David Sibbet | Cognition & Communications
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We humans are cooking ourselves. It was 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Paris and Germany in early August—the first temperatures over 100 degrees F. in the UK, ever—July was the hottest month globally in recorded history. If the equatorial countries become unlivable people will head north. They already are. If the ice melts whole economies in the north will rupture. A new cold war is already shaping up over the Arctic. Our government is in denial. It’s a mess. Can we survive?

PERSONAL CONTEXT

I’ve been absorbing news and reacting to all the climate developments for a while now, working to stay awake and not numbing out. This blog is a reflection of that journey starting with the dark thoughts and then what I’m doing about it. It’s a longer piece, writing to evoke the actual feelings I’m having.

THE MATRIX

I, like a large number of other people, have been hooked up to a matrix of disinformation and catastrophe news that feels like the intellectual parallel to junk food. I’m matriximageinferring, from my own reaction, that this is become a kind of mass social paralysis. It actually is a Matrix, like in the classic and scarily prophetic trilogy by the Wachowski brothers. In that movie a machine society figured out that humans were the greatest source of energy available and created a hypnotically seductive virtual world to conceal that fact that embryos and fully grown humans were hooked up like batteries in vast arrays of incubator-like cells.

Today we aren’t living in incubators with physical hookups to the back our necks, but we we are plugged into a matrix of screen imagery whose sole purpose is to keep us looking so that companies can mine our data—feeding us climate catastrophies and mass shootings is its sauce. As anyone who reads now knows, the news, ads, and suggestion feeds are carefully managed by algorithms and AI scrapings of all your data to know what keeps you looking. It turns out that extreme, disrupting news works predictablty well. So does disgusting, unbelievable conjurings of possibility in the form of conspiracy theories, racist attacks, and reports that will shatter any sense you have of being safe and having a good day. (If you don’t get this watch The Great Hack, a documentary about Cambridge Analytica).

THE MIASMA

In his recent book, FALL: Or Dodge in Hell, Neil Stevenson calls this mashup of disinformation and social media the “miasma,” which means stink. It’s a near future where anything that has any kind of attention gets amplified, distorted, and misreported in a tornado of excitement and media frenzy. The weathy employ AI filters and read assistants to stand in between. We’re almost there.

My perception that this really does stink became belief when I read that Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN at the time Trump was elected, was the person who made his name at NBC with the gross out show, Fear Factor, and went on to hire Trump in the Apprentice. CNN’s coverage of Trump during the campaign was 1/3 more than any other network. Is it a surprise that CNN’s business model turned a corner and they have been making money hand over fist since—by attacking, making fun of, and pretending to be doing reporting? I like Colbert, but he’s part of it. MSNBC is part of it. FOX news is way into being a part of it. It’s rope-a-dope by people who intimately understand professional wrestling, AND by the tech companies who are creating the infrastructures that allow social media to support our Presidency and what is turning out to be a global reality TV show.

All this is probably not news. But for me, knowing this is troubling because I can’t pretend that I can go on not doing anything about it. I’ve spent my adult life helping the tech companies get better at what they do. I’ve relied on and use their tools. I rely on and use their networks. I am IN the Matrix. And if you don’t run into trouble, it’s a wonderful illusion. The daily “upset” works like caffeine. Jack in. Jack up. Then, as many do, jack knife. Right into the health system that also prospers from all the side effects. I don’t want that. So I’m turning in other direction.

STAYING CONNECTED TO MY OWN HISTORY

Many times this means doing down in the San Francisco, the city I lived in since 1969 before moving to Petaluma. I live there now because I fell in love with and married Gisela, after my Susan died of cancer in 2013. Seredepitously I was born in Petaluma, but was only there for four years before moving to the East side of the Sierras in Bishop.

01FrontSusan and I were married for 46 years. We had two kids together and raised another and reconnected with yet another, for a total of seven grandchildren I care about. We lived most of those years in San Francisco in flats, the kind of dwellings that crust the city hills, allowing two or three families or groups to occupy the whole “flat” level they are on. They are different than apartments where other units can be on the same floor. It had a real community feeling most of the time. It still does, and gets stronger when I visit.

Our flat in the Richmond District is a half block from Golden Gate park and next to the Argonne Community Garden, where I was President for 7-8 years after Susan got me involved back in 1978. Our back yard, sand like all the other homes built out on the west side of San Francisco, which used to be considered beach front, supports a half dozen well composted flower beds, hand bricked by myself over the years. We used to have a lawn in a circle in the middle of a Medicine Wheel, in honor of the people who lived in this country before the Europeans. Miwoks and the Ohlone didn’t have wheels like this exactly, but the plains people did, and so did the Aztecs before the Spaniards. Teachings have flowed down and I happen to find their respect for the natural world and the many facets of human life inspiring. Mowing the lawn in the middle of the wheel also kept me connected with the hours I spent mowing the lawns around the church in Bishop, CA, where my father was a minister. The mowing was always conjunct with important church socials, Sunday services, and other ceremonies. I guess the young part of me trying to make sense of things got that doing a good job on the grass was a sacred act.drum-and-medicine-wheel

But then the long drought in California in the early 2000s convinced me it was more sacred to stop watering grass, and the circle devolved back to sand. But I put in a little fire circle in the middle and a mandala of bricks. It was still a sacred circle.

Farther back in the yard is another circle between a plum tree we planted and a moon shaped raised bed made of Sierra rock we hauled back on several trips. It is host to the rhodidendron and a Mexican orange bush, and a ring of flowers when Susan was alive and planting. This brick circle was made of old bricks from earlier tenants at this place, who were reputedly architects. When we managed to buy the place in 2001 it became a place to have lunch under the plum, and the then flourishing cianothis tree, a native lilac that blooms blue several times a year and is considered a weed tree in some parts of northern California. But it was at the tip of moon garden, the East direction on the wheel, and was the center of the garden. It represented indigenous California to me.

GARDENING AS A HEALING RESPONSE

Susan’s four-year cancer journey and passing away were devastating, and transformative. Now that Susan is not here in the flesh, she is alive for me in this garden and the flats, which I keep ahold of and now rent. And my connection with subtle realms is much more alive. My old studio is now a small city apartment for writing, creating, and remembering. The garden’s drip system still works, fortunately. But ivy and switch grass take over steadily. A huge limb of the plumb came down last year. The cianothis has also fallen prey to strong winds. Only one, slightly rotting core remains. It’s decline and decay mirrors my larger sense of what is happening. But I can do something directly about the garden.

I began clearing and weeding a couple of weeks ago, and this recent visit wanted to finish up. I packed all the trimmings I’d left in the circle to dry last time into a green bin. I trimmed and weeded a bit from the front beds. And I was determined to take the brick circles back to their bricky selves. They now were covered with little six inch high weeds coming out of the spaces between, like course dog hairs all over the circle. The only way to weed was to get on my knees with my knee protectors, and pick medicine-wheelthem out one by one. I knew from my years of gardening I was in a for an hour or so of this, so I relaxed and began letting them talk to me. I sometimes get real messages this way

That is where it began to hit me, that the way out of the miasma and matrix of our times is to simply stop, and beginning paying attention step-by-step to moving in a direction that has a future. As I slowed, I opened up.

TALKING TO THE WEEDS

I wondered if the weeds felt me pulling them up. I wondered if some people in authority think of certain kinds of people as weeds that need pulling up. What right did I have to even think of people as being like weeds? But weeds are alive, and they propagate. The only reason they are called weeds is because I’ve decided that this or that kind of plant isn’t wanted. Isn’t wanted is the definition of a weed.

Hmmm. But my weeding is actually an act of worship in a way. I’m creating sacred space. I’m embodying my love of Susan and our family. I’m creating this as an open space, free of the distraction of weeds.

And it is in open space, with lots of spaciousness and being fully present that new life comes in. I reflected on how cracked open I’ve been by Susan’s dying, and how into the cracks came new love and new intention, and new courage, and a lot less concern for many of the previous things that annoyed me. I reflected on how having a cleaned-up wheel in the back yard brings more potency and energy to my drumming the circle and praying to my ancestors and teachers. It gives me more courage for my community work.

Maybe the weeds I need to pay attention to are the weedy thoughts and feelings that are growing in response to the miasma! Oh my. Now I didn’t want to have that thought. How can I weed myself?

STEP-BY-STEP

Step-by-step I thought again, just like pulling these little suckers. What would those steps be I wondered? And then the steps I want to take came through.

  1. Stay “woke:” This is a Black term for staying conscious and caring about social issues, like the repression of people of color. I like it as a term for getting “woke” all around— to technology. media and it’s pricetag, and to global warming.
  2. Unplug: Literally unplug the Matrix. We did that a bit a couple of months ago and put our TV in the garage. We haven’t cancelled cable but are close. Watching movies isn’t the same as watching the “news.” It has already changed our energy. We read more. We talk more. We sit more. I garden more.
  3. Focus on what has heart and meaning: This means doing what feels right and what I actually have a relationship with, like weeding the backyard of the flats, like getting involved with Friends of the Petaluma River and California Poets in the Schools, like talking on GLEN Exchanges to our global colleagues.
  4. Build sustainable infrastructure: Something tells me that real relationships matter more than digital ones. Cells and Zoom and other devices can support these real relationships. Knowing neighbors is good. Knowing evacuation routes from wildfires is important. Knowing about water and food. Maybe having a garden that actually produces would be good. And practicing mindfulness to retrain my nervous system to stay responsive and not reactive.
  5. Listen for what is moving in a hopeful way: I believe that more people must be waking up to the Matrix and unplugging from it. Already there are people co-creating what will be the future. Their signals sometimes seem faint. Listen. The music is playing. Hum along. Look for the dialogue circles.
  6. Prepare for adaptability: a neighbor shared a new term recently—“prehabilitation.” It refers to getting ready for surgery before the surgery. In scenario planning we call it developing “preceptivity,” which is receptivity in advance of needing it. I’m writing this blog at a renewing Harbin Hot Spring, a beautiful retreat center near Calistoga, CA, wiped out by a wildfire in 2015. The community that built and supports this place was ready. They left. No-one died. No-one was trapped. And they are re-creating. It’s a new Harbin, but has a lot of the old feeling of being a real sanctuary.
  7. Share my truth: Instead of retelling stories from the Matrix, I am more resolved that ever about sharing my own experience and learning. The way I want to survive is by living fully, and to live in the actual here and now, and not some mirage. This is what I believe will inspire my grandchildren to do the same. It is what they will need to survive.

So I think about the heat and technology. Living out these steps is what I’m doing. Check into how reading this piece resonated with you inside. Did you sense the shift from the first part to the second? Could you feel real life coming back in. I did just writing this.

I’ve read about Uber and Lyft, autonomous vehicles and how A.I. is transforming the world. In California arguments about whether or not drivers should be employees or contractors is pulling in parties and opinions from all angles, and has implications for many beyond these companies. It feels
abstract reading about all this in the newspapers or on Medium, but I actually personally connected with the issue with some empathy one morning while taking a Lyft ride to the Newark Airport.lyftscreen

I was concerned about getting there on time, so I scheduled a pickup two days earlier. My Lyft app notified me in the evening that a driver had accepted the request and would be there between 7:15-7:30. I was still nervous and checked to see in the morning. To my relief I saw a map with about five or six Lyft car icons moving slowly around like little bugs with no legs. Soon I got a text— “Your lift is 3 minutes away. Your driver is Fred in a Toyota Camry.” And he was there, at 7:16!

Fred was talkative in a polite way, with an “it’s okay to stop at any time” sort of tone. I was curious. I asked him if Lyft has a dispatcher, but it doesn’t. He used to be a taxi dispatcher in New York City, he said, but now he said he “works for the apps”— the system that connects requests with drivers. All of the communications are driven by AI and the app. “If I go the wrong way it tells me about it; if I can’t get the ride, the app reassigns it.”  I asked if he can call or talk to anyone. “No.” he said with an angled, New Jersey tone implying “are you kidding?”

Fred is an independent contractor with his own car and buying his own insurance, paying his own taxes. “I also work for Uber,” he said, now engaged and seeing I wanted to talk. “And I work for Amazon,” he added. “So, you can have several channels open at once?” I asked.  “If I want to, “he said. “I also work delivering pizza, Doordash, any of them. I work for all the apps. I believe in having alternatives.”

I tried to imagine day after day out on my own, following the apps and picking up passengers. “Do you talk with other drivers?” I asked. I discovered that he doesn’t talk to other drivers. “They aren’t too friendly,” he said. He didn’t seem too bothered. I wondered what he was shutting down to feel good about this.

As we turned to economics, I discovered that it’s a MUCH better deal to work for the apps than driving taxi. “I will get $20 of the $30 for your ride to Newark.” he said. “As a cabbie I could spend 12 hours and can come home with $100. I spend the same amount of time and come home with $500.” He is also a Diamond certified driver. The app counts how many rides he picks up, how many are successful, and logs customer ratings. “They measure everything,” Fred said. His rating is a 98, right at the top, and for that he doesn’t have to stand in cue at the airport. He also gets a better cut from the company. As the full picture began to fill out, I realized that this man doesn’t work for people at all – he works for the apps. And he is okay with it. He attends to the little things to ensure his own stability, but he is on his own.

I began to think about the implications of a cyberwar and having all these app systems getting fritzed quickly.  I shared some thoughts along those lines. He thinks about that as well. In fact, he makes decisions assuming there could be shutdowns. “For $.50 a day I can have my daily earnings transferred right into my bank account, rather than waiting to the end of the week for a summing up and payment. I pay the $.50.”

Next, I asked him if there was a difference between the companies. “One thing that is different about Uber,” he said, “is their investing hugely in driverless cars. They are literally taking the money we help them earn to develop a system to move us out of the business.” He didn’t sound happy about this part. “I don’t think that services vehicles like cars and driverless trucks should run without some kind of human backup. The computer simply can’t track everything. And if they did replace us it would be a huge problem in the workforce because so many of us now depend on having this level of income, compared to working at McDonalds.”

Fred’s dispassion got me to wondering if Fred talks to people where he lives and whether he is part of any groups. I didn’t ask about that but recalled reading Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community a 2001 book by Robert Putnam. He correlated the presence of social capital—the level of affiliative behavior from people engaged in clubs, having people over for dinner, and joining community projects—to education and health statistics. The lower the social capital the higher the problems in other areas. I wondered what communities full of people living the life of Fred and working for the apps will mean for the future. I believe human connection is vital to personal and community health.

This thought led me to wondering later if perhaps Fred was finding relationships with customers that would repeat and come to depend on his service quality. Perhaps I hadn’t really understood. He felt like the kind of person who could form those kinds of connections. But I was informed when talking about this with a colleague that Lyft doesn’t allow drivers to develop repeat passengers. You have to follow the app, he said “They are good conversationalists because the app asks customers to rate the qualities of conversation as part of the feedback.

At the airport I got breakfast from one of the hundreds of iPads dotting the food counter, putting in all the information and order myself and trusting “the system,” Breakfast from the apps, I thought. But in this case real human beings brought the food. But my feeling of being inside a very large and growing, electronically directed system persisted. It must have been this way when cars began to take over. The apps are the tip of a real transformation that’s happening quickly, and it has implications well beyond technicalities. AI is already determining our Youtube feeds, Amazon recommendations, and many of our mutual fund buy/sell decisions. Clearly, at least in Fred’s case, it has replaced managers. We are in this change for better or for worse and we better work to understand it. Something at the center of our life as social animals may be at risk.

A recent communication from the Organizational Development Network that outlined a definition of the field and its core values led me to think about the evolution of my own thinking about the field. I’m writing here to futureofodshare this reflection, and to share my hope for the future of the field. I’m not writing a history of OD, but of the quilt of understanding that provides me with direction as a process consultant, and might be useful to other practitioners who work in or with organizations.

Context

My “training,” or should I say first experiences with OD, were at OD Network conferences in the 1970s.  I didn’t know what the field was back then but found out about it when trying to hire Sandra Florstedt for our Coro Leadership program in San Francisco. She worked at Kaiser as an OD Practitioner and explained to me OD was an application of behavioral science theory for organizations, working to see the whole organization as a living organism and creating conditions that would allow people to find solutions to their own problems from within. I remember her telling a story about early practitioners drawing on the work of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, crediting him with founding general systems theory. He was trying to understand open systems in nature. She also shared about Kurt Lewin, a German who helped found social psychology, arguing that a values orientation and democratic processes were critical to achieving planned change. I had been working to get Coro Fellows to understand the city as a whole system and Lewin’s advocacy of action learning and group dialogue was inspiring. Sandra subsequently introduced me to the OD Network conference at Snowmass in 1976 where I presented about Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process and Group Graphics and became a practicing member of the network.

Evolving a Personal Perspective on OD

The seed idea of seeing organizations as living systems, and seeing change as a social process quickly put down roots in my work as I began to develop a practice. Initial work as a graphic facilitator evolved to supporting teams and developing the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model,  then learning and facilitating strategic planning with Rob Eskridge and Ed Claassen, and now doing change consulting and multi-stakeholder processes on large systems. My current work with Gisela Wendling and The Grove’s new Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) is living at the edge of inquiry into collaborative methodology. It is all driving back to the seed thought that open, living systems need different kinds of support than machines. In the process  my quilt of understanding pulled in ideas from complexity theory, cognitive psychology, social constructionism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Earth Wisdom practices. And always, tracking the tension and sometimes polarization between a materialistic and a holistic way of thinking about organizations and change.

Still Thinking About Whole Systems

My graphic work is inherently about making systemic sense out of people’s thinking, so the seed impulse for OD is still strong, but I’ve reached out to other thinkers beyond the field of OD.

I’ve been personally deeply inspired by the holistic work of Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process. He didn’t deal with organizations, but as a cosmologist set out to reconcile the knowing from metaphysics with the best findings of physics and mathematics. He was a systemic thinker through and through, but insisted that purpose and process are more fundamental than objective structure, though purpose and process need these structures to express themselves.

I also discovered that researchers in complexity sciences support his orientation, finding that living systems organize around flows of energy from which structures emerge and embrace open, not closed, rule sets for interaction. Flows include money, information, constituencies, climate, and people themselves.

This process orientation has led to my paying attention to Frederick Laloix’s Reinventing Organizations , inspired by Spiral Dynamics, an orientation that is developmental at its core. It’s popular in Europe and leading people to experiment with much less hierarchical organizations out of trust that if people are taken seriously, they can manage and solve problems in a more “emergent” way. (There are missing elements I will explore in later writing). I also think that Theory “U” in its inclusive embrace of spirit, soul, mind and body is a clearly process oriented methodology that is very compelling.

Past Reflections, CURRENT EDGES

As the crises rising from climate change and accompanying mass migrations accelerate, I can’t help but believe that a huge amount of adaptation and change will be required in the future. People could (and are) reverting to img_5446fear-driven authoritarianism, simplistic, bunkered responses but might also be (and are) called to step up to higher level of collaboration. It’s not a given. What will support    this second option?

Will the lessons from neuroscience and social psychology about brain biases and hi-jack reactions help practitioners create safe spaces for collaborative co-creation of new alternatives and avoid numbing and dissociation?

Will reclaiming the role of ritual and ceremony and traditional practices bring nourishment and feeling into systems wrung out with efficiency? (My current life partner, Gisela’s, work on liminality and change is now recasting many of my assumptions about traditional OD approaches as I see how shut down people become without attention to the inner process of change or the creativity that lies in the in-between spaces where cultures meet.)

Will learning from Earth-wisdom practices and indigenous methods help restore our connection to nature and each other?

Under it all I wonder if somehow we can transform the deeply entrenched materialistic paradigm into something that respects relationship and spirit as much as objective truths? Can we reclaim an anchoring in core values that are deeply moral?

The original thinking of the founders of OD reflect many of these perspectives, reacting as they were to the trauma of world wars. But methods birthed in humanism have become canonized and abstracted to a degree that some of the original curiosity and experimentation gets lost. There are  exceptions. Lisa Kimball, a pioneer in computer conferencing and former OD thought leader, advocated an approach called Liberating Structures that deliberately mixes and matches different modalities to stimulate new awareness and jump out of siloed thinking. Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe surveyed many new OD approaches is their book, Dialogic OD:The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change.  They see World Café, Open Space, Future Search Conferences, The Art of Convening, and other high engagement methods focusing more on new narratives and emergent, generative imagery than on diagnostic processes.

Are Organizations Even the Right Focus?

But deep down I’m personally awakening to the possibility that organizations may not be the most relevant focus for those of us who work for and within organizations. Today people and organizations are so interconnected and interdependent— embedded in overlapping networks and consortia, fields of practice, value webs, and a booming world of free agents—amid constant change—that “context” may be a more important frame for attention. And by context, I mean much more than paying attention to customers and constituents. It includes the environment, cultures and their values, other sectors and organizations, and larger social networks and relationships.

Some of my current GLEN colleagues’ are working explicitly with energetic fields and collective intelligence, using the learning from neuroscience to create “safe” environments for engagement and using design thinking for social change. Philanthropic organizations are funding for collective impact, asking for NGOs to cooperate and collaborate in facing important issues. Multisector collaborations and networks are arising to face systemic issues. The adaptation requirements of global warming will force us all into levels of reinvention we’ve never even imagined, well beyond nicely bounded organizations.

I also wonder how my and others’ years of focusing on “the organization” has contributed to our field supporting many organizations just becoming better at maximizing the extraction of value from people and the land and avoiding responsibility for impacts, and completely ignoring context.

What if OD Were…nasanorthamerica

So, wrapped in this quilt of reflection, I wrote out my own definition for a field of OD that I could live into.

“The field of Organization Development is inspired by the question of how to support human systems that are alive, evolving, and more like true ecosystems than mechanisms, although they depend on these for expression.

We help leaders, teams, organizations, communities, and larger networks learn to connect with purpose, motivate themselves to act, find appropriate processes to guide collaboration and co-creation, and create results that both improve the effectiveness of their organizations and contribute to the quality of their communities and the Earth as a whole..

We are not afraid of the complexity and inquiry required to respond to these questions. We learn by doing and do to learn. We continue to seek out and test theory that helps our clients make connections in the midst of turbulence and fragmentation. We are capable of being, at heart, a community of practitioners, schools, and networks believing that humans have only just begun to tap the full potential of people working together for the common good.”

I want to be part of a future in a field that differentiates itself not by the value of its answers for organizations alone, but by the depth and sensitivity of its questions in service of the whole.

Gisela Wendling, my co-author, and I recently had an interesting time experiencing the power of “frames” at the Fielding Graduate School Winter Session in Santa Barbara. (She is an alumni of their Ph.D. program). My attention to this subject was fueled by three experiences; 1) Our holding a small seminar on our new book, Visual Consulting (cover shown on the left here); 2) Gisela’s being asked to share this book as a Fielding alum and experiencing various reactions to the cover. as in “looks like a comic book.”3) My attending a session specifically about “frames” led by one of the founders of Fielding, Keith Melville, and Gisela’s thesis advisor Fred Steier.

twocoversv2

Coming home I wondered what would have happened if the cover had looked like the one above on the right, providing a completely different “frame” for the contents inside our book, using only a color gradient to suggest change. It points at different aspects than the cover on the left, perhaps signaling some subtlety in thinking and awareness, something we are hoping to advance with the book in addition to practical tools. I’ll return to this thought.

We arrived in Santa Barbara for the Winter Session very excited by Katrina Rogers, Fielding’s president’s reaction to having read Visual Consulting in advance. She wrote:

Thank you so much for the book, “Visual Consulting.”  I read it over the weekend and it’s a tour de force for this field!  What a pleasure to read—good use of metaphor with “stringing the beads” and it was great to see some examples of projects that I am a little familiar with—such as the UC Merced work. Good of you to include Arthur Young’s work as an appendix.  Although this is a book for visual facilitators, I think a good audience would be any consultants. 

Gisela and I wrote this book to communicate directly to two audiences and Katrina clearly saw that. One was visual facilitators and practitioners who are moving toward being more sophisticated about how change really works and wanting to work on longer projects as consultants. The second were consultants of any sort working on change, to understand how shared mental models and metaphors, based on solid theory, could open windows of insight on how to get better results from collaborative processes. Our author challenge was framing this work so both audiences would know it was meant for them.

Simple Frames/ Simple Tools

In working with our editor over the years, we kept hearing that people respond to tools and respond to simple, concrete steps forward, and to keep these things front and center in our writing. We did that. His orientation was supported by my own bias that busy people, and most younger people, are becoming more and more used to getting information in magazine style formats that tightly integrate word and image. These readers want things they can do right away that get results. Visual language, as Bob Horn has abundantly argued in his book by that title, is the “tight integration of word and image” and a relatively new development in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s becoming the lingua franca of the younger generation.

As a result, as the book cover designer, I biased toward this tendency and created something that would quickly and visually point at the kinds of tools that get predictable and useful results—a bold steps vision, a stakeholder map, and a graphic gameplan.

However, while change may begin with small steps and early wins, truly transformational change takes time and can be very complex. So as powerful as graphic templates are for facilitating strategy and change and getting started, Gisela and I are experiencing that perhaps an even more powerful contribution of our collaboration is having people learn Gisela’s Liminal Pathways Model that illustrates the archetypal process of change as experienced by and responded to by indigenous people throughout history. It very persuasively illustrates the nature of the “in-between” or liminal time in change—something that is systematically short changed in our “hurry-up” times, to the detriment of real change. The middle chapters of the book explain this model, and show how, in the Seven Challenges of Change Framework, this archetypal pattern repeats in longer change processes. It is the contribution we are most excited by and were intent on sharing at Fielding. We did in a small face-to-face seminar and it was indeed well received.

Book Signing

Later, following Fielding’s invitation to be available for book signing, Gisela put the book out on a table and engaged people walking by. In that context, however, the cover seemed a bit out of place. Academic works do not advertise themselves with such an audacious “frame.” The norm is to be subtler. We did not get reactions like Katrina’s from just having the book out.

What are Frames?

When I saw that Fred Steier was leading a session on “What a Difference a Frame Makes” at the Winter Session, I had to go.  Fred is a social systems scientist whose wide ranging involvement has included working with family therapists, NASA after the Challenger catastrophe, writing books on reflexivity and editing the Journal of Cybernetics, to currently teaching design thinking among other things. This session directly fueled this post and wanting to share some thoughts about frames with you readers.

Fred told a story about Gregory Bateson, one of his mentors and an influential anthropologist and cyberneticist who first advocated the term “frames” as a concept in human communication. Bateson did some of his early work with chimpanzees and wondered how they knew when neck nipping was a signal to play and when it might be picking a fight. He began to infer that the chimps must be sending “meta-signals” that provided a context for interpreting the nipping gestures. After considerable study he decided to call these “frames”. (He describes this theory of play in his book Steps to An Ecology of Mind according to Fred).

We went on in our very interactive session to explore how symbols and metaphors provide “frames” for our thinking and trigger emotions. Some noted that George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist who has written extensively on this subject, has elaborately analyzed how the “nurturing” frames of liberals contrast with the “punishing” frames of many conservatives—are we “investing” in education or “taxing” for education for instance? Are immigrants “assets to our economy” or “potential terrorists?”

Bateson concluded that the kinds of frames he was observing were meta-signals, inherently relational, and arose from the context of an interaction. “Nipping means play” arose from the relationship. This is not the same as classifications, which are intellectual distinctions, Fred commented. This is a very complex topic, but one point I took away is that any kind of frame ends up providing a context that greatly affects how we look at and interpret things we are trying to understand, especially in relationships between authors and readers.

Frames as a Metaphor

All of our widely shared experience with picture frames is a “doorway” into understanding this idea. A gilded, elaborate frame orients us differently than a clear glass frame with no borders. Each is a meta-signal from the context of the creator, or the gallery, or the museum curator who decided that a specific picture needed this or that kind of frame. But our sense of what the frame means can vary widely depending on our personal experiences and associations—our relationship with this or that kind of frame. For some our Visual Consulting cover will signal that we see graphic books as a seriously evolving form of literature in our times—just the meta-signal they need to open it up and read further. For others it might signal that it’s probably not serious or more about entertainment and marketing.

So, can we really judge a book by its cover? Can you judge our book by its cover? Well, you can—but your interpretation will be colored by your relationship with those symbols.

What Gisela and I are hoping is that, for those of you interested in visualization and change, you will appreciate our taking an integrative approach. Visual consulting is an inner process AND an outer process. It is about awareness and “seeing,” AND about tools and engagement. Imagine it as a key to the power of the subtle visualization practices involved in framing and creating mental models. Imagine that this will help you create “containers” and “crucibles” for change and be invitations to become conscious of both context and content in the process of dialogue and conversation.  And imagine that you will also get a practical, and very “graphic” understanding of why visual facilitation tools and templates are so effective all along the way.

If you haven’t read Visual Consulting yet, please do and jump into our ongoing conversation about all these things, especially the power of frames.