Keli’s newsletter from the field....
A Monthly Newsletter
Issue Nº 1 - October 2010
Systems Thinking Mental Models & The Personal Mastery, Shared 3 Core Capacities of Decentralized Systems
The art of systems Ladder of Inﬂuence Vision, Team Learning & Leadership What happens when no one’s in
thinking is learning to Mental models Dialogue Seeing the system, charge?
recognize the determine what we see. What do you want to create of Creative Orientation and The premise: put people into an open
ramiﬁcations and They are the images, yourself and the world around Collaboration Across system and they’ll automatically
tradeoffs of the action assumptions, and you? Boundaries. want to
you choose. stories we carry in our Building a shared vision contribute.
Page 2 minds of ourselves, requires ongoing reﬂection “The more I see Page 5-6
other people, about your core purpose and reality as it is,
institutions and every values. Reﬂection us beyond the more energy I
aspect of the world. our existing aspirations and have to create.”
Page 3 opens the doors to new ones. Page 5
October marks my ﬁrst month of immersion in to the learned that in order to lead one must ﬁrst look
study of organizational learning at MIT and the Society within.
of Organizational Learning in Cambridge,
Massachussets. I came on a mission to ﬁgure out how Personal Mastery is the one of the core disciplines
to develop the CP Yen Foundation into a self-sustaining of Learning Organizations. These are
learning organization. The following articles are bits of organizations where people continually expand
insights I’ve garnered in this ﬁrst month; I invite you their capacity to create the results they truly
to come along and join the learning journey with me! desire; where new and expansive patterns of
thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration
Think of an experience you’d call is set free, and where people are continually
“Leadership.” What for you was the learning to see the whole together. In this
essence of that leadership? newsletter I will speciﬁcally address the topic of
Fall leaves along the Charles river, Leadership and its relationship to learning
When I was ﬁrst asked this question by Peter organizations outlines by the ﬁve disciplines
Senge my mind froze: initially thinking of the Personal Mastery, Systems Thinking, Mental
many times when I failed to act according to my I sat on a lawn chair one afternoon gazing at
Models, Shared Vision, and Team Learning.
ideals, such as the shame I felt this morning when this exact scene and enjoying the serene
sounds of wind tickling leaves. Reading the
I saw a little child get caught in a bus door ... and I Following these topics I’ll introduce a concept
book The Starﬁsh and the Spider: the
failed to act boldly to help her. My second that’s inspired me to envision the CP Yen
unstoppable power of leaderless
thought was about the inherent leadership I most organizations, I let inspiration ﬁll my mind. Foundation as embodying a learning organization
enjoy speaking with others about. Uncovering Read highlights of the book in this newsletter through a “decentralized structure.” Stay tuned to
and opening the channel for direct expression of and tell me the inspirations that come to you! upcoming newsletters to see what this means for
our inherent genuine qualities is the essence of you.
leadership. What makes our leadership
outstanding is when we apply it to the visions My inability to offer an immediate answer to this I leave you with these provocative words by Arie
most dear to us. simple question both shocked and motivated me De Geus, head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell,
to dig further into myself and discover the “The ability to learn faster than your competitors
Pater waged more penetrating questions: response. After all, I am the only person has the may be the only sustainable competitive
“What do you stand for? What is your
purpose and “work” in life?” My time in Cambridge has equally been about May your learning be rich and continuous!
personal discovery as about organizational
How do you feel when you try to answer these development. Hanging around Peter, I soon ~ Keli Yen
Distinguishing Detail Complexity from Dynamic Complexity. Detail
The Incomplete Leader complexity arises when there are many variables; dynamic complexity arises
when cause and effect are distant in time and space and when the
What do you expect of your leaders? Should they have the intellectual capacity to
consequences over time of interventions are subtle. The leverage in most
make sense of extreme complexity, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the
management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail
future, the charisma to attract others to the cause, as well as the operational know-
how to translate strategy to immediate and pragmatic results...
How realistic is it to expect this much of a single person? Well, the idea of such a Focusing on Areas of High Leverage. Systems thinking shows that small,
complete leader sounds like a myth to me. It’s time I believe that we individually and well-focused actions can produce signiﬁcant, enduring improvements, if they
collectively begin embrace our incomplete leaders. are in the right place. Tackling a difﬁcult problem is often a matter of seeing
where the high leverage lies, where a change with a minimum of effort would
The implication for management of embracing our incompleteness is to accept lead to lasting and signiﬁcant improvement.
that no one can control anything. Such a recognition pierces through
mentalities of hierarchy, for when a group collectively realizes that nobody Avoiding symptomatic solutions. The pressures to intervene in management
has the answer, it transforms the quality of interaction in a remarkable way. systems that are going awry can be overwhelming. Due to the linear thinking
Employees are no longer passive players in the equation but are challenged that predominates in most organizations, interventions usually focus on
with the responsibility to create the results they truly desire. symptomatic ﬁxes, not underlying causes. This creates temporary relief and
still more pressures later on for more low-leverage intervention. If leaders
In today’s world, the leader’s job is no longer to command and control they
acquiesce to these pressures, they can be sucked into an endless spiral of
instead are called upon to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others in all
increasing interventions. Sometimes the most difﬁcult yet critical leadership
parts of the organization. Such learning organizations are based on the basic
acts are to refrain from intervening through popular quick ﬁxes and to keep
premise that if people can put aside their old ways of thinking (mental
the pressure on everyone to identify more enduring solutions.
models), learn to be open with others (personal mastery), understand how
the company really works (systems thinking), form a plan everyone can
I’d like to introduce one common
agree on (shared vision) and then work together to achieve that vision (team
pattern of behavior; it’s called
learning) then they will continually expand their capacity to create the
“Shifting the Burden”. Follow the
results they truly desire; where new and expansive patterns of thinking are
arrows on the diagram at right, this is
nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are
a “Shifting the Burden” archetype
continually learning to see the whole together. The following article will
depicting how a problem symptom
highlight my recent learnings on the ﬁve disciplines of learning organizations.
can be addressed by applying a short
term solution. Despite initial periods
Systems Thinking where things seem to have gotten
better the problem persists and side
From an early age, we're taught to break apart problems to make complex effects are generated. While
tasks and subjects easier to deal with; but this tends to create a bigger fundamental solutions will reduce the
problem: we lose the ability to see the consequences of our actions, and we initial problem they often aren’t chosen simply because of delays that occur
lose a sense of connection to a larger whole. If you look at the relationships before the beneﬁts are felt. What situations have you been in that characterize
between simple cause and effect, you’ll ﬁnd inﬁnite complexity and no this pattern of behavior? Can you identify where a delay in the sytstem
inherent end or solution to one problem. The quest for improving life’s feedback may have been the only obstacle standing between your problem
conditions is to look at how we individually and as a group relate to symptom and a fundamental solution?
complexity; this is systems thinking.
"It's not my fault, It’s the system. I have no control”
The best and most poetic way for me to summarize systems thinking is to
Have you ever heard someone say these words before? Complexity is often share with you a few verses from Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the
experienced as overwhelming and disempowering. Yet by seeing the patterns Heart Sutra:
underlying events and details we can simplify life. One inherent
contradiction is that people learn best from experience but don’t directly If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud ﬂoating in this
experience the consequences of many of their most important decisions. For sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees
this reason people tend to focus on “solutions” that produce improvements in cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is
a relatively short time span even though short-term ﬁxes generally produce essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper
long-term costs. Take for example a company cutting back on research and cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
development to bring very quick cost savings, but that action damages the “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine
organization’s long-term viability. Better appreciation of systems will lead to the preﬁx “inter-” with the verb “to be”, we have a new verb, inter-be.
more appropriate action and some speciﬁc key beneﬁts for leaders: Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the
sheet of paper inter-are.
Seeing Interrelationships: Systems thinking starts with understanding the
concept of feedback. Feedback shows how all actions have a reinforcing or If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine
counteracting (balancing) effect. For instance, in an arms race each party is in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing
convinced that the other is the cause of the problem and react to each new can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that
move as an isolated event; so long as they fail to see the interrelationships of the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-
these actions, they are trapped. are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and
brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat.
Moving Beyond Blame. We tend to blame each other or outside We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore
circumstances for our problems. But it is poorly designed systems, not the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the
incompetent or unmotivated individuals that cause most organizational logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see
problems. Structure creates behavior. There is no “external,” both you & the that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
cause of your problems are part of a single system.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. abstraction which leads to misguided beliefs. It I select. And then I reﬂexively “jump up the
This is not difﬁcult to see, because when we look at a shows how rapidly we can leap to knee-jerk ladder” to generalizations like stereotypes.
sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our conclusions with no intermediate thought process
perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So and without a basis of raw data. In general our ability to achieve the results we
we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of truly desire is eroded by our feelings that:
paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here - - Our beliefs are the truth.
time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, - The truth is obvious.
the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything - Our beliefs are based on real data
co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think - The data we select are the real data.
the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is
to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You The goal is to slow down and be aware of
have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of interpretations; then one can have some control.
paper is, because everything else is.
Reﬂection is the act of slowing down our thinking
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its processes to become more aware of how we form
source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do our mental models. Inquiry is holding
you think that this sheet of paper would be possible? conversations where we openly share views and
NO, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we develop knowledge about each other’s
return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of assumptions.
paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made
up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return The discipline of reﬂection and inquiry skills is
these non-paper elements to their sources, then there focused around developing awareness of the
can be no paper at al. Without non-paper elements, like attitudes and perceptions that inﬂuence thought
mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no and interaction. By continually reﬂecting upon,
paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains Take a look at the image above showing various talking about and reconsidering these internal
everything in the universe in it levels of our thought habits and levels of pictures of the world, people can gain more
perception: Observable Data and experiences capability in governing their actions and decisions.
occur. From what I observe I Select Data. I then
add meanings based on my own cultural and To help slow down, try asking these questions of
personal interpretations. Then I may make yourself:
Mental Models assumptions based on the meanings that I added. Q: How did I jump up the ladder?
I then draw conclusions. This fuels the beliefs I Q: What might I have done differently?
Mental Models determine what we see. They are
adopt about the world. And ﬁnally I take actions Q: What is it that I really want to create? Are my
the images, assumptions, and stories we carry in
based on my beliefs. The caveat is that our habits consistent with that?
our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions,
understanding of the world is generated from a Q: What is the observable data supporting my/our
and every aspect of the world; and, they are all
ﬁltering of data that I have selected, and then conclusions?
ﬂawed in some way.
altered once more by the meanings and Q: Would everyone agree on what the data is?
assumptions I attach to them. The insight here for Q: Can you run me through your reasoning?
The discipline of mental models starts with
me is that the conclusions I draw are uniquely Q: How did we get from that data to these
turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our
manufactured by my mind. assumptions?
internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the Q: When you said “[your inference]”, did you
surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It
Of course I can't live my life without adding mean “[my interpretation of it]”.
also includes the ability to have conversations
meaning or drawing conclusions, but I can When embedded into a team practice, this tool is
which balance inquiry and advocacy where people
improve my thought process by using the ladder helpful for improving communication. The
expose their own thinking and allow that thinking
of inference in three ways: process brings awareness to our choice-making
open to be inﬂuenced by others.
1.Becoming more aware of my own thinking and about our perception of the world.
The Ladder of Inﬂuence is a conceptual device that
2.Making my thinking and reasoning more visible Working with mental models offers the highest
will help you develop awareness of your mental
to others (advocacy); leverage for change. The core task of this
3.Inquiring into one’s thinking and reasoning discipline is bringing them to the surface, to
(inquiry). explore and discuss free of defensiveness - to see
its impact on our lives and to ﬁnd ways to create
The Ladder of Inﬂuence Because I am habituated to my own meaning new mental models that serve us better in the
Developed by Chris Argyis, The Ladder of inference making process, it feels invisible to me. “Reﬂexive world by linking imagination with action.
is a common mental pathway of increasing loops” occur when my beliefs inﬂuence what data
you’ll likely be surprised to discover that a and alter the cultural meanings present within
Personal Mastery deeply personal vision has basic society that could heal the sources of mass
commonalities with the vision of others. This conﬂict and violence.
In the workshops with Peter, we spent substantial
is what naturally leads a group’s shared vision 3. Physicist David Bohm compared dialogue to
time on the discipline of Personal Mastery.
to emerge. superconductivity. Electrons cooled to very
low temperatures act more like a coherent
Personal Mastery Principle #1:
whole than as separate parts. They ﬂow
★ Focus on what you truly want to create (not
around obstacles without colliding with one
what you think you need to do to achieve it).
When you really say the truth about what you
Shared Vision another, creating no resistance and very high
Visions spread because of a reinforcing process. energy. At higher temperatures (i.e. stress &
want to create, amazing things start to happen.
As people talk, the vision grows clearer. As it gets tough issues) however, they act like separate
Personal Mastery is being realistic, focusing on
clearer, enthusiasm for its beneﬁts grow. Most parts scattering into a random movement and
becoming the best person possible, and having
importantly, people become truly committed to a losing momentum.
commitment for realizing one’s potential. People
with a high level of personal mastery live in a shared vision when it reﬂects their own personal
vision. Dialogue likewise seeks to produce a “cooler”
continual learning mode (They never arrive, it’s a
shared environment. A group moves through
lifelong discipline). Being realistic means they are
Management’s role is rehearsing and reinforcing various shared environments, also known as
acutely aware of their ignorance, their
the vision through company values: a commitment containers. A container can be understood as the
incompetence, their growth areas, and they are
to common goals. Shared vision is vital for sum of collective assumptions, shared intentions
also deeply self-conﬁdent.
learning organizations because it provides the and beliefs in a group. Bohm suggests that
What an individual holds in his consciousness focus and energy for learning; people strive to dialogue brings to the surface and alters a tacit
tends to become real in the external world, learn and excel because they want to. infrastructure of thought and enables people to
therefore we do visioning exercises. We learned perceive assumptions taken for granted (collective
experientially that our personal vision is the key to norms), creating a setting where conscious
The mark of a truly powerful vision is one that
unlocking our underlying purpose and applying it collective mindfulness can occur.
inspires and motivates the best in people.
with action and commitment.
William Isaacs, founder of Dialogos, is an expert on
When one is out of touch with purpose they are
said to experience inner toil and pursue objectives
Team Learning how to make dialogue happen in organizations
that have traditionally used adversarial
that drain their energy (as well as use approaches to governance and methods of
Team learning is the process of aligning and
manipulation to achieve those objectives). When interaction. These include the idea of evolving a
developing the capacities of a team to create the
an individual’s vision aligns with personal container in which dialogue can take place. The
results its members truly desire. It builds on
purpose a powerful reinforcing process emerges as four containers are named below:
personal mastery and shared vision – but these are
one becomes increasingly internally aligned, and
not enough, people need to be able to act together.
the results s/he create in life are more consistent Phase 1: Instability of the Container:
with a clearer vision and a creative capacity. When individuals ﬁrst come together they bring
The discipline of team learning starts with dialogue,
the capacity of members of a team to suspend different perspectives with them. This is when
Individual vision is also fundamental for a group
assumptions and genuinely think together. To the dialogue meets its ﬁrst crisis: seeing the group
to become committed to a common endeavor.
Greeks dia-logos meant a free-ﬂowing of meaning rather than as separate individuals.
Eventually the underlying purpose and vision of
that group, as a whole, naturally emerges. through a group allowing that group to discover
insights not attainable individually (this also Gradually people realize that they can choose to
A systemic view of personal power means includes recognizing interactions in teams that suspend their views, loosen their grip on certainty,
empowering the individual to manifest his/her undermine learning). and observe the way they have habitually made
own personal power simultaneously with and acted upon assumptions. Rather than old
empowering the organization to manifest its habits of dissecting or defending previously held
Dialogue, is a discipline of collective thinking and
purpose. Just as a jazz ensemble or a sports team positions, by simply asking “let us see where this
inquiry, a process for transforming the quality of
merges together in collective ﬂow, so too will your instability, this chaos came from” a group can
conversation, and in particular the thinking that
organization. move in to dialogue.
lies beneath it. When dialogue is joined with
systems thinking there is the possibility for
I suggest practicing Visioning. To begin I suggest creating a language more suited for dealing with Phase 2: Instability in the Container:
following these guidelines: As the underlying fragmentation and incoherence
complexity, and of focusing on profound structural
in everyone’s thought begins to appear people
motivators rather than being distracted by
Visioning Guidelines often start to feel frustrated at this phase of the
superﬁcial questions of personality and style.
‣ Focus on the result, not the process. dialogue. No point of view seems to encompass
‣Focus on what you want, not what seems possible all the truth any longer and no conclusion seems to
nor on getting rid of what you don’t want.
‣Be speciﬁc: you would know it if you had it.
Dialogue be deﬁnitive. Participants feel unsure where the
group is heading, they feel disoriented and even
‣See it in the present. First, a bit of history about the study of dialogue marginalized or constrained by others.
‣Put yourself in the picture. through the work of three key 20th century
‣Feel the emotions and sensations. thinkers: Such feelings lead to a “crisis of suspension”
1. The philosopher Martin Buber in 1914 used the where extreme views get voiced and defended.
1. Close your eyes and gradually envision term “dialogue” to describe a mode of This instability feels distressing, yet it’s exactly
various aspects of your life: Health, Home, exchange in which there is a true turning to what should be happening. To manage this
Work, hobbies, relationships and self. one another, and a full appreciation of the other distress everyone must be adequately aware of
2. After the picture is in your mind, name the not as an object in a social function, but as a what is happening; people need not panic,
parts that feels impossible but you really want genuine being. withdraw, ﬁght nor categorize viewpoints as right
it. 2. Psychologist Patrick De Mare in the 1980s or wrong... they just need to listen and inquire.
3. Find a partner and share the story of what you suggested that group “social-therapy” Including listening to themselves: “where am I
saw. If your partner does the same exercise, meetings could enable people to understand listening from? What’s causing my disturbance?”
A skilled facilitator is particularly critical at this Creative tension can be resolved in two ways: by
point to help participants become aware of the 3 Core Capacities of raising current reality toward the vision, or by
limiting categories of thought that are rapidly lowering the vision toward current reality.
gaining momentum in the group. Leadership Individuals and organizations who learn how to
work with creative tension use its energy to move
Leadership can be cultivated by developing three
Phase 3: Inquiry in the Container: reality toward their visions.
People begin to inquire together as a whole. They 1. See the system
become sensitive to the ways that the dialogue is Creative tension is different from problem solving.
2. Creative Orientation
affecting all the people in the group and they start With problem solving the energy for change comes
3. Collaborating Across Boundaries
to see from the whole. from attempting to get away from an aspect of
current reality that is undesirable. With creative
Phase 4: Creativity in the Container: tension, the energy for change comes from the
Where new understandings based on collective vision, from what we want to create, juxtaposed
perceptions emerge and people engage in more with current reality (note: 80% of the work is on
generative thinking together. understanding the current reality). While the
distinction may seem small, the consequences are
Map of the Dialogue Process by “Containers”: not. Many people and organizations ﬁnd
themselves motivated to change only when their
1. Seeing system facilitates collaboration across
problems are bad enough to cause them to change.
boundaries and the shifting from reactive to
This works for a while, but the change process
runs out of steam as soon as the problems driving
the change become less pressing. With problem
Systemic problems are an expression of how we
solving, the motivation for change is extrinsic.
operate and the consequences of that. The
With creative tension, the motivation is intrinsic.
premise is that if people intuitively understand
the system then they’ll naturally balance and
regulate themselves. A good systems thinker,
Finally in the last section of this newsletter, I want
particularly in an organizational setting, is
to put some ideas on the table about decentralized
someone who can see four levels operating
organizational structures. I often wonder how to
simultaneously: events, patterns of behavior,
model the CP Yen Foundation based on the
systems and mental models.
following concepts. I hope to hear your feedback
on how these perspectives have provoked and
Issac’s Dialogue Project realized that facilitation
for dialogue requires an advanced form of group
process, systems work, and leadership
development. Facilitators also need the abilities to The goal is to perceive beyond the event level, gain
create the level of openness and attention awareness of patterns of behavior and then
necessary for dialogue to happen. perceive the fundamental systemic structures that
produce the events.
Initial Guidelines for Dialogue include:
• Suspend assumptions and certainties. 2. Creative
• Observe the observer. Orientation:
• Listen to your listening. Creative tension comes
• Slow down the inquiry. from seeing clearly
• Be aware of thought. where we want to be,
• Befriend polarization. our "vision," and telling
the truth about where
we are, our "current
reality." The gap Senge, Peter, Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., and Smith, B.
between the two (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for
generates a natural Building a Learning Organization. New York: Currency
other member; each group can decide how to react
Decentralized Systems accordingly. Lead by example but never force views on others.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book recently called 7. Is the organization ﬂexible or rigid? In letting go of the leadership role, the catalyst
The Starﬁsh and the Spider: the unstoppable 8. Can you count the employees or participants? transfers ownership and responsibility to the
power of leaderless organizations, below are some 9. Are working groups funded by the circle. The catalyst is an inspirational ﬁgure who
highlights from the book which I think we can organization, or are they self-funding? spurs others to action. Like an architect of a
learn from and integrate at the Foundation: In open orgs. there’s often no central well of house: s/he’s essential to the long-term structural
money. Each unit is responsible for acquiring and integrity, but he doesn’t move in.
• In decentralized systems there’s no clear leader, managing its own funds.
no hierarchy, and no headquarters. If and when 10. Do working groups communicate directly or (3) Ideology
a leader does emerge, that person has little through intermediaries? Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized
power over others. The best that person can do organizations together.
to inﬂuence people is to lead by example. • Craigslist: “the initial idea 10+ yrs ago was mine
(Craig the Founder). The rest of it was just (4) The Preexisting Network
• This is an open system, because everyone is listening to people and providing the The Quakers served as the decentralized platform
entitled to make his or her own decisions. It’s infrastructure to that.” upon which the antislavery movement was built.
different from anarchy because there are rules This piggy-backing effect enabled the abolitionist
and norms, but these aren’t enforced by any one • The big attraction to the site isn’t just free movement to take off. The Quakers were already
person. Rather, the power is distributed among advertisements, it’s community. Craig has well-versed in working together in circles and
all the people and across geographic regions. respect for his users. He lets them be. From the shared a common ideology. For the individual,
user perspective, people don’t notice or care going around on your own without an “army” is a
• The starﬁsh represents a decentralized system whether they’re interacting with a starﬁsh or quixotic. It’s too difﬁcult to build a brand-new
well: it is a network of cells, so if you cut off a not. As long as they’re given freedom, as long decentralized organization, especially if you’re
piece it regenerates into a whole new starﬁsh. as they can do what they want to do, they’re ﬁghting against the “majority”.
In order to move, the one arm must convince the happy.
others that it’s a good idea. No brain “yea” or
Almost every decentralized organization that has
“nays” the decision. • Open systems can’t rely on the police force.
When you give people freedom, you get chaos, made it big was launched from a preexisting
• The organization Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but you also get incredible creativity. Because platform. The founder of AA drew from the
functions like a starﬁsh. When you join, you everyone tries to contribute to the community, Oxford Group, an independent Christian
automatically become part of the leadership. you get a great variety of expression. movement that used circles and a 6 step program
Thus, AA is constantly changing as people come for recovery. Centralized organizations aren’t
and go. The one thing that is constant is the • The Quakers: Quakers had always been non- good platforms. They’re not setup to launch
recovery principle: the 12 steps. Because no one hierarchical. Quaker meetings begin in silence, decentralized movements. Without circles, there
is in charge, everyone is responsible for keeping whichever congregant is moved to speak would isn’t the infrastructure for people to get involved
each other on track. There’s no application speak for as long as s/he wanted. They and take ownership of an idea.
form, and nobody owns AA. believed all people have an “inner light” and
should be treated as equals. (5) The Champion
• If Bill, the creator of AA, was the head, he’d A champion is relentless in promoting a new idea.
have to manage the brand and train applicants There are “5 Legs” to Decentralized
Catalysts are charismatic, and Champions take it
in the AA methodology. He chose to let go. He Organizations:
to the next level. The biggest roadblock to moving
trusted each chapter to do what it thought was from institution paralysis to profound systemic
right. (1) Circles
renewal is the same across all industries: collective
Once you join, you’re an equal. it’s up to you to
leadership capacity to draw together the
• An open system doesn’t have central intelligence, the contribute to the best of your ability. The norms
participation of stakeholders into the process;
intelligence is spread throughout the system. become the backbone of the circle. Members
beginning with uncovering common intention and
Information and knowledge naturally ﬁlter in at enforce the norms with one another because they
ends with collectively creating profound
the edges, closer to where the action is. realize that if they don’t enforce the norms no one
innovation on the scale of the whole system.
will. Due to this self-enforcement, norms can be
• Open systems can easily mutate. Bill of AA was even more powerful than rules. Rules are
no CEO, rather, he served to catalyze a new idea someone else’s idea of what you should do.
and then got out of the way. He left his I leave you with these ideas to get you excited. I’m
organization without a central brain and, in so ready to jump into the next newsletter of learnings
As the norms of a circle develop and as members
doing, gave it the power to mutate and to share with you. From these nuggets of insight I
spend more time together, something fascinating
continually alter its form. hope we together can generate a shared vision of
happens: they begin to trust one another.
the world and life we want to live in. Send me
Members assume the best of each other, and
How to identify a decentralized system? Here are your thoughts. I conclude with letting the ripples
generally that’s what they get in return.
some questions to guide your inquiry: of these words reverberate in you:
1. Is there a person in charge?
The fact that Wikipedia isn’t overrun by vandals is
2. Are there headquarters? Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance,
testament to the fact that most people, given the
3. If you chop off its head, will it die? summarizes his learning as CEO: “the success of
chance, want to make a positive contribution.
4. Is there a clear division of roles? an intervention depends on the interior condition of
Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, says: ‘Wikipedia
In a decentralized org. anyone can do anything. the intervenor.” Success does not depend on What
proves that people are basically good.”
No reporting to a head. You are responsible only leaders do, or How they do it. Instead, it depends
for yourself. on the “interior condition”, the inner place which
(2) The Catalyst
5. If you take out a unit, is the organization leaders operate.”
Catalyst is any element or compound that initiates
a reaction without fusing into that reaction.
6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or
In open organizations, a catalyst is the person who
initiates a circle and then fades away into the Brafman, Ori and Beckstrom, Rod. (2006). The Starﬁsh and the
Each member is assumed to be equally Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. New
background. York: Portfolio Publications
knowledgeable and has power equal to that of any