Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

July 23, 2009

Order Matters

“Beware of the stories you read and tell.They are shaping your world.”-Ben Okri

I’ve been very interested to read more about the research of social psychologists focused on the impact of the order of thoughts when it comes to making changes in behavior.  David Hardisty has conducted experiments in which people considering whether or not they would agree to a carbon tax to offset their air travel were asked to jot down the sequence of their thinking as they went about making their decision.

What showed up was that in constructing their preferences, the order of participants’ thoughts really mattered, with early thoughts significantly biasing subsequent ones.  For example, people who ultimately rejected a carbon tax had negative first thoughts along the lines of, “I will be dead by the time the world is in an energy crisis,” whereas those who ultimately supported the tax had more positive first thoughts about the welfare of their children or subsequent generations.  More intriguing, in a follow-up study, when Hardisty asked people to first make a list of the benefits of a carbon tax and then make a list of cons, this affected their preference in a more supportive direction no matter their political inclinations.

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July 16, 2009

Come From the Heart

Remember this old song? I don’t. But I heard Garnet Rogers doing a version the other day on WUMB. The timing was quite something, as I was in the car on my way to the office and my return from parental leave, trying to hold on to the reality of my situation. And it’s been on my mind as I get ready to embrace and ease into another transition (just remember, 40 is the new 30). Click to listen to Guy Clark’s rendition.

When I was a young man my daddy told me
A lesson he learned, it was a long time ago
If you want to have someone to hold onto
You’re gonna have to learn to let go

You gotta sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work

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July 9, 2009

Prove or Improve?

Last week I had the privilege of co-delivering a workshop on collaboration and effective teams to this year’s crop of New Leaders for New Schools Residents as part of their Summer Foundations experience.  These principals-to-be truly give one hope for the future of education in this country.

Prior to our two days of delivery, I heard Jeff Howard of the Efficacy Institute deliver a presentation to the Residents on the difference between what he called a “performance orientation” and a “learning orientation.”  Howard’s claim is that schools often fail when they overemphasize student and staff performance at the expense of learning, and his message to the future school leaders was that they needed to think hard about what is most important as a long-term goal for the people in their building.

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July 2, 2009

Mind Over Laundry

In her analysis of leverage points to intervene in a system, the late Donella Meadows highlighted mindsets as one of the most fundamental levels on which to focus if one is hoping to make deep and long-lasting change. The case for this is well made in a recent article in Mass Audubon’s Sanctuary Magazine.

Katherine Scott writes in “The Wind in the Wash” about the lost art of the clothesline in America, largely obscured by the now ubiquitous clothes dryer. In this day and age, notes Scott, many children haven’t the remotest idea of what a clothespin is. She is not simply waxing nostalgic, but making an important point about the way we think.

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June 25, 2009

This I Believe

In the 1950s journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program called This I Believe, in which he invited people from all walks of life to share their personal philosophies. Fifty years later, Dan Gediman revived the show on National Public Radio with the goal of “encouraging people to begin the . . . difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.” The result has been a growing movement of communities and schools jumping at the opportunity to invite citizens and students to articulate their core beliefs and values, and to align their lives accordingly. For a taste (actually a glimpse and/or listen), check out this link.

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June 18, 2009

Daddy’s Back

Next week I return to work after three blissful weeks of parental leave. Well, perhaps I should say three very full weeks (I’m not sure that nights with little sleep and days filled with constantly changing diapers constitute bliss). I am forever grateful to the Interaction Institute for Social Change for having such a humane parental leave policy, for a father no less. This is certainly not the standard in this country.

The flip side of my gratitude is the sadness that comes from needing to leave my two infant girls, and to leave my wife with her hands full. It is certainly much more than a full time job to raise three children, and considerably more to do it well. And I am sad to think of all the parents in this country who do not have anything approaching the kind of benefit we have at IISC, and hopeful that efforts to enact some kind of federal legislation will be successful.

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June 18, 2009

Daddy's Back

Next week I return to work after three blissful weeks of parental leave. Well, perhaps I should say three very full weeks (I’m not sure that nights with little sleep and days filled with constantly changing diapers constitute bliss). I am forever grateful to the Interaction Institute for Social Change for having such a humane parental leave policy, for a father no less. This is certainly not the standard in this country.

The flip side of my gratitude is the sadness that comes from needing to leave my two infant girls, and to leave my wife with her hands full. It is certainly much more than a full time job to raise three children, and considerably more to do it well. And I am sad to think of all the parents in this country who do not have anything approaching the kind of benefit we have at IISC, and hopeful that efforts to enact some kind of federal legislation will be successful.

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June 11, 2009

Design for a Living World

“Ecological design competence means maximizing resource and energy efficiency, taking advantage of the free services of nature, recycling wastes, making ecologically smarter things, and educating ecologically smarter people.  It means incorporating intelligence about how nature works . . . into the way we think, design, build, and live.” -David Orr

The Nature Conservancy’s “Design for a Living World” Exhibition, which recently opened (May 14th) at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, features ten designers exploring the relationship between the natural world and the products we use. Each designer was asked to develop new uses for sustainably grown and harvested materials and the results are quite beautiful in a number of different ways.

I find the idea of designing for a living (or livable) world to be a powerful invitation for those of us engaged in creating experiences to bring out the best in others (innovation, collaboration). I hear the call to be mindful and respectful of the cultural and ecological contexts in which I find myself, to work with (not against) the surrounding social/natural environment, and to think in restorative (as opposed to extractive) ways. As David Orr, environmental philosopher and author of The Nature of Design, suggests, sustainable design is all about creating harmony between intentions and “the genius of particular places” (we might add particular people). The standard for Orr is not so much efficiency or productivity, but health. So here’s to ours, fellow designers.

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June 4, 2009

Generation G

In the final chapter of “What Would Google Do?” (recently referred to by Marianne), Jeff Jarvis makes a provocative statement about the future and promise of a networked world.  Many of the points Jarvis makes appear to turn things on their head, at least compared to the way that many of us might first react to developments in our ever more densely connected and information-rich world.

A few things to ponder:

1.    This current generation is growing up with an ability to stay in touch with nearly everyone they meet throughout their entire lives.  Whereas those of us who grew up pre-Facebook may have lost track of old childhood friends and college buddies, this generation has the possibility of always being more directly in touch with the different chapters of their lives.  Scary?  This seems profound to me, and yet I don’t really know exactly how.  What might this do to the very nature of relationship?

2.    The flip side of TMI (too much information) is greater transparency.  Young people are putting so much more of themselves and their lives out for public consideration.  Often this gets construed as risky and/or a kind of exhibitionism.  However, if more people are playing the same game, then perhaps the rules will enforce greater overall acceptance and safety of full and liberating self-expression.  Jarvis quotes author David Weinberger  – “An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness.”  Wow.

3.    And what about all of that apparently inane information that people share about their bunions or the mold growing on the bathroom tile?  Well, how about the benefit of “ambient intimacy” (Jarvis quoting blogger Leisa Reichelt –www.disambiguity.com), swapping the small details of our daily lives?  This may just help us to develop stronger relationships as we come to know more about people who would otherwise be just acquaintances, or grease the wheels for the next time we physically see one another or talk by phone (less catch up time).

Throughout these and multiple other points, Jarvis seems to be suggesting that more integrated lives and more widespread trust are a result of living in the Google age.  Given that collaboration thrives on trust, and that collaboration may be our saving grace as a species (see Charles Darwin and my post “The Group Effect” – ), shouldn’t we all be striving to be fully exposed and (wireless) card carrying members of Generation G?

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May 28, 2009

Heart and Soul

“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”

—Harold Goddard

As current President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation Bill Roper tells the story, a couple of decades ago Lyman Orton, proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, was involved in local town planning efforts in Weston, Vermont. In the 1980s, at a time when the state was experiencing a building boom due to the rise of second home ownership, Weston and other small towns found themselves struggling to preserve their unique character while continuing to grow and embrace change. The local town planning commission in Weston, of which Orton was a member, discovered that it was ill equipped to address existing zoning restrictions and bylaws, which left town members powerless around policies that affected land use in their community. The frustration of this experience spurred the creation of the Orton Family Foundation, which began supporting small towns by providing resources, including user-friendly GIS mapping and visualization tools, to citizens to help them envision and ultimately have a say in their communities’ future.

Under Bill Roper’s leadership, the Orton Family Foundation places a particular emphasis on helping towns identify and protect the essence of their community through the collection of shared stories. Like all of the work of the Foundation, efforts have been made to make planning accessible to non-planner types. To this end, language is everything. Roper and his staff avoid jargon by asking residents simply (but profoundly) to identify the “heart and soul” of their community. As they say on their website, “Traditional quantitative approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make community. . . . Furthermore, a collection of quantifiable attributes without an understanding of shared values and a sense of purpose does not motivate citizens to show up and make tough, consistent decisions.” In other words, when it comes downs to it, it’s about people.

Time and again, this revelation comes up in various policy debates where experts come together and more often than not leave out the people who are most impacted by (and who have much to offer) their decisions. We know the devastating impact this can have, and yet it continues. In a recent blog post, Dave Snowden rails against obsessions with outcomes measurement when it comes to reforming social services, saying that we continue to look for fail safe, quantifiable, and expert-driven solutions to problems that are much too complex to lend themselves to expertly engineered solutions. He makes a case for greater involvement of the system (including everyday citizens) and the use of narrative to understand the dynamics of and ways of working with the system. With the Orton Foundation example, we might add the importance of using language that invites broader and deeper engagement. This is about creating space for people to share their own experiences and perspectives, allowing not only for the relevance of these stories, but their power to shape something new.

How might we do more of this in our work, to make room not just for the sharing of facts and figures, but stories? And what are the stories we are telling ourselves that are shaping our worlds?

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May 21, 2009

The Group Effect

I keep returning to the cover article of the New York Times Magazine of a few weeks ago entitled “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” Other than being a fascinating piece on what might prevent people from getting into a more environmentally sustainable mindset (and therefore sustained sustainable behavior), it makes a very strong case for collaboration as a smart (and potentially species saving) decision-making process.

Author Jon Gertner has spent considerable time with behavioral economists, looking at the limits of individual decision-making when it comes to long-term trade-offs. For example, researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University have pointed to the shortcomings of two different ways individuals process risk: (1) an analytical approach that seems to have less tolerance for delayed benefits and (2) an emotional approach that is restricted by one’s lack of experience with certain phenomena (such as rising sea levels). Both approaches disincline individuals from making choices that have short-term costs (reduced consumption, paying a carbon tax) but may ultimately be better for the planet. Hence, say some decision scientists, the tragedy of the commons – the overgrazing of land, the depletion of fisheries, the amassing of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Just when Gertner is ready to say, “We’re screwed,” he points to other research that suggests that an answer to our individual failings on the front of risk assessment may lie in our associational tendencies and community-based intelligence. For instance, Michel Handgraaf has conducted studies in Amsterdam that show that when people make decisions as a group, their conversations gravitate more to considerations of “we” and delayed benefits. Similarly, anthropologist Ben Orlove at UC-Davis has studied farmers in Uganda and observed that when they listened to rainy season radio broadcasts in groups, rather than as individuals, they engaged in discussions that led to consensus decisions that made better use of forecasts – collectively altering planting dates or using more drought resistant seeds.

In other words, it may behoove us all to collaborate more, and with a twist. Evidence suggests that it is best to begin thinking through decisions in groups, rather than weighing them as individuals and then coming together. This just might get us more quickly to the “group effect,” to a collective identity and ability to think and act long-term. As Jon Gertner puts it, “What if the information for decisions, especially environmental ones, is first considered in a group setting before members take it up individually?”

What if? Why not? How to? What say you?

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May 14, 2009

The Other Side of Complexity

Last week I had the privilege of working with my colleague Daryl Campbell in offering IISC’s Pathway to Change workshop for the first time to the general public. Overall it was a very positive experience, and seemed to confirm our suspicions that the course is timely given the growing demand and desire for working collaboratively. That said, as we were wrapping up we heard a few comments that are not so unfamiliar. “This is wonderful, it’s just what we need, and it’s a lot!” “There’s so much to absorb. I need time to sort it out.” There were a few suggestions to slow down the pace next time, or to space out the days to give time for both absorption and application. At the same time, people recognized that the three consecutive days had a certain power and punch to them, both with respect to connecting content and creating community in the room.

Sitting with this conundrum, it occurred to me that it just may be unavoidable. As we like to say, it’s important to meet complexity with complexity. What we were addressing in the room was the need to work with complex social and environmental issues by bringing more people and ideas to the table, with a variety of tools at one’s disposal. Indeed, it is a lot to take in and apply. And the point certainly is not to overwhelm folk, but rather to help them eventually reach what our colleague Cynthia Parker calls “the simplicity the other side of complexity.” In other words, there is necessary work and wrestling to be done before reaching mastery.

That said, I made an effort in the workshop before we closed to offer some consoling words. Underlying all of the various concepts and tools we discussed, there seem to be a few core ideas for guiding one’s work as an effective collaborative leader/change agent:

  1. Awareness – Everything we talked about pointed to the need to be attentive to the various situations we face as well as our own interior condition. Being aware of what circumstances might call for and not acting on impulse are critical steps in helping to ensure that we are more “in tune” with reality.
  2. Intention – Another theme that emerges is the importance of acting with some forethought, being plan-full in light of the unique situations in which we find ourselves. The basic idea is that we act as an extension of our awareness.
  3. Balance – Collaboration is not about working with everyone all the time or only working through consensus. It comes down to balance – knowing when to make more unilateral decisions and when to be more inclusive; holding results, process, and relationship in dynamic tension as dimensions of collaborative success. Problems arise not so much when we make a wrong call (which we can correct) but when we make the same call over and over again.
  4. Wisdom – It is important to remember that the models we teach are based on practice. Somewhere, someone was doing something effectively and the models capture this success. In a sense, there is something very intuitive about what we teach, and so as important as learning the skills may be, there is also work to be done around getting in touch with our inner knowing, and grounding all of our actions in an ethic of service, authenticity and love.
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