Chapter 15. How Do We Renew Coherence Wisely?

The act of sense making is discovering new terrain as you are making it.

—Brian Arthur, economist, Santa Fe Institute

Remember Humpty Dumpty’s fall? The pieces didn’t fit together again. Emergence is like that. What arises from creative interactions is not a return to former times. It is more of a spiral, a re-newal—new again. Some elements circle around from the past. Others are original. Together, they form something novel and of a higher-order complexity.

This chapter explores coherence, the last aspect of change’s pattern of disturbing, differentiating, and coalescing. It opens with a story of differences cohering. It reflects on renewal and wisdom. It talks of the nature of networks, which are showing up as an emerging form for how we organize our systems. It ends with tips for renewing coherence wisely.

The Spirit of Renewal

When we’re in the midst of creative disruptions, what helps our work come to fruition? What enables a higher-order understanding to coalesce? Reflecting, inviting people to share their stories, and naming what has heart and meaning helps to surface what hides in our midst.

Beginning with individual energy, coherence arises from the inside out. Unlike puzzle pieces mechanically connecting, new forms arise almost magically out of our interactions. They coalesce as differences intersect. People share what matters to them, they interact and influence each other, and a handful of themes invariably surface. Something is named that lands deeply and broadly. People carry it to others struggling to find their way. Although days, months, or years may pass before it is widely embraced, something is different. Something new has been born into the world.

The Journalism That Matters story below describes how novel ideas arise in our social systems. It happens not through assembling the parts, but through a more nuanced reformation that involves random interactions coalescing in unpredictable ways.

A 2009 Journalism That Matters event is under way. The conference room, awash with the warmth of the Florida sun, is awhirl with activity. A question has been posed to focus the gathering: What is our work in the new news ecology?

A diverse mix of mainstream journalists, technologists, new media people, educators, reformers, and others set their agenda:

  • Who funds investigative reporting?
  • What do we teach our journalism students?
  • How does social media affect journalism?
  • What’s the role of humor in journalism?
  • Are we having fun yet?

People self-organize around the topics they have chosen. They pursue the conversations that matter to them. An activist expresses her frustration with finding investigative reporters willing to listen. The reporters coach her on how to get their attention. By the end of the conversation, they each see the other differently, appreciating the challenges and constraints of each other’s worlds.

Angst and fear of what will happen as newspapers die gives way to an undercurrent of excitement and possibility. Opportunities are showing up everywhere. Stories surface of community-hosted sites where the audience is part of the investigative process and journalists are “writing in public.” Journalism curriculum is reimagined to include media literacy for everyone, traditional values and craft, and the emerging art of engagement—cultivating civil conversation online and face-to-face in a geographic or subject-oriented community. A myriad of possibilities are explored, ideas surfaced.

A sorting takes place, as aspects of the past, present, and future are tasted and embraced or discarded. Through random engagement, following the energy and passion of the people present, the system is examined in depth. Questions are asked, debated, mourned, and celebrated: What still has meaning that we wish to conserve? What do we wish to embrace that is possible because of changes in technology or attitudes?

It is the last morning. People sit together in a circle. They arrived as strangers; now they sit comfortably with each other, joking over the angst that surfaced more than once during their time together. They glimpsed the future and found it promising. Most feel full, inspired by ideas they are taking home. They know they are in good company with kindred spirits who care about the future of journalism. They have partners in shaping that future. They are part of something larger—the rebirth of an industry, a calling that serves the public good. They begin telling a new story of journalism, more conversation than lecture, more entrepreneurial and nimble. It seems more resilient, with room for more voices. Cooperation increases. People know they are connected, part of the same system, all pursuing what matters to them, sharing what they have learned, figuring it out together.

In some ways, nothing has changed. The economics of journalism are as murky as when the participants arrived. They may be going home to lay off people or to take a buyout. In other ways, everything has changed. Most feel more at peace with not knowing the answers. Joan Baez is quoted frequently: “Action is the antidote to despair.” No longer victims of the unknown, they see their own next step. And they now know others traveling a similar path, partners in exploration and learning.

A network of pioneers is forming. At root, journalism’s fundamental purpose endures—to inform, inspire, and activate for the public good. New technology makes it possible to involve more people in serving this mission. So, something novel and of a higher-order form is emerging. Clearly, journalism is no longer in the hands of a few people. Complex networks of professionals and an engaged public are part of the budding scene. Its shape is far from clear. It will likely be that way for a while. Journalism is between stories, transitioning from old forms to new, more adaptive forms. The holy grail of a sustainable business model may not yet be known, but these people are now pioneers on the trail, inventing the future.

Journalism is in the midst of renewing itself, finding its way to what matters now. Such is the way of coherence: people catch glimpses of what is arising and more experiments are seeded, accelerating the process as they carry the harvest home with them.

A turn on a spiral of change happens as something thoroughly original and elegantly complex also embodies enduring needs and values. It defies tidy descriptions as new and old aspects intertwine in the dance of differentiating and coalescing. Evolution itself is under way, sometimes incrementally, sometimes making unexpected leaps. Literally meaning “to make new again,” renewal contains what endures, a return to our deepest needs, intentions, and values. Renewal also holds what wasn’t possible before: novel forms. Innovations like Twitter find their relationship to existing forms of journalism. Every once in a while, something flips and becomes a new organizing principle. For example, journalism is entrepreneurial. It begins the process of reorganizing everything. The printing press opened the way to the 19th-century mass literacy movement.1 Today, media literacy follows the need to discern quality in the multiple sources coming from new forms of journalism. When we reorganize ourselves around emerging principles, bringing order to a more diverse, complex system, the transition keeps us busy!

Cultivating Wise Renewal

Has something wise been realized? Chances are, we won’t know for a while. At root, wisdom means “to see, to know the way.” Knowledge or knowing arises from and serves the whole. Such knowledge and knowing is deeper than the rational mind. It includes intuitions forged through experience.

In a wise society, people continually grow their capacity to care for themselves, each other, and the whole. Institutions are designed to support this growth. For example, the U.S. Constitution is a living promise, an elegant set of principles that exemplifies wise renewal. What “We the people” means continues to evolve. Sometimes it happens through violent disruption, like the Civil War. Sometimes it occurs through more compassionate disruptions, like the women’s movement. Both influenced social attitudes and legal action. Ultimately, constitutional amendments abolished slavery and gave women the vote. African-Americans became whole people, rather than three-fifths of a person, as slaves were counted in the Constitution. More recently, Ecuador has led the way to including nature’s rights in its new constitution. With nature’s needs appearing in such a foundational document, a deeper innate wisdom is coalescing.

Wisdom seems to be emerging more often as evolution itself evolves toward increasing complexity, diversity, and awareness. Whether truth and reconciliation in South Africa or peace in Northern Ireland, intractable challenges are being settled peacefully. Perhaps wise renewal is moving us toward increased energy efficiency. Emergence through creative engagement no doubt uses far less energy than war.

The capacity to engage diverse perspectives creatively may be the evolutionary leap that our current social and environmental crises are forcing. Handling so much complexity wisely means that we can’t do it alone. Although wisdom may be expressed through an individual, it is not a solo act. It involves our relationships with each other and our environment. Wisdom lives in the collective.

Knowing how to bring together difference and stay connected is a critical skill for our times. Hosting productive conversations among increasingly diverse people is part of a new story of who we are as a society. The Internet gives us an unprecedented lens into other cultures. Social networking capabilities are rapidly increasing our ability to interact. How we use these opportunities is up to us. This is a good time to learn more about wisdom. As a consultant colleague, Martin Rutte, says, “You have to do it by yourself. And you can’t do it alone.”

At our wisest, we know to sense in many directions—inside and outside the boundaries of a system, from the tangible and intangible, from the individual and collective. We use many ways of knowing, listening to the mind, the heart, the body—including the social body—and the spirit.

What seems wise in one age or circumstance may seem foolish in another. There is a Taoist story: One day, a farmer’s horse ran away, and all the neighbors gathered in the evening and said, “That’s too bad.” He said, “Maybe.” Next day, the horse came back and brought with it seven wild horses. “Wow!” said the Taoist villagers, “aren’t you lucky!” He said, “Maybe.” The next day, his son tried to saddle-train one of the wild horses. The son was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors said. “Oh, that’s too bad.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day, the conscription officers came around, gathering young men for the army. They rejected the man’s son because he had a broken leg. And the villagers all came around and said, “Isn’t that great! Your son got out.” He said, “Maybe.” And the story continues.

With wisdom comes patience, continually reflecting, staying open to what is emerging as others rush to judgment. That said, since humans are involved, we’ll undoubtedly try a wealth of experiments, some wise, some not so wise. If an innovation creates disruption, it indicates that something is attracting interest. Someone or something excluded cares enough to make it known. We circle back to disrupting compassionately, knowing that welcoming the outside in brings treasures. In this way, perhaps a bit more wisdom grows.

Networks Emerging

It is a good time for wisdom because we are, in fact, in the midst of renewing how we organize ourselves for just about everything we do. Technology and changing perspectives make hierarchies and rigid structures less critical. The notion of leader as heroic individual is losing its shine. Networks, more adaptive and resilient, are slowly taking their place, along with the understanding that leaders are everywhere, in each of us.

For example, Wikipedia is a terrific place to follow breaking news. As a story unfolds, those closest to it add or correct information, and link to photos or other Web sites for details. Filtering facts happens through self-correcting crowdsourcing. We no longer depend on a few professionals for all aspects of the story. Leadership arises as people within the situation answer some internal call to serve, taking responsibility for what they love. While the need for information continues, it is served through an original means: a network of engaged strangers.

In all sorts of systems, networks of conversations are replacing the old forms—ink on paper, gatekeepers telling us what we need to know, and so on. In spite of itself, journalism is leading the way, providing hints of what’s to come for a variety of our social systems. News and information are now delivered to a mix of devices—computers, televisions, iPods—as well as ink on paper. Hierarchies are giving way to networks. Single points of control for story ideas, follow-up information, accuracy, and other aspects yield to networks better able to handle complexity that is impossible to address any other way. Habits from one form are revisited both practically and emotionally. Technology helps us to operate more fluidly. Yet for those of us who didn’t grow up as digital natives, it can be daunting!

What does it take to function well in a network? We are novices at this. Increasing numbers of us are experimenting, most without consciously knowing we are part of a great reordering. Some of us disrupt more compassionately, use our differences creatively, and renew wisely. We are sharing the results in creative ways—through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other forms that make visible our interconnectedness. A virtuous cycle is forming in which more and more of us can see our place in a multistoried world that has room for us all. Perhaps some additional seeds of wisdom live in that more nuanced view.

Networks are children of emergence. They turn what we know about how organizations work inside out. Rather than rigid boundaries defining them, clear intentions are the glue binding networks together. Rather than assigned leaders, people and organizations step in, taking responsibility for what they love. Some become hubs, attracting others to them. They are relational leaders, whose influence derives from the depth and breadth of their connections. Guiding principles emerge as people take responsibility for resolving disruptions.

We know that networks are highly collaborative. Leadership shifts fluidly as work groups form and disperse as needed. Networks also provide a different relationship with context—knowing how we fit with others and our environment.

When we experience ourselves as part of a larger system, something profound happens: our behavior changes. This turning point is a crowning moment of wise renewal. We realize that to ignore or harm another part of our social body—or our ecological body—would be like cutting off our own arm. Disruption indicates that something we thought was outside the system wants in. A bit wiser, we may even meet the disturbance with curiosity.

Tips for Renewing Coherence Wisely

Surface what matters to each aspect of the system. Coherence arises when diversity is welcome. Not all differences are significant. Seek what is at the heart of the differences.

Trust that useful outcomes can arise. Let go of needing immediate answers. Coherence is not constructed. Don’t treat the aspects of a system like puzzle pieces. Doing so generally suboptimizes outcomes and leaves unhappy people in its wake.

Be prepared to be surprised. We can do our best to create conditions that make emergence more likely. Once it is set in motion, how, when, and why it happens and what specifically emerges is an unexpected leap. The magic lives in the unlikely, unlooked-for connections.

Key principles:

  • Seek meaning.

How do we surface what matters to individuals and to the whole?

Be receptive. Suspend the desire for closure. Ask reflective questions. Have faith that meaning arises.

  • Simplify.

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

Continually seek the essence at the heart of what matters.

A key practice:

Reflect. Sense patterns. Get curious about what is arising. Ask questions that tease out what is surfacing. Name it, harvest the stories, and share them widely.

I said in the introduction that change is too important to leave solely in the hands of professionals. By now, I expect that you feel better equipped to engage with disruption in the systems in which you live and work. Whether it’s family, work, community, or another system of which you are a part, step in. In the pages that follow, I offer you some closing thoughts and challenges as you do.

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