The Other Side of Complexity

May 14, 2009 Leave a comment

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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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Absolutely! You remind me of a story David Straus tells in How to Make Collaboration Work. He had trained a group of Eastern European professors in facilitation. A year later, he was facilitating an intensive five day training-for-trainers workshop so they could run that training for others. After a day or so the “politely handed us back the training manuals. ‘We know that your course is built on a few powerful ideas,’ they explained. ‘Make sure that we have those ideas in our hearts, and then we will sing.’ In his book, David boils down all of the models, methods, and practices to five principles for collaboration.

    The more I do this work, and the more I engage with the complexities of theory and practice, the more everything boils down to the condition of the human head, heart, and hands; the quality of relationships; and the capacity for larger social arrangements (organizations, systems, networks) to create spaces where justice can be pursued and liberation can be experienced.

  • Curtis says:

    Beautiful, Cynthia. Thanks for the reminder about David’s piece in the book.

  • Gibran says:

    This is great Curtis! I appreciate both, your 4 bulleted pearls of wisdom and your actual quandary. It is something I struggle with a lot myself, how to make complexity digestible. I think it has a lot to do with focusing on stories, for these have a powerful way of capturing what we are trying to say, I know you are a strong voice for this approach. Another piece is to introduce the need to shift our perspective of how things are from the idea that things are somehow complete and therefore explainable to the idea that things are actually unfolding and we will live and work better when we align ourselves with that process – how do we transmit this experience? Otherwise it gets stuck as an idea in the cognitive mind.

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