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Setting the stage


Asheville, North Carolina

We are about to begin three days of learning together, Ashley Cooper, Dana Pearlman and me.  And 27 other folks who are coming to something we called “the Art of Learning Together.”

One of the core inquiries of the Art of Hosting, since it’s beginning has been “what if learning together was the form of leadership we needed now?”  It’s not that other forms of leadership AREN’T important, but that ihis particular form is not well supported.  We think of learning as something you are doing before you become a leader.   Something to do before you ramp up to the next level of leadership.

But of course there are situations in the world – complexity, confusion, innovation, disruption – that require us to learn, sometimes almost too fast, usually only until we can make the next move “well enough.”  We need tools, heuristics (my new favourite word, meaning experience based guidelines or basic principles based on previous experience) and ways of quickly understanding our experience so we can be open to possibilities that are invisible when we take a narrow view of change.

Over this three days we will teach and learn about frameworks for personal and collective leadership, including Cynefin, The Lotus, and principles of improvisiation.  We will use dialogue methods of World Cafe, Pro-Action Cafe, Open Space, Circle practice and other things.  We will use movement, improvisation, music and art.  And we will employ walks in the neighbourhood, silence, reflection and raid prototyping.  We are alos going to be diving into the art of working with core teams and understanding the dynamics of power, identity and relationships as they unfold in a context that is disruptive, changing and complex.

And we are doing it in a sweet space called The Hub in Asheville, which, if you don’t know it, is the most amazing, creative, and moldable space in an amazing, creative and moldable city.   You can follow along online if you like at our weebly.

An anniversary

My first mentor John Lawson and me at a Bruce Cockburn concert c. 1984

My first mentor John Lawson and me at a Bruce Cockburn concert c. 1984


Thirty years ago today as a 16 year old, my life changed. On October 20 1984 I participated in a massive anti-nuclear weapons march in Toronto.  It was an eye opener for me.  i met hundreds of people who had come together across the mostly left side of the political spectrum to march for peace.  I had never been exposed to social justice and action coalitions before, and became almost overwhelmed by the leaflets and pamphlets that I collected that day on issues like Kurdish independence, sanctions against South Africa, cruise missile testing, Central American civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, native issues such as logging at Temagami and weapons testing in Labrador…the list went on and on.  Acronyms from that time seem like distant memories: FMLN, FSLN, IRA, CND, ANC, ACT…

I was involved in peace and social justice issues through my church, St. James-Bond United Church, which had a very active social justice program.  Our associate minister, John Lawson (who ran for the Green Party in Kitchener in the last federal election) was really active in challenging us young people nto engage with the world and not accept the standard narrative of upper middle class Toronto; money was everything, social justice and peace were communist-loving sympathies and solidarity was for naive idealists.  (Years later, after touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I felt extremely vindicated for having held on to the principles i cultivated in those days).

On that day, John took some of us downtown to march.  Later that day he leant me two books that changed my life: a collection of Franz Kafka’s aphorisms and short stories and the first volume of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “The Political Economy of Human Rights Vol. 1.”  I devoured both of these works.  i think the Chomsky book was actually not even legal in Canada at the time.

That day was indelibly marked into my memory as the day in which my love and interest in serious literature and progressive politics emerged.  My world opened up, my eyes opened up and almost every part of my life’s work that has been important to me got an acceleration on that fall afternoon with 100,000 other people and one mentor on University Avenue in Toronto.

Training in structures that support humanity


in this video, Organizational practices applied  by Tim Merry he talks about an organization that adopts basic practices to restore humanity to its structures.  Predicated on the idea that the quality of results are directly dependant on the quality of relationship in the organization, he describes using circle practice as a simply way to activate relational capacities in a team.

The link between relationship and results is well established. It is the basis of relational theory and is a core assumption underlying a whole world of organizational development thinking and practice, including the Art of Hosting.

Good relationships are fundamental but not completely exclusive to getting great results.  It is also important that people in the organization are skilled for the work they are doing and that there is a clarity about what we are trying to achieve.  Skills include the technical skills needed to do the job as well as adaptive skills needed to be able to respond to changing conditions.  Clarity includes personal and collective clarity of purpose.

i find that many organizations excel in a technical skills focus and spend a lot of time on clarifying organizational purpose through strategic plans and the operational plans that are meant to connect everyone in an organization to the central purpose.

And what passes for good management is this technical axis of organizational life.  It is privileged by using terms like “hard skills” and when push comes to shove the “softer side” of organizational life is often sacrificed in favour of strict accountability to the plan.

Restoring relational skills is often the first step to stabilizing a team that has lost its way.  I have worked with highly skilled team – for example in university professional faculties – where there is no shortage of extremely talented individuals and an audacious but achievable drive to be the best of their kind in their market.  But very often highly skilled and committed people get into tough disputes with one another as egos clash and personal purposes become more important tha organizational ones.  Over time toxic environments can appear that, when combined with the unskillful use of power and authority, can create pain and trauma in organizations.  Almost everyone I know has a story of this.  It is absolutely rife in organizational life as we seek to balance self-fulfillment with collective strategic direction.

What Tim points to, and what we cover in the Art of Hosting, including in our offering on Beyond the Basics, is that a restorative approach to human relationships can steady the ship.  This means taking time away from strictly strategic objectives in order to attend to relationships.  And it is not simply a thing that happens in offsite meetings to deal with organizational conflict.  It is about instituting practices – such as week-starting and week-ending circles – to discuss strategic objectives, and to do so in a way that honours and deals with the struggles that naturally occur as we try to do things we’ve never done before.

A weekly practice of PeerSpirit Circle for example becomes a strategic leverage point for better organizational life and more humane working environments.  It doesn’t replace technical skills or organizational goals, but it ties those things to personal aspirations and provides a rich ground for creativity, adaptability, cohesion and sustainability

Deflecting a current

Inspiring action in a time of despair.

Our work and the work of every person who loves this world—this one—is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood. As it swirls around these snags and subversions, the current will slow, lose power, eddy in new directions, and create new systems and structures that change its course forever. On these small islands, new ideas will grow, creating thickets of living things and life-ways we haven’t yet imagined.

This is the work of disruption. This is the work of radical imagination. This is the work of witness. This is the steadfast, conscientious refusal to let a hell-bent economy force us to row its boat. This is much better than stewing in the night.

via The Rules of the River | Kathleen Dean Moore | Orion Magazine.

What you learn looking down on it all

Chris Hadfield, Canada’s greatest guitar slinging astronaut, has this to say:

“… I was up (on the space station) for five months and it really gave time to think and time to look at the world, actually to steal 90 minutes at one point and just float  by the window and watch the world, go round the world once with nothing to do but ponder it.


And I think probably the biggest personal change was a loss of the sense of the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.


It’s really we sort of teach it to our children, you know. Don’t talk to strangers, this is us. This is our whatever – our family, our house, our neighours, our relatives, your school.


It slowly grows where the line between us and them is. Um but to – I’ve been around the world thousands of times, 2, 593 times – and that line we impose on ourselves of where us ends and them starts, just keeps diminishing and it wasn’t conscious. I noticed maybe a third of the way into my half year stint up there that I just started referring to everybody as ‘us’. Unconsciously there was some sort of transition in my mind that ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.’


And I think you come across any city in Australia and you see the pattern of the downtown and the suburbs and the surrounding farms and the water and the rail and the communications, just the standard human pattern. And then if you just wait until you cross the Pacific – takes about 25 minutes and then you come across the Americas and there’s that exact same pattern again. And then you wait another 20 minutes and you come across northern Africa – and there’s that exact same pattern again.


And we solve the same problems the same way, all over the world. It’s just ‘us’ and everybody just wants some grace and better chances for their children and a chance to laugh, understand it all. And that inclusionary feeling was all pervasive and unavoidable, having seen the world the way I’ve seen it and it was part of my motivations in doing my best to share it when I came back.”

Thanks to Alan Stewart for transcribing this.

Learning little things

For a couple of years now I have been teaching myself how to SUP (stand up paddle board). It’s a pretty simple process. But like all simple things there is a depth to practice and technique that helps you get better and better. And the changing context of the ocean and the winds and weather means there is never a way to “win” at it.

The thing about SUP is that the conditions change radically all the time. One day is flat calm and the water is like glass. Another day – like today – it’s windy and the chop is sloppy and the currents are really strong. Almost every time out is a new challenge with new little victories and little defeats.

Mastery is like that. It’s about learning a technique and then applying it as the context shifts. It’s about getting good at something and then facing a humbling experience that teaches you something about yourself.

Today it was learning about the power of the currents whipping around Dorman Point. Lately it’s been about trying to offer quality process when there is fear and ego and expertise at play.

Mastery comes from a myriad of little learnings gathered from a myriad if different context. There is no flash of insight that makes you a master and there is no way you can ever feel you have arrived. That we are all human and always falling short of our ideal for ourselves and others is the great secret that helps us to connect, if we can see it. If we instead hold ourselves so far above or below this line of vulnerability that we can’t see our small tender selves in others then the benefit of our little learnings are lost, mere spindrift in the current of our learning lives.

I think it was my friend Toke Møller who said “never trust a sword teacher without scars.” Truly.

Using Open Space Technology

A post I made to the OSLIST today…

I seek simplicity in trying to describe where and how Open Space does it’s magic.

One of the ways I have had excellent success over the years in describing this work is derived from David Snowden’s work on the Cynefin framework.

The short story is this:

We are faced all the time with problems that are basically knowable, and problems that aren’t. Knowable problems mean that with the right knowledge and expertise, they can be fixed. A technical team can come together and analyse the causes, work with what’s available and craft a solution. Then they can get an implementation plan in place and go ahead and do it. These kinds of problems have a start line and a finish line. When you are done, you are done. Building a bridge is one of those kinds of problems. You build it and there is no tolerance for failure. It needs to be failsafe.

Open Space doesn’t work well for those kinds of problems because the solution is basically already known, or at least knowable.

Then there are problems for which no know solution exists, and even if you did get a solution, you can’t really “solve” the problem because the problem is due to a myriad of causes and is itself emergent. For example, racism. Look around and you will find very few people that identify themselves as racists, but look at the stats for Canadian society for example and you see that non-white people are trailing in every indicator of societal success. Essentially you are seeing the results of a racist society but no racists anywhere. This is an emergent problem. Racism itself is a self-organizing phenomenon, notwithstanding the few people that actively engineer racist environments. Such a problem didn’t really start anywhere and it can’t really end either. What is needed is a way of addressing it, moving the system away from the negative indicators and towards something else.

In other words, this is a complex problem.

The way to solve complex problems is to create many “strange attractors” around which the system can organize itself differently. Open Space nis the best method I know of for creating such strange attractors, as they are born from the passion and responsibility of those that want to create change, and they are amplified by people coming together to work on these things.

It’s “post and host” rather than “command and control.”

And because you can’t be sure if things are going to work out, you have to adopt a particular mindset to your initiative: one that is “safe to fail.” In other words, if it doesn’t work, you stop doing it. If it does work, you do more of it. And all the way along you build in learning, so that the system can see how change is made and be drawn towards those initiatives that are currently making a difference. Certainly this kind of problem solving is not useful for building a bridge, as you cannot afford a failure there. But for problems with no known solutions, it is brilliant.

Harrison has spent decades outlining this simplicity in even less words than I have now and his writing and thinking is, and continues to be far ahead of it’s time and maybe a little under appreciated because it is delivered in simple terms like “don’t work so hard.” But ultimately this is the best and most important advice for working in complex systems.

Open Space. Do it. Learn. Do it again. Don’t work so hard.

More than that really starts to build in the delusion that people can possibly know what to do. From that place solutions will be deluded. That they may work is pure luck. Open Space offers us a disciplined approach to addressing complexity in an ongoing way. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity.

The simple rules for working with complexity

I’ve been using the Cynefin framework for many years now.  For me, I think I’ve internalized it through practice and it becomes second nature to not only talk about and teach from it but to use the way it was intended to be used: to help make decisions.

Today Dave Snowden posts a very useful set of guidelines for working with complexity that are captured in the framework.  This list is useful for us to tuck away as it provides very clear guideposts for moving around the complexity domain:

The essence:

  • In any situation, what can we change?
  • Out of the things we can change, where can we monitor the impact of that change?
  • Out of the things we can change, where we can monitor the impact, where could we amplify success and/or dampen or recover from failure.

What we should avoid:

  • Retrospective coherence, we should learn from the past but not assume that what happened will repeat, or that it had linear causality
  • Premature convergence, coming to quickly to a single solution (although coming quickly to parallel safe to fail experiments is a good thing) rather than keeping our options open
  • Pattern entrainment, assume that the patterns of past success will entrain the inevitability of future failure unless you actively manage to prevent it.

Then the three basic heuristics of complexity management:

  • Work with finely grained objects
  • Distribute cognition/sense-making within networks
  • Disintermediation, putting decision makers in contact with raw data without interpretative layers

Admittedly this is technical language, but I appreciate the clarity.

Precision in harvest planning.

Since 2007 when Monica Nissen, Silas Lusias and I sat down at Phil and Laura Cass’s kitchen table to write up our thinking on the Art of Harvesting I have been a keen student of the art and practice of meaning making, sensing, visualizing and sharing the fruits of our work. We have called this practice the Art of Harvesting and I am as happy as anyone that it has become a big part of our practice.

Increasingly however I notice that the term “harvest” is being used with some imprecision that leads to confusion. For example in meetings people will often say things like “we will do this work and then we will do a harvest.” I have to admit that I am confused by this statement. What is the harvest? Is it simply a two minute silent reflection on the work? Is it a 30 page report? A vidoe? A picture? a collection of post it notes?

I owe this confusion to the fact that in English the word “harvest” is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it is a beautiful word to describe our practice of “harvesting” just as “hosting” is a beautiful verb. But as a noun it is imprecise and meaningless and sometimes confusing to the process. Newer practitioners ask “what is a harvest?” thinking that it must be a certain thing done in a certain way rather than an agile response to purpose and context.

And so I have adopted a simple practice. While I continue to use the term “harvesting” as a verb, I have tried to stop using it as a noun, and in working with clients, students and apprentices I have stopped them when they use this word as a noun and invited them to tell me WHAT we will be doing, HOW we will be doing and WHY we are doing it. This leads to far better harvesting plans.

For example, instead of a design that says:

1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round of harvest
1130-1145 Final Harvest

We get

1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round on “what are we seeing about where we are going” Harvesting: 1. participants will record insights on post its. 2. Harvest team will group and theme these post its. 3. Graphic recorder will create a mural of the main ideas 4. Videographer will interview participants on these themes to elaborate further

1130-1145 Collective harvesting: Participants take two minutes to silently reflect on the conversation and how it guides their work. Participants then given five miuntes to journal on that topic and host conducts a 10 minute popcorn conversation with the room to allow a few insights to be shared. Tim will make a slam poem and read it out to the group.

Harvesting is important. In fact it is, for me, the most important thing. “We are not planning a meeting, we are planning a harvest, and the meeting serves the harvest.” I invite you to reflect on your use of the term harvesting and bring as much or more precision in your design to this practice. Just as a farmer must till the sol and plant with the final crop in mind. our hosting practice means nothing if we cannot create fruit to accelerate learning, wisdom and powerful results.

Building capacity by loosening the reins

Crane Stookey on a kind of “I don’t know” leadership.

To keep the defenses down I rarely give the teenagers in the Sea School crews a straight answer, so that after a while their dependence on me as the “leader” breaks down. They need to feel that in the big picture I am trustworthy, that they are safe with me, but they also need to learn to distrust me and trust themselves, with a self-confidence that doesn’t depend on knowing. Rather than knowing on my terms, it’s better that they don’t know on their own terms, so they are inspired to find their own answers.

An overreliance on experts who claim to have answers depletes the capacity of groups. I love Crane’s idea of being trustworthy rather than providing a false sense of security.