Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Systems & Complexity

June 14 twitter Un-chat: Facilitating Scheduled Online Activities

On June 14, we will have the 4th BC Campus-hosted Online Community Enthusiasts’ Gathering. This is primarily a f2f event, but we will do more than tweet with the hashtag (this year it is #OCE2012) to hear from, and share with online community enthusiasts around the world.

This year’s theme is facilitating scheduled activities. Here is a link to more information.

This year we are organizing an Un-chat. Between 2 and 3 pm Pacific we will use this hashtag to pose approximately four questions. So far, it sounds like a regular twitter chat, right? But the questions will emerge through the event. The first question will have come up through an open space process in f2f event. Subsequent questions may come from the chat or backchannel online communication, or people in the room, or some synthesis of these sources.

There will be a prize going to the person who stirs up thinking most effectively from a distance (yes, it will be a subjective onsite decision!)

Please spread the word in your networks to people who play in these spaces and would like to learn with us.

Epistemological Integrity

Yes, it is a weighty title, but I have searched for a term for years, and this is the best I’ve come up with.

Most of us design learning opportunities. They might span an hour in a boardroom, months in a university environment, or years with children. Almost all workplace training I have seen for such design is rigid.  There are frameworks, models and steps one follows to be effective. We see this same rigidity in efforts to define information, knowledge and learning. We superimpose value judgements. Wisdom is better than knowledge. Knowledge is better than information. It is better to think critically than to memorize, and so on.

These conclusions are devoid of context. Personally, if I ever need CPR, I hope the first aid attendant has memorized the steps. If I ask advice about a complex challenge, I hope to hear questions rooted in wisdom.

Some of my work several years ago as a program director at Royal Roads University may be an example of epistemological integrity. As part of an MA degree, we offered back-to-back distance courses. One (which a lawyer taught) was about intellectual property (IP) and intellectual capital. The other (which I taught) was about communities of practice.

The designs–within this single degree program–were intentionally different because much of the thinking in those fields is very different. There were common threads, such as group conversations, assessment by learning outcome, and application of learning to workplace challenges. However, the IP course had a lot of relatively black and white factual material about things such as copyright law and trademarks. Assignments were tied to specific topics. The instructor—Dawn Wattie—often communicated correct answers to things based on legal precedents. Learning in this course involved building one’s knowledge base in specific fields.  The communities of practice had more of a constructivist bias. There was specific learning theory content in the first two weeks, but then it opened up dramatically. Learners chose their own learning outcomes, designed their own projects, chose individuals or groups with whom to work (or not) and worked in different platforms and venues. They spent a large part of the course experiencing a community of practice-like environment and making sense of the sorts of learning opportunities they could find or create there.

Formal learning institutions are under pressure to be efficient, accountable and to recruit and retain students for tuition revenue. And students are sometimes anxious about a lack of firm structure, especially if they came through highly structured educational processes in the past, or if they pay tuition by the term or year for however long it takes to graduate. Yes, the CPR course should be efficient. But don’t we need more people who can think in different ways and respect the value of different ways of knowing to tackle the complex challenges of our world?

Resisting pressure to fragment

Are you a systems thinker? Do you regularly encounter pressure to fragment? Do you get questions like “But what is your area of specialization?” Or comments like “But that project was never intended to include THAT.”  I do.

So–even though I rarely write blog posts–I started a new blog: http://www.IslandHealth.Info It’s explicitly about things like healthy food consumption; not about leadership and knowledge work. So I was amused today when I came across a blog post by one of my favourite social media connections: Luis Suarez (@elsua). In this post, he writes: “One of those folks I have been truly admiring for a long while is  JP Rangaswami a.k.a. @jobsworth”

Luis embeds a March 2012 TED salon presentation by JP Rangaswami in this post. It is well worth 8 minutes of your time if you care about work in a knowledge era and appreciate the power of metaphor. This TED talk explores the idea: “what would happen differently in your life if you saw information the way you saw food.” It left me both inspired, and feeling sheepish about my decision to publicly fragment spheres of thinking, which this authentic thinker has integrated so beautifully and provocatively.

What do you watch for?

In organizations, we strive for specificity and certainty. Set a goal, carve into objectives, document metrics, and watch for progress. We know what we find, but what do we miss?
Since moving to the country, I have adopted a different approach in my personal life (or perhaps I’m simply more aware of it now). For example, my economical three-cylinder Daihatsu flatbed stalled the other day and refused to restart. This happened at the end of a driveway with an ocean view. At first I was totally focused on the problem. Then I decided to ignore the truck (which I later realized was flooded), and watch the ocean. I thought “something interesting is bound to happen.” And within minutes, an otter climbed out of the water onto a protruding rock, groomed its fur, and slipped back into the ocean.
This morning, I set up chairs on the new boardwalk that surrounds our pond. I sat in each of them to see if I liked their orientation. Then I settled into one, thinking “I bet I will see something interesting.” This time, within seconds, a hummingbird came to the pond. In the winter “clean-up” we had missed a couple of cattails, and the hummingbird went straight to these raggedy tops. She probed them just as hummingbirds probe flowers, but she was gathering a huge beak-full of fluff for her nest.

So I thought back to work in organizations…what lessons are there? In all my years of work in the public sector, two people stood out as leaders who inspired me and supported me in doing my best. As I think back on it, they both had this “watch for interesting things” approach. Of course they had to work with business plans and the like, but they were extraordinary observers, listeners, and synthesists. They were not afraid to try the unexpected. They understood use of complexity theory in leadership without ever using those terms.
In your work as an organizational leader (formal or informal; internal or external), what do you watch for?

CoP & Projects: A Toxic mix?

I’ve been exchanging tweets with Matthew Loxton about whether communities of practice (CoP) and projects are a good fit. He’s sceptical; I suggested it can work, depending on context and on definitions of a project. I haven’t written specifically about this before, so thought it was worth sharing preliminary thoughts in a blog post.

First, I think Matthew is correct to be cautious for at least four reasons. 1) The fuel for CoP is passion for a topic, and sometimes the grunt work needed for projects can eat away at that all-important passion. 2) In my experience, many executives don’t know how to manage (or more appropriately, not manage) CoP.  So any activities that make the communities look like more familiar animals—such as project teams—can put the distinctive nature of these groups at risk.  3) As the flip side of the same coin, the community might begin to equate its work with deliverables rather than good communication, support, inspiration, learning and improved practice. 4) Project work could put a community into a form of direct competition with other workplace groups. This could be a lose/lose. Fabulous results could result in unproductive tensions; poor results could erode hard won support for the CoP.

When I commented on projects being potentially valuable, I realized I was drawing a fuzzy line between two types of communities of practice: intra- and inter-organizational. I’ve seen the latter have a whole lot more freedom, diversity, longevity and sometimes creativity. This isn’t always true, but the distinction is worth thinking about. Executives don’t quite know what to do with inter-organizational communities, if they even know about them. They clearly cannot control them. If they come to see value in these groups, they might treat their member employees as intriguing internal consultants on loan, capable of bringing project benefits back into the organization.

As examples of successful project work, consider early days of CompanyCommand, when the “failed” project of the good practice guide was replaced—again on a volunteer basis—with the launching and development of the community itself. For years it crossed organizations, but had enough momentum to continue as an intra-organizational community of company commanders (who were always the intended beneficiaries). Another example is Canada’s counter-terrorism network of communities—CRTI—about which I have written in the past. Community members came from many federal government departments as well as from a range of first responder organizations. Some of the project work was funded through a proposal process.

I also commented about the definitions of project work. We usually think of projects as intimately tied to organizational goals (and my comments above are in that context). However, I have seen communities of practice take on learning-related projects. CPsquare (I’m fortunate to have a great vantage point by being in the leadership group) does this quite regularly.

I welcome other perspectives on Matthew’s question.

What are we doing on twitter?

You have undoubtedly noticed the exponential growth of tips—on twitter, for example—about how to achieve things through social media. Often the desired result is simply more followers.  Some people want huge numbers of followers (see @jeffbullas for tips) where others such as John Tropea @johnt reduce the numbers of people they follow to avoid overload.

In the deluge of input we get through social media, I wonder how many people think about the implications of routes they choose. I’ve pulled two people out of my twittersphere simply because they come to mind as very different, despite their overlapping expertise.

Pete Cashmore (I usually think of him as @mashable) with over 2 million unique twitter followers, shares content about social media. He recommends people never talk about themselves in their tweets, usually walks the talk. Jean Russell (@nurturegirl) comes to mind as one of several active twitter users who rarely tweets in a totally impersonal way. I haven’t heard her advocate a whole-person approach to tweeting, but she models that practice. By the way, I’ve not met either Pete or Jean face-to-face.

I can’t help but reflect on these two common styles and how they fit into societal trends. We crave good information, sound bites and references to make us sound more credible (especially in win-lose environments). @mashable provides a gold mine of factoids and links, often based on analytical work. When I go to @mashable, it’s a bit like going to a lecture or encyclopedia. It feels mechanical and entity-oriented. I suspect he has a strong network for complicated problem-solving. I get no sense of Pete as a person. I get no feeling of relationship; in fact I envision a message to him slipping towards the bottom of a very large pile. I don’t feel that my critical thinking is challenged. I feel pulled into the illusion that everything has a “right answer.” I do feel better armed for conversations over coffee and reassured that I can catch up efficiently on important content by visiting his sites.

Sometimes Jean’s tweets have “no value” for me, yet they might lead me to picture her wrestling with ideas at her computer or walking on a sunny SF street. Difficult to pin an ROI on that, but she attends to relationship: the essence of complex systems. I suspect she has a strong network for complex problem-solving. Intentionally or not, she is working with very different ways of knowing, and different ways of using twitter as a tool or medium.

We often focus on what we want or need individually as a person with a social media account, reading the work from others’ accounts. How do we think about ways in which we are shaping societies through the choices we make?

Musings on Client Panelists in Problem-Based Learning

For over 12 years, I’ve been involved with problem-based learning processes in which mid-career professionals present their ideas to executive panels. The settings and my roles have varied, but there are common threads: intense learning environments; current, complex or wicked challenges (problems); and client panel members who drop into the situation without the lived experience of the days or weeks leading up to the team presentations.

As part of the learning process, I expose participants to a range of leadership constructs and models. In this post, I will use the term “complex” leadership as an umbrella term for a range of theories and models associated with complex, knowledge-intensive, unpredictable environments. And I will generalize the term “complicated” leadership as an umbrella for more familiar theories and models associated with more linear cause-and-effect relationships.

There is anecdotal evidence that participants know they are working with complexity, yet struggle with how to distil their work into “presentations” coherent with complexity thinking. Some present linear, sequential, recommendations in traditional formats. Others present in ways rarely if ever seen in boardrooms, with or without conscious thought about complexity.

Almost since my first engagement with this approach, I’ve felt that work with the panel may be the weak link. In this post, I muse about one layer of these concerns. This may be a very early pre-publication draft about this sort of learning design.

When participants use non-traditional media such as storytelling or theatre depicting a different future, panel members often speak to the emotional impact such “presentations” have had. They rarely offer critique on presentation methods; their comments are about impact and content.

When participants use more traditional media, panel members often critique style, usually with comments about being more specific, detailed, emphatic, structured, and so on. As one example, when a team presented rationale and ideas for an unusual, multi-sector research and education centre (which would require considerable dialogue with potential partners and publics), a panellist asked about construction costs and phasing. As another example, a resource person (who worked with a panel member) stated there hadn’t been anything concrete in the presentations (whereas presenters believed they had included many concrete details).

So, what is at play here? Let me preface this hypothesis by saying that many executives with whom I have worked are skilled complexity thinkers. The nature of their positions requires them to work across boundaries with incomplete data. Yet many work in rigid structures with tools and measures rooted in the Industrial Era.

When panel members come into a seemingly familiar situation (which they might frame as being briefed) perhaps some default to a set of expectations not well suited to a complex problem. They may not have examined their biases. They may not have thought about how leadership and management differ, or how leadership can take dramatically different forms in different domains (as articulated by Snowden and Boone). They may come in thinking as supervisors more than clients or as mentors more than as peers-for-the-moment struggling with an intractable challenge. They may not have time to reflect beyond the emotional impact of non-traditional, and use media such as storytelling as springboards for new ideas.

In a very practical sense, what does this mean for use of a problem-based learning process for actual, current challenges? In some settings, its use has been pulled back (perhaps because questions of panel readiness weren’t studied and addressed). In others, panel members are now better briefed than they once were about the participant experience and what to expect. But I do not know of examples of client panellists being briefed on content from the learning experience (such as complexity theory or complex leadership or different forms of knowledge and limitations of scientific knowledge). Would such advance briefing be helpful? If so, how might it best be presented in ways that ease executives into seeing non-traditional work in enriched ways? What if some panellists are locked into industrial model thinking and tools? Could such preparation be counter-productive?

In “The Death of the Expert,” Richardson and Tait describe the role of the neo-expert in a way that rings true for me in this form of problem-based learning. “Modernist experts do our thinking for us, whereas neo-experts help us think for ourselves… Whereas modernist experts attempt to replicate successful patterns, neo-experts attempt to create new successful patterns (or behaviors) for each intervention” (2010 p.36)

I welcome insights with others who ponder similar challenges or can share related learning experiences.