I’m reading, writing and thinking a lot about containers these days. It has been a pervasive theme in my life, as I have constantly been obsessed with the concept, the ideas and the practices of building and holding containers for as long as I can remember. The spiritual practices I have cultivated in my life have always been related to containers. From the beginning of my facilitation career, the ideas that have most grabbed me are the ideas of hosting and holding space.
I remember a couple of significant events in my thinking as I realized how important containers are to facilitation and leadership. The first was my first exposure to Open Space Technology in 1995. That first experience, hosted by Anne Stadler, Angeles Arrian and Chris Carter, began with a kind of ritual invocation as we moved from what had been a traditional conference of 400 people to a day of self-organized conversations. In that instance, a candle was lit, and something more spiritual than transactional took place as we were welcomed into Open Space.
After that meeting, I devoted myself to Open Space Technology and to the practice of what I later came to know as “hosting:” holding space for self-organization and emergence. As I began to study dialogic practice, facilitation, self-organization and complexity, the idea of “the container” loomed large in my awareness.
If you have read my blog over the years, you will see this. There are more than two dozen blog posts that explore my thinking on this, and my only serious academic publishing has been on this topic. It is a subject that grabs me because it represents a concept that has appeared in every part of my life, from facilitation to music making, to playing and watching sports, to spiritual practice and so on. It is the one idea that seems to define what my life has been all about hosting and holding containers for self-organization and the emergence of good things.
And yet, it is almost a completely intangible idea. Of course, containers are quite visible when we make them out of walls and windows, or the sides of boats, or an island surrounded by water. But most of the rest of the containers we live in are ephemeral, diaphanous, hardly there at all, and yet they determine so much of our behaviour. Containers enact ways of thinking and cognitive patterns for good or ill. They can evoke emotional responses that arise from our subconscious. They define or challenge our sense of identity or belonging and they can focus our attention or cause it to become diffuse.
Ten years ago as I was starting out on my research for the chapter I ended up writing in the Dialogic Organizational Development book on containers, I had a chance to sit down with Crane Stookey, who is a tall ship captain and a consultant and who has written extensively and generously on containers. He was my first interviewee on this topic because he has such a clear experience of understanding and working with containers, as do all captains that command ships built for the roiling sea. Our conversation at the time was fantastic, and the only note I recorded said this: “The container builds the conditions for internal transformation. In Dialogic OD, needs this to be the primary site of change.”
What I meant by that is that any change that comes to an organization (or team, or group or community…) comes because the conditions for how that group self-organizations have changed. Containers are so important for this because the constraints at work in containers are the things that determine the behaviours and possibilities in a complex system. We know this is true – take the tables out of your board room and see what happens – and yet so much work in the world towards changes focuses on the idea that if we could just work harder to control on the interactions between people and the outcomes of those interactions, we will get the world we want. It is a perspective I find cruel and at odds with human community and life itself. It is one that is colonial at its heart.
So there are stakes to working on this and trying to bring this idea and set of concepts to some clarity, and I think this is something I am going to be devoting my time and attention to over the next little while to see if I can come up with some really good ways to describe the properties of containers, especially the ineffable ones, and the practices we use as humans for crossing over thresholds and entering into the bounded spaces of our lives that bring us into different ways of thinking and being. Maybe – and I realize I’ve made this promise before but…- maybe it becomes a book.
I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this topic, your questions, your enthusiasms and stories of your experience. What do you think? Is this something worthwhile? What would it mean to you to have a set of thoughts, practices and ways of working with containers that help you to see this locus of change work?