David Sibbet | Systems Theory
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ri-mists

Photo by Alan Briskin

“Earth’s creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. That’s the conclusion of a new study (by paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley), which calculates that three-quarters of today’s animal species could vanish within 300 years.” From Science Magazine: Ann Gibbons, 2011.

At the beginning of this year the sixth extinction came to me in a 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 some swirling around eating and getting set up so we could talk it was my turn. I stood up and found myself saying “I am a professional facilitator and am currently focused on the 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, adapt and think more ecologically.”

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. It felt like a breakdown.”

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

The group applauded! I was surprised and my heart was racing. I sat and turned to a young man sitting beside me and said, “this is the first time I’ve ever introduced myself this way!” I remember I was feeling both startled and strangely alive and excited. And then I woke up. I knew I needed to pay attention to this dream.

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 and we treated our home as a retreat center.

There I had time to link this dream to some earlier faint signals.

Tracking Back Through Journals

At a GLEN Community Winter Solstice Gathering call before our holiday week started, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a 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). The poem was about the group and our process, but the journal had some other very important entries that were connected to my dream.

I realized that 2004 was the year I turned 60. This was a real milestone at the time, and I had planned several “rites of passages” for myself to mark the change. It began with a week with my first wife Susan (now deceased) to visit the half dozen vision quest sites I’d experienced on the East side of the Sierras (where I grew up).

Later in the summer I had then planned for and gone on a new vision quest on Mt. Shasta with my teacher, Chayim Barton, and a small group. I was rocked to see here I had written about one of the most significant visions of my life up to that point. I think now that it was the headwater of my dream.

Facing the Beast: Prior to the Shasta quest, 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 solo 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. I took this suggestion and on the second day of fasting created a monument. Here is my journal drawing with the associations labeled.thebeast2004I 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. It was easily 8 feet long. What deeply disturbed me was my grasping experientially the extent of the systemically embedded exploitation mindset. But more disturbing was trying to imagine what could stand up to it—represented by the little wand with a feather. After hours of circling and meditating and just sitting and writing about this experience, I ended up writing some of my core values on the wand—things like the golden rule, my Bodhicitta vow to serve the awakening of all sentient beings, and staying tuned to the light, and the source of vitality I find in embracing and respecting all life. But I hardly felt resolved about this.

Stepping up to RE-AMP

Later that year in December, I was asked to facilitate 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 in a series of complex slides, moving from a 175 factor causal loop diagram he had vetted with many experts, to a 16 factor overview diagram (Shown here) to his conclusion there were four leverage points.

re-ampsystemsmap

At the end of his presentation, he turned to the RE-AMP steering committee and, and speaking very deliberately, said – “Just remember, this is a MINDLESS BEAST.”

I can still feel the goosebumps. Oh my. Here I was standing in front of it again. The small stream of intention started on my vision quest was suddenly here, embodied, and real!

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 everyone involved believed 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. Reflecting back, I realized it was my strongest experience so far of being moved by a vision without knowing the outcome. Would my sixth extinction dream might have this same arc of enactment. It feels HUGE! But then so does is this new “beast.”

A Calling?

I wondered why had my reflective “vacation” over the holidays had started with this retrospective. By accident? It was not “planned.” What guided that impulse? What was my psyche through my dream trying to tell me about what I should be doing with my work?

I remembered as I reflected 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.” 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, and while already emerging in many places is hardly dominant.  “We will live into this new way of thinking and relating, or we won’t,” I can remember saying in various workshops. To evoke a birthing metaphor, I feel that these last few years, with global warming directly impacting my home state of California in the form of volatile weather and fierce firestorms, that the baby of this new paradigm is crowning. It needs help.

And then I remembered that two weeks later 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 have been reading about this for years. But Crist’s 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. I suspect it is because the pandemic is no longer an abstraction. I feel the losses deeply. Perhaps it ignited the same feeling about the extinction. I ordered Crist’s 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.

I now ask myself, “What kind of scaffolding in writing and image could possibly help us all face this ‘problem’ of the sixth extinction?” 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 on this planet, at least in the Western world, 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 could accelerate the extinction as a result, and for sure ensure that anger and mistrust will accompany the change. Crist argues that what we don’t have this time is time. It’s happening now.

I’m not sure yet what I can do personally. Will I be part of the acceleration?

Taking a Stand

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? Can we actually feel this happening with as much depth as we are feeling the losses from the pandemic?

I hope my sharing strikes a responsive chord. I intend to explore these ideas further through our Global Learning & Exchange Network. You are invited to join our inquiry there if you like. I and many committed colleagues will be there.

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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.

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…

'75EarlySibbetPhoto - What's the Future of the Visual Facilitation Field?Recently I was interviewed by a bright, young reporter from Communication Arts about The Grove’s work in visual facilitation. “I’m talking to a lot of different people and really wanted to talk with you, an acknowledged leader in this field,” she said. “I want to get to some of the underlying theory and structure of what is happening.”

This opening triggered an immediate cascade of memories back to the 1970s when Interaction Associates, Geoff Ball, Fred Lakin, and I were on fire about Group Graphics, the future of technology, facilitation, and organizations. After all, we were in the curl of the massive wave of rethinking that all of my generation was doing about established institutions. Why not take on knowledge work and how we know what we know?

Read more…