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?
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!
There are few forces on earth as powerful as the ocean swells and tides. In response to lunar forces and weather patterns, they shape our coastlines and have the power to transform whole dune systems overnight.
Down here along the coastline of south western Victoria, the vast Southern Ocean plays her tune. She’s unpredictable and only fools dare not respect her power. Pulses of swell travel thousands of kilometers to reach our shores. Each pulse of swell forms a unique wave, different to every wave before it.
The sands along our beaches shift and move beneath the water surface continuously – nothing stays still and everything is moving. When the sandy bottom forms banks of the right shape, the waves on the surface break in long, pleasing lines. This is what brings a smile to face of surfers who call the coast home. When such banks appear on a section of beach, the rumors between locals spread and swarms of wetsuit-clad surfers converge to surf the incoming waves.
The reefs are a more consistant proposition for surfers. The impact of the waves erode and change the reefs over hundreds of years – barely discernible over the career of a surfer. But, like the beach breaks, every wave that breaks across it’s rocky surface is different. The swell size, direction and frequency together with the wind speed and direction are features that all surfers build an understanding of. When all of these factors line up in the sweetspot, everything gets put on hold. Builder’s tools are downed, consultant’s computers go into sleep mode and even some shops will say “Closed, back from surf in 2 hours”. Surfers will happily drive interstate on weekend to catch waves likes theses …
My home town of Aireys Inlet has its own surfing culture and history. There are local’s breaks and secret spots. The one thing that every surfer has respect for is the ocean. Her power and unpredictability. From beautiful and inviting one moment to ugly and menacing the next! Knowing your limits as a surfer and learning to read local conditions are prerequisites. Respect for fellow surfers and an understanding of the culture is just as much a part of it.
Good friends of ours in Aireys grew up in the most south-western coast of Victoria in Portland and Cape Bridewater. They grew up with Adam Robinson and his family and Adam’s incredible surfing skills on on full show in this video. Enjoy the surfing the delights of Cape Bridewater …
Last week, a small event was staged. About 60 or 70 folks from around the World gathered in Melbourne for the Thriving in Uncertainty Conference. This was a true collaboration between Melbourne Playback Theatre & Viv McWaters. I was a witness to the co-creation of this event and was largely on the sidelines … watching others do all the hard work … contributing where I could … taking it all in and learning. And here’s a photo of me watching Viv and Sherridan (Melb Playback) do the work at the HUB Melbourne …
Viv’s co-conspirator and explorer at the Edges of Work, Johnnie Moore, came out to support Viv in ‘holding the space’ we called Thriving in Uncertainty. Johnnie also dabbled in an Art of Hosting event recently with Chris Corrigan – both are also active in AIN. Together, me, Viv, Johnnie, Chris and Anne Patillo call ourselves The Slips and have worked together on conferences in Australia, Canada and Asia.
I could go on and on and on … list the names of many more people and networks that connect together with weak or strong ties. When you are part of a network like this, doing stuff is like dancing in the corner of a vast spider’s web … the energy flows across the entire system. Unexpected and serendipidous occasions follow – like this gathering in Vancouver recently …
The pattern I am sensing in all of this are the connections between and across different communities of practice. Applied Improv is mixing with Art of Hosting and OpenSpace which is riffing with Thrivability and playing with the Gathering 11 & 12 movement here in Melbourne. Consultants are sharing work and wisdom with theatre directors, musicians, university professors, researchers, PhD students, business leaders and practitioners drawn from other sectors. When the work and worldviews of so many diverse players come together CHANGE starts to happen quickly. Innovation is everywhere and look out everybody … “This is gonna be a train wreck and I can’t wait!” (HT to Andrew McMasters for these words in his session at Thriving in Uncertainty last week!)
I’ll get to the PUNCHLINE of Manuel’s talk first, and add the CONTEXT later …
A new type of thinking is emerging according to Manuel. A way of thinking where everything is interconnected and interdependent. Right at the end of the talk (and this is bit I liked), he points out that “it’s not enough anymore to be a specialist in 1 area … you need to know a little bit about everything … or at least create outbound ties so that you are able to learn from other disparate areas.”
As a facilitator, the “outbound tie” that has transformed my practice is Improvisational Theatre. Who would have thought that a bunch of mindsets and practices from actors on the stage could teach me so much about myself and working with groups?! AIN (The Applied Improvisational Network) is full of people from hundreds of disciplines who share a passionate belief that applying improv can change hearts and minds, bring us closer together and create the conditions for innovative partnerships. This mental shift toward a networked view of the world (that Manuel points to) must be accompanied by principles and practices, to guide us through uncertainty and when the script doesn’t even exist. The ability to respond when the way forward is unclear is a key skill for business success during times of uncertainty and change.
So how’s this for a provocative proposition! Every field of practice and every discipline on earth needs to know a little bit about Improvisational Theatre and add it as an “outbound tie”!
For those in Montreal, you should get in touch with the monthly Thrivability Montreal conversations. They are connecting with real businesses who are serious about a networked and living systems view of their business.
CONTEXT … the first parts of Manuel’s talk
Manuel’s talk is about the power of Networks and the challenge of mapping an increasingly complex world. He starts with a historical look at the metaphor of the structure of a Tree and how it has dominated our idea of how the world works. The tree has been a religious symbol and was used to tell biblical stories. The branch structure of the tree has been used as a knowledge classification system in blood ties between people, animal species and in other areas of science.
Manual points out that the Tree structure branches off with no connections or ties between them. The tree, he says, expresses our desire for order, hierarchy, balance, unity and a need for a simple way of looking at the world. Our social and organisational structures reflect this view and so emerged top-down hierarchies and organisational charts. In my experience, even our local community groups suffer from too much of this type of structure.
He urges that we are at a turning point, where the tree metaphor is no longer able to communicate the inherent complexities of the modern world. The internet has shown our connections to be a network like a web … not like the hierarchy of a tree structure. We now understand our eco systems in much more connected, complex and sophisticated way. We know that the brain is no longer a compartmentalised centre, instead it’s a complex network more akin to a symphony being played by hundreds of thousand of instruments. Even human endeavor has created Wikipedia which shows the interconnections which binds and ties disparate fields of knowledge together.
If we embrace the idea that an organisation is a living ecosystem, rather than a mechanistic model, how would we work with that larger consciousness? Paul Plsek likens this difference to that between throwing a stone and throwing a live bird (1). The trajectory of the stone can be calculated precisely using the mechanical laws of physics. The trajectory of the bird is emergent and far less predictable! The question is whether we can genuinely embrace this shift in perspective and add a layer of living tissue to the organisational machine.
(1) T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon 2003, ‘Introduction:The Adaptive State’, in T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon (eds) – The Adaptive State— Strategies for Personalising the Public Realm, Demos, London, p. 26.
The good news is that we don’t need to abandon everything we currently do. When dealing with technical problems, we still need efficient management, expertise and best practice processes. But on their own, rational, linear and individually-generated solutions are not up to the task. It’s not enough to just bring our brains to work. We need to access and apply our whole intelligence to problem-solving, creativity and innovation, especially in the face of global and local social and environmental issues.
The premise of this conference is that Applied Improvisation is a key driver for business and organisational success during times of uncertainty and change. Ironically, we all know how to improvise, but most of us spend too much time planning and never get to the improvisation part! And when you look at the cutting edge of business today, the most pioneering and successful companies are moving in exactly that direction. Their leaders know that innovation comes from a careful balance of planning and improvisation. By applying improv, their people are cultivating strong relationships and are being creative with limited resources. These organisations are deeply fulfilling to work with, enrich the communities they serve and are able to thrive in uncertainty.
Since being introduced to Applied Improv 5 years ago, it’s principles have reshaped the way I facilitate, parent and live life. In practice, applying improv has connected me to a deeper self, an authentic part of me that I never knew existed.
Some of my clients have joined me on this learning journey and a couple are coming to Thriving in Uncertainty on July 12 & 13. This gathering will bring together leaders, executives and managers, entrepreneurs, learning and development facilitators, trainers and educators, consultants and coaches – I can’t think of a better way to discover our inherent leadership capacities and go to the edges of our learning and development.
I invite you to learning laboratory that explores questions like:
What if we think of organisations as living ecosystems? How would that change what we do and how we lead?
How can we learn from each other and our own experiences?
What can applied improv offer us as we try new ways of thinking and interacting?
These same questions are being explored in Montreal (Canada) in June this year. Thrivability Montreal brings together business leaders to explore new ways of thinking about and working in organisations. Our group will learn directly from the Montreal conversations. In fact, the design of this workshop is a collaboration between me and the Thrivability Montreal Network. I will integrate the key insights and examples of how organisations are applying improv to thrive in uncertainty and change.
Belina Raffy (below left) and Michelle Holliday are the hosts of the Thrivability Montreal Camp next month. I recently interviewed them and recorded this podcast. In the 3rd part of the podcast, we talk about the links between Thrivability Montreal and Thriving in Uncertainty. The key insights from Montreal will filter down to this workshop in Melbourne.
Belina’s Pecha Kucha presentation is also a good one to watch. In 6 minutes and 40 seconds, she describes her provocative proposition that Improv Can Save the World!
Last week I was part of a learning conversation with practitioners, policy makers and researchers, all interested in diving deep into the complexity of behaviour change. We started by helping each other out with current problems, challenges and questions about our work – this was highly practical stuff and focused mainly on principles and practices.
At the end of the conversation we created a map of the group’s current thinking about behaviour change in practice. I felt we were able to go beyond ‘talking’ and enter the realm if Dialogue … we were thinking together. Here’s the map I drew to summarise …
“As Bloom once told a reporter: “We were looking for exceptional kids and what we found were exceptional conditions”. […] The “exceptional conditions” we found can be summarized under the headings of opportunity to learn, authentic tasks, and exceptionally supportive social contexts.” ~ Lauren Sosniak, p289.
As parents we pay attention to our children and hope that they will end up happy, with a healthy mix of self confidence, resilience and empathy toward others. We are also blind to much of what others, outside of the family unit, can plainly see. Lately I’ve been playing around with some ideas and they are all about cultivating the right conditions at home … conditions that allow my children to learn, make mistakes, say yes more often(!) and reflect. The quote above has me determined to experiment a little more and be much more playful along the way.
Here are some things I am playing with to help create more ‘exceptional’ conditions …
– Play improv game more with my kids and get them comfortable with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’ the next step, the script and in co-creating something in the moment with each other
– Use Playback Theatre methods (like Machines) to allow them to explore and express emotions by using their bodies and movement
– Open up daily times for reflection (conversation) on events and moment that occur during the day. Sometimes we find out about a significant event that happens at school weeks later. As parents we ask “Why didn’t they tell us about this?”. Well, maybe in the hectic day 2 day schedule of life, we didn’t provide them with the opportunity to open up and share these precious moments
– Play more ‘noticing’ games that orient the focus of family attention to the present moment. The stuff that is unfolding right in front of our eyes now … the bird tapping at the window … The wind in the trees … The silence of the moment. This requires that we, as parents, be present first. That our kids hear and see us being absorbed in the moment.
These all appear to be simple, small things. In practice they are actually very challenging. Creating the types of conditions needed for our kids to thrive has a key question at it’s heart … “Who am I being, that my children need me to be?”
I can’t remember where I heard this little lesson, but it comes from Theatre … “Act like people are always watching, even if no one is there.” This lesson was in reference to a live performance where actors played out scenes in many rooms of a house. The audience moved from room to room, at their own pace, in their own time. Many rooms contained only actors and no audience, but the performers kept on going … as if the audience was present.
Imagine if we all, as parents, as leaders, as friends, as co-workers, acted with integrity and honesty … even when no-one is watching.
My last post described a game called Werewolf that I hosted for a group of people who, collectively, comprise an organisation. I worked with this team of people for 2 days. Day 1 was playful and Day 2 allowed the group to reflect on it’s own purpose and principles of working together.
Here are a set of resources that informed my processes and some of the thinking skills I brought to the group.
On Day 1 we played applied Improv games and learnt through a process of immersion in direct experience
Direct References – these ideas were shared directly with the group
1. Mindsight ideas from the work of Dr Daniel Siegel
2 rules that help to underpin Mindsight
Being open to sensations in our bodies – gut, heart, head is a powerful source of knowledge
These sensations shape the way we make rational decisions
Being open to sub cortical sources is needed for clear mindsight
Relationships are woven into the fabric of our interior world
We come to know our our minds through our interactions with others and act quickly often without awareness
Mindsight allows us to gain clarity about thes rapid sensations and information and gain new clarity about who we are
2. Inner Game ideas from the work of Timothy Gallwey
On the tennis court, we practiced the art of ‘noticing’ the ball when throwing and catching in pairs. One group played the famous ‘bounce-hit’ game and another group played the ‘trajectory’ game.
I introduced the Inner Game concept of Self 1 and Self 2 (described further below). These quotes and summaries from Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Workprovide more insights into this approach to learning …
“There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure.”-Tim Gallwey
“Learning and performance are the same thing. People who win are those who learn faster. We learn fast when we pay attention to what is happening now – the present moment and for what the world really is and not what it could be. Learning becomes a function of attention and noticing more than instruction. It’s about noticing what is going on around you without judgement, fear. Or the need to control.” Peter Block from the Forward
“Self 1 the voice of making judgements and giving commonds – these are merely activities of the mind and not the true self. Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2. This self doubt creates a poor learning environment. Self 2 is being spoken to by Self 1 and is the human being itself. It embodies all the human potential and possibly we are born with. It is our innate ability to learn from experiences and it is the self we enjoyed as children.” Chapter 1
“The goal of the inner game is to reduce the interference to ones own potential. The goal of the outer game is to overcome external obstacles to reach our goals (eg. winning a tennis match). Inner and outer games are being played all the time, individually and as organizations and cultures. The outer game gets way more attention and our inner game (individually, culturally) is neglected.” Chapter 1.