A great convincement

convincement book

I have to admit to not really knowing much about the Quaker movement apart from the porridge and the numerous meeting rooms I have visited around the country.

I managed to pick up (in a charity shop in Whitby for £1) an interesting book called ‘ A great Convincement’ by Monica Ventress who chronicles the story of the Quakers in North East Yorkshire (a place I do know a lot about).

Apart from discovering that I was unknowingly an Anabaptist, I just love this description of the emergence of the Gurteen knowledge cafe (the thought that David Gurteen might be a time-lord and had gone back to the 1600s as an experiment did cross my mind):

An essential of the sectarian position was that the sermon should be followed by discussion: that worship was not a matter of passively hearing the Word preached by a learned minister, but in participation by the congregation after a gifted member had opened up a subject for discussion. As time went on the practice of interrupting the parson in his pulpit, became a common occurrence. Disrupting services had been made a secular offence by an Act of Parliament in Mary’s reign (1553-1558). The Quakers always claimed a legal right to speak after the sermon was over.

The book goes on to detail the numerous penalties and imprisonments of people who interrupted services, held or attended Quaker gatherings and is genuinely shocking that these practices were seen as so threatening at the time.

I was then reminded of a Quaker based method called the Clearness Committee’ and is described in Joanna Macy’s wonderful book “Coming back to life” which explains how to seek clarity in important decisions, especially around marriage.

After the focus person summarizes the issue, members of the committee (ideally five or six trusted individuals) assist her by asking questions rather than giving advice or problem solving. Honest, caring queries, arising out of prayerful silence, help the focus person see herself and her situation in a new light and unblock her inner wisdom and authority.

A more complete and detailed explanation of the method can be found here where they explain that:

Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference.

I am really looking forward to giving this approach a try at my next problem solving workshop and/or community building masterclass.

Finally in looking to see what was on the internet about this method I came across this really interesting and very relevant slide pack on the use of dialogue by the Quakers on Slideshare by Thomas J Neuville in the U.S.

I am particularly interested to discover the origins of slide 12 and its relationship to cynefin and theory U.

More likely to sustain

When people are organised in groups, and their knowledge is sought, incorporated and built upon during planning and implementation, then they are more likely to sustain activities after project completion

…long term sustainability was only guaranteed when local institutions were strong…

…projects failed when there had been no focus on institutional development and local participation”

Jules Pretty as quoted from Agri-Culture – Reconnecting People, Land and Nature

We use stories to:

We use stories to:

  • build maps of the world we experience so we can make decisions about how to act.

  • make decisions about what to believe in what we see and hear.

  • playfully simulate possible outcomes before we commit to a course of action.

  • condense experience into packages that re-expand in the minds of listeners.

Cynthia Kurtz – Working with Stories

Your warm but complex embrace

Here is a recent keynote by Dave Snowden giving a thorough overview and introduction to  cynefin and sensemaker, which is packed full of thought provoking insights.

Highly recommended and lasting just over an hour my three favourite quotes are:

(In a complex system) Manage the evolutionary potential of a moment in time and adjust as you go. Manage beneficial coherence within attractors within boundaries.

There is an opportunity between free market capitalism and state planning for locally contextualised initiatives that can emerge at significantly lower cost than either of the other mechanisms.

(In a complex system) measure Vector not Velocity; success is right direction not order; otherwise an unachievable end point is always going to fail.

I had not heard this ‘Vector not Velocity’ before but it reminded me of a story from Nick Owen’s book ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ about the wise fool:

The wise fool takes the whole context into consideration and looks at every issue from every conceivable angle. Ask him, ‘Which is better, a fast horse or a slow one?’ He will say, it depends. ‘it depends whether you and your horse are going in the right direction

Cynefin on Fire – Complexity science to guide managers thoughts and actions

During the latter part of last year I facilitated three consultation workshops for the fire sector. At the one in a fire-station in Moss side, Manchester we were doing an anecdote circle to explore the narrative landscape and the subject of wildfires arose. Because fires figure regularly in my explanation of the chaotic domain of the cynefin framework I must have given a more impassioned set of examples that day, as I was asked soon after if I would write an article on cynefin for the Alert magazine (The Journal of the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management). I am therefore honoured to be in the latest edition concerning itself with Resilience against the floods, the Glasgow Helicopter Crash, Crisis Management, DNA profiling and a whole lot more.


I can’t say it was easy to write. In my head I knew exactly the stories, concepts and uses I wanted to include but “we know more than we can say” and at five pages long I struggled to remember and cross refer what I had already included. Anyway, to cut as long story short, the article appears on page 40 of the current edition and can be downloaded for free here (5mb PDF)


Any feedback on the article would be much appreciated.

As is: As could be – Duarte spark-lines

Just in case you have not seen this before, less than six minutes of video revealing the secrets behind great speeches and presentations. Nancy Duarte analyzes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech using principles from her (highly recommended) book, Resonate. Mapping the speech to her “presentation form”, Nancy reveals the magic that makes it memorable.

I love these previously unseen patterns. I am increasingly using this ‘as is : as could be’ pattern in my innovation ecosystem workshops as a template for action planning in a form that will have an inbuilt, empathising story.

The string of pearls

every story can therefore be seen as a journey into the woods to find the secret that lies outside the self

string of pearlsSo goes the quote from John Yorke and his Book on storytelling  ‘into the woods’ from a recent Guardian article.

So on Bank Holiday Monday, setting off early before the butterflies were warmed up and fluttering about, David, Tim and I set off for our annual search for colonies of the threatened Grizzled Skipper butterfly. Our search for the Grizzled Skipper conjures a complex of thoughts and we entered the woods hopeful but taken aback by how light and under-grown was the habitat this year after our long cold Spring.

As we walked along the sun drenched path with David identifying every bird call with knowing accuracy I came across this string of pearls and announced in mock horror, “David is this a pearl snake?”. “Its just costume jewellery” was the terse response but I pocketed it all the same, why?, because that’s what I do.

Tim had never seen the plaque in the place we call “Glenn Miller’s wood” that commemorates his final Aircraft Hanger performance back in Oct 1944 just months before he died. So we headed over there for our annual picture. For no reason other than to intrigue my friend Conrad, I posted a picture of the plaque up on facebook.


So there we have it. Two completely unconnected events, secondary to our hunt for endangered butterflies, until…

Conrad posts his response:


Intriguing, spooky and entangled. Until today I didn’t even know that iconic classic tune by Glen Miller was even called “String of Pearls”. So what is the secret that lies “outside the self”? Coincidence, mind reading, proof that time isn’t linear or was Glenn Miller back in those woods again, playing a literal joke with three old men in a wood, and one Glenn Miller fan somewhere in London?

A footnote: We did eventually find three individual Grizzled Skippers in two of their regular locations, but they were off like a shot as I approached with my camera. So no photographs just a little light music…



Horses for main courses

The Uffington Horse
The Uffington Horse

I see that the food minister says that we should not throw away horse contaminated food as there is no health issue...

By strange coincidence, yesterday, I picked up and bought this intriguing book from a Charity Shop, ‘The Pattern under the plough’ by George Ewart Evans and in it he explores why he thinks that we do not eat horse in this country:

From the early domestication of the horse, it has been suggested, there grew up so strong a link between horse and man that the horse became sacrosanct: his flesh became taboo and acquired a sacred or exalted character.

Certain animals in early times became totems … The clan developed a direct symbiotic relation with its totem and each member identified himself with it. Each clan or totem group was responsible for the fecundity and plentifulness of the animal or plant that it stood for.

As a result hobby horses appear in many countryside ceremonies and ritual dances.

The Celts, as befitted a nomadic people, prized the horse highly: theirs was essentially a horse culture.

Look also at the horse monuments carved into the chalk downs of southern England

It seems therefore that our aversion to horse may be one of the very aspects of our life that make us British, and just because it is safe to eat doesn’t make it right or we would eat cats, dogs, rats, badgers and perhaps our overweight siblings. So Owen Paterson, if the horse lasagne and burgers are safe to eat why don’t we all deliver them to Westminster and you can live on them for the next few years.

My inner bunny has short legs

There is a constant battle in my head from all this hard edged engineering, open innovation/complexity stuff and a need to draw on all the softer philosophical stories and ideas to satisfy my inner ‘fluffy bunny’.

If you are interested in only the former then skip this but for some essential bunny fodder I highly recommend a recent piece by Davd P Barash on how Buddhism and ecology both refuse to separate the human and natural worlds – and demand that we act accordingly

A few quotes taken out of context highlight why I think this adds real depth and intrigue to an ecological/ecosystem approach to knowledge and innovation.

The interconnected and interdependent nature of things is the heart of ecology

there isn’t any persistent ‘us’: just a constantly moving pattern of flow

The Buddhist suggestion that an organism’s skin does not separate it from its environment but, rather, joins the two … leads to the fundamental identity of subject and surroundings

‘A duck’s legs, though short, cannot be lengthened without dismay to the duck, and a crane’s legs, though long, cannot be shortened without misery to the crane.’

It [ecology] has been called the ‘subversive science’, since it subverts our egocentric insistence on separateness, and with it, our inclination to ride roughshod over the rest of the natural world.

Brilliant, and my inner fluffy bunny was subversive after all. Please read the original with all its wonderful illustrative stories.

Finally in trying to find the URL for this post I stumbled across this simple tale from the ARC Faiths and Ecology page:

Buddhists in Japan tell a story. The Buddha once received a donation of 500 new robes for his followers. So he considered what to do with the old ones. They would be used for bed-sheets, he decided. And the old sheets would become towels. And the old towels would be used as cleaning rags.

Now write down what you get from that story …

October Newsletter available to download

I have finally got my act together and produced a newsletter or at least a ‘seed pod’ full of ideas to seed your creative imagination. Pulling primarily on my influences of storytelling, innovation and complexity you can now download it for free here. All feedback greatly received and let me know if you want to be added to my mailing list for future editions.

Dark Innovation

For several years I have puzzled over the reasons why Lessons Learned workshops rarely provoke any change or improvement in the next iteration of the process or project. Similarly why is it so damned difficult to turn enthusiastic creativity into humanity saving innovation.

A number of recent theories and ideas seem to suggest that there are some rational and some irrational, invisible forces at work which modify any starting conditions to minimise the likelihood of success of any proposed change.

I have blogged about how to deal with invisible threats before HERE where Walter Wink recommends that we should:

  1. name the powers
  2. unmask the powers
  3. engage the powers


Our first step is to give it a name which I suggest should be termed Dark Innovation in tying with Dark matter and Dark Magnetism which are used to encompass initially poorly understood forces.. Next we need to unmask and make sense of it:


I have just read Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen in which he shares his understanding of the ‘systemising mechanism’ in the human brain and that it is

 those parts of the brain that perceive patterns in changing information, enabling us to figure out how things work and to predict the future

This mechanism he explains has a bell curve distribution throughout humans ranging from level 0 where you notice no patterns at all [not looking for patterns therefore can deal with change] through to level 6 where you have to systemise every moment of your life [anything unexpected is, for them, toxic – and so find change so difficult that they resist it at all costs]

Then while reading Ron Adlers excellent book, ‘The Wide Lens‘  he suggests that most innovation is stifled because it fails to take account of the customer and partner perspective and does not take into account the innovation ecosystem ie the implications and connections of the change being proposed.

Finally there was Drew Boyd who last week blogged about ‘the curse of innovation‘, in particular FT article  on the curse of patents, and frighteningly added another six equally resilient curses/barriers, deep seated in the human consciousness that seem programmed to scupper innovation. Desperation, absurdity, novelty, change and success, but I found the curse of competition the most enlightening:

Great ideas draw attention and support in the form of budget dollars, usually at the expense of another project. Unscrupulous employees have learned to be on guard. They monitor innovation activities carefully so they can “nip ideas in the bud.” They don’t wait for a great idea to develop. Instead, they “volunteer” to be part of innovation workshops so they can spot any threatening ideas as they emerge. They make sure those ideas are seen as “tainted”.

So we seem to have a complex intertwining set of powers that do there best to prevent innovation from happening. ‘Dark Innovation’ should not be seen as malevolent in fact it may be our combined consciousness trying to protect us from the Progress trap.

This Progress Trap was another concept that I self-realised and recognised so well, as I watched the highly recommended documentary ‘Surviving Progress‘ on BBC4 on Monday:

the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.

I see this as the Innovation equivalent of the ‘invisible hand in economics. Christopher Brooker in ‘the Seven Basic Plots’ of Story explored a similar idea – that all our monster stories emerged from a combined consciousness as a warning of the dangers of egotism. So perhaps our inbuilt resistance to change is an evolutionary defence mechanism

Having named and unmasked, we finally we need to engage these powers. If this is the problem what is the solution:


Innovation does not need to lead to greater consumption and depletion of resources. TRIZ in particular prides itself on trimming, minimising the costs and harms and getting the ‘system’ to supply resources it needs. The Surviving Progress documentary touches on the benefits of messy, unconnected, individually appropriate experiments which is the cornerstone of the Cognitive Edge approach and can be seen as an exemplary example in the Transition Towns projects emerging across the world. My recommended engagement approach would therefore be:

  •  Using narrative methods to understand the perspectives of staff/customers/partners.
  •  Delivering innovation/lessons learned workshops in the wider context of an innovation ecosystem
  •  Using TRIZ methods to ensure the wider aspects are always considered and that benefits versus costs&harms are fully explored.
  •  Ensuring that sustainability/environmental implications are not sidestepped as ‘externalities’
  •  Sharing these benefits via other powerful narrative methods to tilt the playing field and prepare the ground

All the above to be explored and delivered within a ‘cynefin’ understanding of order and complexity

If you are interested in discussing or exploring these ideas further please get in touch, and if you are interested in watching Surviving Progress it can now be seen on YouTube in its entirety, highly recommended here is the two minute trailer:


[Ron Donaldson is an independent Knowledge Ecologist who draws on his vast experience of Cognitive Edge, KM, TRIZ and Innovation teaching in the Aerospace Sector to deliver an ecological approach to Innovation in the form of facilitated workshops and fun packed masterclasses]



Stories from the coal face

I married into a mining family. My father in Law was the banksman,  whose primary role was to ensure that activity at the top of the shaft (e.g. getting men in and out of cages) was done safely, at the Vane Tempest pit in Seaham Harbour. Coal mining was a major reason for the success, development and culture of the North East of England.

My uncle Alan used to bring me the fossils of huge horse-tail plants, found at the coal face, which I kept in a special box that I made in woodwork and still treasure. I went on to study Geology at Sunderland Polytechnic as half of my degree. I remember one evening I attended an evening lecture by a senior manager of the Coal Board who politely greeted us all with “Good evening Gentlemen”, paused then added “and lady” as he nodded towards me with my waist length hair.

I don’t know whether I wasn’t listening but until this week I never knew that the Carboniferous Geological Period actually means “coal-bearing” and derives from the Latin words carbo (coal) and ferre (to carry)”

More importantly I also didn’t realise why coal is only found in this Carboniferous layer and even with perfect conditions doesn’t form today. During this period, in the lowland swamps of what is now North America and Europe, bark evolved with a high lignin content. Because there were no animals and decomposing bacteria or funghi that could digest lignin, large quantities of dead wood built up where it fell. Over time this was buried and turned to coal.

Those early plants made extensive use of lignin. They had bark to wood ratios of 8 to 1, and even as high as 20 to 1. This compares to modern values less than 1 to 4. This bark, which must have been used as support as well as protection, probably had 38% to 58% lignin. Lignin is insoluble, too large to pass through cell walls, too heterogeneous for specific enzymes, and toxic, so that few organisms other than Basidiomycetesfungi can degrade it.

I now learn from the Stephanie Roberts paper ‘Thank Fungus for that‘  that there are two important forms of fungi involved:

Brown rot fungi breakdown cellulose. Brown rot fungi are so-called because the lignin remains intact so the wood keeps its brown colour. The enzymes released by brown rot fungi break the cellulose chains into single molecules of glucose sugar that can be re-used by the fungus. Lignin is the other strong polymer. It is the second most abundant natural polymer on Earth after cellulose. Fungi that break down lignin are called white rot fungi;

[found via the British Mycological Society and their excellent FungiForSchools website ]

At my Dad’s funeral, the minister told me of one of his family members who had been a supervisor of an underground mining team and that he would set them up for the day at the coal face, then leave them to get on with it. Asked why he left them, he admitted that the H&S rules stated that no miner should dig ahead of the pit props, but this greatly inhibited the amount of coal that could be extracted. So without supervision, the miners could take this risk personally and dig on ahead.

It is perhaps ironic that knowledge captured about the mining experiences back in 1894   tells how:

In wet mines, gruesome fungi grow upon the wooden props that support that uncertain looking ceiling. The walls are dripping and dank. Upon them, too, frequently grows a mosslike fungus, white as a druid’s beard, that thrives in these deep dens, but shrivels and dies at contact with the sunlight.

Fascinating knowledge, not widely known, (in fact to me they were all ‘unknown unknowns’) that help make sense of our world Are there important lessons to be learned here about emergence, s-curves, knowledge, working together, risk, (staggered) co-evolution? What do you get from this?