Making Goulash in the Hungarian Countryside

The Invitation

It began with an invitation. Join others from around the globe who are immersed in working on more human-centered, participatory, creative and effective approaches to work. We will gather in community in the Hungarian countryside for 7 days. We will co-create our time together. Our purpose, process and progress will emerge. I arrive with great curiosity. I know few of the participants and it is my first visit to Hungary. Such an invitation!

I’ve been working for 4 years with Loomio, a worker owned cooperative social enterprise based in New Zealand and part of the Enspiral Network. We are experimenting with this new paradigm of better ways to work. Our self managed teams use agile process to adapt regularly as priorities dictate. We encourage autonomy. We honor each other as whole people and we make space to know and support each other. We use rhythms, rituals and technology to structure disciplined commitments for action. I am the lone team member based in the U.S. After 4 years operating remotely, I have traveled to the Hungarian countryside to satisfy my craving to spend more time in person with others who are devoted to creating better ways to work together.

I am struck by the warmth and openness that I experience as I meet 25 strangers from India, Brazil, Spain, New Zealand, Hungary and elsewhere. Many offer hugs of greeting — bold, enveloping hugs. Others are more reserved. Fellow Enspiralite Bernhard Resch calls this a wave of undeserved trust or assumptions of benevolence and care. This pulsing humanity touches me in a way that is impossible to experience through my laptop. It is joyful to engage closely, to feel a breath on my cheek as we talk.

The invitation is to be yourself, claim your needs, step into relationship and capture learning. Trust yourself and each other. Trust collective emergence. Have fun! It feels remarkably easy to accept this invitation.

The physical space — the summer office for Social Fokus — stimulates possibilities. We are on a spacious property with two slightly dilapidated country homes. Rolling hills and fields surround us. Cherry trees offer a bounty of fruit. A hammock invites a rest from the heat. Afternoon swims at a nearby lake refresh us. One day we decide to make the lake the office. We gather around a fire pit at night to cook and sing and dance.

This group understands that workplaces are broken and have been dysfunctional for a long time. Leaders tinker to make improvements to hierarchical operating systems that were designed for industrial factories more than 100 years ago. What will it take to let go of this archaic system that has led to a mere 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers to be engaged? Change demands more than dissatisfaction. Leaders (I use this term to mean anyone who aims to influence positive transformation) need a picture of a whole new architecture. They need to see, feel, experience, and understand a viable alternative. Gallup’s CEO Jim Clifton writes that the broken workplace needs a complete overhaul. ‘What if we delivered a high-development experience to 50% of the billion full-time employees around the world? It is very doable. It begins by changing what leaders believe. And then changing how they lead’.

Those of us who’ve gathered in Hungary know that innovative examples exist. We are many of the practitioners who are stewarding these new approaches and this week we are sharing, reflecting, learning, scheming, designing and documenting our work. A few themes percolate for me as I reflect on the week.

Throw the Sheet Over the Ghost

When I researched and wrote about social enterprise in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2013, I witnessed the value of making visible emergent changes that are under-the-radar in a social system. At that time, the field of social enterprise was bubbling with energy; yet, it was largely invisible and lacking credibility in New Zealand. Concrete success stories — throwing the sheet over the ghost — grab the attention of influencers such as policy makers and investors who are important allies to shift the ecosystem from experiments on the edges to mainstream practice. Fast-forward a few years and the ghost is morphing into a viable form of enterprise and social impact. The New Zealand Parliament hosted a social enterprise summit earlier this month and announced new initiatives and funding to support the sector. New Zealand will be on the world stage as host for the Social Enterprise World Forum in September.

It is time to make visible examples of more human-centered and effective workplaces. There is broad agreement that workplaces are fractured. What is missing is widespread exposure to better models. Frederick Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations helped to elevate awareness. Now it’s time to accelerate attention to the need and opportunity for wholly new workplace designs.

A word of caution. When I researched the field of social enterprise, I learned how difficult it is to establish shared definition and language for new models. There is still confusion about the meaning of social enterprise after 30 years of development. While the debate has merit, it also detracts from experimentation and stifles progress.

We played with nomenclature in Hungary: future of work; purposeful workplaces; self-management, holacracy and teal to name several prominent labels. Let’s not get stuck in search of the perfect lexicon. Let’s describe stories and models and experiments of people working together in ways that achieve emergent, adaptive progress in workplaces that are human-centered, self-managed, and creative. Language and definitions will crystallize with experience.

What Is Old is New Again

My colleagues in Hungary shepherd a myriad of models and practices such as The Art of Hosting, Theory U / Presencing and Contemplative Practices. What strikes me is how many of these approaches are steeped in ancient traditions. For instance we gather in a circle every day to start and complete our formal schedule. The circle is a sacred symbol that is prominent in many native traditions and has been used for millennia. Susan Lucci writes,

‘’The circle is one of deep connection, mutual respect and creative collaboration. This resonant field energizes, inspires and supports each of us to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, to become a better version of ourselves.”

We begin many days in silence or another contemplative practice to center ourselves individually as we embark on group exploration. As long ago as 300 B.C. Plato and other Greek philosophers espoused the value of a contemplative life. Spirituality is a prominent feature for most religions including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. I’m familiar with the power of silence from Quaker practice and meditation to quiet the mind and open the heart and soul. Today contemplative practice is surging as a secular response to the chaos of daily life, including apps like HeadSpace that have ‘bite-sized meditations for busy schedules’ and ‘SOS exercises for sudden meltdowns.” Contemplative practices are practical, radical, and transformative.

We engage in a mash up of right brain activities to tap imagination, rhythm, holism and story. Daniel Pink describes a seismic shift in our social and economic world from a bias toward linear thinking to the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft meaningful narrative, to empathize with others, to find joy in one’s self and elicit it in others.[1] For me, rekindling play and creative expression is hugely powerful. Singing, dancing and climbing trees unleash my creative juices and remind my why breakthroughs often occur as a result of unstructured exploration.

Connecting the Dots

I live in an ‘act globally — act locally’ reality. Virtual relationships and networks mean we can commit to collective purpose regardless of where we live. We can teach classes, contribute to enterprises and invest across national boundaries. At the same time, we can pollinate our local work with ideas, models and resources from across the globe.

What is the power of bridging these self-managed global networks to transform social and economic systems to be more just and equitable? Separate networks are experimenting with impactful potential for innovation. If we link networks of networks, will we unleash a tipping point? I wonder.

Investing in Retreats

I return home saturated with energy, and ideas. I have developed new friendships and exciting projects are percolating. I feel deeply renewed.

The magic of my week in Hungary was stimulated by this precious space — beautiful, natural space that fostered rest, reflection and fun- and caring people. Research shows that workplaces that foster these types of positive and virtuous practices broaden employees’ resources and abilities. They improve relationships and amplify creativity. These practices grow bottom line results as well,

“When organizations institute positive, virtuous practices they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, and productivity … The more the virtuousness, the higher the performance in profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement.” Kim Cameron, University of Michigan

Retreats that create natural, spacious and safe space to explore positive relationships and action learning are not only worth the return on investment but may by an essential practice for every group aiming to chart and deliver purpose. In Hungary, we created the right conditions for co-creation. Social Fokus and Enspiral attracted — invited — a dynamic, passionate and creative group of global change makers. Those of us who accepted the invitation co-created the powerful progress we achieved.

Are you ready for an invitation?

[1] Pink, Daniel, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books, 2005.