From Cogs to Relationships

close up image of two soft hands holding a very large iron cog

10 Feb From Cogs to Relationships

New Possibilities from a Moment of Confusion

Because, here at InterBe, certain threads are always woven into the conversation; being, narrative, what is, meaning, discourse, leadership, transformation; and because we are always alert to new ideas emerging I decided to read Margaret Wheatley’s new book, WHO DO WE CHOOSE TO BE, subtitled FACING REALITY – CLAIMING LEADERSHIP –  RESTORING SANITY.

But first, I decided, I would revisit her earlier book, LEADERSHIP and the NEW SCIENCE to remind myself of where we were in the first decade of the new millennium. The question I came away with is this. To what extent are we now living and working in a world that recognises
              * Relationships are what matters
              * Life is a vast web of interconnections where cooperation and participation are required
              * Chaos and change are the only route to transformation?

I recalled a situation described to me recently, of a dedicated and exhausted team of professionals in this case the staff of a school, but it could equally well have been a hospital, a garden-centre or a multi-national bank, whose leader has just received a new, seemingly unachievable target that came with a reminder that the school had ‘already fallen short’ of two previous targets.

‘Here we go again’ said someone speaking for the group. No-one disagreed but each reply seemed to add to the weight they were all carrying.
              ‘Yes, but, what more can we do?’
              ‘It’s an impossible situation’
              ‘We’ll all have to look more closely at the way our department teams are working and identify where we can make improvements’.

Hearing this I was reminded of Wheatley’s description of the transition from the old Newtonian understanding of the ‘real world’ – a mechanistic world where everything works like clockwork as long as all the cogs are kept clean, oiled and aligned –  to the ‘new’ world where relationships are everything and everything is a relationship.

What if, I suggested, people were released from their teams in order to explore the situation? Brainstorm everything that occurs to anyone about it, allowing everyone to contribute to a description of the situation so that everyone had a bigger picture instead of just a single, familiar perspective? What difference might it make for people to approach this new challenge inside the context of a whole school story?

We began by having each person describe their team’s experience to someone from a different department. The listener’s job was to create, on a post-it note, a succinct version of the story they had heard. Then we all listened as each note was read out and fixed to a very large hand-drawn web.

Next, everyone was invited to consider whether we had created a complete picture. There was a chaotic moment of confusion. Wasn’t this going too far / a waste of time / unnecessary? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the time getting something done? Surely what was needed was to ‘face reality’ and get on with it.

But the brief chaos resolved itself into an interesting series of questions. Was anyone’s viewpoint missing?  Pupil and parent perspectives were suggested. What outside influences might be relevant? Ofsted was mentioned of course, as were people’s families, the school buildings, time and even the weather appeared on the sticky web. 

The conversation that followed was quite different. New possibilities began to emerge.

Of course, this isn’t the end of that particular story, but, in exploring the school’s challenges in the context of the entire web of ideas; people are experiencing new perspectives, ideas are emerging that can work for everyone and ‘an impossible situation’ is being transformed into a challenge that the whole school is addressing in a spirit of exploration and co-operation.


Who Do We Choose To Be? Margaret Wheatley
Leadership and the New Science Margaret Wheatley

Sali Mustafic
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