Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Project Incubator and SoL North America

Michael and Anika have been members of the Society for Organizational Learning pretty much since its founding by Peter Senge of MIT and other colleagues in 1997.  SoL was created to advance the five disciplines of organizational learning advanced in Senge's book by that title.  These are:
  • The Personal Mastery that an individual develops from being committed to a creative vision for him/herself, i.e., a willingness to do whatever it takes with one’s own physical, cognitive and emotional processes to achieve that vision
  • The Shared Vision that weaves personal desires together into a team and an organizational passion that is stated in terms of an inspiring mission that people really want to achieve
  • The ability to discover and reflect on the Mental Models that shape personal and organizational perceptions and behavior and pose a risk  to effectiveness if they assumed to be true and are never subjected to a thoughtful critique
  • The use of mindful Dialogue that leads to strategic conversations rather than polarizing disputes
  • The understanding of complexity and repetitive patterns of  that the persistent use of the tools of Systems Thinking enables.
SoL has affected many thousands of people since its founding.  The organization has been going through an extended transition over the last three years as a new legal framework has been established to support its revised mission of being a network of networks for those who want to understand and influence the dynamics of organizational and societal systems.  There are now 22 SoL entities around the world operating in a loose confederation in support of the five disciplines in all of their manifestations.

Michael recently became the co-chair of SoL, North America (SoL NA), one of the largest and most well-established of the SoL constellation.  Working with a set of talented and experienced colleagues --Carol Mase of Cairn Consulting, Stephen Gianotti of the Woodland Group Associates, Siraj Sirajuddin of TEMENOS, Frank Schneider, Manager Director of SoL NA, Deborah Reidy of Reidy Associates, and Mark Alpert, President of Pegasus Communications-- Michael has been involved in the re-booting of SoL designed to dramatically increase the level of dynamic engagement by the members in the Society's activities. 

This new effort was formally launched by about 40 participants at the end of Pegasus' Systems Thinking in Action conference last month in Indianapolis.  Michael worked with Siraj and Carol, in particular, to design the Project Incubator specifically for this event.  The Incubator uses a modified Open Space technology to help participants identify high impact projects that will move them and the organizations and systems they care about ahead.  The objective of this particular Incubator was to use the energy, ideas and talent in the room to contribute to the priorities for SoL NA in 2013 and beyond by identifying high energy/high potential projects.   

We used a strategy matrix for SoL NA developed out of a series of conversations with Peter Senge.


The left hand column identifies a set of domains of activity where SoL NA have expertise. Similarly, the themes across the top refer to particular types of organizational thought and consultation where SoL members have developed distinctive methodologies.  Here's a bit of an elaboration of each of the theme:

(Here's a link to a short edited video in which Peter presents his thinking about the matrix in response to a set of questions we asked.  It may take a little work to access the page entitled "Project Incubator".  Please let us know if you are having any difficulty.)  

An exciting catalog of project ideas came out of this effort, some of which are already underway:
Each of these projects is going to be the subject of a Spotlight Conversation soon, in which the project leader will discuss the steps they have taken to move their project ahead and seek input and involvement from others in the SoL community.  Of course, it would be terrific for anyone reading this note who is not already a SoL member to join, participate in a call on a topic of interest, and take advantage of the benefits of membership.

This particular Incubator was focused on SoL NA's specific needs, but it also generated the robustness of the technology.  Initiating an Incubator clarifies organizational strategy and identifies specific action vehicles for realizing that policy in a way that engages the energy of associates in a completely organic fashion, i.e., people get excited about something that they really want to do which will also produce tremendous top line and bottom line results for the organization while doing really positive things in the world.

Call or write Michael (617-335-9776; to learn more about the Project Incubator and how it might be used in your organization or community.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012 Year End Blog

  Navigating the Narrows of a Complicated Future
This Christmas and Chanukah season we are thinking of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.  In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which means "narrows" or "straits" [probably derived from the narrow straits of the Nile in northern Egypt], a place of rapids and white water, requiring great skill to survive.  The narrows are both a physical and psychological reality.  We can be in "tight spots" because our funds and our luck are running out,  our opponents are closing in, or we are unable to see any possibilities beyond gloom and doom.   

This era, like many others, is full of dangerous narrows and rapids.  Many things happen and many conditions arise for which we are completely unprepared.  We've got to scramble hard to get through.   Our increasingly interconnected world means that events that might have had relatively minor implications in the past now have the possibility of impinging upon our consciousness globally.

For example, hostilities between ethnicities and nationalities are becoming more complex as the 21st century progresses.  The "we" consciousness between groups is proliferating, and the "us" politics of community consciousness is being relegated to the sidelines.  These identity politics frequently play out with ruthless violence. 
Nowhere are these tectonic forces of ethnic friction more on display than in the Middle East, a perennial hotspot of conflicting aspirations and interests.  Hostilities between Islamists,  minority religious groups, and secularists are poignantly on display in Egypt and Syria, where an intricate vortex of revolutionary and religious activity threatens to explode into permanent instability.

In the midst of this turmoil is Israel, which has its own complex political make up.  Of course, this small country is a pariah to many of its neighbors; quite a few remain in a formal state of war with the Jewish state.  It's a society that has to do a good job of navigating the narrows.
What can we learn from Israel? What enables it to keep going in spite of seemingly overwhelming odds?  A recent interview by Tom Friedman with retiring Israeli politician, Ehud Barak, pointed us toward an answer to this question.  With regard to the huge political forces, with deep roots, now playing out around Israel, particularly the rise of political Islam, Barak said...
  'We have to learn to accept it and see both sides of it and try to make it better.  I am worried about our tendency to adopt a fatalistic, pessimistic perception of history.  Because, once you adopt it, you are relieved from the responsibility to see the better aspects and seize the opportunities when they lose sight of the opportunities and the will to seize opportunities. ...I know that you can’t say when leaders raise this kind of pessimism that it is all just invented.  It is not all invented, and you would be stupid if you did not look [at it] with open eyes.  But it is a major risk that you will not notice that you become enslaved by this pessimism in a way that will paralyze you from understanding that you can shape it.  The world is full of risks, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to do something about it — within your limits and the limits of realism — and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies that are extremely dangerous here.'
This point applies to all of us living in and navigating through these challenging timesIn this era of polarization and economic stagnation in the West, there is much to be pessimistic about.  But, if pessimism is the totality of one's world view, there is a great risk that all sorts of other options and possibilities will go unnoticed. 
Art of the Future believes that hope is always a possibility.  There is hope, for example, that the Arab Spring will not yield another round of authoritarianism but, rather, result in a recognition that listening closely to differing perspectives, will result in a deeper level of societal learning and functioning.  Regardless of the unsettling forces at work in the world - global warming, youth who lacking concentration or engagement, economic bankruptcy, etc., etc. -  there is always the possibility that things could turn out much more beautifully than ever imagined.
A recent video from Paraguay demonstrates the validity of this view.  In "The World Sends us Garbage and We Send Back Music," people with absolutely nothing materially - children finding food in landfills - are still able to create an orchestra!  I want to break down and cry about the power of the human spiritLike Patti Smith says, The People Have the Power and ain't nothin' goin' to turn 'em around once they get started!
Circling back to the religious nature of December, another piece of ancient Hebrew thinking about the possibilities that confront us all goes like this...

המצר קראתי י-ה ענני במרחב י-ה מן
"From the narrow I called out for God, God answered me with expansiveness."
Whatever our condition and the condition of the world that is our context, we have the possibility of greater consciousness, the prospect of moving from the narrows into the larger sea.  

In 2013, may we choose expansiveness.
Best wishes for an abundant new year! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Art from Art of the Future

Design Integrity

Anika was a Featured artist at the Newburyport Art Association in July.  Her skills in the visual arts are have a direct tie to Art of the Future's focus.  We have identified  five characteristics of life-sustaining organizations:
    • Creative people
    • Whole system thinking at the individual, organizational and global levels
    • Design integrity in every aspect of organizational life
    • Elegant solutions to complex issues
    • Results orientation
      Lets take a closer look at that third point: design integrity.
      Anika has been focusing on artistic expression through oil painting and watercolor.  Visual art is a manifestation of Art of the Future's commitment to beauty and aesthetic development.  Throughout Anika's professional life, first as an architect, designer and planner and later as strategist, theorist and researcher focusing on revolutionary changes in the workplace, she has systemically integrated design aesthetics with functionality.   We call this integration "design integrity."

      Design integrity does not sacrifice the look and feel of the environment for expedience or lack of attention.  It also does not impose a rigid aesthetic at the expense of liveability, comfort and ease of work flow.  It is the total integration of beauty and function.  When done well it seems simple and effortless, a no brainer, a perfect flower critical the survival of the whole system. Why, then, isn't design integrity inevitable and ubiquitous?  Its simplicity is deceptive, arrived at only through effort, concentration and repeated failed attempts.  A competency in design integrity is arrived at though an openness to failing quickly and failing often, particularly in the early conceptual phase of any design process.  If we decide to settle for "good enough," that's where we will be stuck, never considering other, more effective possibilities.

      In his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Josh Waitzkin discusses the concept of "investing in loss" as key to a winning performance.  The idea of design integrity in workplace, products, services, packaging, promotion, etc., etc, carries directly into elegant solutions.  Insights leading to clear thinking on complex issues can be expressed elegantly, that is simply and concisely in ways that communicate the appropriate message.  Think of Apple's attention to the bags and boxes that hold its products; they convey a message of design integrity and elegant solutions that raises the company's image above the norm, contributing (as part of the whole experience) to the organization's results orientation.

      Holden Revisited

      Why is Finding a Job So Hard for Holden Caufield? 

      As many will recall, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye,  Holden Caufield (age 17), spends a three nights in Manhattan right after getting kicked out of yet another prep school.   Holden is a very sensitive guy who's a "hell of" an observer of the human condition.  Salinger's naturalistic language, his ability to tell an action packed story with scores of digressions (all of which actually relate to the plot), and the profound maturity of the book's themes have conspired to make The Catcher a permanent classic since its release in 1951; it continues to be one of the top ten most banned books in the United States.  

      In one scene, Holden's sister, Phoebe, presses him to state what he wants to be; does he want to be a scientist, a lawyer maybe? What does he want to be when he grows up?!     
      Finally, he answers: "I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big -- except me.  And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out form somewhere and catch them.  That's all I'd do all day.  I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all." 

      Now, unless one does some re-framing of other professions like teaching and nursing and firefighting, there aren't a lot of jobs opportunities out there for catchers in the rye.  It's a systems problem in the sense that there are lots and lots of people who want to do things that the systems that they are embedded in don't really accommodate.  

      A very smart guy in the systems thinking field, Barry Oshry, has done a lot of thinking, writing and intervening regarding the ability of systems to embrace lots of
      Barry Oshry
      different types of people while continuing to function in some sort of holistic and directed fashion.  He inquires into the nature of "robust systems," i.e., systems that can be a lot of different things and still be one thing at the same time; systems with real staying power and a lot of resilience.  Oshry looks at all human systems in terms of four features that every living entity will share in one degree or another:
      1. Integration, i.e., the degree to which a system has a shared objective/mission that everyone in the system understands and adheres to in some fashion.
      2. Differentiation, i.e., the degree to which a system has different ways of interfacing with the environment.
      3. Homogenization, i.e., the ubiquity of norms, mores, behaviors, information within a system; the degree to which everyone does and knows the same thing, such as speaking the same language, possessing shared mythology, dressing in some way that others experience as appropriate, and 
      4. Individuation, i.e., the degree to which a system allows and enables individuals to be freely themselves and express themselves as most befits who they are. 

      Some illustrations:  

      A great orchestra can be a highly robust system. There's a shared mission of producing great music that honors the creativity and inspiration of the composer. There are many different types of music that can be played and the system can be subdivided in many sorts of ways to interact with its audiences and its larger environment (chamber music, quartettes, full orchestra symphony, public performances, private concerts, recording sessions, visits with the media, political events, etc.). Everyone knows the score, i.e., they all know the scales and they wear a uniform that enable everyone looking at them to say, "Oh, I must be at the symphony!" And, they can tolerate and encourage a great range of individuality. Really good musicians get to do what they're good at, what they really most want to do.    

      Rigid systems don't have this sort of pliability. They require people to hoe the "party line", for example. You can never do enough to demonstrate what a believer you are in whatever the system's doctrine might be.  Rigid systems tend to be simpler systems in that they don't have a lot of differentiation, i.e., they do a finite set of things in relationship to their environment and they don't easily generate new modalities of activity.  They are also seriously into conformity.  People dress the same, talk the same, and know pretty instinctively how not to get out of line. (Think North Korea and the Taliban.) As you might expect, rigid systems are also not big on individual freedom and expression...unless you're natively the type of person who really likes to pound the drum in just exactly the way the rigid system wants you to.  

      Inchoate systems are big on differentiation and individuation. Everyone gets to do h/er own thing and there are a zillion small groups that are really adamant advocates for what they want and really adamantly antagonistically against what some other group wants. (Think of the litigious conditions of the U.S. or the political blogosphere.)  Unfortunately, inchoate systems tend to have too little integration and homogenization.  No one agrees on any core principles and there are no overarching norms or information bases.   So, everyone is sure that they are right, but the system as a totality isn't moving along any particular pathway.

      Art of the Future concentrates on the design, creation and maintenance of Life Sustaining Organizations, those organizations that recognize,celebrate and promote the vitality of the people comprising the organization, of themselves as living systems and the natural ecology supporting us all.  As living systems, life-sustaining organizations emphasize the importance of protecting and fostering both logic and creativity in all manifestations. 

      Sensitive, thoughtful, aware people, like Holden Caufield, can thrive only in the context of life-sustaining organizations.   Knowing they need catchers in the rye, these organizations honor those who step up to the role.  As organizations evolve from mechanistic to organic sef-perceptions, may we be fortunate enough to be associated with those open to such possibilites.   May we be courageous and diligent enough to assist in their creative evolution. 

      References: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007) and Leading Systems (1999); Michael Sales, "Understanding the Power of Position: A Diagnostic Model" in Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader (2006); Michael Sales and Anika Savage, Life Sustaining Organizations (2011)

      News from the Future

      A Report on the World Future Society's 2012 Conference

      Michael recently spent a very rich two days at the annual conference of the World Future Society and thought you might appreciate his views and comments. The conference was held in Toronto, Ontario, one of North America's most highly diverse and multicultural cities. This vibrant setting was ideal for an international event that brought over 700 dynamic people focused on the future together.  It's impossible to give you an accounting of what went on in all 58 sessions and workshops.  Even as peripatetic as he is, Michael couldn't be in more than one session at a time.  But, he sure hit a few!  Here are some highlights:

      Brian David Johnson

      Brian David Johnson, Intel's resident futurist, a most energetic and warm human being, took us through a history of computer memory to remind us that we now store more information on a jump drive than the guys who went to the Moon had in their capsule.  "Meaningful computing power will approach zero by 2020.  Blood flow will power a computer.

      Anything will be turned into a computer. We've moved from 'Can we?' to 'What do we want to do with it?'"  We're entering an era where the biggest challenge that humans face will be to "change the story that people tell themselves about the future they'll live in."  Johnson's thinking along these lines is elaborated in his book,  Science Fiction Prototyping, and in his activities at Intel's  The Tomorrow Project.    

      Lee Rainie
      Lee Rainie is the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project which studies the social impact of the Internet.  "More for Me" (i.e., technology will enhance my life) versus "More for Them" (i.e., technology will make it easier for those that wish to track me in order to manipulate me) was the general theme of Lee's talk. Pew polled hundreds of "experts" of all different sorts regarding a variety of paired polarities related to this general theme to see how they expected it to play out.  For example, 53% of those polled thought that "Big Data," (e.g., the kind of information Facebook has on 1,000,000,000 users world wide) will generate a better future providing each of us with an "Endless You" loop through which we can continuously enjoy and expand ourselves.  On the other hand, 47% worried all that data about you is going to turn into something like a "No You," when anything and everything you might do is comprehended by the ruthless algorithms of computation.
      The "Poverty of Imagination" panel session featured noted Australian futurist, Richard Slaughter, co-founder of the Global Business Network, Jay Ogilvy, former OECD program manager, Riel Miller, director of the Centre for Futures and Innovation at Glamorgan Business School, Martin Rhisiart, and senior fellow at Korea Development Institute, Cheonsik Woo.   Miller, who hasn't published anything in a while but may have a book coming out shortly, was quite brilliant in his thinking about the metaphors people and organizations use to anticipate the future.  "Everyone uses industrial language.  Everyone
      Riel Miller

      wants to be at the top of the pyramid. The race is on for greater and greater  efficiency.  This way of thinking creates enormous stress, and its a losing battle just to stay in place.  This is not an imaginative conceptualization process; it is drawing on imagery that is "out of gas."  "Our politics have become defensive and reactionary.  The hatred of science that we're seeing is coincident with the notion that things can and should last forever.  We are willing to use war and authoritarianism to preserve what is, because of a fear of change and the inability to imagine a really good future.  Ogilvy elaborated on these themes.  "We underrate our capacity to change the world.  Nietzsche, in "On the Use and Abuse of History for
      Jay Ogilvy
      Life," critiques 'monumental history,' i.e., using history as a way to prove that one thing or another thing 'had to happen.'  Things unfold in a 'necessaritarian' fashion.  Contrarian history shows us the knife's edge of history.  The present is always plastic.  We've set the bar too high.  We've privileged peace as a condition rather than pushed ourselves to get good at peacemaking."    Slaughter picked up on the plasticity of the present theme in noting how "counterfactual" histories [such as Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle] present a highly plausible alternative history that demonstrate that inevitability exists largely in hindsight. 

      Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, former Danish ambassador to Singapore, presented a session
      on the evolution of Asian economies over the next decade.  Moeller, something of a force of nature, has spoken with depth and mastery at many World Future Society conferences and this talk  was another demonstration of why he's such a favorite.  Drawing on his encyclopedic awareness of data and his imaginative ideational abilities, Moeller paints a positive and a negative picture of the future of Asia.  For example, the United States's structural debts have given China a great advantage in calling the shots over the next decade, an advantage that will likely cause the U.S. to renege on its obligations in 2016 and drive Japan into the Asiatic

      Joergen Oestroem Moeller
      sphere of influence that it has avoided since at least the end of WWII.  As others have as well, Moeller analyzes the demographics of Asia to predict that China will become increasingly focused on technology as its population ages and that the manufacturing activity currently going on China will largely shift to other Asian nations like India by 2020.  Bangladesh
      , for example, is currently the world's 3rd largest producer of textiles .  "China has to invest in technology; India has to invest in infrastructure.  Will these two Asian giants manage their transitions going in opposite directions from where they are now, while simultaneously maintaining free trade with each other?"  Moeller believes that China will become a more important power than the U.S. and its Western allies because its people are more willing to cooperate with one another than those who come out of the West's individualist traditions. 

      Presentations by the Singularity University's faculty and students were fascinating, albeit controversial.  The Singularity is a proposition that four intertwined exponential trends will bestow immortality on humanity by mid-century.  The  Singularity holds that the arrival of immortality will represent a discontinuity with all previous versions of humanity and, therefore, represent a state of beginning somewhat similar to that which existed at the Big Bang.  While Vernor Vinge coined the term, Ray Kurzweil, a mega-millionaire inventor and entrepreneur, wrote the book that turned the idea of the Singularity into something of a viral
      concept.  José Luis Cordeiro, a Singularity University faculty member, presented a powerful overview of the convergence and acceleration of NBIC technologies [Nanotech; Biotech; Cognotech (technology based on brain activity); and Infotech].  Anna Trunina, a 23 year old woman of Russian ethnicity who speaks flawless English, described the activities of the genetic counseling service, Premier Life, she is creating as an example of how the Singularity University's ideas are migrating into use in the world.  Some futurists see the Singularity as a rigid way of thinking about the future and, therefore, as a digression into prediction rather than anticipating the flexibility of possible futures, which is more consistent with futuring as a discipline.

      Michael Marien, publisher of Global Foresight Books, William Halah, president of TechCast, Richard Slaughter, and Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of Global Systems at the Center for International Governance Innovation) addressed an overflow crowd on the
      “Global MegaCrisis: Four Scenarios on the Future of Progress” demonstrating exactly what an anxious age we're living in.  The Global MegaCrisis is postulated as an emerging "perfect storm" of climate change, economic crises, joblessness, growing inequality, corruption, terrorism and more.  In other words, it's a mighty bad place.  Marien and Hallah have described four possible scenarios, "Decline to Disaster," "Muddling Down," "Muddling Up," and "Rise to Maturity", as responses to the emerging and present crisis for several years. Marien and Slaughter take a pessimistic tack in discussions of these possible futures.  Hallah, in contrast, holds a quite optimistic view based on technological advances.  Homer-Dixon concentrates on the "deeply rooted psychological biases" that impact a person's fundamental orientation toward hope or despair (i.e., If one is biased toward ideational causal factors, one is likely to think that the human mind can overcome everything.  If one focuses on material causal factors, one is more likely to believe that external, structural factors will control human destiny, and probably not in a good way.).
      Let's close this overview of the conference with some notes from Jay Ogilvy's brilliant report on "Lessons from Three Decades of Futures Research."  Ogilvy taught philosophy at the university level for many years.  As the co-founder of the Global Business Network, he is one of the real creators of the "Scenaric Stance" (the view that the future can evolve in many different ways and that the job of the futurist is to cultivate an openness to the possible).  He spoke of three way stations in evolution of human thinking about time and "futurity."  The first stop was the view that the future is a space in time that we just haven't gotten to yet: what the future will be is certain, "the clay just hasn't gotten dry".  The second way of thinking about the future is exemplified by Aristotle's thought of time as a "moving image of eternity" -- essentially, there is no evolution; the future is bifurcated.  We can be optimistic about the future (reading the tea leaves of the present and finding much to support a notion of progress toward something better) or we can be pessimistic(finding no meaning in a random universe).  The third way of thinking about the future, the scenaric stance, holds both the pessimistic and the optimistic views of future possibilities in mind simultaneously.  In Ogilvy's view, the scenaric stance allows us to exist on the knife edge of what the future may actually be.  In his book, Facing the Fold, Ogilvy finds numerous advantages to the scenaric stance:
      - An acute sense of freedom from any official future
      - The intellectual honesty of not knowing
      - A focusing of action and intent, with knowledge of the stakes at hand
      - The ability to toggle back and forth between possibilities without psychic stress or guilt
      - Emotional depth, a personal feeling for what the future might be and an ability to communicate that
      - A subtle frame of mind, seeing nuance in stories.   

      Consider all the predictions you've been sure about that didn't pan out; that's a great way to get at the mindset of the scenaric stance.  No one knows anything about the future with absolute certainty.  That truth is a door to the freedom of exploration.