David Sibbet | Organization Development
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In his book American Soul, philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “The art form of the future is the group. The intelligence and benevolence we need can only come from the group, from associations of men and women seeking to struggle against the impulses of illusion, egoism and fear.” This quote animated Alan Briskin’s exploration of the headwaters of this idea at the first Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP) gathering in 2016 at Holger Scholz’s Beuerhof Retreat Farm in the Vulkan Eifle region of Germany. To support the dialogue that resulted, we co-created this graphic of thought leaders we knew resonated with this idea.

groupasartform

The four of us guiding Leading as Sacred Practice (Gisela Wendling, Alan, Holger and I) had begun calling ourselves a facilitation “Ensemble.” We shared a deep interest in collaboration and supporting a mindset that values the whole human being— spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical— AND avoiding religiosity, ideology, and blind faith.

This first retreat sparked a shift in our work, and ignited a path of co-discovery. We have been meeting and working as an ensemble ever since through two more gatherings in 2017 at IONs Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, and then in 2018 back at the Beuerhof.

We decided to take a gap year in 2019, and then for 2020 planned a larger conference. But COVID appeared and we delayed again. The pandemic pushed us to create a virtual version to continue the work, and the publishing of some of our findings so far in our LASP eBook. (We are giving this away for free in the description of our series of six LASP Online Exchanges starting April 23). Our learning focuses on six “ways” we have found to lead as sacred practice.

What is an Ensemble?

I was describing our ensemble experience to a close friend, Joe Ruffato, a musician and member of a Medicine Community that I am also a member of. I could explain the “ensemble idea” easily since the medicine community is very collaborative and Joe understands what this means musically. An ensemble is a group of musicians who play together. What is not embodied in the formal definition is the meaning that is understood by professional musicians. Joe told me a story that made the point.

“When I produced my first CD I worked with three professional musicians who brought piano, base, and drums to my guitar playing and singing of my songs. We worked through several studio sessions and produced a draft version. I then had a chance to talk to our producer about it and asked him what he thought. ‘Do you really want to know,” the man replied. ‘Yes,’ I said. “He then told me that I was over strumming and doing some other things that didn’t completely balance, “ Joe said. “I came away and put the CD on hold. So I practiced and then after some months came back with a completely up-leveled performance.”

Joe went on to describe what he learned from the three musicians he had worked with. They all were very skilled in what they did, and all shared a sensitivity to the “ensemble” level of play. “They never filled the space to the detriment of the other musical voices,” Joe said. “I realized that’s what it means to be a pro.”

And I realized in Joe’s story this is what is means to be a good ensemble—to never fill the space in a way that works to detriment of another player. This means honoring the rotation of the spotlight in jazz. It means not over playing. It means listening to the whole.

Ensemble as An Artform for the Future

Having spent my adult life facilitating group process, I realized that the Ensemble idea we have used to guide our Leading as Sacred Practice work, might also be a form that could be replicated and even celebrated professionally in other group work settings.

More and more it seems that one of the shifts that we need to make as we come out of shelter-at-home and move into other escalating global issues like global warming, is to open to more imaginative “we” forms of working together. No single person is expert enough to respond to the systemic challenges we face. No solo player can lead the transformation changes necessary to work with them. Collaborative networks, action learning teams, and yes “ensembles” are needed to allow pooling of knowledge and learning as we move forward.

Groups can be the art form of the future.

Join us for the Leading as Sacred Practice Online Exchange Series. April 23, 2021, and experience one.

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.

I sustain a keen interest in metaphors and plausible narratives about where we are headed as a society, and frankly, I am worried. I was rocked recently by a close reading of sociobiologist and futurist Rebecca Costa’s0-watchmansrattle 2012 best seller, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. (She has a new book, also a best seller, called On the Verge, which I haven’t read.) Costa has a long history in Silicon Valley and a polymath’s appetite for large-scale thinking. My reading, in the context of seeing our country spiraling into policy chaos, is that her 2012 message is even more relevant in 2018.

Her “new theory” is that civilizations collapse when complexity outstrips human’s cognitive ability to grasp what is going on. More interestingly, she identifies the symptoms that suggest collapse is beginning. I’m not wanting to believe we are collapsing, as I am much more interested in growth and development and what our field of process consulting and visual practice can do in response. Yet her argument is persuasive.

Let me summarize what she is talking about. Drawing from both evolutionary biology and new findings in neuroscience, Costa describes in detail how the Mayans, Romans, Germans and others expanded and collapsed. Collapse begins with gridlock—simply too many conflicting forces and events compounding—and continues with the substitution of belief for facts.

In most civilizations, Costa observes, there is a balance between untethered beliefs and scientifically or experientially validated knowledge. We use beliefs to deal with the ineffable and non-objective, and we have (at least for the last many hundreds of years) looked to science for help with being objective, particularly regarding the physical world. Yet when complexity begins to overwhelm people’s cognitive abilities, beliefs take over and attention to facts disappears.

For the Mayans facing severe drought, their engineering of cisterns and other water strategies gave way to human sacrifice. For the Germans after World War I, the complexity of their post-war fractured economy gave way to fascism and blame and World War II.  Sound familiar?Read more…

I was saddened to hear that my friend and colleague Allan Drexler passed away recently. He was 88. In the 1980s, he and I co-developed the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model® (Model) and the facilitative methods and tools connected with it. Without Allan we would not have this model. The depth of his field experience with teams, coupled with his deep understanding of group dynamics developed in sensitivity training work at National Training Labs, kept the work grounded in the real world of working teams.

How the Work Beganteamperformancesketchtalk

I first met Allan in 1982, when I gave a workshop about facilitation that included Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process. Allan shared a team-building model he had developed with Jack Gibb, an influential social science researcher, and Marv Weisbord, a thought leader in organizational development. It laid out predictable questions people ask when joining a group: Why are we here? Who are you? What are we doing? How will we work together? (The model is illustrated here in a Sketchtalk I did on the subject).

Read more…