From Complex Facilitation to Complex Inner World

Yellow roses in my back yard this week. Beautiful. Thorny. In bud. In spent life. Clean. Covered with aphids. Simple. Involved. It’s all there. Hold that thought.

Chris Corrigan is the person that I go to when it comes to all things complex facilitation. He’s who I start with when I begin to follow a question. About ten years ago Chris got really deliberate with his learning about complexity — workshops, reading, writing. He’s continued over these ten years. The guy’s got a brain that is phenomenal in his ability to connect, develop, remember, and grow ideas. One of the most unique humans I’ve ever come to know.

Recently, Chris posted a dandy list on his blog about improving awareness and skill when it comes to complex facilitation and frameworks for coming to comprehend more of what is in play with complexity. The beauty of this is that Chris insists on leaning in to more of the complexity, not less. He’s committed, like many of us, to an evolutionary adaptation of capacity, rather than numbing ourselves with oversimplified reductionism more well suited for cheap t-shirts or cheap political maneuvering.

Chris’ list is really good. And I know that when he offers such learning, there is brain, heart, and belly in it. I’ve listed each of his points below. Treat yourself and go read the whole thing on his site.

  • Complex facilitation is highly participatory. 
  • Outcomes are emergent and therefore unknown at the beginning.
  • Use stories and base the work in reality.
  • Remember that all complexity work is about patterns.
  • Work with cognitive stress and overload.
  • Not everyone will enjoy it.
  • You don’t have a safety net.

Also about ten years ago, for me, it became clear that some of my deliberate learning and practice in the field of facilitation was moving more toward how the inner world connects to the outer world. The human to human side — turns out there is a fair amount going on under the surface. My educational background is psychology and organizational behavior. My life experience has pointed me many times to a deep sense making, trying to understand and feel the nuanced and deeply involved inner world that projects the reality of an outer world. It’s pointed me to a complexity that is personal and interpersonal. My life orientations and practices have lead me to seek the spiritual as much as the spreadsheet, the poetic as much as the production.

So, with some commitment to continue this learning in public, and with “not all figured out” transparency, and with gratitude for Chris’s complexity commitments,  below is a bit of Chris’s list applied to inner world awareness.

Complex facilitation is highly participatory. Yes, relationship with self is highly participatory. It requires a continuous process of checking-in with ourselves. We are moved my experience that can render us in very different states in very short periods of time. Asking who am I now, or how am I now, invites a depth of attending to the oodles of ways in which we are not fixed creatures. We are not machines. We are impacted, or can be impacted, by everything from the slight breeze that momentarily animated the trees in the neighboring park to the news flash that signals the rise or fall of the stock market. Knowing self isn’t passive.

Outcomes are emergent and therefore unknown at the beginning. Yah. We humans, individually and collectively, are not a granularly prescribed destiny. Not all that we plan works out. Not all that we hope for works out. Despite rather attractive paradigms and marketing that advocates taking control and removing fear from the human life, spiritual traditions have been teaching us for eons that our lives are a rather constant process of adapting and unfolding. You can see where this gets tricky. But what about intention? But what about plans? But what about goals? What about manifesting? Yes, those things matter. However, the seduction of such is that with a good enough plan, we can remove uncertainty in our lives. Not true. Outcomes, even of self, are emergent.

Use stories and base the work in reality. Indeed. It is massively enjoyable and useful to meet each other in our stories. It’s how we come to know who we are. A person in my life that had a lot of influence on me in my college years in the early 90s used to say, “I don’t know what I think until I write it. I don’t know what I really think until I say it out loud.” For most of us, we are just barely getting into the shallow end of the pool of understanding ourselves. The key is to invoke the story. Even the snippet of story. As an example, this morning I was thinking a bit about efficiency and productivity. I was feeling a little wobbly about a project that I’m working on. I wanted (maybe needed) to find a story within me of how I connect with efficiency and productivity. In the spirit of freedom to follow what arises, I followed the image and then recalled the story of one of my first jobs working part-time in the produce department of a grocery story when I was a kid. I was rather efficient and rather productive trimming that lettuce, and was regarded quite highly for it. That story animates a personal experience that connects me into the reality of today.

Remember that all complexity work is about patterns. And it’s true for human living. Seeing patterns is largely about being willing to look. Being willing to get up on the balcony to get the higher view, even of ourselves, that isn’t possible to see from the trenches. Patterns in human lives that seem so personal, are really universal. Ah, the pattern of abandonment. Ah, the pattern of fear. Ah, the pattern of fanciful hope. Ah, the pattern of protection. The key here isn’t just seeing the pattern, but rather, being willing to look and make sense of life experience through that lens. To get curious. To snoop around a bit on the interior. If I look at behavior and give myself permission to see it through a patterned lens (e.g., fear), I can come to see more of if / how that pattern is impacting who I am now. The pattern of being afraid of losing or being seen as incompetent can really create some restrictive orientations now. Some withdrawal. Yup, I do know a bit of this one.

Work with cognitive stress and overload. Oh dear. Life is involved isn’t it. Life is demanding. Life requires such multi-tasking. Life, in the day to day, requires such a never-endingness. The internet doesn’t go to sleep or take a vacation. Email doesn’t really either. Social media platforms seem always ready. And here we are, humans that do require sleep, rest, pause, down-time. We humans aren’t perfect and we aren’t meant to be perfect. Sounds a bit simple, but learning to be kind to ourselves, or to be deliberately varied with ourselves, really matters. It’s when ten minutes in the garden is more valuable that ten more minutes on the overdue project. It’s when a dumb movie is more valuable than another informative documentary. We humans, with our physical and emotional and intellectual and energetic bodies, will run into walls and limits. Plan on it. Not as failure or shame. Just as real and universal that calls for some variety.

Not everyone will enjoy it. There are times when I get tired of my own words. When I don’t like what I’m sharing with groups, or even with myself. There are times when I don’t like the story I’m telling myself or the reality that I’m needing to face. Ah, a hard task, calling out my son for his shitty or selfish behavior. I don’t really want to do that. And sometimes I don’t need to, even when I think I have to. I don’t like the feeling inside myself. Here’s some of the good reach — I don’t like the discomfort I’m feeling in me about needing to call him out. It ain’t all 100% enjoyment. The evolution of ourselves also involves being willing to lean in to what we don’t enjoy about ourselves.

You don’t have a safety net. Yup. It’s all happening. It’s real time. This business of being awake, and aware, and learning, of chopping wood and carrying water — it comes with bumps and bruises. Sometimes with broken bones and deep gashes. There’s no avatar to live it for us. There is no stunt-double that we can simply have stand in for us. The safety net is a nice illusion. But in the end, I suppose that our complex inner lives require us to live. That’s what our bellies cry out for. Real life.

The roses, the buds, they stand for a rather rich complexity. Whether out there, facilitating with groups. Whether in here, working with self and other selves.

Thx again Chris, for being a friend in the garden.


On Complexity — The Problems, The Solutions (Or Directions)

In my field of work, “complexity” has become not just a casual and flippant description for how involved things are (cause, that’s what systems are), but a significant framework and rigor for helping to distinguish between layers of problems and layers of solutions (or movements) that help to create some good. The model that I use most often to help myself and groups learning in this is Cynefin, developed significantly by the work of Dave Snowden. However, the person I most often go to as a colleague in this is Chris Corrigan. He has done oodles working with this realm over the last 10 years or so, and cynefin has become a regular offering within Art of Hosting trainings.

Chris posted a piece recently that was intended on helping to work with naysayers, people who say “ya but” when encountering the Cynefin framework. I particularly appreciated these distinctions below, not just for naysayers, but also for general understanding:

Obvious (does the door open in or out — try it and you will know)

  • knowable problems,
  • predictable, simple solutions

Complicated (why is the door squeaking — ask a builder about hinges rusting, swelled framing from weather, ground shifting under the home or other possibilities)

  • knowable problems
  • predictable solutions, but only with expert help and analysis

Complex (do doors serve us in this open building design — beware the convenience of one expert; process matters as much as solution; the “how” matters as much as the “what”)

  • unknowable and ever changing problems
  • unpredictable but multiple emergent ways of addressing them

Chaotic (grab the door, it’s about to fall on the person standing next to it — just do it; figure out the why later)

  • unknowable and unpredictable problems
  • not enough time to think about a solution

Disordered (what is this thing you call a door — truth be told, I have a hard time understanding the disordered realm; I have a strong orientation toward “there is always order in disorder” because life, and people, can’t help but begin even the most subtle of organizing.)

  • where you don’t know what kind of problem you have

Enjoy the read on Chris’ site. I find this framework continues to teach me and help grow people in some appreciated nuances of their / our work.

Here’s a few other reflections on complexity that I’ve written over the years:

In Complexity, All Stories Are True?

Where Does Movement Come From in Complex Systems?






Traditional Lands

Thanks Amanda Fenton for this photo, a sunset taken last week near Noosa in the Sunshine Coast area of Queensland, Australia, traditional lands of the Gubbi Gubbi. Photo within photo, frame within frame. Sunset after a day of convening The Circle Way.

I’m learning much these days about traditional lands. Reading stories and books. Leaning in to the reality of “settler” that is in me and in my history of family.

Stan Grant’s “Talking to My Country” is one of those books. He’s a Wiradjuri man, a journalist by training, that writes of the history of his people in Australia as settlers and colonizers came. “We were not an empty country,” he writes, countering the story of 17th century discovery, and the denial of 2,000 generations of local people. That’s 60,000 years!

Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility” is another book. Diangelo takes on the systemic nature of racism, what has been born of privilege and power systemically to advantage whites and to suppress people of color. Yes, it’s challenging reading, as I begin to identify more as white in race (rather than as the norm that is not considered race). Racism isn’t just about rude people in rude and outrageous acts — it’s about a system of unchecked and perpetuated privilege. Diangelo recommends, “Sustain discomfort of not knowing, being racially unmoored, and racial humility.”

I’m grateful for people I know well who lean insistently into these learnings, in the small and in the large. Quanita, who meets me as friend, and who knows as much as anyone that I know about tending to the inherent grief within historical trauma of race. Amanda, who in daily practice, promotes the un-settler story to honor truth telling, and acknowledgement of traditional peoples (and recommended Diangelo’s book to me after reading it herself). Chris, whose decades of work with First Nations people in Canada has taught be to further welcome and challenge world view.

There is much work to do. It is not work to take on alone. I’m grateful for simple starts. And courage in others. And beauty.

I’m Tenneson. I live in Lindon, Utah, traditional lands of the Shoshone, Goshute, Paiute, Ute, and Navajo. I’m glad to enjoy the sunsets here also, and to know, this land was not empty either.




Meetings On The Edge

I’ve been reading a bit on chaos lately, particularly from the book above by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack. There is much that I love in this book that applies to working with groups to help create good containers for learning and for connection. There is much that I like in the title and subtitle. “Imperative” is a strong word to me. It connotes something that is essential, that you can’t do without. This book helps bring forward more of the narrative about how essential chaos is for all of the good things listed in the subtitle — chance, disruption, innovation, effectiveness, success.

A particular part that I find myself thinking about from this book is about the importance of edges. Edges in systems. Edges in learning. Edges in communities. It’s at the edges, at the boundaries, that some of the most fruitful possibilities exist. The edges and boundaries are where seemingly unrelated things are able to relate. Or, at least mash things up bit. And evolve.

Meg Wheatley is one of the people that I’ve most appreciated for welcoming the narrative of the importance of chaos and life at the edges. It was 1992 when I first met her, beginning what would become now 26 years of working and friending together. Meg had just written Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, which among other things, invited people into a relationship with seemingly unconnected things. Meg wrote about living systems as they connect to leadership. She wrote about chemistry (and how a diagram for a chemical reaction more accurately describes organizational systems than neatly defined org charts). She wrote about biology (and how organizations are living systems, not machines, and thus evolve like living systems). Meg wrote about physics (and how living systems move toward higher levels of order by using messes to get there). Meg connected the fruitful areas of science, new science, to leadership. That helped to change the story and practice of what leadership was all about.

My life of working with change and dialogue began with Meg. In the early 2000s, friendship and colleagueship brought me to The Art of Hosting body of work. More good people working the edges and the narrative of the importance of chaos and non-linearity. Through The Art of Hosting, arose a process technology that combines Open Space Technology with World Cafe — Pro-Action Cafe. It’s a process that, among other things, brings naive experts to small table conversations to support one person’s project (and that they might know little about — working with strangers, temporarily). It moves energy to action. Pro-Action Cafe creates intersection at the boundaries. As Ori Brafman might call it, “planned or organized serendipity.” It’s the kind of evolution that you can’t plan, and that comes from surprise encounters. On the edges.

In the late 90s is also when I first discovered The Circle Way. Learning with Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin, circle would become a foundational practice for all of the leadership work that I’ve been involved with. Circle creates structure for how people turn to one another. For learning, yes. For connection, yes. For surprise, yes. For honesty, yes. It occurs to me that circle is a format for helping to weave the edges, and to welcome the surprises that chance and disruption give birth to.

I really enjoyed the Chaos Imperative. I enjoyed the feeling while reading it. I enjoyed the content. I enjoyed the invitation to come into more relationship with chaos — not as a “thing” but rather as a way of being that encourages being with life itself.

One further bit for the part of me / us that likes lists. Brafman offers 5 Rules of Chaos. I’ve added a bit of thought to each.

  1. Beware the Seduction of Data and Measurement — It’s so easy to fall in love with data. It’s so attractive for most of us to feel embraced by the sensation of certainty that measurement can bring. Let’s be clear, evaluation matters, and varies across contexts on what is relevant. But too much attention to data abolishes the appreciation for the aliveness, and uncertainty that chaos brings.
  2. Organize Chaos — There’s plenty of methods to use these days that connect groups of people in powerful learning and planning. Open Space Technology is a goto for me. Just enough structure (the bulletin board of offerings) to bring coherence and purpose. Enough freedom to deserve the name of life.
  3. Make White Space Productive — I think of working well in groups as having three simultaneous components that I first learned through pal, Chris Corrigan. Work. Learning. Relationship. They are all productive, and sometimes one needs more attention that another.
  4. Embrace Unusual Suspects — I think of these as wild cards. Often when working with groups that are facing the question of who to invite to a gathering, I encourage them to name all of the regular people, the obvious ones, AND to think about wild cards. Those that aren’t the first wave of people. Those that will help us think differently. Edges. Chaos. Imperative.
  5. Organize Serendipity — This is similar to number 2 for me. Serendipity often connotes a kind of luck. Or surprise alignment. It’s the kind of thing that can happen when people are given opportunity to bump into one another. I use milling exercises. I use a variety of containers / methods to encourage even just the softening into welcoming serendipity.

Here’s to chaos, what we loved as 5 year-olds, and what was schooled out of us.

Here’s to meetings at the edge, and the courage it takes to reinvoke the wonder of difference and the surprise alignment it can create.