Waking Action Inquiry at Scale. Dialogue with Claude Siegenthaler.
Hilary: Claude, what I admire most about your work is the way you support entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to be reflective. You bring your creativity but also technology to that. You’ve developed structured learning journals, trainings for faculty and recently been involved in a start-up providing leadership impulses through apps. What is holding your attention these days?
Claude: I read in advance of our call about the AR+ Ficino project and the salons of Ficino for which you named it. Where 100 of Ficino’s friends got to know one another and together came to be catalysts for the Renaissance. It’s close to the idea I’ve been experimenting with lately. It’s about creating something like service clubs. We could call them the new generation of Rotary and Lions clubs. Their purpose is to grow our development as individuals and communities.
Hilary: I love the sound of this! Tell me how the experiments are going.
Claude: I’ve been gathering people in face to face settings recently. And in these gatherings I find it’s mostly the reflective types who show up. Those who appreciate looking back, are not afraid of their own pain. They even enjoy or at least tolerate writing reflective journals. And in this mix of people there are offers of inspiration and aspiration. Being young or being older, it’s not a matter of age. And I would say it might not be a developmental stage. What really matters is having curiosity, openness and a certain level of dedication to learning and development.
Hilary: You’re rediscovering Renaissance salons.
Claude: The attractor I believe lies in holding a space for people where they can access a type of experience for themselves with others that they won’t in other places. If such experiences can be organized, if we know what it takes to co-produce them, then I think it becomes something that can replicate itself. Facilitated and supported by technology.
Hilary: It’s exciting when you add new technology. That speaks to scalable learning communities. I see so many marvelous examples, let’s say in Sweden around healthcare, let’s say all over the world with Climate transitions. In principle a bridge among the various projects could help elevate and scale these efforts.
Claude: First it’s about people. If people are true and honest, show some vulnerability, it becomes a treasured space together. That is the engine of a learning community. And how to scale this. How to not require a specific kind of learning facilitator to be there every time. How do we do that? I think that’s a question we seem to share.
Hilary And how to support a proliferation of learning beyond ourselves. I’m concerned by also puzzled by the loss of learning among so-called communities of learning. Activists who learn so much in their work but it gets lost. Hence I like connections with universities. I wonder whether you see the university system as an obstacle to social learning efforts of the kind you want?
Claude: Both obstacle and opportunity. It’s a social filter for one thing. And it’s a very ambiguous place. So, it’s really all about how you use it.
Hilary: In your own experience, how much support do people need to do the kind of learning oriented sustainability building work? Do they need teachers?
Claude: I’m not sure about teachers. I’m all for facilitators. I like your use of the word “curation” when you write about this. I like the term “learning curation.” It needs a person or likely a team that is knowledgeable, knows about a topic and so as a learner you check in and share your aspiration, knowledge and questions. And that curation person or team helps, points to resources to open up your world. And ideally you will find new directions and experiments to advance your learning and development. That could be topical i.e. ideas, concepts, data, etc., or maybe also take the form of a social landscape of who’s actually there to connect with. This is not a teacher running you through 20 prefabricated slides but a knowledgeable person who engages in a mutual process of inquiry.
Hilary: That’s the kind of education that is truly useful. But we have this underachieving system called institutional education that’s almost the opposite of that. It’s a factory and banking model with grading and feudal systems of exclusion. It’s such a problem because we have so few alternatives. What experience of yours helped you reach for another model?
Claude This may be funny, but I remember a conversation with a fisherman. He was also a farmer and an entrepreneur in graveling around Lake Constance. But a simple man. I was maybe 19 studying monetary theory, philosophy and sustainability. So we started to talk. I was really into listening to him. He was speaking about money in his daily life. I could really connect it to those theories. And I was so fascinated how this man was so capable in his own world and shared deeply philosophic thoughts with absolute clarity. The essence of the theories came alive for me then and there. In such kind of conversations, collaborative learning happens. I was lucky that this happened to me with many and very diverse people.
Hilary: It’s kind of a little miracle of a meeting. These experiences become an attractor. We start to want that type of interaction again. We’re hungry for it. And what you’re describing as curation, it’s a little bit like the coaching both of us have been doing at Business School Lausanne’s doctoral program in sustainability. There we address timely problems with students. I hear more action oriented educators turning to this model as it allows us engage with where the students are. Normally educators ignore real life to stay narrowly on their topic. Maybe I can share the experience of my own learning attractor to seek something different actually. But it’s not at Lake Constance. Is that OK?
Claude: Sure, I’m interested.
Hilary: I was studying the last book of the bible, the Book of Revelations at Harvard Divinity School. Of all things! Very interesting actually, because religion and literature come together very powerfully in this book which has so inspired popular imagination. And at the very time of this seminar, there was a literal gun battle being fought between the police and a group of Christian fundamentalists in Waco, Texas. The fundamentalist leader took his tactics from this very book with its images of Armageddon. When I tried to bring it up in the classroom I was essentially silenced. Wow. I thought. If we can’t even connect to real life what is the point. I took it as a serious enough gap that I felt I had to leave academia then. I found a real job. But in the end I felt called back. Maybe I feel called to help evolve things. So I share your interest in creating learning situations. Which for me means help people learn from their own experience. Perhaps we can rediscover ourselves as the learning oriented species we are. We may need that if we are to make the great transition to a more peaceful, sustainable society.
Claude: And it’s not about providing any kind of direction. But actually trying to cultivate diversity: diversity of personalities, experiences, aspirations, etc. I like as a model open world games. World of warcraft, Minecraft are examples.
Hilary: My daughter introduced me to Minecraft. But that’s all I know.
Claude: I’m curious about them in real life. So I say ‘let’s gather over a weekend.’ Each of us is invited to share their developmental territory. The question for the last one was “Where are you invited or called right now to develop in your world?” I said bring that into our shared space. And then we got an open world kind of map of very different territories. That’s so rich. We don’t need to prepare a topic. A direction will simply emerge. Then I try to frame it around principles more than content. I encourage each and every one to develop an experiment. Not necessarily at the same time, not in session one. But somebody might realize she or he is already struggling with their experiment. Others not yet. It might be a longer journey to discover what the experiment is. The experiment must really be placed outside the comfort zone. And as an experience, it must be real. It must be a real experiment. Not something you may bet your professional career or marriage on, yet a contained, ideally curated space in the real world, where you emulate your envisioned self. Then from that experience you actually discover, what is it I want to develop, of the experiment – which is me.
Hilary: Beautiful. You’re helping it emerge rather than just watching. I think you are an unusually skilled facilitator. Can you tell me how your example unfolded?
Claude: To illustrate. There was one MBA student from St Gallen with an aspiration to find his impact outside the hierarchy of his company. He had been very successful as a strategic project manager. But he assumed his success was in part simply because he could command and control in this hierarchy. So he wanted to reframe his work. He wanted an experiment where he would experience impact without hierarchy – that was a role as advisor in the field of innovation. And so we worked together on his experiment as it’s an interesting one for me too. I had the opportunity to invite him into playing the role of an innovation consultant with one of my clients. In that role he was standing in front of managers over whom he had no control. He was completely outside his comfort zone. It was so stressful for him. But we had a half a day preparation for this and half a day to debrief. We could observe things that are essential for being a consultant that we never have thought of had we remained only in an abstract conversation. He invested a few weeks of holidays over the course of two years for this experiment while continuing his job.
Hilary: I see it as a kind of apprenticeship also, no? You’re inviting him into your world. You’re really stretching. You’re by putting him in front of clients. That’s a lot of trust also.
Claude: Well, myself, I was learning how to become an innovation consultant by his side. I had advisory experience, but not in his field of interest. But we openly shared this with my client. So it was truly a mutual learning experience. And the real nature of the experiment was key: In the context that I got to know him, he’s a very social guy, you know, he has many friends, seems socially confident. So we would never have discovered this other side, his tension in a group like this, without this simulation of the consultant role. He wanted more. We could see he has a lot of transformational resources. His experience with all this led him over 18 months to change his job. So now he’s an innovation consultant with one of the top companies in the field and he’s very happy about it. The experiment outside the comfort zone helped. It’s completely unpredictable what that experiment would be for another guy. Really it’s a developmental learning community that we want to create. It’s so unpredictable yet it works beautifully. There is this individual experiment and there are those who can help the person with their experiments. And vice versa of course in reciprocity.
Hilary: In this you were an extraordinary curator, coach, facilitator. You gave an enormous amount of your time. So that is unusual. There’s also just the issue of the deep relationship and the resources for this kind of thing. So those constraints. The second thing is very individual. In developmental terms I hear it as a case of an upshift, in Bill Torbert’s language of adult development, from achiever (of socially ordained goals) into early transforming (of redefined collaborative goals). That’s a big shift because it requires that we have more of a systems or world-centric view, while also being in touch with that is true for us personally. And then to act from that action logic to transform the systems in which we find ourselves. In your example I’d say you’re creating partnership at a pretty advanced level. Partnership with the group, with him, with the client system. But not everybody is going to get a day with Claude.
Claude:Or with Hilary for that matter. Another experience that’s relevant with a larger group around sustainability. It’s my work with OIKOS. There are 50 chapters worldwide, in universities, they connect around SDG goals and advocate the integration of sustainability into education and research at business schools. At first I thought that’s also the perfect space for creating curated developmental opportunity as this community was my place to thrive as a student. Students tend to be driven by their values and a certain level of being radical and calling for radical change. Strangely I found it so difficult. Actually I felt some oppression in resistance towards making this a learning community. I accepted the students wanted simply topical knowledge. OK, have another workshop around sustainability fashion! Or whatever. But they were far less interested in turning the camera around, to develop oneself, develop your role for a more sustainable world. That was very difficult that there were surprisingly so few, while the setup was most promising to build a developmental learning community.
Hilary: I am fascinated my whole life by how reluctant people are to look deeply at themselves to grow the ability to move to the actions they truly want to take – to overcome paralysis, especially around the very things we know require action.
Claude: Well it’s dangerous isn’t it? Because as you move, when you move, the surrounding is changing too. Out of control!
Hilary: Which brings us back to the need for community and how to grow that. At AR+ we see the importance of creating a “protainer for relational space.” It offers a set of guidelines for facilitating ‘safe space’ with the additional intention to take action together. We need a little bit of a hub to get started and a lot of decentralization. We need to pull the willing – those who turn the camera around to inquire of themselves and and grow capacity to take action with others. And such a community needs new power structures, right? So we can grow a community of inquiry and action with the like spirited. It won’t be a big community stream at first. But we can imagine a river that has many feeder streams. I think that’s the best way to think about it. And it can’t be pure decentralization though because quality and curation is important. Not everybody can be an action researcher. We have to think about reflexivity, we have to get creative with practices around engagement of stakeholders, learn things such as mapping and all our second person practices. But fundamentally we aim to make ourselves more partnership oriented. That’s been a lifelong endeavor for me. And I’ve learned to respect that people have naturally different preferences for action and reflection and different timing. What’s new today is that these communities can link up around the world, with video technology across timezones.
Claude: Openness is important. It’s an invitation to contradiction. You cultivate the diversity that actually is needed.
Hilary: Do you have language for that contradiction? We don’t want to err on the side of being dogmatic.
Claude: What makes your own effort for Action Research a little bit dogmatic, I feel, is that in your language you draw a picture of the enemy. Your ivory tower is the enemy. And here comes your white Knights, in your case Pink Unicorns, to save our souls. How would you reframe so that it doesn’t require an enemy. In the community of practice approach I spoke of this open world is created by the diversity of characters, of landscapes, embodiment of being free of dogma. And it’s allowing people to freely move and venture into this world. You know, that’s the characteristic of an open world game. There is no sequence beyond choosing your quest to solve, where you go. With whom you team up. You choose. And there are strange species wandering around too, scary ones.
Claude: The only dogma in my concept of a learning community aka open world game is that we agree there is a shared certain repertoire. That is so useful for actually building this community. That is a repertoire of coaching and facilitation. That’s the dogma in that entire concept. We need to have a shared aspiration to develop the skill to hold a space as a trusted zone for learning. That’s the dogma.
Hilary: It’s a process dogma. We need a learning space, or relational space, that is safe enough for our natural anxieties to abate.
Claude: This is a must. I think it’s the only key to decentralize and to fulfill the hope that one day a learning network runs without Hilary or Claude, or whoever. Only if the members of the community start to facilitate themselves can it replicate and can it scale up. And to travel back to this issue of trade off.
Hilary: I want to come back to your feedback to me on creating an enemy. The profound problem of that. I do know that nothing really succeeds if we’re against. It’s always a larger vision of inclusiveness that attracts. And at the same time, my sense is whenever learning is imagined, people easily default to the most early experiences. What Freire called the ‘banking model’ of education. And I am wanting to say, no that’s not learning. We mean something entirely more life-giving is possible here. We need a good image for the post-banking model, for developmental learning through inquiry on action. So I hear what you’re saying. I realize we need positive language and a better image. Claude do you sense what I mean? Do you feel included? Would you come to our Chalmers gathering? Can it provide value for you?
Claude: Oh certainly there is value. I’m really curious. How can we make scalable learning communities. And universities today are not developmental learning communities. It’s like you go there, you get some knowledge but not necessarily wisdom. And then you leave again and you might be alumni, but that’s more of a network. Ideally you make friendships but then how is it also transformational? With true friendship, I believe, learning goes hand in hand. Because you share good and bad times. But the institution called university is not built for that. So we need to create new spaces where it’s possible.
Hilary: I like the practice of deep scaling. It’s when you do something quite small but you really do it well. And you investigate it and you write about it, share about it to a next group. If I had to have a theory of what we’re living into, I think that’s it. Lots of deeply scaled experiments. Connected up. And I want to help the learning proliferate within and across them. Learning that pays special attention to experience and experiments. Precisely what the banking/university model had left outside. So we need a structure that includes writing, meeting with video and some in person. And diversity is so key. We need insights from different learning styles, from Southern Hemisphere friends, from people of color, people who live in the Spanish world or Chinese. Then I think one role for AR+ because we are a foundation, is to help support some follow up. That looks like checking in with people to ask, what are you learning? And can we write something about that with this other group? And kicking this to a higher level at Chalmers, feels right. The Scandinavian model is one of egalitarianism. And they have great coffee!
Claude: I think a key question is to attract and encourage and empower more of the kinds of people who can scale deep. Who are they? I don’t know if you have a profile. This could be a key question of forming a future and your letting go for that to form in a decentralized way.
Hilary: Great question. And I am sensitive to timing. I take it on as a personal kind of inquiry. How to do this well? Together.