• Brandon, a teacher’s aide at Southwest Baltimore Charter School once said to me, “The weak link isn’t necessarily the person who doesn’t do the job well. It’s the person who doesn’t do the job from within or truthfully.”

    The simple idea at the heart of expressive organizing is that people experience the organization’s core purpose in their daily work. Over time, that experience, though imperfect and often challenging, can become widely shared and sustained. The pattern becomes resilient enough that everyone who interacts with the organization can feel it to some degree.

    But how do we sustain an experiential pattern? We know how to sustain visible structures and behaviors. Rules and customs serve that end perfectly well. But our experiences are peculiar to us and markedly variable. An activity that one day enlivens us might the next day provoke nothing but fatigue. How do we structure an organization so that people reliably, if not perfectly, experience things like community, creativity, justice, growth, and compassion?

    Well, it may sound obvious, but one important, practical thing we have to remember is that in order to sustain an experiential pattern, we have to have access to each other’s experiences. We have to know at least something about how our various organizational forms and behaviors are making people feel.

    This is why, I think, that the most deeply engaging organizations I’ve encountered seem to be rooted in small, daily acts of personal revelation. I’m not talking about pouring out our darkest secrets to each other. By ‘revelation’ I mean simply an accretion of simple glimpses that people offer each other into their inner states – their ideas, emotions, curiosities, histories, likes, yearnings, confusions, etc.

    I’ve taken to calling this kind of revelation ‘inscaping’ – borrowing the term from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins for whom ‘inscape’ represents the fundamental inner shape or essence of any object – that which makes something both unique and reflective of a larger whole. People in expressive organizations seem to develop many modes of inscaping. They might do check-ins at the beginning of meetings. They might share highs and lows. They might simply be in the habit of changing the tenor of a conversation by expressing how they are feeling at the moment. Inscaping happens when I tell you something about my inner state.

    One of the most beautiful practices at the school is that as the students line up outside of their classrooms each morning teachers greet and touch base with each child individually. They shake hands or give a hug. They ask how the child is doing that day. They might even share how they themselves are doing.

    Inscaping seems to breed itself. A little bravery here, a little surprising acceptance there, and people grow more and more comfortable with the idea that our inner lives are part of our outer work. And this in turn deepens the expressive capacity of the organization. Connecting to each other in this way allows us to breech our stiff role boundaries, making it easier for us to receive the gifts the organization has to offer. At a workshop on expressive change that I gave to a group of senior health care professionals, one doctor talked about how it had always been his practice to tell his patients about his own life. He said that this strengthened his connection with them and in some sense allowed them to tend to him even as he was tending to them. When he was struggling with his mother’s illness, for example, patients coming to him with illnesses of their own would ask about her and offer him kind words. Though they were not treating him medically, they were part of his healing as he was part of theirs.

    One of the most important things I have learned about inscaping is that it happens primarily in and through the organization’s work itself, not through separate retreats and workshops and interventions. In an expressive organization, sharing our inner lives is not something we do at odd times just to strengthen our work. It is part of our work. We know that how we experience our work ultimately governs what our work can become.

    Alex, who helped develop a rooftop garden at Santropol Roulant, talks about how important it is to begin meetings by creating a shared understanding of how the various people in the room are experiencing whatever current themes and problems are to be discussed. He has grown to be wary of meetings where people launch immediately into abstracted analyses of what is wrong or what is to be done: “First, we need to know what everybody is thinking and what everybody is feeling and what ideas are there and what we see around us on the terrain. Then we’ll start trying to find a way to the solution.”

    The Food Project, an ambitious Boston-based project in youth development and sustainable agriculture that I visited some time ago, is anchored in what they refer to as ‘straight talk,’ a conscious style of communication that emphasizes frankness and authenticity and moving beyond the accustomed “stories” people use to frame their identities. I was struck by how this practice of straight talk was embedded in the actual, detailed context of the work. People didn’t just talk about themselves. They talked about turnips. Teenagers enthusiastically explained “cover crops” to me. Rye, apparently, is particularly good at replenishing the soil. They talked about “putting the land to sleep” during the winter. They told me about “the three sisters” – squash, corn and beans – and about how the squash leaves provide shelter and protection for the bean sprouts until they are strong enough to begin growing up the stalks of corn. They know how to grow and harvest and cook and buy and sell. The work becomes a way to connect and to grow, and so the work itself, suffused with energy, thrives. I have found this same focused passion for the details of the organization’s work in other places where inscaping is a common practice.

    The Food Project won a diversity award for its ability to bring together youth from different backgrounds and races. When one of the award officials was touring the organization, he was struck by how different it was from all the other programs that had won the award. The other groups were almost exclusively focused on dialogue. The Food Project, he said, was the only program where people were “actually doing something.” Inscaping, rather than distracting us from our work, can connect us to it in ways that we can’t envision when we leave ourselves at the door to focus instrumentally on only the task at hand.

    March 13th, 2010 | Warren Nilsson | 18 Comments

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  • Gerardo 03.13.2010

    I love the notion of Inscaping. In many ways I think this is a big part of what I’d been doing individually in the past months and now starting to do with others.

    However, reading you I struggle to find the balance between giving it a static form (procedure) and making sure we do it in our organizations. As a concrete example i will use check-ins vs the example you use from Alex.

    I have experienced in many different instances the “stale” check-in: we do it because we are a caring organization or we are engaged in a ‘human’ process. Honestly, I rarely really felt compelled to share, even though I did in order to keep-up with the social convention.

    On the other hand, I also experienced Alex’s approach. It is a check-in but a totally natural one that takes many different forms (and in some cases it even felt as a surprise). It is key for him to do it (for the reasons you already stated) but it doesn’t feel in any way a procedure. It simply is a [flow].

    As I am replying I am thinking. (Maybe I should think and then comment (ha,ha,ha…) but if I do so, I may end not commenting. So…). I guess what I am grasping from your reflection is the importance to look for Inscaping as a positive sign of the livelihood of our organization. This inscaping can then take infinite forms: lets stop and grab a coffee, lets have lunch, lets…. The key, I am guessing, is to hold at heart in an intentional way a honest sense of caring for others and acknowledging the fact that the other is not a role or a post in the organization, the other is a full human being.

    I guess, in some way, engaging in this virtual dialogue and openly sharing thoughts is in a sense Inscaping. OK. It Monday!!! It is gorgeous outside, and… i need an other coffee.

    Keep the great work.

  • Rennie,

    You have hit it on the head: “small, daily acts of personal revelation” vs “people launch immediately into abstracted analyses of what is wrong or what is to be done.” The former creates safety to go beyond where we are stuck and the latter almost guarantees that nothing will change.

  • You’re right, Rennie. It takes a brave, mature organisation to realise that individuals, with all of their qualitites, talents and daily problems, are at its core. If we don’t take the time to address our problems and challenges regularly as part of our work time, those problems will spill into our work and affect it negatively.

  • Very true! This reminds me of what Parker Palmer proposes in “The Courage to Teach”. I’m paraphrasing (and probably poorly), but the the basic idea is that, as teachers, who we are is more important than what we do. If we (the teachers) live authentic inner lives and are open to the process of inner reflection and self-growth, then the “external stuff” tends to take care of itself. So often, the conversation focuses on the means or the method…I’d love to see more schools focus on the people. Like all things human, I think in the end it all comes down to who we are in relationship with ourselves and others. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Hi. Steve Bohrer recently emailed me about your blog. I am in the process of reading your thesis. I love this term inscaping–it captures so much about the truly authentic. Tony, I agree that this is reminiscent of Parker Palmer’s ideas in The Courage To Teach. Here is a quotation of his I used in my book, Creative Mavericks: Beacons of Authentic Learning: “Many programs are trying trying to effect educational reform from the outside in but the greatest immediate power we have is to reform from the inside out. Ultimately human wholeness does not come from changes in our institutions, it comes from the reformation of our hearts.” I’m fascinated reading about Southwest Baltimore Charter School in your thesis. I’m currently working on a second book with a working title of Journeys: Exploring Alternative Teaching and Learning. I’m excited to connect with your research–so relevant to my own passion about exploring “authenticity.”

  • Hi Tony. Thanks for connecting us to Parker Palmer’s work. I’ve had some experience teaching at the university level and found the power of relationships to be so true, even more so when I’ve focused on nurturing a space for meaningful relationships to develop between students themselves. I’ve also found that co-teaching adds a lot to a classroom experience. When I experienced this as student, I found myself learning not just from the two people teaching, but also from their relationship.

    I’m curious to know how you’ve experienced this relationship focus in your own teaching practice. Are you in a school that already emphasizes this kind of teaching or is it more a culture you’re hoping to create?

  • Hi Tana. For 14 years I was a combination Campus Minister/Teacher (music and theology) at both the elementary and H.S. level in several Catholic schools in the Baltimore area. The interpersonal relationships obviously played a huge role in the Campus Minister part of the job, and that just carried naturally into the classroom. Currently, I’m the music teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, so you already know what an awsome place for interpersonal relationships with the students and faculty it is. I’ve said to many of my friends, that SBCS is sort of like a Catholic School without the “Catholic”. It has the same kind of mission and “feel” to it, and it certainly has the same strong commitment to building relationships with the students in order to form their character as well as shape their minds.

  • Hi Sue. Your work sounds very interesting and aligned with the stuff we’re focused on (and great Parker Palmer quote). Tana and I are particularly excited about possibilities for working with these themes in educational settings. We love thinking about and experimenting with educational approaches, and there seems to be a lot of early resonance around the idea of expressive change for educators. Southwest Baltimore Charter School is starting to attract a wider notice. One of our dreams is to have a cluster of educators consciously experimenting with expressive organization and sharing what they learn with each other. I’d love to hear more about your work.

  • The ‘brave’ part is especially right to me, Rotem. Although inscaping sounds natural, it seems to require what many of us perceive as a frightening leap. Organizational maturity may develop as we explore the human center – meaning I’m not sure if the org has to be mature right from the beginning, but it definitely has to be a bit courageous (or possibly desperate).

  • Thanks, Barry. That’s quite a forceful way to put it, but I completely agree. A feeling of safety seems to come from exactly the opposite of what we usually do to try to create it. Instead of creating control structures to manage emotional risk, in my experience we actually create a deep sense of safety when we take emotional risks. (I’m still pretty bad at it myself, but nevertheless . . . . ;-).)

  • Hi Warren. Here is more about my work as an “existential” educator. I have taught students in a variety of settings including preschool, elementary school, high school, college and adult ed. My specialty focus has evolved into empowering at-risk, highly creative learners who don’t fit the mold of standardized education. These maverick learners explore the frontiers of learning “outside of the box.” In their resistance to paying tribute to superficial and often bogus learning agendas, they have become for me beacons of authentic learning–a level of learning which has the potential to enliven, empower,and even transform us. Inspired by my experiences with these divergent learners, I have become a spokesperson for encouraging creative expression in all learners. Also, to me, transformative teaching must have at its core the deep honoring of the other at the level of Martin Buber’s “I Thou” relationship: “Genuine dialogue, like genuine fulfillment of relationship involves acceptance of otherness. Influencing the other is not injecting one’s own ‘rightness’ into him but is using one’s influence to let what is recognized as right, just and true take seed and grow in the substance of the other and in the form suited to his individuation.”

  • This is an interesting idea, Tana and Rennie. How can Inscaping be built into the fabric of a for-profit organization in such a way that it contributes to doing while enriching the relationships within the organization? I like the example of the food project because they are “actually doing something” and I love your last statement, “Inscaping, rather than distracting us from our work, can connect us to it in ways that we can’t envision when we leave ourselves at the door to focus instrumentally on only the task at hand.” It is counterintuitive but for an organization facing pressures from the market, it is good to know that Inscaping does not have to detract from your reason for being.

  • Hi Tolu, I’m so happy that you’re joining this conversation given how deeply in touch you are with social mission at the heart of your business. I think the most powerful way to build inscaping into the daily life of any organization, whether it be for-profit or non-profit, is to simply bring it as an intention as you go through your daily work. In my experience, when you hold on to an intention strongly enough, things start to naturally shift. And it’s contagious, just as keeping everything bound up inside of us is contagious. If you haven’t already read Rennie’s post The Experiential Turn, I would suggest reading that as well…it talks about the importance of not getting too rigid with the forms that inscaping might take. Not to say that we can’t build in formal structures and rhythms, but that they should be flexible and open to change.

    I’m curious to know how much you see the dynamic of inscaping happens in your business and what practices contribute to it. I guess I’m throwing your question back at you : )

  • Hi Tana. My response will probably be all over the map because I am not a very linear person. We find out more and more that there are many things we do not have a clue about. We take it lightly because we take it all as an experiment where it is okay to make mistakes, learn and move forward. We recently started to have formal structures – policies, handbooks, etc. We find out we rarely refer to them. I shared this post with Ronke and we talked about how Inscaping may be happening at Zenith Cleaners and while I don’t think we experience Inscaping the way the organizations in the post do, we could really relate with the “small, daily acts of personal revelation.” Things seem to happen more organically rather than in a structured manner. And, interestingly, conversations I had with you and with Rennie separately, helped me to realize that it is more important to be than to talk about being. I am finding out personally that talking about being can take away from being if one is not careful. So there is much less focus on talking and more focus on being. In practice, that means for example, a staff comes into the office and we just devote time and attention to the staff as a human being, even if as it often happens with us, we may be on completely different life paths. We are learning more and more that the quality of relationships and interactions (staff, clients, suppliers, regulators – we were randomly selected recently by the Commision des normes de travail for auditing) matter much more than and actually feed, the results we obtain. I agree with you that intention goes a long way, because things happen quite organically and it is hard to put a finger on what practices support them.

  • I don’t find your responses wandering at all…perhaps we’re just similar that way : ) I love your observation about rarely actually referring to policies and handbooks. I’ve found the same to be true in my organizational life. It seems to be the process of thinking through what to write down based on our lived experience that is what is most meaningful about a policy. We’ve titled the staff handbook at COCo a “living document- open to change”. I think that’s important, not just for the people who have created the policy, but for the newer people who were not around when the policy was made to know that it grew out of a particular context and that if that context changes or they experience it differently, there is an openness to re-examining them. I also find that too often policies are fear-based- created in response to a bad incident that we want to prevent from re-occurring or in response to something that we’re fearful of happening in the future. I wonder what an appreciative-centred policy book would contain…

    And to your second point, I’m reminded of an interview I did with someone about their experience with the Roulant. She said, “What really struck me about the Roulant was the focus on community building as productivity. I’ve worked in a lot of nonprofits that don’t realize what feels like such a fundamental truth- that in order to work in meaningful ways, community needs to be created and nurtured and it is from that foundation that you can begin to build something strong…that it is just important to stop and talk with someone as it is to meet the grant deadline. It sounds like a small thing, but is a pretty radical thing to do!” So many people have spoken about their experience of the Roulant in similar terms. Another person I interviewed used the term, “relational productivity” and it has stuck with me ever since.

  • […] and for Sue and Tony’s highlights of Parker Palmer’s work in their comments to a past post) November 27th, 2010 | Tana | No […]

  • […] is a specific example of the general practice of “inscaping,” surfacing the inner experiences of organization members and using those experiences to shape […]

  • […] talked a lot about Inscaping on this blog, the practice of surfacing and drawing upon the inner experiences of organization […]

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