by Joran Slane Oppelt
Organizations are microcosms of a larger social body. They manifest their human diversity as utopias, kingdoms, and cults. Whether a band of pirates sailing the high seas or a band of explorers staking new territory, they must find a path to trust as they seek treasure or glory and face the unknown together.
The cultural hallmarks of any community of people are how they communicate and what they create.
There are many maps and models of human development that illustrate how individuals function in relation to communities and how they co-evolve.
Spiral Dynamics, developed in 1995 by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, provides a glimpse at how communities and their values unfold in stages — from magic (tribal) to mythic (literal) to mental (modern) to integral (post-modern and beyond). See illustration.
The four paths of Creation Spirituality were presented in Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox’s 1983 book, Original Blessing. The paths (informed by the work of Christian Mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas) are the via positiva (awe, wonder), via negativa (emptying, grief), via creativa (birth, creativity) and via transformativa (justice, transformation). Creation Spirituality is one of many religious lenses with which we may view the cycles of communities through time.
According to Fox’s model, individuals and communities can move through these four paths in annual cycles that mirror the seasons or through personal moments of birth, deconstruction, ego-death and rebirth. Whichever maps or models you are using, this shared “religious” vision of the world is the cosmology of the organization — how it views the universe.
These maps can be used in tandem with similar models, i.e Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 Team Dynamics model (forming, storming, norming, etc.), the Lifecycle of a Business (toddler, teenager, zone of maturity, etc.), the Design Thinking process (what is, what if, what wows, what works) or Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.
As organizations move onto the path of the via creativa (the path of birthing and creativity) together — usually after an intense period of grieving or storming (see maps above) — we see the emergence of a new level of meaning-making. When groups of people make meaning together, they are sharing their internal spark with each other. When they embark on this path we may witness how that spark is amplified into an all-consuming flame: a vision or mission that ignites the group with a positive and healthy obsession and provides a new North Star or headwind to which they tack their sails.
One expression of this creativity is the art of storytelling. The group is now seated around a central fire using a common language to create stories, myths, fables, legends and metaphors that are endemic and unique to the group. These stories are passed on from one person to the next, sometimes becoming more incredible. They are even passed onto future generations.
The stories an organization tells itself are a reflection of the belief system they have about themselves and one another. They are stories about heroes and exemplars, villains and tragedies — mythic portraits of the organizational cosmos. These stories have the power to break or reinforce behavioral patterns that define an organization’s culture.
In Building a Story Brand (2017), Donald Miller compares the journey of the end user to the protagonist in Joseph Campbell’s famed “hero’s journey.” The organization is the mentor, guide or oracle that reveals or shares tools or insights and assists the hero in accomplishing their quest.
Life on the inside of an organization sometimes doesn’t make sense to someone with a different cosmology or set of values. The stories that organizations tell the world are coded transmissions that sometimes require translation (through spoken language, marketing messages or cultural norms).
Creativity can also be expressed through song — communities raising their voices together in unison, adding harmony to melody, and weaving audible threads together to create sonic tapestries. An organization can sing a lullaby (soothe), lure or seduce sailors (curiosity-seekers) onto the rocks, chant a mantra or fight song (inspire and motivate), or put on a show — executing a concert performance that features rock-star voices and an all-star supporting cast of amazing team members.
When a group sings together, it is erecting a musical flag that says, “We are here. We exist. We feel … We value … We believe …”
Communities can also create through visual communication and the use of symbol, pictograph, sigil, mural and cave painting. They may use whatever tools they have on hand: ink, stone, textile, television, or Instagram. The visual medium allows us to solemnly reflect and contemplate in a “gallery” setting, gain mutual understanding of the game plan devised on the locker room whiteboard, rally beneath the flag or behind the crested shield of our warring tribe, and identify teams by the marks and colors they wear.
Theater is yet another way an organization can express and create together. They can act out the stories they’ve told or written as a play or a skit, staging them for the world to see (either in person or on screen). Through embodiment, presencing or constellation work a group can move through space and time, internally playing out the roles of values (such as “teamwork” or “honesty”) or dynamic forces (such as “disruption” or “innovation”). Acting out these ideas allows the organization to literally see where bodies get stuck or group conflict may arise.
The great leaders in organizations can teach and train these creative skills. They excel in scaling and amplifying these gifts. Great leaders train entire communities in holding the crayon and learning to doodle, creating sigils, erecting iconic flags, painting murals, devising visual gameplans, orchestrating performances, bravely standing in the spotlight and coaxing the first musical notes from trembling lips.
With the spark and soul of creativity, organizations can make meaning as a community. They can mark their territory, stake their claim and learn how to communicate more effectively. Co-creating in a space together allows the organization to grow, explore, love, innovate and achieve like they never have before.
CREATIVITY AS EXPORT
Every organization creates. They create products, processes, ideas, artifacts, meaningful works of art, and masterful communication. Every business puts something new in the world. Every organization delivers some kind of value. Therefore, every business finds itself in the role of exporter — shipping ideas, processes or products that have a reach beyond the immediate tribe or community. Every business relies on their exports — things that speak to the tribes outside their own — to feed them. Ideas are currency, value is a transaction.
Imagine you are a villager within a small tribal community and, at some point, you begin to feel sick, sad or angry. You may feel depressed or like you don’t “fit” in a way you can’t describe. You pay a visit to the medicine man.
The medicine man invites you into his tent, cubicle, office or clinic and — while staring into a mirror and performing his ritual in reverse — prescribes you a series of questions:
“When was the last time you sang your song of purpose — the song that was written in your soul and given a voice in your heart? When was the last time you sang that song aloud for others to hear?”
“When was the last time you danced and moved your body to the rhythm of the community and the cosmos?”
“When was the last time you immersed yourself in the spirit and story of the world and swam through the starry skylight, learning to fly again with the fragile wings and keen eyesight of a baby hawk?”
The questions, ideas and metaphors presented here may sound silly, irrelevant or ineffective. But it is through creation, improvisation and consideration of the abstract that we find meaning and it is through meaning that we are connected to others.
In 1933, AIfred Korzybski wrote that “the map is not the territory.” If we allow ourselves to function in a silo or be exiled and excommunicated, we will never know the real territory of relationship and shared understanding. We will remain beholden to a static map in a dynamic universe.
Unless we are working in tandem and in concert with a group of individuals committed to moving from competition to collaboration to co-creation, we will never know the sweet reward of lifting each other as we climb.
If you don’t make time to come home to your community — to rest and recharge and dance and sing and make meaning — you’ll find yourself in the same position over and over again: stuck, frozen, paralyzed, holding on too tightly, clutching, claiming, breaking and crumbling or flying in a circle because you only have one good wing.
When the components of the individual are harmonized, and the individual is in harmony with the community, communities can create unlimited meaning and value. The hallmark of any great community or organization lies as much in their poetry as in their treasure maps.
- A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber (1996)
- Building a Story Brand, Donald Miller (2017)
- Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth, Matthew Fox (1991)
- Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch (1991)
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
- Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga (1955)
- Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, Don Beck and Chris Cowan (1996)