Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

June 14, 2014

Systems Thinking and Complexity 101

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 23:08

This is a synopsis of a talk and mini-workshop I gave recently in Vancouver. It introduces a model for identifying and dealing with both the complicated and complex aspects of issues we face in our own lives, in our organizations and in the world, and presents an elementary method of thinking about and diagramming systems (both complicated and complex) as a means of better understanding and appreciating them.


complex systems model

There are four main purposes for learning about complexity and systems thinking:

  • To appreciate how organic (complex) systems (bodies, organizations, cultures, ecosystems) really work
  • To appreciate why mechanical, analytical approaches to change in organizations usually fail
  • By studying and diagramming complex systems, to be able to anticipate how they might respond to interventions
  • To be able to embrace complexity in all its ‘unknowability’, instead of fearing it as most people instinctively do

The book I recommend for studying the nature of complex systems and how to think about and diagram systems is Rosalind Armson’s Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations. If you buy the Kindle edition, you’ll find the illustrations unreadable, but you can download and print them in legible format free from her website.

Rosalind is a British engineering PhD, and what makes her book exemplary to me is the accessibility of her examples, that run from the destruction of downtowns by big box malls to the challenge of coping with an ill and aging parent living in another town. She uses the term “messy situations” where many of us refer to “complex predicaments”, and doesn’t specifically differentiate between “complicated” and “complex” the way Dave Snowden and others do (she calls all fully-solvable problems “simple” rather than separating them into “simple” and “complicated”), but otherwise we’re totally on the same page. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction, which includes a wonderful definition of complex predicaments and some excellent examples:

This book is about dealing with messy situations. Sometimes known as ‘wicked problems’ [or complex predicaments] they are fairly easy to spot:

    • it’s hard to know where to start
    • we can’t define them
    • everything seems to connect to everything else and depends on something else having been done first
    • we get in a muddle thinking about them
    • we often try to ignore some aspect/s of them
    • when we finally do something about them, they usually get worse
    • they’re so entangled that our first mistake is usually to try and fix them as we would fix a ‘simple’ problem

Examples of messy situations might include: the healthcare system in your country, dealing with a family break-up, exploring change and making it happen in your organisation, and worrying about how to look after your elderly parents. [Other examples include coping with poverty, addiction, inequality, a fragile economy, and runaway climate change].

The ‘butterfly’ model above includes elements of Dave Snowden’s ontology of systems, Rosalind’s approach to dealing with complex predicaments, and some of my own thinking about complexity and systems thinking. It differentiates between

  • Complicated systems: those that are not so obvious as to be ‘simple’, but are fully-knowable with study, where it is possible to thoroughly understand the causality relationships between the variables, which are finite in number, and to use that understanding to predict the outcome of interventions in the system with some degree of reliability, and
  • Complex systems: organic systems, such as the human body, organizations, cultures and ecosystems, which are not fully knowable, have an infinite number of variables affecting them, and cannot be understood with sufficient precision to assess causality with any certainty or to predict the outcome of interventions reliably. Studying complex systems and issues will allow you to appreciate them (see why they are the way they are, how they probably got that way, and what keeps them going), but you can never fully understand them.

Many of the issues we deal with in our lives involve both complicated and complex systems, and hence have both complicated and complex aspects that need to be teased apart. I use the terms ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ in dealing with the complicated elements, and the terms ‘predicament’ and ‘approach to addressing’ in dealing with the complex elements, since predicaments by definition cannot be ‘solved’ or ‘fixed’. The approaches to addressing them often entail accepting and working around them, or adapting to them. Trying to intervene to change them in a desired direction is usually ineffective and can often lead to paradoxical results that make the situation worse.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success in changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The left side of the model describes the steps involved in dealing with a complicated problem (or the complicated aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). If my car won’t start, for example, this model would instruct me to, first, analyze the situation (what are the possible reasons for it not starting, how do I diagnose the problem by testing each possible reason etc.), by imagining what might be wrong, questioning why and how it failed to start and whether each possible diagnosis makes sense, and conversing with others who might have useful insight or experience with the problem.

From this, I can understand the situation and deduce the most logical causes of the problem and the appropriate solution to each possible cause. And finally, through collaboration with others, and through accepting offers from people who know and care about the issue, I can intervene ‘systematically’, until the right solution is pinpointed and my car starts again. It may be an iterative process, but it is not a complex one. There are only so many variables, causes, and things that can have gone wrong, and there are only so many ways to rectify the mechanical malfunction.

The right side of the model, by contrast, describes the steps involved in dealing with a complex predicament (or the complex aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). As an example, I suffer from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis. Although the incidence of the disease is soaring and globally it seems to correlate closely with affluence and stress, its causes are unknown (and, despite medicine’s hubristic claims, probably never will be known), so we can only treat the symptoms. Unlike my car problem, I can’t analyze and understand the possible causes and ‘fix’ the problem. All I can do is explore what is known about the symptoms, and the hypotheses about how some treatments appear to alleviate symptoms in different sufferers, and appreciate the complexity of the predicament and the options available to me.

Then, by imagining what might have happened to make me vulnerable to this disease (e.g. taking high doses of oral tetracycline as an acne treatment in my teenage years), questioning theories and options (e.g. will taking a ‘maintenance dose’ of an anti-inflammatory help or hinder), and having conversations with people who have studied the disease and people who know my lifestyle, and by rigorously tracking correlations between my diet and lifestyle and my feelings of well-being (something I’ve been doing since it was first diagnosed), I can begin to make sense of its sudden occurrence in 2006 (after I received some extremely stressful news), and its non-recurrence since then (except for two mild flare-ups in 2007 and 2013).

And then, by collaborating with and accepting offers from others (e.g. acknowledging the wisdom of my GP’s recommendation to immediately quit my high-stress job, discussing my situation with other sufferers and seeing how they have dealt with it, and accepting a low-stress job that came to me most fortuitously late in 2006) I can adapt my diet, exercise regime, work life and other aspects of my lifestyle to try to reduce the risk of flare-ups and work around this disease that will be with me the rest of my life.

Here’s an example of how this model might be used by an organization which is going through a ‘culture transformation’ process to deal with a lack of knowledge-sharing and collaboration among its people. This is a predicament that has both complicated and complex components:

  1. First, the issue at hand must be separated into its complicated and complex aspects. One of the complicated aspects might be poor IT systems that don’t provide a means to capture and disseminate what people know and have learned. Two of the complex aspects might be cynicism that useful knowledge can be ‘captured’ at all in a database that lacks context of the situation, and a performance assessment system that rewards individual achievement and provides no incentive for sharing or collaboration.
  2. The complicated aspects of the issue are then addressed using the analyze to understand / imagine, question, converse / deduce / collaborate, offerintervene process. Why don’t the existing IT systems have a mechanism to capture knowledge? What is the most useful knowledge to capture and what are the options for structuring it so that entering it into the system is easy? How does this new database fit with existing IT architecture and how might it most effectively be accessed? What technical problems does this present? Who do we need to talk with to understand how this will be used, updated and maintained, and whose ‘job’ will it be? Who will we need to promote this new resource, and how will this be done? Who has real passion for testing this, and whose collaboration will we need? It’s not simple, but it’s not a complex process. It should not be hard to deal with these ‘merely complicated’ aspects of the issue.
  3. The complex aspects of the issue are more perplexing; they need to be addressed using the explore to appreciate / imagine, question, converse / intuit & ‘make sense’ / collaborate, offer / adapt & workaround process. Why aren’t people explicitly sharing knowledge already? The exploration might reveal that knowledge is already being shared generously, through mostly-informal iterative context-rich conversations. Then what? Should we tell the boss that trying to capture this in databases might seem to be efficient but is actually very ineffective? How might we, instead, enable and encourage more such conversations? Is it fruitful, and practical, to try to record and ‘reuse’ such conversations? The exploration might help us appreciate that most of these conversations are based around stories that don’t lend themselves to capture in rigid data entry formats. How might we then capture and organize stories in a way that would be useful, or can we do so at all? Rather than capturing stories, should we be training our people how to be better story-tellers? How do we deal with the fact that we grade performance individually on the curve, which necessarily provides a disincentive for collaborating and helping others improve their performance? How do we ‘make sense’ of the fact our people collaborate and share generously despite this disincentive? As you can see, this is a very different process than the one that worked for the complicated aspects. It generally leaves us with a greater appreciation of why things are the way they are, and how people have worked around the existing formal processes to do their jobs as well as they do. It can be a pretty humbling process, one that leads more to actions around “how can we help you do what you already do more easily and effectively” than “how can we get you to change your behaviour”.

It’s no surprise that, for many organizations that have tried to introduce a ‘knowledge-sharing’ culture, the job quickly focused on the easier merely-complicated aspects — it became all about IT, and in fact many people began to see Knowledge Management as being just an aspect of IT (all about content and collection). No one really wants to deal with the complex aspects (having the hundreds of challenging conversations necessary to appreciate the status quo and the very human motivations behind it, and helping people in modest ways to do their best work better) because this work is hard and thankless and difficult to measure meaningfully.

Because of that, and the lack of insight, imagination and courage by executives in charge of such ‘culture change’ programs, most such programs, in my experience, fail. It requires a very different skill set to deal with the complex aspects, a skill set that in most organizations is in short supply, and is much underrated by the mostly-analytical left-brained thinkers who make the final decisions. Sadly, the only truly successful large-scale culture change programs I have seen entailed the firing of a large proportion of the staff and the hiring of new people who already embodied the desired ‘new’ culture. For the same reason, many organizational ‘consolidations’ and ‘mergers’ (takeovers), both in the private and public sector, end up with almost all of the acquired organization’s people leaving.

This incapacity is equally true, unfortunately, in our attempts to deal with complex predicaments like poverty, inequality, our fragile economic system, the exhaustion of cheap energy, and runaway climate change, in our larger society. And in this larger society there is no one ‘in charge’ to make the decisions that would be needed to bring about large-scale imaginative adaptation to the challenges we face.

So we’re left to deal with such predicaments personally, and in communities that are sufficiently small-scale and sufficiently enlightened to appreciate both the predicaments and how imaginative adaptations and workarounds can alleviate their pain and their harm, at least locally. Most people don’t want to hear or believe this; they want to believe there are miraculous ‘fixes’ to these now-global predicaments. But the more you study complex systems, the more you realize there are none. Geoengineering proposals now being made to ‘fix’ our atmosphere are a classic case of trying to ‘solve’ a complex predicament as if it were a merely complicated problem, and its outcome will almost surely be disastrous.

[At this point I gave participants their first exercise: Thinking about some of the challenges facing them in their industry currently, what are the complicated vs. complex aspects of each? We drilled down into 5 such challenges, and they all had both complicated and complex aspects; the complex aspects were the harder ones to deal with in each case.]

Systems diagrams are a useful tool to help with both the analysis and understanding of complicated systems and challenges (and the complicated aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects), and with the exploration and appreciation of complex systems and challenges (and the complex aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects). Here are the basic steps in using such diagrams:

  • Identify the elements (variables) in the system
  • Show the apparent or possible causal connections with arrows
  • Discover reinforcing loops (“vicious cycles” and “virtuous cycles”) in these systems
  • Identify the balancing elements that keep the system in stasis
  • Consider how interventions, adaptations and workarounds might affect the system and what outcomes they might produce

These diagrams are used differently in complicated vs complex systems. In complicated systems, they can be used to analyze, understand, predict, and intervene optimally. In complex systems, many of the benefits of diagramming emerge from the process of diagramming rather than the finished diagram, i.e. from the exploration and appreciation of the predicament.

The diagram, and the system, are models of reality – they are inherently incomplete and flawed. The map is not the territory!

There are many different ways of documenting systems and challenges, and Rosalind’s book explains a number of them. For purposes of this workshop I introduced just one systems diagramming technique that’s easy to learn and quite intuitive and robust. Here’s an example of this technique, looking at the complex predicament of introducing a big box mall supermarket into a town and its impact on the downtown (called the ‘high street’ in the UK) retail stores:

sys diagram 1

The chart shows two ‘vicious cycles’ shown as A and B on the chart. The first of these leads to the bankruptcy of downtown food stores, and the second to the bankruptcy of other downtown stores and the deterioration of the downtown as a whole.

The next exercise for the group was to watch or read the Jack Kent children’s story There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon. The synopsis of the story is:

This is the story of Billy Bixbie, who finds a tiny dragon sitting on the foot of his bed. His mother is firm in her assertion, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Yet, the more she denies the dragon and, in turn, convinces young Billy to ignore the dragon, the bigger he grows. By the story’s end, the dragon is filling the Bixbie’s home, with his head and tail spilling out of the top and bottom windows. Finally, Billy can no longer deny the dragon and points this out to his mother. As soon as they acknowledge that there indeed is such a thing as a dragon, the fire breathing fellow returns to his original size–small, like a lap dog. Mrs. Bixbie asks how it was that he grew so big. To which Billy ends the book by saying, “I guess he just wanted to be noticed.”

The group was asked (1) to identify and diagram the “vicious cycle” (a type of reinforcing or “resilient” loop) in red, then (2) to add the “balancing element” that pulled the system out of the cycle before it collapsed, then (3) to identify a possible “virtuous cycle” (another reinforcing or “resilient” loop) that might result in the dragon disappearing entirely, in green, and finally (4) to add another “balancing element” that might pull the system out of the virtuous cycle and back into the vicious cycle. The finished diagram looked like this:

sys diagram 2

This is a simple example of a system in balance or stasis, where the cycles that might tend to collapse it are held in check. Because it’s a complex system, and we are only identifying the more obvious variables, it’s a delicate balance, and another variable of which we’re unaware, or a “black swan” event, could pull it out of stasis. You could substitute the word “addiction” or “trauma” or “urban decay” or “economic inequality” or “climate change” for “dragon” and the model would still more-or-less work.

There are three reasons why such system diagrams are useful, especially for complex predicaments:

  • To appreciate why something is happening that might not be obvious or intuitive
  • To appreciate why well-intentioned interventions are failing to work
  • To identify possible workarounds and other interventions that might be useful, and their possible consequences

The next exercise was to draw a system diagram to appreciate the challenge of never-ending annual budget cuts, a predicament in both the private and public sector. The task was to diagram the “vicious cycle” in both sectors, and then to explore possible ways to imaginatively adapt or work around the predicament. The vicious cycle diagrams looked like this:

sys diagram 3

We discussed the fact that because of oligopolies in the private sector, and because government employees often can’t just leave and find comparable work when their job gets difficult, the kind of ‘market factors’ that might end this vicious cycle and produce a system in stasis just aren’t present. So both sectors add user fees endlessly without improving service, and eliminate or cut back or outsource or offshore services to reduce costs. Customers and employees are both unhappy but have nowhere else to turn in oligopoly markets, so the demanded profit increase and cost cutting are achieved. And since it was achieved, shareholders and citizens believe it can be achieved again each year, and keep demanding it. Such a cycle can only end in collapse.

We discussed possible collapse ‘end games’ that could result if this cycle continues — complete privatization of government services, for example, or, to introduce another variable, wide-spread business (government) failure if customers (taxpayers) are no longer able to pay for the industry’s products (their taxes) because of a continuing stagnant economy. We also came up with some imaginative adaptations and workarounds that might pull us out of these cycles (the ones we came up with were industry-specific and not particularly useful to document here).

We briefly looked at climate change as another complex predicament, studying the vicious cycles in the systems charts I developed for my SHIFT magazine articles. There was an appreciation, I think, that most of the current “solutions” to climate change (cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, sequestration etc.) can’t be expected to work because they’re defeated by the reinforcing feedback loops in the system, and there was an appreciation of why saying that “if we all just did x it would solve the problem” is mostly wishful thinking, and an improbable way to get out of the predicament.

Finally, I discussed six other tools that I’ve found useful in systems thinking:

  1. Visualizations, especially other kinds of systems diagrams, such as the famous Lawrence Livermore graphic showing all the sources, uses and losses of energy in the US.
  2. Cultural anthropology and specifically ‘business anthropology’ to observe and document behaviours in organizations as they actually occur rather than as the ‘procedure manuals’ say they should.
  3. Future state stories to imagine how things might work x years in the future, and then, after collecting current state stories, and engaging a cross section of participating and affected people in iterative conversations, devising a realistic ‘map’ to get to that future state from the current state.
  4. Games and simulations and ‘table-top’ exercises to explore more deeply the variables in play in complex systems and how they are correlated, and to envision the impact of attempted interventions, adaptations and ‘black swan’ events.
  5. Whole system in the room exercises — that allow multiple perspectives on how the system really functions and what diverse ‘stakeholders’ think would make a difference, leading to some convergence and viewpoint shifts.
  6. Biomimicry: the appreciation that nature has been adapting to and working around the predicaments and challenges of complex systems for billions of years, and the value of studying natural systems to appreciate how that has happened.

It was a challenging session, and obviously just touched the surface of this difficult subject. I’m grateful that the audience was an exceptionally bright and animated group, and not too large, and would like to thank them for their participation and helpful suggestions. They seemed to appreciate it and find it enlightening, so I may get called upon to talk with others on this subject. I would welcome any thoughts on how to tweak or add to this workshop.

May 30, 2014

10 Ways to Help Your People Shine

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:06

bodies in motion paul stevenson

image: Paul Stevenson, from flickr, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

When the members of the non-profit Group Pattern Language Project developed the 91-card Group Works deck [download 1-page summary of all 91 patterns; download a deck free; buy a professionally printed deck], we intended it mainly to help facilitators and participants in meetings and other deliberative work to use their time more effectively and to improve their collaborative processes. But we’ve discovered that this Pattern Language is being applied by some of the 2000+ people and organizations using it in ways we had never imagined. Many of these creative applications can help people work smarter, more effectively and more joyfully, and show their “best stuff,” and not just in a meeting context. Here are ten of them:


1. Unearth Your Organization’s Shared Values (and those you share with the people using your products and services)

Dream interim report top 7

image: chart from City of Calgary Cultural Transformation Project Dream Phase 2013 draft report

The City of Calgary consulted with a large proportion of their workers, and with a group of the City’s citizens, and used the 91 pattern cards to identify the top 7 Shared Values of each group (they’re illustrated above). Remarkably, 6 of them were the same. The exercise brought into sharp focus what was most important to both groups, and provided the impetus to assess actions that would help the City’s workers improve the quality and value of their services, and improve the processes they use throughout the organization.

What are your people’s shared values? Do the people who use your products and services share them?


2. Create “Spaces” Big (and Safe) Enough to Encourage Candour, Trust and Boldness

holding space

Chris Corrigan, one of the many facilitators who helped develop the Pattern Language of group process, is using the cards all over the world to support his Art of Hosting practice of holding space — creating a generative and safe ‘container’ within which people can be honest, creative, and courageous. In his book The Tao of Holding Space he writes:

“[The space is] the ground in which structure organizes the support and growth of action from ideas.  From that empty place, small invitations emerge. From the small invitations, conversation nurtures growth. From that growth comes the momentum that attracts the resources of time and attention and money to see the ideas to completion.  The emptier the space the more giving it is and the more intricate the action that emerges. There is no need to talk about it, because that only confuses things. Just offer it and hold it open.”

Do you create such spaces for your people? Do you know how to “hold them open”?


3. Help Your People Appreciate and Embrace Complexity and Emergence

Gibran Rivera of the Boston-based Barr Fellowship community describes the importance of tapping into “the power of authentic relationship and a trust in the organic power of emergence. Emergence is not implementable, a fact that seriously challenges our dominant (and industrial) paradigm for change. We don’t ‘do’ emergence, we create conditions for emergence so that emergence can happen all by itself.”

In complex systems sustained change is predominantly something that emerges, rather than something that can be designed and imposed top-down. The Pattern Language provides a vocabulary for exploring and discussing the complexity of issues and recognizing and enabling emergent possibilities as they arise.

Do you know how complex emergent systems differ from merely complicated mechanistic ones? Do your programs, plans and projects appreciate this difference?


4. Elicit Your Quieter Members’ Important Stories

All of us have valuable information, insights and perspectives that can improve decision-making, collaboration and work effectiveness, but not everyone is articulate and forthright at conveying them. Stories provide a context-rich vehicle by which people, when asked in genuine curiosity, can explain how ‘their’ world really works, so that others can make sense of it at a deep and actionable level.

The City of Calgary used a ‘story’ process, with the Pattern Language cards as its framework, to interview its people across all its service areas, from roads and bridges to regulations, parks and recycling. The story format allowed people not used to being asked about their work and its issues to talk about them easily. One employee in the roads department, for example, told a story about how astonished and delighted he was when the new administrative head of the department took off his tie and spent a day in the field learning how to lay cement.

Such stories have immense power. How many of them in your organization remain unheard?


5. Facilitate Conversations That Matter

small group 2

The Pattern Language we’re using was designed for group deliberative activities, and an important subset of such activities are conversations. My experience as a Knowledge Officer for a large organization taught me that information, ideas, insights and perspectives are best conveyed through context-rich, iterative conversations among people with shared passion and mutual trust. But most of us are not very skilled at conversation, for all the practice we have at it. The Group Works Pattern Language provides a vehicle for self-assessing, self-monitoring and practicing these skills. When we are preparing for an important conversation, or reflecting on one that went especially well (or badly), we use the cards to “storyboard” the conversation. Gradually, we’re learning the qualities of great conversations and invoking them at every opportunity.

How skilled are you and your colleagues at the art of conversation?


6. Enable Your People to Identify Their Gifts and Follow Their Passions
follow the

I wrote in my book Finding the Sweet Spot the importance of discovering the work that lies at the intersection of what you do uniquely well, what you love to do, and what’s needed in the world. As part of their process, the City of Calgary asked their people to identify the Patterns and qualities that made (or would make) the City a great workplace. This Appreciative Inquiry approach inevitably helped their people identify what they love, and care about, in their work, and the degree to which they are working in their “sweet spot”. And nothing can make people shine more than an appreciation of what they care about and do well, and the opportunity to do more of it.

Do you know your own “sweet spot”? Are you working in it?


7. Say “Thank You” in a Remarkable and Memorable Way

There is an iPhone app of the Pattern Language (and an Android app is in the works), but some people have been using images of the cards online to “speak” with others familiar with the Language in more novel ways. One that has been particularly appreciated is, after a meeting or conversation or event in which someone has exemplified one of the Patterns, sending them an e-mail with an image of that Pattern card and a short accompanying thank-you note saying something like “This is a personal ‘thank you’ for having recently exemplified the ____ pattern of excellent group process by ___”.

It’s a unique and quick way to specifically recognize and reward outstanding group process work (whether as facilitator or participant), and recipients are often so taken with this gesture that they take the first opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ by sending a similar note to the next person they notice doing exceptional work. There’s a free zip file of all 91 Pattern card images you can download, that makes this easy to do.

Who is demonstrating excellent group process in your organization? Do they know it’s appreciated?


8. Empower Your People to Co-Organize and Co-Facilitate Effectively
guerrilla facilitation

In most organizations, management calls the meetings and sets up the task groups. By teaching your people the Pattern Language of exemplary group process, you give them the knowledge and tools to self-organize well designed and highly effective get-togethers, peer to peer. And you give them the skill to intervene effectively in any deliberative activity that is not being well facilitated, or is not being facilitated at all (but should be), and in the process improving its effectiveness and value. That’s a skill sure to be appreciated by anyone who’s suffered through horrible meetings.

How well-facilitated are your meetings and deliberative and collaborative activities? Could a workforce of skilled “guerrilla facilitators” make them more productive?


9. Learn, and Teach Your People, a Shared “Appreciative” Language



All of the 91 Patterns we decided upon are framed appreciatively — they are things that have been shown, over and over, to just work, at many scales and in many contexts. We deliberately avoided “anti-patterns” and found, finally, that they weren’t really needed, or particularly helpful. We all know the ingredients of poor group process.

Those who have, either within their organizations or as part of facilitator communities of practice, had the opportunity to learn the Patterns are now speaking to each other in this amazing shared Pattern Language. When they say to each other “Follow the Energy” or “Not About You” (two of the Pattern names) they immediately know what that means, and have ideas for how to apply it. It’s a wonderful shorthand of shared understanding and experience, and a powerful way to learn, internalize and institutionalize better group process.

How many of the 91 Patterns are part of the “language” of your organization?


10. Re-envision Your Organization’s Essential “Gestalt”


image: Gene Stull

Permaculture teacher Delvin Solkinson has been using the Pattern Language of group process for three years as part of his permaculture design courses (the photo above shows all 91 cards in a spiral, and was taken at a recent course at the home of visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey in New York). The purpose of the courses is nothing less than “to learn to map and design our land and our lives.” What Delvin calls “pattern literacy” is a powerful means to appreciate and articulate “why we’re here” — our entire purpose and the gestalt, the essential quality, of our community or our organization.

What are the Patterns that differentiate your organization powerfully from other organizations performing similar functions? What are the Patterns that make your community’s members a true community, one whose members care about each other?


What we’re starting to realize is that life is substantially a “group process,” and that tools that help us recognize and invoke the patterns of exemplary group process can help us in much broader ways than just meetings. They can help us, and the people we live and work with, do many things better: In a word, they can help us shine.

April 27, 2014

A Discussion on The Art of Hosting and the Group Works Deck

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:02


Recently, Janaia Donaldson and Robin Mallgren of Peak Moment TV, an online ‘channel’ of insightful video interviews with leading progressive, permaculture and post-collapse thinkers, interviewed me for the third time. Janaia and Robin had been staying at my house, so I got to know them well and learned to appreciate their consummate skill at interviewing, video production and editing. This time around, they interviewed me alongside fellow Bowen Islander Chris Corrigan on the subject of group process facilitation.

The first part of the interview explained The Art of Hosting, a training and collaboration program that explores and integrates a spectrum of facilitation methods, of which Chris is one of the acknowledged global leaders. The second part introduced the Group Works card deck, a facilitator’s “pattern language” that is now being used by over 2000 professionals around the world, published in 2011, which I am immensely proud to have been involved with as a co-author and co-producer.

Here’s the full 35-minute video of the interviews:

And here is a 10-minute edited version focused specifically on Group Works, that actually uses the cards, shown being “played” to a tableau, a visual ‘recording’ of patterns, by yours truly, to show which patterns were either invoked or discussed during the group process of our three-way conversation. We call this mapping of an event to the patterns invoked by it by using the cards “cardography”:

To learn more about the cards, or acquire a copy, please visit the Group Works site. And if you live in BC or Washington State and would like to attend a Vancouver workshop on improving group processes using the cards, to be held at the end of May, here’s your invitation!

PS: My previous interview with Janaia, which also featured Carolyn Baker, is here. My previous interview on complexity theory and collapse is currently being edited, and I will let you know when it’s up. Humble thanks to Janaia and Robin for their amazing work.

April 26, 2014

Elselien Epema Interviews Dave About “Finding the Sweet Spot”

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:03

Elselien Epema5427 2 diffuse glow

 image of Elselien from her website; image of Dave by Bowen artist-photographer Debra Stringfellow

I was delighted and flattered to learn, last year, that Elselien Epema, an instructor at the University of the Hague in Nederland, has been using my book Finding the Sweet Spot as a text in her course on entrepreneurship (thanks to Nancy White for making the connection).

Since then Elselien and I have been talking about a lot of common interests — she’s also teaching a course in facilitation, for example, and has been using the Group Works cards. She interviewed me via Skype about my book, and has now edited the interview into six parts, which she’s allowed me to offer to readers as MP3 files. Here they are (just click on the time links to hear the segments, opened in a new window/tab, or right click and “save link as” to download for listening later):

1. Introduction: Meet Dave Pollard: Tell us a bit about yourself. (4:15)
2. Why is finding your Sweet Spot so relevant now? (4:31)
3. Can you find your Sweet Spot within an existing organisation? (9:11)
4. How is Natural Entrepreneurship affected by current developments in the world? (4:29)
5. Three stories about entrepreneurs who found their Sweet Spot. (33:36)
6. Answers to student questions. (20:57)

Hope you find the interviews interesting; comments welcome.


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.

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