Innovation does not come without discarding ideas, trying and failing. In complex systems with complex challenges, failure is inevitable and desired. If we need to prototype to sense our way forward we have to have a mindset that can handle failure.
On Saturday at the Art of Participatory Leadership in Petaluma my new friend Shawn Berry convened a session on failure and through listening to stories ranging from small prototoyping failures to business breakdowns and even deaths, I noted a few patterns that are helpful for groups and people to address failure positively nd resourcefully
Frame it up. In North America and Europe we have a cultural aversion to failure. Failure is equated with inadequacy. Our self-esteem is tied to our success. Our compensation and status is affected by failure. Fear of failure is prevalent in the culture. In order to combat this tendency, it is helpful to work with a group to get them acquainted to failing. For more playful groups improv exercises can be an excellent way to drop inhibitions to try something and fail. More rational groups might benefit from a little appreciative inquiry where participants recall positive failing experiences. Reflecting and sharing on times of failure and survival reminds us that it is part of the process.
Support the experience. While groups are experimenting and learning, succeeding and failing it helps to have support and coaching present in the process. Depending on the kind of work being done you can offer support to keep a group resilient and unattached. I have used several different kinds of processes here including the following:
- Simply pausing for reflection periodically in the process to notice what is going on. Slowing the process down helps to gain valuable perspective on what is happening and helps a group move on quickly from failure.
- allowing failure to occur and then taking the subsequent stressful thoughts to an inquiry process using The Work of Byron Katie. We do this often when working with groups in the non-profit sector for example, where the pressure to succeed is accompanied by feelings of fear of the results of failing.
- In indigenous and other colonized cultural settings I have often had Elders and healers present who can care for the more invisible dynamics in the field, especially when our work is going to carry us into some of the sources of trauma. When you are working in a place where people are operating out of deep historical trauma, the fear of failure can be laden with many many deep seated implications. Having people in the process who understand these dynamics is essential.
- Peer-coaching is a common way to build resilience in groups where trying and failing is important. When a team is trying to learn something new it helps to also build the capacity for them to be able to rely on each other. This is why so many teams value “cross-training.” When athletes train, they often work out in ways that are not related to their sport _ a skier training by rowing for example. Doing this helps them to learn to use their body differently and builds strength that supports their core work. Similarly, work teams can learn a lot about themselves by creating situations of safe failure such as through improvisational exercises, outdoor experiences, games and other non-work focuses. The skills learned there can help support the team when they knuckle down to focus on key tasks and can support constructive failure within the work domain. Ultimately these skills will build capacity if they increase the ability of the group to support itself through stressful times.
- Developing a practice of greeting failure with joy. My friend Khelsilem Rivers taught me this one. He is – among other things – an indigenous language teacher and using the tool kit “Where Are Your Keys” Khelsilem helps people become fluent in their indigenous languages. One of the barriers to rapid fluency is a fear of “not doing it right.” Khelsilem completely transforms the experience of failure by introducing the technique called “How Fascinating!” When a person (including the facilitator) makes a mistake, the whole group celebrates by throwing their hands in the air, leaning back and declaring “How Fascinating!” While it might seem contrived at first, the technique opens up the body, and greets the failure with a collective celebration. Blame and judgement is avoided, collective support is activated and learning is grounded.
Practices like these are essential to build into the architecture of processes where failure is inevitable if innovation is to occur.
Process the grief. When catastrophic failure occurs it can leave people grieving, frightened and cynical. If there is no way to process the grief then individuals often build their next prototype out of fear. If you feel you have been burned before, you might develop your next idea by building in protection against failing again. While that can seem prudent and safe, in reality, building structures out of fear is a much riskier proposition than building structures out of possibility. Without processing grief, a group or a person can be susceptible to being “defended.” I learned much about this state from Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a child psychologist who has described this phenomenon in children. Taking a group or a person through the grief cycle using empathy, story telling and compassion can help free the emotions that are triggered in future learning experiences.
Building a mindset to embrace failure and support the transformation of the energy of failure is critical to groups developing the capacity to lead in complexity.
I’ve also written about failure here:
This is a brilliant description of what it is like trying to govern indigenous communities on this continent:
Going back to the Two Row Wampum, it says that we’re not supposed to steer each other’s boats. But the way that I perceive things is that the canoes have been hijacked and are actually aboard the settler ship. And we are basically trying to live our canoe way of life on top of that settler ship. So saying that I’m not supposed to steer the settler ship, well, you know what, my fucking canoe is sitting in that fucking settler ship. So national liberation for Native people and organizing is like saying, you know what, I don’t want to tell you how to run your own fucking ship, but your ship and the people that run it, the captains, they are not listening to the workers or to whomever, the deckhands and whatnot.
From Hijacked canoes and settler ships.
Well, Pete Seeger died last week. And when giants like Pete Seeger die, there is an overwhelming flood of story and tribute that comes in. I haven’t even scratched the surface of it, but here is one of the best retrospectives I’ve found. That will serve as an excellent introduction to this man.
I was raised on Pete Seeger. My dad had a bunch of Weavers records and he used to strum Seeger and Hays songs. My musical upbringing and subsequent love and practice of folk music was directly attributable to Pete Seeger’s compelling hold on my father’s own desire to make music. ”If I Had a Hammer” might have been one of the first songs I ever learned. ”Abiyoyo” was so emblazoned in my consciousness that we named a tall transmission tower near my grandparents’ cottage for that giant. ”Little Boxes” described a future to be avoided at any cost.
I think many people who had just occasionally heard Pete’s folksy singing and storytelling had no idea of his fierce commitment to justice and his radical political beliefs. Here is an amazing transcript of his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He did something in that hearing that was unprecendented: he refused to answer questions about his beliefs and his associations and his activities. He considered the entire exercise Un-American itself, and a violation of his basic human rights. For that he was sentenced to ten years in jail, and in 1962 he eventually had his case dismissed on appeal.
Pete Seeger stood as an important chronicler of the best of American life. He fought for the voiceless and stood with the oppressed around the world. He was the greatest friend of any truly just cause, and practiced his principles with shining integrity. And he wrote and preserved and disseminated the people’s music to embolden the people when all other sources of their inspiration had been taken away.
In a complex and interconnected world it is hard to be an activist against things. One of the easiest ways that your opponents can neutralize your opposition to things like oil and slavery is to say “we” you depend on oil and slaves, so that makes you a hypocrite.”
So this is tricky – solving global problems of labour, energy, economics and justice are the very definition of complex problems. There is no simple solution, there is a frustrating degree of progress and even large shifts in public consciousness (think land mines or climate change) are met with initial enthusiasm but later are eroded by commercial or power interests that have a stake in the status quo and way more influence than activists.
So what to do?
Consider the slavery question. All of us in North America depend on slave labour to support our lifestyles. As with the issues of oil dependance, our very existence creates an impact that is measurable, real and negative against our social justice agenda. Affordability usually is usually the result of slave labour. Real slave labour.
So how does one deal with this?
First it’s important to remember that you are part of the problem. To quote Adam Kahane:
Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.
The good news and bad news is that it is impossible to influence change from outside the problem. Such self-righteousness is easily dismissed. In addition, it is very difficult to advocate an end to slavery while at the same time not being prepared to pay a lot more for your food and clothes. Change must be made from within the problem. And to do that you have to work with others who are part of the problem.
In general for large scale global neo-liberal problems, there are three players: governments, capital and markets. All three of these create the conditions for problems and leverage is needed on all three to create the conditions for solutions, especially at the level of transformative change. Consumers demand cheap products, capital creates the flow of materials to meet the need and governments regulate to ensure that things happen (usually for those who have the best ability to keep governments in office). The hardest of these to change is the market because market behaviour is completely emergent. Think of the last time you saw a damaging industry collapse because the market changed overnight. IN general shifts in demand are prompted by better products in the market – things that will help people do things in a better way, at a competitive price. There is no question that there is a demand to end slavery, but the demand for cheap clothes outweighs it.
Markets can be influenced by capital and government. Capital influences markets by controlling what is offered out there. If you have billions of dollars, you can do things like buy up your cometeitors patents for clean energy for example, or in the case of companies like Wal-Mart, use you economy of scale to provide loss leader products that bring people into your store to buy cheap things at the expense of local manufacturing. And if you are in government you can regulate to eliminate bad things in the market, such as slavery as a labour practice. But if you also sign international agreements that allow the free flow of capital, you box yourself in to accepting slavery as a practice because capital will always seek the lowest expense climate.
So to affect change requires an engagement of all three. It begins with a personal practice and commitment to a trajectory of social and economic justice. It requires that personally I commit to “better.” Will we ever have a world where slavery is abolished? No. Can I live my life without any dependance on slaves? Doubtful, and certainly if I was to live that life I would be far from the ability to influence power in anyway.
So it is commitment to a trajectory rather than a finish line. Complex problems are not “solvable.” You have to get good with living with this uncertainty and get good at accepting the gift and the curse of emergence.
Second, people have to affect change with powerful narratives. Governments have coercive power and large corporations have the power of manipulation using capital. All people have are narrative power – the power of a better story. Almost always this story “fails” against the coercive power of force and capital – think Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and so on. But while they failed to achieve their specific goals, these kinds of movement are very important. It is important that citizens try and try again to advance the narrative of justice. Because from time to time these narrative movements succeed. Think gains like gay marriage and civil rights in North America. Think about what happened in places like Estonia, Czechoslovakia and India and South Africa. When the narrative wins, that one time in 1000, things transform.
And it would be nice to know that any intervention we choose will have the system changing effect that we want, but we can’t have that certainty. We need to work towards change from inside the place of the problem.
So, what is your experience in affecting change from inside the problem? How do you work towards justice while recognizing your complicity in the very problems you are addressing? How does a complexity-based world view and skill set enable good work to happen?
I think there is probably nothing new under the sun. Engagement work has been tried, refined and improved all over the world in the last couple of decades that I wonder if there is anything new we can learn? It does seem to fall into “authentic engagement” and “engagement washing” – if I can coin a couple of phrases. But I haven’t seen radically new thinking or practice for a while.
What we are getting instead is some terrific collections of tools, handbooks and harvests of processes. This .pdf of a Handbook for Civic Engagement prepared for a community process in the United States is an excellent example of the kind of harvesting that is useful. It sums up lessons learned from engagement process, proceeds from practice to inform theory and provides some useful invitations for practice and application. This is an artifact which has emerged out of the space of engagement “praxis” – the gap between theory and practice. I’m interested in tis inquiry at the moment, and stumbling across things like this in my quest to understand what is useful in harvesting from initiatives that sustain the capacity and learning begun in real engagement.
“Engagement washing” initiatives don’t usually leave these kinds of documents in the places where the engagement took place. It should be a hall mark of good practice that process learnings are shared and tools are developed as well as results documented.
You’ll see on the sidebar a bunch of different offerings for this year. Seems my Art of Hosting teaching practice is making a couple of shifts. First, there are lots of places around the world where you can go and do a basic introductory Art of Hosting. The schedule is getting pretty crowded actually if you are willing to travel! You can find the list of offerings here at the Art of Hosting website.
This represents something of the shift in the world of this practice. Over the past ten years the Art of Hosting community has grown widely and there are many many people out there now offering the basic workshop with different flavours. Most of these folks are known to me, so if you have questions about the various offerings and you don’t know who else to call, drop me a line.
As a result, those of us that have been at it for a number of years have begun to develop new offerings to support advanced practice. Hendrik Tiesinga, Simone Poutnik and Rowan Simonsen have pulled together a great group of teachers for the first online Art of Hosting – Advanced Practice, aimed at deepening and advancing one’s practice, and structured around design, hosting and implementation of a process to address specific challenges.
Tim Merry, Caitlin Frost, Tuesday Ryan-Hart and I have put together our Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics offering which is aimed at folks who are extending participatory leadership practice to broader and deeper contexts, including systems change, widespread community engagement and working with power. This course will be a deep dive into personal practice and systemic impact.
Jerry Nagel, Stephen Duns, Kathy Jourdain, Roshanda Cummings and Dave Ellis are offering Growing Hosting Artistry in Minnesota that is more focused on deepening personal hosting practice for those that have tasted that aspect at other Art of Hosting workshops.
For myself, I have been working closely with Amanda Fenton on creating a set of offerings for the Vancouver area Art of Hosting community of practice, so expect more news on that very soon. We are planning regular community of practice Pro-Action Cafes, year end Open Space events, deep dive workshops into specific methodologies and land based retreats and gatherings.
I am also in the early stages of creating a more specific offering for small teams and individuals to support leadership retreats here on Bowen Island. This offering will use the land and sea as a partner in designing, thinking, innovating and grounding new practices and approaches to complex challenges. I’ll be making further announcements about this in the next few months.
So there are lots of ways to dive into learning this year. And I’d welcome anyone who wants to co- create more specific offerings in the Vancouver area as well.
Workshops on tap for this year
Art of Hosting Advanced Practice Online
with Simone Poutnik, Hendrick Tiesinga, Rowan Simonsen, and a bunch of special guests.
March 7-9, 2014
Art of Participatory Leadership: Building Resilient Communities and Organizations – Creating Change
with Teresa Posakony, Jeff Aitken, Dana Perlman, Sam Ruark and Carolyn Stanton.
Art of Social Innovation
with Jennifer Chan, Rachel Caroline Derrah, Sophia Horwitz,Violetta Ilkiw and Satsuko VanAntwerp.
Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics: Breadth, Depth, Friendship and Power
with Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Tim Merry and Caitlin Frost
Columbus OH, April 4-6
Mahone Bay NS, May 15-17
Bowen Island BC, Sept. 21-24
Pureto Vallarta MX, Jan. 29-31, 2015
And coming soon in 2014 and 2015…
Events and workshops in Vancouver BC, Toronto ON and on Bowen Island, BC Email me for more information at email@example.com
- Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
- Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
- Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
- Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
- Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
- Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
- Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
- Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
- Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
- Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student
A long time ago I was an introverted person and over the years that has completely changed. If you know me, you’ll know I love talking to others, being around people and engaging in meaningful social interaction. I still love my solitude but I love hanging anround in my local coffee shop and pub more.
As a process designer, creating good meeting and learning spaces for introverts has long been a blind spot for me. Facilitators by definition bring people together. If we are extroverted, the processes we design can often contain an overwhelming amount of social interaction for introverts which actually alienates them from the group and marginalizes their contributions. Sometimes I have run meetings where the introverts never contributed at all. That wasn’t through their fault – it was the fault of my process design that never took their learning styles into account.
You might call it extrovert privilege.
Back in June I was on the hosting team for an Art of Hosting in northern California. A long time friend was there – Tree Fitzpatrick – one of the most deeply intensive introverts I know. She is also a long time process designer and facilitator nd she knowns her stuff. She left after the first hour of the workshop, but not without having a long conversation with me about what she was experiencing. She later made a beautiful gift of sharing her insights with me in a long email on designing processes for introverts. In the past six months, these insights have been a gorgeous gift to my own practice and have radically shifted the way I design, by actually putting the needs of introverted people at the centre of the work. The core of her message to me was this, quoting:
“Please consider integrating some introvert work into your designs. You don’t have to worry about the extroverts: while you give the group quiet time, which is giving the introverts permission to reflect inwardly, most extroverts will just go on doing whatever they want to do but the introverts will feel better if you give them permission to reflect. It only has to be a minute of reflection before speaking but it can make a huge difference to the introvert’s experience in small group talk.”
In the past six months, I have done several things to attend to this.
- Be aware of your “extrovert privilege.” You will know that you suffer from this if silence and solitude seems anaethma to you in a group setting. You will often find introverts confusing and will lose patience with their demands for personal space. You may harbour thoughts about them that are mean spirited, feeling like they are acting out or making some kind of victimization power play. These are your thoughts, and they are not reality. Work on them and recognize your extrovert privilege. I have been working over the past six months to take long periods of solitude for myself just to build up that capacity. I have come to deeply appreciate it as a learning modality
- Introverts need silence and space. When you are working with silence, make sure you build a strong container for it. Sometimes this means really enforcing the silence, but I do this by explaining why this is important and invite people who are uncomfortable with silence to see it as a challenge worthy of their leadership. It’s fierce hosting work, because extroverts are very dismissive of it, and I haven’t always been successful. In Ireland in September we had a particularly gregarious group of Irish language scholars and activists, and I learned about “Irish silence” which something of a dull roar rather than a raucous buzz! Our hosting team was highly amused at my attempts to get anything better than that in the room!
- Build in long periods of silence before asking people to engage in conversation. A minute sounds good but two minutes is better. For deeper conversations even five minutes of silence is powerful. The extroverts will get fidgety, so invite them to write their thoughts down to give them something to do with their hands.
- Provide a meaningful time for reflection at the end of a day. At Rivendell, one of our local spaces for retreat here on Bowen Island, the whole space goes into an hour of silence at 5pm. Anything happening at the facility must also go into this period of silence – it is one of the conditions for being there. For the core group that maintains the space, this is a spiritual practice, although people working there are free to see it in another way. The first time I encountered it I found it a nuisance because at the end of a day of learning usually the groups I am with are bubbly and excited to chat. But working at Rivendell over the years has exposed me to the deep wisdom of building in long periods of silent and solo reflection. It takes all of the learning from the day and plunges it deep into the heart.
- In larger learning initiatives, build in long periods of reflection time out of doors. In Theory U based change labs, the solo presencing retreat is a crucial part of the work. This is where participants spend time alone on the land reflecting. I have been building in long periods of solo time on the land recently. In Ireland our team there uses half day guided walks in The Burren to deepen relationships between people and immerse them in what the land has to offer. I have brought that approach back to Bowen Island and in recent leadership development work we have been doing here, a half day process including an hour long silent period on the land is a core part of the work. This needs to be hosted very strongly…we invite people to hold the silence together from the time we leave, through the solo time, until the time we return. This is a powerful experience for introverts and extroverts alike.
- In smaller settings, building in reflection activities is easy. The reflection toolkit from the Northwest Service Academy in Portland, Oregon is a fabulous resource to share with groups and to invite groups members to lead one or more of these exercises throughout your process. My colleague Jerry Nagel inserted this kit into a training workbook we used with the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Foundation in Minnesota and was immediately useful.
This has evolved into a really fabulous learning edge for me both personally and professionally and I am grateful to Tree for setting me on the path.
We have opened our Art of Hosting at Rivendell, on Bowen Island. These words are in my ear, words spoken by Elrond at his Council at the mythical Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring. The council was deliberating on who should carry out the quest to destroy the One Ring, and so end the world and nrid it of the domination of the evil Sauron. The question of the humble hobbits ndoing the work came up and this was Elrond’s response:
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”
Come, hobbits. The time for work is here.
Bowen Island oriented with Snug Cove pointing towards you, as the entrance to the Island.
Yesterday in our five day residential we invited the participants out on the land for a solo retreat. Bowen Island, where I live, is an incredible place. To get here, you have to take a boat across the Queen Charlotte Channel, a deep body of water at the entrance to Howe Sound. Howe Sounda was formed by glaciers and mountain making processes, and now is a fjord surround by walls of 1200 meters or more.
Entry to Bowen is through Snug Cove, a small and protected harbour that s part of of a bigger bay called Mannion Bay. it is a deep round sanctuary that serves as a channel into the island, and a kind of birth canal when you leave. I have never tired of the process of crossing this threshold.
Once you are here, the Island draws you ever inward, with our one main road branching into three at the crossroads and later into dozens of ever smaller roads and lanes ending at beaches, bays, lakes, mountains or sometimes just petering out into the forest. There are no real loop roads here: once you take a path you have to retunr pretty much the way you came.
This landscape sets us up for a beautiful retreat. When I have helped people have solo experiences here I have always framed them first with a noticing of the threshold that is crossed. Richard Rohr captures the power of these kinds of thresholds here:
The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honor, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways. When you are at the center of something, you usually confuse the essentials with the non-essentials, and get tied down by trivia, loyalty tests, and job security. Not much truth can happen there.
via On the Edge of the Inside: The Prophetic Position by Richard Rohr, OFM.
Once we have crossed the threshold, typically a person’s experience will consist of three phases: a moving out onto the land, a resting phases in stillness and a return. It is a mythic journey in many ways. In going out I invite people to dwell on what they are getting ready to leave. In resting I invite people to be still for at least an hour in the forest or by the sea, which is enough time to let the forest close back around a person and let it reveal itself to you. And the return journey is always accompanied by a gift; you are bringing something back. These little out and back pilgrimages are important and very powerful for people. As I learn more about the way this land works us, I feel like I can let it more fully host me and the people I work with and the insights can come.