Posts categorized “Art of Hosting”.

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

2014-11-25 20.43.23


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

Precision in harvest planning.

Since 2007 when Monica Nissen, Silas Lusias and I sat down at Phil and Laura Cass’s kitchen table to write up our thinking on the Art of Harvesting I have been a keen student of the art and practice of meaning making, sensing, visualizing and sharing the fruits of our work. We have called this practice the Art of Harvesting and I am as happy as anyone that it has become a big part of our practice.

Increasingly however I notice that the term “harvest” is being used with some imprecision that leads to confusion. For example in meetings people will often say things like “we will do this work and then we will do a harvest.” I have to admit that I am confused by this statement. What is the harvest? Is it simply a two minute silent reflection on the work? Is it a 30 page report? A vidoe? A picture? a collection of post it notes?

I owe this confusion to the fact that in English the word “harvest” is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it is a beautiful word to describe our practice of “harvesting” just as “hosting” is a beautiful verb. But as a noun it is imprecise and meaningless and sometimes confusing to the process. Newer practitioners ask “what is a harvest?” thinking that it must be a certain thing done in a certain way rather than an agile response to purpose and context.

And so I have adopted a simple practice. While I continue to use the term “harvesting” as a verb, I have tried to stop using it as a noun, and in working with clients, students and apprentices I have stopped them when they use this word as a noun and invited them to tell me WHAT we will be doing, HOW we will be doing and WHY we are doing it. This leads to far better harvesting plans.

For example, instead of a design that says:

1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round of harvest
1130-1145 Final Harvest

We get

1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round on “what are we seeing about where we are going” Harvesting: 1. participants will record insights on post its. 2. Harvest team will group and theme these post its. 3. Graphic recorder will create a mural of the main ideas 4. Videographer will interview participants on these themes to elaborate further

1130-1145 Collective harvesting: Participants take two minutes to silently reflect on the conversation and how it guides their work. Participants then given five miuntes to journal on that topic and host conducts a 10 minute popcorn conversation with the room to allow a few insights to be shared. Tim will make a slam poem and read it out to the group.

Harvesting is important. In fact it is, for me, the most important thing. “We are not planning a meeting, we are planning a harvest, and the meeting serves the harvest.” I invite you to reflect on your use of the term harvesting and bring as much or more precision in your design to this practice. Just as a farmer must till the sol and plant with the final crop in mind. our hosting practice means nothing if we cannot create fruit to accelerate learning, wisdom and powerful results.

An intro to the Art of Hosting and some mapping


Back in November Janaia Donaldson from Peak Moment TV interviewed Dave Pollard and I about the Art of Hosting, especially as it applies to transition towns, resilience and community leadership.  That video was released today along with a lovely 10 minute edit in which Dave maps out some of the essential Art of Hosting elements using the GroupWorks Pattern Language card deck.  Enjoy.

Tim Merry’s recent thinking on collaboration

Tim Merry‘s work on collaborative advantage:

My friend and colleague Tim Merry is sharing some of his most recent thinking on project design and development here in Columbus at the Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics retreat we are doing.  This is a really useful and interesting introduction to his approach:



Creating a mindset to work with failure

Innovation does not come without discarding ideas, trying and failing.  In complex systems with complex challenges, failure is inevitable and desired.  If we need to prototype to sense our way forward we have to have a mindset that can handle failure.

On Saturday at the Art of Participatory Leadership in Petaluma my new friend Shawn Berry convened a session on failure and through listening to stories ranging from small prototoyping failures to business breakdowns and even deaths, I noted a few patterns that are helpful for groups and people to address failure positively nd resourcefully

Frame it up. In North America and Europe we have a cultural aversion to failure.  Failure is equated with inadequacy.  Our self-esteem is tied to our success.  Our compensation and status is affected by failure.  Fear of failure is prevalent in the culture.  In order to combat this tendency, it is helpful to work with a group to get them acquainted to failing.  For more playful groups improv exercises can be an excellent way to drop inhibitions to try something and fail.  More rational groups might benefit from a little appreciative inquiry where participants recall positive failing experiences.  Reflecting and sharing on times of failure and survival reminds us that it is part of the process.

Support the experience. While groups are experimenting and learning, succeeding and failing it helps to have support and coaching present in the process.  Depending on the kind of work being done you can offer support to keep a group resilient and unattached. I have used several different kinds of processes here including the following:

  • Simply pausing for reflection periodically in the process to notice what is going on.  Slowing the process down helps to gain valuable perspective on what is happening and helps a group move on quickly from failure.
  • allowing failure to occur and then taking the subsequent stressful thoughts to an inquiry process using The Work of Byron Katie.  We do this often when working with groups in the non-profit sector for example, where the pressure to succeed is accompanied by feelings of fear of the results of failing.
  • In indigenous and other colonized cultural settings I have often had Elders and healers present who can care for the more invisible dynamics in the field, especially when our work is going to carry us into some of the sources of trauma.  When you are working in a place where people are operating out of deep historical trauma, the fear of failure can be laden with many many deep seated implications.  Having people in the process who understand these dynamics is essential.
  • Peer-coaching is a common way to build resilience in groups where trying and failing is important.  When a team is trying to learn something new it helps to also build the capacity for them to be able to rely on each other.  This is why so many teams value “cross-training.”  When athletes train, they often work out in ways that are not related to their sport _ a skier training by rowing for example.  Doing this helps them to learn to use their body differently and builds strength that supports their core work.  Similarly, work teams can learn a lot about themselves by creating situations of safe failure such as through improvisational exercises, outdoor experiences, games and other non-work focuses.  The skills learned there can help support the team when they knuckle down to focus on key tasks and can support constructive failure within the work domain.  Ultimately these skills will build capacity if they increase the ability of the group to support itself through stressful times.
  • Developing a practice of greeting failure with joy.  My friend Khelsilem Rivers taught me this one.  He is – among other things – an indigenous language teacher and using the tool kit “Where Are Your Keys” Khelsilem helps people become fluent in their indigenous languages.  One of the barriers to rapid fluency is a fear of “not doing it right.”  Khelsilem completely transforms the experience of failure by introducing the technique called “How Fascinating!” When a person (including the facilitator) makes a mistake, the whole group celebrates by throwing their hands in the air, leaning back and declaring “How Fascinating!”  While it might seem contrived at first, the technique opens up the body, and greets the failure with a collective celebration.  Blame and judgement is avoided, collective support is activated and learning is grounded.

Practices like these are essential to build into the architecture of processes where failure is inevitable if innovation is to occur.

Process the grief. When catastrophic failure occurs it can leave people grieving, frightened and cynical.  If there is no way to process the grief then individuals often build their next prototype out of fear.  If you feel you have been burned before, you might develop your next idea by building in protection against failing again.  While that can seem prudent and safe, in reality, building structures out of fear is a much riskier proposition than building structures out of possibility.  Without processing grief, a group or a person can be susceptible to being “defended.”  I learned much about this state from Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a child psychologist who has described this phenomenon in children.  Taking a group or a person through the grief cycle using empathy, story telling and compassion can help free the emotions that are triggered in future learning experiences.

Building a mindset to embrace failure and support the transformation of the energy of failure is critical to groups developing the capacity to lead in complexity.

I’ve also written about failure here: