Is ‘systems convening’ a thing?
The book, Systems convening: a crucial form of leadership for the 21st Century was published just over a month ago; the launch event, for which over a thousand people signed up, took place on 2 September. All the information about the book and community is hosted by the authors, Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, at https://wenger-trayner.com/systems-convening/
The book was inspired by a chapter they wrote in Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, Identity, and Knowledgeability in Practice-Based Learning. This was seen by Matthew Kalman-Mezey of the Q Foundation and other knowledge-sharing efforts (he’s a founder of the Enlivening Edge publication/community and has a history of this sort of thing). He brought the authors together with funders, and I was lucky enough to go along for the right as part of a sort of sounding-board group. In this context, I recommended some potential ‘systems conveners’ (many more were interviewed than feature in the book), offered some comments, and helped organise the launch etc.
Engaging with something that brings together productive passion for change for the better and gets some real traction is a rare treat. This is about finding, celebrating, supporting, connecting, and giving more power to the elbow of people who are deeply embedded in and knowledgeable about a context, and who ‘convene’ change based on their deep understanding and motivations — but, crucially, I say ‘productive’ becuase this seems to me to be fundamentally different from so much ‘cause-based’ change, which unproductively fights ‘against’ (systems convening is practical; it does what’s needed), and different again from so much ‘philanthropy’-driven external change, which encourages the same but risks bringing a ‘we know better’ mindset. ‘Colonialist’, as we might say these days.
Instead, it seems to me that ‘conveners’ combine their passion and drive with a humility that is valuable. As the Wenger-Trayners say:
“You may not have heard about them; what they do is rarely in their job description. You may not even be aware of what they do; they tend to act as enablers rather than taking credit or seeking the spotlight. But they are here — working on sustainable change, across challenging silos, in complex social landscapes, amid changing circumstances. We call them systems conveners.”
from the introduction to Systems Convening
I said two things from the start. First, that naming a thing is powerful:
Let me be clear: such people have been around forever. But it takes a special kind of expertise to identify the thing and, as they say, shine a light on it.
As the person who named communities of practice, and associated concepts like legitimate peripheral participant, Etienne Wenger-Trayner is uniquely good at this; many of the interviewees have been in tears of gratitude at being recognised.
I also said that there are risks:
And yes, we’re aware of the likely problem now this thing has been named. There will, inevitably, be some or all of: funding streams; short courses; accreditation; conferences; self-appointed LinkedIn titles; and critiques and over-simplifications. Enthusiasts gonna enthuse, popularisers gonna oversimplify, gooroos gonna gooroo, and curmudgeons gonna grump.
There’s a bit on this in the book. Every step toward legibility risks draining the essence, every codification risks destroying knowledge, every extension is also an amputation.
But this greebling — this new possibility we can now be aware of — is valuable in itself.
And the true systems conveners will carry on, making the difference — a little bit buoyed up, a little bit stronger, and with this book as a handbook for them to continue to engage in their context, to their purpose.
First comment to the above post
And, as ’twas foretold, systems convening has very quickly come under attack in various ways — from those whose identity is so deeply embedded in different approaches, or simply in attacking new approaches. I myself have given a small groan every time I hear of a new ‘systems thing’, and spoken at length about the risks of confusion, manipulation, and other approaches to the field of systems¦complexity¦cybernetics (see for example https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn%3Ali%3Aactivity%3A6749960470872100864/, something I use to try to manage my own risks and temptations in this space).
This critical analysis is welcome, of course; it will temper whatever emerges now. And it’s very important to think about the implications of surfacing this kind of thing. So this post is a bit of a personal position statement. I think systems convening is a real thing, and that naming and spotlighting it is valuable; and I’m very aware of the risks.
The very first statement, in that first article by the Wenger-Trayners, sets out the framing very explicitly:
In our role as learning consultants for different organizations we increasingly find ourselves supporting conveners in complex landscapes. Their contexts are different but what drives them is similar: a conviction that new configurations of people and activities will bring about new capabilities. These conveners see a social landscape with all its separate and related practices-through a wide -ang le lens; they spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnerships that will bring different and often unlikely people together to engage in learning across bound aries. This chapter explores the role of these conveners, the para doxical challenges they face, the complexity of their work, and the personal traits that seem critical to their endeavor. While our description of what they do is based on an archetype of the successful conveners we have worked with we hope they will recognize themselves in our description of what they do and realize they are not alone. We also hope that others will come to appreciate the subtleties, drive, hard work, and tensions involved. Ultimately we wouJd like to contribute to the emergence of a discipline of convening in complex landscapes
Systems conveners in complex landscapes, Beverly Wenger-Trayner and Etienne Wenger-Trayner
(As it seems to me), the Wenger-Trayners are interested in social learning, and do observational work to understand and find ways to support and improve that.
Observational work that seems to identify real commonalitiies is often put into a theory or, more loosely, given a name. This has several consequences and issues. Primarily, in this case, I’d say the first consequence is an outpouring of gratitude and emotion as people labouring at a difficult mission feel recognised for the first time — and also see that there are others, lessons to learn, ideas to share etc. (see Finally — I’m seen! by Bev Wenger-Trayner: https://wenger-trayner.com/all/10738/). This has of course the risk of a backlash or rather a slump of disappointment if they end up disillusioned…
Of course it is reasonable to expect, in the grand scheme of human endeavour, that there will be people following some parallel, comparable and common practices across widely divergent contexts.
It’s also true that it’s possible that looking across diverse contexts and generalising a thing could be subject to reverse engineering, researcher bias, instrumental intent, etc. It’s my opinion, for example, that in Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux brought together a number of really interesting but highly divergent case studies and attempted to use them to justify both a very stretched historical narrative and a parallel stage theory of organisation, partly through a version of existing integral/spiral dynamics theory. Thi led people up the garden path
There are clear interests here: the Wenger-Trayners are invested in social learning, and want to help more good work be done in the world. Matthew, who spotted the first observational article and convened the book, can speak for himself, the funders have their organisational and personal motives, and me — apart from being the noodle in every systems|complexity|cybernetic soup — I thought there was something real and powerful here and wanted to influence it to be brought out effectively, with powerful case studies, and in full awareness of precisely these issues.
In this case, I feel confident that there is a real thing being recognised here, a difference that makes a difference in very different contexts. But only time — and critical engagement — will tell.
The risks of there now being a ‘thing’, a recognised field of practice, are obvious and well-known. As Marshall McLuhan said ‘every extension is an amputation’; every new bit of knowledge, every new dimension of possibility (or greebling) limits or cuts of something else. This is very different from, but of course overlaps with, ungrounded theorising such as I find in Laloux.
This is actually addressed in the book, along the lines of my comment above. If this is decontextualised, taught, systematised, codified, if those ‘mindsets’ are exhorted, the label aspired to, if job descriptions seek to do it on an institutional context and with normal employee turnover, then what emerges will be something different, possibly (though not automatically) dangerous in various ways.
Communities of practice, like, say, ‘knowledge management’ or ‘sensemaking’, did, in my opinion, ‘carve the world at its joints’, they were such powerful declarative statements, words of creation, because there was a gap in our ability to name what we experienced and worked on. Inasmuch as they push at new ways of being, new ‘paradigms’ if you like, they are subject to cooption by the ‘existing mindset’ and misunderstanding, and particular important battlegrounds for the ‘four quadrants of threat’ and other dynamics that surround emergent, new, powerful ideas.
Just as with those other examples, , there are going to be multiple directions those who get engaged with systems convening go — those who want more and simpler, accessible will simplify standardise and share, those who want to support and engage the real pure contextual version will lament this while trying to do that, some will set themselves up to exploit their expertise, and many will rush in headlong and rush out again as soon as the next shiny thing emerges.
I’d say, by the way, that as an example being discussed in this space, I think that Liberating Structures is quite different — not observationally derived, with no real underlying principles or theory; a compilation of tools that seek to give people the power of meeting facilitation in a demotic way. There are attendant risks and benefits there, too; confusing basic facilitation with developmental or deep facilitation, for example, and applying practices out of the context they were taken from therefore perhaps with little understanding of effects beyond the process. But perhaps that is my inner curmudgeon talking!
Ultimately, though, there is no pretension to the truths of ‘science’ — whatever they may be in these contested times — at least in my mind, in claiming that ‘systems convening’ is a useful name and category. The power and enthusiasm invoked cannot easily be distinguished from that which would be created by a completely imagined and aspirational label in which people might embrace their self-image. The concept could be — as with so many concepts in our field — merely a reflection of the perspectives and prejudices of the originators and enthusiasts. It could be that the positive feedback, engagement, potential for work is blinding us to the negatives and risks of delivering this mystery box (Pandora’s Box?) into the world.
But you can’t stop new things which have motive power. There are, I think, one or two saving graces that I seek to put in place to buttress myself, and the things I get involved in, from the risks I’m aware of — and these may also limit their potential for success:
- an attitude of irony, humour, and self-effacing openness to the possibility that we might be wrong. Laloux has at least a part of this, which has I think really helped in the slow wash away from ‘teal’ as a movement.
- an openness of the idea and the discussion, which prevents the closure of ‘goorooisation’; the experts here, from the start, are the 40–100 interviewees, not the Wenger-Trayners, and certainly not me.
- a determination to avoid — at least by naming and acknowledging — the worst excesses of enthusiasm and use of the idea for power. We hope to offer workshops, engagement, learning — but for actual systems convenors, or learning from them — if you see a ‘two-day certificate in Systems Convening’, I don’t think it will be from Bev and Etienne or any of the funders/sounding board group!
- a willingness to consider and embrace criticism, and to be tested in the actual outcomes, not in the first burst of excitement. I think this is about a learning orientation, not a knowing orientation. It could, of course, be an attempt to have it both ways! ;-)
- and, last but not least, an awareness of the risks attendant in naming and creating new things, and stakes in the ground such as this post and in the book, which set out the numerous ways in which this could go wrong.
We shall see.