Social Artistry

Last week, my friend, Elissa Perry, a poet and a leadership consultant, asked me how my recent foray into “creative processes” was affecting how I thought about my work. She was referring specifically to my photography dabblings, but I was confused at first. I didn’t understand her distinction between “creative processes” and “my work,” because I always thought those two things were one and the same.

Both my sisters are “artists” in the more traditional sense. My older sister is a violinist married to a composer. My younger sister got her MFA in creative writing, although she is now a practicing lawyer. While their mediums of choice are different from mine, I don’t see my work as being substantially different from theirs.

I was in the business of designing experiences that facilitated high-performance collaboration. I used the same creative muscles that my sisters did to do their work, and I got to express myself in the process. My work stimulated me intellectually from solving a problem and emotionally from being creative. Like all art, the process of creation was sometimes a frustrating grind, but it was overall a wonderful, joyful experience. I’m feeling it right now as I design the next iteration of Changemaker Bootcamp.

A few years ago, I came across the term, “social artist,” from Nancy White to describe this kind of work. I haven’t quite adopted it for myself, but I think it’s an apt description.

As for Elissa’s original question, here are some recent musings about how my photography has affected my other creative processes:

And this is a great excuse to share some of Elissa’s artistry. At last week’s wonderful Creating Space X conference, the notions of “bridging” came up several times, so Elissa treated us to a poem that she wrote that was inspired by the new Bay Bridge. It’s part of a collection entitled, “Everything Indicates.”

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U

Last July, I spent a few days in Staunton, Virginia co-leading a strategic gathering with Kellee Sikes for the Imergence project. I had been burning the midnight oil in the days leading up to gathering, meeting with potential partners and funders during the day, and working on my other projects late into the evening. When we arrived in Staunton in the early evening, I was already exhausted, but we had dinner scheduled with the participants, and I couldn’t resist having a few beers and spending some quality time with the rest of the gang.    (M4L)

People didn’t start dispersing until 11pm, and Kellee and I still needed to finalize details on the next day’s design. I was in a weird zone — physically and mentally exhausted, but also on an alcohol-and-adrenaline-induced high resulting from both the social stimulation of the night’s activities and anticipation for the next day’s events. When I go through these phases, my guard goes down, and I am simultaneously at my most generative and receptive. I also get very punchy.    (M4M)

While Kellee and I worked, Mark Szpakowski came downstairs and started listening in on our conversations. Typically, when I design a workshop, I hide the agenda from participants. However, this was not a typical situation. Mark was one of the creators of the legendary Community Memory Project in the 1970s, someone whom I had interacted with off-and-on over email for several years, and someone I was anxious to learn from. Besides, anyone who’s willing to listen to me babble after midnight deserves to participate in the conversation.    (M4N)

I started explaining to Mark what Kellee and I were grappling with, which led to an ad-hoc discourse on the underlying philosophy behind designing emergent face-to-face events. Mark listened thoughtfully, then observed that some of the things I was saying reminded him of Otto Scharmer. I had not heard of Scharmer before, so Mark drew a big “U” on a pad of paper and started describing Scharmer’s Theory U. I was fascinated and made a mental note to follow up on his work. I later blogged this wonderful Scharmer quote, which Mark sent me later:    (M4O)

The essence of leading profound change is about shifting the inner place from which a system operates: the source and structure of the social field — that is, the source from which our actions come into being.  T    (M4P)

Of course, I never got around to reading anything by Scharmer until he unexpectedly popped back into my life today. Next week, I’m flying to Baltimore to participate in the Leadership Learning Community‘s Creating Space VIII conference. I’ll be on a panel with Allison Fine and moderated by Elissa Perry. In preparation, Elissa sent us links to several background papers on Collective Leadership.    (M4Q)

To my surprise, one of the links was to an excerpt from Scharmer’s latest book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, The Social Technology of Presencing. It was absolutely wonderful. My reading list is already too long, but this book has jumped up to the top of my list.    (M4R)

Here’s an excerpt describing the underlying motivation behind Theory U:    (M4S)

Across the board, we collectively create outcomes (and side effects) that nobody wants. And yet, the key decision-makers do not feel capable of redirecting this course of events in any significant way. They feel just as trapped as the rest of us in what often seems to be a race to the bottom. The same problem affects our massive institutional failure: we haven’t learned to mold, bend, and transform our centuries-old collective patterns of thinking, conversing, and institutionalizing to fit the realities of today.    (M4T)

…    (M4U)

The rise of fundamentalist movements in both Western and non-Western countries is a symptom of this disintegration and deeper transformation process. Fundamentalists say: “Look, this modern Western materialism doesn’t work. It takes away our dignity, our livelihood, and our soul. So let’s go back to the old order.”    (M4V)

This reaction is understandable as it relates to two key defining characteristics of today’s social decay that peace researcher Johan Galtung calls anomie, the loss of norms and values, and atomie, the breakdown of social structures. The resulting loss of culture and structure leads to eruptions of violence, hate, terrorism and civil war, along with partly self-inflicted natural catastrophes in both southern and northern hemispheres. It is, as Vaclav Havel put it, as if something is decaying and exhausting itself.    (M4W)

What then is arising from the rubble? How can we cope with these shifts? What I see rising is a new form of presence and power that starts to grow spontaneously from small groups and networks of people. It’s a different quality of connection, a different way of being present with one another that moves us beyond the patterns of the past. When groups learn to operate from a real future possibility that is seeking to emerge, they begin to tap into a different social field that manifests through an altered quality of thinking, conversing, and collective action. When that shift happens, people can connect with a deeper source of creativity and knowing. One they don’t normally experience. They step into their real power, the power of their authentic self. I call this change a shift in the social field because that term designates the totality and type of connections through which the participants of a given system relate, converse, think, and act.    (M4X)

When a group succeeds in operating in this zone once, it is easier to do so a second time. It is as if an unseen, but permanent, communal connection or bond has been created. It even tends to stay on when new members are added to the group.    (M4Y)

The crux of his theory stems from his thoughts on organizational learning:    (M4Z)

Having spent the last ten years of my professional career in the field of organizational learning, my most important insight has been that there are two different sources of learning: learning from the experiences of the past and learning from the future as it emerges. The first type of learning, learning from the past, is well known and well developed. It underlies all our major learning methodologies, best practices and approaches to organizational learning. By contrast, the second type of learning, learning from the future as it emerges, is still by and large unknown.    (M50)

A number of people to whom I proposed the idea of a second source of learning considered it wrongheaded. The only way to learn, they argued, is from the past. “Otto, learning from the future is not possible. Don’t waste your time!” But in working with leadership teams across many sectors and industries, I realized that leaders could not meet their existing challenges by operating only on the basis of past experiences. Sometimes, the experiences of the past aren’t exactly that helpful in dealing with the current issues. Sometimes, you work with teams in which the experiences of the past are actually the biggest problem and obstacle for coming up with a creative response to the challenge at hand.    (M51)

When I started realizing that the most impressive leaders and master practitioners seem to operate from a different core process, one that pulls us into future possibilities, I asked myself: How can we learn to better sense and connect with a future possibility that is seeking to emerge?    (M52)

I began to call this operating from the future as it emerges, presencing. Presencing is a blending of the two words “presence” and “sensing.” It means to sense, tune in and act from one’s highest future potential — the future that depends on us to bring it into being.    (M53)

Beautiful stuff. Can’t wait to read the book.    (M54)

Leadership Learning Community

In the second half of 2006, I took a hard look at my list of projects and opportunities. I decided that I needed to be brutally honest about what I wanted to accomplish with Blue Oxen Associates, and that ultimately, I wanted two things:    (LTL)

  1. To have a wider impact    (LTM)
  2. To give more quality time to fewer projects.    (LTN)

That meant not renewing existing commitments and saying no to a lot of great people.    (LTO)

In the midst of all this, I got an email from Elissa Perry asking if I’d be interested in becoming a board member of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). LLC is a community that takes a network-centric approach to leadership development, focusing particularly on the graduates of the many foundation leadership programs across the entire sector. Elissa had participated in our first two FLOSS Usability Sprints, and we had chances here and there to chat about our respective work and organizations. We were definitely on the same philosophical plane, and I loved hearing about the great work LLC was doing.    (LTP)

That said, my first instinct was to say no. But I decided to sleep on it, and I started having second thoughts. When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I originally wanted to focus on the nonprofit sector, and while we shifted our strategy midway through our first year, my heart never left that space. Over the years, I met many great people in the sector, I worked with a number of foundations and two nonprofits (Planetwork and People for the American Way) as clients, I joined the board of a nonprofit (Tomorrow Makers), and I did several projects with Aspiration, most notably the usability sprints. But I never got the chance to really get my hands dirty with one particular group. Focus was always the issue.    (LTQ)

Joining the board of LLC would give me the chance to focus my energies on one nonprofit and simultaneously impact the entire sector. If I were going to make that commitment to one organization, I wanted to make sure it was a good fit. I decided to research LLC a bit more, and the more I read, the more I felt kinship to the mission and the execution. In many ways, they were trying to do the same thing for leadership that I was trying to do for collaboration. I loved their emphasis on learning as well as their methodology. Most importantly, I saw ways that we could learn from each other.    (LTR)

In the end, I said yes. I was confident about my decision, but after participating in a board meeting and in one of their learning circles last month, I am ecstatic about it. Everyone there is smart, action-oriented, and full of heart, starting with the executive director, Deborah Meehan. That also goes for its board. The board meeting felt like… well, like one of Blue Oxen‘s workshops. Except it wasn’t a workshop, it was a board meeting! This was not your typical, sign-off-on-the-budget-so-we-can-go-drink meeting. This was a welcome-to-the-family, stretch-your-mind, now-get-down-to-business meeting, and it was infinitely more effective and fulfilling that way.    (LTS)

The learning circle, for me, sealed the deal. Not only did I get to watch the LLC staff do their thing, I was also blown away by the caliber of the participants, who were mostly from foundations. I live in an area and work in a field where I am constantly surrounded by brilliant people, and to be very frank, I have always been underwhelmed whenever I’ve attended gatherings of foundation people. This was a notable exception. I was struck by the breadth of experience, the depth and rigor of thinking, and the respectful and authentic discourse among the participants. My brain was overflowing by the end of the workshop.    (LTT)

As I said a few weeks ago, a week with the LLC generated enough thoughts to fill a thousand blog posts. I won’t write that many, but I hope to spit out a few, starting with this one. In the meantime, if you’re interested in leadership, check out the web site, participate in one of the learning circles, and come participate in the annual Creating Space workshop in Baltimore, April 11-13, 2007.    (LTU)