Tag: mindfulness

complexitysocial systems

Time. Care. Attention.

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A read through a typical management or personal improvement feed will reveal near infinite recommendations for steps you can take to improve your organization or self. Three words tend to be absent from this content stream and they are what take seemingly simple recommendations and navigate them through complexity: time, care, and attention.

Embedded within the torrent of content on productivity, innovation and self-development is a sense of urgency reflected in ‘top ten lists’,  ‘how tos’ and ‘hacks’ that promise ways to make your life and the world better, faster; hallmark features of what has become our modern, harried age.  These lists and posts are filled with well-intentioned strategies that are sure to get ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘faved’, but for which there might be scant evidence for their effect.

Have you seen the research on highly productive people and organizations and their approaches, tools and strategies that speak to your specific circumstances? Probably not. The reason? There’s a paucity of research out there that points to specifics, while there is much on more generalized strategies. The problem is that you and I operate in the world specific to us, not generalized to the world. It’s why population health data is useful to understanding how a particular condition or issue manifests across a society, but is relatively poor at predicting individual outcomes.

Whether general or specific, three key qualities appear to be missing from much of the discussion and they might be the reason so little of what is said translates well into what is done: time, care, attention.

Time

When words and concepts like lean startup, rapid cycle prototyping, and quick pivoting dominate discussion of productivity and innovation it is easy to find our focus in speed. Yet, there are so many reasons to consider time and space as much as speed. Making the space to see things in a bigger picture allows us to act on what is important, not just what is urgent. This requires space — literal and figurative — within our everyday practice to do. Time allows us to lower that emotional drive to focus on more things at once, potentially seeing new patterns and different connections than had we rushed headlong into what appeared to be the most obvious issue at first look.

If we are seeking change to last, why would we not design something that takes time to prepare, deliver and sustain? Our desire and impetus to gain speed comes at the cost of longevity in many cases. This isn’t to suggest that a rapid-fire initiative can’t produce long-term results. The space race between the United States and Russia in the 1950’s and 60’s proves the long-term viability of short-term bursts of creative energy, but this might be an exception rather than the rule. Consider the timelessness of many classical architectural designs and how they were build with an idea that they would last, because they were designed without the sense that time was passing quickly. They were built to last.

Care

Care is consideration applied to doing something well. It is tied to a number of other c-words like competence. Those who are applying their skills to an issue require, acquire and develop a level of competence in doing something. Tackling complex social and organizational problems requires a level of competence that comes with time and attention, hence the research that suggests mastery may take as much as 10,000 hours of sustained, careful, deliberative practice to achieve. In an age of speed, this isn’t something that’s easily dealt with. Fast-tracked learning isn’t as possible as we think.

Care might also substitute for another c-word: craft. Craft is about building competence, practicing it, and attending to the materials and products generated through it. It’s not about mass production, but careful production.

Care is the application of focus and another c-word: compassion. Compassion is a response to suffering, which might be your own, that of your organization or community, or something for the world. Compassion is that motivational force aimed at helping alleviate those things that produce suffering and includes empathy, concern, kindness, tolerance, and sensitivity and is the very thing that translates our intentions and desires for change into actions that are likely to be received. We react positively to those who show compassion towards us and has been shown to be a powerful driver for positive change in flourishing organizations (PDF).

And isn’t flourishing what we’re all about? Why would we want anything less?

Attention

The third and related factor to the others is attention. Much has been written here and elsewhere about the role of mindfulness as a means of enhancing focus and focus on the right things: it’s a cornerstone of a socially innovative organization. Mindfulness has benefits of clearing away ‘noise’ and allowing more clear attention toward the data (e.g., experience, emotion, research data) we’re presented with that is the raw material for decision making. It’s an essential element of developmental evaluation and sensemaking.

Taken together, time, care and attention are the elements that not only allow us to see and experience more of our systems, but they allow us to better attend to what is important, not just what is urgent. They are a means to ensuring we do the right things, not the wrong things, righter.

In a world where there is more of almost everything determining what is most important, most relevant and most impactful has never been more important and while there is a push for speed, for ‘more’, there’s — paradoxically — never been a greater need to slow down, reduce and focus.

Thank you, reader, for your time, care and attention. You’ve given some of the most valuable things you have.

Image credit: Author

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Jaded: Whether You Are a Plant or a Stone Makes All the Difference

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An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference. 

Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.

You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.

A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”

The painful experience of failure

Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?

Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?

Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:

It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.

It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.

Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies

When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.

The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.

This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.

They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.

Plant vs stone

Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.

The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.

A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.

Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.

Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!

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What’s in your baggage?

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Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us and, like the real thing, it’s all in what we pack, how we pack it and how aware we are of what we’re packing it for. And like the real thing, individuals and organizations can’t go on much of a journey without carrying some of it with us.

Social and emotional baggage is a concept that has been drawn from psychology to metaphorically represent the things — memories, expectations, experiences — that we bring from our past into our present context, usually in a negative, debilitating or otherwise limiting way. It’s something that is attributed to individuals, but may also fit organizations, too. But baggage is a part of any trip and looking at it as part of the journey might provide us better ways to use it, rather than ignore it.

Metaphors are useful ways to take what we cannot see or touch, but nonetheless are experienced as real and makes the concept more tangible. The metaphor of baggage is useful because we can look at it in many different ways.

Baggage is what we bring with us on our journey and, like real baggage, it matters what we bring, how much of it, and how amenable it is to being moved.

What’s in your carry-on?

Let’s consider what we might bring with us this journey of ours and consider what roles these items play in our lives and organizations. What’s going in our bag?

Clothing: Different outfits allow us to transform our appearance, to stand out or blend in, or express ourselves in creative ways (along with keeping us comfortable while avoiding the whole “naked in public” thing that’s a bit problematic in most cultures). Spare clothes provide us with the ability to envision ourselves in different forms. They represent our ability to adapt and to dream new futures. There’s a difference between having the latitude to transform and having so much stuff that either it’s not all that different or is so different, we lose our sense of who we are. When we’ve packed too much of anything, we get lost in choice and focus. If we don’t pack the right stuff, we lose our ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Toiletries: A basic toiletry set allows us to care for ourselves, maybe even make ourselves up a little. These are the things that repair the damage from day-to-day wear and tear on the body, heal, and protect ourselves from the wear to come and prevent future damage (hello, sunscreen!). We might also wish to make ourselves up a little sometimes, too (hello, lipstick or cologne!). If we pack too much of these things we can get vaingloriously trapped in what others might think of us and present a face that’s less authentic than our true selves. We might also be so focused on repair and prevention that we fail to recognize what’s in front of us in the present moment (the only moment when we can do anything to change the game).

Gifts: These are things we bring to others based on our experience and are shared best through acts of service, kindness, generosity and love. They may be souvenirs, stories, photos and keepsakes – things given and transported with care for others and might include sharing our knowledge (tacit and explicit) and experience with others through storytelling. Our fellow travellers benefit from our gifts, and so do we as they often bring joy to the giver through the giving. However, if we pack our bags with too many we may wind up looking more after others than ourselves. Our focus is on giving to others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Our bags only have so much room and gifts take up some of that room.

Memories & Experience: This is our past. This is the part that accumulates over time as we get older and experience the world. It builds on and continually adds to our carriage, meaning we need to consider how we pack it, what we choose to hold on to from this vast collection, and what we might want to discard. This is where wisdom resides. It’s also a seat of some of our biggest problems. If real healing — that integration of experience with understanding, reflection and growth through our social life — doesn’t take place, we might find ourselves with things in our bag that we’d thought we’d discarded, but didn’t. It’s like finding the scorpion that might have hid in your luggage from your tropical vacation as you go home. If we’re not careful and mindful about what we pack, we might let in things we thought we’d left behind.

Cargo: This last element is cartage from one space to another. This is the stuff we bring from one place to another that may or may not have any purpose. It’s ‘stuff’. It’s trivia, the news, pop culture, or the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It seems like this would be the easiest thing to disregard, but it’s not. It can take up a lot of room. Consider where you put your attention and what you consume in a day — your social media feeds, gossip at the office or the dog park, advertisements, broadcast media — and what you hang on to. This is the stuff that can make us lose sight of what we think is important, so it’s critical that we are mindful about what cartage we add to our baggage.

As my colleague Alex Jadad says:

Nothing really matters apart from what matters to us. Therefore, we must be very careful about what we choose to matter to us.

Packing what matters most

Our baggage represents a system. We create the boundaries by the shape and size of the bag (or bags) we choose to bring with us and all of what goes in the bag interacts (it all has to work together to fit). What happens when we pack piecemeal, we throw all of the stuff above into a bag and try and organize it. Sometimes we seek to bring more bags or getting a bigger suitcase; maybe that will work. But things don’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Or we find ourselves laden with luggage, slow to move, strained in the back and joints from carting it around…but at least we have our stuff, right? (if we can find it).

The problem with that ‘add more’ strategy is that, the more we have, the slower we are, the more encumbered, and the more confused. We add to complexity, rather than create simplicity. We need to design better.

The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and they determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey. Why? They’ve paid attention and collected data to support that decision (e.g. through ongoing evaluation, reflective practice, mindfulness, personal therapy).

This is all about being mindful about our work and life. For organizations, there are things you can do to create mindfulness in the way you work to help understand the choices you make and their consequences. For individuals, it’s about doing self-development work and engaging in reflective practice — in work and life.

If we don’t know what’s in our bags, we might be surprised what comes out. The subconscious works that way: it will pop things out at times of its choosing when we are often not expecting it or desiring it. Subconscious processes work at the individual and collective levels — it’s not just a personal thing.

Mindful packing

We are contributors to the story of our lives, but not the sole authors (despite what many seem to think). What has happened to us because of others matters as much as what we create for ourselves. It’s not about labeling those experiences as ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things, rather dealing with the consequences that those experiences bring to our life in the here and now and asking if they are helpful or unhelpful to living the life we want.

Were you under appreciated by your colleagues or family? Bullied? Neglected? Think it’s all in the past? Replicate that situation in the present and see how you feel — it might not be all in the past. Abuse and neglect are common experiences at home and work and how we integrate that into our lives — or whether we do at all — can be a key factor in determining how we relate to the experiences in the present.

What about that project at work that got everyone excited and failed to deliver the value that everyone expected or felt promised? Is that going to temper the willingness to try again, to innovate or risk something new again? Organizations and teams might be tempted to ‘lower the bar’ to avoid disappointment, despite suggestions that an organizations’ settling for ‘mediocrity’ drives quality people away from work. 

What about that romantic relationship that was perfect, but ended because it was too perfect? How is too perfect even possible, you ask? If you’re not accustomed to being loved and cared for you might find it very uncomfortable to get exactly what you want (and need) and find (invent?) reasons why the relationship won’t work and end it (or sabotage it so you don’t have to end it). The issue isn’t that you don’t aspire for this ‘perfect love’, it’s that you’re not used to it; maybe the only way you were loved before was through neglect, abuse, or simple disinterest and partner disengagement. When that changes, so does our narrative about what real love is all about and if we don’t ‘flip the script’ we’ll write the new story into the old one and that just won’t work. (And if you’ve not experienced this in romance, how about a job? A friendship? An opportunity at work? — self sabotage is very real and underexamined).

None of this is crazy-making: it’s just how some people deal with the intense sadness of not knowing how to be loved or to achieve real success.

Like anything in life: change challenges us and these experiences (fears, hopes, unrequited dreams, and victories) go into our luggage and often not by choice — or awareness. But knowing this can happen will help us understand our baggage and how our past and hopes for the future affect the present.

The temptation is to make some sort of judgement about baggage and assume its a problem. We bring what we need with us and that means that we each will have and will need baggage differently. What we wish is for it to serve us, not debilitate us or keep us from growing. Being mindful, reflective and careful about what we have already packed is another critical step.

The next is realizing that, like real baggage, we can re-pack. We can discard things, re-organize, re-prioritize what goes inside. It’s never too late, but it does require work. The best thing of all is that, when we reorganize our baggage we create more of what we want — what matters to us — and less of what we don’t want or others want for us. Our baggage is our asset if we allow it to be.

Reflective practice, healing (to be covered in a future post in more depth), compassion (because we all have things we wish weren’t packed for us in our bags – be good to ourselves), systems thinking (and design thinking — creatively considering how we pack, not just what we pack) and healthy social engagement are all ways to improve our relationship with baggage.

And that’s something to hang our hats on.

Happy, healthy travels.

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Image credits: Author

 

 

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The healing power of curiosity

 

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It has been a heavy few weeks in the world. In times like this we often raise our voice to speak when perhaps we ought to listen more, for it is in listening and asking questions that we may be better positioned not only to understand what’s happening around us, but resist having these events control us and risk repeating unhealthy patterns.  

It’s hard not to get discouraged with all of the things that are going on; these are heavy days filled with conflict, tension and confusion.

These are dynamic, difficult times. It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s also easy to get lulled into a pattern of thinking and behaviour that could serve to later perpetuate some of the very problems that these issues partly arise from: dealing with difference.

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A curious thing…

A funny thing happens with certainty: you stop asking questions.

I don’t question how to tie my shoes: I simply know how to do it. I’m not curious about whether there are better ways to do it, more enjoyable or more efficient strategies or ones that will leave my shoes better tied. I’m Ok with that. But what happens when my certainty extends to things with more dimensions to it like what to eat for dinner, places to live, potential career paths, friendship or partner choices, or attitudes toward social groups or political situations? The consequences of excluding other perspectives and options are more substantial.

It reminds me of a scene in the first Men in Black film when the character played by Will Smith is confronted with a truth that he is living among aliens from other planets. Tommy Lee Jones’ character explains how it is that people resist the idea of accepting other possibilities because of what they ‘know’.

When we judge something or assert knowledge, we dampen or even shut down our curiosity. Particularly with complex systems, there are tremendous advantages (and need) to see them from different perspectives by asking questions and being curious.

Curiosity is what protects us from developing a locked in mindset focused on singular solutions and opens up possibilities.

Seeing the situation from others’ points of view may not shift your beliefs about that issue, but can make you better able to deal with it.

Contemplating alternative paths to love

Contemplative inquiry is one manner of doing this. Contemplative inquiry allows for seeing past events and anchoring those signals to the present and future desires. It is a very old way of doing things with more modern sensibilities. Arthur Zajonc, a professor of physics and former president of the Mind and Life Institute, has written about contemplative inquiry in a book with the same name. The approach is rooted in traditional mindfulness practices and brings, in many ways, the same focus and discipline that you would to science. Scientists ask questions and always seek to disprove their ideas for it is only then that they can make a confident assertion of something being ‘fact’ or evidence.

Contemplative inquiry is about advancing understanding to produce love. Adam Kahane of Reos Partners has written about the tensions between power and love, saying that it is in that quest for love and understanding of power that much of social change takes place. These are times where power and love are colliding and opening ourselves to being curious about perspectives that are different from us, hold alternative currency, or are simply alien to our way of life will help ensure that we don’t allow things like violence and aggressive conflict to consume us, lest we become the very thing we struggle against.

The Beatles sang “all you need is love”, but love on its own is blind. Curiosity with love is what help you to see.

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Photo credits: Protest by Jennifer C., Black Lives Matter by Bille Grace Ward, and Curiosity by Jason Armstrong all used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thank you all for sharing your work.

 

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Diversity / Complexity in Focus

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Diversity in focus?

 

As cities and regions worldwide celebrate Pride the role of diversity, understanding and unity has been brought to mind just as it has contemplating the British public’s choice to leave the EU with Brexit. Both events offer lessons in dealing with complexity and why diversity isn’t about either/or, but more both and neither and that we might learn something not just from the English, but their gardens, too. 

It’s a tad ironic that London has been celebrating its Pride festival this past week, a time when respect and celebration of diversity as well as unification of humanity was top-of-mind while the country voted to undo many of the policies that fostered political and economic union and could likely reduce cultural diversity with Europe. But these kind of ironies are not quirky, but real manifestations of what can happen when we reduce complexity into binaries.

This kind of simplistic, reductionist thinking approach can have enormously harmful and disrupting effects that ripple throughout a system as we are seeing with what’s happened so far in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world in the past week.

Complexity abhors dichotomies

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t

The above quote (which has many variations, including one attributed to author Tom Robbins that I like) makes light of the problem of lumping the complex mass of humanity into two simple categories. It abstracts variation to such a level that it becomes nearly meaningless. The Brexit vote is similar. Both are lessons in complexity lived in the world because they reflect a nuanced, mutli-faceted set of issues that are reduced into binary options that are clustered together.

It is no surprise that, in the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, that there is much talk of a divided, rather than a united kingdom.

Diversity is difficult to deal with and is often left unaddressed as a result. The benefits to having diversity expressed and channeled within a complex system are many and articulated in research and practice contexts across sectors and include protection from disruption, better quality information, a richer array of strategic options and, in social contexts, a more inclusive social community.

The risks are many, too, but different in their nature. Diversity can produce tension which can be used for creative purposes, liberation, insight as well as confusion and conflict, simultaneously. This as a lot do with humans uneasy relationship with change. For some, change is easier to deal with by avoiding it — which is what many in the Leave camp thought they could do by voting the way they did. The darker side of the Leave campaign featured change as an image of non-white immigrant/refugees flooding into Britain, presumably to stoke those uncomfortable with (or outwardly hostile) to others to fear the change that could come from staying in the European Union.

Staying the same requires change

The author Guiseppe de Lampedussa once wrote about the need to change even when desiring to keep things as they are, because even if we seek stability, everything around us is changing and thus the system (or systems) we are embedded in are in flux. That need to change to stay the same was something that many UK citizens voiced. What was to change and what was to stay the same was not something that could be captured by a “Leave” or “Remain” statement, yet that is what they were given.

It should come to no surprise that, when presented with a stark choice on a complex matter, that there would be deep dissatisfaction with the result no matter what happened. We are seeing the fallout from the vote in the myriad factions and splintering of both of the main political parties — Conservative and Labour — and a House of Commons that is now filled with rebellion. Is the UK better off? So far, no way.

This is not necessarily because of the Leave vote, but because of what has come from the entire process of mis-handling the campaigns and the lack of plan for moving forward (by both camps). Further complicating matters is that the very EU that Britain has voted to leave is now not the same place as it was when the Brexit vote was held just five days ago. It’s also faced with rising voices for reform and potential separation votes from other member states who saw their causes bolstered or hindered because of the UK referendum. This is complexity in action.

Tending the garden of complex systems

The English know more about complexity than they might realize. An English garden is an example of complexity in action and how it relates to the balance of order, disorder and unordered systems. A look at a typical English garden will find areas of managed beauty, wildness, and chaos all within metres of one another.

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What also makes a garden work is that it requires the right balance of effort, adaptive action, planning and compensating as well as the ability to let go all at the same time. Gardening requires constant attention to the weather, seasons, the mix of diversity within the system, the boundaries of the system itself (lest weeds or other species seek to invade from outside the garden or plants migrate out to a neighbours place) and how one works with all of it in real time.

Social systems are the same way. They need to be paid attention to and acted upon strategically, in their own time and way. This is why annual strategic planning retreats can be so poorly received. We take an organization with all it’s complexity and decide that once per year we’ll sit down and reflect on things and plan for the future. Complexity-informed planning requires a level of organizational mindfulness that engages the planning process dynamically and may involve the kind of full-scale, organization-wide strategy sessions more frequently or with specific groups than is normally done. Rather than use what is really arbitrary timelines — seen in annual retreats, 5-year plans and so forth — the organization takes a developmental approach, like a gardener, and tends to the organizations’ strategic needs in rhythms that fit the ecosystem in which it finds itself.

This kind of work requires: 1) viewing yourself as part of a system, 2) engaging in regular, sustained planning efforts that have 3) alignment with a developmental evaluation process that continually monitors and engages data collection to support strategic decision-making as part of 4) a structured, regular process of sensemaking so that an organization can see what is happening and make sense of it in real-time, not retrospectively because one can only act in the present, not the future or past.

Just as a garden doesn’t reduce complexity by either being on or off, neither should our social or political systems. Until we start realizing this and acting on it — by design — at the senior strategic level of an organization, community or nation, we may see Brexit-like conditions fostered in places well beyond the white cliffs of Dover into governments and organizations globally.

Photo Credits: The London Eye Lit Up for Pride London by David Jones and Hidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor Garden by David Catchpole both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks to the Davids for sharing their work.

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(Re) Making our World

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Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a nod to the future and the past and both perspectives illustrate how citizens everywhere are struggling with how to best make their world – and to what extent that’s possible. These are design choices with systems implications that will be felt far beyond those who are making such decisions.

We only understand systems from a perspective, because where you sit within a system determines the relevance of properties that are of that system. These properties look different (or may be wholly imperceptible) depending on the vantage point taken within that system. This is what makes understanding and working with systems so challenging.

This morning the world woke up to find that the British people voted to leave the European Union. For the Brits this was a choice about where they wanted to place a boundary around certain systems (political, economic, geographic) and how they perceived having control over what took place within, around (and indeed the very nature of) those boundaries. Boundaries and constraints are principally what defines a system as that is what shapes what happens inside that system. For Britain it was a choice to redefine those boundaries tighter with a hope that it will bring greater good to that nation.

Boundary critique in complex systems

There is a guide for systems thinking that says if you’re trying to understand a system and find yourself lost you’ve probably bounded your systems too loosely and if you’re finding yourself constantly seeking explanations for what happens in a system that occur outside those boundaries than you’ve bound it too tightly.

The choice of millions of Britons about their own country, their boundaries, has influenced the world as stock markets shake up, currencies are devalued and entire economies rattlednot just now, but potentially for a period to come. Oil prices have fallen sharply in the wake of the decision, which will impact every part of the economy and further delay any shift away from carbon-based fuel options. The European Union and the entire world is feeling the effect from 51% of Britons who voted (of about 17M citizens) deciding they would be better off outside the EU than within it. Consider how a small number of people can have such an enormous impact — a perfect illustration of complexity in action.

And as England seeks to re-draw its boundary, already there is discussion of another Scottish independence vote in the wake of this, which may re-draw the boundary further. These votes are intentional acts and perhaps the most straightforward expressions of intention and self-determination within a democracy, but their impact and outcomes on citizens and the world around them are far from straightforward making such direct-democracy far more problematic than those in support of such votes make out. This is not to say that such votes are necessarily good or bad, but they are certainly not simple.

Co-design and its problems

The Brexit vote invites memory of a quote from one of Britain’s famous leaders who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Democracy creates the opportunity for co-design of our political systems, policy choices and boundaries. By having an opportunity to voice an opinion and engage in the act of voting we citizens have a role to play in co-designing what we want from our country. The downside is that we are engaging in this exercise from where we sit in the system, thus the design I want might not be the same as someone else in my country, nor may we see the same information the same way or even consider the same information relevant.

It’s for this reason that we’re seeing strange things in politics these days. The volume of information available to us and the complexity of the layered contexts in which that information applies makes a simple decision like a vote for or against something far more challenging. Complexity is created by volatility, lack of certainty, an absence of predictability and dynamism. Co-design introduces all of this and, on a national scale, amplifies the impact of that complexity.

This is a massive challenge for everyone, but in particular those who come from the design and systems science realms. For design, co-design has been touted as a desired, if not idealized, principle for guiding the making of everything from learning experiences to services to products to policies. In systems thinking and related sciences, too often the focus is less on what is created, but how it impacts things — offering more description and analytical insight than guidance on what ought to be developed and how. Bringing these two worlds together — systemic design — may have never been more important.

Systemic design, boredom and critical making

Roseanne Somerson, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote about the importance of boredom in spurring creativity in design. In it she speaks of the term ‘critical making’ instead of using design thinking. I love that term. It does a better job of reflecting the thinking-in-action praxis that is really at the heart of good design. In this article she refers to the insights and bursts of creativity that come from her students when she allows them — rather, forces them — to be bored.

What boredom can do is prompt a form of mindfulness, an emptying of the thoughts allowing the opportunity to escape the rush of stimulation that we get from the world and permit new insights to come in. It is a way of temporarily freeing oneself from the path dependence that is created by an entrained thought pattern that seeks out certain stimulation (which is why we tend to re-think the same thing over and again). This is an enormously useful approach for supporting organizations and individuals operating in complex systems to see things differently and not to get swept up in the power of a prevailing current without being fully aware that such a current exists and evaluating whether that is useful or not useful.

Creating the space to be mindful and to understand better ones place in their system as well as the potential consequences of change within that system is one of the key contributions that systemic design can offer. It is about engaging in social critical making and perhaps, it may be away out of the trap of creating simple binaries of stay versus leave or yes vs no. Surely no Britons thought that membership in the EU was all bad or good, but to divide the choice to be in or out might have been a case of taking a simple approach to a complex problem and now we will see how a simple choice has complex reverberations throughout the system now and into the future. Time will tell whether these — and the resulting choices of other nations and regions — will bring us closer together, further apart, or something else entirely.

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Photo credits: Brexit Scrabble by Jeff Djevdet and Sad Day #brexit from Jose Manuel Mota both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks Jeff and Jose for sharing your art.

education & learningevaluation

Reflections said, not done

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Reflective practice is the cornerstone of developmental evaluation and organizational learning and yet is one of the least discussed (and poorly supported) aspects of these processes. It’s time to reflect a little on reflection itself. 

The term reflective practice was popularized by the work of Donald Schön in his book The Reflective Practitioner, although the concept of reflecting while doing things was discussed by Aristotle and serves as the foundation for what we now call praxis. Nonetheless, what made reflective practice as a formal term different from others was that it spoke to a deliberative process of reflection that was designed to meet specific developmental goals and capacities. While many professionals had been doing this, Schön created a framework for understanding how it could be done — and why it was important — in professional settings as a matter of enhancing learning and improving innovation potential.

From individual learners to learning organizations

As the book title suggests, the focus of Schön’s work was on the practitioner her/himself. By cultivating a focus, a mindset and a skill set in looking at practice-in-context Schön (and those that have built on his work) suggest that professionals can enhance their capacity to perform and learning as they go through a series of habits and regular practices by critically inquiring about their work as they work.

This approach has many similarities to mindfulness in action or organizational mindfulness, contemplative inquiry, and engaged scholarship among others. But, aside from organizational mindfulness, these aforementioned approaches are designed principally to support individuals learning about and reflecting about their work.

There’s little question that paying attention and reflecting on what is being done has value for someone seeking to improve the quality of their work and its potential impact, but it’s not enough, at least in practice (even if it does in theory). And the evidence can be found in the astonishing absence of examples of sustained change initiatives supported by reflective practice and, more particularly, developmental evaluation, which is an approach for bringing reflection to bear on the way we evolve programs over time. This is not a criticism of reflective practice or developmental evaluation per se, but the problems that many have in implementing it in a sustained manner. From professional experience, this comes down largely to the matter of what is required to actually do reflective practice or any in practice. 

For developmental evaluation it means connecting what it can do to what people actually will do.

Same theories, different practices

The flaw in all of this is that the implementation of developmental evaluation is often predicated on implicit assumptions about learning, how it’s done, who’s responsible for it, and what it’s intended to achieve. The review of the founding works of developmental evaluation (DE) by Patton and others point to practices and questions that that can support DE work.

While enormously useful, they make the (reasonable) assumption that organizations are in a position to adopt them. What is worth considering for any organization looking to build DE into their work is: are we really ready to reflect in action? Do we do it now? And if we don’t, what makes us think we’ll do it in the future? 

In my practice, I continually meet organizations that want to use DE, be innovative, become adaptive, learn more deeply from what they do and yet when we speak about what they currently do to support this in everyday practice few examples are presented. The reason is largely due to time and the priorities and organization of our practice in relation to time. Time — and its felt sense of scarcity for many of us — is one of the substantive limits and reflective practice requires time.

The other is space. Are there places for reflection on issues that matter that are accessible? These twin examples have been touched on in other posts, but they speak to the limits of DE in affecting change without the ability to build reflection into practice. Thus, the theory of DE is sound, but the practice of it is tied to the ability to use time and space to support the necessary reflection and sensemaking to make it work.

The architecture of reflection

If we are to derive the benefits from DE and innovate more fully, reflective practice is critical for without one we can’t have the other. This means designing in reflective space and time into our organizations ahead of undertaking a developmental evaluation. This invites questions about where and how we work in space (physical and virtual) and how we spend our time.

To architect reflection into our practice, consider some questions or areas of focus:

  • Are there spaces for quiet contemplation free of stimulation available to you? This might mean a screen-free environment, a quiet space and one that is away from traffic.
  • Is there organizational support for ‘unplugging’ in daily practice? This would mean turning off email, phones and other electronic devices’ notifications to support focused attention on something. And, within that space, are there encouragements to use that quiet time to focus on looking at and thinking about evaluation data and reflecting on it?
  • Are there spaces and times for these practices to be shared and done collectively or in small groups?
  • If we are not granting ourselves time to do this, what are we spending the time doing and does it add more value than what we can gain from learning?
  • Sometimes off-site trips and scheduled days away from an office are helpful by giving people other spaces to reflect and work.
  • Can you (will you?) build in — structurally — to scheduled work times and flows committed times to reflect-in-action and ensure that this is done at regular intervals, not periodic ones?
  • If our current spaces are insufficient to support reflection, are we prepared to redesign them or even move?

These are starting questions and hard ones to ask, but they can mean the difference between reflection in theory and reflection in practice which is the difference between innovating, adapting and thriving in practice, not just theory or aspiration.