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February, 2011                                                                                                        Number 9
Welcome to the New Possibilities Associates newsletter. Each month we will offer articles on sustainable solutions to tough problems in environments of rapid change.

New Possibilities Associates LLC is a team of highly qualified facilitators who design and lead retreats, create small and large group experiences and facilitate groups and organizations, as they move from chaos to new results.

We hope you will find these articles useful, interesting and thought provoking. We also hope you will share this with you friends, or unsubscribe if you prefer.

Howard Mason
New Possibilities Associates LLC
In This Issue
From My Experience -- Stillness
Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos -- Gulf Spill Systems Failure
Contact us
Services of New Possibilities Associates LLC
Social Change Book Club 5.0 meets 4th Monday in January

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The New Possibilities Imperative
"For every complex problem there is always an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
- H. L. Mencken

High complexity demands new ways of learning, thinking and solving problems.

About New Possibilities Associates
We Live in a New World

These are unprecedented times. It has simply never been this way before. Our world has never been more interconnected and interdependent.

Leaders today grapple with seemingly insoluble problems - wicked problems - problems that, by the very nature of the world today, don't respond to traditional solutions.

Leaders need to be able to tap the potential for innovation and action in any group or team and to shift recurring group patterns that block productivity and creativity. As executives, managers, consultants and teachers, we need to facilitate rapid growth in the collaborative capacity and collective wisdom of our teams.

New Possibilities Associates knows what it takes for people to successfully lead in the face of complex, diverse and rapidly changing reality.

Our commitment is to finding new solutions to wicked problems. New Possibilities Associates is dedicated to advancing the success of teams that are forming and working together in new ways to make organizations successful, address the most pressing problems, and create sustainable communities.

We support the leaders who are engaging fresh practices and approaches, shifting cultures and bringing new life to their communities and colleagues.
From My Experience
Perspectives on Tucson
Over the course of my working with individuals, groups, organizations and communities on transformational change, some things happen often enough that they demand attention.

It has been almost a month since the tragic shootings in Tucson sent our nation into spasms of grief and debate. It is difficult but worth the effort to try to put those events into perspective.


One perspective can be drawn from our understanding of grief. The five stages that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, describe a process by which people deal with loss and tragedy. Everyone who has been touched, no matter how remotely, by those Tucson events will find themselves experiencing all or some of the five reactions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Everyone experiences these reactions in their own way because of the meaning of the loss each individual brings to it, and how close the loss feels to us.


Denial: Although denial of the events was pretty difficult to maintain very long, there was still plenty to deny: the importance of the events, their personal impact on our security and the images we hold of how the world works, our roles in being both perpetrators and victims, and what is or is not part of the chain of causality leading to the shootings.Grief reactions


Anger: The jump to anger was short and swift for many. And with anger came blame. And the anger and blame was added to the ever growing piles of anger and blame we are accumulating in the American community. There was anger at the disturbed individual who is the shooter, anger at those who would suggest cause beyond the disturbed individual. There was anger at those who make access to mental health services difficult, anger at those who would provide more easily accessible mental health services. There was anger at the availability of firearms, ammunition and high-capacity magazines, there was anger at those who want to make those things harder to get. There was anger at the violent rhetoric in our national discourse, and there was anger at those who attached any causality to violent rhetoric.


Bargaining: This is the "If only...." If only something had been different, this tragedy would not have happened: if only the Congresswoman had not held the meeting that day, if only the troubled young man had found the help he needed through his community college, if only someone else had a gun at the event and could have shot the shooter first, if only guns and ammunition were not so available, if only there was not so much violent rhetoric in our political climate, etc. If only, if only, if only.


Depression: This is the deep sadness that many have felt about whatever aspect of this tragedy their personal meaning creates for them. It is important to remember that feeling this pain is the path to healing. Grief is the pain that heals. The people who experienced the greatest loss will face the greatest pain and now that the national spotlight is off of this event, the people in Tucson have the opportunity to grieve with dignity in privacy.


Acceptance: Life goes on and we integrate this tragedy into our personal and national psyche. It happened, we anguished over it and then we moved on, except for those most directly involved. They continue to experience some or all of these reactions in waves and cycles. For the rest of us, the Tucson tragedy is old news. Some of us slip back into denial about the importance of the events and the opportunity that may have been lost to heal the American community. Others stay in or go back to anger or bargaining. 


All these reactions are normal and predictable. The only surprise is that there is so much surprise when they happen.


It used to be said that for evil to triumph in the world, all that was needed was for good people to do nothing. Today it seems that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to tell themselves that nothing is the best we can do.


Another perspective and an important key for understanding what we can do is in two words that President Obama used in his speech in Tucson: moral imagination. The President's Tucson speech was not his first use of that term - he used in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The term is often used to refer to the work and life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and applies as well to Nelson Mandela, the Dali Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others.


John Paul Lederach gives life and depth to this idea in his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005). Lederach describes the "moral imagination" as the capacity to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. The moral imagination is the capacity to imagine and generate constructive practices that are rooted in the day-to-day challenges of conflict and yet transcend these destructive patterns. In Lederach's view, the moments of possibility that pave the way for constructive change do not arise through the routine application of a set of techniques or strategies, but rather emerge out of something similar to an artistic process. Lederach maintains that the art and soul of social change should inform peace building efforts.


The goal of transcending violence is advanced by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination. This faculty rests on four capacities:

  1. Moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships, one that includes even our enemies.
  2. It requires the ability to embrace complexity without getting caught up in social schism.
  3. It requires a commitment to the creative act.
  4. It requires an acceptance of the risk that necessarily goes along with attempts to transcend violence. 

To foster moral imagination, we must understand the dynamics of protracted conflict, the destructive legacy it leaves, and why breaking violent patterns is so difficult. In addition, we must explore how the creative process can help to bring about social change and transform human relationships.


According to Lederach, the heart of moral imagination is found in four disciplines, each of which requires imagination. These disciplines are relationships, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk.


The Centrality of Relationships: Relationships are the context in which conflict happens and also generate the energy that allows people to transcend violence. As people acknowledge their relational interdependency and recognize themselves as part of the pattern, they may be able to envision a wider set of relationships and take personal responsibility for their own choices and behavior. In short, peace building requires that people be able to envision their interconnectedness and mutuality.


This first discipline seems particularly difficult in the American community now. We seem to be at war over how related and connected we are to one another.


Events viewed as separate
Events viewed as separate

At one end of the continuum are the essentialist views: regarding something (as a presumed human trait) as having innate existence or universal validity rather than as being a social, ideological, or intellectual construct. The troubled shooter acted the way he did because of what and who he was - nothing else is connected or matters. Mental health services, guns and ammunition, violent rhetoric, the frayed fabric of the American community are side issues and do not belong in the discussion.


Events viewed as part of a system
Events viewed as part of a system

At the other end of the continuum are the ecological views: regarding an often delicate or intricate system of complex relations that exists between organisms and their environment. The troubled shooter is parted of a web of influence that contribute to who he is and what he does - it is all connected and matters. Mental health services, guns and ammunition, violent rhetoric, the frayed fabric of the American community are all connected to the events of Tucson, although the connection is complex and not one of direct, straight-line causation.


The Practice of Paradoxical Curiosity: Cycles of conflict are often driven by polarities. Choices about how to respond to conflict are forced into either/or categories: you are either with us or against us. Moral imagination involves the capacity to rise above these divisions and reach beyond accepted meanings. Paradoxical curiosity is a matter of respecting complexity, seeking something beyond what is visible, and discovering what it is that holds apparently opposed social energies together. It involves accepting people at face value, and yet looking beyond appearances and suspending judgment in order to discover untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities.


The American community is deeply divided over what constitutes justice.

On one side of the schism is the belief that a society is morally superior where the affluent are taxed to pay for a social safety net and it is only right for the well off to help the less fortunate. On this side, people believe that wealthy nations have an obligation to proved all their citizens with essential health care.


On the other, people believe that they have a right to keep what they earn and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, is theft and assault on their liberty. This side sees health reform as an attack on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.


Each side passionately believes that other side is wrong. They also may believe that the other side's beliefs are evil and - by extension - the people who hold those beliefs are evil.


Without mobilizing our moral imagination there seems to be no way out of this duality.


Provide Space for the Creative Act: Moral imagination arises through creative human action that develops out of the ordinary and yet moves beyond what exists to something new and unexpected. Because new ways of thinking may pose a threat to the status quo, it is important to have space for the creative act to emerge. This requires a commitment to creativity and a belief that it is possible to move beyond the limits of what is generally accepted. This quality of providing for and expecting the unexpected is well-known in the world of artists and needs to be cultivated in the world of our national conversation. Creativity opens us to avenues of inquiry and provides us with new ways to think about social change.


The Willingness to Risk: To take a risk is to step into the unknown without any guarantee of success or safety. For many people caught in conflict, violence is known, and peace is a mystery. Because healing the American community will require people to move toward a new, mysterious, and unexpected future, it is a difficult journey.


What is called for now is for each of us to kindle a spark of moral imagination and to fan it into a flame. The value of moral imagination lies in the ability to get to the heart and soul of the matter and thereby move from cycles of violence to new relationships.


If we are to survive as a local, national and global communities, we must find ways to foster the moral imagination and recognize that our current modes of response are incapable of overcoming conflict and violence.

  • We must move away from isolation and an emphasis on domination and toward an emphasis on interdependent relationships.
  • We must recognize the complexity of relationships and not fall prey to an "us vs. them" mentality.
  • We must trust that creativity and the capacity for constructive change are always in reach and not look to violence as our sole mode of defense and security.
  • We must accept vulnerability and seek constructive engagement with those people and things we least understand and most fear.

Lederach ends with this instruction:

"Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time."


An excellent summary of J.P. Lederach's Moral Imagination  can be found here


Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos 
Gulf Spill Systems Failure

The Presidentially-appointed Oil Spill Commission in January released its report, Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling, on the causes and consequences of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and proposed comprehensive reforms of both government and industry practices to overhaul the U.S. approach to drilling safety and greatly reduce the chances of a similar, large scale disaster in the future.


The oil spill commission said poor decisions led to technical problems that contributed to the April 20, 2010 accident that killed 11 people and led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Inquiries by BP and Congress have found the same.


BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the three key companies involved with the well and the rig that exploded, each made individual decisions that increased risks of a blowout but saved significant time or money.


But ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon disaster came down to a single failure, the panel says: management. When decisions were made, no one was considering the risk they were taking.


In one example cited by the commission, a BP request to set an "unusually deep cement plug" was approved by the then-Minerals Management Service in 90 minutes. That decision is one of the nine technical and engineering calls the commission says increased the risk of a blowout.


"The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by a rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic, and absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur," the commission concluded.


This disaster offers a lesson we seem to have great difficulty learning: straight-line, closed system decision making fails to protect us from danger and rarely leads us to the best long-term results.


We need to learn to look beyond the surface events, stop settling for the single point-in-time snapshots. If we look below the waterline, we can begin to see the trends or changes over time that are worth detecting and monitoring.


Oil rig systems illustration
Look below the waterline.

And if we go even deeper, we can begin to work with systems and structures that lead to the causal connections or relationships - the area of greatest change or leverage.


The Arctic is an important area for future oil and gas development, based on projections of significant resources and industry interest. In order to assure good decisions are made regarding where, when, and how to develop those resources safely and reduce risk in frontier areas, additional comprehensive scientific, technical, and oil spill response research is needed. But it needs to be considered systematically, with an understanding that failures are systematic and that disasters come from not having the ability to interrupt a cascade of small events leading to a repetition of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of worse.


The same applies to the work of any organization or group. Failure to look below the waterline can lead to unforeseen but predictable disaster.


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New Possibilities Associates LLC
1225 Bates Court
Louisville, KY  40204

Howard Mason, Principal

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Services of
New Possibilities Associates LLC 

New Possibilities Associates LLC is a team of highly qualified facilitators who design and lead retreats, create small and large group experiences and facilitate groups and organizations as they move from chaos to clarity. We specialize in sustainable solutions to tough problems in environments of rapid change.

What does it take to realize sustainable solutions in the face of complexity, diversity and rapid change?

Transforming the well-being of our communities and organizations calls on us to meet new challenges of complexity, uncertainty, diversity and rapid change. Here are some of the ways that New Possibilities Associates can help:

Hosting Conversations for Change
Almost all of our work begins with hosting conversations that matter within organizations and communities. We help the discovery of how much we have in common and how much we collectively know. These conversations lead to deeper understanding and opening the door to the emergence of new possibilities and wiser action. We see more of the whole picture, we develop insights that can guide our actions, we find courage to move forward. It begins by making a place where it is safe to speak our truth and where we are really listening to each other.

Sometimes hosting conversation blends with presenting or training. We look for opportunities to share our learning from communities and organizations about what helps to build healthy and resilient organizations and communities. We are able to share insights about key practices, such as conversation, inquiry and collective meaning-making. We help groups learn to reach new levels of working together, whether in  one-time meetings or large-scale systemic shifts.

Consulting/Hosting Communities of Practice
Conversation and creating spaces for co-creation for new futures are the beginning of the work. If we want different results, we have to make some new commitments. We are called to enter into a relationship with each other which has a clear focus on both action and learning. This is a community of practice. Communities of practice exist at different scale, linking people within a particular community or organization and linking people from different communities and organization. For communities of practice to really work, communities and organizations have to consciously commit themselves to new frameworks for action which are explicit, visible and transparent to all involved. Literally, we make the path by walking it and there are a lot of stumbles as well as leaps of faith along the way. The engagements that work best are the ones that allow us to work with a group over time.

Facilitation is similar to hosting. For us, the difference is that facilitation often works with the questions and needs that some one, usually organization leadership or a decision-making body, brings to a group of people. There may be a partial sharing of decision-making power, but almost always facilitation means working with a group of people to make their views, priorities and concerns a vital part of a change process.

Often those who are in positions of leadership need someone from outside their organization who can talk with them about transformational change. We help leaders think in new ways about their difficult questions, connect them with others with similar issues, and work with them to find new approaches and ideas.

Social Change Book Club 5.0 
An independent gathering furthering learning on social change,
now in its fifth year.

on the third Monday of the month at 6:00 p.m.

Our home is Heine Bros. Coffee, 119 Chenoweth Lane, St Matthews. We are grateful for the hospitality.


For the shortest month, our selection is a short book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Our February book is The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. In this profound and playful book, Taleb presents his ideas about life in the form of aphorisms, the world's earliest literary form, to show that only by embracing the unexpected - and accepting what we don't know - can we see the world as it really is.


In our March book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer weaves together four themes that he has pursued for forty years: the shape of an integral life, the meaning of community, teaching and learning for transformation, and nonviolent social change. Palmer observes that many of us are living a "divided life," a condition that not only brings us heartbreak but also diminishes the vitality of communities. Taking a cue from a phrase of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Palmer notes that we can tap into "a hidden wholeness" that embraces the brokenness of our lives and the flaws in those around us and society in general.

The Social Change Book Club is now in its fifth year of monthly meetings. It is open to everyone who is interested in understanding, participating, leading, or supporting social change. Each month we select a book and get together to discuss. Selections rotate among three themes: social changes, how we work with others to make change happen, and the inner qualities needed to bring change into the world.
People just show up if they are interested--no RSVP, commitment, etc. It is great when people have read the book, but that is not a requirement to come and discuss.
We got this going because there is a lot to learn about how to make social change happen and people who are interested in changing the world need opportunities to share stories and experience community with others who care.

A complete list of the books from the Social Change Book Club since its beginning is available at the New Possibilities Associates website.