Posted on November 12, 2013
Building a mindful organization requires a sense of understanding where you are, where you came from and where you’re going. The first step is grounding your organization and learning about — and (re)creating your point of origin.
In 1806, what became the city of Detroit, Michigan was first designed and conceived. Unlike other cities, Detroit clearly defined itself by its geography explicitly and sought to build everything around a single point of origin. It is for this reason that there are roads such as 6 mile, 7 mile, and the popularized 8 mile to mark actual distances from this central point in the city. The marker and monument photographed above serves as a reminder of Detroit’s history and offers a place to gain perspective on its present and increasingly its future as it undergoes a serious remake.
As a city, Detroit is seeking to re-ground itself as it looks forward by looking to the past and present at the same time. It is a city looking to recapture the entrepreneurial spirit that made it into one of the world’s great manufacturing centres in the early to mid 1900′s in a way that is more socially integrative than it was before.
In a previous post, I highlighted eight stages to creating a mindful organization, one that is aware and conscious of itself and the systems its a part of. Grounding is the first step.
Below is a look at the different ways the term ground can be used. It’s important to note connection between the solidity of the terms, perception, place, and connection. Grounding means all of these.
At the heart of grounding is mindfulness: being fully aware of one’s self and setting in the context of the present moment. While mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, but not at the expense of the past, nor is it about inattention to intention moving forward. It is about being aware of the moment-by-moment connections between the person or organization and what is being experienced. Mindfulness has many paradoxical elements to it, which is one reason it works well with complexity, which has its own paradoxes as well.
Mindfulness is a means of establishing that connection to our ground — whatever that might be. Grounding might be in community, fields of practice, time, markets or populations of interest or engagement and most likely is some combination of these.
Establishing your ground
Do you know the ground your organization is stationed? In answering that question it is worth asking some key questions:
1. Do you have a detailed, articulated strategy for your work linked to some clear purpose? (In other words: do you know what the point of your work is and what you’re trying to accomplish?). The role of intention in mindful practice is enormous and being clear on what is intended from the work and being aware of that intention while the work is being performed is a key factor.
2. Do you have a means of matching your intentions and strategy to the work that you are doing? Many organizations have goals and visions, but no ongoing monitoring and evaluation methods to assess whether or not they are actually doing this work. This will be discussed in a future post, but it is worthwhile to ask early whether there is a means of assess what work you are actually doing?
3. Is your ground solid? This question looks at the logic of your enterprise. Whether you are a for-profit, not-for-profit, charity or some other enterprise there needs to be a solid connection between what you do, your products and services, and markets, partners, resources and income streams you have available. The Business Model Canvas is a tool that can help expose the logic — and the gaps in it — of your organization’s work. The canvas was an crowd-consulted, co-created initiative led by Alex Osterwalder that worked through a series of iterations to create a simple, easy-to-use framework for linking the various components of your organization’s mission together. By being aware of the logic of your business you’re able to be mindful of how those activities connect to your purpose, intentions and aspirations.
4. What will solidify your ground (i.e.: what has value?)? Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge is critical of the approach of naming values as an organization. Snowden asserts that once values are named, they are summarily ignored. Value statements are useless unless they truly express some form of value, that is reflect where investment, decisions and actions of the organizations are placed. If one is acting with intention and a clear grounding, then these values become evident and the need to express them seems moot. A further problem is that the social pressures to name values that are acceptable (rather than consistent with practice) mean that we often find organizations with operationally meaningless values. If you don’t know what values like “inclusiveness”, “respect for diversity”, “participation” and “learning organizations” really mean in practice as well as intention, they don’t serve your enterprise.
5. How committed are you to standing your ground? Wherever your organization chooses to stand, that is the system that it will see. Once grounded, many path dependencies are set in motion, which will determine how aligned what you do, say, seek, and find in the future. In complex systems it is critical to have some flexibility in boundaries, however they must be set somewhere. Consider what it is that you value and whether you are committed as an organization to doing what you say and aspire towards. Visionary companies come from alignment between what the leaders say and what everyone does.
It’s never too late to ask yourself these questions whether you’re starting up or seeking to re-establish yourself or create a new path forward.
Just like Detroit, there is always a chance for re-birth. And just like Detroit, you’ll have that point to launch from and look back at to help you wayfind as you engage in complexity through your work. As we will see, knowing where you start from will help determine where you go.
For more information on this process of grounding and what it could look like for your organization contact CENSE Research + Design
Photo credits: Cameron Norman
Posted on October 18, 2013
Individuals, organizations and networks are living with unprecedented social complexity requiring more attention than ever on fostering resiliency at all levels to not only thrive, but survive. Not all of these levels are equal and where we choose to focus our energies makes an enormous difference for whether we design change intentionally (lead) or have the system drive what we do (follow).
In dealing with complexity we are presented with two polar positions: let the system drive us passively and adapt or seek to influence system and adapt. Either way, we need to adapt even if our intention is to maintain things as they are, invoking the quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
Where we choose to focus our energy in building adaptive capacity matters a great deal. Given competing priorities and limited resources the question raised is whether we are better at increasing individual resilience or something at an organizational level?
The answer means getting taking a third option that means going tribal and focusing on leadership.
We are still tribal beings – by blood, geography and psychology. We connect. Christine Comaford has explored the neuroscientific connections with tribal behaviour and teams and believes we are partly wired to live as tribes through a neurological priming in the brain for three things:
Safety is the most obvious for if we are not safe not much else matters. Yet we also long to belong and it matters than we matter. It’s not clear from the research what kind of connection we need to have, but there is the brain’s desire to experience connection and know that what we are doing makes some kind of impact.
Leaders lead when they take position, when they connect to their tribes, and when they help the tribe connect to itself
Understanding complexity is a critical skill for leaders of these new tribes. If we are intentionally engage complexity rather than dismiss it, leaders must have some sense of how it operates in order to take the positions necessary to lead.
The leadership imperative
Why leadership? Leadership bridges individual action with group-level engagement for one can’t lead if no one is following. It also allows for maximum leverage that crosses the widest surface area within a system.
Efforts to promote individual resilience are useful for individuals, however that can be a fix that fails when viewed in the context of social innovation and change. A highly resilient, adaptive person working within a stagnant or harmful system will eventually leave it and seek other options. This could mean losing key staff, partners and the knowledge and skills that come with it. By being resilient, these individuals will have the perceptual skills to see a toxic environment for what it is, recognize its limitations, and after failed attempts to change it will leave.
On the other hand, promoting organizational resilience is a far more powerful leverage point. Creating capacity within and across an organization for spotting trends, identifying weak and strong signals, doing the appropriate sensemaking, and adapting is something that benefits the whole, not just the parts. The problem with focusing exclusively on organizational resilience is that it takes considerable time and energy to do this in organizations not prepared to see complexity. Operating effectively with complexity requires new mindsets, skillsets and toolsets that can be organized through systems thinking and developmental design, but it takes some time to build.
Leadership is something that bridges the two. Appropriate leadership skills and practice builds resilience in the leader and the followers. It also is something that can be widely dispersed and serve the purpose of building resilience within the entire organization if everyone is viewed as a potential leader.
From hero to host
The traditional model of leadership (as least as experienced in Western countries) is that of the hero. Some of the qualities of this heroic leader include:
- Having the most knowledge, experience and insight into the problems at hand
- Telling people what to do and how to do it
- Concentration of power and the licence to use it as needed
- Leads through direction, not engagement
- Control is paramount
These might have been useful in linear, command-driven organizations in the past, but they are not useful any more for anything to do with complexity. Meg Wheatley has written extensively on this and pointed to the folly of this traditional model. One of the best analogies she’s used is describing the leader as a host (.pdf) . What a host does is facilitate interaction between people and be mindful (my word) to the group’s direction, intention and process. While individuals attend to the specific needs and tasks before them, the leader in complex environments attends to the dynamics and systems in which these interactions take place. Resilience is fostered when many people — not just ‘the person in charge’ develop these skills, widening the base of influence within a system as more actors are paying attention to the dynamics taking place and fostering mindful, attentive emergence of beneficial outcomes.
Heather Gold sometimes refers to this mindful attention to group process as tummeling. Great hosts are good tummelers and good tummelers are great leaders within complexity. Tummeling is akin to the modulation that takes place at a party where a host is constantly looking to see how the guests are doing, if the music is right, the food is fresh, and drinks are filled. The CoNEKTR model, a complexity oriented design methodology, uses this same approach to lead a group through a design thinking process of innovation. In each of these examples, leading is done as a means of bridging individuals and the groups they are a part of, connecting the tribe together and building resilience in the process.
Some further reading:
Norman, C. D., Charnaw-Burger, J., Yip, A. L., Saad, S., & Lombardo, C. (2010). Designing health innovation networks using complexity science and systems thinking: the CoNEKTR model. Journal of Evaluation in Cinical Practice, 16(5), 1016–1023.
Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Wheatley, M. J. (2012). So Far From Home. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318.
Photo credit: Cameron Norman
Posted on October 14, 2013
It has been said that change is the only constant, yet for something so pervasive change is a remarkably thorny and poorly understood concept. One reason is that change is often approached as a set of facts about a static state of affairs instead of as a literacy, which at change in a far more dynamic context that reflects human systems more accurately.
A summary of the literature on behaviour change research shows an enormous push towards cognitive rational models of thinking and acting. In brief, a cognitive rational approach to change posits that we acquire information; process that information’s relevance, timeliness, (possible) completeness*; and fit with our personal context and then usually make plans to change. These plans, as described in the Transtheoretical Model and related theories include a series of stages of change:
- Precontemplation: We are not even thinking about making a change
- Contemplation: We are considering making a change in the next 6-months
- Preparation: We are currently planning to make a change in the next 30 days and are taking some steps toward making that change a reality
- Action: We are actively working to make the change happen
- Maintenance: We are strengthening the new changed state
To the rational mind, this makes sense. Like other cognitive rational models of change like the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behaviour, and others, this model assumes change is linear, straightforward and planned for. While some changes are planned, many are not. In a review of the literature on smoking cessation, Robert West and colleagues found that more than half of smokers quit without going through these stages or having any quit plan in place.
West and colleagues have since developed a model called the Behaviour Change Wheel that aims for a more nuanced, less prescriptive model for understanding change. The Wheel is a refreshing model within a sea of linear stage or stepped approaches, yet still is an approach that encourages behaviour change to be deconstructed into parts first, then assembled to a whole. Complex systems — like much of what humans create individually and socially — are highly resistant to having linear frameworks imposed on them. This is why many approaches to change fail to meet expectations.
Viewing change as a literacy
What if we stepped back and took a look at change a little differently.
Language is among the most adaptive, dynamic, change-oriented system we engage with on any day thus, it might provide a model for considering change. If I am trying to explain something to you there are myriad ways to do it. By using my words in different combinations, with different tones and cadences, and add some visual thinking to the mix and I create a potent method for communication.
Learning a language requires a lot of failure, many awkward phrases, and a complex array of trial and error, repetition, and luck we eventually learn how to communicate. Depending on the task at hand, we learn the language skill that matters. For someone looking to learn how to navigate a tourist area in another country, a set of basic phrases might suffice. For someone else, getting a technical job in a global organization might require a far deeper understanding of the language. In our efforts to change ourselves, our organizations and our communities we will find ourselves requiring different levels of skill and ‘good enough’ will look different from situation to situation depending on who we are talking with.
Frequently, we are talking to different audiences at the same time to take the metaphor further.
Design (thinking) change
We learn languages much like designers apply design thinking. We scope out our intended purpose, craft a strategy, prototype, evaluate and redesign accordingly until we get something right. Over time we get enough feedback to understand deeper patterns that allow for more sophisticated experimentation. If the feedback quality is high, we learn faster and more deeply.
Learning is by its very nature change. Language is applied learning; you can’t ‘theoretically’ learn a language — it’s useless without application.
Language learning also requires attention to learning on multiple levels simultaneously. It involves small, moment-to-moment interactions, something I call ‘micro-feedback’. This is akin to mindfulness-based approaches to innovation. By establishing a sensitivity to the situation, creating the means to reflect often on what is happening while it is happening without judgement, we create the means to observe ourselves behave and make modifications as we go. It allows us to provide the kind of rapid prototyping of our learning as we go.
It also requires macro-feedback mechanisms that focus on the bigger picture. Language is not just about words and sentences, but a larger way of phrasing that separates being ‘well spoke’ for just ‘speaking well’.
Viewing change developmentally
If change is a constant, viewing change as a persistent, ongoing process changes the way we look at it. By looking at change as a core feature of a complex system — one that brings together linear and non-linear elements, is constantly evolving, and involves random, planned and hybrid elements – we can see change in a manner that fits with complexity, rather than works against it.
Just as our language develops over time, so does the way we change. Viewing change as something that parallels the way we approach language might just be truer to the way we really change the way we want change to happen.
Bridle, C., Riemsma, R. P., Pattenden, J., Sowden, A. J., Mather, L., Watt, I. S., & Walker, A. (2005). Systematic review of the effectiveness of health behavior interventions based on the transtheoretical model. Psychology & Health, 20(3), 283–301.
Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(1), 42.
West, R. (2005). Time for a change: putting the Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model to rest. Addiction, 100(8), 1036–9.
* The argument for completeness of information is based on the often flawed assumption that we know what is missing from an informational context and how it fits with the other data we have before us.
Posted on September 26, 2013
Award-winning Canadian author and University of Toronto professor David Gilmour came under social/media fire for comments made about his stance of only including male, middle-aged writers in his list of readings for his undergraduate English courses because that is the experience he resonates with most. Drawing on what you know is both wise and foolish when looking at it from the perspective of systems change and by looking within and beyond our own boundaries we can see how.
Richard Katz knows what it is like to be an outsider and see the world from deep within and far from outside a culture. Katz, a former professor and elder with the First Nations University of Canada and Harvard-trained anthropologist, was one of the first non-native individuals to be welcomed into the lives of the Kalahari Ju|’hoansi peoples of central Africa. The Ju|’hoansi are known to Westerners as ‘the Bushmen‘ and were the ‘stars’ of the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. His journey and decades-long experience with these peoples are chronicled in two remarkable books on healing and culture.
Dr Katz worked closely with my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Mary Hampton, a remarkable community psychologist and her husband (and elder) Dr. Eber Hampton, and would occasionally come to meet and speak with us eager students and the healing communities in Regina, where I studied. In life, but particularly in working with affairs of the heart and soul (which is the stuff of healing and community), Katz would say:
Talk only of what you know
I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this when I heard it until much later in life. As one interested in the science as well as the art of healing I struggled to understand how we couldn’t speak of things unknown if we were seeking discovery — which is about making the unknown, known. Over time I came to ‘know’ more about what Katz meant: that our perspective is one of many in a system and it is one, that if contemplated and welcomed with an open mind and heart, is valid and true while also being apart and unique. While we hold a stance those around you have their own perspective and stance that is both the same and different and in this lies the heart of healing.
Katz was trying to warn students and other researchers against the idea that we can just go into some place and ‘know it’ without being in it and that even in immersing ourselves in the worlds of others we are still but a traveller, just as they are in ours. He also suggested that we can’t know other systems without knowing our own (my words, not his).
It is the paradox that we can connect on a fundamental human level and still hold an independent, personal account. Being at one and apart at the same time. This is a hallmark feature of a complex system. It is also what makes integrative thinking and empathy so critical in such systems.
Knowing me, knowing you
This brings us back to professor Gilmour. Speaking to the online culture magazine Hazlitt, David Gilmour said that he doesn’t teach books written by women, just men. This has caused a predictable uproar in the social/ media (see Storify link below).
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Gilmour tried to clarify his comments:
“My only point is that I tend to teach people whose lives are close to my own,” said Gilmour, who has taught at the university for seven years. “I’m an old guy and I understand about old guys.”
On the surface, Gilmour is doing just what Dick Katz implored us all to do: speak of what you know. Gilmour knows ‘old guys’ (who are White and straight) and not women or other ‘groups’. He is being authentic and true to his experience.
What Gilmour is missing on this topic is the empathy that is so important in working with complexity. Teaching English to undergraduates might not be an obvious example of systems thinking and complexity, but it can be. As Gilmour points out, English is about a point of view, which is another way to say its about where you stand. The writing of the ‘old guys’ Gilmour includes in his courses are able telling a narrative from a point of view. That makes for good literature.
Yet, it is the reader’s ability to adopt, interpret, experience and critique the point of view of a story character that makes a literary work compelling. That is in large part about empathy. Great writers make empathy easy. By being empathic, we see a setting or context — a system — that might be unfamiliar to us in ways that seem familiar by bringing us momentarily into the world of the other. This familiarity allows us to draw on the experience we have in other settings and contexts and apply them to the new one.
To the degree this has harmony and congruence with the narrative being told is the measure of fit between data from one context to another.
This is what we do in systems work. For Gilmour, the complexity in his system comes not from his perspective, but that of his students. They are women, maybe GLBT, most certainly from other age and cultural groups and geographic contexts. Gilmour is asking his students to empathize with his ‘old guy’ narrative while forgetting that he can empathize with the narrative of someone who is Asian, queer, or speaks Catalan in drawing narratives that can be welcomed into the classroom without it being the perspective he’s most familiar with. Indeed, it is when we extend ourselves beyond the most familiar narratives to finding something resonant in other narratives that we learn, discover and innovate.
Integrative (Design) Thinking
Integrative thinking is a concept that Roger Martin, also from the University of Toronto, has made popular and integrated into the teaching at the Rotman School of Business. (Indeed, Rotman’s marketing material brands itself as providing “a new way to think”). This style of thinking, which Martin has written about extensively through his research on CEO decision making, has been closely linked with design thinking, which is also tied closely to thinking about systems. It is about holding different ideas together at the same time and building models of reality through the exploration of these opposable thoughts.
It is a vehicle for empathy to flow through connecting feelings and observations with thoughts and prototyping actions. This is ultimately what we do when we design for engagement in complex systems. We aim to place ourselves in the system we seek to influence, learn where we are in relation to the boundaries we see, set those boundaries (maintaining flexibility throughout) and then build mechanisms to get feedback and probe the culture we are a part of — organizationally, individually and so on — to enable us to take some action. This continues in an iterative manner throughout our engagement with the system.
Integrative thinking combined with empathy allows us to engage human systems we don’t fully know in a meaningful way that recognizes our limits — speaking to Katz’s point about ‘talking about what we know’ — while opening up possibilities for communion on issues of shared concern.
This means that we can know others, but also that we can only know them as ourselves. It also means that the systems change we seek in our social world is both an intensely personal journey and one that shares our common humanity, regardless of whether we are looking at shifting an organization, a community or a global culture.
Perhaps by taking a bigger view, professor Gilmour might find the same passion in literature that is from a different perspective and ultimately find how its also very much the same.
Posted on September 23, 2013
Systems thinking involves taking account of where you stand, what you’re doing, and where the bounds of your influence and influences are. By learning how to think about systems, we are better able to design strategies to ensure that our engagements are producing the most beneficial results for our efforts and when combined with design thinking we gain further opportunities to shape the systems closer to what we aspire them to be.
I recently was invited to speak to the first meeting to advance CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement) in public health in Ontario (Canada) on the topic of systems thinking. The one day workshop was aimed at bringing together members from nearly every public health unit in the province to meet and discuss issues related to quality improvement and public health.
In twenty minutes we did a whirlwind through some of the key features of systems that are relevant to quality improvement by looking at the nature of systems (chaotic, complex and ordered) and steps that can be taken to understand them in terms of setting the appropriate targets, methods and tools for defining and assessing quality within such systems.
By understanding the nature of systems we can avoid the trap of using linear metrics for non-linear problems. Much of the literature on quality improvement has its roots in manufacturing, which are largely linear systems that seek to predict, control and emphasize efficiencies and the elimination of waste. Yet, public health is largely about complexity. In a complex system, what might be considered inefficiencies could be natural byproducts of the system itself and cannot be necessarily avoided. Further, such ‘noise’ could be sources of innovation or weak signals that indicate something significant is to come.
Public health operates in a tricky space because it deals with highly complex problems and systems and linear, straightforward ones simultaneously.
Below is a summary set of slides used to highlight the talk (the original slides were more visual, but those don’t help you out if you hadn’t been in the room).
(For those who read this blog through subscription, you may not see the above presentation in your feed so here is the link)
Building Quality Into Systems Design
One of the central points I made was that systems can be (partly) designed and that developmental design is a process that integral to optimal functioning in a complex system. By paying attention to what is going on and the relationships that form within the system the feedback is set to allow for intentional development of the system itself. This does not assure control, but it allows for positive influence rather than being solely reactive to whatever the system produces. This is necessary if one is to promote quality and ensure quality not just measure it as if it was a static object.
Whether one uses linear, quantitative measures or more non-linear, multi-method approaches to assessing the quality of a public health product or service, the key is knowing what kind of system you are operating in.
My takeaway points were:
Posted on September 16, 2013
There exists an organization that, using nothing more than the cellphone in your pocket, can track where you are – and, with a certain degree of certainty, where you soon will be.
But it isn't the National Security Agency (NSA), nor Canada's own surveillance analogue, CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) though both are certainly capable of this too.
Rather, it's a Swedish project called Flowminder, designed to map population movements in the aftermath of natural disasters for the sake of emergency rescue and relief.