Latest posts.

Anticipatory awareness and predictive anticipation

Two Tim Merry references in a row.  Yesterday Tim posted a video blog on planning vs. preparation.  It is a useful and crude distinction about how to get ready for action in the complicated vs. complex domains of the Cynefin framework.  I left a comment there about a sports metaphor that occurred to me when Tony Quinlan was teaching us about the differences between predictive anticipation (used in the complicated domain) and anticipatory awareness (used in the complex domain).

In fact this has been the theme of several conversations today.  Complicated problems require Tim’s planning idea: technical skills and expertise, recipes and procedures and models of forecasting and backcasting using reliable data and information.  Complex problems require what Dave Snowden has named an artisian approach which is characterized by anticipatory awareness, theory and practice (praxis) and methods of what they call “side casting” which is simply treating the problem obliquely and not head on.

When I was listening to Tony teach this last month, I thought that this distinction can be crudely illustrated with the difference between playing golf and playing football (proper football, mind.  The kind where you actually use your feet.) In golf there is a defined objective and reasonably knowable context, where you can measure the distance to the hole, know your own ability with golf clubs, take weather conditions into account and plan a strategic line of attack that will get you there in the fewest strokes possible.

In football it’s completly different. The goal is the goal, or more precisely to score more goals than your opponent, but getting there requires you to have all kinds of awareness. More often than not, your best strategy might be to play the ball backwards. It may be wise to move the ball to the goal in AS MANY passes as possible, in a terribly inefficient way because doing so denies your opponent time on the ball. And the context for action is constantly changing and impossible to fully understand. And the context also adjusts as you begin to get entrained in patterns. If you stick to a long ball game, the defending team can adjust, predict your next move and foil the strategy.  You have to evolve or be owned.

This is, I believe, what drives many Americans crazy about world football. There is rarely a direct path to goal and teams can go for whole games simply holding on to the ball and then make one or two key finishing moves. Some call that boring, and it is, if you are in a culture that is about achieving the goal as quickly as possible and moving on.  And God knows we are in a culture that loves exactly that.

You plan golf holes by pre-selecting the clubs you will use in each shot and making small adjustments as you go. In football you prepare by doing drills that improve your anticipatory awareness, help you operate in space and become more and more physically fit, so that you have more physical options. You become resilient.  Yes you can scout an opponent and plan a strategy and a tactic, but football is won on the pitch and not in the strategy room. Golf is very often won in the strategy room, as long as your execution is masterful.

It’s a crude distinction and one has to be mindful all the time of downright folly of “this vs, that”, but sometimes these kinds of distinctions are useful to illustrate a point.

The village as a venue

How's this for a conference centre?

How’s this for a conference centre?


Last week, we hosted a group of 35 emerging and legacy leaders in the human services sector on Bowen Island to kick off our sixth Leadership 2020 cohort.  Hosting the group on Bowen Island is a powerful way to begin and end this ten month program, and there is tremendous value offered by hosting it on Bowen Island.

We are a small island with a working village and we have evolved an inventive way of hosting gatherings.  We call it “Village as a Venue” a name coined by my friend Tim Merry to describe the way he hosts gatherings in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.  This is a way to reimagine the local economy of small villages who can compete in unorthodox ways with larger venues in nearby cities for conference and meeting business.

On Bowen Island, our village as a venue model starts with one of the retreat centres on island We use the Bowen Island Lodge mostly for our work (and sometimes we host at Rivendell and Xenia as well).  The Lodge is ideal because it is set up to host groups (as opposed to acting like a hotel), it is right on the water, and is only a five minute walk from the ferry dock and the village, meaning that people can actually arrive using public transit from anywhere in Vancouver.  It is located in a neighbourhood so we keep a careful eye on our noise levels at night, but if people want to socialize in a rowdy way, there are pubs nearby.  The Lodge is also perfect in that it is not a high end retreat facility, and it provides an incredibly affordable and accessible venue to accommodate and host people.  It has shared rooms and shared washrooms, but the beds are comfortable and when we are there we have the whole space to work in.  Overflow registrants are housed at the Lodge at the Old Dorm and other local B&Bs.

The Bowen Island Lodge is a dry rental, meaning that they don’t have their own catering staff.  This means that we get to hire local friends to provide us with food.  Usually we have our events catered by The Snug which is a little cafe that has always punched above it’s weight in terms of quality.  Over the years, both The Snug and the Sam Trethewy, the manager at the lodge have come to appreciate to people we bring to Bowen, who are often social workers and others on the front lines of human services.  They treat them well, with good food and sensitive hosting which makes for a superior experience for people.

Spreading the joy further, we always schedule a night out at Rustique, where our friend Thierry Morbach cooks us up a rural French feast.  We book the whole restaurant for this, and it becomes a raucous and memorable dinner.  On other nights we will head up to the pub for drinks (this past week a group of 15 or so invaded on a Tuesday night, which is no small boost to Glen’s business on a January night).  On the Thursday night we usually have a celebration at the Lodge which necessitates folks walking up to the Beer and Wine Store for supplies.

During the day, we give people a couple of hours at lunch to be hosted on the island.  Many folks end up going to the village to walk around, buy chocolate and meet folks.  They get to see our village for what it is, a friendly working commercial centre.  It is not set up to attract tourist dollars, and my friend Edward Wachtman and his partner Sheree Johnson has just completed a study that shows that tourists are looking for something other than that tourist experiences that are sold in many other small towns on the coast.  What they find on Bowen is authentic community.  They notice the way we look after each other, the way people talk and discuss issues.  They often head out for early morning walks or runs on the nearby trails and stop in at The Snug and get to see a community as it is.  I hear story after story of these encounters and we often talk about the friendliness of the village and what it says about leadership and community.  What happens on Bowen becomes a living teaching for how it is possible to live and work together, and visitors SEE that.

And finally, we use the island itself to host.  Bowen is a beautiful place and to get there you need to cross three miles of water.  this is an almost archetypal journey, and it marks a thresh hold to a different experience.  When you arrive you are received in Snug Cove, and when you leave again, it is as if you are birthed back out into the world.  While on the island, we often take people out on the land, to experience the serene calm of the place and to spend time in reflection about their lives.  There are so few places in the modern world, especially in the social services sector, where people can just slow down and reflect and pause, surrounded by forest and water and ravens and deer.  It becomes transformative, which is the point.  Edward’s survey revealed that this is a primary reason why people come to Bowen Island.

We are in a loose conversation with friends in Mahone Bay and in Ballyvaughn, Co. Clare in Ireland about this concept.  In Ballyvaughn a group called The Burren Call has set up to host gatherings at the Burren College of Art and on the land around it as well.  This pattern is repeating and it takes these places of beauty and transformative potential and leverages what we already have to provide experiences for vistors that also benefit us locals, both financially (and especially in the off-season) as well as psychologically.  There is nothing nquite like having your place seen through the eyes of visitors and reflected back.

For Bowen that reflection is that we have a special place, a beautiful natural setting, a friendly and welcoming community and an authentic working village.  Locals are always curious about what our visitors are up to and Piers at The Snug or Paul Ricketts at the Beer and Wine Store are always curious and, its fair to say, appreciative of the folks who are “in that workshop with Chris and Caitlin.”

Village as a Venue holds a lot of promise for villages like ours.  Having run more than 30 events on Bowen like this, I think we have hit a stride in bringing people over for 3, 4 and 5 days.  It is the unique and quirky local character of our community and the beauty of the land and seas that makes this possible.  These are strong assets and contribute to the visitor experience of renewal, restoration and serenity.

Does it feel lighter?

Not so much hair anymore

Not so much hair anymore

Yesterday I had my first haircut in 24 years.

Since 1990 I have kept my hair in a braid that was probably 18 inches long, for all kinds of reasons.  Yesterday, for all kinds of reasons, it was time for that braid to come off.

It’s been a bit of a conversation on my facebook page and folks here on Bowen Island are starting to get a look at my new head.  News travels fast in small communities.

And commonly I am asked, does it feel lighter?  And surprisingly, the answer is no.

Because when you chop off your hair that you have grown for 24 years, you do a lot of work before hand, and I would say close to three years of work went into this decision.  It involved me asking myself some fundamental questions about who I am and where I am and what matters to me and how I choose to present my identity in the world.  It was not an easy decision, and it took me all that time to think about it and work with it from many different angles.

But I didn’t engage in that work so that I could chop off my hair.  I engaged in it because that is what we do as middle aged men in this culture.  In your mid forties (I am 46) you have enough distance from both your past and projected future to think about what’s up.  Questions of identity and meaning, both personal and professional present themselves.  If you have a good practice and good and supportive friends, crossing this thresh hold is made easier.  It has largely been easy so far, with no major crises other than some occasional dark and sad times.

So the truth is that much has already been chopped away in my life over the last three years, but nearly none of it has resulted in a change to my outward appearance.  Cutting my hair yesterday was not the act that shed a lot of stuff, it was an act born of a new lightness. A little tender, but stable enough that it felt right to cut my hair.

Someone asked me why I chose yesterday to do this.  My reply was that, because January 27, 2015 was the day I was ready to do it.

Shortly you will see another shift born of this lightness.  My website is being totally redesigned as well.  Same great resources, same old blog.  Fancy new wrapper.  Coming soon.

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.