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.

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.