Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



October 20, 2005

Even More Thoughts on AHA!: Instruments of Learning, Discovery and Realization

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 18:44
AHA6When I first thought up the idea for AHA! I envisioned a physical centre (or centres) that would attract (by reputation and by some of its physical assets and setting) some of the world’s best minds to address some of the world’s most intractable problems. Weekdays would be allocated to business problems, with companies and consortia paying a fee for the service. Weekends would be volunteer groups addressing broader social problems, at no charge, and with the experts from the weekday sessions encouraged to stay over and help deal with these broader issues. Focus was to be on complex problems, the ones that don’t lend themselves to well-established solutions and analytical thinking. Everything we produced was to be made available Open Source and Creative Commons licensed.

Over time my thinking has evolved, aided by ideas and influences from some very creative, talented and experienced people. When I last wrote about it I was shifting my thinking from ‘solutions’ to working models and from methodologies to guiding principles — principles like:

  • Start small, and start at the end (know in concrete terms what attributes a successful model would have)
  • Know why things are the way they are now first
  • Start lots of serial and parallel experiments (don’t pour all the effort into a single model) 
  • The models developed should be replicable but not necessarily scalable; they should be honest, resilient and beautiful, as simple as possible, accessible and inviting, and should be developed (and evolve) collaboratively and respect and learn from nature, instinct, and the lessons of history
  • Each model should also have its own guiding principles (an AHA! model for community-based health care, for example, might have among its principles that prevention is better than treatment, and that the patient should play a key role in their own diagnosis and treatment, and take full responsibility for their own health; the principles that guide each model co-evolve with the model itself.

Principles seemed to be more robust than methodologies, which tend to be linear and rigorous. It seemed to me that complex problems needed a more flexible approach, and, if the right people were equipped with appropriate guiding principles and tools, I believed they could ‘co-design’ an optimal process along with the ‘solutions’. This approach is very much in line with the type of approach that the pundits say is needed in dealing with Wicked Problems.

I was aware that AHA! teams working on various issues will need to draw on the Wisdom of Crowds: the team members will need to be diverse, bring different knowledge and perspectives, and be independent of each other (to prevent groupthink), and I wasn’t sure whether self-selection and self-management mechanisms for the team (like that used in Open Space) could ensure that.

At the same time, I was openly worrying about whether corporations large enough to fund our ‘weekday’ programs (which we would be counting on to allow us to deal with the larger problems on weekends for free) would be sufficiently advanced in their understanding of complexity to appreciate why the more traditional approaches to business problem-solving (generally involving cross-functional internal management teams, external ‘experts’, and/or reliance on leaders’ previous experience or ‘gut feel’) simply didn’t work in complex situations — and therefore pony up money for a bold new approach.

I also began to realize trying to ‘certify’ AHA! practitioners and sell AHA! services would be a laborious and long-term process. We would have to start very small and be very patient.

What’s worse, could fledgling AHA! centres be resilient enough to command this much patience from practitioners and those who needed their services alike, when everyone is busy and the intractable problems are crying out to be solved now? Would they be resilient enough to survive even if (when) they made some early mistakes in the learning process. Would they even be resilient enough to fend off the landlords who called to say “Hey, when is this great idea of yours going to start making enough money to pay the rent?”

I started thinking about other ways to identify, attract and mobilize people to work collaboratively on urgent problems. I was struck by the success of churches, community-based NGOs and other cellular organizations, many of which are principally focused on complex, social, intractable problems. I also thought about how MeetUp, working at the community level, was able to attract people locally to work on problems and to coordinate what they were doing with similar groups in other communities around the world. Perhaps, I thought, we shouldn’t try to identify, organize and certify people to run and participate and attend AHA! events — perhaps we should empower people, people who care, to do so themselves.

You can probably see where I’m going here, but it took me awhile to see it: Rather than physical centres with certified AHA! practitioners, what if we reduced AHA! to its absolute essence: a set or ‘basket’ of capabilities, guiding principles, working models and tools that have been shown to work well in dealing with complex intractable problems.

Here’s the obvious FAQ:

  1. Where would this stuff reside? To the extent it can be usefully written down, we would keep it in a database, a wiki, or some other simple, common place where everyone could access it and everyone could add to it. The list of AHA! capabilities would be on this database, along with some learning resources, BUT — The capabilities themselves would have to be learned in actual practice, rather than by taking courses or reading stuff in databases. Those capabilities would probably include concrete stuff like familiarity with Open Space methodology and Snowden’s approaches to complexity, but also softer stuff like openness, good listening skills, imagination, creativity, ability to invite and draw out others, good instincts, presence etc.
  2. How would people acquire these capabilities? By working in AHA! sessions with other people who have these capabilities and who could teach them in the context of addressing real problems. Learn by doing, ‘on the job’. Not everyone would have every capability, but it would be important to have some recognition of who has which ones, so that effective AHA! teams could be assembled.
  3. How would people be recognized or certified as having these capabilities and having a functional knowledge of the principles, models and tools? By each other, a peer evaluation process that would show up most obviously in the number of times people were specifically invited to AHA! sessions (and perhaps the willingness of some people to pay for their time). I haven’t thought out the details of this, but why couldn’t it work? The ‘crowd’ will tell us who has which critical capabilities.
  4. How would these AHA! ‘cells’ be formed and managed? By using social networks — not any one particular tool, though MeetUp would certainly be useful, but any and all tools that work: want ads, corporate-sponsored organization events, notices in the church newsletter, bulletin boards, whatever. Let them evolve to be what they will be. If there’s a need for formal identification of AHA! cells (groups available to work on any challenging problem in their local community) and ‘solution’ teams (groups of people, and groups of cells, working in small groups as part of larger groups on some big hairy issues like education and health care), for coordination and ‘recruitment’ purposes, then let the people working on the issues evolve them to suit their purposes. Bottom-up, self-managed, self-selected, ‘popular’ methods — and no ‘central management’ to screw things up.

Now let’s get into some tricky terminology: I believe we need to avoid the use of terms like problem, solution, analysis, cause, system, process, and methodology. These terms are fine for simple problems, but don’t work for complex, intractable problems — oops, I mean complex intractable situations and issues. We need to start talking about “approaches to deal with and cope with” situations and issues. We need to look for patterns and correlations, and forget about causality (and blame). This is humbling terminology, but it’s important, because it defines what AHA! will, and cannot, do. We have to stop looking for solutions to intractable problems — they don’t exist.

What do we call this ‘stuff’, this collection of intellectual capital — these capabilities, principles, models and tools? It’s not a ‘solution set’, because there are no solutions. I like the term instruments. With a set of musical instruments we can play a symphony. With a set of AHA! instruments for dealing with complex, intractable issues and challenges, perhaps we can save the world.

So let’s suppose a bunch of people decide we have to do something about the health care system and the education system (everywhere on the globe). How might AHA! work? Well, presumably these issues/challenges/situations would readily be identified on the AHA! database and in MeetUp or whatever other tools (instruments) are used to identify them. People would ‘volunteer’ (no reason why some of the people couldn’t be paid under certain circumstances, but that convention will evolve over time, too, so let’s put the term ‘volunteer’ in quotes to include ‘paid volunteers’) to work on the issues they care about, and be connected to other volunteers who care about that issue in their community. Databases and other tools would also allow that fledgling cell to identify people working on the issue in other communities and on a cross-community level basis. This self-formed network would work out for itself what work it made sense for each cell to focus on, what additional people/knowledge/capabilities it needed to attract to the cell to be effective, and how to coordinate and collaborate and share knowledge with the other cells.

What about the action plans when that work’s done, you ask? Well, every member creates her own. In the ‘realization’ of approaches to complex situations, there is no telling others what to do. As Presence says, “You cultivate a quality of perception that is striving outwards, from the whole to the part, so you ‘see from the whole’. You let the experience well up into something appropriate. In a sense, there’s no decision-making. What you have to do becomes obvious.” Once again, this approach draws on the knowledge of aboriginal peoples, and of nature. There, there is no hierarchy of command and control. When an issue arises, it is explored collectively by those who care about it, until an understanding emerges of what should be done. It is then up to each participant to take the responsibility to see that it is.

After eight months of kicking this around, I think AHA! Instruments for a Better World, the Means to Get Things Done, is nearly there.

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