what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Against Binary thinking

I generally don’t like to see it suggested that the world consists of two sorts of people – us and them; insiders and outsiders; left and right. Perhaps it’s my mugwump, “on the fence”, instinct but, if there’s a Third Way, I’ll opt for it. Even better - a matrix choice eg grid-group theory or the 6-7 Belbin Team Roles. We are, after all. complex individuals – if sometimes not as original as we would like to think.

But there are always some exceptions…I’ve always liked McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y which divides us on the basis of whether we trust others or not.

And I’ve had to recognise that I am very much an “Ideas” – as distinct from “People” – person. I focus more on that WHAT than the HOW – I am particularly weak on the human aspect of issues. That’s not to say that I underestimate the importance of implementation – but my strength – when I was pursuing a political career - was networking and forging alliances with like-minded people rather than trying to persuade the recalcitrant

I never enjoyed the “glad-handing” which was such a feature of Lyndon Johnson’s success. Gordon Brown had a similar upbringing to mine – and suffered for his patent inability to suffer fools gladly…So the books on conciliation I have been looking at recently are quite a revelation. The author of Power and Love – a theory and practice of social change (2010) has for several decades led multi-stakeholder groups as they work together on complex, intractable problems eg projects involving siloed organizations in the global food system; the post-1991 South African reconciliation process; warring Israeli and Palestinian factions; and antagonistic Canadian stakeholders wrestling with climate change. 

Originally trained as a physicist, economist, and energy policy expert, Adam Kahane worked for years at Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s renowned group planning department — the part of the company that developed much of the current-day practice of scenario planning.

When people from warring factions come together they bring with them a strange mixture of very human strengths and weaknesses – not just interests but perceptions. Kahane’s book suggests there are two sides to power – the positive “power-to” and the negative “power-over”. And the same for the softer side – which can be almost inviting domination or more assertive.  

His book on “Power and Love” he wrote apparently to counter what he felt was an insufficient emphasis on the “power” aspects in his first book “Solving Tough Problems – an open way of talking, listening and creating new realities” (2004)

This interview has a good exchange about the need to keep the forces of power and what he calls “love” in balance  

KAHANE: I’d say 70 percent of the senior people — in business, government, and the nonprofit world — fall into either the power camp or the love camp. Those in the power camp think that compassion and empathy are soft emotions, that they don’t matter in the working world, and that they should be relegated to the home, family, and romance. They see the weak, degenerative side of love — which certainly exists.

But they fall into a trap. The exercise of power without love becomes reckless, abusive, and ultimately counterproductive and fragile. When businesspeople focus relentlessly on finishing the mission, getting on with the job, at the cost of their connection to employees, communities, or the environment, they lose their long-term legitimacy and viability. When I worked on regional development problems in Houston, I had a number of encounters with Ken Lay, then the CEO of Enron, and I saw first-hand the phenomenon of entrepreneurialism without responsibility. There are many Enrons, practicing power without love and suffering less-dramatic versions of the same fate.

But love without power is equally prevalent — and equally dangerous for people trying to accomplish something. It’s just not as widely understood.

 KAHANE: Nothing happens without the dirty, nitty-gritty recognition that everyone in a complex problem situation is asking, “What’s in it for me?” I’ve made the mistake of overlooking those interests, and therefore getting stuck. At one tough workshop of South African leaders, my co-facilitator Ishmael Mkhabela turned to me and said: “Adam, [these attendees] are not nuns, they are not priests; they have not taken vows not to have interests. People’s interests are not the problem; it is only a problem when those of one overpower those of others.” We see the same issue come up in climate change work, and in any work on social governance; people try to make the conversation nonpartisan. But you’ve got to let everybody bring up their partisan interests openly, and see what you can do once you know what they are. You’re not just looking out for the good of the whole system. You have to attend to the parts as well, because that’s where the power — the ability to get things done — resides. 

A number of people have observed that the worst conflicts about power tend to occur in idealistic organizations, such as those in the fields of healthcare and education. Maybe this is why. Just when you’re getting to the really tough issues, somebody stops everything by proclaiming, “remember the patients” or “remember the children.” That’s not helpful. Nobody had forgotten the patients and the children, but these statements obscure the necessary, difficult work of dealing with particular interests. 

S+B: Why do people find it so difficult to keep both power and love in mind?
KAHANE: Because of deeply held beliefs. As a power person, I tend to hesitate to open myself up because I think if I do, I’ll get hurt. And I know a lot of people in the love camp who say, “Well, I don’t want to assert myself because I think I’ll hurt someone.”

A fair number of people — maybe 10 to 30 percent of those in a typical company — are skilful at both. Many of the people I admire balance the two imperatives, and all of us can become more conscious of it and consistent at it. ….Organizations also have difficulties maintaining this balance. Aren’t there organizations that, under stress, revert to power or revert to love? Aren’t there societies that do the same?

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