In Our Work with Groups

You and the Collective

Just out on another day of hosting a group of people doing their business in collaboration.

When things go well, ego invites to the dream that it was all about how wonderful my work is and how great I was today, but time had shown that it’s not about me at all. People are just good at doing this.

At the same time, our work hosting groups is essential as an instrument to sustain the experience of collaboration and not let the conversation fall into the same old patterns usually in place. Those learned patterns are revisited so many times that it’s like falling into an old habit.

On the other hand, when things go a bit sour, we can again choose the path of taking it on our incompetence or inability – much of the same “it’s all about me” behaviour – or even just blame an external source of disaster and become the poor victim of it all.

Either way, both carry the assumption of conversations being mere cause and effect events that can be simplified by finding something or someone to blame and, of course, to fix it.

It’s never about us and also we play an essential role in it.

We are both insignificant to what will unfold and at the same time essential as we create context and container for it.

Context, Container and Content

In this work we listen and act understanding and choosing the conditions needed and then paying attention when things are unfolding.

Those can be expressed in 3 Cs: Container, Context and Content.

Before we even meet the group as a whole, we are up and running to create context and container for the conversation, usually with a great deal of previous work, some interviews to adquire language, a good choice of space and structure, etc.

Here, though the energy is diluted, is where 80% of the amount of work is done. Context and container will do some of the important work later on.

And finally when we meet, it is time for the art of being present and some deep listening to be aware of shifts in context and the emergence of content – being those feelings, actions or concepts.

This is energy intensive but less quantitative work. One does not see much being done as the job is really to just stand there paying attention.


Read More

  • Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter – Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff – e-book at Amazon
  • The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter – Juanita Brown, David Isaacs and the World Cafe Community – e-book at Amazon
by lugar a dudas cali @ flickr

The Power of The Collaboratory

When we look at what is happening at the world, complexity seems to be climbing the mountain. I wouldn’t say there are more complex problems, but perhaps more capacity in our society to acknowledge issues that are complex. This comes at a time when it’s visible that some problems impact our lives and won’t go away with a ‘quick fix’ approach.


To explore those issues and find new ways to interact among ourselves and with the world, we as society are in need of bringing a great deal of perceptions together. The act of creating spaces and opportunities for people to learn and act together is growing, and this is what is shown in the book I was recently reading: The Collaboratory.


The Collaboratory book cover

The book cover

The Collaboratory is an idea born from a vision for the future of management education, but one that reflects the moments of change in society as a whole. The capacity to co-create and collaborate are being experienced as the way to positively move forwards in acting change. The book draws his name from the initiative and finds many others sharing its principles.


It comes to consolidate the practice of stakeholder collaboration for change at a time when methodologies and processes for stakeholder engagement are more structured and widespread and many practitioners are reflecting and acting to create spaces to tackle complex issues in both organisations and society.


In the book I found stories of how initiatives are evolving around the world, together with different dimensions for collaboration and examples of spaces and processes that bring up societal change. I found old colleagues and teachers among the writers but also new colleagues and unheard initiatives. And I’m sure it is still a small collection, there is more out there worth another half dozen books.


In four different parts, the book encompasses a variety of authors coming from realms like the Society of Organisational Learning, a Swiss-based non-profit and the movement 50+20, initiative which inspired the name of the book.


Authors show their initiatives and insights on how to identify, invite, design and host a journey of collaboration to solve wicked problems. The book, rather than a collection of articles, is very well framed and feels like a co-created exploration of people working directly to re-shape change-making processes towards journeys of collaboration.


Called a DesignShop, SocialLab, Transformative Scenario Planning and working based on processes from Appreciative Inquiry, the Art of Hosting and Theory U, many authors share premises like:


  • the idea of a transformative journey that brings up the new by cooperation and tending to processes rather than competition and crafting products;
  • the importance of facilitating collaborative space that looks more like an engaging journey than a decision-making event;
  • it is about methods and patterns of creating space and inviting people into hands-on collaborative change;
  • there are requirements and conditions that make collaboratories work, based on practical experimentation, but no checklist to success;
  • gatherings work with emergent solutions from people engaged in the topic at hand rather than hoping to solve problems bringing in expert solutions;
  • transformation comes from prototyping solutions rather than pure analysis and brainstorming sessions.


The last parts of the book show examples of collaboratories around the world and applied to many sectors of society followed by an exploration on how to design a collaboratory and what changes in the role of a group facilitator to hold such a space.


The book is available through Greenleaf Publishing. More information at the book website.


Dialogue Trigger

Love comes when manipulation stops; when you think more about the other person than about his or her reactions to you. When you dare to reveal yourself fully. When you dare to be vulnerable.
Joyce Brothers

Nothing like finding a group where basic common ground emerges – interdependency is an open door for dialogue to happen. It moves us into recognizing the importance of the other and to allow space for a meeting of minds and hearts.

There are many different contexts and spaces where I saw dialogue emerging, many in unexpected ways and going to deeper and unknown directions. Trying to analyze which are the patterns that allow dialogue is tricky, pinpoint a list of “what to do” seems to be unproductive.

Undoubtedly some conditions help to make it happen: one could be to provide a space that is considered safe and where the environment is perceived as nurturing. Another, to invite people to speak from their experience rather than make general or theoretical statements. And so on – as conditions are helpful, nothing can guarantee openness to dialogue.

Yet it has been my experience that a great invitation to dialogue comes when someone in the circle opens up, show vulnerability. It’s not only a matter of relating a personal experience, it goes beyond, immediately lowering the weapons in the room, a sign of trust and a request for care.

Silence and possibility emerge from this moment. It is like sailing at the border of uncharted waters, reminding us why we wanted to become sailors in the first place – to be at this exact moment.

I have heard that the samurai would only lower his sword when entering a tea house. It was a sacred space, a time for peace and ceremony. Dialogue spaces are like tea houses – can be inviting us to lower our internal weapons and to be with others in ceremony.

To be vulnerable is to step into an unknown soil, one that is fertile for new discoveries. The journey to other lands can be done alone, but the only way we can truly see ourselves is through the eyes of others. To be vulnerable is to be vulnerable in relationship.

Showing our vulnerability in the presence of others is what makes common ground and openness to dialogical relationships, the coming together into inner sacred grounds.

There is no magic and no formula. It starts with the wise and vulnerable. It starts with me and you stepping in.

by katerha

On the Fundamental Changes

On the fundamental changes that can be done in our societal systems, the major influence will never be a contribution from inside the systems themselves. We’ve already explored how to identify cracks in the system so we can give energy to its spread.

Those cracks are the different ways we listen from inside the system and the new language that is created to run parallel with the current story being told.

The act of listening is a purposeful one.

The act of listening is a trigger to a remix of our conversations adapting to changes of what we perceive it’s happening outside of our window. To listen better, we need to step out of our daily firefighting and either invite the outsider in or go out to talk to them.

It is the conversations that we either choose to have or ignore that transform possibilities into stories, that shape a specific language to reduce the enormous complexity of human relations.

It is a gift to be able to simplify and move forward, but from time to time we have to sit with the complex to hear the story we have chosen, to incorporate the stories we decided to ignore, to invite back the possibilities we’ve once had and to see the emerging of new ones.

Re-spice your world.

Our way as humans to move forward with our interpretations, to grow in our understanding, is to have those moments of stillness to re-spice our world with possibilities.

Looking to my screen it’s exactly what I see – one of the possibilities of telling a story about the need for multiplicity of stories. That choice informs where my energy goes, whether it’s about a company re-considering its main story or a small act to invite people to talk about the country’s future on the streets.




On the latter, later today I will join a group of people to see how the manifestations in my country can be at service to the sharing of stories we all carry about our future. It is the practical side of re-writing the systems from society in conversation at a public place. Sounds exciting. 😉   It was exciting! 🙂

Check what came up reading my article on OpenDemocracy: Manifesting a Second-Order Revolution in Brazil


Dialogue Manifestations are now on!

Dialogue Manifestations are now on!


The Stories We Tell

Our Point of View Changes Everything

I can clearly recall a phrase that I’ve heard years ago in Porto Alegre, city of the World Social Forum. It was in Portuguese by Leonardo Boff and translates as something like:

A point of view is only a view from a point.

Different points of view are abundant in this world. Many of these points of view are shared in order to help us live together in community: they are raw material to what we call culture.

There are also times were a collective point of view ceases to be at service to our society and becomes the opposite, it becomes something that locks us into a narrow view of the world.

Reminds me of a great question that I’ve learned from Sandra Janoff e Marvin Weisbord (originally from Russell Ackoff Gregory Bateson) that helps me when looking at how we differentiate things:

Which are the differences that make a difference?

Differences that make a difference are the ones rich in diversity, differences that create unity by understanding and acknowledging what is different and allowing separation. Differences that don’t make a difference are only stereotypes. That also implies that when we “make a difference”, we are performing a contextual action.

I have seen that much of the work of a person who invites for learning is to pay attention to the context and ask this question of “which differences…” to himself.

Since my old friend Marge Schiller shared with me the video below, I’ve been using it when talking about conversational leadership and dialogic relations.

As learning hosts we can create and invite spaces where stereotypes, a result from us listening to the same old standard story, can be brought to perspective and new stories can be created. In the end, our collective is all about the stories we tell.

by jonycunha

Bummer, We Can’t Change Society After All

We can only reflect and act on communications that are already part of our system. It’s important to reflect on how dis-empowering that is. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change a system I’m already part of. Period.

As I’ve been exploring what this could mean in terms of creating and hosting spaces of learning and systems design, it might not be clear the possible alternatives into changing systems. So here we go.

There is No Changing Society

According to this view, it is indeed not possible for members of society to change society. Because of us being communicators born and made within society, no one has the privilege to oversee our whole societal system. This can’t be done neither practically nor theoretically, as both are, in this case, communications all the same.

It is the end of saving-the-world type of activism. Society will only change as we adapt to changes from the environment. Environment being everything we don’t talk about and therefore don’t see, don’t acknowledge in our daily conversations.

Contributions for Real Change

On the other hand, there is a lot for us to do in influencing the classical sub-systems of society. Sub-systems are systems within society such as the economy, schooling, healthcare, etc.

Society as System

Society and Some of Its Subsystems

But what exactly can we do if we are part of the sub-systems of society as well?

Not much from within the system itself: economists won’t do anything but react and refract what happens outside the economic system, translating the environmental change in economic language and adapting accordingly.

The same is true for other sub-systems, frequently represented by institutions like business organizations, hospitals, schools, governments, NGOs, international bodies, etc.

They all speak their own language and re-structure their conversations based on outside perturbations. If the environment does not change — or change is not perceived by the system — nothing happens.

Different Words Create Different Worlds

I believe that possibilities of change come from stepping out of the sub-system you find yourself into. This does not mean creating an alternative sub-system or institution like alternative schooling or alternative healthcare. It means to create a space that is clearly de-institutionalized.

In order to avoid the alternative institution, one hint is to invite conversations where people are not in the same sub-system of society. The remix and re-creation of systems come from a dialogue between different worlds, not necessarily too different, just different enough.

The remix of language that comes from this dialogue is the true spark of creativity that can change things. To see the new language in action we need to host spaces where different worlds can come together to learn/re-create.

by Fábio Pinheiro

Social Systems and System Complexity

In my last article there was an exploration about complexity and the use of language. Patterns, not the number of actual connections between elements, were indicating system complexity.

Patterns are Structures in Systems

Structures in this case does not mean pre-defined forms that “structure” systems but rather the pool of possibilities of action of a system that itself can recognize. A system has (or recognizes) only a limited amount of possibilities in order to reduce complexity in its operation.

In any system the identification of patterns are really useful to describe them objectively and systematically. This act of describing is slightly different in social systems because they are based on meaning. Describing in social systems is an act of giving meaning, an act of re-creation of the system itself.

This recursive description/re-creation shows that identification of patterns or structures in social systems are acts of re-creation of the system and not objective selections. It also shows that although social systems depend on structures to reduce complexity, they can’t be truthfully described in advance by those structures/patterns.

Recursiveness of Meaning Generation

In common with natural systems, social systems would also contain a selection of element relations to reduce complexity. Language, for example, has a structure of meaning making and without it we couldn’t coordinate understandings and actions.

The act of description of a social system is also the act of its re-creation.

It is the recursiveness of meaning generation in social systems that indicates a difference from natural systems. Here the communications that are elements of meaning in social systems are not restricted by patterns identified in advance, but patterns can be re-created as we communicate.

A very simple description of social matters can embed high complexity and still be presenting its full meaning (as opposed to a simplified explanation of a natural phenomena, for example). An easy process of deciding between two places to go on holidays can be easily described, but may not be a simple scientific task.

Social Systems and System Complexity

Social systems hold a paradox — it contains a structure in form of meaning patterns so complexity can be reduced and allow a more reasonable predicability in social interaction. On the other hand, the selection of structures makes the description and re-creation of meaning a more complex task.

The reduction of complexity of the system immediately generates higher system complexity. Communications and meaning, when restricted to identified patterns, allow us to visualize and predict, but it also increases complexity and unpredictability because it represents a chosen fraction of the whole system.

The paradox can be juggled with, of course. As we need both the predicability and the re-creation of meaning, there is space for both structured and poetic communications. It is our job to sense when those conversations are needed and to host spaces for them.

by michael.heiss

Language and System Complexity

Reading about language, dialogue and complex systems used to be paralell readings with some things in common. Today, language and complexity seem to clearly show their interdependency as we have been exploring social systems as meaning systems based on communications.

System Complexity and Language

This connection reminded me of Murray Gell-Mann’s definition of complexity and it’s connection to language. In his book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, Gell-Mann correlates complexity with the extension of our language description of its identity and relations.

Scenarios for Complexity

Scenarios to explore Complexity

The picture is an example inspired by the book. Uses dots and connections between them to explore the concept of complexity. Scenario A is a simple one to describe compared to Scenario B – let’s say: A shows dots 1 to 5, no connections between them. How would you describe Scenario B? Certainly identifying the connection between dots and describing it.

What is interesting on Gell-Mann’s approach is that Scenario C, which apparently would induce us to think it’s a complex one, actually could be described much like A: C show dots 1 to 5, all connected to all.

Scenario C then shows the same complexity as Scenario A. The first show randomness (all connected), the other absolute control (no connections).

The description of B, on the other hand, requires more words and would be therefore more complex.

This structure of dots and connections representing elements and its relations is a theory of system complexity, a theory that intuitively describes the complexity of the natural world: patterns between elements are responsible for complexity (certain organelles only connect to certain parts of the organism).

Patterns, not the quantity of relations, indicate complexity.

Would that be true for social systems as well?

If we consider humans as the elements constituting society and communications as relations between them, we would get by analogy that a more complex social system is the one that communications are restricted to identified patterns.

In the next article I’ll explore why this system complexity as a theory might not be suitable to represent social systems.

Read More

  • The Simple and the Complex: The Science of Complexity – Transcription of interview with Murray Gell-Mann
from ethanmcgrath.blogspot

On Diversity, Resilience and the Growth of Anxiety

Society can become more resilient from environmental changes if its elements can respond better to its perturbations. The ability to listen to those changes increase if there is a more diverse group of listeners and more active subsystems in society.

This diversity implies a more responsive and therefore more resilient society.

Diversity is often used as a way to differentiate elements of a system by identifying (naming) a contrast. Contrasts are born as a result of agreements in how we make this differentiation and they are recognized as truth (or wise) when they bring light into a “difference that makes a difference”.

”Wisdom is the sense of fitness of things. It’s how they fit together nicely at this time and context.” In conversation with David Reis in Sweden

People being able to reach new agreements and name different contrasts are the basis of diversity in communication.

But diversity is not only here in the sense of having a number of different elements. It is also how society communicates the events it produces or its interpretations of environmental changes. Diversity relates to the choices of differences we choose to pay attention to, but more importantly it relates to the possibilities of multiple differentiations of the same event.

The increase of diversity also increases the level of complexity in a system. Exploring social systems as systems of meaning, diversity is in communications rather than related to characteristics of elements. A more diverse social society contains multiple stories and multiple languages being expressed simultaneously.

Limiting Diversity, Anxiety Reduction and Trust

From the perspective of the system, it is not clear if diversity and complexity are limited to the point of ‘workable’ complexity or if people are only able to identify differences until a certain extent.

For the individual, higher complexity implies dealing with more uncertainty and is an invitation for anxiety.

Higher diversity is suppressed, both by individuals and society, in order to reduce anxiety, to reduce complexity at human workable levels. So it is not correct to say that the growth of diversity is always desirable, but it is clear that lack of diversity transforms both living and meaning systems in more fragile ones.

Trust and faith may be the elements used to sit with complexity, including coping with certain anxiety, in a way that diversity is not overly suppressed. Both are, in a way, securing a more positive prediction of the future.

In Hosting Learning, we should allow spaces where trust can be built and where anxiety can sit in the room.

Elsewhere in the Blogosphere about Diversity and Resilience

  • Is diversity the key to resilience in complex social-ecological systems? by Ben Ramalingam commenting on the book Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future
  • Social Innovation, and the Challenge of Diversity by Nathan Ball
by Jason A. Samfield

Coalitions and Change in our Systems

Last weekend a group gathered in the south of Sweden to explore society as a system and how we can make coalitions to scale up our work towards supporting it to thrive.

Here are some of my explorations based on the group’s reflections. Quotes are based on direct contributions from participants.

How do we change our Systems?

Explorations went around both changes perceived to come from outside and inside the systems we are in.

We have heard stories about changes in the system coming from stronger environmental changes or constraints that invited the system to adapt (example of How Cuba Survived Peak Oil).

We also explored the role of listening with attention from within so we can identify the cracks in the system that might lead to change. The cracks would be the people and places where we invest our energy.

What are the coalitions we have to make to change our systems?

Who should be with us? How can we identify them? We explored the difference between inviting people who are ready instead of the process of identifying people.

Focusing on listening and supporting people with similar frequencies would empower the creation of “multiple alternatives to allow transition to the new”.

The invitation to others is to stand with us in coalition in a place of “turbulence at the edge of the unknown”. The question then became “How do we invite people to come along in an uncertain journey?” and also “What do we need to cope with uncertainty ourselves?”.

What are the signs that I smell in the system that make me stay?

We also explored the question of the decision of staying within the system or leaving. When is it better to stay and how does that reflect in personal sacrifice and compromise? When is it better to walk away and focus our energy in another place? What is it that I identify in a system that makes me stay?

On the last question:

  • I stay in the system when my inputs are valid and when there is a sense of movement and openness to explore;
  • When my personal goal has a place in the organisational goal;
  • When there are strong relationships;
  • When there is sense of being at service, of making ‘essential’ contributions to the whole.

Turbulence at the Edge of the Unknown

At this time, these are the points for reflection in how we create spaces for coalitions to emerge and how we scale up our work towards a more thriving society:

  1. Listen and resonate with the environment so we can find and create cracks in systems;
  2. Naming alternatives to allow the creation of meaningful new paths;
  3. Focus in doing what we are doing and nothing else – Pay Attention;
  4. Support similar frequencies in the system – put energy in what you want to see growing;
  5. Make an invitation to whoever is ready and host the space no matter how many people come.