Ken Homer, The Power of Collaborative Conversations with David Hodgson, CEO, Hummingbird Labs, June 19, 2010
Ken Homer: Harry “Sweets” Edison was a special guest trumpeter.
[00:00:04] David Hodgson: Sorry, that name means nothing to me.
[00:00:06] Ken Homer: He was one of the original trumpeters in the Bassie Band back in the thirties. So…
[00:00:15] Ken Homer: Yeah, well, they’ve kept the charts. The charts is the heart of the band. Right? So, they kept all the charts. They’ve got the book.
[00:00:22] David Hodgson: Well, the charts and the performance history, because, you know, the charts are one thing, but it’s the human thing that you bring for the playing of those charts, which is…
[00:00:32] Ken Homer: The lineage is there. Everybody in there has got major chops. They’re really…
[00:00:39] David Hodgson: Some of the best, right?
[00:01:40] David Hodgson: It’s about the whole band playing together to create this…if you’ve got band members who are competing with one another it isn’t going to sound very good. It’s about that playing together as a single unit, that’s yet good jazz music, when you see good jazz music – it’s like nothing else.
[00:02:02] Ken Homer: You should rent, you get Netflixs; actually you can download it instantly, . If you haven’t seen it, it’s phenomenal. You’ll learn so much. You’ll know who Harry “Sweets” Edison is by the time you’re done.
Video Link: [00:04:48]
[00:02:24] David Hodgson: So, Ken, what do you do?
[00:02:32] Ken Homer: What do I do? My favorite thing to do is to talk. My favorite thing to do is to get people talking. I came to this because I am fairly concerned about what is going on in the world. It looks like it’s a really unique time in history that humans are going through a dramatic change at every level and there are indications that we may actually be waking up as a global species. Almost twenty years ago I heard a man ask a group of people, “What’s the greatest challenge facing humanity today?” And there’s a long list everybody knows: war, and nuclear waste and loss of habitat, and loss of diversity and extinction and pollution and population. And he said, “You know, those are all really, really big challenges but they’re all secondary because until we can sit in the same room with other people who have very different ideas then we do, and listen to those ideas and when we disagree with them, not resort to violence to have our way, and not leave because we don’t get our way, but to actually hang in there and find something new, we won’t make any headway on those challenges.” That was sort of a lightening bolt moment in my life where I kind of said, “Oh my God, the power of conversation is phenomenal.” That was about almost twenty years ago and I spent the last twenty years studying the role of conversation in human communities and organizations and how to talk together effectively to make things happen where people decide what it is they want to have happen and then walk through the steps to make that happen. So, conversation is my thing.
[00:04:26] David Hodgson: At one level it seems ridiculous that we…it seems like the most straight forward thing in the world to do, that we can talk to one another, decide what we’re collectively going to do and then figure out ways of having it happen, or of doing it. And yet, it’s not really an experience that I’ve had in my life of being in those kinds of situations where it happens. Generally in organizations, it’s far more, I don’t know it doesn’t work like that. What’s your…
[00:05:11] Ken Homer: Yes, I’ve noticed that! Most of what I’ve learned and most of what I know comes from observing where we have breakdowns. By breakdown, I simply mean that there’s an interruption in flow. We say we want to get to point A, and we take two steps and we find out that we’ve got something going on that prevents us from getting there. So, a breakdown can be positive, negative, it just means an interruption in flow. By paying to where people’s ability to coordinate their meaning and their action and where the conversation breaks down, you can begin to remedy that and start to model something different. The other thing you say is that you’re describing something that is simple but it’s not easy. The essence of the work that I do is getting people with diverse ideas to come together, talk about what’s meaningful to them, explore what’s possible, and then coordinate they’re collective action to make something happen and then to learn and reflect on what happened so that they can next time around, do something even better. That’s really simple, but it is not easy. This distinction between simple and easy is something that eludes most people. We think simple means easy and it doesn’t. I study martial art called Chi Tung. I have a teacher who’s been practicing for thirty-five years the particular form that he teaches me. He can make a really simple move that looks really easy. When I try it I discover that it’s not easy because he’s done it thousands of times and I’m trying it for the very first time and it’s really hard to coordinate to get my brain to send the right signal to my muscles and my breath and my eyes and have everything flow into one thing. There’s a lot of coordination going on behind the scenes; so yes, it’s simple but it’s not easy and the same thing with human beings and conversation. It’s very simple, but it’s not easy.
Video Link: [00:10:55]
[00:07:06] David Hodgson: We were talking earlier and you were telling me the story about when you worked at , did some work with UC Santa Cruz [University of California Santa Cruz]? That really, I think, exemplifies what it is that you’re talking about and I’d love to hear that story again.
[00:07:25] Ken Homer: So, this was back in 2002 and 2003, so fairly early in my career as a facilitator at that point. I was invited to come down to UC Santa Cruz by the Ombudsman person there. And what is going on is that has had an ongoing budget crisis and so they were looking for ways to save money at the university and they discovered that there were 24 separate IT departments. And they said, “Ok, we’ll consolidate you into one department.” Well, that affected about 250 people, and in true power struggle form, the Chancellor made the announcement and there was no more information forthcoming. So, the conversations that keep those departments going lit up like wild fire with, “What’s happening? How are we going to get through this? I’ve got to protect my headcount! I have to protect my resources! What are they going to do? What are they going to take from me?” So, we walked into a situation where there was a lot of fear and a lot of mistrust and a lot of doubt, a lot of not knowing, and a lot of uncertainty. My team, which was myself and the Ombudsman person and another colleague of mine who does graphic facilitation, we met and decided the first thing we wanted to do was to bring together the twenty-four department heads. So, we brought them together for a day of what’s called, “World Café” which is a specific process where people sit at tables of four and the whole room talks about the same question at each table for a set period of time and then they get up and rotate tables. So, we do that a couple of times and harvest the room to see what’s going on. Well, it was the first time in the history of the organization that all twenty-four department heads were in the same room together. Which is fairly, again, it’s one of those things that would seem very obvious that you would have happen, but it had never happened. So, it goes back to what you point out, that organizational thinking, you know, they don’t think about getting those folks together. What we wanted to do was to begin by grounding them in something that was meaningful and important, so we asked them, “Why do you work here? You’re all very skilled IT professionals and you could go right over the hill to and find high paying jobs. Why are you here at UC Santa Cruz?” And that grounded them in a lot of passion. You know we heard things about how they were committed to helping young people and UC Santa Cruz is a world class organization and they’ve got huge grants that come in for, they’ve got Nobel Prize winning professors there and there’s a lot of research that goes on, people were very passionate about the school and their role in serving and community. So, it gave them a really solid foundation. I like to use an appreciative approach when I work with people, I don’t want to start stirring up a hornet’s nest. So, then we asked them, ”Okay, what are all your concerns about the merger, of all these, the consolidation effort of all these departments?” That’s when the hornet’s nest opened up and what came out of the harvest was a huge number of points where people were just really concerned. They didn’t know what was going to happen, they were very upset, they felt there wasn’t enough support for them to actually make this happen. It was a moment where there was a lot of anxiety in the room. So, then it was time once again to kind of ground them back and so we said, “So, alright, what do you do that’s world class here that if it’s not part of the new organization there’s no point in even attempting it?” And that kind of put them into both a mindset and a reflective mindset as well as mindset of operating from real pride and knowledge of, “We do this well.” So, now we had a balance back in the room again. Then, I said, “Alright, I’m going to posit to you that everything you do is coordinated through conversation. If I said to you tomorrow, “We’re going to .” You wouldn’t be able to do anything unless you asked me a lot of questions like, “Who are we seeing? Why are we going? Who will be there? Who’s paying for it?” So, you’re going to walk out of here today and your people in your departments are going to come back to you and they’re going to say, “Well? So what? What’s happening? What’s going on?” And they’re going to have a lot of questions for you and you’re not going to know how to answer them. So, if we can identify the core questions that are most important for you to answer as far as moving forward goes, because you’re the heads of your departments and you know what needs to be addressed, then that would be very useful. Well, the underestimated part of that was I didn’t know how long it was going to take to sort those through. That was about a three-hour conversation. We ended up with about one hundred and twenty questions, which was way too many to deal with, so we gave people dots, one red and three blue dots. And we said, “Go up here, take a half hour break, during the break put the red dot next to the most important question, then you have three other dots to get the next three questions after that. And what that revealed to us what a kind of roadmap of the conversations that would be engaged in the coming months. And from one hundred and twenty questions it went down to sixteen critical questions that all of the managers, based on all the years of experience had consensus on, that these sixteen questions are the most important ones for us to start to address. And so that’s what’s going to happen here. In the next four to six weeks, we’ve got to start to get answers to these questions. And then the next level of questions, that were weighted and rated by the dots, gave us the next set of guiding questions for probably the next three months after that and the ones that didn’t get any dots were still important but they were further out on the time horizon. So, in a single day we went from mass confusion and a lot of not knowing, into a conversation that was very structured and very carefully prepared and planned, where at the end of the day people felt like they had done really good work and they knew what was important to them and they knew what the direction was they needed to head in and they knew the questions that they needed to begin to engage. That kind of set the tone for the whole process. It took about sixteen months and involved over two hundred and fifty people and there were several more Café conversations, but that one was sort of the template we used. We talked to the students, we talked to the entire IT department; we talked to the administrators and the professors. We kept asking them questions like that, “What’s really important?” And as a result, I think there were only seven positions lost in the consolidation. There were more positions that didn’t get funded but people took an early retirement, so I think only seven people out of two hundred and fifty got laid off. I want to just put one point in here for the Chief Information Officer there, he was from and he was very committed to making this work for people. There was tremendous leadership there. I can only take so much responsibility for influencing those conversations, but Larry Merkle, which was the head there just did an amazing job, got people to trust him and so the degree to which that was successful rests mostly on his shoulders.
[00:14:46] David Hodgson: Yes, it’s interesting that you; trust is a very key component within organizations that either are working or are having problems. And it seems that trust is really one of those, really the core aspects that you need to be able to make a change happen. When we were talking before about the, let’s look, which one?
[00:15:20] Ken Homer: Let me speak to that while you’re looking up the question. There was one moment when we were running this Café we were running for about two hundred and fifty people, we had most of the entire IT organization there. A woman raised her hand - we had an open period for questions – and I brought her the microphone and she said, “You know, I’ve been here for over twenty years and I’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go. I was here when we decided to get rid of the CRAY; the CRAY [CRAY Supercomputer at University of California at Santa Cruz] is still here. I was here when business process re-engineering came and the e-mail audit changes and they’re gone, and those changes didn’t last. I was here when we did TQM [Total Quality Management], they made a lot of changes and those changes didn’t last. Why is this going to be any different than any of the other things that we’ve tried in the twenty years I’ve been here?” And, Larry, this man I was just talking about and to his credit, he stood up and said, “I accept responsibility for the level of mistrust of the senior management and leadership because we have failed in the past.” Which was huge for someone to stand up and admit that. And he said, “And the reason this is going to be different is you’ll notice in all those other efforts we hired teams of experts to come in and survey and analyze and then make recommendations that we rolled out from the top and you guys didn’t get any input. You might have been surveyed and interviewed about what you know was going on, but you never were asked for how you thought things should be different. The reason this is going to be different is because we are asking you now. We know the success of this effort will not work unless everyone who is affected has the opportunity to say how it’s going to affect them and how they want to see it. Now, we cannot guarantee that every single person who makes a suggestion we’ll be able to incorporate the suggestion, but I can guarantee that if you have a suggestion, a comment, if you want to give feedback, we are completely one hundred percent open and ask you for it. If you don’t feel comfortable in this venue, you can come to my office, if you don’t want to see me in person you can send an anonymous email, there’s lots of ways but we know that the only way this is going to work is if everybody has a chance. We know there’s still going to be mistakes, but we’re trying to make fewer mistakes.” And there was a palpable shift in the room at that moment because people went, “Huh. Maybe this guy’s actually going to do something different that we haven’t seen.” And so, it was a moment where there’s more trust and also a level of hope that popped up at the same time.
Video Link: [00:05:39]
[00:17:45] David Hodgson: That’s very important. That’s a situation, obviously a very high tension situation, when, because as you were saying, there was a lot of fear that came into the room when there is competition between all of those different parts of an organization trying to jostle for resources at some level.
[00:18:13] Ken Homer: Right.
[00:18:14] David Hodgson: So, how do you find that working in a high conflict situation, is that something you like to do?
[00:18:21] Ken Homer: You had to get that conflict piece in there?
[00:18:25] David Hodgson: So, conflict is good.
[00:18:27] Ken Homer: Conflict is good. I think it was "O Sensei", the founder of Aikido, who said, “Conflict isn’t bad or good, it just is.” When I’m talking to people about conflict, I’ll say, “How many people here are married or in a committed ?” And I’ll get a lot of people raising their hands. And then I’ll say, “How many of you have relationships that are conflict free?” And I have yet to see anyone raise their hand for that one. Conflict is a very creative and necessary part of life and it does not have to be bad. It can be bad if we’ve had bad modeling, you know, which almost everyone I know did. I certainly had bad modeling and it took a long time to find ways to work this. There’s a book called, that I’m very fond of. It’s interesting because I’ve never actually read it but I’ve listened to the authors on a telephone call and they’ve identified five levels of conflict and the first four are all pretty reasonable and things that we can deal with on their own. And the fifth one is polarization. Polarization is something where there’s so much anger and mistrust between the parties that there is genuine and often open and I don’t go into those situations; I don’t hold myself up as someone who is a facilitator for that type of thing. I recommend you get a mediator for that. But the other four levels are very interesting. They range from simple because there was to differences of . Pretty much everyone has seen that slide of the old woman and the young woman and you look at it one way, which I had just learned recently was developed by a professor whose name was[E.G.] Boring. I think it was Gary Boring. So, the Boring stuff, and then there’s differences of opinion and differences of meaning. This is where we can start to get into some levels of feeling our personal sense of being is threatened. That comes into what I call, “doing your inner homework” of “Why is it that I’m so attached to this position that when I sit with someone whose got a different position, that I can’t allow myself to open up and see what it is they have to say?” This is a significant step in personal development and in maturation to be able to do this. I was recently at a, sadly I was at a memorial event for a friend of mine who passed away last year and he sat on the water district board and he was a member of the Sierra Club. Everyone who spoke about him at his memorial service said, “You know, he was one of the most open minded people I’ve met. He never compromised his stand around his values and his dedication to keeping the water district green and healthy. But he would come to meetings and he would say, “I don’t actually know at the moment where I stand on the desalination plan.” And he would listen to people talk and he would say, “This has been great. As a result of the information today, I’ve changed my position. I am now more in favor or less in favor of whatever it might be.” And to a person, all of his colleagues said they wished they could be more like that. And I realized that, that’s a wonderful example of open mindedness. We often hear about, you know, “I’m going to be open minded” but how many times can you think in your life where someone’s come along and presented something to you that was a challenge to something that was dearly held, a belief that you had for a long time, where you went, “Wow! Based on this information, I’m changing my mind. I am now going to shift my position.” And the amazing liberation that comes from that, of being able to say, “I’ve changed my mind based on the information.” Our political system in the U.S. is not very open to that and they tend to flip-flop it or waffle if you do that. Yet, if you’re going to be innovative and creative and generative, it’s kind of a pre-requisite. So, I’m kind of getting away from your thing about conflict, but I would like to re-frame conflict as someone is holding another piece of the puzzle for you. The more you can open up and see the larger puzzle, the more effective you can be. We often get very attached to our position because it may come with some perks, power, or benefits or something and so there can be a threat. So determining what the actual level of threat is, is really key being in conversation because a lot of times we perceive a level of threat that’s not there.
Video Link: [00:05:20]
[00:23:12] David Hodgson: Yeah, one thing that really struck me when you were talking about that was that one of the key aspects of conversation is the ability to listen to really hear what the other person is saying so that you can change, decide, discern whether how that statement or whether that statement makes sense to you and if it does, based on your experience of the world then change your mind. You know, realize that there is something you had not seen, that there is something for you to learn about the way things are in the world, it’s where the learning starts; but one needs to be able to listen deeply to be able to do that.
[00:24:03] Ken Homer: I’d actually expand on that a little bit. I’d like to say that we are always already listening. We are trained to listen or not from the time we come into the world. As we grow up, our family teaches us what’s important to listen to and school starts to expand on that and friends and by the time we become young adults, we’ve been trained to listen in very specific ways. Very rarely does anybody actually say, “I’m going to teach you how to listen to something.” And if you do some Google searching under “listening’” for example, you’ll find that there’s this huge number of things that come up around listening to music and an equally large number of things that come up around “pastoral counseling”, listening to people who are trying to express some deeper spiritual aspect of themselves. But there’s very little out there on the web and in media about just listening in conversation and listening for what’s important. I think this is kind of a tragedy actually; that we don’t have more solidly grounded processes around listening and teaching people how to listen. I’ve developed a course on collaboration and it starts with listening. And I actually tie listening to breath and I use a combination of an old indigenous native American process of listening called, “Listening Ears” and Otto Scharmer, who’s a fellow over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whose developed something called “Presencing” and his work is in Theory U; he’s described four levels of listening: there’s listening, what he calls “downloading” which is this thing from habit which is we do that all the time when we’re looking for things to confirm our view of the world. You know, “Hey, great! I really like you and you’ve got a lot of points of contact with me where we both affirm our views of the world, all right? So that’s the habit part. And then what he calls, “listening from the outside”, which is, “Oh, my goodness. I just had a conversation with someone who’s stance is so different from mine and their way of looking at the world is so different from mine, it’s amazing I’m really intrigued because they’re really an interesting person and they seem to have a lot of really good qualities and I have to open myself up, I have to open my listening, and deepen my listening to take in what they’re saying and recognize there is a very different way of looking at the world that’s equally valid to mine.” And then there’s another deeper way of listening that Scharmer talks about which he calls “listening from within” and that’s the listening at the empathic level of, “How does the world show up for this person? What is this person saying underneath their words? What’s been their experience? Who are they?” That has to do with listening to stories as opposed to facts, which are so important because we relate to each other through stories. And I’ll talk about that in a second because that goes back to conflict. And then the last level of listening that he talks about which is tied to will, is “listening from source”. Listening from source is very difficult to describe, because it’s almost ineffable, you know and yet, it’s also really easy to illustrate because you’ll hear something that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, or you’ll get goose bumps, or your stomach flip flops, or you just go, “Yes!” Because somebody says something that lights you up. When you hear someone say something that lights you up that means that the very thing they’re talking about is enlivening to the both of you. And that means that it’s a source of life, it’s a source of growth, of generative, of innovation and when you can train your body to be in the states that recognize and are open to those different types of listening, then you can find the sources for creativity, generative innovation much more easily, but they are definitely, they don’t come from sitting here and saying, “Okay, I’m going to think about listening from source.” There’s actual physical ways, somatic ways of attuning yourself to that. And if you want to know that, you have to take my course!
Video Link: [00:04:43]
[00:28:16] David Hodgson: We haven’t been in an oral tradition for quite a while.
[00:28:20] Ken Homer: No, it’s been some time. And David Bohm is often credited, David Bohm and [Jiddu] Krishnamurti, sort of birthed the new dialogue movement and in fact they influenced me greatly because in 1989 I read this story in the Utne Reader about dialogue and I was very intrigued. David Bohm was a very well known physicist, he worked on the Manhattan Project and he had a falling out with Oppenheimer, and he ended up moving to and spending the rest of his life in the U.K. He was going into the later years of his life he was going to these scientific conferences where the exact opposite of, where my friend Alex was saying, “And as a result of the information I’ve heard here today, I’m changing my mind” - instead some of the world’s best educated, most intelligent, smartest people were coming to these conferences and they were so attached to their positions that when they heard a dissenting viewpoint they would almost come to blows. He said, “You know, there has to be a better way.” And Krishnamurti was a spiritual leader for a lot of people and the two of them, the scientist and the mystic came together and they began to explore dialogue and unfolding meaning and how to bring people together. In his [David Bohm] book, – I think it’s in his book “On Dialogue” – Bohm talks about oral cultures, particularly the indigenous people here in the U.S., cultures of Turtle Island used to, regularly, seemed to, just know when it was time to get together. The tribes would come from various places and would have this big central location and they would all meet and for over three or four weeks they would have gather and feast and dance and talk. They would spend all day talking. And to the best of my knowledge from what I’ve learned of the “Walking People” which is a little bit of a tradition I’ve studied, the talk would start with the young people, and then it would move to teenagers and then to young adults and then to older adults to village adults to elders. The elders always go last. And also to the best of my knowledge no one ever sat down and pulled out a strategic planning book. They didn’t say, “Okay, let’s actually track all of this stuff.” And because they were an oral culture they had the time and the patience and the listening skills to allow several hundred people to speak and to hold that in their minds. Now, we can’t do that anymore in our culture. We don’t have the attention span for that. Which, interestingly enough, is why I think the World Café has appeared. Because the World Café is a way for dozens or even hundreds of people to sit in a circle except now it’s a large circle made up of many smaller circles. Little individual cells even, if you will, where people can talk and listen. So, we can still get to that level of listening that was part of the older cultures. Bohm was fascinated because at the end of a couple of weeks they would just know it was time to go and no one ever said, “Let’s summarize our next steps here. What’s our plan of action?” They just talked until they reached a point where balance and harmony was restored and they would disperse back to their lands until they felt an imbalance and they felt it was time to come back. So, that was a very mystical kind of connection between people that came about through talking. I think that’s part of our collective unconscious and I think it’s actually part of the collective unconscious that is attempting to wake up. In the last twenty, thirty years we’ve seen a lot of large group processes: World Café, Open Space, Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry; all of which kind of have roots in indigenous world cultures around how to talk together. And, I’m very heartened by this, actually.
Video Link: [00:04:50]
[00:32:40] David Hodgson: Yeah, I mean this goes, this is why you call what you do, “collaborative conversations” because it is that everything, you can’t really have a conversation, if it isn’t collaborative it’s probably actually not really a conversation, is it? It’s an argument, or whatever. When you’re in conversation it is about discovering shared meaning or discovering purpose or, it’s the people together coming up to some, not everybody needs share, be exactly the same in their thinking, but they’ve all heard everybody else and can understand where everybody is coming from and where everybody is going to, right?
[00:33:27] Ken Homer: Well, I’m a word nerd. I love to look at the etymology of words. So “” is the term a lot of people apply to their conversation. “Well, we’ll have a discussion about this.” And if you look at the etymology, you’ll find that “discussion” comes from the same root as “percussion” and “concussion” which means to bang things together. I think that’s one reason why a lot of conversations don’t work because they are discussion-based conversations. It’s, “I have an idea and I have power and I’m bigger than you or I’m more powerful because I’m more higher up in the organization and we’re going to discuss this, but basically, I’m telling you how it’s going to be.” And then we have “dialogue”. Which is “Dia” which is through and “Logos”, “meaning”. So, “through meaning” we will discover how to be together. And then there’s “conversation”. And “conversation” is from the Latin, “to turn together”. So, when we’re in conversation, we are turning together to look at something. I use a circle model, I use a little part of my speaking part in my conversation course: which is to begin by drawing a circle and putting the topic in the middle of the circle, and saying, “That’s what we’re going to talk about.” If we decide, “Hey, we’re going to talk about pollution.” Then, everybody who’s sitting around the circle gets the opportunity to talk about what pollution means to them; not what they learned about in college about pollution, not what their clergyman or congressman or their lobbyist or their boss or their neighbor thinks about pollution, but how it is for them personally. Because it’s only through personal meaning that we build relationships so we can really begin to use to make things happen, otherwise it’s just transaction based and collaboration cannot be transaction based, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute too. So, as we go around and listen to people talk about what pollution means, some people are going to say things that are very idiosyncratic to themselves. “Ah, that doesn’t resonate with me at all, I don’t see it that way.” But everyone’s going to say something, “Yes, I get that, I understand what that means.” And so when we take the time to listen to what everybody thinks about pollution, we will hear a common set of meanings around pollution and that’s our shared meaning. So, shared meaning doesn’t mean we all share the same meaning, it means we all share what’s meaningful to us and we look for the overlap in that. That’s the basis, our starting point, for now that we have meaning we can explore what’s possible. What can we do around this? Most people don’t start from there; most people start from, “Here’s how it is for me, tell me how it is for you, and then we’ll fight together, right?” We assume that I’m right, you’re wrong or the left and the right have the positions all staked out and so there’s no further conversation. There’s so few words that we actually have real agreement on. It’s really hard to, it’s amazing to me that we get as much done in the world as we do given how little real shared meaning we have. And as we come into the twenty-first century more and more fully, we’re going to find meaning to be really, shared meaning is going to be a key part. When we look at what’s going on with water; does every human being have the right to clean water? And if so, what will we do? That’s a very big conversation: water is the next oil. There’s going to be a lot of conversation trying to find shared meaning around water.
Video Link: [00:03:50]
[00:37:15] David Hodgson: From previous discussions we’ve had, I know you have the model of how you think conversation progresses, and you’ve touched on two of those elements, so far. The “shared meaning” aspect and then looking at the “What shall we do?” question.
[00:37:35] Ken Homer: So, from “shared meaning” we go into “possibility”. “Possibility” is a conversation that almost everybody loves to be in. We love talk about what’s possible. We often don’t talk about what’s possible from our base of shared meaning; so then we end up really going all over the place. But asking people what they see as possible is a very easy conversation to have at the beginning because people love to brainstorm and go divergent. And then it becomes a difficult conversation to have because at some point you have to stop being divergent and come into being convergent. And so often you need a facilitator for that. Now we’ve generated fifty thousand ideas and we only have a budget to do three of them, right? So, how are we going to sift through and sort out? If you’ve done a good job of creating shared meaning the convergent portion of that conversation is much easier than if you haven’t done a good job of that. So, you come down to “real world” – what do we have available in terms of time, people, resources, physical space, finances? You know all of that stuff, that we think based on that these one or two or may be three, possibilities could actually work. We can fund them, resource them and make sure they happen. And then you move into the third part of the dialogue, which is the Coordination of Action. And see, most people begin with Part Three. They start with, “Okay, we have to do something, now how are we going to make it happen?” Instead of, “We have to do something, what’s it mean to us and what’s possible?” Now, we get into, how do we make it happen?
[00:39:10] David Hodgson: And that’s, as you said before, that bit is what we know how to do quite well already.
[00:39:16] Ken Homer: We’ve got MBA programs out there that teach people how to do that extremely well. You know, develop a mission statement, develop a set of goals, develop a vision, and figure out how to allocate resources, and plan and set up timelines and check on things and how to handle breakdowns and flow, and all of that stuff. There are lots and lots of people who know how to do that extremely well. My experience is that very few of them have the context of first creating the shared meaning and then explore the possibilities before they attempt that and that’s one of the reasons things break down all the time.
[00:39:51] David Hodgson: Because you’ve chosen to do the wrong thing or the…
[00:39:56] Ken Homer: You’re out of order. I say you’re out of order. It’s not that you’ve chosen to do the wrong thing; you’re starting on Step Three and you haven’t done Step One and Two yet. In the eighties there was this book, I read a lot and I also have a lot of books I haven’t read or books I’ve just read parts of. This is a book called, “Why is there never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over?” Which sort of sums up the mentality of a lot of corporations, you know, constant push. “You’ve got to’ make something, make it happen, make it happen, okay it didn’t work, go back and do it again.” Now, if we operate from there’s enough time to do it right but the time it takes to do it right means that we often don’t start until six weeks after today because between now and six weeks from now, we’re going to be exploring meaning and exploring possibility.
- Video Link: [00:07:16]
[00:40:50] David Hodgson: So, it seems that the work that you did in is a really good example of all of this in action.
[00:40:58] Ken Homer: Yes, Kansas is a great example. My colleagues at Omega Point International, which is Stephanie Nestlerode, and she and her partner, went into the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Now, this is a six thousand-person organization. They are responsible for running the state mental health hospitals, for food stamps, for welfare, for unemployment insurance, for job re-training, for child protective services, I mean it’s a huge sprawling organization. It’s state run, it receives Federal funding as well as State funding and it’s very political because every time there’s an election theGovernor gets the chance to appoint a new head of that department. So, you can have programs in there that run really well and a new person comes in and decides they don’t like that program and it create a, throw a real wrench in things. So, they’re in a situation where they’ve traditionally been a “command and control” hierarchical organization, they’ve been very intervention based, sort of “by the book” and “this is how we do things.” That worked really well, or as well as it could have in the twentieth century, but now a lot of people are senior there or at retirement age, so there’s going to be probably 60% – 70% of the people going to be retiring between now and 2015. So there’s this huge brain drain going on and younger people who are coming out of college now have been trained very differently. They don’t want to be in these silos and have a book that they have to look up stuff and here’s what we’re going to do for the situation. They know the world doesn’t work like that. You have to be a lot more able to deal with emergence and what’s gong on in the moment. So, to their credit, they allowed my colleagues to come in there and teach them some processes that weren’t going to bear any fruit for at least six months. They told them flat out, “The first six months of our training you’re going to be pulling your hair out, you’re not going to understand what’s going on.” And they actually taught them a lot of things like mindfulness and holding ambiguity, and working with situations where nothing is clear. And she was right, for the first six months they’re like, “Where are we? What are we doing? These people come here and we spend four days in a row and they leave and we walk around like, what did we just do?” I’m really pleased that they got the opportunity to do that. In my line of work, we often talk about change happening in biological time because we have bodies, right? Bodies change in their own time. Anybody who’s put on weight at the holidays knows that you don’t make up your mind on January first that on January second you will drop fifteen pounds, right? There’s a lot of work between January first and April first when that weight is off, okay? Change happens in biological time. So, they were given the opportunity to work with these folks and they trained them in lots of large group processes. I was brought in to help them with World Café and Open Space. We worked with the top fifty-five managers of this six thousand-person organization and we basically re-wired their entire brains on how to approach things from a business standpoint of, you know, the traditional models aren’t working and we need to try something new and it’s all based in conversation. You’ve got to learn how to talk a little differently, you’ve got to learn how to step away from the whole idea of being protective of your resources and instead start to learn how to open network know that every individual is replaceable, but people who are key nodes in networks who know how to get things done are very, very valuable and even people who don’t seem to be very valuable in a network because they just know one thing, they can be connected with the right person and all of a sudden they make a great contribution. So, we were going from a very command and control hierarchical to a much more distributed network model and it was all based around prevention, rather than intervention. So, what can we do in the short run that will save us money in the long run? How do we keep people from burning out? Give them time off; give them vacations, stress reduction programs in the work place. All the things that are starting to come out of the great contribution of human potential four years ago is finally seeping in to the mass consciousness that it’s really good to take walks and to breathe deeply and to rest and to stretch and to eat healthy foods and drink lots of water and all of the stuff your Grandparent’s knew that our generation kind of forgot, is now coming back into play.
[00:45:53] David Hodgson: It’s so ridiculous, that our organizations don’t do that. I mean that’s a great case study of seeing it as a real, seeing the whole organization as a living entity that it needs to take care of itself so that it can do what it needs to do in the world and have healthy relationships both internally and with the community that they’re serving.
[00:46:20] Ken Homer: That’s another big piece of the Kansas work was we started to really lean hard on them about being a real valuable member of the community. So, it’s not just that people look at Social Rehab Services as the place to go when you’re unemployed; they start to look at it as, this is a vital part of my community. So, we began a listening program of them communicating directly with the members of their community, people who were getting welfare and food stamps and they started interviewing and inviting them in for surveys and questions and conversations about, “How can we serve you and what would be, what would make this system work for you?” It was pretty much unheard of for a government organization to open up and ask their customers what their customers really needed. And there actually is a case study on this. Stephanie Nestlerode and Rory Alberato, who was at the time head of this project, have done case studies on this and presented to the Systems Thinking Conference and a few other conferences, so I’m sure I can get you the information on that if you want to be able to check that out because they’ve actually done quite a bit of detailing what was going on there.
Video Link: [00:05:10]
[00:47:40] David Hodgson: It would seem that’s one of those things that would be a very good thing to do in many different places. What this brings to mind for me is what you call “wicked messes” and what you do is about dealing with wicked messes, so maybe you should talk about that.
[00:48:06] Ken Homer: So, as I’ve been developing this work over the years, one of the things that occurred to me was a lot of people are really great problem solvers, which is wonderful, we need good problem solvers in the world. But most people’s defaults stance is to look at the world as a set of problems out there. And so when we see something like, just choose anything, we live in so we have a homeless problem. But, is it really a homeless “problem”? It’s actually a homeless mess. Now problems, messes and wicked messes are the terms that I use and messes and wicked messes might sound whimsical but they actually go back to 1970’s some guy’s name Horst and someone else, they kind of invented these terms. And basically, the distinctions that I use which are very simple, they’ve got some you know, long German terms on Wikipedia around this. The distinction is that a problem is something that is discrete that can be solved and once it’s solved you don’t have to solve it again and it shows up in certain domains: like in Math there’s problems, in logic there’s problems, in rock climbing there’s problems, in finance, in puzzle solving and stuff like that. One of the conditions of people who solve problems is they love to talk to each other about how their doing. Problems solvers love to talk to each other. But, a lot of times we have problems that can’t be solved and that’s an indication that we’re actually dealing with a mess. So, messes are systems where things are connected but often invisibly, so something over here that is broken or that gets jiggled with affects something over there that doesn’t show up for three months there’s these hidden feedback loops and it requires a very different approach. You have to have a systems based approach so you get cross-disciplinary teams, you need systems modeling, and again, communication among people working on this tends to be very high because they love to explore what’s going on. Wicked messes takes a mess and couples it with culture and so when you’ve got different cultures who refuse to talk to each other or even acknowledge each other’s existence or even acknowledge the legitimacy of each other, then you have a wicked mess. Because now you have all the problems that you have with the problem plus a system, so you have high systems complexity and you have high social complexity. When you’re dealing with a problem, a problem mindset by itself is great. When you have a problem and a mess with a problem mindset, that’s not great and when you’re dealing with a wicked mess a problem mindset always makes it much more messy. And wicked in this case means highly resistant to intervention. It’s not a pejorative term, it just means it’s really, you know, there’s all these dynamics in place that make it very, very resistant to change. And so, what I’ve worked out is a way of approaching it that is not problem based, but rather it’s messed based. So, in order to deal with a mess you need to create intelligence. My experience of working with large groups is that there are ways to create intelligence in large groups by asking the right questions and supporting it with the right process. Often I use something based on World Café, I do a lot of work with Peter Block’s work from he uses people in clusters of three. I run Open Space, I combine those, I use what I call, Small A of Appreciative Inquiry, which is not the full you know, Do and Dream and Design piece of t four steps in Appreciative Inquiry, but just kind of cheery picking from the best. David Cooperrider said in all his work he discovered a couple of very important truths. One of which is that the most important questions you can ask are not what’s wrong and who’s to blame, but what matters and who cares and that people grow in the direction of the questions that they’re asked. So, if you ask someone a question that makes them defensive, you’re going to grow defensiveness. If you ask someone a question that is appreciative of their experience that makes them cast their mind to a time when they succeeded and bring forward the lessons and the qualities and you do that in a group you can generate a huge amount of intelligence in a very short time and then you have a way to get that group to work together thinking about new issues that they haven’t had to deal with before from a real base of strength and creativity that if you simply went in and dropped it in as a problem and said, “Analyze this and find a solution” you wouldn’t get to.”
[00:52:49] David Hodgson: That’s really cool. Ken, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Video Link: [00:02:38]
[00:53:04] Ken Homer: Oh, I was going to tell you about stories. A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me to run a group with about fifty peace activists and fifty business people. And this was right around the time of Mission Accomplished, the Iraqi War and there was a lot of, you know, it’s in Silicon Valley, and there were a lot of hard feelings about the war. I didn’t want to do it because peace activists tend to be very cantankerous folks they’re not usually open to hearing the other side, in my experience. But, I went in and I was explaining graphically record, this is Julie, and she’s going to be capturing our output and someone said to me, “You can’t use ‘capture’ that’s war language!” That’s how triggered this group was. I managed to get them quieted down and I said, “What I’d like you to do to begin is to think about the first time that you realized that was important to you and that it was going to be something that you were going to work on in your life because you’re all here because you’re all interested in peace. The business people and peace people are all here because you’re interested in peace.” And, in the next forty-five minutes, people were sharing what triggered, what that question triggered for them. Almost all of them went back to times when they were teenagers, or in their early twenties, and told these heart-wrenching stories of just moments of opening. What I would call “spiritual opening” and by “spiritual”, I mean simply recognition of something larger than self. And, after forty-five minutes, the in that room, which had been palpable when I walked in, had virtually disappeared. No one was made wrong for their position of why they cared and everybody actually appreciated hearing why people cared, and by the end of the day, we walked out with a group of people who had been at odds with each other coming in and saying, “We’re forming real partnerships here. We actually see how we can work together.” And that’s why I do collaborative conversations. I like to get people who don’t realize how much they have in common, in terms ofdreams and to come together and say, “Hey, we’re working together here. This is great. Thank you.”
[00:55:21] David Hodgson: Thank you!
A lifelong learner, Ken Homer lives and works in the where he enjoys hiking, live music, cooking, and reading.
Ken currently serves on the Circle of Stewards for The Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning.
Contact information for Ken Homer:
Contact Information for David Hodgson:
Collaboration, collaborative conversations, collective-intelligence, creativity, critical-thinking, dialogue, dissent, problems,
The Power of Collaborative Conversations
- Video Link: [00:55:35]
Chapter 1: The Power of Conversation: Simple But Not Easy
Video Link: [00:04:48]
Chapter 2: Conversations in Organizations
Video Link: [00:10:55]
Chapter 3: Conversations & Conflict
Video Link: [00:05:39]
Chapter 4: Conversation & Listening
Video Link: [00:05:20]
Chapter 5: Oral Traditions
Video Link: [00:04:43]
Chapter 6: Conversational Shared Meaning
Video Link: [00:04:50]
Chapter 7: Conversation & Possibility
Video Link: [00:03:50]
Chapter 8: Organizations & Shared Meaning
Video Link: [00:07:16]
Chapter 9: Problems, Messes & Wicked Messes
Video Link: [00:05:10]
Chapter 10: Stories
Video Link: [00:02:38]
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