Paradox, transition, liminality and maps

The ability to embrace paradox is at the heart of deep change.

While reading The Forgotten Ways blog on Sunday I was recalling the variety of maps we use for transition and change. It's intriguing to me that while we lack maps or frameworks adequate to describe the culture we are now living in, we do have maps that help us track transition.. personal, systemic, organizational, spiritual. (Kevin Van Hoozer writes of maps that they are more exploratory than explanatory, and he draws the parallel to metanarratives.)

Some of the better known maps for moral growth include Kohlberg's theory of moral development, or work by Erikson. For spiritual development, we have James Fowler and much older work that lays out the Enneagram.

For maps based on systems thinking we have work done by Murray Bowen. Many practitioners have developed analytical and practical frameworks for working with a variety of living systems based on his efforts.

More recently, work in systems theory has come together with work developing maps for understanding how large organizations grow and change. People like Peter Senge, Fritjof Capra, Margaret Wheatley, Dee Hock and many others have been working on this element, and combining reflections and analysis on leadership at the same time. The thrid lens coming into play in this arena is the lens of learning. Combine this with the increased sensitivity to context that has arrived with postmodernity, and we have a new recipe for complexity. We need maps more than ever!

My interest is in the confluence of these efforts. Is there one map that is useful at all levels? If I were a scientist, I would say I am watching for a Grand Unified Theory on change in living systems. There are obvious parallels in the transition and growth of persons to the transition and growth of human systems. At this level I buy in quite strongly to the insights provided by systems theory. Some basic rules of systemic change are these:

  • in order to change a complex system it must be disturbed
  • systems resist change (homeostatis)... disturb a complex system and it will attempt to return to stability
  • anxiety is managed by feedback loops; the greatest need when working for systemic change is managing anxiety
  • emergence occurs at the point of instability when new order arises spontaneously (related to the amplified action of feedback loops)

Scott Peck, working in the mid-eighties, and familiar with the work of James Fowler, developed a map of the movement from pseudo-community to community. On the basis of this map and with his primary concern for health and peace, he did community building workshops for years all over the world. His map was this:

  • Pseudocommunity
  • Chaos
  • Emptiness
  • Community

Pseudo-community is easy to describe. It's the group where we meet together and smile, even when hearts are breaking. We are polite and avoid conflict.. and honesty and growth. The only way to achieve community is to pass through chaos.. and emptiness. Because systems resist change, most groups cycle through chaos back to pseudo-community. That doesn't bode well for churches attempting to come to grips with the changes around them. Interesting.. some of the insights Peck writes about from his many workshops and consultations are these: community is not achieved once for all... it requires constant effort and vigilance; and community is not sustainable unless it has a clearly defined task. Peck once remarked in an interview,

"The only obstacle to building and maintaining community within an organization is not structural. It's political. If you get somebody at the top who is not willing to relinquish the structure, even temporarily, or who has to dominate everything, there's no way you can have community in that organization. So the people in the organization, particularly at the top, have to be willing to temporarily lay aside their role and their rank."

Reflecting on Peck's work, I was recalling Alan Roxburgh and his five phases of change offered in The Sky is Falling. Roxburgh relies on sociologist Ulrich Beck, the work of Victor Turner, and Surfing the Edge of Chaos (Pascale, Milleman, Gioja.. I'm not familiar with this latter title, so I'm not certain where they get their data).

Roxburgh's five phases of change are these:

  • Stability
  • Discontinuity
  • Disembedding
  • Transition
  • Re-Formation

Compared to the "U" of Senge's work Roxburgh's diagram looks like a figure eight turned on its side, or a racetrack. Stability is below the first circle on the left, which then climbs left and up around the first ring to become discontinuity. Roxburgh suggests that the process itself is non-linear, where we cycle out of and into periods of stability and transition.

The discussion then continues with a look at each phase, using insights from systems theory overlaid with organizational theory, then applied to congregational systems and organizational roles.

1. Systems seek stability. One of the ways they accomplish this is by forming traditions and standardizing roles. Change during stable phases of cultural life is marked by gradual and manageable change. The role of leadership in these phases is well understood.

2. When stable phases shade into instability, or discontinuity, patterns emerge that alter the way the world works. Leadership roles generally fail to change much, however, instead trying to respond to discontinuity with known skills, failing to question fundamental frameworks, leading inevitably to burnout as leaders try harder.

3. Discontinuity increases until the power of tradition can no longer withstand the forces of instability. Relational alliances shift; new networks grow up; power struggles and blame shifting ensue as the system breaks down. This disembedding is painful and necessary, both local and cultural. Roxburgh notes that it is in this phase that many break with the past, leading to further disorientation. Leaders in this phase often revert to old skills which cannot enable a meaningful engagement with the new context.

4. When stability, predictability and control are gone the transition phase has arrived. (Interesting that "transition" is used in my wife's profession to describe the fearful sense of loss of control that occurs moments before birth). One common response is pragmatic.. to search for what is working, here or elsewhere. At a similar point Israel wanted to return to Egypt.. but there is no going back. This is a painful and potentially creative time.

5. "Reformation happens as the church has negotiated the reinventing of its life through disembedding, discontinuity, and transition and begins to approach a new period of recreating transition and finding fresh stability." (56) This requires a rediscovery and reframing of the church's original story. "A new language, a new set of roles, and a new set of rules have emerged…"

Roxburgh argues that the shift from transition to reformation is still a long way ahead. Meanwhile, we will continue to cycle back and forth in the transition phase. He also runs leadership through this grid: every phase requires a different type and ethos of leadership. Most of the those leading in times of stability simply do not have the capacity to lead in times of instability and transition (see also Frost and Hirsch and their work on this in The Shaping of Things to Come.)
It's in this transition phase that we experience what Turner described as "liminality" (Latin "limina" meaning threshold). It can be a frightening time, when nothing makes sense. We literally stand between an old world and the new: the old world has not yet passed away, and the new world is not fully formed. This wreaks havoc with our sense of identity and the related sense of security.

Kevin Vanhoozer points out that we need multiple maps: different maps for different purposes (Christianity and the Postmodern Turn). In some ways Roxburgh's typology looks to me like a simplified version of the map devised by Senge, Scharmer, Flowers and Jaworski in Presence. Roxburgh's map is focused on cultural shift and the resultant liminal space. The U-Theory in Presence is devised as a general map of personal and systemic transformation. In some ways, Presence is a road map to guide exploration of Senge's fundamental stance on learning and organizational change:

“You have to exploit opportunities in people’s daily experience to continually enhance their capacities — which is really all that learning means. To do that, you need a learning infrastructure — the time and resources to support reflection, practice, and dissemination of ideas and experience. Bill O’Brien, the long-time CEO of Hanover Insurance, had a powerful strategy for combining learning and leadership… during which time Hanover went from the bottom to the top quartile of the property and liability industry. He discovered that to be an effective leader in a true learning organization you have to be willing to “continually give up your most cherished mental models.” You need to be willing to give up what’s made you effective in the past."

The three basic movements of U-Theory are Sensing, Presencing and Realizing.

Sensing: "Observe" and "seeing our seeing" are keys for the authors. The person in this place has a growing awareness that something is not quite right. There is awareness that there is more below the surface. This is a deconstructive and unveiling process. This is a downward move as it begins to unlearn in order to learn.

Presencing: Or pre-sensing is a liminal space, marked by uncertainty and the choice between running back to what has been known and feels secure or remaining with the uncertainty, retreating to reflect on what might be. "Is there an invitation held within the downward move of the 'U'?" The bottom of the 'U' is not to be rushed nor avoided but fully engaged.

Realizing: The upward swing of the 'U' involves bringing something new into reality. This process may be relatively swift and stands in direct relation to the "sitting with the chaos" of the bottom of the 'U'. They use the example of a Japanese painter, who might sit and stare/study/contemplate a mountain for a week and when the mountain is unveiled the artist swiftly paints. Something new is born as sight is reborn.

The seven capacities (IMAGE), in order down the left of the U through the bottom and then up the right side, are:

  • Suspending
  • Redirecting
  • Letting go
  • Letting Come
  • Crystallizing
  • Prototyping
  • Institutionalizing

Many myths and narratives reflect this pattern:

child adolescent adult
beginner novice master
thesis antithesis synthesis
movement institution reformation
creation fall redemption
birth death resurrection
fall winter spring

Yesterday I was writing about Bill Buker and his article, Spiritual Development and the Epistemology of Systems Theory." Bill quotes Keeney: "the deepest order of change is epistemological change." He then talks about first order change, which is common sense change. This is the kind of change that happens when your spouse has to cut back at work. It will mean an adjustment in your family. Either you spend less, or someone else works more.

This works fine when there aren't powerful personal and psychological dynamics involved. However, when someone has become dependent on something and it shapes their very identity, this first order strategy will not succeed.

The second order of change involves becoming open to reevaluating the presuppositions that govern first order strategies. This is usually experienced as a crisis and one's world view may be in shambles. Then comes the clincher:

"In comparison with the rules and premises that previously governed their system, these new ones often seem paradoxical in nature. Instead of the commonsense idea that out of control drinking should be addressed by choosing in-control behavior, second-order change says that the complementary position of honesty is better. Instead of continuing to engage in the first-order strategy of exerting more willpower in a determined effort to prove their control over alcohol, it becomes important for alcoholics to recognize and admit that they are [powerless.] To genuinely make this admission, a shift in self-perception is required. Rather than exulting in pride, bowing in humility becomes appropriate. Such a change is generally made possible through the gift of hitting bottom."

The essence of epistemological shift involves three critical dimensions:

  • an ability to embrace paradox;
  • an inner quality of humility leading to surrender;
  • the willingness to grieve the loss of the previous world and previous identity

What does all this mean for established (attractional) churches attempting to become missional communities? What does this mean for established leaders looking to empower a new generation of missional leaders? Is it possible to "detox" an entire community? What is the role of crisis in change? Is it reasonable to expect entire established communities to make the shift? What questions does this exploration raise for you?

Fritjof Capra asks, "How do we facilitate emergence?" He responds,

"You will facilitate emergence by creating a learning culture, by encouraging continual questioning and rewarding innovation. In other words, leadership means creating conditions, rather than giving directions.

"Above all, facilitating emergence means building up and nurturing a network of conversations with feedback loops. The first step toward this goal might be loosening the designed structures and thereby creating more flexibility.

"Another important aspect is creating an emotional climate that is conducive to emergence. This means a climate of warmth, mutual support, and trust; but also a climate of passion with plenty of opportunities for celebration.

"Finally, we need to realize that not all emergent solutions are viable. Therefore, a culture fostering emergence must include the freedom to make mistakes. In such a culture, experimentation is encouraged, and learning is valued as much as success."


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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on January 21, 2007