What Works and What Doesn’t

geoff brown conversation map
Geoff Brown’s ‘Nancy White style’ Map of Our Conversation with Viv McWaters

(Posted from Melbourne)

This will be the first of a series of posts distilling ideas from a series of conversations, meetings and conferences I’m involved in during my current visit to Australia. I have been meeting with thought leaders in the areas of facilitation, Open Space, improv, knowledge management, education, cultural anthropology, conversation, sustainability, stories/narrative, social networking, communities of passion, complexity theory and collaboration.

I have met Viv McWaters (and Pete), Geoff Brown, Laurie Webb, Shawn Callahan, Michael Sampson, and Michael Nugent (and Trish), and a variety of participants in some of their remarkable projects. Although they have different areas of expertise and experience, the same questions (issues we’re all grappling with) keep emerging in our discussions:
  1. What works and what doesn’t i.e. what are the enablers and preconditions for success in bringing about organizational change: changes in environmental sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, adaptation, process changes, new technology introduction, personal effectiveness improvement etc.?
  2. What is (for each of us) the Big Question — the issue, doubt, problem or struggle that keeps us awake at night because we know we are still a long way from resolving it, and without doing so we cannot achieve our life’s purpose? What are the commonalities, patterns and collective approaches to dealing with these Big Questions?
  3. How can bottom-up successes be scaled and/or replicated? 
  4. What are the preconditions for effective collaboration?
  5. What will tomorrow’s knowledge management (or whatever we call them) systems look like?
  6. What kinds of stories have the most power? How can we become better story-tellers?
  7. How can we make space and time for serendipitous conversations, the kind that produce astonishing insights, connections, and idea transfer?
  8. How can we make better use of our time, and get more accomplished?
  9. How does one design effective learning systems when we all learn differently?
  10. How can we make better use of metaphors in creating and finding meaning? (Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love says: “I believe that all the world’s [religious, political and philosophical movements] share, at their core, a desire to find a transporting metaphor. When you want to attain [some major change in understanding or belief or appreciation of some startling new concept] you need some kind of magnificent idea to convey you there. It has to be a big one, this metaphor — really big and magic and powerful, because it needs to carry you across a mighty distance.”)
  11. How can we become better conversationalists? And improvisationalists?
  12. How can we be sane and happy and productive in an insane and misery-filled and dysfunctional world (letting go, finding peace, presencing and all that)?
What interests me most about the questions above, the questions we’ve been discussing so passionately all week, is that the ‘answers’ (to the extent we have brainstormed or agreed on them) are probably not as important as achieving consensus that these are the important questions we need to address in order to make this world a better place to live and make a living in. So while I plan to write about some of these issues in the coming days and weeks, I will also be refining and reposting this list of questions.

In answer to the first question (what works and what doesn’t in change programs), John Kotter has said there are eight preconditions to ‘leading change’ in organizations. The first and most important are (a) shared sense of urgency and (b) a guiding coalition.

My experience has been that real change in organizations rarely occurs by executive fiat. When ordered to do something new, people who aren’t ‘sold’ on the idea will tend to comply only to the extent and for as long as they absolutely have to. By contrast, those who are sold on the idea, who are passionate about it, will sustain the change.

Likewise, having a guiding coalition of people championing and stewarding a change through will help to achieve immediate compliance, but not necessarily enduring change. Like it or not, people tend to do, in the long run, what they think makes sense, to the extent they are able to do so, rather than what they are told to do. This streak of self-management is inherent in human nature, I think, and generally a good thing, except perhaps in armies, and even then I’m not too sure.

So in our discussions to date about what works and what doesn’t, the list of ‘what works’ is looking something like this:
  • What the people who have to implement it and sustain it have passion for (e.g. meets a need)
  • What is simple, easy, inexpensive and intuitive to do
  • What people can see works well (e.g. because it’s worked somewhere else)
  • What is fun to do (play, learning)
  • What, when done, has tangible, visible results (“we did that!”)
  • What the people involved believe they have the collective capacity to do well 
  • What the people involved are ready to do (energy, time, resources, worldview)
  • When the people involved like and trust each other
And the list of what doesn’t work is looking something like this:
  • What doesn’t make sense to those who have to implement and sustain it (e.g. the war in Iraq)
  • What is conveyed with conflicting messages or conflicting sets of priorities
  • What you need to bribe or coerce people to do (in other words, the old argument that ‘what gets rewarded gets done’ no longer applies)
Do you know of any examples of astonishing, sustained change? What made it possible? How were the obstacles circumvented or overcome?

(PS: A possible 13th question, after hearing her name from four different people here in Australia already: Is there anyone in the world Nancy White doesn’t know and hasn’t worked with?)

Category: Collaboration

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7 Responses to What Works and What Doesn’t

  1. Nancy White says:

    Dave, you have found out my secret. I follow and learn from a ton of people in Australia because they are an open and forward thinking lot. The picked up on online interaction/facilitation faster than any other country group I’ve seen. They understand what distance means, and how to bridge it with humanity. So now you know where I go to learn (online or off!)

  2. andrew says:

    http://www.fullcirc.com/wp/2008/04/08/arts-at-nexus-for-change-2/following some track or other a few days ago i came on this site (Nancy White) so the coincidence was too much not to send you the url. I pioneeered this kind of group artwork in 1997, at oxford with UnipartU where think tank people Demos took them as a model in a report on the uk and creativity, Dave. (i can send a copy if you like). I also once took one of the bloggers she credits to a forest to do art with Chris MacRea some years ago now (2004 ish) another coincidence is that i was looking at some of their artwork last night. A day of synchronicities. ave a good tie in Oz – and try and get to tal with the original people of that land in their lands, what a waste to go so far an not go walkabout.andrew

  3. Max says:

    The most important in my opinion is the Environmental protection sustainability and Greenhousegas emission.

  4. It looks like lasagna works, too :-)

  5. That looks like a great brainstorming sessing you had, Mr. Pollard.Those are all excellent ideas. But where exactly should thinkers focus their efforts? I believe in media, and politics. This doesn’t mean that you ever take part if the ground rules aren’t set up properly. But I believe that thoughtful people such as yourself should float the idea among your friends of starting new media organizations, and new political organizations. That’s where the need is… and that’s where the power is. There are many folks in such organizations who look at these agendas as if they were sport – hockey matches, or football matches – where anything goes, as long as you win. You have to be utterly careful not to get hurt by such people.In response to some of the specific things you mentioned:As far as changing an existing organization – it’s certainly possible – but perhaps daunting for a person who’s on salary with that organization. Changing organizations from within means that you often invoke the indignation of those powers that be which have controlled it for many years. They don’t want to see that they’re doing things in a non-constructive way. And it’s true, as you note, that any community is the sum of all the input of it’s members. And so one has to set projects up, in a way that they attract the kind of people who would would have the vision which would be appropriate for the project.Yes, I think managers ought to always be on the lookout for people who take the initiative and are self willed, with their own vision for projects. These people are really important to nurture… because they are a great resource. I beg to differ with you that everyone is like this. Thinkers are very self-willed… but most people tend to go with the flow. Certainly, the consensus about prudent ways to proceed might be stronger outside the organization than inside… and then, of course, you’re absolutely right, people will not appreciate being asked toact in ways which affront their own sensibilities.

  6. Don Dwiggins says:

    Unlikely to be a true story:Nancy White was in Rome recently, talking to a friend, Joe Nemo. After hearing her mention several important people, including the Pope, Joe exclaimed “Is there anyone you don’t know!” She said matter-of-factly, “Why no. I know everyone and everyone knows me.” Joe replied “Oh come on, you can’t really know everyone. You don’t really know the Pope, do you?” She said, “I’ll show you. The Pope is appearing today in St Peter’s Square; come and watch, and you’ll see me on the balcony with him.” So, Joe joined the crowd, and when the Pope appeared, sure enough, saw Nancy beside him. Not being Catholic, and wanting to make sure it was really the Pope, he asked someone next to him “Who’s that up on the balcony?” The fellow looked and said “I don’t know about the guy in the tall red hat, but the woman next to him is Nancy White.”Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I heard this one a long time ago, and made a slight substitution in the cast.

  7. Dave… I was just listening to one of my favorite CBC podcasts today… and the latest installment was an interview with a Harvard professor/researcher Richard Lewontin (mp3). As I perhaps have mentioned before to you… I appreciate how Canadian media folks seem to be able to get a lot more earnest types of discussions and ideas out onto the table, when they interview people. In the usa, media folks are too caught up in a passionate struggle between competing ideologies for anything substantive to ever be discussed.I often converse with people on the internet who have careers in the sciences. And I had some insights today while listening to this interview about where these folks are coming from. You and I are philosophically minded people. We have a very different personal struggle than folks in the sciences have. We take each issue and think it through independently and come to some conclusions – the knowledge a person gains that way lets the philosopher live a happy and successful life… and then she or he feels moral obligation to share what she has learned with others. Why can’t we get ourselves heard? The biggest competitive voice out there these days, seems to be the scientists, doesn’t it? There was a time when philosophy was part and parcel with scientific pursuit… but courses have diverged and converged many times over the span of history. A person in the sciences has a very tenuous situation. It takes a very affluent society to pay a person $40usd an hour to do what Richard Lewontin did – which was to watch colored lines spread apart on the surface of jello. Most societies would think that was a ridiculous pursuit. And yet, scientific research, even though on the surface can seem ridiculous, does further the collection of very important data sets, which allow us to develop technologies, and live better generally. But the scientist who works on seemingly inane research projects feels a pressing need to orate, and to expound on his research. It’s kind of a like a creator of modern art has to justify her or his work by a lengthy narrative about what she is trying to express with the medium. A person seeking to draw up a narrative which justifies her work is going to stop at a certain point. She won’t sa things which would perhaps undermine the thrust of that narrative. And thus scientists trust in the things which Karl Popper spoke of, when he said that competing scientists will naturally have a tendency to vett eachother’s work via the different thrusts of their independent projects.Philosophers, on the other hand, want to bridge out to larger contexts. We are frustrated when scientists disingenuously build up big models around their very simple research projects and then refuse to acknowledge that they might be mistaken… and when they rebuff us when we bring up more context around the issue which might throw their conclusions and their whole extrapolation of ideas into question.I’m charmed with how simple, and how straightforward, and how to the point you are with this weblog entry – where you muse about what kinds of organizations and projects work, and which do not. Do you see? A scientist could never build such a broad based set of models and ideas based on any one simple project she was working on. And because our north american society looks to science for everything (as it once looked to religion) – these kinds of important issues, such as how organizations can influence the world for the better, never get addresssed. The question then becomes how do we philosophers take on a role of influence in our society? I think a couple major problems here are that (A) – we tend to be very solitary folks – there is more influence which you can wield if you have more people working together who’s skills you can draw on. (B) – we haven’t applied ourselves to figuring out how to make money to fund ourselves as we do our philosophy. Scientists have us beat in both of those areas, even though there is more substance to our work, than a scientist slaving away in a laboratory. So, we honestly should be able to prevail, if we set our minds to the task.I really appreciate all of what you do here at your weblog. But how are you going to get your message across? I believe that people who think in this independent philosophical way have to get together with eachother… and hammer out some of these pragmatic issues about what the way forward is for our trade. I’m glad that your meeting in Australia was as fruitful as it has been. Take care.

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