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.

March 8, 2014

The Qualities of a Great Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 21:02

sncap2Lest my readers conclude, as a result of yesterday’s article, that I’m down on stories, let me say again: I love stories, and find them useful for learning and imagining, and also very entertaining. So today I’d like to summarize the qualities that I think the great stories I’ve read all have.

This will probably be an unorthodox list: I’m not talking about ‘elements’ of a story here, and in fact I don’t believe there are any essential ‘elements’ of a great story. I’ve read great stories that have no well-developed characters, let alone sympathetic protagonists (some mystery stories come to mind). I’ve read great stories that have no discernible plot, at least in the traditional sense of a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a conclusion. I’ve read great stories that have no drama or struggle or tension (such as comedies, unless you really bend the meaning of the word ‘tension’). Some of my favourite stories defy traditional narrative structures, which I find tedious, constraining and unimaginative (thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for this intriguing link).

So what do I think are the qualities of a great story?

I’d start with TS Eliot’s two qualities of great poetry, which I think apply equally to stories. In his essay The Social Function of Poetry he wrote:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So (1) it gives pleasure and (2) it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example). My favourite story writer Frederick Barthelme also writes, in his 39 Steps for Writers, about the importance of imagery: “Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many”. This sensory information roots the story, gives it a sense of place, whether familiar or strange.

While I think all Frederick’s “steps” are useful, steps 21-22 are the ones I would nominate as the third essential quality of a great story:

If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.

Quality (3) then is every sentence must pay.

Quality (4) is that it takes a camera or “theatre” view. That is, it relates what the camera “sees” and “hears” through action and dialogue, not a bunch of back-and-forth “he thought… she felt”. It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. I’m ambivalent about first-person narratives — stories that relate what happens or happened to one person from behind her/his eyes or inside her/his head. Even Shakespeare used “asides” and monologues to convey important thoughts or feelings of characters that could not be brought out naturally in action or dialogue. But great stories, IMO, use these devices sparingly.

Quality (5) is that it respects the audience’s intelligence. That means no manipulation of the audience’s feelings or thoughts by painting a simplistic, black-and-white picture of a situation or character. That means no deus ex machina. That means no helpless creatures injured or killed for no reason just to stir up audience emotions. That means the story has to be coherent. That means it requires the audience to think, to pay attention to what’s happening, to read between the lines.

Quality (6) is that it leaves space for the audience. It omits enough detail (without omitting anything essential) that the listener or reader (or even viewer) can fill in some of the details from their own experience or imagination and become part of the story, make it their own.

Quality (7) is that it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”. I don’t understand the appeal of many series, sequels and trilogies (though there are exceptions). I appreciate that we can come to love characters and settings and that their familiarity is heart-warming, but unless every ‘episode’ includes something totally new, something that astonishes, really shines, I think it’s lazy, mediocre writing. And there is so much of that, in this age of imaginative poverty.

That’s it. Just seven qualities. Fewer than one in a thousand stories, in my view, has them. There are other nice-to-have qualities, but those are the essential ones.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. Many, even most of the very popular stories I’ve read do not have these qualities and I can’t even finish them, and many of the most beloved stories in the English language are, I think, dreadful, absolute dreck. These are the seven qualities I aspire to when I write stories now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of them this year.

Image from Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin

October 30, 2012

Conversations That Matter

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 23:11

conversation by pam o'connell

painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

When I was younger, most of my waking life was consumed in conversations. In my work life, I learned that most learning occurs, and most decisions are made, in small group conversations, often ad hoc. I was persuaded that good conversation skills were the key to good relationships. I believed, in short, that conversation mattered.

Now that I’m no longer working, and rarely required to converse with anyone, I’ve come to believe that, as GB Shaw put it, “the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. In retrospect, I would guess that most of the conversations I was party to over the years were incompetently conducted and largely a waste of time. The conversants, for the most part, had already decided what they believed or what needed to be done, and were just looking for reassurance. Or they were talking to hear themselves think, and not listening to anyone else. There was almost never any real exchange of information, or ideas, or perspectives, despite the earnest attempts of the conversants to convey these things. Our languages are not very good at that, and the complicity of creatures that make up what we believe to be “us”, as individuals, rarely allows our minds — their minds really — to focus more than a small bit of our attention on anything not directly relevant to the needs of the moment. And our culture does its best to obfuscate and distort the meaning of words and the events of the day, so that most of what we manage to convey is probably lies anyway.

So lately I have chosen to converse less, even in the company of others. I begin conversations less often, say less, and become restless with what others are trying to say more quickly. I have become a more sensuous, perceptual and intuitive person and less conceptual and verbal. I would rather just be with the people I love than talk with them.

When I meet someone new who intrigues me, someone (male or female) I might like to spend time with in some shared activity other than talking — or perhaps doing nothing more than just being with them in some beautiful place — I now try to begin, like a feral creature, with non-verbal communication. Nature has equipped us, since the aeons before our newly-invented languages, with a very powerful set of tools to communicate without words. Body language, eye and facial movements, pheromones, a host of (to us) subtle means of conveying what we feel without saying a word. There are a million ways to smile at someone, to smile with someone, and our bodies are very adept at translating their meaning, as long as our heads don’t get in the way. Few joys can compare, for example, with flirting wordlessly with someone and knowing you have made a connection. Alas, in our desperate, lonely modern world flirting is too often seen as intentional, a lead-in to something serious, rather than just play, pleasure, joy, something done for its own sake.

Eventually, however, it is likely that I am going to have to engage the people whose company I like, or think I might like, in conversation. Our first conversation with someone is almost always precedent-setting: if it’s small-talk, or appreciative, or attentive, or inviting, the other person will probably come to expect more of the same from us. So the one who opens the conversation is now more or less obliged, committed, to provide more of the same, and if that opening was banal, or inauthentic, or hyperbolic, or aggressive, it does not bode well for the future of that relationship to be equal, honest and interesting.

In recent years, as someone with relatively high self-esteem and with nothing to lose for trying, I’ve tended to open conversations with an invitation. That’s true whether my tentative interest in them is intellectual, romantic, collaborative, or aesthetic. Being forward carries the risk of a direct ‘no’ reply to your invitation (or worse, an apologetic, ambiguous reply intended to be a ‘no’). But my sense is that we’re pretty quick deciders, we humans, and that by the time I utter the invitation the recipient’s answer is already decided, so preceding it with a bunch of polite and/or flattering blather is unlikely to change anything, and might create false understandings or expectations.

Lately I’ve wondered whether there might be a better way to start a meaningful conversation with someone. That has got me asking: What are the “conversations that matter”, if most of the conversations that consume our lives do not?

I’ve recently returned from a series of events at which I’ve been extolling the use of the Group Works deck, a set of 91 cards representing the characteristics, or “patterns” of exceptionally effective “group processes” — meetings, conferences, collaborative and deliberative events — that an event facilitator or participant can invoke or draw upon. It’s occurred to me that the same qualities that make for a great meeting — qualities like a great location, inquiry, advance research and preparation, playfulness, letting go, listening, openness, improvisation etc. — could also be the qualities of a great conversation. But, again, bringing these qualities to the conversation is, likewise, only worth pursuing if the conversation is one that matters.

To try to answer this question — what are the “conversations that matter”? — I’ve been reviewing and reflecting upon the conversations in my own life that have made the greatest difference — those that brought about a major, sustained change in what is done, what is believed, or what is understood by one or more participants in the conversation.

My analysis of these conversations suggests that “conversations that matter” tend to be one (or more) of five types, each of which has an essential question that the conversation generally turns on (the cards pictured above each type are from the Group Works deck — more about them later in the article):

1. Existential (Connecting) Conversations / What Do You Really Care About, and Why?: Not who do you care about, what do you care about deeply, with all your heart, to the point it drives you, makes you crazy, makes you leap tall buildings, commands your attention, affects your behaviour, profoundly informs your worldview, makes you ache so much that sometimes you cannot bear to think about it, or witness it? And why do you care so much?

It takes courage to have a conversation about such things, since we often can’t control our feelings about them, and that lack of control makes us vulnerable, defensive, self-protective. But what could be more important to talk about? These are the things that define us, and an understanding of them can clue us in to who we really are. To ask “what do you care about?” is to ask “who are you?”.

Ask me what I care about most and I’d say, I think, it’s the needless suffering of all the creatures of this world (including humans), and the needless and disastrous desolation of our planet. I know I can’t change it, I know no one can stop it and that it will get worse until our civilization collapses, and that no one is to blame. But knowing this doesn’t make me care any less about it. We can’t control or change what we care about. I care about this because I can see, sense, intuitively know that when we lived in the rainforest, for the first million years of our species’ existence, we had everything we needed for an easy, joyful, sustainable life and so did the rest of all life on Earth. I’m filled with grief that we lived an idyllic, harmonious life, and for whatever reason (the reason no longer matters) we abandoned it, destroyed it. Now we are facing the terrible consequences.

I care, too, about beauty and love and wild places and play and peacefulness. I can’t get enough of these things. I pursue them, always and everywhere. I have always cared about these things and they have driven me all my life, made me who I am, who I always have been. I care about them because when they’re present — when I’m present — time stops, and the grey disconnecting veil through which I see the whole world from inside my head lifts. I become another person, free, my true self, connected with and at one with and part of all life on Earth. Real.

2. Intentional (Challenging) Conversations / What Do You Most Want (to happen or to achieve in your life), and Why? If it’s unlikely to happen (the big lottery win) or likely impossible to achieve (the perfect happily-ever-after relationship/life), what is it that keeps you dreaming about it, what is the cost of your obsession with it (lack of presence, wasted life, lifelong dissatisfaction), and what would it take to let it go? And if it is realizable or achievable, why is it so important to you, and how might you free up your time and energy from the urgent needs of the moment to begin to begin to achieve it?

While we can’t control or change what we care about, we may be able to change what we want. We may be able to stop hopelessly wanting what we can probably never have (despite the media’s relentless want-creation and perfection-is-possible-and-desirable machine). And despite Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour (the “merely important” things always get back-burnered in favour of what’s urgent, and then, in our exhaustion, in favour of what’s easy and/or fun), we do have the capacity to simplify our lives, reduce the number of urgent tasks we face each day, and the amount of stuff we have that we have to look after, so we can get around, at last, to realizing or achieving what we really want. Or, if that’s impossible, stop wanting it and move on with our lives.

Ask me what I want and one of my responses would likely be “a life without stress” (since I handle stress badly, physically and emotionally). It’s a foolish, impossible desire, even in my relatively idyllic retirement, and I would be wise to let it go, and instead pursue practices that increase my resilience to stress. Another response would likely be, perhaps ironically, I want to know what I really want. Since collapsing into retirement I have taken up a lot of hobbies, taken on a lot of projects, and done some very satisfying work. But I’m still not happy that I’m fulfilling my purpose in this world, and a lot of the things I think I should do, or should want to do, I somehow know I don’t want to do (though I’m not sure why). Get me in a conversation about this and I’ll have your head spinning. But for me, at least, it would be a conversation that mattered.

3. Learning (Exploring, Capacity Building) Conversations / What Information, Ideas, Understandings, Insights and Perspectives Can You (We) Offer (Share)? Learning is an iterative process. True exchange of knowledge and meaning occurs interactively and contextually. “What do you mean by that? Are you saying… If that’s true then… But what about…” — this back-and-forth struggle for coherence and appreciation is how true communication occurs. As TS Eliot put it, “Trying to learn to use words… every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure, because one has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating in the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” Many of us blog principally because it enables us to have learning conversations with ourselves (with a little help from our readers). For many, reading is a learning conversation with the writer. And the best learning conversations are not debates or competitions for nods of agreement, but offers — of information, ideas, understandings, insights and perspectives. The point of the offer is not to get attention or appreciation, but to help.

Conversations, if the space for learning is held open by the participants, enables learning through exploration in a way other forms of learning cannot. Exploration (“What if…”) gives participants permission to stray from the script of the text, and it is in this way that unexpected connections and discoveries are made, and powerful collective learning results. And conversations can be interspersed with demonstration: “Let me show you… Now you try it… Why do you do it that way; what if instead… I don’t understand… Try this… — improving the capacities of both teachers and students, while often blurring the line between them.

These days, as I’ve written often on these pages, my beliefs and insights on the things I think important are so radically different from, and unsettling to, most people’s thinking that I have few opportunities for totally candid conversations about them. So my learning conversations with others are often of the “just help them get started” variety. By suggesting readings, providing factual information, telling stories, I can subversively impart radically different perspectives and understandings by allowing other conversants to draw their own conclusions. The games that I’m working to develop now, on the Gift Economy, and on Preparing for Collapse, are really just a framework for Learning Conversations about these subjects.

The conversations from which I learn the most are those that include masterful conversationalists, people who can (seemingly) effortlessly and unobtrusively steward and shepherd the conversation to make it more relevant, succinct, focused, articulate, and effective at its purpose. More about that later in this article.

inviting conv cards

4. Inviting (Engaging, Playing, Creating) Conversations / What Do You Like to Do? What Are You Really Good At? We all love to play, and conversations that invite others to play, that engage them and encourage them to do what they enjoy, things that stimulate their creativity, imagination and sense of humour, open us and them to the unpredictable products of any joyful activity that draws on our energies and passion. Invention and innovation. Enduring, creative partnerships. Works of art. Love.

Invitation is itself an art form, and the best Inviting Conversations are usually preceded by thorough research and carefully crafted. If the invitation is misrepresented or inauthentic, it will be a quick conversation-stopper. Paradoxically, we spend so much of our lives doing things we think we must do, that we are often unaware of the things we like doing, and the things that we’re good at doing, and Inviting Conversations can enable their discovery. These are often conversations where the non-verbal “conversation” is at least as important as what is actually said. Such conversations often benefit from the use of tools that allow visual expression of what is said or meant, to complement the verbal record.

In recent years, as I start to take my importance, and myself, less seriously, this has become my favourite type of conversation. Clever banter is not small-talk, it is a form of play that takes practice to become skilled at. My way of making new friends is to explore with people what they like and what they’re good at, and if these are things I also enjoy, figure out what we might both like, or what we might together offer the world, and use that as the invitation to both an activity and a relationship.

5. Problem-Solving (Collaborating) Conversations / How Might We Deal With or Respond to (a specific issue, challenge or predicament)? Of the five types, this is probably the most difficult type of conversation to facilitate and enable. This is because few people understand that most modern ‘problems’ are actually complex predicaments, and that simplistic solutions (despite what politicians, consultants, business ‘leaders’ and others try to tell us) rarely ‘fix’ them, at least not for long. In such cases it is usually more effective to look for ways to adapt to the predicament, approaches to deal with it, and mitigate its worst effects.

We all love a challenge, and conversations that have a purpose as pointed and explicit as solving a specific problem are often enticing. What is more difficult is facilitating such conversations in such a way that the tendency to oversimplify, create false dichotomies and choices, and rush to conclusions (who will do what by when) is reined in, and the true nature of the problem (and why it has resisted previous efforts to ‘solve’ it) have become clearer. Understanding  the true nature of a complex problem (predicament) and discovery of possible approaches to deal with it generally co-emerge from thoughtful, open, genuine inquiry through conversation. Getting all the voices in the conversation heard, ensuring the relevant information is at hand, getting participants to see things from different perspectives, and encouraging stories that help clarify and level knowledge and bring appreciation of the issues complexity, require patience from the group and self-discipline from participants.

These days I don’t engage in many Problem-Solving Conversations. Because they consumed so much of my work life, when I retired from paid work I also resolved to retire from such conversations. Much of the work of the Transition movement is conversations of this type, however, so my focus now is learning (slowly) how to be better at facilitating them to avoid the landmines so many of my work-life conversations encountered.

•     •     •     •     •

So how do we engage in such “conversations that matter”? Baldly asking the essential questions corresponding to each of the five types of conversations above, especially of someone you don’t know well, might well produce a defensive or even angry response. One possible way to broach an Existential, Intentional, or Inviting conversation might be to ask (especially of people with busy schedules): If you had one extra hour each day, what would you spend it doing? Their answer to this question might hint at what they really care about, want, or like, and precipitate a conversation on that subject.

What is most needed to make Conversations that Matter more effective, I think, is better facilitation of such conversations. That’s where the Group Works deck I mentioned earlier comes in. Although it was designed (by a group of 50 people, of which I was one) to help meeting and other “group process” facilitators design and conduct such activities more effectively, I’ve realized that Conversations That Matter are really just a form of “group process”, and while most such conversations are ad hoc and do not have appointed facilitators, there is no reason why all the participants of such conversations shouldn’t hone their facilitation skills and gently apply them in such conversations (in an unofficial role often called “guerrilla facilitation”) — at every stage, from pre-conversation ‘design’ (research, location-setting etc.), intention- and context-setting, tending the relationships and flow of the conversation, encouraging creativity, inquiry and synthesis, perspective shifts and trust, and modelling exemplary conversational skills and behaviours that others can learn from and emulate. The 15 card images depicted above show some of the 91 patterns of exemplary practice that might be applied to different types of conversations.

So the next time you find yourself in, or scheduled for, a conversation, ask yourself: Is it a Conversation That Matters? If it isn’t, see whether with some tweaking it might be made into one (or else consider whether you want to avoid it). And if most of the conversations you engage in are not Conversations That Matter, maybe it’s time to shift gears and find ways, and people, to initiate and participate in ones that are.

And when you do, pay attention to what’s happening in the conversation beyond just the words said. Chances are you’ll discover there are some masterful conversationalists in your circles (I’m not one of them, by the way, not by a long shot). Study them, learn from them, discover how they “guerrilla facilitate” the conversation, and follow their example. It’s one of the most important skills you can learn.

July 12, 2012

More Years of Schooling for Fewer and Fewer Jobs

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:43

This week’s (July 9/16) New Yorker has a terrific one-page summary by James Surowiecki of why so many job vacancies are left unfilled “for want of any sufficiently qualified candidates” while so many people (especially young people with university degrees) are unable to find work. It’s behind a pay wall, so here’s a synopsis:

  • Unemployment is high not because businesses are shedding jobs but because no one is hiring (in one case cited, a company had 25,000 applicants for a standard engineering job, and rejected all of them).
  • The idea of a “skills gap” (the unemployed don’t have the skills hirers are looking for) is a myth. The truth is that companies want to hire the most experienced and successful people already working at competing companies, so they’ll hit the ground running, so there’s no training cost, and so there’s no risk they won’t work out. “When companies complain they can’t find people with the right ‘skills’”, Surowiecki writes, “they often just mean they can’t find people with the right experience”.
  • This is a direct consequence of the fact that large corporations have slashed internal training budgets as a short-sighted means of cost cutting. The argument, says Surowiecki, is that “job tenure has shrunk, so why spend time and money training somebody who may soon go to work for your competitor”. With the loss of benefits and the disinterest of employers in investing in their employees, employee loyalty has understandably plummeted, creating a vicious cycle that big corporations themselves are to blame for.
  • In a weak economy, “companies worry less about getting every possible dollar of new business than they do about keeping costs down”. The unwillingness of big corporations to invest in genuine domestic production (in lieu of outsourcing and offshoring every possible job) is a direct contributor to that weak economy. But it also reflects the fact that big corporation CEOs realize the economy is on the verge of collapse, and they’re hoarding cash and slashing costs to prepare for that eventuality.

Alas, after this excellent diagnosis, Surowiecki prescribes exactly the wrong medicine: more government stimulus. Of all the “stimulus” money gifted to bail out and subsidize large corporations (especially the banksters), substantially none of it has gone to create new employment. It’s all been invested (in financial, not production assets) or handed out to executives as pay raises and bonuses, or used to buy back the corporations’ own shares to leverage earnings per share (and hence share price).

There are two things that governments and citizens should be doing instead of throwing more taxpayer cash at greedy, corrupt and incompetent corporate executives:

  1. Governments should be encouraging job creation and new employment by reducing corporations’ share of individuals’ social service costs and reducing payroll taxes, i.e. making affordable health care and adequate social security available to all, not just employees and the rich, under a government-run, taxpayer-funded, single-payer system. This of course is especially needed in the US, where health costs (mostly for administration, private insurers’ profits, and legal liability expenses) are eating their economy alive. The goal should be to make employing someone as simple, affordable and low-risk as contracting them, and employing people for local manufacturing as affordable as employing or contracting people to manufacture offshore (which means eliminating all the phony “free” trade agreements, and closing tax loopholes).
  2. What citizens should realize is that, even if governments did take such actions (which is highly unlikely given the amount of money big corporate political donors pay them not to), big corporations are not the solution to endemically high unemployment. There is a time-bomb in the US ticking away: young people keep going back to school to get more education when they can’t get jobs, keeping them out of the job market (and, conveniently, the official unemployment numbers) longer every year (and putting them deeper into debt before they get their first ‘real’ job, if that day ever comes). Citizens instead need to re-learn how to create small sustainable new enterprises, and make a living for themselves (and employ others in their community), instead of depending on big corporations to provide them with jobs. Job ‘growth’ among large corporations has been consistently negative for over a decade, and there is no reason for that to change, ever. All net job creation comes from the entrepreneurial sector (or from government, which is strongly discouraged by citizens in most countries from taking on new employees these days).

This is why I wrote my book, Finding the Sweet Spot. But reading a book alone isn’t enough to give you everything you need to start a small sustainable enterprise. We need an entire, practical curriculum on Making a Living For Yourself, that starts in the junior high school years, connects young people with local entrepreneurs and gives them useful skills (and the self-confidence and knowledge of how to use them in their own enterprises) before they graduate from high school.

This (2012) is the Year of the Co-op. The most appropriate, responsible and sustainable form of small, community-based enterprise is the co-operative, and the curriculum for Making a Living For Yourself should be based on co-op creation.

None of this would be easy. It would require a revolution in the education system (moving a lot of it out of the classroom and into the community). There are almost no teachers currently competent to teach it. Large corporations would find it hugely threatening and would oppose it with everything they’ve got (i.e. money, media and politicians), since it would reduce the demand for large corporate jobs, and encourage people to buy from local not-for-profit co-ops instead of from them. We would have to learn from our mistakes, and hopefully learn quickly and inexpensively.

But it could be done. When our teetering and unsustainable economy collapses, we will have to do this anyway. It would be amazing if we had the foresight to start now.

Thanks to James Surowiecki for the analysis, and to Christoph Niemann for the clever illustration above (from the magazine article).

January 27, 2012

Group Works Card Deck – A Joyful Announcement

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 15:54

For the past couple of years a group of professional facilitators and others experienced in and interested in improving “group process” has been working to create a “pattern language” (an integrated collection of practices, processes, qualities and other phenomena that “work” in many different group contexts and at different scales) to improve the effectiveness of meetings, conferences and other deliberative gatherings. I have had the privilege to have been part of the core team developing this “language”. When we started, we expected to produce a book, but instead we decided to produce a card deck, to make the tool more interactive, dynamic and fun.

I’m very pleased to announce that we have now published the deck. Here is our announcement:


The Group Works card deck, the first product of the Group Pattern Language Project, is now out! You can order copies of the deck, download a free PDF copy and learn about our upcoming mobile/phone app version of the deck on our website, groupworksdeck.org .

Image by Susan Stewart

The deck is designed to support your process as a group convenor, planner, facilitator, or participant. The developers spent several years pooling our knowledge of the best group events we have ever witnessed.

We looked at meetings, conferences, retreats, town halls, and other sessions that give organizations life, solve a longstanding dilemma, get stuck relationships flowing, result in clear decisions with wide support, and make a lasting difference. We also looked at routine, well-run meetings that simply bring people together and get lots of stuff done.

The deck consists of 91 full-colour cards (plus a few blanks to add your own patterns), a five-panel explanatory category/legend card, and an accompanying booklet explaining the purpose and history of the project and suggesting uses for the cards in group process work.

Each 3.5″ x 5.5″ card is laid out as follows:

These cards are yours, of course, to use in whatever ways make sense and work for you:  in the workplace, in design and preparation of facilitated events, as a learning and teaching tool, for reflecting on how an event went, or just for fun.  The website and booklet explain some of the ways they have been used by facilitators and students so far, to give you some ideas to get started with, and we invite users to share their experiences and stories with us.

Image by Ethan Honeywell

For more information on the deck, please visit our website: http://groupworksdeck.org


We have also drafted a .pptx brochure oriented to business audiences (most of our direct contacts are in the non-profit, public, education and government sectors), which you can download here.

Please let me know what you think of the material above, and how we might “tweak” it to make it better. Also, please let me know if you buy or download a deck yourself, or if you have contacts you’d be interested in presenting this to. And of course, if you use the deck to improve your meetings and other group processes, I’d love to hear your stories!

October 17, 2011

The Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process, and How to Avoid Them

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 22:03

(a guest post by Tree Bressen)


consensus process flowchart

[Last month I posted an article entitled When Consensus Doesn't Work. This guest post by Tree Bressen describes situations where consensus can and should work, but gets derailed, and how such situations can be avoided. Consensus Decision-Making is a group decision-making process that seeks not only the agreement of most participants, but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections and concerns. Readers not familiar with the process and terminology of consensus might want to read this overview, or Tree's more extensive explanation of consensus, before reading this article.]

1. Inappropriate Blocks

Blocking because you disagree, object, don’t like the proposal, it doesn’t match your personal needs or values, it goes against tradition, you’d have to leave the group if it passed, etc.  Also includes premature blocks, where someone threatens to block if a group explores a particular direction.

► Consensus only works when the power to block is restricted to concerns that are demonstrably based in the core principles of the group.  Consensus means giving a fair and heartfelt hearing to substantive points—it does not mean you always get your way.

► Remember the Stand Aside option exists for people with passionately held concerns and objections.

► Blocking does not have to mean end of discussion.  Some of the most effective consensus groups require the blocker to help work out a solution.

2. Enabling Bad Behavior

If disrespectful statements or behavior from one another member toward another or the group are tolerated (yelling, sarcasm, put-downs, jokes at someone’s expense, etc.), this degrades the meeting environment for everyone, impacting the whole group’s safety and well-being.

► Set a constructive tone and insist on following it, kindly but clearly putting a stop to any meanness, attacks, undercutting, oppressive ‘isms,’ etc.  We are fully capable of disagreeing fervently with respect.

3. Poorly Planned Agendas

People’s time and life energy are precious; when this is not respected, they stop showing up.  Prioritize clearly and be realistic.  Reserve the bulk of time for the things that appropriately call for widespread active involvement.

► Put advance time into creating the best possible agenda—and then be willing to shift it if the group as a whole needs something different.

► Put the most important items early so they don’t get squeezed by less important items.

► Avoid lengthy reports (just get the highlights, or put it over email) or announcements (use a big sheet by the door instead, so people see it when they come in and when they leave).

► Provide breaks at least every 90 minutes (and don’t pretend you can have a 5-minute break).

4. Having the Same Person Facilitate and Present Topics

When the facilitator is also the person offering information and context on an issue, it lessens safety for those who may disagree with the general thrust, putting them immediately on the defensive.

► Presenters supply information and context and should be free to advocate.

► Facilitators need to be neutral so that everyone in the group feels supported by them.

► Mixing roles can work ok in small, committee-like groups (8 people or less?); the larger the group, the more need for facilitator neutrality and formal roles.

5. Starting from a Proposal, Instead of an Issue

In situations where people want to feel fully empowered and included, any overly developed proposal on anything important will inevitably evoke resistance.  At that point, the recipients of the proposal feel scared that they’ll be steamrolled, while the developers of the proposal feel unappreciated, and no one is happy.

► For smaller proposals that don’t require many people’s energy for successful implementation, starting from a proposal can be fine.

► For more complex or controversial situations that touch many people, start by describing the situation, and exploring ideas together in the larger group.  A committee can be useful in helping frame the topic, as long as they don’t go too far down the road.  Later once a basic direction is established, a committee might work out details.  Or if the larger group doesn’t easily come to resolution, they may request a task group of people with diverse viewpoints to work together on it.

6. Too Many Details

There’s nothing like a tedious, overly detailed conversation among a few involved people to put the rest of the meeting to sleep while everyone checks out.

► See #3 above.

► Delegate!  Send the rest to committee.

7. Rushing the Process

Leads to inappropriate blocks, situations where legitimate concerns were not dealt with in an integrated way and so the only option left to the person raising it is to block the whole process, which feels rough on everyone involved.

► Allow plenty of time for discussion.  Take the space to really listen to people’s diverse viewpoints and concerns.  Trust the wisdom of the whole.

► If you have time and if it’s important, discuss the matter, then let it sit and settle, then return to it.

► Wait to make the official call for consensus until a sense of unity emerges.

8. Spending All Your Meeting Time in Open Discussion

In general discussion, only the boldest get their voices heard—many others never even raise their hands.

► Change formats (planned in advance or on the spot):  break into pairs or small groups (3-5 people), line up to show the spectrum of opinion, use dot voting, fishbowls, roleplays, write stuff on sheets around the room, etc.  See this handout for a bunch more ideas.

9. Attaching Proposals to People

Once something is out on the floor, it belongs to the group, not an individual member.  Thus it’s better to refer to an idea as “the proposal to do X” than as “Jenny’s proposal.”  For this same reason, avoid the taint of “friendly amendments,” a holdover from Robert’s Rules and voting process where you ask the proposer’s permission to modify.  You wouldn’t ask one person “Can i add this bed to the garden?” unless it was their garden; since it’s the group’s common plot, it’s up to everyone whether and how the proposal gets modified.

► Expect every proposal to get modified a lot before adoption.

10. Fuzzy Minutes

Failing to accurately record the sense of the meeting can mean hours of lost group work.  Don’t record verbatim who said what, because it’s too long for others to read later and it ties issues too closely to personalities.

► Make sure the decision and reasons for it are written clearly for the records.  Record any stand asides (names and reasons), and tasks for implementation (who will do what, by when).

August 11, 2011

Making a Living for Ourselves

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 07:49

US population by employment status: Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you assume most of the “not working” Americans not currently listed as officially “unemployed” would, if they had the opportunity, be working at least part-time, the real unemployment rate is 25-35%. Surveys I have published on this site in past suggest that the under-employment rate (people feeling that the work they are doing is significantly beneath what they are capable of doing) is well over 50%.

By now it should be pretty clear that our economic system is incapable of providing meaningful work for the majority of the population. Real unemployment rates (not the fabricated rates published by our governments) are in excess of 25%, and the number of people employed by companies with over 500 employees has dropped dramatically every year for the past 15 years. All growth in employment now comes from small entrepreneurial organizations. Every month in the US, 150,000 more people enter the labour force.

Yet there is no educational program of any size that teaches people how to start their own small, community-based sustainable enterprise, and entrepreneurial start-ups have a colossal failure rate. Most MBA and Commerce programs provide case study based programs that are aimed principally at teaching students how to be better middle-managers in (or consultants to) large corporations — yet those corporations are shedding jobs, not adding them, every year. Entrepreneurial programs offered by community colleges and community business development offices are generally focused on the least important parts of small business: legal structure, regulatory compliance and record-keeping (or on the ghastly process of seeking vultures who will bleed them dry with “venture capital”).

Partly in response to this need, I published my book Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work three years ago, to explain the six key attributes that differentiate Natural Enterprises from the mainstream of struggling entrepreneurs. The book asserts that these Natural Enterprises are what we need to create, by the millions, so that we can all make a living for ourselves, so we are no longer dependent on others to create jobs for us.

A book alone, however, is not enough. Until millions of Natural Enterprises exist as models that we can visit and learn from to create our own enterprises, we need extensive programs for online and in-community study and for young people to learn hands-on in secondary school. These programs need to be developed cooperatively with local Natural Enterprises in each community — because this learning needs to take place in the community, not in the classroom. These programs would equip both new entrants to the work world and the unemployed and underemployed, to sidestep the horrific, demeaning search for wage-slave corporate jobs, and instead create successful Natural Enterprises of their own, enterprises that meet real human needs in their communities.

The initiative for such programs will not come from educational institutions (too threatening to the education establishment, and not enough corporate subsidies to fund them), nor from governments (which have no clue about how to stimulate employment other than foolishly offering subsidies and tax breaks to big corporations to attract them to their area). And it certainly won’t come from the private sector (which doesn’t want any real competition, nor any reduction in the number of desperate applicants for the few jobs they need to fill).

If it comes, it will come from the same place that other viable, sustainable approaches to major social and economic problems (like the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate, and the end of the ruinous debt-dependent industrial “growth” economy) will come from: self-organized groups of informed citizens working in their local communities.

Natural Enterprises are self-organized and self-managed, egalitarian cooperative partnerships (collaboratives of potential suppliers, customers and workers) founded to co-develop and provide products and services that fill real, unmet human needs in their community, in a way that is socially responsible and environmentally and economically sustainable, and which allows each partner to do work that he or she is uniquely good at doing, loves doing and cares about deeply.

That probably doesn’t sound like any organization you know. Not surprising, since there are not many of them out there now. Most of us are afraid to even try making a living for ourselves (which is just how the corporatists want it), and most of what little is taught about how to start and operate a community-based enterprise is wrong (since the vast majority of existing small enterprises are badly structured and run, economically unsustainable and founded to sell products and services rather than to fill unmet human needs).

In my career advising entrepreneurs I found a few true Natural Enterprises, and learned of others from consultation with colleagues and extensive research. They are amazing places to see. People in these enterprises enjoy going to work every day, love what they do, choose their own hours and are beholden to no one. They are the opposite of the stereotype highly-stressed, overworked, ever-struggling grow-or-die entrepreneur.

Yet what they do is not extraordinary. We could all be doing it. The hardest part is learning some basic (and currently rare) skills and capacities, such as how to find partners, how to collaborate effectively in a non-hierarchical self-organized environment, how to do world-class market research, how to think critically and creatively, and how to iteratively imagine possibilities — to co-create and co-develop an offering with the people who need it, the people who can provide it, and the people who care about it, so that the financing and marketing are provided organically and virally by the community, and so that the risk of failure is reduced to almost zero.

Some Natural Enterprises I am aware of were established more by good fortune than intention: the right partners just happened to come together with the right attitude and right mix of complementary skills and capacities to succeed. Others came upon this success formula from practice — they were bright enough to learn quickly and inexpensively from their mistakes. What we need to do is create a “collaboratory” where we can practice creating Natural Enterprises until we are good enough at it to launch them and to help others learn and launch theirs. This collaboratory would not be an educational institution but rather an integral part of the community open to all, learning from each other using some basic Natural Enterprise frameworks and tools.

I’ve been asked by groups in several communities to run some one-day workshops to help potential entrepreneurs establish their own Natural Enterprises. I’m beginning to think that what they need beyond just than a few days of training is some facilitation to help each group create its own sustainable Natural Enterprise collaboratory so that they can put the frameworks and tools into practice in the context of their own community.

I’m also now envisioning co-developing a “Natural Enterprise Game” to help the members of the collaboratory practice. There is a group I’ve been in touch with that has developed a game called Co-opoly that might fit the bill.

So that makes three “ingredients” to enable a community’s citizens to learn to make a living for themselves: workshops offering hands-on training to learn the frameworks and tools for sustainable Natural Enterprises; facilitation of a critical mass of citizens in each community to create a Natural Enterprise collaboratory; and a Natural Enterprise game to let them safely practice Natural Enterprise formation and operation until they’re ready to launch them live in their community.

It’s an ambitious program, but one I’m going to start to “talk up” both at the workshops I’ve been invited to lead, and on this blog and other social media. I’d welcome your thoughts.

There are some who will wonder why, if I’m so convinced that our civilization is not going to survive the current century once we face the combined effects of the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of our industrial economy, I am willing to promote and undertake such an ambitious program.

I would answer that the skills and capacities that are needed to create successful Natural Enterprises are the very skills and capacities needed to adapt to and build resilience to face the terrible energy, ecological and economic crises I foresee for the decades ahead. And the citizens of the much smaller and simpler community-based society that emerges after civilization’s collapse will need to relearn how to make a living for themselves in any case. It’s not too early to start.

November 8, 2010

An Existential Approach to Bringing About Change

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 19:25


Donella (Dana) Meadows was famous for her twelve ways to intervene in a system, one of the most often cited works in the field of bringing about change. What is often forgotten is that she listed the twelve ways in reverse order, from least effective to most effective, and suggested that there were really only three highly effective ways to intervene:

  1. Change the paradigm (way of thinking) that underlies the system, or open people up to operating without any set paradigm at all.
  2. Change the fundamental goal, purpose or function of the system.
  3. Encourage and enhance self-organization: Remove the barriers to self-organization and let the collective wisdom of groups of people continuously tweak the system to serve them collectively.

I have recently been talking with fellow Bowen Islander John Dumbrille about the various change initiatives being supported on Bowen, such as Bowen in Transition and its Visioning exercise, the launch of Belterra, the first co-housing and intentional community initiative on Bowen, and the recent proposal to convert half of the island into a special kind of National Park.

I spent most of my adult life working on various programs that were intended to bring about some kind of desired change: more effective work, more successful organizations, self-improvement of one form or another, increased knowledge, understanding, skill or capacity, a more sustainable world. In retrospect, I don’t believe any of them accomplished much. As I noted in a recent post, the six dominant trends of the past forty years have all been negative and all occurred despite massive amounts of energy, effort and enthusiasm to achieve the opposite objectives.

I have been focusing much of my energy and writing of late on the Transition, Unschooling and Communities movements, because I believe what they stand for. Rather than being change initiatives, all three of these are alternative movements; they represent a walking away from the traditional way of doing things (and an attempt to create a new way of doing them) rather than an attempt to reform current processes and institutions. All three of them embrace all three of the Dana Meadows’ top three ways to intervene in a system. For example, unschooling suggests that the way to optimize learning is by enabling people to learn what they want when they need it in the real world, rather than “teaching” them a standard curriculum in a separated institution. Transition’s objective isn’t to make the current culture sustainable, but rather to transition to a very different culture. And intentional communities are local, self-organized and self-managed, and operate on consensus, the antithesis of the top-down, competitive, “representative”, “we’ll do it for you” political systems most of us live with and try in vain to make better.

So it seemed to me such movements should have the right “stuff” to succeed, if Meadows was right. Yet my instincts tell me that the struggle these movements are having to gain traction beyond a small, informed and eager group of people, is an indication that something is wrong with them. At first I thought this was just that it would take people time to appreciate these alternative models of a better way to live. And that perhaps they would not get the momentum to scale up to widespread popularity and implementation until crises got bad enough that people had no choice but to look for better alternatives — that there is as yet no “burning platform”, as businesspeople put it.

But even before speaking with John I had this nagging sense that these movements were flawed in some other way I couldn’t quite fathom. What accounts for the success of a few large-scale change movements (ending slavery, improving the status of women, reducing tobacco addiction and drunk driving) and the failure of almost all others?

John had a suggestion for how to approach the movements I cared about, that also provided an explanation for the success and failure of other movements. His suggestion was to appeal to potential converts at an existential (visceral and emotional) level, rather than a pragmatic and rational one. So to appeal to potential Transition movement members, for example, instead of asking people the practical question “How can we make the transition to a post-cheap-oil, post-stable-climate, post-industrial-economy society?” we should perhaps be asking the existential question “What does it mean to live a good life?”

Asking such questions in a way that is non-presumptive and non-judgemental is, in my experience, almost unheard-of, except perhaps in Buddhist circles. Many movements attempt to prey on human emotions (the US Tea Party being a stellar example, but  many anti-poverty and animal welfare movements use similar tactics). But what movement has ever stepped back from judgement and ideology and attempted to recruit people by appealing to their ability to ask themselves questions about what it means to be human and to be of use, and to be an integral part of all-life-on-Earth?

I’ve tried to illustrate this in the diagram above. The traditional idealistic approaches that political movements have used for centuries (lower left) have fallen victim to the same failings as all ideologies — they are too inflexible in their thinking (“the market will solve all our problems”) and too blind to complex realities to accommodate how the world really works. There have been two reactions to this failure: employing propaganda (“if they won’t buy the logic of our argument, prey on their emotions instead”) (lower right), and its opposite, pragmatic realism (like what the Transition movement has done to transcend ideology by focusing on disaster-preparation and resilience-building, without playing the blame game)(upper left quadrant).

What almost no one seems to have tried is the existential approach (upper right quadrant) — neither ideological nor dispassionate, but politically transcendent, appealing neither to the emotionally-neutral intellect nor to thought-driven emotions like fear, anger and hatred, but instead to the higher emotions — our feelings of connection and belonging to something greater than all of us.

The reason this hasn’t been tried, I suspect, is that it’s too hard — it’s much easier to appeal to ideology, idealism, pragmatism, or raw emotion.

So how might it work? Let’s stick with the Transition movement as an example. At the moment, a lot of people have never heard of this movement, or say they don’t “get” it. It has successfully transcended politics in its pragmatism, and has attempted to deal with the grief of many people about the damage we have done to our environment (it has an integral “heart and soul” component) but it now appears to be stalled. There are lots of working groups in communities around the world that have done visioning exercises and developed local plans for renewable energy, transportation that is not oil-dependent, conservation, disaster preparation, local currencies and other worthy projects. But now what? Until some of the dominoes fall and there is a great sense of urgency, or no alternative, the conditions do not seem right (and human nature is not currently disposed) to implement these ideas.

If Transition were to take an existential approach, it would begin with an existential question such as “What does it mean to live a good life?” and help each individual to become informed about what is really happening in the world (issues like peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis), not for the purposes of planning how to cope with these issues, but for the purpose of deciding how one should holistically respond to this knowledge, from the perspective of increasing the well-being and health of all-life-on-Earth now and indefinitely into the future.

This is less an intellectual exercise than an emotional, physical, sensual and intuitive one. It is not about responding to facts with rational plans, but instead responding to emergent understanding with appreciation and a connected holistic “knowing” (intellectual, emotional, physical, chemical, sensory, and intuitive knowledge, integrated) of what is, what is needed, and what must be done. When Derrick Jensen writes (to many, cryptically) “Stand still and listen to the land, and in time you will know just what to do”, he is, I think, speaking of this kind of holistic “knowing”.

What is needed to allow such an existential approach to work, however, is a rebuilding of our personal capacity for such “knowing”. That entails relearning how to listen to and trust our instincts, how to become present and to silence our egos (which are busy telling us fictional stories and whipping up our baser emotions until we become mentally incapacitated), and how, as groups, to collect and share information, ideas, and perspectives non-judgementally and process this into holistic and collective knowledge. This rebuilt capacity may then let us “know just what to do”, and move us to pursue consequent collaborative effort that is joyous, sustained, heart-felt, and inexhaustible.

In short, we need to become more functional, healthy, connected individuals first, before we can hope to be part of any viable and sustainable change process.

So how do we do that?

I think self-directed learning programs that combine capacity-building with useful information would be a useful strategy. I’m not a fan of training programs because they’re one-size-fits-all when one size fits none. But we don’t have a framework for self-directed learning the way we have for formal education. From the work that’s been done by unschoolers, we might guess what such a framework might look like:

  • purpose-driven
  • intentional towards that end (with a roadmap and milestones that will likely change along the learning path)
  • suited to the style in which the individual best learns and works
  • a mix of individual and collective work
  • with access to pertinent knowledge (online, and, more important, access to people who have essential and contextual knowledge in their heads)
  • with access to facilitators (enablers) and mentors (listeners)
  • natural (learning the way wild creatures learn, through play)
  • time, and effective methods, for practice

In my case, what I think I need to learn to be able to contribute effectively and usefully to making this world a better place is (a) generosity (including empathy and active listening), (b) living naturally, (c) self-acceptance, (d) presence, and (e) letting go. These are capacities more than skills, but acquiring these capacities requires practice as much as acquiring skills does. This is all I think I would need to be able to bring an existential appreciation to the issues and projects I care about, to know, in consort with others with comparable capacities, “just what to do”.

There is of course lots of knowledge I will probably need to actually do what I discover I must do, but I think I have the knowledge of how the world really works to be able to obtain the appreciation of “what to do”. Many people, I believe, need to acquire more knowledge of how the economic system works (and what happens when it doesn’t), and what the possible effects of peak oil and climate change will be. Acquiring that additional knowledge should be part of their personal self-directed learning program, their preparedness for knowing “just what to do”.

The way to launch such an approach, I think, is to start by inviting people to come together (perhaps in Open Space) to:

  • help them assess what capacities and knowledge they might need before they’ll be ready to be of use (i.e. to know what to do),
  • connect with people seeking the same capacities and knowledge (so they have the opportunity of learning together), and
  • provide them with an unschooling (self-directed learning) framework for identifying what capacities and knowledge they need, and for acquiring those capacities and that knowledge.

This will not be an easy invitation to craft. It asks a lot of people.

When these people are brought together it should be with the intention of reconvening them when they self-assess that they have acquired what they need. So it should include an open invitation: Tell us (all of us — this is a self-organized program) when you’re ready.

And then, when they’re (we’re) ready, we can reconvene and start to ask the existential questions together about what makes a good life, what does if mean to be human, to be of use, and to be an integral part of all-life-on-Earth, and, together, what do we now “know” we must do. We won’t need to assign tasks or set up working groups. It will be, individually and collectively, obvious what the answers to these existential questions are and what that means we must do, as individuals and collectively.

I have no idea whether these “things we must do” will be showing people working models of different ways to live, or blowing things up, or healing suffering, or just waiting in a way that does minimal harm and conveys a deep and genrous love. But we will know just what to do. Right now, most of us do not.

And that is why, I think, all the well-intentioned things we are doing now are not working. It’s not that the world is not ready, that things aren’t “bad enough”. We are not ready. We have much to learn before we will be.

Given that this existential approach is so much more difficult than other approaches, can there possibly be enough of us to make a difference using this approach? That’s another great existential question. When we’re ready, we’ll know.

(thanks to John, and to Paul Heft, for helping me think this post through)

October 10, 2010

Complexity: It’s Not That Simple

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 22:53


Complexity theory has been around for a generation now, but most people don’t understand it. I often read or listen to consultants, ‘experts’ and media people who proffer ludicrously simplistic ‘solutions’ to complex predicaments. Since it seems most people would prefer things to be simple, these ‘experts’ always seem to have an uncritical audience. Because most of what’s written about complexity theory is dense, academic and/or expensive, I thought I’d try to summarize the key points of complexity theory (focusing on the social/ecological aspects of it, not the mathematical/scientific ones) using lots of examples for clarity, and in a way that might be used practically by those grappling with complex issues and challenges.

Complexity theory argues that simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems have fundamentally different properties, and therefore different approaches and processes are needed when dealing with issues and challenges in each of these types of systems.

As the diagram above illustrates, natural systems (both social and ecological) are inherently complex. It is the nature of evolution that natural systems, at every level from unicellular life up to our global ecosystem, tend to become more complex and diverse over time, until a crisis (e.g. natural disaster, epidemic, meteor strike) occurs and brings about chaos, system collapse and/or extinction, after which the cycle begins again to evolve towards greater complexity. Even an apparently ‘simple’ natural system (like an amoeba) is astonishingly complex, and there is a kind of fractal (or Bohmian hologram) quality to it: all its content is contained in any part of itself, at a lower resolution.

Human invention, for the most part, uses biomimicry, i.e. we attempt to manufacture, to replicate mechanically, things that appear to work in nature. A simple invention like the arrowhead, for example, mimics the speed and penetrating sharpness of predatory birds and animals. Agriculture mimics the natural diversity-diminishing processes of flooding and wildfire. In similar ways, most industrial systems mimic natural systems. But these simple and complicated systems do not evolve of their own accord, they are not self-sustaining, and they lack resilience. They are also fragile, and subject to rapid decay and obsolescence. It takes a huge amount of effort to repair, replace and maintain the components of such systems.

Natural systems are highly effective but inefficient due to their massive redundancy (picture a tree dropping thousands of seeds). By contrast, manufactured systems must be efficient (to be competitive) and usually have almost no redundancy, so they are extremely vulnerable to breakage. For example, many of our modern industrial systems will collapse without a constant and unlimited supply of inexpensive oil.

As natural systems evolve to become more complex, their resilience increases. For example, more biodiversity means less vulnerability to pandemics. However, as manufactured systems become more complicated (e.g. through centralization and globalization) their resilience is reduced. A breakdown in a single component can cause the entire complicated system to seize up or collapse.

The more complex natural systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’ (control or influence).  That is why much of the complex and varied natural world has been replaced by monolithic, homogeneous manufactured systems (e.g. cities, factory farms, dammed waterways), that are much less resilient than the natural, sustainable systems they replaced. Similarly, the more complicated manufactured systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’. Large organizations (businesses, public organizations and governments) therefore become inherently more and more dysfunctional (and less resilient) the larger they grow.

Our modern civilization is built on amalgams (combinations) of natural and manufactured systems, and it has components that are simple, complicated, complex, or a combination of all three. Almost all businesses, for example, have both social systems (which are complex) and automated systems (which are complicated), and most offer both products (which are mostly complicated) and services (which are mostly complex).

Most of the so-called intractable problems we are now facing (e.g. war, violence, poverty, epidemic disease, and the growing economic, energy and ecological crises) are not ‘problems’ at all, but complex predicaments. The challenges of complex systems are predicaments, not problems, because, since they are not mechanical, they cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’. Alternative, non-mechanistic approaches must be used to deal with them, which is what this article is mainly about.


Simple problems or situations (like hammering in a nail), with few variables (i.e. few things to consider) and which have obvious solutions (strike the nail with the ball of the hammer until it goes in), are best approached intuitively.

Complicated problems or situations (like fixing a car), with many variables, all of them knowable (at least with some study), and where the solutions aren’t obvious but cause-and-effect relationships can be determined, are best approached analytically. Systems diagrams and analytical processes — the type that competent managers and advisors employ — are useful for dealing with complicated situations and problems. Unfortunately, we are all too easily tempted to try to reduce complex predicaments (e.g. how to deal with the nightmarish global debt crisis), to simple or merely complicated problems (e.g. how to get banks to give consumers more credit in the short term so they can spend us out of recession, for now), because we’re good at solving merely complicated problems.

In some complex situations, it is possible to simulate the complexity of the system with a simple or merely complicated model, and achieve useful results, at least in the short term. For example, if you can isolate your organization’s customer service problem to a single cause (say, that service staff don’t have the authority to do the things customers need), you can ‘solve’ this problem by giving them more authority. But complex predicaments usually defy such simplification; things are generally the way they are for a good reason, one that’s not obvious or simple (or someone would have ‘fixed’ it already). And people are excellent at finding workarounds for clumsy simple or complicated ‘solutions’ that managers or consultants have imposed to try (inevitably unsuccessfully) to ‘fix’ complex challenges. Complicated approaches generally don’t work for complex predicaments, any more than a simple hammer will fix all the complicated problems you might encounter with your car.

Complex predicaments (like running a social event or a business, or coping with economic, energy or ecological collapse) have these four characteristics:

  • The number of variables that can have an effect on the system/situation/event is infinite
  • Most of these variables are unknown or unknowable; only the most obvious ones can be listed or diagrammed
  • The relationships between cause and effect in the system are unfathomable; at best you can notice correlations that may or may not be meaningful
  • It is impossible to predict the outcome of an intervention in the system/situation/event (or when Black Swan events and other unforeseeable interventions will occur)

As we come to understand complex predicaments better, we’re learning that the best approaches to them are very different from what works best for simple or complicated problems. Because all the variables cannot be known, and because cause-and-effect relationships cannot be established in complex situations, analytical approaches (like systems flowcharts) used in complicated problem-solving simply won’t work.

The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced. What I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these attributes (and I’ll be using the challenge of peak oil and how the Transition movement is working to address it, to illustrate these attributes):

  1. Methodical: Coping with complex predicaments requires a focus on continuously improving processes, not achieving outcomes. A key feature of complex predicaments is that an appreciation of the true nature of the predicament and an understanding of possible workable approaches to deal with it co-evolve. You can’t know the desired outcome up front, because you just don’t know enough about the situation. Your approach needs to facilitate this co-evolution of understanding, and enable you to go beyond selecting from currently known alternatives and simplistic dichotomies. It also requires an appreciation of the four best ways to intervene effectively in a complex system. In my experience, a methodical approach to any complex predicament requires the skills of an excellent, practiced facilitator, someone with an appreciation of complexity and group process, and the competence to enable the group to do its best work. A good facilitator will:
    • Clarify and keep the focus on the group’s purpose and intention (see point 2 below)
    • Optimize the use of available space & time
    • Help the group manage and enhance its knowledge, learning, and appreciation
    • Encourage free flow of creativity & ideas
    • Manage the flow of energy in the space
    • Help the group deepen and navigate interpersonal relationships
    • Help the group appreciate, broaden and shift its perspectives and worldviews
    • Model the behaviours the group needs to demonstrate to be effective
  2. Purposeful: If a group is addressing a complicated problem, the purpose is obvious (to find and implement a solution). When it’s faced with a complex predicament, the purpose is not obvious. The purpose is often itself complex: to deepen an understanding of the predicament, to learn what has worked and not worked in similar situations, to explore options for addressing and coping with it, to imagine how things might be done differently, to identify what the group needs to know and be able to do that it currently does not or cannot, to appreciate the knowledge, ideas, shared values and perspectives of others, to deepen relationships for future collaboration, etc. The group needs to understand and agree on its purpose in all its complexity, and stay focused on that purpose. It also needs to be intentional, i.e. to be willing to and begin to stretch energetically towards achievement of its purpose even as the understanding of that purpose may still be emerging and evolving. For example, a community Transition group’s overarching purpose might be to enable their community to make the transition to a post-carbon economy, and its intention might be to form working groups to focus on various aspects of working towards that purpose. Note that the purpose describes a process not an outcome.
  3. Visionary: If a group is grappling with a complex predicament, it needs to have a shared vision of what should be different at each step along the process of working towards the purpose, and also a vision of what might happen if they didn’t do that work (often called a “worse- or worst-case scenario”. What would coping with and adapting to the predicament, versus doing nothing, “look like” in the near and more distant future? Several of the Transition communities have developed “timelines” that contain their imaginings of each stage of the transition, possible Black Swan events, and the consequences of inaction. This is how you navigate through complex predicaments, where the outcome is unknown so there’s no clear path from current state to desired future state.
  4. Preventive: One step in coping with complex predicaments is to try to imagine and anticipate possible negative occurrences as you work towards your purpose, and take steps to head off such occurrences before they happen. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. George Monbiot’s Heat, for example, presents a comprehensive climate change prevention strategy, and while many would now argue that we’re too late to prevent catastrophic climate change (and that in any case our society is incapable of moving as fast or as far as Monbiot’s strategy required), the book contains many suggestions for actions that community Transition teams could employ to make the local transition to a post-carbon economy.
  5. Defensive: When the system is complex, it doesn’t respond to proactive steps (at least, not predictably). It requires some humility and realism to acknowledge that you can’t always control a situation; in complex situations, usually the best you can do is mitigate risks and consequences of what is happening, as you become aware of them, and in the moment, and hence reduce the impact of undesirable situations on you and your community. Ilargi and Stoneleigh’s Automatic Earth for example outlines many steps you can take (such as extinguishing your debts and selling your equities) to mitigate the risks and consequences you will face when the next economic depression hits. A Transition community might likewise mitigate the risks and effects of the end of cheap oil by improving public transport, establishing local renewable energy co-ops, etc.
  6. Attentive: Complex systems are in constant flux, so it is essential to continually monitor and ‘probe’ to collect information and make sense of what is happening, so that you can respond to unfolding occurrences knowledgeably and effectively. Sometimes the best way to probe what’s going on in a complex system is just to try something, a systematic intervention, and see what happens. Another method is to gather stories and anecdotes and look for meaningful patterns. Sometimes by scanning broadly for data and synthesizing it, you can get a clearer and more actionable picture of the situation. Transition communities across the globe are trying various methods (e.g. car-share and ride-share programs) to see how they effect local dependency on fossil fuels, and collecting and sharing stories, knowledge, ideas and findings with other Transition communities to get a better picture of what works and what doesn’t.
  7. Experiential: The analytical techniques that are used to address complicated problems are inherently theoretical and hopefully repeatable, and our (left) brains love this “best practices” stuff. Unfortunately, theoretical approaches and “best practices” don’t usually work in complex situations. What works better is experimenting with an array of diverse approaches in parallel and in series, and examining the results and get a collective understanding of what is effective and what isn’t in the real world, and where might be the best place to go from there. The Transition movement doesn’t have a set of “best practices” for coping with the end of cheap oil; what they have instead are “patterns“, synthesized from experiential work, of what approaches seem to be effective across an array of different situations. Two examples of such patterns: Iteration (going through a process iteratively to refine and learn from it is more effective than trying to get it perfect the first time) and Self-Organization (actions seem to work better when the group embracing them organizes itself to plan and implement the actions, rather than having the work assigned to its members by a central control group). More about “pattern languages” in an upcoming post.
  8. Improvisational: As we have learned from our response to Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina and other modern crises, preplanning doesn’t work in complex situations. Improvisation entails responding to situations on the fly; for example, emergency workers find improvisational capacity far more useful when dealing with complex crises than procedure manuals, provided these workers are armed with the right tools and knowledge, empowered and connected with others for consultation. Adaptation entails changing yourself or your situation to respond to an outside event, rather than (as we too often try to do, futilely) trying to anticipate, change or control a complex system (the weather, for example). Improvisation and adaptation skills cannot really be learned in a classroom; it takes extensive ‘field’ and/or simulation practice to become competent at them. For example, some Transition community trainers have learned that it’s impossible to know how much their students know, or are ready to know, about peak oil, until the training session is underway, so they often have to improvise their curriculum on the fly. Likewise, some Transition initiatives have run into unexpected obstacles (e.g. bird-lovers objecting to wind turbines), and have had to adapt their programs to suit local sensibilities.
  9. Collaborative: It’s foolish to believe anyone has all the answers, or can possibly cope alone in this massively interconnected society. Local knowledge, ideas, perspectives and skills are collective assets, and in our atomized, nuclear, specialized civilization, collective understanding and collaboration are the only ways to compensate for the lost core and generalist knowledge and skills that we need to relearn to cope with complex situations. Each member of a group brings a piece of the truth, and unique knowledge and skills, that, especially in dealing with complex situations, are essential to equip the group with collective capacity, competence, understanding, consensus and wisdom. Most of the real work in community Transition initiatives is done through self-organized and self-managed collaborative working groups, that use consensual decision-making processes.
  10. Holistic: We are usually part of the complex systems whose predicaments we have to cope with. From inside, we get perspective and knowledge of four types: intellectual, emotional, sensory and intuitive. The best approaches are rarely purely rational; it requires synthesizing and balancing all four types of knowledge. Some indigenous peoples say that before making important decisions it is essential to “sleep on it” so that the subconscious knowledge from our hearts, bodies, spirits and DNA can be integrated with our conscious, intellectual knowledge. An essential aspect of the Transition initiative is the “heart and soul” component — appreciating the feelings of grief and anxiety that come along with facing energy, ecological and economic crises. Only when we make space for all four ways of knowing, understanding and responding to predicaments can we bring our full capacity, skill and energy to addressing them.
  11. Appreciative: There is a tendency for some consultants, managers and experts to presume they know “from experience” how to deal with an organizational challenge, and fail to appreciate the unique context of each situation, or to appreciate that things are the way they are for a reason. It’s essential to understand that reason in all its complexity — how things got the way they are and why they’ve stayed that way — before we can begin to address them effectively. No one is to “blame” for complex predicaments, which often have long and complex histories, and may be self-reinforcing. For example, the Transition movement discovered that trying to reduce the impact of peak oil by improving average gasoline mileage for cars may be ineffective, because as mileage improves drivers may decide to drive farther (for the same price), or drive bigger cars (with the same mpg as the older smaller ones), and hence negate the impact of the regulatory or technological change that enabled the mileage improvement.
  12. Open: Groups addressing complex predicaments need to be completely honest and transparent, and must be open to different approaches, points of view, directions of inquiry and exploration, and conflicting information. The sponsors and facilitators of such groups must ensure that their invitation is sufficiently open to attract the right, diverse mix of people to address the predicament competently, and that the process they use is open and flexible to the ideas and insights that emerge. Group members can’t afford to “burn bridges” or be closed-minded to even bizarre-sounding scenarios, proposals and knowledge (Einstein said “If at first an idea doesn’t seem crazy, there is no hope for it”.) George Monbiot’s Heat makes some proposals for reducing fossil fuel usage, for example, that some dismissed out of hand, such as converting AC electrical power to DC to reduce power loss, and shutting down all non-essential airplane flights because there is just no way to make such travel energy-efficient. The people who might have moved such ideas forward were just not open to them, and a chastened Monbiot is sounding increasingly pessimistic that his reforms will ever see the light of day.
  13. Bottom-up: Historically, most solutions have been devised and implemented top-down, by leaders atop political, corporate or social hierarchies. But complex predicaments like poverty, violence, climate change, the debt crisis and resource scarcities have defied all attempts at top-down “fixes”. The best approaches to such issues have come from bottom-up initiatives to deal with them at the local level, at a scale where actions can be taken quickly, and where the people involved know each other and what needs to be and what can be done in their community. This is why the Transition movement is organized as a network, where all the work is done at the community level, and there is no hierarchy.
  14. Trusting: (This one’s a toughie.) When organizations confront complicated problems, the usual result is a solution (usually imposed top-down) and an allocation of tasks (who will do what by when). By contrast, in confronting complex predicaments, it is essential that team members trust each other to decide what they will individually do, and what they will decide in small groups to collaborate on, and then to do those things. The responsibility rests with each individual — no one can or will stand over them and tell them what to do or how to do it or stay on their case if they haven’t done it. Such implicit trust is foreign to many people experienced with group work, and some believe trust “has to be earned”. What many find difficult in confronting complex predicaments is that they need to just trust people to accept and follow through on their responsibilities, and also that they have to trust a group process that is emergent and pliable, even when that process struggles with lack of consensus, lack of knowledge, lack of ideas, lack of direction, or internal disagreements and conflicts. The Transition movement focuses a lot of attention on trust-building activities, and on ensuring facilitators have the necessary skills to help the group navigate through trust issues.
  15. Humble: Implicit in the idea that innovation and human ingenuity can ‘solve’ any problem is a level of arrogance and hubris that has no place in the struggle with complex predicaments. As I have explained, there is no ‘solution’ to complex problems, so what is required is the humility to accept what is, and what cannot be changed, and to adapt. Even now, some technophiles are proposing to ‘solve’ climate change by geoengineering — firing trillions of small reflective metal fragments into the atmosphere to deflect much of the sun’s rays. They have absolutely no way of knowing whether this will have the desired effect; this complex predicament has an infinite number of variables, most of them unknowable. Their action, if taken (and it is quite feasible) might backfire, or might plunge us into another ice age — no one knows. Their energies would be better spent learn studying and learning from nature, a humbler pursuit far more likely to come up with sustainable ideas that, at least at the community level, might help reduce energy usage or deforestation or factory farming — three key sources of atmospheric warming. What is impressive about the Transition movement is that their handbooks are not “what to do” guides for dealing with a post-oil economy, but suggested approaches and resource lists for local Transition groups to study and adapt as appropriate to the situation of their community. They’re staying humble, and setting an example for others working to address complex predicaments.
  16. Redundant: I mentioned earlier that industrial systems strive (out of competitive necessity) for efficiency, and minimize redundancy, which makes them fragile. As we develop approaches to deal with complex predicaments, we need to take the opposite approach: because we can’t know the outcomes of these predicaments, we need to build in redundancy so that we are resilient no matter what happens. Some of the community Transition movements are working to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels entirely, even though there will probably be some hydrocarbons available in the future (e.g. in local coal mines). This gives them a cushion to fall back on in a worst-case scenario, though it probably means they will have a redundant (excess) supply of energy.

Complex indeed! You can appreciate why many people would prefer to recharacterize complex predicaments as simple or complicated problems, and use tried-and-true analytical methods to ‘solve’ them — even though the solutions won’t work (though that often isn’t discovered until the consultant, ‘expert’, manager or ‘leader’ has collected their pay and moved on). Fortunately approaches and processes that employ some or all of these attributes are being employed by groups all over the world who have given up on experts and simplistic ‘solutions’ and are striving to develop real, working, sustainable strategies to cope with complex predicaments. And an increasing number of facilitators are studying complexity theory and amending their roles and their approaches to this vital work (which is mostly in the public, NGO, and NPO sectors, and mostly unrecognized and under-appreciated), supporting and encouraging the use of complex (emergent) techniques instead of complicated (analytical) ones.

When complex predicaments are left unaddressed for long periods of time, they can sometimes worsen into chaotic predicaments (like the horrific challenge of homelessness in Haiti). Chaotic predicaments have the same characteristics as complex predicaments, with the additional attribute of massive turbulence, to the point that change and crisis are occurring so rapidly or continuously that any type of coordinated, rational response becomes impossible. Any complex system can become a chaotic one during a period of protracted war, hyperinflation, depression, extreme endemic scarcity or other situation where panic or other irrational behaviour prevails. There is no consensus on how best to cope with chaos, or even if an effective approach in such situations is possible; spontaneous approaches, moment to moment, seem to be the main option.

The hopelessness and desperation that often prevails in chaotic situations often produce a power vacuum that can allow charismatic and despotic leaders to take control; the struggling nations of the world are replete with stories of this happening, and there is a danger that, as we in affluent nations face multiple crises in the decades ahead, we too could see the emergence of chaos and fall victim to the false and simplistic promises of fools and tyrants. The best insurance against this, I believe, is to tackle these predicaments while they are complex, using approaches and processes with attributes like the ones I have suggested above, before they become chaotic.

.     .     .     .     .

So that’s my introduction to complexity theory. There’s much more to it, of course, but I’ve tried to focus on what I see as the key issues of (i) differentiating complex from complicated systems and situations, and (ii) laying out the attributes of effective approaches and processes for addressing complex predicaments. Let me know if you think I succeeded.

June 9, 2010

The Roles of the Facilitator (Guest Post by Tree Bressen)

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 21:53

[Sorry, folks: I jumped the gun on this post; I will repost it here once Tree has had time to properly edit and approve it, so stay tuned]

April 22, 2010

The Lifecycle of Emergence

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 23:13

Although I’m thoroughly disillusioned with most of the analytical models (like the classic 2×2 matrix) that consultants use to try to describe how things work, I remain fond of “flow” models that depict the dynamics or life-cycle of things. Unfortunately, most such models attempt to oversimplify complexity, and while they may be useful in conveying a basic understanding of a system, they are usually dangerous to employ in practice. The two most notorious “flow” models are the S-curve, which purports to describe the growth of businesses and other cyclical systems, which looks like this:

S Curve

s-curve, source: Strategic Innovation: Abraham & Knight

and the hype cycle, which is most often applied to new technologies and fads, which looks like this:

Gartner hype cycle 2009

The “sustainable growth” ideologues don’t have just one S-curve, of course; they have a whole series of them, each leaping further up just as the one before it peaks. Both the S-curve and hype cycle are cyclical, but both euphorically ultimately trend generally upwards. So in essence they aren’t “cycles” at all, but spirals. Anyone who studies nature knows that nothing grows forever (even though our Ponzi scheme stock markets are utterly based on the assumption that things can and will), so all spirals are, in effect, death spirals.

Nature is however replete with cycles which, over time, wax and wane, advancing over time, if “advancing” is the right word, sideways. Overlapping cycles, cycles embedded in other cycles, smaller and larger and longer and shorter cycles. All of them ending up, finally, back where they started, at zero.

And anyone who has followed the hype cycles over time has quickly discovered that almost nothing ever reaches the “plateau of productivity” except in the minds of those selling it.

So I was intrigued, when I spoke with Chris Corrigan and Tree Bressen over lunch the other day, to learn about Meg Wheatley and Debbie Frieze’s (Berkana Institute) model of Lifecycles of Emergence. These cycles are, at once, cycles of birth and death, and over time they travel sustainably sideways. The lifecycle looks like this (as Chris drew it in his conversation with Tree — I couldn’t find it depicted anywhere online):


Emergence is an inherently complex-system construct. Rather than trying to “create” communities, what this model does is acknowledge pioneering efforts, then name them, in ways that others self-identify with, allowing these pioneers to coalesce and connect into networks. Networks are by definition loose affiliations, with members joining and leaving easily.

The next step is to nourish these networks so that they become cohesive, more integral and helpful to their members. At this point they evolve into true communities of practice. The term ‘community of practice’ has been severely misused in business to represent groups of professionals assigned to focus on certain specialties — in this sense they are neither ‘communities’ nor ‘practitioners’. True communities of practice are self-organized, powerfully supportive of each other, highly committed to their shared values and learning, and ‘practice’ in the real sense of constantly learning by doing and by collaborating with each other.

Once you have a true community of practice, the final step is to propagate its value by illuminating, spreading the word through stories, events, word-of-mouth and publications about what they do and why it’s important and useful. Through this the collective value of the practitioners is realized as they become a system of influence — with the power and resources to bring about important and positive change.

Practitioners in a system of influence can even throw ‘lifelines’ or build bridges to invite (or pull) forward those stuck in earlier paradigm thinking, methods and tools — rescuing them from e-mail, for example, by showing them IM, virtual presence and other effective real-time collaboration tools, or showing them new and effective group processes and practices that get them past dissent, disengagement, dysfunctional power dynamics and feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.

These actions of naming, connecting, nourishing and illuminating are part of the arts of hosting and facilitation. These arts are perhaps the only kind of change work that actually works in today’s complex environments, which is why I have so often spoken so highly of the importance of them. The four actions are part of the practice of ‘holding the field’, encouraging and enabling and keeping open the vital ‘field’ of people and relationships that traverse this lifecycle. This field is a field of energy (the vertical axis of the above chart is, in effect, the degree of collective energy at each stage of the lifecycle).

What do you think of this model? I found it intuitively powerful and compelling, particularly as Chris sketched it out and explained it. I like the idea of energy fields and the important work of moving and channeling that energy in productive ways. It ties into the ‘sweet spot’ concept in my book — the high-energy intersection of passion, exceptional competency and deep human need.

A couple of years ago I tweaked Chris’ model of collective decision-making (based on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U) to produce this model, also a life-cycle:

collective decision-making

I like this model because it recognizes that decisions and actions start with individual initiative and end with individual responsibility — it is through the intermediate collective stages of conversation, understanding and consensus that the wisdom is obtained to know what to do, but ultimately, what gets done is the sum of motivated individual actions.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how the dynamic of the collective decision-making model works within the larger emergence lifecycle model. They’re both about individual and collective energy, one at a micro level and the other at the macro level, and how those energies move in time and space. It’s a bit new-agey, sure, but the old models were too static and simplistic and hierarchical. At least these recognize and draw on human passion, curiosity, energy, responsibility, self-organization, self-management, and propensity for relationship and collaboration.

Is this useful? What’s it missing? Given that we’re all in so many networks, how could we apply this model to make better use of our time, our relationships and our collective energies? How can we ‘hold the field’ even more effectively?

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