Wandering: In the Beginning was the Relationship

The following is an excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work:

Among the key insights gleaned from our work through the years is that none of us exists in isolation from others, and that the fundamental building block of the universe is the Relationship. Contrary to dominant socialization that focuses so strongly on individualism, we have come to appreciate that Relationships are key to fostering our individual success. When those relationships do not exist or are weakened, the state of mind, energy, and ultimate problem-solving capacities of individuals are often strongly compromised. 

This is important, with consequences on how we educate people, how we organize our work places, and how we monitor and respond to issues and concerns that arise in various contexts. We tend to invest in individual training and professional development, and we reward individual accomplishment or criticize individual failure. We give lip-service to “teams” in our classrooms and our workplaces, yet we evaluate performance on such an individualistic basis that such team opportunities are often compromised in terms of their perceived value.

Instead, all individuals need to be understood in terms of their relationships and the contexts in which they exist. If we focus on conditions in which group members can identify and develop their strengths, communicate effectively with one another, develop shared goals and purpose, and ultimately foster interdependent relationships that can sustain collaboration, opportunities for what Warren Bennis calls “great groups” are much more likely to emerge.37 As noted elsewhere, the “wicked” problems we need to address require a level of nimble flexibility and focus that earlier generations may not have required to such a degree. 

How do we foster this capacity, especially in situations requiring innovative responses? Brian Arthur’s research on innovative technologies offers a clear path: Facilitate deep development and competence around strength-based domains in individuals and teams, then bring people together within spaces that encourage members to “lower boundaries” across their expertise domains. In such environments, they can be freed to inquire of one another, experiment, prototype possible solutions, and otherwise engage in the stages of the innovation process likely to produce worthy results. Some responses may be incremental, others more radical, but the sheer quantity and quality are likely to be more effective than our typical approaches. 

This is also reflected in the work of Nathan Myhrvold, who has parlayed his Microsoft fortune into an array of creative projects, most notably his controversial Intellectual Ventures company. Among his discoveries has been a facilitated process whereby Nobel laureates and others have come together for conversations about whatever they are noticing in the world. Intentionally bringing together diverse experts, Myhrvold has been able to glean hundreds of patent-worthy ideas.

I have experimented with this process in two distinct ways: I have adapted Myhrvold’s process to facilitate conversations among scientists in the “Chaos and Complexity Seminar” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with fascinating results. These discussions produced excellent ideas regarding salient challenges facing the University, and did so in minimal amounts of time. I also co-created a unique conference format, the “Big Learning Event,” that twice brought together innovators and thought leaders from diverse fields of inquiry to foster such interactions and discoveries. When their conversations were offered in the presence of several hundred others who were prepared to observe and then build from what they witnessed, the results were transformative. Indeed, the BLE inspired concrete innovations at the University and was replicated elsewhere. 

It doesn’t always work, but it seems that this approach reliably fosters more connections, insights, and possibilities than our typical academic and corporate silos. Incorporating such thinking into our organizational dynamics and reinforcing opportunities in the ways we train and evaluate performance can be a highly important way to build Relationship.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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