Agreements of Transformation — Research with 22 Leaders Across 18 Countries

This blog highlights insights from research into the agreements of transformation.  This research with 22 people across 18 countries on 3 continents was supported by the Institute for Strategic Clarity and the UBA, the German Environmental Protection Agency.

CONTEXT

Individuals and groups in different cultures face situations of change in fundamental agreements on a daily basis, addressing complex and large-scale social issues, as well as daily dysfunctional interactions.  We wanted to understand and describe why people respond to these issues by taking on societal-scale transformations, and how they do it.

THE RESEARCH

A team of interviewers at the Institute for Strategic Clarity invited 22 professionals from around the globe who met a diverse set of criteria to be interviewed for and engage in this research project.

•We asked them to “Reflect on a situation, of which you have been part, where you experienced a change at a fundamental level and basic assumptions in a group (e.g. institution, organization, network) or your area of impact (field, industry, sector, region etc.)?“

•Transformation is defined as: “Involving structural changes and shifts in systemic as well as underlying assumptions in order to change how the components in a system relate to one another, thus achieving fundamental change in relationships, systems boundaries, governing variables, actions and strategies as well as outcomes and consequences.“

METHOD

The team, led by Christoph Hinske, engaged 22 practitioners in a 60-minute, semi-structured, dialog-based, expert interview.  The interviews were then analyzed with narrative-based agreements evidence map to find agreements in a simple but robust way in the practices, structures and processes described during the interviews.

PRELIMINARY RESULTS

The interviewees indicated that they achieved transformation by starting with an assumption of abundance of resources, creating experiences of higher vibrancy, and organizing in a way that they achieved greater harmony in their interactions with others.

  • “Conversation partners shared that money and other resources were often perceived to be limited, but never as scarce.“
  • “Decisions and enforcements (un)consciously strengthen the primary relationships.“
  • “People are in such processes because they want to exponentially increase what they value most.“
  • “Societal scale transformation is a journey into the unknown, framed by a ‘psychologically safe’ support structure, in which members enable each other to find ways to walk into the future they see together.”

You can find out more about the research and its findings in the following sources: 

We Don’t Collaborate Because It Is A “Nice” Thing To Do, Rather Because We Have To–What Science Tells Us

“The most important implication[s] of the complexity of social-environmental systems is that you can’t do just one thing (p 63) […and] fitting the pieces together..requires an ability to understand how changes in one..asset..are likely to interact with the other assets…Doing this perfectly is not within our reach.  But the revolutionary advances of the last decades understanding the dynamics of social-environmental systems provide a solid foundation on which to do it better” (p 51), according to Stanford’s Professor Matson, Harvard’s Clark, and UC Boulder’s Andersson in their recent framing of the emerging science and practices of social-environmental system resilience, in their book Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice (2016 Princeton Univ Press).

To do more than “merely one thing” is to realize that everything is connected to something else, and that each of those “something elses” belongs to someone, someone who makes decisions about it.  This level of understanding of how parts of the system interact, and how local decision structures influence them focuses on systemic decision structures.

While the complexity of dealing with many moving parts, which are each influenced by multiple, different stakeholders, can seem overwhelming at first glance, many of us in the fields of decision and systems sciences have spent many years finding efficient ways to integrate the best of human understanding and wisdom with robust technologies, increasing the strategic clarity a group of individuals can achieve together.  You can find many examples of strategic systems mappings of large-scale, complex systemic decision structures (here), as well as examples of groups mapping the underlying systemic agreement structures that influence the decisions made in the system (here).

“Without an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems in which decisions are being made, unintended and negative consequences will too often result” (p 53).

Seeing What We See–Another Perspective on The Agreements We Accept

The British philosopher Alan Watts observed, “If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say that I have drawn a circle, or a disc, or a ball.  Very few people will ever suggest that I have drawn a hole in a wall, because people think of the inside first, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together–you cannot have what is ‘in here’ unless you have what is ‘out there.’

What agreements have I unconsciously accepted, such as seeing the circle from the inside, that limit my ability to see the circle from the outside?  How many ways have I boxed myself into a corner, from which I cannot see the possibilities I am seeking?  Watts’ observation invites me to remember that I was the one that boxed myself in–with the agreements I unconsciously accepted–so I can remove those boxes I put in place, the constraints on what I can see, consciously choosing the agreements I accept.

Why Don’t We Know What We Are?

I discovered even more of my ignorance the other day.  I did not know that we, as a human race, and as a deeply evolved tradition in science, did not have a clear definition of what we humans are.  I was taught that we are Homo sapiens sapiens.  I assumed this was pretty obvious, and thus well defined.  Then I heard a talk by an archaeologist and read a BBC article stating that, “we can’t agree on the defining features of a human…Science has yet to agree on a formal description for our genus, Homo, or our species, sapiens..

The article goes on to describe how long this has been unclear, “the 18th-century biologist Carl Linnaeus..was the first to standardise the way species and genera are named and defined. He named thousands of species in his seminal 1735 book Systema Naturae, but when it came to our genus, he got a bit metaphysical.  When he named each animal genus, Linnaeus carefully noted its defining physical features. But under Homo he simply wrotenosce te ipsum“: a Latin phrase meaning ‘know thyself’…Clearly, there is no shortage of possible scientific definitions we could legitimately apply to our genus. But there is no consensus about which definition is the right one, and given how strongly opinions vary, it seems unlikely that the issue is going to be resolved in the near future.  It might seem surprising that we struggle to define the very thing we are. But perhaps it is exactly because this debate centres on humanity that consensus is so hard to find.”

These observations of the lack of clarity of what we are, as human beings, leads me to wonder whether it is because, like with many things, the answer is hard to see because we have backed ourselves into a corner from which we cannot find the answer.  Linnaeus rekindled the ancient Greek aphorism to know thyself, categorizing us as the being who knows him/herself, Homo sapiens.  Then we proceeded to try to characterize and differentiate ourselves by our material form, our externally visible biology.  Know thyself is inwardly focused.  The shape of our forehead and size of our brain is outwardly focused.  Maybe we struggle to characterize that which makes us interesting and unique in our contribution to each other and the universe, what I characterize as Homo lumens, because we look more at our physical form than what it is housed in and what is produced creatively from that physical form.

What People Mean By “We Are Systems Thinkers”

I have been meeting lots of people lately who talk about being “systems thinkers.”  As a person who has played in the field of system dynamics and systems thinking for two dozen years, I get excited when people self-describe as playing in the same space.  To me “systems thinking” refers to classical definitions of a system and of systems thinking, such as:

System.  “A system is a set of interrelated elements.” — Russell Ackoff, 1971

Systems Thinking.  “The ability to see the world as a complex system.” — John Sterman, 2000

I have also started to listen more carefully to what people mean about what they say and what evidence they use to show what they mean.  With this listening, it seems to me that people are actually saying very different things about themselves, often with the same terms.  I have heard three very different things that people mean when they say, “systems thinking.”

Focus on systemic structures.  By systems thinking, some people mean that they focus on systemic structures.  They primarily focus on their own node, their own system, within a larger system.  They use processes like causal diagrams, rich pictures, and systems archetypes to describe their part of the system, its causes, and what they can do about it.  You can find hundreds of examples here, where I too have published.  This focus on systemic structures that are very close to their own node in the larger system seems to correlate with what I have observed to be segregating design, where everyone in the larger system tends to focus on their own local dynamics, irrespective of what others in the system are thinking or doing.

Focus on systemic decision structures.  By systems thinking, other people mean that they focus on a set of interrelated decision structures.  They primarily focus on how the decisions influencing their own node are influenced by multiple stakeholders who are each making decisions about their own nodes.  They use quantitative modeling processes like system dynamics (see my dengue modeling) and qualitative strategic modeling processes like my own GRASP and Strategic Clarity  processes, often coupled with the “systemic structures” processes described above.  With these processes, they try to see the whole, how each stakeholder contributes to causes of the problem, and how to partner around what each stakeholder could do to shift the behavior of the whole system.  This focus on systemic decision structures around their own nodes and those of related stakeholders seems to correlate with what I see as flocking design, where people and groups within a larger system pay attention to each other, reacting to each other’s movements, with the focus still primarily on one’s own resilience.

Focus on systemic agreement structures.  By systems thinking, yet other people mean that they focus on both the underlying and surface-level structures of agreements that determine the systemic decision structures.  They primarily focus on how deeper structures of embedded agreements influence the system of decisions that each stakeholder consciously or unconsciously accepts in their interactions within a system.  They use processes of co-hosting collaboration to decide together what their deeper shared purpose is within the stakeholders of a larger system, seeing what the requisite unique contributions are from each stakeholder, and together developing creative possibilities that they then leverage and tangibilize together, using processes like the Harmonic Vibrancy Move Process.  This focus on systemic agreement structures seems to correlate with what I observe to be uniting design, where people come together to redefine the underlying agreements that shape their system, the experience they have, the outcomes they achieve, and the resilience of the impacts they achieve.

So, the next time someone tells you they are a systems thinker, I invite you to perk up your ears, listen a little closer, and ask questions.  Look for the evidence of what they actually mean.  Are they focusing on (1) systemic structures to improve segregating designs, (2) systemic decision structures to support flocking designs, or (3) systemic agreement structures to co-develop uniting designs?  Those few moments of extra inquiry and evidence gathering might tell you a lot about what they actually mean.

Retrospective — We Dramatically Increased Efficiency and then Disengagement

It might be time for a shift.  A move made a century ago, quickly crisscrossing the earth, might have reached its end, and we might be ready to stand on those shoulders of excellence and see quite a bit further.

Here is a story I found recently in a new book by Todd RoseThe End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Value Sameness.  It refers to Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the founders of the worldwide efficiency movement of the past century.

“Before Taylor set out to develop a new science of work, companies usually hired the most talented workers available, regardless of their particular skill set, and then let these star employees reorganize a company’s processes according to what they believed would help them be most productive.  Taylor insisted this was completely backward.  A business should not conform its system to fit individual employees, no matter how special they were perceived to be. Instead, business should hire Average Men who fit the system. ‘An organization composed of individuals of mediocre ability, working in accordance with policies, plans, and procedures discovered by analysis of the fundamental facts of their situation, [would] in the long run prove more successful and stable than an organization of geniuses each led by inspiration,’ affirmed Taylor…At a 1906 lecture, Taylor explained how he saw the relationship between workers and managers: ‘In our scheme, we do not ask for the initiative of our men.  We do not want any initiative.  All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick’…In 1918, Taylor doubled down on these ideas…’The most important idea should be that of serving the man who is over you his way, not yours‘” (pp. 43-47).

Undeniably this efficiency philosophy led to dramatic increases in the productivity of organizations.  And it seems to have led to very high levels of disengaged employees.  And it seems that in the age of the information economy, it matters whether people are engaged or not.  In ecosynomic terms, Taylor describes the experience of the inner circle of vibrancy, where each individual person is a replaceable part of a bigger machine that brings specific capacities to a very specific task, in a very specific way.  We now know that, in this age, that philosophy leads to deeply disengaged people, and that it matters whether people are engaged or not.  While much of work is described today using the same terms Taylor does above, it might be time to build on what we have learned.

Choosing Our Agreements, Consciously — 4 Quotes

A core tenet of my work is that we unconsciously accept most of the agreements that fundamentally influence our experience and our outcomes, and that it is possible to see these agreements and to consciously choose them.  In my recent readings, I came across some quotes looking at this choice.

Nobel laureate in literature, George Bernard Shaw, in Maxims for Revolutionists, wrote, The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Once British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in Lothair, wrote, “Action may not always be happiness,..but here is no happiness without action.”  I suggest that choice might not always bring happiness, but there is no resilient capacity for happiness or wellness, however one defines it for oneself, without conscious choice.

Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, wrote, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool” (p 343).  To be okay with unconsciously accepting the agreements that most influence your experience and outcomes is to give over the power of your will, your future, to someone else.

In his bestselling The 4-Hour Workweek, a manifesto on rethinking our basic agreements about working and living, Timothy Ferriss observes, “If everyone is defining a problem or solving it one way and the results are subpar, this is the time to ask, What if I did the opposite? Don’t follow a model that doesn’t work” (p 30).  Just because everyone seems to accept a set of agreements, consciously or unconsciously, does not mean that these agreements actually lead to the experience and outcomes they say they do or that these agreements are right for you.  To know that, you have to ask the question.

A hat tip to Timothy Ferriss for these four quotes.

Guest Post — Inviting the Co-hosting of a Harmonic

with Conor Ritchie-Dunham, singer songwriter, composer, and lead guitar and vocals in The Contradictions

Many of you who follow this blog lead groups of people taking on deeper levels of collaboration, working through the challenges of experiencing a deeper harmonic while embracing ever-more challenging issues. We know that this harmonic reflects the behavior of a group, and who we are being as leaders. While we talk a lot about this harmonic in our community, I realized that I have direct access to a couple of people who know a lot about generating a harmonic, in music. Having the fortune to experience great amounts of music in my home, created most often by my daughter and son, I was talking with my son Conor this past week about the art and science of generating a harmonic in one’s own music, and what it takes to generate the enlivening experience of a harmonic in music with any audience. Conor shares his experience in inviting the co-hosting of a harmonic in the rest of this blogpost.

In preparation for a performance, it is the artist’s responsibility to generate a space for the harmonic. We cannot create a harmonic, just as we cannot make someone love us. But we can create the conditions in which that harmonic has ample opportunity to arise. In hosting a dinner party, for example, we cannot simply tell our guests to have a good time. We must learn from our past positive dinner-party experiences, replicate those conditions, pay close attention to how the experience goes, and learn from there. In seeking a good experience for our guests, we hope to generate an environment where they have ample opportunity to feel comfortable, satisfied, entertained and included in a sense of companionship.

As musicians we seek many of the same factors in preparing for a performance. We wish for our audience to be comfortable: In a comfortable venue that is suitable for the type of performance at hand, and which promotes the experience we wish the performance to give. (A large stadium for awe and wonder, or an intimate poetry café for trance-like introspection.)

We wish for our audience to be satisfied: Having a performance of appropriate length so that it is long enough that they feel the event was worth their money, yet short enough so as not to bore. Ordering the songs so that there is enough dynamic and emotional variance throughout the performance to keep it interesting. Proper attention paid to the sound equipment and acoustics of the space so that sound quality complements the performance.

We wish for our audience to be entertained: That the music itself is of quality, the performances are impressive, authentic, passionate and tell a story, and that any other factors of the performance such as light show, scenery or choreography do their part to aide the emotional effect of the performances.

We also wish for our audience to feel included in a sense of companionship. Concerts of certain styles are often self selecting in the type of person they attract, but it is the co-host and artist’s job to make them feel welcome. Personal, authentic interaction with the audience, which shows leadership and command, yet gratitude and humbleness is a must.

With experience, the performer, like the co-host, can learn to consistently generate and maintain an environment where a powerful harmonic can thrive, and where it can continue to live in the hearts of those who experienced it long after the final dish is served and the final note is played.

In order to co-host a harmonic, I have learned that I must first authentically feel that harmonic within myself. As a performer, I find it helpful to solidify a pre-show routine that will reliably foster that harmonic in me. After a full-body stretch and a vocal warm-up, I go to a dark corner, close my eyes, and meditate, focusing on releasing nervous energy and connecting to my emotional core. I know the performance begins the moment I step on stage. So these preparations allow me to set the atmosphere of the performance before I even begin the first song. When performing with others, I will extend this pre-show routine to include them. After I have fostered the harmonic in myself, I will bring it to them, perhaps by holding hands and saying a blessing, cheer, or singing a song. When we are connected and ready, we can step on stage and bring that harmonic to the audience.

 

The Creative Spark — Recommended Reading

Fuentes, Agustin. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional2017, New York: Dutton.

We human beings prefer experiences where our unique creative expression is invited into a group’s work, and where it is actively engaged, according to our survey research in 98 countries and our field research in 39 countries.  In The Creative Spark, Professor Agustin Fuentes provides an anthropologist’s view on the impact of human imagination.

He starts with the observation that, “the initial condition of any creative act is collaboration…This cocktail of creativity and collaboration distinguishes our species–no other species has ever been able to do it so well–and has propelled the development of our bodies, minds, and cultures, both for good and for bad” (p 2).  His research suggests that there are “four big misconceptions of human evolution:…we are the species that is supremely good at being bad; we are a species of supercooperators, supremely good at being good; [we are] a species still better adapted to traditional lives as hunter-gatherers than to modern, mechanized, urbanized, and tech-connected life; [or that we are] the Promethean breed, who, having made all the world our dominion, are now running it, and ultimately ourselves, into ruin” (p 3). He suggests that vast amounts of research in “anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, economics, and sociology over the past twenty years” (p. 4) have shown these predominant arguments are at best incomplete.  “Perhaps most important, these popular accounts have obscured the wonderful story at the heart of our evolution–the story of how, from the days of our earliest, protohuman ancestors, we have survived and increasingly thrived because of our exceptional capacity for creative collaboration” (p 4).  “A new synthesis demonstrates that humans acquired a distinctive set of neurological, physiological, and social skills that enabled us, starting from the earliest days, to work together and think together in order to purposefully cooperate.

Professor Fuentes takes us on the long journey over two million years of how we evolved, through our increasing ability for creative collaboration, to the beings we are today.  Along the way, he explores how we co-evolved with our environment through food, war, sex, religion, art, and science.  As the capacity for collaboration, and how collaboration differs from pure competition or coopetition lies at the core of our work in ecosynomics, this look across the data from hundreds of communities and hundreds of thousands of years, highlights our innate capacities as Homo lumens.  A very interesting, well written and documented read, which I highly recommend.

Deep Agreements We Hold and Can Choose — Recommended Reading

Bishop, Orland. The Seventh Shrine: Meditations on the African Spiritual Journey–From the Middle Passage to the Mountaintop2017, Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.

Orland Bishop‘s new book, The Seventh Shrine, brings to light the deeper agreements we humans hold and can choose.  Orland, who holds the Institute for Strategic Clarity 2016-2017 Homo lumens Fellowship, has explored agreements in many previous blogs here.

Our awareness of our agreements, of how we interact in community, invites our full engagement.  “Participating is essential to the forming and the sustaining of community.  If we take just the word “part,” it points only to the individual human being.  But we must create this other aspect of “participation,” which is reciprocity, the exchange of the common good.  This is the nature of the community, a process of exchanging with each other and cultivating something that I can’t create by myself.  I can’t create something that complex by myself.  It is a discovery that when we participate, the emergent quality is something that spontaneously reveals itself, that in the act of hosting and being hosted in this improvisation of devotion to some aspect of our human genius, we arrive at something that we couldn’t see beforehand.  You could say that we share this “communion,” this wonderful substance.  This is the “precipitation” of the spiritual substance of human life.  It condenses, it manifests, and it becomes now tangible in the world.  Participation is rain in the world (p. 208).”

I just finished reading this book, and I highly recommend it.