The other day I was working with an emerging inter-institutional collaboration of universities looking to move the needle on “transitioning to sustainability.” Like so many other conversations that I am a part of these days, there were bold visions tempered by structural realities, including robust conversation about internal constraints to the kind of progress people are striving to realize. These constraints are not simply internal to our organizations in the form of protocols and politics, but also to our thinking. As David Bohm once wrote,
“Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally.”
And so there is a call to constantly “mind the lines” that are not simply “out there,” but that are conscious and unconscious projections of our thoughts, and that do not serve our intensions. Perhaps no one says it better than the late Donella Meadows in a piece from which I read the other day and have pulled extracts below. For the entire essay, visit the Donella Meadows Institute.
From “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World” by Donella Meadows (December 24, 1987)
The earth was formed whole and continuous in the universe, without lines.
The human mind arose in the universe needing lines, boundaries, distinctions. Here and not there. This and not that. Mine and not yours.
That is sea and this is land, the mind thinks, and here is the line between them. See? It’s very clear on the map.
But, as the linguists say, the map is not the territory. The line on the map is not to be found at the edge of the sea. . . .
Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?
This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me. . . .
Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .
I have to work hard not to pay attention to you. When I succeed, when I have closed my mind to you with walls of indifference, then the presence of those walls, which constrain my own aliveness, are reminders of you.
And when I do pay attention, very close attention, when I open myself fully to your humanity, your complexity, your reality, then I find, always, under every other feeling and judgment and emotion, that I love you.
Even between you and me, even there, the lines are only of our own making.
You might have picked up that I’m down on too much process and too much meeting. It’s a funny place for someone that makes a living facilitating. It is part of a semi-conscious effort to look at the opposite of my core assumptions and seek the wisdom there.
You probably know this challenge. Start with 3 rows of 3 dots in the form of a square. Now using only three or four straight lines, connect all of the dots without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper (see answers above). I was reminded of this exercise by some of the participants in the Tillotson Fund Community Practitioners Network (CPN). They used it as a metaphor during a presentation about a multi-functional collaborative platform they are proposing to connect a rather vast and disparate region of New Hampshire’s northern most county, including parts of western Vermont, southern Quebec, and eastern Maine. The vision for the platform is that it would help to build connectivity and alignment around a core set of regional values that would also inspire action for community and economic development. Read More
In my current work with the Cancer Free Economy Network, I have the opportunity to partner with a very skilled team of consultants, including Joe Hsueh from Second Muse. Joe’s core offering to this initiative is system mapping and helping people to hold systemic complexity. The short video above, taken by another team member, Eugene Kim, features some of Joe’s thinking about what it takes to gain “strategic clarity” when striving to evolve a complex system.
One of the many things I appreciate about Joe is his holistic approach to system mapping which renders it much less mechanistic than I’ve seen from other practitioners. In fact, as this great article in The Guardian about Joe and his work illustrates, he comes from a very deep, some might call it spiritual, place. As the article quotes him, “Systems mapping, system modeling – all these scientific tools and methods – these are not ends in themselves. For me, they are tools for us to create a space where we open our minds, open our hearts and open our will.” In this sense, the (system) map is not the territory in more ways than one.
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
― David Bohm
I have learned a tremendous amount over the last several years from practitioners associated with the Regenesis Group – Carol Sanford, Bill Reed, Joel Glanzsberg, and Pamela Mang. Specifically, they have pushed my own thinking about my own thinking, and how this kind of awareness is key to supporting successful system change. I recommend all readers of this blog to check out the wealth of resources on the Regenesis website. And I want to highlight a blog post from Pamela Mang, a segment of which I have included below, that points to how our dominant ways of thinking can undercut our stated aims. The full post can be found here on the edge:Regenerate site.
“The way we think is shaped by patterns that we’ve been taught or picked up over the course of our lives, patterns that are deeply embedded in our culture and institutions. Over time, these patterns have become increasingly interdependent and self-reinforcing and, most problematic, increasingly habitual because they are invisible to us. If we want to change how we think, the first step must be to make visible the patterns that currently shape our thinking. Only then can we decide which are useful when, and which condemn us to degenerative outcomes. . . . Read More
Last week I had the privilege of being part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco. My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder changeprocesses. The last day I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and take a deeper view of their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.
This framework offers that our chosen change methods are always grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about humanity, the world and what constitutes “knowing.” Not being aware of or transparent about this can get us into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when we are not operating from the same system of beliefs as others. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More
It’s good to plan. It’s good to reflect. It’s best to do.
Here at IISC we spend a fair amount of time supporting others in articulating what they want to achieve, including those who must be included, and defining a pathway to action. When done well, this work depends on a fair amount of reflection on practice – how do you think about what you do? What are you learning about what you do?
We also train people. We help them become better facilitative leaders. We introduce specific practices – specific things people can do.
Without the practice the lessons are lost. We learn by doing.
I was just talking about this in our office kitchen with Danielle Coates-Connor, one of our colleagues, and she compared it to meditation.
It is quite hip to talk about meditation these days. Mindfulness is in. At least in theory. People have a sense that stillness of the mind and present moment awareness are powerful ways to live and thrive. But there is a huge gap between knowing this and practicing this. Too many of us still believe that thinking about meditation is a lot like meditation. But it’s not.
The same is true for our projects and our dreams. We can get the right stakeholders together. We can talk about what we want to do. We can visualize it. We can plot it out. But the learning doesn’t begin until we start. The change does not begin until we do.
Do you wonder:
How to integrate more “doing” in your “planning?”
How to integrate more “doing” in your “reflecting?”
“Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively.”
Conferences and other large in-person convenings provide a great opportunity to launch and further develop networks for social change. As has been mentioned previously on this blog, and borrowing from the good work of Plastrik and Taylor, at IISC we see networks for change as developing in various inter-related dimensions, including connectivity, alignment, and action. Paying attention to these dimensions of success can inform a variety of approaches to support a more robust, trust-bound, commonly-oriented, self-organizing and (as needed) formally coordinated collective.
What if the goods of today became the resources of tomorrow?
Regular readers of this blog know that I am particularly interested in living systems and networks and how they can inform how we approach our change work so that it is more in synch with how life works. This video is very much in alignment with my interests and ongoing inquiry, and while focused primarily on the economy and production, IMHO it has implications for all areas of focus for social change. Some of the provocative questions it raises include the following: Read More
Another story about what can happen when we fail to hold a broader systemic view in our social change work . . . I was working with a food system-focused network the other day and the good news was reported that great strides have been made in reducing food waste, in large part because distributors and retailers are doing a much better job of tracking inventory and fitting it better to consumer demand.
On the other hand, it was also reported that this spells a real challenge for the “emergency food” world and food banks, which have been largely dependent upon excess food to provide for the growing number of people who are food insecure. Read More
One of the roles that I’ve found to be particularly helpful in coaching collaborative initiatives and groups over the long-term is to help people understand that as a collective, they are unique. That is, like every living being, each group has its own distinct qualities and personality and for groups who have not worked together before, part of the early work is getting a better sense of who we are together and how we want to be together. We cannot simply assume that what worked with one collaborative will work with another. We have to honor history and other contextual factors as well as work to find was is real and essential about this living system. Read More