Tag Archive: problem-solving

February 11, 2019

Inspiring Systemic “Thinking”

Image by Clearly Ambiguous, “Solar System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Last week, I was invited to a convening held by the Social Impact Exchange to do some work with funders who are considering and/or investing in systems change (as opposed to say programmatic) strategies. The invitation was to kick the convening off by helping to “open minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and doing.”

At IISC, we have been playing with what it means to “think,” given what can tend to predominate in many maintstream settings is highly analytical, disembodied and heart-dismissing approaches. Our belief is that we need to (re)claim the fullness of our intelligence in order to create the more beautiful world we know is possible. As our friends at Management Assistance Group have written:

“Too often, we stay in generalized and practical knowing, rarely dipping into foundational knowing or artistic knowing in meaningful ways. By not intentionally drawing on these, our theories and action plans are often disconnected from our values and beliefs, and the bedrock experiences of our lives.

Moreover, privileging one way of knowing over others marginalizes and ignores other truths that people bring from other ways of knowing. This marginalization often lies at the core of conflicts, systemic barriers to change, and inequity.”

To support people in this direction of more holistic knowing, we are creating more space to explore our individual and collective interiors, sit in and with spaciousness and silence, explore reality and possibility in more embodied ways (movement!) as well as engage in deeply relational interactions that can be heart and soul expanding.

At one point during our opening, I offered a collection of systems-oriented quotes and sayings and invited people to do a self-organized group read of them (whoever felt so moved to speak, though only one quote to a person). People were asked to pay attention to what moved inside of them as they read and heard these quotes. This was done, in part, to help dislodge people from unexamined thought patters. I was explicit about this and introduced the exercise with these words from quantum physicist David Bohm:

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” 

When the group was over, and after a moment of silence, people were invited to share with a partner what they were most struck by and why. You are invited to do the same with the words below, to read in silence or aloud, to share any reactions and resonance and also to offer other systems-focused quotes/sayings that you have found to help open and expand some aspect of your thinking.

Image by Matthias Ripp, “Planetary System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“A system cannot fail those it was never intended to protect.”

– W.E.B. DuBois

“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”

Nora Bateson

“We act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong. We look for the one action, or the one person, that created this mess. As soon as we find someone to blame, we act as if we’ve solved the problem.” 

– Margaret J. Wheatley

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” 

– H. L. Mencken

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July 25, 2017

Pulling Threads from Small Arcs: Reflections on Complexity, Living Systems and Leadership

“The difficulty we face is that the ecology of the biosphere is at odds with the ecology of our institutions.”

– Nora Bateson

In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patternsa 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?”

“No living thing exists in just one context.” 

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August 30, 2016

Look for and Leverage Elegant Solutions

“A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”

– Wendell Berry

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An essay that I return to now and then, including over these past summer months, is Wendell Berry‘s “Solving for Pattern.” Published in 1981, the piece essentially considers systemic approaches to more “sustainable “agriculture, though the concept alluded to in the title has wider application. The phrase “solving for pattern” is an invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture in more sustained and multiply beneficial ways.

Solving for pattern, according to Berry, runs counter to reductionist and mechanical solutions, which lend themselves to more predictable and relatively contained situations. When reductionist solutions are applied to more complex and systemic situations, they are more prone to failure and to exacerbating negative aspects. Real-life examples include:

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April 1, 2015

Aligning Tactics and Beliefs for Collective Impact

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

-The Talmud

A year ago at this time I had the opportunity to be 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 change processes. On the last day of the launch 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 consider 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 starts with the notion that our chosen change methods are grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about people, the world and how we know what we know.  Not being aware of or open about this can get people into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when people are not operating from the same system of beliefs. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More

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March 4, 2015

(Self)-Organize for Complexity

“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

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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.”

-Niels Pflaeging

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June 25, 2014

More Beautiful Questions

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

– Warren Berger

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One of my favorite reads of the past six months is Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.  It strikes me as being an important read for any social change agent.  Early on, Berger begins with the following provocative statement, that rings true to personal experience: 

“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.  Or, as my colleague Cynthia 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

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May 15, 2014

Degenerative Habits of Mind

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

― David Bohm

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By Vincepal

 

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

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April 26, 2012

Interesting vs. Useful

I’ve been enjoying David Rock’s Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, a book that pulls from neuroscience literature in an attempt to help us understand ourselves better, and to create new pathways to creativity, productivity, and . . .  social change!  Rock leads with the idea that the highest point of leverage to help someone change behavior is at the level of their thinking – to help them think better for themselves.  He goes on to illustrate how what we pay attention to and how largely determines the content and quality of our lives.  This includes the way that we pay attention to problems. Read More

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January 5, 2011

Facilitative Leadership, 2011

FL 20112011.  A new year for us here at IISC to continue to move on the vision of ensuring that everyone engaged in social change work has some knowledge of and facility with Facilitative Leadership.  Another year to restate and reframe the need for these critical skills to bring alive our goals of a more just and sustainable world.  So why Facilitative Leadership?  Here is my take . . . Read More

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October 8, 2010

Patterns for Change, Part 2

Pattern 2

|Photo by James Cridland|http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamescridland/613445810|

Picking up from yesterday’s post, the question I left off with was how do change agents identify and work with patterns in complex human systems where control and predictability are elusive.  This is where Holladay and Quade offer up Glenda Eoyang’s CDE Model.  This model names three different conditions that change agents can analyze and work with to shift constraints within a system so that it can achieve more optimal fit with (and thrive in) its environment.  Below are an explanation of these conditions and examples of what can be done to either tighten or decrease constraints in the direction of more organized or unorganized surrounds. Read More

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September 10, 2010

The Complex and the Quantum

quantum

|Photo by kevindooley|http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/1875348372|

I was recently sorting through some of my thoughts and feelings about complexity and social change when I arrived at a question to gnaw on – What is the difference between taking an “emergent” versus a “quantum” approach to complex problems? We are told that complexity does not lend itself to existing, linear, cause-and-effect responses.  The multiplicity of factors contributing to complexity make it difficult for traditional kinds of expertise to grasp.  So what is one (or many) to do? Read More

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May 27, 2010

Design Comes Back Around

design

|Photo by Kevin Krejci|http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinkrejci/4217559275|

“Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something the world didn’t know it was missing.”

-Paola Antonelli

The other day I was clearing out some file drawers at the office in advanced preparation for our impending move into Boston this summer, when I came across a 17 year old paper written by Interaction Associates founder David Straus.  This paper’s date times with the founding year of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and speaks to the longer historical roots of the Interaction methods that IISC and IA share.  As I read the paper, what struck me most was David’s very early recognition of the interconnections between design, thinking, and cognition.

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