Wednesday, October 12, 2016


One of the most useful classes I took in college, in a vocational sense, was a class called Advertising Agencies, taught by a professor who had just left his job at a big Madison Avenue shop. We spent most of our time learning how to "sell" our ideas to our superiors and clients, the basis of which was the written proposal. It was a real eye-opener for me, a kid who fancied himself a creative writer, suddenly challenged to more or less forget what I knew about grammar, crafting sentences, and creating narrative structure, and to instead pack as much information as I possibly could into bullet points and fragments, starting with a conclusion then backfilling with the strategies and tactics that would be the stepping stones to success.

When I landed my first job, it was this skill, this ability to create concise, yet detailed, logical, step-by-step plans, that got me the most kudos and brought me to the attention of those higher up the pyramid. In fact, I made one of them literally cry with joy in a meeting based on having pulled together a vital proposal on a deadline that the rest of the team thought we certainly must miss. It got me invited to a lot of meetings I wouldn't have otherwise been senior enough to attend because my bosses wanted me there the shape the discussion into a blueprint for next steps. I loved it: it was the perfect marriage of left-brain and right-brain. By the time I left that job I was pretty much writing every plan and proposal that came out of our office. 

It took me a couple years, however, to figure out that no matter how brilliant my words on paper, no matter how precisely I laid out the timeline and benchmarks, nothing ever went according to plan. I would sometimes, part way into a project, pull our plan out of the filing cabinet and marvel at how "off the tracks" we were. Seriously. This doesn't mean we weren't successful, because we were most of the time, but as great as my written plans were to get everyone going, once the "sale" was made, once people got involved, we might as well have tossed it all out the window. Sometimes even the actual objective would change in the process of real people doing real work.

This is a quote from the book A Simpler Wayby authors Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers.

Emergence is so common to our experience that it's a wonder we don't recognize it, that we still believe we must plan everything into existence. How much of any human endeavor comes to fruition from precise plans unfolding step by step, just as their designers describe? If we look at any successful human activity, we see that what led to success was the newly discovered capacity of people. They came together and invented new ways of doing something. They explored new realms of ingenuity. They made it happen by responding in the moment and by changing as they went along.

I've come a long way since those days as a little junior executive, taking such pride in his plans and such frustration in their destiny as file drawer fodder. When I first started teaching, I put a lot of effort into planning out our school days, but I'd already moved past expecting that those plans would be of any use other than to ease my anxiety.

Our plans, blueprints, and diagrams have made it difficult to see this wonderful creative capacity growing around us all the time. We fear surprise and retreat to caution. We would rather know what's in store than be caught off guard by new possibilities . . . What are we guarding against? Is newness so fearsome?

What I was attempting to guard against back then was failure, of everything running off the rails, but now? After over a decade of playing with children, I've learned that it is exactly that "surprise" that let's me know we've been successful. It's not the plan I've put together, whether on paper or in my head, but rather the "new possibilities" that emerge from us that makes it all worthwhile.

Every act of organizing is an experiment. We begin with desire, with a sense of purpose and direction. But we enter the experience vulnerable, unprotected by the illusory cloak of prediction. We acknowledge that we don't know how this work will actually unfold. We discover what we are capable of as we go along. We engage with others for the experiment. We are willing to commit to a system whose effectiveness cannot be seen until it is in motion . . . Every act of organizing is an act of faith. We hope for things unseen which are true.

Once our plans have given us a sense of purpose and direction, a filing cabinet is exactly where they belong. Because once we've engaged with others for the experiment no one can predict where our creativity will take us.

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