Live blogging from STIA

Seattle, Washington

Here at the Systems Thinking in Action conference doing a variety of things, including playing with my friends Teresa POsakony, Tenneson Woolf, Peggy Holman, Gabriel Shirley, Nancy White, Amy Lenzo and Anne Stadler.  We are together co-hosting a conversation space here at the conference which is a place for amplifying the questions and insights that re flowing from the plenary and breakout sessions.

This morning, Teresa, Tenneson, Gabriel and I practiced a new form of keynote harvesting.  Debra Meyerson, author of “Tempered Radicals” was speaking on her work and we passed around a laptop and recorded a harvest, not of her speech but of our questions and thinking inspired by what she was saying.  Here’s what we got…

Meyerson begins with a story of an all woman flight crew on the plane on the way up here. She asked if she could visit the cockpit at the end of flight…”Oh,” said the flight attendant. “We don’t call it a cockpit any more.” Things are changing.

Types of change

Types of change and approaches to change. Our own perspectives often blind us to seeing generative process. Two forms include:

  • Episodic change, in which everything ticks along punctuated by discreet episodes of change. Tends to focus on programs and policies and formal authorities

  • Adaptive approaches sees things as organic, always changing and adapting This emphasises dispersed leadership, and dispersed locations of change and shift.

Seeing things as episodic leads to NOT being able to see adaptive strategies and, by extension, the ram materials of sustainable change – peoples, actions, leadership, ideas and conversations.

Tempered radicals are balance beam walkers. They want to shake things up but stay within the system. They often come from the margins and experiences of differences which they want to to express while at the same time, they continue to fit in and cultivate their legitimacy. Tempered radicals are the agents of change within organization operating on a spectrum from changing informal structures all the way to formal, deliberate organizing.

It’s based on a belief and her research that small things can create change and momentum. Including radical acts like inviting different people to a meeting, sharing information to new people, wearing dressing outside the norm, and finding those small wins that change or invite a new conversations. It is quite organic and local at first then who knows what is possible as we discover the raw material for systemic change.

The role of tempered radicals

Meyerson is going in and talking about tactics that tempered radicals use in their workplaces. What I am looking for from her is the way that tempered radicals understand and attach to the roots of their work. My own experience is that people don’t just come from communities of difference or marginalization, but that they can find in any place a healthy and active place for the expression of the purpose that guides their lives. Tempered radicals bring a strong sense of rooted purpose to their work. How do you develop a rootedness that can thrive anywhere…tempered radicals as weeds. Weeds grow up in the strangest of places and cracks up the concrete and breaks up the soil. My experience of working with and being a tempered radical is that there is nothing really scripted about this work. It is not strategic in the sense of choosing specific tactics for specific moments. Rather it is a stand that radiates from a strong sense of purpose and rootedness.

  • How do we develop and work with a strong purposive root that can help us act wisely within constrained organizations?

  • How do we find each other in the world and support rootedness while the wind is blowing us around?

  • I think almost everyone is a tempered radical. What is your core purpose and how do you bring it to work?

  • What is the experience of negotiating your root, and what are the characteristics of letting your root go…what happens then. Is it sell out or leave or is there a third way to handle this?

  • If you are a human being, a learning system, can you not be a tempered radical? Learning is what humans do, not what we learn. Children know this – do this. Like the “common as weeds” feeling here. BY the way, we don’t call them “weeds” (cockpits) any more, we call them flowers…

Systemic change based on small wins is not tactical – its about cultivating a practice. We need to create a massive diversity of small tries and harvest from the beginning so that we can understand what grows and what doesn’t, not as learning about the try itself, but more as learning about the system itself. Dye in a river…in order to understand flow. Planting the same seed in eight different places to understand the conditions for creating a 300 Douglas-fir.

One of the things we discover in doing this is what I am now calling “pattern questions” which are questions that invite a similar level of change at every level of the system, from the individual to the largest system. Discovering pattern questions help us to both find the channels of change and find the deeper purpose of the organization or the system.

Don’t let “winning” get in the way of change.

Amplifying wins means not working completely within the constraints of the organization but rather help the organization find its more radical purpose. For example you can help schools improve reading scores, or you can find a more rooted purpose around literacy and go there, and in so doing shift both programming and purpose, exploring the depths of your own pattern.

Working with psychological safety

Meyerson talks about the conditions for psychological safety, but she is really talking about external conditions and not internal conditions, skills or practices. Much psychological safety (or all of it?) is about the stories you believe about the situations you find yourself in.

Why is there such a need today for “psychological safety?” What in our pattern of learning has created the need for psych safety? When stuck, invitation to learn… When you are shot, you don’t have to die! (FBI agent story: what happens when you are shot is that you don’t have to die. FBI agents are trained to understand that taking a bullet does not mean you are dead. Understanding that in the moment can save your life.) The only time you are actually in any kind of danger is physically and all war begins with defence. So how can we bring REAL defence applications to the practice of peace in physical situations? And how can we reframe “safety” so that we understand what is really safe and dangerous and what is simply a belief about safety?

The barriers to change in organization are the foundations of “safety” in the school system: rigid roles, eliminating questioning, creating rewards for being “right” and “perfect,” and frequent and unpredictable changes, like a bell ringing every 40 minutes to tell you to go and do something else with no coherence. What creates safety in organizations are things that are not taught in schools: reducing perceived status barriers through eliciting input, demonstrating humility and accepting errors, creating, inquiring and working with expressions of deviance, celebrating instances of courageous behaviour (especially when that behaviour bucks the system.) Pity kids these days. They need a coming of age to bring them from their childhood worlds to their adult worlds, understanding that they are really moving to a mirror-image way of being.



  1. Hi Chris, you have an incredible team there. Please give them all my warmest greetings! And thanks for your constant blogging!

  2. […] (PS…two sources to get me started…Debra Meyerson on Tempered Radicals from last year’s Pegasus Conference  and a site on patterns for introducing new ideas into organizations) April 3, 2008 | In Shift | […]