A Radio Interview on The Heart of it ALL

Blue Spinner Greyscale Feathered flippedOn May 24, 2013, I joined radio hosts Sheri Herndon and Erik Lawyer on their weekly talk show, One Becoming One: The Heart of it ALL.

The focus of the hour long broadcast was Navigating Through Chaos and Telling a New Story. We had a fine time talking about how best to work with upheaval and chaos. I talked a bit about the upcoming workshop I’m doing, Engaging Possibilities: Appreciative Inquiry and the Art of Radical Appreciation, on July 8-10 near Jerusalem, Israel. And we talked about journalism in changing times.

For more, listen to the conversation!


Designing for Community: Expect the Unexpected

Part V

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz
Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz

Take a co-creative stand so that disruptions become a source of engagement and learning.

At a recent event that I attended, the focus was on community.  The participants were from government, communities, and organizations with a socially oriented mission, both for profit and nonprofit.  While mostly white, the 150 people there were sufficiently diverse in age, race, geography, and gender to make the setting spicy.

And then there was the design. Two days of talks, interspersed with small group conversations about the talks.  The last day was in Open Space. Two conditions made for a rocky experience.  The first: all but one of the in-person speakers were older white men.  The second: with one exception, the speakers all lectured.  While well intentioned, and unquestionably from a respectful place, the talks had a quality of bringing knowledge down from on high.  The exception was a couple who shared their work and brought with them the questions they were striving to answer as part of their offering.

As the second morning started with yet another presenter, someone stood to voice his frustration.  He beat me to it by the random selection of the holder of the microphone.  The participant spoke clearly and respectfully.  He made a request that we hear from a greater diversity of people.  The conference hosts listened.  They took in challenging feedback, redesigned over a break, and invited people to self-organize around topics of interest.

No matter how well prepared you think you are, stuff happens.  Our brilliant design don’t always work as envisioned.  That’s when grace under pressure helps.

Design Suggestion

Be prepared to be surprised.  Just as practicing scales prepares the way for great jazz, knowing the rhythm and likely effects of the activities you choose equips you to meet the needs of a group in the moment.  And like jazz, working with partners when hosting a large group can enrich the experience.  Multiple sets of eyes provide more insight into a situation, along with putting a greater range of experiences and options at your finger tips.

Years ago, working with a team of four, I was virtually thrown out of a gathering by the participants of a conference that I had spent months organizing.  As I put it at the time, I was standing still in the fire and I got burnt.  Fortunately for the attendees, there were four of us holding the space.  My partners could see what was happening and made sure the needs of the group were met.

As for me, it sent me on a learning journey that led to increased capacity to listen and adapt.  I became far less dogmatic in my approach to my work with groups.  And it sure makes me compassionate when other designers and hosts experience the unexpected!


Designing for Community: Make Participant Experience Visible

Part IV

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz
Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz

Design activities in which we meet kindred spirits, discover each other’s gifts, and learn as much as possible about what works.

I was so aware of the invisibility of the talent and experience in the room at several conferences that I’ve attended of late!  Make use of those with stories to tell.   The potential for cross-fertilization of ideas and practices is magnified when designs bring forth the richness of experience present in a group.  And assume these gems will sparkle even brighter when lit by ideas contributed by luminaries.

Benefits of inviting participants to share their experiences: it sparks ideas, encourages new connections, and identifies possible partners. It also informs new theory to be articulated out of practice.

Design Suggestions

The simplest means I know to optimize sharing is to use Open Space Technology, inviting people to self-organize around what matters to them. When the topic is abstract, like the “future of journalism” or “connecting for community” and the group isn’t a formal organization, I’ve found a few activities can provide some useful context about who’s coming and the gifts they bring before opening the space.

Sending a briefing book with bios before a gathering gives people a sense of who’s coming.  With online registration tools, it’s easy to ask registrants for a bio or to answer questions about why they’re coming or gifts that they’re bringing.  The briefing book makes great travel reading.

An effective activity I’ll do early in a gathering is a “trade fair”, in which people are invited to host a table to share their work.  It’s a fast way to discover something about what’s happening in the field. I usually set the stage in advance, asking during registration if they want to host a table.  They can bring materials, paper or electronic, to dress their space. I find this minimal structure supports self-organizing that makes visible the experiences in the room.  Participants get to see a range of examples in a fun, informal and intimate format.

Such activities help participants find connections and partners.  It can be inspiring to see what others have accomplished and can spark ideas to apply to their own work. This sort of informal sharing encourages a culture of mutual support, in which we can all benefit.

No matter what your design, it is always wise to expect the unexpected.  That is the topic of the last post of the series.


Designing for Community: Include Theory and Practice in Conference Designs

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz
Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz

Part III

Theory and practice amplify each other’s value

Ideas stimulate new thinking.  They interrupt habitual assumptions.  Examples ground us in real life.  They give ideas form.  If we focus just on ideas, we run the risk of getting lost in abstractions.  If we just look at practical examples, we could miss seeing larger patterns that encourage innovation and the adoption of great work.

As someone who thrives on the abstract, I’ve come to appreciate that stories of what’s working bring ideas to life.  Through stories, practice informs theory.

Often, the role of luminaries is to bring new thinking — theory — to gatherings.  A few ideas can go a long ways towards influencing the work of the people attending.  Theories provide frameworks and language that can make successful practices easier to grasp.

What is less often present in gatherings is the opportunity to learn about the good work attendees are doing.  Great designs for gatherings make the most out of the gifts brought by everyone who comes.  Every group contains a range of experiences.  Some are newcomers seeking to learn about what already exists.  Others are veterans, with a myriad of stories that illuminate years of learning.  Some are theorists, pattern seekers wanting to make visible essentials of what works.  And there are pragmatists, who don’t care why something works.  They’re just focused on making good things happen. While there’s often a tension between theorists and practitioners, I find that each is enriched by the presence of the other.

Design Suggestion

Include a variety of activities.  Spend some time introducing new ideas.  Spend some time showing off work done by people who are present.  And use the majority of the time for people to interact.

If having luminaries engage with the whole group is a useful way to introduce new ideas and theories, inviting people in the room to share their work is a great way to learn through successful examples. Interactions are the glue, helping us to clarify our thoughts, connect with others, and more deeply integrate the experience.

Part II dealt with good ways to engage luminaries with the group to bring the spice of new ideas.  Open Space is a clear winner for maximizing group interactions.  Ah, but that middle activity…when you’ve got dozens of examples of great work and not necessarily skilled storytellers, what designs optimize the sharing? Next week’s post is devoted to that subject…



Designing for Community: Create a Tapestry of Ideas

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz
Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz

Part II

Invite thought leaders with different world views so that participants benefit from a diversity of perspectives

With a center of gravity in Open Space Technology – a process that supports self-organization, it took me years of experimenting to conclude that in some circumstances a few well chosen thought leaders can add value by speaking at a gathering.  Among their benefits: they can help to frame an ambiguous question so that participants have some common reference points. They can stimulate new thinking.  And they can provide shared language around complex topics.

Too often, all, or most, of the luminaries invited to speak are older white men.  Particularly when the participation is diverse, this choice makes less and less sense.  I have been far too guilty of this in events that I’ve run!  When I recently experienced it from the other side, I noticed how much I checked out as I got more and more impatient with a homogenous world view (e.g., male, Christian-Judeo, of a similar age and largely shaped by similar world events).  Even when the topics themselves varied, the speakers began to sound alike to me. The sad part was that every one of the people chosen was wise, caring, and definitely worth hearing!  And yet I was aware of the common cultural assumptions among them all.  I longed for voices, wise voices, of people who had a different life experience.  I wanted a tapestry of perspectives that included people whose world view was radically different from my own.

Design Suggestion

When responsible for a conference design, encourage the hosting group to step back from their first thoughts of who gets to speak to the whole group and consider factors beyond the content they bring.  In addition to being thought-provoking, what’s the mix of ethnicity, gender, geography, generation, and roles among the few who are chosen?  Will participants see themselves in the mix?  Will they experience at least one view so completely different from their own that it disrupts their assumptions about how the world works?  Finding a mix that suits the purpose of coming together is an art worth cultivating.

And then there’s the coaching of the speakers, or conversation catalysts, as I’ve come to think of them.  Some have a natural gift for showing up in a co-creative partnership. Others, often among those who have been speaking for years, do it well, and yet in an environment where engagement is key, they can come across as bringing knowledge from “on high”.  I find that the more a luminary brings not just their wisdom but also their curiosity, the more alive their contribution becomes. Being curious seems to bring with it a humility that changes their relationship with a group in profoundly authentic ways.

One last point: keep it brief!  Very few people have the gift to hold attention for more than 20 minutes at a stretch.  And even those who do have a chance for a different experience when invited to assume they’ll be interacting with participants.

Since Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity came out in 2010, I have had more opportunity to experience life on the other side of the podium. As someone who has built a practice around creating welcoming conditions for others to speak, I was challenged by the expectation that I’d offer my ideas as well as engaging the people in the room.  Dissatisfied with what I was doing, my experiments got bolder.  Last year, I finally found a strategy that works for me.  And it now informs my coaching to others when they are invited to speak at conferences I host.

My breakthrough experience was a ninety minute session with a group of 200 business leaders at a management conference in Perth, Australia.  The chairs were set theatre style.  Within moments of being introduced, I invited people to take a few minutes to get out of their seats and talk to at least three people about something related to the topic (emergence in organizations) that made them curious.  I’d never done something like that at a scale of several hundred people before.  Within minutes, the room was abuzz.  And then I asked them to form clusters with others who seemed to be interested in similar questions.  When we harvested the questions, I got a taste of where to put the emphasis of my remarks. They were now actively listening through their own questions.  And they met some kindred spirits.

It worked.


See Possibilities — Turn upheaval into opportunity

So many ways to express a few ideas!

I recently published an article in Personal Excellence, a journal that reaches over half a million people.  Here’s the text:

WHAT IF YOU KNEW HOW to face challenging situations with a high likelihood of achieving breakthrough outcomes?

Image by David Kesser, www.davidkessler.biz/art_gallery.htm

Your success becomes more likely when you clarify a vision that energizes you and helps you turn difficult, conflicted issues into transformative leaps of commitment and achievement.  By doing so, you engage the natural forces of emergent change.

All change begins with disturbance. Without disruption, there’d be no need to change. By developing a healthy relationship with disturbance, you turn resistance and denial into curiosity and creativity. Since disruption brings out strong emotions, being compassionate helps. At root, compassion means to suffer with. Compassion reminds us that we’re all in it together.

One way to engage disruption compassionately is asking possibility-oriented questions. Consider asking: Given this loss or change, what’s possible now? Asking such questions helps you generate welcoming conditions for creativity.

Engaging creatively with disruption helps you discover differences that make a difference. To maximize your creativity, generate innovative ideas, and establish new relationships, take responsibility for what you love as an act of service. This game-changing way of working liberates your heart, mind, and spirit. It calls you to pay attention to what matters most, drawing out your unique gifts and talents. Spread your wings and step up to your leadership potential.

Create welcoming conditions that provide the space to explore different perspectives. You will spark innovation, solidarity, generosity, and unexpected answers.  You will discover shared meaning or purpose that unites individual needs with those of the organization, turning us- and-them divides into a spirit of we. This shift is counter-intuitive!

If you believe that to belong, you must conform, you will sacrifice to make compromises that no one likes.  The result: feeling dissatisfied and isolated. Instead, collectively reflect, inviting unique expressions of what matters to you and to others. It generates breakthroughs containing what is vital to each and all of us.

When you face challenges, compassionately disrupt by asking possibility-oriented questions like How can we use our unique gifts to create great results? Creatively engage diverse people by inviting everyone to take responsibility for what they love as an act of service. You’ll discover differences that make a difference. Finally, wisely renew yourself and your organization by reflecting with others and acting on what matters. You will turn upheaval into opportunity.

Peggy Holman helps you create a desirable future. She is author of Engaging Emergence and coauthor of The Change Handbook (Berrett-Koehler).


One Year Ends and a New One Begins

Where have I been?  Where am I going?

Last year brought Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity into publication.  The book brings to fruition years of pursuing a quest to understand the deeper patterns at the heart of the emergent change practices that I have found so powerful in enabling diverse, even conflicted people to discover answers to the complex issues they face.

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz

The feedback on the book has been heart warming, People familiar with the ideas tell me that they find the book helps them get clearer about what they already know.  It makes it easier to apply and to share.  And people new to the ideas tell me that the notion of welcoming disruption is life changing.

Several friends, including group process practitioners, Chris Corrigan and Teresa Posakony, asked me what having the book out meant for me.  Amanda Trosten-Bloom, co-author of The Power of Appreciative Inquiry and the new Appreciative Leadership asked me how I thought the book’s publication might change my practice.

Great questions!  I told my friends that I needed to grow into a stronger voice for the ideas that mean so much to me.  I want to live up to the book’s potential through what I say and do.

Why? Because I believe that the disruptions in our systems – economic, communication, education, governance, and others – are getting larger.  And the more of us who are equipped to step in with some insight into the dynamics at play and how to deal with them, the more likely we will look back on this time and shake our heads at our crazy naiveté and wonder how we made it through the chaos.  It means that we will have arrived at a high-order coherence, knowing we have become a social system that engages with its differences creatively while conscious that we are an interactive, ever-evolving whole.

Being a Voice for Ideas That Matter to Me

The practical reality of 2010 is that I have much to learn to be the voice I want for these ideas.  After a round of webinars, talks, and workshops, I have run the gamut from home runs to strike-outs in sharing the ideas in the book.

The book is doing its work, bringing wonderful invitations to mentor and work with people in a range of disciplines.  Among them: technology companies, the Montessori system, the mental health system, and my passion: journalism.

Recently, Bill Braswell, a manager at Microsoft, gave me several gifts in my learning journey.  During a workshop on the book’s ideas, he offered a partner question to my “What’s possible now?”  He asked “What matters now?”  I find these questions great companions!  What matters grounds us in meaning.  What’s possible lifts us towards our dreams.  Together, they generate a dynamic tension that draws us towards creativity and wisdom.

Bill invited me to present to my most challenging audience.  People unfamiliar with patterns of change or why they should care: technology managers.  I flopped.  Big time.  Aside from being humbled, it hit all my “I don’t know how to offer my own ideas” buttons.  As I’ve reflected on what works when I’m at my best, I’ve found two answers so far: authenticity and interactivity.

Authenticity. When friends coach me, they tell me that I need to tell people about who I am.  The authentic me.  I have such a challenging time thinking my story might interest anyone!  Bill said it in a way that may have actually sunk in.  He advised I tell people:

  • How I got here
  • Why it is important to me
  • Why it should be important to them.

I’ve been doing that ever since.  It seems to help.  And goes like this:

I started exploring these ideas when I experienced Open Space Technology for the first time.  I fell in love because I saw something I didn’t know was possible: that the good of the individual and the good of the collective can both be served.  I always thought it had to be a tradeoff.  Now I see this dynamic as an measure of success, indicating a higher-order system has emerged.

I spoke above of why it is important to me and why it should matter to others: we’re entering a time of increasing disruption and the more of us who are equipped to work with it, the more likely these times become the launch of breakthrough to more compassionate, creative, and wise societies.

Interactivity. I ran into my own judgments of the sage on the stage.  It seems counter to what I’ve been about for years!  Suddenly I’m the expert with the answers?  I am at my best playing jazz with a group.  And when there’s the face-to-face bandwidth for interactivity, it works when I find questions that spark conversations among the people present and between the group and me.

I’m sure there’s more I need to learn.  I know that when the bandwidth is less, like in a webinar, I am still stymied on how to spark people’s interest in learning more.

Other Reflections

I want to honor Spirited Work – an Open Space learning community of practice that met quarterly from 1998 to 2004 to explore the intersection of being and doing – spirit and work.  The seeds of what I know about emergence were not only planted but took root and started to grow through Spirited Work.  I’m embarrassed to say that I never name it in the book.  My dear friend, Anne Stadler, pointed it out and I was shocked to discover that I had removed the reference in my last edit, when looking for ways to shorten the Preface.  While I talk about the experience, I don’t name it.  Should I have the opportunity to do a second edition, Spirited Work’s influence on me will be front and center.

I have one last reflection on my growing into my voice.  In talking with people who are excited by the ideas in Engaging Emergence and want to use them in their work, I want to become a better mentor.  I often feel that I leave interactions having missed opportunities for further engagement.  That may be fine, yet I feel there’s more I can bring.  I do so much processing so quickly that it doesn’t occur to me to make my process visible to those around me.

In 2011, I plan to experiment with being more explicit about how I work with the principles and practices I name in the book.  I know it’s more about providing questions than answers.  The inquiries that come to mind are around:

  • Welcoming disturbance
    • What’s the nature of the disturbance that inspired you to contact me?
    • In terms of preparing yourself, what’s your relationship with the unknown, with the energy of the situation, with possibility?
    • What might be a compassionate response?
  • Seeking meaning
    • Why does it matter to you?
    • Given the disturbance, what matters now?
  • Hosting a creative response to disturbance
    • Given what’s meaningful, what’s possible?  What intention should guide the work?
    • Who should be engaged (for random encounters)?
    • What actions make sense (that are pioneering)?

These questions draw from the different layers of disrupting and differentiating that I articulate in the book.  They’re intended to uncover a path towards a new coherence.  And they’re my starting point for taking my own next step into 2011.

Happy new year!


My book, Engaging Emergence, in 824 words

I did a guest post for Pegasus Communications last week, providing an appetizer for my book.  Below is a slightly longer version — with examples restored.  If you’re looking for a taste of what it’s about, read on.

What would it mean if we knew how to face challenging situations with a high likelihood of achieving breakthrough outcomes?

Image by David Kessler, http://davidkessler.biz/art_gallery.htm

Success can occur on the scale of the Belfast Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.  Or it could be in-the-making, like the Transition Town movement that supports communities to self-organize around initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions.  It might be modest, as when people or groups reconcile their differences, improving the lives of families, organizations, and communities.

Since the early nineties, I’ve sought to understand how we turn difficult, often conflicted issues into transformative leaps of renewed commitment and achievement.  I’ve used whole system change practices — methods that engage the diverse people of a system in creating innovative and lasting shifts in effectiveness.  I’ve co-convened conferences around ambitious societal questions like: What does it mean to do journalism that matters for our communities and democracy?  And I’ve delved into the science of complexity, chaos, and emergence – in which order arises out of chaos – to better understand human systems.  In the process, I have noticed some useful patterns, practices, and principles for engaging the natural forces of emergent change.  Here are a few highlights:

All change begins with disruption.  It’s obvious if you think about it.  If there were no disruption, there’d be no need to change.  By developing a healthy working relationship with disturbance, we can turn resistance and denial into curiosity and creativity.

Since disruption understandably brings out strong emotions, compassion is a great attitude to cultivate.  At root, compassion means “to suffer with”.  In other words, compassion reminds us that we’re all in it together.

One powerful practice for engaging disruption compassionately is asking possibility-oriented questions.  Consider these appreciative questions posed by people engaged in the emotional roller-coaster of journalism’s upheaval:

  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has closed its doors, part of the wave of newspapers folding. Given this loss, what’s possible now?
  • With journalism in such upheaval, what curriculum serves journalism students well?
  • If not gatekeeper, what is my role as a journalist?
  • How do I connect community in civil conversation so that news not only informs but engages people in civil society?

Such questions help create welcoming conditions for engaging the diverse stakeholders who care about quality news and information in a democracy.

Engaging disruption creatively helps us discover differences that make a difference.  At the heart of engagement is a practice that helps people to maximize creativity, generating innovative ideas and establishing new relationships.

The practice is taking responsibility for what we love, as an act of service.  This game-changing way of operating liberates hearts, minds, and spirits.  It calls us to pay attention to what matters most, putting our unique gifts to use.  As we spread our wings — with all our diversity — it may seem like an invitation to chaos.  Yet a meaningful organizing question and welcoming conditions provide spaciousness to explore differences and spark innovation, solidarity, generosity, and unexpected answers.

For example, Google is famous for giving its engineers 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally. Often, the engineers form teams that create new products, improve development methods, and make customers happier. (See The Google Way: Give Engineers Room.)

Wise, resilient systems coalesce when the needs of individuals and the whole are served. Discovering shared meaning turns “us” and “them” divides into a spirit of “we”.   This shift is so counterintuitive!  Many of us live with an unspoken belief that to belong, we must conform.  We sacrifice to make compromises that no one likes and feel more isolated as a result.

The practice of collective reflection helps surface what matters to individuals and the whole.  It can generate unexpected breakthroughs containing what is vital to each and all of us.

Such reflection re-framed the state of journalism for many mainstream and new media people by making visible an industry shift: journalism still serves the public good and is now entrepreneurial.  This realization inspires innovation and mobilizes leaders who have been unsure what steps to take.

What’s Possible Now?

If a turning point occurs when we experience ourselves as part of a larger system, how do we create such experiences at scale?

Joel de Rosnay, author of The Symbiotic Man, introduced the notion of “the macroscope”. Just as microscopes help us to see the infinitely small and telescopes help us to see the infinitely large, macroscopes help us to see the infinitely complex.

Creating maps, stories, art, media, computer models, or some combination of them all can provide a macroscopic view through which we come to know we fit together. It can clarify our own role and inspirr commitment to others and to a greater good.

If the challenges ahead have you stumped, don’t despair.  We are ideally positioned for a promising way forward.  Ask possibility-oriented questions.  Engage others creatively.  Reflect together on what you learn.  And share your stories of upheaval turned to opportunity.

[1 Mediratta, B., & Bick, J. (2007, October 21). The Google Way: Give Engineers Room. Retrieved November 24, 2010, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/jobs/21pre.html


Mulling Leadership Roles in Emergent Systems

As I’ve been thinking about the leadership skills that serve networks well, I remembered something I wrote in August 2007 about the roles that show up in emergent systems.

What I posited then was that should any of these roles be missing, the chance of coherence emerging – of finding the simplicity on the other side of complexity – is much lower.

Today I think of network leadership skills in terms of cultivating hubs and making links. Yet, as I re-read these roles, I discovered my thinking hasn’t changed much.  I added “inviter” to my original list and moved “disturber” up front.  Beyond that, it seems I’d ordered them in something of a temporal way – roles that support disrupting, differentiating, and cohering.  My list follows the photograph.

Image by David Kessler, www.davidkessler.biz/art_gallery.htm

Okay, leadership skills may not be obvious in the picture, but I suspect there’s a lot more going on in this ecosystem that we completely grasp!

What roles would you add or change?

Disturber – Someone who brings attention to something from outside the system (a person on act of nature) that interrupts existing assumptions or patterns.  It can also be someone/something from inside the system that is differentiating itself in a way that interrupts current assumptions and patterns.

Attractor – Someone(s) who asks a calling question (implicitly or explicitly) that draws people who care about the issue to come present.  In formal systems, we typically call this person the sponsor.

Inviter — Someone(s) who reach out to engage the diversity of the system.  Based on the intent of the calling question, who needs to be involved?  Inviters are gifted and knowing how to make the connections, particularly to those who may not quite see their stake in the situation.

Guide – Someone(s) provide hospitable space for the work.  Sometimes this includes a process that channels energy.  Other times, it is simply ensuring the gentle structures for a nutrient environment are present.  In group process work, this is the person identified as the facilitator.

The People of the System – The people who bring the varied voices of the system.  The broader the definition of the system, the more diversity is in the room.

Bridge/translator – Someone(s) who can provide a sufficient hook for others in the system to connect with the disturbance/disturber.  Without this role, rather than creative use of the disturbance, resistance or rejection by the system’s immune system goes up.  These folks are active in the conversation, helping the rest of the group connect with what the disturber is attempting to express.

Edge worker – An easy to overlook and critical role!  Edge workers generally hang at the margins.  When someone checks out because they’re disturbed, an edge worker listens, sees, and honors that participant.  Edge workers are gifted at staying present to what is happening for the other person, artfully reflecting back what they experience.  They support others to discover the nuggets hidden in their dissonance.

Organizer – As new insights emerge, someone(s) grasps the threads and starts to weave them into a new story, one from which action flows.

Artist – Different forms of expression – words, music, art, movement – matters.  Artists help us move beyond stuck places, engaging people on different channels.  Art can make meaning more visible and can amplify the effectiveness of the interactions.


Leadership in a Networked World

A colleague sent me a video of birds flocking yesterday.  He was excited by the implications for self-organizing in human systems, asking what are the leadership mechanisms behind flocking?

Image by David Kessler

Since finishing Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of leadership in networks.  Social networks have some parallels to flocks.

Think about the difference between pack animals, with alpha leaders keeping others in line versus birds, ants, bees, or other animals that seem to function with no one in charge.  These interactions call on different leadership skills than rising to the top of a pyramid.

What can we learn from flocks, swarms, hives, and other leader-full forms of organizing? More, how can human consciousness enhance the effectiveness of these collective forms of leadership?  We live in an age in which networks are an emerging means for organizing.  They are more responsive, resilient, creative, and let’s face it, more fun than most hierarchical organizations I’ve experienced.  Over time, hierarchies may well give way to networks as our dominant organizational form.  Understanding new leadership skills will help us transition.

Image by David Kessler, http://davidkessler.biz/art_gallery.htm

I’ve observed that leadership in social networks is a more multi-threaded phenomenon than hierarchical leadership.  For example, traditionally, we rely on a few people to make strategic decisions for everyone else.  Increasing complexity – a more diverse public, greater access to a broader range of perspectives, technological innovations affecting scale and scope of just about everything – makes this strategy less effective.  No longer can a few people with relatively similar backgrounds and perspectives make the best choices for a whole system.  Whether companies, communities, or social systems, like health care or education, networks call forth new approaches to decision making and leadership.

The Nature of Networks

Social networks are loosely connected, brought together largely by common purpose and personal passion.  Following the boss’ orders just doesn’t work in networks.  So how does anything get done?  More basic, how do people know what needs doing?

Leadership in networks is relational, collective, and emergent.  As I’ve read more about networks, two dynamics rise to the top when thinking about how they function:

  • hubs form and evolve; and
  • links connect.

How do these dynamics play out in social networks?  My experience with network leadership has been influenced by a seminal experience with the Spirited Work learning community.  Spirited Work met for an extended weekend four times a year over seven years.  We met in Open Space, a process that supports groups in self-organizing around what matters to them.  After the first couple years, the four founders did something quite unique: they stepped down as the sole leaders and invited anyone who felt called to do so to step in to steward the community.  In other words, leadership became self-selected.  It seemed such a great learning laboratory that I stepped in.

We, the stewards, became a hub for the Spirited Work community.  We discovered that whatever challenges existed in the larger system showed up in our meetings.  Stewarding was the intensive course!  As we brought our diverse perspectives and interests together, we learned to listen for what was beneath the dissonance of our differences because it contained the seeds of breakthrough.

For example, early in our life, we had a financial crisis, discovering our income wasn’t covering our costs.  A philosophic clash arose between paying our bills and welcoming whoever wished to participate regardless of their financial means.  The larger purpose of Spirited Work – learning to link spirit to practical action on behalf of the community and the world – held us together as we worked through our differences.  Ultimately, someone suggested holding an auction to raise funds.  A few people took on the task and at our next gathering, the auction debuted.  Not only did we clear half our debt in that first auction, people had so much fun sharing their gifts on behalf of the community, it became a regular activity.  And our financial woes were permanently resolved.

Leadership and Network Hubs

From the outside, hubs in a network look a lot like hierarchical organizations.  They are groups of people organized to accomplish something together.  That makes it easy to confuse leadership of a hub with hierarchical leadership, thinking the same rules apply.  Not!  Giving orders, chain of command, top-down decision making doesn’t function when people choose whether to participate.

Hubs form because people are attracted to them.  Hubs grow when people are drawn to the purpose and/or the people and believe that they can both give and/or receive something of value.  The remarkable communities that maintain the Wikipedia or fill the Open Source software movement are examples of networks producing real-world benefit.

Leadership and Network Links

Link leadership is elusive because it doesn’t fit our traditional thinking about leadership. Why is connecting people or organizations a form of leadership? If you want breakthroughs, interactions among those who don’t usually meet is an essential ingredient. And when hubs connect to hubs, ideas can spread like wildfire.

While sometimes those connections are random, as often, they’re the work of people with a knack.  Malcolm Gladwell famously identified three types of link leadership in his best seller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He called them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Hubs and links attract different personality types.  As someone who tends to be part of stewarding a hub, I have developed a complex relationship with linkers.  They come late to meetings (if they show up at all).  They often bring dissonant ideas from “out there”.  They never really seem to fully belong to the hub.  So they’re easy to discount.  And doing so is always unfortunate.  And I’ve discovered, they often feel unappreciated.

I’m learning to love linkers!  They are late or seem outside because they spend their time with those at the margins.  They are often the source of new ideas or differences that can attract others who, in the abstract are desirable, but aren’t getting involved.  Skilled linkers learn how to bring outside perspectives and participants in graciously.

There’s So Much More To Say!

I could keep writing because there’s so much more to say.  And even more to learn. Still, I’ll stop for now, knowing my understanding of the multiple skills and aspects of leadership in networks will continue to evolve.