Never tell people how to do things . . . they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
—General George S. Patton, Jr., War As I Knew It
Pioneers have much to teach us about engaging emergence. They begin their journeys into the unknown by marshalling resources and support. They are most resilient when they hold their intentions clearly but lightly, without attachment to specific outcomes. They adapt by welcoming feedback from others and the environment. Inviting partners with diverse perspectives and skills also increases their chances of success.
Pioneers know that the assumptions that work in familiar settings change when we enter the unknown. They know that breaking old habits takes courage. And while compassion may not be a traditional pioneering skill, it helps keep us going as we stumble through the many experiments that elate and frustrate along the way.
How do we discover our way forward?
Seek new directions. Think different.1 Act courageously. If you are holding on, let go. If you are going with the flow, step out of the stream. If you are focused on the inside, see what’s happening outside. If you are working downstream, check out what’s going on upstream. Pioneering involves breaking habits, doing the unexpected, breaking well-worn feedback loops.
Although pioneering is a time to let habits go, they definitely have their use! Remember learning how to drive a car? It took tremendous energy and concentration. Once we learned the pattern—once it became a habit—we could focus our energy elsewhere. Reliability has value, so arbitrarily doing the unexpected is not desirable.
Still, when change is needed, habits can get in the way. Healthy change involves dynamic tension between our habits and our pioneering spirit. Without habit, function can’t be sustained. But without disturbance, no learning or adaptation happens. We need the familiar and the strange, the comfort of repetition and habit, as well as the excitement and mystery of invention.
The art is in knowing when to embark on something new—and how—and when to stay with the flow. The environment is quite good at giving us feedback. We just need to listen and adapt to the signals we receive. When all is harmonious, proceed with business as usual. When dissonance appears, interrupt the habitual with something counterintuitive.
Here’s a radical way of thinking differently about a signal: What if we viewed a terrorist attack as the system shouting at us? What message could such a vicious act contain that would be useful to our well-being? Such a question would take us into unexplored terrain. It could provide different feedback about the root causes of terrorism.
Asking habit-breaking questions uses all of our senses. Who and what we attend to matters. How diverse are the perspectives we hear? People in the streets or on the front line have access to different information than those in elected office or in the boardroom. In how many ways are we tuning in? There’s what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, as well as what we perceive through subtle senses, like intuition. Signals beyond a human scale are now visible via computers. Timing also matters. Delays in understanding climate change’s signals challenge our ability to address its root causes. To do so requires massive changes of behavior. So how to begin?
Preparing as best we can before entering the unknown makes good sense. What are our strengths? What resources do we have? Whom should we invite to join us? Much like good hosting, equipping for an expedition into the unknown is well served by a clear intention, inviting diverse partners to join us, and welcoming what comes our way with a spirit of adventure. More, pioneers are masters of taking responsibility for what they love, following a calling that compels them to act.
Here’s a story, told from my perspective, about embarking on a journey into the center of a controversy that involved some twists and turns. The story highlights what it takes to host an expedition when asking people to enter uncharted waters, and it illustrates a way to prepare for adapting to feedback in the moment.
In 2005, a colleague, Sono Hashisaki, contacted me to work with her in a challenging situation. Four Pacific Northwest Indian coastal tribes were involved. So were the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (NOAA’s ONMS) and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) in Washington State. Over a two-year period, relations among the parties had become strained. They were further aggravated by a potential conflict. Unable to come to an agreement, the tribes took the situation to the Washington, D.C., office of NOAA’s ONMS.
A meeting on “working out the issues and areas of conflict” was scheduled. The tribes chose Sono to facilitate because they trusted her. One challenge: no one thought anything useful would come of the meeting. A second challenge: before the session, the “feds” and the tribes were meeting separately to review their positions. What could we do that would make a difference?
As Sono painted the scene, we—Sono and I—knew that the official reason for meeting and what the participants really wanted to accomplish weren’t the same. We needed to create the conditions that would allow the organizations involved to address the conflict between them productively.
We chose to use Open Space Technology because it provides the lightest of touches. It poses a broad question and invites people to pursue what matters most to each of them. Since both sides were preparing for the worst, we set the stage with flexibility. Our intent was that the participants would work out their differences in real time.
On the morning of the meeting, formalities began with a tribal leader welcoming 18 people to the space. Sono and I launched the Open Space by inviting people to organize their agendas. Then we got out of the way. We sat on the sidelines as the first round of breakout sessions started. She briefed me on the relational dynamics at play—who sat with whom, who was left alone. One group focused on policy and governmental relations. Though chairs were close by, they stood, arms crossed, and talked for more than an hour. Finally, they relaxed, sat down, and moved into productive conversations right before lunch. Lunch proved to be a gestational (or digestive) time. When they reconvened, the four coastal tribes and the OCNMS came to an agreement in a record 20 minutes. The participants canceled their final round of breakout sessions, and we “circled up”—formed a circle—for a closing reflection.
During the closing, several people thanked their counterparts, saying it was one of the most respectful meetings they had ever had. A representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs complemented all of them on the most productive meeting between federal officials and Native Americans he had ever witnessed.
We had done so little during the meeting yet got such great results! What had happened? We had done our homework, preparing for the unknown by using what we did know. From Sono’s background work, we knew that expectations were low. We also knew the challenges we faced. With that in mind, we clarified the underlying intentions and shaped an organizing question accordingly. We used the simplicity of Open Space to create a spirit of welcome. The result of our work was conditions in which the group was able to adapt, no matter what arose. We confirmed that the people who attended could address the conflict. And we got out of the way, so that the meeting participants could take responsibility for what mattered to them.
Practices for Pioneering
- Focus intentions: clarify our calling.
What purpose moves us?
Tune in. Sense what is stirring in you, others, and your environment.
- Welcome: cultivate hospitable space.
How do we cultivate conditions for the best possible outcomes?
Create a spirit of welcome—physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
- Invite the diversity of the system.
How can we include the true complexity of the situation?
Reach out to those who ARE IN: with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need.
- Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.
How can we use our differences and commonalities to make a difference? Get involved with what matters, listening and connecting along the way.
- Listen: sense broadly and deeply, witnessing with self-discipline.
How do we more fully understand each other and our environment?
Pay attention using all of your senses to learn and adapt.
Pioneering develops flexibility, responsiveness, and resilience, schooling us in being sensitive to feedback. It helps us to experience the benefits of disruptions as possibilities surface. While it can be challenging, entering the unknown can also be exhilarating. And we never know which encounters will make the difference.
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