Working with the unknown

Submitted by vanessa reid on February 16, 2011 - 12:13pm
What if mastering "not-knowing" was a crucial leadership capacity for these times?

"A deep malaise of our times," says Jeraldene, an artist in many realms, "is that we think we need to live and work at the pace of technology, but we are human, so need to live at the pace of the human heartbeat."  This was really helpful to me. It lifted the pressure of needing to know my next step right now. In truth, I needed to access and follow a pace determined my own knowing - and not that of what I perceived others' expectations of me to be. And so this meant to wait, and sit in a very powerful and generative time of simply not-knowing.

This can be a very uncomfortable place to be especially when faced with the sense of urgency that our institutions, communities, economies and ecologies are feeling.  In our action- and solution-based culture, not-knowing can be harshly judged as incompetence or lack of vision. But what if not-knowing was a rich and in fact crucial time of discernment, the opportunity to let go of mental models, forms or habits that are in the way of a new, more resilient path?

What kind of leadership, practices and capacities are now needed to move through times of deep transition and change?  How can we actually evolve our way of living and working, and do this collectively, so that we do not simply replicate old patterns in some new sexy form but rather fundamentally transform them - and ourselves - to the next level?

It seems then that one the most important skills to master is the capacity to work with uncertainty and the unknown.  This includes an ability to hold the tension of not-knowing until the answers or solutions reveal themselves.  These are some tried and true processes that create a "minimal-optimal structure" for not-knowing to take center stage:

  • Otto Scharmer’s Theory-U describes arriving at the bottom of the U as a time to let go of assumptions and what we do know in order to "presence" (become present to and to sense) the future as it emerges.
  • In Circle Practice, Deep Dialogue and Collective Sourcing the wisdom of the whole system comes through the act of being in the inquiry together and accessing a collective intelligence that, once again, needs the space, container, time and patience in which to emerge.
  • In Systemic Constellations and Deep Democracy, the hidden dynamics, shadows or unspeakables in a system are revealed in order to move the system out of intractability, into movement, clarity, reconciliation or healing.

These are part of a wider spectrum of practices and paradigm shifts toward accessing and nurturing collective wisdom.  Mastering the skills of “not-knowing” through both individual and collective practices can serve our organizations because our decisions are informed from a deeper, collective well of intelligence that needs to be “accessed” and “revealed.”

These are quite challenging ideas for the dominant fields of leadership and organizational development which still stress action-oriented solution-based responses to challenges. But we are seeing a re-definition and an upgrade of what we consider “action” which is expanding mastery in leadership - to include deep listening, mindfulness, presencing, along with the skills of letting come, revealing, emergence, stillness, and working with the invisible.

Here are some steps towards an actual practice of not-knowing:

Re-wiring our assumptions.
First, we need to expand our view of what our systems include and embrace the idea that a system holds many intelligences which cannot solely be accessed through an individual leader, or through rational thinking and the current mental models.

Shifting towards a “collective stewardship” or whole system leadership.
This means accessing information and intelligence that is spread throughout the entire system by consciously creating a “minimal-optimal structure” to invite and work with it.  A structure like this includes processes and spaces that allow the whole system to be present. This means everyone has to show up, which shifts primacy of the “leadership team” coming up with solutions to creating a real-time process that accesses collective intelligence.  Leadership becomes a systemic practice that includes the wisdom of the whole.

Practicing "letting come" rather than "forcing forward".
These include practices of stillness, of clearing away, which many will recognize has roots in contemplative traditions such as mindfulness in Buddhism and other traditions of meditation. 
Small but significant steps to creating organizational practices include: starting our meetings with with stillness or silence, becoming present through focusing or simply taking a few deep breaths; it could include taking 2 minutes for written reflection on a specific theme; or check-in questions using images or metaphors.  These use different parts of the body and mind of individuals in the group.

Here are 2 more that came in really handy when I was working in an organization that was actually asking to be let go of (yes! conscious closure!):

  • Learning to listen to what the work is asking rather imposing on it what we want or expect.
  • Understanding how systems learn and evolve; creating conditions in organizations to work with and not to resist or hide from its natural life-cycles of change.

And lastly, underlying all of this is Trust. Trusting each other, trusting that knowing will come, trusting that the path will reveal itself and trusting oneself, one’s wisdom and intuition.


These ideas are everywhere

Hi Vanessa this is a really good post it really made me think.  In particular I found the starting quote powerful because I see myself constantly connected to technology and I feel the drive to pump out answers and results instantly.  You are expected to know the answer and if you don’t you are expected to find it as soon as possible.  At University I find myself never able to keep pace, thanks goodness it is semestered so you get to restart every 4 months.

In this you mentioned Theory – U.  When I looked more into this it reminded me a lot of the idea’s talked about in the book “Getting to Maybe” In fact when I followed the link you gave and watched the video, it particularly reminded me of Paul’s quote in the book about Cold Heaven.  The idea of something old slowly dying out and in the pain of this death is also the pain of a new birth.  And how this happens when we let ourselves sit in not knowing.

I find it really fascinating to see different people coming to the same conclusions all over the world.  It makes me feel excited, like a big transition is coming, like there is a new birth that is emerging.

Thanks Vanessa

Realizing the power of not-knowing

Another thought provoking and powerful post Vanessa, thanks for sharing these ideas of the power in not-knowing and some ways to practice with it. I know this is a post I will have to return to again as there is so much here to reflect upon.

My husband calls it 'male answer syndrome' when people feel they have to give an answer to something even if they don't know anything about it, and there answer is therefore vacuous. But it seems to be not something confined to 'men' but a culture-wide infliction that compels us to leap to naming solutions before we've even identified if what's occurring is a problem. Making room for not knowing is certainly key to finding new approaches and therefore being able and flexible to meet new challenges creatively. Thanks!