Guest Post — Prototyping an Abundance-based, Virtual, Learning Environment

Guest post by Annabel Membrillo JimenezGlobal Steward Vibrancy Ins

Inspired to design a prototype of an abundance-based, virtual, learning environment, a question came to me.  How could I expand the opportunities to nourish and grow the potential of the Vibrancy community through building capacity and understanding?  The exploration went from an inventory of knowledge to a pre-design of what would be inside multiple levels of understanding.  But, that did not seem like it was enough.  More questions emerged about how to design similar environments for other abundance-based.

The exploration went from a possibility to a probability when the UMA (Universidad del Medio Ambiente in Valle de Bravo, Mexico) opened the door to hold this program within the university’s virtual platform. So, in that moment the support of a university that had both a very well designed virtual platform and a beautiful campus that could support this prototype came into the picture.

So, what happened? The next question arose: How to build a virtual learning environment that could nourish the space for building deep understanding of what it means to co-host transformations?  And, to be more ambitious, how could that be scaled in a relatively easy way in a second iteration? We did not really know if this would interest people, although an attractive feature for the potential participants was that at the end they would receive a diploma from the UMA and the certification from the Vibrancy community.

The design is a journey of six months with a deep focus on experience and application to real cases. Half of the 110 hours required the participants to make applications, reflections, exercises and integration of learnings in documents. Six months seems to be a fair amount of time to build up maturity of knowledge, and give the opportunity to implement and apply tools and exercises in real case studies with real communities. Seeing this as a possibility for scaling globally, I decided to launch it in a mostly virtual format.

And then more and more questions arose; questions around how to build understanding about the what, how and when of the application of the tools and methodologies. But that was a dispassionate purpose for me, and I felt that there was not real aligned with the intention of the first question I was asking. So, I kept on asking myself what was the specific purpose for this prototype. And then, it came to me: the purpose was “to be at the service of each participant to become more of who they really are.” That purpose holds the first intention, for me, unleashing the potential of the Vibrancy community in its ability to unleash the potential of humanity, unleashing each person’s potential for holding the abundance framework every time they choose. In that moment, I knew everything was ready and in place for this to happen because I saw something I could dearly commit to.

So far I can see two very different sets of learnings: one about the design phase to manifest the program; and the second about the first two months of the journey.

For the design phase, I want to share two things I learned:

  1. Sit in the question to clarify the different levels of the purpose. I went from the purpose of how to expand the capacity of the Vibrancy community to the purpose of being at the service of each participant’s potential. Each purpose is perfectly fine for the level they were thought of, one was at the level of a global question and the other was at the level of the specific design of the prototype. Both are important and both are relevant for the conversations that are already happening and the ones that will be happening for the exploration of the next expression of this prototype.
  2. Be conscious of the endless journey through the O Process. Going from the purpose to possibilities and probabilities felt different when I was moving more and more into the concrete expression for a specific prototype. I knew that the more detailed levels of the purpose are invoking a bigger gesture for the bigger question and that made me hold the purpose with a different awareness.

In the first two months of the journey, here is what I have learned so far:

  1. Be very clear about the invitation. This was an invitation to explore this journey together.  All participants in the journey know that it is the first one in this format and completely in Spanish.  They also know that the invitation requires several hours of self-study, application and reflection besides the virtual and face to face session.
  2. Be conscious of what you are invoking and invite each participant to do the same. Do not be afraid to share the deeper purpose!
  3. Use the sense of harmony, intensively. The design of each session calls for a very active listening from me, with all my senses, and being able to design each session with what is emerging. Do not misunderstand me. I have a lot of clarity about the purpose and about what they need to learn, but I have discovered and learned how to flow with the rhythm of the group to introduce concepts, exercises and challenges at the pace they can take on, depending on what they are sharing in their individual assignments.
  4. Hold us all as Homo lumens. I can see each one of them as Homo lumens with enormous potential. I am amazed with the group and who they are.  And, I see myself as someone who can hold the space for them to explore their own potential.
  5. Live it as a constant prototype. The space is co-designed, co-built, and co-hosted together. This has happened in two levels: 1) with others that want to be in the conversation of how to explore environments for building understanding; and 2) using the sense of harmony I shared before.
  6. Design the assignments as a key for the virtual space. I have spent a lot of time imagining the kind of experience I would like them to have between sessions and what kind of assignment would be just enough to stretch them a little bit each time. I am the vehicle designing the underlying structure, the participants are taking up the heavy lifting, through their will, into the doing. One of the participants shared that they needed to do an exercise of honesty with themselves to really get into the assignments, and that is not easy sometimes.

So far, the journey has been delightful. We have been together for 14 hours in virtual sessions, and I am impressed with the pace of the group. Some of them are getting to very deep reflections that we never saw before in such a short time. Some of them are already venturing into actively working with specific tools and methods in different groups.  We are all already looking forward to being together in person at the end of the six months. There is already a feeling of being close to each other. At the end, they will write up case studies and they will synthetize what they have learned in their applications, and I am curious to see how this will happen.

You can enter into a little piece of the concrete prototype design through the PDF presentation, where you can find the timeline and the sharing of some of the reflections the participants are having together. I will be sharing more reflections about the journey along the way, so stay tuned.

What Happens When We “Go It Alone” In Complex Systems?

While the need to collaborate seems obvious to many of us who play in the multi-stakeholder, complex-systems space, most people still do not–even many of the “systems thinkers” I have met.  Some say that collaboration is just too hard, while others say that they collaborate, when they don’t.  What they say might sound like collaboration, but when you look at the underlying agreements, you see that they are not.

So what?  Is collaboration just a “nice” thing to do?  Or is there a real “cost” to not collaborating?   Does collaboration bring possible benefits or does the lack of collaboration directly decrease the impact and resilience of large-scale efforts?  In 2016 professors from Stanford, Harvard, and UC Boulder published their study of the state of the science and practice of sustainable social-environmental systems in their book Pursuing Sustainability (2016 Princeton Univ Press).  They provide such an eloquent and brief survey of examples of the unintended consequences of not having a systemic understanding across space (multiple stakeholders) and time (multiple generation), that I quote it in full.

“The new ‘water closets’ of early nineteenth century London achieved their purpose of ridding houses and their adjoining alleys of foul-smelling human wastes.  But by conveying these untreated wastes into Thames River, they inadvertently poisoned the city’s principal source for drinking water.  The innovation of CFCs greatly enhanced society’s ability to provide safe refrigeration of food, but through a perversely complex chain of unforeseen connections it also put the world at risk by causing depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer.  With the introduction of modern technology into the headworks of Nepal’s irrigation system, it indeed worked better at controlling water.  However, because the system was under the control of new technology and nonlocal managers, the local farmers lost their incentive to cooperate with one another, which led to a decay of overall system productivity.  Numerous additional cases can be drawn from today’s headlines–for example, the unintended effects on food prices of government subsidies to promote biofuels over fossil fuels” (pp 63-64).

While we humans are not yet capable of perfectly modeling and predicting the behavior of complex systems or how to intervene in them, a practice of collaborative study, reflection, and purposeful experimentation is far superior to going it alone, and assuming that you know how everyone else will respond or that it does not matter.

How Co-hosting Influenced My Leadership Approach — 14 European Leaders Share Their Experiences

My colleagues Ana Claudia, Christoph, and I recently shared, in a series of 4 blogposts, what we at Vibrancy and the Institute for Strategic Clarity learned, as co-investors with BUILD UPON and the European Climate Foundation, about: (1) co-hosting collaboration; (2) realizing the deeper shared purpose; (3) measuring impact resilience; and (4) scaling impact.

In this blogpost we want to share what leaders of the BUILD UPON team, from across Europe, learned on how to effectively ‘co-host’ large-scale cross-sector collaboration,  In the following set of video interviews, we explored how their application of the co-hosting principles over six months in their own specific contexts had changed their leadership approaches.

Watch the 3 – 4 minute videos here:

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.


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.


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.“


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.


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.