Archeologist Joseph Tainter told us over 20 years ago that increasing complexity has historically led to the downfall of civilizations. That unpleasant destiny seems to be looming on the horizon. But in every field of human endeavor, there are also encouraging signs of a different path rising up to meet us. That path requires moving beyond simple, black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking. And this is a bigger challenge than it may seem.
It was a year ago, during a week-long island retreat, that I strongly felt the connection between ritual and reverence and the vital need for both in every context of our lives. For over a decade, my work has been driven by the belief that if we are to be wise and capable stewards of life on Earth we must feel reverence for it. Without reverence for life, we lack the vision and motivation to do all of what is needed. Without reverence, we aren’t fully nourished. We aren’t fully alive. On the island, I came to understand more clearly that our reverence takes root and blossoms into action through thoughtful moments of cultivation. In other words, through ritual. By ritual, I mean moments of noticing and savoring our gratitude and wonder.
Nothing is worth more than this day. So says the wall in front of me. Years ago, I posted those words as a constant reminder to myself. But, of course, at some point, they fade into the background, unnoticed. Today, I felt drawn to reflect on them again.
This day. Another precious day of life. As one eminent philosopher says, “Every day above ground is a great day.” (OK, it’s actually from a song by Pitbull. But it’s still a great line.)
How will I spend this precious day?
Three suitcases. Two stuffed animals. A bag full of typically Canadian gifts. And we were off!
This is a story in two parts: the first a few years ago involving a beautiful client organization; the second yesterday involving a convicted felon (also beautiful, it turns out); both related to the concept of “serving life.” It’s a story of the surprising depth of meaning and possibility that has unfolded for me within that phrase.
What if companies had mission questions instead of mission statements? How much more engaging and inviting would this be than the typical bland pronouncements about “being number one” or “being the best”? Why do you want to be number one? What learning, discoveries and milestones – what unfolding story – is to be found on that path? What are you all wildly curious about? What compels you to come together in this work because you can’t gain enough insight into the story alone?
I’m at the end of three head-spinningly rich days with Peter Pula, the founder and CEO of Axiom News. We’ve been exploring what he and his team mean by “generative journalism” and what more it might come to mean. The gist of our discussion has been that there’s tremendous power in aligning their work with the core characteristics of living systems. (After all, only life can truly be generative.) It’s exciting stuff that seems likely to have broad relevance, not least of all for media organizations trying to figure out the future of journalism – but, really, for any leader hoping to catalyze greater capability across a community.
I’ve just had a remarkable experience. For the first time, I presented at a business conference where all the other speakers were saying nearly the same thing that I was. Each in our own way, we all spoke of living systems principles in organizations – things like self-organization, emergence, resilience and wise stewardship. And the audience couldn’t get enough of it, easily embracing things that others find challenging. What was most remarkable was that it was a gathering of software developers. We were at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center - the NERD Center. And my every assumption about techie nerds was shattered.
June 2, 2014
On Wasan Island, a few days into a week-long exploration of the Soul of Place. Already so full of richness... trust and connection.... heightened awareness of what’s possible and what’s really needed - for each of us, in our work, in the world.
"Placemaking" was the official topic of the week-long retreat that has just come to a gentle close. But the phrase has never felt quite right. Volker Hann, the host of 5-acre Wasan Island where we gathered, hinted at the inadequacy of the term: "Am I a placemaker? Or am I placemade?"
Sitting on a rock one morning as we gathered around to hear her story, Vanessa Reid talked about cultivating "homefulness." That feels more accurate to what we explored and experienced during our time together on the island.
[This is part of a series of harvests from the Thrivable World Quest, a learning adventure across multiple cities to explore how organizations must be if life is to thrive.]
In our most recent exploration of what makes an organization “thrivable,” we looked at the personal meaning people find in their work and in their workplaces: Where do we find it? How do we create it? Here’s some of the treasure we discovered along the way. It offers valuable clues for leaders – but most of all for each of us – as we strive to make our work rich with meaning.
I spent a nourishing day recently learning about social labs – an extended process to solve complex challenges by gathering diverse stakeholders in an alternating rhythm of meetings and on-the-ground prototyping. In one example, a lab to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources brings together utility companies, alternative energy providers, regulatory bodies and end-users.
For the past two days, 12 of us gathered in Montreal to explore what happens when the spirit and practice of thrivability meet the world of impact investing. The group consisted of local business leaders committed to the practice of thrivability; impact investors in search of what else is possible "outside the lines"; and thoughtful explorers and supporters of the emergent future. Our goal was less to provide definitive answers and more to get something started - to begin to identify key questions for a more extensive exploration.
Two definitions of thrivability were offered lightly and seemed to provide helpful framing:
* "Thrivability is the intention and practice of aligning organizations with how living systems thrive and how people thrive."
[This is part of a series of harvests from the Thrivable World Quest, a learning adventure across multiple cities to explore how organizations must be if humanity is to survive - and thrive.]
On the first “island” of the Thrivable World Quest, we explored the need for Heroic Cause in organizations. And one of the things we discovered is that what’s needed is something that feels quite a lot like a Quest – a little boldness, a lot of determination, a sense of adventure, and a band of people who are resolved to defy the status quo and to overcome the challenges they face, against all odds.
[This is part of a series of harvests from the Thrivable World Quest - a learning adventure across multiple cities to explore how organizations must be if humanity is to survive - and thrive.]
Every time I speak to an MBA class about thrivability (as I did recently), it’s only a matter of time before someone asks: how do you measure it? For some reason, it’s only MBAs who ask this.
Stepping out of the train station in the center of Amsterdam, I was immediately struck by the way the city flows. “It’s orderly... but organic,” was the thought that came to mind. There are three times as many bicycles on the road as cars (three times!), and even more pedestrians. Then there are the busses and the electric trams. Every centimetre of the city seems to be a swirl of constant motion. And yet, in the week that I was there, I saw not a single traffic light or stop sign (nor a helmet, in fact, even on children). It should have been rampant chaos, but instead it was a beautiful, self-organizing dance.
Surely, there are lessons here for organizations and for the thrivability movement, I thought. And there were.
Have you ever invited friends from different parts of your life to a dinner party, and then wondered how they’re going to get along? That’s a little what my situation feels like. The “friends” are the Art of Hosting and Applied Improvisation – two global tribes and powerful approaches to facilitation. In fact, these two worlds overlap so significantly that it’s impossible to draw a clean line between them. And yet, they feel dramatically different from each other. To be honest, that confuses me.
I heard a beautiful story recently - a true story set at the height of World War II during the devastating Siege of Leningrad, when the Germans blockaded and bombed the city for over two years. The story centers on the famed Hermitage Museum. To protect the museum’s vast collection of paintings, the curators and docents took them all down from the walls. But as a sign of their commitment to bring the paintings back, they left the frames in place. During the siege, many of the staff lived in the museum’s basement. And astonishingly, at least one continued to give tours to occasional visitors. He would stand with people in front of the empty frames, describing the missing artwork in such vivid detail that it was as if the paintings were still in place.
[I spoke last week at Webcom, a Montreal-based conference about "smart cities" - meaning, those that are connected, informed and creative thanks to digital technology. The message I shared was that cities are "smartest" when they operate in alignment with Nature's core operating pattern, and that creating the conditions for life to thrive needs to become the explicit objective of our technology initiatives. Here's what I said in my five-minute talk.]
To me, a smart city is most of all a living, thriving city. Nature has the ultimate intelligence. So the more we can align our cities with how Nature operates, the smarter our cities will be - the more resilient, and adaptive and creative they’ll be.