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My dad advises on getting things done with local governments

My son has been working on a project for his grade nine year.  At his middle school, graduating students are required to complete a year-long project called a MasterWorks.  Finn has chosen the reconstruction of a downhill bike skills park.  Earlier this year, our local government flattened the one we had without consultation, and Finn has been part of the team leading the charge to rebuild it in a different location.

My dad has been active in his community working on developing a dog park and also helping the village with it’s official community plan.  As a result, he has become an official mentor for Finn on his project and yesterday he sent along some great advice about how to get things done with local government.

Here’s his advise:


Your mom told me about your Masterworks project. I would love to share some of my experiences working on projects with the Town of the Blue Mountains. Here are some thoughts to start with if you want to get help from your local government.;

1. Clearly Identify Your Project (New Bike Park)

Describe why this is important to you and your community and other bikers. You are competing with many other municipal projects such as roads, water systems and other things which might have been discussed during your recent election.

Identify any benefits to the community such as a safe place for kids to develop their biking skills and to hang out. A healthy place to play outside without electronics. A showplace for the Municipality.

2. Build a Support Group

Set up a spreadsheet or Word table and add a line for each of your biking friends, their parents and anyone else who will support you. Each line records their name, mailing address, phone number and most importantly, email address. The more names you can get the better. Municipalities will pay attention to groups of people who need something. They often ignore individuals.

Use the email addresses to send out newsletters to the Group whenever something is happening. Ask the Group for additional names of people who might help or offer support.

Provide a copy of the list to the Municipality to show them that you are not alone.

3. Build Bridges

Never bad mouth members of your Council or municipal staff. They were elected by your neighbours or were hired based on their credentials. Getting them mad at you will not help your project.

Find ways to meet individual members of Council or staff to ask for advice on what you need to do to complete your Project. I think you have already done some of this. Do not stop with one meeting. Once you have made some contacts, stay in touch either in person or by phone or email. This shows them that you are serious about your project.

Send a note to each person recently elected, thanking them for being willing to help govern your community. Ask for their support for your project. You can also contact those who lost the election, thanking them for running and asking them for any ideas on moving your project forward.

4. Set Up a Project Plan

I think you have already started this.

1. Create a design for the bike park. Define the dimensions (how much land will be required). What materials will be needed (fencing, ramps, jumps etc).

2. Who will build the Park. Your Support Group? The Town? Local contractor donation of time and equipment?

3. How much will it cost. Where will the money come from? Can your Group do some fund raising? This is always helpful. Municipalities prefer not to fund special interest groups by sharing the costs with all the property owners (tax payers) who may not want to use your Park. I believe the Town is interested in providing another site from land available as public parks.

4. Who will manage the Park. What rules will be required to satisfy the Town so they can avoid liability if someone gets hurt. Usually the Town will cover themselves with a sign at the Park. What rules do other Municipalities use?

5. Who will maintain the Park. Your Support Group? The Parks department? The more you can find ways to limit the cost of the Park for the Municipality, the more they will be interested. There is never enough money to provide all the things that everybody wants.

6. Identify the Project Schedule. When do you want the Park to open? What does the Town need to do to make this happen? By-law changes? Approval of a budget. Availability of Town staff to prepare a site, install fencing etc.

Fantastic eh?

Some World Cafe tips

2014-11-25 20.43.23


I had the great pleasure of coaching a team of folks last night who were running their first World Cafe. I’ve been working with this crew for a while – a core team looking at the future of the Victoria Presbytery of the United Church of Canada – and this was the first time they’ve stepped up to run their own conversational process as part of our work.  Last night it was a Cafe to sense the future of what the Presbytery could be and do.  And they did great.

One of the advantages of coaching is that one gets to reflect on the little bits and pieces of practice that make things work.  Last night a number of them came up, so I thought I’d share them here.

Give instructions one at a time. Don’t give a long list of instructions.  At the beginning of the Cafe let people know how the time will flow, but when it comes time to invite people to do certain things (move between tables, change questions, reflect, summarize…whatever) just give one instruction at a time.  It is important that people know WHY we are doing a thing, but not important that they have the whole flow.  And especially if your instruction involves them moving, then don’t give any more instructions until they have stopped.

Invite people to mark the paper early. The paper in the middle of the table is for all to use. “Typical” facilitated sessions imprint people with the pattern that someone will take notes while everyone else talks.  It’s important that before the conversation begins, you invite people to pick up a marker, write something and draw something on the paper in front of them.  That way, before the conversation begins, folks know that the paper is for everyone to use, there is no top or bottom, and images and words are equally welcome.

Have one more marker and one fewer post it note than people. If you have tables of four, give them five markers.  This means that people can trade colours without prying a marker from someone’s hand.  And if you are summarizing key findings, have three post-its for a table of four, to encourage people to pick three things together rather than just having everyone put their best thought down.  World Cafe is about tapping and making visible collective intelligence.  You lose that if you just have individual thoughts.

Build in silence. At the conclusion of a round, have a minute or two of silence.  It calms the room down, allows people to reflect and integrate what they are hearing and makes it easier to give directions.  This is especially important if you are wanting people to raise their level of awareness from what is important personally to what patterns are emerging.  It requires a shift in awareness to see that.

Collect post its before having a summary conversation. Last night we used post its at the conclusion of the third round to capture the patterns that people were hearing consistently in all three rounds.  Collecting the post-its before we had a summary conversation meant that people couldn’t “report out” and instead we hosted a “conversation with the whole” whereby we roved around asking people what stood out for them.  What emerged was indeed a conversation and not a boring reporting out of things that everyone knew anyway.

Avoid the temptation to use a different question for each round. This is important.  Having a different question for all three rounds creates three shallow conversations and inhibits pattern finding.  It can also leave people feeling like they are being led down a garden path and it doesn’t leave a lot of space for emergent conversation.  For all Cafe beginners, I always suggest they do their first Cafe with a single question for all three rounds.  This gives you a clear picture of how the process can work to surface COLLECTIVE intelligence.

Keep the question simple and broad and make sure you can answer it on your own.  Trust the group. They want to have a conversation, not guess at answers that you are trying to get them to.  Last night our question was simple; given a context in which the structures of the Church are becoming increasingly unsustainable and in which congregations still need to be connected on a local level “What should Presbytery be and what should it do?”  That was it.  Three rich rounds on that, with lots of great insight and some amazingly courageous admissions (“Time to finally admit that this structure is dead.”  etc.)

Invitation matters.  Even though the 50 people we had out last night are used to being together every few months, the core team mworked on their invitation for a month.  They held the purpose of the event close (discovering what the new shape and function of the Presbytery could be) and they shared the question with participants, even before we had decided on what the final question was.  The team made sure people RSVP’d on the invitation which helped us to know the logistics of food and space, and also gave a chance for the conversation to begin as folks started sharing what they were thinking right away.  This primed the conversation and meant that people were really ready for the work.  Ninety minutes was not enough.

Know what you will do with the harvest and tell people.  People learned in the invitation what our plans were for the harvest.  This even was about helping the core team design some experiments over the next year for new ways that the Presbytery could meet and be useful to the two dozen United Church congregations on southern Vancouver Island.  We summarized the patterns that people found (above photo) and began right away writing a report.  But the bigger piece of work will be engaging in design over the next couple of months to create new and interesting gatherings in line with what the Presbytery members actually want.


Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics

Caitlin Frost, Tim Merry, Tuesday Ryan-Hart and I have been loving offering our Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics workshop over the past nine months.

We’re really pleased to announce that we are coming to Minnesota May 6-8, Staffordshire UK July 8-10 and Ontario this fall.  And we’re really happy with the video invitation.

If you have been working with participatory methods and are curious about extending these tools and forms of leadership to systemic challenges, please consider joining us!

What we lose when we don’t actually converse

Have a listen to this piece from a recent segment on CBC’s current affairs show “The Current.”  It is a discussion about Canada’s commitment (or lack of it) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In it you will hear Keith Stewart from Greenpeace (Disclaimer: an old friend, by the way) arguing for a policy and fiscal framework that helps Canada make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.  You will hear him discussing the issue with Ron Liepert, who comes from the petroleum sector in Alberta and was the former Alberta Energy Minister.  And who is running for the Conservatives in the next federal election, after defeating the Conservative Party’s most loony MP in recent years, Rob Anders.

The conversation is, in the parlance of my teenage kids, a shitshow.  The first sentence out of Liepert’s mouth is full of accusations, unsubstantiated claims and he uses the word “extremist” to characterize Keith’s points and his character.  Keith is one of the smartest energy policy minds I know and I daresay he has been at this work longer than Liepert has and for more honest reasons.  What was going to be an interesting conversation quickly becomes sidelined by Annamaria Tremonti’s inquiry about Liepert’s terms.  Liepert is campaigning for election.  Keith is trying to get a conversation going.

That sideline was not helpful to my understanding of how we are going to need to use fossil fuels to create the new renewable energy system for the planet.  There is a very important conversation here about policy, economic incentives and transformation and there are people in the fossil fuel industry who are capable of having that conversation.  Liepert was a ridiculous and buffoonish choice to represent the status quo.  He clearly doesn’t take the challenge seriously.  I’m much more interested to see petroleum producers who do, and I know they exist because over the years I have encountered them.  They work in the long term strategic planning units in the oil companies, and they are realistic about how to position their companies as energy companies who need to develop and active interest in creating and owning significant stakes in renewable energy if they are to survive and service the debt they will have incurred for a century or more of development of a resource that runs out, or becomes too pricey to use.

This is a conversation we need to have.  Keith is inviting a 100 year view of how we are going to do this.  There is no oil company out there that is not thinking about this issue too, and although they are also happy to have shills like Liepert doing their dirty work, they KNOW that we need to come off fossil fuels in this century.  Scarcity, pricing and climate change will ensure this.  Whether we can make this transition well will be the determinant of the quality of life humans will have on this planet when my kids are old people.  Avoiding the conversation by these silly short term election tactics costs us all.

Polarities to help design harvesting

Yesterday in a webinar for the Art of Hosting Applied Practice cohort I threw out a set of ideas around harvesting that were prompted a bit by experience and a bit by the questions that participants were asking. This is a list kind of banged out on the fly.  What do you think?

Meetings are fundamentally productive.  They produce results.  But without planning for these results, we can get meetings that are unclear in their purpose or unclear in their function and the results are alos unclear.  Ask yourself with every meeting “What are we producing?” The act of paying attention to that is called “harvesting.”

Harvesting planning needs a coherent scheme to structure the work and it is important to focus on all kinds of different outputs and outcomes from a process.  To spur thinking, try working with these polarities:

Intangible/tangible.  What are the intangible results we want from the work we are doing?  Examples might include community, possibility, connection, belonging, clarity or inspiration.  And what are the tangible things we want to have in hand?  A report, a video, a mural, a decision?  these are things we can point to and say “we accomplished this.”

Harvesting that serves the process and harvesting that extends after the process.  In process harvesting includes ways in which the group uses it’s information to deepen or clarify the work it is doing.  In almost every meeting, having a flip chart where we record ideas, or a table top  sheet in a world cafe, or a book of proceedings in Open Space, means that the group has generated information that it can use to work with inside of the process.  We also need to harvest things for afterwards, including reports for bosses or communities, decisions to implement, designs to create, prototypes to run.  Think about what is useful in the meeting and what is useful afterwards.  Anything you produce for later needs to have some context around it so people understand where it came from, how it was made and why it is useful.

Participant done/facilitator done.  This is a balance.  In dialogic participatory processes, we want harvesting to be done as much as possible by the participants themselves. But we have to be good with their time and effort and not distract them from engaging and participating in conversation either.  So yes it might be important nfor participants to generate a number of insights around a question but it might be prudent if a smaller group does the pattern finding. The caveat here is that you have to be very very conscious of who is making meaning.  It is so easy to bias a meaning making scheme.  Try this experiment: next time you are clustering ideas for a group process, have a group of participants come up with a categorization scheme and then have the hosting teams come up with their own scheme.  Whenever I have done this, I have been surprised by how different the schemes are.  Meaning making is context dependant, so if you have a consultant walking away with an armful of flipcharts at the end of the day and writing a report, make sure that some small group of the participants checks the work for accuracy and bias.

Artifact/channel.  What are the actual physical artifacts we will have in hand as a result of this process?  Reports, videos, manuals…physical things.  And what are the channels we need to create in order for those artifacts to be used?  Without a channel for action, a report will sit on the shelf, or worse, it will be 300 pages long where it only needed to be 10 pages because only a certain amount of information matters to get things done.  be precise with the artifacts you produce and ensure you have a way to use them right away or they will find their way to a shelf.

Intentional/emergent.  When a hunter/gatherer goes out into the woods she goes looking for specific things: mushrooms, berries, roots, animals.  But while she is out there she notices things, important patterns that help her decide on how she will go out into the forest in the future.  This is what it is like when you go into a process with an intentional desired result AND what happens when you pay attention to what happens because you have undertaken the work.  For example, one of the principles I try to operate by when facilitating meetings is “leave more community than you found.”  We might initiate a process to do some strategic planning, but the emergent harvest could also be community and perhaps participants gaining new insights into each other’s leadership or perspective.

Personal/collective. Conferences are fabulous places for personal harvesting.  In every learning situation a personal harvest is possible as well as a collective harvest.  Make space for both.  Build in reflection so that people can integrate their own learning with the group’s

Experiencing Cynefin physically in a group

cynefin in context


I’ve had a couple of requests to share the exercise that helps people understand Cynefin physically.  I’m happy to do so here.

I enjoy designing these kinds of exercises, as it gives people a number of ways of understanding the framework and I find that it actually helps the penny drop for folks who otherwise have a hard time groking the nature of the different domains.  I am continuing to develop this exercise but here’s how I do it now:

1. Begin by having the group stand and clear a large space so that everyone can move around comfortably.  To do this well, you need a large open space with lots of room for people to move.  As you give directions, just give folks a simple instruction and don’t allow questions.  They have to figure the rest out themselves.  At the end of each mini exercise take a little conversation to reflect on questions such as “how did you do this?, what is happening here?, how did you gather data? How did you evaluate your efforts?”  Use questions that are relevant to the applications of Cynefin you are dealing with.

2. Exploring the obvious. Have people divide into four groups (they don’t have to be even numbers).  Instruction: “Organize yourselves by height.” Things to note: this can happen quickly, top-down leadership works well, it can be evaluated objectively. You can constrain the exercise further by instructing people to complete the task in 15 seconds.  It is unlikely you will be surprised by the results of this exercise.

3. Exploring the complicated. Have people divide into four new groups.  Instruction: “Organize yourselves by birth month and year.”  Notes: there are many ways to do this, each can be objective;y verified.  It requires getting hidden data that is easily discovered and top-down leadership still works well.  You will find some surprising solutions for this problem.

4. Exploring the complex. Have everyone stand in a circle and introduce “The Systems Game” (I learned this version from Joanna Macy’s work).  In this well known game, individuals must identify two other people and move to a place equidistant from each of them.  You cannot let your “targets” know you are connected to them.  It helps to demand that people try to achieve a high degree of accuracy in this triangulation.  Done well, and with lots of space in the room, the group should be set into a pattern of constant motion.  Notes: small rules initiate constant complex motion.  You will see times when a group is clumped up and other times when it is spread out.  Notice how some folks are naturally influential in the group – tall men wearing bright clothes seem often to have a higher number of connections to themselves.  Notice how it feels to be constantly moving and adjusting.  If people stop moving ask why (usually they are tired of the game, a fact of life that translates into dealing with real world complexity).  Leadership is participatory and top-down leadership cannot help.  When the group gets tired of the exercise, invite some probes to see what happens when certain people move.  You will start to see the patterns of connection better that way.  This is a good introduction to developmental evaluation.  Once the system is at rest, it’s difficult to evaluate the connections.  Probes (inviting certain people to move to a very different place, for example) gives us lots of information.  Have the group devise their own probes to illuminate more of the situation.

5. Exploring chaos. Have people start “milling.”  Milling is a practice from theatre training where participants are instructed to walk into space, rather than walk in a circle.  Keep the speed medium pace, and ask them to listen to your instructions.  Instructions proceed as follows:

  • “When I say stop, stop.  When I say go, go.”   Do this for a while, giving commands to the group.
  • “When I say clap, clap,.  When I say jump, jump.”  Do this for a while mixing up commands to stop, go, jump and clap.
  • “When I say go, stop and when I say stop, go”  Instroducing this kind of disruption starts making following directions difficult.
  • “When I say bow, bow, when I say whoopee, shout whoopee! When I say clap, jump, when I say jump, clap.”  Continue and increase the pace of your commands.
  • “When I say shhh say shhh, when I say thigh, slap your thigh.  Whoopee, bow; bow, whoppee…” We add one more pair of commands and continue disrupting people’s experiences.
  • Continue to flip commands.  It will get very chaotic.

Notes: “leadership” is increasingly difficult. Any strategy you develop for keeping the commands straight will be disrupted by randomized instructions.  It takes a lot of attention to keep going, and eventually a breakdown is going to happen.  Some will simply follow instructions as best the can, rendering the exercise simple.  Others will try to devise coping strategies; others will give up and do their own thing.  You could notice the tip from a simple exercise to a chaotic one and how difficult it is to cope as a group when you enter into chaos this way.

6. Exploring disorder.  Have people divide the group into four groups.  Invite people to organize themselves by a word that is both a verb and a noun.  Pick one from this list.  Words like this are sufficiently ambiguous that the groups have to figure out what is meant by the word before they can do the exercise.  Any word will do.  Notes: the group will become keenly aware of the difference between chaos and disorder.  Have people reflect on their initial reaction to hearing the word.  It is likely that each person instantly developed a strategy to address the challenge.  you could slow the exercise down and have everyone take a minute to write down their strategy and then share them with the group.  People will be surprised at the variety.  This is a good lesson in what happens when a groups makes a decision without getting clear on what the problem is.

After the exercises I then give my own standard teaching of the framework, which can take from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how much  discussion we have.

Hope this helps.  Leave me a comment if you try the exercise so we can all learn from your experience.


Long day’s journey into night

Mount Ranier in the gloaming

Mount Ranier in the gloaming


It has been a long day of travel.  I left Asheville at 7:15am eastern, headed to Atlanta, spent three hours there and then was all set to leave when a woman on our flight got sick on medication and had to be taken off the plane.  That set us back an hour and half and I missed my connection from Salt Lake City to Vancouver.

Impressed though with Delta Airlines.  While we were in the air their “Irregular Operations Team” was hard at work getting everyone rebooked on different flights (and in some cases different carriers.)  the captain came back twice to reassure us that no one had Ebola and that all our connections would be taken care of.  In flight wifi meant that we could check our new itineraries en route.  When I arrived in Salt Lake, it was a simple matter to print out new boarding passes and I even caught a first class upgrade to Seattle.  Now I’m at SEA-TAC, sated with some salmon and a bitter northwest IPA at the tail end of my second three hour layover awaiting the final leg home to Vancouver.  Once I get there it will be a train downtown and a car2go out to Horseshoe Bay to meet the 1230 water taxi.  I should be home by 1am, which will mark 21 hours of travel today, about two hours longer than the last time I went to Australia.

I have managed to get through a third of Bruce Cockburn’s new memoir,  several saved up Instapaper articles, some Radiolab and Tapestry podcasts and some ideas for future inquiries about things.  So not a bad day.  Just a long one.  Four hours to go.

Helping to improve the public conversation

another bown from strachan

For the past few weeks I have been trying an interesting experiment in civic dialogue.

Here on Bowen Island we are in the midst of local elections.  We are a small community of 3500 living on a liece of land about the same size as Vancouver, with fairly limited resources in terms of being able to fund local services.  It is a beautiful and inspiring place to live, a place that almost wills one to dream about it.  It inspires people to move here, to build, to steward, to preserve, to write.  Folks run for election because deep down they love this place and they want to do something about that.

We are close to each other on Bowen.  We are a pretty homogenous place.  We live close to the land and the sea, and close to each other’s dreams and frustrations.  The major difference between us is our opinions of the way the world should be.  And, ike most small communities, I think we suffer from what Freud once called the narcissism of small differences. We project a lot on to each other and it surprises me that some of the vitriol that is produced at keyboards and published online and in print does not translate into real life all that often.  I have seen neighbours who seem to be at war with each other online greet each other cordially in the street.  Relationship seems, in most cases, to trump things.

This anger and frustration is not surprising.  Even in a country like Canada there is an increasing dissociation between citizenship and government.  There are massive global entities that operate beyond the influence of many of us, massive blobal issues that affect our daily lives that we have no say over and our democratic governments don’t give us many effective ways to be heard, although we can still cast a vote for them.  We seem to be subjected to arbitrary decisions all the time, whether it is what is poured into our land and air and sea or what time the ferry runs.  It doesn’t seem to matter what we think.

In that sense, local politics feels like the last place we can actually make a difference.  And when it feels like the only way to make a difference is to shout, that’s what we do.  We shout at each other.  We lose ourselves in the thought that our enemies have to be defeated, that ideas have to be extinguished, that worldviews and ways of seeing and being held by other people are invalid.  And maybe by extension that others are invalid.  It’s just a little to easy, when you live on an island, to suggest that other people love it or leave it.

And I have been as guilty as others in the past, so I’m nothing special.  And I facilitate dialogue for a living.  Being human is hard.

So I wondered if this election cycle would be different, because in the past 10 years or so we have had some unbelievably bad civic conversation about major real estate developments, amenities, by-laws and community plans, ferry marshalling, village planning, a proposal to establish a National Park, and suspicions of conspiracies, conflicts of interest and nefarious motives of our neighbours.  I wondered if this cycle was to be different.  And I wondered if we could do anything to make it different.

For me, when voting for people, I’m not interested in their position.  Anyone can write down a list of things that are good and true and ask if others agree with them.  What I want to see is how you think about stuff that is not so easy to reduce into a yes/no polarity.  I want to see how you confront complexity and how you work with others to figure stuff out.  I saw glimpses early on between a few rookie candidates running for office who started engaging in an online discussion about transportation options for our island.  I saw people doing two things well: admitting that they didn’t know something and sharing information with each other.  It was fascinating.  It gave me a glimpse into how these people might act if they were elected to serve with one another.

I wanted to see more, and regretted that I hadn’t set up a forum for this very function, until one of the candidates on his own set up a facebook page and invited me to moderate it.  And so I stepped in.  Here are the guidelines I posted (if you are on facebook you can see the forum):

1. If you want the candidates to consider a question, either have one of them post it here, or send it by facebook message to me.

2. If your question is a yes/no question, and you send it to me I’m going to ask you to rephrase it because the world is more complicated than that, and dialogue is encouraged by asking questions we don’t know answers to. If you want to see the candidates’ POSITIONS on things, go to their pages. If you want to see them DISCUSSING things together, hang around here. Candidates: please feel free to engage with each other. It’s more interesting to see you discussing things than it is just to read a statement.

3. I’m not sure if we have the setting right, but the intention here is to only have candidates post and respond in the comments. I’m not going to go around deleting comments, but if you are not a candidate and you want your say head over to the Bowen Online Forum. Feel free to “like” things. This space is primarily intended for us to watch candidates working together to figure stuff out.

4. Candidates are allowed to and enouraged to say things like “I don’t know” and “what do you think?” and other admissions of vulnerability, humility and discernment.

5. As things become busier, I’ll prioritize questions from those that haven’t asked any yet. It’s always better to send one great question to get the candidates talking than it is to send a bunch in all at once.

6. Nobody’s perfect. Let these guidelines be good enough to get things going. Message me if this doesn’t work for you.

7. And yes, not everyone is on facebook and there is no way to share this page if you’re not signed on. Perhaps next time we’ll choose a better forum for this conversation. in the meantime, you can certainly cut and paste what you are reading here and email it to others.

Smile. Democracy is more than just voting.

I have to say that it has been a great experience and it has stood in contrast to the Bowen island Forum which is where the rest of the citizenry works out its opinions of one another with a lot of vigour, spontaneity and sometimes quite hurtful attacks.  It gives me a clue to what is possible when we change the way we frame conversation in the public sphere.  Here’s what I learned:

1. The hardest policy questions do not have yes and no answers and we are not served by reducing them to a binary resolution.

2. We need a public conversation that allows us to be wrong or unsure and allows us to share information with each other to make skillful decisions.

3. Everyone needs help to ask good questions and to get away from “gotcha” politics.  (It is interesting how a few people have told me that the facebook page is for “softball” questions because the conversation there has been civil, nuanced and searching.  I have responded that this is because we were trying to deal with real issues rather than gather future ammunition for “i told you so” campaigns.  There is no shortage of material for those searching for conspiracies and nefarious motives, if that is how you choose to view people.)

4. Radically different opinions can actually add nuance and value to a decision if we are able to see the differences and not dismiss people out of hand.  In fact we need this difference.  But learning to live WITH this difference is what qualifies you to a position of stewardship in a community.  Demanding the elimination of difference either by saying that “we should all get along” or “you are fundamentally wrong” erodes community.

5. Facilitating this middle ground requires a commitment to a process, to principle and to boundaries and it requires working with people kindly and respectfully to help them ask the questions they want answers to in a way that opens them for the possibility that they might not get the simple answer they are looking for.  People have responded positively to my private chats with them as we have added more nuance to questions.  We all need help to participate well in the public sphere.

6. Local governance is hard. We do well as citizens to remember this.  Those who will get elected on Saturday are about to take on a job that is many pay grades above what they are going to earn doing it and they will all be confronting novel situations, problems and ideas and will be required to navigate in a good way through difficult waters.  No one knows how to do this perfectly, and I think we owe a little grace and latitude to those who will be entrusted with our future.  And I say that even as I have had significant differences in the past with some of the people likely to be elected.

I have a lot of respect for the candidates that were able to show up in the forum over the last couple of weeks and I have enjoyed the process of putting my money where my mouth is.  It feels to me like I can trust the folks who WILL get elected to carry this tenor of collaboration across and with differences into their four year terms on Council and I hope we have chances to continue to have these kinds of civic conversations face to face.  I am willing to continue exploring forums for better civic dialogue and participating as I can to host and encourage this kind of exploration and collaboration to continue.

Good luck to all on Saturday.

The importance of the disorder domain in Cynefin

Powerful day yesterday in our Art of Learning Together training in Asheville.


One of the ways I teach the Cynefin framework these days is by using a series of exercise to illustrate what it is like to be in each of the five domains. The exercise I use for the disorder domain is to ask people to organize themselves according to a word that is both a verb and a noun.  This causes a bit of confusion especially if people start moving to organize themselves according to what they think I told them. This is exactly the way the disorder domain functions in Cynefin – as the domain of problems one hasn’t thought about, resulting in addressing them with strategies one also hasn’t thought about.  That is what makes it different from chaos.  Usually it is a short exercise that easily drives home the point.


I forgot the word I was going to use to prompt the exercise.  Instead the word that came to mind was “economically.”  Okay it’s an adverb, but it has multiple meanings and I thought it would serve.  “Organize yourselves economically,” I said.  I mostly thought that people would just get stuck in trying to define the word and then have their insights about what “disorder” means.


Instead the conversation got real.  Fast.


You have to understand that this is a very mixed group of people, and economics is one of the ways in which this group exhibits tremendous diversity, and especially diversity that is hidden to the eye.  Economics, money and wealth has a very sharp edge.


The group began feeling it’s way around the topic.  All the domains came to life.   One person offered the SIMPLE suggestion that we just stay in a circle as this is the most economical and efficient way to organize ourselves.  Someone else saw this as COMPLICATED but solvable and began to offer insights on the nature of an economy, concluding that we could organize ourselves according to our net worth (and later, feelings of abundance, access to cash, actually cash in our pockets and other criteria).  Soon we discovered the COMPLEX features of the problem.  People had different relative wealths, they participated in all kinds of different economies and there was no static way to organize themselves.  One person suggested that the little dynamic systems exercise we had done earlier was in fact the was to organize ourselves like an economy and still someone else suggested we break into groups and try and come up with a bunch of different solutions.


All this time the conversation became more and more fraught with emotion, with issues of visibility and invisibility, with privilege and possibility. There was a full range of emotions expressed including anger sadness, joy, frustration, impatience, relief, curiosity and indifference.  This eventually became a chaotic conversation with everyone offering perspectives without any organizing scheme and several people offering solutions which were undermined by perspectives that made them unworkable (yes we could just throw a number into the middle to see how much wealth we collectively had access too, but there is no way I will betray my partner’s financial situation that way).


Eventually, after a couple of proposals made with half formed decision making processes, we passed a piece and had one round of circle that allowed for people to share their perspectives. and feel complete with the exercise.


It was powerful because the conversation exposed the differences in the group in a spontaneous way.  We had lots of time built into our agenda so the hour or so we spent on the exercise could actually be accommodated and in the end it generated a lot of learning.  It was an incredible illustration of how fraught the disorder domain is and why it is absolutely an essential element of the Cynefin framework.  Here lie dragons.  And it was a perfect illustration of the need to skillfully identify and deal with the ontological nature of the problems we face, because just addressing problems with knowledge can be undermined all the time with who and how people actually are, how they see the world and how they are oriented to their contexts.

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.