In the last couple of weeks I have been in deep and important conversations about the work of facilitating change in the world. I am just back from another Art of Hosting gathering, this time in Boulder, Colorado and, among the many many things that were on my mind there, the subject of talk and action came up.
This was especially a good time to have this conversation as this particular Art of Hosting brought together many deep practitioners of both the Art of Hosting approach to facilitating change and the U-process approach to action and systemic change. One of the conversations I had related to solving really tough problems and I had a deep insight in that discussion.
I think first of all that there is a false dichotomy between talk and action. To be more precise I should say that there is a symbiotic relationship between talk and action. We can act any way we choose, and that is just fine, but when we want to take action that is wise, we need to be in conversation with others. We may also be in conversation with context as well, which looks like a literature review, a market study, an environmental scan and so on. Regardless, wisdom follows from being with the insights of others. Wise action is what we do after we have talked well together.
The question now is, what role does wise action have in solving tough problems? It seems to me that every system that responds to something has an action system within it. The action system is what the system or community uses to move on any particular need. And so, in Canada we have a legal system that creates action to resolve disputes between parties. We have a food system that delivers food to our stores. We have a health care system to care for us when we are sick. Within these three systems, there is a discrete action system and there is a lot of conversation. In the legal system conversation and action are raised to high and almost ritualistic arts. The formal conversation of a courtroom is so far beyond regular conversation that one actually has to hire a specialist to engage in it. And judgements, court orders and sentences are the mechanisms by which change takes place. Various bodies enforce these judgements so that there is accountability in the system.
Similarly, the food system and the health care system have conversational forums, meetings and so on in which wisdom and strategy is discerned, and there are trucks and doctors to do the work.
The problem is that neither of these three systems contains an action system that can reduce crime, prevent malnutrition or lower patient wait times. In other words thare are problems that are too big for the curent action system of any given community, society, or world. These problems become known as “wicked problems” or intractable problems, and they are often met with much despair.
When we are faced with these problems, we need to ask ourselves what to do. Do we use the existing systems, even in novel recombination, to try to tackle the biggest problems? Or perhaps is the biggest problem the capacity of the action system itself?
This is an intriguing idea to me. This is what I jotted down this morning in an email to some of my mates about this:
If we take the biggest, toughest and most intractable problem of any community we see immediately that the reason it is so is clearly that the community does not have the ability to deal with it. Water quality is an issue only in places where the community action system has been unable to deal with it. That might be because the community action system is not big enough to address it from a systemic basis, or that the leadership capacity is not strong enough or the collective container is not robust enough, or any combination. Ultimately the biggest problem for any community is: what do we need to do to get our collective power and action working on our toughest problems so that they are no longer our toughest problems?
I wrote a short note on the plane coming home from Denver, and it relates to how absolutely critical harvest is, in terms of focusing our eyes on the ways in which any conversation or meeting might affect a community’s action system. This is an attempt to caputre a simple form of the pitfalls of a false action/talk dichotomy and the necessity for learning, reflection and inquiry in a system.
But what do we do when the system itself is not up to the task of taking action on a large problem? In that case, the inquiry has to find a way to get the system to act on itself to create the conditions and change necessary for it to become powerful enough to move into action on the intractable problem. This is difficult because it requires “bootstrapping” the system to see itself and then teach itself to be bigger and more powerful.”
I don’t know how to do this. But I feel deeply that THIS is the challenge. We can solve global warming IF we figure out how the world community action system can develop the capacity to address the problem. If we don’t develop that capacity, we won’t solve the problem. We can break it into more manageable bits and pieces that fit what we can already do, but global warming is an emergent phenomenon and it needs an emergent response. So what is the biggest problem? Not global warming…it is us…the biggest problem is the inability of our existing systems to address it. And to me, daunting as it is, that seems like work we can actually do togather.
So that is where I am currently, as a facilitator of deep conversation, interested in how we can connect inquiry, talk, harvest and action to find and use the power we need to make to big changes our world needs.
Your thoughts? What seems especially interesting about this take on wicked problems?