The Art of Hosting

from the emaillist, March 2015:

Hi Folks,

I am excited to put out this blog. It has taken some time to think through and has resulted in me changing one of the the core models I use. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.
Some tasters to entice you onto the blog:
"Purpose is not an essential ingredient to get into good work, in fact it can be the outcome of getting into work together - one of the things we discover along the way. "

"Shared Work allows us to start together without agreement. In that way it is a bigger container and more inclusive of marginalized voices. It creates lots of space for disagreement (and therefore learning) and lots of space for action (and therefore learning)."
Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences,
I like it a lot Terry and have sensed the distinction (and complication of 'shared purpose') myself.
Reading about gamification recently, I was attracted to the idea of 'goals' of a game, rather something different to the purpose that is the mantra in our field.  'Shared work' if anything is clearer.
I have very rarely felt that shared purpose was realistic, and where there is such a thing (as in organisational purpose, where such things are defined from above), agreement is often superficial.
The one type of collaborative endeavour where I think common purpose is valuable is Collective Impact type initiatives; cooperative rather than collaborative, very long term, and fundamentally about learning how to best dance (together) with complex adaptive systems.  It's suitable then that the gestation period for such an initiative often extends for years.
It is less compelling when you head into 'need is the invisible leader'.
In Theory U or according to Peter Block, the invisible leader would be a sense of what is possible (the emerging future).  Not sure whether I would fully buy into it, but that's where I would start looking for an invisible leader if one was needed!
Thanks for writing! John Baxter -------------------------
This is an important topic in one particular community right now that I'm working with on developing restorative approaches specific to their community need, cultures, and resources... Prior to my involvement the group had been doing good work with a deep focus on possibilities, but had never really spoken about need.

I'm using the chaordic stepping stones as my guide because as Tim says, the action is so important, especially as people are planning implementation of practices with which they are only abstractly familiar and need to experience in order to really "get."

At our last meeting I left feeling sort of like a Debbie downer because as I entered into process in the group we dug into need a bit with the question: "What do you see from your particular lens that drives you to believe that now is the time for a more restorative approach?" (We have already defined the solution; and need to go back and identify the why)... After we went through the pretty brief description of why rest.

Approaches are needed now, there were two comments from participants which left me a bit uneasy: 1.) "that feels kind of negative..." 2.) "I prefer to focus on possibilities, like in the Peter block book" My internal responses were all over the place... And my conclusion has been that the feeling negative is probably very important, because it's a reality. The possibilities and feelings of hope are an equal reality but not at the expense of need.

should we not consider invisible leaders in shared work, possibilities, AND need? They represent a constellation of drivers for people who arrive at the table through different avenues. For those living in the community where there is need, it already feels negative.... So should we not visit there for awhile ourselves if it's not our reality In order to remember that our possibilities are grounded in real need?

Such a timely post Tim for me. Thanks. Also of note, in case it's evident here... I've not yet read peters book... I'm curious if it's being interpreted quite the way it was intended and now need to do my homework!!
Hé friends,
Good thread. I would just add that while we might not need to get to a collective purpose with a group and it might not even be possible to do so, the team that is holding the work does need to be clear on the purpose for which is undertaking the work – to learn to be in conversation with each other, to bring diverse perspectives together, to turn their attention to shared interests. If we do not know the purpose for which we undertake the work we will be directionless in designing the process for what we are about. Many breaths to this. A bow to the conversation. Kathy
Tim, thank you for the thought provoking and detailed post.  As I read it, what struck me was the language.  Nothing has changed except for understanding and perspective, and therefore, in the way we we use words as symbols for concepts, we can feel a need to use a different word to accentuate an aha.
For me personally, I have a much broader concept in defining "purpose" and the definition of it changes with context.  Shared work is a reason for coming together.  Shared work might be the purpose exclusively for a group, and I can imagine using either purpose or need interchangeably when speaking in broad terms.
The complexity begins when we look at the details.  A group of individuals may or may not agree on shared purpose if the scope is too narrow.  In the local permaculture guild, one guy wants to replace lawns with edible gardens, one woman wants to educate the community on worms and composting and create a network for worm sharing, and another wants to get neighbors in hilly regions to work together and re-grade the landscape across property lines to address rainwater runoff that's causing erosion.  These diverse things would not bring agreement among these individuals until the scope is broadened to the Permaculture scale where they would see their shared purpose or need, which is in benefiting the shared ecosystem.
Still within that scenario, we also have each individual's complex personality and various lenses (a shout out to Kathy and Jerry's World View work lately), which is where things get really tangled if you want people to agree on something.
Tim, you've written a lovely piece.  Thank you for opening this conversation.  I especially like your references to the invisible, and I think that is our key to the shift we might be wanting at any point in group dynamics.  The power of inquiry, as demonstrated in your question, can create the space for the invisible to emerge, where a stated purpose might keep it locked away because of an illusion that we have things figured out and we don't want to invite the messy process of inquiry. 
Enough for now.  I look forward to more on this thread.  Good day all!
Lori Sortino
Hi friends,

I'm loving this thread! Thanks for blogging about it, Tim.  It's been great to explore and learn about this together with you.   Lots of great thinking happening here and over on the blog. 

I wanted to share that when I've brought this idea of "shared work" into groups it somehow feels quite liberating to them.  It helps us get to work without demanding convergence or false commonality. I
t allows and invites multiple perspectives without pushing us toward artificial agreement.  (I've found we can fool ourselves into thinking we have agreement or consensus when actually some voices have just been quieted or folks just want to get to work already and so will go along...)  

With shared work, we're allowed to bring all our stuff and ideas and perspectives and analysis with us without having to give it up to some sense of collective convergence.  We were working with a group last week that discussed how much time they had spent trying to come to shared purpose for their group. They shared that if they could take a step back and simply look for shared work, it was much clearer how and where to get started. 

And that's my thing right now when I'm working with groups:  how do we get started, then how do we take the next step, and how do we stay together while doing it?  And shared work seems to really resonate with folks in a way that (sometimes) shared purpose doesn't. 
And I think your point is a good one, Lori, that it does depend on how we're defining purpose.   And I think, for me and my practice, it's enough of a shift that it's worth naming and sharing. 

And we had to remind that particular group who was spinning on purpose that if they could identify a shared purpose not to throw that out either!  :)   

It's great when we can identify shared purpose, but my sense is that often purpose is richer and deeper and more widely held if we come to it through some shared work.
  I wrote a bit about it last year over on the BtB blog - - if folks want to check it out.

I'm also just particularly interested in what we've held to be "true" and whether that fits with what we're all finding in practice and application.  The idea of shared work rather than shared aspiration/analysis came to me from direct practice application of purpose and finding sometimes that didn't always quite fit for me or the groups I'm with.

Good to be in this conversation,

Fantastic thread and teach going on here...
Thank you... I love coming to the question of what we do with the wonder and warmth of our difference, how it comes to be not a chasm to be bridged, but a point of contact and learning, even in the midst of our terrors and often divergent senses of why we are, at any given moment, in the room or at the table...
thanks to you all!

Hi All,

An interesting thread indeed. I’ve been reflecting on it and wonder if the idea of “shared work” has an implicit purpose? Why would a group of people choose to engage in shared work if there isn’t some purpose to it? I love how a group might be freed up from getting hung up on purpose and get on with the work.

Thanks for the challenge.



Focusing on possibilities is fine. But there is a chaordic stepping stone that deals with limiting beliefs and if you don't face up to these you will build them into your structure and you will mitigate against them.

You simply HAVE to deal with shadow if you are trying to build structures that are intended to last. It's called shadow for a reason.

Tatiana taught me a key difference between need and purpose. Need is the state of the present that has caused you to do something. Purpose is what you are trying to do about it. It's not completely useless but in a complex system it is much better to undertake shared work (or even parallel but connected experiments) than it is to talk endlessly about purpose, vision, goals and objectives. If you are getting bogged down in talking, start trying things.

Other than that, I see nothing wrong with people saying things that leave you uneasy... good hosting is not about making everyone comfortable, it's about dealing with what's real.
From all I read what caught my attention was: "Good hosting is not about making everyone comfortable, it¹s about dealing with what¹s real." It may be so because I agree with dealing with what is real.
Thank you Chris
Thanks to everyone for all the responses to the blog on this list and on the website. Amazing. I am still digesting much of it.
The questions around possibilities that Ryun and Chris dive into here and that John Baxter raised is interesting to me. We are right in the middle of exploring how a transformative scenario planning process across our communities could begin to work on collective beliefs (change isn't possible and / or necessary) ... what I love about it is that it is focuses on possibilities together. Perhaps a combination of shared work and possibility is a ripe mix for the complexity to come together ... and not that we all need to agree on the possibilities (in our scenarios we are looking at 3 or 4 narratives being the outcome) - but that we all need to agree there are possibilities!
Of course working with scenarios one has to be very very very careful that what one is doing is analyzing the present rather that trying to determine an outcome.  So often I’ve seen scenarios used as a strategic planning tool that just offers more than one option for the purpose/vision and desired outcome of an initiative.  
In increasingly complex contexts scenarios become less useful about future states and more useful for seeing who you are and what you’ve got in the moment.  In less complex environments, scenarios are more useful for thinking about outcome options.  
Think of building a house, vs. being lost in the forest.  In building a house, you pick from a variety of outcomes based on your available resources.  Your starting state is largely known - cost, materials etc.,  possibilities are highly constrained by what’s available and therefore you need to choose an outcome that works for your current state.  No point building the Taj Mahal if all you have is eight sheets of plywood.  This is a very clear articulation of purpose, and there is a known outcome.  In that case, scenarios are really useful for determining what you future state will be. Once you have made the decision, you need to pretty much stick to it, unless you get a massive influx of resources, or a catastrophic failure.
When you are lost, you can design a few scenarios that will help you make a decision now.  You need to carefully sense your environment, knowing that you can never have all the data you need to make decisions.  You use your gut and experience to assess where you are.  You ask questions: what might happen if I climb to the top of the mountain?  What will happen if I follow the watercourse down?  What might happen if I stay here?  What am I equipped for?  What bet should I take?
Each of these scenarios gives you a choice that can have radically different results and once you have make the decision, you need to come back to it and reassess. You don’t want to do anything too risky, because massive failure is not an option.  BUT little failures are, and they will give you excellent insight as to what to do next.  You will learn more about yourself, your predicament and the context, and as a result you might become more resourceful and able to respond better.  It is a good strategy for getting found. Note that the emphasis on the scenario planning here is not the choice of the future state, although it is guided by the much higher level purpose of “getting to safety.”
For me, it is becoming vitally important that we understand the context (or the multiple contexts) we are operating within before we choose methods of addressing our current state (need).  I’m not prepared to completely reject the idea of purpose, or completely adopt the idea of shared work.  I adopt my favourite answer of “It depends.” In certain complex contexts shared work is a good strategy.  In contexts in which experts are important, it is not as good a strategy.  I definitely want an architect and a builder working on my house, rather than a bunch of us just getting started.  But, as our recent renovations here on Bowen Island showed us, that doesn’t mean we don’t need good hosting practice!  We do, because experts need to be invited into relationship with those outside their expertise if the project is bigger than what they know about.
Great reflections here.  Thanks.  No doubt we’ll dive into this at Beyond the Basics.
Perhaps good hosting is about making people comfortable _enough_ to deal with what's real? Cheers Mark

Sweet reflections. Thank you. Perhaps good hosting is about being present, sensitive, and open to the possibilities for shared work now? And good hosting may also be about actually creating space and holding it there for uncomfortable realities to emerge.

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Tuesday, I love what you wrote:

"I wanted to share that when I've brought this idea of "shared work" into groups it somehow feels quite liberating to them.  It helps us get to work without demanding convergence or false commonality. It allows and invites multiple perspectives without pushing us toward artificial agreement.  (I've found we can fool ourselves into thinking we have agreement or consensus when actually some voices have just been quieted or folks just want to get to work already and so will go along...)"

I also resonate with what Stephen said -- yes, I think clearly there's an implicit purpose whenever there's shared work... and at the same time, my experience is that the conventional linear process of beginning with making explicit agreements  about "that thing in the middle" (whether you call it shared purpose, or shared design challenge, or whatever) tends to create premature convergence. 

And Maurice, I am moved by your description of the "wonder and warmth of our difference, how it comes to be not a chasm to be bridged, but a point of contact and learning, even in the midst of our terrors and often divergent senses of why we are, at any given moment, in the room or at the table..."

with all best wishes,



Hi Rosa,

Picking up on your contribution here – and your referencing Maurice's comments about the warmth of difference being a point of contact and learning. As we continue to learn through the worldview work we are doing, over and over people notice that the points of connection enable the exploration of difference from a place of beautiful curiosity and also compassion. When we start with difference, the difference is amplified and people feel the need to defend their perspective, their ideas and their life experiences. And sometimes that also means dismissing someone else's perspective, ideas or life experiences. The worldview exploration brings grace and graciousness. 

And Augusto, I appreciate what you wrote: "This is how I read the stepping stones: there's no hosted space without purpose (a proposal of space/event/conversation) and we design clarifying it for ourselves and within our team. That does not mean we are talking about shared purpose for a group, which is something that requires convergence when we haven't even started." This resonates for the work we are involved in – it always starts with an understanding of what is the work we are in – and we tell people over and over to be clear on purpose and intention of what they undertake --- and it is not always, not usually about getting a group to shared purpose. That is an undertaking in and of itself that may not be necessary for the purpose of the work and for sure may hold it back. 

I love that, as we evolve our work we see different ways of being in the practice. It is rich, ongoing learning. Kathy

Here a copy of my reflection -  just posted on Tim's blog:
Hello Tim, thank you for your reflections!
A friend forwarded your piece to me as we sometimes explore this topic. What came up to me reading about purpose is that it felt that the word 'shared' was implied in it... shared purpose for shared work. If so, my feeling is that there's an important distinction to be made.
As you shared, you prepare but not plan. The act of preparing for something implies a teleological approach - design, purpose in the sense of the root of the word - to propose.
This is how I read the stepping stones: there's no hosted space without purpose (a proposal of space/event/conversation) and we design clarifying it for ourselves and within our team.
That does not mean we are talking about shared purpose for a group, which is something that requires convergence when we haven't even started. I agree it would alienate part of the room.
Even on a converging moment, in my experience, I see a group not find 'shared purpose', but rather a collective declaration that reveals a consent of multiple purposes. That's good enough for future shared work.
So that's the distinction for me - clarity of purpose as the convenor, yes, it creates the boundary conditions for chaordic events. Group clarity I saw a few times, there were no words involved and I'm pretty sure it was beyond anything I could have prepared. :)

and some more from the emaillist:

Yes, Kathy, I agree fully with you and Augusto, we need to be clear about the container we are offering, and also, as you had written earlier, about our own purpose as a hosting team... I found the distinction you introduced very valuable, between clarifying our own purpose, and, having a group we are working with, begin with shared purpose. Those are two distinct things...
I am so much looking forward to experiencing your Worldview Intelligence work.... my experience has been that it can be hard to fully "get" a process through description alone, without having the experience of it!

In our own work with Dynamic Facilitation, we have created a way that -- when difference is in the room already, and when it needs to be addressed -- we are able to begin with that, if needed, without having people feel the need to fall into defensiveness. We do this through a process that I'm starting to call "cognitive empathy", as it includes both head and heart.

and again, it is difficult to fully communicate, without offering the experience it!
celebrating with you, all of the different ways of being in the practice...
and the "rich, ongoing learning".... for me it is a process of differentiation + integration,
and such a wonderful sign of life!

with much love,


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