|A year ago I presented a second version of a cobbled-together methodology for grappling with complex problems. These are the problems that traditional analytical methodologies cannot handle, because analytical approaches require a near-complete understanding of the phenomenon, the variables that enter into it, and their causality. Complex problems simply have too many variables to ever be ‘knowable’ to the extent required by such methodologies.
My last effort drew together ideas from a dozen different complexity theorists. I was trying to accomplish two things that I think previous attempts to define such methodologies have lacked. The first was to tweak the invitation process so that the ‘crowd’ that was attracted to the event was truly diverse (some such events are too self-congratulatory and suffer from groupthink). Dave Snowden has even suggested that debate and disagreement are probably essential to progress in addressing complex problems.
The second was to ensure that, while the process had to be principally self-managed (or at most loosely facilitated), the attendees would be sufficiently informed about both the process (the methodology, and the nature and challenges of complex problems) and the specific problem they were addressing, that they left their preconceptions and pre-formed conclusions behind, and came to the event both knowledgeable and open-minded.
But it has since occurred to me that these two additional ‘ingredients’ (diversity and lack of preconceptions) are to some extent at odds. Let’s suppose for example the complex problem we’re tackling is creating natural enterprises — finding people to make a sustainable, joyful living with, and establishing and operating an enterprise with those people. A couple of weeks ago I presented a model for what I think is the first and most difficult part of that process: finding the right people to make a living with. Having put a lot of thought into it (and having a lot of entrepreneurial success stories and horror stories to draw on that support it) my propensity would be to provide this model as pre-reading for a ‘creating natural enterprises’ event, to help inform attendees. But what if that model were to turn off potential attendees who didn’t like that model, or who didn’t think finding the right partners was an important part of the process of creating natural enterprises? Would ‘my’ event end up being attended only by people who (perhaps erroneously) agreed with my ideas?
The great challenge we have in any open, self-managed process is that the more informed you are about a subject, the more likely you are to have already formed conclusions about approaches and even answers to the problems it presents. This is human nature — we form opinions quickly and change them slowly and reluctantly, as Lakoff’s theory of frames and worldviews has demonstrated. So we have a choice, in our invitees to complex problem events, between people who have already made up their minds what should be done (and will fiercely defend those views during the event) and those who are open-minded and are likely to accept the first intelligent view they hear at the event (not necessarily the most defensible). You’ve probably seen this dynamic in meetings and conferences you’ve attended. And notwithstanding the urgings of Scharmer, Varela et al to practice teaching ourselves to be open to new ideas, to ‘let go’ of our preconceptions and ‘let come’ new emergent possibilities, this is, I think, asking most of us to be what we are not.
What has, in my experience, led to the creation of extraordinary natural enterprises is a fortunate synchronicity of a group of people with complementary gifts who love each other (no I do not think ‘love’ is too strong a word) and who have learned something new on a subject about which they had no preconceptions at a time when they had the energy and predisposition and resources to do something about it. People who love each other are more willing to be open to new ideas, more willing to ‘let go’ and ‘let come’ and to persevere past the inevitable hurdles in new enterprise creation and operation.
If I were to organize and invite people to an event to address the challenges of creating natural enterprises, my guess is that it would attract roughly the right people — mostly people looking to create natural enterprises for themselves, and therefore engaged and motivated. It would, however, probably include some annoying people with magic, one-size-fits-all formulas for how to create natural enterprises that they’d try to force down everyone else’s throat.
The big problem would be that most of the motivated attendees would come with a lot of burdensome baggage, including preconceptions that natural enterprises, like other small enterprises, inevitably require:
I have tried many times to smash these myths of entrepreneurship, but as long as business schools and other entrepreneurs keep repeating and reinforcing these myths, they will continue to prevail in the minds of most prospective entrepreneurs (and keep most from even trying to become entrepreneurs).
My great fear is that, if I were to convene an event on creating natural enterprises, it would be hijacked by:
If that were to happen, I think I would probably throw up my hands and walk out of my ‘own’ event. And I think there is a substantial likelihood that it would happen. I think that is the reason so many people end up developing and trying to sell their own entrepreneurial formulas (and there are a million of them out there) rather than put up with the disagreements that collaboration seems destined to bring. I also think that is the reason that I haven’t already held a event on creating natural enterprises.
If I were to hold one, the complex problem methodology I would propose to use is shown above right. It is simpler and more iterative than my previous attempts. The first three steps are pre-event activities, while the latter four are event activities. Here’s how they would work:
That’s it. I’ve deliberately made it as flexible as possible, and tried to avoid being overly prescriptive. The only differences from Open Space are the more substantive up-front research and the use of specific technologies (wikis for collaborative research, mindmaps and stories for documenting conversations). It could be used for a session on global warming, or world poverty, or creating a health system or an education system that actually works. It would be iterative, with high-level events leading to other events on more focused subjects, approaches or aspects of a problem. The events would probably have to be face-to-face, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be broadcast live and recorded, for Internet viewing.
So for an event on creating natural enterprises, for example, I would set up a wiki with all the data on underemployment, entrepreneurial failure rates and the reasons for them etc., but not including my Natural Enterprise models — that would be jumping to solutions. After articulating the challenge I would send an open invitation to the event, and open the wiki to others. I might suggest, on the wiki, as parsing options, a session on finding the right people to make a living with, and sessions on organic financing, viral marketing, how to research unmet needs, non-hierarchical organization, and succeeding without growth. As Open Space requires, whoever shows up would be the right people. I would not twist arms, nor would I refuse anyone who wanted to come.
And then the event would occur, and I would be just one of the participants, equal to all others. My guess is that, especially since Open Space would be a new process for most of the participants, it would be as much an experience learning about Open Space as grappling with the challenge of creating natural enterprises. I suspect I would be disappointed with what got accomplished, but not with the process. I expect some important new relationships would be formed and they would lead to some important new collaborations. I doubt that a strong consensus on how to create natural enterprises would emerge, though that might come later. I doubt that anyone would find others to make a living with at the first event, or decide on a product or service for a new natural enterprise, but I think it’s possible that future events on each of these two more specific subjects might well be more fruitful in those regards.
What is holding me back, I think, is fear of failure. Fear that I won’t be able to convince anyone that the myths of entrepreneurship are just that. Fear that I’m too far ahead in my thinking, and that no one will come, or understand. Fear that someone will try to hijack the event to sell their stale or naive ideas. Fear that people will not like, or not follow, the process. Fear that people will not be open to new ideas, or will be too open to new ideas. And most of all, fear that we no longer have the patience, or the time, to commit to any process that can actually work, that can actually make a difference in our beleaguered world.
But I think I will do it anyway. Probably a weekend this summer. Time to stop talking about it and do something. Stay tuned.
Category: Complexity & Discovery
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