David Sibbet | Community Building
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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.


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.

bobdentonI like to think of my life as a tapestry, with all the threads from people who have influenced me woven together with my own abilities and interests. One of the strongest threads is from my godfather, Dr. Robert Denton, or Dr. Bob as people in Bishop, California called him. He died October 28 at age 95. I gave this tribute at his memorial Saturday, November 18, 2017.

“I met Bob Denton at age four when his wife Betty along with other leaders of the First Presbyterian Church in Bishop asked my father, Laing Sibbet, to be their pastor. Dad was fresh from seminary in San Anselmo and a pastor in the Two Rock Presbyterian Church near Petaluma. Bob and Betty took it upon themselves to introduce Dad and our whole family to the East Side—fishing, hunting, its people, and its culture of independence and resilience in the high desert.

Our families were very close, and I learned from Bob what it meant to be an adult man in service to a community. His influence has been a warp thread in my weaving—the long threads on the loom that hold the others as the years create their patterns.

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As summer heats up, I’m thinking ahead to the fall and Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP), the week-long conference that Gisela Wendling, Alan Briskin, Holger Scholz and I will be facilitating this October 23-27 (2017) at IONS’ Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, California. Last year’s gathering in Germany was exceptional and some are coming back a second time, so I’m looking forward with anticipation. But it’s taken on some new meaning and urgency.stringofbeads

I began to feel strained several weeks ago supporting the launch of The Grove’s Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) while simultaneously starting a year-long Leading Change Program in Minnesota for a cohort of 20 participants from several agencies in the Metropolitan Council. This last program ended with an inspiring “stringing-of-the-beads”; more on that later.

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