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Going There

I've been there and back again. Circumnavigated the block a few times. Repeatedly seen the plot play through to resolution. I'm not jaded, but I’m no longer surprised.

Before I'd been there and back again, I'm certain that no explanation, no matter how complicated or complete, could have taken me there. As if I didn't have language yet, only after I'd gone there was the concept of there a meaningful distinction. 

But then I catch myself doing what simply does not work. I explain, in varying levels of passion and patience, what I experienced going there. My stories do not fall on deaf ears. They find ears perfectly capable of hearing and comprehending every single, well-chosen word. Even so, they do not seem to understand what I intend.

It might be the case, as I've heard others say, that the difference between understanding going there and not lies in some personally transforming experience. Only this, some claim, can create the proper context for understanding. And, as K.D. Laing said over a generation ago, "Those who don't know what they don't know, think they know." Those who have not been there and back again, probably think they've already been there and back again when they've only read about it or heard about it or seen someone else's there-and-back-again experience in some movie. 

And these second-hand experiences can be thoroughly convincing, just as if you'd personally been there; convincing but ultimately deluding. If you've been there, you already understand what going there entails, so the stories fall on ears properly conditioned, ones that translate the intention as the sender intended. 

I call the attempt to explain this inexplicable 'screaming at sheep.' I mean no slight to the many fine sheep in this world, merely to emphasize that screaming never improved any sheep's lot. Because it doesn't, it's less than useless for the shepherd, too. 

The mystery remains. How might we share these insights without inducing Laing's knowing trance? Going there didn't really change anything, but having gone, everything seems so different.

I've been working with a community engaged in a so-called 'process improvement’ effort. They've been struggling to make headway. It seems to me that this community is comprised of two differing world views. One comes from a tightly-coupled, closed system. The other from a more loosely-coupled, more open system. Going there seems to induce a deep, perhaps unspeakable understanding of open systems, a deeper appreciation of what being in control means and doesn’t mean. Without experiencing this going there, control seems obviously achieved by holding on more tightly and defending boundaries more emphatically. After, a driver holds onto the steering wheel less desperately.

Process Improvement seems to mean very different things to each of these factions. The closed-system folks begrudgingly lobby for rewriting procedures they acknowledge will be out-dated before they’re finished. The open-system ones speak endlessly about changing the organization’s mindset—wherever that might be—, which might not entail rewriting any process description. Each camp satisfies them self with their proposals without influencing the other.

If a community’s capability gets defined by the lowest common denominator, then this community seems destined to continuously rearrange deck chairs without ever influencing their future course. Of course, taken literally, process improvement translates into exactly this. Efficiency seems, from a tightly-coupled, closed system perspective, to demand no less, and little more. “We’ll simply become more predictive. Rewrite the book and really stick to it this time,”

In a constantly changing world—one glimpsed whenever going there and coming back again—prediction doesn’t seem germane. Those who have been there seem to accept that they could not possibly know, but their experience convinces them of their capacity to learn, adapt, and continuously change, if not necessarily improve. They seek resilience, not stability.

The closed system crowd honestly believes that if only their customers understood the needle eyes they have to drive camels through to deliver their services, then the customers would appreciate them as they’ve learned to appreciate themselves. They acknowledge that they are not perfect by any means, but their customers could more deeply appreciate their struggles. So they consider publishing a tri-color brochure to clue in their clueless customers. They propose automating a proposal process to more efficiently channel reluctant customers into a system destined to disappoint them again. They agree to rewrite the procedure manual, fully intending to get it right this time, while the more open system people leave the meeting steaming.

I’ve had a little bit of luck inviting groups like this to engage in experiential exercises. These hold the promise of providing some small, shared ‘going there’ experience, unlike a white paper or a lecture, no matter how stern. We only ever go there through situated action. We only ever come back again by reflecting on our experience. Sharing this action/reflection experience sometimes results in a community going there together. Maybe only for a few precious minutes, but some darned special minutes.

The conditions surrounding every mandated process improvement effort seem to mediate against any group going there together. The sponsor wants progress reports, and may well measure improvement by the number of rearranged deck chairs. Of all the members of every process improvement community, the sponsor seems least likely to be well situated for understanding what going there really provides. No spreadsheet ever captures it. No Powerpoint deck displays it. No measurement could represent it, either.

So those who’ve been there budget a bit of time to creating and maintaining window dressing, making their going there seem the same as rearranging deck chairs. And this can be frustrating work if one’s head isn’t screwed on straight about it. Some communities manage to distract those who have not been there by agreeing to them rearranging their deck chairs while the ‘been there’ folks go somewhere inexplicable.

Probably the single best way to stifle these efforts involves insisting that everyone go there together. This could happen, in a more perfect world. Every community seems bi-cameral. Split-brain. Simple diversity might demand this much. There will be some who’ve been there and back again. And others who just cannot go there, and exhorting won’t change this fact even a little bit. Perhaps an ounce of acceptance will. We could acknowledge this fundamental, subtle difference without trying to change it.

Who says part of the crew shouldn’t satisfy themselves rearranging deck chairs and sending glowing reports back to home port while those who have been there and back again steer the necessary course?

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