I have been thinking a lot the past few weeks about the living systems vs. the mechanical systems worldviews. It’s interesting that there is a clear distinction between these two kinds of systems – a system is alive or it isn’t, at least in this point in time – and yet the way we humans think our way through being in these systems seems to fall on a continuum.
My conversation with Myriam Laberge here has pointed this out. I initially wrote a post that put facilitating up against hosting as two words to describe different ways of working with groups within human systems. I advocated for a new way of thinking about the role of facilitation (especially as it is perceived by mainstream and unspecialized views, which describes a large number of the clients of facilitators). Myriam rightly called me out on the stark polarity of my conceptualization, seeing instead that facilitation and hosting (not the words, but the actual work that we both articulate) are on some kind of continuum of approaches to groups.
Now I’m thinking that a continuum is even too limiting a way to talk about the variety of possibilities in working with groups. Humans in relationship with each other are, after all, living systems, and as such even a group of two people can be an incredibly complex system, bouncing between high degrees of chaos and order. So there is nothing whatsoever mechanical about human beings, and therefore any approach to working with humans – and life in general, is by definition a living systems approach. Instead of a continuum, we facilitators (or hosts or whatever) simply work from a cloud of approaches, as distinct and unique as each of us are. This makes the work of facilitation difficult to describe. Some, like the International Association of Facilitators, have tried to define the field and provide certification around a specific approach, but this is by no means an exclusive definition. The variety of ways of working with people is as various as people themselves.
And so I am led instead to think about the attributes of living systems so that I might better understand effective ways of working with people. I am not breaking any radically new ground here, except in my own practice. I began my professional life of working with groups specializing in chairing meetings, which I did from a young age. As a teenager, I was involved in all kinds of groups thet met, and I chaired many of them, enjoying being a position of power and control (I mean, let’s be honest, shall we?) but growing into an enjoyment of the kinds of good things that skilful conversation can produce. I was aware from the age of 16 that the way a meeting was run could have a significant impact on its outcome.
As I grew in my practice and curiosity about this field, I discovered chaos and complexity theory and became very interested in methodologies like Open Space Technology that place this world view at its core. To me watching groups in Open Space was unlike anything I had ever seen. Large groups of people, sometimes in the hundreds, could manage an entire conference themselves with only a few simple directions, some elementary pieces of form and a question or issue for which there was real passion. Over the years, I have witnessed this experiment running literally hundreds of times, and it continues to amaze and delight.
So if Open Space really works, then what is it that makes it work? Harrison Owen has been consumed with studying self-organization for many years now, because his experience of Open Space led hm to the same conclusions – humans are living systems and they behave much more like nature than machine. There is no mechanical approach that will work with humans – witness the recent trend for instance away from Business Process Re-engineering due to the deemphasis on the human factor. What works BETTER in a living system is an appreciative approach. What if an appreciative world view was a more relevant and therefore a more generative world view for determining processes for working with humans than a world view that seeks to engineer human engagement?
As I was flying in Denver Yesterday on my way home from Phoenix, looking down on the land on final approach, a question went through my mind: How do living systems make use of resources? I was reflecting on a recent appreciative summit I facilitated last week, where I was explaining the appreciative world view as being essentially a way to understand the resources we have among us and figuring out ways of deploying or channelling them where they are needed. The brown prairie below our approach path, and the dry streams leading out of the front range of the Rocky Mountains made me aware that in living systems like the one below me, all resources go to creating life. There is no waste in a living system at all. Everything that lives, eventually dies and in death it becomes, in the words of William McDonough, nutrition for the system. The resources that exist within the system flow towards life and life itself aggregates and grows around resources, creating an ever upward spiral of living matter that is limited only by the constraints of the system itself. When a critical limit is reached, the system seeks balance. If a catastrophy strikes the systems becomes something else, an emergent self-organizing order will take place. But it never dies, for the earth itself is a living system. Even rocks, locked in statsis for millions of years eventually supply the minerals that are needed for life itself.
Resources flow where they are needed and they attract life to themselves. This is fundamental. The system acts with a kind of intelligence, but it is not control. What can we learn about this for working appreciatively with small living systems of human beings?