A Common Object-ive Is Not a Deeper Shared Purpose — How to Know the Difference

A common object-ive is completely subject-ive.

My colleagues and I find that most people who tell us that, in their group, they have a common objective they are all working towards are actually working at cross purposes, at best.  What most people call a common object-ive is completely subjective–they are actually working on their own subjective understanding of what the means and ends are.  This common object-ive is not a deeper shared purpose, and here is why the difference between a common object-ive and a deeper shared purpose matters.

To co-host collaboration, we start with uncovering, understanding, and naming the deeper shared purpose that pulls a group of people together and guides their interactions.  We are trying to find out why these people come together to work together towards something they hold together.  A common object-ive does not answer this question.

When most people say they have a common objective, they are actually saying that they are each working on something that influences the same distant object.  Group A works on building schools in poor regions, so that kids can go to school.  Group B trains bilingual teachers, so that kids from different cultures can have access to a basic education.  Group C provides free lunches as incentive to parents to let their kids go to school.  All three groups are working on a common object-ive of giving kids an education.  When the leaders of Groups A, B, and C came together, they told us that they were clearly working on the same object-ive, educating children.  And, it was clear that they were not working on a shared deeper purpose, as they were not working on these three seemingly interrelated dimensions of access to education together, as they were often not even working in the same regions of the country.  Yes, there were schools, with no teachers or students.  Or yes there were teachers, with no schools or students.  And, there were students, with no schools or teachers.  The three groups were not working on the same, deeper, shared purpose.  Working apart, from different perspectives, in different areas, towards a common object.

Seeing parts and a common object does not make a system of interrelated parts towards a common purpose.  Moving different parts at a common object is not leveraging a system of interrelated parts towards a shift in systemic behavior.  By a deeper shared purpose, we mean working together towards leveraging a system of interrelated parts to shift a systemic behavior–showing up in the same place, in a coordinated fashion, to provide schools and teachers and students with access to an education.  This coordination requires a different kind of theory of change, one that we have called a theory of impact resilience.

How do you know whether you have (1) a common object-ive or (2) a deeper shared purpose?  I suggest you immediately have three pieces of evidence you can use to triangulate to determine which you have.

  1. Language.  Start with the language of what the groups holds to be common.
    • If it is a common object-ive, it might sound like, “We work on X to get Y–building schools to educate kids.  We do W to get Z–developing bi-lingual pedagogy to give bi-lingual children access to schooling.”  Each is working on a means to what looks like a common object.  No mention of working in a coordinated way with other means to that same ends, as a system.  For similar examples, see our Guatemala project.
    • If it is a deeper shared purpose, it might sound like, “We are working with the groups that develop all of the required dimensions of the educational system for kids in this region, all of which are necessary to provide equitable access.  We are trying to figure out together how to shift our work, together, to get a different outcome for these children, in the same place at the same time.”  For similar examples, see our Guatemala project.
  2. Experience.  Describe what it is like to work within this group.
    • If it is a common object-ive, we find that most groups describe an experience of competition amongst the different members trying to achieve the common object-ive or low levels of co-operation amongst the members–often competing to get funding from the same sources.  These often feel like the inner to middle circle of the vibrancy experience, tiring and an endless struggle.
    • If it is a deeper shared purpose, we find groups usually describing an experience of collaboration amongst the different members, inviting and inspiring each member to make their best unique contribution.  This is often described as the outer circle of the vibrancy experience, invigorating and life-giving.
  3. Expectations.  Observe what the group and the members of the group expect of each other’s contributions to the group.
    • If it is a common object-ive, we find that most groups either (a) do not have clear expectations of what you could or should contribute, or (b) see the contributions as interchangeable–if you won’t do it, we can find someone else who can.
    • If it is a deeper shared purpose, we see that most groups are very clear on why you are specifically invited to make your unique contribution to the group–you are needed and your contribution is unique and critical–you are not interchangeable with anyone else.

As you look at your own group’s “common goal,” here are three guiding questions, which frame the process we call the harmonic vibrancy move process.

  1. Do you have a shared unifying objective for the whole system?  We call this the deeper shared purpose.
  2. Do you have a shared unified theory of how all the parts fit together and influence the dynamics of the whole and how to shift the dynamics of the whole?  We call this the systemic view of why the different voices are required.
  3. Do you have a unified theory of intervention for each perspective’s best contribution to collaboratively and collectively shifting that behavior efficiently?  We called this systemic leverage.
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Differentiating and Integrating the “We” — What We Share and Why We Work Together

People show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone.  This happens every day, everywhere.

Sometimes, to take on really audacious issues, we need other people.  In many cases like this, someone often says, “They won’t come talk with us.”  Agreeing, someone else says, “Even if they do show up, they will not agree with us.”  Someone else then chimes in, “Even if they agree with us, there is no way they will be able to do anything about it with us.”  The invitation is dead on arrival.  I hear some version of this at the beginning of almost all “multi-stakeholder” processes.  And, so far, in over two decades of attempts, it has never been true.  People will show up, agree, and act together.  It depends on the invitation.

I see the invitation as an issue of differentiating and integrating the “we”–what we share and why we work together.  Here is a recent example from my work in health.  What we share–a passion and deep commitment to healthy community.  Why we work together here now–to address the disparities in health outcomes in vulnerable communities.

Technically, we can differentiate between a higher-order, overall purpose (the ends) and an immediate, local purpose (the means).  The higher-order purpose, our deeper shared purpose, provides the context for what we see, the field of our Yes!  I find that when we get clear on the deeper purpose that we share, what we really care about, then the invitation gains a life of its own.  I often hear from folks coming together, often for the first time, “I didn’t know, after all these years, that you cared about this too.”  It seems that we tend to observe the intermediate goals of others and assume their deeper purpose, which it turns out we usually get wrong.

The immediate, local purpose provides the specific within the general–the specific game within the rules of the game.  This is the problem we are coming together to address, within a bigger  opportunity envelope, the game we are going to play in the sandbox.  When we can agree on the sandbox, and we can agree on how the immediate, local purpose connects to the higher-order purpose of the sandbox, we can begin to play together.

This distinction between what we share, described with the higher-order purpose, and what we come together to do, described with the immediate, local purpose helps us delineate the general from the specific, any game we might play together from this game we are agreeing to play right now.

What does this look like in practice?  In our work in Guatemala, everyone wanted a healthy, safe Guatemala.  We worked together on understanding the dynamics of generating self-determination for every Guatemalan.  In Vermont, everyone wanted sovereignty for Vermonters in deciding their own energy future.  We worked together on how to realize a 90%-renewable-energy portfolio across electricity, heating, transportation, and efficiency in the next generation.  For Food Solutions New England, everyone wanted an equitable, healthy food system.  We worked together on how to get half of the food consumed in New England being produced in New England, a 5x shift.  In the World Green Building Council, everyone wanted to redefine access to healthy buildings.  We worked on the dynamics of experiencing regenerative buildings for everyone everywhere every day.  In our organization Vibrancy, we want a world where everyone has more vibrant experiences every day, achieving better results every day.  We are working together to figure out how to leverage everyone’s capacity to do that, starting with our own research and services.

There are many processes available for exploring these two “we” questions.  One that frames how I work with the question of “what we share” acknowledges a hierarchy of values in a conversation.  We each have means to the ends we want to achieve.  We each have values that guide these means and ends.  Many of these values, means, and ends overlap with those of other people.  Approaches to values hierarchies structure these overlaps, showing what is common in what we want, either along the way to an ends or the ends itself.

For framing the question of “why we work together,” I often work with the behavior over time graph to determine what problem behavior we want to understand and shift.  In mapping out this behavior over time, we begin to see the dynamics that generate that behavior, leading us to insights into the dynamics needed to shift that behavior.  I use these insights to see how the interactions of whose perspectives influence both the current and desired behaviors, and how shifts in the interactions of these perspectives might lead to the desired behaviors.  This lets me know who needs to be in the exploration and how I can invite them to work on a problem together, which is why we work together.

I find that people will show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone.  It can happen every day, everywhere.  It is an agreement.  The invitation to an agreement is a choice.

Some Things Are Impossible – Until They’re Not: Solving “Intractable” Business & Social Problems

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Spann, R. Scott. 2007. Impossible, White Paper on Collaborative Holistic Inquiry Project in Guatemala, San Francisco: Innate Strategies, May.

Some things seem impossible. For us in our work, it especially seemed impossible to get a variety of stakeholders – all with different perspectives, different goals, different constituencies, different measures of success – to come to shared understanding and agreement about how to work together to achieve something completely new – something that would advance both the needs of each of the individuals and the collective as a whole. It seemed impossible in corporations, in communities, in non-profits, and in whole societies. And it was… until it wasn’t.

An example. What if we were to tell you that, in Guatemala, we engaged leaders of the national intelligence service and the military policy & leadership institutes, on the one hand, and members of the former guerilla movement on the other; leaders of the Catholic church, on one end of the spectrum, and the leading Mayan philosophers, on the other; the leader of the President’s commission on local economic development, from one end of the hierarchy, and the leaders of local villages, from the other; and so on – thirty different perspectives? And, then, created a simple (well, relatively simple), one-page systemic representation – a “map” – of their combined world views – one that they all understood and agreed represented their world – all of it’s parts and all of it’s interactions. And, then, came to shared agreement about the overall goal of their collective world. And, finally, identified the handful of critical resources (six, in all – out of 140+) that would enable them to move their world in the direction they all want it to go. And they did it by investing just seven days of their time. Some thought it would be impossible. And, it was… until it wasn’t.

A Collaborative-Systemic Strategy Addressing the Dynamics of Poverty in Guatemala: Converting Seeming Impossibilities into Strategic Probabilities

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James L. 2008. A Collaborative-Systemic Strategy Addressing the Dynamics of Poverty in Guatemala: Converting Seeming Impossibilities into Strategic Probabilities. In Alleviating Poverty through Business Strategy, edited by C. Wankel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

There is a growing realization that business development is the most effective weapon in fighting world poverty. How the for-profit model can be harnessed to provide the poor with a share in the world’s prosperity is discussed through actual cases, and nested in innovative theories of business, social sciences, and philosophy.

A Learning History of the CARE-LAC – Institute for Strategic Clarity Guatemala Poverty Project

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Waddell, Steve. 2005.  A Learning History of the CARE-LAC – Institute for Strategic Clarity Guatemala Poverty Project. White Paper on Collaborative Holistic Inquiry Project in Guatemala, Amherst, MA: Institute for Strategic Clarity, March.

This is a learning document rather than an evaluation, although if used well it should also achieve evaluation objectives. It aims to:

  1. Provide a framework for the project participants’ identification of key Tentative Lessons Learned / Observations.
  2. Create a record of the project that will support adapting the approach by others in CARE.

The Learning History is a two-column record where the left column describes what was done and the right column gives context and quotes. The narrative on the left side draws on interviews and project documents. On the right are observations from project participants.  Of course, this selection of voices is merely a sampling of all who participated. It is meant to be suggestive, not definitive – but it also aims to represent the varying perspectives. It is easiest to read through the left column for a stage, and then go through the right column for more detail if desired.  Following each stage section is a segment of “Questions Arising” and “Tentative Lessons Learned / Observations from the stage for further discussion.

Shifting the Fundamental Dynamics of Poverty

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Spann, R. Scott and James L. Ritchie-Dunham. 2008. Shifting the Fundamental Dynamics of Poverty, The Systems Thinker, 19(7), 6-10.  Reprinted as 2012. The Promise of Systems Thinking for Shifting Fundamental Dynamics, Reflections: The SoL Journal, 11(4), 11-17.

People in Guatemala – smart people – were working harder, hiring brighter people, raising more money, doing better projects, and get- ting improved results. And yet, what they sought to eliminate—poverty— was getting worse. So, we asked what we thought was a relatively straightfor- ward question: “Do you understand the fundamental dynamics of poverty?” As it turned out, no one had an answer— not the government, NGOs, local communities, or business leaders.

We set out with CARE Latin America to understand this complex problem.We engaged leaders of the national intelligence service and the military policy and leadership institutes, on the one hand, and members of the former guerrilla movement, on the other; leaders of the Catholic church and the leading Mayan philosophers; the head of the president’s commission on local economic development and leaders in local villages; in total, 30 diverse, sometimes historically con- flicted, perspectives.