Chapter 4. Prepare: Foster an Attitude for Engaging

We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.

—Mary Catherine Bateson, Willing to Learn

Emergence is rife with uncertainty. The more skilled we are in facing the unknown, the better able we are to engage emergence and to bring others with us.

How do we equip ourselves to engage disturbance?

Three practices—embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy—are particularly useful to cultivate. This chapter explores them.

Embrace Mystery: Seek the Gifts Hidden in What We Don’t Know

What does it take to be receptive to the unknown?

Perhaps knowing that turmoil is a gateway to creativity and innovation provides a reason to open to the unfamiliar. Just as seeds root in rich, dark soil, so does emergent change require the darkness of the unknown. After all, if we know the outcome and how to create it, then by definition nothing unexpected can emerge. Even knowing its value, embracing mystery, being receptive to not knowing, takes courage. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön speaks eloquently of this notion: “By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.”1

Mystery is essential to our well-being. Without the unknown, we have no learning. Without learning, our creative impulse goes unsatisfied. Without creativity, life loses its spark. We feel that loss in disease, disorder, violence, depression, and other unpleasant and unintended consequences.

We cannot avoid a fundamental truth no matter how thorough we are: holes always exist in wholeness. Some idea or group is always outside our frame of reference, mostly unseen. Because unknowns are always present, we are better served striving for excellence rather than perfection. The more we are at peace with the fact that the unknown is a given, the more we enter into it with a spirit of adventure.

While certainty has its merits, the more comfortable we are with uncertainty, the more we act with humility, taking ourselves—and others—with a compassionate grain of salt. Doing so prepares us to uncover useful distinctions in the dissonance.

If we aren’t playing at the border between the known and unknown, we are standing in the way of our own evolution. Culturally, we celebrate perfection—perfect athletic performance, musical performance, total quality in production. It’s a good thing we do. Virtuoso performances inspire us. And we sure don’t want airplanes, bridges, and cars built any other way.

Still, mystery is a companion to perfection. It is equally essential. Yet it struggles for legitimacy. It lives at the margins, without a form or a name. Even the best inventions began as vague, mysterious inquiries. A scientist, talking about discoveries, said that all experiments begin by wandering through the forest, noticing all kinds of trees, and ultimately uncovering the nature of the forest itself. David Gershon, author of Empowerment, calls this experience the “growing edge.”2

Chris Innes of the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) found himself on that edge when he accepted a complex and ambitious task: transforming the corrections system in the United States. He embraced mystery, stepping boldly out of business as usual in a field traditionally resistant to change. His inspiring action took a traditional organization in a new, uncharted direction. He did so because he knew that “not knowing” was essential to accomplish his task.

After researching strategies for changing social systems, Chris and his NIC colleagues chose to engage emergent change processes. They committed to travel unfamiliar territory. The decision was fraught with challenges from the hierarchy that authorized the work.

His board asked legitimate and traditional questions, like “What are you doing?” and “What do you expect to achieve?” With support from his management, Chris provided untraditional and courageous responses, saying, “We don’t know. We are making it up as we go along. If we had the answers, why would we go to all this trouble?” While keeping the skeptics at bay, Chris is blazing a path that is taking shape as he and a diverse group working with him walk it.

In 2008, Chris brought together the Keystone Group, composed of diverse leaders from the field of corrections. Their role was to advise the NIC on how to transform the corrections system to be more just, humane, and efficient. Twenty people assembled for a weekend. They shared stories of why transforming the system mattered to them. Using Open Space Technology, they self-organized to explore the issues they cared about. People expressed their frustration with the existing system and began to envision new possibilities. A powerful question surfaced to guide their next steps: “How do we reduce the prison population by half while maintaining public safety, in eight years?”

No one predicted this focus. It arose out of interactions among deeply caring, knowledgeable, diverse individuals who came together in a nourishing environment around a question that mattered to them.

Chris, the NIC, and the Keystone Group continue their work. With their intentions clarified, mystery remains a central theme as they seek the means to accomplish their purpose.

When sponsors, like Chris, experience an emergent change process for the first time, they often don’t sleep well the last night before the gathering ends. They look for signs of the answers they seek in the day’s work and find none. I can hear their unspoken thoughts: “Will I have wasted money and the time of a group of caring, committed people?” Yet at the end of the gathering, when unexpected coherence arises, as it did in the Keystone Group’s question, they giddily exclaim, “I never could have imagined this great result!”

We don’t need to be part of an emergent change process to embrace mystery. In truth, mystery surrounds us. Accepting its presence opens the way to engaging emergence.

Tips for Embracing Mystery

Embracing mystery is less about doing and more about a state of being.

Get curious. Curiosity is a desire to know, to learn. Open to the unknown.

Clarify intention. Why go to the trouble unless there is something you value? Intention—purpose—acts as a compass, setting direction while you travel in the wilderness.

Invite others who care. People notice different aspects of a situation. With a shared intention, more eyes and ears, hearts and minds, increase the chances of uncovering the gems.

Develop equanimity. Being calm in a storm increases the likelihood of surviving and bringing others with you. Personal disciplines—running, daily affirmations, practicing an art, regular meditation—are among the ways that people cultivate a capacity for facing the unknown.

Just as embracing mystery opens the way to discover hidden treasures, choosing possibility shines light in promising directions.

Choose Possibility: Call Forth “What Could Be”

What do we want more of?

Mark Twain once said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”3 When people tell us what they don’t want, what they’re against, it’s a good time to ask compassionately, “What do you want?” If the question stumps them, perhaps they can describe a time when something worked.

Many societal cues encourage us to focus on what’s broken, why we can’t, what’s wrong. We develop habits that reinforce these beliefs. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, smart enough, strong enough. Asking possibility-oriented questions shifts our attention and begins to break these habits. What do we want? What excites us, gives us meaning? What difference can we make? Such questions invite us to dream, to lift our spirits, to discover the gifts of our differences and come together around what inspires us. It takes commitment and practice to develop new habits of attention.

Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, made that commitment. She introduced herself at a 2006 Journalism That Matters gathering, saying:

I had been depressed. A couple of years ago, I resolved to find hope. When you open yourself to possibility, you are willing to experience stuff you haven’t experienced before.

Having made a choice, Geneva discovered plenty of examples to reinforce her new perspective. Her story makes it clear: whatever the circumstances, how we relate to our situation is up to us.

Choosing possibility isn’t about ignoring problems. To do so simply causes them to show up elsewhere more destructively. Rather, our relationship to problems shifts when we view them through the lens of what we want to create.

Typically, we approach problems with two core questions: What’s the problem? How do we fix it? This approach contains an implicit definition of what conditions are like when everything works. We focus on restoring the situation to a past state (or imagined past state). Think of Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, throughout eternity. His task echoes the energy of problem solving: hard work and discipline and often little joy. Even worse, the best we get is a return to some past state.

In contrast, when problems are used as a doorway to opportunity, three core questions typically guide us: What is working? What is possible? How do we create it? These questions mobilize us. Images of a brighter future draw us toward them. They fill a vacuum of possibility with joyous engagement. Ironically, the work may be harder than solving the problem. But it is infused with life energy—that invisible quality that attracts and enlivens—inspiring us to act.

Tips for Choosing Possibility

Like embracing mystery, choosing possibility is a state of mind.

Notice your habits of thought and language. Are they filled with deficits: “don’t,” “can’t,” “not,” “isn’t,” “couldn’t,” “the problem is,” etc.? Shift your focus from what you don’t want to what you do want.

Reframe. Turn your thoughts and words around. If you’re thinking, “I don’t want that” or “The problem is that we aren’t old/wise/creative/strong enough,” ask yourself, “What do I want?” or “Given all that, what is possible?”

Have fun with it. Because we’re surrounded by deficit language, I’m constantly turning it around in my mind. “State fails to pass budget.” I ask, “What would it take to pass a budget that meets our needs?” When we’re presented with possibilities, creative juices flow. As creative juices flow, we become more positive.

Be patient. It took years to form current habits. Give yourself time to develop new ones.

Recruit your friends and colleagues. Practice is easier and more fun if others are also paying attention. Choosing possibility is a virtuous cycle. Doing it with others amplifies and accelerates the effect.

Follow Life Energy: Trust Deeper Sources of Direction

What guides us when we don’t know?

Life energy is that elusive quality that attracts and enlivens us. Although invisible, it has vitality, a flow that we can sense. It animates all living organisms. It exists at the intersection of what we know and what we don’t know, fueling us to make sense of mystery. Following the energy of an aspiration, bringing it to life, feeds us. Just as food fuels our bodies, life energy nourishes our soul. We know it is present because excitement, laughter, and joy break out. People are awake, alive, aware of their feelings. They are willing to be compassionate with themselves and others. In contrast, angst, pain, discontent are signs that life energy is stuck. Whether pain or joy, the feelings are present because someone cares. When we are prevented from following our passion, it can sour, becoming a source of disruption. Welcoming upheaval frees the energy so that it is available to engage.

My consulting colleague Tenneson Woolf shared a story of the contagious nature of life energy unleashed. He introduced the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to Art of Hosting (AoH)—a global community of practitioners using integrated participative change processes, methods, maps, and planning tools to engage groups and teams in meaningful conversation, deliberate collaboration, and group-supported action for the common good. (See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of Art of Hosting and the other processes referenced below.) Tenneson tells the story of how creating hospitable conditions unleashes energy. It highlights the virtuous cycle that life energy creates.

In early 2008, CUPE labor educators were struggling to support members in rapidly changing workplaces aggravated by a rocky economy. We—four CUPE educators and three Art of Hosting practitioners—spent a day preparing for a four-day strategic planning session with 30 participants.

When the session began, we used a circle process check-in. People shared stories of the passion that brought them to their work. The unsticking began. In a common Art of Hosting pattern, from our check-in, we introduced models for working with chaos and complexity. Then participants dove into their projects using Open Space Technology to self-organize. The session ended with commitments to take the work out of the room: redesigning pension education programs, creating more green materials, creating a new culture of learning.

The work liberated participants, unleashing life energy! Satisfaction and joy flowed as they pursued their projects. One participant, who seemed preoccupied, told me that she was spending her mornings and evenings preparing for an upcoming workshop. I suggested she bring the work into the room and invite others to join her. In a 75-minute Open Space breakout session with six or seven of us, 90 percent of the concept came clear. She moved from concern to hope, from strain to lightness, from stuck to flowing.

The life energy from the session fueled a CUPE workshop on empowering local union leaders. That expanded to CUPE regions across Canada, into CUPE coalition partners, into a Canadian Labour Congress learning circle, and then into the Canadian Auto Workers, the BC Government Employees Unions, and the Canadian Media Guild. All have taken up the mantle, redesigning their conferences and adopting participatory methods and leadership. CUPE staff and members are following life energy. They are delivering new programs and creating a new level of community.

When conditions welcome us to be authentic, joy appears and life energy flows. And flows. Seen in the context of tough realities, Tenneson’s story grounds the ethereal notion of life energy and its ability to fuel change in practical reality.

Tips for Following Life Energy

Use all of your senses to work with the flow of forces that animate or deaden.

Tune in to the signals. Most of us depend heavily on our ears and eyes. We can hear and see laughter, tears, and other emotions. Yet we have many other ways of sensing what is happening. Our bodies, hearts, and minds provide information in different forms. Does our stomach clench? Do we feel warmhearted? Does something make rational or intuitive sense? Pay attention to where energy is stuck or flowing.

Support flow. If you wish to engage, participate fully, bringing all of your gifts. If not, get out of the way so that others can proceed. If you believe there is good reason not to proceed, disturb compassionately, supporting interactions that clear the way or bring closure.

Tend to boundaries. Boundaries are often where life energy gets stuck. For example, organizational silos (departmental kingdoms), national borders, or how identity is defined create an inside and an outside. Boundaries are useful! They outline the edges of our systems. They just need attention. Permeable boundaries are more flexible, allowing mindful movement in and out. If we design the means to enter, exit, or change a system, then energy flows more fluidly. For example, if processes exist to improve a system, it channels life energy in life-serving directions.

These preparation practices help us to face whatever comes our way. We are better equipped to engage others, ready to host emergence.

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On to Chapter 5. Host: Cultivate Conditions for Engaging