“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
– T.S. Eliot
For the past few weeks I have been re-reading the book Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. I am deeply grateful for Daniel’s gift, a rich distillation of his PhD thesis that points in the direction of a more sane, hopeful and health-promoting future. Regenerative development is a broad body of study and practice that informs much of my own thinking about and practice around social change. A fundamental recognition of the regenerative lens is that in order to live we harvest from the larger living systems (communities, ecosystems) of which we are a part in such a way that can weaken them, and can put us at risk. Regenerative thinking and practice then asks:
What might we do not simply to wreck less havoc or do less harm, but to leverage the natural connections we have with living systems to contribute to the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of people, places, and ecosystems?
In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns, a collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”
“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”
“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”
(I want to give a BIG shout out to Marsha Boyd for helping to inspire this post with her words and spirit. Thank you, Marsha, for your collegiality, mentoring, and leadership by example!)
For the past couple of weeks, I have been savoring a book by Nora Bateson entitled Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. Bateson is a filmmaker, writer and activist, and also the daughter of Gregory Bateson, ground-breaking anthropologist, philosopher, systems thinker, cyberneticist and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a mind-stretching and heart-opening amalgamation of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks. Throughout Bateson offers a ranging exploration of systems theory and complexity thinking with an invitation to embrace a broader epistemological lens (what people think of as sources of legitimate knowledge) including embodied knowing and aesthetic experience.
In an essay entitled “The Fortune Teller,” Bateson explores the human tendency to stave off consciously or unconsciously anticipated disaster and decline by trying to keep things stable or as they have been. Think the most recent financial crisis. A recent article on the site Evonomics entitled “It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory” reminds us of the story of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a champion of unfettered capitalism. Greenspan fought against initiatives to rein in derivatives markets even as there were signs of turbulence and calls to make substantial changes. On October 23, 2008, Greenspan admitted he was wrong, making the following statement to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: “Those of us who have looked to the self- interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” But what has significantly changed? Or consider a very recent article about local government efforts in Ventura County, California to site a new fossil fuel plant on a beach starting in 2020 that ignore protests from organized low-income residents concerned about air quality and lack of access to the beaches, and environmental organizations pointing out the real danger stemming from underestimations of sea level rise.
While in some ways understandable (few of us probably like the idea of collapse and chaos), actions taken to preserve a certain kind of order and direction (not to mention power and privilege) can be particularly perverse when they reinforce the very patterns that are leading us down the road to collective ruin. And what more people are beginning to sense is that many social, economic and political patterns that have been established and gotten us to where we are must change for the sake of long-term survival and thriving. Read More
Try introducing the practices of deep listening to unlock a conversation where everyone can both speak their truth and hear other folks’ truths without convincing, berating, or arguing. It’s harder than you might think, especially when you think you are right. But remember, these loved ones probably think they are right, too. And, in entrenched conflicts, everyone generally tends to view themselves as the victim and others as holding all the power. Deep listening can be a powerful way to break through all of that.
In these times, deep listening seems more necessary than ever. So, take the risk to really listen to those around you without trying to convert them to your way of thinking. And ask them to take the risk to really listen to you too, without trying to convert you to their way of thinking. Some of what you hear may make your blood boil. Some may make you shake your head in wonder or despair. Some will make you want to ask more questions. This is good – seeking to understand does not imply you agree. Only that you are willing to explore. In the end, if you can use the guidelines shared below, you’ll create a safe space for conversation where you’ll end up still loving one another and you’ll be better informed and better able to engage in the tumult that is our political space this holiday season and beyond. Let us know what you learn!
Language shapes reality and our consciousness. As neuroscience and leadership expert Judith Glazer says, “words create worlds.” World-renowned organizational consultant Fernando Flores, a former Chilean political prisoner, teaches that relationships, organizations, teams, and all forms of collaboration exist in language. Language alters moods and affects our bodies. It is fundamental to our success, and we need to pay attention to it. The Sum Of Us Progressive Style Guide is a powerful resource to help us more humanely “harness language in support of intersectionality and cross-sector power building” (pg. 2).
“Innovation is as much a function of the right kind of relationships as it is of a particular kind of individual vision.”
I generally cap off the summer with a post about some of my summer reading. I am still working on something to capture take-aways from one of my favorite reads – The New Science of Sustainability: Building a Foundation for Great Change – and am offering here a revised post from a few years back that focuses on a still very timely book.
I ended my summer reading with what was for me a fascinating book – Evolutionariesby Carter Phipps. Phipps is the editor of EnlighteNextmagazine and enthusiastic about what we calls “the evolutionary worldview” and how it is showing up in many different fields, from biology to sociology to philosophy and theology. He sees this perspective as transforming understandings of just about everything. Evolutionaries does a great service by deepening and broadening as well as bringing much more nuance to what I see as a very important perspective for the work of social change. Read More
“Well meaning people are often trying to solve a problem by answering the wrong question.”
In some cases this is because they have not paused long enough, if at all, to consider the underlying question their efforts are trying to solve (risking “active laziness” which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago). Or, as my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said, they are “solving for solution,” essentially promoting and/or fighting over their own preferred approaches. And so they continue to offer the same old, ineffective and outdated, approaches or products. This is especially problematic in a time of such change and flux, when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know. Read More
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
– Toni Morrison
I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly,people’s natural inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .
“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”
About 20 years ago I was introduced to the field of ecological design called permaculture, not in any great depth mind you, but from what I learned at the time, I was struck by how refreshing, sensible, and vital the practitioners’ perspective and approach were. Since then, and especially in recent years, interest in permaculture seems to have significantly grown (including my own) and its principles stretched beyond sustainable agriculture to human communities. Looby MacNamara is one of the teachers and practitioners who is helping with the more widespread application of permaculture principles. I just finished reading her short book, 7 Ways to Think Differently, which I recommend. In it she unites different ways of thinking (such as systems thinking and solutions thinking) with the underlying philosophical and methodological elements of “regenerative design.”
For me, one particularly fertile area is “abundance thinking.” I have to offer a bit of a pre-qualification that the word “abundance” can be used in certain contexts that I find off-putting, especially when there is little demonstrated understanding of existing structural inequities in society. That said, I think that “leading with abundance” as a mental exercise can provide valuable insights and approaches to social change. Here are a few thoughts, and I invite additions, reactions and push back: Read More
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.”
– Greg McKeown
I’m currently reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which I’ll admit I had been tempted to look at earlier in the year and then decided not to for a couple of reasons. First of all, to me the sub-title smacked of a certain level of privilege, given that there are so many people who need more not less – more resources in the face of poverty, more fundamental regard for their humanity and rights in the face of injustice. In addition and seemingly validating of my initial wariness, the book’s opening stories focus on Silicon Valley executives and other corporate players. And yet at the same time I was pulled in by this notion of “essentialism,” embodied in one of the opening quotes attributed to writer, linguist and inventor Lin Yutang:
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
A number of readings I’ve come across lately reference the important consideration of organizational structure and how it encourages or discourages collaboration. In a post from last week, I highlighted the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, which focuses on “evolutionary (Teal) organizations” that embrace an ethic of self-organization to facilitate more purpose-driven, holistic and responsible engagement on the part of organizational members. In order to encourage self-organization and intrinsic motivation, these entities adopt less formally hierarchical and fixed-role structures in favor of fluidity and networked leadership. According to Laloux, this brings more timeliness and relevance to the inner workings and responsiveness of these organizations. Read More