Action, complexity and a centre

Just coming off an Art of Hosting with friends Tenneson Woolf, Caitlin Frost and Teresa Posakony.  Something Tenneson said on our last day as we were hunkering down to do some action planning, has stayed with me.  He said something like “it is easy to create actions that go off in a million different directions, but much more sensible to create actions that come from a common centre.  There is something about holding that common centre together invites trust so that we can release responsibility to action conveners and known they are initiating works that comes from our common shared purpose.”

People often make the distinction between talk and action, largely in my experience as an objection to the amount of time it takes to be in conversation around complex topics.  It seems that with complexity the conversation is endless and can go on forever.  And almost by defintion, that is true.  That can be a very frustrating experience if you consider the action – reflection process to be a linear one in which we spend time figuring out what we are going to do and then go and do it.

That approach works well in the complicated domain where everything can be known, or enough can be known that we can discern the wisest path forward.  But the complex domain contains a number of features which makes that kind of linear thinking folly.  First of all there is the prospect of emergence: things will happen as a result of interactions in the system which could never have been predicted and which may radically alter strategy and action. Secondly, actions undertaken in the complex domain cannot have their success or effectiveness guaranteed and therefore complex systems actually benefit from having many actions undertaken, with an ongoing developmental evaluation process as to the efficacy of these actions and the connection to the centre of action is constantly changing.

A lot of the work I do in hosting conversations is about both discerning what is our shared purpose as well as generating action that can come from that shared purpose.  And, with the smart clients I have, we repeat that cycle over and over as they continue to operate in a changing and complex world.  It creates strategy that represents a fine line between reacting and hedging your bets on some pretty good ideas.  Conversation and time and a wicked question helps us to check into and explore a deeper core purpose that can lie at the centre of ideas for action.  I have been lately calling this a generative core: an idea at the centre that is so powerful and compelling that it alone can inspire interesting and creative ideas. There is an energy to a generative core that is inviting, and that seems to make people WANT to be in conversation and relationship with it.  There is a quality to the questions that lie in the generative core that open ourselves in exciting ways to new possibilities.  Good conversation can help to illuminate this core purpose

Action planning from this place means coming up with good ideas and designing what David Snowden and others have called “safe-fail probes” which allows us to begin small.  In the Berkana Institute we call this approach “start anywhere and follow it somewhere” indicating that this kind of action creates its own momentum over time and therefore needs to be shaped and carefully watched.  Action that arises from agenerative core can be borne in conversation, and should be developmentally evaluated in conversation.  Conversation becomes a key tool in designing, evaluating and making meaning of what is going on.  And while actions and probes are being designed, tested and implemented, at the same time we have to pay attention to what we are learning about our core purpose, because that is always changing too.

This is not easy to understand, especially in a world where proceeding in an orderly direction from point A to point B is a desirable and seemingly sensible thing to do.  But understanding the nature of complexity is important for action planning, because it can actually unleash the kinds of ideas that otherwise seem to never come to the surface.  And it can make a community or organization powerfully resilient to shifts and changes that require retooling without stopping.  It seems like a long investment of time to be in conversations that slow things down, but I invite slowing down to go fast, because the speed at which activities and ideas can be implemented on the other side of a well centred and well bounded discernment process can be breathtaking.


  1. emergence, that is key. In a reductionist worldview in which all actions are predetermined by their causal antecedents there is no space for the possibility of emergence. Part of me senses a resistance to this idea, especially in the American culture, because of what its adoption implies: that we are not in control of everything that happens. We are not the masters of our destiny. There is both tragedy and miracle in the world.
    for leaders this may be daunting. to have to give up control when ones identity in the structure is to be the one in control
    to embrace emergence seems like a crazy paradox. it means to accept both our power to create radically unique and new things that quite literally pop out of nowhere, and our powerlessness in the face of a universe that besides all the laws that govern it can be unpredictable and surprising. It is a concept that both empowers you too create and asks you to let go.

  2. Thank you for this, Chris. I love the phrase “generative core.” Lately, I’ve been inviting groups to act out that concept physically to help them understand it. I offer it in the context of the pattern of living systems (as I see it). I’ll share a brief description of the exercise here – there`s an important twist at the end. First, I ask the group to mill around the room, acting like divergent parts (“you’re a very important person on a busy sidewalk in NYC”). Then I ask them to move around greeting other people warmly, in a rich pattern of relationship. Then I ask them to imagine a shared purpose in the center of the room that acts like a magnet holding them lightly together, giving wholeness and shape to their group. I stand in the middle representing that core purpose (“You are all here to serve me!”) And I ask the group to move to one side of the room and then to the other, maintaining the shape of wholeness. Then I put on music and we weave together all three of the previous steps – divergent parts, in a rich pattern of relationship, forming an emergent whole around shared purpose, moving dynamically across the room. What was previously flat and even awkward becomes flowing, creative, self-organizing and alive. The music represents the life in the system and the group’s commitment to stewardship, as people listen for what’s needed. To me, this last aspect is a powerful part of making the core generative. It becomes even more powerful as we name it and work with it.

  3. Nice Michelle…I have been working with lots of walking exercises lately, discovering that you can teach almost anything with walking actually. I’ll add this one to the inspiration folder.

    And Fabio…thanks for weighing in. Will be interesting to think about the difference with respect to American football vs. the rest of the world football. The former is played from play books and predetermined strategies that balance forces and privilege analysis with small spaces left for individual brilliance. Association football on the other hand has a central tactic, and principles. From there it is all flow.