Next-Society Models and Guiding Principles: Some More Thinking on AHA!

aha6While my colleague Chris Corrigan is working on the Invitation to the first design meeting for AHA!, I’ve been giving some more thought to its possible evolution. Specifically, since I described our early thinking on it in my article on the world’s 10 Most Intractable Problems, I’ve been having second thoughts about whether there can or should be an ‘AHA! Methodology’, a process that would be followed with some rigour in every AHA! session. I’ve also been thinking about What is the Deliverable of an AHA! session — since we’ve already resolved that AHA! is going to be focused on complex system problems that by definition do not have a ‘solution’ per se.

Here’s my thoughts:

  • Maybe the deliverable, instead of a ‘solution’, should be a model — not a conceptual, theoretical design but an actual small-scale working model that works better than what we’re doing right now, and
  • Maybe instead of a process or methodology, AHA! should be defined/guided/governed by a set of principles, that would steer the conduct of the session rather than regimenting it

So if the topic/issue of the AHA! session is the health care system, or the education system, or a sustainable energy system, or global poverty, the model might be a health care or education or sustainable energy system that works for one small defined community, or a model that distributes community wealth and/or income in such a way that none of that community’s members is poor. A model that could be studied in real time and space and perhaps replicated, with some tweaking, in other communities. A ‘next-society model’ that is sufficiently robust that it would allow us to ask why, if it works in this community, it shouldn’t work, in some variation or other to allow for physical and cultural differences, everywhere on the planet. Not a ‘best practice’, which is a single action ripped free of the context in which it appears to work and offered as a panacea in every other context. But rather, a viable, working model that can be studied and assessed in context. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why models? Because people learn and accept things when they have the chance to see them, try them, kick the tires, modify them to their personal style, not when they are presented as abstract concepts, or worse, imposed as ‘this will make you feel better whether you realize it or not’ solutions.

Why ‘Next-Society’ models? Not because we have to wait until civilization collapses before we can introduce or apply them. But rather, because it is human nature that we don’t change our cultural behaviours until we have to, and by developing such models now, we’ll be ready when we have to, when people beyond the thinkers and dreamers and those ahead of their time will be ready to embrace them.

And if there’s no methodology, what principles should AHA! sessions be guided by? Although this is just my own thinking, and far from complete, here’s some candidate principles that might govern both the ‘operation’ of AHA! and the models that AHA! would build:

  • Start at the End: Know in concrete terms what attributes a successful model would have. It’s easier to figure out how to get there when you have at least an idea of your destination.
  • Know Why Things Are the Way They Are Now: Things are the way they are for a reason, and that reason is rarely perverse or conspiratorial. No one is in control pulling all the strings — there is a tragic logic behind everything that is wrong with our world. We need to understand how and why we got stuck before we can figure out how to get unstuck. If the reason for the current problems seems obvious or simple to fix, we probably need to look deeper. Be skeptical of easy answers.
  • The Model Should be Replicable But Not Necessarily Scalable: If the model only works in special rare circumstances, it’s probably not a very useful model. But there is some evidence that small is beautiful, and some of the best models in the world just don’t scale. In that case, don’t make ’em bigger, just make more of ’em. The Waldorf schools might never scale to a centralized global system, but they seem to work very well as a replicable, tweakable model.
  • Start Lots of Experiments: Don’t pour all the effort into a single model. Try a whole bunch, and learn from and tweak the ones that don’t work. Probe, discover, explore, and keep trying stuff, until you see what works and what doesn’t. The squirrels and chipmunks do this very well, and in my area they have not only defeated the squirrel baffles, they have learned to unscrew the feeder bolts, to cut through the porch screen and the reinforced cloth-and-plastic bags, and even to pry the lid off the metal can we keep the birdseed in. But boy did they try some dumb stuff before they learned these things!
  • The Models Should be Honest, Resilient and Beautiful: There is no room for deception or over-selling the models we develop. We have to be frank about what parts of them work best and worst, and transparent about what they are, and not overpromise. By resilient, I mean effective rather than efficient — if the economy or the government changes, the model needs to be able to handle it, unlike the fragile models like ‘trickle-down economics’ we use today. By beautiful, I mean people need to be attracted by them and want them to succeed, even if that takes some work. David Ehrenfeld points out that every model in nature has these three attributes. They allow the model to evolve organically in response to changing circumstances and needs of community-members. And those models have worked magnificently for millions of years.
  • The Models Should be As Simple As Possible But No Simpler: That was Einstein’s definition of a good model. Enough said.
  • The Models Should Respect and Learn From Nature, Instinct, and the Lessons of History: It is almost a fetish of some post-modernists to disregard this knowledge and learning as dated, constraining and irrelevant. That’s just plain dumb.
  • The Models Should be Accessible and Inviting: No locking them away or making them exclusive. They need to accommodate visitors, students, skeptics and the media. We have nothing to hide.
  • The Models Need to be Developed (and to Evolve) Collaboratively: No hierarchy, no genius ideas built in secret labs by reclusive individuals, lots of give and take, diversity of ideas, openness, laughter, trust, equitable contribution, pride, fun, and the production of true greater-than the-sum-of the-parts collective work-products. We did that!
  • Start Small: Every model should be like a seed, an embryo, that will grow organically and in directions that are adaptive to the changes it faces as it grows. 
  • Each Model Should Also Have its Own Guiding Principles: The AHA! model community-based health care system, for example, might have among its principles that prevention is better than treatment, and that the patient should play a key role in their own diagnosis and treatment, and take full responsibility for their own health (almost the opposite of the principles that prevail in the existing health care systems). The principles that guide each model will co-evolve with the model itself.

That’s all I have so far. What am I missing? Does this idea, of trying to make the world better by developing real working models instead of conceptual ‘designed’ solutions, and of developing them within guiding principles rather than through a specific methodology make sense to you? It seems to fit in neatly with the whole idea of Model Intentional Communities as well.

I still believe that the team working on each AHA! session needs to be diverse, and that between them, kind of like James Surowiecki’s definition of an unbiased and reliable ‘crowd’, there needs to be a solid basis of knowledge of the existing situation, the problem and its complications and implications, and some of the skills needed to deal with them. But beyond that I’m beginning to believe openness, respect, energy and passion for the subject is more important in an AHA! member than expertise, intellectual or creative genius, or even experience in innovative and ‘problem-solving’ work. Just as I outlined the process by which a Natural Enterprise will self-select its members, I believe the AHA! team working on any particular issue will self-select and self-manage itself so that it ends up having just the people it needs to do its work.

Coming along slowly, but I believe we’re really on to something here.

Thanks to two true collaborators, Howard Deane at KPMG and John Sutherland at Ennova Inc for prompting the ‘principles-rather-than-methodology’ thinking.

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6 Responses to Next-Society Models and Guiding Principles: Some More Thinking on AHA!

  1. Jon Husband says:

    There EXISTS a principles-based model, approach and process(es) that was used significantly often in the early to mid-90’s … with many significant success stories amongst health care systems, community development, telcos, and such … with six core principles that were / are derived from the OD field, specifically emery and Trist’s groundbreaking and seminal Participative Work Design research, experience, writing and practivcve .. and these principles are completely complementary to Open Space(s), enquiry, learning and engagement-with-complexity processes … it was even almost a fad by say mid-1997. I think this promising approach and the head of steam it was gathering were forestalled by the combination(s) of dot-com boom (and bust), a *new* mood in North America, preoccupations with business models, revenues and cost controls, huge investments in ERP systems, and so on (you know the constellation better than I) … and the fact that it required a reasonable degree of *democratization* of whatever system was being worked with. There were several high-profile but small (and dedicated) consulting firms that practiced in this area … and an even earlier pre-cursor, closely tied to Emery and Trist’s work, was known as the socio-technical systems approach. No pre-defined solutions ..rather principles and processes. There even exist handbooks, field guides, web sites, etc. Here is one of the bibles of principles-based fundamental whole systems change. Sometimes I feel like you are just getting introduced (in a wide-eyed “ooh, this is sparkly” kind of way to the deep ground of the OD field, after coming out of many years in an accountancy and solutions-based consultancy environment .. and on a personal note I will admit to significant sadness at having not been *invited* to even some minor participation. I guess there was little point in tryingto be helpful in the past. Oh, well.

  2. lugon says:

    turning principles upside down – i believe somewhere in China people pay the doctor unless they fall ill, when they stop paying

  3. kerry says:

    I have neither an education nor a business degree, but I know myself (and therefore humans).All of these ‘models’ and ‘principles’ and ‘methodologies’ involve human beings. As I once read “if a million wolves were to organise for justice, would they cease to be a million wolves”? I believe that once we figure out how to operate our own little turf inside our head and hearts, the rest follows as a natural consequence. The systems will be built from the ground up by real human beings interacting with each other. Would it not make sense to start such a project with a look at the human inventory necessary…what were the human traits that caused our old systems to fail? I find that it all comes down to a few very basic principles and if each and every one of us focus on that within ourselves – well, you know the principle.Once our hearts are beating in time with our minds, we will ‘discover’ (not create) the solution that already exists. We need only remove the obstacles. That is the far greater task, removing obstacles, not trying to figure out new ways to cover them up.

  4. Marty Avery says:

    Principles-based model must intersect with needs-based. I agree with the mapping model as interesting exercise to see source of conflict, but am not sure how you’d use the results. Confusion, conflict and bridges often come out of two (or more) “sides” needing a slightly different version of the same thing for slightly different reasons (think Gaza, or ants and spiders, or doctors and patients). Different “species” use different means to communicate.And the value to each is in the “slightly different” side of the same things, or the space between overlap. Can there be unity without the principles and do principles guarantee unity? Not if the perception of connection isn’t there. Doesn’t it come down to speaking the right language? Models must have common language so that it’s not Babel with common principles going undetected.

  5. I still believe that the team working on each AHA! session needs to be diverse, and that between them, kind of like James Surowiecki’s definition of an unbiased and reliable ‘crowd’, there needs to be a solid basis of knowledge of the existing situation, the problem and its complications and implications, and some of the skills needed to deal with them. But beyond that I’m beginning to believe openness, respect

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