My friend Peter Rawsthorne begins a series of blog posts today reflecting on what is required to keep a community of practice together online and across organizational boundaries.
What do you need to consider when building a Community of Practice CoP that spans organizational boundaries where client confidentiality needs to be honored. There are a plethora of things to be considered when building an online virtual community of practice, these include; the team and the contexts’ relationship with openness, the memberships ability to be self-determined, how online communication will be broadened and followed, and how the internet is the platform.
Back in November Janaia Donaldson from Peak Moment TV interviewed Dave Pollard and I about the Art of Hosting, especially as it applies to transition towns, resilience and community leadership. Â That video was released today along with a lovely 10 minute edit in which Dave maps out some of the essential Art of Hosting elements using the GroupWorks Pattern Language card deck. Â Enjoy.
Tim Merry‘s work on collaborative advantage:
My friend and colleague Tim Merry is sharing some of his most recent thinking on project design and development here in Columbus at the Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics retreat we are doing. Â This is a really useful and interesting introduction to his approach:
Etienne Wenger provides a useful set of principles for cultivating communities of practice as living, breathing things:
- Design for evolution.
- Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
- Invite different levels of participation.
- Develop both public and private community spaces.
- Focus on value.
- Combine familiarity and excitement.
- Create a rhythm for the community.
Read more at the link below.
Amanda Fenton provides a very useful reference that helps underscore the reasons why core teams are important. It turns out that having 10%of a population deeply committed to an idea will significantly contribute to that idea being widely adopted by the other 90%.
I don’t know about the veracity of this claim in every context but it does point to the need to abandon the idea that everyone needs to be on board to make things happen. For steel real years I have been interested in helping groups create a topography of engagement whereby a core the holds a central circle of shared purpose and shared work and concentric circles are organized around this work. The team percent rule helps me to think about the mechanics if how invitation can spread and how container building scales.
Makes me think for example that if you engaged in transforming a large traditional conference to something radically participatory you need at least ten peer met of the participants to be committed to that new form. For a conference of 600 that means reaching 60 people. This means a core team of 10 needs to each find five other people to really commit to the idea. From there invitation can go broader and less deep. But without those 60 on the next ring out you run the risk of having 10 committed individuals trying to convince hundreds to take a leap.
Innovation does not come without discarding ideas, trying and failing. Â In complex systems with complex challenges, failure is inevitable and desired. Â If we need to prototype to sense our way forward we have to have a mindset that can handle failure.
On Saturday at the Art of Participatory Leadership in Petaluma my new friend Shawn Berry convened a session on failure and through listening to stories ranging from small prototoyping failures to business breakdowns and even deaths, I noted a few patterns that are helpful for groups and people to address failure positively nd resourcefully
Frame it up. In North America and Europe we have a cultural aversion to failure. Â Failure is equated with inadequacy. Â Our self-esteem is tied to our success. Â Our compensation and status is affected by failure. Â Fear of failure is prevalent in the culture. Â In order to combat this tendency, it is helpful to work with a group to get them acquainted to failing. Â For more playful groups improv exercises can be an excellent way to drop inhibitions to try something and fail. Â More rational groups might benefit from a little appreciative inquiry where participants recall positive failing experiences. Â Reflecting and sharing on times of failure and survival reminds us that it is part of the process.
Support the experience. While groups are experimenting and learning, succeeding and failing it helps to have support and coaching present in the process. Â Depending on the kind of work being done you can offer support to keep a group resilient and unattached.Â I have used several different kinds of processes here including the following:
- Simply pausing for reflection periodically in the process to notice what is going on. Â Slowing the process down helps to gain valuable perspective on what is happening and helps a group move on quickly from failure.
- allowing failure to occur and then taking the subsequent stressful thoughts to an inquiry process using The Work of Byron Katie. Â We do this often when working with groups in the non-profit sector for example, where the pressure to succeed is accompanied by feelings of fear of the results of failing.
- In indigenous and other colonized cultural settings I have often had Elders and healers present who can care for the more invisible dynamics in the field, especially when our work is going to carry us into some of the sources of trauma. Â When you are working in a place where people are operating out of deep historical trauma, the fear of failure can be laden with many many deep seated implications. Â Having people in the process who understand these dynamics is essential.
- Peer-coaching is a common way to build resilience in groups where trying and failing is important. Â When a team is trying to learn something new it helps to also build the capacity for them to be able to rely on each other. Â This is why so many teams value “cross-training.” Â When athletes train, they often work out in ways that are not related to their sport _ a skier training by rowing for example. Â Doing this helps them to learn to use their body differently and builds strength that supports their core work. Â Similarly, work teams can learn a lot about themselves by creating situations of safe failure such as through improvisational exercises, outdoor experiences, games and other non-work focuses. Â The skills learned there can help support the team when they knuckle down to focus on key tasks and can support constructive failure within the work domain. Â Ultimately these skills will build capacity if they increase the ability of the group to support itself through stressful times.
- Developing a practice of greeting failure with joy. Â My friend Khelsilem Rivers taught me this one. Â He is – among other things – an indigenous language teacher and using the tool kit “Where Are Your Keys” Khelsilem helps people become fluent in their indigenous languages. Â One of the barriers to rapid fluency is a fear of “not doing it right.” Â Khelsilem completely transforms the experience of failure by introducing the technique called “How Fascinating!” When a person (including the facilitator) makes a mistake, the whole group celebrates by throwing their hands in the air, leaning back and declaring “How Fascinating!” Â While it might seem contrived at first, the technique opens up the body, and greets the failure with a collective celebration. Â Blame and judgement is avoided, collective support is activated and learning is grounded.
Practices like these are essential to build into the architecture of processes where failure is inevitable if innovation is to occur.
Process the grief. When catastrophic failure occurs it can leave people grieving, frightened and cynical. Â If there is no way to process the grief then individuals often build their next prototype out of fear. Â If you feel you have been burned before, you might develop your next idea by building in protection against failing again. Â While that can seem prudent and safe, in reality, building structures out of fear is a much riskier proposition than building structures out of possibility. Â Without processing grief, a group or a person can be susceptible to being “defended.” Â I learned much about this state from Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a child psychologist who has described this phenomenon in children. Â Taking a group or a person through the grief cycle using empathy, story telling and compassion can help free the emotions that are triggered in future learning experiences.
Building a mindset to embrace failure and support the transformation of the energy of failure is critical to groups developing the capacity to lead in complexity.
I’ve also written about failure here:
This is a brilliant description of what it is like trying to govern indigenous communities on this continent:
Going back to the Two Row Wampum, it says that weâ€™re not supposed to steer each otherâ€™s boats. But the way that I perceive things is that the canoes have been hijacked and are actually aboard the settler ship. And we are basically trying to live our canoe way of life on top of that settler ship. So saying that Iâ€™m not supposed to steer the settler ship, well, you know what, my fucking canoe is sitting in that fucking settler ship. So national liberation for Native people and organizing is like saying, you know what, I donâ€™t want to tell you how to run your own fucking ship, but your ship and the people that run it, the captains, they are not listening to the workers or to whomever, the deckhands and whatnot.
Well, Pete Seeger died last week. Â And when giants like Pete Seeger die, there is an overwhelming flood of story and tribute that comes in. Â I haven’t even scratched the surface of it, but here is one of the best retrospectives I’ve found. Â That will serve as an excellent introduction to this man.
I was raised on Pete Seeger. Â My dad had a bunch of Weavers records and he used to strum Seeger and Hays songs. Â My musical upbringing and subsequent love and practice of folk music was directly attributable to Pete Seeger’s compelling hold on my father’s own desire to make music. Â “If I Had a Hammer” might have been one of the first songs I ever learned. Â “Abiyoyo” was so emblazoned in my consciousness that we named a tall transmission tower near my grandparents’ cottage for that giant. Â “Little Boxes” described a future to be avoided at any cost.
I think many people who had just occasionally heard Pete’s folksy singing and storytelling had no idea of his fierce commitment to justice and his radical political beliefs. Â Here is an amazing transcript of his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He did something in that hearing that was unprecendented: he refused to answer questions about his beliefs and his associations and his activities. Â He considered the entire exercise Un-American itself, and a violation of his basic human rights. Â For that he was sentenced to ten years in jail, and in 1962 he eventually had his case dismissed on appeal.
Pete Seeger stood as an important chronicler of the best of American life. Â He fought for the voiceless and stood with the oppressed around the world. Â He was the greatest friend of any truly just cause, and practiced his principles with shining integrity. Â And he wrote and preserved and disseminated the people’s music to embolden the people when all other sources of their inspiration had been taken away.
In a complex and interconnected world it is hard to be an activist against things. Â One of the easiest ways that your opponents can neutralize your opposition to things like oil and slavery is to say “we” you depend on oil and slaves, so that makes you a hypocrite.”
So this is tricky – solving global problems of labour, energy, economics and justice are the very definition of complex problems. Â There is no simple solution, there is a frustrating degree of progress and even large shifts in public consciousness (think land mines or climate change) are met with initial enthusiasm but later are eroded by commercial or power interests that have a stake in the status quo and way more influence than activists.
So what to do?
Consider the slavery question. Â All of us in North America depend on slave labour to support our lifestyles. Â As with the issues of oil dependance, our very existence creates an impact that is measurable, real and negative against our social justice agenda. Â Affordability usually is usually the result of slave labour. Â Real slave labour.
So how does one deal with this?
First it’s important to remember that you are part of the problem. Â To quote Adam Kahane:
Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.
The good news and bad news is that it is impossible to influence change from outside the problem. Â Such self-righteousness is easily dismissed. Â In addition, it is very difficult to advocate an end to slavery while at the same time not being prepared to pay a lot more for your food and clothes. Â Change must be made from within the problem. Â And to do that you have to work with others who are part of the problem.
In general for large scale global neo-liberal problems, there are three players: governments, capital and markets. Â All three of these create the conditions for problems and leverage is needed on all three to create the conditions for solutions, especially at the level of transformative change. Â Consumers demand cheap products, capital creates the flow of materials to meet the need and governments Â regulate to ensure that things happen (usually for those who have the best ability to keep governments in office). Â The hardest of these to change is the market because market behaviour is completely emergent. Â Think of the last time you saw a damaging industry collapse because the market changed overnight. Â IN general shifts in demand are prompted by better products in the market – things that will help people do things in a better way, at a competitive price. Â There is no question that there is a demand to end slavery, but the demand for cheap clothes outweighs it.
Markets can be influenced by capital and government. Â Capital influences markets by controlling what is offered out there. Â If you have billions of dollars, you can do things like buy up your cometeitors patents for clean energy for example, or in the case of companies like Wal-Mart, use you economy of scale to provide loss leader products that bring people into your store to buy cheap things at the expense of local manufacturing. Â And if you are in government you can regulate to eliminate bad things in the market, such as slavery as a labour practice. Â But if you also sign international agreements that allow the free flow of capital, you box yourself in to accepting slavery as a practice because capital will always seek the lowest expense climate.
So to affect change requires an engagement of all three. Â It begins with a personal practice and commitment to a trajectory of social and economic justice. Â It requires that personally I commit to “better.” Â Will we ever have a world where slavery is abolished? Â No. Â Can I live my life without any dependance on slaves? Â Doubtful, and certainly if I was to live that life I would be far from the ability to influence power in anyway.
So it is commitment to a trajectory rather than a finish line. Â Complex problems are not “solvable.” Â You have to get good with living with this uncertainty and get good at accepting the gift and the curse of emergence.
Second, people have to affect change with powerful narratives. Â Governments have coercive power and large corporations have the power of manipulation using capital. Â All people have are narrative power – the power of a better story. Â Almost always this story “fails” against the coercive power of force and capital – think Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and so on. Â But while they failed to achieve their specific goals, these kinds of movement are very important. Â It is important that citizens try and try again to advance the narrative of justice. Â Because from time to time these narrative movements succeed. Â Think gains like gay marriage and civil rights in North America. Â Think about what happened in places like Estonia, Czechoslovakia and India and South Africa. When the narrative wins, that one time in 1000, things transform.
And it would be nice to know that any intervention we choose will have the system changing effect that we want, but we can’t have that certainty. Â We need to work towards change from inside the place of the problem.
So, what is your experience in affecting change from inside the problem? Â How do you work towards justice while recognizing your complicity in the very problems you are addressing? Â How does a complexity-based world view and skill set enable good work to happen?
I think there is probably nothing new under the sun. Â Engagement work has been tried, refined and improved all over the world in the last couple of decades that I wonder if there is anything new we can learn? Â It does seem to fall into “authentic engagement” and “engagement washing” – if I can coin a couple of phrases. Â But I haven’t seen radically new thinking or practice for a while.
What we are getting instead is some terrific collections of tools, handbooks and harvests of processes. Â This .pdf of a Handbook for Civic Engagement prepared for a community process in the United States is an excellent example of the kind of harvesting that is useful. Â It sums up lessons learned from engagement process, proceeds from practice to inform theory and provides some useful invitations for practice and application. Â This is an artifact which has emerged out of the space of engagement “praxis” – the gap between theory and practice. Â I’m interested in tis inquiry at the moment, and stumbling across things like this in my quest to understand what is useful in harvesting from initiatives that sustain the capacity and learning begun in real engagement.
“Engagement washing” initiatives don’t usually leave these kinds of documents in the places where the engagement took place. Â It should be a hall mark of good practice that process learnings are shared and tools are developed as well as results documented.