The Approach of IngeniousPeoplesKnowledge

The work of IngeniousPeoplesKnowledge and thus the approach represented in this handbook are relying on the groundwork of a series of pioneers, their writing and teaching: Harrison Owen (Open Space), Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff (Future Search and Minimal Facilitation), David Cooperrider (Appreciative Inquiry), Adam Kahane (Facilitation in Complex Situations, Architecture of Processes), Otto Scharmer (Theory U/ Presencing), Juanita Brown (World Café), Margaret Wheatley (Complexity), Dave Snowden (Complexity) and many more.

So if we refer to the I-P-K approach, we do so fully acknowledging that it is in no way unique or of our origin and we would like to acknowledge the masterminds for their inspiration and guidance. It does not claim that we in I-P-K have invented it. Calling it the I-P-K approach merely refers to the approach that we in our work are using and guided by.

Maybe our contribution is the elaboration of a larger framework that integrates the many different ideas, methods and tools into a more systematic whole. This allows us to address many situations in a flexible, adaptable and versatile way.

The approach we rely our work on builds on four pillars, which themselves are based on a few theoretical foundations and axioms.

Transformation as an Issue of Learning and Motivation

The first two pillars are deduced from a specific image of the human, a humanistic assumption. It asks for the human condition, under which people are keen and able to embrace and drive change.

1) Conversation and Dialogue are the fundamental mode and superior tool of transformational work: the key to effective, engaging and sustainable transformation is to create platforms and safe spaces (containers) for diverse people to learn on a peer-to-peer basis, to discover what matters to them, to define purpose and intention, to co-create visions and to jointly decide what to do in concrete terms.

We believe that a core challenge is not to gain more data and information on issues – quite on the opposite, in many decision-taking situations we are paralysed by an overkill of information. What lacks is developing a meaningful and shared understanding, is sense-making in this glut of information. The remedy to this is not even more information, analysis and research – which in fact aggravate many situations – but a “digestive” (ie. consolidating, extracting, reducing) process. And it is our conviction that the best – if not the only – way to get there is conversation among committed and diverse individuals. ‘There is no more powerful way to initiate change than to convene a conversation. Real change begins with the simple act of people talking about what they care about.’ as Margaret Wheatley puts it.

2) The basic pattern of an effective, engaging and sustainable transformation process follows the formula of Divergence – Emergence – Convergence, which can be translated into three steps or phases of stirring discomfort through some form of learning, co-creating a shared vision and identifying first steps.

Nothing is more practical than a good theory, as the saying goes. The Change Equitation of Beckhardt and Harris (attributed to David Gleicher) takes its strength from its simplicity and practical applicability. The formula allows working on two sides: we can work on “resistance” and question the general assumption that people (and living systems) generally and throughout resist change. There are situations where they actually embrace and drive, even rush change. We can ask under which circumstances they do so and what we can actively do to favour this. Since the reverse side of the same coin is motivation, we can look more deeply into what motivates people to change and discover a whole series of aspects that actively contribute to the motivational basis. A key element is the insight that people only own what they create themselves (M. Wheatley) – and thus participation of stakeholders in the front-end of creation is indispensible in any transformational process.
On the other side the equation suggests three components of making change happening: discomfort, vision and first steps. In a process leading to change, we can pro-actively address each of these components and work on them. The three elements can be translated into a simple design pattern of divergence – emergence – convergence. There are countless analogies, Otto Scharmer’s U process just to mention one famous. The pattern is an extremely simple tool we propagate, which due to the fact that it is of a fractal nature, can be easily used and applied when designing change processes of all magnitudes: for processes over several months, to events of one to several days to workshop modules or meetings of one hour. Another application of the same principle is the workshop rollercoaster of M. Weisbord and S. Janoff.

Working in Living Systems

The other two pillars originate in understanding the reality of many situations as living – often referred as complex adaptive – systems. Contrary to the assumption of many other management approaches, the dynamics of life – of social systems, of the natural course of events – do not follow a linear, predictable, controllable cause-effect relationship. “Chaos” (in the scientific sense) prevents carefully elaborated plans from being workable and practicable. This calls for distinct approaches to come to terms with reality:

3) A complex reality cannot be understood from one single (or a few) perspective nor through mere analysis by a few single actors. To understand it, it is necessary to bring the whole system into one room and emulate complex interactions in order to understand complex patterns. Everybody involved needs to learn and overcome the narrowness of an individual perspective and understanding.

The analytical, expert-driven attempts to understand a complex entirety by understanding its elements is helpless in the face of complex situations. The Sufi proverb goes: “You think that because you understand one you understand two, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and.”. Complex interdependences cannot be predicted per se – they can only be experienced in the actual situation, identified as patterns and explained in retrospect. Therefore it is a good approach to engage diverse people (who in their entirety constitute the complex system) in a mutual interaction and learning process. Jointly they can and will make sense out of a particular situation and identify better strategies to drive transformation. M. Weisbord and S. Janoff have been the pioneers to recognise the importance and potential of this principle and have elaborate extensively on it.

4) The basic pattern of engaging a diverse group is to organise conversations in small groups in several iterations. In parallel, several small sub-groups dialogue on the issue, surfacing knowledge and resource and discover meaning. Over time, all the groups are repeatedly reshuffled. The reshuffeling happens also on a physical level, ie. in real movement.

The pattern addresses various concerns and features of complex systems: it capitalises the potential of diverse groups by creating an increasingly dense web of connections and relationships. This process of repeated cross-fertilisation of ideas, insights and learning leads to an emergent, collective insight, thus harnessing collective intelligence in a structured manner. In addition, through profound conversations with a multitude of persons, it creates bonds of community, which are beneficial to the motivational basis of participants and thereby translate into higher commitment for outcomes. Lastly it is an elegant way to deal with hierarchies (related to all sorts of sources: tradition, bureaucracy/formal status, power, wealth, seniority, …): on the one hand, the intimacy of a small group permits for more frankness and allows better to overstep certain limits; on the other hand, finding oneself repeatedly in new constellations breaks normal mechanisms of dominating conversations and while some people don’t feel comfortable to talk in one conversation, they will in other – often finding allies carrying forward particular concerns and issues. While World Café nicely illustrates this principle on a small-scale, it can be observed and applied on many levels – even methods like OpenSpace or RTSCs eventually follow a similar pattern. Lastly, the iteration translates itself to physical movement, ie. participants walk through the physical space and get together in new compositions, thus “illustrating” the networking. And a key insight is that it helps people tremendously in moving mentally if they also move physically!

Finally, all the four pillars together represent a practical application of the principal of social construction and constructivist learning. In complex situations, “reality” does not exist “out there”, but it is largely constructed by the individuals involved. At the same time, these persons learn about the very same reality by constructing their knowledge through active engagement.

While the methods and tools we use may seem very varied, and sometimes even disconnected, they all follow to some extent these features. Their diversity allows adapting to different situations, needs and purposes, yet they all rely on the same paradigm of change and thus relate very well to each other.