This blog post is inspired by a conversation I had with Peter Merry the other day – we were discussing the relative merits of sharing good practice versus experimentation on the path to the new era… and went on to cover online versus physical and global versus local.
Understanding this to be a polarity to be managed rather than a problem to be solved, the best approach seems to be to explore the up-sides and down-sides of both options. As synchronicity would have it, the day I started writing this blog, a colleague of mine told me about the Cynefin framework, which exactly situates this topic in the field of complexity management.
What if the best practice is experimentation?
In their book ‘A simpler way’, Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers say: “Experimentation doesn’t use up possibilities; it creates more. More information, more experiences, more insights. We have limited the world, but it remains wide open to us.
“Many of us have created lives and organisations that give very little support for experimentation. We believe that answers already exist out there, independent of us. We don’t need to experiment to find what works; we just need to find the answer. So we look to other organisations, or to experts, or to reports. We are dedicated detectives, tracking down solutions, attempting to pin them on ourselves and our organisations.”
Why do we look around at solutions that are already out there, rather than learning how to experiment?
This is a very special time to be contemplating this question. The picture (it comes from Peter’s slide show on evolutionary leadership – he attributes the diagram to Ervin Lazlo) situates us at an epochal bifurcation. All those little lines you see at the base of each steps are experiments. Each time, certain experiments succeed, take root and spread, bringing civilisation to its next level of complexity. When I first saw this slide, I was filled with delight because I understood that as long as we are experimenting, we are playing our part in evolution.
But how do we learn how to experiment, if the most we ever do is try out other people’s best practices? One down-side of trying to apply other people’s solutions is that we end up wasting a load of time trying to adjust their solutions to our context. Funnily enough, it’s often only by doing that that we discover what our true context is in the first place! That’s when we realise how out of touch we often are, in our organisations, with the reality we are operating in.
When we experiment inside an organisation to find our own solutions, we are sensing into our own situation, our own context, our own meaning, our own purpose, with our own people. It’s a great way to create ownership.
I’ve been learning about a new governance approach, called Holacracy, which uses practices like integrative decision-making and dynamic steering, where we explicitly state we’re not after the best solution, only a workable one. This allows us to stay agile. We want to keep changing and developing and probing and sensing and acting and sensing and acting, as we go along, as we discover how our inventions mesh with messy reality. To my mind, if there’s a good practice, it’s that.
Reframing good practice as success stories
And yet, we intuitively know that it’s important to learn from the experience of others, too. Peter asked a great question: What’s the relationship between stories of the past and stories of the future? Framing good practice as ‘story’ helps, because it connects us to that deeply human, ‘tribal’ part of us that honours the wisdom of the elders. It also reminds us of an important and empowering assumption that we need to adopt in these times of terrifying and exhilarating change: the fact that everything we need to survive and thrive is already there… AND there is a current and unfolding context in which everything that is already there comes together. Viewed from this perspective, good practice is seen not as a blueprint, but as a story that we can then take with us into our ‘presencing’ of our current context and situation.
Stories around the virtual camp fire
One thing stories do is draw us in around the camp fire. They create contact, they inspire us and give us energy – the energy of possibility, which recently won the US elections and will – if anything will – carry us over the threshold of impending disaster and into the future.
In the global era, this sharing of stories is also very much related to the use of an online space. Many of us who are engaged in large-scale, non-local change initiatives are grappling with how to make on-line environments work for collaboration, helping us find people with similar experience, working in similar fields across the planet. If we think that sharing best and good practices won’t be as effective as our own experimentation, why do we need to use online environments? What is the purpose of any kind of global interconnection? Why even bother to do that? If it’s all really about synchronicity, knowing that if you put out an intention to do something and then look, you will find the people you need to find, simply because of the interconnectivity that’s part of the physics of the universe. So we have to be really clear about the purpose of any on-line environment we invest in. If it really isn’t contributing, then why waste resources, when nobody’s going to use it?
In my own experience, the people I’m meeting online are sufficiently rare that I don’t meet them in my local space – developed individuals that you don’t find on every street corner. For a small community that’s spread globally, meeting online is very important. But it’s not necessarily going to be as useful for others who are focusing on their local environments. However, in this age of transition – we hope – to a sustainable global society, each of those local environments needs, at some level, to be connected to other local environments. The 1% of people who actively contribute to and benefit from the growing global knowledge ecology are scattered across the planet, and they feed what they are learning into their local communities in ways that those communities can utilise. So it’s not necessarily about mass participation in on-line environments, it’s about spreading it around so that it can be drip fed, hydroponically, down into the local communities all over the place.
The dance between global and local
… And the local communities ultimately have to create their own material, because that’s what they will take ownership of in their local context. Solutions can’t be rolled out as templates. And yet templates, too, are needed – but for processes, rather than content. An example of very useful and virally spreadable templates for change are the different methodologies for having the large-scale conversations needed to generate collective ideas for experimentation in local communities. As more and more groups experimenting around the same theme find each other (usually online) and compare notes, we can see patterns in the content they are generating. An example where the urgency of climate change, peak oil and social fragmentation means it makes sense to share good practice is sustainable cities: of all the work that’s been done in urban environments throughout the world, what seem to be the top seven pillars for sustainability in cities?
AND each group must dive into its own inquiry and work out what it has to do. Perhaps the ideal approach is to do start ‘at home’, with your own situation, and then look at what others have done, and ask: How do our results feed into the global body of knowledge in this field? How do our findings relate to that? When we look at what others have done, do we see any blind spots in our own approach (or in theirs)? Part of what this does is help light up things we don’t know that we don’t know. It’s a delicate balance. If we just do our own local thing, we fail to acknowledge all the resources that are already there somewhere else and we risk getting into blind spots. But trying to force a template through from top down is how you fail to get ownership, and your solutions will be neither emergent nor context specific.
The magic of ownership
Once a community takes ownership of its solutions, people start to have the confidence to open up to solutions from elsewhere – they go ‘Hey, that’s great! Grab it, we own this too!’ But you’ve got to start from your own base.
This is a real edge to keep exploring – this interface between the global ‘knowledge field’ and local, context-specific ownership, and how those two can best interface with each other.
Where good practice is concerned, we don’t want a ‘knowledge database’ crammed with templates. Rather, we need a blog of stories, so we don’t forget that these are experiences in the past. That way we are less likely to fall into the trap of ‘this is how it worked here, so therefore it’s a template for how to do it elsewhere.’