Tamarack Conference – Day One

I am enjoying the  Tamarack 2010 Communities Collaborating Institute (CCI2010).

Paul Born, president and co-founder of Tamarack,  opened the conference with the Stone Soup story, a children’s story that teaches the value of cooperation and collaboration amongst community members, the importance of leadership and ingenuity, not to mention the power of story telling.

Our workshop guide also contains a very compelling and pot-stirring piece from Margaret Wheatley, which I will comment on another time. I do encourage you to visit her site, however. Many of her articles are posted there.

The key note speaker was Thomas Homer Dixon. His topic: Chaos, Uncertainty and the Possibility of Collaboration. I understand his PP notes will be circulated post conference, but I did take a few notes and then participated afterward in a learning pod which discussed his presentation and then I attended his workshop in the afternoon.

I should provide some context to my attendance of this conference. I am here as the executive director of the NPVS Table of ANVSI. My role there, but also my role as a consultant to non profit organizations, is more focused on organizational collaboration and change more so than on community building work that many of my colleagues here engage in. Clearly there are connections, but the context may be somewhat different and will no doubt impact my comments.

R. Homer-Dixon spoke about complex systems and their interconnectivity. These are systems that are more than the sum of their parts, exhibit multiple patterns of behaviour, do not manifest in linear ways, and are very difficult to manage. If I understand him correctly, our economy, the child welfare system, poverty reduction, and on and on are examples. Complex systems exist to address complex problems or issues and while we might all nod our heads at the common sense of that, the challenge facing our communities includes this habit we have of trying to simplify problems and solutions into manageable actions that we form through our status quo lens.

And it seems that if we cannot do that, we (we being human beings) become resistant.  We might suffer from “cognitive inertia” due to information overload or how we see a problem might be affected by our “availability bias.”  Dr. Homer-Dixon described the latter as being affected by what has happened to us recently and using that as a lens.  For example, if my home was recently burglarized, I likely will not be all that open to a half way house program down the street.

I might be resistant to a problem or issue or a solution to one because of my “identity bias.”  I have a vested interest in of course in how I see the world and interact with it. Any new paradigm threatens that and I am likely not going to be all that amenable to life-changing ideas, especially those that challenge who I am fundamentally or what I have believed for years.

I might be lulled into not seeing a problem because of an “economic bias” that offers up misleading price signals. For example, given that the demand for oil is rapidly outpacing oil reserves and anticipated production, the price of oil appears to be arbitrarily much lower than it should be. In this case the price implies there is not really all that big of a problem.

The “political bias” – at least the one I remember being discussed – is all about the short time horizons politicians and governments feel compelled to work within. Politicians want to get re-elected so they have to produce results or “quick fixes”. Maybe this is one reason why, as Dr. Homer-Dixon pointed out, there has been no progress on climate change; it can’t be quick-fixed. In fact sometimes I wonder if governments argue against addressing climate change for that reason alone: it will take too long to fix it, so let’s argue that it isn’t a problem.

I imagine all of us can see these resistors at work within ourselves and in our organizations. It is not that resistors are inherently bad. Imagine, for example, if we had no resistors. We would be batted about by new ideas and never stick to anything. So resistors are filters of a kind, but when the filters become the message – that’s when there is work to do.

There is so much more I want to write about but I will do it in manageable doses. More on the thought provoking session another time. Meanwhile, visit his website (link above) if you want to challenge your thinking on organizational, community, national, and world-wide change.

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