Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008).
A Systems Library, Vol. 9
The questions addressed in this book are important, all the more so against the background of the COVID-19 crisis that is shaking the world to its foundations: How does positive change take place in a complex social system? How is a collective created and transformed?
It is our custom to look at the life of organizations through the prism of problems and frictions. Our gaze is diagnostic, wants to understand what goes wrong in order to provide a remedy. And these remedies are often formulaic and lifeless and fail to live up to their promise of providing a genuinely different future for the organization.
The core question around which Block’s argument revolves is this:
What is the means through which those of us who care about the whole community can create a future for ourselves that is not just an improvement, but one of a different nature from what we now have?
In answering that question the author departs in multiple ways from standard ‘consultancy’ practice:
Change is not in the first place a matter of blueprints but of building social fabric. The essential work is bringing to life a context for developing quality social relationships.
A shift of focus is needed from problems to possibilities: „communities are built from the assets and gifts of their citizens, not from citizens’ needs and deficiencies.” A view of communities or organizations as sets of problems to be solved is profoundly disempowering.
Openness to future possibilities is rooted in people’s coming to terms with their story of the past. Typically in change processes we are focused on the now, on what goes wrong in the present. We shirk from uprooting the past and the trauma associated with it. Obviously personal versions of the past may stand in our way when envisioning another future. There has to be a space in which these stories can be shared and reevaluated.
There is a move from action plans littered with dos and don’ts to the slow, imperceptible and everyday process that community transformation really is: „The task of transformation is to operate so that what we create grows organically, more concerned with the ‚quality of aliveness’ that gives us the experience of wholeness than with a predictable destination and the speed with which we can reach it.”
Language is not just an inert vehicle to push-button change. It is the very lifeblood of change. Sustainable improvements in community occur when citizens discover their own power to act. And that discovery is inescapably embedded in a shift in speaking and listening: „All transformation is linguistic”. Specifically, we need to become better at asking generative questions: „Questions are more transforming than answers”.
The big idea that underlies Block’s theory of change is that lasting positive change in social collectives is irrevocably bound up with a search for freedom:
„… freedom being the choice to be a creator of our own experience and accept the unbearable responsibility that goes with that. Out of this insight grows the idea that perhaps the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom. This may be the ultimate act of love that is called from those who hold power over others. Choosing our freedom is also the source of our willingness to choose to be accountable. The insight is that freedom is what creates accountability.”
It is this idea of ‚chosen accountability’ (that Block borrows from Peter Koestenbaum who in turn borrowed it from existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Camus) that continues to resonate with me and which I haven’t ceased to contemplate since I read this book.
Practically Block’s approach derives a lot from appreciative-oriented large group methodologies: „if we can get people together in the room, in the right context and with a few simple ground rules, the wisdom to create a future or solve a problem is almost always in the room.” Groups do not have to be large though. Small groups (with 3 to 12 participants) are the engine of transformation. Every gathering of that group, in its composition and process, has to be an example of the future the community wants to create. If this is achieved then that future is occurring at that very moment and there is nothing to wait for. It is this experience that gives people confidence that they can create a new future.
Block suggests the outline of a playbook for organizing these kinds of gatherings. He discusses how an invitation to join will be instrumental in setting the scene. Then he proposes a typology of conversations for structuring belonging: conversations of possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gifts. For each a set of generative questions is provided as a starting point. Block stresses the importance of the physical space in which the gathering takes place and shares practical recommendations for creating welcoming spaces (hard to put into practice in Corona times, but at least partly transferable to an online context). That chimes with my own experience of how mundane things such as spaciousness, eye contact and light have a significant impact on the quality of a conversation.
Peter Block’s Community certainly made me sit up and reconsider my own practice. As someone who has been steeped in the (soft) systems approach to complex social problems I found his critique on the systems approach unsettling and inspiring. I have been aware of appreciative methods for a long time but considered them rather anecdotal. Block made me understand that they are but in a good way. What I saw as a deficiency is in fact a strength. I still think the diagnostic perspective can be an important contribution to enabling positive social change but everything depends, as the author confirms, on the delicacy with which the diagnosis is crafted and shared. Ultimately I see Block’s appreciative approach as complementary to my soft systems-inspired practice. They play on two different ways of understanding complexity: through a lens of observable patterns and through lived experience of concrete situations. Bringing these two together in a productive synthesis is something worth aiming for.