Insights on shifting systems

Running an Art of Hosting workshop this week for employees of the City of Edmonton.  We are about 30 people all together looking at the art of hosting participatory process, convening and leading in complex environments where certainty is an artifact of the past.

Naturally because these people work for a municipal government, the conversations we are having tend to be about systems.  We are working at the level of what it takes a system to shift itself as well as what it takes of an individual to lead when the answers are unclear.

For me, lots of good insights are coming up.  A few that cracked in a cafe conversation this morning included these three:

  1. The fundamental question facing governments is not why or what or who, but HOW.  How can we deliver services differently?  How do we change to include more public voice in our work without losing our mandate?  How do we cope with the scale of change, chaos, interconnection and complexity that is upon us?  These questions are powerful because they invite a fundamental shift in how things are done – the same question is being asked of the Aboriginal child welfare system at the moment in British Columbia, which is looking to create a new system from the ground up.  Shifting foundations requires the convening of diversity and integrating diverse worldviews and ideas.
  2. New systems cannot be born with old systems without power struggle. As old ways of dong things die, new ways of doing things arise to take their place.  But there isn’t a linear progression between the death of one system and the birth of the new: the new arises within the old.  Transformation happens when the new system uses the old to get things done and then stands up to hold work when the old system dies.  While old systems are dying, they cling to the outdated ways of doing things, and as long as old systems continue to control the resources and positions of power and privilege, transformation takes place within a struggle between the new and the old.  Ignoring power is naive.
  3. A fundamental leadership capacity is the ability to connect people. This is especially true of people who long for something new but who are disconnected and working alone in the ambiguity and messy confusion of not knowing the answer.

Its just clear to me now that holding a new conversation in a different way with the same people is not itself enough for transformation to occur.  That alone is not innovation.  The answers to our most perplexing problems come from levels of knowing that are outside of our current level.  The answers for a city may come from global voices or may come from the voices of families.  Our work in the child welfare system was about bringing the wisdom of how families traditionally organized to create a new framework for child welfare policy and practice, and that work continues.  Without a strategic framework for action, for transforming process itself, mere reorganization is not enough.


  1. A couple of observations:

    1. The “how” is the most critical; and the “why” the least worthwhile; to ask. The power of the “how” question is paramount and requires individuals with the courage to ask it.

    2. I was reminded that at a point in social evolution those propping up the “old” have to inevitably bow to those bringing in the “new.” Suffrage in the early 20th century was formalized by the old because society had progressed to a point where it had to happen. The “new” held greatler weight than the “old” and in fact collasped the old.

    3. Yes, its about connecting people, but even more so, its about what gets passed between those people “nodes” in the network — information. When new information is introduced into the system, it, itself, can be the strong catalyst that makes change inevitable.

    For me the differential is not the same people holding new conversations, it’s how those same people are approaching the conversation. if they are open to new information and new connections great — transformation will occur. If they are part of a closed system, unwilling to process new “outside” information then they will remain stuck. And yet, even all those stuck people have the potential to change, to become something greater than what they are now. One “aha” moment could lead to a strategic transformation and a wake-up call for them to begin to see and do things differently. That’s the eternal hope and promise of the universe.

  2. Yeah, it’s that last paragraph that stirs it up, Chris. W. Edwards Deming was very fond of saying that change must come from outside the system — and largely because he understood systems as enveloping, as knowledge, as thought itself. But that, for me anyway, is the exciting and hopeful part — we have to go in search of what, of who, is outside the system in order to discover the new how and break the stranglehold of the power struggle. We have to find not just an alternate method but an alternate world view that turns things upside down enough to create a genuinely creative field. I think Otto Scharmer’s stuff has some value in this regard. What you say begs the deeper question of developing creative fields, as you are doing, to access what no one person or any group already knows; where it’s the “disconnect” that somehow opens the door to shocking (and sometimes simple, elegant) wisdom.