I was back at St. Aidan’s United Church in Victoria yesterday, hosting another conversation in their continued evolution into their next shape. Last December we worked together to explore four possible scenarios that were being proposed for the congregation. In the past few months they have been working on implementing one of these scenarios – the one which featured a plan to develop a Spiritual Learning Centre. Yesterday was a short strategic conversation called to explore the shape of what that Centre could be and how it will change life at the church.
As a process we chose to engage in a two hour World Cafe as a form of brainstorming, the results of which were to be used by the planning committee to continue their planning work. It was important to the planning committee to hear a wide variety of ideas and opinions on this initiative, rather than narrowing down choices. It is too early for them to decide on what the centre will look like. From a complexity view, they need a better understanding of boundaries and attractors to work with.
About 40 people showed up and we went through the following process:
1. Using world cafe we explored three questions over three rounds. First round: “Tell a story of your own development of spiritual practice.”
2. We then switched tables and considered the question “What are you hearing about what was helpful to people in their own spiritual development?” In this round we asked people at the tables to recorded every piece of insight on a single post-it note, with the small gaming incentive that each table of four was to try to produce as many as possible.
3. After placing all their post-its in a pile in the middle of the table, participants switched again and spent the third round diving into the question “What possibilities have these conversations inspired in you?” Again participants listened and recorded ideas on post it notes, adding to the pile in the middle. At the conclusion of that round, the piles were dealt out evenly and randomly amongst the four at the table.
4. For the round, people took their post-its and joined three others. They were invited to group and categorize their post-its. Each table was working with probably 30-40 pieces of data, so the pattern finding was rich. Each table came up with a categorization scheme for the data they had, and recorded it on a piece of paper. The categories were also written on small yellow posts-its. That whole package was returned to the team.
The team has several artifacts in hand now:
- Raw data at a fine level of granularity – approximately 150 post it notes full of ideas and learning about the way in which St.Aidan’s members have engaged in their own spiritual development.
- 10 categorization schemes which illustrate a diversity of ways of thinking about the data
- Excitement in the group for what might be possible
- A smidgin more community through the process of sharing stories and listening deeply to one another, especially listening between people who don’t normally talk to one another.
- A growing familiarity with participatory process and collective sense-making in the congregation.
What comes next
The team is now set to meet and review the data. The process I proposed for them is as follows:
1. Find a place with a big wall an spread out all of the raw data. begin to cluster the post its notes
2. When you are done, work with the small yellow post-its, to see how those help you to understand your groupings. This is a creative process, noticing the tensions between the team’s scheme and the categories that the group came up with.
3. Notice commonalities and differences, emerging patterns, what already exists and what needs to be created. Also notice the outliers – post it notes that seem to have no category. Rather than dismissing these, a wise piece of action might be to inquire more deeply into these and see what they mean.
4. What the group is looking for is boundaries and attractors. In other words, what are the attractors that are emerging that become activities to understand and develop more deeply? The team will be able to make some strategic decisions with experiments about the developing these ideas so that they can try new things, build on existing things (working with attractors) and create an invitation to a new minister who can help them live into this work and a further invitation to the congregation about what the Spiritula Learning Centre could be (working with boundaries).
The team will be leading out formal and informal conversations as the congregation way-finds together.
Why it worked
There are a few lessons to highlight here, relating to how this short strategic conversation was informed by complexity theory.
1. Obliquity grounded in story. The team is in the development process of this work. Asking people who have not been involved in this work to say directly what the Spiritual Learning Centre would be is not useful. That would be to court opinions of folks that haven’t been thinking about the issue. Instead, it’s more important that the team uncover and work with the way that people are engaged in their own spiritual development so that the can create strategic choices that are coherent with the story. This is the absolute crux of strategic work in complex systems. We got at those patterns using stories that were specific and grounded in people’s own expereince, something they are experts in.
2. Data proceeded the frameworks. It takes a while to get this one, but it is important. Regardless of what the team has been thinking, it’s important that a framework for this centre come from the congregation’s stories. In the end it was clear that a framework based on categories like People, Facility, Resources, Practices was going to serve the work. But that framework emerged and will continue to emerge from data. i have often seen people engage in strategic conversations where participants are given the framework first and then their conversations are constrained by that. One has to be very careful making that kind of design decision. You have to be very sure that the framework is correct before you begin. And in a complex system, it is more likely to reflect cognitive biases than objective reality.
3. Working with data a fine level of granularity, and not mediating sense-making. Many times in world cafe’s the harvesting round engages in a convergence exercise whereby the tables come up with a small number of insights. From this patterns and categories are made. The problem with that approach, I now see, is that it eliminates the fine granularity of stories and ideas that allows for better strategic decisions. There is a desire to not be overwhelmed by data, but in complexity work, being overwhelmed is actually a good thing as it causes you to disrupt your own patterns and to look again at the data. Working with a fine level of granularity also means that the project team can look at outliers – ideas that seem to be outside the norms. These outliers can gives us all sorts of information. For example, unseen opportunities, innovative thinking, unspoken conflict and novel practice all appear as outliers. Outliers are easy to dismiss, especially if they don’t conform to preconceived categories. That is a dangerous temptation. Continuing to work with the raw data at the fine grain level gives you access to multiple ways of sense-making without erasing the details that could be early warning signs, seeds for new practice or nascent opportunity.
It was a good day. A short conversation for people that gave the team good data and built deeper community. A home run in this kind of work.
The team is faced with the task of writing some more strategy documents but they have a rich source of data and stories to work from. Planning these days is as much about ongoing sense-making and inquiring into the patterns as nit is decision making, resourcing and implementing. These processes can make that work lighter, even if it feels like the work itself is more difficult. But at least you get to wrestle with the right things (angels vs the devil in the details?).