A few months ago, I was immersed in teaching complexity within the framework of the Art of Participatory Leadership program (AoPL). Essentially, AoPL is the application of the Art of Hosting within leadership contexts, extending beyond traditional facilitation and hosting scenarios. With a strong emphasis on personal practice and the use of complexity tools, AoPL encourages a deeper exploration of the connections between the Four Fold Practice, complexity, and dialogic containers – topics I’d previously addressed in my chapter for the book ‘Dialogic Organizational Development‘. My recent revisit to these subjects has sparked fresh insights.
In one of these sessions, a spontaneous thought emerged: “Leadership is all about managing interactions to get results.” This notion, inspired by Dave Snowden’s idea that culture is the product of interactions within a system, made me reflect upon the history of my own fascination with containers.
Throughout my life, I’ve found myself drawn to the concept of containers, primarily, I believe, due to an aversion to controlling interactions between people. This leaning was what initially attracted me to open space technology as an empowering meeting process. It didn’t dictate how people were going to interact, but instead provided conditions conducive to fruitful and creative connections. It left agency with the participants rather than centralizing control with the facilitator – something I’ve always preferred to avoid. Open Space is built on the ideas of self-organization and is therefore a natural method to use in complex environments, to invite groups to organize around important conversations and ideas for which they have the energy and agency to host.
This interest in open space led me to the realm of complexity science and various writings on self-organization, including work on networks, emergence, and community organizing. These concepts strive to vest power in the hands of those actively involved in the work, a principle that resonated deeply with me and steered me towards anthro-complexity and the application of complexity science to human systems.
It was in this field that I discovered William Isaacs’s seminal book on dialogue. Isaacs was among the first to describe the dialogic container in the context of organizational life. This deepened my interest in the topic, leading to my connection with Gervase Bushe in the early 2010s. Our collaboration eventually resulted in an invitation to contribute a chapter to the book he was editing with Bob Marshak, a key text in introducing dialogic organizational development to the world.
Interactions, containers, patterns, and emergent outcomes are all characteristics of complex systems. Both Snowden and Glenda Eoyang offer valuable, and different, insights into how constraints create conditions for emergence. However, the lesson that resonates most with me is the idea that, in complex situations, we can only work with the constraints to increase our chances of creating beneficial patterns.
This approach to working with containers and constraints can be challenging and risks verging into manipulation, especially when massive amounts of power and data are involved, such as in large social media companies. There is an ethical imperative to maintain transparency when working with constraints, a principle fundamental to this work.
In my chapter for Bob and Gervase’s book, I discussed the Four Fold Practice as a guiding framework. It helps leaders focus on four key patterns that make conversations meaningful, while also nurturing an environment that fosters the emergence of these patterns.
This practice grew from the observation that presence, participation, hosting, and co-creation are essential elements of meaningful, productive conversations. Importantly, these patterns should not be imposed but rather fostered through well-crafted containers.
Rather than dictating “be present now!”, we can shape spaces where presence naturally occurs and feels appreciated. Instead of compelling participation, we aim to cultivate processes that promote deep engagement through authentic and impactful invitations.
The same principles apply to hosting and co-creation. We shouldn’t impose facilitation roles onto individuals; instead, we should craft environments in which people comfortably host each other on various scales – from open-space, world café, circle to intimate one-on-one interactions.
Similarly, forcing people into co-creation isn’t the right approach. Instead, we must provide them with the necessary tools, conditions, constraints, and challenges to stimulate collaborative creation and achieve desired outcomes.
I strive to uphold these principles from the Four Fold Practice in every facilitation – to create conditions where the patterns of presence, participation, hosting, and co-creation naturally emerge.
This exploration into the realm of leadership, complexity, and dialogic containers has been a journey of discovery, reflection, and evolution. My fascination with containers and how they impact interactions, outcomes, and ultimately culture within a system continues to grow.
The intersection of complexity and leadership in the context of dialogic containers is a rich tapestry of insights and practices that can greatly enhance our effectiveness as leaders, facilitators, and change-makers. The journey is ongoing, and the learning never stops.
How do these reflections resonate with you? I’m thinking of writing more on the idea of containers, and would welcome your thoughts and questions about the topic.