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.

Jerry Mike Rich Sillouhette

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.

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Becoming an AoH Practitioner

One of the things that stands out from my Envision Halifax days when a team of us co-designed and co-delivered a nine month leadership program, meeting with the group once a month for either a retreat or a learning day, is how often people talked about getting their Envision “fix” – essentially being able to step out of the craziness of their workplaces into a deep breath of a different kind of space, where we often began with check-in circles and always entered into a conscious, intentional practice field of learning focused on self-leadership, team learning and community reflection and engagement.

The desire and need for this “fix” is directly related to how challenging people find it to bring their learning about new ways of interacting with people, creating the conditions for different conversations that lead to different results back into their work environments – and it is also what I hear from people who have just stepped out of their first Art of Hosting training ground.  “It is okay to do this here, but back at work, well, that’s another story.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, becoming a practitioner of anything takes…. well… practice.  And, I am aware of how risky it feels to try out new group processes or new ways of inviting conversation at work.  How many times we hear things like, “I could never use a talking piece at work.”  “I could never get our group to agree to use World Cafe.”  “People I work with would find this language strange and it may turn them off of even trying something new.”  Yes, all true AND there are always ways to begin practice.

People feel their credibility and reputation are most at risk trying something new with the people they work with all the time.   So one of the simplest possibilities is to look for other places to practice – with another team or department, in a volunteer capacity, with someone else who also wants to practice.

When we just begin to know the many and varied practices that are available through the Art of Hosting field and have little experience with them, we have less confidence in and knowledge of how the processes work and how people can be well and fully engaged in them.  Our own lack of confidence and fear can influence how the process unfolds.  For example, if the group has never participated in an Open Space before, it  may take a few minutes for them to warm up to inviting their own conversations when we open the space for their questions.  With experience, we know to be easy in that pause.  Without experience, it ignites our fears and then we want to jump in to make it happen, often over facilitating the space or the process, sometimes resulting in less than hoped for outcomes.  As grow our own experience and confidence in the impact of the process, we relax more which invites more flow and synchronicity into the space.

As for language, if it will be a barrier, don’t use it.  Rather than talking about circle practice, you could just say, “I would like to make sure we hear from every voice.  Maybe we could just go around the table and as each person speaks, the rest of us could just listen well to what they have to say.” Or, of course, whatever language suits you best.

Begin your practice in little ways.  Take little risks.  Change how you listen and see what difference shows up.  Use more questions, powerful questions, that invite people to respond differently.  Bring more curiousity to the conversations you have in the work you do.

Find places to practice the skills you want to develop more.  Find people to practice with.  Look for like minded people inside your organization with whom you can have conversations of discovery and potentially opportunities for practice.  Think of how you can intentionally shift the shape of your world.

Look for places outside of work to practice.  Take yourself back to another Art of Hosting training to deepen your understanding and skills and grow your courage.  Share success stories, small and large, so you and others can see the impact of making even small shifts.  Maybe you have an opportunity to be part of a calling team for an Art of Hosting in your organization or community.  You could look for an opportunity to apprentice in an Art of Hosting training with experienced practitioners and stewards so you learn to pay attention to and look for the nuances that can influence design, hosting and results.

Grow your confidence through practice and your practice will grow.  Don’t be discouraged easily.  Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity, openings and invitations.  If you look for them, you will be delightfully surprised at how often they show up.

Join a community of practice.  If there isn’t one in your area, start one – even if it is just with a few people.  Join the on-line conversations and communities.  Observe and contribute when and as you are ready.

Whenever and however you can practice, do so.  Grow your courage through small victories and those victories will also grow.  You didn’t show up at an Art of Hosting training because you are risk averse.  You came because something called you.  My guess is, this work will continue to call you and you will continue to respond.  And there is a global field of practice that responds with you.  Be intentional, thoughtful and mindful and practice well.  Before you know it, you will recognize the Art of Hosting practitioner that is you.

One AoH Training Does Not a Practitioner Make

From the last few Art of Hosting trainings I have co-hosted there are two things that I am increasingly aware of: what it means to be a practitioner of the Art of Hosting and the value and contribution of stewarding to the field and the learning and growth of all.

People come to Art of Hosting trainings hungry for any number of things: to learn more about the methodologies and practices, to connect into a sense of community, to find refuge from the craziness of the worlds they live and work in, to deepen their own self leadership, to find new ways to be in the world, to discover mates they can work and play with in the world, because they have been part of a process somewhere that has drawn from Art of Hosting and they want to learn more and many more reasons I’m sure.  And they go away refreshed, curious, hungry for more and a bit hesitant around how they can bring this back to their life and work.

Two things I am aware of: to really be a practitioner of an Art requires practice and one Art of Hosting training does not a practitioner make.

The Art of Hosting field is incredibly rich and diverse and linked to so many other fields: World Cafe, Circle Practice, Open Space Technology, the Chaordic Field, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry and more.  When we call a three for four day training, the breadth and scope of the days is shaped by the intended purpose and the people who show up – responsive to the collective need of the group, no matter whether it is a public or client offering.  There is no such thing as a set agenda.  It is a fluid process that the host team and the participants all contribute to.  It also means that the host team is having to pick and choose among the vast array of possible offerings that could flow into the training.  It is not possible to do them all.

All of these things – the hosting team, the purpose, the participants, the choices made within a training ground – contribute to the look, feel and shape of each training, while some underlying things always remain – paying attention to the field, holding space for co-creation and emergence, recognizing the interplay between the dynamics in the field and the learning needs of the group, between self hosting and collective hosting.  No two offerings are ever exactly the same, even if the same hosting team is in place – because the hosting team is also in its own learning individually and collectively and because of the responsiveness to each new training ground.

One Art of Hosting training offers a slice of the Art of Hosting field, even if it is a large slice.  Another Art of Hosting training will show different nuances, different strengths, different emphases and be just as relevant and meaningful as a reflection of the field.  If we leave an AoH training believing this is the way it is – and the only way – we will have missed something fundamentally important – that a key underlying principle is responsiveness to need, co-creation which influences the flow of any training or practice ground, paying attention to what’s in the space and what’s wanting to happen.

It really does take a number of trainings to have a more fulsome understanding and experience of AoH and what’s possible and really understand how AoH contributes to the shifting shape of the world.  We become practitioners when we practice and learn from what we practice.  The next post will explore some ways that practice shows up and how to ask for and offer support in the practice and a future post will look at the questions and observations that have been occurring to me about the role and importance of stewarding.