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.