I was a little surprised to see this text that a conference organizer “helpfully” added to the description of the workshop I would be offering at his event:

“This is a practical course and not a discussion of theory. You exit this 90-minute Workshop with new knowledge, a step-by-step plan and tools you can use when you return to your leadership and coaching work.”

This conference organizer is also a friend and colleague, so I sent him a candid reply.

“I’m uncomfortable with the final couple of sentences you proposed,” I responded. “I find that theory and philosophy are underrated. That isn’t to say people won’t leave with concrete stuff to do, but I don’t like workshop and conference claims that boast – in male, chest-thumping ways – about being practical tools, in six easy steps, for real-world, concrete blah blah and not useless theory, discussion, philosophy. This whole orientation is part of what’s wrong in the world.”

This view of mine is predictably counter-cultural. But in my experience, methods and techniques are a dime a dozen. Packaged with a shiny bow. Promised to work, just add water. Yet it’s never that easy, is it? Doesn’t work in your context. Maybe you’re not as charismatic as the original guy. Maybe your team isn’t fully on board. Maybe you didn’t read the small print carefully enough.

Even more importantly, all our beloved methods and techniques, all our rush to action, all of it has led us in six easy steps to the brink of extinction. Maybe we need to pause and consider why. Maybe there’s something fundamental that we’re not seeing and not understanding.

Maybe it’s time to get back to basics.

In the early days of my work, this phrase was regularly offered as a rebuff. “We can’t take time to reflect on your theory and philosophy; we just need to get back to the basics.” By this, they meant concrete, practical things like customer focus, cost cutting, efficiency.

But I’m talking about the true basics: are we contributing to life’s ability to thrive? Or are we steadily, thoughtlessly, collectively digging a mass grave of inconceivably tragic proportions?

Can we finally agree that it doesn’t get more basic than that?

The real basics are what I’ve come to call “life’s universal design principles” – the focus of my research and consulting over the past two decades. Whether we’re talking about a rainforest, our bodies or a living organization, if we can understand what it takes for something that is alive to thrive, then we’ll be able to define what it truly means for any particular method to “work.” (Hint: if it’s contributing to our extinction, it’s not working.) We’ll be able to recognize WHY certain approaches work and why others are unlikely to. We’ll be able to adapt any techniques to our own context, even as that context changes over time. We’ll even be able to come up with our own methods.

Einstein understood this idea of the true basics well: “I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon,” he once quipped. “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”

So if we can find guidance from a set of universal design principles – God’s thoughts, as Einstein might call them – why the continued need for “theory, discussion and philosophy”? Because thriving is necessarily inter-subjective and contextual. It calls for sensing and responding to unfolding circumstances and complexity. For humans, thriving is rooted in meaning and story. To be sure, there are methods that support the work of discerning how the principles guide our current context. But there is no reliable shortcut to action. In fact, we may come to recognize that the conversation is the action. Growing in wisdom and compassion is the work. Everything else is just testing stuff out.

With this in mind, the following sets of questions offer a powerful pathway to working explicitly and intentionally with life. These are the unapologetically philosophical conversations you need to be having, at regular frequency, if you are to cultivate the fertile conditions for life to thrive:

  • Design Principle #1: Nurture individual parts: What more could it mean at this moment in time for each of us, individually, to be able to bring the best of ourselves? To feel deeply at home in this place, in this work and in our own bodies? And what could support that?
  • Design Principle #2: Cultivate free-flowing patterns of relationship: What more could it mean at this moment in time for our infrastructure and interactions to support not only information sharing, decision-making, effective action and trust but playfulness, learning and joy? For our patterns of belonging with colleagues, customers and community to be infused with a sense of dedication, earnestness, perhaps even sacredness? And what could support that?
  • Design Principle #3: Enable emergent wholeness: What more do we understand at this moment in time about the calling or purpose – the emergent, unifying story – that propels us into transformative action together, as citizens, employees, customers, community members? What new possibilities are now apparent for how we will craft and live into that story of wholeness and wonder?
  • Design Principle #4: Inviting life: In all of the above, how can we be inspired, nourished and renewed by nature, beauty, art, music, movement and celebration? How can we allow life to flow through us, so the new may be seen, or the essential gems rediscovered? How can we truly savor this experience of being alive?

These questions are the new basics for business, for community, for any sphere of our lives. Truly, our only salvation is to get more informed and more intentional about aligning with life, so that:

  • Workers, customers and other individuals experience more aliveness, health, joy, justice, learning, self-expression and self-awareness;
  • The community discovers more connectedness, creativity, resilience and self-reliance;
  • The organization achieves its intended purpose creatively, gracefully and resiliently, while attracting and cultivating necessary resources;
  • The biosphere is supported in its ability to be healthy and regenerative over time.

There are no quick fixes, no six easy steps. This work is an ongoing practice and an ever-unfolding process. And that requires you to engage with these questions as a humble learner. A curious gardener. A caring steward. Most of all, it means that you have to find the courage to talk about what really matters. 

Or you can just buy the shiny thing and wonder why it doesn’t work as well as it did on TV. In that case, even with your most fervent chest-thumping, even with the most practical tools and concrete plans, you will continue to be part of the problem.

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