Getting “The Whole System” in the Room

One of the suppositions I make during Conversation 2018 is that a leader’s impact can be expanded through whole system futuring—engaging in dialogue about the future (aka, planning) by getting “the whole system in the room.” Exploring this concept takes me (and, perhaps, you) through layers of challenge, insight, and discovery.

The first challenge is often the language. I’m often reminded that my choice of language and forms of expression make my ideas and questions tough to access for some people. While continually in pursuit of a simpler, clearer way to convey my thinking in the most accessible way, I am also continually in pursuit of the true depth of meaning and intention beneath the words.

Some believe that “futuring” or planning is not their leadership responsibility; that they are participants in or contributors to a planning discussion, but not the one tasked with designing and implementing a planning process. Perhaps, but underneath that response lies the possibility to reframe one’s thinking.

In organizational life, nearly everything we undertake is done with an eye on a preferred future. So, if your default posture is that planning is done episodically (like annual budget prep or cyclical strategic planning), you may miss the opportunity for greater leverage. Some organizational development models like lean thinking (continuous process improvement) attempt to seize this daily opportunity.

The first step in unpacking the language is to check for your default assumptions of what’s involved and the extent to which you are involved. If you’ve unconsciously side-stepped the notion of daily engagement in futuring, you’re missing a steady opportunity for greater impact. Valuable research over the past several decades reaffirms that organizations (like individuals) move in the direction of that to which they most attend. Even if you don’t have primary responsibility for plan design or implementation, you can still suggest and influence where attention is being placed and with whom conversations about the future are being held.

Additionally, the language of “the whole system” is also a stumbling point for some. The language emanates from systems thinking, which is a discipline of seeing the interconnectedness of everything. Businesses and organizations are examples of complex human systems. Most of us have come to accept (if not understand) that working narrowly on a single part of the organization has only limited value when all the parts are “bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions” (Senge, 2006, The 5th Discipline, p. 7). Yet the system doesn’t end at the boundary of the organization. The organization exists in a larger human ecosystem which includes the individuals, neighborhoods, organizations, and entities in your operating environment.

Being committed to getting the whole system in the room necessitates engagement well beyond the boundaries of your team, unit, division, and organization. Just as we move in the direction of what we study, meaningful and reciprocal engagement yields relationships and deeper trust with those with whom we spend the most time. Therefore, decisions to engage your whole human ecosystem in an appreciative (re)discovery of high point experiences—times when the organization was at its best and most vital—enriches your learnings by illuminating things in your blind spot, strengthens your understanding of the positive core, and evokes a powerful sense of anticipation about what’s possible if the best of what is gets amplified and extended in the future.

Which brings us to the second challenge many encounter in doing whole system futuring: getting outside our familiar bubble. By design or by default, leaders often end up spending most of their time with a narrow band of people. Whether conscious of it or not, they tend to hear more of what they’ve already heard. Daily huddles and weekly management meetings serve many valuable purposes, yet they can also serve to reinforce the prevailing and shared world view of those few participants. Exploring opportunities for impact and learning from the best of what is in place already can, therefore, be artificially limited by this familiarity.

The better path to impact is not found outside. It resides inside of you. Getting outside your familiar bubble first requires your own opening—of mind, heart, and resolve—and a letting go. The letting go need not be viewed with dread, as if it signals loss. Rather, the letting go can be viewed as (re)learning and adapting. The letting go must happen first as part of your inner work as a person; as a single leader. If you are to consciously reposition yourself to see the landscape with new eyes—the implicit requirement of planning—there is some inner work needed. Consider these insights:

  • “At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it” (Senge, The 5th Discipline, p. 12). He continues with a bold perspective on what it means to be human: “Through learning we re-create ourselves” (p. 13).
  • Two powerful learnings were gifts to me from Conversations many years ago. The first came from a Kenyan woman who, during a discussion of borders and boundaries, said in the most hopeful and energized tone, “The boundaries are where I go to meet my neighbors.” The second said, “we learn the most from those least like us.” These viewpoints reinforce the rich value of going beyond the “safe” and familiar to where new perspectives can further open you to deeper insights. As I reflect on my own longstanding rhetoric about the value of diversity, equity,inclusion, and meaningful engagement, for me it all rang a bit hollow until I began to feel the shift—the opening—happening within me. Now, getting the whole system in the room through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and meaningful engagement lens are truly powerful and richly rewarding, both personally and organizationally.
  • Leaders from the International Futures Forum (IFF) remind us to give up on the myth of control. They point out that many of us were raised to control what we don’t understand. Exacerbating this situation is the pervasiveness of power and privilege in which so many of us have been raised (individually and organizationally), which seems to call for holding on even tighter. This self- and other-damaging orientation is part of a myth to which many of us have subscribed as we attempt to address our best futures amidst great complexity. Two IFF authors suggest instead, “An alternative is simply to accept and acknowledge complexity as an inevitable fact of modern life and instead of trying to avoid or control it, participate in it. Relish diversity, welcome surprises, look for the ineffable and appreciate the richness and the unique quality of all things. Such an embrace engenders a sense of belonging and reinforces the motivation to participate. Driving this reinforcing cycle are love, empathy and relationships” (Leicester and O’Hara, 2009, Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, p. 10).

Odd as it might sound that for someone like me who for decades has helped organizational leaders and planning teams design and implement strategic direction, I’ve come to realize and trust that the first shift that must happen is an inner shift—an individual letting go and a trusting willingness to inquire, discover, and learn. When I reflect on an earlier professional chapter of my life, I now recognize that I was trying to master techniques that helped leaders cascade their plans throughout their organizations. Thinking back on some early engagements, I now see that some constituent research and planning dialogue was launched from the status quo—almost as if to validate the status quo. Therefore, without the pause up front to reflect on the leader’s view, assumptions, blind spots, and patterns of behavior, the planning design was flawed from the beginning and, unintentionally, went on to reinforce the status quo.

As I continue practicing letting go, I can feel my mindset continually shifting, or as Senge said, through learning and experience re-creating myself. My approach to planning has likewise evolved over the years. Now, I am far more inclined to approach each task influenced by three thoughts:

  1. The work is first/always inner work. My attention is a signal of my intention.
  2. Pay unconditionally positive attention to life-giving forces. To do so, I must go beyond my bubble and see those forces through the whole system perspective.
  3. Learn to dance with the system. This image, borrowed from systems thinker Donnella Meadows, is a reminder that we can’t control systems or figure them out…but we can dance with them. This individual and organizational dance, while applied to our professional and intellectual pursuits, is no different than dancing with other great powers like white-water kayaking, gardening, making music, etc. In all those endeavors, she notes, one is required to “stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.” Her overview of “the dance” resonates with me:
    • Get the beat
    • Listen to the wisdom of the system
    • Expose your mental models to the open air
    • Stay humble; stay a learner
    • Honor and protect information
    • Locate responsibility in the system
    • Make feedback policies for feedback systems
    • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable
    • Go for the good of the whole
    • Expand time horizons
    • Expand thought horizons
    • Expand the boundary of caring
    • Celebrate complexity
    • Hold fast to the goal of goodness

And so it is with whole system futuring. Through a process reflecting the leader’s authenticity, the inner work of letting go is a pathway to generativity and imagination. Reaching this point of opening (again and again) reinforces and sustains the quiet confidence to focus unapologetically on the life-giving forces in your organization and in your environment. This mindset, coupled with the humble invitational spirit that takes you beyond your boundaries to engage all your “neighbors,” can lead to a “letting come” that is far more powerful and supportive of innovations for the future.

The drawing above is by Ken Hubbell, interpreting the central
metaphor of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

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Leveraging Leadership Authenticity – Conversation 2018

Several years ago, I decided one way to leverage my own passion and contribution to right action and wise leadership was to hold space for its deeper exploration among people seeking their own clarity and deepening their own leadership purpose. Conversation 2018 is one such contribution. Through it we’ll focus first on illuminating your own inner authenticity, wisdom, and inherent value. That becomes the scaffolding for exploring how leaders evoke greater and more lasting impact by: a) fostering an appreciative culture; b) inviting whole system inquiry and dialogue about the future most desired; and c) engaging partners (donors, investors, collaborators) with reciprocal meaning and deep trust.

Each Conversation is a cohesive package of components over a six-month period that includes one immersion workshop/retreat, reflective readings before and after the retreat, participation in moderated video conferences among the learning cohort, and individual virtual coaching throughout the period.

Nominations are currently being sought for the next Conversations scheduled to date:

    • Minneapolis, MinnesotaApril 18-20, 2018 – hosted by Cohen Taylor Executive Search Services

Contact me to learn more or to nominate someone for consideration in this cohort. A limited number of partial scholarships will be available for gifted leaders unable to afford the full tuition. In so doing, together we can support some of the most vital work being done in community despite deep resource limitations.

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Reflections on the Path of Authentic Leadership Leverage

Regardless of the focus of your work or your current level of mastery, you’re likely seeking greater impact and some greater contribution toward positive change. As individuals and as whole organizations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of tasks demanding your attention. In those instances, certainty about the right action is easily lost. Consider three points upon which you may want to reflect further. They are:

  1. Inquire about high point experiences to uncover source
  2. Gain clarity and insight by letting go; opening your mind, heart, and will
  3. Let come – reimagining a socially constructed, generative path of possibility and breakthrough

Let’s look a bit deeper at each.

Inquire about High Point Experience to Uncover Source

If, as Kevin Cashman1 states, leadership is authentic influence that creates value, then all leadership is first a journey of self-discovery and appreciation. In pursuit of leadership positions and greater responsibility we often get distracted by a felt need to accumulate skills and experiences that provide credentials for leading. Yet simply adding more “tools” may not be the answer. It may be that what we need most to leverage is already within us, albeit buried and poorly illuminated.

Appreciative inquiry (AI) practitioners recognize that a focus on leadership leverage can guide development of a set of illuminating peer interview questions that can peel back layers of personal insight. In this AI context, the interview process is one of self-(re)discovery, helping you uncover the source of not only your own authenticity—your own goodness, value, and uniqueness—but the source of your own wisdom and well-being. Learning to appreciate and trust that source is fundamentally important. Not only because it is a barometer of your own balance and well-being, it is a predictor of how genuinely you will be able to interact with others. Think about it. The personal connections that are the deepest and the work that is the most fulfilling are rooted in your values and self-trust. So it is with others, too.

Gain Clarity and Insight by Letting Go; Opening Your Mind, Heart, and Will

In the novel Light in August, William Faulkner reminds us that “memory believes before knowing remembers.” That phrase alone could take considerable time to unpack and fully appreciate. On the surface, it suggests that memories are deep and, even unconsciously, held firmly—so much so that new knowledge and understanding can’t readily permeate and take hold. In other words, letting go is easier said than done.

If that’s true, then what is your work? Where should your attention be directed? During reflective retreats we can quickly see the answer: our work is inner work; more on how to “be” rather than what more to “do.” Yet the day-to-day demands on most leaders is a never-ending treadmill of meetings, calls, and various interventions, all designed in some way to get done the important things. Slowly, eventually, when we’re not looking, it somehow becomes a steady stream of stuff, stuff, and more stuff. The holy grail is productivity. Our time on task shrinks because there are so many things to which we must attend, we seemingly can’t afford the luxury of a truly thoughtful, generative pause. Worse, we are often seduced by the beautiful illusion of control, believing that it is really we who are directing this larger symphony of activity. What results from this (unconsciously) tightly held myth of control is our own fear, self-doubt, and anxiety2 …. which then triggers even more of our ingrained responses, what Scharmer3 calls downloading our current default ideas and opinions (reacting), only to achieve more typical results by our attempts to “fix” current problems.

So, the path to clarity and insight begins with letting go, an opening at every level: mind, heart, and will. Letting go of the myth of control; letting go of the strong inner ego voice that puts us at the center of all that must be done; letting go of the myopia of our own agenda. Navigating the left side of Scharmer’s U—the letting go—requires real vulnerability. Again, easier said than done. Scharmer counsels,

“Opening up these deeper levels requires overcoming three barriers: The Voice of Judgment (VOJ); the Voice of Cynicism (VOC); and the Voice of Fear (VOF). The reason the journey of the U is the road less traveled has a name: resistance. Resistance is the force that keeps our current state distant and separate from our highest future potential. Resistance comes from within (emphasis added). Resistance has many faces and tends to show up where the weakness is greatest. Resistance can operate with stealth and strike largely unrecognized by its victims….

  • VOJ: Old and limiting patterns of judgment and thought. Without the capacity to shut down or suspend the VOJ, we will make no progress toward accessing creativity and never reach the deeper levels of the U.
  • VOC: Emotions of disconnection such as cynicism, arrogance, and callousness that prevent us from diving into the fields around us.
  • VOF: Fear of letting go of the familiar self and world; fear of going forth; fear of surrendering….

The capacity to operate from the deeper levels of the U can only be developed to the degree that a system [and a leader] deals with the forces and challenges of resistance.”4

Letting Come – Reimagining a Socially Constructed, Generative Path of Possibility and Breakthrough

Suffice it to say that the journey through the U is neither simple nor accomplished in a few quick steps. Yet, that journey remains the work of leaders—reaching a new consciousness awareness where reimagination and new possibilities are accessible…to you and through you. It is not about the size, scope, or visibility of your leadership, it’s about your moments of leading from conscious awareness.

At this deepest point of the U—a point representing you at your most open, most vulnerable, and most authentic—you begin to ask new questions about the future that is trying to emerge. It is at this point where you must harness and value the notion that the future is socially constructed. This theory of the social construction of reality has its roots in the sociology of knowledge5 and posits that social reality (in families, in organizations, in a society) is at any given point a product of broad social agreement lifting up shared meanings. A key point in this line of thinking is that,

Valid knowledge…is…a communal creation. Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ in nature to be discovered through detached, value-free, observational methods; nor can it be relegated to the subjective minds of isolated individuals. Social knowledge resides in the interactive collectivity; it is created, maintained, and put to use by the human group. Dialogue, free from constraint or distortion, is necessary to determine the ‘nature of things.’6      

This school of thought became an important cornerstone of appreciative inquiry, whose roots trace to the early 1980s in the seminal work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in their study of the life-giving forces of the Cleveland Clinic. Their work—and the resulting widespread embrace of appreciative inquiry—has led to a deeper understanding of social constructionism.

Not only do they point out that our individual and organizational reality is socially constructed, they make a strong argument for the power and generativity of a positive image. When seen in the context of Scharmer’s right leg of the U—the letting come—their thinking is all the more powerful in our exploration of leadership leverage and impact.

Through a conscious choice to focus on the source—on the positive, most generative and most life-giving forces—we begin to see that the “letting come” path can be one of imagination, innovation, and new possibilities. While Scharmer encourages us to, “[c]onnect and surrender to the future that wants to emerge through you,” Cooperrider and Srivastva are even bolder, inviting leaders to attend most closely to that which has the power to unlock new possibilities. This is the leadership path to greater impact.

Organizations (and individuals) grow in the direction of what they value and question (study) most and they will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders (emphasis added). Regardless of the size of the human system, the more an organization experiments with the conscious evolution of positive imagery the better it will become. The key to the kind of organizational culture I’m lifting up is to foster a self-organizing system with the capacity to rise above the present and assess their own imaginative processes as they are operating. Adaptive cultures constantly monitor and reinforce their ability to distinguish between the affirmative and negative ways of construing the world. In so doing, those with greater “affirmative competence” tend to grow in the direction of their nourishing source of light and life. This is why organization-wide affirmation of the positive future is the single most important act that a system can engage in if its real aim is to bring to fruition a new and better future (emphasis added).7

Therefore, I submit for your consideration that the fulcrum for your greater leadership leverage and impact is twofold: 1) your personal authenticity and intentional alignment; and 2) an unconditionally positive attention to what gives life to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

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1 See Cashman, K. (2008). Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

2 Leicester, G. and O’Hara, M. (2009). Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, Triarchy Press: Fife, Scotland, p. 10.

3 Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

4 Scharmer, pp. 245-246.

5 See Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books: New York.

6 Cooperrider, D.L. and Srivastva, S. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life, reprinted in Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, (2008), pp. 359-360.

7 Adapted from David Cooperrider. From: Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership., Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications: 91-125.