Planning and the toolmaker metaphor

Again, I answered some questions on facilitating. About “keeping plans alive”.

Plans (intentionally no ,) like communicating, are processes. I’ve always abided with the saying by Montgomery: “plans are nothing, planning is everything“. Planning is not about a plan, just as maps are not about territory. Or, my favourite, “Don’t eat the menu!”. This way of working is now commonly called “Agile”, as Gary remarked in “Fellow facilitators, what is your advice to groups about keeping strategic plans alive?” at a Linked-in discussion..

I use planning sessions to find the common assumptions. A plan offers a way to communicate and share assumptions. Executing a plan is a way to test the assumptions, not to realize the plan. That is like the March Hare (from Alice in Wonderland) trying to fix the watch using butter, “But it is very good butter”, the Hare declared. Deviations from a plan usually means that you’re assumptions no longer hold. So don’t hold to the plan

Another remark: be careful with your metaphors. I wouldn’t use “keep plans alive”. Plans only “live” in the heads of people. A plan doesn’t have a life, so there is no need to keep them “alive”. A plan should be used as means to give meaning to (your) life, but a plan is not a goal. Phrasing it like this might induce people to “believe in the plan”, “stick to the plan” and ultimately become unhappy when they couldn’t execute the plan as planned. The paradox is: use planning “errors” or “mistakes” to improve your plans.

Addition: this seems to me, to be a consequence of using the “Conduit Metaphor” in communicating. In the conduit metaphorical-frame, you assume that the meaning is in the words and they just have to be transferred to the receiver to be “understood”. This makes one thinks in terms of “executing a plan” and trying “to get back on plan”. I’m not against plans, but against framing a plan in this way. Using the “toolmaker metaphor”, you could a plan as a set of ideas and assumptions phrased as instructions. You experiment (to use an “ex-phrase” too), find out what works and improve the plan as you go along.

Plans – this I learned while working in logistics – are either lousy or lucky. This is what happens: people will only tell about their “good” plan, when they have been lucky. If it was lousy, you won’t hear about it. This psychological phenomena is called “survivor bias” . The first Law of Planning: “Everything changes, until there is no time to change it”. (In my opinion just another consequence of “Parkinson’s Law”: Work fills the time available for its completion.)

Addition: the paradoxes involved: expressing / power (authority), engaging / perceiving (trust) and belonging / sharing (identification)

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Dignity and respect

Paul Vittles remarked in a discussion that a Human Resource Department should treat everybody with dignity and respect. Off course, one cannot not-agree with this. At the same time, his post points at the central paradox of facilitation:

being open and honest in order to control a situation inhibits openness and honesty
(paraphrased from Chris Argyris).

Let’s consider this case – being rejected by a Human Resource Department for a managerial job – as an example.

Over 25 years ago, the name of our Personnel and Organization (P&O) department was change into “Human Resource Management (HRM)”. I opposed this change in name, as I do not consider myself to belong to resources of an organization. The Kantian in me opposes being treated as a resource, as a means. Human beings should be considered ends in themselves.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.
— Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

I’ll illustrate two complications.

1. Naming frames reality because names act as metaphors. Subconsciously human beings project attributes associated with a metaphor on an object. Using metaphors makes life easy, but at a cost: ignoring the parts that don’t fit. So by naming a human being a resource, the attributes of a resource are being projected on the “object”. In fact, it creates an object out of the human being, as most resources, think about food, machines, ore, buildings, cars, belong to the class of inanimate objects.

Some of the attributes make sense in this situation, like paying for your resource. And some don’t, like a salary is not a “price” because you need it “to make a living”. A machine doesn’t “make a living” (pun intended). That both are in the same currency, doesn’t make them the same, a common mistake. Metaphors make recognition easy (facilitate, in a way ; -) ) at the expense of loosing complexity.

This makes sense, when considering an object. However, one should object against calling a human being an object. By naming a human being a “human resource” and not a “human being” (please note the small shift in meaning inside your body), you create an “alternative fact”. Also note that the word “fact” is derived from “facere” to make. Naming makes facts out of processes. A human being should not, never be “enacted”, made into, a thing.

2. Through naming a namer controls the things named. You may have wondered why Adam was made to call the names of the plants and animals in paradise. The story tells us, that you can name in order to become master. Expressing mastery can only be done through expressing.

Off course, “naming” expresses an opinion and – this is a second point in considering an HR-department -, expression of an opinion is associated with power. The paradox of expressing consists of authority, dependency, creativity and courage. Authority implies power differences. A person with authority “demands” respect. Applying for a job makes the applicant dependent on the judgment of “authorities”. It places HR in a one-up position.

There exists a power difference between an applicant and a human resource official. Creating, calling a situation, naming it, making “a fact”, is an act of authority. This makes the created “dependent” on the creator. (This leads to adopting the “conduit metaphor” in communicating, I’ll be back on this). In this case, a position of a General Manager has been created. It takes courage to take up such a position.

A power difference creates a “double bind” (See: Bateson; it is also know as “Catch 22”), in which a subject (note the metaphor concealed in this word) cannot be open, because “anything you say might be used against you”. So, in creating a situation in which we require honesty and respect, we also create opposite of it. And I say “we”, as both parties require from each other not to discuss this situation. A double bind binds both.

When recruiting for a General Management position, we’re having a double “double bind”, as the HR department is also subjected to, dependent on, the general management. If somebody in a one-up position – (aka manager) doesn’t realize this (and most don’t, as “success breeds success – long story skipped), there will be unilateral control, so only the “manager” will be treated with dignity & respect – as (s)he seems to deserve. Asking – as an applicant – for dignity & respect will be treated as “disrespectful”. Also, how do you maintain your dignity, when asking for dignity? See the bind? See he double? That this might be the case, cannot be discussed, because treating with dignity & respect is assumed.

Also years ago, I applied for a general management position through a very well known management recruiter. I had a very good track record from a previous job. We had a very open conversation, in which I explained my ideas on leadership and the double bind. He agreed fully with me and added that this made me both suited for the job and impossible for him to recommend me.

So, there you have it: a set of self-sealing, self-referential processes, that cannot be solved with the way of thinking and acting that created them. In fact, framing this as “a problem to be solved” is part of the (meta)problem. A double bind is not a problem to be solved, as it requires applying a metarule (rule about a rule): “don’t apply this double binding rule”. We’ll have to shift gear and invent new ways and means of communicating.

The nice thing about this, is that it creates the very need for a different kind of facilitating; which I’m currently developing. Happy New Year.

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How to improve group decision making – Be biased towards bias

Bias is an universal given in decision making. Most drivers think they’re better then average drivers and most decision makers drive cars too. Just like crowded road brings the average speed down and irons out the extremes, so a group decision improves the average decision making, while slowing it down. Dan Bang, Chris D. Frith published an good article on Making better decisions in groups in The Royal Society Open Science. Let me re-frame their ideas from the biased perspective of a facilitator.

We’ve developed biasses to judge situation rapidly. As we have been taught our biasses, they have become part of our identity, our culture. Bias is also connected to our success and therefore our (positive) self image. Biasses feed on pretensions. So dealing with bias is the key to good decision making. And an important reason – but I’m biassed – to involve a facilitator. Perhaps it is best, to see bias as a verb and not as a noun. Bias like “to incline”.

Bias towards diversity with communication
The article is very clear in the need for more diversity in better decision making. However, diversity also triggers biasses. We cannot separate what is being said from the person who says it. Your reputation – deserved or not – is part of your opinion. The cartoon shows one. In case of diversity, a facilitator strives to improve communications, understanding, listening, exchange. He or she will be biassed to promote exchange of diverse opinions, in stead of striving to get alignment. One of the ways to do so, is to use anonymity or visualization.

Bias towards content with relationships
As Watzalawick clearly states: “the relationship classifies the content”. Differences in power – real or perceived – determine expressions of opinions. Facilitators take care to create and maintain an environment which is safe enough for participants to share their opinions. We usually do this, by actively engaging relationships ourselves. A facilitator usually doesn’t act as a referee or chair, but takes part as a genuine participant. This position I like to call “autonomous”, aware of my own biasses.

Bias towards leadership with facilitation
A leader is usually seen as some one who leads, shows the way, goes ahead. In fact, it is a paradox. The speed of a group is determined by the slowest. In complex situations, it is better to slow down, walk at the back, get an overview. A task of a facilitator is to slow down, beginning at the intake and even extending to after the session. And perhaps more importantly, a facilitator will show, that we learn more from mistakes and errors, and admitting them, then pushing on on what seems right. Rushing towards the wrong goal, will get us nowhere.

Experience suggests that, sometimes, different ideas about which course of action is best to take may be rooted in different ideas about the problem at hand. Here, much time can be wasted in arguing about seemingly alternative solutions, which are, in fact, solutions to entirely different problems

Use a meeting and a group to find the right questions, have a bias towards problems, and the solutions will present themselves.

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Only self-organization copes with Ashby’s law

Ashby’s law – complexity begets complexity – is a natural law, like gravity, and cannot be escaped. ALL organizations run into trouble. Either they get stuck, bogged down in rules, systems, meetings and disillusion. Or they try to get “free”, escalate into free-lancers, break away, turn to extremism, and illusions. What goes up – organizations – must come down – disorganization. The more we want to “manage” change, the more trouble we create.

You can see illustrations of these situations everywhere. More and better roads lead to more and better traffic jams. More cost control leads to more measures that cost more money, and then we change the system, without considering the cost of changing the system… . More taxation leads to more tax heavens, … to more rules and more lawyers who invent … . Compensating for an economic crisis creates trillion dollar debts. A bigger union leads to more “x-exits”. The more we try to organize, the bigger the problems become. The more we create, the more we have to destroy. These are not separate processes. We’re keeping them separate. Ashby’s law works at its own pace and makes sure that complexity is served.

We are by nature short-sighted. Until ten thousand years ago, our problems were local. Perhaps we sometimes burned down a continent, or were trapped in a Tragedy of the Commons. No big deal. Our thinking and sensing is still local. The word “politics” is derived from “polis”, city. So we focus on only one side of Ashby’s law when we organize: reducing complexity, creating filters, looking for less complications, trying to keep it simple and general. Manage. Control. So we focus on what we’re good at: short term problem solving. We don’t notice the paradox, that problem solving is inherently paradoxical.

We analyze a situation, create a simple model and add some metaphors – spicy, selling it -, “solve” problem through the model and implement our solution. We didn’t see or ignored – the complex side, the shadows, the hidden parts. We didn’t solve anything, we just created a bigger problem. We think we have understood the situation, when we have a model, an organization. And then our solution creates “symptoms”, “symptoms” we consider attributes of problems, which turn into new problems. And we enter the cycle again. In the end, we blame the victims. The other ones, they didn’t understand, they are ignorant or they resist.

But now, what if problem solving has become the problem? What if we reached the edge of what we can achieve? What is the buck stops here? What if communication is the problem to the answer?

By trying to reduce complexity, we’re increased complexity. We started out with small organizations, which we merged into larger and larger unions. We started out with small countries, created “Vereenigde Nederlanden”, “United Kingdoms”, “Bundesländer”, “Sovjet Unions”, “united states”. As we assume causal relationships and ignore cycles, we still assume that our leaders have “caused” this. And we turn to them to solve it for us. They cannot, because our models are failing us. It is worse than “We cannot solve the problems with the thinking that created them”, we cannot outthink, outsmart reality anymore. We have to use Ashby’s Law and accept complexity. Embrace her.

At the same time, Ashby’s law has being playing a trick on us. Off course, we tend not to notice, and try to out-smart the Law again. Won’t work. Without noticing Ashby’s Law, we have been building amplifiers out of filters. We have created – or have been tricked into – the situation we have no other option, than to apply ourselves to LoRV.

Now, what is the nature of Ashby’s law? She invented “evolution” or – with a modern word – self-organization. Life delivers what the Law of the Requisite Variety does: create variety. We thought we were in control, while at the same time, LoRV ruled, one ring to rule them all. Our world is in the business of self-organizing, the only ones who didn’t notice this are we. Because we’re too busy organizing.

Life is what happens when you’re making plans.

How do we go from here? If you cannot beat them, join them. Just copy and paste: start living life, loving life, go self-organizing, reduce reduction of complexity and start enjoying diversity or complexity or change for what it is: natural.

We’ve been inventing some wonderful methods and tools to accomplish this and will soon share them with you.

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Failing to understand Ashby’s law causes disasters

The Law of the Requisite Variety, Ashby’s Law, “Variety begets variety“, governs us all. This law also enforces itself. She self-refers. Complexity, diversity, variety, differences can not be reduced. Reducing means terminating, getting rid of, killing a part of the system, or sub-system. And the other way around: system (I’m referring to any universal system) maintains diversity through getting rid of any subsystems that do not get Ashby’s Law – if you see what I mean, ambiguity intentional. And, as the picture suggests, she does so in her own time. No hurries. For more varieties of the law: visit Ashby’s law in the first hour of your day.

Trying to create a “safe” system by reducing complexity, creates something that seems, feels, looks robust. And this will also become fragile and prone to (incidental) major disruptions. Not understanding Ashby’s law shows itself in what we commonly call crisis, accidents, (traffic) jams, “disaster” (funny, the word comes from “ill starred”). In this way, system corrects her parts. In doing so, she (I like to refer to her as female, a goddess of creation and destruction) creates a lot of what we call destruction, chaos, disorder. (As I like my jams, I skipped jams). You can get a taste of destruction after a hurricane. And you can also see her work in the more disastrous things like wars. Trying to reduce complexity – for whatever reason – will lead to more and bigger conflicts, wars, destruction and disasters. Your reasons, like safety, freedom, independence, security, sound sound. But we cannot reason with this law, we’ll always loose. Look at our concrete situations, they’re all chaotic.

At the IAF-EMENA conference in Paris, last weekend – thank you guys – on “The power of Facilitation”, I suddenly realized, that converging after a diverging phase in meetings reduces complexity. In my workshop I asked participants “Where are you now?”. Then I asked them to find a position that represented their answer. Great fun. Sharing divergent opinions, points of view, meanings, works well. We’ve created common understanding. At the same time, we’re all at different positions, different corners. We more or less agree with the people near us, and we can see the standpoints of others. I left it at that in my workshop at the conference. For me, it is enough to realize our differences.

Later, I was told, I should have done a “converging phase”. It is stated in all the text books on decision making. Divergent, creative thinking first, then an intermediate zone and then clustering, voting and getting to one “point”. People who resist, don’t understand the importance of unity and should be “convinced”. Or else … . A group should have unity, vision, a common goal a “point on the horizon”, before we engage change, strategy or action.

Off course, you now realize, that this reduces complexity. This makes your group more vulnerable to incidental “disasters”. The bigger the unitary system, the more we try too reduce complexity, the “bigger” a system will become, the more fragile – fragility is not being small -, and the bigger a disaster. When there is no back-up, you’ll have a problem, when the system fails. With a back-up, the failure will be even bigger. Been to an airport lately? Queuing at the safety check compensates for the lack of variety caused by the trying to be safe. (Or deny flight for people from certain countries. Look what a chaos that created!). A Pyrrus Victory in the make, success in reducing complexity is the first step on the road to disaster.

When you apply these notions on current critical situations, you can perceive how not understanding Ashby’s law causes our disasters. For instance, take a random decision (pun intended) like Brexit. One way or another, it will be a disaster, everybody agrees. It will be a disaster for the EU – are hoping many people, both in and outside EU – and for England – other people’s expectations – for Scotland, Wales and Ireland – they fear with big anxiety. It will be a triumph for the Law, because the Law of the Requisite Variety requires variety. (And some lucky speculators will benefit, off course.) Unity – in a European Union – and also in a United Kingdom, a United States, a Soviet Union or in Verenigde Nederlanden – brings “safety”, at a price: a collapse of a system, that was intended to prevent that from happening.

Now, I’m not saying that an EU causes a Brexit*) (and the other way around). I’m meaning that it is inevitable. Nor am I suggesting that a Brexit is right or left or wrong and right. It is not caused by politicians, they’re just murderers becoming victims – to stretch the metaphor. It is not caused by “the people”, they’re just victims becoming murderers (murder by vote). It is neither caused, nor effected, I might add, by economists, scientists, lawyers or bankers, nor through capitalism, socialism of liberalism. They just advocate and try to shift the blame on either the people or the politicians. Depending on their point of view. Brexit results from ignoring a law as important as the Law of Gravity. Everything that goes up, must come down (Law of Gravity). Everything you unite, will fall apart (Law of requisite Variety). Look at the facts: every unity results from diverging parties and all diverging parts come from unities. Human beings only cause “independence wars”, they never start “independence peaces”.

We treat Ashby’s law like we used to do with the Law of Gravity: something that is heavier falls faster then something light. This is proven by letting a feather and a rock all to the floor. Simon Stevin – yes, he, not Galileo – showed it at the leaning tower of Delft: a wooden and a stone stone hit the ground at the same time (and the same speed). Current understanding of the Law of Requisite Variety, makes us work against it. We assume there is a difference between cause and effect and that this difference causes our problems. Get rid of the causes, and we will have no effects. If you throw something high enough, it will not fall down (OK, here my metaphor breaks down). We think that complementary differences are opposites. For instance, the shores of a river belong together – complementary – and both are called “the opposite” shore. This makes perfectly sense, when you want to build a bridge. It becomes insane, when you want to unite the two sides. You’ll start a war with “the opposition” and the bridge will be burnt down.

In my Paris (Tokio, Seoul) workshop, I showed how our current paradigm on communication, works well within a limited set of situations. In small groups, we complement each other. We can share, communicate and work together. This has a limit, the number of relationships, of about 200. Inventing tools made human beings “see” metaphor. A tool requires one to see another use of a stone or a stick. With toolmaking, we create diversity. And it prompted another invention: language. With language, human beings can tell each other how to make tools, language instructs, coordinates actions and behavior. It creates a sense of unity. With language, we can lead larger groups. Language can unite (and divide- that’s why it changes so fast. Language speeds up diversity creation). With some great (I typed the word “creat”) other inventions, like religions, science, writing, printing – read for instance Harari’s “Homo Sapiens”, we were able to ignored the Law. But not any longer.

conduit metaphor – a dominant class of figurative expressions used when discussing communication itself (metalanguage). It operates whenever people speak or write as if they “insert” their mental contents (feelings, meanings, thoughts, concepts, etc.) into “containers” (words, phrases, sentences, etc.) whose contents are then “extracted” by listeners and readers. Thus, language is viewed as a “conduit” conveying mental content between people.

We currently tend to use the “conduit metaphor” in our language. Our current languages – or, to be precise, the grammars of our current languages, – have been used to reduce complexity. This is an easy way to use language-as-a-tool. Like driving a car, without understanding how the car works. This works for driving cars, but not when you’re driven by language. Driving a car will get you in a traffic jam – because you do not know how the system works. Using language without understanding how language works, will get you in to DEEP TROUBLE. When it breaks down, you cannot fix it. We have been trained to think that meaning is in the message, that these words convey meaning, that you only have to listen to what I say, in order to understand. That there is a point in this sentence. There is no point, the point is in you.

The Law of Requisite Variety asks, orders, requires us to understand each other better. She offers us one thing: things are as they are. Both good or bad, and good and bad, or neither. She does what she does. She cannot care, people care. Our ethical assignment is to create choice, variety and diversity in stead of reducing it. To pose questions, to prefer questions, to remain or to live with our questions. The answers will come, in due time. You are free not to listen to the Law. She doesn’t mind, doesn’t care and will come back to you.

And how to “solve” our global problems? I’ll be back.

*) and you can put any human conflict here Crimean, Middle-East, Korean, Venezuela but also the fire arms debate, financial crisis, the so called “rise of populism”, global warming, … The details differ, the structure is the same.

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The driving force behind systemic change

The quest for autonomy. The world seems to be in transition: war in the Middle-East, terrorism, Brexit and independence of Catalonia, North-Korea, unrest in Africa leading to mass migration, the down fall of Venezuela, Brazil, the financial crisis, climate change, … . Let’s take Brexit in the EU – any situation will do – it came as a surprise, because it was not predicted. Crimean liberation or occupation – depending on your point of view – was a surprise. The same is true for “Trumpism” in the VS. Or the refugee situation or … . Behind this, is only one driving force. Even the recent shooting in Las Vegas, I’m sorry to say, is an expression of this force (gun “control” and the individual safety). It is the driving force behind evolution and systemic change, it is the Law of the Requisite Variety, Ashby’s Law.

Variety begets variety“. that’s it. That’s the law. OK, most people formulate it like “variety absorbs variety”, or “variety destroys variety”. Or “a regulator requires at least as much variety as the system possesses”. Or: “The vocabulary of responses a system must have, or must develop, to meet the variety of phenomena it encounters in dealing with the environment. An insufficient variety limits the system’s ability to respond effectively to conditions in the environment that could destroy it.” These are just variations, if you see what I mean. The law is not the formulation of the law. Like the Law of Gravity, the apple will fall, regardless of our definition. And, like all real, natural laws, it doesn’t need law enforcement. It enforces itself. She is autonomous.

Ashby’s law also means “chaos out of chaos“. Chaos doesn’t mean “disorder”, it means “unpredictable”. Human beings like to have predictability, as we hate uncertainty, doubt, insecurity. We crave for safety. So we try to order things, measure and classify, imposing human laws or “order”. Order and control. Trying to control, maintain equilibrium. Our laws have to be enforced. Because, because, because – the wonderful things Ashby’s does. I mean, the Law of the Requisite Variety doesn’t care about our human needs. She rules, getting her ways, chaos.

The paradox – and this is how this law operates – being, that an orderly system can produce more variety than a unordered system. That’s why we let Ashby’s law work for us, why we can see “order out of chaos”, the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. That’s why the British defined the law as “always increases entropy or disorder”. Dieu et mon droit. We impose control, order. The law doesn’t follow our definition, it follows its own rule. And while our “order” means “control”, “Ashby”‘s order means chaos. Everything evolves from chaos, everything is and always will be chaotic. Or rather, beyond OUR control.

Our addiction to safety, order, suits Asby’s Law very well. Political systems get more and more complicated, laws and bylaws in the judicial system have become so intricate, even lawyers get lost. Financial systems are going to implement Basel 4 Standards, to mitigate against crisis. The system itself is still in crisis. UN, EU, but also China, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Brasil are getting more and more out of control. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a democracy, an autocracy, oligarchy, theocracy, aristocracy whether it a union, republic of monarchy. Things are becoming more and more regulated AND unpredictable. Higher dykes mean bigger deluges, the Dutch way to cope.

Big systems. Not only is Physics becoming less and less simple (and more expensive), so is for instance care and medicine. The problem is not, that the cost of care is beyond control. “Care” behaves unpredictable, like about every medicine. There is no ultimate cure for illness, and certainly not for death. Death is not a curable disease, it is an expression of Ashby’s law.

On a small scale, the same is true. In The Netherlands, it is taking over 200 days to formulate a political agreement. I wonder, will it work? No. Why not? Politicians focus on “security”. The main result: chaos out of order (pun intended). The source: “the Law of the Requisite Variety”. And look at your local street. How many traffic signs? Why this “school zone” every where? How many traffic controllers do you need to change a bulb? I blame Ashby. Did the freedom of market forces increase or decrease the amount of paper work and bureaucracy for your water, gas or electricity bill? No. They just shifted it to you. The culprit: Ashby.

Thanks, but no thanks. We thank our life to this law. Because a living organism produces more chaos, then a dead stone. Life is erosion 2.0; humanity its greatest triumph. We don’t have to be grateful, for one thing, because the Law doesn’t care, one way or another. And, for another thing, because she also supported us in creating the mess we’re in. Isn’t she a bitch? I said, supported, because in essence, it is our own responsibility. Our endeavor to bypass the Law, to “feel safe”, created a system that is not robust but “fragile” and not “anti-fragile“. Safety is not in numbers, nor in laws. Control doesn’t prevent disaster, it just makes them bigger. Our desire for security, safety, freedom and autonomy (well, not freedom and autonomy as I know it) just feeds Ashby’s law.

What can you do? What ca we do? Nothing. Not for the Ashby’s. It is what it is. However, Ashby, remember that name, presented his law also in a different way:

The law of Requisite Variety says that R’s capacity as a regulator cannot exceed R’s capacity as a channel of communication.

There it is! That is the way to use it, to fix our “problem”. The capacity as a channel of communication, that’s our bottle neck. If you want – and you do, because you need security – to grow, to develop, to evolve: create bigger, better channels of communication. The solution is not in the dykes, they have become part of the problem, it is in the channel. Seek no liberation of fear in laws that control, they’re just suffocating freedom of expression. Do not wait for a leader to follow, but develop your ability go with the flow.

— next time —

What do you mean by communicating? What is this thing called “communication”? Who is in charge of the channels? How to exploit this and cooperate with the Law? Which existential question do we have to address? How to deal with life and death, isolation and groups, freedom and dependency and this thing called “meaning”? What is Ashby’s Law trying to teach us? Stay tuned.

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Seven ways to measure the impact of facilitation

Recently I was asked:

“What evidence can I produce to answer the challenge of the CEO, community leader, politician, etc. who questions the value of taking a participatory approach at all, who sees it only as a more expensive, more time and people consuming effort to come up with a solution which maybe they can come up with in a fraction of the time? Do I have evidence that such an approach will not only make people feel good, but lead to e.g. higher levels of efficiency, effectiveness, higher rates of implementation of plans, etc.? Can I only tell stories, or can I produce data?” – J.D.


I wrote, that facilitation belongs to a class of irrational modes of change, and not to the classical, analytical modes. The impact cannot be measured in the classical way, like in physics. There are however several other ways to measure impact of facilitation.

1. Operational closed. Human beings and groups belong to a class of what Maturana and Varela have named autopoietic systems. They are self-referential, “operationally closed” and cannot know how they work. They themselves can measure the impact of facilitation and answer what made it so for them.

2. Quality by default unmeasurable. Quality cannot be measured quantitatively, that’s why we have to use words like “quality” and “quantity”. And even a quantity can depend on the circumstance: the weight of a stone on the moon is less then its weight on earth. (The mass isn’t). Quality is about the way (‘qua”) you relate (“li”) to the quantities. The quantity of a diamond stone is expressed in weight, and its quality is in the wedding ring. So also look at the behavior of a group at a facilitated session, for instance the interactions during the meeting and their reluctance to leave.

3. “prétentieux, moi?” Communication is part of the problem: what does your client mean by “challenge”? Is the challenge to solve a problem or an issue? Is the challenge to be understood? Or to be meaningful? Is the challenge a next election, a promotion or is the challenge supporting others to perform (and thus gain a promotion)? What if a participatory meeting is the challenge, and the client assumes that (s)he should lead such a meeting.

As a facilitator, you’re in a double bind, because you cannot ask these questions without a change to loose your customer. So always ask participants at the beginning of a meeting, what they think a challenging result will be for them! In 9 out of 10 cases, it will be more challenging then the client expected.

4. Attribution of success. People – and this includes me -, assume that their success is a result of their own intentions and actions and their failure a consequence of external causes, while the success of somebody else is due to circumstance and luck and their failure a results from wrong intentions and actions. This is a psychological law. William James formulated it like: Self-image equals success divided by pretensions. So let the participants create a high level of self-image.

Act, look, feel successful, conduct yourself accordingly, and you will be amazed at the positive results.

5. Stories are data too. Numbers are a quantified expression of an opinion. Physicist tell stories, they call it “Gedanken Experiment“, so it sounds better. They adapt their stories to the measurements too and then flip the class room. In our book “Diverging Conversations on Facilitation” every story starts with an actual quote by a client of one of the 24 facilitators who wrote a case story. Let people share the stories about your sessions.

6. Work towards an attainable goal. Andrea Zittel wrote a list of things she knows for sure. On number 14 we find:

14. People are most happy when they are moving towards something not quite yet attained

So always create a session with concrete, attainable goals and end a session on a conversation on the attainability of the new goals and how we can support each other in reaching them.

7. Meaningful life. Human beings need and want to be meaningful. The client as well as the participants need or want to be meaningful. This can be done (1) through actually working together, (2) Through experiencing something or meeting somebody and (3) – this is the difficult part – the acceptance of suffering. We have a tendency to avoid suffering, or worse, inflict it on others. But if something is easy, it isn’t worth it.

Bonus. There are qualified qualitative methods to measure the impact of facilitation. Only nobody wants to employ them and facilitators don’t understand this.  Here is an example:

  • Ask participants at the end of a meeting an open question: “What did you experience during this workshop?”
  • List the answers (“I felt involved”, “interesting technique”, “I didn’t understand the question”, “good coffee”, …. ) .
  • Then ask them all to say which of the answers they don’t agree with. If all agree: use the answer. If over 10 – 15% of the participants don’t agree with an answer, eliminate it.
  • Then, afterwards, “code” the answers. (“opening”, “dealing with resistance”, “concrete results”, “space”, “method”, ….).
  • Do this in a series of sessions and publish the results, including the original answers and the coding used.
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Communication as the problem to the answer

In answer to Groups as complex systems, excerpt from the ‘Social Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’

Biological, living systems and their derivatives (groups) create themselves through self-reference and perform autopoesis. We call autopoesis “complex adaptive systems”, because they are “operationally closed”. Complex basically says, we don’t know the causes, don’t know how it works. They — and we -have no access to their working. This closure is inherent, so there is no way we’ll ever know how “it works”. When you don’t know how it works, you cannot design it, and, vice versa, living systems are self-designing systems (a.k.a. evolution). 

All adaptive behavior is communication and all communicating is behaving, they’re equivalent. Interestingly, our system of thought is also a complex adaptive system — self-referent, operationally closed (I don’t know “how I know”)  — and a way of communicating. Because we have only access to the behavior of our body through our senses and to any other system through the same senses, we communicate our own behavior on that system, through behavior by referring to our senses. Thinking then becomes a set of metaphors”, telling about sensory experience.

“Groups are also responsive to information concerning the context in which they operate and their impact on that context, and will adapt in response to feedback about the efficacy of their actions.” ( ) For instance, the use of “response” suggests such. Or: groups don’t “respond”, human beings respond. “.. Influential variables in a group can include written and unwritten norms that dictate behaviour, …) Norms don’t dictate, human beings dictate. Ideas don’t coordinate behaviour, human beings coordinate behavior through behaving. Communication “is” coordinated behavior. Language is a human made tool in order to coordinate behaviour (and a very effective and efficient one, I must say). The simplest way to coordinate behaviour is “telling” and “selling” — including, i’m afraid, “designing”. However, we cannot coordinate complex adaptive systems through telling (it has been tried for ages, the results are still negative). The idea of “designing” a better system is, i hate to say so, the “behave spontaneous”-paradox and will always lead to utopian thinking. (paradox: “wouldn’t it be great, a world without utopia’s”)

Complex adaptive systems develop themselves through strengthening their evolutionary processes of communicating. Ashby’s law (The Law of the Requiste Variety), clearly states, that the development of a (complex adaptive system) is constrained by its capacity to communicate. Communication and the constraints in communicating is — off course — part of the problem (# Communication is the problem to the answer # 10CC ).  

The constraint we’re now facing is an interesting one, a kind of limit to cooperating, induced through the problem of distributing wealth (or profit, or gains, or …) through the advancement of communicating systems (and also, that’s why “communion” is also used in sharing bread and whine — other story). On the one hand, some people profit extraordinary from the current system (“lucky free riders”, though they pose themselves as “responsible leaders”), while at the same time crucial elements remain under produced, as there seems no “profit” in them. Our human systems are at the same constraint cellular biological systems faced billions of years ago which led to the invention of RNA/DNA.

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Towards conversational evolution

Gesprek - Inleiding Homan is one of the most interesting I’m following. I think it is connected with Antifragility by Nassim Taleb and Homo Deus by Harari. One of its latest post I’ve added these comments.

All laws of physics emerge from a paradoxical pair (like + and -, up – down, …). The tension between the alternatives is being released through motion, which can be used to do “work”. Conservation of energy – First Law – means also conservation of paradox. Like energy, paradoxes are converted into each other. The “lowest” type is heath, which is motion, action, the processes of conversing.

Between groups there are three inter-group paradoxes (Smith and Berg – Paradoxes of Group Life):
paradox of scarcity / abundance – which makes us create boundaries (which leads to the “problem” of migration),
paradox of engagement / disengagement (which leads to ingroup / outgroup and for instance the Brexit (“you can check out, but never leave”) and the
paradox of power / powerlessness (which leads to the problems of followers / leadership).
These paradox are in a dynamical equilibrium, creating a chaordic system.

The second law of thermodynamics creates “disorder”, entropy, or better use the verb “entropy creating“. The paradox here is, that an orderly system can produce more disorder then a disorderly system. So “free energy” will use itself to create order, which will be released later in heat, motion. Dissipation orders itself. If is “as if” the universe waits to collapse, because it “knows” that it can collapse with an even bigger bang.

The trick here is to establish a self-organizing, auto-catalyzing, self-referring system, aka “life“, with metastable states, to move away from equilibrium (and death, speaking of paradoxes). Any system needs “free energy” to jump to a more organized state. Once it has done tat, it can propagate itself. This is being called “punctured equilibrium”.

The third law is the law of least action. Every process produces the least amount of action or work. In order to do a lot of work, one needs a lot of “free” energy. Off course, nothing in life is “free”, so the equivalence here is, that we “pay” through disruptions, suffering, devastation. At least, until now, in the classical way, using unintentional evolution.

I suppose the next step is to get into intentional evolution. I think we need to use the paradoxes of power here: the interesting thing is, that power is connected with the use of energy. Power needs connections, a network, a grid. (I do think that the current “energy transition” is also part of the solution / problem). Also, a network structures, guides. We’re now witnessing the auto-organizing process of the internet. The way this work, is that first power is being concentrated, “attracted” – for instance in Google, Amazon, … much like the current great powers. This type of situation is fragile, very fragile, hyper critical and will be released into a new way of organizing. I suspect that we’ll create a network of distributed, local power. This type of organizing processes will use facilitative leadership.

It took a while to find it, but the article The evolution of cooperative organisation gives an interesting option: a new type of management. Stewart – interesting name – explains how RNA/DNA offers a digital type of “managing” the analogue type of evolution of metabolizing molecules. In way, they co-evolve. The basic problem with our current type of management, is that managers benefit more from coordinating cooperation than the participants in the organization. They’re having the power, but they do not use it to also share the benefits of cooperation. This is because the myth of “the invisible hand”. There is no “invisible hand” (or an all-seeing eye-in-the-sky). The other myth, the communist tale, doesn’t work either, because also here, it propagates a “winner takes all”. Taleb discusses this point from another perspective: managers don’t carry the risks of failure anymore (but say they do).

So, we’re at the edge of a systemic transformation, the development of a new type of leadership, which I call facilitative leadership. These leaders don’t get big benefits from managing or coordinating an organization. Because the don’t lead the organization in the traditional way. We lead the organizations through leading conversations, having dialogues. They do not command and control, but listen to the participants and check their assumptions. They guide the conversations into effective and efficient actions. And not only do they guide the conversation, they also manage the distribution of wealth through conversations. These leaders use the power of expressing by creating new myths. We’re seeing the emergence of this type of leadership in Agile, Deep Democracy, Dialogue, Intuitive Intelligence, Sociocracy, Systemic Work, … And what we’ll have to endure is the death struggle of the old system.

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U are reading this

On Quora there was this question: What is the link between mind, brain and consciousness?

Here is my answer, with some additions between [].

You. You are. You are the (missing) link. And “we” are, that is to say, the projection of me and our relationship (= link), implied by the use of language. Every thought is being thought by a human being. And this thought is being thought by U. [Added: at this very moment] Human beings think, using a part of our body called “brain”. Assigning “mind” or “consciousness” to a brain is like assigning “motion” and “movement” to you legs. What is the link between motion, legs and movement? The runner. So the question I read is: “who is running?” or “who is thinking this thought?”. (this, in my opinion, is why we are being moved by e-motion, or should we call it i-motion?).

Bennett and Hacker explain this in more detail in Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. They’re calling this the “mereological fallacy”: a whole is not the sum of its part, it is the product of the parts and therefore a different logical type. Some words point to or refer to an element (fact), some to a relationship between elements which we cannot point at (fiction). What is the link between a word and its meaning? You are. You’re making it up (fact and fiction).

The words look the same – words – and (mind you! and and not but) what they refer to creates a paradox. Language is also meta-language (about “saying something about what is being said”) and therefore always implies a speaker. (S)He creates the links, like you’re doing while reading this.

[Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D schrijft in: Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: “Indeed, all the functions of implicit intricacy in language and situations are functions of the body.” (cursivering door de auteur)]

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