Change in Challenging Times

Submitted by PeggyHolman on Mon, 03/30/2009 – 4:05pm

Session Convenor: Peggy Holman

Session Reporter: Lyn Bazell

Discussion Participants: Peter Block Anne Anderson Lori Rosolowsky Lisa Loving Lyn Bazzell

Note from Peggy:  Because these ideas became clearer for me after the session, I have recast these notes based on my best current expression of them.  My thanks to the people who came; this session helped me take a next step in how to share this information with others in a book.


Given the upheaval of our times, understanding how to work creatively with uncertainty and change seems particularly important right now.  Naming something makes it visible so that we can consciously work with it. It no longer owns us.  I seek to name and share what I am learning about how emergent change works so that people can choose how they work with the uncertainty and angst that are part of the experience.

This framework came from the intersection of:

  • Whole System Change work (about 20 years of experience)
  • the science of emergence, and
  • a pattern language, as inspired by architect Christopher Alexander’s work.

Some observations about how we deal with change

When we don’t understand what is going on (when there is chaos that is uncomfortable or change that confuses us) our tendency as human beings is to hunker down and withdraw from others. When we do understand and have faith in the experience we join hands and allow higher-level order to emerge.

  • We have a choice in how we respond when faced with uncertainty.
  • By engaging with an eye toward what is possible, it mitigates some of the hesitation and fear that often accompanies change, and make the anxiety useful instead of debilitating
  • Emergence, by definition, occurs when something novel forms out of disparate elements.
  • Emergence involves both individuals and the collective, integrating what is most meaningful to individuals into a larger, coherent whole.
  • Emergence provides an alternative to planning the future (which is rather futile at the moment since it doesn’t look much like the past).  It offers a way to deal with anxiety creatively.

Some context

There are two natural forces always operating that create change:

  • A drive towards coherence (or oneness, unity, community, wholeness; a coming together)
    examples: atoms to molecules, people to tribes to nations)
  • A drive towards differentiation (or individuality, distinction, a coming apart)
    (example:  teenagers separating themselves from parents to find their identity)

Much of the angst we face today is because the assumptions of how things work – our coherent cultural narrative – are no longer playing out as expected.  An increasing number of people no longer feel well served by the current cultural narrative. For example, there are growing number of people in the U.S. who no longer believe the American Dream is possible for them or their children.  And they are finding strategies that disrupt the existing order.

Breaking apart stable systems that no longer serve us well is a major source of grief, fear, and anger.  Yet for those who can see the potential in the collapse, it is a source of excitement.  We saw this dynamic during the JTM session.  Those coming from mainstream media, where existing assumptions about how news is gathered and shared, not to mention what constitutes news, are failing, expressed fear and grief.  Those experimenting with new forms had a sense of possibility.  Either way, it is clear that as things fall apart, there is increasing uncertainty about what the future of journalism holds.  And there is a choice of how to relate to that.

And so the dynamics of coming together and breaking apart play out:  experiments with new forms take shape, even as old forms come apart.  This messy mix allows us to revisit the different aspects of the system:

What are the essential intentions and values at the heart of journalism? How do they hold up?  What constitutes news?  How are stories chosen?  How are they sourced?  Distributed?  How is it all financed?

Journalism, as well as other systems – health care, education, economics, politics – is in a period much like the “Cambrian Explosion” of evolution, in which a myriad of diverse forms are appearing.  Over the next few years, as experiments fail and succeed, we will collectively determine what is meaningful, what to conserve and what to release from the past and what to embrace that wasn’t possible before.  As those choices become clear, a renaissance of journalism and other sectors, with vibrant and unexpected new forms, is likely.  During the session, we saw glimpses of what is coming for journalism:  it is still about the public good and it is becoming entrepreneurial.

Handling uncertainty

Uncertainty shows up as a natural by-product of the forces of change – coming together and breaking apart. Three questions help in working with the natural tensions between coherence and differentiation:

  • How do we disrupt coherence compassionately?
  • How do we work with disruption creatively?
  • How do we integrate difference wisely?

Patterns I have found through my work in whole systems change offer some insights into these questions.

How do we disrupt coherence compassionately?

One powerful way to disrupt is to ask ambitious, appreciative questions.  For example:

What is our work in the new news ecology?

Such questions create a boundary, a safe-haven in the midst of upheaval.  They focus attention in a productive direction.  They attract those who care and invite them to join in.   They make room to explore the different aspects of a system, welcoming diverse voices.  They create the conditions for broad and deep inquiry and listening.  In other words, they prepare us for handing the second question:

How do we work with disruption creatively?

With practice, our capacity to relate to chaos expands.   The chaos doesn’t go away.  Think about driving in another part of the world, say India.  It requires very different assumptions about how traffic works than exist in the U.S.  It takes 360º vision.  It requires taking a deep breath, letting go of what you know about traffic flow and trusting intuition.

If you find yourself overwhelmed or uncertain, a good place to begin is to step back and breathe.  If you can’t see the patterns that guide the flow, seek a great question to help make sense of what seems like noise.  With a question expressed, the most useful guidance I have uncovered for creatively working with disruption is to take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.  This phrase is packed with implications!  It invites people to look within themselves for what they care about most deeply.  Doing so reaches underneath ego and takes people to a place of deeper meaning, inevitably connecting them to something universal.  To act responsibly from a personal place of caring is to discover that it is possible for both the good of the individual and the good of the collective to be served.  In fact, this is a measure that higher-order coherence is emerging.

For example, during the JTM-Poynter gathering, I understood that an important aspect of the fear and grief from mainstream journalists was that enduring values of journalism, such as accuracy and transparency would be swept away.  What, in fact, became clear during the session, is that such values are something to be conserved, as so much else changes.

As different perspectives rub against each other, a burnishing occurs.  Taking responsibility for what we love turns on its ear an unspoken assumption that to belong, we must conform.  It becomes clear that just the opposite is true: to belong, it is essential that we express our unique perspectives. Where we can be fully ourselves, making space for each of us to show up warts and all, what is most meaningful shines through over and over. People begin to discover what is most personally meaningful is also universal.  And more, they begin to discover they are not alone but part of some larger whole. Our hearts open to each other and we know we are connected.  In truth, even when we can’t feel it and our hearts are closed, we are still connected.  Just as head, heart, and hands are essential parts of one body, so our unique gifts connect us as parts of a larger social system.  As we begin to experience this first hand, something shifts and “I” begin to see myself as part of a larger “we”. This marriage of “I” and “we” is a pathway to making sense of our differences.

How do we integrate difference wisely?

As we create stories that make sense of how our different perspectives fit together, we find a macroscopic view.  Just as microscopes opened our world in the industrial age, I believe that macroscopes – experiences, maps, stories, and media that help us see ourselves in context – will be instrumental in helping us make sense of difference.

Seeing ourselves in context is an essential ingredient for emerging into a novel, higher-order coherence.  What was outside is now part of a new, more expansive whole.  The Associated Press research was striking to me because the desire for back story speaks to this need for context.  When we see ourselves in context, recognize our connections to each other, how we treat each other shifts.

See the AP study, A New Model for News,

Further, the act of naming calls new patterns into being, creating a sense of shared context and intention.  The conditions for more trust and courage emerge.  People take action knowing something about the collective assumptions guiding them.  They are clearer about their own work, connected to others, discover new insights, partners, and initiatives.  And a new cultural narrative begins to hold them.

Making it stick

Working with these three orienting inquiries – disrupting compassionately, muddling through creatively, integrating difference wisely – can be a huge act of faith.  It takes asking these questions over and over for new patterns to really take root.  Each time through strengthens the growth, which helps to internalize the shifts.  There is a saying about change.  It is a lot like growing bamboo.  You water it every day for four years and nothing happens.  Then suddenly, it grows sixty feet in ninety days.

Journalism that Matters has been doing its work for nine years, including a three-year gap between the first three iterations and when we really took off.  Now the demand is accelerating.

Leadership in uncertainty

It takes clear intention, courage, and tenacity to stay with something as it ripens into its fullness.  I believe leadership in such times is about stewarding shared intention and tending to the social fabric.  This brings the relational much more into the foreground and invites others into the work of providing direction.  I have observed some principles that support this type of leadership.


There are always holes in wholeness. Some aspect or group is always outside the current story, mostly unseen. Disruption to the current state is often a result of those outside looking for a way in.  By recognizing disruption as an indicator that an aspect of the system wants to be integrated into the whole, it becomes easier to get curious about what gifts it brings to the system.


At any time, we have a choice in how to relate to what is happening. Geneva Overholser, Director, School of Journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication, introduced herself at a 2006 JtM session saying:

“I had been depressed. A couple of years ago, I resolved to find hope. When you open yourself to possibility you are willing to experience stuff you haven’t experienced before.”


Christopher Alexander speaks of a “quality without a name”. It is where there is energy, curiosity.  For some, it has a spiritual quality.  I believe it lives at the intersection of what we know and don’t know.  And that is why it matters when we are seeking to make sense of the unknown.  Tuning into the energy of aliveness guides us on our way, helping to find a place of calm in the storm and to source powerful, appreciative questions.

When we are guided by these principles, what patterns show up?

Centering supports us to tune in to silence and sense aliveness.

Inquiring appreciatively expresses itself at the intersection between incompleteness and possibility – a home-run combination.

And at the heart of these principles, find out what you love.  Engage with and take responsibility for it.  It is an act of service.

These ideas provide a framework.  Next installment: putting this framework into action…

A poem offered by Anne Anderson

Two Tramps in Mud Time (last stanza)
Robert Frost
But yield who will
to their separation,
My object in living is
to unite
My vocation and my
As my two eyes make
one in sight.
For only where love and
need are one
And the work is play
for mortal stakes
Is the work ever
really done
For heaven’s and the
future’s sakes.

Comments/Suggestions from attendees:

Look at patterns through history. Anne mentioned a source that offers patterns up to 20th century.

Want to see specific pictures – examples – speeches, bios, mirrors from history.

Voices – reading pieces of speeches that talk about this.

Bill Cosby Pound Cake Speech.

Help me explain this to my kids.

Quote from Manson in Bowling for Columbine (about listening to the students rather than telling them anything)

“All kids are home schooled, even when they go to school”.

Living with not knowing – provide people with tools and structures.  Name the structures and what they represent.

Let go of the idea that you want this book to be complete.

“Take out what people aren’t going to read anyway”. Robert Parker

If you weren’t allowed to use any words and used pictures instead, what 3 pictures would you use?

Producing a work of art:
Critical temperature
Critical mass
Flash point that produces change of state.

Simple stories that help us recognize we’ve experienced this in our lives and have seen the benefit of emergence.

Moving from a declarative culture to a culture of inquiry and curiosity.

Book on Kendall – add audio and video for this version.

Journalism could be a storyline that runs throughout the book.

Use journalism as the thread? Various opinions about this.

Potential for devastation (of life/humans) is greater now than ever before.

History reveals that the overall pattern is that oppressed people rise up and then become the oppressors.

Once we name the pattern so we understand that it is always incomplete it no longer owns us.

Questions teach us that something larger is going on.

The purpose of projects is to give us an excuse to be together.

Live into it instead of writing it.

Importance of faith.

At this conference, the exercises have been a visual demonstration, a canvas so that we can reconstruct our occupation.

We see a shift of the context for journalism.

Assumptions on which the story of journalism has grown are proving false/unsustainable.

“You can be explicit”

“What do I do tomorrow?” isn’t a useful question. This question is a doubt.

Some interesting phrases:

  • Collision of incompleteness and possibility produces inquiry.
  • Engage by taking responsibility for what you love
  • Marriage of the I and the We.  The marriage is consummated in community
  • Opening is inquiry to not know
  • Reflection is the means of seeking patterns.
  • All that is left is insight of the obvious truth
  • Questions teach us that something larger is going on
  • When the heart is closed, we are connected but don’t know it
  • Process is: to get clearer about our own work: find partners: a new project shows up: create a new story, faith surfaces

About Peggy Holman

Peggy Holman supports organizations and communities to uncover creative responses to complex challenges using innovative engagement processes. The Change Handbook, co-authored with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, documents many such processes. The book is the considered the definitive resource for leaders and consultants working to increase resilience, agility, and collaboration in organizations and other social systems. Peggy co-founded Journalism that Matters in 2001 with three journalists to support the pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology. Peggy’s latest book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, supports people facing disruptions to invite others to join them in realizing new possibilities.
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