Generative Engagement - Using Diversity to Solve Complex Problems

Choosing Options for ActionOne section in the Adaptive Action book looks at the development of a model Royce and I created to help us make sense of and how to work well with diversity in groups, organizations and society in general.

Why is diversity important? Well, diversity is at the core of how nature finds solutions.

Earlier this week, Scott Page, a social scientist and author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies gave a compelling talk (90 minutes with introductions and questions at the end) about how diversity makes us better at what we do. He shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and Dr. Page proves it via research. He also speaks to the importance of creating a culture for diversity to thrive, and that to not do so allows the “pernicious aggregation’’ of damaging bias with lasting consequences.  

As the world becomes more connected and complex, our lives, work and schools are filled with more diversity. And we need this diversity to work on today's problems.  Dr. Page paraphrases Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection as "the rate at which you adapt relates to diversity in a direct way", making it clear that diversity and adaptive action are tightly connected.

Dr. Page also mentions that in the US alone, nine billion dollars is spent on diversity training and education. So diversity is a really big deal, at many levels in our society.

Another thought-provoking exploration of the nature of diversity in human systems is this Ignite talkby Joe Gerstandt - this five minute clip is jam packed with sweetness so go there now (yes, now!), then come right back (yes, please!)... Ok - now you heard it from Joe: diversity=difference, it comes in many forms, it is at play whenever people are together, it is disruptive as it brings in tension, and that tension must be dealt with. Oh, and sugar.

Dealing with the tension that difference brings is not so easy to do, but oh so very necessary. Royce and I set out to consider ways to help you see that tension and deal with it in a generative manner so that you can stay in relationship even when there are significant differences that may divide you. We call our model "generative engagement", as that is what we want to help you identify, and help you create. Based in human systems dynamics, the generative engagement model consists of the following components: 

Shared Identity:  This is what brings us together - the "who are we?" in any given social space. Shared identity means that we can retain our individuality in our relationships, and we can also compatibly exist in shared space. We may identify together around ideas and principles, share geographical location, or share affinities. To be in a productive relationship requires that we share direction and goals. The more strongly we share a common identity, the stronger our relationship is. This notion of shared identity is scalable to any level - interpersonal, group, organizational, system, or global.

Shared  Power:  We define power as “the ability to influence." In a given setting, who has power to influence and who doesn’t? How is power assigned or earned? The issue in relationships is about how readily and fluidly we influence each other.

  • Do I listen to you with a willingness to be informed?
  • Do you give my ideas similar consideration?
  • Do my decisions consider your wants, needs, and/or opinions? 
  • Do your decisions consider mine?

To share power means we each come to the relationship with as much willingness to be influenced as to influence. We share power to bring about change without giving up responsibility or accountability.

Shared Voice:  The critical factor in sharing information and other resources lies in how  we engage each other as we speak and listen, act and observe, give and receive.  When we grant voice to others, we

  • listen for meaning,
  • observe without interference from our own bias, and
  • receive their input and point of view graciously even if (especially if!) it is different from our own. 

When we generate voice, we

  • speak so others can understand,
  • act in ways so that they can perceive our meaning, and
  • give in ways that are timely and considerate.

Generative engagements require that participants grant and generate voice simultaneously.

Not every interaction you have with others will be generative. But this model, combined with adaptive action, can give you a way forward, moment by moment, towards these powerful and productive relationships.

The generative engagement model gives you a way to work through the tension that difference brings - whether from different opinions, backgrounds, needs, purposes, alliances, or group identities. We acknowledge these tensions in relationship, but rather than focusing on the particular differences that separate us, we put the emphasis on the things we can each observe, and we can each influence:

 - Who are we together? Shared identity fit for purpose.

 - What matter to us? Shared power to progress the work at hand.

 - How do we connect? Shared voice, harnessing diverse input and meaning-making.

In an adaptive action cycle, take a look at each of these to see where the interaction stands currently (what?), then consider what could be improved (so what?), and finally, choose which shift seems most useful:

  • Would tweaking the identity help - a broader or more narrow focus?
  • Would a shift in power make better use of our collective skills?
  • Would more/less communication help at this given point? Is it time for a meeting to recalibrate, or is a simple nod enough to move forward?

Identity, power, and voice are interdependent and massively entangled - by choosing an action based on one component, you affect them all. So just choose an adaptive action and see what happens (now what?).  You are now at a new what in a new adaptive action cycle.

You can read more about generative engagements here.

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