Posts categorized “Leadership”.

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.

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.

How the Harvard MBA model fails the world

Henry Mintzberg revisits some of his research and conclusions about the methods used to teach MBAs at Harvard, and his conclusions point to the near complete saturation of analysis and control that now drowns the business, government and non-profit world:

When I studied management across the river in the 1960s, at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Harvard Business School was just as renowned as it is today. But it was weak in research—in fact some of its prominent faculty derided research. The turnaround since then has been quite remarkable. In the areas I know, Harvard’s faculty is fantastic, especially in the ability of many to relate concrete issues to conceptual understanding. Too bad that they have to devote so much of their teaching efforts to a method—and its view of management, like that of other business schools so concentrated on analysis–that is doing such great harm to our organizations and the societies in which they function (see

We are mired in a heroic view of management (now called leadership)–centralized, numeric, individualistic and often narcissistic–that is too often detached from what is supposed to be managed. People who believe they can manage everything often prove themselves capable of managing nothing. We don’t need generic managers; we need engaged ones. The problem has been bad enough in the private sector; its infiltration into other sectors of society is far worse. Do NGOs need “CEOs”, business models, strategic plans, measures galore, and all the rest? Harvard and most other business schools have to be doing better than that.

via The Harvard 19 | Henry Mintzberg.

What happens at places like Harvard matters, because it sets the standard for what passes as responsible management in organizations.  And there are many fatal flaws with the way Harvard teaches business, and those are magnified and distorted in the hands of the amateur quant jockeys that reduce everything to numeric analysis.  This is the finest and most concise articulation of this problem I have read in a while and it matters that it is Henry Mintzberg who is saying it.

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!

What we lose when we don’t actually converse

Have a listen to this piece from a recent segment on CBC’s current affairs show “The Current.”  It is a discussion about Canada’s commitment (or lack of it) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In it you will hear Keith Stewart from Greenpeace (Disclaimer: an old friend, by the way) arguing for a policy and fiscal framework that helps Canada make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.  You will hear him discussing the issue with Ron Liepert, who comes from the petroleum sector in Alberta and was the former Alberta Energy Minister.  And who is running for the Conservatives in the next federal election, after defeating the Conservative Party’s most loony MP in recent years, Rob Anders.

The conversation is, in the parlance of my teenage kids, a shitshow.  The first sentence out of Liepert’s mouth is full of accusations, unsubstantiated claims and he uses the word “extremist” to characterize Keith’s points and his character.  Keith is one of the smartest energy policy minds I know and I daresay he has been at this work longer than Liepert has and for more honest reasons.  What was going to be an interesting conversation quickly becomes sidelined by Annamaria Tremonti’s inquiry about Liepert’s terms.  Liepert is campaigning for election.  Keith is trying to get a conversation going.

That sideline was not helpful to my understanding of how we are going to need to use fossil fuels to create the new renewable energy system for the planet.  There is a very important conversation here about policy, economic incentives and transformation and there are people in the fossil fuel industry who are capable of having that conversation.  Liepert was a ridiculous and buffoonish choice to represent the status quo.  He clearly doesn’t take the challenge seriously.  I’m much more interested to see petroleum producers who do, and I know they exist because over the years I have encountered them.  They work in the long term strategic planning units in the oil companies, and they are realistic about how to position their companies as energy companies who need to develop and active interest in creating and owning significant stakes in renewable energy if they are to survive and service the debt they will have incurred for a century or more of development of a resource that runs out, or becomes too pricey to use.

This is a conversation we need to have.  Keith is inviting a 100 year view of how we are going to do this.  There is no oil company out there that is not thinking about this issue too, and although they are also happy to have shills like Liepert doing their dirty work, they KNOW that we need to come off fossil fuels in this century.  Scarcity, pricing and climate change will ensure this.  Whether we can make this transition well will be the determinant of the quality of life humans will have on this planet when my kids are old people.  Avoiding the conversation by these silly short term election tactics costs us all.

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.

Deflecting a current

Inspiring action in a time of despair.

Our work and the work of every person who loves this world—this one—is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood. As it swirls around these snags and subversions, the current will slow, lose power, eddy in new directions, and create new systems and structures that change its course forever. On these small islands, new ideas will grow, creating thickets of living things and life-ways we haven’t yet imagined.

This is the work of disruption. This is the work of radical imagination. This is the work of witness. This is the steadfast, conscientious refusal to let a hell-bent economy force us to row its boat. This is much better than stewing in the night.

via The Rules of the River | Kathleen Dean Moore | Orion Magazine.

How the old patterns die

I can always rely on John O’Donohue:

Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns. Now you realise how precious your time here is. You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language. You see through the rosters of expectation which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity. Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change. You want your work to become an expression of your gift. You want your relationship to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells

via The Question Holds The Lantern | John O’Donohue.

A Better Way to Say Sorry

It’s simple:


I’m sorry for…

This is wrong because…

In the future, I will…

Will you forgive me?

But it’s so important.  When you are engaged in work with teams of people and you are doing things none of you have done before, there are going to be mistakes made and people are going to be offended.  Learning how to apologize is important for a couple of reasons.

A sincere apology builds trust and strengthens a group. There is nothing better than a group of people in which people take on responsibility for their actions.  True leadership arises when folks step up, show their self-awareness and understand how their actions have impacted the group.  You build tons of social capital within a group by acting this way and it makes you resilient and more grace filled and more forgiving.

Secondly, a sincere personal apology is an incredible liberation for both you and the person you have offended.  If you have even an iota of moral clarity, something in you will be triggered when you have offended another person.  You KNOW you were wrong.  Stepping up is a cleansing feeling.  And to have an apology like that accepted and to be forgiven is beautiful.

This is fierce practice.  It requires us to be vulnerable and honest and to be carefully self-aware.  And done sincerely it builds capacity, grace and humility.

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.