Jeannette Armstrong on Syilx Notions of Community and Governance

I learned about Jeannette Armstrong, a Syilx / Okanagan First Nations writer, from Ei Ei Samai on the podcast, “Fractal Friends: Growing and Healing Through Conflict.” There’s a wonderful interview with Armstrong, where she explained the meaning of the words “syilx” and “naw’qinwixw.” The whole interview is worth reading, but here are some excerpts that especially spoke to me.

On “syilx”:

So this word, “Syilx” is made up of three images basically. The middle image is “yil” which has to do with when you have many strands, and you twine them together (gesturing with hands) to make one strand. Like you twine them together to make a rope, or coil them together in a way which they’re interwoven or interbound together to make one strong unit out of it, and a continuous one that you coiled and coiled and coiled and coiled; like you would do if you were creating rope out of hemp or something.

It’s speaking about the ethic of the people, the responsibility or the philosophy of the people, to continuously bind with everything that’s around us: our family members, all of our relatives on the land, and continuously maintain one unit. In other words, to be unified, to be in balance, and if we can do that, we can move forward, into the next generation as a whole. And we need to be able to accomplish that as human beings. When we unravel that, then we are in danger, because strands can break off. We can lose strands, so we have to maintain that unity and balance with all other living things.

It’s imperative to know that, to practice it, to live that and to celebrate that. So, all of our ceremonies talk about that, and all of our stories talk about that. We have different kinds of processes and that we utilize in our community to accomplish that and achieve that.

On “naw’qinwixw” — Syilx process of collective problem-solving, decision-making, and governance:

One of the tools that we have — I would say it’s a decision making tool, or a dialogue tool, or it’s a tool that can be used for conflict resolution. It’s also a tool or methodology that can be used for finding out what the best solution to any question might be. In our language we call that process or that tool, “naw’qinwixw.”

The first part of the word, “naw’qin,’-‘aw” has to do with water dripping in a really slow, one drop at a time, that kind of action. So that would be an image. And “naw’qin” the meaning of “qin” always has to do with the top of the head, or the top of a mountain. So there is water dripping one drop at a time in the top of the head.

The last part of the word, “wixw,” means we do that for each other. I do it for you, you do it for me…. So in “naw’qinwixw” the idea means that people must be able to do that for each other.

You know how if you were to take a drop of water and put it on say cotton, and you’d see that the drop slowly permeate the cotton. That action, or that slow infusion into the whole system is what that abstract metaphor is speaking about. If you were to give knowledge in that way, then knowledge becomes integrated into the whole person: into their mind, and their spirit, and their emotions, every part of them.

On interconnection:

Because we care about each other, because we’re connected: we have to be together, we have to live together, we have to work together, we have to see each other every day, that has to be the best way to do things. Understanding that, it makes life easy. It makes life secure. It makes life in a community beautiful. It makes life in a sense something that you don’t want to step out of. It’s hard when you do. It’s hard when you move outside of that: you don’t know people, you can’t trust people, you don’t know where they’re coming from. You have no idea how to connect to them or how you might be able to clarify yourself to them. I don’t know how people can live like that. I really don’t understand.

Reinhold Niebuhr on Hope, Faith, Love, and Forgiveness

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History (1952):

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Via Katherine Tyler Scott. Hat tip to Joanna Levitt Cea.

Reflecting on Some Incomplete Scenario Thinking from 2011

In August 2011, Kristin Cobble, Rebecca Petzel, and I had a planning meeting for Groupaya, the consulting firm we would start several months later. As part of that, Rebecca led us through some initial scenario thinking, which consisted of brainstorming certainties (trends we thought were almost certainly going to happen by 2016) and uncertainties (trends we thought were possibilities).

Here were the initial lists we brainstormed:

  • Economy really crappy in 2015
  • Mobile dominance
  • Africa will be online
  • Design firms flooding into the business (good design the price of entry)
  • Communication and Advertising Firms coming into the business
  • There’s a backlash against “collaboration”?
  • There’s a backlash against “social”?
  • Earthquake in San Francisco
  • Skilled, cheaper consultants coming here from developing countries
  • Knowledge work in the US in the decline
  • Knowledge work undervalued in the US
  • Net Neutrality
  • Trust in Internet services? Things like Wikipedia, AirBnB, eBay rely on trust
  • Institutional clamp down or continued democratization
  • Middle East political situation
  • U.S. “Arab Spring” coming?
  • Backlash against rationalism; rise of fundamentalism
  • Large factory consulting firms hijacking our business

Our “Certainties” list wasn’t very good. The economy was not “crappy” by conventional metrics in 2015, although we were continuing to feel the impacts of widening inequality. And we didn’t really see communications firms come into the business.

Our “Uncertainties” list was far more interesting. We no longer have net neutrality, at least at the federal level. Trust in several social media (Facebook and Twitter in particular) is down, and deservedly so. And reading the bullet point, “Backlash against rationalism; rise of fundamentalism,” now makes me want to cry.

I review these notes every few years out of curiosity and sentimentality, and I pulled them up again last month as COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on our lives. A few things come up for me when I look at these:

  • It’s possible to have an interesting scenarios conversation without a lot of prep. We were clearly already connected to a lot of interesting people and perspectives, which was how stuff like “backlash against rationalism” made it onto our list. (Kristin contributed that one based on conversations she had had with her friend and former colleague at Global Business Network, Eamonn Kelly.)
  • Prep would have helped broaden our perspectives and address some blind spots.
  • Pandemic wasn’t on the list of uncertainties.

The biggest thing that comes up for me is that we never truly benefited from the power of scenario thinking, because we treated it as a one-off. Imagine if we had returned to this list once a year, even without any additional prep, and talked through the possibilities. What might have come up? How might this have changed our thinking? What might we have done differently as a result?

This is a regret I often have about my own past work, and it’s something I find with consulting work in general: We barely benefit from the work (which is often time- and resource-intensive), because we never revisit it. There are lots of reasons we never revisit it, but the most common one is that we’re going too fast. I’ve been able to correct this with my own work (although it took several years and lots of focus and failure), and I continue to try to help others do the same. It’s been really, really hard, which is sad, because it’s so beneficial.

We Don’t All Have to Be Good at Everything, but We Should Value Those Other Things

Last month, Deborah Meehan shared the following reflections on leadership and leadership development:

For example, the assumption of many leadership development programs with a set of leadership competencies is that each participant needs to have all of these competencies. Why? When we lead with others why does each person need to have all of these competencies when they could be distributed within the group that is leading some action?

The weekend before I read Deborah’s post, I had listened to Tim Ferris’s interview with the magician, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame). The whole interview is really good and worth listening to. But I was particularly struck by Penn’s revelation that he had a terrible visual memory, which you might imagine would be a problem for a magician. How was he able to compensate for this, Ferris asked? Penn’s response:

My compensation is Teller. Teller has a phenomenal visual memory. And if you watch Teller and I work, you can very clearly see that I’m doing a radio show. Every bit that I write, I bring to Teller as me doing voiceover from off stage while stuff happens on stage. And then he moves me onto the stage, moves me as part of the action.

Here’s the re-frame that I would offer for leadership development that I use with my own teams. It’s not important for everyone to be good at everything. But it’s important for everyone to value — truly, deeply value — the different competencies. And it’s hard to truly, deeply value those other competencies unless you’ve had a chance to experience what it’s like with them and what it’s like without them.

When I’m working with new collaboration practitioners in a meeting context, I always make them responsible for logistics and operations. Most collaboration practitioners who come to me are not good at these things, nor do they care to be good at them. They usually want to learn how to be good facilitators, and they think facilitation is all about presence or group dynamics or personal development.

However, when it comes to bringing a group alive, design is much more important than facilitation, and logistics are a critical part of design. When you’re in a poorly lit room with heavy, inadequate quantities of food, your meeting is going to suffer. When your participants have trouble checking into their hotels or are not clear on where the meeting is, your meeting is going to suffer. When you’ve planned a whole module around posters hanging up around the room, only to learn that you’re not allowed to hang things on the wall, your meeting is going to suffer.

Many collaboration practitioners look at this as an opportunity to improvise. Sure, improvisation is an important competency, but why put yourself in this position in the first place when it’s completely unnecessary? The reason most practitioners put themselves in this position is that they don’t like to handle the logistics and they think they can get by without it. And that’s often true. But this logic breaks down as the stakes get higher.

What I try to teach others is to value the things that are in your control so that, in the moment, you can be fully present to the things that you can’t. My end goal isn’t to make every collaboration practitioner good at logistics. My end goal is to have collaboration practitioners value it, so that if they’re not good at it, they recruit people who are, and they learn to work well with them.

Olivia de Recat’s Closeness Lines

A few months ago, I came across Olivia de Recat’s art, specifically her rendition of “closeness lines over time.”

I was struck and moved by how simple and moving and information dense this piece was. It really shows how a few simple lines can tell a compelling story.

You can see her other art and buy a print of this and other pieces on her website.