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.


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.



Philanthropy in a Systems Context

In the eyes of many system based development professionals, intra-system competition for resources becomes disruptive and limiting, evoking a huge personal energy drain to negotiate around these different areas. Amidst the complexity and intra-system competition, social sector and philanthropy professionals are looking for new meaning, new navigation tools. About what in our organization have we reached true clarity?  What are we trying to be? What’s possible for us now?

Where are the places to intervene in a system in order to create a stronger platform for philanthropy and what must leaders do? First, it seems we must come to understand that, through our attitudes and our choices, we each have a role in the system’s continuance.  Recognizing that some may always have more power and latitude to act, each person has an individual role in the system. In the aggregate, systems are constantly seeking stability through fluctuations, resistance, and adjustments that involve the system and its larger environment. Systems generate feedback that can trigger changes in behavior, and understanding the feedback and its relationship to the deep structure of the system is an important ingredient in successful leadership.[1]

Reinforcing loops - Finding the right place to intervene in the system
Reinforcing loops - Finding the right place to intervene in the system. Illustration by Ken Hubbell

“The challenge, the hope, and the imperative are to maintain the “we” proposition, so a win for one is a win for the entire organization.” Optimal leverage is possible precisely at the juncture of two systems loops (creating shared identity/cultural coherence) combined with higher levels of trust. This is the pure domain of collective leadership.

A compelling organizational vision has the power to attract philanthropy and, once coupled, together they have the power to change the conversation of what is possible for systems. Environmental factors and competitive forces often create a tendency for system leaders to stay locked into the top (negative) feedback loop, whereas development folks have to live in the positive reinforcing loop for their success. If we can harness the volunteer’s interest and liberate people and build community around that, it creates the gravitational pull for charitable giving, which changes the nature and impact of philanthropy.

So, we concluded that, despite all the apparent “noise” and “chaos” from systems, development efforts are strongest when emanating from a coherent organization, one with a strong sense of “we” and a widely shared identity. Arguably, the greatest opportunity for change within systems is also the hardest to achieve—changing the hearts and minds of players within the system.

The question of “Who is my first team” becomes a powerful lever for individual leadership decision making and action. Even in the most dysfunctional organizations, issues often foster introspective questions. “So, what can I do? What one action can I take that affects this set of issues? With whom will I start having a different kind of conversation in my organization?” If everyone on your first team is equally committed to the relationship, there may be an opening for a very different type of a conversation organizationally. This new type of conversation may be the kind to produce greater alignment of hearts and minds.


This is an excerpt from the upcoming monograph I’ve edited, In Search of New Meaning: Philanthropy, Community, and Society. It is a synthesis of essays and conversation from social sector and philanthropy leaders who participated in our think tank, Conversation 2009.

[1] Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson, (1997). System Thinking Basics. Pegasus Communications, Inc.