Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the following: “Complicated solutions are yesterday’s good practices. Complex, holistic solutions are multi-faceted, emergent and constantly evolving. They can’t be pinned down by rules but have to be sensed into through open dialogues.”

This reminded me of one of my favorite frameworks — the Cynefin framework designed by Dave Snowden in 1999. Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning habitat; the framework is simple and elegant but leads us to profound insights. If we see the framework below, we can easily see where we are today as humanity and where we are headed. The habitat for organizations has moved from being complicated to complex with exponentially increasing rate of change (Moore’s Law in action) and is rapidly heading towards the chaotic. As is evident, rules, processes, constraints and good practices worked perfectly for the complicated, mechanistic Industrial Era. However, complexity requires Systems Thinking and “enabling constraints”. I interpret enabling constraints as “holding space for emergence” where constraints function as a safety net.

The Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden

This is where things get tricky. Leaders today are geared to respond to challenges with speed and action. The hierarchical structure of most organizations places a few people at the top charged with all critical decision-making, thus losing out on the vast capacity of the collective intelligence available throughout the organization. And, ironically, in the face of increasing complexity and uncertainty, there is more pressure to deliver “results” and “do something” to allay the situation. What of course ends up happening is the putting of band-aids over symptoms while the root causes go un-examined, unexplored, and left to proliferate. While it is counter-intuitive, complexity requires us to slow down— to probe, sense, and then respond. It requires us to go from rapid-fire action to observation, reflection, and thoughtful response when the time is right.

How are communities connected to complexity, collective intelligence and “sensemaking”?

I propose that in the context of pervasive complexity and ambiguity, communities of passionate, connected and purpose-driven individuals can illuminate the way forward. Communities are different from typical project teams who come together for an explicit outcome, work towards their objectives, and when the work is done, it’s done. I am not denying the value of great team work having been a part of some amazing teams myself. However, I am focusing on communities here because communities come together and cohere very differently. They are usually aligned around a purpose larger than each individual; membership is usually voluntary which means people go where they are drawn to go. Diverse people connect who may “normally” not have known each other, creating greater opportunities for serendipity and innovation. Communities allow lurkers to also exist within its ecosystem, something teams cannot do. I believe lurkers carry immense value as they often become channels of cross-pollination between communities and are a critical part of the weak-tie network making a community more diverse, resilient and porous. And most importantly, communities carry a sense of belonging to something beyond the self. All of these contribute to make communities adept at feeling into the ecosystem, seeing the system through different lenses, caring about the system, and responding to the emergent with deeper insight. This is what tapping into the power of collective intelligence is about.

Therefore, when an organization functions as a collective of networked communities, its ability to probe and sense its ecosystem increases manifold. It is akin to a human using all our five senses as well as the heart and the gut as opposed to only our rational ability. In the diagram below, I have tried to represent an organization as an open system connected via today’s ubiquitous technology. Imagine an organization whose boundaries are porous, giving it the capacity to fluidly exchange information with its ecosystem. Internally, the organization functions as clusters of communities which also have porous, permeable walls. The community members interact and connect through various means (some of which are shown in the diagram). This creates a system that is able to constantly sense and see itself, can connect its edges to its center and hold complexity by distributing it in the network. This ability to tap into the collective intelligence and wisdom of the whole makes a system/organization resilient, anti-fragile, and eventually thrivable. This requires viewing the organization as a living system that has the capacity to adapt, heal itself, and thrive given the right conditions.

Technology Enabled Communities in Distributed Organizations

I admit though that this is easier said than done. I have written about some of the obstacles to building communities here. Apart from the technology and the roles of community facilitators, this shift requires re-imagining and reinventing the structures, processes, and the culture as well as the underlying narratives of an organization. All of this are the glue that hold the fabric of the organization together in its current state, and exert powerful resistance to anything that threatens the status quo. I am not saying the shift is easy at all. However, as global trends and patterns threaten to plunge us into chaos, it is time to rethink and re-imagine our organizations. It requires us to move from holding a few leaders at the top accountable and responsible for all decision, actions, and their intended and unintended consequences. We are well aware that complexity cannot be tackled through planning, controlling, resource management, and other known and popularized forms of management and leadership. Complexity calls for leaders to become facilitators, to hold space, to flow with uncertainty, to let leadership emerge from the collective, and to be able to sense the system. Leadership’s role becomes that of designing and holding the container for exploration and the emergence of future potential. All of these capacities come not only from experience but also from deep reflection and inner work. In the section below, I have discussed — what I believe — are some of the mindsets/capacities required of the leaders if they wish to design for thrivability.

  1. Holding space for Emergence — This involves creating the conditions and preparing the soil (the ethos/culture) for dialogues to take place. This requires the capacity to be comfortable with the discomfort of staying in the liminal space, and not forcing a pre-defined outcome when a problem rises to the surface. It’s also the ability to see problems as gifts/messages calling the organization’s attention to what needs to shift. And using processes like The Circle Way, the U Process, and Liberating Structures to have generative conversations.
  2. Staying with Uncertainty — While close to the above capacity, I have deliberately called it out separately as well. Leaders have the propensity and are often expected to provide answers in times of great uncertainty and upheaval. Staying with uncertainty conversely requires leaders to strengthen their muscles for staying in the space between stories, suspending judgement, being ok with not having any answer, and tapping into one’s inner guidance till a response naturally surfaces. And as leaders develop and operate from these capacities within themselves, the core skills permeate throughput the organization with support.
  3. Creating space for Synchronicity — In the rush of solving daily challenges and focusing on short term goals, we all forget to slow down and stay with the emerging. Welcoming synchronicity require us to hold space for ourselves as well as others, to tap into our inner wisdom and allow the unfolding to happen. I can best describe it as a shift from doing to being. It’s in the in-between space when we let go of control and trust in a higher order do we begin to experience the synchronicity that come our way as guideposts.
  4. Operating from Inter-connectedness — I firmly believe in the concept of “Interbeing” described by Thich Nhat Hanh. His definition of “seeing clouds in a piece of paper” is the quintessential and an eloquent description of Systems Thinking. It is essential for leaders to operate from this space of inter-connectedness and the whole lest the fixing of a problem in one part of the system creates unintended consequences in another part, and maybe elsewhere in the ecosystem too.
  5. Sacrificing an Expert’s Mindset — Most of us are aware of the Japanese concept of shoshin articulated by Shunryu Suzuki as, “In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in an expert’s mind very few.” One of the fundamental capacities for holding space is to let go of the expert’s mindset, and also one of the most difficult. It means a letting go of the ego and all other credentials that has brought us to our current state of power, position, and privilege. This letting go is essential to foster openness. An expert’s mind will not be able to create space for emergence.
  6. Facilitating Generative Conversations — I strongly recommend going through and practicing the four levels of listening and conversing defined by Otto Scharmer in his book, The Essentials of Theory U. A capacity and willingness to move beyond the downloading and factual to empathic and generative is essential to bring collective intelligence and creativity in the service of a greater good. In the first two situations, no new learning or insight can emerge as we stay stuck in false harmony or debate/compromise, respectively. They only serve to keep the system stuck in the old patterns and habits. The next two — empathic and generative listening — open up the field of the future and lead to emergent practices. I have included the diagram below for reference.

As would have occurred to most of you’ll reading the post, the capacities mentioned above require not only deep reflection and inner work but also great empathy, curiosity, courage, and compassion. Only by holding ourselves and others with open compassion and acceptance can we even begin to create the conditions for thrivability. I’ll deep dive into these aspects in future posts.

The next questions are: “Despite the phenomenal capacities of technology today, is technology the only solution? How important are connections in person? How critical is it for us to experience our inter-connectedness with nature? How do we balance the virtual world with the real world we inhabit?”

I’ll explore these questions in my next post. You can read the Part 1 of Organizations as Communities here.