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May, 2011                                                                                                                 Number 12
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 -- Theories of change: everybody has at least one
Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos -- Catalytic mechanisms
Contact us
Services of New Possibilities Associates LLC
Social Change Book Club 5.0 meets 3rd Mondays

Fibinaci spiral on a rose
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
Theories of change: everyone has at least one

Directions in conflict

Over the course of my career, I have worked with thousands of people on hundreds of change efforts. It has been wonderful to meet and work with committed people who want to bring change into their neighborhoods, schools, groups, organizations, and communities.

In order to achieve the changes these efforts seek, two basic question must asked and answered, often repeatedly:

What change do we seek?

How will that change happen?

Everyone has at least one theory about why and how change happens, whether they know it or not. We really can't help ourselves -- humans are theory building organisms. It's built into are DNA.

In our intellectual tradition, we are more focused on action than ideas. So our basic assumptions, theories, paradigms about how the world works are likely to go unrecognized, unnamed, unexamined and not discussed. We hold what we believe about how change happens at the same level of basic certainty that we hold our knowledge that an object pushed off the edge of a table will fall toward the floor and not float in the air or rise to the ceiling. It just works that way - why waste time thinking and talking about it?

Because we may each have our own theories of how the world works, different people can look at the same situation, and come to completely different conclusions about what is likely to happen next and what it will take to get the change we want. These individual, unspoken understandings often lead to conflict when people working together for the same change hold differing implicit view about the nature of the change process.

We need to understand which theory or theories we are operating out of individually, and work for a consensus on which one(s) we will use in our cooperative efforts.

To help sort it out, here is a short catalogue of theories people bring in their thinking about what drives social change.

Over the years, various change theories have been down boiled down to about ten basic groupings. There may be others. But as a practical working view, almost any theory we can name can be sorted into one more of these theories or paradigms. With each one is a prediction for the next 20 years of what futurist Sara Robinson thinks the theory says will happen.

1. Progress. Change happens because people want to improve their condition, and apply ingenuity and good problem-solving to create progress. Over the next 20 years, the social and economic conditions of the world will consistently get better, just as they have improved on a ever-rising linear path throughout history.

2. Development. Change happens because people want to build a decent life, which naturally leads societies toward increased specialization and complexity. Individuals don't have much control over this process. The real change masters are social engineers -- mostly experts, academics and political leaders of various sorts -- who direct the pace of development. Improvement occurs when people build relationships. Over the next 20 years, we will continue to see networks of expert change agents emerge to manage increasing complexity.

3. Technology. Change happens because humans are motivated to solve problems, which requires the creation of new technologies, which in turn drive progress and social change. The real masters of the future are the scientists and technologists who will solve our current problems. People participate in this change to the extent that they adopt and apply these solutions. Progress depends entirely on the amount of support we give to research and development efforts. Over the next 20 years, biotechnology and new sustainable "green" technologies will create the biggest changes in how we live.

4. Ideas. Change happens when culture changes through the dissemination of new ideas. One good idea has the potential to change the world. The real power to create change belongs to those with the ability to edit, frame, and disseminate ideas. As individuals adopt these ideas, they participate in the creation of change, and experience personal growth as well. Progress depends on how effectively we work to change people's thinking. Over the next 20 years, better ideas will be promoted by greatly improved network tools and media. The world will become more enlightened as human consciousness grows.

5. Markets. Change happens because people seek to acquire creature comforts -- desires which push entrepreneurs and industries to innovate. Industry leaders and economists are the leading experts here, but consumers and their choices are the main change drivers. Progress depends on encouraging people to produce, trade, and consume freely. Over the next 20 years, the world will generally continue to become more consumer-driven as standards rise in less-developed countries (though there may be bumps along the way).

6. Cycles. Change happens according to predictable patterns, which can be discerned by studying history. These patterns are usually seen as cycles or waves, with periods of great change alternating with periods of rest and recovery. ("History doesn't repeat itself -- but it rhymes," said Twain.) In this view, change is viewed as a natural process, with a lifecycle that includes birth, maturity, and death; and people have limited influence on how this cycle plays out. The greatest insight into these patterns belongs to historians and theorists who have studied them. Progress depends on our ability to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to surf the change waves as they come. Over the next 20 years, long-wave theories call for very large energy, technology, and political shifts.

7. Conflict. Change happens when groups of people engage in a struggle to improve their lives. Those who approach change from this view are Marxists, union leaders, political organizers and activists, and social justice advocates. People succeed in creating change only if they're willing to fight for it, and progress occurs when we pursue our own interests to the fullest. The next 20 years will be dominated by conflicts over resources, and by smaller countries who will try to assert growing independence from the US-led order.

8. Power. Change happens when powerful people and groups decide to alter the status quo to further increase their power. Nobody really understands the future unless they're part of this elite; and the majority of us will have no say in their machinations. (Some Power theories argue that it's better just to let these well-connected people make the decisions anyway.) Over the next 20 years, they will continue to consolidate their control over nations and industries.

9. Evolution. Change happens when the physical environment changes, and organisms adapt in response to those changes. Ecologists have the deepest understanding of change in this view, but nobody really knows what will ultimately come of our efforts. Our best chance of progress lies with our ability to understand the world around us, and find the most appropriate ways of responding to emerging issues. Over the next 20 years, we will either come to terms with our responsibility to nature, or risk extinction. Climate change, mass extinction, and the rise of virulent, drug-resistant organisms are among the biggest concerns.

10. Chaos, Complexity, and Criticality. These are three different theories that have all arisen in the past 40 years as our understanding of systems theory has grown. What they have in common is that they describe system behavior that appears to be only partly orderly, knowable, predictable and controllable. Systems behavior becomes somewhat comprehensible when we understand the larger system at work. All the variables at work can never be completely understood. Those who make the effort to study a whole system across both its time and space dimensions are most likely to be able to create the conditions for the best results to occur.

Each of these basic change theories has its appropriate uses, its explanatory strengths, and its limits. You can go through almost any description of a change effort and find several of these assumptions at work. Most of them aren't mutually exclusive (and some, like Conflict and Power, are two ends of the same conversation). We need to have reasoned debates about which model most accurately fits the situation we're discussing. In fact, making sure we're working off the right change model is critical if we want to make plans that will actually get us where we want to be.

Many of the political debates we have are, at their core, conversations between competing theories. Market theory, left in a vacuum, may look pretty good. Put it alongside the limits of nature, and it looks like a recipe for disaster. Evolutionary thinking explains much about nature, and Richard Dawkins argues persuasively that it may also work for cultural ideas; but when you apply it to social issues, you can easily end up with social Darwinism (which is implicit in the Power model). If we are going to make good guesses about the future, we need to choose our model carefully, stay mindful of its drawbacks, and be sure it actually fits the circumstances of the scenario at hand.

It can also be helpful to think about the theories that make the most sense to you, personally. Most of us have two or three dominant ones that we think explain a whole lot about the world; another couple we're quite comfortable with; and at the other end, one or two that we find genuinely disagreeable.

I am offering this in the hope that it will give us another way of thinking about our hopes, fears, and disagreements. It's tempting to dismiss people as clueless, when all they're really doing is interpreting events through a different change assumption. And maybe yours is better, and maybe theirs is wrong; but that's a discussion reasonable people should be able to have.


Tips for Treading Powerfully in Chaos 
Catalytic Mechanisms 

Balancing stones 

In a previous edition of this newsletter, an idea that Wendell Berry put forth in a 30-year-old essay called Solving for Pattern was discussed. 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 includes in his essay a list of 12 characteristics of good solutions.

Here is another list. Instead of focusing on characteristics of good solutions, this list focuses on characteristics of mechanisms to get us to new solutions. Jim Collins wrote about catalytic solutions in his article, Turning Goals into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms.

Many groups and organizations get stuck early on in moving toward a big, new important goal. Catalytic mechanisms can help organizations get unstuck. They boost commitment levels and help turn visions into reality. They are very powerful, but are often rejected because they usually involve a redistribution of power within the organization.

Catalytic mechanisms share five distinct characteristics. Here they are.

Characteristic #1: A catalytic mechanism produces desired results in unpredictable ways.

When leaders identify a bold organizational goal, the first thing they usually do is design a glut of systems, controls, procedures, and practices that seem likely to make it happen. That process is called alignment, and it's wildly popular in the world of management among business academics and executives alike. After all, alignment makes sense. If you want to make your brand more popular than Coke, you had better measure the effectiveness of advertising and reward successful marketing managers with big bonuses. But the problem is that the controls that push alignment also create bureaucracy, and bureaucracy does not breed extraordinary results.

Example: 3M's catalytic mechanism urged its scientists to spend 15 percent of their time inventing in the area of their choice. The many extraordinarily profitable innovations that resulted were unpredictable - including Post-It Notes.

Characteristic #2: A catalytic mechanism distributes power for the benefit of the overall system, often to the great discomfort of those who traditionally hold power.

Traditional carrot-and-stick methods may get the job done, but they do not disperse power and responsibility. Catalytic mechanisms motivate people to act on behalf of the organizations as a whole and its stakeholders. It gives people the freedom to do what is right, often in direct contradiction to senseless rules.

Example: Zappos' customer service is about creating a lifelong relationship with each of its customers, says CEO Tony Hsieh. So its customer service people are driven by a culture that demands and empowers them to do whatever they can to build and strengthen that relationship, without rules, demands to close the sale and get off the call. Zappos customer service has become legendary. A Google search on "Zappos customer service stories" returns over two million hits.

Characteristic #3: A catalytic mechanism has teeth.

According to Collins, "The fact is, executives spend hours drafting, redrafting, and redrafting yet again statements of core values, missions, and visions. This is often a very useful process, but a statement by itself will not accomplish anything. By contrast, a catalytic mechanism puts a process in place that all but guarantees that the vision will be fulfilled. A catalytic mechanism has a sharp set of teeth."

A catalytic mechanism actually affects the way people work, by changing the contingencies of their work. Many leaders get stuck crafting statements of vision, mission, purpose, payoff, process. A catalytic mechanism sets up a tangible process that all but guarantees that the vision will be accomplished.

Characteristic #4: A catalytic mechanism ejects viruses.

A lot of traditional controls are designed to get employees to act the "right" way and do the "right" things, even if they are not so inclined. Catalytic mechanisms, by contrast, help organizations to get the right people in the first place, keep them, and eject those who do not share the company's core values.

Great organizations have figured something out. The old adage "People are your most important asset" is wrong; the right people are your most important asset. The right people are those who would exhibit the desired behaviors anyway, as a natural extension of their character and attitude, regardless of any control and incentive system. The challenge is not to train all people to share your core values. The real challenge is to find people who already share your core values and to create catalytic mechanisms that so strongly reinforce those values that the people who don't share them either never get hired or, if they do, they self-eject.

Example: Zappos provides a four-week training period for newly hired employees. A week into the training, Zappos says to its new hires: "If you quit during the training period, we will pay you for the amount of time you worked, plus pay you a $2,000 bonus." Zappos is looking for committed people who fit into its culture and it wants to learn early if there is a fit between the organization and its new hires. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says the biggest benefit "comes from all the people who decide not to take the offer. Those people had to go home, think about whether this was a company they were prepared to commit to, talk about it with their friends and family. The wind up more engaged than they would have if we had not offered them a chance to leave." About three percent of new hires accept the offer.

Characteristic #5: A catalytic mechanism produces an ongoing effect. Catalytic mechanisms differ fundamentally from catalytic events. A rousing speech to the troops, an electrifying off-site meeting, a euphoria-producing new buzzword, a new initiative or strategic imperative, an impending crisis-all of these are catalytic events, and some are useful. But they do not produce the persistent, ongoing effect of catalytic mechanisms. In fact, a good catalytic mechanism, as long as it evolves, can last for decades, as demonstrated the 15 percent rule at 3M.

The lack of catalytic mechanisms is one reason many organizations rally in a crisis but languish once the crisis has passed. Leaders who feign a crisis-those who create a burning platform without simultaneously building catalytic mechanisms-do more long-term harm than good by creating a syndrome of crisis addiction. Executives who rely only on catalytic events are left wondering why the momentum stalls after the first phase of euphoria, excitement, or fear has passed. To produce lasting results, they must shift from orchestrating a series of events to building catalytic mechanisms. 

Double Fibonacci spirals

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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.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and bestselling authorhas long explored and explained the way we live. In our May book, The Social AnimalBrooks uses leading-edge discoveries in neuroscience and cognition to paint a surprisingly moving picture of how we can educate our emotions to lead richer lives.

The June book, Poke the Box by Seth Godin, is a manifesto about producing something that's scarce, and thus valuable. It demands that you stop waiting for a road map and start drawing one instead. You know how to do this, you've done it before, but along the way, someone talked you out of it. We need your insight and your dreams and your contributions.


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.