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.
It’s funny how life works – or I should say: it’s funny how death works. I had a conversation about organizational hospicing with a friend last week Thursday and then the next day I was presented with an opportunity to practice hospicing in my own life. My sense in both of these experiences is that there’s something important, potent - and generally overlooked - in that concept.
5 hosts. 6 teams. 35 other cities participating. 48 hours to “rock the public sector.”
Those were the key stats of GovJam Montreal, a global event in which local teams applied the tools of “service design” to conceive and develop viable projects that transform some aspect of public service (meaning: anything that our tax dollars pay for).
In January this year, over 100 people gathered in Montreal for three days to learn and practice The Art of Hosting – a globally applied philosophy and set of methodologies to support “meaningful conversations about things that matter and that lead to lasting change.”
The first afternoon of our three days together revolved around the question: “What are the possibilities and opportunities at this moment in Quebec?” The question was particularly potent, coming on the heels of Montreal’s "Maple Spring" and landing amid a sense of transformation in nearly every facet of Quebec society.
I was the “closer” – the final speaker for the three-day Canadian national conference of over 100 Salvation Army Thrift Stores. Technically, I was supposed to inspire them. But it felt like the inspiration was all mine. What a hidden gem I found in those people, in their passion, and – most of all – in their business model. And the question I left with was: Why hasn’t the world of social enterprise noticed what a shining example they are?
[This is my harvest from a conversation I co-facilitated recently at the annual conference of the Association of Archaeologists of Quebec. I find the topic important enough to share here, with permission from the conference organizers.]
I had a wonderfully stimulating lunch conversation with new acquaintance Lise Palmer of Spark Consulting recently. She had the delightful ability to challenge everything I’m passionate about in a light, playful way so that we could both happily learn through the discussion. Specifically, she was (and generally remains) skeptical about "the universal applicability of the living systems view of organizations." I've shared her three major objections below, along with my responses. There's more learning to be had, for sure, but I enjoyed the opportunity to articulate my current take on things.
For the three-day Art of Hosting gathering in January, several of us on the local organizing team offered to steward the “harvest.” In other words, our task was to support, document and share tangible outcomes. As Chris Corrigan likes to point out, “you’re not planning a meeting; you’re planning a harvest.”
My eight-year-old son’s hockey team is in the playoffs. Watching from the stands, I’ve been amazed at how focused he remains even as two other players bash into him from either side. How he never gives up. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what my “warrior” side looks and feels like, so I asked him: “What’s that like? What’s going through your mind? Are you thinking about those other two guys? Are you telling yourself that you’re not going to let them get the puck, no matter how hard they try?” “Nah,” he said lightly. “It’s just between me and the goalie.”
And there it is.
I might just post that on the wall opposite my desk.
“You can’t plant a forest,” a friend said to me recently. He was speaking in general terms, saying: it's a physical impossibility. After mentally wrestling with the concept for a moment, the phrase struck me with its deep, practical wisdom – and its vital implications for organizational leaders.
But wait, you might be saying. What about the story that’s been going around about the guy who single-handedly planted a 1,360 acre forest in India?
Well, as much as it’s a truly heart-warming story, the way it’s presented has important inaccuracies.
Thrivability Montreal. Thursday, February 21, 2013. There are fifty of us gathered to explore what we’ve called The Power of Place. More wanted to come, but the room couldn’t accommodate it. We should’ve known it would be like this. So many of us quietly hunger for something more than the anonymous, transactional relationships that make up our public lives. We crave a sense of belonging and community, of rich expression and appreciation. Just as much, we yearn to feel connection with the places we inhabit, to know that they shape us even as we shape them and that there is history, character and life woven into them. We want to feel lovingly held by people and place.
I have a very close friend who’s a professional CEO. He’s run several companies. That’s his thing. He doesn’t (yet) buy into thrivability because he’s not convinced that it’s a direct path to success – in fact, he thinks it’s likely to be a distraction. And this has bugged me for a long time. I’ve made some tactical suggestions to him in the past, and they’ve been mildly helpful, but my sense was that this wasn’t all that thrivability has to offer him. And I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what else there was for him. I’ve written and spoken about thrivability for years and still feel like I’m searching for a visceral, human way to explain it.
So here it is, just about as visceral and human as it gets.
Thrivability is a worldview, a global movement, and an active practice. Guided by what we know about living systems, it is a continual and purposeful drive to create the fertile conditions for life to thrive at the levels of the individual, the organization, the community and the biosphere. Profoundly practical, it is distinguished by a deep understanding of how life works - and by intentional participation in that pattern. The thrivability movement recognizes that only by aligning with life in the spirit of learning, compassion, contribution and play can we find the motivation and the means to collaborate and innovate at the levels required.
My passion these days (these years, in fact) is a project called The Solarium. It will be a physical space - a hotbed of social innovation housing, nurturing and connecting the growing number of organizations committed to practicing thrivability (in which organizations are intentionally designed and stewarded as “a space for life”). To quote the Art of Hosting community, it will regularly convene “conversations about things that matter and that lead to lasting change.” And it will be a “Living Building,” regenerative and nourishing in its operations and its design.
This is a difficult confession to make. Maybe even unwise. But here goes.
For years, when I found myself stuck in a crowded place – the metro, a waiting area – I would unconsciously scan the faces of the strangers around me and make quick judgments, like checkmarks on a form: “Not attractive... not attractive... a little attractive... not attractive...” It was a sterile assessment of the symmetry of the features, of the line of the nose, of the style of the hair. I guess airbrushed magazine covers were the standard of comparison, because it was rare that I judged someone truly attractive. And I’m sure the game was connected with my own preoccupation and insecurities with my appearance.
This Art of Hosting stuff – it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, you know. There are bumps and bruises along the way. Some they tell you about up-front. But some they don’t.