We Need Participation, but it is Wild and Wooly
Awhile back I wrote a blog about the importance of participation in organizational work. I concluded with this paragraph:
“It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term ‘communities of practice,’ describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to ‘steward’ their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful. Beyond ‘buy-in’ and ‘ownership,’ beyond ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up,’ even beyond ‘authorship’ true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.”
Effective Teamwork is at the Heart of Participation
There is something to be excavated here that is the bedrock underlying the question this blog addresses: but why teamwork? Some phrases stand out: a little wild and wooly, but respectful; the gathering of varied experiences and perspectives; a shared sense of purpose and shared practices; the stewarding of knowledge and skill; agency, power, efficiency, and transformation. These are the conditions and dynamics of powerful and innovative work. So what I want to explore today is the idea that effective teamwork is at its heart a necessary process to arrive at a place where all that those phrases conjure up for us can happen in a healthy and productive way.
If your image of effective teamwork is to be able to control a calm and non-conflictual space where people come together to work on a collectively well defined problem, or toward some clear and measurable outcome, in a deliberate and rational way, you may be disappointed or shocked by the actual teamwork experiences you have: it is often beyond control and far from rational. But why do we need that kind of messiness that is beyond our control? Because most problems we face are not merely technical in nature, and often neither the nature of the problem nor the nature of the solution is clear. What we really want is to guide or nurture a space where transformational work with complex problems can happen, and that requires diverse ideas and dissonance among them, conflict and the discomfort of new learning emerging, the exploration of wild places, diving into unfamiliar, even scary waters. Otherwise, what we get is no better than what we started with, mediocre at best, the same old, same old.
You need wildly divergent thinking and experiences in order to converge on new ideas or new products. The paradox is, wildness and freedom in the content of your work require structure and deliberateness in the process of your work; otherwise, what you get is wildly dysfunctional or even dangerous, and often completely unproductive. So. To do out of the box thinking requires a box to contain that work. We create deliberately structured processes to free us to do unstructured thinking, and those structured processes are the stuff of effective teamwork. But that requires letting go of the notion that you can control any of this; you and your teammates can only guide and nurture these processes.
So What Contains the Wildness?
We might categorize the “containers” for effective teamwork as conditions, knowledge, skills, habits of mind, processes, and tools. These containers do not represent a perfect system or technical fix; you can’t just adopt them wholesale. They offer guidance for your team to help you make meaning together of your work. Your collective job is to support the emergence of these containers in your practice of being a team working together. It’s hard work. Practice makes practice.
Here’s a few examples from some of my research and writing on teamwork:
Some Conditions, Knowledge, & Skills:
“The members of an effective team must be:
“The support for an effective team’s work must be:
“The work of an effective team must:
Some Habits of Mind:
“Effective leadership teams have beliefs, and norms of interaction, that support all their members being team players. An example of such a norm is, ‘Members of effective teams listen actively by digging for meaning and uncovering assumptions and inferences.’”
“Effective teams have and use shared norms, structures, procedures, and team skills for their work (that is, they have created a team culture), and have developed roles that take advantage of their different individual skills, expertise, and experience to accomplish shared work.”
“Individual members take responsibility for their own learning and involvement, even though there may be a process observer and facilitator. All members are responsible for all roles, even when roles are assigned.”
“Effective teams have clear structures and procedures for accomplishing their work. Those may include assigned roles such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, reflector, process observer, etc. They also include such things as a regular time to meet, and a set membership.”
“They have clear communication procedures for use in their team work, and are clear about when each is appropriate. ‘For instance, when setting an agenda, they do not talk about possible solutions to problems that are as yet poorly defined.’ They practice active listening. They balance advocacy with inquiry (Argyris et al., 1985). They are concise and concrete in their advocacy, bringing concrete data, evidence, to bear on their proposals. They make their statements open to critique by others. They make their reasoning explicit. They balance speaking with listening, and everyone can speak and is heard. They take turns, or keep a running tally of who is waiting to speak. They don’t ask leading questions that are really disguised advocacy. They ask open ended questions, for information or clarification, or to advance the thinking of the group. They act as critical friends, not criticizers.”
“They have clear decision-making procedures. They are aware of and use consensus procedures when appropriate; they know when to shift from one decision strategy to another. They can decide when not to decide, and when to revisit a decision. They are aware when decisions are not appropriate, and when discussion and meaning-making are more important. They know when to fish, cut bait, or swim to shore.”
They have clear conflict management and negotiation procedures.
Conditions can be developed. Knowledge, skills, and habits of mind can be cultivated and learned. The internet is full of resources for the processes and tools your team will need. The practice that it takes to make it all work together, you will have to do yourselves.
But Why Teamwork Again?
Remember the quote I started with? “It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful.” Teamwork is essential for creating that space, and effective teamwork is what makes it really hum. A team skilled at building the right process container for their teamwork can unleash the most diversity of ideas into a wild and wooly wilderness of creative work, resulting in innovative solutions to those “wicked problems” we know lie beyond the stretch of our current realm of knowledge. Go hunting!
Sometimes ideas from far sectors of my world converge in ways that send me spiraling (recursively? interpolatively? extrapolatively?) into some new inquiry that I could never have imagined before. That is what is exciting me and driving my thinking today, after reading an astounding piece by Richard Elmore about school improvement, hearing about the effects of fear on some significant changes in the life circumstances of my yoga teacher, and reflecting on an increase in my understanding about somatic responses to trauma that I’ve been offered by a colleague of mine with considerable expertise in that area (that last combined with my experiences with a brilliant somatic therapist who helped me address some of my own generational trauma). I am deeply grateful for these disparate sources of wisdom in my life, and then to see that in some mysterious ways they are weaving together a new understanding about my work just exponentially enlarges that gratitude.
Elmore describes the organization charts of most school districts as the “geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do.” He sees those changes as serial and persistent, and as being the main source of incoherence in school systems. Each compartment in the organizational structure has its own self perpetuating constituency, and is self-reinforcing. He goes on to describe the incoherence across compartments (layers in this organizational geology) as constituting the central obstacle to large-scale improvement.
Those of you who have ever visited the Grand Canyon, maybe even hiked down through the layers of geologic history exposed there by faulting and erosion, will immediately have a visual image or visceral experience of this kind of deposition. It may start as soft mud or the dissolving bodies and shells of millions of years of crustaceans accumulating on an ocean floor, or the windblown cross-bedded layers of sand dunes in a desert. But over time those layers compact and harden, and become solid rock, and then through tectonic shifts, rise up or subside, and new layers of different materials begin to accumulate on top of them, weighing them down, bearing little resemblance or relation to the layers below. Keep that image in mind.
My yoga teacher, Abby Tucker, wrote last night, in a FaceBook post, the following:
“Fear gets you nowhere folks. Being scared of being disappointed or hurt is a scourge. It freezes you in inaction; imprisoning you in settling for less than what you dream of. And you don’t just hurt yourself in the process, your fear leaves a wake and strong ripple behind it. Thriving and fear can’t sit next to each other. There’s a reason nearly every murti has at least one hand in abhaya mudra [the mudra of fearlessness or, more apt, since we will all experience fear at some point, courage in the face of fear].”
Imagine the experience of fear freezing not only you, but leaving “a wake and strong ripple” throughout your life, like the metaphor of the butterfly’s flapping wings causing a hurricane somewhere distant in time and space. The wake and the ripple invade the lives of those around you, freezing everything, imprisoning you and the community of family and friends you surround yourself with in a world where you cannot reach or connect with what you dream of. Imagine the rigidity of a frozen world that cannot, because of that rigidity and fear, thrive. This narrowing, this constricting into brittleness, is what Gregory Bateson refers to as an “uptight system,” the brittleness of which cascades from one initial factor throughout the system to freeze everything, and result ultimately in system collapse. Certainly not thriving.
So that brings me to thinking about trauma, and a somatic perspective on trauma. As many of you who have visited a Rolfer, or acupuncturist, or many other kinds of body workers, or practiced yoga might know, there is a view, strongly supported now by neurological research, that the body “stores” trauma in various locations in muscular tensions, neurological patterns, and restricted energy flows. Many of these practitioners believe, with good evidence, that trauma unaddressed will manifest in a variety of physical and psychological conditions and diseases. Our body literally “freezes” into certain unhealthy patterns as a result of unaddressed trauma.
In effect, trauma layers rigidity into the geology of our bodies, just as Elmore describes educational bureaucracies as the geological residue of generations of ideas about what is the best new thing to make teachers do. I could argue that these generations of ideas, including the latest (hopefully slowly ending) decade or two of high stakes testing and punitive accountability systems and policies, constitute a state of chronic fear-based stress that has layered itself into the psyche and the bodies of all of us who work in the educational sector, and deeply into the neurological fiber, and the organizational “bodies,” of our school systems. This generational trauma has frozen us into a state of brittleness that makes us “settle for less,” quite considerably less, than what we dream of for our children and for ourselves, leaving the whole system unable to thrive, and vulnerable to collapse. We are working in a system so traumatized by fear that it has become like hardened layers of rock, vulnerable to fracture and erosion as the tectonic plates of global change shift and move beneath us. This may be the “central obstacle to large-scale improvement” that Elmore describes. Certainly, it is not a system that is thriving at present.
Now add to that geology the fact that a large percentage of our urban children and youth come to school in a state of chronic stress and trauma, not post-traumatic stress, but ongoing, daily traumatic stress, due to everyday conditions in their families and communities. That is not to say that there are not powerfully positive assets in the urban low income community that we could, and absolutely need to, mine, but that our students are, many of them, re-experiencing in our classrooms every day the triggers of trauma they also live out at home and in their neighborhoods. That trauma ripples through the classroom and school, triggering and traumatizing our teachers with what is called “secondary trauma.” So we have an additional daily layer being added to the already toxic layers in our educational system’s geology.
A “Blameless Critique:”
But lest you think I am somehow standing in some “holier than thou” position outside this system and critiquing it, let me say two things:
First, as Peter Senge says, there is no “outside” the system of education where anyone of us can stand to critique it objectively, whether we teach (which my wife does), work in education (which I do), are a student, or are a parent or other community member. Debbie Meier famously said, “We all of us [the adults, anyway] have at least thirteen years of experience in knowing how education is ‘supposed to be.’” Robert Penn Warren wrote this seemingly paradoxical admonition in his powerful “tale in verse and voices,” Brother to Dragons:
“The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence.
The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom.
The recognition of direction of fulfillment is the death of the self,
And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood.
All else is surrogate of hope and destitution of spirit.”
I recognize my complicity in enabling this system to continue. I have real hope that we can all find some innocence, some sense of necessity, and then some freedom.
Second, Ted Sizer reminds us that our critique of the educational system is a “blameless critique.” The dysfunction of these geologic layers of incoherent bureaucracy and trauma cannot be blamed on anyone in particular; again, they are the residue of generations of what seemed at the time to be good ideas layered onto one another (this is not to ignore the layers of historic and systemic oppression that so many of our urban students bear the legacy of, and that of course contributes to their trauma; we once again all are in some way complicit in that, and the education system continues to replicate it even as it attempts to right the course and become more equitable in access, experience, and outcomes).
So, now what?
I do not wish to suggest there are simple solutions for this fear-based, brittle, frozen body we have created and inhabit in education. Elmore’s proposed solutions are structural and professional, and center around strategic approaches to supporting enhanced practice in the “instructional core” of the relationship between teachers and students in the presence of important content, all powerful and reasonable suggestions about how to overcome the incoherence of bureaucracy. But they do not go beneath all that to acknowledge and talk about the shadow side of the work, the hidden geology of layered traumatic response embedded, embodied in our frozen and brittle educational systems. Even if we put everything he suggests into practice, might we then yet just be able barely to sustain something positive; would we really be able to approach thriving? Would we be able to reach toward that which we dream of?
In many of our urban classrooms these days, there is talk and action around the use of various practices that help students feel calm, and settled, and safe, and give them the tools of self-awareness and self-management, and the ability to be in the middle of challenges and interact with others in effective ways. This is comparable to my yoga teacher telling us that our practice is to learn to breathe and be expansive, to create spaciousness before engaging muscle to bone, to find a way to open inner spaces, even in the most contracted poses, twists and binds, the ‘seed poses,” that might feel like the world has collapsed in upon us, which otherwise might engender fear and its ripple effects. And of course, what she tells us is meant to be transferable to our lives off the mat. So in our classrooms, increasingly we use “mindfulness” practices, restorative justice circles, ways to create spaces that have openness within predictable structures and processes, that surround our students with the experience of a caring and supportive system, even as we challenge them to take the risks inherent in higher levels of learning. We help students to become aware of the trauma they experience and to find ways to manage it, and in some communities, we deliberately use an engaged approach to the teaching of civics and history, and English, and other subjects to help our students situate themselves, find themselves, in the knowledge of their history and their language, and the power that those things offer to them to give voice to their own experiences, to become agents of change in their own communities, even providing opportunities for them to incorporate civic engagement into their learning and their culminating experiences in school.
These things are clues. Elmore says that improvement processes are symmetrical across levels in the system, that “[t]he same processes of learning and development, the same strategic choices, the same knowledge and skill are evident at each level, and the form they take is appropriate to that level.” So what do geology, fear, trauma, being frozen, breathing, and being courageous have to offer us? And what can we learn from watching the healing process unfold for our students that might be equally healing for us, the traumatized adults, occupying places in this system frozen with fear?
Clearly, there must be more that is needed to overcome fear and develop the courage to live in a softened geology, to create the spaciousness to breathe, to let in the air, to thrive! Perhaps the hand of the murti, raised to remind us that courage is an abiding choice, offers us some freedom to act. I am reminded of a Buddhist saying, “no muck; no lotus.” Besides the coherence strategy Elmore recommends, might we need to explore the dark shadowy, mucky spaces, dive down through the layers of bedrock, ignite the fires beneath the tectonic plates, cause the mantel to breathe and flow, open up some space, break the brittle geologic overburden up?
What might be the muck of our inquiry? What might constitute the courage we need to breathe fire and life into the darker regions, in the face of the hardened geology of fear and trauma?
In my own experience of coming to terms with generational trauma in my family, years of talk therapy (the verbal, transactional, structural world) yielded deep understanding of where it all came from, but little relief from the ingrained neurological and physical patterns that were the frozen geological residue of that trauma. Many years of showing up for and practicing, practicing, practicing yoga (parallel to Elmore’s belief that strategy and coherence come from practice, reflected on in good company, not from ideas or talk alone) gave me a deeper experience of the persistence, inquiry, self-compassion, and courage to create space for healing, and gave me new habits, both physical and mental, that enacted a healthier way of being, an unfreezing, an opportunity to go into the muck and abide there curiously and courageously, and possibly start to grow a lotus. But it was only in the addition of somatic work directly focused on inquiry into that trauma on a bodily level, and the actual fiery tectonic shifts that somatic work enabled, that I was able to break up some of my own geology of fear and find some sense that I could not only survive but thrive. That I could even imagine that I could reach for what I dreamed of.
Again, these are clues for our inquiry. As another yogic story tells us, the lord Ganesha, the elephant headed boy, stands at the threshold of our potential. He decides who passes and who does not. One of his symbols is the twisted trunk, that symbolizes that the pathway is not straight, but crooked. Another of his attributes is his capacity to remove obstacles from our pathway, and obstacles there will surely be. But also, he places obstacles in our way, to provide us opportunities for growth. Might our geology, our fear, our trauma be such obstacles, providing us opportunities for growth, to open up something far greater than we could even dream for? Might thriving be something far more powerful than we have imagined?
All of this implies an inquiry. What might a somatic collective healing inquiry in our educational organizations look like, especially one grounded in persistent practice? How might the practices we are using with our students help with our practice to heal adult systems? What courage, curiosity, and compassion would we need? What softening and opening? What breathing even in our tightly twisted and bound state, our frozen, fear-based geology?
I invite you into this space to explore with me.
Warning: DRAFT, DRAFT, DRAFT!!
CoP’s develop organically, originating out of a concern or issue or passion or sense of purpose that a growing group of people come to realize that they share, and an emergent set of skills and knowledge related to those that the group also shares. In the literature, these are referred to as Domain, Community, and Practice (Wenger, cite); we will use those three concepts as “orienting theory” as we study several emerging communities. As members come to recognize that they share these concerns or purposes, and that they relate to a set of skills and knowledge that they also share, they begin to build trust around acknowledging that existing knowledge and those existing skills. A sense of common identity, of shared information and knowledge, and the emerging relationships that they build form a solid foundation for continued and expanded engagement (Wheatley, cite). Clarity about the value proposition that a given community is aligning with will positively affect the coherence and development of the CoP.
This is an iterative process, one aspect reinforcing another, as trust builds and efficacy grows, and members settle into more or less familiar rhythms of collective work. It takes time and resources to support this organic, emergent development, without much sense of traditional goals, outcomes, and accountability (as those will emerge from within the community). As the community iterates itself into higher and higher levels of functioning, as its shared domain of concerns becomes more explicit, as its level of trust in the collective membership of its community develops (and its capacity to attract new members and apprentice and scaffold them into higher levels of participation and skillful practice), and as its knowledge and skill to address its concerns develops, it reaches a stage of becoming interested in new possibilities, in things it does not already know, or is not already able to do. The community itself will reach out for those new possibilities, in the form of sharing practices with other communities, of seeking professional learning opportunities, and of looking for literature or other research or resources to support its continued development. To the extent that the larger environment is prepared to be responsive to that internalized sense of agency, and its timing, some synergy may result. On the other hand, competing demands for participation in externally mandated or designed professional development or other mandated requirements will dampen the development of the full capacity of the CoP’s for effectively addressing the Domain concerns they are passionate about and identified with.
CoP’s go through some predictable stages of development (Wenger, cite). Those shift from recognizing the potential for a CoP to come together, to the actual coalescence of the community and its discovery of its shared knowledge and skills to address its concerns, to its maturing into trusting relationships and familiar rhythms of work, and on to stewarding itself and its knowledge, and then into some form of transformation, which may include dissolution (Wenger, cite). Whatever stage, it is important to recognize and provide support appropriate to the concerns of that particular stage.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge that most communities of practice that involve professionals exist within larger organizational contexts, and those contexts shape the nature of the communities within them. Since these communities are organic and iterative in their emergence and design, a system that can support and encourage such an organic and somewhat indeterminate nature is a positive in supporting their growth. Existing protocols about team performance that have been integrated into organizational culture and are aligned with CoP development will be useful; however, some protocols and/or rubrics for team performance or even for specific kinds of CoP’s may be too prescriptive for the organic nature of some CoP’s. Those methods and approaches that align with adult learning theory have more potential to work in support of the development of CoP’s than other, more traditional controlling, didactic, or deterministic (“top-down”) approaches. The ability or willingness of the larger organization to acknowledge that the boundaries of membership and functioning in CoP’s are much more permeable and cross over traditional organizational structures and roles will be an important indicator of the capacity of those CoP’s to develop fully within the larger organizational context. In general, the dynamic between a CoP and its larger organizational context will include some tensions, especially if the larger organization has more mechanistic or bureaucratic cultures and ways of doing things, and if the larger organization has specific outcomes or expectations of performance that the CoP may not entirely have embraced, or is explicitly working against.
In general, several aspects of the larger organizational environment will have significant effects on the development of CoP’s. Most of those have to do with the overall organizational culture’s orientation to and understanding of professional practice, emergent and organic professional systems for accomplishing the goals of the organization, capacity for and understanding of dialogue and deep discourse across traditional organizational boundaries, and capacity for working in an environment of professional mutual adjustment rather than positional authority based command and compliance mode. All of these cultural aspects play out in how leadership understands and is capable of supporting the development of the CoP’s.
In addition, many organization use coaches to support the development of CoP’s, and coaches often mediate between leaders with more traditional expectations and the rather unorthodox processes and emergent culture of the communities of practice. Coaches at the senior level of leadership often help shift leadership, and then the overall culture, toward being able to engage in a more reflective process, and that provides a stronger and more culturally aligned context for CoP development. Reciprocally, coaches at the level of the CoP itself may help align external expectations, mandates, or instincts to provide certain kinds of expertise that it is assumed the CoP members need, in the form of professional development or technical assistance, with the internal development of a sense of the need, or locus of motivation, to seek out other knowledge and/or skills that they need in order to practice with the level of skill they desire to address their stated domain concerns. This context expertise allows for a “just in time” approach to providing technical assistance or professional development, and will be received more willingly by the CoP.
In our study, we will look for these aspects and dynamics, while remaining open to observing other unforeseen ways of thinking about and engaging in the activities of community of practice development.
“Square yourself to what is,” my yoga teacher has been telling us this late summer and early autumn. Such an intriguing phrase, paradoxically combining the muscular act of engagement with the opening and expansive breath of surrender. You can choose to live your life in a healthy and sustainable way, in a series of acts of deliberately acknowledging what is real, or you can fight against that basic truth, and live in misery and exhaustion. So much of our current world of work seems to me to be a cultish attempt to make overwork and frenzy seem like a completely acceptable and real heroic quest to put in superhuman effort, at least 150%, in order to slay some dragon and win some princess (or prince). I want to argue here that that seeming heroic quest is not what is real, and our attempts to live that myth are not sustainable.
About a year ago on an eight day mostly off-trail backpacking trip with my sons in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, I was struggling to climb up some twenty-seven hundred vertical feet, mostly on continuous steep boulder fields, from the Green River up into a high valley above Tourist Creek, where we would spend our second night. In the moment, I believe, looking back, I was not thinking about anything but breathing and putting one foot carefully in front of another. But later, I reflected back on that horrifically challenging day. Three words came to mind, and I could feel how they combined to help me understand what I was doing climbing up that valley, and how I managed to make it to the top with enough energy left to collapse onto the ground at our campsite and burst into tears. Those words were: commitment, engagement, and surrender.
I can hear you saying to yourself, “Commitment, yup, I get that. Engagement, that too! But… surrender? How can surrender possibly get you twenty-seven hundred feet up steep boulder fields?” My realization was, I could I not have made it up without surrender. Even stranger, I realized that full engagement and surrender are the same thing. I can also hear you saying, “Oh, he must mean something like the AlAnon phrase, ‘Let go and let god,'” but no, that’s not what I mean.
In her intense and brilliant essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard writes, “The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and subtle way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t attack anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to live, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.” Could we live like weasels? “We could, you know,” Dillard writes, “We can live any way we want.” The surrender that I am talking about, which is the same as one hundred percent engagement, is like that, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. That is squaring yourself to what is. I could have tried to muscle my way up that slope, attacking and fighting it all the way with the will power of my ego and my strong body, giving a hundred and fifty percent, beating myself up if I wavered or faltered. I am sure I would not have made it. I could have sat down in a slump and given up the first time I realized how hard it really was, surrendered in that way, full of doubt and fear and resignation. I could have tried to dream my way up, disconnecting from the pain of the experience and floating into camp, and again, I doubt I would have made it. Or I could have kept telling myself that I was strong and capable and I could go all the way to that high lake where we wanted to camp. I believe, again, that the energy it would have taken me just to have that encouraging conversation with myself, and keep having it, would have left me with not enough to do the actual climb. We have in us a number of voices that we call on in difficult situations. We have a critical voice, and we have a lenient voice. We have a way to make up stories about why we do or don’t do something. I am saying that what I needed at that time was silence, a unifying space lying beneath the dualities and cacophonies of all the voices, a space of presence, watching, reflection, a radical affirmation of what is, a kind of acceptance that certain situations demand of us of necessity, but that all situations allow as a possibility. I am saying, that day, that steep slope, demanded every bit of presence I had in me, and that demanded complete surrender and complete engagement. One hundred percent, no more, no less. In squaring to what is.
“But,” you ask, “what does that have to do with the world of work?” You already know I believe we can create healthy, organic, emergent, adaptable, sustainable work settings, organizations that effectively engage us in meaningful work, enact our values, and are integrally connected to our community, in order to accomplish things we care about. Creating that sort of organization is hard work, to be sure, especially since it involves effort against the prevailing myths of work I described above. It is about authenticity and it is about wisdom. But it is not about the violence of overwork, or the consequent giving up. It requires an abiding belief in the inherent worthiness of the effort, and belief in the capacity of an open, human, and humane system to be healthy. It is a situation that allows us the possibility of complete engagement and total surrender, of yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity, by choice.
We humans are meaning-makers, ritual creators in a sense. We make ritual out of every experience in some way or another, to mark it off as distinct and separate in space and time, to imagine it as an idealized version of itself, or to use it to dig deeper into the unknown, including our own inner unknowns, our unconscious. Most of our communal work is in some way ritualized social interaction. We make culture out of nature, all of nature. I have done that with my backpacking experience on Tourist Creek, in order to come to a deeper understanding of how to square with what is, how to engage and surrender in the same breath. In the moment, no. But after the fact, I have crafted this story to tell you, so we might come to a deeper understanding of what it means to create organizations that are sustainable, healthy, resilient, realistic (in that we can see what is), reflective (in that we can see our own depths and unconscious in action), in order to acknowledge and know our intentions and achieve what we want to accomplish.
I want to suggest a new ritual activity. Not making myths of heroic and superhuman effort. Not myths of heroic leaders who single-handedly swoop in on a white horse to save the damsel in distress or solve the problem, then ride off into the sunset. It’s not even about solving problems or fixing things. I want to suggest a ritual activity of embedding ourselves in a matrix of relationships, a social ecosystem, fully engaged and totally surrendered, squared to what is, where we see our work life not as a problem to be solved, but as a gift to be explored, to paraphrase one of my teachers, Dr. Douglas Brooks. That makes our work a ritual of inquiry into radical possibility, not dragon slaying. This is a new kind of leadership practice, requiring a new vision of community and of work. But that might take us into the wild places of the unknown, where there are steep boulder fields, and where there is need of full engagement and total surrender, where we might live as we are meant to live.
I read an article recently by Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that brilliantly explores the history of our current education system and explains why it is not structured for success. In his article, he calls for restructuring so education could “function more like a profession and less like a bureaucracy.” His enumeration of the problems of how education is organized – “…wide variability in levels of teacher skill from classroom to classroom, failure to bring good practices to scale across sites, the absence of an ‘educational infrastructure’ to support practice, the failure to capitalize on the knowledge and skill of leading teachers, and the distrustful and unproductive relationships between policy makers and practitioners…” – could be addressed with a cultural/structural shift toward supporting the development of what Etienne Wenger calls “communities of practice” among teachers, other professionals, and community members with a stake in education. Communities of practice are not just powerful ways to re-organize education; non-profits could take a lesson here also, and move to create more professional and organic ways of structuring their work, so as not fall unreflectively into bureaucratic forms themselves.
What is a “community of practice?” How could supporting their development help improve our professional work in education and the non-profit world? Wenger defines communities of practice as, “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” Several things are significant here: the group shares a set of concerns (Wenger calls this the “domain”), the group interacts regularly (this is the “community”), and the group shares existing knowledge and builds new knowledge that is directly about their shared practices (thus, the “practice”). A community of practice meets the criteria for effective organizational functioning that Margaret Wheatley describes, that it exists at the intersection of a sense of identity, shared information, and relationships, and engages in conversation that results in a deepening sense of the meaningfulness of their shared work. Such groups may form across traditional organizational boundaries, depending on their purpose. They are very organic in their forming and in their functioning, and in that way, they create a new culture that is very different from the culture that surrounds traditional bureaucracies. It is a culture of self-motivated, self-sustaining, and self-monitoring professional improvement. And most important, a community of practice is not just a community of talk; their work is always about their practice.
Meg Wheatley argues eloquently for the need to cultivate communities of practice as an alternative to bureaucracies: “…we have lived for so long in the tight confines of bureaucracies… that it is taking us some time to learn how to live in open, intelligent organizations. This requires an entirely new relationship with information, one in which we embrace its living properties. In newer theories of the brain, information is widely distributed… And memories, it is now thought, must arise in relationships within the whole neural network. [I]nformation is stored in these networks of relationships…” Organic networks of relationships where information is widely distributed, intelligent organizations! Precisely what Mehta is calling for!
So a group of teachers who meet to discuss how to implement the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could be a community of practice, especially if they share practices and build shared knowledge of those among themselves, and even more so if they practice and then reflect together on their practice to improve it regularly, in a cycle of inquiry. They are enacting another important aspect of a community of practice if they also apprentice newer teachers into their community and support their improved practice. Wenger believes that communities of practice “steward” their own knowledge, and seek out new information to build new knowledge as they need it. This is a very different situation from a group of teachers who receive professional development from experts on how to implement the CCSS (the traditional bureaucratic approach to knowledge creation and use). The same could be said of school site administrators with a concern for school redesign, or non-profit leaders who want to improve non-profit leadership, who meet to discuss their common practices and how to improve their work, and build a common and evolving knowledge base to support that work. In my work to support Linked Learning Pathway teams, I consider the coaches doing this work, the lead teachers in the Pathways, the teachers working on interdisciplinary project based learning, and the school administrators trying to design supporting school schedules and structures, all potentially to be communities of practice.
Communities of practice are a great way to approach bringing people together to create a “wise organization,” to use the language of another blog post of mine, and one of the main purposes of the work of Inquiry & Learning for Change. Yet their creation and maintenance entails certain paradoxes for people who are interested in organizational change, whether coaches or consultants or change agents. As Wenger himself says, “Communities of practice do not usually require heavy institutional infrastructures, but their members do need time and space to collaborate. They do not require much management, but they can use leadership. They self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational environment. The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without overwhelming them with organizational meddling. This need for balance reflects the following paradox: No community can fully design the learning of another; but conversely no community can fully design its own learning.”
As coaches and planners, we want to understand how a commitment to designing and developing communities of practice will help support changes at the organizational level, from the classroom to the district. Wenger states:
“Cultivating communities of practice takes place in an organizational or interorganizational context. They… achieve full value only when well integrated. The challenge… therefore, is… about transforming organizations. The point… is… to build the organization’s overall capacity to learn and innovate… But partnering with the organization cuts both ways. …it magnifies a community’s influence and increases opportunities for members. …[however,] it [also] introduces new requirements and constraints – such as policies that limit members’ flexibility, systems that don’t support knowledge sharing activities, or managers who won’t allocate time for innovation projects. The ‘aliveness’ of a community, no matter how passionate and active its members, will be severely limited unless it finds ways to integrate itself with the surrounding organization.”
We might be particularly intrigued by this dilemma as cited in a blog on Wenger’s web page about CoP’s (currently unavailable): “However, the very characteristics that make communities of practice a good fit for stewarding knowledge—autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries—are also characteristics that make them a challenge for traditional hierarchical organizations.” Reframing his last sentence, our questions might be, How is this challenge going to affect these organizations? How can we use CoP’s as a change strategy for remaking educational bureaucracies into the networked innovation settings that will address the problem Jal Mehta frames above?
One way Wenger suggests to move forward with creating communities of practice is this: “It makes sense to begin the knowledge initiative by creating a shared map that explicitly describes the capabilities required to achieve the [organization’s] strategic goals.” Mental mapping or concept mapping is a powerful tool for making explicit and public a group’s understanding of something they are trying to accomplish. In building communities of practice and wise organizations, we use these kinds of tools with participants with great success.
However we support their development, communities of practice offer powerful new ways to design and enact system change in education and the non-profit world. I hope you will consider supporting them in your work!
Everywhere these days you see schools and non-profits being asked to prove that they are getting results by gathering and presenting data… tons of data. Foundations want to know that their investments are paying off. State and Federal Education Agencies want to assure that all children are learning. Businesses want minute to minute analytics and dashboards for their shareholders. We don’t seem to question this increasingly urgent push to having access to more and more data about every aspect of our work. And yet, as the data pile up, we feel more and more inundated with data, a veritable tsunami of data, and we wonder if we really can make sense out of it all, in any meaningful way.
Many non-profts and schools are facing an increasing feeling, and reality, of data overload. Teachers feel beat up with data. Particularly in public education, we seem to use data more as a hammer than anything else. And yet, almost everyone wants more data. Almost no one is asking, “To answer what questions?” Even harder, “What data do we really need to answer those questions?” And, “How would we know if those data actually answered our questions?” Let me make an emphatic point: That we have access to more data than ever does not mean that we can necessarily answer important questions about the effectiveness of our schools and other organizations any better, nor does it mean that we have to use, or even can use, all of those data for some important purpose.
As we now know (and many were saying all along), over a decade of time and huge sums of money were invested in No Child Left Behind, mostly on the questionable strategy that state standardized tests used for accountability would improve student achievement. This massive effort resulted in only modest gains in some places, while at the same time demonizing and demoralizing teachers and schools, and setting them up as targets of reform rather than putting that time and money into developing their professionalism and their professional associations’ capacity to raise their own standards of practice (as a recent article by Jal Mehta in the Harvard Ed Review notes). A similar frenzy seems to be gripping the foundation and non-profit world, to produce more and more data about the programs funded by the foundations. In a parody of this frenzy that is not too far from the truth, non-profits could end up spending more time reporting on their work than actually doing it. It is certainly true that many felt the hours and hours of test prep and testing that we did in education for NCLB, not to mention the narrowing of the curriculum just to focus on what the tests were supposedly measuring, represented a sad waste of time and distraction from real learning. This is not a sustainable system.
So am I saying that data are not useful? Absolutely not! Data can help provide a compass, guiding us with a north star and a bearing toward where we want to go. Data can act as a roadmap (as long as we remember that the map is not the territory!). Most important, data can serve as part of a reflective cycle of inquiry, a cycle of continuous improvement, at all levels in the educational system, and in our non-profits. However, we will want to consider carefully what questions we want to address and what data will meaningfully and effectively address those, as we shift toward a more balanced use of data. And we will want to explore what sorts of evidence we really need to address those questions. We will want to expand our notions of what counts as data at the same time that we are pruning back our massively overgrown data “tree.” And we will want to consider some ways that we think about and engage with data as well. It’s not just a technical question we are addressing.
So, first of all, we need clarity on our questions, and on who is asking them, and on their purposes. Are we exploring a classroom or other learning experience, or a whole school’s effectiveness? Are we looking at program effectiveness? Are we determining the extent to which organizational systems are well matched to program processes and desired outcomes or accomplishments? Are we examining leadership? Are we prototyping a new process or product?
And then, to borrow from Habermas, we might consider data to have a technical aspect, a social or practical aspect, and a critical aspect.
Some technical questions we will want to ask are:
Some social/practical questions we will want to ask are:
Some critical questions we will want to ask are:
If we work to become clear about the Theory of Action of our program or non-profit or educational project (how do we see the resources we have and our choices of what we do as leading to the outcomes or accomplishments we want?), then we have a solid place to begin to craft good questions about our work that can drive good choices of data to use in our assessment, in our quest for continuous improvement, using a cycle of inquiry. That inquiry provides a setting for us to engage as professionals in collecting useful data about our work, analyzing those, making meaning out of the analysis, choosing practices that will help us improve, fine tuning our work, and building a higher quality knowledge base to drive our practice. This embedded reflection and knowledge stewardship is at the heart of real improvement.
So, again, I ask, are you a fan of big data? If so, what is your question? Taking into consideration what I have said above, you may find yourself using less data, but getting more out of it. That would be sustainable.
I can’t count the number of times I have heard leaders in all types of organizations state that they need to develop a vision or solve a problem before they involve their staff or community, and then disseminate it and get “buy-in” from the rank and file after they’ve crafted something awesome. “They have other work to do, and this will just stress them out,” is one excuse. Or, “they don’t have a broad enough view of what is going on to make a meaningful contribution.” Or, “it takes too much time, and costs too much!” These are short-sighted views that will inevitably result in it taking more time down the road to align vision and action, gain people’s commitment and build their motivation to engage, or really solve the problem they had failed to solve in the first place.
People misunderstand participation. On reason is that we have bad metaphors for how people work together. “Buy-in” and “ownership” have really very little to do with how people think of themselves in relation to the work they do. To believe that you are going to get “buy-in” down the road once you’ve crafted a great idea assumes that the people who work for you don’t have their own ideas, or that yours are inevitably better than theirs, and that your job is to “sell” your great idea to them. Sure, they may like your idea, but if they have not been involved and had a chance to engage in conversation about the topic along the way, the likelihood that they will really understand it and that it will be meaningful and motivational to them is low. Another bad metaphor is the “top-down, bottom-up” image of organizations we seem to be stuck in. We seem to believe that some ideas should flow “top-down” and some information should flow “bottom-up,” but the reality is information is exchanged, meaning is made, and engagement and commitment are generated, in interactions at the intersection of identity, information, and relationships, as Meg Wheatley describes it. That occurs in the “space” of participation, which we either cultivate or resist, though it will happen anyway if we resist, and the results may not be what we hoped for. When we are talking about organizational vision, as Peter Senge has pointed out, shared vision is created by leaders recognizing and guiding the coalescing of individual passions about the work into visions that drive their engagement and their motivation. Leaders can champion this coalescing, but cannot very effectively legislate, command, or disseminate it. Vision is an emergent process that leaders can support by recognizing that emergence and building enrollment and commitment from that coalescing.
Another reason is that we assume that technical experts are better at solving problems than the people who are doing the actual work. Those experts can then train the workers to apply their solutions to the work. There are so many bad assumptions built into this way of framing problem solving and work that it would take days to explore them all. Many of them are left over from early views of work on assembly lines pushed by Taylor and others in the scientific management literature. But central to this approach is the failure to understand both the people nature of work (work is done by people working together) and the capacity of those doing it to be reflective and see possibilities that experts removed from the actual processes might not see (they are not merely unskilled laborers with no thoughts, nor machines). So those closest to the work see how they work together and what they do that accomplishes the work, and can be very creative in exploring ways to improve both the social and the technical sides of the work. Of course, it is possible that those closest to the work can get into binds due to unexamined collective assumptions and beliefs, group think, but that just suggests the need to expand participation beyond small homogeneous groups, and that gets at the need for examining the boundaries of participation, and the need for networks of innovators. But those are topics for future blogs…
A valuing of participation also implies a different notion of how we know things, both epistemologically and methodologically. We have many old ideas about what an organization “knows” and how that knowledge is stockpiled and used to drive the work of the organization left over from Modernism. Most of those have to do with there being one right answer, often a technical one, and one objective and generalizable foundational knowledge base that is inert and drives the work and the structure of the work we do. That worked for the early assembly line, because it was based on fixed designs and quality control. When changes were needed, experts had already developed the new ideas and the assembly line was modified to accommodate them. A slow and stable process. But we are not living in a world where slow and stable will cut it anymore. And the one perfect, objective idea that is always true turns out to be somewhat of a myth anyway.
It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term “communities of practice,” describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to “steward” their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful. Beyond “buy-in” and “ownership,” beyond “top-down” and “bottom-up,” even beyond “authorship,” true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to provide coaching and consulting for the past twenty-five years to schools and school districts, government agencies (as far away as Singapore, but also our own government), non-profit organizations, and even some private sector businesses. I’ve come to see, in every case, the same longing for transcending traditional bureaucratic forms that were created to serve an entirely different purpose (and even different epistemological underpinnings) and discovering more authentic, networked, connected, responsive, emergent, fluid forms that can address the complex world and the revolutionary speed of learning and knowledge (not just information) creation and use.
Even more fundamental, people are longing for a new sense of meaning and purpose, a clarity about values and principles, to get away from cynicism and meaningless, repetitive, compliance-driven work, to make connections with each other, to renew our commitment to stewardship of the earth, to rebuild community and find the heart of what it means to be human together.
Several years back, I had the good fortune to be working with some folks in Denver to create a new coaching organization there (Institute for Educational Equity) to work with Denver Public Schools, and in the process of doing that, got involved with an intriguing social network driven organizational development project with the Piton Foundation and several organizations in Denver, including the African Community Center, which resettles African and other refugees. It’s been inspiring to see their openness to organizational forms unimagined before, in the service of building strong community networks. In addition, I’ve been “coaching coaches” at the LA County Office of Education in developing a coach community of practice to support their learning and work as consultants in low performing school districts.
Underlying all of these projects is a huge need to understand the processes of creating and making meaning out of and managing in a real time way all the knowledge that is being generated in these new work relationships and conversations. I’ve been working with several groups on what a dynamic and interactive knowledge management system and collaborative workspace would look like. I’m excited about the prospects of an architecture that mirrors the new networked organizational forms that are emerging.
Thus, these questions arise: How do we learn together to support complex work? How do we create systems to manage in a real time way the knowledge building and dialogue necessary for that work? What sorts of organizational designs best support these new kinds of work? That’s what this blog is about.
We are on the verge of an absolutely essential radical shift in the way we organize to do collaborative work and build community, I believe. The work on microdemocracy that The Right Question Project is doing, the Small Planet Institute that Frances Moore Lappe started, The Sustainability Institute that Donella Meadows started (she was one of the systems thinkers who influenced Peter Senge), the work of Kevin Kelly on networked, co-evolving, open systems, the World Cafe of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs… the list goes on and on of emerging new thinking about this essential need. I think there is enough evidence and thinking out there to give us all the clues we need; it’s just a matter of slowing down enough to take the time to think about how they all fit together.
So, here is a place to build the “slow organization,” like the slow food movement. Only I want to call it “the Wise Organization.” Let’s explore what that means together in our dialogue here. We have lots to learn, and a community to build!
I hope you will contribute your ideas as we grow!
I’ve been thinking alot recently about Strategic Planning in a time of recession (in other circumstances, I have used this process with schools, school districts, non-profit organizations, government agencies here and abroad, and a few private sector organizations; my favorite of these was the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) back in 1994):
An economic recession is not the time to shrink back in fear and hesitate to act, nor is it the time to act reactively, spasmodically, thrusting out into the markets with every new idea that it seems might produce income, nor is it the time just to continue to do what we’ve always done only harder with fewer resources. It is, however, a time to hug to one’s core sense of purpose, the values at the heart of one’s work, be clear about the knowledge one has and needs, and act in powerful, innovative, carefully focused, yet also risky ways, to create new opportunities. In effect, it is a time to act with wisdom.
Wise organizations have increased their capacity for deep reflection, self-knowing, being purposeful, and acting in knowledgeable ways that are rigorously focused, galvanizing, and motivating to employees. Having delved deeply into who they are, what they value, and what their purpose is, they are better able to engage with the work they decide to do coherently and efficiently, to take risks to be innovative with clarity of purpose and alignment of action. They are also better able to state to the world who they are and what they offer.
I believe that a Strategic Planning process should enable an organization to act with more wisdom. Most approaches I know are mostly technical/rational processes that examine various kinds of data about the current situation in terms of strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes also threats and opportunities, see what the “gaps” are, and develop some goals and strategies around those gaps. Rarely does that sort of process truly focus and inspire and galvanize action broadly across an organization; usually the resulting document sits on a shelf until the next round five years later. It does not usually enable an organization to act with more wisdom.
The sort of Strategic Planning process I help my clients engage in starts with looking inward, into the heart of who the organization is, into its stories and myths, examining the most meaningful of its artifacts and experiences, to mine from those the values and sense of purpose that lie at the center, the core, of the organization’s being. This is not a technical process, but a shared meaning making process. It is about reinvestigating who we ARE as an organization, at our core.
Next the process examines the consequences of that inward look to clarify or reframe the organization’s Mission, as in, given these values and this purpose, what do we actually DO as an organization? This is a place to be rigorous. How does who we are determine (not just influence) what we do, in the big sense? ….
Some thoughts about what makes an organization wise…