The Generator of the New: how to influence people and create positive change

In a recent Plexus Institute call, Benyamin Lichtenstein and Pierpaolo Andriani talked about “Generative Emergence” and the dynamics of influencing change in complex human systems.  Several participants on the call, myself included, had submitted questions to the speakers.  To my delight, Benyamin and Pierpaolo engaged us all by email in what is now a rich ongoing dialogue.

Following are my initial comments in response both to the email exchange, and to the content on Benyamin’s “Generative Emergence” website:

As I begin to dive into this delightfully complex dialogue, a few observations and comments, in no particular order:

…what we call “emergence” in human adaptive systems, strikes me as being subjective, and socially constructed. We are noticing patterns and degrees of difference as we observe over time. What we see as emergent and coherent won’t yield to analysis of causality for the purpose of prediction and control, if the underlying dynamics are complex.  

…temporal dynamics rarely seem to get the level of attention that I suspect they deserve. What is the rate of change and behavior we are observing in the system? What is the perceived degree of urgency in the need for our response? 

…I personally do not believe that computational modeling of complex systems is (not yet, anyway) sufficiently able to match the sense-making of informed human sensor networks. The Algorithmists, as I call the pattern-seeking rule-makers, do not yet have sufficient ways to model the full complex dynamics of human systems, to enable successful analysis. One question I always ask of Big Data advocates, is whether they have done any research comparing their computers to human sensor networks (that is, groups of people in the system, telling and signifying/interpreting their stories collectively). After the puzzled looks, and my explaining what I mean, they have to admit that they haven’t thought of this, and have not done it. This would also appear to be linked to the Quantum Zeno Paradox, and the indivisibility of time.

I will add that I recently obtained some anecdotal data on a case in point. The genomics lab at a major university has invested many millions of dollars in computer systems to model and analyze genomic and dna data. Virtually without exception, the doctors and professors there- including prize-winning, world-renowned scientists- prefer to rely instead on their own judgment of the data. One world-famous there told me that he literally teaches their medical and research students to essentially ignore the computer systems.

…with regard to “dissipative systems” and the 2d Law of Thermodynamics in complex adaptive human systems– it took me a couple of years to solve this seeming dilemma when I first encountered complexity and began my learning journey in the late 1990s. One day I realized what the answer was. Human systems organize to increasing levels of complexity over time because they are not dissipative at all. Energy continues to flow into our endeavors (Dawkins was wrong).

…can we purposefully influence the emergence of positive change? That’s the Big Q, of course. I believe we can not know all that there is to know, and all that we might want (or need) to know, in order to truly control change outcomes. What we can do (and must do, if we are to survive and thrive), is continuously seek to learn and understand about what’s going on. We must iteratively try our most promising options, and continuously observe what happens. Where and when stability and desired outcomes occur, we act to stabilize and sustain them (which may not always work, since the underlying dynamics may still be too complex). We must work to keep improving our response capacity in the face of change and emergence of the new.  

…in reading a bit on the Generative Emergence site, I kept thinking about the work of Alicia Juarrero, and the influence she had on the work of Dave Snowden, and Cynthia Kurtz in particular. I am thinking here about the dynamics of intention, and how our purposeful actions yield boundaries, constraints, and simultaneous opportunities.

…I likewise think that the complexity community would be well-served to look at the work of the Bulgarian-born Australian professor, Vlad Dimitrov. In particular, Vlad’s twist on Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Vlad posits a Law of Requisite Vorticity. That is, the rate of communicated ideas and info exchanges between and among us. Following on the vortical flow dynamics of liquids, for example, Vlad suggests that a sufficient level of communicated exchanges yield a vortex of thought and action. Like the swirling funnel of a tornado, this vortex results in a specific vector- a trajectory of our intention and shared purpose. We can cultivate and nurture these exchanges and explorations of possibility space. In so doing, I believe we can influence and generate change. Except for…

…the power of social Attractors of meaning. The power of ideas and beliefs, the limits of knowledge and understanding, the barriers of emotion, will all work to simultaneously constrain and hold the status quo. Power and fear, often prime among these. So how then are we to act in the awareness of these dynamics, if we intend to generate new possibility and improved outcomes?

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How F.A.R. Will You Go? 

Are you…Flexible? Adaptable? Resilient?
Eleven years ago, as the Administrator of Training and Development at the Delaware River Port Authority, I gave the opening keynote at the annual conference of the Eastern States Transportation Network. 

The Network is comprised of people responsible for the operation, maintenance, and security, of highways, bridges, trains, and tunnels from Maine to Florida. The impact of 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and there were many police and security folks in the audience.

At the conference, I spoke about the lessons learned from the experience of the first responders, and the people inside the buildings that day:

> How the knowledge and understanding each person had up to that moment was not necessarily sufficient for responding to the unexpected action that occurred. 

> How information, when it became available, was often incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading, because of the limited perspectives of people in their places, in the moment. 

> How in complex situations, life or death literally depends on how people make sense of their rapidly evolving experience together in the moment.



My conclusion was that there were several skills we need and must use in the face of unexpected events and disruptive experiences:

> We must be willing and able to change our intention and action rapidly in the face of significantly changed circumstances around us.

> We must know multiple ways and paths to (hopefully) lead us towards our goals.

> We must have the capacity to learn, understand, and adapt rapidly.

> Finally, we must be able to calmly and efficiently negotiate meaning and purpose with others. 
The greater our capacities in these areas, the better our chances of surviving. . . And thriving.

As W. Edwards Deming put it (in his usual dry witty away): 

“Learning is optional. Survival is optional.”
Collective sense-making, exploration of promising options, and continuous learning and adaptation, is the best we can do as we act into the complexities of the unknown future.

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Putting It All Together: the “New Lens” of Integrated Improvement

This follows on my appearance last week at FHI 360’s Challenge Development conference. This conference featured Otto Scharmer’s two-hour opening presentation. I was on a panel for a “deep dive” into “polarity and emergence in cooperation and competition” (hint- I said there is NO polarity. These are two aspects of the singular complex experience of living).

My friends at FHI 360 advocate and seek to apply an “integrated strategy” to the exceedingly complex work of global development. 

Here’s my recent comment on Integrated Improvement:

I have been teaching what I call “Integrated Improvement” for years now. I referenced my approach in my remarks at last year’s FHI 360 Advancing the Field Conference, and again last week in my talk at the Challenge Development conference.

The “integration” in approaching the complex challenges of development work begin with applying a new lens to the sense-making and decision-making processes. The New Lens is all about looking at the different types of systems and challenges we face, and understanding that different challenges require different kinds of response. An Appreciative perspective on Asset-Based Community Development help to focus on promising options, without the (false) presumption that solutions to complex challenges are known or knowable. This new lens has powerful implications for sense-making, decision-making, defining metrics, and assessing policy and program results.

We explore possibility without fear of failure. We include everyone in our inquiry. We learn continuously; adapt as needed; keep what works; discard what doesn’t.

And in so doing, we integrate our approaches and actions towards both technical/complicated, and complex/adaptive challenges at the same time. We learn as we probe the multiple dynamics that impact the challenges we want to address. And we adjust strategy and tactics as needed.

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Big Vision From the Low Country: Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills

What do you do, if your mother was a wonderful home cook, steeped in the traditions of the Carolinas’ low country ingredients and cuisine. . . and those ingredients were disappearing?

If you were Glenn Roberts, you change the course of your career, and follow your dream.  Glenn began Anson Mills, where they both grow, and mill remarkable organic grain products.  If you have ever watched A Chef’s Life, or The Mind of a Chef on tv, you may have seen the segments on Anson Mills.

For my birthday, I got a selection of Anson Mills products. Two bags of the amazing blue corn grits, that I first had at Rat’s restaurant.  A bag of grits made not from corrn, but from Carolina Gold rice.  And a bag of classic grits from the Pencil Cob corn variety.

These are not the “five minute” quick-cooking grits that most home cooks know.  To cook Pencil Cob grits, takes forethought.  Last night I soaked a half cup of the grits and left them in the water overnight, as directed.  

This morning, I cooked them at first in the now-starchy water.  Then, as the water evaporated and the grits began to soften, I added leftover hazelnut coffee, that had both sugar and cream in it.  The grits turned a light brown color, and the pot thickened.  At the end of the 25-minute cooking time (if you do not soak them, it takes 45 inutes!), I added a pinch of New Mexican red chile powder.  The result was a bowl of remarkable flavors and textures.

Thanks, Anson Mills.  Thanks, Glenn. 

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“It’s What Ya Know That Just Ain’t So” – Strategic Planning and Complex Challenges

For over a year, I’ve been consulting with managers and staff at a Federal regulatory compliance agency, on their evolving strategic plan. Several factors, including employer power in a down economy, and the fear of immigrant employees (legal or otherwise), have made enforcement and compliance more difficult than ever. 

In working with this group, I have talked with them about several different ways to think about planning– and its “partner” — evaluation/measurement. 

We learn and think together about:

— what aspects of the challenges are fully known, or knowable?

— what aspects of the challenges are not now knowable?

— who we can invite to talk with and learn from, to improve our knowledge and understanding (and thereby, improve the odds of successful outcomes)?

— how can we overcome the “fear factor” — typically fear of failure — as we act into ambiguity and uncertainty?

— what are the core values and operating principles that can best assess our set of promising options in facing our most complex challenges?

— what are the ways to assess and measure outcomes, both for challenges in known/knowable domains, and in unknowable problems?

— how will we learn continuously together, to improve our adaptive capacity and results?

— how will we hold ourselves and each other accountable for acting in congruence with the core values and operating principles we express?

As I tell people, it’s important to learn “The Problem With Problems” (that they come in different types, which require different patterns of response for optimal results), and avoid “The Single Biggest Problem” (treating unknowable complex challenges as if they were technical and solvable).

In this, I am reminded of a quote which I believe is attributed to Will Rogers: 

“It ain’t what ya know that gets ya in trouble. It’s what ya know, that just ain’t so.”

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Just the Facts, Ma’am: Opening space for the “difference that makes a difference”

In the long-running radio and tv series Dragnet, the main character, police sergeant Joe Friday, became famous for his direction to witnesses. In his own minimalist, deadpan style, he always asked for a brief telling of the most important points. “Just the facts, ma’am,” became a cultural cliche.

But… how did Joe Friday know what the witnesses knew? How did he know what they might tell him, that might lead to a better, successful outcome. On Dragnet, Joe Friday always got the criminal (and understanding that these stories were hand-picked actual cases from the L.A. P.D.).

“Time is money” is as much a business cliche as Joe Friday’s request for “just the facts.” But. . .

We know we are often constrained by time. Challenges arose that require a response right now. Or soon. Or maybe.

We know we are easily overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information that are instantly available to us today. Search the web for any topic you can imagine, and in seconds, you have more information than you can digest in a week.

Ideas compete for our attention, and our time. The boss needs your report by noon tomorrow. You have to pick up your child at school but there was an accident on the highway. How can you be the first to market with your amazing new food truck concept?

In a recent conversation, I was consulted for advice on a particular IT product. The person asking knows me exceptionally well. they have spent most of their career inside large and very well-known corporations. They are a specialist in a highly complex set of international laws and regulations. Right answers and optimal strategies can mean millions in savings or penalties to their employers and clients. This is a person accustomed to being ordered to deliver Executive Summaries to C-level bosses.

I had done a bit of research on the IT products in question. A product I am very familiar with. I knew there were a handful of basic questions I could ask, that would quickly narrow the field of options. I also knew that future needs might change, and should be considered in making a choice now. So I prepared and made my response with a bit more than “Just the facts.”

In return, I was told (and in a very friendly and nice way) that I should have given a more brief “Executive Summary.” And so I asked:

How do you know if you know all you need to know to make your best decision?

How do you know what Iknow?

How do you know if something I am going to tell you might be the critical piece of information that would make the difference in your thinking, decision, and outcome?

Yes, I saiid, “time is money.” But, I added, “so too is information that makes a difference.”

Joe Friday only had 30 minutes to solve the case. Confining witness comments to the bare facts might have worked for him. But even when we are pressed for time, we should consider the source – and the odds that if we simply invite someone to inform us – we might Gregory Bateson’s well-known meaning of information – “a difference that makes a difference.”

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To B or not to B: Bullies, Beliefs, and the Fear of Different

What does it mean to be a “bully?” I have worked with a public high school, and a Federal agency on bullying issues. In the latter, we used the American Psychological Association “psychologically healthy workplace” framework and standards as a guide.

A bully is someone who doesn’t respect others. They don’t respect differences between them and others. They won’t suspend their judgment long enough to give any consideration, let alone respect, to the characteristics of others such as race, gender, or religion. They won’t give any consideration to what others may think about issues. They only want their own way. Their own beliefs. Their own values.

Yesterday, Chris Christie gave an interview at the large conservative CPAC gathering, at which he defended himself against the claims that he is a bully. He said, according to the article in the Times of Trenton, that his being called a bully “comes from the fact that he won’t mince words or back down” (the words of reporter Jonathan Salant).

Mr. Christie went on to say that “the word they miss is passionate. If you really care about something, you need to go all in.”

No. No, Mr. Christie. We can be passionate. We can be committed to our beliefs and values. But literally telling citizens who dare to disagree with you to “shut up and sit down” is not about the passion of anyone’s beliefs. It is about your lack of respect for the citizens you are supposed to serve. It is, sir, with all due respect for the commitment you have to your beliefs, about you being a bully.

Your explicit intransigence and unwillingness to respectfully analyze and consider facts and opinions of others may not be bullying. It may indeed reflect your commitment to your own values. Such intransigence will be welcomed by those who happen to agree with you. In my experience, it is not a positive quality in anyone seeking a leadership position, and having to deal with complex challenges where the “one right answer” is neither known nor knowable. Regardless of one’s passionate beliefs to the contrary.

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Into the NeXT: Steve Jobs, Joe Juran and Quality Improvement

A remarkable video of Steve Jobs, discussing the teachings of his quality improvement mentor, the well-known Joe Juran.

– this comes after Jobs’ initial success at Apple, as he tries (ultimately unsuccessfully) to market his NEXT computer brand.

– it is during the period when Japanese companies were dominating the global marketplace by using the methods of Total Quality Management to produce superior goods, services, and value.

– we see the confidence of the young Jobs, mixed with very personal details about how he thinks, and what he values.

– it is quite surprising that while Steve Jobs has learned much from Joe Juran, he has not so much as read or apparently investigated the ideas of the other towering figure of the Quality movement, W. Edwards Deming.

– Jobs notes that Juran’s methods and approach are at once very practical and process-focused (which Mr. Jobs says resonated strongly with his engineers and staff at NEXT), and yet, notes Juran’s emphasis on distributed responsibility for awareness and improvement. Jobs tells a compelling story of how Juran treats every person in an organization, and values every and any question. Compare this to Jobs’ own well-documented treatment of others as he advances in his own career.

In all… A MUST-SEE video, documenting a unique moment in Steve Jobs career and life.


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From Vulnerable to Courageous: A New Lens For Facing Uncertainty

A recent post by my friend Thaler Pekar, was her call for “an end to ‘vulnerability chic.'” In recent years, the work of researcher Brené Brown has brought a great deal of attention to the dynamics of vulnerability,,and related issues of shame and guilt. Brown’s book, and TED talk, have been enormously popular, with many millions of readers and viewers.

In my own responses to Thaler, I noted that while I understand what Brené means, and I agree with the need to be open to the ideas and emergent (even unwanted) possibilities life can bring, I wished Dr. Brown had used a word other than “vulnerability.”

Here is my response:

Bruce on vulnerability:

And so, vulnerability. While I understand and appreciate what Brene Brown has done in shedding light on this human condition, I personally wish she used a different word. To me, “vulnerability” suggests too much of the negative, too much of the narrative of fear in our lives. I agree that to relate and build trust and possibility, we must be “vulnerable.” But not necessarily weak, and not necessarily subjecting ourselves to shame, defeat, and suffering. To be vulnerable in its broadest sense (and to her credit, I do think Brené Brown does mean it this way) is to be open in the gestures of communication and relating that we make to others. It is a way of saying “I am not certain what this is, or how to respond.” It is a way of saying “I may not know, but perhaps you do. Perhaps we can do something about this together – even if it means abandoning my ideas in favor of yours (or someone else’s).

Personally, I talk and teach and write about the needs for knowledge and understanding that acknowledge, accept, and embrace the inherent ambiguity and complexity of being alive. We can choose to accept the challenges of living not through the primary lenses of vulnerability as fear, but through the lens of courageous explorer. The more we experience, learn, and understand, the better able we may become to respond in adaptive, even successful, ways in the moment. In my writing for the book I am doing with Denise Easton on disruptive experiences and response capacities, these issues and dynamics are central to our thinking. We often use the examples of certain athletes, like martial artists. One can never know everything; never know exactly what will come at you next. But you can be prepared to the best of your abilities. You can be confident both about what you know, and what you don’t know. You can be able to use what you know in ways that you never thought about before, to engage the surprising, and hopefully learn and survive even in the experience of failure.

And so…

How will you rewrite your own narrative, so that you can be simultaneously “vulnerable” and… A courageous explorer of the unknown future?

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Do You Listen To Your Food?

Do you listen to your food as it cooks? Your food talks to you as your baby does from across the room. “What?!” you say. Yes. When we pay attention, when we listen and observe over time, we learn and understand every signal, every nuance. The cry that is frustration is not the cry of pain. The bubbling that is just-right for your tender-crisp carrot is not the dry crackle of water gone to steam.

And.. if we can learn so much from listening to the home fries in the hot pan, or the pasta as it boils, how much more can we learn and understand if we pay attention to… each other?

Change. It’s natural.

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