Posts categorized “Practice”.

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.

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!

The simple rules for working with complexity

I’ve been using the Cynefin framework for many years now.  For me, I think I’ve internalized it through practice and it becomes second nature to not only talk about and teach from it but to use the way it was intended to be used: to help make decisions.

Today Dave Snowden posts a very useful set of guidelines for working with complexity that are captured in the framework.  This list is useful for us to tuck away as it provides very clear guideposts for moving around the complexity domain:

The essence:

  • In any situation, what can we change?
  • Out of the things we can change, where can we monitor the impact of that change?
  • Out of the things we can change, where we can monitor the impact, where could we amplify success and/or dampen or recover from failure.

What we should avoid:

  • Retrospective coherence, we should learn from the past but not assume that what happened will repeat, or that it had linear causality
  • Premature convergence, coming to quickly to a single solution (although coming quickly to parallel safe to fail experiments is a good thing) rather than keeping our options open
  • Pattern entrainment, assume that the patterns of past success will entrain the inevitability of future failure unless you actively manage to prevent it.

Then the three basic heuristics of complexity management:

  • Work with finely grained objects
  • Distribute cognition/sense-making within networks
  • Disintermediation, putting decision makers in contact with raw data without interpretative layers

Admittedly this is technical language, but I appreciate the clarity.

Being hosted by the land

Bowen Island oriented with Snug Cove pointing towards you, as the entrance to the Island.


Yesterday in our five day residential we invited the participants out on the land for a solo retreat.  Bowen Island, where I live, is an incredible place.  To get here, you have to take a boat across the Queen Charlotte Channel, a deep body of water at the entrance to Howe Sound.  Howe Sounda was formed by glaciers and mountain making processes, and now is a fjord surround by walls of 1200 meters or more.

Entry to Bowen is through Snug Cove, a small and protected harbour that s part of of a bigger bay called Mannion Bay.  it is a deep round sanctuary that serves as a channel into the island, and a kind of birth canal when you leave.  I have never tired of the process of crossing this threshold.

Once you are here, the Island draws you ever inward, with our one main road branching into three at the crossroads and later into dozens of ever smaller roads and lanes ending at beaches, bays, lakes, mountains or sometimes just petering out into the forest.  There are no real loop roads here: once you take a path you have to retunr pretty much the way you came.

This landscape sets us up for a beautiful retreat.  When I have helped people have solo experiences here I have always framed them first with a noticing of the threshold that is crossed.  Richard Rohr captures the power of these kinds of thresholds here:

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there.  To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honor, you are in a very auspicious position.  You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.  When you are at the center of something, you usually confuse the essentials with the non-essentials, and get tied down by trivia, loyalty tests, and job security.   Not much truth can happen there.

via On the Edge of the Inside: The Prophetic Position by Richard Rohr, OFM.

Once we have crossed the threshold, typically a person’s experience will consist of three phases: a moving out onto the land, a resting phases in stillness and a return.  It is a mythic journey in many ways.  In going out I invite people to dwell on what they are getting ready to leave.  In resting I invite people to be still for at least an hour in the forest or by the sea, which is enough time to let the forest close back around a person and let it reveal itself to you.  And the return journey is always accompanied by a gift; you are bringing something back.  These little out and back pilgrimages are important and very powerful for people.  As I learn more about the way this land works us, I feel like I can let it more fully host me and the people I work with and the insights can come.


Staying on the road

Halfway through our five day residency with leaders from the community sector and the Ministry for Children and Families here in BC.  Times like this, at middle of a five day retreat, we turn our thoughts to what comes next and we forget to be present.  This is our day of practicing presence however, and later today we will be going out on the land and allow ourselves to be hosted by the forest, the rain and our island.  This is the time for a fierce recommitment to the here and now.

My colleague and friend Annemarie Travers, who is on our hosting team and who leads learning in the Ministry shared a beautiful framing for our day together.  She and her husband Geoff recently completed the Camino pilgrimage and she wrote dozens of poems during her journey.  This morning she shared one that speaks powerfully to what it is like to be distracted by the near end:

Staying “Here”

The closer we get to the end of our walk, the harder it is to stay present
We think ahead to achieving our goal, beginning to be proud of our accomplishment

We have also started to think about home, and all that waits for us there
But we need to focus on enjoying these last few days as much as we dare

While we feel the Camino has given us both what we need
We know it’s not done with us yet, their is still more to come, indeed!

These last few days are characterized by more traffic on the paths
And as we weave our way through,  some draw our wrath

Then we remind ourselves of the Camino spirit, and breathe deeply, just let it go
(Hopefully not while passing a farm – we are regularly assaulted by manure smells you know)

We forget to be grateful for the simple pleasures of the day
It was supposed to rain today, but the rain stayed away!

This all has the effect of limiting our opportunities for meditative walking
Our minds go to the usual worries, and we begin talking

About the end of the trip, and what we will do when we return
So we made a pact with ourselves with the intent to turn

The train of our thoughts, to focus on the here and now
Enjoy what this day brings, not the manure, but the  beauty of the cow…

Such a beautiful reminder to remain present, to enjoy the source of everything that continues to work with us!

Mentoring in the world of hosting

All the best stuff I have learned about mentoring has been in the context of traditional culture, whether with indigenous Elders from Canada or in the traditional Irish music community.  Traditional Irish music is played and kept alive in a structure called a “sessiun.”  There is a repertoire of thousands of tunes, but most musicians who have played for a while will have a hundred or more in common, and that can easily make for a long evening of playing together.  Sessiuns are hosted by the most experienced musicians (traditionally a Fir a Ti, or Ban a Ti; the man or woman of the house).  These guys are responsible for inviting people in, inviting tunes, keeping a tempo that everyone can play with, resolving any conflicts…in short they are the hosts.

But the best ones are also the teachers and the mentors and they dispense wisdom, lessons, encouragement and direction during and between tune sets.  If you are smart and you are learning you try to sit near them in the circle to pick up teachings.
With Irish music, the best mentors I ever had always did a few things well:
  • They were better musicians themselves than I could ever imagine myself to be
  • They created space for me to play with them and gave me increasingly more responsibility from starting tune sets to perhaps playing a solo air to eventually sitting in for them if they couldn’t make it out to host a sessiun.  But they didn’t invite me to lead the session when I was just beginning.
  • When they knew I had a set of tunes down they invited me to lead that set.  If I had a slow air they knew I could play, they would invite me to play a solo.
  • They pointed out things that I could DO, rather than things not to do, and if they played flute (my instrument) they showed me on their instrument what they meant.  There was never any abstract conversations about the music or technique.  If I was doing something wrong, they would suggest an alternative (indigenous Elders, and especially Anichinaabe elders are very good at this.  There is something peculiar to traditional Anishinaabe culture that makes it very hard for an Elder to tell you NOT to do something.  They always point to doing something else.)
  • They protected me from “hot shots” who like to show off by playing tunes too fast for you to play with them.
  • And when I was ready I got invited into more and more responsibility with the sessions and was eventually invited to perform with them.  The day of becoming a colleague is a big deal, and I still feel that I can’t hold a candle to my teachers, even though they insist that we have moved into a co-mentoring relationship.
What was beautiful about all that was that, even when i became colleagues with my mentors I never lost the sense of gratitude of being able to play with them.  Even today 20 years later, it is a treat for me to play with those who taught me.
Mentoring in the art of hosting, of leadership of working with groups is the same.  It is a traditional practice.


Expertise, learning and practice

There is no way you can learn the art of facilitation, the art of hosting, by simply coming to a workshop. It happens from time to time that people show up for a three day workshop and expect that at the end they will be competent hosts of groups process in any situation. To get good at arts you have to practice.

Last week in Montreal, I saw 120 people come to an Art of Hosting with an overwhelming desire to practice. The invitation to them was to attend if they were wanting to develop and improve their practice. It made for an incredible experience. When people are invited to come to learn because they are ready to host, they are open wide to what is offered, not only by us as teachers, but more importantly by the group itself. This is an excellent ground from which to develop a practice of hosting, and the relationships that are formed are the critical supports for competency in that practice to unfold.

Somehow, the view of learning in the world has been confused with the kinds of quality control that is attached to manufacturing. We imagine that a learning experience will have specific achievable outcomes and that upon completing a course, we can be certified in the competency in which we have been trained. While this can be true for technical training, such as how to operate equipment, with things like art and strategy and leadership and communications and other practice based arts, the opposite is actually true. When I leave practice based learning events I recognize that I am a baby, just starting out, and with a lifetime of practice ahead of me. I can’t be certified to be competent, because there is no way to guarantee that I will be perfect. When we first begin to practice, we always make mistakes. Over a lifetime we develop our own styles and we get better at it.

Hosting is practice. The willingness to embrace it this way is the biggest indicator to me as to whether someone will eventually develop a competency in this art. Expertise is developed, not given or bought.

Mutations are the way to make change

Very few of us have our hands on the real levers of power.  We lack the money and influence to write policy, create tax codes, move resources around or start and stop wars.  Most of us spend almost all of our time going along with the macro trends of the world.  We might hate the implications of a fossil fuel economy, but everything we do is firmly embedded within it.  We might despise colonization, but we know that we are alos guilty of it in many small ways,

The reason challenges like that are difficult to resolve is that we are embedded within them.  We are a part of them and the problem is not like something outside of ourselves that we apply force to.  Instead it is like a virus or a mycellium, extending it’s tendrils deep into our lives.  We are far more the product of the problems we wish to solve than we are the solutions we long to develop.

Social change is littered with ideas like “taking things to scale” which implies that if you just work hard enough, the things you will do will become popular and viral and will take over the world.  We can have a sustainable future if “we just practice simple things and then take them to scale.”  The problem with this reasoning is that the field in which we are embedded, that which enables us to practice small changes is heavily immune to change.  Our economy, our energy systems, our governments are designed to be incredibly stable.  They can withstand all kinds of threats and massive changes,  This is a GOOD THING.  I would hate to have the energy system that powers my life to be fickle enough to be transformed by every good idea that comes along about sustainable power generation.  So that is the irony.  In the western world, the stability that we rely on to be able to “make change” is exactly that which we desire to change.

We are embedded in the system. We ARE the system.  That which we desire to change is US.  You want a peaceful world, because you are not a fully peaceful person – violence has seeped into your life, and you understand the implications of it.  This is also a GOOD THING.  Because, as my friend Adam Kahane keeps quoting from time to time “if you are not a part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution.” Real change in stable societies like Canada comes only from catastrophic failure.  That may be on our horizon, but I call you a liar if it’s something you desire.  It will not be pretty.  Living on the west coast of Canada, I sometimes think about it because a massive earthquake will strike here – possibly in my lifetime – and it will change everything instantly and massively and forever.  So, while climate change and economic collapse are probabilities, earthquakes are certainties.

So let’s forget about prototyping new things and “taking them to scale.”  But let’s not forget about prototyping new things.  Because one of the big lessons from the living systems world view is that change happens in an evolutionary way.  It happens deep within the system and it requires two resources we all have – creativity and time.  It does not require hope.  Living systems do not hope.  They just change.

Years ago I was inspired by Michael Dowd’s ideas captured in “Thank God for Evolution” in which he talks about mutations as the vehicle of change in evolving systems.  Of course this is a widespread thought, but it was quite liberating to me when I first discovered it because it compels us to use our own creativity to make change.  Practicing something different, as some small level, is not a useless endeavour.  There is no way to know what will happen when you mutate the system.  And so that is a reason for practicing.  That is why I love Occupy and #IdleNoMore  and other social gathering practices.  They are creative mutations of the status quo.  And they are undertaken without any expectation of massive change.  Instead they seed little openings, the vast majority of which don’t go anywhere.  In an evolutionary system, mutations may introduce new levels of adaptability, but they might alos kill off the organism.  But to survive and evolve, an organism needs to mutate.  Remaining the same is also suicidal, because everything else is mutating and changing, and you will lose your fitness if you don’t also change.

So the second resource we all have is time.  if you are beholden to making change along a strategic critical pathway, especially in a complex living system, you will suffer terrible delusions.  Very few of us have that kind of time.  The kind of time we do have is the time to let whatever we do work or fail.  To orient yourself to this kind of time, you need to practice something with no expectation of it’s success.  The moment you cling to a desired result is the moment suffering creeps into your work, and the moment you begin to lose resilience.  Adaptability is reliant on creative imaginations working resourcefully.

So changing from within has something to do with all of this.  Watching #IdleNoMore is to witness a celebratory mutation in the system of colonization.  It is impossible to say if it will have the desired results that people project upon it.  But of course it will “work.”  We need to sit and watch it work as a mutation in a living system.  And the bonus is that we get to round dance while we do it!

10 years and still going

Ten years ago on September 6, 2002 I launched this blog with an innocuous little link to an on lie art project ground through Euan Semple.  I called the blog Parking Lot, which is the term facilitators use for a flip chart where we record things that are off topic to the subject at hand, but important enough to come back to.  Since then I have used this space as my open source learning pad, to explore and grow in the field of facilitation, organizational and community development and random other bits and pieces of living.  I’ve had long extended sidelines into poetry and art, music and taekwondo, bits and pieces and threads and buttons that have led somewhere or nowhere, notes that have been quoted, posts that went viral.  I’ve met amazing friends, had fleeting fame and even got into a few fights over the years in this little space.

I have often said that this space is the book I will never write – I learn so fast and change my mind so much that a book is almost too static a format for me.  If you want to see the book that I will never write, head over to “A Collection of Life’s Lessons” which is a occasionally updated meta blog of this site’s greatest hits.  Print all those posts out, make a nice cover and there you have a book.  For free.

So this blog has been a saving grace – a place where I can jot down notes, record great links and sources and leave a legacy for my own reference.  Over the years, twitter and Facebook have become more and more prevalent in my writing life, and this blog has gone through periods of being neglected and avoided.  There are a million links in my twitter feed that are more instantly useful, and I’m trying to get into a rhythm of writing about them a little longer here.

So as the summer falls away and the fall simmers around the corner, join me in raising a glass of whisky and toasting ten years of Parking Lot.  Thanks for being along for some of the journey.

Social life as practice

In this article, stringing together some obersvations about Louis CK and Mary Halvorson, Seth Colter Walls touches on the wellspring of collaboration.

He writes a little of the play that replaces rehearsal for true improvisers, of finding outlets of artistic practice where

“no one person is responsible for all the tunes—if tunes are even the order of the day. Such groups aren’t the ones that players use as reputational tent-poles; they’re the ones that successful artists keep going in order to keep the channel for new sounds open. It’s the jazz-world equivalent of Zach Galifianakis’s avant-chat Web-show “Between Two Ferns,” the sort of thing that happens in the background of an otherwise thriving career.”

Facilitation or Hosting practice is improvisation too. Every time I work with a group I go in as a jazz musician, with a set list of “tunes” to play, which in group work as in music is simply a way to divide time into portions that carry and enable a narrative to unfold. Sometimes the unfolding narrative necessitates that we completely change the tunes we were planning on playing. Just last week for example, the group we were working with had come through some hard work rather earlier than we imagined, causing us to jettison our entire design for something that could take them onward from this new place.

So where do you learn how to do this? When I wrote recently on disruption, I talked about how learning how to deal with that is a capacity that serves marvelously in the world. In some ways for those of us who work with groups for a living, we are lucky to have a world that goes according to its own plan. You don’t need to work hard to seek out places where things change faster than you can account for them. It may be driving in traffic, walking in a busy street, participating in sports or music or dancing, socializing and playing in groups. All of these are training grounds where you can practice sensing and changing the plan, where you can try new ways of unleashing groups intelligence as a leaders, as a follower, as a bystander, as a participant. You can try and fail without any dire consequences affecting your bottom line.

In short, see your social life as practice, and your capacity to work with groups will be richer.