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December 10, 2014

How to work with a complex system – lessons from an Osteopath

Much of my work over the past 12 months has been helping clients and teams of stakeholders to lead the transformation of systems (like food and health systems) and to discover new ways of working and being together – ways that serve us well in the context of complexity and uncertainty. This post weaves together a personal story of with lessons from my work.    

Recently I’ve been struggling with an injury sustained whilst doing a simple stretch at home. When my sterno-clavicualr joint popped out, the effect was an immediate spasm of all the intercostal muscles around the my rib cage. It appeared that the disruption of this single joint caused my whole musculo-skeletal system to seize up, resulting in significant breathing problems and widespread pain. When the joint miraculously ‘popped’ back into place, the relief was as immediate as the onset.

When I look at the diagnosis of this injury through a simple cause-effect (or mechanical) lens, the diagnosis and treatment path would/should look like this …

Over-stretch causes Sterno-clavicular joint to pop-out –> Pop the joint back in and allow any damage 4 to 6 weeks to repair –> Fixed! Simple right?

That makes sense doesn’t it? It’s mechanical after all, like when we break a bone … bone fractures –> have the limb cast (or even plate & screwed for more complicated fractures) –> bone repairs over 6 to 12 weeks –> resume skateboarding!! Well, it’s been 4 weeks since the injury and my progress hasn’t felt quite so simple and linear. Technically, the above linear pathway showing [cause –> effect –> remediation] is an accurate reflection of what has happened. But, I have since learned that the ‘underlying’ cause of the Sternoclavicualr joint injury is far more complex!

The complex process of treatment and rehabilitation begins …

After a couple of session of observations, conversations about pain sites, work habits and past physical/medical history, my Osteopath discovered a complex pattern of underlying, causal factors that contributed to my injury. Together, these factors (like tight hamstrings and assymetrical posture) interact with each other to create an emerging pattern of dysfunction. Translated to English = the many little problems with my body mechanics create weaknesses that make me more vulnerable to injury.  So, like in all complex systems (watch the Wolf in Yellowstone National Park video below) the underlying cause of my sudden injury is not that clearcut. The remediation of these multiple factors is even more complex.

In the field of Complexity, we call these factors ‘Multiple Interdependent Variables’. Multiple being the ‘many’ parts/factors. Interdependent meaning the mutual dependence between parts/factors such as general posture, muscle flexibility/stiffness and even mental state. In my Occupational Therapy career, I discovered long ago that there is great deal of interdependence between our psychology and physical functioning.

 

Osteopaths understand how to work with complex patterns of physical dysfunction

Now that my Osteopath has a better understanding of my particular challenges, she has begun hands-on treatment supported by a home exercise program. The first thing she said was that there is “no quick fix for you Geoff”. She also said there were many ways of tackling my problems and that she would start with a combination of interventions including deep tissue massage, dry needling, passive & active stretching/resisting exercises. She explained her theory using anatomical diagrams and it made good sense. But she also admitted it was impossible to know what effect these multiple interventions would have on my pain levels or postural/structural alignment – “We’ll have to watch closely and see what happens” … “What works with 1 person doesn’t necessarily work with another” were some of the things I heard her say.

Recently, after a series of stretches and dry needling, I hear her say “Oooh look! That did something … your hips are now more aligned in standing, but in lying they remain imbalanced? Ok, let’s now try this …”

In Complexity (using the language of Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge), my Osteo was probing my system (i.e. my body) with a few safe-to-fail treatment options to see/notice what would happen. They are safe-to-fail because if dry-needling doesn’t appear to work,  I’m not going to be left incapacitated and we try something else. This way of working is rapid and iterative and produces immediate feedback loops. This allows us to sense if something works (or doesn’t) and from that learning we quickly respond by trying something else or doing more of the same.

In sum … my Osteopath’s way of treating my complex set of interdependent problems is to Probe -> Sense -> Respond … then Probe -> Sense -> Respond … and so on. This iterative process can happen within a single treatment session or across a few sessions.

 

Applying this way of working to other arenas of life

No therapist can predict what difference a specific treatment (or set of treatments) will have on complex problems like the one I have described. There is no strategic plan and we don’t know the outcomes in advance. The only way to make progress is to ‘do something’ and interact or disrupt part of the system (my body). That action (no matter how small) produces some sort of emergent effect or change – it’s emergent because of the relationships between the different parts of my body. The task is then to watch closely and quickly measure/discover what happens. Armed with a better understanding of the system itself you then respond.

The whole point of this post is to point our that most of our big challenges like tackling obesity and creating resilient communities are highly complex. Complex social challenges are defined by 3 characteristics:

The situation is emergent (1) and as a result … there is constant flow of information (2) to negotiate and this means … actors are constantly adapting their behaviour (3).

Too often we treat these complex challenges as if they are complicated or simple. We assume that we know the outcomes of our actions and we pay little attention what is really happening in the system itself. Many clients I work with have little time for experimentation and work in risk adverse cultures where failure is taboo. Funders of project teams tackling complex challenges still want to know plans and how actions will produce desired outcomes. And at the end of the project we (play the game) and write reports back to funders that somehow shows how our project lead directly to the pre determined outcomes.

Deep down, we all know that the emergent, unexpected impacts of our work are often the most important things to pay attention to. If we are lucky, we will have a funder that allows iterative changes to our plan as the project unfolds. In very rare cases, funders will even allow the pre determined outcomes to change in response to our early project learning.

 

What else to read & watch

This post was inspired by Chris Corrigan’s post –> Back from a Cynefin Deep Dive.  If you want to learn more about complexity and a very cool decision making model called the Cynefin Framework, dig into Chris’ post and the embedded links to other goodness.

Also, please watch this video on how Wolves change the course of rivers in Yellowstone National Park. Taking the wolf as a metaphor … what could the ‘wolf’ represent in the system that you work in?

 

 

GeoffBrown | Leadership, Living Systems & Complexity | Comments (1)

November 20, 2014

On Noticing …

The more I work with groups, talk with clients, spend time with family, or spend time alone with my own thoughts … the more I realise that our capacity to perceive, listen and notice more is the greatest gift we have. Noticing more is a thing of mastery. You can never perfect it and you can always, always get better at it.

When I turn my ‘noticing’ inwards on breath and letting go of thoughts … problems diminish and clarity comes. When I turn my noticing to the outside world and to other people … I am struck by the beauty and wisdom around me.

 

GeoffBrown | Being Present, Just observations | Comments (0)

September 30, 2014

Reflecting on life in my 40’s

I’ve been having flashbacks to my own childhood lately and I’ve figured out why …

My eldest boy (Griffin) is 11 years old and, for some reason, 11 is about the age when I can vividly recall events, moments and interaction with my dad. That year was 1983 when Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was released. Coincidentally, my dad and I had our first children at precisely the same age (within 3 days of each other).

So, when doing things with my kids, more and more I am remembering my life at 11 … when dad was my age. When I took this photo of Griffin emerging from the surf after riding a few monster waves, I remembered dad’s look of pride. I didn’t surf at 11 (hell, I wish I had), but I still remember dad praising me and giving me words of encouragement. I find myself doing the same with my boys and maybe even in the same ways as dad did with me.

IMG_4867

 

GeoffBrown | Gone Supping, Just observations | Comments Off

June 10, 2014

Interact first … then decide what to do!

I am about to step into a large workshop with my 2 Rusty Brown team mates. Despite having clarity about the overall purpose of the gathering, we struggled to pull together a coherent design for today’s workshop. Our Skype call featured lot’s of ideas and periods of silent reflection with me filling the space with more ideas – that’s what I do when self doubt creeps in!

After watching the latest Game of Thrones episode and a great night sleep, I reflected on yesterday’s struggles. Some events, no matter how thorough the planning and briefing is, are impossible to pre-design in any sort of detail. This is where we rely on sound principles and practices to get through and serve the groups we work with.

A room of 60+ individuals (who have just been part of a re structure) is a complex system made up of many, connected parts. It is not possible to ‘know’ which are the best moment by moment processes ahead of time. When we start interacting with the system (in about an hour from now), we will get feedback which will inform our decisions and the processes that follow. It feels messy and challenges our need for certainty and detailed plans … but that’s facilitation for you!

And to throw in a distantly connected piece by Johnnie Moore (Game of Thrones & the stories we tell ourselves), Johnnie says about the stories we tell ourselves

We love them, but we get tripped up by them. Something to remember when working with people.”

Re listening/watching Johnnie’s latest reflection (at the link above) has helped me to focus for today’s event.

Geoff

GeoffBrown | Facilitation, Living Systems & Complexity, Yes!And Improv | Comments Off

May 19, 2014

Excited by Possibility

Much of my recent work has been with Russell Fisher and Suzie Brown. Under the banner of Rusty Brown, we have combined our skills and blended our experience. As we learn more from the doing together, we are remixing the way we work and our offering to the world. Personally, I have a renewed passion for my work and a clearer purpose than I did when flying solo.

Rusty Brown

Last week I was co-facilitating with Russell and there was a moment when I repeated a set of instructions exactly as Russell had just given. Russell and I have a relationship where feedback is valued as a gift and, in a quiet moment, he rightly asked me why I had repeated his instruction. I wasn’t even aware of it and initially his feedback caught me by surprise!

On reflection, Russell illuminated a blind spot that I often get tripped up by – and a very good reminder to re-read a post called “The Art of Giving Instructions” by Chris Corrigan. Russell’s feedback is always perceptive and I am grateful for the opportunity to further hone my craft. Even when I work on my own, as I did on Friday and again tomorrow, I am able to draw on Russell and Suzie. Our collaboration provides me with an intangible kind of confidence and company when I need it most.

For the first time in my consulting career, I am investing in building something beyond my own solo-practice. It feels right and I am excited by the possibility.

GeoffBrown | Facilitation | Comments Off

May 18, 2014

Excited by Possibility

As the title suggests, much of recent work has been with Russell Fisher and Suzie Brown. Under the banner of Rusty Brown, we have combined our skills and blended our experience. As we learn more from the doing together, we are remixing the way we work and our offering to the world. Personally, I have a renewed passion for my work and a clearer purpose than I did when flying solo.

Last week I was co-facilitating with Russell and there was a moment when I repeated a set of instructions exactly as Russell had just given. Russell and I have a relationship where feedback is valued as a gift and, in a quiet moment, he rightly asked me why I had repeated his instruction. I wasn't even aware of it and initially his feedback caught me by surprise!

On reflection, Russell illuminated a blind spot that I often get tripped up by – and a very good reminder to re-read a post called “The Art of Giving Instructions” by Chris Corrigan. Russell's feedback is always perceptive and I am grateful for the opportunity to further hone my craft. Even when I work on my own, as I did on Friday and again tomorrow, I am able to draw on Russell and Suzie. Our collaboration provides me with confidence when I need it most.

For the first time in my consulting career, I am investing in building something beyond my own solo-practice. It feels right and I am excited by the possibility.

GeoffBrown | Facilitation | Comments Off

March 27, 2014

SCARF for social activists

I am not a huge fan of ‘ACRONYM’ models, but this framework – called SCARF – from neuroscientist David Rock is one of the more useful ones.

As many of us, within the Anglesea and surrounding communities, unite to SHUT DOWN the Anglesea power station, we discover that some people see the world differently to us. It’s easy to take the moral and intellectual high ground and say “We’re right and they’re wrong!” … but that sort of thinking will never unite a diverse community of divergent views. Applying the SCARF framework to our engagement strategy will help.

Here is a summary of this document by David Rock – http://www.davidrock.net/files/09_SCARF_in_2012_US.pdf – I have taken direct quotes and added a little of my own interpretations as well …

The SCARF model is a framework that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations. SCARF can be applied in any situation where people collaborate in groups such as at community lead rallies and information nights. The SCARF model involves 5 domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Here’s a brief description of each domain with a footnote … advice for any community leaders who are trying to SHUT DOWN a local coal mine and power station.

Status is about the relative importance to others. If people feel left out, or in a minority group at a social gathering, the associated drop in status generates a strong threat response. When threatened people often defend a position that doesn’t make sense to avoid the perceived pain of a drop in status. If leaders wish to influence other’s behaviour, more attention must given to reducing status threats in social situations.

Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. The human brain craves certainty so that it can predict the future. Without being able to predict, the brain uses far more resources and energy to process our experiences. So, as our community lobbies to SHUT DOWN the local coal mine, it opens up new and uncertain future scenarios. Large uncertainties like this one can be highly debilitating and cause people to stop listening and snap judgements. This is why we must communicate and discuss plausible and relevant future scenarios that don’t include a coal mine.

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events and a sensation of having choices. As soon as a participant at a community event feels a reduction in autonomy (with no sense of control), the experience can be threatening. When inviting people to take action, statement like “this is what you have to do now!” should be avoided at all costs. Providing people with a choice between different options can shift the perception. The set up of the room and types of processes used also plays a significant role in the experience people have.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. In the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response. People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging. So, as Anglesea attempts find a community voice, we should be tapping into this tribal sense of belonging. For those opposed to the SHUT-DOWN campaign … no matter what ‘we’ do or say they won’t change! Neurologically, we are wired to adopt messages from those who are ‘like’ us … from the same tribe.

Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. The need for fairness may be the driver behind the formation and energy of the Surf Coast Air Action group and the SHUT IT DOWN campaign. Members of our tribe experience internal rewards for doing this volunteer work to improve our community – born out of a decreasing sense of fairness in the world. For our upcoming event in Anglesea, we need to be completely transparent about our purpose and our mission to rally support Shut the Mine down.

I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from philosopher Theodore Zeldin about the deeply social nature of the way our brains are wired together and connected in social networks …

“When will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we treat each other as we have made in technology?”

“The kind of conversation I’m interested in, is one in which we are willing to emerge a slightly different person.”

Geoff

 

GeoffBrown | Brain Science & Research, Community & Belonging, Facilitation, Leadership | Comments Off

February 18, 2014

A moment in time

Every now and then, something special happens … and you say to yourself, “I wish I had a camera right now!”

Well, at last year’s Aireys Inlet Open Mic Music Festival, there was a moment when Mark Seymour (yes, the 1 & only) stopped singing for 30 seconds and ‘stared-down’ someone in the front row. That someone was our youngest boy. Young Hamish (now 6 yo) has an uncanny knack of engaging with people of all ages. In his own unique and genuine way, he brings attention on himself. He doesn’t show off and he’s not loud. He simply connects with people and he draws them in.

Mark went on to comment about his little staring game with Hamish and said something like … “You know when look into someone eyes that they are going to be trouble at school!” After Mark’s sensational performance (with his current band The Undertow), we had a photo taken of the 2 of them. It’s nice but it didn’t capture “that” priceless moment during the performance.

A few night’s ago I discovered a treasure trove of images from last year’s festival over at Peter Marshall’s photography website. And there on page 5 was “that” moment – a series of images the captured the essence of engagement.

 

GeoffBrown | Humor & Fun, Just observations, Music | Comments Off

January 28, 2014

On being part of the problem …

Co-conspirator of mine, Chris Corrigan, has shared a post he titled – Dealing with your slaves and seeing the world. This piece is a timely reminder about how we perceive the world around us. For me, it’s a little challenge to my own perspective … and to the stories I make in my mind about any problem that I am tackling.

I’ll only focus in on 1 angle of Chris’ post here. This quote from Adam Kahane is at the core of his post …

“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.”

When I hear people (and myself) talking about any problem – communication at the local school, device/screen addiction in their kids, the Alcoa Coal mine – the image in my mind looks like this …

on being part of the problem

 

Imagine if we could really see our own part in every complex problem we perceived – local or global. I think this self perception would fundamentally change a lot of conversations. A deeper understanding about our part (and the parts other’s play) in the problem helps to build up a better picture of the whole. You can apply this to different scales – individual, team and organisational, national.

Chris concludes his post with a few questions:

“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?”

The practice-challenge to myself is a question about how I reframe things in my own mind. Here is one personal example I’ll apply it to:

What is my part (and how am I complicit) in the device-addiction that has crept back into our family life since returning from our 5 month trip last year? And then … how can I affect change from within the problem?

Geoff Brown

 

GeoffBrown | Being Present, Facilitation, Just observations | Comments (2)

January 14, 2014

Viewpoint shift

The line that separates my work and play isn’t really a line at all. Experiences with family and friends teach me as much about myself as time in front of a group. Each serves the other and they are connected. So, the notion of a work-life balance doesn’t make sense to me anymore – I am seeing this term through new eyes … with a new perspective.

In 2014, I’ll be keeping this Pattern Card (from the Group Works set of cards) at the top of the deck. It serves as a personal reminder to step into the shoes of others and listen. I’ll use this card when designing group processes and support individuals, teams and organisations to notice more and see things through other perspectives. And at home this card (like many others in the deck) are a great teaching tool.

 

GeoffBrown | Being Present, Facilitation | Comments Off

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