Adam Kahane gave the first keynote speech that set the tone for the conference. He spoke of the language of power – the drive to act and the language of love – the drive to connect as two irreducible polarities in practice. Neither could function without the other and yet there are tremendous challenges to become bilingual. He offered a framework of falling, hobbling, lurching, stepping and flowing to describe a natural growth path. For those who are not yet familiar with Adam’s work, he is an internationally recognized expert on conflict resolution of the most serious kind, including interracial dialogues in South Africa and between Guatemalan guerillas and the government. His book, “Solving Tough Problems” was endorsed by Nelson Mandela as revolutionary. I missed much of his talk due to a business meeting but caught the tail end of the Q&A session. Adam made two comments that caught my attention:
• He felt that he has only written one half of the story in “Solving Tough Problems” and that part is about Love. He is still struggling with the Power part.
• He is convinced that power without love is abusive but love without power is sentimental and anemic. He went as far as saying that love without power is much worse than power without love since the opportunities for perversion is unlimited in the former case.
From the perspective of theory U, it is quite clear that Adam is making a differentiation between Open Heart and Open Will. Love as he defined it requires open heart, which he experienced and described elegantly in “Solving Tough Problems”, but he felt that the chapter on Open Will is still incomplete in his book and it’s the more important chapter in the context of solving even tougher problems facing humanity at this time.
My 2nd experience was with Diana Smith, who wrote a new book called “Divide or Conquer”. Her major theme is that relationships are everything and make or break all business success. For those of us familiar with theory U, there is really nothing new in the notion itself. Social complexity trumps and encompasses dynamic complexity when it comes to problem solving. But Diana brought some new rigor to relationship skills. Many or even most people mistake relationship development as “schmoozing”, the kind of skillful flattery and small talk common at social and business dinners. Diana has something very different in mind. Her co-presenter was Vanessa Kirsch, the CEO of New Profit Inc., a venture capital firm in social entrepreneurship that has raised more than $120 million in the past 6 years, 80 million in the last year alone. Vanessa attributed a large part of her success to the relationship skills that Diana brought to her and her team. During the Q&A session, I asked Vanessa what motivated her to team up with Diana in the first place. She acknowledged that it was triggered by a personal crisis. Two other partners with whom she started the venture left the firm and she was advised by the board to seek help from a professional coach. Diana made two critical points often obscured about relationships:
• Relationship is built, not born. It does not necessarily take “chemistry” out of the game but definitely downgrade it to secondary;
• Relationship must be recognized as an investment and there is a strategic matrix to help one decide where and how much to invest one’s finite relational capital. It sounds so simple but many people are confused by the righteousness of undifferentiated love that they fail to acknowledge or even become paralyzed by the imperfections of their relationships
In some respect, Diana is actually beginning to address the challenges posed by Adam Kahane since not only she recognizes the power of love or relationships but also the finite resources available for such relationships. The latter naturally calls into question where to invest such finite resources. It takes human will to make such investment decisions. It is not a full solution since Diana’s investment matrix leaves out value systems that are critical to reach Open Will. Nevertheless, it was a very useful first step.
My 3rd experience was with Skip Griffins from Dialogos. I missed Bill Issacs’ talk due to another business conference call. By the time I finished the call, I was 5 minutes late and Bill’s room was beyond capacity (they made a mistake of allocating a small-size room based on Bill’s one page abstract!) Skip told a story of the civil rights movement that was more insightful than any I have heard to date. His main point is that change is the by-products of commitments and must not be over emphasized. The way to achieve large-scale change is through changing the “mood” in people, which will in turn effect change internally and sustainably. The most effective way of changing the “mood” is through songs and rhythms. He argues that the pack of ten Southern Church songs played a more significant role in the civil rights movement than the political marches.
There is once again a theme of power and love in Skip’s rendition of the civil rights movement. Despite his sentimental reservations on change, he was talking about change nevertheless, a different kind of change. What he was really against was brutal force or mechanical change in complex social situations that really call for change of heart. Once again, he stopped well short of touching on the past and future trends of social changes and their ecological contexts. Therefore, Open Will was left alone, again.
The 4th experience was presented by a group of community organizers from Nova Scotia. They described the systemic breakdowns in their local communities (schools, food supplies, housing, etc) and how self-organizing systems seem to emerge exponentially in recent years. One diagram stuck in my mind, it’s the change curve between two systems or paradigms. They describe their efforts of dealing with the fading system as “giving hospice to the old” and the emerging one as nourishing the new born. While this is hardly new to living systems, they were clearly speaking of the language of love, which were re-enforced during Q&A by many people that it is essential that we pay respect to older generations. To balance things out, I had to stick my neck out to point out that we give hospice everyday at work and in communities by maintaining the status quo or oiling the machine while struggling to introduce something new that will ultimately usher in a new future. It is not uncommon for organizations and individuals to be stuck in existing systems and even suppress the growth of new seeds from within. I am talking about the majority of us in Corporate America who are struggling to break out the straggle-hold of the command-control culture to improve our effectiveness and quality of life. We could all do a better job of giving hospice to the old, metaphorically. That is the language of power that is missing from most conversations even among systems thinkers.
Betty Sue Flowers wrapped up the experience of the conference nicely by illustrating the different plots of human stories: war hero worship, religious worship, scientific worship and economic growth worship. She then asked the audience to tell their life stories using three different plots: as heroes, victims and learners. Peter Senge then joined her to drive the point home: the key challenge facing humanity today is the lack of a compelling new story. What is that new story? Peter quoted some work in the tradition of the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. It almost felt like that Peter was trying to “soften the blow” by bringing more human touches to Teilhard’s extraordinary vision to the effect of speaking more of the language of love vs. power …
The theme continued in the afternoon at the Sol membership meeting. This is the second year that I attended the Sol meeting. The scene was almost identical to last year: the language of love permeated the air with an uneasy feeling of something was not quite right with the organization. Sure enough, Sherry, executive director of Sol, opened up with the announcement that Sol will significantly down size its operations at its headquarters and asked members to identify what to preserve. I stuck my neck out, as I did last year, and questioned the key mission of Sol and if we should pay more attention to community development vs. global presence. I did a U diagnosis in front of Peter and everyone to explain the difference and pointed out that geography has nothing to do with meaning creation, which is the true source of a healthy community. I also shared briefly our experience of the past year building One Authentic Swing. It definitely exposed the elephant in the room and prompted passionate conversations. One council member stated publically that we need to put Soul into Sol. Will and how are we going to accomplish that? I wrote a blog and shared it with several friends at Sol, A Journey Less Travelled: Discover the New Soul of Sol
. Stay tuned for what comes next …