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.

Peter Block’s “Community: The Structure of Belonging” – Part One: From Problems to Possibilities

January 8, 2009 on 1:29 am | In Stimulated by the Literature | No Comments

Sometimes a book comes along that gets the attention of both heart and mind. Peter Block’s book “Community: The Structure of Belonging” is such a book. It is one of the most powerful books I have read in quite a while. Why? Because in it Block focuses on how people come together to create the future and in insight after insight he describes what it takes for us to truly engage others in our various communities.
Compelling to me is his premise that to create the future we need to shift our communities from problem solving to considering or declaring possibilities desired by the community in question.Problem solving has, according to Block, limited capacity for transformation. In my workshops and presentations on creativity, I have often discussed the difference between creating and problem-solving. Problem solving keeps us in the present and often takes us into the past. Creating has more power to take us into the future and, in fact, we cannot go into the future without creating. Creating brings into being that which does not now exist. And communities that create must have deep conversations about what they think is important to create.
We, as humans, are natural problem solvers and in our (greatly reinforced) need to reach answers, come to conclusions, and achieve closure we lose the opportunity to exercise our equally powerful human capacity for creating.
Creating is all about possibility and what can be. We need look no further than our own offices or living rooms to see the results of the creating drive of others: everything around us has been dreamed of, created, made – sometimes even for the sheer joy of it. We are now, in our neighborhoods, organizations, countries, and world, at a most critical point where we need to turn that creating drive toward building (rebuilding?) our communities.
The deep learning for organizations remains how to join together to go to the future and resist being drawn into framing or discussing it by revisiting the past. Block outlines in powerful ways how we can create conversations around possibility – possibility being both the window we can dream through and the doorway we can collectively walk through in order to commit to our desired futures.
I am reminded, as I consider Block’s book, of a slide in Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s 2002 “Free Culture” presentation. That riveting slide said simply “free societies enable the future by limiting the past.” A little amnesia about the past may be a very good thing for us as we do the hard work of learning how to think in the arena of possibility rather than problems.

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.

Hunting Intersections

July 1, 2006 on 4:21 pm | In Stimulated by the Literature | 3 Comments

One of the more interesting and provocative books on innovation is Frans Johannson’s book The Medici Effect. In this book, Johannson describes two types of innovation: directional innovation and intersectional innovation.

Directional innovation is that which develops within a field and which is a progression or evolution of the practices and combination of ideas in that field. Directional innovation improves a field.

Intersectional innovation is that which is created when ideas combine at the intersection of fields. At that crossroads, Johannson contends, is the most powerful potential for innovation. He points to the many intersectional discoveries of the Rennaisance (thus the title of his book) brought about by such overlapping disciplines as art and science, mathematics and music and so on. At the intersection ideas combine exponentially to create thousands of possibilities unknown in any one field. It is this quantity that leads to a new kind of quality. Intersectional innovation transforms a field and allows for unexpected leaps along new paths.

In thinking about these two types of innovation it occurs to me that libraries at this point in time must seek the intersectional in order to utilize the explosive power of today’s technologies and changes in human communication patterns. Innovations often are tied to the creation of new knowledge, the offering and teaching of knowledge, and the broadening of privliege. Libraries have historically held society’s most powerful role when it comes to knowledge and the broadening of privilege and human rights. What other fields might we meet up with to maximize our innovative potential? What do we need to do to put ourselves in the way of that possible meet up?

We need to engage our associative powers and abilities. It is quite possible that our associative abilities are the main thing that separates us from other animals on this planet. We can make associative leaps of thought that allow us to create new thoughts and to come up with ideas. So we need to lower the barriers to associative thought.

Johannson suggests that, to lower associative barriers, we need to do three things:

  • learn differently — he says, “Expertise, for all its strengths, can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought.” He suggests self-education is a powerful way to learn differently — following threads outside of our normal pathways
  • reverse assumptions — actively look for the opposite of your assumption and challenge yourself to consider a different point of view
  • try on new perspectives — as Leonardo daVinci noted one needs to view something from at least three different perspectives to fully understand it

We need to purposefully make efforts to uncover unusual concept combinations and find unexpected partners in order to find new intersections. Intersectional innovation will help us transform our profession as it has so many other professions in the past.

However, Johannson notes that “The major difference between a directional innovation and an intersectional one is that we know where we are going with the former. Unfortunately, the intersection is a place where our understanding of what to do and how to do it is opaque, at best. An intersectional idea can go any number of directions.” So, it would appear that if we truly want to transform our profession and our libraries we must be willing to not know where we are going and how we are going to get there. Discomfort indeed!

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