Leadership — How We Get to What We Have and Where We Could Be

Leadership.  While everyone has a different definition of what leadership is, how one achieves it, and what it does, it might be much simpler than that.  You know it when it is there, and when it is not there.  From the perspective of the choices we have in the agreements we either unconsciously accept or consciously choose, what does leadership look like?  Can this picture help us see how we ended up with the leadership examples we have today?  Can it help us see where we could be?  Let’s see.

To lead is to get someone to go with you.  This is an agreement, an interaction between two or more people.  In an interaction, there is a future possibility–a desired state–a pathway towards that desired state, and an outcome.  Elsewhere I refer to these as the three levels of perceived reality.  We can look at this interaction through four lenses, big questions that millions of people dedicate their whole careers to: how much resource is available in the interaction; who decides and who enforces; what values are used to decide; and what are the principles of the interaction, the rules of the road?

Where are we today with most leadership?  We can take the three levels of perceived reality (possibility, pathway, outcome) and the four lenses (how much, who decides, what values, what rules) and see how simplifying assumptions give us much of what we experience in leadership today.  Let’s start with what we can see from the three levels of perceived reality.

  1. Most leaders focus primarily on outcomes.  What did you do today?  Did you get the desired results?  Leaders like this are typically given authority to represent the whole group, of whatever size, and they are held responsible for the outcomes.  Get the results however you need to.  Do what I say.  No potentials or learning here.
  2. Many leaders have begun to focus on the outcomes and the pathway to them.  How can we learn and adapt to get the best outcomes, given the changing landscape?  These leaders try to bring out the best of the people and processes they have, learning over the time and space available and developing capacities with the whole and for the whole.  They try to increase the efficiency with which the work is done.  No potentials here.
  3. A few leaders focus on the outcomes, the pathways to them, and the potential.  What can we see that is possible, what pathways can get us there, and what feedback do we get from the outcomes along the way?  These leaders bring people together to see new possibilities, sets of relationships to achieve them, and then focus on what feedback they can get from intermediate outcomes, so that they can adjust the possibilities they see and the pathways they use along the way.

This simple formulation shows us that as we begin to subtract levels of perceived reality from our leadership model, we move from potential, pathways, and outcomes to pathways and outcomes, to outcomes, losing the capacity to choose how we adapt to what we have learned about ways to manifest, to make tangible the possibilities we saw.  When we focus only on outcomes, we lose access to possibilities and to learning.  While many say that they don’t have time for anything other than making sure they get the results–we don’t have time for seeing possibilities and learning–good engineering practice shows that these people spend most of their time correcting for easily avoidable mistakes, and they greatly increase the risk of becoming obsolete.  Learning and adapting does not have to take much more time, and it helps avoid extraordinary wastes of time in correcting mistakes late in the game.

Now let’s see what happens when leadership uses only one of the four lenses.

  1. Some leaders focus primarily on the economics of how much resource is available.  How much do we have, how much do we need, how much do we generate?  What is the net result?  How do I control more of the resources?
  2. Some leaders focus principally on the politics of who decides and who enforces.  Who has the right to make what decisions in the hierarchy?  Who enforces them?  What power do the decision makers and enforcers have?  How do I get more of that power?
  3. Some leaders focus on the cultural values used to decide.  What do we most care about?  How deeply do people live into these principles?  Do the people clearly understand and live by these principles?  What culture do I think we need?
  4. Some leaders focus on the social rules of the game.  What are the rules?  Does everyone know them and obey them?  How can I work the rules of the game to my benefit?

This simple formulation shows us that we can easily focus our leadership on the economic, political, cultural, or social forms within our interactions.  And that we do this at great risk, losing the value of the other perspectives.  With any one lens, we easily go astray.  We try to get power through resources.  We try to get resources through values.  We try to set the rules through power.  We try to set the values through the resources we control.

Does this mean that we are doomed as society with leadership that tends to focus on the outcomes level of perceived reality and only through one of the four lenses?  Maybe.  And, we see that are many examples of leaders who are beginning to do something that is actually easier to do and gets much better results.  They are starting with the assumption that they are leading with other people who actually care and have something to contribute.  From this perspective, they co-host people coming together to look for the possibilities they can see from the richness of perspectives they each bring, finding pathways they can use together to manifest those shared possibilities, and then see what they learn from the feedback they receive in the outcomes they achieve.  What happened?  What did we learn?  How can we adapt what we initially saw, given what we learned in the process?  These leaders also use all four lenses, at the same time, to ask one question, using the four lenses to see the subtleties:

  • how do we manifest the possibilities we see, with the resources we have and can develop in our potential and in our learning,
  • each making decisions for ourselves, for each other, for the group, and for the process, as is appropriate along the way,
  • with a deeper shared purpose and a set of values for those decisions that bring out the best we have to offer, in our potential, in our learning, and in our outcomes,
  • collaborating towards this shared purpose, uniting our best contributions, potentials, and learning.

This is not more nuanced than any other form of leadership.  All leadership forms take great energy and lots of resources.  Some just achieve far less impact, far less engagement, and far less resilience than others.  And it does not need to be that way, as leadership is more natural to human beings when it acknowledges possibilities, development, and outcomes, as seen in what resources are available, who decides and enforces, with what values and what principles of interaction, all at the same time.  It is not harder, it is built into who we are as human beings, if we can only see it and choose it.

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Collaboration Basics: Essential Agreements

posted with Ruth Rominger, CHOICE Fellow and Garfield Foundation’s Director of Information and Network Design–Collaborative Networks

Those of us in the social sector hear a lot of talk about the value of collaboration. Why do so few actually do it? Because it is hard?  Because it takes too much time?  Or is it because we are operating out of old mindsets and assumptions?

Our research over the past three decades suggests that most people know how to collaborate and yet, they don’t. The evidence points to some common assumptions that get in the way, and a handful of key behaviors that show up in most authentic, effective collaborations. It is our observation that when you become aware of these assumptions and behaviors, you are poised for productive collaboration.  

What We See

People who collaborate effectively are actively engaged with others to co-create the time, space, and purpose for working together.  They share responsibility for hosting explicit processes to achieve desired outcomes. These include:  co-investment, integrated conversations, deep shared purpose, and uniting design.  We call this collaborative co-hosting. Here is a brief description of what these ideas mean:

Co-investment. People in effective collaboration come to the table with the attitude of a co-investor. Co-investors who take responsibility for process and outcomes, and want to bring all their available resources to the table. Collaborative co-investors look for opportunities to learn and grow, share their capacities, and see greater potential. It is possible to increase the effectiveness of any collaborative group by recognizing evidence of co-investment and reinforcing it.

Integrated Conversations. Collaboration is strongest if people who don’t typically interact with people in different sectors of a given system have small-group conversations that overlap with other small group conversations that build to whole group conversations, and continuously engage with each other through all phases of work. The behavior seems to maintain the flow of information throughout the system, which helps inform decisions at the core, in nodes (small groups), and at the periphery (with those people loosely involved, on the front lines, or highly impacted). And it makes it possible for decisions to be made at the most appropriate level, by informed and trusted individuals, pairs, or groups.  

Deep(er) Shared Purpose. There is nothing that motivates a diverse groups and individuals to collaborate more than identifying a deep shared purpose. Co-hosts create the opportunity to find and name a deeper shared purpose.  They welcome others who connect with that purpose.  They invite the contribution of each individual’s own purpose to the shared purpose, and the contribution of their unique capacities to the collaboration.

Uniting Design. Co-hosts design interactions and activities to unite, connect, reinforce, and reciprocate contributions of others sharing the deep shared purpose. They create the space to build trust, and see, with others, who their efforts can benefit. The collaboration focuses on learning together by seeing possibilities, testing them, and learning from the successes and failures.  More than looking for the one right answer to all of the problems, the focus is on continuously exploring the next step to generate common understanding of the subject.  And they contribute to others, to create a “whole greater than the sum of the parts.”

What We Do Instead

Even though most of us know how to co-host collaboration, we tend to overlook the potential, learning and growth, and unique capacities in ourselves, in others, and in whole groups.  Instead we focus on outcomes, attributing direct cause and claiming credit. What results did the work produce? Who gets acknowledged? The common practice—to directly associate an action to its outcome—tries to isolate one dimension, or one data point, at a time. At best, the use of logic models, good strategic planning, assessment, and evaluation of isolated data falls far short of what is needed to effectively change a complex system, and often lead to unintended consequences.

Instead of making explicit the group’s deep shared purpose and core values, we tend to focus on the values of one or a few key stakeholders, subordinating all others, often unconsciously.  We too often attribute value to a single success factor, a preferred group, or ultra-individualism in the name of freedom, to the exclusion of seeing and valuing the rest.

Why We Do This

Research shows two dominant reasons for why we continue to do this. We do not recognize scarcity-based assumptions that are embedded in the system and limit our ability to see other possibilities. We unconsciously accept that our world has scarce resources, and thus see scarcity in our life, at work, with strangers, friends, and family. This is just the way it is: there is not enough to go around, and we have to compete with others for what little there is.  Our research, based on an Agreements Health Check survey (http://instituteforstrategicclarity.org/take-the-survey/) with responses from 124 countries, shows that people unconsciously accept and selectively see scarcity.

We also tend to accept that most of our environments are energy depleting. Research in sociology shows us that underlying agreements of how we treat each other are deeply embedded in our social systems, which makes them very hard to see.  For example, we tend to design our companies hierarchically for efficiency. We measure efficiency by the value of outputs earned from the cost of inputs. We seek efficiency to maximize profitability for shareholders.  And we accept maximizing shareholder values over other stakeholders, because the current system is designed for shareholders to decide who has access to their capital. We have accepted an agreement that capital is the most important resource, over all else. Most of us are not aware that these are only agreements, and these agreements and their consequences are embedded in the current system. They exist only because we have unconsciously accepted that this is the way it is, and by doing so, we miss the opportunity to create something different.  While most agreements that exist today simplified reality to so that we could achieve the great contributions to society of the past two centuries, these same, simplifying  agreements now limit the capacity of our society to make the next step many collaborative efforts seek.  With gratitude we acknowledge where we have been and step towards where we need to be.

We Can Build Other Agreements

We have the ability to shift our reality.  When we recognize the agreements underpinning current reality, we can shift them. For example, we can build new agreements about what types of resource and collective potential are available to work with. We can choose who makes decisions. We can choose what values we base our decisions on and how we enforce them.  We can choose how we interact with others.  

We can choose the benefits of co-hosting collaboration.  We can shift from old agreements to collaborative agreements.  Following is a guide we have developed, based on our experience to date, to  assess and strengthen strategic, systems-changing collaboration.

Assessing Collaborative Strength

Collaborators’ Basics

Value Is there evidence that collaborators… Evidence
1 Co-investment
  • Bring a variety of resources  to the table
  • Invest in their own development
  • Tap into their full potential
  • All collaborators co-invest
  • Co-investors bring full complement of their resources: their capacities, their learning, and their potential
  • Clear model of Return on co-investment, from greater impact and resilience, for each co-investor
2 Integrated conversations
  • Integrate the parts of the system through overlapping conversations, where representatives from one conversation are part of another
  • In and across the parts and phases of work
  • Information flows through their system, intentionally and fluidly informing decisions
  • Decisions are made at appropriate levels, by trusted individuals, pairs of individuals, or groups
  • Structure of integrated conversations directly related to the deeper shared purpose
  • Clear structures and processes for continuous information flow through integrated conversations
  • Clarity of what perspectives need to be in each conversation
  • Participants demonstrate 100% responsibility for being prepared and engaging in each conversation
  • Rapid learning and adaptation within and across integrated conversations
3 Deeper shared purpose
  • Identify the deeper purpose that motivates action
  • Invite others motivated by the purpose to contribute what is unique and specific for that purpose
  • Statement of deeper shared purpose that deeply motivates co-investors
  • Direct connection of each integrated conversation to the deeper shared purpose
  • Clarity in each integrated conversation of how it is connected to and furthering the deeper shared purpose
4 Uniting design
  • Design interactions and activities to unite
  • Design to reinforce unique contributions of each person towards the purpose
  • Clarity of specific, unique contributions needed for each integrated conversation
  • Each integrated conversation inquires into and brings out the best of needed  perspectives

Why Utopias Go Nowhere in The Circle

Utopias, places where everything is perfect, are not real.  They are to be found nowhere, which is the etymology of the word utopia, from the Greek ou “not” + topos “place” or nowhere.  The recent movie The Circle suggests a utopian solution, where everything is designed to be nice.  Like many utopian designs, the basic premise is seductive, everything can be perfect, if everyone can just be…

In The Circle, everyone is supposed to contribute to the group.  If you can just do that, it will all work out.  Like most other social designs, this utopia focuses on one of the five primary relationships, the relationship to the group, assuming that if you do that well, then the other four primary relationships (self, other, nature, spirit) will somehow work out.  In The Circle, they imply that they are working on all five primary relationships by measuring the impact you have in each.  You have a scorecard, which everyone can see.  They measure how you express your own creativity with a self score (relationship to self), how you support others with a service score (relationship to other), how creative you are in finding solutions with an innovation score (relationship to nature), and how much you access the creative source with smiles (relationship to spirit).  It is all measured and in a scorecard.  All five primary relationships, measured continuously, giving you instant feedback on how healthy you are in the vibrancy of your five primary relationships.  That should work, right?  And, as the movie unfolds (spoiler alert), it does not work.  Why?

The utopia always focuses on one to two primary relationships, then either ignores the other three to four primary relationships or tries to fit them into the first one to two.  This is where the centripetal forces of The Circle’s utopia collapse it in on itself.  The design of The Circle is based on “the push.”  The principles of measurement focus on pushing you away from the centripetal forces of deep scarcity, away from low levels of vibrancy experienced in each of the five primary relationships.  Through measurement, they show you where you are on the continuum from weak to strong in each of the five primary relationships (self, other, group, nature, spirit).  Through the ecosynomic lens, it has to be based on a push, a push away from scarcity, because it is primarily based on one of the five primary relationships–the relationship to the group–masking the other four (self, other, nature, spirit) as expressions of the group.  Express yourself, for the health of the group.  Support others, for the health of the group.  Be creative, for the health of the group.  This is a scarcity-plus move. This move assumes that people are based in scarcity, and it tries to control or measure the scarcity out of them.  The lead actor receives lots of feedback, the second she engages, about how poorly she is doing at being vibrant, in multiple ways.  A key lesson here is that you cannot achieve higher levels of impact resilience and vibrancy through a push, a scarcity-plus move.  The centripetal forces of collapse, back to the center, are too strong.

Does this mean that there is nowhere to go, is everywhere a nowhere, a utopia?  Our research at the Institute for Strategic Clarity of the past two decades suggests that there is a somewhere to go, a now here, instead of a nowhere.  In beginning to map the global social topography of human agreements, my colleagues and I have found hundreds of examples all around the world of people that are beginning to find their own “now here.”  They are not in the middle of nowhere, rather right in the middle of now here.  What are they discovering that enables them to live in the outer circles of vibrancy in all five primary relationships on a sustainable basis?  The pull.  They have discovered how to connect to the pull, the force that pulls people towards a desired future to which they give their will.  We find this pull is connected with a deeper shared purpose that draws people together.  It accesses a seemingly infinite source of potential, of creative energy.  Within the pull, people work with tangibilization power, continuously learning and evolving, seeing potentials, discovering pathways of relationships and capacities to manifest that potential energy, and then experiencing the outcomes of those pathways, adjusting what is seen in potential and the pathways to be used.  Learning and evolving, which is nature’s process.

From the pull, they are uncovering more robust forms for realizing, making real, each of the five primary relationships.  In the relationship to the self, you find your own individual initiatory development of free expression, which only you can see for yourself.  Nobody else can dictate, like in The Circle, what your initiatory path of development is and how to express your own self.  In relationship to the other, justice as fairness supports each uniquely constituted and contextualized self equally.  In the relationship to the group, each individual is invited to contribute their unique expression in the self-other-whole relationship to the group.  In the relationship to nature, one learns to witness, through self awareness and with support from the other and the group, how to improve one’s capacity to tangibilize potential through pathways of relationships and capacities into outcomes.  And, in the relationship to spirit, groups are learning how to connect to their pull, their source of creativity.

Through the pull, it seems that it is indeed possible to find yourself now here.  Through the push, it seems that you end up nowhere.  The Circle shows what happens when you try the push method.  The O Process shows what groups have learned about working with the pull.

e3 (eCubed) = Everyone Everywhere Everyday

Almost every form of wellbeing measured today finds success for some people in some places some of the time.  Income, happiness, health.  Some have it, some of the time, and most do not, most of the time.

In all of our work in the past ten years, my colleagues and I hear over and over again the desire to shift the experience and outcomes in systems for everyone everywhere everyday, throughout whatever system it is.  The energy sovereignty of Vermont, a cancer-free economy in the USA, retrofitting the building stock of Europe, healthy communities in Mexico, generative building in South Africa.  We start with the knowing that we have to figure out how to achieve resilient impact for everyone everywhere in the system everyday.  And, we usually end up settling for most people in most places in the system most of the time.
While mostly successful in these earlier efforts, it is time we take on the bigger challenges of reaching everyone everywhere everyday, where E * E * E = 1.0.  It is time.  This means that to reach 100% overall, we have to reach 100% resilient impact, which requires that we reach everyone (E1 = 100%) everywhere (E2 = 100%) everyday (E3 = 100%).  E^3 or eCubed = 100% = 1.0.
To reach E^3 = 1.0, we have to evolve in our practice and in our understanding of the human being.  We have to learn what works and what does not.  We have to inquire into what it is, what causes it, and what its consequences are.
  • Desired consequences. What are the impacts we desire?  To determine this, we already have tools to explore the impact we want to have and how to achieve resilience in that impact. We can start with: (1) impact resilience measurement; and (2) the Vibrancy Move Process, which uses the reference behavior pattern and O Process tools to determine the gap between what we know is available and what we are currently experiencing.
  • Specification. What is E^3?  How is it different from the current solutions that satisfy many people in many places much of the time?  What does this expanded specification require us to understand?  We already have examples around the globe of people who are beginning to figure out E^3=1.0 solutions.  We are also learning how to learn from their abundance-based solutions.
  • Antecedents. What are the drivers of E^3=1.0?  We have some insights into the differences in agreements fields between solutions that work for some, those that work for many, and those that work for everyone.  Agreements Fields Mapping (pactoecography) helps us describe and understand what resilient impacts we want as humanity, why we want them for everyone everywhere everyday, and how to find the groups that are beginning to figure out the how, how to learn from and with them, and how to see what is next, to achieve E^3 = 1.0.

Figuring this out requires a movement, a global effort to understand how to reach globally local solutions that work for everyone everywhere everyday.  The next frontier. Several efforts are being made with different expressions, from isolated efforts to flocking networks.  Our own efforts in this emerging movement are supported by the Global Pactoecographic Covenant through the Global Initiative to Map Ecosynomic Deviance and Impact Resilience.  As humanity we have the resources, the tools, the knowhow to make the shift, from E^3<<1.0 to E^3=1.0.  We owe it to ourselves and to the resilience of our future.  We owe it to you, and we need you to engage, to bring what you see and what you learn about how to achieve resilient impacts for everyone, everywhere, everyday.  Join our covenant to serve this purpose, to make eCubed = 100%.

Invention of the Modern Mind — Recommended Reading

Makari, George. Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. 2015, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

What am I as a human being?  What is it to be human?  I find that most of us ask those questions all of the time, thinking that we never ask them.  We often say that these are philosophical questions, of little interest to pragmatic people in the real world.  And, I find that we each carry a picture, often implicitly accepted from someone else, of what we are as humans.  This picture of the human being underpins everything in all of our agreements, whether we have consciously chosen these agreements or unconsciously accepted them.

I have been exploring many different perspectives on this question over the past few years.  These perspectives are fascinating and I find many of them to be very seductive, pulling me into their orbits and convincing me of their perspective; until I dive into the next one.  The realization of this exploratory confusion in me led me to begin to look for people who have mapped the topography of these explorations.

One of the most helpful mappings I have found of this huge space is George Makari‘s Soul Machine, “an attempt to untangle [the apparent] contradictions [amongst these perspectives] by returning to their origins…The emergence of the mind as a formative, if always embattled, belief, cannot be understood outside this historical context…this book recovers a lost lineage, parts of which have been long discarded as embarrassing, wrongheaded, or irrelevant” (pp. xi-xii).  In the question of what is it to be human, Makari explores the evolution of our understanding of the mind (from PIE root *men- (1) “to think”), what is it that we experience that thinks?

“While our own psyches seem abundantly clear to us, attempts to objectively establish their existence have been mired in seemingly insoluble problems.  And so, while the mind remains central to 21-century Western thought, a number of prominent neuroscientists and philosophers inform us that it surely does not exist” (p x).

“The invention of the mind was not the result of sedate academic debate.  The mind was a radically destabilizing, heretical idea that grew out of intense, often violent conflict.  Far from being a story of scholarship alone, this history begins and ends in bloodshed.  Characters in this account include thinkers writing at their desks, but also wild-eyed prophets, doctors whose space rooms were littered with carcasses, political spies, bitter refugees, witches, quacks, and pornographers.  This story takes place in universities, courts, hospitals, London coffeehouses and Paris salons, but also on battlefields, in lunatic asylums, poorhouses, and prisons.  For better or worse, advocates and enemies of the mind were not sequestered in their studies.  Often they could be found at the barricades” (p xi).

“Once modernity gave birth to the theory of an embodied mind, the implications were grave.  If it wasn’t the soul but rather a fallible mind that made men and women think, choose, and act as thy did, then long-standing beliefs were erroneous.  Convictions regarding truth and illusion, innocence and guilt, health and illness, the rulers and the ruled, and the roles of the individual in society would need to change.  Not surprisingly, therefore, from its inception this concept was considered scandalous.  Early advocates surrounded themselves in clouds of ambiguity; they published anonymously and when discovered, quickly fled from red-faced censors and mobs.  Monarchs and theologians decried these heretics and roused their forces against them” (p xii).

This big book of over 600 pages chronicles this human exploration in the Western world over centuries, diving deep into the context of many of these explorers.  Wading through it over the past month has given me much greater context for the Western explorers I have been reading, such as Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.  It is very interesting to see how they all fit into overlapping contexts with each other.  I highly recommend this deep dive, for those of you who like to dive deep.  It could also serve you if you want to take a quick dive into the context of specific developers of our existing understanding of the mind.

Hidden Bugs, Hidden Agreements

Like when germ theory replaced miasma theory, the intuition was right, the deeper cause was hidden.  It is in the environment, just not the way miasma theorists thought it was.  New technology made it visible, the microscope.

Likewise, low engagement, low creativity, and higher returns from automation are all signs, correctly interpreted, of a deeper, hidden problem.  Like bugs–the hidden germs and the “undocumented features” in software–the hidden agreements are there too.  These bugs embedded in the social soup, like germ-bugs and software-bugs, can be exposed, understood, and chosen.

The intuition about what to do is relatively right, the understanding of what drives it is being updated.  The bugs are no longer hidden, with the right technology.  The bugs in our agreements no longer need to be hidden either.  We have the technology to see them, and to choose our relationship to them.

Really Real–What You Know About What Is Already Born, An Ecology of Nature

You have superpowers.  You share this with some people, and not with a lot of others.  You can see or sense things that many others don’t seem to see or sense. The question is not whether this happens at all, or whether it only happens to a few people, everyone has some form of these.  It is natural.  The question becomes, what is natural, what is nature, what is the ecology of nature we live in, and that we each seem to have the ability to access in different ways?

Here are two ways of entering into an understanding of this nature; what you already know about what is already here.  Let’s start with nature.  The word nature comes from the Latin nasci “to be born.” So this is an ecology–the relationships of organisms with their surroundings and each other–of what is born.  A system of what is real.  A system of dimensions of reality that are always present, in everything.  What do you know about what is already born?

One way to look at this is through your experience.  You experience creative thoughts, insights.  They seem to come from somewhere.  Some people are better at knowing how and where to access them, on a sporadic or more continuous basis.  Possibilities are there for us to access.  There are specific ways that groups of us see how to manifest possibilities.  It seems that each group of people develops its own way of making meaning out of experience and of finding particular pathways to manifest those possibilities.  We often call this a culture.  You experience the difference in these cultures when you move from one group to another, whether meeting people in another town, another discipline, another country.  Some people are better at seeing the nuances in culture, and others at moving across cultures.  You experience outcomes, nouns, things that seem to be “already completed.”  These are forms that we see, which we can use for other purposes.  A piece of paper, an apple, a profit.  Something that, for an instant, is here now, a noun.  These forms that we can see and engage with also change over time.  Technical and social innovations constantly produce new and obsolete forms.  Some people, such as designers and artists, are able to see forms in possibilities and how to shape them.  A smart phone, the internet, speed dates, slaves, feudalism.  New forms come, old forms go.

You experience extension over space and time.  A fabric in which we live.  Some of us perceive these dimensions in very subtle ways, some perceive over great spans of spacetime, and some of us experience the expanse of spacetime more unconsciously.   You experience movement through space and time.  Some of us are more subtle in our awareness of this movement and some more expansive.  You experience the ability to witness, to experience that something is happening.  You experience this as learning, as change, as evolution.  You are not the same person as ten years ago, or as one year ago, or even as one hour ago.  Things have changed.  Some people are very attuned to this evolutionary process, the cyclic spiral of coming back to the same experience from a new place in spacetime, seeing it anew.

You experience things in their reflections.  We perceive things in their reflection off of something else.  We do not see light: we see the reflection of light off of something else.  Psychologists suggest that we also learn about ourselves by seeing ourselves reflected off of others.  Some people are very aware of these reflections, experiencing very subtle dimensions of what is happening in the reflections off surfaces, off of faces, in body gestures.  You experience form and direction.  Something pulls you in life, to other people, to your avocation.  It is an attraction, a calling, a purpose.  Most people feel the attraction, the pull, and respond to it, consciously and unconsciously, all of the time.  Some people are highly attuned to this attractive force, to recognizing it, naming it, and inviting others into engaging with it.  You experience energy.  Whether it is the energy of life that sustains us, the energy in a relationship or an activity, the electricity in life, or the lack of energy in many groups, we sense it.  Some people are finely adjusted to different forms of energy, able to synch with it or be highly affected by its presence or the lack of it.  You experience love.  Whether it is the love of another person, what you do, a place, an animal, an activity, nature or spirit, you experience it.  Some people are deeply moved by this love, orienting their lives to its expression.

Ten properties or dimensions of nature that are present in everything always, some of which you access more consciously, more readily, than others.  They are all there, all of the time, properties if you will of what is already born, of nature, of your reality.  Whether you access them frequently or infrequently is more a question of your awareness and your practice.  They are there, so they are available, always.

Another way to look at what is already born, what is real, is through physics (from Greek for the knowledge of nature), which has developed supersymmetric string theory.  Through the math of physics, attempting to develop a theory that explains the phenomenon we experience, physicists have come up with 10+ dimensions of reality.  The first three dimensions are length, height, and depth.  The fourth dimension is time.  These first four constitute the spacetime fabric we experience.  The fifth dimension is a different expression of the same 4-dimensional spacetime, where other outcomes, cultures, and possibilities come into being.

The sixth dimension starts with the same initial conditions as our reality, allowing for a plane of different expressions of 4-dimensional space.  The seventh dimension starts with the same universal constants, allowing for different initial conditions.  The mirrors or reflections are constant, and the witnessing forms of evolution vary.  The eighth dimension starts with different universal constants.  Energy still reflects, but is witnessed in different ways.

The ninth dimension is a plane of all the different laws of physics possible, with different universal constants and different initial conditions.  Pure energy.  The tenth dimension starts with all possible reasons for existence of all possible forms, with different expressions of energy or not energy, other purposes, other pulls, the ultimate reason for existence.  After that, there is the before existence, the primordial (from the Latin primordium for the first beginning), the creative force.  Existence comes after or from this force.  

Each of these dimensions described by physics seems to relate to the dimensions of reality we experience, as described above.  Adding these dimensions up, I experience that I exist.  I have form that extends over space.  I evolve over time.  I witness my experience.  I co-create my experience.  I form the pull to love.  I am love and energy.  Subtracting these dimensions, I also feel the pull of intention, I see the calling, I experience a call, I experience change, and I am here now.

So, as beings of nature, we all experience all of these dimensions of reality, of nature, all of the time.  This means that they are part of us, part of everything in and around us, always.  The trick is to know how to work with these dimensions.  Each of us seems to be wired, whether through evolution, mutation, or curiosity, to be able to work directly with some of these dimensions more so than others.  And, there they are.  Available to all of us all of the time, if we want.  Part of what is already here, already born, and we already knew that.

Ancient Systems Thinkers, 2550 Years and Counting

At least since 570-550 BCE, twenty years that saw the birth of PythagorasSiddhārtha Gautama, Lao-Tsu, and Kong Qiu, there have been many great observers of humanity, who have named a reality that has had a major influence on society for hundreds to thousands of years.  These philosophers were all great systems thinkers, asking the big questions of human existence and developing whole systems to understand, live by, and live within these pictures of reality.

At least 2,550 years of philosophers, right up to today, have seen whole systems that describe:

  1. the basic stocks of life, those essential elements human life depends on — here they have developed the economic question of how much resource there is and how to get more of it
  2. the inflows and outflows of these basic stocks, influencing whether there is enough or not, over time — here they have developed the political question of who decides and enforces who has access to the stocks and the surplus of these stocks
  3. the information flows influencing the decisions made in the inflows and outflows, determining what criteria are used to decide — here they have developed the cultural question of what values are used to decide, and what symbols are used to represent those values and who are the identity holders for a group
  4. the relationships amongst the information flows, inflows and outflows, and basic stocks — here they have developed the social question of how we interact, the principles, standards, and rules of the game

In designing these whole systems, with stocks, flows, information, and connections amongst them all, these philosophers, dating back at least 2,550 years have been master systems thinkers.  Systems thinking is not new, but it is complex, and the few people who have had disproportionately huge influences on how the rest of us live our lives, embraced this complexity and designed whole systems that addressed all four questions at the same time.  Pythagoras influenced western thought through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Siddhārtha Gautama created Buddhism. Loa-Tsu delineated Taoism.  Kong Qiu described Confucianism.  A pretty impactful twenty-year period, in the beginning of at least 2,550 years of systems thinking.  It is our turn to take the next step, to take on the design of the whole like they did so many years ago.

You Cannot Rule Resilience — It’s The Principle of the Thing

We want our efforts to have an impact.  If we invest a lot of effort, we want the impact to last longer.  The impact we want is the result of effort we put into a system: our family, our kid’s school, our church, our work, the local community, a regional initiative, a global change effort.  A sustained impact requires that the system we are putting our efforts into be resilient.

And, life happens. As life happens, things in the system change.  People get older.  New people are born.  People change jobs.  Local perspectives or conditions change.  New politicians are elected.  New products arrive in the market.  As all of these things continuously change, they change the system they interact in.  To sustain the impact of our efforts, the systems we put those efforts into need to be resilient to these changes.  Resilience, in this context, means the ability to adjust to changes (from the Latin resiliens, to jump back), to absorb these changes without collapsing into a qualitatively different form with a different set of processes.

Impact resilience, sustained impact from the co-investment of our efforts, requires that we rethink how we design, lead, and administer our systems. Many of the words we use to describe the design, leadership, and administration of human systems come from the same PIE root *reg- “move in a straight line.”  To rule, to reign, to regulate, and all of their derivatives, such as sovereignty, regimen, regulation, orient our designs, leadership, and administration towards directing in a straight line, towards stability, towards sameness.  And, life happens, which moves  us and the systems we interact in away from sameness and stability.  Impact resilience is about working with the changes, not against them.  The changes will happen, all of the time, in every system, so our efforts are more resilient when we work with the fact of changes.

One way to be more resilient is to shift from thinking about rules to standards and principles.  John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, highlighted in his book, A Theory of Justice, the differences amongst the terms rules, standards, and principles.

Rules are straight lines, asking yes/no questions, looking for triggering conditions that something is changing, seeking predictability and certainty.  Ex ante, the thinking is that this rule should and will provide this stability.  Put it in place, and let it work.

Standards are balancing feedback systems, with a gap between a stated goal and the actual state driving action that changes the actual state, like a thermostat.  This system looks for balancing factors in a set of relevant considerations and options, providing a range of choices.  Ex post, this thinking asks whether this standard maintained the behavior within a desired range.

Principles are systems to be considered, providing guardrails for the feedback loops–standards–to include, and how the choices made in actions might be interpreted.  In reflection, this thinking asks whether the system of standards and rules under consideration increases resilience of the desired impact.

By working with principles, we are designing the systems we put our efforts into to embrace the changes that will happen continuously, constantly adjusting, asking the questions and considering the choices in actions that can be taken to continue to meet the standards we set.

There is nothing wrong with rules and standards.  Impact resilience comes from organizing our efforts in systems based on principles, where the standards and rules play their part in increasing the ability of the system to jump back, to be resilient to changes.  Low resilience often comes from focusing only on the rules, and not being clear about the implicit standards and guiding principles in the system.

This requires that we rethink all of the terms and processes based primarily on ruling, regulating and reigning, reframing them as principle-based systems that embrace the changes that will happen, because the system is alive.  We want our efforts to have impact, resilient impact: that is the principle of the thing.

Independent Action In An Interdependent Reality–Ecosynomic Agency

What does it mean to act on one’s own, making one’s own decisions?  It turns out that we do not have a single answer for that; rather a few, depending on who you ask.  A word we use to describe acting on one’s own, making one’s own decisions, is “agency.”  There are at least four major definitions of what agency is, each suggesting that their definition is the only and right one.  There are distinct definitions from economics, political science, cultural anthropology, and sociology: what I call the four lenses on one experience.  The problem is that they each have evolved to point at different aspects of the experience of agency, based on what they primarily focus on in the human experience.  I suggest that we can learn something by taking the dimensions of your experience that they each point at and putting them together into a greater whole.

Economic agency.  In economics an agent acts on behalf of a principal to influence the use of the principal’s resources, in ways that benefit the principal’s interests.  Agency theory in economics is seen as part of the field of contract theory, where the challenge is seen as designing a contract whereby the self-interested agent will act in the principal’s interests.

Political agency.  From a political science perspective, one has different degrees of freedom to decide for oneself and to enforce one’s own decisions, based on access to power.  Agency is, “the degree to which individual actors have the capacity to act independently and to make their own decisions…[with] access to political power, financial resources, and information” (2016, Matson, Clark, Andersson, Pursuing Sustainability, p 89).

Cultural anthropologic agency.  In cultural anthropology, one acts from a set of values, determined by one’s culture, and one’s actions influence how those values manifest.  From a cultural perspective, agency is “the temporarily constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations” (2000, Ratner, Journal for The Theory of Social Behavior, p 413).

Sociological agency.  In sociology, the ability to act on one’s own interweaves with the social structures in which one exists.  “Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.  By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated – it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems” (Wikipedia).  What determines what you do? You, your social context, or a structure that interweaves the two?

So, agency is influencing the use of resources, yours or someone else’s, based on your access to power and resources, towards specific values, yours or someone else’s, within the context of your social structure.  While theories like Gidden’s structuration attempt to blend all of these, each discipline (the four lenses) continues to promote its primary focus (whether resources, decision and enforcement power, values, or contexts of interactions) as the only significant determinant of agency.

What we want to see about agency, ecosynomically, is that your ability to make choices depends on the agreements you see, from each of the four lenses, about:

  • what resources are relevant to what you want to choose, and which ones you can access (economic lens)
  • who influences the decisions, who enforces them, and what power you can have over both, whether you choose to play along or not (political lens)
  • what values guide the actions you take, for yourself, and the consequences of those actions on the values of others (cultural lens)
  • how the structure of agreements you are in–the written and unwritten rules of the game–influence the actions you can take, and whether you accept them (social lens)

These are four areas of choices you can make.  That is agency, ecosynomically.