The exercise is simple.Write down a word on a piece of paper and complete seven sentences with that word at the start.
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
Journeying to a New World Margaret Wheatley, Essay 2007.
Note: Meg is one of my favorite thought leaders of our time. This is an adaptation of the Epilogue in Leadership and the New Science, Second Edition, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996
Twelve years after preparing the Second Edition of Leadership in the New Science, I’m still trying to come to terms with the experience of seeing, feeling, tasting and working earnestly from a new paradigm while living in the old one. And I’m more concerned than ever that we understand how crucial it is that we stay together and support one another.
I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture–the world as machine–doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.
Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, or describe multiple case studies, I could convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone’s control. I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.
These people have been changed by life’s great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life’s cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn’t work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew–no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there’s nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.
The field between ‘not knowing’ and ‘emergence’ is the place where creativity takes place.
The seventh and final leadership skill is really very closely connected to emergence. It’s about self-organizing. As all this emergence is happening, how do you self- organize? As an individual system, as a team, as an organization, how do you self-organize? How do you come together and figure out all this complexity and change?
System thinkers, and self-organizers, and people who have an ability to see the whole picture, are able to look for the interdependencies. They are all seeking to create meaning. These are the meaning-makers, the creators of understanding, who can intuit that small changes can create big shifts in a system. As a system thinker, you’re able to change perspectives, to see how there are new leverage points in your system. Go wide. Go wide, go scan, go surface up, and really explore: What are these new conditions? What are these new needs?
There is, at heart, an order in the midst of all of this chaos and madness and messiness. If you look carefully, and if you allow the patterns to emerge, there is a structure underneath this. There always has been. There always will be. There's a great book that Meg Wheatley wrote, co-authored with Myron Rogers, called A Simpler Way. It’s probably my favorite book in my library of hundreds, and it basically says that we live in a universe that seeks organization and that, in all forms and in all systems and in all nature, we are seeking self-organization. It's an eloquently written book, and I would encourage you all to buy it. It's a pleasure to read. It's full of poetry and pictures and very graceful writing that can help anyone understand that there are structures, there are patterns, and there is a simpler way to figure this out. And in The Simpler Way, it is about playing with the problem.
And so, as leaders, I’d ask you to consider how you play with your problems. Ask yourself: How do you scan? What is your creative process? How do you engage in your team's creative process? How many times are you iterating this problem? And are you getting to a higher order solution?
The results of all of these seven skills, of scanning, of framing, of opening to multiple perspectives, to iterating, futuring, emerging, and all that goes into self-organization, is this: if you slow down and create your time to really think and scan, you will find a process within yourself, and you will find some very deep answers. And this is the most important renewal practice that you have to take as leaders. You must reclaim your time to think and reflect and figure out, in the midst of all this messiness and uncertainty and chaos, what is really underneath all of this. There is something there. And it’s deeply, profoundly important.
I'd also encourage you to find your thinking partners inside and outside your
organization. Don't go alone. Find a strong scanning team, and start connecting the dots. Host Open Spaces and unconferences. Create a zone of emergence. Create a knowledge wall. Start mapping into your organization. If you are a dispersed team, start a blog or a wiki. There are so many tools that can help with emergence. And, if you create some breathing room in your head, in your heart, in your soul, in your spirit, and if you manage yourself and others—you have to better manage yourself AND your team, and teach them some of these techniques and skills—you will create the acceleration necessary to sustain your organization within this time of flux.
You can create acceleration. You can figure it out. And you can be the leader your organization needs you to be. You may not be the CEO. You may not be the VP. You may not be the Senior VP. But you can be a sapiential leader. Sapiential leadership is the leadership that steps forward in a group, that knows that you need the space to play, to iterate, design, and to figure out the problem. It is the leadership that arises out of the group. No one person is going to figure this out. There is too much change and too much complexity and too much uncertainty. At the speed at which things are happening, it will take far more than one person to hold this.
So, this is about stepping forward, or about getting tapped on the shoulder. You're it. You're up. And if you're listening to this conference call, I would offer that you’re already thinking about this stuff. You're being called upon in your organization. Learn to be good scanners, understand your creative process, iterate multiple times, parallel process, bring big teams of people together—and you’ll get acceleration.
There have been multiple times that I have been asked to come into organizations and help organizations figure this stuff out. And it works, and it works over and over again. Trust me. Trust the process. And trust yourselves and each other.
Emerging, and understanding the patterns of emergence and the zone of emergence, is the
sixth leadership skill. This is what happens when we come together as a system and see
patterns and interconnections. This is about feedback and self-organization and adaptive
It's important, as leaders, to create a time and place for your team, for your people, and
for your organization, where they might have a zone of emergence. Where do you have a
place for your patterns to unfold, to make connections, to connect the dots? This is really
the place for innovation and creativity to occur. I think blogs are a particularly interesting
zone of emergence. The whole blogging phenomenon is an online zone of emergence. In
teams that still have the ability to sit together, there'll be somebody's cube wall or hallway
where stuff will start to get posted—diagrams, drawing, comments, reports and
pictures—and you're able to visually map what it is that you're trying to figure out, be it a
new market, a new industry, a new product introduction, or a new service.
These zones of emergence happen in lots of different systems, from biology to geography
to societies, all the time. As leaders, I’d encourage you to be really aware of emergence.
Again, how do you create a zone of emergence for your team?
The next leadership skill is iterating.
Once you get all these people in a room, and you're going through your creative process,
recognize that iteration is an important part of the process. Ask the same question three to
four times throughout a design session or a working session.
The practice of iteration is really comes from the school of architecture and design
science. I've been able to live with many designers in my life, from architects to
landscape designers. I'm married to an architect. I've worked with amazing designers and
have watched their creative processes. I have come to understand that the higher order
really emerges when we iterate over, and over again--multiple times and multiple tiers
and multiple iterations. A whole system will basically evolve to a higher order when you
work iteratively. Use rapid iteration to break, churn, and to get inside the problem. So,
iterations will evolve, and then you can design and build and use So, iterate, iterate,
Instead of trying on your own to solve a problem, or create the problem, or figure out the solution, and instead of trying to take a small handful of people and figure it out, I frequently recommend opening up to many different vantage points or multiple perspectives. This is where more is better than less. Invite your people in, and solve the problem, or, better, to first frame the problem and then solve the problem.
There are multiple vantage points in an organization, from philosophy, cultural policy, to strategy tactics, logistics and tasks, and many feedback loops within these vantage points. And this is a major point of acceleration. I often hear, “I want to bring no more that 10.” But the iterative relationships and interdependencies within the organization may mean you need to have 20 or 30 people there to really get to the answer. Sadly, this really tends to freak people out and scare people away. But there’s nothing to be afraid of. You need to invite people in to help you solve your problem (with a with a process in hand). This is a key way to get multiple vantage points in an organization, scanning together, framing a problem, understanding their creative process. And then, you can go through design, build, use.