Hiking…and human acknowledgement…

May 25, 2009 on 5:00 pm | In Human Systems | 3 Comments

While on a recent hike in Hawaii I was struck by something that has occurred to me before but that seemed even more noticeable on this occasion. I tend to say hello to people I’m passing on a trail and it is interesting to me – especially this time – that some people respond while others do not. On my hike in Hawaii, typically someone in the party passing me would smile brightly and greet me back. However, not in every case did this occur. This caused me to wonder what we gain by maintaining separateness such that to broach a silence in between ourselves seems an unnatural choice.

I thought about how much we need human contact and connection however simple and small; how much this need seems to grow with the stresses of the times. So how do people make decisions to either acknowledge another person or not? What do we gain by not greeting one another? I can understand the need for solitude and personal space. One of the reasons to be on this hike, in fact, was to go into a quiet place and away from the busyness of Honolulu. Does a short greeting, a quiet smile, or a nod interrupt reverie or cause a disruption of personal space? For some perhaps it does. Or are there other reasons for “containing” oneself? I wondered if fear of one another ever causes this distancing.

It is difficult not to make assumptions about why it is not consistently common to greet or acknowledge one another – why people don’t do it and why people don’t respond when they are greeted by another. However, it is clear I really don’t know why we are different in this way. As I walked that trail to a beautiful waterfall, the number of people for whom this simple exchange was not a practice made me think hard about the practice of strangers greeting strangers.

As I said “hi” and smiled at some though, faces lit up (sometimes in surprise) and they greeted me back making me feel a bonheur that I know, for me, stems from the simple connection with another. Facial, verbal, and sometimes non-verbal expressions of greeting appear to be universally understood. Some people greeted me before I could greet them – it seemed natural and open. I passed German families, French couples, U.S. families, and the ability or willingness to exchange a brief human greeting was not related to nationality nor was it related to gender as far as I could tell.

Compartmentalizing ourselves has not helped in the past. The cocooning trend of the 1990’s seems to be coming back as people cope with the stresses of their lives on their own. How much better would it be for us all if we actively looked for connections with each other? If we developed a higher degree of awareness of others near us and if we extended ourselves to each other – even a little bit? What would change? I was struck by these questions as I passed people on that trail – a trail we all had set out on because we knew it led through and to a beautiful place. We had commonality in that.

Peter Block’s “Community: The Structure of Belonging” – Part Two: Leadership as Convening

January 19, 2009 on 2:25 am | In Human Systems, Stimulated by the Literature, Transforming | No Comments

This is part two of a series devoted to reflections on Peter Block’s book “Community: The Structure of Belonging“.

Block discusses leadership from a slightly different perspective than one finds in most of the leadership literature. He perceives the central role of the leader – who could be anyone in any group or community with the will to be the leader – as one of convening. He speaks of convening as a powerful act that brings people together to jointly discover possibility meaningful to their given community. What is the power of merely convening a group of people? By convening the leader creates a viable – Block would even say “sacred” – space for the members of that community to find out what matters most to members as a collective, to bring the gifts of each individual to the center, and to embroider upon the possibilities they hold dear. This is the act of creating what we want to see – creating our future.

During this historic time in the United States – and in the world – and on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, the concept of leader as convener takes on a certain power. Perhaps it is the possibility that Obama so often invoked when he called us to believe “Yes we can!” during his campaign, that indicates he has the power to convene. Certainly there are problems for which we must find solutions but the most important work must be to bring people together in the spirit of community and to regain that sense of possibility that many of us had appeared to have lost.

Hope and possibility are the banners of the era that we enter in spite of the extraordinarily troubled world and national situations. This mix of optimism and hope with problems and anxieties is interesting in its ability to move us away from the concept of absolutes we have not only endured but also played a part in creating over the past decade or so.

Perhaps the lesson of the time is that by coming together – by convening – we can begin to remember that subtlety is more the hallmark of human thinking, meaningful human communication, and human aspiration than any absolutes are, that we do not need to choose between caring about the problems that worry us and the wishes we hold in our hearts – that they are, in fact, part of a whole.

Each of us can be a leader in our communities – and we all belong to numerous communities at work, in our neighborhoods, in our synagogues, mosques, and churches, in our schools, in our families, and in our society. Playing the role of convener is simple and requires only that we leave our egos at the door and that we pose the questions that start conversations. It is not about us “being leaders,” it is about us having sentience and the presence of mind to realize that convening is what is needed. It can happen anywhere and at any time.

We can bring peace and prosperity to our communities and homes, we can develop the compassion and hope that will allow us to jointly design our futures. The difficult times we are experiencing have much to teach us about collaboration and “thinking in the future tense,” in the words of anthropologist Jennifer James. James tells us that we need to learn how to see with new eyes, recognize the future, understand the social context, change and help others change, and to concentrate our energies in order to create progress.

Peter Block describes the “retributive community” as one in which compassion is marginalized, associational life is devalued, and finding fault and allowing fear to power our conversations and actions reigns. The “restorative community,” by contrast, is one in which isolation is not allowed to exist and one in which new energy is created, a new sense of aliveness and wholeness comes into being, and one in which we embrace belonging. It is belonging that will help us not only face the future but create it according to our greatest aspirations. So hope has a good reason to exist, after all.

And for those who worry about who will step up to the plate and take responsibility for creating community, Block wisely writes, “Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from…Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us.”

Future President Obama is certainly accountable to the people of the United States but he is, by no means, the only accountable individual in the story. We must all look for our leadership roles and consider how critical it is that we convene and attend to the development of the social fabric upon which our future depends.

Changing Twice: Luc de Brabandere

August 22, 2006 on 1:35 pm | In Human Systems, Stimulated by the Literature | 1 Comment

“If you want to change, you have to change twice. You not only need to change the reality of your situation, you also need to change your perception of this reality.”

These are the words of Luc de Brabandere, an innovation consultant at Boston Consulting Group in Paris, written in his wonderful book: The Forgotten Half of Change. What he is trying to indicate is that you have to change things (structures, programs, ways of doing things, etc.) to improve and innovate, but you also have to change the way you look at these things: thus changing reality and changing perception are the two halves of change.

Though hard to choose one aspect of this book to focus on, one of his most interesting passages is about Seeing — perhaps because it so tied to the issue of our perceptions. He describes four seeing dichotomies:

Seeing and Perceiving — Our eyes are not cameras and we get ideas by changing our perceptions of things

Seeing and Believing — We believe what we see but sometimes we se what we believe (this is a significant problem in terms of perception of reality — I think of mental models)

Seeing and Knowing — Even though we know certain things we can still see something different; for instance, we know the earth revolves around the sun but we still see the sun setting (another mental models problem)

Seeing and Hoping — We don’t see the world as it is but as we are

These seeing dichotomies pose some limitations on us and make getting clarity on reality more difficult. Yet our perceptions and our mental models (if tested) can serve as the keys to change. Seeing what is missing, seeing what exists that we didn’t see before, seeing an “empty chair” at the table, seeing new landscapes of possibility, and seeing more clearly the essence of what we desire. All these are crucial to effectively changing, adapting, and innovating — to develop “the new” and the innovative for users and for ourselves.

The Possibility of Success

July 18, 2006 on 8:35 pm | In Human Systems | No Comments

In a previous post I mentioned “Cirque du Soleil The Spark,” a tale about a sports agent who, having lost his focus and his orignal driving passion, enters the world of the circus and rediscovers his creativity and inspiration.

One short passage has the protagonist, Frank Castle, being taught how to manage jumping up to a trapeze while on bungee cords — at some height. He is very apprehensive and this apprehension actually keeps him from accomplishing the task for a while. Of course when he lets go of his fears he is able to reach the trapeze bar. He reflects internally:

“It’s amazing how much we fear the unknown — even though the unknown carries with it the possibility of success. We are so determined to stick to our comfort zones that we learn to live with disappointment, as long as it’s familiar and safe….Our fears hold us back, make us fall short of our goals. Only by taking risks can we hope to accomplish the extraordinary.”

Librarians I know are extraordinary people. Yet whole organizations of these wonderful people settle for “pretty good” and sometimes mediocre due, I believe, to this fear of possible success. What would happen if we were wildly successful? What kinds of decisions and choices would we make?

I believe there are many extraordinary libraries but something about the fear of success fable in The Spark made me think of the many times I’ve heard librarians say “what if we can’t handle the success of xyz service?”  Certainly we don’t want to live with disappointment in ourselves and our institutions.

What might be some ways of connecting with risk that allow us to actually take advantage of our natural passions for excellence?

The Inspired User

July 18, 2006 on 4:04 pm | In Human Systems | No Comments

Every user has her/his own reasons for seeking out libraries and library resources. All users are motivated by something — very often something exciting to them. So perhaps they enter the library inspired but then become somewhat daunted by unfamiliar surroundings, rules, practices, and mysteries. Some are further motivated to understand all these thngs that lie between them and the object of their interest but most feel like they are slogging through quick-sand to get to their stuff. The Mercurial wings on their feet vanish as they encounter obstacles -whether physical, virtual, or in the policy realm.

Cirque du Soleil The Spark: Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives within Us All,” a book about the Montreal circus Cirque du Soleil contains a few nuggets that caused some recognition in my mind of things libraries and librarians could be thinking about. The first little riff for me was triggered by the following comment:
“Every new layer of management, every new rule or form gets in the way. They deaden the magic — cut off the electicity of inspiration. If there are too many restrictions, you stop thinking about what you can do and start thinking about what you cannot do.”

That last phrase: thinking about what one cannot do really got me thinking about whether this might not be the biggest challenge facing libraries in their attempt to invite users into their virtual and physical spaces and into the conversations that create those spaces.

How can we best preserve the users’ ability to stay in their “zone” — to stay with their inspiration or motivation and not ask them to stop thinking about what they can do because they have to think about the things they cannot do in our spaces? Their passion is what carries them forward into the mysteries they will spend much time unravelling. These tantalizing mysteries should not be related to how to access what they are passionate about but about the very thing that motivated them to enter library spaces in the first place.

How do we recognize an inspired user and how do we recognize an inspired user who has been blocked by having to think about what they cannot do?

Innovating Human Systems

July 9, 2006 on 12:31 pm | In Human Systems | 11 Comments

Many innovations in the world relate to products and services. I would like to posit that we need to also attend to creating innovation in our human systems: our organizations (read libraries!), our society, our communities. What does this mean?

I believe we have the creative power to create human-centered systems that show positive belief in the abilities of people to get along, think together, work together, and live together. What it takes, I think, is getting out of our own way. As Darlene Fichter of the University of Saskatchewan has pointed out, we need radical trust — radical trust is trust in the community. (See: http://library.usask.ca/~fichter/blog_on_the_side/2006/04/web-2.html)

What all organizations, societies, and communities need is a measure of radical trust. Instead of judging each other so harshly might we not find ways to adopt a different viewpoint for a moment in order to understand one another? In my work as an organizational consultant I have seen what the lack of radical trust and the lack of innovation in the human system can do to a group of well-meaning and smart people. Typically the unfortunate results stem from emotional responses to a perceived threat — I say perceived because often that perception is only that and not a reality.

Essentially this is about overhauling our abilities of communication — to find new ways to break through our own blocks when it comes to how we communicate. How can we engender compassion and empathy in organizations and communities where disparate viewpoints often give rise to conflict?

 I would like to hear from people who have tried to innovate the human systems at work or in their communities.

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