Peter Block’s Community

Love Conversation Community
Most people know Peter Block as the consultant’s consultant — he wrote the book that many consultants use as their methodology. Since then he is best known for his book Stewardship, that I reviewed two years ago, and his more recent spin-off The Answer to How is Yes.

Stewardship was about how to convert hierarchical organizations into flat, responsible, sustainable, entrepreneurial organizations, something like what I have come to call Natural Enterprises.

His new book, Community, proposes, analogously to convert isolated, hopeless neighbourhoods into dynamic, self-directed communities. I have the same general concern about the new book that I had about Stewardship: Why struggle to transform a dysfunctional corporation, or neighbourhood, into one that works, when it’s much easier to create a new one, a Natural Enterprise or an Intentional Community, from scratch? And has anyone effectively, and sustainably, re-formed a corporation or community? Are Savannah, Boston, Chicago and Portland really now communities that work?

Block starts with a series of theses about what’s wrong with modern neighbourhoods and with our ways of trying to better them:

  • Every community is different, and things that work in one don’t necessarily work in others.
  • We try to solve problems through individual persuasion and action, instead of collectively.
  • When cities start to decay, too often those with money, energy and ideas flee to suburban or exurban areas instead of staying to deal with the problems.
  • The cult of leadership lets citizens off the hook and breeds dependency and entitlement.
  • Engagement of citizens is negative: “Many citizens get engaged in community only when they are angry”.
  • Social service organizations are stigmatized as inefficient, compassion is marginalized, and the only news reported is crime and scandal.
  • The preoccupation of those working with the challenges of cities is on coping with fear and finding fault. In this worldview, he says:
We are a community of problems to be solved. Those who can best articulate the problems and the solutions dominate the conversation. The future is defined by the interplay of self-interests, dependent on the accountability of leaders, and controlled by a small number of wealthy and powerful people, we categorize as “they”. Community action is aimed at eliminating the sources of fear. We aim at a set of needs and deficiencies. To eliminate fear and respond to neediness, we try harder at what we’ve been doing all along, what isn’t working. We lock down neighbourhoods, build more prisons, reduce tolerance to zero. We call for better programs, more expertise, more funding, better leadership, stronger consequences, and more protection.

Block’s framework for genuinely improving communities has six components:

  1. The engagement and convening of a broad cross-section of the community to explore issues and ideas collectively.
  2. The creation of small groups within larger groups as the basis for exploratory conversations focused on possibilities, not problems.
  3. A focus on questions that open rather than rushing to answers, that encourage learning and exploration rather than giving and getting advice.
  4. The creation of several types of conversation:
    • Conversations of invitation: invitations that declare the possibility of collective resolution and action, frame the choice to attend or not, describe the hurdle and expectation of participants, stress appreciation for those who choose to attend, and are delivered personally.
    • Conversations of possibility: surfacing/exploring the crossroads that each participant is at that gives him or her passion about the subject
    • Conversations of ownership: surfacing/exploring what actions each participant is prepared to commit to
    • Conversations of dissent: surfacing/exploring doubts, reservations, and reasons for lack of commitment
    • Conversations of appreciation: surfacing/exploring the value, learning and connection each participant has received from others
  5. The creation of an atmosphere of hospitality, welcoming strangers.
  6. The creation of physical and social space that supports belonging.

After describing how this framework has worked in several communities, including his own (Cincinnati, which he describes as “like most of our urban centers, like New Orleans without the flood”), Block concludes with a list of pressing urban issues and intractable problems the methodology could be applied to.

If you notice a lot of similarities between this methodology and Open Space, you’re not alone — Block acknowledges Open Space as one of the techniques that he draws on.

What I liked most about the book was the diagnosis of what hasn’t worked. These failed approaches are almost instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever worked on an urban renewal or community improvementproject.

And of course I liked the fact that Block’s approach boils down to Love, Conversation and Community.

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1 Response to Peter Block’s Community

  1. vera says:

    You know, one can try to rebuild one of those flapping crashed flying machines into a real plane. But why bother when starting from scratch is so much easier and far more likely to be successful?

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