The Great Discernment: Being Aware of Where We Stand In Our Conversations and Deliberations

October 2011

As more and more of us realize how dysfunctional our organizations have become and begin to see how obsolete they might be, we are left with a great chasm needing to be filled. How will we organize ourselves to deal with those social challenges like infrastructure, governance, the rule of law, and regulation? How can we shift from being victims of the systems we have created to having systems that serve us?
It would seem that we have a choice: to engage this dysfunction from a place of pathology – to fix the problems by enacting reform, repair and rebuild initiatives – or to engage it from a place of transformation – to recreate systems that empower people and function fully as designed.
The choice we make is important to the outcome.
Pathological Approaches
When I am standing in pathology, as most people do in conversations about social problems, the discussion centers on how we might do things differently under the existing circumstances. For example, in discussing Washington politics the conversation might involve setting ideologies and party loyalties aside and focusing on resolution of difference rather than perpetuating gridlock on so many fronts as we have today. I am looking at the best fix for the situation, given the circumstances, while assuming these conditions will remain essentially the same. This approach assumes a limit in what improvement may be possible.
Another example is the educational system. Better pay for teachers or smaller classrooms are ways of “doing the best with what we have” or offering pathological fixes to a broken system.
Pathological approaches assume the system isn’t going to change dramatically and, therefore, we envision the best we can do “under the circumstances.” There’s an element of hopelessness in this kind of approach, which lends itself to lukewarm efforts to improve things.
A Transformational Approach
When I am standing in transformation as a way of engaging social challenges, I am liberated from the restraints of the status quo. I am seeing the terrain anew, looking at the challenge to be resolved without any predetermined structures or circumstances in place.
In transformation, I can see far greater possibility because I am not limited by what already exists, nor by what has been the defacto context or paradigm within which I must create or think or imagine. The whiteboard is clean, the canvas is blank, and we can engage situations liberated from the past, from ways we used to think or act regarding those challenges.
For example, we might engage the situation in Washington by brainstorming altogether new structures, such as keeping the constitutional foundation that serves as founding principles of our country, while putting the thousands and thousands of complicated add-ons (such as laws, precedents, protocols and other cumbersome codifications created over the past 240 years) up for grabs. I could even imagine a new constitutional convention taking place where existing politicians would be excluded since they have already swallowed the Kool-Aid of dysfunctional government.
Similarly, a transformational approach to our educational system might call for a radical redesign whereby parents are re-engaged as educational partners rather than outsourcing their children to external educators.
Awareness is Key
Once again we come to that place so many of us have visited before: the importance of being aware. Here is one more thing to be aware of – what perspective we are standing in when we engage in conversations with others about the challenges we all face in the world.
Next time you are in one of these discussions, stop and ask yourself, am I in a discussion about fixing something broken or am I engaged in a generative conversation that could lead to new possibilities. It is easy to confuse the two these days and, given what’s at stake in the world today, it is important to be discerning.
With my new book coming out this month, which deals in part with the maturation of our species, I assert that societies that are still largely immature may find it difficult to engage in generational or transformative approaches. As a result, even if they are highly-functioning adolescents, they may only see pathological approaches. This can limit them to “fixes” of existing systems rather than the creation of new social systems.
[NOTE: The new book – The Great Growing Up – can be ordered from or Barnes & Noble]

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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