David Sibbet | Global Learning
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ri-mistsIs it the pandemic or something more that is leading me to write my first blog of the new year about what ecologists and scientists call “the sixth extinction?” It is definitely not my rational mind, or my practical mind. In fact, it is my dreamer mind. My dream was so powerful this morning that I awoke feeling called in a way that is still strong. I’m writing about it because I have come to honor these kinds of transpersonal insights when they come and support them by giving them expression in word and image. (This photo by my colleague Alan Briskin seems appropriate).

My Dream

In my dream I was at a gathering of about 15-20 colleagues in a conference center that included many other people. We were getting to know each other with introductions. After a number of them, and before my own introduction, we took a break to eat. People came with buckets of chicken and come creole cooking. When we returned, the conference staff had arranged some chairs in an outside area for our group. Before long we were back in a full group and introductions continued.

It was my turn. I found myself saying the following. “I am a professional facilitator and am currently focused on our sixth extinction. I want to help bring forward the new ways of thinking and behaving that will be required to survive it.” I remember feeling surprised in my dream at what I was saying, but continued. “You will get to know me as someone who both draws and listens, guiding people to visually design processes that allow them to change and adapt.”

At this point a young man rose up and said, “I was at an institute recently where someone was doing that, and the charts zig-zagged all over the wall in a way that felt like a breakdown.”

“That is often what happens when people look closely at their own thinking and information,” I said, feeling calm and grounded. “It is this breakdown that allows them to break through.”

I remember in the dream that the group applauded! I turned to a young man sitting beside me and said, “this is the first time I’ve ever introduced myself this way!” I was feeling both startled and strangely alive and excited. And then I woke up.

It was 7:05 Sunday, the last day of a long holiday break that my partner and I described as our “digital vacation”—no Zoom, email or social media. Because of the pandemic, and a steadily worsening number of cases along with the news that a more viral version was already spreading in California, we cancelled a trip to a local hot spring where we hoped to have some renewal time, and instead stayed home. The renewal idea carried over.

There were some other faint signals that I’d been getting that felt connected to the dream.

Searching for Signals

At a GLEN Community Winter Solstice Gathering call before our reflective week started, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a dear colleague, read a poem I’d written at a Summer Solstice gathering of colleagues in 2004. I had no memory of it. So I went back to journal number #134 and there it was. (Journaling is one of my reflective practices). But more relevant were some other  journal entries that turned out to be connected to my dream.

2004 was the year I turned 60. I had planned several “rites of passage” for myself, beginning with a week visiting all the vision quest sites I’d experienced on the East side of the Sierras. I was deeply questioning what it means to be an elder, and to begin that journey had called a council of friends I’d know for more than 20 years to answer that question by reflecting on the elders in their life that had made a difference. I didn’t have answers but was charged. Later in the summer I carried the question into a new vision quest on Mt. Shasta with my teacher, Chayim Barton, and a small group. There I had one of the most significant visions of my life up to that point. I had journaled extensively there.

For a while I’d been being “worked” by an upset feeling about the dominance of “extractive” industries that pay no attention to biology, local communities, or the hidden costs of their work. “Why don’t you work on it here,” Chayim suggested as he counseled me before heading out on a three-day water fast. He invited me, in my solo time, to build a monument to this “beast,” as I called it, reflect on it, and practice tong-lin (a Tibetan practice where you take in pain and breath out compassion), and then take the “beast” apart as a conclusion. Here is a picture of what I created.

thebeast2004

I don’t need to describe my full process here but can easily remember how powerful it felt. Building it took many hours. So did disassembling it. Most importantly, I kept trying to imagine what could stand up to it—represented by the little wand with a feather. I ended up writing some of my core values on the wand and concluding I needed to stay tuned to the light. But I hardly felt resolved about this.

Working for RE-AMP

Later that year in December, it was this vision led me to accept the facilitation of a new environmental organization called RE-AMP in the upper Midwest. The name stands for the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project, initially a group of 25 environmental non-profits and 12 foundations, who, discouraged by results to date, wanted to work collaboratively to support the growth of renewable energy. They concluded that they had to work on four fronts in a systemic way.

  1. Reduce the impact of coal pollution from the 70 plants in the eight-state region
  2. Stop the construction of new coal plants (34 were in the pipeline)
  3. Increase energy conservation
  4. Increase renewable production.

The consultant who had helped create a causal-loop system diagram of why renewables were not taking off had concluded that these factors were all inter-related and needed to be dealt with in parallel. They needed a facilitator to help create the strategies of the four working groups.

At the meeting where the consultant, Scott Spann, handed off the project to me, he presented his system analysis, and at the end of several hours, turned to the RE-AMP steering committee and said – “Remember, this is a mindless beast.” I can still feel the goosebumps. Oh my. Here I was standing in front of it again.re-ampsystemsmap

I and my company, The Grove Consultants International, spent four years working with RE-AMP with the agreed-on goal of cleaning up global warming pollutants in the eight-state region by 80% by 2050. The goal was not considered practical. But all of us believe anything less wouldn’t matter. RE-AMP did stop the coal plants. It didn’t get far on cleaning up old coal. It did stimulate energy conservation in the region. It encountered roadblocks regarding developing wind energy. And it expanded to more than 150 participating organizations and over two dozen foundations “thinking systemically and acting collaboratively.” It is one of the most successful environmental collaboratives in the country and still it is not enough. The full story is for another time (See RE-AMP.org). Reflecting back, I realized it was my boldest experience of taking action on a “dream” without knowing the outcome.

While it probably seems obvious why I thought this experience was connected to my dream I was fascinated that I had started my current reflective “vacation” with this retrospective, by accident. It was not “planned.” What guided that impulse?

I remembered that for several years now when asked about my core motivation—my life purpose— I’ve found myself saying that it is to “help midwife the coming ecological paradigm,” which I think is already being born but hardly dominant. I perceive that we are in a shift that historians will eventually compare to the Copernican revolution—moving from engineering oriented/materialistic thinking to a more biologic, open systems approach, which will include but transcend the old paradigm, as new ones do. I also suspect that the shift will take years or centuries, as all such shifts have taken historically.  “We will live into this new way of thinking and relating, or we won’t,” I can remember saying in various workshops.

Reading The Sun

And then I remember that two weeks ago I was clobbered by an interview article in the Sun Magazine with Eileen Crist about her new book, The Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. She is an associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science, Technology and Society and has written extensively about biodiversity and the mass extinctions taking place. I know this to be “factually” arguable and have been reading about this for years. But her reflections on how much more serious the extinction process is than the pandemic got through this time. “It takes 5-10 million years to recover the same levels of biodiversity” she wrote. I know that reading information doesn’t really change me. But having a full, integrated systemic embodiment of the understanding at a feeling does (like the vision quest experience) and I was having that feeling reading this interview. Since the pandemic is no longer an abstraction, but a loss I deeply feel, I think it ignited the same feeling about the extinction. I ordered the book, and for several days was talking about how big an impact this article had. I didn’t think at the time think that it was a breadcrumb of what I’m to do in 2021 going forward.

Could There Be a Sustainability Source Code?

In writing up this blog, I was working at a computer over which I have posted printouts of my latest work with conceptual modeling, looking at sustainable organizations through the lenses of Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process. It’s work that began in the 1990s with a full formulation of a new model with the help of my French colleague Meryem LeSaget. Other projects have taken precedence. I’ve written some white papers, conducted a few workshops, and continued to think about it, and hope to work on it more this year. I think that outlining our choices for sustainable organization could serve as a kind of source-code for process and organization designers.

But after this morning’s dream I realized that this “source code” idea might be the scaffolding for a direct engagement with the sixth extinction “problem.” The same feeling of impossibility washed over me that I felt on Mt. Shasta.

I put “problem” in quotes to signify that the real problem isn’t the biological problem of a die-off of 50% of the world’s species in this century, as hard as that will be to cope with. The “problem” is that the vast majority of people don’t have the perceptual or  thinking tools, or motivation to even imagine a different way of living that is actually ecologically sustainable. This lack will accelerate the extinction as a result, and for sure ensure that anger and mistrust accompany the change.

I’m not sure I have the tools either. Will I be part of the acceleration? Crist argues we don’t have time this time.

Inspired by Gretta

I notice as I write that I keep thinking about Gretta Thunberg, the young Swedish girl who has ignited a youth revolution in response to the climate crisis. Did she know what she was doing? I don’t think so. She simply had the courage to speak her feelings and do so in a public forum, and open to a movement, a collaboration that would far transcend her.

If she can, why can’t I? Why can’t we? I don’t believe that knowing how to respond to the sixth extinction is required to stand up to it, and in it, with full awareness and readiness to ask fundamental questions and learn what we need to learn to change, any more than I knew what standing in front of the beast on Mt. Shasta would mean. I do know that context matters, and as complexity theorists have discovered, a small change in the context of a dynamic system can affect huge change.

So, I begin my new year sharing this dream. We are in a time of enormous turbulence. Will we be ones who stand up? I hope it strikes a responsive chord. I intend to explore it further through our Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN). You are invited to join our inquiry there if you like. I and many committed colleagues will be there.

 

This is a piece about COVID, the Elections and Poetry. Let’s start with the poem.

In 2019, well before the pandemic set in, I wrote a poem dictated by a spider at our Summer Solstice Gathering, a gathering of peer consultants I have attended for more than 20 years now. It was the year of the Collective Consciousness of All Beings in the Mayan 20 Count, a framework we have been using to guide our imaginal journeys on these gatherings. We called a council of the animal beings to talk to us about the state of things. This imaginal work is a wonderful way to get new perspectives and break out of “normal.” Letting creatures “talk” to me is a wonderful journey.

This year, in the dark of the pandemic, Spider Medicine was published by California Poets in the Schools, an organization of which I am President. As I read it again, I had the feeling that it was speaking to me again about these times, with added complexity.

Here is the poem, published as what poets call a “broadside,” designed by fellow Board member Fernando Salinas.

spidermedicinepoem

Read it twice and let whatever arises arise.

Metaphoric Confusion

My post writing responses to Spider Medicine feels a bit like my responses to the news right now. Read one way, the spider is a dark force, waiting to trap unsuspecting insects. Could this be the dark web, the “attention economy” and its pernicious algorithms that feel more and more extremism through our social media feeds. Could this be the behind-the-scenes operators busy spinning new alliances and deals while we are all distracted by the reality TV show that seems to be our national, political narrative right now?

But the spider is also a beautiful creature and revered by many traditional people. The Cherokee believe spider brought language in the patterns of its web. “The spider woman is the wisdom keeper, the grandmother figure, the female figure,” writes Hopi artist Michael Kabotie. Some Southwest tribe believes spider brought weaving to the people.

So, holding this metaphor lightly, knowing that all metaphors both illuminate and obscure, I looked through the lens of a darker spider medicine.

Reading About the All-Seeing Eye

A long article in the New York Times Magazine on Palantir, the data analysis software company that went public in 2020, connected with the spider poem. The Cover image even looked like a spider web.palantir

If you don’t know much about Palantir it’s not surprising. Like spiders, it stays hidden, even moving from Silicon Valley to Denver to get out of the spotlight. But recently Palantir has been grabbing media attention in the news-sphere with many articles, posts and shows spiraling around the question— “is our democracy on the verge of becoming an authoritarian surveillance society?” When the Health and Human Services agency brought them in to help with COVID attention quickened. The wondering is on a spectrum of urgency that one one end is concern about voter manipulation and inaccurate balloting to on the other a daily flailing of American’s asleepness and precariousness by writers like economist and tireless Medium author, Umair Haque, who has lived through dictatorships and knows the pattern.

So, in this context, the article on Palantir seemed to be motivated by its author, Michael Steinberger, wondering if it is healthy to have a company like this knowing so much about us, and being able to integrate vast silos of information into coherent patterns. Their special interfaces can confidently present analysis “in the form of tables, graphics, timelines, heat maps, artificial-intelligence models, histograms, spider diagrams, and geospatial analysis.” I quickly noticed that the value was in visual translation—interpreting what the pile of data means. How can we connect addresses, phone numbers, zip codes, body weights, color, email address, height, occupation, purchases, party affiliation, relatives, club memberships, education, driving records, crime records to VISUALLY identify terrorists, criminals, COVID contacts, susceptible voters, to reflect what some of their clients use Palantir software for. “We want to save the West from terrorism” says founder Peter Thiel, arch Libertarian billionaire and Trump supporter.

But it is more complex than that, just like my reactions to my poem. Palantir’s executive officer is Alex Karp, a Stanford law school buddy of Thiel’s who studied with Habermas at the Frankfurt School in hopes of becoming a social psychologist. The Frankfurt’s school’s neo-Marist critiques of capitalism and instrumentalism couldn’t be more diametric one might think. But Karp’s intellectual complexity turns out to be great for managing the 2500 very intelligent and probably quirky software engineers. Under questioning they are on the record being very concerned about privacy. They don’t let Russia or China use their software. They are, like the benevolent spiders, bringing the new language of data analysis to the west to save us.

Seeing the Unseen

Moving beyond Palantir, the most resonant image in the poem for me was imagining spiders surviving on what the insects don’t see. And this unseeing part, disconnected from the spider metaphor, is what concerns me the most these days. And it seems to move into both dark and light directions.

We know that opportunists flourish when there is social chaos. We know that many are making money by attracting eyeballs to ever more catastrophic theories and lies. We know that pharma firms are at full throttle to be ones who profit from the suffering. It is their business model. We know Amazon and other on-line providers are expanding exponentially, and so is the plastic they use to ship their goods. Oil companies are already spinning new strategies as oil demand declines to compensate with plastics. And I wonder how many are using the pandemic to accelerated worker replacement with AI?

At the same time I believe there are many new networks growing that focus on catching people into communities of interdependence and resilience, with the spiders transforming into golden connectors in healthy, thriving communities. In fact, I’m one of those spinners working on our Global Learning & Exchange Network, working to lure people into inquiry and hope.

I realize now that I mostly care that we don’t become numb and asleep as challenge after challenge pummels us. I don’t believe the spiders of the world really care who flies into their webs, only that life comes. I just don’t want to have us flying into the wrong webs.

We All Survive by Eating Living Things

In a call this morning I shared about writing this blog piece with some colleagues, and how I was struggling with the “both-and”ness of the spider image.  My friend Alan Briskin shared that he had been reading a book by Joseph Campbell recently, and that Campbell was looking at the deep patterns under the social fields that we all live in. (Alan is currently writing about social fields with colleague Mary Gelinas).  He said that what we forget is that humans survive by eating living things. It’s in our nature. And we survive by reproducing and spawning more. It’s in our nature to spin and grow. And it seems to be in our nature to “have” and to “own.” These deep patterns are in tension with the need to be reciprocal. This reflection prompted, Gisela Wendling, also on this call, to remind us that some say culture is what arises to mitigate these deep urges.

I hope that is so, and I hope that this week, our country celebrates a culture that for a time believed in democracy, liberty and justice for all, and a government FOR the people. It is this social field that can bring us the good side of spider medicine. It is the web of our shared values that can transforms a spiderweb image into ones of roots systems and links that bind us into a culture of mutuality and concern.

But watch out if you are asleep. It’s Halloween, and spider bites can be mean.

In politics a “pivot” is a turn in another direction. Lots of different turning is called “spinning.” When we stop spinning and begin to collectively listen and find common ground, it can birth a new story. And new stories can guide new decisions. And belief and energy in a new story is stirred by paying attention to what is actually happening, not from fitting what we see to our favorite filters, but from together saying “this is what is actually happening.” And then how long does it take for a new story to become a societally embraced turning? While my own mind hungers for some grounding and confidence, I know that now is the time for real questions. That is what this blog post will explore.

buttermilknewgrowth

New Stories Coming Up

The idea that real change might be possible is already pushing up like the flowers that are coming this spring. That raises the question: what is real change? I and every organization consultant I know is pivoting from face-to-face meetings to virtual work, and redesigning workshops to run on-line…in a matter of weeks. It’s remarkable how fast this has happened. But is that real change? We’ve been working virtually for a while. What I’m watching for are the tendrils and roots of a truly new story, one that has a hope of sustaining itself into my grandchildren’s adult years, that has the chance of restoring trust and co-creativity.  And I’m observing that the hopeful new is confusingly pushing up through a bramble of the old reasserting itself, and fast replicating species and memes filling the space for new growth. And I also learned that this kind of fast-growing material, like fireweed, helps a burn heal in an eco-system challenged by fire. Can the tender new survive in the rapid attempts to reopen the economy and restore some “normalcy?”

Some Inner Questions

I experience the tension of competing inner stories in my own responses to the Covid pandemic. One day I stopped trusting touching— out of the blue. It started in the first days when reporting on the outbreaks of illness in China and Italy dared to write the words “worldwide pandemic.” That day I used a paper hand towel to pump gas!  Then “shelter-at-home” arrived.  I stayed home.  I felt vulnerable. But I also began wondering. Am I experiencing the beginning of another kind of virus, a viral social meme—that “distancing” is essential for health? Before Covid-19 I would have said that touching is essential to good health.  And I find reassurance in this idea as I experience new levels of connectivity and reaching out that doesn’t require physical touching. But is this enough? Is this enough for people who need healing touch? Is digital touching enough for the elderly who are dying alone?

On another channel I wonder if a new story is forming that rationalizes getting stuff in a day from a company that is notorious about how it treats the human’s socketed into its matrix of efficiency and puts most of its stuff in plastic? Is this going to be the new story of shopping? Or is the new story about how the environment is actually healing a bit in this pause, and people are renewing their love of simple walks, and friendly hellos across the street to neighbors? Will we release a bit from defining ourselves by material gain?

How Can Society Pivot?

These kinds of questions leave me wondering a lot about what allows me, the groups I belong to, or the larger social body to truly pivot. How can this happen when disruption advantages the fast growing and recklessly propagating? What starts a hopeful new story? What holds it long enough to become a true turning point? When did the horrors of the plague transform into excitement about the wonders of science and medicine? How long did it take to accept that seeing the Earth revolving around the sun is more useful than calculating the sun going around the Earth? When in the depression did people turn to believing that people deserved a social safety net? Perhaps societies don’t pivot quickly but turn slowly.

I don’t have to know details to know that right now we don’t have a story that represents a real paradigm shift. And I don’t need to know the future to know that our answers to what it is may well have a direct impact at an extinction-level scale. So, I’m turning my attention to identifying where the meaningful conversations are occurring about this, and who is controlling the discourse. There will be a new story. I want to be part of helping mid-wife it.

Breaking Habits

Some of the work will be releasing from old, limiting stories. For instance, the current news from doctors about the COVID virus and how to treat it is uncovering huge limitations in our public stories about health. “Put people on ventilators if they can’t breathe,” was an early story of how to response. It sounded hopeful. But this response rested on several old ideas—seeing sickness response as a fight and needing weapons in the battle—focusing on reacting to the presenting illness rather than prevention and testing. And the stories became political. “The government isn’t organized to get us what we need.” And “The states aren’t doing enough.”  But much of the discourse stayed within the dominant story of western medicine.

Looking more closely at what is really happening it appears that deaths on ventilators are reaching 68% or more. It’s quite possible these intrusive measures, compounded by isolation from family, and the confusion of being drugged collapse people’s immune systems even more than the virus does. Some colleagues communicated recently about that their Chinese doctor friends report that, on a widespread basis, the Chinese blended traditional practices like acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies with other responses for Covid patients. This hasn’t been news but could be the tender shoot of a more open orientation to health and support for immune systems. As hospitals fire and furlough workers because their business model is dependent on “actions” rather than results and prevention, will the core story of what’s needed for health change?

I’m wondering now, beyond any specific thoughts about health care, whether any new, long-term habits will set in without a widely held story. I pretty sure they won’t, and that it won’t be easy. Old stories start collecting resources to rebuilt themselves right away. After all, it’s a lot of work to generate a truly hopeful, enduring new story. Let’s just jump back on this old successful habit!

Where Do We Truly Need Turns?

I’m reflecting on all this as a facilitator and consultant who plays a role in helping people generate new stories and deal with real change. What is my role as we emerge from the supposed “worst?”  What conversations do I need to be facilitating? Can I step up to inviting people to consider that in many ways, the global pandemic is a small catastrophe compared to global warming. (There will be no vaccination that will protect us from melting ice caps. If you live in the coastal lowlands subject to king tides sheltering in place would be nonsense). Can I step into figuring out how we can move forward paying attention to equally impactful but slower moving phenomenon, like the economic undermining of the middle class, the systemic health and economic impacts of racism, or the steady erosion of educational access and quality for young peopl

Don’t Attach to Prior Thinking

One morning I was listening to Carol Sanford and a series of daily half hour talks on “Transforming Uncertainty into Action.” She’s deeply immersed in thinking about living systems and regenerative organizations and was quite clear about how our habit of hearing and seeing new ideas through old lenses gets in our way. How do we not do that, I thought.? But then she said, “I like to use frameworks, but not ones that have answers, but ones that guide my attention.” Aha! This is the value of providing change models and theories that function like mental keyboards. This is my work. I felt hope springing up. These might support different kinds of systemically sensitive conversation.

So, what are the new structures that might work on a wider social level and provide scaffolding and language for a new story?

Carol went on. “Think fundamentally about what makes a system whole and complete—what is necessary for thriving?” Her example was democracy. This is a system that needs an educated electorate as a fundamental element to work. (No surprise that Benjamin Franklin focused on newspapers in the early days of the colonies.) Is democracy “whole and complete” when our leaders not only promulgate false information, but question science, learning, and focus on keeping people watching TV and twitter? Can democracy pivot from a deep attachment to materialism as a superordinate value? Are their frames for thinking that champion optimization of resources over maximization?

 A Bigger Pivot is Needed

As I and others are turning to digital meetings under the threat of coronavirus, new “rules” for creating connections and gatherings are emerging, and with equal vigor people are shoehorning the old patterns into the new medium. With everyone on-line, for a while at least, we might expect some remarkable invention. I’m hopeful about this. But I suspect it is WAY too early to know if this is truly a pivot, or just the platform for the conversations that will matter.

I find myself thinking that a much bigger pivot is needed. Our scientists have almost unanimously agreed that the laws of cause and effect are at work in regard to global warming and the irresponsible application of fossil fuels to every imaginal task. It’s a development that has literally fueled the rise of enormous big ag and steadily undermined localized farming. It has literally fueled big pharma, big plastic, big box stores, big shopping centers reached by car and a global economy fueled by ubiquitous air travel. These things have all created a kind of coherence and logic that most of us were going along with. Is this what we are trying to “turn on again?” But questioning all this means questioning some of our most beloved beliefs. What about Black Friday? What about Christmas? What about traveling wherever we want?

I agreed with Carol that for any of these forces to generate a turn, large numbers of people have to become educated about living systems. Will people be able to learn that diversity is one of the strongest counterforces to viral phenomena in nature. Will people come to appreciate that historically in society, local cultures, local agriculture, diverse and indigenous local practices all have long histories of persisting and sustaining themselves. But are any of these responses being considered? If the body is an integrated system, and the lungs and breath are central, what truly supports the lungs and breath? It goes well beyond oxygen. What about our relationships? What about the condition of our spirits? Are our leaders, or we consultants, sustaining a systemic point of view?

JesusinOliveWoodThe Story of the Resurrection

I began writing this blog on the day before Easter. We were all at home, socially distanced. I was on my virtual piano lesson in the morning with Randy Craig when Gisela came up and said. “I’m yearning for a new story, a hopeful story!” she said. “It’s Easter.” A bell rang for me.

What if this generation’s resurrection experience was the rise of truly hopeful new story? I thought about the seeds of it that my GLEN colleagues are generating. Embrace the possibility of collective wisdom, Alan Briskin writes. Collaboration and optimization echo the reciprocal patterns of nature and the way our nervous system functions, Mary Gelinas observes. What if the resurrection was an arising again of the story that Christ died for, the story of the power of compassion and forgiveness, as Gisela and I began hoping after visiting Jerusalem in January? And what if our new story included the transformative power of paying attention to what is actually going on, as Carol suggests—without preconception—and together asking, what needs to truly “turn” and be released to have our system be whole and complete?

 

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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.