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 "You can't get THERE from HERE, but you can get HERE from THERE."  MG Taylor axiom, 1983

The Tomorrow Makers Journal is a collection of musings and reflections on how humankind and the rest of our living planet may find a way of escaping to a higher order.


Coming to Knowing Group Genius

"In excited conversations we have glimpses of the universe, hints of power native to the soul, far-darting lights and shadows of an Andes landscape, such as we can hardly attain in lone meditation.  Here are oracles sometimes profusely given, to which the memory goes back in barren hours."  Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was during my second year of teaching 2nd graders in a public school that I first connected with the concept of group genius. I had 22 students and each of them had chosen a subject that they were curious about to study and then share their learning with the rest of the class. This was 1965 so there was no Internet and the research was difficult. They had two weeks to prepare.  The only question I can remember with clarity was "Why do soap bubbles have colors?" Many of the questions like this one, were questions that I could not answer without doing my own research. 

Report day arrived and the air was full of excitement. This was work they had done on their own with little support from me. The subjects had only one thing in common, each was personally chosen by the presenter.  The room was set up as theater, honoring whoever was on stage. Each had his own way of presenting their findings.  And then it happened, the entire energy in the room changed. It was charged with excitement and anticipation. My 22 students and myself became one. Something emerged in those few hours that was indescribable but we all felt it and bathed in it.   Despite my degree in education I must admit, I had never really thought about the brain before. I had not really thought about what was going on in the heads of my students, or my own head for that matter. I had no words or explanation for what I had just witnessed - what had turned the room electric -  but I had a deep knowing that something remarkable had happened.

A few years later I came across the notebooks of Lawrence Halprin and saw the words "Group genius" written in a margin. That's it! This is what was happening in my class room! I did not know the science behind the concept of group genius. Words like "emergence",  "self-organizing systems', "complexity" were not used in lay terms in the 60's. But here was Halprin  talking about project-based learning with the community. People were learning through doing. That's what I was doing as teacher and facilitator. This is when I noted that when people of all ages designed together ... produced something of value together ... group genius was a likely outcome.

I set my mind on discovering what I could about group genius. Why does it happen? What are the forces that cause a working group to go into a higher order?  Both The Learning Exchange and MG Taylor were partially formed to create a laboratory, a method and a practice where Group Genius was likely to happen, not just with kids, but all ages and cultures.  I went deeper into complexity science, self-organizng systems and project based learning.  I discovered Kevin Kelly's brilliant book, Out of Control, and read the chapter on Assembling Complexity over and over.  I came to a deeper understanding of complexity, emergence, and simple rules for creating healthy self organizing systems through the writings of Steven Johnson,  Fritjof Capra, Stewart Kauffman and Meg Wheatley. Neuroscience has been one of my more focused studies.

My classroom experience was nearly 50 years ago and over this time span I have seen many, many groups escape into the Group Genius mode. I know now with some certainty how to cause it, not control it, but give it freedom to occur. Now finally, through Stanislas Dehance's book, Consciousness and the Brain: deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts, I am understanding what happens in the brain. Dehance is quite metaphoric and yet very specific and detailed in his writing.  The book is on the individual brain but in his description of how the brain creates a work space to assemble complexity.  I can see the very same thing happening with individual brains when they become group genius.  All the individual brains go into the same assemblage causing group genius.  It is a recursive model! Very exciting because now I can do more than feel it, design for it, take part in it ... I can also understand it! As far as I know there is no formal research being done on group genius. Perhaps this will be coming forth soon. I'd love to know more if anyone knows of this kind of particular research happening.  The MG Taylor method and process can provide real time evidence!

The brain builds itself by laying down large synaptic highways, which become the scaffold of communication corridors from which secondary and tertiary corridors emerge, until a vast “hairnet of axons” covers the brain. Once this hairnet is in place then we have a brain that is able to self-organize an infinite number of connections, thoughts, ideas, innovations and learnings while at the same time behave and direct behavior in dependable, learned ways.

— Marilyn Hamilton, “The Art and Science of Meshworking” from Integral City 


What Is Design? Unlocking The Genius Within

Todd was recently interviewed by columnist Victor Hwang, an venture capitalist and entreprenuer based in Silicon Valley. This interview originally appeared in on February 11, 2014. Posted here with permission from the author.


Todd Johnston was a designer before designing was cool.  For decades, he and his colleagues have practiced design to accelerate innovation for corporations and countries.  His team designs the collaborative sessions at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where they are often tasked to help leaders tackle the biggest challenges. Next week, Todd makes his debut as the Head of Design for our Global Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley.

We set a simple challenge for ourselves: if we believe that innovative ecosystems can be designed across entire countries, then surely we can create an ecosystem in a single conference.  Therefore, working with Todd, we have turned the conference into a giant design laboratory.  Instead of listening to one-way lectures, our participants will be working in small startup-like teams to tackle real problems in real time.  Instead of talking in abstraction, our participants will be building tangible, 3D prototype solutions to tackle systemic challenges.

I wanted to share some of Todd’s insights on design with you, as they are particularly interesting and relevant to anyone trying to accelerate innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic value creation.

photo by Chris Nohr,
Victor Hwang:
  What does design mean to you?

Todd Johnston:  The first definition I remember learning for design was “to mark out,” which comes from the Latin form of the word (dēsignāre). The simplicity of this definition speaks to me and does as good a job as any definition in getting to the heart of the matter. To design is to mark out a pattern as a means of making meaning of an experience. A design marks out a vision for what can be; the act of designing is to move with intent to close the gap between existing conditions and that vision.

Hwang:  How do you practice design?

Johnston:  Design as I have practiced it has always been prefixed with “co-“, meaning together, mutually with others. When done well, collaboration unleashes collective intelligence and channels that intelligence into the design process to produce dramatically better results. Co-design recognizes that everyone has expertise to offer, and that there are no experts in the fields of the unknown and undiscovered. The complex problems we face today call for all kinds of intelligences, voices and vantage points.

Hwang:  Why has design become so important today?

Johnston:  Design is a hands-on endeavor of the mind, body and soul. It is both playful and thoughtful, and can be highly liberating. Worthy design is immensely challenging. Rarely are boundaries or solutions clear or easy to come by. This is a great time to be a designer, as I believe we are living in a time when a fundamentally new paradigm, or way of understanding and interacting with the world, is being formed and coming into being.  What better reward could a designer ask for than to help give shape to this?

Hwang:  You talk about how the knowledge economy has transitioned into the creative economy.  What does that mean?

Johnston:  Let me first say what I’m not saying. I am not saying that the knowledge economy is going away, or that knowledge is becoming a less relevant source of what shapes our collective worldview. Over the last quarter century, there have been a number of overlapping descriptors of the social, economic and technological paradigms in which we live. It is largely accepted that what was known as the industrial economy is no longer dominant, and has been replaced by the knowledge economy and network economy as more accurate descriptors of what shapes the marketplace. Part of what is driving this transition is that knowledge is becoming easier and less expensive to store, share, transfer and replicate.

Hwang: What is the result of that transition?

Johnston:  The ability to creatively combine and apply various bodies of knowledge in new and more powerful ways is becoming of great and greater significance. In other words, it is not just about knowledge, but what you do with it. Steve Denning, who has been writing about the creative economy for several years, characterizes it as  “an economy in which the driving force is innovation… in which organizations are nimble and agile and continually offering new value to customers and delivering it sooner.” Building on this, I’d argue that networks are in many instances replacing organizations as the primary mechanisms for combining disparate bodies of knowledge in innovative ways, and are typically more likely to be nimble and agile.  Thus, the creative economy is the name I give to what is emerging from the combination of the knowledge economy in the networked age.

Hwang: How do you describe the philosophy behind your work?

Johnston:  From a practical point of view, the power really comes from its recognition that design, creativity, collaboration, modeling, meaning making, problem solving … all of these things are inherently part of who we are as human beings.  There is a quote attributed to Bucky Fuller that goes something like “All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently de-geniusized by grownups.”


Genius at work?

Well, maybe one way of looking at the MG Taylor philosophy [in which I was trained] is the process of re-geniusizing people to their fully human selves.  How?  By doing.  By bringing people into the hands-on experience, as a community, designing their future together. From the get go, the Taylors recognized the value of any concept, theory or idea, was in what it enabled you to do.

Hwang:  What lessons have you learned from you work at the World Economic Forum in Davos?

Johnston:  First, dealing with the constraint of incredibly short sessions. …  I’m talking about true, experientially rich, participatory design sessions, in which we are asked to take on a subject or theme complex in nature and provide a platform for 40 – 60 participants to move through several iterations of the creative process in order to make significant, meaningful progress on an issue with global impact. Intellectual property, transatlantic relations, gender equality, climate change, access to water, responsible wealth, and so on….

Secondly, with the World Economic Forum, the teams and programs I’ve been a part of are just a small fraction of the overall system and community that is brought together. …  So, what we, as a small team of facilitators have learned and are continuing to learn, is how and where we can make a difference to the system. Where are the critical leverage points we can leverage for greater impact? How do we make the work visible beyond just those that participate in a session? What can we do to facilitate connections between individuals and parts of the system that may not otherwise be made?

Hwang:  How will your participation at the Global Innovation Summit be similar or different from Davos?

Johnston:  I am very much focused on what we can do to facilitate participants having an integrated, progressive experience. What I mean by this is that I want participants to both get great value from each individual aspect of the program but also for them to make sense of the whole and leaves them feeling as though they have contributed to and accomplished something meaningful collectively.

The key difference, and challenge that we’ll have to meet, is in my work with the World Economic Forum, we have fairly robust facilitation teams and overall smaller groups of people that we’re working with at any given time. So, [the large size of the Summit] will undoubtedly stretch my thinking and my skills to a place they haven’t been before. And that is one of the things that is most attractive to me. New ground. New challenges. Bring it on!

Todd Johnston is Director, Process Design & Facilitation with Tomorrow Makers and a Founding Member of The Value Web. He is Head of Design for the Global Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley.

Victor W. Hwang is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.  He is Executive Director of Global Innovation Summit + Week (February 17-21, 2014), an event focused on catalyzing systemic innovation across companies, communities, and countries. 


Nelson Mandela and the Adjacent Possible

"The impossible has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks."
Douglas Adams,  The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

I consider Nelson Mandela to be a miracle for our time and age.  He was a true gift, gifting us in ways  impossible to foresee. His deeds and words will live on throughout all time and space.

I have been researching and writing about the adjacent possible for sometime now. The life story of Mandela has been unfolding via the news over the last few days.  I am amazed with how many adjacent possible opportunities he took and used to further not only his options but widened the options of behavior and philosophy for all humans.  It seems to me that Mandela had a small number of non-negotiable values which he held true to during his entire life.  They were about fairness and opportunity for all. 

By holding true to these values, he seemed to have had an innate knowledge of when and how to take his next step in his long journey. He walked the fine edge between chaos and death and peace and justice as a way of life.  He knew which doors to crack open and when. He invited others into these adjacent possible spaces and together they opened more possibles.  Over the years, he widened his opportunities for freedom as he did for all of humanity. 

Today, even with his passing, his beliefs and how he lived his beliefs will continue to open new doors to discover new adjacent possibilities to all of us who pay attention to his words and actions.  Mandela seemed never to take the simple way of compromise but always to find the practical way to inch freedom forward.  In his actions, he realized what was impossible to most people. Encouraged by many to compromise, telling him that his undying hope was improbable and useless, he stood his ground and moved forward one adjacent possible at a time creating a higher order solution... a more fit world. 

Each link  shows a different aspect of the adjacent possible.  For those of us with hope in our eyes and hearths, may we come to know as Mandela did the adjacent doors to open as we move forward on this great journey. 

Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward. S. Kierkegaard


Assembling Complexity: When the community practically falls together

"Evolution not only evolves the functioning community, but it also finely tunes the assembly process of the gathering until the community practically falls together." Kevin Kelly, Chapter 4, Assembling Complexity"

Those that know me know I return to this chapter over and over, always finding new insights and value.  I was thinking about naming this journal page "When it is time to railroad, people start railroading." a quote by Robert Heinlein...another way of saying everyone jumps on the bandwagon. And then Todd suggested I think about nature and ecosystems, rather than modeling a mechanical mindset of a fading paradigm.

Today, re-reading Assembling Complexity re-minded me of how nature learns and scales into patterns of renewal and growth. "Nature learns from the ground up and in a somewhat random order."  The chapter takes on new meaning every time I read it.  Today, I think I am coming to knowing my work and vision.  With foresight I only had words ... in hindsight, I have experience and realization. 

More than 30 years ago, Matt and I created a process and method that has come to be called the MG Taylor body of knowledge.  At the time we thought we were creating something that would catch on quickly and provide a new way of working.  We thought that terms like anticipatory, collaborate, design, paradigm shift, requisite variety, and group genius were self-explanatory and would be welcomed into work places of all kinds.  We assumed our modeling language would find its way into the culture and new "words" and models would be added to create a way of thinking and doing. 

Today, in hindsight we are coming to knowing the complex systems in which new ideas ... new paradigms... are forged and become reality.  The methods and processes we developed so long ago have traveled a winding, curious course of evolution. There have been a number of emergent phenomenon providing new ways of seeing and understanding what we set out to do so many years ago.  We are no longer alone in our desires to create healthy new ways of working. Now the field of consultants, academy course offerings, and corporate experiments are employing terms like anticipatory, design, paradigm shift, requisite variety, and group genius in a ubiquitous manner. Complexity theory and all the concepts embedded within it are coming full cycle. I think a tipping point has been reached ... not in five years as we thought, but in thirty years of phase transitions of two kinds. One in the slow decay of the existing paradigm where each year we lose more and more faith in our existing organizations, and institutions until there is little faith that there is anything worth holding onto. The other is the creative aspect of renewal and better ways of working and creating support structures, especially designed for the 21st century and all of its potential for a better world. Our work has been at the core of this.  I can see it emanating from so many newly forming ways of working. I feel that all of who formed the core team and set forth to do the work in the late 70's and 80's should feel that we laid the path, set the course. 

Now as this organic "falling together" takes place, I cannot help but ask myself what next? I feel that we are at the beginning of a new challenge and vision... new phase transitions, new journeys and explorations into an unknown next cycle.  We are not alone this time; it will be a bigger group, a newly informed group of us using 21st century tools and experiences. 

Tomorrow Makers has a particular desire to help this larger group form, learn from each other, and create a deeply embedded understanding of the opportunities and challenges to take leadership to a new understanding, a new way of crafting and designing and acting.  Together we can identify and create a new fitness level... a higher order.

Stuart Kauffman tells us that the "algorithm is incompressible." In other words, one must make something before one comes to know it and understand the phases and transitions that occur invisibly and naturally. Indeed, there are no shortcuts to a higher order, but we think we can help the movement move forward with more vitality and understanding. We can help take the waste out of the system.



Turning Worthy Problems Into Worthy Solutions 

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Former US Supreme Court Justice

I've had a number of people ask me about this quote.  "What on earth does it mean?" asked one?  Most of us are not used to working with complexity.  We live within it; we name it; we love it or hate it... but actually trying to find our way through it...from one end to the other side is difficult. It's more than a maze because most mazes have walls and narrow runways.  Complexity really is far more ambiguous and un-bordered and unbounded and ideas and parts keep running into each other, getting tangled, seemingly unmanageable.

The creative process demands all the ups and downs of mood swings; a willingness to get lost and stay lost, without undo stress until, within a flash, a hole opens up and provides a new or different way of seeing and sensing... a coming to knowing differently. Suddenly there it is in plain sight! A new and interesting way forward. 

In March, with Matt and a great KreW, we co-designed and facilitated the launching of what I consider to be a worthy problem: How do we cure brain cancer within ten years?  Currently the thinking is it will take 50 years and 50 billion dollars.  However, Cure For Life Foundation, of Australia rejected that assumption and began pulling together resources to drastically cut the time and cost.  The CFL Foundation realized that the goal could only be reached by group sourcing... gathering brilliant minds together from many fields, and ways of thinking.  The DesignShop process was determined to be the best way forward and the project was given the name Global Brain Exchange. 

DesignShop #1, in Sydney, brought together 40 participants for two days.  The challenge: Create the path forward enabling brilliant minds from five continents to uncover the processes, technologies, and paradigm shifts that would make the goal accessible and acceptable.  One of the outcomes was to "inform future work and influence the future direction of The Global Brain Exchange".  In deed, together we got that outcome and found the next step forward.  We learned enough, pulled and tugged at ideas, followed threads of possibility and in the end, have next steps forward. 

By the end of the two days, participants had ceased speaking of worthy problems and started identifying worthy solutions! As participants and facilitators we moved through the ups and downs, the knowns and unknowns, the breaking of our own assumptions about an idea or or way of thinking. There is no better high for me than taking part in the unfolding of Group Genius. 

Recently I watched the documentary, Connected, by Tiffany Shlain. I learned about the hormone, Oxytocin that is released when people connect.  Oxytocin, according to Paul Zak, is responsible for trust, empathy, and other feelings that help build a stable society.

DesignShop #2 will be held in the Nashville, USA sometime this fall.  It will incorporate the learnings from the first and continue creating the GBX ecosystem. Together, we will find the funding, create the next set of questions to ask and work our way through more ambiguity. We are still on this side of complexity but confident that the other side will be reached without compromise. As Margaret Wheatley said in her book, Leadership and the New Science, 1993:Reality changes shape and meaning because of our activity. And it is constantly new. We are required to be there, as active participants. It can’t happen without us and nobody can do it for us.