Greetings from Ireland…re/Phoenix

2008-07-09

Richard Moore

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Friends,
Sorry for being so slow in reporting back on Phoenix. June is probably the first month in cyberjournal history with no postings at all! The Gathering itself, and poor Internet connection in Vilcabamba, explains why no postings during most of June. The recent few weeks silence are due to moving across town to this new address:
Richard Moore
3 Dempseys Terrace
St. Peters Square
Wexford, Ireland
land line: +353 53 91 21800
mobile: +353 87 778 4994
In any case, the Phoenix event in Ecuador was very successful. We had 25 participants, all of whom are committed change agents, each following their own unique path. Perhaps the most valuable outcomes were all the connections made among these people, and the bonds of mutual understanding and trust that developed. Once these kinds of bonds have been created, subsequent collaborations via Internet can be much more effective. Already some joint projects have emerged among various groups of individuals, and I anticipate many others will arise later. Each of our networks has been greatly expanded, with the Phoenix group giving us a new communication hub.
The setting for the Gathering was ideal, and its isolation served us well in terms of encouraging focus. Brian O’Leary and Meredith, our hosts, created Montesueños expressly for the purpose of hosting transformative events. Phoenix was their maiden gathering, and their excitement and supportive energy set the just the right tone for us. The house is more than a house; it is an evolving work of art, with an amazing array of tile designs occurring in every nook and cranny, and with the walls graced by Meredith’s own visionary paintings. Vilcabamba is arguably the most beautiful place in the world, with the best climate I’ve ever experienced. The local folks are some of the most warm-hearted people I’ve ever encountered. Here are some photos of the event that Sergio Lub very kindly uploaded:
Among other things, the Gathering was a process experiment, based on the principles developed by Jim Rough, in his work with Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils. Our two facilitators, Jean Rough and DeAnna Martin, did a wonderful job and they also volunteered their services, which was very much appreciated by all, and helped set the cooperative tone of the event. The design elements of the experiment were these:
* gather together a microcosm of concerned people
* meet in an isolated venue for a whole week
* have no preset agenda
* set a high goal for the group
* use Dynamic Facilitation (DF) as the process
As it turned out, the experiment was stressed by the size of the gathering. With 25 people, a week wasn’t really enough for everyone to express themselves in the kind of depth encouraged by DF, and still have enough time left to engage in creative collaborative dialog. With a smaller group, say 12-15, we would have made more progress in terms of ‘thinking convergence’, but then we would have lacked much of the richness of the larger group. Overall, I’d say the experiment was very successful in many dimensions, providing us with many insights and lessons for future gatherings.
One of the main lessons I took from the experience is that there needs to be a strong MC (Master of Ceremonies). For this particular event, I see that as a role that I should have taken on, and there were many times that I felt I could have intervened to good effect. But I had decided I wanted to be a regular participant, and didn’t feel comfortable trying to wear both hats at the same time.
Besides an MC, there also needs to be more structure. DF is wonderful in its place, but there needs to be a higher-level process that weaves in other kinds of dialog and interactions. The MC needs to have an overall sensitivity to the progress of the group, and know when it’s time to intervene and shift the structure around a bit, break into smaller groups, or whatever. 
One of our participants, Bruce Cahan, jumped in as a temporary volunteer MC about midweek, and suggested a process that we adopted, and which worked very well. Everyone went off on their own for about an hour, and came back with a brief (or not so brief) description of their ‘main idea’ – what they see as the main problem and the main solution. These were then presented to the group, and we noticed that the ideas clustered together under a few main headings (biosphere, governance, banking & finance, etc.) We then split up into groups, based on which heading our ideas came under. 
It was in these breakout groups that we experienced the first major convergences in our thinking. The first few days of DF were very important in terms of getting us all to express ourselves, and for each of us to learn where everyone else was coming from. With that background, the breakout groups – amazingly – each came up with a unanimous perspective on their topic! Each group then made a presentation to the plenary group, usually supported by a summary flip-chart from their breakout session. 
We then began to notice common elements among the presentations, and Chris Shaw stepped forward and made a chart that tied everything together, providing a kind of framework in which everyone’s ideas could be seen in relationship to one another. I’ve pasted that chart in below. 
I’d like to emphasize the distinction between convergence and agreement. Chris’ chart represents a convergence in our shared language about the issues, but it doesn’t represent any agreement on what the main problems are or how they might be solved. With this shared language, I think we had reached the stage where DF could come into its own, as a convergence agent – but alas, we had only one day left, not enough time to launch into a new round of exploratory dialog. 
In the various Wisdom Councils that have been convened, one of the highlights has always been the public gathering following the Council, where the participants report on what happened in their dialog. We borrowed this page from Jim’s work, and on the final Saturday afternoon we invited locals in from Vilcabamba and gave them a presentation, based on our breakout topics, and the convergence chart that Chris came up with. The presentation was very well received, and the subsequent contributions from the locals were very interesting indeed. 
Based on this experience, I would now add these elements to the design of any future similar event:
* focus initially on each person sharing their story in depth
* be mindful of the balance between available time & number of participants
* focus early on developing shared language
* have MC who holds vision of group goals, and with sense for appropriate intervention
* achieve clarity from beginning regarding any intended concrete outcomes

This last item, about outcomes, relates to something that came up at the Gathering. Several of the participants came in with the expectation that we needed to produce some kind of Statement or Manifesto as a concrete outcome. For myself, I was more concerned about coming up with something worth writing about, than I was concerned about the actual writing. 
In retrospect, I’m even more convinced that attempting to draft a document is not a good use of time in this kind of gathering. In addition, the anticipation of writing a document detracts from the openness of the dialog. I noticed that people were sometimes wanting to narrow the discussion, in an effort to move toward agreement on something that could be documented. One of the lessons that has come out of experience with DF, is that striving for early agreement does not lead to the highest quality outcomes. 
If a group of people already have a lot of agreement, I can see where a gathering could be devoted exclusively to writing a document together – perhaps a book or anthology emerging out of an intense, two-week collaboration. But if a diverse group is coming together in exploratory dialog, I think the best use of their time is stick with the dialog, and whatever they develop in the course of that dialog is their outcomes. As a post-process, things can be written, assisted by the Internet.
Besides, the Gathering was captured on film, and the flip-charts were all photographed. It is from this material that our document can be created.
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I’ll leave it at that for now. It’s good to be back in communication with you folks, and how I must get to packing. 
best wishes to all,
rkm
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