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.


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.

On Vision — Nuances from Spirit and Complexity

A good friend, Caitlin Frost, asks yesterday through email for ideas about teaching vision and working with vision. She’s smart on her own. She’s also smart to ask.

I respond quickly, delightfully distracted by her question, and putting aside my current todo list. Nuances of spirit, of the unseen often take me like this.

“One of the things I’m leaning into these days is the ‘arrival’ of vision, not just the ‘creating’ of it. As you say, connected to emergence. I encourage the group to ‘look away’ from some intense thinking and see what ‘sticks.’ Or give them multiple modalities. I love the way that drawing, for instance, changes the impression (true for ‘non-artists’ also). I want them to welcome it to arrive — not just work at it.”
I love, and need, approaches rooted in discernment and a self-organizing premise. It’s related to, but different from tenacity. Gut feel is related to, but different than powering up for thirty more pushups. Discernment and self-organizing trusts a natural process (water runs down hill). It’s an alternative to more engineering (you can make water run uphill; it just might not be the most simple way).
Chris Corrigan also responded. Chris knows as much as anyone I know about working from a complexity framework.

You can have a vision of a full bath tub of steaming hot water. You can have a vision of making your home run on rain water alone. You can have a vision of safe drinking water for all humans.

The first is simple, short term and you have all the tools and abilities to make it happen.

The second is more complicated and you require a few experts to make it happen, but with the right people and resources, you can achieve it.

The third is not up to you. It is a complex and adaptive system. You may be motivated by a desire to see safe drinking water for all humans but you are unlikely to achieve it because it is a complex problem. Intention can make a difference here and instead of working TOWARDS a tangible vision you can work FROM an intention and guide your actions against that.

Read the rest of Chris’ post here.

Nuances can make all of the difference. Often with things that are presumed that “we all know,” including words that are so common like vision.

Thanks friends. It’s good to walk the path together.

Essence — Attractors and Boundaries

Any time you can get to essence, that is a gift. To center an inquiry. To cut through distraction. To feel it in your belly.

Pal Chris Corrigan shared one of these essence gifts in his post on attractors and boundaries and self-organization. His elevator speech.

Love it. As one studying, teaching, dreaming, writing, wondering, hosting, seeing, wrestling, sharing…about self-organization since the 1990s.

Self organization works by a combination of attractors and boundaries.  Attractors are things that draw components of a system towards themselves (gravity wells, a pile of money left on the ground, an invitation).  Boundaries (or constraints) are barriers that constrain the elements in a system (an atmosphere, the edges of an island, the number of syllables in a haiku)

Working together, attractors and boundaries define order where otherwise there is chaos. We can be intentional about some of these, but not all of them. Within complex systems, attractors and constraints create the conditions to enable emergence.  What emerges isn’t always desirable and is never predictable, but it has the property of being new and different from any of the individual elements within the system.

Self-organization is where we get new, previously unknown things from.

Thanks Chris.