letting go of the past and moving towards the future with understanding of each other and our journey.

We then moved into a variation of Open Space.  There were only 6 of us, so we used it more as a brain storming session.  At the end of it, one of the board directors made the comment that they thought we would have about 3 ideas…..we ended up with about 50!

Then it was time for us to get a little more specific.  We came up with action plans and timelines for the top 5 ideas/topics.  We will meet monthly to analyze and assess the top 5 and beyond.

To end the day, we did Check Out in a circle setting.  Again, there was emotion, meaning, and understanding.  There was also a sense of team….something that had been missing in the last year.  I said it before and I will say it again….it was AMAZING!

When everyone came and saw the circle they were a little put off and thought I was nuts.  I just asked them to hang in there with me.  They did and the results were incredible!  We left the meeting feeling more like a team than we have in a very long time.

I want to thank you for showing me that there is a way that a group of people with different worldviews can come together and be a cohesive unit!  You very well may have given me the tools to keep our small town grocery store alive!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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Purpose Statement for the Bismarck AoH training, November 2014

 

Worldview Intelligence

As our work with worldview continues, Jerry Nagel and I, and other friends and colleagues we are evolving this work with, have been reflecting on what it means to be worldview aware, wondering if awareness is enough. We imagine it is a step, albeit an important one. Awareness in and of itself can be expansive, turning judgment or assumption into generosity and curiosity. And then what? What does it take to create the transformative spaces we have been witnessing with this work? It takes practices, skills and a wee bit of courage too. In was in the spirit of this wondering that the term Worldview Intelligence arose along with the curiosity of what it means; generating the working definitions that follow.

Worldview frame

Worldview Intelligence

  • The ability to learn or understand worldview(s), to be worldview aware
  • Development of skills that offer ways to address differing worldview situations, invite multiple worldviews
  • Creating opportunity and circumstances to use skills, knowledge and awareness to move from differences to progress, for yourself, your organization or community

Worldview Awareness

  • Feeling, experiencing or noticing that worldview(s) exist, individually, organizationally, in community and across stakeholder groups
  • Knowing and understanding more about what is happening in the world around you by being or becoming worldview aware

Having just wrapped up a two day workshop in Minnesota on Worldview Intelligence, a significant thread of conversation was application. How do we take what we are learning and experiencing and bring it to life in personal practice and in the way we approach our work, in the practices of our organizations? Transforming differences into progress.

worldview awareness day panoramicWe have built and are prototyping a number of frameworks that help us and workshop participants see intervention and application points. The exercises invite skill building – on the spot and afterwards in the work. The response has been thoughtful and transformative as people are seeing when and how to apply what they are learning and understanding that the quality of the messenger is as important as the message – maybe even more so when the messenger embodies the qualities and practices of worldview intelligence.

We have been working with worldview for a few years now, in the Art of Hosting trainings we have been delivering and other venues. What we learned there showed us the need for deeper dives into worldview and the identification and development of skills and intelligence that can impact even our most challenging situations. We will share what we are learning as we go and as we have time to digest the depth of experience created that invites people to show up in the fullness of their humanity – for some, the first time they have ever felt so fully invited.