Posts categorized “World Cafe”.

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…

Disintermediated sensemaking

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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.

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.


Practice Notes: Cafes for taking a conference to action

This week I was hosting at a moderately sized conference in Victoria BC with 100 regional public sector union members.  The purpose of the gathering was to increase the number of active members and to inspire members to engage and improve local communities.  These union members all work in the public service and so they have a close ear to the ground on the issues facing communities from homelessness to addictions to environmental degradation to service levels in health and education.  Many of them took public service jobs in the first place because they are caring and committed people, intent on making a better world, especially for the most vulnerable.

This is the fourth year we have done this conference, and the structure has remained pretty much the same over the past four years.  The first evening there is a keynote from the union president (who then stays and participates through the whole two days) and a special speaker, in this case a well-known progressive lawyer who is currently running for office in a local federal by-election. That is usually followed by a plenary panel, which this year featured some provincial politicians from the labour movement and the current legislature and a journalist.

Day two begins with morning workshops on community organizing.  in the afternoon we begin with a World Cafe.  This year we took the Cafe through the following flow:

  • Two rounds on the question of “What does all of this inspiration mean for my own community activism?”
  • One round on the question “what do I still need to learn to deepen my activism?” The harvest from that round was a post it note from each participant outlining some of their learning needs, which union staff will use to help support the members with resources and materials.
  • Following that round I invited participants to reflect on an area of focus for their activism, such as homelessness, environment, youth engagement and so on.  Participants wrote their focus on the blank side of their name tags and then milled around the room and found others who shared those areas of focus.  We ended up with about 12 groups composed of people from across the region who didn’t know each other and who were interested in working in the same issue area.
  • Using this network we next invited the participants to consider the question “What are some of the key strategic actions we can take in this sector?”  The harvest from this was simply to inspire and connect each other in preparation for the next day’s work.

That was the end of our days work.  A quick poll of the room showed that perhaps 20 people had some ideas for action that were considering.

This morning was devoted to a ProAction Cafe.  We had 21 tables in the room and I opened up the marketplace.  It took about 20 minutes for 21 hosts to come forward and for everyone to get settled.  From there we followed a standard ProAction Cafe format.  During the reflection period, when participants are given a break and hosts are able to take a breath and make sense of all the advice we heard, three people all working on engagement strategies got together to compare notes.  This helped them a lot before the fourth round as they were able to point to work the others were doing.  The action networks were already taking shape!

We finished in just under 2.5 hours.  In previous years we ran Open Space meetings on the last morning, but this year the shift in format gave a more concrete set of actions and surfaced more leadership in the room.  With a quarter of the room engaged as hosts, we topped the average 20% of the room from previous years using Open Space.  ProAction Cafe, used at the end of a conference to generate and develop concrete actions is so far the best process in my practice for getting good ideas out of the room with passion, precision and participation.

Just about the most fun you can have getting paid

@geoffbrown3231 story boarding our #wihc2012

SItting here with Geoff Brown and Steven Wright at the World Indigenous Housing Conference here in Vancouver.  We are on the back end of what has been a terrific gig.

We were hired by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association of BC to facilitate dialogue at this 800 person international gathering.  The sponsor made dialogue a clear priority and after talking about intentions, we arrived on the design of three World Cafes: one in the plenary with everyone present and two in more focused breakout sessions.  The first cafe would look at stories of success, the second would think about how to build capacity to support success and the third was focused on institutional development.  each one built on the last.

The theme of the conference was “Sharing our Stories, Sharing our Successes.”  With that theme to play with, we knew the cafes needed to be about connecting people and ensuring that stories were central to the work.  Our first challenge was to think about how to harvest stories and connections quickly from 800 people.  We looked at several tech solutions and realized that we needed something simple, unobtrusive and accessible.  The ubiquitous tool at hand was the text equipped smart phone.  Almost everyone has one, and almost everyone can text.  Our basic problem was first how to gather text messages and second how to make meaning from them quickly.  Geoff, Steven and I were familiar with which makes a word cloud out of blocks of text, and which I have used in the past to get a visual and intuitive sense of what concepts and words are weighted highly.

So our question became, how can we combine smart phones, text messages and wordle?

Through our networks we found Luke Closs, a local developer/hackerwho put together a simple solution that he called “Text to Cloud.”  At the back end he connected Twillio to world using an interface that we could control with commands sent by text message.  groups of texts that come in can be tagged and sorted and then sent straight to Wordle for processing.  We also enabled the software to produce a CSV output that we can use for other purposes.  Luke was great, developing the tool right up to the moment that his daughter was born on Tuesday.  Of course, the tool is open source and you can find it on Github, download and install it and use it for yourself.

Armed with Text to Cloud, we began our first cafe by inviting people to text in the name of their tribe of origin.  We created an instant wordle that showed who was in the room.  That immediately connected people together (and showed we were blessed with Crees!)./  Following that we had people enter into the cafe to start telling stories of successes with listeners paying attention to the factors that made those successes possible.  People gathered information on tablecloths and texted in wisdom and insights and by the end of the cafe we had 438 text messages to make meaning from.  We had a half hour to do something with all this.

So we sent it all to Wordle and discovered a theme: Building Homes, Building Communities and Building Nations.  There were six key areas we needed to think about for capacity building: governance, building, partnerships, community, education and ownership.  Steven whipped up a digital mind map which we projected on our screens.  We invited people at each table to choose one of the topics and dive into stories of capacity building.  In our third cafe, we thought about how institutions can support sustained capacity building.

By the end of the day we were soaking in flip chart paper, but we had some great high level meaning through the Text to Cloud output, the wordles and the developmental nature of the conversation.  We retreated to Steven’s room and started trying to figure out how to share what we had learned.  We realized early on that there was absolute gold on the flip charts, so we decided to create a presentation that combined what Geoff calls “vox pops” – short pithy and insightful comments – along with longer stories.  While Steven created a map to chart the highlights, Geoff and I prepared a slideshow that touches on the headlines.  Our plan this afternoon is to call the storytellers up to the stage to share their stories with the audience.  They are the true key notes.

This gig has been fun.  Our client has been fantastic, we’ve created new tools, connected people doing important work, pushed our own edges and done stuff we’ve never done before, and that we could never have done alone.  It was a superb co-creative experience and a great way to spend time with good friends.





“Not to fight with one another”

Not fight with one another

I was up north on the weekend, working with a small community that has been driven apart by a large and contentious decision.  It doesn’t matter what it was, or what either side wanted – the result is the same result that happens in many small communities: people who are friends and neighbours shouting and fighting with each other.

The team I was working with are trying to reinvent the way this community is engaged.  We used a lovely redux of Peter Block’s work to help frame our conversation about design and implementation.  A few things stood out for this group with respect to Peter’s work.

Changing the room changes the conversation.  We talked a lot about the fact that changing engagement starts in this room and in this moment because this room IS the community.  When we dove in about what was missing from the way the community engages it was clear that the ownership piece was the biggest one.  As in many community meetings the way people traditionally engage is with passion that is directed outward.  There is an expectation that someone else needs to change.  We joked about the sentiment that says “I’ll heal only after every else has healed!”  It was a joke but the laughter was nervous, because that statement cuts close to the bone.  So we DID change the room and decided to hold a World Cafe.  gathered around smaller tables, paper in the middle, markers available for everyone to write with…

So how do you begin a meeting with people who are invited to take up the ownership of the outcome?  I am not a fan of giving people groundrules, because as a facilitator it puts me in the position of enforcer, and gives people an out for how the behave towards one another.  So instead we considered the question of what it looks like when people are engaged.  What stood out is how people “lean in” to the centre of the conversation.  So the question became, how do we get people to lean in right away and take ownership of the centre?

The solution was simple but was later revealed to have tons of power.  At the outset of the cafe as I was introducing the process I gave the following instructions:

“That paper in the middle is for all of you to use, as are the markers.  We want you each to record thoughts and insights that other need to hear about.  So before we begin I invite you to pick up a marker and write your name in front of you.  <people write their names>.  Now I want to invite you to answer this question: what is one thing you can do to make sure that this meeting is different?  Write your answer beneath your name.”

People took a moment to write their names and their commitments.  And they shared them with each other at the table.  That is how we began.

The first round of conversation proceeded as usual, but I noticed something very powerful in the second round.  When everyone got up and moved around they took a seat in someone else’s place, and often the first thing they did was to read the name and the commitment that was in front of them.  Can you imagine coming across the name of someone who you have a  disagreement with only to see that they have written “I won’t fight anymore” beneath their name?   The core team is now going through all of the tablecloths and making a list of the commitments that people made.  Taken on their own, they form a powerful declaration of willingness.

People reported that this was the best meeting the community had in a long time.  And it had a lot to do with this tiny intervention of public ownership for the outcomes.

Visioning as the estuary of action

This is an estuary.  It is the place where a river goes to die.  Everything the river has ever been and everything it has carried within it, is deposited at it’s mouth where the flow slows down and the water merges with the ocean.  These are places of incredible calm and richness, but they lack the exciting flow of the torrents and waterfalls and cascades of the upper river system.

Yesterday I was speaking with a client who worried that an initiative we had begun together was heading towards the estuary of action – a long term visioning processes where lots of things are said and very little is done.  “We’ve done that before,” she said.  Nobody likes that.  I wracked my brain to see where it was that I had led this group to believe that this is what we were doing.  We had done a World Cafe to check into some possibilities for the organization and we had done a short Open Space to initiatie some experimental actions.  We had learned a little about the organization from these two gatherings, and we were, at least in my mind, fully entered into a participatory action learning cycle, working with emergent ideas, within several well established constraints.  I was surprised to hear the fear spoken that what we were doing was “visioning.”

Then I realized that what we were dealing with was an entrained pattern.  People within this organization associated dialogue with visioning, and the results of dialogue with a mass of post-it notes and flip charts that never get typed up, and action that never comes of it.  Likewise, it turns out that the associated planning with a process that begins with a vision, and then costs out a plan and takes that plan to a decision making body which then rules on whether the project can proceed, by allocating resources.  Both of these views are old thinking, rigid patterns that lock participants in a linear view of action that looks like this:



The truth is that I had been viewing the process as an action learning cycle:

So now that we are a little clearer on this, there was a distinct relaxation among the group.  We are heading into some uncharted territory and it is too early to nail down concrete plans about what to do and likewise simply visioning doesn’t take us anywhere either.  Instead, we are harvesting some of the rich sense of community that exists, opening some space for a little leadership, inviting passion and responsibility and making small starts,  The small starts are confirming some of what we suspected about how the organization works, which is good news, because we are developing a pattern of action together that will help us all as we move forward to do bigger things with more extensive resource implications.  This is the proper role of vision and planning in emergent and participatory processes – gentle, developmental, reflective and active.


Love and power, holons and process

Graphic from

Last night as part of a leadership retreat we are doing for the the Federation of Community Social Services of BC, we took a bus into Vancouver from Bowen Island to listen to Adam Kahane speak. He spoke last night on the ten laws of love and power (the essence of which you can see amongst these Google results).  There are a couple of new insights from the talk he gave which I appreciate.

Love and power as a complimentary system. Adam’s project is to recover useful definitions of love and power and to see them in a complimentary system.  Seeing these two forces this way creates all kinds of important strategic imperatives in systems – moving from degenerative power to generative love, from degenerative love to generative power.  This is polarity management in it’s core…the ability to keep a system of complimentary poles in a rhythm that oscillates between the upsides of both, but never rests in one or the other.  This dynamic approach to love and power invites us to become skillful at both.  The approach is fundamentally Taoist!

Turtles all the way down. We had a brief exchange about what is going on with the #Occupy movement in terms of this framework.  A question was asked about whether #Occupy represented a love move or a power move.  I said that I saw #Occupy representing a drive to wholeness, a unifying effort to unite the 99% – a love move.  Much of the process evident at the three Occupy camps I have been to has been about inclusion and joining.  Adam saw it differently.  By distinguishing ourselves from the 100%, #Occupy is a power move because it is a drive towards the self-realization of the 99%.  This is fascinating to me because it pointed out that love and power drives operate in different ways, in different scales even within the same process,  This is what makes it so tricky to be in thiss dynamic.  You have to understand at which level your love or power move is working.  In everything we are involved in there are multiple levels of scale and focus (“turtles all the way down“) and skillful leadership is as much about knowing which scale you are at as it is about making the right move.  Also Taoist: moving in line with the times and the context. This idea of acting in scale has come into our work today where we are looking at the living and dying systems model developed by Meg Wheatley, Deborah Frieze and a number of us in Berkana.  Living systems scale, and exhibit similar patterns at each level.

Holons. That leads to the next insight, which is Adam’s use of the concept of holons to describe how systems are influenced by love and power.  I like this a lot, because holons represent a stable structure at every level.  I first was introduced to the idea of holons through Ken Wilber’s work, who developed the concept frost proposed by Arthur Koestler.  Adam’s use of holons to illustrate love and power is very useful.  Love in this case is the holon’s drive for connection and integration and power is the holon’s drive towards self-realization and differentiation.  There can be many drives moving simultaneously, hence my use of the above graphic, which gets the picture across.

Power/love moves in process design. Adam spoke about “moves” that are called for when the power/love dynamic tips too far to ones side or the other.  This comes from Barry Johnson’s work in polarity management, and for process designers, it has important implications.  Using the love/power dynamic, we can make choices about the kinds of processes that we use to bring people together or to create the drive for self-realization.  Adam mused that in process design and facilitation, World Cafe was a good example of a love move (as it tends the group to wholeness based on the fact that there is one questions that the whole group explores) and Open Space Technology as a good example of a power move (as it is dependant on agency and diverse streams of self-realization happening simultaneously).  I though this was a pretty useful observation, and it behooves us as process designers and facilitators to think about this construction in the design choices we make.

Adam’s work on this stuff has legs because it is a very simple concept which becomes immensely complex in practice.  But importantly, it is practice.  Efforts to understand it in theory can be limited.  The dynamic of practice, the complicated roughshod effort to get it right is where the reward is.

At the intersection of power and participation

Leaving New York today. It has been an incredible four days here working with my good friends Kelly McGowan and Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Lex Schroeder, Aniestla Rugama, Alissa Schwartz, and Aswad Foster. We were running a workshop called the Art of Social Justice in which we were investigating the intersection of participatory process and social justice work. Over three days we explored a framework that Tuesday has developed and investigated with Kelly for the past year. The framework includes and transcends the gifts and drawbacks of traditional social justice frameworks and of what we know about participatory process.

Tuesday is writing a lot more about this, but the essence of the framework is that neither social justice analysis nor participatory process are enough on their own to move us into the new forms of leadership that are needed in a world where social inequity and power are becoming increasingly complex, and where traditional forms of organizing are no longer reflective of the interconnected nature of global society..

A gift of traditional social justice analysis is the way it understands personal and collective power and privilege. This analysis concerns itself with transformation of both the personal and the social power dynamics in society, but it often contains within it an invisible current of control that runs deep in the architecture of social change process. It posits a social separation between those of us who are working for change in or allied with the struggle of oppressed peoples, and people in the system that are thought to be – traditionally – the enemy. Or it sets up a struggle between the system that perpetuates oppression and the people who are oppressed by it. In this world, in this time, that analysis is out of date. We are all connected to the entire system. As I showed in my last post, you can even discover how many slaves you employ. Even if you are heavily marginalized within the mainstream, you are connected to the system itself. As the sign said at Occupy Wall Street, “you are us.”

Those of us who are facilitators of participatory process often make grand claims about the power of processes like Open Space Technology and World Cafe to even out power differences. In a circle everyone is said to be equal and leadership can come from every chair. While participatory process does provide a useful methodology for decolonizing how we meet, it has several risks associated with it. For one thing, if we fail to take into consideration the context in which we are working, power can show up in participatory process in a dangerously invisible way. Some participants may be able to operate much more resourcefully because of their power or privilege by, for example, becoming the scribes for small groups and speaking for the group. Those who cannot write may not feel comfortable posting a session in Open Space, meaning that there is no way that their voices can be heard or their contributions incorporated. Furthermore, participatory processes, like all facilitation processes, heavily depend on the role of the facilitator. If the facilitators (and the process designers for that matter) are not aware of the currents of power and privilege within the context in which they are working, they run the risk of designing structures that keep marginalized people marginalized. If they come to the hosting role without awareness of and good practice around their own power and privilege, the social architecture that emerges can be very exclusionary.

Both of these fields of analysis have something to offer to one another and both have their own drawbacks, In Tuesday’s framework, she identifies a middle path, which she named co-revealation. It is going to take me a while to unpack this concept, but I can at least begin to see how it works. In the space of power-aware participatory leadership, the gift of relationship is active. As we move together through process, the emphasis on relationship is key and in working together relationship becomes more revealed. In the process, we treat each other with more and more grace and compassion, coming to see that as we are all interconnected both to each other and the systems in which we are working to change, we recognize that personal and social transformation is also both inevitable and required. In Saskatoon last week, one of our participants in the Art of Hosting was carrying the question “how do we collaborate with dictators?” as a way of trying to discern the limits of participation. In several conversations over these last two weeks I have come to ask that question of myself, and reframing it as “how do I collaborate with myself when I am being a dictator?”. With that inquiry active, we may find that dictatorship behaviors are present everywhere, and we may also allow ourselves and others the grace to be imperfect in our lives and behaviors. This doesn’t excuse violence or oppression, but rather it gives us serious skin in the game in trying to address oppressive systems. If we are not a part of the problem we cannot be a part of the solution. And in being a part of the problem we need to treat each other with some kindness and latitude, qualities that are born in relationship, even relationship with people with whom we have fundamental differences.

It may feel as if this stuff is a little old hat, but I experienced it differently in practice. During our gathering in New York a group of three participants brought a proposal into the third day check in circle that required a complete think of our agenda, in doing so they were both proposing a new idea but also challenging the power structure of the system. The design team had been designing the days as we went and hosting the process, but here the participants were inviting us to practice what we preached about awareness of power. The group could have chosen to create a drama around the situation, but our field of relationship was very strong. And so they issued the challenge as an invitation We immediately went into a circle process first to seek everyone else’s thoughts on the proposal and second to gain clarity around how to make it work. It was clear in our group that the idea being proposed – that we all go down to Occupy Wall Street and learn what we can there – was both an excellent idea, and also not one that everyone wanted to do. In the circle, I expressed my faith in the resourcefulness of the group and the design team to offer and hold multiple options so that the decision did not have to be an either/or choice. Towards the end of the first round of circle a proposal began to emerge that made some sense, and seemed workable. Kelly and I, as host and guardian of the circle, invited a round for additional clarity followed by one more round of any refinements to the proposal. Then we thumb-voted on it, took care of two small questions and went forward with a great new design for the day.

What emerged was a process whereby the morning would be spent in proaction café which offers people a chance to work on projects. The group that wanted to go down to Wall Street decided to use that time to prepare a learning journey for themselves while others worked on other projects. The afternoon was devoted to nuts and bolts learning in our space while about nine people went off to the occupation. We reconvened at 300 and had two short fishbowls to report on what each group had learned. That harvest was recorded both in video and on flip charts so tat it could be made available to the wider community.

Among the many lessons of the day was the fact that Tuesday’s ideas take us beyond the realm of analysis and into a practice of this middle space. In fact the middle space of co-revelation can only live in practice, it has no power in analysis or in the kinds of theoretical debates that rage without relationship. In those domains the middle space disappears.

It is hard to capture exactly the effect this week has had on my practice, but it deeply continues the theme of “seeing more clearly” that has been the greatest gift of my journey in and around the Art of Hosting community of practice for the past seven years. In our workshops and learning events, we seek less to train people in methodologies and more to situate participatory process in its wider context. Doing so gives the methodologies power and effectiveness and activates the deeper gifts of invitation, collaboration, participation and transformation. And although the word feels raw and new and vague, I think I can finally describe what we do as assisting groups to enter into the space of co-revelation. That was Tuesday’s gift to the group, and that was the group’s significant gift to ourselves.

And as if to confirm it, I sensed this new space active in Liberty Park on the two nights we went down there. The young people who are organizing Occupy Wall Street are doing so in a way that gives profound insight into this concept, but that is the subject of another post.


Working at the margins

I’m currently engaged in a number of projects that have me working at the margins, exploring margins, eliminating margins and generally working with difference, otherness, power and exclusion.  These projects include:

  • Running an Open Space Technology event in September to create collaborative actions around reducing addictions-related stigma in the health system in Vancouver.
  • Working with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in the United States on supporting and expanding a culture of welcome and acceptance in their work with migrants and refugees, work that is stunningly radical in the context of the current “conversation” on immigration in the USA.
  • Part of a team co-hosting an Art of Social Justice gathering in New York City, looking at how power, privilege, race, class and other forms of marginalization and control crop up in society and what challenges those pose for the application of self-organization and participatory leadership in addressing these challenges.
  • Working with youth organizations that support the reduction of stigma for youth with mental illnesses in Ontario and the inclusion of youth voice in policy and practice.

What is common to these projects is the idea that voices matter, that diversity matters and that the reality of community life now is that solutions to complex social problems are not going to emerge without participation from the margins.  It is in fact the margins that will probably produce the solutions to the radical problems facing societies these days.  If you look at the debate in the United States between Republican and Democrats about the fiscal future of the State, the conversation is being conducted on very narrow lines.  There is a huge hole in the debate where the voices of those disempowered by the current financial situation are not being heard.  A radical restructuring of the way people think about national economies is needed if the US is to make a transition from what is clearly an unsustainable path to something that ensures that the needs of citizens are met over the long term.  Where are the solutions?  They are not in the Congress, the are not in the financial pages of the newspaper, they are not at Davos, or the G20 or the IMF or on Wall Street.

It is the same with all of the intractable problems that we face.  My friend Willie Tolliver, one of our Elders for the work we are doing in New York, says that change in social systems comes from clients, not from those within the system.  Radical changes are driven by the clients and consumers of services re-designing the structures that provide for them.  It happens when people claim the ownership of a problem and are able to get their hands on enough power to turn the ship.  What keeps those voices out of the conversation is both the vested power and the unconscious practice of privilege which excludes and stigmatizes voices from the margins, and especially the voices and talents and capacities of those who have been victimized, oppressed, excluded or plain beaten down by the prevailing system.

It’s time for movement and movements, for action and activism, for engaging with power and questioning power, for creating ties and breaking them.  That’s what’s in the air at the moment.