System Transformation Happens Now – Yesterday’s Future

“When you separate the mind from the structure where it is immanent – as a human relationship, human society or the ecosystem – is committed, I believe, a fundamental error, which will surely suffer in the long run.” G. Bateson

This quote reminds me of the fundamental flaws inherent in the underlying myopia of system transformation efforts. I believe some authors (John Kotter comes to mind) who publish in the domain of organization change success and failure criteria etcetera, are examining proximate causes and not root cause or causes lying in waiting that are also part of the web of complexity associated with organizations. Unfortunately this approach feeds directly into near-term pragmatism and accountability-seeking that exerts tyranny over many stakeholders and governors of systems. It forces reductionism and near-term-thinking at the expense of longer-term opportunity quite possibility because safe-to-fail experimentaiton is risky. Apply a complicated fix to a complex phenomena (read: best/better practice when emergent practice is the order of the day) and don’t be surprised when you find yourself dealing with symptoms of underlying structures that were always there anyway. The diatribe in today’s Forbes article is more of the same old same old, so when will we learn?

Health care system transformation is a case in point and we all have a stake in that game. It’s really our own fault that we get what we get since our focus is so myopic. In Canada, Flaherty’s recent announcement regarding transfer payments is a sad example of a well-intended effort. He said on the CBC news yesterday that we need a viable health care system 10-15 years from now. Really? Seriously, Jimbo? I appreciate the courage demonstrated in light of global factors and events impacting dynamic global complexity, but to look at sustainable health care as a function of simple transaction and transition into a 10-15 year window is to minimize the epic complexity underlying the myriad interdependences leading to the provision of care. We need a better wellness effort, not care effort such that care becomes a post hoc concern primarily. But that means creating pain for us and for the perpetrators of proximate events (tobacco, alcohol, food but to name a few). Now who among us is really willing to stop the cause of the wound (problem in waiting) rather than the Band-Aid of funding (proximate cause). You? Me? Whom? Not likely – and that’s the issue. Need to connect values to leading through complexity? Try courage on for size.

Transforming organizations through problem solving produces a better past, in my mind, but not a better future. To produce a better future is to produce a better now, for the future, they say, never comes. There is only now and a memory of the past. What we dreamt of only becomes coherent with hindsight.

To create a better now, the lens of complexity offered by Snowden and Kurtz suggests we probe our systems with various catalysts, sense what patterns emerge and become meaningful in retrospect, then amplify or dampen the coherence that emerges. Are we up for that, Mr. Flaherty? Are you? I am and risk mitigation and not downloading is the only real thing I am concerned about.

Increasing our individual and collective tolerance for ambiguity does us great favor in preparing for unknown emergent patterns recognizable only in hindsight.  So try something new – don’t focus on making a better past. Increase your capacity to deal with emergence and you’ll be far more nimble and adaptable – NOW. The ability to overcome fear and anxiety related to uncertainty is one of the most highly desirable attributes we can possess when dealing with complexity.

As a coach once said to me: “What are you waiting for? Do you always need to know the outcome before you choose to act? Where is the creativity in that?”

We are a part of our complicated and complex systems, never separate from them, so conditions for transformation will seldom be better than they are now – which was yesterday’s future.


My Network Works

You know, I was thinking of Snowden’s notion of different types of systems (shocker, I know). In particular, I was wondering if my network of colleague practitioners was Ordered (either simple or complicated), Chaotic, or Complex. Snowden says we can look at them like this:

Ordered: system constrains agents, reductionism and rules, deterministic observer independence; 

Chaotic: agents unconstrained, and independent from each other; and/or

Complex: System lightly constrains its agents, agents modify the system by their interaction with it and each other. They irreversibly co-evolve.

What came to mind? Right: complex. In my network of colleagues that I draw upon or otherwise rely upon for one form of support or another, there are no real constraints or too many rules, and I, as an observer am clearly not independent from my network. Chaos – well maybe – (lol). But closer to the truth of the matter, we have a few unstated norms, I think, that help keep the network alive and dynamic, co-evolving with other forces and one another.

Sound ethereal? Consider the following unstated principles of how we have light constraints on our network and how we co-evolve with our interactions:

  1. Speak highly of one another and trust the inherent capacity each of us brings. It’s why we are in the same game and in the same room. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be here so let’s move on with it;
  2. Don’t steal clients – it’s an NLM (Network Limiting Move);
  3. Make the principal agent as successful as he or she can be – they may do the same for you one day;
  4. Do the best you can as if my client was your client – they may well be if the scope changes and I would be happy to refer – I do it regularly;
  5. Work for whatever your colleagues can afford to pay; trust is inherent in the relationship, we all need to run our practices, and no one will be taken advantage of;
  6. Reciprocate if you can – it keeps the faith;
  7. Be honest with your capacity and share credit where it is due. Nothing puts me off more than someone saying, “I built that” or “I did that” when I know damned well it’s not the case. Don’t be greedy with that BS or you’ll be gone – we rarely do anything without the help and support of others; and
  8. Be open-minded to the style and approach of each network agent or principal. Follow their lead and speak truth to power; the diversity makes us stronger.

I have noticed that the 6th principle above is often the one I am most frustrated with. I have hired close to 100 colleagues to pinch hit or contribute in the past 14 years and I am sure that is likely conservative. I can count on one hand the number of times where this has been reciprocated. I take it as a sign of the type of projects I have been involved with that are more systemic in nature and less likely to be content-exclusive. But still, I rely on my network to make me more effective, more robust and more successful. So thanks, folks. I hope I have the opportunity to contribute to your success in the near future in the same way you have contributed to mine.

So that’s about it for now. Colleagues, if you have something to add, please comment.

Presupposing Optimism – YRP Future Search Planning Update.

I was struck by something Marvin Weisbord said at a recent Future Search accreditation session. He had commented something to the effect that “people are doing the best they can every day with the resources and information they have at the time.” That’s a powerful proposition when it comes to engaging disparate groups of stakeholders on a project.

Recently I was in Toronto working with some great people on launching and planning a York Region Police Future Search conference related to developing a region-wide integrated strategy for crisis response to youth 18 and under with mental health concerns. Pretty virtuous stuff if you ask me. Then, it occurred to me that this was naturally the case when seeking to create a common future and all we really need to do is tap into the nascent optimism in each constituent. Presupposing optimism in the project was a latent assumption in selecting the planning committee. Being on the phone with the Future Search sponsor approximately a month ago, I recall how easy it was to identify the various people we thought were essential to the project success from a planning perspective. Having just met with them last week, this was born out in spades. The creative energy was ramped up very quickly and there were some great ideas brought forward as a result of optimism and enthusiasm for the project. What a great way to start and I can hardly wait to see what the planning conference brings in April.

This is my first Future Search conference and I have been blessed to partner with Tina Dias on this particular initiative. Since I often take on large group facilitation independently, committing to a partnership with Tina for Future Search conferences is a new approach for me. Working with Tina reminds me how healthy and refreshing such connections with highly skilled peers can be. Operating as an independent practitioner, a vast network of support and expert colleagues is truly an understated asset. I am going to start accentuating that more. Each one of us presupposes optimism not only in the projects we undertake, but also in our working relationships. This separate-but-connected way of working is a different model, for sure; one that many hide for fear of being taken advantage of, but one that should be developed more often in my opinion. More about this at another time, I think, as I make manifest something that has always been essential to my success.

System of System Lenses – Five lenses to help bring clarity to systems conversations.

Any discussion of complex issues requires moving beyond the assumption that we are all talking about the same issue at hand and into pristine clarity about what the system up for conversation really is. In my years consulting with organizations and in teaching in the Master of Arts in Leadership at Royal Roads University, I have observed that system conversations can generally sort into five categories:

  • Ideology and Beliefs Lens – The sum total of the beliefs, assumptions, mental models, values and shared meaning underpinning a situation;
  • Rational and Irrational Decision Making Lens – The rational and irrational ways we obtain, information, apply reasoning and make decisions;
  • Interpersonal and Social Dynamics Lens – The patterns, habits, personal and interpersonal relationships among individuals and groups all make up this lens;
  • Process and Value Creation Lens– Any time we are seeing someone or something moving through a process in such a way as to be affected by the process, we are looking through this lens; and
  • ContexLens Elements of a scenario that are external to it, but that give rise to it or otherwise apply pressure on it such that is experienced in a certain way (yes this is paradoxical but it helps form a boundary).
So give it a try. When you are discussing a complex scenario, get clear about which lens you are looking through. See what new possibilities open up for you and for others. Post to let us know what you see and what your experiences are.

The Journey into Future Search with YRP

In September of 2011 I managed to complete the Future Search methodology training offered by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. The whole-system planning model is awesome and at the same time, a bit daunting. As I tend to do with the first delivery of a new program, method or service, I give the first one away free. Thankfully, a colleague has agreed to join me and together we will facilitate a project with York Region Police (YRP). The topic will be focusing on developing a region-wide integrated mental health crisis response team for youth 18 and under. WOW.

I am mentioning this project and the client specifically because there is something very unique and special about (YRP) from where I sit. These folks really do go first and I have seen it several times now. They model the way in terms of the openness, enthusiasm and virtuous approach to getting things done. I love that about values-based para-military structures. There are some very forward thinking people there who are seeking to develop the leadership capacity of the entire organization and its network though a focus on service and doing the right thing. I enjoy working with them They are professional, forthright and open to learning.

Looking forward to sharing more as the project moves along. Planning begins newt week in the GTA. Delivery will be the week of April 22nd 2012.


Why now?

Here we go. Like anyone starting a blog it seems there is some underlying tension (good or bad) or other impetus for wanting to put something out to the world. Mine are several fold:

  1. Personally speaking, for years now, I have been rather shocked at how hard-working consultants, trainers and facilitators tend to be treated by clients and participants alike. Sometimes absolutely fantastic, and other times not so much. Trite statements like “you can always say no” or “set boundaries with your clients” minimize the inherent risk associated with living into your values. If I did that, believe me, I would be out of work more often than not. Many times we need to set higher-order values and, frankly, get over our selves in order to get the job done. Having said this, the merits in setting clear boundaries on major engagements cannot be understated. Many times I have thanked clients and participants alike for the amazing support, professionalism, humanity and openness they bring to our engagements. I’ll share some of those, too.
  2. I’ve got something to say and some may find my insights helpful and, hopefully, amusing at some level. Others will not be interested at all and perhaps offended. That’s OK if people create that feeling for themselves. I read lots, I study, teach, and create my own thoughts. I will share them here.
  3. I want social media proponents to understand that I decide how, when and from where I use and otherwise engage in social media use. Sure it will have consequences if I do X or Y and I am responsible for that. Please do not tell me how I should or should not use my social media connections and that I am missing something if I don’t tweet this or check-in here or there on foursquare, or post to facebook. Frankly, in my professional work it is of very little use and a massive time sucker with little monetization or conversion compared to the other activities I do. So, social media, you are not my priority. You are my whim. I have done my homework and I know how social media is generally used, or not, as the case may be, in my client worlds so I choose how I engage in that. The assertions made by many strategists in the field are, to me, off-putting. If my opinions and experiences about this change, then so will my practices. For now, this is the way that I see it.
  4. Lastly, sometimes I want dialogue from people I don’t know. If that happens to be you, great – I appreciate the time you are spending here. If you find something I write useful, please pass it on to others who might offer an insight as well.

Stay tuned. Why do I have the feeling I am about to get myself into some serious trouble?