Deciphering that Burning Fire

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January 15, 2008 was the launch of the Canadian Organization Development Institute’s (CODI) first training in organization development and change. This CODI initiative is a twenty-day certificate program, and as far as we know, this is the first privately run organization development and change training program in Canada. Ten experienced and eager people signed up for the inaugural session.

One of the questions we talked about during the evening session was this: What brought you to the work of organization development and change? This question sent me on quite a journey, and I found traces in a number of corners and caverns of my mind. And what I found is not so much how I came to organization development and change; rather how I became present to something that was calling me. Here’s the story I’ve got in my head right now.

I recall a moment from years ago when a wide-smile feeling of awe spread throughout my body as I watched the Pacific Ocean on a grey day. I saw cords of light stride down from the clouds and dance in-synch with the ocean’s currents. It was as if some invisible structure of the universe was being offered to me. The dance went on until rain drove me into my car. I had no words to describe what I saw. Not even my science teacher-neighbor, the one who won my allegiance when he dropped dry ice into a bowl of water, could explain.

 

The feeling from that day is akin to what poet Pablo Neruda recorded when he discovered his calling for poetry:

I didn’t know what to say, my mouth
could not speak,
my eyes
could not see
and something ignited in my soul,
fever or unremembered wings,
and I went on my way,
deciphering
that burning fire…

One experience has the power to ignite something within you, if you let it, and it can send you on a lifetime of deciphering that burning fire.

And so it has been for me. On that day sitting on the Palisades and looking out to the Pacific Ocean I saw something on the edge of awareness, the way a pair of shoes you wear function silently and unobtrusively until they pinch your feet, or the sole comes off, or you notice that they’re no longer in style. I felt something, and I suppose you could say that it pinched my curiosity. This brief encounter with the numinous sent me looking for more cords – or for the hidden structures of life, be it my own life, life within a community, or life within organizations.

Without a thought-out plan, I found myself drawn to cybernetics, the evolution of consciousness and Carl Jung’s ideas about archetypes. I read Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Among the insights I gained was this: patterns arise over time out of seemingly random individual acts and ideas. This is as true for all kinds of living systems – ecosystems, organisms, cells, micro-organisms, families, organizations, cities, countries, economies, businesses – as it is for many seemingly inanimate systems – rivers, the earth, and the atmosphere – and as it is for dreams.

Jane Jacobs, one of the first writers I read who spoke about the human development of cities, made sense to my ocean and cloud experience. Jacobs argued, for example, that densely populated urban neighborhoods, as opposed to the wide-open spaces of the suburbs, address the challenge of making themselves safe through the way individuals share public space. The variety of newer and older structures, the functional and commercial diversity, help the district support a diverse population – elderly people on pensions, young people starting out, recent arrivals, families with children. The mix of commercial and residential properties helps keep the district safe, since it is populated day and night, weekdays and weekends. The sidewalks and front-porches enable people to stroll, chat, and look out for each other. By contrast, the plazas and parking lots surrounding high-rise buildings are spaces where the ill-intentioned can bully the unwary without being observed.

It is not only the value to individuals that is important – though surely these kinds of exchanges make city living pleasurable, for how else do you find out where to get the best empanada or curry. What is also significant is how the multiple interactions between people and businesses, over time, change the global order of the district.

In other words, where diversity is present, sidewalks exist as a conduit for feedback – for individuals and for the system. There is safety, vibrancy and aliveness that is missing in the mono-cultures of the suburbs or single use zones in any city. Feedback is the way a complex system changes and grows. Restrict the possibilities for feedback from diverse sources and you miss what is going on in the system until a change is already upon you. Make the pathways for feedback intimate and diverse enough to permit the hidden structure of what is vital in a system to emerge.

This could have been the mantra I secretly chanted in my work as a public health administrator, and later as a manager of training and development. When I spoke to my managers or clients about creating spaces where people could talk without an agenda of issues and problems to address, they’d shake their heads. As one CEO at a large teaching hospital said to me: You are so naive. So in my work, I found ways to create spaces within a formal learning program where people with different perspectives could mingle, interact informally, in unplanned and multiple ways. Often it was the more causal encounters that lead to the greatest learning – at least, this is what was reflected in the course evaluations.

Over the past twenty years or so, I have been designing and facilitating meeting processes that build on the idea that new patterns of system behaviour occur by enabling a diverse range of people to connect to one another in more or less organic ways. Something new and surprising emerges from such exchanges, from creating feedback processes where none existed before.

This is the story I tell myself now about how I was called to the work I do in organization development and change. It began with the ocean and clouds, where I sat long enough, listened deeply enough, for a hidden pattern to emerge. Which sent me on a journey, risking going into what I didn’t know or even understand, to decipher that burning fire. I was enriched by what Jane Jacob’s helped me see about cities, and applied it to the work I was doing in organizations. As poet Gary Snyder put it more poetically, when making an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.

What is your ax handle?