Meg Wheatley’s 12 principles for supporting healthy community
I’m a sucker for principles, because principles help us to design and do what is needed and help us to avoid bringing pre-packaged ideas and one-size-fits-all solutions to every problem. Â And of course, I’m a sucker for my friend Meg Wheatley. Today, in our Art of Hosting workshop in central Illinois, Tenneson Woolf and Teresa Posakony brought some of Meg’s recent thinking on these principles to a group of 60 community developers working in education, child and family services, and restorative justice. Â We’re excited to be working nwith these principles in the work we’re doing with Berkana Institute. Â Here’s what I heard:
1. People support what they create. Where are you NOT co-creating? Â Even the most participatory process always have an edge of focused control or design. Â Sometimes that is wise, but more often than not we design, host and harvest without consciousness. Â Are we engaging with everyone who has a stake in this issue?
2. People act most responsibly when they care. Passion and responsibility is how work gets done. Â We know this from Open Space – as Peggy Holman is fond of saying, invite people to take responsibility for what they love. Â What is it you can’t NOT do? Â Sometime during this week I have heard someone describe an exercise where you strip away everything you are doing and you discover what it is you would ALWAYS do under any circumstances. Â Are we working on the issues that people really care about?
3. Conversation is the way that humans have always thought together. Â In conversation we discover shared meaning. It is the primal human organizing tool. Â Even in the corridors of power, very little real action happens in debate, but rather in the side rooms, the hallways, the lunches, the times away from the ritual spaces of authority and in the the relaxed spaces of being human. In all of our design of meetings, engagement, planning or whatever, if you aren’t building conversation into the process, you will not benefit from the collective power and wisdom of humans thinking together. Â These are not “soft” processes. Â This is how wars get started and how wars end. Â It’s how money is made, lives started, freedom realized. It is the core human organizing competency.
4. To change the conversation, change who is in the conversation. It is a really hard to see our own blind spots. Â Even with a good intention to shift the conversation, without bringing in new perspectives, new lived experiences and new voices, our shift can become abstract. Â If you are talking ABOUT youth with youth in the process, you are in the wrong conversation. Â If you are talking about ending a war and you can’t contemplate sitting down with the enemy, you will not end the war, no matter how much your policy has shifted. Â Once you shift the composition of the group, you can shift the status and power as well. Â What if your became the mentors to adults? Â What if clients directed our services?
5. Expect leadership to come from anywhere. If you expect leadership to come from the same places that it has always come from, you will likely get the same results you have always been getting. Â That is fine to stabilize what is working, but in communities, leadership can come from anywhere. Â Who is surprising you with their leadership?
6. Focus on what’s working, ask what’s possible, not what’s wrong. Energy for change in communities comes from working with what is working. When we accelerate and amplify what is working, we can apply those things to the issues in community that drain life and energy. Â Not everything we have in immediately useful for every issue in a community, but hardly anything truly has to be invented. Â Instead, find people who are doing things that are close to what you want to do and work with them and others to refine it and bring it to places that are needed. Â Who is already changing the way services are provided? Â Which youth organize naturally in community and how can we invite them to organize what is needed? Â What gives us energy in our work?
7. Wisdom resides within us. I often start Open Space meetings by saying that “no angels will parachute in here to save us. Â Rather, the angel is all of us together.” Â Experts can’t do it, folks. Â They can be helpful but the wisdom for implementation and acting is within us. Â It has to be.
8. Everything is a failure in the middle, change occurs inÂ cycles. We’re doing new things, and as we try them, many things will “fail.” Â How do we act when that happens? Â Are weÂ tyrannizedÂ by the belief that everything we do has to move us forward?
9. Learning is the only way we become smarter about what we do. Duh. Â But how many of us work in environments where we have to guard against failure? Â Are you allowed to have a project or a meeting go sideways, or is the demand for accountability and effectiveness so overwhelming that we have to scale back expectations or lie about what we are doing.
10. Â Meaningful work is a powerful human motivator. What is the deepest purpose that calls us to our work and how often do we remember this?
11. Humans can handle anything as long as we’re together. That doesn’t mean we can stop tsunamis, but it means that when we have tended to relationships, we can make it through what comes next. Â Without relationships our communities die, individuals give up, and possibility evaporates. Â The time for apologizing for relationship building is over. Â We need each other, and we need to be with each other well.
12. Generosity, forgiveness and love. Â These are the most important elements in a community. We need all of our energy to be devoted to our work. Â If we use our energy to blame, resent or hate, then we deplete our capacity, we give away our power and our effectiveness. Â This is NOT soft and cuddly work. Â Adam Kahane has recently written about the complimentarity of love and power, and this principle, more than any other is the one that should draw our attention to that fact. Â Love and power are connected. Â One is not possible without the other. Â Paying attention to this quality of being together is hard, and for many people it is frightening. Â Many people won’t even have this conversation because the work of the heart makes us vulnerable. Â But what do we really get for being guarded with one another, for hoarding, blaming and despising?
We could probably do a full three workshop on these principles (and in the circle just now we agreed to!). Â But as key organizing principles, these are brilliant points of reflection for communities to engage in conversations about what is really going on.