I was the “closer” – the final speaker for the three-day Canadian national conference of over 100 Salvation Army Thrift Stores. Technically, I was supposed to inspire them. But it felt like the inspiration was all mine. What a hidden gem I found in those people, in their passion, and – most of all – in their business model. And the question I left with was: Why hasn’t the world of social enterprise noticed what a shining example they are?
[This is my harvest from a conversation I co-facilitated recently at the annual conference of the Association of Archaeologists of Quebec. I find the topic important enough to share here, with permission from the conference organizers.]
I had a wonderfully stimulating lunch conversation with new acquaintance Lise Palmer of Spark Consulting recently. She had the delightful ability to challenge everything I’m passionate about in a light, playful way so that we could both happily learn through the discussion. Specifically, she was (and generally remains) skeptical about "the universal applicability of the living systems view of organizations." I've shared her three major objections below, along with my responses. There's more learning to be had, for sure, but I enjoyed the opportunity to articulate my current take on things.
For the three-day Art of Hosting gathering in January, several of us on the local organizing team offered to steward the “harvest.” In other words, our task was to support, document and share tangible outcomes. As Chris Corrigan likes to point out, “you’re not planning a meeting; you’re planning a harvest.”
My eight-year-old son’s hockey team is in the playoffs. Watching from the stands, I’ve been amazed at how focused he remains even as two other players bash into him from either side. How he never gives up. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what my “warrior” side looks and feels like, so I asked him: “What’s that like? What’s going through your mind? Are you thinking about those other two guys? Are you telling yourself that you’re not going to let them get the puck, no matter how hard they try?” “Nah,” he said lightly. “It’s just between me and the goalie.”
And there it is.
I might just post that on the wall opposite my desk.
“You can’t plant a forest,” a friend said to me recently. He was speaking in general terms, saying: it's a physical impossibility. After mentally wrestling with the concept for a moment, the phrase struck me with its deep, practical wisdom – and its vital implications for organizational leaders.
But wait, you might be saying. What about the story that’s been going around about the guy who single-handedly planted a 1,360 acre forest in India?
Well, as much as it’s a truly heart-warming story, the way it’s presented has important inaccuracies.
Thrivability Montreal. Thursday, February 21, 2013. There are fifty of us gathered to explore what we’ve called The Power of Place. More wanted to come, but the room couldn’t accommodate it. We should’ve known it would be like this. So many of us quietly hunger for something more than the anonymous, transactional relationships that make up our public lives. We crave a sense of belonging and community, of rich expression and appreciation. Just as much, we yearn to feel connection with the places we inhabit, to know that they shape us even as we shape them and that there is history, character and life woven into them. We want to feel lovingly held by people and place.
I have a very close friend who’s a professional CEO. He’s run several companies. That’s his thing. He doesn’t (yet) buy into thrivability because he’s not convinced that it’s a direct path to success – in fact, he thinks it’s likely to be a distraction. And this has bugged me for a long time. I’ve made some tactical suggestions to him in the past, and they’ve been mildly helpful, but my sense was that this wasn’t all that thrivability has to offer him. And I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what else there was for him. I’ve written and spoken about thrivability for years and still feel like I’m searching for a visceral, human way to explain it.
So here it is, just about as visceral and human as it gets.
Thrivability is a worldview, a global movement, and an active practice. Guided by what we know about living systems, it is a continual and purposeful drive to create the fertile conditions for life to thrive at the levels of the individual, the organization, the community and the biosphere. Profoundly practical, it is distinguished by a deep understanding of how life works - and by intentional participation in that pattern. The thrivability movement recognizes that only by aligning with life in the spirit of learning, compassion, contribution and play can we find the motivation and the means to collaborate and innovate at the levels required.
My passion these days (these years, in fact) is a project called The Solarium. It will be a physical space - a hotbed of social innovation housing, nurturing and connecting the growing number of organizations committed to practicing thrivability (in which organizations are intentionally designed and stewarded as “a space for life”). To quote the Art of Hosting community, it will regularly convene “conversations about things that matter and that lead to lasting change.” And it will be a “Living Building,” regenerative and nourishing in its operations and its design.
This is a difficult confession to make. Maybe even unwise. But here goes.
For years, when I found myself stuck in a crowded place – the metro, a waiting area – I would unconsciously scan the faces of the strangers around me and make quick judgments, like checkmarks on a form: “Not attractive... not attractive... a little attractive... not attractive...” It was a sterile assessment of the symmetry of the features, of the line of the nose, of the style of the hair. I guess airbrushed magazine covers were the standard of comparison, because it was rare that I judged someone truly attractive. And I’m sure the game was connected with my own preoccupation and insecurities with my appearance.
This Art of Hosting stuff – it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, you know. There are bumps and bruises along the way. Some they tell you about up-front. But some they don’t.
January 15. Months ago, we were thrilled when Toke Møller agreed to come to Montreal to lead our Art of Hosting event. But then he announced his three conditions – each of which would challenge our mental comfort and our egos. He alone would choose the other two international hosts. Together, we would all design the agenda in the two days prior to the event (not sooner). And each of us on the local team would be called “apprentices.”
I have to say: it was this last condition that challenged us the most. And yet, that was probably the one that was most valuable to us in the end.
January 13. This evening, we concluded Montreal’s first Art of Hosting event. I’m exhausted after the three-day event and two days of preparation before that. But I’m deeply satisfied. Everything flowed smoothly, despite much complexity, necessarily last-minute preparations, and a challenging venue. The gathering felt important, like a catalytic moment both for the individuals present and for Montreal (and maybe even for Quebec). Participants showered us with gratitude for the powerful learning and the experience of community. And I felt proud to have helped offer this to them.
January 9. We’ve just finished the second day of preparation for a three-day Art of Hosting training to be offered to more than 100 participants. Though the training officially begins tomorrow morning, the learning has already been intense for our team of local organizers. “Intense, joyful and nourishing” are the words I just shared on Facebook and Twitter.
We started this process nine months ago – an appropriate amount of time, it seems. It feels as if we’ve gestated something together and are in the process of giving birth to it. There were potent, creative forces at work.
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." - Aboriginal Activists Group, 1970's Queensland
Several months ago, I wrote about emerging organizational models that have wise stewardship of life woven into their ownership structure. I ended the post saying I’d write next about how all this applies to the organization a small team of us is working to create in Montreal. In fact, the right legal structure is still not completely clear. However, a few days ago, I discovered an innovative example that has me fascinated and excited. And the implications extend far beyond my own organization.
For many years, I’ve spoken about the great promise of seeing organizations as living systems – a view that charts a path to employee engagement, customer loyalty, and organizational resilience. Every once in a while, though, someone will cynically point out that not everything is rosy in living systems. “There’s competition in nature,” they point out. “Fierce, dog-eat-dog competition.” Yes, competition is part of life, I answer. But this is always an unsatisfying response. And the living systems view loses some of its luster.
Co-creation is one of today’s hottest buzzwords. It’s the idea that a collaborative process of shared creation leads to higher levels of engagement, innovation and resilience. I should love the concept – after all, I’m working to promote a more complete understanding of life’s co-creative pattern. But I have a controversial confession to make: when someone says, “Let’s co-create this,” warning bells go off. There’s a saying that you should never trust a man who says, “Trust me.” Secretly, I feel the same way about co-creation. If you have to say it, you probably mean something that I don’t really want to be involved in.
[This is a guest blog post written by Julian Giacomelli, CEO of the successful Montreal-based raw-food restaurant and catering business, Crudessence. It describes the journey to craft the company's manifesto and to position the organization for the next stage of its evolution. I'm honored to have supported them along the way.]
When I talk about thrivability, I find that many people understand it to be an end goal - an ideal state to aspire to once the real messiness of life has been perfectly sorted out. I’ve even encountered mild hostility to the concept: “There are people starving in the world, and we’re sitting here talking about the utopia of thrivability.”