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.

Group Work ≠ Collaboration: 2 Ways to Make Dysfunctional Groups

A few recent stories in the mainstream press talk about how collaboration on teams is wasteful, therefore collaboration isn’t what we think it is. They’re right, mostly.

Our field research of the past decade in over 35 countries in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, supported by our survey research in 98 countries, suggest that what people mean by collaboration varies greatly, along a continuum.  At one end of the continuum, we find groups organized to segregate people into similar general purposes, each acting only with their own perspective in mind.  At the other end of the continuum, we find groups organized to unite people into a larger whole that requires each individual’s unique contribution towards a shared deeper purpose, each keeping in mind their own perspective, that of the others in the group, and the group’s deeper purpose.  From focus on self with no conscious focus on the relationship with others to a conscious focus on self and the relationship with the other.  Somewhere in the middle, we find groups organized to work together, mostly aware of their own perspective, while aware that other groups have different perspectives that may combine or compete with their own, towards a common purpose.  Three very different ways of organizing human interactions in groups, two of them with their own dysfunctional form of group work.

Groups as segregating.  Focusing at the outcomes-noun level of perceived reality, these groups are structured to work with resource power only, depending completely on the existing capacities available.  To get work done, they tend to invest heavily in paying for lots of people to spend many hours sitting around many tables to which they make no contribution and gain no value.   People attend these meetings because they were told to, it was put in their calendar for them.  This is the phenomenon most of the “collaboration overload” criticism is rightly pointing at, where collaboration means sitting in the same room together, without clarity of a shared purpose or of the need for any of the specific people in the room.

Groups as flocking.  Focusing at the development and outcomes levels of perceived reality (verb and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with network power, leading them to invest in some people who are making many connections and bringing great creativity, while others are not.  They pay conscious attention to their own node and to the relationships with a set of nodes that influence them over time.  In these groups, people work together because this is where the action is, or where they need to be seen, where relationship is built.  Collaboration here often means lots of meetings, lots of learning conversation, and asking lots of the people into the room, especially the star contributors.

Groups as uniting.  Focusing across the potential, development, and outcomes levels of perceived reality (light, verb, and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with tangibilization power, seeing potential, pathways to manifest that potential, and rapid deployment to test that potential with specific outcomes along the way.  This leads these groups to invite the contributions of different perspectives to a deeper shared purpose that each individual is uniquely able to make. These people engage because this is how they can collaborate in service of something they deeply care about.  Collaboration in these groups requires each to bring their unique gifts, together, to be able to achieve the deeper purpose they share.

So collaboration meaning group activity might not work because of the underlying agreement about what we are working on, about who needs to be in the room to serve that purpose, and how we work together, not just because it is people coming together. Maybe collaboration is not equal to group work.

Network Power — Recommended Reading

Ramo, Joshua Cooper. The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks2016, New York: Little, Brown and Company.  Click here to see Chapter 1.

Most of the power gained and used in the past has been through accumulation of resources (nouns), using a dominance in the amount of resources to conquer peoples and usurp their resources.  Whether this was soldiers, weapons, food, or money, having more than the others gave you power to go and get more from other peoples.  This is a world of dominance mapped in the geography of territories.  Who had what controlled access to and accumulation of what resources.

In The Seventh SenseRamo, a seasoned traveler and senior executive of Kissinger Associates, suggests that the landscape of power is experiencing a shift in kind, more so than a shift in degree.  It is not just more power, rather a completely different kind of power, and this new power is mopping up the brokers of the old power.  This new power is network power.  The seventh sense is the ability to see the lines of network power, of the ebb and flow of connections, where the focus shifts from mapping the geography of territories to mapping the topography of gated spaces.  The power now comes not from who controls the territory but rather from who controls the gated spaces.  Think Uber, AirBnB, Amazon, Skype, Google.  Where maybe in the past you were what you had, now you are what you are connected to (p 35).

Ramo shows how this seventh sense has enabled groups with relatively small amounts of resources to completely overrun groups with vast resources.  They did this through a massive scaling up of connections to an ever-expanding core, to a protocol for connection.  Control of the core, of the protocol, is control of the connections.  The power comes from simultaneously strengthening the core along with the periphery, through all of the connections in the network.  “In connected systems, power is defined by both profound concentration and by massive distribution” (p. 116).  Concentration at the core and distribution to the periphery of connections.  Those working with “resource power” have to focus on either the core or the periphery, concentrating resources at the center or the top or at the periphery or the bottom.  Centralized or decentralized.  This ability of network power to work at both the core and the periphery, at the same time, causes those working with “resource power” to be pulled apart as they try to move towards centralization or decentralization and back (p 118).  They do not know where to put the resource power, and this movement back and forth is much slower than the ability of networks to respond.  This same movement, simultaneously towards the core and the periphery, strengthens network power and tears apart resource power.

In ecosynomic terms, network power is the power of agreements at the verb-noun levels.  Resource power is the power of agreements at the noun-only level.  Working at the verb-noun level of development of capacities and relationships, which manifest in outcomes, one is surfing in the constant ebb and flow of the concentration-distribution push and pull.  Working at the noun-only level of just outcomes, success comes from having more nouns, with no conscious connection to the dynamics over time and space of the verb level of agreements.  Tangibilization power is then the ability to work at the light, verb, and noun levels, infusing the infinite power of possibility serving a deeper shared purpose into the ossifying purpose driving the core and periphery of the network.

The Seventh Sense brings together, in a very readable form, lessons from history, a wide variety of ancient philosophies, and tons of recent anecdotes to highlight the specifics of this emerging, vastly more powerful way of engaging the world.  I highly recommend it.

Your Creative PROCESS Is Not Her Networking PROCESS Is Not My Transactional PROCESS

Process.  Some love it, some hate it, some are indifferent.  There’s too much of it, too little of it.  Everyone talks about it.  Creative process, decision process, purchasing process.  Processes are everywhere. A process is a process is a process, right?  One thing, then another, then another.  Basically, all the same, right?  Wrong.

From the perspective of the three levels of perceived reality (potential, development, outcomes), we see three completely different understandings of what a process is.  Process as transaction.  Process as network.  Process as pathway.

Process as transaction.  When seeing process as transaction, the focus is on the outcomes, the nouns.  Process, here, is defined as, a “sequence of interdependent and linked procedures which, at every stage, consume one or more resources (employee time, energy, machines, money) to convert inputs (data, material, parts, etc.) into outputs. These outputs then serve as inputs for the next stage until a known goal or end result is reached.”  From this perspective of process, you might start by working on the outline of a paper we are writing, then giving it to me, I would write the first section, then I would give it to another person who would write the second section, then we might hand it off to a fourth colleague to edit.  A series of transactions, where we exchange parts of the whole with each other.  The focus is on efficiency of the process, maximizing outputs while minimizing inputs, in an orderly fashion.

Process as network.  When seeing process as a network, the focus is on the continuing development of relationships, the verbs and nouns.  Process, in this way, is “characterized by its: purpose, roles, responsibilities, entry criteria, inputs, next step, exit criteria, outputs, work instructions, tools, techniques, and special considerations.”  From this way of seeing process, you want to get clear, as a group and individuals, what the relationships are, how information and materials will flow back and forth, how the individuals will work together, and what the outcomes look like. A set of relationships, through which information and materials flow over time and space, resulting in outcomes.  The focus is on the core organizing principles of inclusion of each person, transparency in accountability and deliverables, and achievement of the desired outcomes.

Process as pathway.  When seeing process as a pathway, the focus is on the possibilities imagined, and the pathway of relationships to an outcome, which provides feedback on the possibility seen.  Process, in this way, “focuses on needfinding, understanding, creating, thinking, and doing. At the core of this process is a bias towards action and creation: by creating and testing something, you can continue to learn and improve upon your initial ideas.”  From this vantage of process, you want to imagine a new possibility, see what a possible outcome might look like, and find a pathway of steps to realize it, to make it real, then seeing how it worked, in reality, and learning about how that shapes what you imagined, and then rethink the process of manifestation.  An imagination of a new possibility, a pathway of relationships to manifest an outcome, with feedback to the possibility seen.  The focus is on choice–choice of one of infinite possibilities, of one of infinite pathways, of one of infinite outcomes, of seeing, understanding, and integrating the feedback from reality–all to see all of these choices anew.  Feedback-seeking imagination.

We mean completely different things about why and how we connect nodes in a process.  The term process is problematic.  Maybe we could simply state what we actually mean.  Transactions of resources. Networks of relationships.  Pathways of manifestation.

Note:  I thank my colleague JLT for inspiring and clarifying this insight, over breakfast, a few stories, and a couple of more cups of coffee.


How Do You Organize for Collaborative Action?

How does one organize for collaborative action?  It seems that only a small percentage of lots of attempts at collaboration are being successful.

Sometimes people naturally segregate, with each one basically doing his or her own thing, singing their own song.  Sometimes people flock, flowing as individuals somewhat together, singing the same song.  And, sometimes people become a whole that brings out their individual best, creating a harmonic through a specific synthesis of their unique voices.  Three very different ways in which people interact: (1) segregating; (2) flocking; (3) uniting.

Does the difference matter?  As people we tend to organize our interactions to increase our ability to achieve greater impact, resilience, and creativity with a more engaging experience.  People seem to find these characteristics critical to being able to work together, and to being able to achieve movement on large-scale social issues.

What drives this difference in how people come together?  Whether they segregate, flock, or unite?  Current theories suggest this is driven by an endowment effect, leadership, or luck.  The endowment effect suggests that the difference is because of something special the people have—they are smarter, wealthier, better educated, more experienced.  The leadership effect suggests that an individual or group was able to envision and engage people in a specific form of interaction.  The luck effect suggests it just happened somehow.  Each of these three is hard to replicate.

Is there another, simpler explanation of why people tend to segregate, flock, or unite?  Maybe complexity theory can show us something.  Complexity theory looks for the simplest explanation: what is the simplest set of rules that guide the behavior of an individual can explain the observed social behavior when many individuals interact?  Can a high variety of behaviors be better explained by (1) complexity in the way 3-4 simple principles intermingle or by (2) the complicated number of ways in which a wide breadth of number of variables with a depth of details interact?  Complexity theory has shown that bird flocking can be explained by 3 principles: keep in the same general direction of the others; keep some separation from the others; and do not run into anything.  Ant trails can be explained by 4 principles: take a couple of small steps and turn; smell for pheromones; follow pheromone trail to food (where pheromones get weaker); drop pheromones on way home (where pheromones get stronger).

Likewise, maybe complex human behavior can be explained by 4 simple principles—how people consciously or unconsciously answer four big questions:

  1. How much is there (Economic)
  2. Who decides and enforces (Political)
  3. What criteria (Cultural)
  4. What rules (Social)

Can we explain the 3 observed behaviors with specific kinds of responses to these four questions?

  1. Segregating. Assume scarcity of resources—there is not enough—with one primary relationship deciding and enforcing (like the boss for the whole group), focusing on the outcomes to be achieved with the scarce resources in a way that satisfies the primary relationship (in this case, the boss).  Designed to separate, interactions are transactional, to improve one’s own health and growth.  Get people to do the jobs required to achieve the outcomes through their own specific tasks.  Each replaceable person is made to focus on doing only their own part.  These tend to be the principles when you find dozens to hundreds of small groups each working on their own part of what seems to be a higher principle, like how to reform education or health care.
  2. Flocking. While assuming sufficiency of resources – there can be enough for me and for you – primarily for your own self or your own group, pay attention to your relationship with others, moving generally in the same direction, toward a similar outcome, focusing on how being aware of others can help move you towards the desired outcomes.  Designed to flock, interactions are relational, working on one’s own together.  Everyone focuses on doing their part, as it relates to others.
  3. Uniting. Assume abundance of resources – in relationship to the potential and dynamics of systems of resources, there is enough for all – with vibrant relationships for self, other, group, nature, and spirit.  Designed to collaborate, focus on the interaction of the unique contributions each person makes to their own development and to the whole, as it tangibilizes the available potential.

What outcomes are we seeing?  With segregation-based principles, paying attention only to one’s own outcomes, individual efforts are able to achieve moderate levels of impact, usually with low resilience to the ever-changing environment.  Seeming success comes in spite of the huge costs of scarcity of not paying attention to others, creativity, and potential.

Many people are well aware of this experience, and experiment with flocking-based principles, where they share information with others, and attempt to work generally in the same direction.  We find through cooperative coordination these efforts are able to achieve more significant impacts with a bit more resilience, as long as each of the involved groups is also successful.

We are also finding groups working with uniting-based principles, who are able to continuously bring out the best in each other, constantly exploring each other’s individual and collective potential, resilient in shifting with the ever-changing environment, often generating those changes.

We are trying these principles ourselves.  Most of our work at Vibrancy focuses on taking on collaborative efforts based on uniting principles, whether large-scale social change, such as regional food systems, complementary currencies, toxic-free economies, retrofitting regions, or small-scale, community-based efforts, such as schools, companies, government agencies, or local communities.  We are learning about how to apply these principles in a wide variety of settings.

We synthesize what we are finding about co-hosting collaboration in the O Process, where highest impact resilience starts with the “we” available in a shared deeper purpose, then clarifies what specific voices are needed to make unique contributions to achieve the deeper purpose.  We can then understand together where to dedicate our individual and collective efforts to achieve the outcomes we desire collectively and individually within the resilient dynamics of the system of our interactions.  It turns out to be much easier than most of us think, once we shift the principles guiding our interactions.  From separating principles, we can only move alone, never together.  That would be impossible, blue-sky thinking.  From flocking principles, we can only move with others, never united.  That would be impossible, soft and fuzzy process.  From uniting, we can achieve our own health and growth, in relationship with others who are also contributing with us to what we want.

Is Your Awful Day Better Than My Okay Day? — The Hills and Valleys of Human Agreements — Seemingly Similar Terrain, Different Map

Sometimes we have great days, sometimes okay days, and sometimes downright awful days.  Most of us seem to experience all three.  Some experience more great days, others more okay days, and others more awful days.  When we experience great, okay, or awful days, we experience similar realities, right?  Our emerging picture of the social topography of human agreements suggests that maybe we are not all having the same experience at each of these levels: maybe these are very different experiences.

We have started to map the terrain of human agreements, along with the experience, impact, and resilience achievable at each level of this terrain, from valleys to hills.  We can simplify this terrain with 4 levels: the top of the hill, the middle of the hill, the bottom of the hill or on the plain, and the valley.  These four levels correlate with the four levels of vibrancy.

  1. At the top of the hill, people describe a very engaging, energizing experience of high vibrancy in all five primary relationships (self, other, group, nature, spirit), usually achieving very resilient and high impact.
  2. In the middle of the hill, people describe an engaging, often energizing experience of vibrancy in most of the primary relationships, usually achieving quite resilient and effective impact.
  3. At the bottom of the hill or on the plain, people describe experiencing oscillating between somewhat engaging and somewhat disengaging, with some vibrancy in a couple of the primary relationships, achieving some impact for their effort.
  4. In the valley, people describe a very disengaging experience of quite low vibrancy in all five primary relationships, usually achieving some impact only with extra effort.

Same experience?  Four levels, all experienced in the same way?  From most of what we read these days and the from the descriptions of most people we meet, it would seem that the description of these four levels of engagement, experience, resilience, and impact is the same; different degrees of overcoming scarcity and being able to engage people, towards greater impact and resilience.  We have found, however, two completely different descriptions of what is happening at these four levels.  It seems to depend on your starting point: scarcity or abundance.  It turns out that the world looks very different at each of these four levels depending on the map you are using–a map based in scarcity or a map based in abundance.  Let’s see what the two different maps show us about these four levels of the topography of human agreements.

Starting from scarcity, we tend to find three levels described.

  1. The first is the “normal” state of affairs, disengaged, highly ineffective people who lack motivation and need to be managed so that they can be more efficient in their contribution to the group effort.  This would correspond with the valley experience.  From this perceptive, there is not much there.  No motivation, no special capacities, and the need for a high degree of management of interchangeable people.
  2. An improvement on this typical level comes when one moves up out of the valley onto the plain or the bottom of the hill.  Here people tend to bring some basic capacities, are able to work side by side amicably, sometimes being more engaged and achieving higher efficiencies.  From this perspective, people bring more capacities to the game and are able to make better contributions.  Some motivation, strong capacities, and the need for coordination among efforts.
  3. The top of this game comes when one moves up to the middle of the hill, where people tend to cooperate much more, working together to achieve more together than they can apart.  Here people tend to bring great skills and experience with a thirst for learning and cooperation, energized and engaged, working hard to achieve much greater impact and often quite a bit more resilient to the changes life throws at the group.  From this rather-rare perspective, there is a lot there, ready to contribute dynamically to the task at hand.

Starting from abundance, we also find three levels described.

  1. The first is the “normal” state of affairs, highly committed people coming together in service of a deeper shared purpose, bringing their best, unique contributions every day.  This is their normal day, just showing up as they are, creative, committed human beings wanting to make their contribution to something beautiful that they care about deeply.  From this level, which corresponds with the top of the hill, leadership focuses on co-hosting, supporting everyone in bringing their best every day together.  The abundant potential available through each person and through their interactions is evident to all.
  2. And sometimes life throws a curveball and people forget to be at their best, and they forget or fall asleep to their own unique gifts and those of others.  In the middle of the hill, these people describe how they are usually aware of the group’s deeper purpose and of each other’s gifts, and they often tend to focus more on what is happening in the moment than on the possibilities each other is seeing in the moment.  Less on how to collaboratively realize a common potential and more on the process for achieving what was seen.  Still lots of possibility, with more focus on how to manifest it.
  3. Then there are the times when everything seems to fall apart.  It is hard to say connected to the potential and to the shared inquiry.  This bottom-of-the-hill experience might focus more on just getting the job done, on just moving forward.  It is often difficult, because while still aware of the others, their needs, and the group’s deeper shared purpose, the experience oscillates between somewhat vibrant and somewhat not vibrant.  Here it is hard to see the potential and unique contributions the people know are there.  Still lots of potential available, it is just harder to see and harder to connect to.

Two different maps, each with three different “typical” levels.  And completely different realities. Whether the human-agreements map you carry is scarcity or abundance-based seems to completely change the reality you experience.

  • For the scarcity map, normal starts in the valley and great effort is expended to get up the hill.  When energy to push up the hill fails, the resting position is back in the valley.  It also seems that push as hard as you want, when starting from scarcity in the valley, you can only get up to the middle of the hill.
  • For the abundance map, normal starts at the top of the hill.  As life happens and people “fall asleep, they can slip down to the middle or bottom of the hill, but life from this perspective, when someone wakes back up, will pull them back to the resting point at the top of the hill.  From this perspective, it seems that the lowest position normally experienced is the bottom of the hill, not the valley.

So, it seems that we all can have great days, okay days, and awful days.  And, it seems, we can mean completely different things by them, because we are experiencing completely different geographies of what is “normal” and of what is available at each level of the topography.

The Reality That Is Always Here, Ready for Homo lumens to Discover — Recommended Reading

Gebser, Jean, The Ever-Present Origin (N. Barstow with A. Mickunas, Trans.), 1985, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.  

Click here for chapter one.

When you are ready to dive deep into a multi-cultural, multi-millennia, aperspectival exploration of the three levels of perceived reality, as described in ecosynomic terms as possibility, development, outcomes or light, verb, and noun, I invite you to plunge yourself into the world of Jean Gebser.  A philosopher who lived from 1905 to 1973 in Europe, in this book Gebser provides a very rich developmental picture of human consciousness.  This book is so dense with images, examples, etymologies, and explorations of what it means to be human and the evolution of human awareness that I was rarely able to read more than 2-3 pages in a sitting.  This is probably one of the five most dog-eared and underlined books I have: a reference book that I will have to come back to for many years to come.  Too much to ingest the first time around.

While there are many layers of Gebser’s exploration, I will share here glimpses of his descriptions of the human experience of the three levels of perceived reality in ecosynomics.  This is like the 30-second movie trailer that I hope will excite you to see the full 2-hour movie.  It is worth the effort.

In brief, as my colleagues and I have surveyed people in 94 countries and met with them in a dozen countries over the past decade, we find that people describe their experiences through three different levels of perceived reality.  There is the outcome level of material things, the nouns.  There is the development level of building capacities and relationships, of connecting systems, over time, the verbs.  And, there is the possibility level of potential, of brilliance that is yet to manifest, the light.  In this book, Gebser describes each of these levels in great detail, with examples across many cultures and millennia.  I share a sample of these observations.

Vibrancy is a choice.  “Diaphaneity..is..to render transparent our own origin, our entire human past, as well as the present, which already contains the future” (6-7).  The task is to render transparent what is already here, and not yet visible.  This is the purpose of the Agreements Evidence Maps, to see (render transparent) the underlying agreements that shape our experience and outcomes.  “It transforms space-timelessness into space-time-freedoms, permitting the mutation from an unconscious openness to a conscious openness, whose essence is not ‘being in’ or ‘being in opposition to’ but diaphaneity” (436).

Outcome (noun) level of reality.  “This point-like unity…In the spaceless and timeless world, this constitutes a working unity which operates without a causal nexus…Only in a spaceless, timeless world is the point-related unity a working reality…Because of this spaceless-timeless unity, every ‘point’ (a thing, event, or action) can be interchanged with another ‘point,’ independently of time and place..and of any rational causal connection….Nevertheless, precisely this fact clearly reveals the contradiction in the unity concept, namely, the unconscious discrepancy between the parts (i.e., the points) and the actual unity.  Here man, or a human group, is the protagonist, even though this is extremely well concealed.  Although man fits in and merges with the event, this very merger and fusion give the event a definite direction” (48-49).

Development (verb) level of reality.  “‘Structure’ is understood as an expression of the potential, the possible. As Triptych points out, ‘Structures determine not merely the singular realization, as do formations, but various possibilities of any realization. Today we are interested precisely in the possible, the virtually [and potentially] present, and not merely in the temporally-bound, signal event’… The concept of structure..receives..the qualitative emphasis for sociology which allows space-time-free origin to shine through the qualitative potentiality” (429).

Possibility (light) level of reality.  “‘Possibility’ is a potency or a latent intensity, and therefore a quality…a qualitative character in contrast to the spatial emphasis, measurability, and basically quantitative aspects of three-dimensionality…(like) the ultimate consequences of the nature of the electron–one of the elementary particles which are the building blocks of our world and of the universe–indicate that it is without substance.  This means that it is a transparent structure…This de-substantialization ultimately changes the non-visual nature of even the ‘material’ realm into transparency or diaphaneity” (378).

As Gebser describes in great detail, the point is to acknowledge and transcend the apparent boundaries amongst the three levels of perceived reality, what I have referred to as the grounded potential path — “‘The hidden or the possible of the future’ is valued as present in the supersession of the ‘mere now,’ the qualitative moment” (429).

While it is a difficult read, like carefully laying the foundation for your home, it is well worth the effort on which you can build an aperspectival reality.

Your Wishes Come True

“That’s what humans never understand…They’re so seduced by the material world, they think that’s what’s real.  But all the things they touch and see and measure, they’re just—wishes come true.  The reality is the wishing.  The desire.  The only things that are real are beings who wish.”

— Orson Scott Card in Magic Street (2006 Ballantine Books, New York, p. 350)

Get Real! More Real

When we look into the world, we see stuff.  Technically we can call what we see “resources.”  There is a big debate about which resources are “real.”  A more nuanced debate asks, “Which resources are ‘more real’?”   Things we can touch.  Specific outcomes — nouns.

Are nouns, enhanced by the dynamic development of the noun over time (verbs), and future possibilities (light) more real?  Are the plain nouns more real, or are the enhanced nouns more real?

Or are the possibilities to which we dedicate most of our creative efforts more real?  Think about the time and energy that goes into building the house you designed, way before you ever lived in the house.  Are the possibilities that we develop over time, into something we can touch, more real?

The Noun Perspective.  When we focus on productivity and wealth, the “real” factors of nouns that are here now can possibly be enhanced by specific verbs and light.  This is the formulation of classical political economics.

The Light Perspective.  When we focus on sustainable growth, the “real” factors for disruptive innovation are possibility, development, and outcomes.

If you are going to get real, which perspective do you take?

Ecosynomics of Surprisology — Recommended Reading

Luna, Tania, and Leann Renninger, Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected2015, New York: Perigree.  

“We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not” (p. xx), so suggest Tania and Leann in their wonderful invitation into the world of suspense and surprise.  I highly recommend reading this book and listening to Stephen Dubner’s recent Freakonomics podcast on creating suspense.

From an Ecosynomics perspective, I would rephrase what Tania and Leann wrote, suggesting that we feel most comfortable with the certainty we experience in the reality of things-nouns, and we feel most alive when we experience the open possibility (aka uncertainty) in the reality of potential-light coming into development-verbs, resulting in things-nouns.  All three levels of reality together, not separate.  We experience the greatest vibrancy when we experience the possibility being manifested through pathways of development towards specific outcomes — what we have also called the “grounded-potential” path.  In Surprise, Tania and Leann show how this path embraces suspense, surprise, and certainty, and how we love the experience of that path.

They suggest that surprise is evolutionarily beneficial. “With the help of surprise, our ancestors also spotted chances to eat, drink, and mate.  Surprise protected them from danger and pointed them toward opportunity” (4).

Their research also supports the Ecosynomic focus on the experience of how people relate to their own self, other, group, nature, and spirit.  One of the key components of their surprisology is the cultivation of relationships (ch 10).  “The quality of our relationships impacts the quality of our lives…Relationships thrive from a skillful application of surprise.”  For the practice of cultivating relational surprisology, they suggest six tools: “maintain complexity, balance oneness and otherness, balance novelty and routine, practice the magic ratio, speak the right surprise language, and track patterns” (172).

In maintaining complexity, they focus on what we have called mindfulness to new perspectives, finding that “the bad news is that during times of particularly difficult conflicts there is a tendency for complexity to collapse” (174), which in Ecosynomics we observe as the collapse into low vibrancy.  They provide an example of the importance of maintaining complexity, such as in the heart: “the heart shifts from a complex to a simple pattern right before cardiac arrest.  In the same way, relationships that embrace surprise by inviting complexity in roles and perspectives tend to be the healthiest and most fulfilling” (176).  Ecosynomically, we describe this complexity as the harmonic vibrancy people describe when engaged simultaneously in high levels of relatedness with the self and the other and the group and nature and spirit — the stability in the vibrancy experienced comes from the complexity of experiencing all five primary relationships in a healthy way at the same time.

Surprisology suggests practical tools for engaging the full human, in relationship, in ways that sustainably vitalize.  A great contribution.