Posts categorized “Art of Hosting”.

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.

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.



Disintermediated sensemaking

2014-11-25 20.43.23

Hmmm…maybe I should have let the group do this…

When I popped off to London last week to take a deep dive into Cognitive Edge’s work with complexity, one of the questions I held was about working with evaluation in the complex domain.

The context for this question stems from a couple of realities. First, evaluation of social programs, social innovation and other interventions in the human services is a huge industry and it holds great sway. And it is dominated by a world view of linear rationalism that says that we can learn something by determining whether or not you achieved the goals that you set out to achieve. Second, evaluation is an incredibly privileged part of many projects and initiatives and itself becomes a strange attractor for project planning and funding approval. In order for funders to show others that their funding is making a difference, they need a “merit and worth” evaluation of their funds. The only way to do that is to gauge progress against expected results. And no non-profit in its right mind will say “we failed to achieve the goals we set out to address” even though everyone knows that “creating safe communities” for example is an aspiration out of the control of any social institution and is subject to global economic trends as much as it is subject to discrete interventions undertaken by specific projects. The fact that folks working in human services are working in a complex domain means that we can all engage in a conspiracy of false causality in order to keep the money flowing (an observation Van Jones inspired in me a while ago.) Lots of folks are making change, because they know intuitively how to do this, but they way we learn about that change is so tied to an inappropriate knowledge system, that I’m not convinced we have much of an idea what works and what doesn’t. And I’m not talking about articulating “best practices.”

The evaluation methods that are used are great in the complicated domain, where causes and effects are easy to determine and where understanding critical pathways to solutions can have a positive influence on process. in other words, where you have replicable results, linear, summative evaluation works great. Where you have a system that is complex, where there are many dynamics working at many different scales to produce the problems you are facing, an entirely different way of knowing is needed. As Dave Snowden says, there is an intimate connection between ontology, epistemology and phenomenology. In plain terms, the kind of system we are in is connected to the ways of knowing about it and the ways of interpreting that knowledge.

I’m going to make this overly simplistic: If you are working with a machine, or a mechanistic process, that unfolds along a linear trajectory, than mechanistic knowledge (problems solving) and interpretive stratgies are fantastic. For complex systems, we need knowledge that is produced FROM the system and interpreted within the system. Evaluation that is done by people “outside” of the system and that reports finding filtered through “expert” or “disinterested” lenses is not useful for a system to understand itself.

Going into the Cynefin course I was interested to learn about how developmental evaluation fit into the complex domain. What I learned was the term “disintermediated sensemaking” which is actually the radical shift I was looking for.  Here is an example of what it looks like in leadership practice.

Most evaluation uses processes employing a specialized evaluator undertaking the work. The problem with this is that it places a person between the data and experience and the use of the knowledge. And it also increases the time between an experience and the meaning making of that experience, which can be a fatal lag with strategy in emergent systems. The answer to this problem is to let people in the system have direct experience of the data, and make sense of it themselves.

There are many many ways to do this, depending on what you are doing. For example:

  • When clustering ideas, have the group do it. When only a few people come forward, let them start and then break them up and let others continue. Avoid premature convergence.
  • When people are creating data, let them tag what it means, for example, in the decision making process we used last weekend, participants tagged their thoughts with numbers, and tagged their numbers with thoughts, which meant that they ordered their own data.
  • Produce knowledge at a scale you can do something about. A system needs to be able to produce knowledge at a scale that is usable, and only the system can determine this scale. I see many strategic plans for organizations that state things like “In order to create safe communities for children we must create a system of safe and nurturing foster homes.” The job of creating safe foster homes falls into the scope of the plan, but tying that to any bigger dynamics gets us into the problem of trying to focus our work on making an impact we have no ability to influence.
  • Be really clear about the data you want people to produce and have a strategy for how they will make sense of it. World Cafe processes for example, often produce scads of data on table cloths at the centre of the table, but there is often so little context for this information that it is hard to make use of. My practice these days is to invite people to use the table cloths as scratch pads, and to collect important data on post it notes or forms that the group can work with. AND to do that in a way that allows people to be tagging and coding the data themselves, so that we don’t have to have someone else figure out what they meant.
  • Have leaders and teams pour over the raw data and the signification frameworks that people have used and translate it into strategy.

These just begin to scratch the surface of this inquiry in practice. Over the next little while I’m going to be giving this approach a lot of thought and try it out in practice as often as I can, and where the context warrants it.

If you would like to try an exercise to see why this matters try this.  the next time you are facilitating a brainstorm session, have the group record dozens of insights on post its and place them randomly on a wall.  Take a break and look over the post its.  Without touching the post its, start categorizing them and record your categorization scheme.  Then invite the group to have a go at it.  Make sure everyone gets a chance to participate.  Compare your two categorization schemes and discuss the differences.  Discuss what might happen if the group were to follow the strategy implicit in your scheme vs. the strategy implicit in their scheme.

On friendship

This afternoon Caitlin and I were in a delightful conversation with new colleagues that ranged across the landscape of the work we are all trying to do in the world, supporting leadership, supporting quality and addressing the ineffable aspects of human experience that pervade our work on leadership.

And in the conversation we found our way to the idea of friendship.

In our Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics offering we are exploring friendship as a key strategic pillar to transforming the nature of engagement, organizational life and community development.  And today as we were discussing friendship as the highest form of accountability, I was reminded of my work 15 years ago in the BC Treaty Process.

Back then I was employed as a public consultation advisor for the federal government.  It was my job to talk to non-indigenous people about the treaties that governments were negotiating with First Nations.  Most of the non-indigenous stakeholders I had to meet with were hostile to the treaty process, to put it mildly. Some of them were just downright furious, driven by the white hot heat of completely irrational racism, uncertainty and disruption to their lives.  At their worst, hey shouted at us, threatened us with violence and tried to have us removed from our jobs.  these were not folks that I would ordinarily try to meet with, let alone befriend.  But I found I had no choice.  No amount of rational discourse about rights, law, policy and economics could persuade these people that treaty making was a good idea.

And the truth is that I didn’t have to have them think it was a good idea.  But I did need them to understand what was happening and I did need to offer them many many ways to engage with what we were doing, even if they were 100% opposed to it.  It was my professional obligation as a person responsible for the mundane daily workings of a democratic government, and it was my moral obligation as a human being who saw a group of people in danger of being dismissed by their government for their opinions, no matter how odious those opinions were to the government of the day, or how opposed those opinions were to government policy.

I realized that the only way we were going to create lasting agreements that gave First Nations the best possible future was to treat the noin-indigenous stakeholders as human beings.  And that meant that I quickly abandoned my professional guise of talking to them as experts in their field and instead I adopted a stance of friendship.  Instead of asking them questions I was interested in answering, I asked questions about what they were interested in: logging, ranching, fishing, making a living, what they did in their spare time, what was important to their families.

In due course I found myself hanging out with these folks.  Having dinner, going on long drives through the British Columbia wilderness to visit clear cuts and mining sites.  Joining them on board their fish boats and in their pastures, hanging out in local hockey arenas watching junior teams from Quesnel and Prince George and Powell River ply their trades.  I ended up playing music with people, drinking a lot of beer and whisky and meeting up with folks when they were in Vancouver.  It became social.  We developed friendships.

And in the end I believe it helped to transform the atmosphere in BC from an angry and bitterly divisive climate to one where folks were at least tacitly okay with treaty making, if not outright supportive.  My seven colleagues and I and our counterparts in the provincial government worked hard at developing these relationships.

Friendship is not something that we set out to create.  It is an emergent property of good relationships and good collaboration.  When you do a few things together that end up being – well – fun, then you begin to experience friendship.  And in the end when times turn a bit hard, that friendship will see you through, helping to sustain the work you have done.

It is not perfect by any means, but those three years spent in the late 1990s befriending folks all over BC proved to me that no one is above friendship, and that the results of dedeicated and personal relationship building are essential to a humane society.

What passes for “engagement” these days is so professionalized and sterile that I think it threatens the very fabric of the kind of society that we live in.  Society by definition is an enterprise that connects everyone together.  “Public engagement” that does not also include the capacity for personal connection is a psychotic and sociopathic response to the need to care and be cared for.  And when we get into hard places – think Ferguson, Burnaby Mountain and even Ukraine – it is friendships, tenuous and strained, but nevertheless intact, that offer us the way out.

Some World Cafe tips

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I had the great pleasure of coaching a team of folks last night who were running their first World Cafe. I’ve been working with this crew for a while – a core team looking at the future of the Victoria Presbytery of the United Church of Canada – and this was the first time they’ve stepped up to run their own conversational process as part of our work.  Last night it was a Cafe to sense the future of what the Presbytery could be and do.  And they did great.

One of the advantages of coaching is that one gets to reflect on the little bits and pieces of practice that make things work.  Last night a number of them came up, so I thought I’d share them here.

Give instructions one at a time. Don’t give a long list of instructions.  At the beginning of the Cafe let people know how the time will flow, but when it comes time to invite people to do certain things (move between tables, change questions, reflect, summarize…whatever) just give one instruction at a time.  It is important that people know WHY we are doing a thing, but not important that they have the whole flow.  And especially if your instruction involves them moving, then don’t give any more instructions until they have stopped.

Invite people to mark the paper early. The paper in the middle of the table is for all to use. “Typical” facilitated sessions imprint people with the pattern that someone will take notes while everyone else talks.  It’s important that before the conversation begins, you invite people to pick up a marker, write something and draw something on the paper in front of them.  That way, before the conversation begins, folks know that the paper is for everyone to use, there is no top or bottom, and images and words are equally welcome.

Have one more marker and one fewer post it note than people. If you have tables of four, give them five markers.  This means that people can trade colours without prying a marker from someone’s hand.  And if you are summarizing key findings, have three post-its for a table of four, to encourage people to pick three things together rather than just having everyone put their best thought down.  World Cafe is about tapping and making visible collective intelligence.  You lose that if you just have individual thoughts.

Build in silence. At the conclusion of a round, have a minute or two of silence.  It calms the room down, allows people to reflect and integrate what they are hearing and makes it easier to give directions.  This is especially important if you are wanting people to raise their level of awareness from what is important personally to what patterns are emerging.  It requires a shift in awareness to see that.

Collect post its before having a summary conversation. Last night we used post its at the conclusion of the third round to capture the patterns that people were hearing consistently in all three rounds.  Collecting the post-its before we had a summary conversation meant that people couldn’t “report out” and instead we hosted a “conversation with the whole” whereby we roved around asking people what stood out for them.  What emerged was indeed a conversation and not a boring reporting out of things that everyone knew anyway.

Avoid the temptation to use a different question for each round. This is important.  Having a different question for all three rounds creates three shallow conversations and inhibits pattern finding.  It can also leave people feeling like they are being led down a garden path and it doesn’t leave a lot of space for emergent conversation.  For all Cafe beginners, I always suggest they do their first Cafe with a single question for all three rounds.  This gives you a clear picture of how the process can work to surface COLLECTIVE intelligence.

Keep the question simple and broad and make sure you can answer it on your own.  Trust the group. They want to have a conversation, not guess at answers that you are trying to get them to.  Last night our question was simple; given a context in which the structures of the Church are becoming increasingly unsustainable and in which congregations still need to be connected on a local level “What should Presbytery be and what should it do?”  That was it.  Three rich rounds on that, with lots of great insight and some amazingly courageous admissions (“Time to finally admit that this structure is dead.”  etc.)

Invitation matters.  Even though the 50 people we had out last night are used to being together every few months, the core team mworked on their invitation for a month.  They held the purpose of the event close (discovering what the new shape and function of the Presbytery could be) and they shared the question with participants, even before we had decided on what the final question was.  The team made sure people RSVP’d on the invitation which helped us to know the logistics of food and space, and also gave a chance for the conversation to begin as folks started sharing what they were thinking right away.  This primed the conversation and meant that people were really ready for the work.  Ninety minutes was not enough.

Know what you will do with the harvest and tell people.  People learned in the invitation what our plans were for the harvest.  This even was about helping the core team design some experiments over the next year for new ways that the Presbytery could meet and be useful to the two dozen United Church congregations on southern Vancouver Island.  We summarized the patterns that people found (above photo) and began right away writing a report.  But the bigger piece of work will be engaging in design over the next couple of months to create new and interesting gatherings in line with what the Presbytery members actually want.


Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics

Caitlin Frost, Tim Merry, Tuesday Ryan-Hart and I have been loving offering our Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics workshop over the past nine months.

We’re really pleased to announce that we are coming to Minnesota May 6-8, Staffordshire UK July 8-10 and Ontario this fall.  And we’re really happy with the video invitation.

If you have been working with participatory methods and are curious about extending these tools and forms of leadership to systemic challenges, please consider joining us!

Setting the stage


Asheville, North Carolina

We are about to begin three days of learning together, Ashley Cooper, Dana Pearlman and me.  And 27 other folks who are coming to something we called “the Art of Learning Together.”

One of the core inquiries of the Art of Hosting, since it’s beginning has been “what if learning together was the form of leadership we needed now?”  It’s not that other forms of leadership AREN’T important, but that ihis particular form is not well supported.  We think of learning as something you are doing before you become a leader.   Something to do before you ramp up to the next level of leadership.

But of course there are situations in the world – complexity, confusion, innovation, disruption – that require us to learn, sometimes almost too fast, usually only until we can make the next move “well enough.”  We need tools, heuristics (my new favourite word, meaning experience based guidelines or basic principles based on previous experience) and ways of quickly understanding our experience so we can be open to possibilities that are invisible when we take a narrow view of change.

Over this three days we will teach and learn about frameworks for personal and collective leadership, including Cynefin, The Lotus, and principles of improvisiation.  We will use dialogue methods of World Cafe, Pro-Action Cafe, Open Space, Circle practice and other things.  We will use movement, improvisation, music and art.  And we will employ walks in the neighbourhood, silence, reflection and raid prototyping.  We are alos going to be diving into the art of working with core teams and understanding the dynamics of power, identity and relationships as they unfold in a context that is disruptive, changing and complex.

And we are doing it in a sweet space called The Hub in Asheville, which, if you don’t know it, is the most amazing, creative, and moldable space in an amazing, creative and moldable city.   You can follow along online if you like at our weebly.

Training in structures that support humanity


in this video, Organizational practices applied  by Tim Merry he talks about an organization that adopts basic practices to restore humanity to its structures.  Predicated on the idea that the quality of results are directly dependant on the quality of relationship in the organization, he describes using circle practice as a simply way to activate relational capacities in a team.

The link between relationship and results is well established. It is the basis of relational theory and is a core assumption underlying a whole world of organizational development thinking and practice, including the Art of Hosting.

Good relationships are fundamental but not completely exclusive to getting great results.  It is also important that people in the organization are skilled for the work they are doing and that there is a clarity about what we are trying to achieve.  Skills include the technical skills needed to do the job as well as adaptive skills needed to be able to respond to changing conditions.  Clarity includes personal and collective clarity of purpose.

i find that many organizations excel in a technical skills focus and spend a lot of time on clarifying organizational purpose through strategic plans and the operational plans that are meant to connect everyone in an organization to the central purpose.

And what passes for good management is this technical axis of organizational life.  It is privileged by using terms like “hard skills” and when push comes to shove the “softer side” of organizational life is often sacrificed in favour of strict accountability to the plan.

Restoring relational skills is often the first step to stabilizing a team that has lost its way.  I have worked with highly skilled team – for example in university professional faculties – where there is no shortage of extremely talented individuals and an audacious but achievable drive to be the best of their kind in their market.  But very often highly skilled and committed people get into tough disputes with one another as egos clash and personal purposes become more important tha organizational ones.  Over time toxic environments can appear that, when combined with the unskillful use of power and authority, can create pain and trauma in organizations.  Almost everyone I know has a story of this.  It is absolutely rife in organizational life as we seek to balance self-fulfillment with collective strategic direction.

What Tim points to, and what we cover in the Art of Hosting, including in our offering on Beyond the Basics, is that a restorative approach to human relationships can steady the ship.  This means taking time away from strictly strategic objectives in order to attend to relationships.  And it is not simply a thing that happens in offsite meetings to deal with organizational conflict.  It is about instituting practices – such as week-starting and week-ending circles – to discuss strategic objectives, and to do so in a way that honours and deals with the struggles that naturally occur as we try to do things we’ve never done before.

A weekly practice of PeerSpirit Circle for example becomes a strategic leverage point for better organizational life and more humane working environments.  It doesn’t replace technical skills or organizational goals, but it ties those things to personal aspirations and provides a rich ground for creativity, adaptability, cohesion and sustainability