In my previous post, I suggested that the process of reframing is essential to opening the door to new possibilities for the future when addressing the root causes of complex problems. The ability to reframe is key to creating disruptive innovations that have a lasting and positive impact on society.
Building up on this idea, this new post focuses on generative strategies and the unfolding of solutions for increased value creation. The adjective ‘generative’ means ‘able to produce,’ as in, ‘the generative power of life force’. Generative strategies are life giving because they unlock the potential existing in a system. They emerge out of a learning and creative process in which an organization or group of stakeholders challenge business as usual, disrupt the status quo, and reframe their challenge or situation. Generative strategies deliver outcomes at the whole system level and create value for all key stakeholders involved and beyond.
To illustrate the power of generative strategies, I present three stories:
1) A community-based stormwater management strategy in Portland, Oregon;
2) The creation of a new community ecosystem by the Brattleboro Coop in New England;
3) The ‘marriage’ of two different library organizations operating collaboratively under a same roof: the Martin Luther King Library in San José, California.
Community-Based Stormwater Management in Portland, Oregon
The City of Portland has gained an international reputation for being a leader in the deployment of creative approaches for sustainable stormwater management . Traditional approaches to stormwater management consist of building sewer infrastructure systems to manage sewage and stormwater and prevent overflows into rivers and streams. Prompted by an environmental lawsuit in 1991, the State of Oregon and the City of Portland agreed to build a new Combined Sewer Overflow tunnel on the East side of the Willamette River, for a total cost of $1.4 billion. The new “big pipe” — a tunnel of 22 feet in diameter and six miles long, which was completed in 2011, currently manages more than 94% of the volume of combined sewage and stormwater that used to overflow into the Willamette river . While such infrastructure projects provide an important service to urban communities, they are very costly and cause environmental problems when heavy rainfall exceeds the storage capacity of the pipes and untreated sewage, stormwater and other toxic wastes get discharged into waterways, creating risks for human health and the health of watersheds. In Portland, I have heard that the new CSO would run at almost capacity while just completed. Realizing that the on-going focus on building “big pipes” is a financially and ecologically unsustainable strategy in the long-term, the City of Portland actively sought a more creative and more sustainable approach to its stormwater management problem — one that does not consider stormwater as a waste but instead as a precious asset for the community.
In 2006, Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) launched the Clean River Rewards program — an initiative that engages the community in the management of stormwater at the source, on private properties . BES grants stormwater utility discounts and provides financial incentives to property owners who invest in stormwater green infrastructure projects. The management of stormwater requires property owners to disconnect their downspouts from the sewer system and manage stormwater with green solutions such as rain barrels, cisterns, rain garden, bio-swales, and green roofs.
The program generates a whole range of benefits and positive outcomes for the municipality and the whole community. First, by leveraging private investments, the City is able to reallocate scarce resources to the projects that need them the most. Second, onsite stormwater management techniques create many environmental benefits such as cleaner rivers and streams, healthy watersheds, and wildlife closer to the urban environment. Third, green infrastructures are aesthetically appealing and increase the value of the private properties. Finally, the program supports the development of a local green economy and, potentially, the creation of new jobs, as property owners seek the service of suppliers and contractors to implement the stormwater management projects.
The program was certainly not easy to implement and required a shift in the way diverse stakeholders saw their respective roles within the community. For instance, some citizens believed it was not theirs but the responsibility of the City to manage stormwater infrastructure. The community had to be educated on the needs to improve the quality of the watershed and on the benefits of green infrastructures. In addition, not any green infrastructure can be implemented on a given property due to soil characteristics and other physical attributes; thus, the involvement of a technical expert is required to guarantee the correct project design. Despite many apparent barriers, internally within BES and, externally, within the community, the program was nevertheless successfully launched; it included the city’s financial incentives and discounts as well as access to relevant resources and a new online registration process for property owners.
Brattleboro Coop: From Energy Efficiency to Creating a New Community Ecosystem
Bill Reed, Principal Consultant at Regenesis and Integrative Design Collaborative, presented the story of Bratteboro Coop in his Keynote Address for the AIA National Convention in May 2007 on the theme: ‘A Living Systems Approach to Design’ . The Brattleboro Coop is a wonderful example of an organization that embarked on a journey of creative thinking to generate high value, not only for itself, but also for the community in which it is embedded. In the words of Bill Reed:
“The Brattleboro Coop is a Grocery store that wanted to build a high performance LEED building. In particular, they wanted to generate innovative solutions to their energy use. It was observed that the energy expended in shipping food to the store was far higher than the energy used to operate the building (an average of 3,000 miles per bite of food in New England.) Moreover, their high dependence on shipped food made their business highly vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain (e.g. a trucker’s strike, fuel costs). The project became one of engaging them in a process that looked at the energies involved in the system as a whole.
As a result, the coop envisioned an entirely new role for itself. Not only will it work to model low energy use in its building, it has become a sponsor for local agriculture and regenerating the soil that had been significantly compromised after 300 years of poor farming and wood extraction practices. They are discussing the reprogramming of this ‘grocery store’ to potentially grow into an agriculture and soil extension service, a cannery, a place for hunters to dress meat, a day-care center, and a credit union. The overall aim is to catalyze the evolution back to a regenerated system for local agriculture and community sustainability. The aspirations of the people and the patterns of place were aligned and new potential was created in an evolving program. The building process became a catalyst for a long-term and living system perspective. They are now using this work as the basis to develop a 100 year plan for the Coop and the region.”
What strikes me in this story is the particular way the challenge was reframed, beyond the short-term need to reduce energy used in the building, to encompass a broader long-term vision that considered the new role the Coop might play within its community. By creating new relationships, the Coop was able generate multiple and diverse outcomes: the revival of a community through the creation of local jobs; the respect of the “place” and its ecology through local agriculture; new community services; and overall, a healthier and more resilient community.
I want to emphasize Bill’s last point that “the building process became a catalyst for a long-term and living system perspective.” Any project, initiative or strategic planning process can become a catalyst for the development of generative strategies. The process requires a shift in thinking from ‘fixing a problem’ to uncovering the potential already present in the system; a willingness to ask new questions grounded in a whole system perspective and a long-term view; that an on-going focus on delivering outcomes for the whole system as opposed to achieving isolated goals.
Martin Luther King Library: A Miracle on 4th Street, San José, California 
San José Martin Luther King Library (King Library) is one-of-a-kind in the United States: never before has the ‘mariage’ of two such different institutions as a university library and a city library been attempted. Allowing a community of patrons as diverse as young children, teens, senior citizens, university students and faculty to meet under the same roof is a revolutionary experiment that redefines a library’s mission as one of supporting a whole community, with all its diversity. The idea of a joint library was born in 1996 from the minds of two visionaries – former San José mayor Susan Hammer and former San José State University president Robert Caret – who successfully broke the pattern of indifference and disdain, which had been representative of the relationship between the two entities over decades. Indeed, on the one hand, the city of San José had been struggling over the years with urban decay downtown; the university, on the other hand, faced internal cultural changes and had become very insular. Very little was shared between the two institutions. However, with Caret and Hammer, things began to change. On her side, Hammer viewed the urban university as a main “player” in restructuring downtown. On his side, Caret considered San José State to be a “metropolitan university” and started to develop partnerships that benefited both the university and the community. Both the city and the university had inadequate libraries and were in need of more space; neither of them, however, had a budget that permitted them to expand on their own. Both Hammer and Caret realized that by bringing their resources together, they could build a landmark building that neither could afford alone. The result was a $177.5 million library jointly funded by the university and the city.
The challenges faced by the King Library project team were daunting at many levels: contextual, operational, organizational, cultural, procedural, technical and architectural. Because there was no precedent for a joint library, they had to innovate to combine their respective operational needs into a single set of requirements, while maintaining the integrity of two completely different cultures. The library had to provide “seamless services” to its users. But the novelty of the concept was such that many believed the experiment would fail. Opposition to the project quickly developed on both sides: The difference of users’ needs – from a graduate student working on a thesis to a toddler playing near-by – was perceived as a gap that could not be filled. Yet, despite the complexity of the project and the inherent uncertainties faced by the “two-headed” client and the project team, the King Library project was an overall success and the facility was delivered on time, below budget and without a single claim.
King Library is not the result of a miracle, as some people believed. The project owes much of its success to an outstanding facilitation process by local architecture firm Anderson-Brulé Architects (ABA) that was hired to facilitate the feasibility study and the development of a joint operation plan and remained an active participant until the completion of the project. When, at the earliest stages of the project, the question in everyone’s mind was “What if…,” ABA challenged the client team to answer questions such as: “How would you do this?” “What gets in your way?” “What would stop you?” “How could you move past that thing that stops you?” The focus on “how” provided a structure to librarians’ discussions and ensured that the team members were maintaining their focus on important questions. ABA encouraged the librarians to work in a creative way, while also providing a structure that allowed the librarians to slowly adapt to their challenge. The more the librarians interacted with one another, the more positive feedback was created, which reinforced the meaning of their collaborative activities. The earlier tensions within the project team slowly evolved into “creative battles” for solving problems in a way that benefitted both organizations.
Throughout the process, the client team developed a new “identity” that was formulated around a new operational, functional and cultural personality. The team’s emerging identity and collaborative attitude became contagious and was re-emphasized at each main project phase, as new participants got involved. The project collaborative philosophy helped overcome many obstacles and enabled the alignment of the goals of hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in making King Library a reality.
To conclude, here is a summary of the commonalities between the projects presented:
- Shift in mindset — from ‘business as usual’ to believing something greater can be achieved. The vision becomes an attractor and a powerful force that brings life and creative energy to the project.
- Long-term view — because the sustainability and resilience of living systems operate in the long-term.
- Potential-driven process — these projects do not focus on solving a given problem but on unlocking the inherent potential that exists in a given organization or system to uncover new possibilities. Generative strategies emerge out of the context and history of the place and/or system.
- Relationship-driven process — the value of collaboration and partnerships is recognized as essential to achieving greater outcomes for the whole community and the environment. By pulling together the necessary skills and resources, new ties are created that are in themselves, generative.
- Open system — these projects redefine and expand the problem’s boundaries to generate higher value.
- Reframing — the questions we ask influence our answers. All generative processes are learning processes that are inherently transformative.
- Focus on the ‘how’— there is nothing more inspiring than joining our efforts to co-create solutions that are truly innovative for the greater good.
- Trust — often not present at the outset of a project, trust between stakeholders must be consciously developed to enable a cooperative culture.
- Transformative — generative projects shift the way participants see themselves and the role they play within the larger ecosystem.
- Development of new capacity — Generative projects offers a creative learning environment where new skills and capacities are being developed.
 Portland Sustainable Stormwater Management: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/34598
 EPA (2009). Portland Launches a Stormwater Marketplace. Nonpoint Source News-Notes. February 2009. Issue #86.
 Portland Clean Rivers Reward Program: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/41976
 Reed, Bill (2007). A Living Systems Approach to Design. Keynote Address for the AIA National Convention in May 2007.
 Benne, Beatrice (2005). Doctoral Dissertation: Managing AEC Project Organizations at the Edge of Chaos: An Analysis of AEC Projects Adaptive Capacity from a Living Systems Perspective. University of Berkeley. (Note: for King Library story see Chapter 5).
Roughly, this is how the story went:
The Stanford Graduate School of Business offers a multi-disciplinary course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. In 2007, the course challenged student teams to design an incubator for developing countries that would cost less than 1% of the price of a traditional $20,000 incubator. Some members of the student teams were sent to Nepal to visit local hospitals, speak with stakeholders, and inquire about users’ needs.
During their visit, the members of one team observed that the hospitals had many baby incubators yet these incubators were empty. Intrigued, they inquired with the local doctors and staff about why it was the case. They learned that while price of the incubators is important, hospitals have to deal with the fact that 80% of babies in Nepal are born at home; women living in the countryside and giving birth to a premature baby are usually unable to bring their baby to the city hospitals because it is too costly to do so and because they have no means to transport their baby safely. Indeed, one of the main criteria for babies’ survival is hypothermia: babies are not able to regulate their own temperature; hence babies need a device to keep them very warm.
This was a big “Aha” moment for the student team who realized that the ‘users’ were not necessarily the hospitals but mothers in rural areas who need to keep their premature babies warm; however, there isn’t always electricity in rural areas to use a traditional incubator. Moreover, mothers potentially need to transport their babies safely to a hospital for further care. Hence, the team reframed the problem around the specific needs of mothers living in the countryside, with no electricity.
The story of the team learning journey and design process is fascinating; unfortunately, it would take too long to recall here. The solution they developed is astonishing in terms of the innovation it represents, its technical ingenuity; its shear simplicity and beauty; and the obvious love and empathy that the product emanates throughout. Now produced by embraceglobal.org — a company subsequently created by some of the student team members — the product is “an innovative, low cost infant warmer” that looks like “a miniature sleeping bag that incorporates a phase change material, which stays at a constant temperature for up to 6 hours.” (See a picture of the Embrace Infant Warmer.)
This story offers many important lessons about the process of innovation, creativity and problem solving for social change. Questions that intrigued me most are:
• How does a design team learning process evolve from focusing on developing “a cheap incubator” (I like to think of it as a “cheap box”) to a safe warmer device that saves lives? In other words, how does the process of reframing take place? And why is it important?
• Why is it that only one of all the teams involved in the design challenge came up with such a reframing of the challenge, hence a completely different solution to the problem?
• Why is it that the Embrace team could not find any interest for taking their innovation, i.e., the “low cost infant warmer,” to the next stage of development? Indeed, the organizations involved with the course thought that, “because governments in developing countries are trying to get women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, the group thought Embrace was “too much for a home setting”. In other words, despite addressing a ‘real’ user need, the Embrace solution did not meet the ‘accepted’ perceived needs and requirements of the main stakeholders.
I will not answer these questions directly here. I will only says this: I believe that the teams, groups, organizations, communities, local governments and so on, who are able to successfully address the complex challenges of our times are the ones who are able to reframe their problems — usually by reframing a technical problem (e.g., a cheaper “box”) into an adaptive challenge (e.g., saving babies lives); by moving away from addressing symptoms to uncovering root causes of the issues; and by believing that solutions to deeper issues exist and are achievable. This is indeed hard work. The process is inherently collaborative and requires us to challenge our assumptions and beliefs. It forces us to overcome our doubts and fears about challenging the status quo and fears of potential failure. It demands that we rise to our highest potential and address the “impossible.” But as the Embrace team demonstrates, even what seems impossible can be overcome — with a combination of love, empathy, collaboration and hard work!
This is the way I want to address complex problems. Will you join me?
Note: I first heard about the story of the Embrace team and of their innovative solution by watching a documentary video produced and realized by Corey Ford, an adjunct faculty at the Design MBA at the California College or the Arts, while I was sitting in Corey’s Venture Studio class early on this year. I found this story deeply moving and rich in lessons on how to address complex social issues. It is a success story on how to make a difference in the world. We need more stories like this one.
 You can find a more in-depth overview of this story on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/bmag/sbsm1109/embrace_chen.html
This post is to announce course sessions that my colleague Andrew J. Campbell and I will be co-facilitating this summer.
The Art of Spontaneity
Andrew will be spending the month of June in the Bay Area and we are offering three learning journeys on the theme: The Art of Spontaneity.
We have chosen the Mission District in San Francisco near Dolores Park and Lake Merritt in Oakland as locations for our informal gatherings, which will take place outside in the neighborhoods. Please see the brochure for more background on the learning journeys. The cost of the course is $40 per person and does not include lunch. There are plenty of restaurants and sandwich places in both locations for us to get our lunch.
Each session will include a maximum of 10 participants. We will meet at 9:30 AM and will end at 5:30 PM. Please register to the session of your choice and see logistics information for each session in Eventbrite :
Lake Merritt: Saturday, June 16
For more information, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
We look forward to seeing you there!
“The only real way to develop strategy is to use a process where one goes to ‘primary knowing,’ tapping into source and then listening deeply, moment to moment as the path unfolds—walking the path as it is created.”
~ Joseph Jaworski, in conversation with Andrew Campbell, 2008.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure to be on a panel on the topic of Transformative Learning in Business. This conversation with Sabine Amend, Elizabeth Dolan, Louise Hansell, and David Hodgson, our panel facilitator, was recorded on Saturday, April 14th, 2012. It was part of a summit Re-Imagining Learning: A Virtual Summit on Transformative Learning hosted by Meridian University.
Here is the recording:
We are all familiar with it because we have ridden its wave many times in our lives. Some of us have developed the wisdom to embrace it when it arises; others are still resisting it, stricken by anxiety and fear when sensing it’s coming. Most of us, not always happily, are accepting it as an avoidable element of life. Perhaps a few have learned to enjoy it. We hate to be forced into it and we have become skilled at finding ways to turn our back to it, often in denial. Yet, avoiding it only makes its process more difficult; it will return. When we must face it, we too often try to control it. Of course, you know what ‘beast’ I am speaking about. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you “CHANGE!”
Perhaps it is time we get to know the ‘beast’ and learn about its chameleon-like personality. Depending on the context where it has been analyzed, it bears different names and has been depicted slightly differently. But as you are about to learn, it seems to follow pretty much the same pattern—it is in fact, an archetype. Indeed, the process of change is nothing else than the evolutionary pattern of life and creativity—a pattern that pervades the entire Universe.
I begin the inquiry with the well-known story of the birth of the butterfly. Next, I use complexity and chaos theories to shine some light onto the evolutionary pattern of change. Finally, I borrow from other fields of inquiry such as chemistry, ecology, organization theory, story telling, mythology and the creative process to show the similarities in the way the process of change has been described from these different perspectives.
The Birth of a Butterfly
A real miracle, the birth of the butterfly is an irreversible transformation, in the chaos of the pupa. Evolution biologist Elisabeth Sahtouris tells the story:
“Inside a cocoon, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny things biologists call ‘imaginal disks’ begin to form. Not recognizing the newcomers, the caterpillar’s immune system snuffs them. But they keep coming faster and faster, then begin to link up with each other. Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails from the stress and the disks become imaginal cells that build the butterfly from the meltdown of the caterpillar’s body.
If we see ourselves as imaginal discs working to build the butterfly of a better world, we will also see how important it is to link with each other in the effort, to recognize how many different kinds of imaginal cells it will take to build a butterfly with all its capabilities and colors.”
The butterfly story has become a metaphor for social change, as our old systems are slowly collapsing to hopefully give rise to a vision of human society in which people live in harmony with others and with nature.
Complex Adaptive Systems Adaptation at the Edge of Chaos
Without going too deep into the theories, complexity science and the theory of complex adaptive systems teach us that complex adaptive systems (CAS) and living systems (LS) adapt to changes occurring in their environment in a state away from dynamic equilibrium, at the edge of chaos—a paradoxical transition phase of simultaneous stability and instability. At the edge of chaos, when the conditions are right, the components of CAS and LS are able to spontaneously self-organize, without any blueprint. The result is the emergence of new structures of higher-level order and new patterns of organization better adapted to the environment. This creative process, taking a system from dynamic equilibrium to the edge of chaos, and, then, to a higher state of order, coherence and wholeness is depicted on Figure 2. It is important to note that emergence is never a guarantee. When the system does not have the required learning capacity to creatively self-organize and transform, it may go through an immergence—a process of disintegration and complete breakdown.
The Evolutionary Path of Chaotic Systems
Obviously, a system may go through multiple phases of change throughout its life—alternating between periods of stability and instability, continuity and discontinuity, order and chaos. The pattern described in the previous section, when viewed from an evolutionary perspective, looks like Figure 3. The system progressively moves away from equilibrium until it takes a deep dive toward the “Chaos point” where the bifurcation resides: from there, the system may take a breakthrough path or a breakdown path (Laszlo, 2010). And the process repeats throughout the life cycle of the system.
Order Arising from Disorder in Dissipative Structures
Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on dissipative structures, which demonstrates that order can arise from disorder. Prigogine showed that, left on its own, a mixture of specific substances in a dish results in a chemical reaction that creates concentric patterns spiraling for several hours at the surface of the dish (Fig. 4). The ordered patterns represent a decrease in entropy (i.e., increase in order) within the dish—entropy that is dissipated to the environment. Here again, when energy and matter flow between an open system and its environment, order and patterns emerge when the system is far from thermodynamic equilibrium, i.e., at the edge of chaos.
Four Phases of the Adaptive Cycle of Natural Ecosystems
Researchers have discovered that natural ecosystems proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization (Walker and Salt, 2006). A description of the nature of these phases, including examples of how they can be interpreted in the realm of social organizations is as follow:
- The Exploitation Phase (r Phase) is a period of rapid growth. The components of a system are weakly interconnected and act independently without the need for much regulation. (e.g., a business start-up phase.)
- The transition from the r Phase to the Conservation Phase (K Phase) proceeds incrementally. Connections between agents in the system increase and resources (energy and materials) slowly accumulate. Specialization and economy of scale develop for greater efficiency. The system becomes more strongly regulated. Growth rate slows down and the system loses some flexibility. The system becomes more vulnerable to disturbance. (e.g., a medium to large business that perhaps grows from a local producer to a national and then global company.)
- The transition from the K Phase to the Release Phase (Omega Phase) may be sudden. The system’s resilience is not sufficient to absorb the trigger or disturbance and its structure breaks down. (e.g., an organization or industry facing a disruptive technology or a market shock.)
- The Reorganization Phase (Alpha Phase) is a chaotic phase of great uncertainty where all options are open. This phase where creativity, innovation, experimentation pay off leads to renewal of the system. Novel combinations of species can generate new possibilities that will be tested in the future. Of course, the possibility for system collapse is always present in this phase where success is never guaranteed. (e.g., innovations in an organization or the emergence of a new market.)
In Figure 6, I have superposed the four Adaptive Cycle Phases of ecosystems onto the Adaptive process of living systems at the edge of chaos graph to show the overlap of the different phases:
- The Conservation Phase K at the state of dynamic equilibrium.
- The Release Phase Ω, as the system’s structure starts to breakdown faced with disturbances (internal and external).
- The Reorganization Phase a, a chaotic phase of learning, creativity and self-organization.
- The Exploitation Phase r, when the system reaps the benefits of its transformation and grows, before its growth starts to slow down and the system enters a new K Phase.
Otto Scharmer’s seminal work on Theory U provides another perspective of the process of change, albeit applied to social systems. Theory U depicts a method or process to help individuals and groups move through different stages of cognition, while deepening the level of learning and insights from one stage to another. The different stages of cognition are: downloading; seeing; sensing; presencing; crystallizing; prototyping; performing and embodying (Scharmer, 2007).
One should not fail to notice the similarity and overlap between the adaptive process of complex adaptive systems at the edge of chaos (Fig. 2) and the U Movement (Fig. 7). A social system in a stage of downloading operates at a dynamic equilibrium, maintaining its performance through the application of routines and best practices. Faced with the need to change, the system may start challenging its old assumptions and worldviews. As it does so, it begins to see reality with fresh eyes and uncovers deeper patterns that perhaps kept the system stuck. Slowly, the system is becoming aware of the fact that its own structure is, in fact, responsible for creating the behaviors that need to change. Entering next the stage of ‘not-knowing’ the system becomes more open to authentic learning, and potentially able to connecting to a deeper source of knowledge and insights. This stage is often uncomfortable, as the system must remain there long enough, at the edge of chaos, for self-organization and emergence to occur. This is a highly creative state, should one be patient enough to accept the confusion in which one might find oneself. In a state of Presencing, when insights arise, knowing what decisions to make and strategy to implement seem very straightforward: the path ahead is now obvious: the system starts prototyping and testing the new ideas and strategies and eventually, implementing them at a large scale. Eventually, the system achieves a higher state of knowing and level of consciousness—a new dynamic equilibrium.
The Three Act Story Structure
I find it quite interesting that the basic three act story structure used in plays or movies follows a similar pattern (Fig. 8a and Fig. 8b). In the Beginning act, the characters in their normal life situation are introduced (i.e., at their dynamic equilibrium). Slowly, the story develops, describing the situation and “conflict” the characters face, i.e., the disruption in their lives. In the Middle act, the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles (some resolved, others unresolved) finally leading to the ultimate tension and crisis—the Climax. In the final act, the End, the climax and the issues are rapidly resolved and the tension dissipates.
This story structure has been used through the ages all over the world in myths and tales to reflect the pattern of our personal and collective struggles: it represents the pattern of life and transformation and was captured eloquently by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which I’ll describe next.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey has three main phases, each including multiple steps. In the first phase—Departure—the hero is presented with a call for adventure, the initial indication that something is going to change. Often, the hero refuses the call because of all the familiar reasons of inertia, fear, sense of inadequacy and so on. When the hero finally commits, s/he may often receive the help of a supernatural protective figure. This is the point when the hero must cross the threshold, i.e., go through an ordeal to move from the every day world to the world of adventure. The hero enters the “belly of the whale” which represents the final separation between the old world/self and the potential for a new world/self.
The second phase—Initiation—is marked by a series of adventures that test the hero’s ability to move to the next stage of his/her development. Even though supernatural helpers will often support the hero through his journey, s/he might fail some of the tests. The meeting with the goddess is a critical phase when the hero experiences unconditional love and begins to see her/himself in a non-dualistic way. The hero will eventually have to face the monster, wizard, or warrior in the final battle (climax of the journey). This is the ultimate test when the transformation takes place: the ‘monster’ i.e., the ‘old self’ in the hero must be ‘killed’ so that the new self comes into being.
The final phase—Return—is not as easy as it might seem. It is often as dangerous to be returning from the journey, as it was to embark in it. The hero may need the help of guides, especially if the transformative experience has weakened him or her. So the hero must again cross the threshold of adventure and do so while preserving the wisdom gained on the quest. S/he must find ways to integrate all the learning into human life and share it with other—not a trivial thing to do. The hero must be master of two worlds, i.e., able to achieve a balance between the material and spiritual worlds. As a result the hero gains a new level of mastery: the freedom from the fear of death, which is the freedom to live.
In the Hero’s Journey, we once again witness the same pattern of becoming. As personal life crisis or challenges pushes us to leave the comfort of our everyday routine (stable state), one is faced with the choice of accepting or refusing the call of adventure. Accepting the call forces us to move to the edge and face our own demons. The more we are able to let go of the old ways of thinking and patterns of behavior—a process often felt as an internal “death”—the more we can learn and transform ourselves until we emerge from the abyss, through the process of rebirth, as a new Being, able to operate at a higher level of complexity and wholeness. The challenge is then to integrate the learning into our lives and ways of being so that we can act from a different place—a place of increased wisdom and love.
The Creative Process
The transformative change process is a highly creative process very similar to the process that artists go through when they authentically create. As art psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig (1967) explains, the creative process is related to the primary process when the unconscious scans the chaotic oceanic state of undifferentiated order (i.e., a state where everything is connected and whole). In contrast to the conscious state, which per nature fragments and differentiates, the unconscious is able to access the great complexity of undifferentiated structures that are at the origin of dreams and unconscious phantasy. For the artist, the challenge is to tap into undifferentiated order without letting the ego take control over the process by creating defensive and rigid responses when stressed with the anxiety that inevitably is associated with the chaotic phase. When the ego is able to yield a shift of control, the unconscious becomes a source of insights, which the conscious mind can use, in the secondary process, through a process of dedifferentiation as the mind returns to a conscious state of awareness to exploit the insight and create something new.
The work of the artist Jackson Pollock is, for that matter, particularly interesting. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that what one might dismiss as “random” drips of painting, are actually an in-depth, intuitive study of “certain features of fluid dynamics” where the artist uses physics as its partner in this seemingly co-creative process — and he performed this before any physicists thought of studying fluid dynamics (see article: The Cutting_Edge Physics of Jackson Pollock, Wired Magazine, July 5, 2011).
The primary process, which I believe is identical to a state of Presencing (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2004), is an embodied experience of pre-cognition and of sensing the whole; it requires breaking up the pattern of thought while awakening the creative unconscious mind. This process is source of direct and intuitive knowledge that often emerges in a flash of understanding. Any individual, whether in the arts, science, or in other creative domains (including management) must have the capacity to navigate this process in order to be creative.
Through the review of diverse models, I aimed to demonstrate that whether in the domain of nature, social systems, or individual creativity, the process of transformative change follows the same evolutionary pattern. The process is very much fractals in that it operates in a similar fashion at the level of an individual, group, organization, but also at the level of society, nature/ecology and at the level of the whole universe. I believe that by gaining some familiarity with the pattern and its related phases one might be able to identify where we are in the process at any given time, make sense of the confusion when it arises and be better equipped to ride the wave of change. In addition, it is critical to learn which specific tools are best appropriate to facilitate each one of the phases so that to meet their requirements and achieve their respective purposes. Finally, one must develop the capacity to maintain ourselves, at the edge of chaos, using our unconscious as a means to access deeper insights. Accomplishing all the above requires commitment and practice. It also begins with engaging our heart in the process so that to not let us paralyzed by fear. Easier said than done!
Ehrenzweig, Anto (1964). The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. University of California Press.
Jaworski, J., Kahane, A., Scharmer, C. O. PresenceWorkbook. Society of Organizational Leaning.
Laszlo, Ervin (2010). The Chaos Point: The World at the Crossroads. Piatkus.
Scharmer, Otto C. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Society of Organizational Leaning, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Senge, P., Scharmer, O. C., Jaworksi, J., Flowers, B. S., (2004). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Society of Organizational Leaning, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Walker, B. and Salt, D. (2006). Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Island Press.
The Butterfly Story
- http://www.sahtouris.com/ – 5_3,0,
The Three Act Story
The Hero’s Journey
Jackson Pollock’s Physics
My article “Three Steps to Managing Transformative Sustainability Journeys” was just published on sustainablebrands.com
I very much look forward to participating to the Sustainable Brands ’12 Conference in San Diego June 4-7. If you are going, make sure to connect with me. I would love to discuss with you about what you can do to perceive your business reality with new eyes; reframe your challenges; better navigate your complex and uncertain environments; re-invent yourself; and create your own future. It’s all about creative thinking toward innovative solutions.
Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost the shape of a camel?
Polonius. By the mass, and t’is like a camel indeed.
Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet. Or like a whale?
Polonius. Very like a whale.
~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Page 17
The great science philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) once said that all the problems of our times could be subdivided into two categories: they were either like ‘clocks’ or like ‘clouds.’
What do you think your personal and professional problems look like?
In which category would you put the challenges faced by our society today?
Consider a clock: it is a mechanical system that is relatively static in configuration. If it stops working, you may take it to a clock repair shop where an ‘expert’ will open it, take it apart, analyze the problem and develop a diagnostic of what’s wrong with it. With a system such as a clock, there exist only a finite number of problems that can occur—that is, the problem set is well defined and clearly understood. Often, the problem can even be anticipated.
Now, consider a cloud: in contrast to a clock, a cloud is a dynamic system with no defined boundary. Ask different people to describe the shape of a cloud and they will likely come up with different interpretations: one may see a bear; another a duck; yet another a rabbit. The shape of a cloud is, in fact, the emergent result of the interactions of water droplets and other chemicals suspended in the atmosphere; it is always changing and sensitive to any small changes in its environment. The behavior of a cloud is unpredictable.
Problems of a clock type, even the highly complicated ones, are technical. The nature of a technical problem is usually well defined: ‘experts’ from multiple disciplines may collaborate with one another to analyze the problem by decomposing it into sub-problems until the issue under consideration is fully understood. Once the origin of the problem is known experts can find a solution to fix it. In contrast, issues that resemble clouds are ill-defined or ill-structured. In a 1973 paper, social policy planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed problems of a cloud type ‘wicked’ (see: 10 characteristics of wicked problems by Rittel and Melvin). In the domain of complex social and organizational problems, systems thinker Russell Ackoff used the terms ‘social messes’ and ‘unstructured reality.’ I personally prefer to use the term ‘adaptive challenges’ that was coined by Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz (1994) in his seminal book Leadership Without Easy Answers.
Of course, there might be some overlap: adaptive challenges may require some technical problems to be solved while technical problems may call for adaptive challenges to be addressed. Yet, the main nature of today’s challenges resembles more clouds than clocks. Here are some examples of adaptive challenges in our society (I am sure you can add more to this list):
- Global and local sustainability issues such as climate change and other environmental problems related to energy, water, transportation, and food scarcity;
- Social predicaments such as hunger, poverty, and violence;
- National conflicts;
- Community resilience issues;
- Challenges with our healthcare system;
- Challenges in our educational system;
- Strategic business challenges such as the need for dealing with uncertainties and dynamic business environments; designing and launching new products or services; developing a corporate social responsibility strategy; negotiating with employees and trade unions; identifying the culture and identity (brand) of a firm; etc.
Adaptive challenges arise from the complex interactions between different sets of values, beliefs and assumptions and the divergent understandings of the situation. Adaptive challenges are symptoms of deeper structural dynamics and root causes that are often hidden from our level of awareness because of their complexity. Unfortunately, our society has the tendency to attempt to resolve its problems by solely resorting to technical expertise while avoiding the difficult adaptive work required to effectively confront issues that call for a fundamental change in our values and beliefs. Adaptive challenges call for different approaches than the ones used for solving technical problems. Adaptive work requires people to undertake a deep transformational journey by which they let go of their traditional values and mental models and embrace a completely new world view—one in which short-term and long-term goals are not in conflict with one another, nor are self-interest and group-interest. However, most people are neither motivated nor have developed the skills to deal with adaptive challenges.
My work at Soma Integral Consulting is to midwife the process of change while facilitating the resolution of adaptive challenges. I have developed diverse processes and tools, all grounded in a deep understanding of the adaptive process of complex systems, to facilitate deep learning, creativity and emergence of new possibilities. My purpose is to guide individuals and groups through the steps of the adaptive process so that they can successfully achieve its requirements:
Embrace the whole complexity of the system
Most of us get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our challenges. The situations we must deal with are politically charged and involve a large number of stakeholders belonging to different organizations and systems; the issues are full of ambiguity; and the path forward is unclear. Within this context, we are tempted to reduce complexity by fragmenting—leaving some elements out of the process and/or considering them independently of one another. This, unfortunately, only takes us away from the source of insights and breakthroughs that specifically resides in the understanding of the interactions between the tangible and intangible elements of a system and in an awareness of the patterns that emerge out of these interactions. Embracing the whole complexity of a system is necessary to uncover the root causes of adaptive challenges.
To embrace complexity in a productive way, a structured process is required that provides a collaborative platform and a safe container for a constructive dialogue to take place. The process is designed to encourage the sharing of divergent views; make distinctions explicit; create new meaning; play with “what if” scenarios; and facilitate the emergence of insights. In addition, the process supports the management of unproductive anxiety and has the added value that it fosters the development of empathy and trust among participants over the long-term.
Learn to perceive reality with ‘new eyes’
Faced with an adaptive challenge, we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant: based on our different background and expertise, some of us sees the elephant as a tree while other people identify it as a snake or as a rope. Who is right? No one and all of us to some extent! Our blind spots corner us into supporting positions that are ungrounded. Left unchallenged, our divergent ways of perceiving reality generate misunderstandings and conflicts.
The good news is that it is possible to learn how to perceive reality with new eyes and it’s urgent we develop this critical skill. Using diverse approaches that make the best use of both sides of the brain (i.e., analytical thinking as well as pattern recognition/creativity) participants are invited to engage collaboratively and help one another inquire into the nature of the “big elephant”— using generative conversations and dialogues as well as creative techniques and activities that help people move back and forth between sensing (primal knowing) and analytical thinking. In breaking out the existing pattern of thought we leave the space for “flashes of understanding” to arise, which can then be interpreted and tested to generate new agreed meaning.
Sense the future that wants to emerge
As we let go of the old beliefs and assumptions and open ourselves to learning we create a field for emergent possibilities, within which deep insights arise. Our inner eyes start to perceive previously hidden patterns, which tell a richer and more accurate story of the nature of reality. Our understanding of the adaptive challenge shifts, as we now perceive the deeper structural dynamics that have been at the origins of our challenge. As we uncover the root causes of the issue, what we initially believed was the problem now dissolves: we have outgrown the problem. From a clear understanding of the dynamics of the system (i.e., what happened in the past), we can better explain the behavior of the system (i.e., the challenge in the present), while simultaneously getting a sense of future emergent possibilities. This is a very creative phase, when one can engage in designing solutions and strategies that will support our vision and desired outcomes.
Engage mind, body and heart
As we commonly say, “necessity is the mother of invention.” When dealing with adaptive challenges, necessity might also be the mother of change and transformation. Yet, we should not believe that reason could be the only driver of change. Embarking on a transformative journey without engaging the heart will hinder, if not bring to a halt, the process. Personal and group transformation requires deep listening and empathy toward others and a willingness to open our mind to the messages sent by our deeper selves.
Moreover, as we begin the journey, the unavoidable feelings of fear and anxiety, which are deeply rooted in our bodies, arise. Left unacknowledged fear and anxiety can lead to paralysis. In contrast, when we bravely face our fears and explore their origins with curiosity, we are able to overcome what Robert Kegan and Lisa laskow Lahey (2009) calls our “immunity to change,” thereby unlocking our potential for authentic transformation.
A transformative process is not for weak hearted!
Be unreasonable: believe that change is possible
The Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Is it unreasonable to believe that we can change? I believe it is! And so, unreasonable we must be.
A successful journey of change always begins with a belief, a determined will, and a choice. One must BELIEVE that change is possible, which is to say, one must believe we are the source of our challenges and, therefore, the only people capable of addressing them. One must have the WILL to investigate the challenge and go deeper into its root causes and, thus, accept responsibility for our past actions and/or inactions. Finally, one must CHOOSE to commit to the process—a process, which is often difficult and emotionally draining but that can also be extremely rewarding. How could not it be? Transformation is the process of life!
My overall purpose when facilitating adaptive challenge is to develop the adaptive and creative capacity of the individuals and groups involved to empower them to facilitate new emerging challenges independently in the future. This is an urgent necessity if one wants to overcome the societal crises we now face.
Heifetz, Ronald, 1994. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Harvard College.
Kegan, Robert and Lahey, Laskow Lisa, 2009. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Harvard Business Press.
Rittel, Horst, and Webber, Melvin, 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]