This is part of a series of posts exploring authority and identity – see Permission to speak
Emboldened by a couple of TEDx talks by Marc Ventresca I recently decided I had finally found my identity – Aha! I’m a systems builder! – but if I claim to be a systems builder then:
- What systems have a built or am I building?
- Do I claim to be doing it alone?
- If I claim to be doing it with others then who are they?
- Would these ‘others’ agree with my claim that we’re doing it together?
If I can answer those questions then I’ll be well on the way to answering the larger questions “Building what?” and “You and whose army?”
I’ll work backwards through the four questions in the list. Trying to explain something is the best way that I know to think things through. It’s a key part of systems building. That is why this is a long post, and why it will serve a useful purpose even if I’m the only person ever to read it.
Would ‘others’ agree that we’re doing it together?
I’ll address question four on my list first. “Would these ‘others’ agree with my claim that we’re doing it together?”
Well, they might or they might not. It depends on how they see the ‘it’ that we’re doing together.
I’ll clarify that answer by referring to a previous post Innovation and Collaboration – Are we Together? and a couple of quotes there from Marc Ventresca’s TEDx talk on “Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems”.
He explains that for system builders:
- The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive, creative action.
This means that my “constructive, creative action” (i.e. my systems building) is based on my personal “interesting interpretations of reality” (i.e. how I see the present and what I think that means for our possible futures).
Elements of reality
I won’t describe in detail my personal “interesting interpretations of reality” but they have to do with:
- Possible ways of behaving enabled by the Internet.
- More cross-fertilisation of ideas outside the usual silos.
- New opportunities for collaboration and co-operation.
- More agility in the ways that we solve problems.
- A shift away from the dominance of top-down command and control structures.
- Importance of track-records, earned trust, shared vision and values.
- Some deeply disruptive power shifts as we come to better understand the implications of our new relationships (real and potential) with information, each other, and knowledge creation.
Another Marc Ventresca quote
Marc Ventresca says that:
- System builders think beyond the immediate enterprise
I’m a systems builder. I’m in the process of bringing different things together. Writing this post is in itself part of the system building, because as I write it my personal insights are increasing. My ‘interesting interpretations of reality’ are developing, and they ‘form the basis for constructive, creative action.’
My ideas about the whole system are always ahead of my ability to share those ideas. However that doesn’t mean I’m working in isolation. I’m working in collaboration with others on different elements of the system that I’m building.
As a system builder I’m thinking beyond the immediate enterprises I’m involved in. That is why I sometimes describe my various pieces of practical work (or enterprises) as “field studies”.
Many of us are building our own parts of the system and it is only when those parts come together that we’ll appreciate how much we have been collaborating.
This means there is an ongoing paradox. I know I’m not working alone – but I can’t explain clearly what I’m building. This means I won’t be able to explain it until there is more to show. Hence the question “Would these ‘others’ agree with my claim that we’re doing it together?” gets my answer “Well, they might or they might not.”
Who is working with me?
Question three on the initial list asks “If I claim to be doing it with others then who are they?”
I could list individual people but that is problematic. For the reasons given above, the people that I’d put appreciatively on my list may or may not agree that we are working together on ‘my systems building’.
I’ll therefore answer question three by considering individual people in my mind, but by describing them in groups rather than individually. I’ll cluster them together in terms of our relationships. Individuals may belong in more than one of the groups. There are:
- People I’m collaborating with on something specific and practical (which I see as relevant to my system building – but perhaps no-one else shares that interest).
- People who have allowed me to share ideas with them (thus, knowingly or unknowingly, helping me to further develop those ideas and the related systems building).
- People who have unknowingly influenced me through publicly sharing their own “interesting interpretations of reality”
- People, who I know personally, who have shared their own “interesting interpretations of reality” with me, publicly or privately.
Do I claim to be doing it alone?
Question two is “Do I claim to be doing it alone?” The answer is “No” but it’s not a simple “No.” It’s more a “No, I don’t claim to be doing it alone but…..”
I’m strongly aware of how many other people are giving me energy and inspiration and doing work that makes mine easier, but there are other related questions:
- Do they know we’re working together?
- If so are we in agreement about what it is we’re working on?
- Can I claim to be doing something in collaboration with someone who would not claim to be doing it with me?
- What about the people I see and acknowledge as “doing similar and complementary work” but they don’t even know I exist?
Fortunately another Marc Ventresca quote provides insight to these questions. He says “System builders have diverse skills, work with different kinds of people, create new kinds of protocols… work across a landscape that “until they came along had been unconnected.” ”
Given I’m working in an unconnected landscape how can I expect people to acknowledge its connectedness (and hence our collaboration) until I’ve made more of the connections visible?
Clear questions and answers plus a quandary
The following questions and answers apply:
Q: Do I claim to be building ‘my system’ on my own?
Q: Is anyone else building the same system?
A: Not exactly the same, because we all come from different perspectives and we emphasise different things.
Q: Does anyone else have overlapping or complementary systems they are building?
A: Yes, very much so.
Q: Is it likely these overlaps will be clear to all concerned early on, or only as things come together?
A: Only as things come together. I only know some of the connections and some of the work that others are doing. What I’m building is a contribution to what others are building. That’s why it’s important we keep connecting with each other, and we help people in our networks to connect, and we share what we are thinking and doing.
None of us can afford to work in isolation. We all need each other too much. It is a continual dance between doing, reflecting, sharing our reflections, connecting up those reflections, and then going off in our separate ways to do and learn more, which we then reflect on and bring back again to share.
in some ways we are like bees, or ants. We go out foraging, and then we need return to our colony, Together we are building something of significance and sustainability, but as individuals we are weaker and more vulnerable.
So I’m in a bit of a quandary. I don’t claim to be working alone, but I don’t want to make presumptions about who would agree that we are working together.
What systems have a built or am I building?
Now I have addressed all the other questions on my list I can return to the first question, which is “What systems have I built or am I building?”
It’s not a question I can answer easily, but I can address it. I won’t be able to answer properly about ‘what I’m building’ until it is built and I can point to all the connections connected up and flowing together.
First I’ll return to Marc Ventresca’s quote that “System builders … work across a landscape that “until they came along had been unconnected.””
I was excited to find him connecting the idea of systems building with working across some new kind of landscape which had parts that were previously unconnected. ‘Landscape’ is a concept I was using extensively during 2013 in my exploration of ideas of change – see What’s the Good of Landscape of Change?
There are various related posts to be found on twitter #landscapeofchange but “What’s the Good of Landscape of Change?” is the best starting point for how I ‘see’ the landscape where I work.
Once you have the overview then some of the visible evidence of work I’ve been doing makes more sense. I’m only including things from the last fifteen years, but I’m aware that earlier work and experiences also feed in to my ‘interesting interpretations of reality’ and influence my ‘constructive, creative action’.
My independent systems building, starting in 2001, begins with UK-Africa initiatives enabled by the internet. This is why most of my visible digital footprint has a UK-Africa emphasis. My ideas, such s those is Landscape of Change, have no geographical boundaries.
I will point you to some visible evidence of practical work done, and related experience and insights, but I won’t explain the relevance and connections in any detail:
- The Dadamac Foundation website is making visible Dadamac’s UK- Africa work this year and will showcase the needs-led, locally driven approach.
- The Dadamac Network (or community) website now serves as an archive of earlier work and explorations, because it gave Nikki Fishman and I the insights to start working on the 2015 versions of Dadamac Foundation, .
- A post – Pam – we want street lights! touches on what I think should be the relationship between UK and Africa regarding new technologies.
- A post criticising how “development” is currently done It’s not just me! – Hear Binyavanga Wainaina on “development” provides context.
- A post looking at Collaboration challenges – and lessons from Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli offers some initial connections between the lessons I’d learned through UK-Africa work and challenges faced in other cultural contexts.
To explain more I would need to offer more details of my connections with people, groups and ideas, and show how they fit into my system building. I may return to that in future posts, or I may simply offer the gradually growing collection of relevant elements here on the website for Dadamac Connect – connecting people, organisations and ideas.
Building what? You and whose army?
The questions “Building what?” and “You and whose army?” form the tile of this post. Neither question has an easy answer.
Ref “Building what?” I can only answer “It’s hard to explain – but you’ll understand when I can show you.”
Ref “You and whose army?” I can only answer “It’s not so much like me ‘summoning an army’ to help me build. It’s more like me having some kind of connecting role in the armies of lots of other people to help them as we face present and future challenges. You’ll know us by the work we do. You’ll find us where new alliances are emerging, where new challenges are being faced, and where there is a need for creative new approaches and the systems we are currently working to build.”