Friday, November 20, 2009

What problems are we solving?

Recently my partner in this venture asked me to provide a section for our website that could go with the title: what problems are we solving? So, i've worked with this question for several days. One of the ways i worked with the question was to listen carefully, actively and receptively as i talked to two different health care providers: Amy, an administrator of a large clinical services and outreach program for the disenfranchised in the Boulder area; and Jia, a physician who has been thinking about and working on the integration of western and alternative approaches to health and healing for the last 30 years. This is what i heard in those dialogues.

Play offers a very distinctive opportunity to raise the quality of our attention. When we play together something happens. Here are a couple of specific ways that this comes about. When i described the game Buy-a-Feature (BaF) -- an Innovation Game, designed by Luke Hohmann -- to Amy she asked: "How would my CEO use this? What would it give him that he doesn't already have? Why would he want to play this?" All great questions that should call forth great answers. In BaF the players are essentially engaged in a kind of market. They are horse-trading to reach a picture of the consensus of the organizations they represent. Now, a CEO of clinical outreach program, one that has tens of thousands of participants, is used to horse-trading, is used to the kind of political this-for-that that goes on at the regional, state and federal level. What would a CEO benefit from more horse-trading?

To my way of thinking a person of action, a person whose job is execution, like our CEO, can benefit from the spaciousness afforded by play. While play can lead to action, it doesn't have to. Play offers this space where we are invited to engage -- and perform -- without the taking on the outcome as decisive or burdensome. For a person whose daily life is about action and consequence this is a step back, allowing space for observation of self and others. Further, there is a flip side to this.

The kind of give-and-take that goes on in the crafting of public policy is also conducted by a self-selected population. It rarely includes as members people who don't have a feel for or choose not to participate so directly in shaping public policy that has broad or long term consequences, let alone the politically, socially or economically disenfranchised. This is not to say that our CEO is not actively engaged in soliciting feedback from people in every sector and walk of life. Rather, that the CEO does not engage these people directly in the process of horse-trading and deal making -- which happens, in part, because the weight of the consequences of these deals has created these separate roles as separate. In play, however, we experience a kind of freedom. We can choose how the outcome of our game is related to our decisions and actions. This allows more people to try out different roles. Our CEO can engaging in horse-trading and deal making with a poor stupid mathematician, like myself, or a mother of 3, like my partner, who has devoted some of her best years to ensuring the well-being of her children. i can tell you from experience, this kind of of play can be a step up in engagement. It can be energizing and empowering to play with people who have the opportunity to influence policy.

In short, while play gives our CEO a chance to step back to make space for something new, it gives other players a chance to step up, to reengage in processes from which they felt disconnected on uninvolved. This is part of what i mean by play raises our quality of attention, part of what i mean when i say, when we play together something happens.

There's another part that's equally as critical. It's so powerful that it spoke up several times in the course of my working with this question. First, it spoke through the Boulder-based physician, Jia, when he expressed to me his feeling that somehow there is this fractal organization to life. In his work to help people get well and maintain well-being he saw this clear picture of the way groups of people work together in the way cells work together in the body of a single individual. i was riveted by his account because as a mathematician who has devoted his life to notions of composition and scale (how we build complex systems out of component systems) i was listening to another person's practical experience confirm what my theoretical investigations suggested. In fact, Jia seemed genuinely interested in my perspective because it provided a theoretical framework for what he saw in his practice. This mutual confirmation of one another's perspective is a picture of what i mean by an increase in the quality of attention. When we play together there is this opportunity to see through each other's eyes.

This opportunity arose again when i spoke with my partner about my work to answer her question. i described my experience and my proposals
  • when we play together we bring together an increased quality of attention
  • play allows us to adopt new relationships to risk -- providing spaciousness for those often in the line of fire and renewed engagement for those in supporting roles
  • play expands the field of participation -- allowing more of us to come together
She immediately observed that playing together also creates new relationships amongst the players. Those relationships can follow us into our more active lives. Some people call this networking. Listening to her and thinking about Jia's analogy's of course i couldn't help but think about the way increased quality of attention does indeed forge real connections in the brain of the individual as well as between the brains (and hearts and minds) of those who have payed attention. These new relationships, these new connections make something possible that might not have been possible before: the chance for us to have a more whole understanding of what we aim to do. In the case of creating a health care system, we need these new connections. We need policy-makers and pharmaceutical executives and those who wait in line at the free clinic to feel included and give voice to their experience and concerns.