The Power of Circle and Story to Transform our Workplaces and Communities with Chris Corrigan

Folks sitting around a campfire, enjoying circle and story.

I believe that the lowly old meeting can save the world.

Sure, meetings are universally despised–who doesn’t hate meetings?

We don’t plan them well. We run them terribly (god they can be so awkward sometimes!). In the worst examples, nothing comes from the meeting (except maybe a plan to have another meeting!).

Yes. Meetings do suck.

But it’s not because of some fundamental, unchanging characteristic of meetings.

For what is a meeting, but just a group of people coming together?

So, meetings suck because we suck at doing everything that comes before, during and after a meeting. And a lot of this work depends on defining the who, what, when, where, how and why of the meeting, and then designing and facilitating productive exchanges and follow-throughs.

To apply the old 80/20 rule, the meeting itself is 20% of the work. Planning and follow-through is the other 80%.

If you haven’t noticed already, the lowly old meeting is a central concern of Working Together. There is something magical about the practitioner who knows how to use meetings and encounters to make things happen. The practitioner who knows how to “design coalitions” and weave their partnerships and collaborations into their strategies and tactics. This theme pops up again and again in podcast episodes and blog posts–especially in the last episode (and associated blog posts) about Strategic Design.

In episode #9 of the Working Together Podcast, I have an engrossing conversation with Chris Corrigan, who is just such a practitioner of strategic design, and who works with organizations, communities and teams to address strategic challenges using dialogic approaches to decision making.

Chris calls himself “a process artist, a teacher and a facilitator of social technologies for face to face conversation in the service of emergence.” His business is “supporting invitation: the invitation to collaborate, to organize, to find one another and make a difference in our communities, organizations and lives.” And he’s an active member of a bigger community of practice called the Art of Hosting, which “is an approach to leadership that scales up from the personal to the systemic using personal practice, dialogue, facilitation and the co-creation of innovation to address complex challenges.”

In this vital conversation, Chris tells me about the art of hosting conversations that matter, the ancient significance of coming to a campfire to share stories, our one option for the challenges that face us in the future, and so much more. You’ll walk away from this conversation with an appreciation for the art of working together.

As Chris puts it:

“The fundamental human capacities of this era are among the most ancient: invitation and conversation. When we invite people to work with us, whoever shows up are the right people. When we live a life of invitation, our work becomes about making connections to make things happen. And once we have a group of people acting on an invitation, deep and meaningful conversation becomes the way we collaborate sustainably together to co-create the world we want.

I work with organizations seeking to improve their work, communities seeking to improve their future, people looking to improve their lives. I hold and care for process – the ways in which we work together – to encourage people to make their best possible contributions. I have an unflagging belief that the answers and leadership we need arise out of collaboration and conversation. By facilitating skillful dialogue, I do my best to hold space for futures to emerge.”

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: Circle and Story, Cowboy Songs, The Difference Between Ikea Instructions and Complex Problems, and much more!

Here’s some of what we talked about, with some reflections by yours truly!

“The Creator gave us two gifts: Circle and Story”

This was Chris’ only training in facilitation, given to him by an elder during his work at the National Association of Friendship centres. We have a natural inclination to come together in a circle and share food and stories. This inclination is rooted deep in our ancestral past: for millennia we have gathered around the campfire.

“The coal face of democracy”

For anyone who’s led public engagement on touchy topics, or even just facilitated difficult conversations at public events, you’ve probably been in “the coal face of democracy.” This is where you may find yourself truly outside of the opinions and beliefs of your peers, confronting opinions and beliefs that are contrary to everything you are about. What do you do in those moments? As a facilitator and a leader, you have to hold space for all citizens, “even if you find their opinions odious.”

“If you talk with people about what they know about, they’ll always tell you the truth.”

The people in the room are the experts, not the people presenting to them. What Chris talks about here reminded me of what Peter MacLeod talked about in episode #6 of the Working Together Podcast. MASS LBP starts with the same assumption, but then tries to find a middle-ground between “what people know” and “what people can learn”, designing their citizen assemblies and reference panels to accomplish this balancing act. If you haven’t heard that episode, I highly recommend listening to it with this one!

“Politics has become so volatile and it turns on minutiae…”

In our hyper-mediated world, politics has become a game of minutiae. The political staff closest to the political leaders are engaged in a relentless spin war with the opposition. Politicians and their personal brands become lifted one moment and tainted the next. Serious dialogue on complex problems? Yeah right!

This has changed the way that government interacts with the general public (a theme charted in Don Lenihan’s Rescuing Policy). In Chris’ view, we’ve gone from broad public consultation to “engagement”, where professionalized consultants facilitate more focused policy dialogues with smaller groups of “interested stakeholders”. (Although Lenihan talks about “public engagement” he’s really thinking about the type of consultation that Chris is referring to.)

“The map of the future is very clear when you are building an Ikea bookshelf…”

…but the map of the future is very unclear when you are trying to put out a massive wildfire. These examples came up when Chris and I were talking about the Cynefin Framework–a nifty little cognitive tool that helps you see what kind of system you might find yourself in, and how you should make decisions depending on which system you are in.

Is it a simple bureaucratic process? Is it a complicated, but “manageable” group of interrelated causes? Is it a complex problem with no clear answers? Is it chaotic? Or are you in total disorder? Adapt your decision-making to each. For systems that are…

  • …simple: look for best practices; sense, categorize, respond;
  • …complicated: look for good practices; sense, analyze, respond;
  • …complex: look for emergence; probe, sense, respond;
  • …chaotic: look for the novel; act, sense, respond.

“To improve society, spend more time with people you haven’t met.” – John Cage

During our conversation, Chris and I talk about the encounter between people and ideas you don’t know, and how to deftly navigate those boundary crossings. I mentioned how I put that lovely John Cage quote above on a t-shirt when I was in university, and would find myself in conversation with strangers. One such stranger became a dear friend of mine (he now co-curates at this little art space in Toronto). (See pages 39 to 64 of John Cage: Composed in America for an interesting discussion by Charlie Junkerman around the themes brought up in Cage’s quote.)

We went on to talk about the importance of balancing our tendency towards hanging with our friends and family (the “in-group”) with the need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and hang with people you haven’t met (the “out-group”) (see this little piece for an interesting analysis of in-group/out-group dynamics… a bit dated now in our emerging “populist era”). I mentioned Geoff Mulgan’s talk “What Will Make a Prosperous Society in the 21st Century?” and his effort to synthesize the old “globablization” thesis with the new “populist” thesis. Mulgan talks about all sorts of innovative examples of how to do this, but how can the in-group (populist) and the out-group (globalist) be synthesized in practice?


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