Archive for category Participatory Leadership

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It and We Don’t Feel Fine

The world’s coming to an end.  

Don’t believe me?  Look at our current popular culture.  In a myriad of ways the world is ending – alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, diseases, natural disasters, ancient prophecies coming true – at least according to our popular culture.  The TV series Supernatural had the good old fashioned apocalypse with Lucifer and Demons and the gates of hell and angels and celestial battles.  Buffy the Vampire slayer prevented the end of the world at least 8 times.  Angel, literally, ended its run with all hell breaking loose.  In some of these stories, the end is narrowly averted, in others it is narrowly survived; the absurd movie 2012 showed characters who managed against all odds to survive, while The Day After Tomorrow featured a similar end of the world scenario with equally improbable survivors.  The masterful series The Walking Dead shows the end of the world in horrific detail, including the utter breakdown of moral order.  TNT is airing Falling Skies, a turgid, derivative series in which aliens destroy the world and humans fight back.  Battlestar Galactica was a lengthy, grim meditation on what happens after the world ends, how society breaks down, how social standards and norms are casually, or not, abandoned and how other standards are maintained.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories have been around a long time, but I think something has changed in both cultural context and story content.  The grand silliness and derring-do of 1990s era disaster movies (Deep Impact, Armageddon) have given way to a deep anxiety.  Watch an episode of The Walking Dead and the profound cultural anxiety is difficult to miss; Falling Skies, turgid though it may be, is a product of a deeply anxious culture, uncertainly negotiating turbulent changes.  Supernatural, which developed parallel plots about the end of the world and dysfunctional family systems, portrays a deeply unnerved cultural world in which the girl next door is really a ravening, sexually insatiable demon and the boy next door is a ghost.  Although an otherwise awful film, 28 Weeks Later aptly portrays, as Richard observed when we discussed zombies, the cascading failure of our best laid plans.  Time again, these apocalyptic tales confront us with our cultural anxieties – our society has lost the ability to cope, to manage crisis, to adapt and grow.  Torchwood, an otherwise frothy sci fi soap, indulged in the dark ruminations on the end of all things in its previous seasons.  This season, which premieres Friday, promises to be equally dark.  Discovery runs a whole host of survivalist shows (Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, etc) in which hosts are dropped into nature and they have tips on surviving; one episode in particular was set in an abandoned former research city in the far north of European Russia.  The world is ending and we may all need to learn to forage for berries and these shows teach us how.  The BBC’s short-lived Survivors told the story of people who survived a horrific flu pandemic and how they coped in the wasteland that was post-apocalyptic England. 

All these pop culture products share a similar, profound, anxiety about the end, uncertainty about what comes next and whether our actions matter.  Read the rest of this entry »


Participatory Models: Art of Hosting

What you think changes how you act.

A while back, I was leading a group of teens in an exercise – each person gets five minutes to talk, without interruption, while the other two in the group listen.  At first, the kids were horrified “I just listen?  What’s that?  What am I supposed to talk about for five whole minutes . . . . What . . .  what  . . . what.”  We did a brief introduction to active listening (maintain eye contact, nod, if you need clarification or more details ask for it, but basically your job is to receive what’s being shared) then let the discussion begin.  As the conversation began, the kids found it really difficult to both listen and share; a few gave up and didn’t try.  But, those who engaged, who moved past the discomfort, quickly learned how to listen actively and the shared deeply; they found that being listened to opened them up – they had more to say than they thought possible.  As the activity continued, the kids moved deeply into conversation – sharing more deeply than many had done so before.  At the end, several participants commented publicly and privately that they’d never had such deep conversations before.  This group of kids are exceptionally skilled in online communication and sharing, gifted users of social media, yet unpracticed at face to face sharing.  Actual person to person discussion, with all the subtle social cues and messages, is extremely powerful.  As leaders, the adults in the room simply created and held social space for the conversation to happen; what people brought determined the quality of the discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

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Participatory Models: World Cafe – Shaping the Future

A personal favorite, World Cafe is a powerful way of unearthing experiences and ideas.  Like most participatory models, World Cafe is grounded in the simple insight that conversation is how humans think together and that in almost any conversation, people will open up more in a small group than a large group.   World Cafe is a means by which hosts can take advantage of the best aspects of small and large group conversation.

The “bible” of World Cafe was written by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs – The World Cafe: Shaping Our Future Through Conversations That Matter.  In addition, there is mothership website that is chuck full of information, guides, and stories.  Like Circle, World Cafe’s logistics can be relatively easily mastered and like Circle, you can spend years deepening your effectiveness as a host.

World Cafe begins with questions.

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Participative Models: Progressive Scenario Planning

Imagine what would happen if progressives suddenly began talking, confidently, about The Pioneer Option in which America takes the lead on technological innovation, clean, renewable energy, and economic growth and development, in which we meet the future confidently, secure in our “Pioneer” values.  Suddenly, progressives everywhere, when giving speeches or writing letters to the editor, are using evocative, powerful phrases that capture the sense of connecting America’s best intentions from our past to our future.  Imagine what would happen if progressives shared not only a common vision but a common language for articulating that vision.  With Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy we got a glimpse of the impact it could have.

Compared to the challenges South Africans faced as Apartheid collapsed, our problems are less critical, though no less crucial.  Adam Kahane was one of the leaders of the Mont Fleur process, which he describes in his book Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities.  Kahane’s model boils down to crafting plausible and possible scenarious for the future then elimiating those which are either unworkable, untenable, or unpopular, to at last arrive at scenarios which feel realistic, sustainable and supportable.  In the Mont Fleur process, out of a host of options, participants finally agreed on the “Flight of the Flamingos” – an image which became part of the language of South Africans as they discussed the enormity of the changes they were facing.  This option was evocative because it conjured up the image of an entire flock of birds, lifting off a body water into flight – not all at once, but as a collective, every individual joining in the overall trajectory; as Kahane summarized it a scenario “”in which the government’s policies are sustainable and the country takes a path of inclusive growth and democracy.”  The metaphor of the flight became part of the national discussion.

The scenario described was largely strategic rather than tactical – a general trend toward a specific type of policy and social relationships in the wake of Apartheid.  Again, as Kahane describes it:

The Mont Fleur process, in contrast, only discussed the domain that all of the participants had in common: the future of South Africa. The team then summarized this shared understanding in the scenarios. The aim of such non-negotiating processes is, as Marvin Weisbord, an organizational consultant, has stated, to “find and enlarge the common ground.”

Mont Fleur identified four realistically possible scenarios and their probable outcomes, and shared them with the nation (Ostrich, Icarus, Lame Duck and Flight of the Flamingos).  These scenarios each contained risks and drawbacks, but they also represented possible and realistic avenues the people of South Africa might choose.  The names of the scenarios serve as short hand for the actual content of the scenario.

Kahane’s approach makes explicit that which is often assumed – it invites participants to state explicitly many of their assumptions; because it is rooted in what is actually happening right now, it also empowers participants to honestly assess the state of things.

Democratic politicians have been effective at resisting many of the demands of the Democratic base because they rightly perceive it as a collection of interest groups rather than a united movement with different areas of focus.  Creating a shared scenario for progressive interest groups would counteract that but it would also make explicit the shared values and concerns of progressives making it easier for them to act and to pressure Democratic politicians.  Making those values and concerns explicit would go a long way toward building a stronger and more effective coalition.

I go back to the analogy of a church.  The choir, the sunday school teachers, the preacher, the janitor, the trustess, the volunteers who mow the lawn and the hospitality team are not competing special interests.  They are all members of the church with different areas of focus, all of which serve to advance the overall goal of the church.  If the choir has hundred year old hymnals and the pastor is preaching a contemporary, liberal theology you’ve got a problem.  If the sunday school follows the common lectionary in planning lessons but the preacher picks and chooses passages according to her mood, you’ve got a mismatch.  Getting everybody on the same page has power.  And it doesn’t just happen because we want it to.

So, if you think about the various aspects of the progressive movement in those terms – sometimes you’ve got to get the whole church together, have a sit down and sort out what you stand for.  Obviously, Democratic politics are far more complex than a single congregation.  You have a large, messy coalition with views spanning a large part of the political spectrum.  The Democratic coalition includes center right politicians like Nebraska Senator Nelson, but also reliably progressive politicians like John Kerry.  It includes pro-life as well as pro-choice individuals, strong supporter of gay rights as well as many individuals who would prefer the whole gay rights issue just went away.  But, something must unite them as Democrats – seriously even Ben Nelson is a Democrat for a reason.

Imagine what it would look like if Dems could gather and unite behind a single, compelling vision.

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Participative Models: Appreciative Inquiry

Unlike most models I will discuss, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a formal model of participative leadership and organizational development.  AI requires more skill and attention in preparation and leading than the informal models but it also has a sizable literature and there are actual certifications available for AI practitioners.  For someone wanting to learn to use AI, there are copious resources and practitioners available to teach it.

AI begins with the assumption that no matter how dysfunctional the overall organization, something somewhere within the organization is working right; identify that and you can effect posistive organization wide change.  AI teaches us identify that thing that works well, figure out why it works well and emulate it system wide.

Among its most powerful insights, AI teaches us that questions generate energy and direct our attention; if we talk about problems our energy and attention go to the problems which usually doesn’t actually solve them.  Questions direct our energy and feed the behavioral dynamics.  If we focus on problems or what doesn’t work, we feed those things and those behaviors.  Powerful questions unleash our attention and focus and enable us to make positive changes.

There is four stage cycle in Appreciative Inquiry:

  1. Discover
  2. Dream
  3. Design
  4. Deliver

Because it is more formal, AI is worth studying before using it; Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change, by David Cooperrider is a sort biblically vast book, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond is a good down and dirty guide, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney is also a good one; The Power of Appreciative Inquiry by Diana Whitney is an excellent resource; that list barely scratches the surface; many of these books are expensive – paying anywhere from $40-$70 even for Kindle editions isn’t uncommon. There are some great online resources – Case Western University and Harvard both have good online resources for AI. 

Using AI in the real world requires intentional planning, care and insight.  But, it can be incredibly powerful.

 A few years ago I was on the leadership team for a non-profit.  We’d experienced a major crisis a few years before and after a period of cooling were ready to move forward.  We set aside a day, gathered as a team (24 or so people) and did a day of Appreciative Inquiry.  It looked like this:

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Participative Models: PeerSpirit Circle

When I was a child, our family parties seemed, inevitably, to evolve into the entire family sitting in a large circle, chatting, talking, engaging one another.  Circle just happened.  In it, we’re not leaders and followers, we’re not bosses and employees or elected officials and voters – we’re peers and equals.  Circle facilitates conversation, sharing, and respect.  Circle is foundational to participative processes – in various ways it’s practice is central to participatory meetings and leadership.  You can learn circle in 45 minutes and spend a lifetime mastering it.

Circle is foundational to most participative models. Read the rest of this entry »

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