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This complex world is hard.

Just off a call with a potential client today and we were scoping out some of the work that we might do together, with a small organization facing unprecedented change.  They are in a place of finally realizing that they are not in control of what is happening to them.  They are completely typical in this respect.

I am constantly struck by the fact that we have so few skills, frameworks and so little language for dealing with complexity.  Clients all the time approach me looking for certainty, answers and clear outcomes.  It’s as if they are searching for the one person who will promise them the relief they are looking for.  And no one can.  Because mostly what they are FEELING is their emotional reponse to the reality of a complex world.  And no amount of rational and linear planning will address that feeling.  in fact quite the opposite.  Sitting down and deciding on a vision, goals, objectives and plan just defers the pain, because it fools you into thinking you are in control but it sets up a false ideal against which your progress will always be measured to be short.

Confronting complexity is hard.  It is not merely that we need better tools to think about it. We need better tools to emotionally deal with it.  it is overwhelming, infuriating, confusing, and frightening.  And almost every organization I work with that fails to address it well fails because they don’t attend to the fear.  They build fears into their processes, or they build processes to avoid confronting what they are afraid of: usually that we don’t know what’s going and we don’t know what to do.

My potential client asked me if I could say what outcomes would come from working with me.  In brief they are this:

  • We will build the capacity to understand and work with the problems you are facing in context by confronting and changing the view we take around complexity
  • We will work strategically with the content of the project, and build participatory processes together that will change the way we do the work of addressing complex problems
  • We will build resilient containers for the work that will allow us to confront our fears and limiting beliefs about the work and the change we are in, and that will provide a solid strategic framework for our project.
  • We will arrive at a set of strategic decisions about the present moment and be prepared to make strategic decisions about the future.

That’s it. Sometimes those outcomes are incredibly concrete, sometimes it is more about building capacity, but it is always about acting strategically, and that sometimes means learning a new language and a new set of skills.  I find that it’s the learning part with which people are most impatient.  They seems to want to be able to accelerate the outcomes they want without having to change their approach. But, if you found yourself teleported to rural Bangladesh and you now had to make a living as a rice farmer, do you think your current language and skill set would be applicable, if only you applied yourself harder?

There are projects that fit the ordered domain of work, in which project management and strategic planning leads to predictable outcomes. And there is work for which “learning” is both the outcome and the new organizational structure and leadership practice.  It is very important not to confuse the two contexts.  And it is surprising just how much we are willing to turn a blind eye to complexity (as both a friend and a foe)  in favour of a stable and knowable future, no matter how impossible that idea is.

More fun with pen and paper sense-making

A pen and paper signification framework

A pen and paper signification framework

Opening day of a new Leadership 2020 cohort yesterday: 35 emerging, experienced and legacy leaders from the human services sector in British Columbia and now our fifth blended cohort with folks from the Ministry for children and Family Development and community sector agencies.  They are beginning a 10 month journey together with this five day residential.

Yesterday we began with a short World Cafe in the evening before dinner.  This is designed to have people get to know each other and just download a little, all the opinions and ideas and stuff they just want to say.  It’s a threshold ritual for me, providing a place for downloading – the kind of talk you do to establish your status and position rather than really listening to one another.  Every group goes through this, and so it’s good to give a container to let it happen and to make it at least a little productive as well.

The question we asked for a couple of rounds was about the stories people are seeing that gives them a clue about the kind of future the community services sector will experience.  It’s about tapping their sense of why they stay in the work, why they are interested in developing their leadership and why they see themselves staying in the sector.  After 45 minutes or so of mixing and matching, we have them stop and reflect on what they have been hearing, to drop into a few minutes of silence and answer the question “What are you here to learn that will help us all develop?”  They are asked to write that on a post it so we can see what is top of mind in the group and so we can use the data to structure the invitation to storytellers and the harvesting frameworks for the Collective Story Harvest later in the week.

This is also the first Leadership 2020 that is getting the benefit (!) of everything I learned at the Cynefin workshops in London last month.  One thing I’m committed to doing is providing multiple ways that data from various processes can be harvested using basic sense-making practices. As a result I’m challenging myself and the groups I work with to do more than just theme post its.  In this case, I have everyone draw a small triangle on their post it, then write the answer to the question and then signify on the little triangle, where that learning objective lived in the tension between stuff that will help me “in my personal life, do my job or make change.”  As always it is important when you do this that YOU DO NOT GIVE EXAMPLES, but merely name the three triangle points and invite people where to place the dot to signify the data.  After that they cam and put the post its on the big triangle.

With this simple hack we now have data to work with in multiple ways.  We have a quick idea of the cohort (interesting that people are not here JUST to do their jobs better) and a good indicator that folks see their leadership as being more than just a professional duty or a personal luxury.  And it’s interesting too that not everyone is high on making change.  Also what’s interesting is the little clusters of outliers because that tells us something about a lack of actual workplace leadership practice (turns out it has to do with confidence).

Today at lunch time we will be taking the post its and reclassifying them based on themes to help discover five or six  learning themes that we can build into the collective story harvest process on Thursday.  This has been our standard practice to ensure that what we are offering in the program is responsive to the needs of the participants.  The advantage of having the marks on the post-its themselves is that we can always return the notes to this signification framework because the data contains the meaning making meta data. Visualizing the data this way helps the groups to see that connection and helps us work with.

A simple advanced harvesting practice!

UPDATE: By the way, the cluster in the lower right, about “Making change” reveals a lot about the view in the room about how change is made.  Roughly speaking these post-its point to personal resilience, learning, patience and health, becoming good at collaboration and leading people to a common vision.  Interesting…

Why you should come to an Art of Hosting

My buddy Tenneson deep in a Rivendell World Cafe

My buddy Tenneson deep in a Rivendell World Cafe

We have an Art of Hosting event coming up in February 23-26 on Bowen Island.  This is my home based offering, which I have been doing for nearly ten years with friends Tenneson Woolf, Teresa Posakony and Caitlin Frost, and lately with our new colleague Amanda Fenton.  All of these folks are incredible facilitators and teachers and great humans.

We host this event at Rivendell which is an incredible retreat space here on our little island, perched on top of a small mountain looking out over the end of Howe Sound, an inlet framed by mile high mountains containing a deep tongue of ocean that extends north from the Strait of Georgia, in the Canadian half of the Salish Sea.  This event has traditionally been a time where the five of us bring our insights and learning from the past year and teach with stories and new material, adding to the rich set of ideas and practices that have evolved inside the global container of “The Art of Hosting.

For me, the pursuit of mastery in the practice of hosting conversations is the way I respond to the complexity that we are facing in the world.  When faced with uncertainty and emergent problems, it is imperative that we engage in collective intelligence and create the conditions for good sense making and decision making.  Working with complexity is a high art, and is in rare supply these days.  Over the past year I have been in many situations where the fear of an uncertain future has caused people to reduce their work to the simplest and easiest problems to solve. Money gets spent, resources get deployed and another year passes, and at best we shift the needle on something in a way that we can never understand and at worst, we erode the collective capacity we have to act resourcefully in complex environments.  And that, I am certain, will be what is written on the gravestone of humanity, should it come to that.  I have no doubt that the statement will be accompanied by a pie chart analysing the downfall.

That is my biggest frame of understanding why these practices are important: complexity matters and we need more complexity workers.

Now there are many different skills required to work in complex environments.  Some of these skills are covered in an Art of Hosting.  These skills include personal capacities such as being aware of your own limiting beliefs, biases and shadows.  They include leadership practices such as hosting and participating in truly creative and emergent conversational and social processes.  It includes understanding the nature of complex systems and complex environments and to design effective interventions and make good decisions in those environments.

So that is what is under the hood. We use the word “art” very deliberately.  What we are teaching is a practice that cannot be mastered in a three day event.  As a team we have a strong commitment to launch people as practitioners.  Practitioners of what?  That depends on who you are and what your learning edge is.

Over the years we have had people come to Art of Hosting events for a number of reasons: to develop their facilitation practice, to understand how to be a better participant in dialogue, to work with their limiting beliefs, to figure out how to lead their organizations differently, to design better engagement processes, to work more deeply with complexity, to understand theory, to learn new methods.  Some folks even come because what we are offering is in line with their own personal growth.  When we say that we are trying to launch people as practitioners, what we means is that we want people to see their lives and work differently and to begin a practice of shifting, learning and mastering their skills.  I like to say to to people that the real results of their time at an Art of Hosting will show up 9-12 months later.  You will become aware of a shift in your practice, or new ways of working with people and of new ways of seeing the world.  It can sometimes be very transformative, it is often challenging and always engaging.

The Art of Hosting as a learning event is highly experiential.  You will have an opportunity to get your hands on methods and to host parts of the workshop yourself, with supportive coaching from the core team.  You will also be deeply engaged in conversations with 35 other people who are as curious, interested and challenged as you are.  And you will get a chance to bring real life work and problems into our practices to further develop your initiatives.  There is no role playing.  Everything we do is real.

So if you’d like to come, we’d love to have you.  The more diverse the group, the better.  We have had folks come from every walk of life, from almost every economic sector imaginable, from many many different kinds of community and history.  All of us who train have worked in literally hundreds of unique environments and I can almost guarantee that one of the five of us will be able to translate what you are learning to your context.

Add to that a sublime location, some great meals, a free juggling lesson, music and amazing conversations, and you have the makings for a retreat-style learning event designed to accelerate your practice as a complexity worker in the world.

Join us.




One has to be very careful attributing causes to things, or even attributing causality to things.  in complex systems, causality is a trap.  We can be, as Dave Snowden says “retrospectively coherent” but you can not know which causes will produce which effects going forward.  That is the essence of emergent phenomena in the complex world.

But even in complicated problems, where causality should be straightforward, our thinking and view can confuse the situation.  Consider this example.

Imagine someone, a man, who has never seen a cat. I know, highly implausible, but this is a hypothetical from Alan Watts’ book, On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, which was written in the sixties; pre-YouTube. Watts uses this fictional fella to illustrate the unfelt influence of perspective and the dangers inherent in our strong inclination to seek cause-and-effect relationships.

“He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side a cat walks by. [The man] sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head and a little later the tail. The sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again the cat turns round and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see the head and tail go together; they are all one cat.”

We often create and embed the wrong patterns because we are looking through a slit. As Watts says, by paying very close attention to something, we are ignoring everything else. We try and infer simple cause-and-effect relationships much, much more often than is likely in a complex world. For example, making everyone in an organisation focus on hitting a few key performance indicators isn’t gong to mean that the organisation is going to get better at anything other than hitting those key performance indicators. All too often this will lead to damaging unintended consequences; absurd and confusing gobbledygook.

via abc ltd.


Examples of interest from The Imitation Game

Our traditional Boxing Day movie this year was The Imitation Game, the new film about Alan Turing and his team’s efforts to break the Enigma code used by the German Navy in the Second World War.  While the film itself was good  it was full of fictional scenes that were intended to point at some of the interesting things that happened at Bletchley Park during that war.  Having done a bit of reading on the subject, it’s clear that the film simplified many things, took liberties with others and glossed over what is a really interesting story, but the movie itself still holds up, even if Cumberbatch basically turns Turing into his Sherlock Holmes.

At any rate there were a few things in the fils that provided interesting reflections on some of the ideas I have working with a learning about both through my study of Cynefin dynamics (the way problems and solutions move through the Cynefin domains) and with the two loop theory of change which I am using a lot. So here are a few examples.

Solving problems obliquely. Complex problems can’t be solved by taking a head-on, brute force approach to the solution. The film is basically about this writ large, but one vignette stands out as interesting.  When Turing needs new staff he devises a way to find them by running a crossword contest in a newspaper.  Anyone who solves the problem in under ten minutes gets contacted by MI6 and invited to come and write a test.  Although this is not how Joan Clarke joined the project, it was a good way of sorting out the talent from the confirmation biases that riddled the intelligence establishment (in this case gender bias).

Disintermediated sensemaking. The idea of letting everyone have the data and find patterns there is an important aspect of working with complexity.  While the problems that the team were solving were indeed complicated, they needed to exploit complex human behaviours in order to have a chance to solve them.  A complex problem is solvable with enough expertise, and indeed making a code HAS to be solvable if it is to work.  If you don’t want others to solve it you simply make the encryption keys so elaborate that there isn’t enough time in the history of the universe to solve the problem.  So while in theory, code breaking is a merely technical problem, in order to solve it, you have to narrow down the permutations to make it possible for the technical solutions to be applied.  At Bletchley Park, this came down to reading human factors, which is something only the human operators could do. But they could only do that by having access to the raw data and by creating safe-to-fail probes of the system (by using these factors to solve the codes).  When they worked, they were exploited.

There are some incredible stories about the way which the women who were intercepting messages came to know their counterparts in Germany. Each German communications officer had his own style, his own signature.  And human error in creating predictable procedures meant that people could use these patterns as weak signal detection in order to break some messages, in the case of the Polish codebreakers that did much of the early work on cracking Enigma, even discern the wiring of the machines themselves.  This is a classic pattern of what Dave Snowden calls Cynefin dynamics, specifically how we move from safe-to-fail probes in the complex domain to exploiting findings using complicated and in some cases obvious solutions.

This is a really interesting story, and I’ve ordered a couple of books to read in further.  I’m very interested to see how the human factors were sensed, discerned, exploited.  Combining that capacity with the incredible engineering talents of Turing and his crew provides some excellent stories and examples of Cynefin dynamics at work.

whiskey river

Another one today from whiskey river:

Today I want
to resolve nothing.
I only want to walk
a little longer in the cold
blessing of the rain,
and lift my face to it.

– Kim Addonizio
New Year’s Day
Tell Me

Happy New Year.


Thinking about thinking


Excellent stuff.

Think about your thinking.  Happy New Year.

Calculating upon the unforeseen

whiskey river, for many many years, one of my regular blog reads, has been sharing some good stuff from Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide For Getting Lost.  Here’s something from today:

“How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”

I think this will be something of a theme for me in the work I am doing over the next year, as it has been in one way or another over the past 15.

Travelling on Christmas Day

Every Christmas Day, our nuclear family heads off Bowen Island to travel into Vancouver and celebrate with cousins and grandparents, feasting, gift giving, hanging out and catching up.  The weather is always different.  Some years the ferry ploughs through a fierce Squamish wind blowing down Howe Sound from the north and freezing salt spray covers the cars on the ferry deck.  Other years it is rainy and blowing from the southeast, as it was much of this month.  Once – only once in thirteen Christmases of doing this – did we have snow, and that was back in 2008 when the whole country experienced it’s first completely white Christmas in 37 years.  Alas, our little pocket of green on the west coast of BC is usually the reason why the whole country isn’t covered in snow.

This year, the weather was sunny and calm, about 8 degrees and the Queen Charlotte Channel between Bowen Island and Horseshoe Bay was like glass.  I stood at the front of the car deck on the soon to be overhauled Queen of Capilano and shot this little time lapse of the voyage, which normally takes under 20 minutes.  This is the first leg of every trip I do to anywhere in the world: across this gorgeous fjord.


Spellbound this morning watching Sean de hOra, a famous old Irish singer, performing his version of the Irish air Bean Dubh an Ghleanna (The Dark Woman of the Glen).  He is a gorgeous interpreter of the “sean nos” or old style of Irish singing, which is deeply emotional and moving evoking in the performer something of the duende that Lorca wrote about in flamenco.  In both flamenco and sean nos, there is a sense that supernatural creatures are near by, and there is tradition that links the singing of these songs to the kidnapping of the singer by fairies, so powerful is the song.

For these reasons – the weight of emotion being communicated and the fear of being lost – a tradition in sean nos singing is to have someone engage in “hand winding” with the singer and you can see this in this video.  It is a gesture of amazing empathy, and it brings the singer into the fullness of the expression of the song without him fearing being lost or taken away.

Here is Ciaran Carson:

In the ‘hand-winding’ system of the Irish sean-nós, a sympathetic listener grasps the singer’s hand; or, indeed, the singer may initiate first contact and reach out for a listener. The singer then might close his eyes, if they are open (sometimes he might grope for someone, like a blind man) and appear to go into a trance; or his eyes, if open, might focus on some remote corner of the room, as if his gaze could penetrate the fabric, and take him to some antique, far-off happening among the stars. The two clasped hands remind one another of each other, following each other; loops and spirals accompany the melody, singer and listener are rooted static to the spot, and yet the winding unwinds like a line of music with its ups and downs, its glens and plateaux and its little melismatic avalanches.

What do you notice here?