Chapter 12. Simplify

The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet, Lazarus and His Beloved, Sand and Foam

Order arises when individuals follow simple rules or organizing assumptions: Drive on the correct side of the road. Raise your hand and wait to be called on to speak. Rules provide structure and boundaries.

To a surprising extent, we don’t have to articulate the rules. Initial conditions tell us a lot about the principles that guide us. Think how differently we feel when we walk into a softly lit room, music playing quietly in the background. Now think about entering a sterile meeting room with chairs all facing the front of the room. With no explanation, each situation sets up a different emotional response and tells us a lot about what is expected of us. Now that’s simplicity!

What is the least we need to do to create the most benefit?

Given the complexity of human systems, how can we possibly know what sort of rules will create the desired changes to a system? Finding simplicity is an art of discovery, continually doing one less thing while seeking the heart of the matter. Getting to fundamentals is key. What is our purpose in seeking change? Who needs to be involved? How do we approach it?

Finding such answers is more art than science, and yet we do have some knowledge. We know, for example, that most of us take our cues from a mix of the environment—what others are doing—and our internal guidance system, shaped by our consciousness and our habits. While we can start anywhere, tuning in to our own motivations, aspirations, and dreams for the systems we are part of opens the way to an initial clarity. That clarity shapes our work.

The environment speaks volumes about who and what are welcome. It is rife with implicit rules that influence individual behavior. Despite such seeming complexity, the simple acts of focusing intentions and thoughtfully preparing welcoming conditions eliminate the need for countless explicit rules of behavior. While we don’t want to oversimplify in ways that deny the real complexity we’re dealing with, we do want to find simplicity that gets right to the heart of the matter. That simplicity taps fundamental truths underlying the complexity we face.

An inspiring example of what is possible when working from an ethic of simplicity occurred in a South Africa still under the shadow of apartheid. In 1991–1992, Adam Kahane worked with 22 prominent South Africans from across the ideological spectrum—politicians, activists, academics, and businesspeople—to develop and disseminate a set of stories about what might happen in their country over the next ten years. The “Mont Fleur project” started shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations had been legalized, and the first all-race elections of 1994 had not yet been held.

The work involved reflection, naming, and harvesting. It explicitly did not directly link to action. For Western culture, which sets a high value on action, cultivating the capacity to reflect—to contemplate—is both challenging and essential. Since emergence cannot be forced, reflection aids us in participating with emergence as it arises. Reflection also supports us in uncovering the inherent simplicity of emergent complexity. Kahane’s story holds many lessons for understanding simplicity.1 Among them: Finding simplicity is not always simple. Uncovering it is indirect, taking patience, authenticity, and courage. Simplicity is linked to meaning. We can uncover it through reflection, and take it to scale by naming what is essential and by sharing the harvest of stories.

Dozens of “forums” were set up in South Africa, creating temporary structures that gathered together the broadest possible range of stakeholders to develop a new way forward in a particular area of concern. The Mont Fleur project was one type of forum that, uniquely, used the Scenario Thinking methodology—a process for generating stories of alternative plausible futures to arrive at a deeper understanding in order to improve current and future decisions. [See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of the Scenario Thinking process.]

The scenario team met three times in a series of three-day workshops. After considering many possible stories, the participants agreed on four scenarios that they believed to be plausible and relevant:

Ostrich—A negotiated settlement to the crisis in South Africa is not achieved, and the country’s government continues to be nonrepresentative.

Lame Duck—A settlement is achieved, but the transition to a new dispensation is slow and indecisive.

Icarus—Transition is rapid, but the new government unwisely pursues unsustainable, populist economic policies.

Flight of the Flamingos—The government’s policies are sustainable and the country takes a path of inclusive growth and democracy.

The group developed each of these stories into a brief logical narrative. A 14-page report was distributed as an insert in a national newspaper, and a 30-minute video combined cartoons with presentations by team members. The team then presented and discussed the scenarios with more than 50 groups, including political parties, companies, academics, trade unions, and civic organizations. At the end of 1992, its goals achieved, the project was wrapped up and the team dissolved.

The ideas in the Mont Fleur team’s four scenarios were not in themselves novel. What was remarkable about the project was the heterogeneous group of important figures delivering the messages, and how this group worked together to arrive at these messages.

Mont Fleur did not resolve the crisis in South Africa. The participants did not agree upon a concrete solution to the country’s problems. The Mont Fleur process only discussed the domain that all of the participants had in common: the future of South Africa.

Among the four scenarios, only one story led to a sustainable outcome:

The simple message of Flight of the Flamingos was that the team believed in the potential for a positive outcome. In a country in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty, a credible and optimistic story makes a strong impact. One participant said recently that the main result of the project was that “[w]e mapped out in very broad terms the outline of a successful outcome, which is now being filled in. We captured the way forward of those committed to finding a way forward.”

Similar efforts, with Kahane’s support, are under way in Israel, Paraguay, Guatemala, Colombia, and Argentina.2 May they bring similar success.

In part, what is striking about Mont Fleur is that the participants faced one of the most complex social challenges of modern times and catalyzed a shift through a simple process. A group embodying the whole system engaged in creative conversations about possible futures for three days. Additionally, the members agreed to share the message broadly: four stories that “gave vivid, concise names to important phenomena that were not widely known, and previously could be neither discussed nor addressed.”3 The simplicity of both the process and its message contributed to a nation’s returning to itself and the embrace of the international community.

Designing Conversations That Matter

The role of simplicity in design of conversational processes deserves exploration. Most of us don’t think in terms of designing conversations. We just have them. Yet the emergent change processes that shaped this book are all about designing conversations that matter. The people who created the different processes took the everyday work of conversation and teased apart what makes the most difficult interactions succeed. They designed processes accordingly.

As the number of emergent change processes has grown, people like me have sought to understand what principles the different processes share. We wish to make it easier for anyone to know how to have the difficult conversations that matter.

Simplicity is design’s holy grail: aesthetically pleasing, energy efficient, broadly effective. Principles and practices that help us know how to prepare, host, and engage support our sense of safety, comfort, creativity, curiosity, and authenticity. Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology, introduced me to an elegant design question: What is one less thing to do and still be whole and complete? It is a disciplining question. Continually asked, it reveals the essence at the heart of what matters.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Are five principles for engaging emergence too few? Are they too many? Are they the principles that focus on the aspects of engaging emergence that matter most? Time will tell as we continue to experiment with the simple rules that create coherence out of chaos.

Practices for Simplifying

  • Reflect: sense patterns, be a mirror.

What is arising now?

Get curious. Ask questions that tease out what is coming into being. Be a witness for another.

  • Name: make meaning.

How do we call forth what is ripening?

Be receptive to a leap that can come from anywhere.

  • Harvest: share stories.

Once meaning is named, how does it spread?

Tell the stories. Write, draw, sing, dance, etc. Capture the spirit in print, video, online, and other media. Since we absorb more through multiple forms of expression, the more media, the better.

  • Iterate: do it again . . . and again.

What keeps us going?

Integrate what we know into what’s novel and what’s novel into what we know.

We have explored both practices and principles for engaging emergence in parts 2 and 3. In the spirit of simplifying, 15 practices are expressed through five principles. While the principles capture a deeper essence of engaging emergence, they don’t replace the practices. They serve different purposes. The principles help us understand what to do, and the practices help us understand how to do it. The more experienced we are, the easier it is to work from the simpler but more abstract form of the principles.

We have one last stage in our journey to understand this system for engaging emergence. Part 4 simplifies even further, posing three questions. They provide a philosophical context that offers a point of view for approaching emergence compassionately, creatively, and wisely.

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On to Part IV. Three Questions for Engaging Emergence