How to have meaningful conversations about adaptive challenges

Categories: Access to Justice, convening, Innovation, Systems thinking

Happy New Year everyone!

One of the purposes of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab is to create a space (or platform) for meaningful conversations about how to address the complex adaptive challenge of supporting family well-being as they journey through separation and divorce.  The traditional method of gathering justice “insiders” to diagnose the problem and implement solutions simply doesn’t work in this complex environment.  So what approaches and skills are needed to make this happen?

Craig Weber and Chris Soderquist recently published an article that provides some really helpful clues.  They begin by confirming that justice system change is not a “routine problem” but an “adaptive challenge”.  Adaptive challenges are:

  • often hard to define
  • have no clear solutions
  • different people hold different views about the source of the challenge
  • no expert can solve the problem for us

They require a profoundly different problem solving approach.  Weber and Soderquist identify three key interlocking skillsets (“adaptive learning skills”) that are required:

  • Systems thinking
  • Conversational Capacity
  • A suite of skills named “Yes to the Mess” (agile learning)

In this post I’d like to focus on the second skillset – conversational capacity.  The authors describe this factor as “a team’s ability to have open, balanced, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects in challenging circumstances and across tough boundaries.”  While the authors refer to a “discipline” to provide this skillset they do not describe it in detail.  What does it mean?  What are the practical steps we can take to improve our conversational capacity?

In November of 2016, as part of my quest to answer these questions, I participated in a 3 day Art of Hosting workshop on Bowen Island.  Bottom line: I came away with some fantastic tools AND with practical experience in using them.  The workshop provided:

  1. Helpful context – systems thinking using the Cynefin model and the “Chaordic Path / Stepping Stones” (thanks to Chris Corrigan for these links)
  2. Instruction and practical experience working with four models:
    1. The Circle Way
    2. The World Cafe
    3. Open space Technology
    4. Pro Action Cafe
  3. Introductions to related skillsets including collective story harvesting, “The Work” (Caitlin Frost introduced me to this approach by Byron Katie) and how to design powerful questions (thank you Amanda Fenton).

An added bonus was that I met some amazing people, from a wide variety of backgrounds and interest areas, who shared my desire to find better ways to have difficult conversations about incredibly challenging problems (personally, professionally and globally).

The hosting team was amazing and I highly recommend this very practical workshop.  It is being offered again on Bowen Island (near Vancouver BC) in November 2017.  Two of the facilitators (Tenneson Wolfe and Teresa Posakony) are participating in hosting a similar session in Tacoma Washington in February.

May 2017 be our year of strengthening and practicing our conversational capacity :).

Kari Boyle (Coordinator)