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March, 2011                                                                                                        Number 10
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 -- Mr. Berry Goes to Washington
Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos -- Working with Mystery
Contact us
Services of New Possibilities Associates LLC
Social Change Book Club 5.0 meets 3rd Mondays

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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
Mr. Berry Goes to Washington
Wendell Berry and President Obama

Wendell Berry recieves the National Humanities Medal from President Obama


On March 2, 2011, Kentucky novelist, essayist, poet, farmer and activist Wendell Berry received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the Whitehouse.


One day earlier, the Government Accounting Office released its first report on duplicative and overlapping programs in the U.S. government. According to the report, the U.S. government has more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, 82 that monitor teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 56 for "financial literacy," 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 grant programs for disaster preparedness. Among other redundancies, 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five agencies are working to ensure that the federal government uses less gasoline.


So what is the connection between the Port Royal poet and the GAO report that identifies hundreds of overlapping government offices and programs that if merged or eliminated could save billions of dollars?


The connection is an idea that Berry put forth in a 30-year-old essay called Solving for Pattern. This term refers to a solution that addresses multiple problems instead of one. Solving for pattern arises naturally when one perceives problems as symptoms of systemic failure, rather than random errors requiring isolated fixes.


Berry describes three types of solutions:

  1. Solutions that cause a cascading set of new problems (like warming a wilderness clearing at night with a small campfire that starts a raging forest fire).
  2. Solutions that immediately worsen the immediate problem (like compounding the difficulty of moving forward by removing the wheels to lighten the load).
  3. Solutions that function in harmony with larger patterns (like composting to generate nutrients enriched soil and reduce the mass of disposed waste).


GAO reportIt appears that much of what the GAO has documented are our failures to solve for pattern. We have - we are the government - created short-sighted fixes, simplistic solutions, fragmented and isolated approaches that create unintended consequences and/or fail outright. We get seduced by the idea of faster, simpler, cheaper solutions. We fail to step back and see the larger picture and how the parts are all dynamically interconnected. Like a puff of wind on an immense mobile, when one part moves, everything shifts.


This is not intended to be an anti-government, government-is-the-enemy harangue. It is intended to suggest once again that Einstein's advice must be heeded: "The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them." The shift in thinking that is called for is solving for pattern.


What does solving for patterns mean?


Berry suggests these standards for solutions that solve for pattern:

  • The solution accepts the given limits of the situation, rather than becoming far fetched or expansive.
  • The solution accepts the order involved rather than imposing external order.
  • The solution improves balance and symmetries rather than pursuing singular improvements at the expense of other parts.
  • The solution solves more than one problem rather than tackling a complex situation in fragmented fashion.
  • The solution satisfies a whole range of criteria rather than optimizing, idealizing or specializing what gets satisfied.
  • The solution makes a clear distinction between living and machine order rather than perceiving natural dynamics as machines to fix.
  • The solution incorporates wide margins so the whole is not jeopardized by failure of one component, thereby setting up a cascading system failure.
  • The solution realizes a right proportion, rather than going for a maximum gain, overkill and heavy-handed solutions.
  • The solution is affordable rather than making some individuals rich and forcing others to overspend.
  • The solution occurs in place and at work within the organism/organization rather than remotely, abstractly or ideally.
  • The solution understands the minds, bodies and environment as one living system rather than separate entities.
  • The solution is good for each part as well as for the whole, rather than exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
  • The solution is in harmony with good character rather than pursuing novelty, fashion, greed or pride.


When we are solving for pattern, we see situations as complex dynamics, not as isolated objects. We are wary of being objective about evidence that is driven by underlying and interrelated connections. We refute the claims that problems are simply in need of some added efficiency, technology or spending. We regard objects as relatively insignificant and relationships as profoundly important.


When we are solving for pattern, we use technologies carefully and sparingly. We are cautious about the risks of "user friendly tools" getting over-used, substituted for building relationship, or misused as justifications for the routine abuse of people. We adopt technologies with safeguards that require accurate perceptions, good judgments and insightful interventions.


When we are solving for pattern, we become as complex as the system. Our interests become integrated in the assembly of interests. We join in accomplishing what the interdependencies yield by their organic nature. We grow with the growing all around us.


If we want different and better results in government, organizations and communities, we need to think and act differently. We need to learn solving for patterns, which Berry says we best do from understanding and living in harmony and balance, as a natural system.


Read Wendell Berry's essay Solving for Pattern.  


Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos 
Working with Mystery

As the pace of change accelerates, our lives, organizations and communities will face conditions very different from the past. And as Yogi Berra famously said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."


One prediction we can make is that it will be more and more difficult to lay out plans in advance based on what has worked in the past.


How then do we deal with an uncertain, unpredictable future? In many organizations, plans, goals blueprints, dashboards are defenses against the unknown. These organizations seem to believe they can take the uncertainty out of the future through by planning it. Many of us have been led to believe that certainty is not only desirable and possible, but that failure to achieve certainty is failure in performance.


One the most formidable challenges of our time is acknowledging and learning to deal with the unknown and to thrive in uncertainty. We must get comfortable with the idea that there is much in life that is unknowable. We must acknowledge and accept mystery.


One big step in acknowledging mystery is seeing the difference between a mystery and a problem. A problem may be solvable but a mystery must be accepted and lived into.


A recent example comes from the discussion of why it was so difficult for Western intelligence services to predict the popular uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt. The plans for these uprisings were not secrets locked in a safe somewhere that spies should have been able to uncover. That these uprisings were to happen how they did were mysteries.


MysteryAcceptance of mystery is a step on the path to learning to live with the unknown. Mystery relieves the burden of trying to find answers when answers can only be a restatement of past.


Mystery is to the unknown what grief is to loss. It is the path of acceptance that leads to possibility and opportunity. What can we do when the future is unknown and unknowable?


With the acknowledgement of mystery we build the strength that comes from letting unanswerable questions go unanswered, and the sense of being vividly alive that comes from realizing there is more in life than what we know.

All learning comes from moments of mystery - mystery is a catalyst for creativity. Mystery offers the possibility for the something happening that we could not have planned.


When facing mystery, scenarios can be helpful tools. Scenarios are stories about how the future might unfold for our organizations, our issues, our communities, our nations, and even our world.


Scenarios are not predictions. Rather, they are provocative and plausible stories about distinct ways in which relevant issues outside our organizations might evolve, such as the future political environment, breakthroughs in science, social attitudes, regulation, and the strength of the economy.


Because scenarios are hypotheses, not predictions, they are created and used in sets of multiple stories, usually three or four, that capture a range of future possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. Scenarios are designed to stretch our thinking about the opportunities and threats that the future might hold, and to weigh those opportunities and threats carefully when making both short-term and long-term strategic decisions.


Scenario thinking is both a process and a posture. It is the process through which scenarios are developed and then used to inform strategy. After that process itself is adopted, scenario thinking becomes, for many people, a posture toward the world - a way of thinking about and managing change, a way of exploring the future so that they might then greet it better prepared.


The scenario thinking process begins by identifying forces of change in the world, such as new technologies or the shifting role of government, that may have an impact on the people served by an organization, as well as on the strategic direction of the organization itself. These forces are combined in different ways to create a set of diverse stories about how the future could unfold. Once these futures have been created, the next step is to try to imagine what it would be like for an organization or community to live in each of these futures. This exercise may sound simple - and in many cases it is. But the results are often surprising and profound. In the process of adding detail and color to each future, new issues or strategic concerns rise to the surface, and old issues get reframed


Ultimately, the point of scenario thinking is not to write stories of the future. Rather, it is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world in which our organizations operate, and to use that understanding to inform our strategies and improve our ability to make better decisions today and in the future. When used in complex multi-stakeholder environments, scenario thinking stimulates rich conversations about future possibilities that can result in common ground for adversaries and push like-minded advocates to challenge their shared assumptions.


New Possibilities Associates helps organizations work through mystery and use scenarios in their planning.


To learn more about using scenarios click here


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New Possibilities Associates LLC
1225 Bates Court
Louisville, KY  40204

Howard Mason, Principal

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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.

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.

Our April book is Practically Radical. William C. Taylor, founding editor of Fast Times, offers a new look at ways to shake things up and make positive change in difficult times. We are living through the age of disruption. You can't do big things if you're content with doing things a little better than everyone else or a little differently than how you did them before. In an era of hyper-competition and non-stop dislocation, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.

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.