‘If the world is complex, then acting congruently with that complexity can be simpler than trying to control a machine that does not exist.’ (Jean Boulton)
At the start of an Action Learning set meeting, I invited the presenter (that is, the person thinking through an issue with support from peers) to say a bit more about the issue she is facing. As she did so, it sounded like the issue was complex and multi-faceted, with lots of inter-related dimensions. I asked if she had a sense of which dimension she’s find most useful to think through with the group. She responded, ‘Yes, A’. Then she went on to introduce further dimensions, B and C.
Curious, I asked whether she’d prefer to work on A, B or C. ‘C’, she replied, then elaborated to include D, E and F. Another participant asked which of those additional dimensions, or of the original A, B or C, could form a useful focus for her, on which to receive questions for critical reflection. ‘Let’s focus on B’ she replied. A peer reflected back to the presenter, insightfully, ‘Perhaps a struggle to find a way in, to get clarity on which dimension to address to move things forward, is the issue?’
It was a great example and application of double-loop learning, of stepping back from the immediate presenting issues to notice a potential meta-problem that could lay at the heart of the dilemma. As the Action Learning round progressed, it became apparent that the dynamic complexity of the presenter’s organisational context had left her feeling completely bewildered and lacking in agency. Her attempts to address each issue independently of the others had felt like whack-a-mole.
Noticing how it felt like whack-a-mole in the Action Learning set too gave a glimpse into a parallel process. ‘Is there something in what we’re experiencing here, that could give insight into and help make sense of what you are experiencing in your scenario?’ I invited each person to share, ‘If I were in the presenter’s situation, a question I might have in mind is…’ Different parts of the system emerged implicitly and vicariously into view. The action step flowed naturally from that place.
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