Monday, May 24, 2010

Terse verse

Over the past two weeks I have been playing a constrained writing game called Terse Verse with colleague, co-creator and friend Abby Straus from Pittsburgh. We wanted to see what would happen when we collectively wrote poetry constrained by simple rules.

Click on the image to start the animated gif to see how the verse unfolded. 

"Serendipity sucks" unfurled like a beautiful flower, danced from concept to concept, through twists and turns of meaning, springing surprises, posing challenges.  The process engaged our own personal Googles - our right frontal lobes - which searched in unlikely nooks and crannies of our brains for new and richer possibilities.

Although we each had some control, it felt as if the poem developed a life of it's own.

Activity: Terse Verse works like this. On your turn add two words. You can only change words you have written. Punctuation can be added or removed at any time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An "impossible" feat of self-organization

In his new book, Complex Adaptive Leadership, Nick Obolensky shows how a group can successfully complete a very complex task in just a few minutes, if everyone follows some very simple rules of interaction.

It's a powerful example of how to lead or manage in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.  And offers an alternative to the traditional approaches to the division of labour, co-ordination and managerial control which are often failing us, as the world becomes more complex, uncertain and ambiguous.

I first played this game with Carrie Lobman at the Eastside Institute in New York. It's an Improv game from the book Carrie and Matt Lundquist wrote called Unscripted Learning that helps teachers use improvisation  in the school classroom to help young people learn "playfully".

They use the game to teach kids about triangles....isosceles triangles. Two of the three sides are the same length.

It's an activity for 5-80 people and can be played in a room, but preferably in a space with clear boundaries such as a tennis or basketball court.

Each person selects two people at random and must stay an equal distance from both, for the remainder of the game.

Acording to Nick Obolensky, the group settles into a steady-state pattern in about 1.25 minuutes per 20 people. So if there are 60 people in the group it will take three minutes for everyone to stop moving around.

It's the same kind of simple rule that helps bird flock and fish to shoal without crashing into each other. They maintain the same distance from each other, and as they change direction make tiny adjustments to maintain the rule.

So here's a workshop to explore this emergent phenomenon:

1. Undertake the "simple rules of interaction" experiment for yourselves. Then report back, how did it feel?.
2. Given the range of possible solutions and the number of people involved, how complex was this task and what makes the task complex? Describe what would have happened if one person had been in charge.
3. The group quickly achieved a task that some think impossible or would have taken a long time to complete. What helped the participants perform the task?
4. Explain how each of the following enablers helped you achieve the task. * Clear individual objective * Few simple rules * Continuous feedback * Discretion and freedom of action * Skill/will of participants
5. What are the consequences for traditional models of organization leadership and managership in rapidly changing and more complex times?
6. Describe how you could could get complexity to work for you (rather than against you) for all different kinds of organization problems/issues?
7. Brainstorm a list of outcomes you want e.g. trust each other implicitly, and then describe a "rule of interaction" for each outcome, that could improve your relations or coordination with others?
8. Where might you discover really good examples of rules of interaction?
9. What operating principles have your discovered today about operating in emergent, chaotic situations?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A process of transformational political change

Influencing Governments has never been more difficult and fleeting. Just when you think they are convinced of your arguments, along comes a political opponent with many supporters in their cavalcade and upsets your applecart, your business plans and your life.

This old way of doing business was simple. You go straight to the political leader and ask for special treatment, as shown in the picture on the left. This approach may have had a big short-term effect, but it's unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term.

In a past life I was a political consultant. Not the kind that knocked on doors, and lobbied politicians. But one that created coaltions of common interests among people and organizations who would normally have little to do with each other, or be uncomfortable working for the same cause.

The coalition buildiing approach is based on one of the fundamental laws of complex adaptive systems, when parts of the system connect to other parts. New order emerges seemingly in a quantum leap. The system shifts from one stable energetic state to a new stable state at a more energetic level. Typical of these phase transitions in human system is the transformation of a group into a team. Or the despatch of an old technology by a new technological ecology. Or a bunch of loosely connected ideas that resolve into a  breakthrough decision, theory or concept.

Phase transitions are also a feature of the activity of large social and political systems.

Think of a political system as widely dispersed citizens and their organizations, closely connected Government department and agencies near the centre of power. The Heads of these government organizations serve the current political leaders. In the US it's the Secretary, in the UK and Australia, the Minister. Many of these agencies and their political leaders are in competition with each other, think environment vs mining, so we should not make the mistake of thinking of "the government" as a unified player in the game.

The picture on the right shows how we used to build coalitions of common interests, by progressively connecting up the whole system, which would then shift, autocatalytically, to a new more organized stable state. A kind of Wisdom of Crowds effect, the kind of activity we can expect to see more often in the emerging Wisdom Age, or its' economic equivalent., the Wisdom Economy.

This approach worked by collectively creating/discovering an idea that better served the interests of all of the parties than the narrower goals each previously pursued. Or a new collective ideal which helped people with diverse interests avoid an outcome that all would be unhappy if it happened

The solutions were never cut and dried. Or known in advance. The clients often had to dramatically alter their wish list along the way. Many of the ideas that emerged from engaging the many stakeholders, were often better than the compromises the client had already grown assumed. More often than not, the client had been backed into a corner and was resigned to their fate.

We would start with a client and their needs. Like prosper and live a happy life. We would take note of the problem, like the decision which might dramatically increase their costs, beyond what was sustainable and restrict what they could do. They often faced choices which had adverse impacts on their employees, contractors, suppliers, neighbors, communities and even their competitors. Often all their efforts to negotiate a political settlement had failed and there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

So we would talk to all the stakeholders - everyone who had an interest - and ask what they thought was the issue, and the best solution possible. As we worked our way around the stakeholder network, many of whom had limited contact with the client, we would discover new ways of thinking about the issue, and feed back these ideas and perspectives to the client and to the other stakeholders.

And very soon a new idea would start to emerge, around which all the stakeholders could unite, despite their differences, which would become the "big idea". And we would create tentative pictures/maps/designs and benefit analysis which gave it substance.

We would start at the periphery and work our way towards the centre, acquiring supporters as we went. We would constantly make adjustments to the "big idea" so that we continued to enroll more people and their organizations. We deliberately stayed away from politicians and their public servants who were often locked in resonance with the old "problem maker" and were often not prepared to change their minds until the winds of political change almost blew them away.

When we reached the central political stakeholders we held back, to give the laggards time to comprehend the practicalities of the new political order. If people are strongly committed to a course of action, they need time to mourn the past, and adapt/adjust to the new. Shoving it in their face merely reinforces their determination to stick to their guns, even in the face of reality.

Most wicked problems have solutions. They are only wicked problems because the principal stakeholders have opinions, values, or interests from which they are unprepared to budge. The Middle East conflict between the Isralis and the Palestinians could easily be resolved if both were to adopt less zealous positions. The debate over abortion could be easily resolved if those who oppose it were to accept that it is unfair and unreasonable for their point of view to be imposed on others who do not share their views. The climate change battle has been hard fought because some see themselves as losers. But when we realize that by sticking our heads in the mud, we are all likely to be losers, attitudes change.

We did not have the Zing team meeting system back in those days, but if we had, these are some of the kinds of questions we would have asked:

1. Thinking about the problem/decision [describe it], what impact will it have on you and your organization/community/family?
2. Who else is there in the community which may be affected negatively by problems/decisions and what do you think they might prefer to happen and why?
3. Who do you think is in favour of the decision or will benefit from it and why do you think they are supporting it?
4. If you had complete comtrol/authority, what would you do differently and why would you want to do this?
5. What ideas might other stakeholders have that could be incorporated into a better solution?
6. What ideas could we include in the final solution to serve the interests of those who support the new solution/decision?
7.  How will we ensure what we really want, happens?

How old are we?

When asked how old we are, most of us probably give our chronological age. But there are many other ways to think about our existence:

* As one of the "children of the stars"...I am billions of years old. Most of my heavier atoms such as oxygen, iron, etc - were forged in supernovae.

* In a biological sense I am at least 800 million years old.. Identical aspects of my DNA are present in most other life on this planet.

* As a primate I am 4 million years old. That's when I/we began to diverge from the great apes...we have 98.8% of our DNA in common.

* My modern humanity puts me at 40,000+ years of age. Back to the last out-of-Africa episode. The maximum difference in our DNA is 0.1%. We all have stone-age brains...

* My chronological age is 65 revolutions of our planet around our sun.

* And my present age is about 1 year old, the number of years since I reinvented myself (for about the 10th time so far).

* My spiritual age is 0....because we and the universe are one and the same thing....and all the photons (fast matter) and matter (slow light) are the connection to the past and the emergent future, and the more playful we can be, the more fun/fabulous our local-verse can be."

Question: How old are you and what difference does that make?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blindsided by our mental models

Many of us myopically peer into the future, blindsided by our out-of-date mental models, believing that the observational tools we have at our disposal provide an accurate picture.

Or just when we think our mental model is the latest and the greatest, we discover the world has morphed into something else and that others have an advantage over us because they have a faster, smarter, more accurate something-scope.

More of us - than ever before - are contributing to new knowledge creation. 

Creative types such as artists, writers and scientists lead the way. They interpret the future for us. Set the scene. Try out new combinations.  They get to do this work simply because they are playful re-arrangers of what has gone before.

However, each of these creative roles is being democratized by the new media and the Internet. Millions get to play at being writers and publishers of blogs and wikis, producer/director/writer/actors in our own YouTube videos or the artist or photographer that sees the world through a new lens.

And as this new knowledge we create is split into ever more "idea spaces",  it becomes harder for any one person to comprehend it all. And so the business of government and the governance of business becomes more difficult and complex.

Knowledge is not only growing exponentially - so that more and more people are more knowledgeable about a tiny part of the "knowledge cosmos" - but each "idea space" comes with it's own complex jargon, that's hard for others outside the field to understand. Languages are now developing, not only through geographical isolation, but also professional isolation. It was always thus, just more so.

For example, many PhDs know more than anyone else in the world about their tiny needle point of knowledge in the knowledge cosmos, a little about adjacent fields, and the kind of generalized knowledge acquired by just living or via the media, the arts or travel.

And so it is more difficult than ever before to reach agreement across the boundaries of what we separately know. Because we can't trust others unless we understand what they mean, and believe what they say. Look at what's happening right now over climate change, nuclear power, abortion, the delivery of health services or economic policy.

Anyone who has ever looked through a microscope or a telescope can tell you there is much hidden from our senses. These extensions to our observational organs help us peer into the world of the very large, or the very small, to see distant stellar objects or micro-organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. Once-upon-a-time at a handful of magnifications. And as the technology improves, at millions of magnifications, all the way to the "edge of time".

I am reminded of the days we presented black tie "thinking theater" type events with Michael, an astrophysicist from the University of New South Wales. We awarded bottles of champagne to the tables who contributed the most inventive, but usually incorrect interpretation of images he had taken of the night sky. His favorite challenge was to show pictures taken at different wavelengths., Like these two. Nothing much at infra-red wavelengths. But a hive of activity in invisible light.

But, as a fisherman will tell you, what you catch depends upon the size of your net. And it is not just the measuring instruments which limit what we perceive, it is also our mental models. How blind is a person, brought up to believe the world is flat to the possibilities that flow from a spherical perspective.

Sadly, some are us are still using the "clockwork universe" perspective of Isaac Newton without realizing it. We see things in terms of cause and effect, people and processes to be controlled and managed, numbers to be crunched in algorithms that produce serial results.

Very few of us yet think in terms of the new sciences of complexity theory, quantum dynamics, fractals, chaos theory, evolutionary psychology or string theory. These ways of seeing the world in all its non-linear glory have been available for decades.

When we think in the ways of the new sciences, we see flows and processes, the deep interconnection between people and nature, self-similarity at every scale, emergent phenomena - new kinds of order - that seems to just pop out of the system, phenomena which are no longer either-or but both, simplicity within the complexity and complexity that follows from simple rules.

But if you are unable to think this way, you might not be able to see a phase shift occurring in market space, as our brains, the tools we use, and the jobs we perform, shift to a higher level of order under pressure from our desire for a better life. Like the current transition from a world focused on Knowledge tools and work, to a world in which Wisdom work, the work of the guru or leader, is being democratized. 

You might miss the shift to new and smarter technologies that help humans do stuff more reliably, with less impact on the planet. Your belief in cause and effect might blind you to the ongoing chaos in world financial markets, where hiccups in one country ricochet around the world, dragging under the local bank upon whom you rely for credit, which you did not realize was so highly connected to the rest of the world. Your conditioning to focus on one thing at a time, might limit your ability to get many projects started, only one of which might generate the attention it deserves or ensure it survives in a world of intense competition for ideas.

So here's a workshop to help discover what is hidden from your view:

1. Describe what it is like to make decisions in market, social and economic conditions of the early 21st century.
2. What is the mental model that you are using to view, manage and control your world? What are your assumptions?
3. Give examples of how managers might see the world in terms of opposing forces, management and control of people and systems, cause and effect and linear algorithms.
4. Describe what you know about quantum dynamics, complex systems, holographic order and chaos theory and how you have applied these concepts to your life, your work or the organizations to which you belong.
5. Quantum dynamics teaches us that phenomena have multiple aspects e.g. light is both a wave and a particle. Use this idea to explain the following concepts group/team, leadership/managership, producer/consumer and how thinking this way might help.
6. Complex systems undergo phase shifts from one level of order to another when catalysts within the system cross-catalyze each other. What kind of catalysts might you find in a marketplace which is undergoing transition from one kind of tool/work to another e.g. horse and buggy to car, CD to flash memory, and how is this relevant to you/your organization?
7. When you cut a hologram up into little pieces and shine laser light on it, you still get a three dimensional image because all the information is distributed throughout the system. Choose one of these terms and explain how/why they might be holographic. Relationships. Organizational knowledge. Resources. Concepts.
8. Explain how you could develop skills/capability holographically so your organization is more flexible and fast moving and why might this be useful today.
9. How could you organize your corporation or agency fractally - self-similarity at every scale - and what might be the benefits?
10. Give examples of how you could measure personal and organization performance in a rapidly changing world using some of the principles of quantum dynamics, complexity theory etc. and how you might disturb the dynamics of the organization, simply by making the measurement 
11. What dramatic changes could you implement in an organization by setting up initial conditions so multifaceted, complex behavior might flow from the adoption of simple rules e.g. servant leadership or dialectical discourse.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The power of rich conversations

In the 1990s, while working with the De Bono Institute in Melbourne, Australia, I realized that many thinking, learning and decision making methods could be captured using just 6-7 rich, open-ended questions to guide really fabulous conversations.

These methods take learners and decision makers on a voyage of discovery, from what they know to a new * model * theory * learning outcome * decision * feedback * design, or * action plan.

This approach has it's origins in an open-ended highly abstract knowledge creation method called the "future search" conference pioneered by organization change consultant Fred Emery.

Some people, particularly those who like or need structure, feel very uncomfortable at a search conference. They get lost in the ambiguity.

So we decided to try question sequences which take people on a step-by-step journey in bite-size chunks, where each step is doable, and not too overwhelming, but achieves the same objective of the future search which is to explore every nook and cranny of an issue.

The process is self-organizing. At the end of the conversation, the conclusions just "pop-up" or emerge from the morass of ideas as a consequence of our collective struggle. New order for free.

The ideas we generate along the way are often useful as end-products in themselves; such as marketing or business plans, project outlines, a descriptive design of a product, a chapter of a book, a report or a research design.

Margaret Wheatley, author of "Leadership and the New Sciences" explains why these kinds of methods are now essential and why we "can't use neat and incremental methods to make sense of the world any longer". She says: "we need to be experimenting with thinking processes that better suit our neural netlike brains, those processes that are open, nonlinear, messy, relational."  Through a process of "reflexive conversations", we need to be looking for information that "is startling, uncomfortable, and maybe even shocking." That helps us invent our way to the future.

At Zing, we have taken the "rich conversations" concept one step further. We have invented a process to invent radical new conversation methods based on the ideas of thought leaders. See the workshops at Colorful Conversations blog based on TED talks or the Maverick and Boutique blog which showcases the  amazing people in our network of consultants.

Few people learn these kinds of /thinking/relating skills at school, because thinking and decision making is most often taught/learned as an individual cognitive activity. And not as conversation.

Even the methods devised by brilliant change agents such as Edward De BonoEdwards DemmingMichael Hammer or James Champy are most often taught as personal tools. De Bono showed us the power of lateral thinking to think about a problem. Edwards Demming asked groups to collect data and make sense of manufacturing quality problems. Michael Hammer and James Champy developed techniques to speed up organization processes. All their methods are incredibly powerful when used as the basis for conversation

You might learn de Bono's methods in Australian and British schools but not in America or Europe. You have to wait to go to business school to learn about quality and business process redesign. Even then you might merely learn the theory and not the practice

When we train teachers in thinking skills it's often via Blooms taxonomy, which classifies cognitive processes in terms of increasingly more complex cognitive processing - what we know, what we understand, how we use it, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. But teachers teach these techniques one at a time, in isolation, and rarely as sequences. Its' like throwing a dart at a dart board and picking a technique at random.

So here's an activity to create a set of rich open-ended questions to start a conversation in your classroom:

1. Describe a topic/issue in five words or less.
2. What is the context for the learning activity? Discipline, focus, age and experience etc.
3. What will excite, engage or amaze the learner?
4. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we would like the learner/participant to discover.
5. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we could expect the learner/participant to already know.
6. Craft a series of RICH, open-ended discussable questions that explore the topic in engaging/amazing ways. Include scaffolds, rich language etc.
7. How will we organise the questions into a logical sequence that builds knowledge as the learner goes? From what they know to need to know…or don't yet know, or would love to discover.