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Glimpse of the Future #1: Principles are more powerful than policies and practices

We are four who have converged to steward an ongoing conversation about the role of organizational and leadership development in these times. Already, there have been valuable lessons. As we were planning an online gathering in December, for example, it seemed important to share stories of organizations already working from a more life-aligned field of practice. In the last two years of Inquiry Circles (part of the work that led to OD for Life), one of us — Andres Roberts — had done the most to invite guest speakers and to honor their many inspiring stories. And so the other three of us encouraged him to share some of his favourite examples. To our surprise, he resisted. As we explored what was behind his resistance, we eventually got to the heart of it: sharing stories of best practices seemed less useful — and perhaps, even, more limiting — than sharing guiding principles. And so, in our online gathering, Andres pointed to Patagonia with their courageous honesty, acknowledging that “we’re not a sustainable business,” though they’re working to be ever better. He named Guayaki with its principle of connecting with cycles of regeneration, in which (among other things) employees are invited to spend time sitting in the forest to reflect on their role in the problems the organization strives to address. He recognized the Shambala Festival, with its Council of the Children’s Fire, redefining purpose and progress. It was a powerful sharing that inspired us all, even as it created space for each listener to imagine the principles that will guide their own actions, in their own context. And even before Andres offered these stories, the four of us had had our own experience with the power of principles. The decision to postpone the in-person gathering we had planned and instead shift to an online offering was not immediately obvious, and we struggled over it for several weeks. There were mixed messages from the Dutch government. As late as a week before our event, gatherings of up to 1,200 people were still allowed, and local bars and restaurants were full. But we were increasingly concerned about the risks as case numbers continued to grow. At the same time, we suddenly realized that we hadn’t named a cancellation policy. What would be the right thing to do? And what would be the feasible thing to do? We had a commitment to the venue, a small business owned by people who had become friends. We knew they would be hurt financially if we withdrew our event, and we would be hurt if we had to forfeit our deposit. We had also hired a wonderful colleague to support project administration, and we needed to honor our monetary commitment to her. Our conversations went around and around all these variables, until we stopped and asked: what principles will guide our decision? The clear answer that came was: care. With that realization, we initially felt a burst of release and energy: we could go ahead with the event, guided by that principle. Each of us reached out to those we had invited, with a personal message that went something like this: We want to share the principles that emerged that have helped guide us in deciding to go forward with the event. It's been such a beautiful process of care between the four of us — caring for each other, for those we've invited, and for this movement that we're working to serve. So here are the principles we noticed: 1. That there is life in the event, about caring for life. There is energy there, and we want to honor that.

2. That everyone has a choice to take care in a way that matters to them. Part of how we will take care of ourselves and each other is to ask everyone to take an instant Covid test (which we will provide), in addition to showing proof of vaccination or recovery or PCR test and taking other precautions.

3. That the movement needs commitment, and investment is like putting nutrients into the soil. So, in the context of 'stepping in' with whole hearts, we would like to invite people to do two things. One is to let us know: what do you need to be well? The other is to really commit to being in now, meaning that the financial commitment is fixed, and if anything changes, we use that money for an alternative experience as part of the system in future. Everyone welcomed the message and the sentiment and reasoning behind it. And this remained true when, a week later, we reached out again with the decision to postpone the event to May. All but one of the two dozen participants agreed to keep their financial commitment in. And we were able to honor our commitments to the venue, to our colleague and to the movement. Looking back, there was a brief moment when we regretted not having named a cancellation policy. Certainly, there is a place for such things. But in our context, a standardized policy might not have anticipated the complexity we grappled with. And invoking it might have felt sterile and impersonal, whereas grounding our communication and our shared decisions in the principle of care was deeply nourishing to our many relationships and to the community.

What are the principles that guide your work at the moment?

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