Disturbance As Doorway to Organizational Learning

My friend Meg wrote an article a long time ago, “Disturb Me Please.” It was Meg’s version of how to invite organizational learning. It was Meg’s version of working skillfully and with integrity amidst complex circumstances. It was Meg’s version of trusting in self-organization — that which happens in relation to a disturbance, that impacts people in deeper reaching ways.

Yesterday I was in a conversation in which disturbance was being asked for. It was me, a colleague, and a client team leader. It was mostly the context of listening to what might be possible and helpful at an all staff gathering later in 2020. It was one of those conversations where we were listening together for possibility and pattern — as it always is with complexity, it’s seeking a direction for experimenting more than seeking a solution.

Disturbance — in thought, in understanding, in responding to circumstance — is what we were talking about implicitly. As it pertains to this team, we are inherently counting on the value of a disturbance through some provocative exercises, to create a reorganized and re-attended learning among them. It’s always about some layer of organizational health — that’s team, community, organization.

I felt an excitement beginning to imagine exercises that would support this. I also felt an excitement to hear some of the disturbance “why” that was emerging for this group. It’s a common story and a common need for teams that are usually focussed on their own stuff. But that stuff is so often connected to a broader and macro pattern that is happening in many places. My Buddhist friends remind me that the most personal is the most universal — when it comes to organizational health, the most personal of what is challenging a team is also so often what is challenging many teams in many diverse settings globally.

The “Why” For This Team:

  • Be in learning, always.
  • Be in connection, always.
  • Dare to shift orientation, even if momentarily from “I” to “We.”
  • Wonder about inherent mystery or unknowns together.
  • Know and feel a momentary equalness and sharedness together.

My job, when it comes to working with teams these days, is so much about creating a container in which the disturbance can not only be experienced, but welcomed. So that there can be some added self-organizing and aha-ing that happens to help them with learning, connection, collaboration, remembering to encounter the unknown, and reclaiming a momentary sense of equality and inclusion. And with that container, we create a few conditions that might help them grow and improve what they are doing together — or grow some capacity to evolve.

It comes from disturbance first, and then the natural organizing that can grow from there. It’s really important doorway to ongoing organizational learning, which most of us are seeking.


Systems Thinking — A Few Key Shifts in Emphasis, Part 1

Photo Credit, Margaret Wheatley

For many years, many of us have been learning to see and work with systems as groups. Many of us have been learning, or re-learning, systems thinking. Many of us have been challenging ourselves to an imagination of seeing more of the whole. Many of us have been wrestling our ways through interrupting deeply engrained societal and organizational patterns of dissect, divide, predict, command, and control.

Oy! That’s quite a sentence, these interruptions that so many of us support — no wonder it can be a bit tiring.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting some materials I have that help make some basic yet clear points of differentiation in systems thinking. These are all about shifts in emphasis that help stir us into, what I would suggest is more fruitful ways of thinking and practicing. I’m grateful to Meg Wheatley and Myron Rogers for feeding and developing such thought.

  1. From Parts to Whole — Yup, this is the basic point. Can we come to see the team (or the organization, or community, or family) as an entity itself. I’m particularly grateful for learning The Circle Way over the years with this emphasis. So many times I’ve felt that when we begin to speak into a center, depositing our insight and wonder, we are forming not just a collection of parts, but an entity in which “parts” begin to make less sense. We seem to source from something more than any of us as individuals.
  2. From Objects to Relationships — I love this emphasis because it moves us away from being “thing-oriented” to being “relationship-oriented.” In a recent conversation with a good friend and colleague we were talking about the primary purpose of some work we were doing / teaching together. We both affirmed together that we were trying help ourselves and others engage in a relationship with the material. It’s not a one time thing. It’s an ongoing curiosity. That’s around material and content. This emphasis, however, applies deeply to people in relationship also (don’t forget the whole above). It feels, increasingly, that in times of complexity, that’s when we need more relationship, not less. When we need even more to be alert to our slippery sliding back to the comfort of thinking “things.”

Well, there’s a start. More later this week.


On Self-Organization

Over these many years, now about 25 of them, I and many others have been learning about self-organization as key understanding and process for improving what happens in environments of human endeavor. That’s teams. That’s organizations. That’s communities. That’s families.

This inquiry and applied learning for me goes back to the 1990s. In those days, working with Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, I was supporting conferences and seminars so that many people could learn about self-organization. The people that showed up were often way-finders and way-seekers. They knew that something wasn’t quite right in the organizational habits of the day. They sought something more life-affirming in the deeply complex systems that they inhabited.

Many different key language reference points came in to more common use in those early days, and since then. It is always about changing a narrative isn’t it. So that we can deposit our attention differently, Complexity science. Complex adaptive system. Living systems. Self-organzation. Order for free. Emergence. These reference points all moved from edge to much more common use.

In my years, I’ve seen group processes that grow from this body of self-organization to become much more commonly used. Circle has grown to many expressions of people in deliberate connection and learning fields. The World Cafe has become so much more common as a means to connect large groups in anything from building inquiry together to gathering diverse perspective to generating foundational strategy. Open Space Technology, another favorite, has grown in use, animating people to be in more simple forms of creating agenda and followup.

Over these many years now, some guiding values and principles and practices have grown so many people, that for me were rooted back in the 1990s. Values like “depend on diversity.” And, “rely on human goodness.” And, “trust in self-organization.” These are simplified statements that represent ways of being and practice that so many of us have cultivated and insisted upon within organizational practice.

I love this framing from some of the early work with Meg and Myron:

  1. There is a simpler and more effective way to lead organizations. We yearn for organizations that live. We hope for organizations that engage our desire to contribute, learn, and find meaning in the world. We want organizations that grow and change.
  2. All living systems grow and change. They have the ability to self-organize — continually creating new structures and processes that effectively respond to current needs. Organizations are living systems.
  3. Can we create organizations that grow and change naturally? Can organizations support our innate ability to self-organize?Can organizations create greater capacity and order in response to turbulent environments?

And this quote from 20th century Austrian scientist, Erich Jantsch:

“Self-organization lets us feel the quality of a world which gives birth to ever new variety and ever new manifestations of order against a backdrop of constant change.”

Over these many years now, I’ve continued to learn and notice some particular threads that I pay attention to within this still growing narrative of self-organization. For me, I lean quite naturally into the “human to human” aspects of things. I don’t really plan it. I just do it. I’ve been this way since I was boy growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I’ve always wanted to understand and be part of the layers under the layers of human consciousness. Not for endless dissection. But rather for legitimized purpose and fulfillment.

Over these many years now, I’ve come to find next layers of simplicity. Like how the inner world is always connected to the outer world, and vice versa. Or how the “now” is always connected to the longer arc. These orientations, shape the kind of inquiry that I find, well, most interesting and most fruitful so that humans can do good things together.

I’m aware that in many of us there is excitement and inspiration. In many of us there is sorrow and heartache. I’m glad to be working and living in a field that tries to welcome it all. With kindness. Consciousness. And flow with life itself.

Self-organization offers a connecting read thread that supports an integration of life’s experiences. This rather than further isolation.

This weekend I walked among Utah’s mountain aspen forests (pictured above). The aspens grow as a system, each tree surfacing as connection to the same root system. These mountain Aspens grow in self-organizing ways. It’s not forestry management that landscapes them into being. It’s Aspen trees doing what Aspen trees do. There is a beauty in seeing it. And remembering that we humans too, even with are fantastic consciousness and awareness are growing as systems in less known, less conscious, self-organizing ways. We humans, and human consciousness, are also organizing all of the time, behind the narrative of command and control, to forests of astonishing beauty and resilience, and quite natural cycles of death and regeneration.

From The Archives — From The Four Directions Leadership Initiative

This weekend I read through some old program materials from work I was involved with at The Berkana Institute. Berkana was, and is, foundational to me. That’s Meg Wheatley. That’s other good colleagues that became deep companions. That’s foundational grounding of purpose, need, principles, and values. There’s Berkana in most everything I do today. My formal working with Berkana was 1993 – 2003. My colleaguing in relationships born in Berkana continue now.

One piece from the old program materials was about a global conversational leadership initiative called From the Four Directions: People Everywhere Leading The Way. The short of it, pre-FaceBook and so many other internet engagement platforms that have become common place now, was to connect people in learning, in conversation, in community, and in the actions that grew from that.

Here’s part of the description materials, that remains true to me today, and expressed by many of us in connected yet evolving ways.

What We Do

We develop life-affirming leadership practices and values
in local communities around the world.
We create the means for local leaders to learn from one another,
to support each other’s clarity and courage,
and to develop as a community of practice.

Berkana was always involved with experimenting and applying principles of self-organization, so as to grow more wise, thoughtful, compassionate, and wickedly smart communities. Berkana was always about working with life itself, to reclaim a paradigm that challenged patters of mechanization and isolation that the industrial age so enforcingly bequeathed to it’s next generations.

These materials were from the mid 90s. I’m glad that those efforts to improve life-affirming leadership practices continues birth a change in how we humans do what we do together.

From the archives.