Blog > Travelling a different road

November 15, 2011

For many years I’ve been waiting for the planets to align to do two things* – Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and a workshop or seminar with Dave Snowden. I’m still waiting to do the Story Seminar. There is a link, of course. Dave Snowden punctuates his often rambling and diverse ideas and opinions with stories. I’ve found a few days later that I can remember many of his stories. I have to refer to my notes for the other stuff. But this is not a post about stories. It is a post about unlearning,

When I first started facilitating, and considering venturing out on my own, it was in the midst of the systems thinking era. I read Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline, and bought into the whole notion of shared visions, mental models and learning organisations. Frustratingly, I was working in an organisation at the time that was anything but a learning organisation. I completed a Masters of Applied Science that was based on systems thinking. It made a lot of sense. I read Margaret Wheatley Leadership and the New Science.

Today, 15 years later, I find myself letting go of systems thinking and embracing complexity.

Now, many aspects of systems thinking that troubled me are starting to make sense in the light of complexity: the notion that it’s even possible to map systems; the fantasy that is strategic planning – that we can predict the future and prepare for it years in advance; and the resistance to uncertainty and messiness, the unwillingness to let go of control, even when all the evidence tells us that control is not possible.

Complexity has a lot more in tune with ecology, hence I’m drawn to biomimicry; social networks; narrative, stories and metaphor; playfulness; and what we can learn of organisational life from artists, actors, choreographers, musicians, directors, writers, poets, and dramaturgs. It is a rich and diverse field and requires as much unlearning as learning.

Clearly, this journey is not about discarding that which is old and grasping for the shiny new thing. It’s an evolution. I have relied on my somewhat unreliable brain to get me this far, and I hope my brain will continue to serve me. Yet now I understand that my brain is embodied. Parts of it never get activated unless the body is activated. I recognise the importance of trust and how social media can help build and maintain trust. How values are devalued by the very act of making them explicit. How culture is often used as an excuse to not do something, because people are people, no matter where they live and what they do. We should take more notice of mavericks and outliers. Disrupting entrenched patterns is part of the work, and how fundamental rituals are to disrupting patterns. And we need to experience before we process and analyse.

I still have much to explore and much to learn from Dave’s seminar. I am confident though, that although it’s a different road that I’m travelling, it’s one worth exploring.

Fundamental to my journey and exploration is how to apply the principles of improvisation. So here’s a story about another sort of journey and how these improv principles came into their own.

The picture in this post is of the Annapurna Sanctuary region of the Himalaya in Nepal.  My partner and I were on a nine-day trek, a trek that we had put off for 30 years. The opportunity arose so we decided to take it. When this photo was taken we’d been walking for five days – through isolated villages, across rivers, over mountains, down one side and up the other. It was clear every morning, hazy, raining or snowing by the afternoon. I was slow, taking one step at a time, especially on the stone steps that seemed to go on forever. Going up was bad, coming down was worse. As we approached Machapuchare Base Camp I was in awe of the scenery. I’d also had enough walking. I wanted to stop, to drink in the scenery, to rest my legs. So the rest of my walking party left for Annapurna Base Camp where they would spend the night and I would stay put, rejoining them the next morning. Wrapped in a yak wool blanket, I sat on a bench in the communal dining area of the teahouse where I was staying. It was the only warm place. The snow came down lightly at first and then it completely obscured my view. I read for a while, finished my book. Had a cup of chai. Sat, and watched others come and go. No-one else spoke English. A group of Japanese women were playing cards. They invited me to join them. I had no idea what game they were playing so the only thing to do was to jump in and have a go. If I played an incorrect card they would all laugh and shake their heads, explaining in sign language what I should do. They also had some rituals about who got to play the first card and when you won. It was a lot of fun. I eventually worked out the game, won a couple even. It was a great example of what happens when we show up, let go, and jump in: being present to what is, letting go of expectations and needs, and accepting offers. That’s been my mantra ever since I returned from that extraordinary walk in Nepal, and it’s paying off in spades.

*I’ve actually been waiting for the planets to align to do many, many things, but for the purpose of this post, two will do.

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