Karen is founder of Engaging Inquiry, a consulting practice whose mission is to bring light to complexity. Engaging Inquiry works with teams around the world to reshape the way they think about designing, executing and adapting strategy over time to have impact in the world.
This is a tool to use to bring communities together and itself is a strategic play in a system.Jeff:
Welcome to In Too Deep, the place for meaningful conversations about tackling tough problems. We're joined today by Sam Rye, who's hosting the conversation. Sam is a self-described unapologetic generalist, has spent time in many places around the globe and is a longtime member of the Kumu community as well as Karen Grattan who is the founder of Engaging Inquiry. I think you will be blown away by the depth and breadth of her experience and their firm's mission to bring light to complexity. Enjoy.Sam:
My name is Sam Rye. Today I'm here with Karen Grattan from Engaging Inquiry. I'd love to hear a little bit about your organization and what you do.Karen:
Okay. Sam, thanks for having me. Well, so let me tell you a little bit about Engaging Inquiry. We are a small consulting practice that has basically gotten our wings are through using systems practice to support teams in developing more comprehensive and robust strategies. The practice, we primarily use is one that I had the good fortune to codevelop with the systems and complexity team at The Omidyar Group. So what we do is we come alongside teams, we call it accompaniment in that what we're trying to do is come and build capacity and grow a team's ability to use some of the tools of systems thinking. Specifically we use a lot of dynamic system mapping and actor mapping, um, but more to develop a set of practices that sort of reshape and change the way they think about designing, executing and adapting strategy over time to have impact in the world.Sam:
Awesome. And I mean that's, that's a, a huge sort of array of different things that you're bringing together. What's your background to have got you here?Karen:
So I guess I would say that I came to systems thinking pretty honestly from a long, long time ago as a, an undergraduate in mechanical engineering. So we, one of the core courses was modeling and analysis of dynamic systems. And in that kind of dynamic system dynamics model, we actually built the simulations and did the math and, you know, really evaluated all kinds of different physical systems. We did not really look at social systems or the impact of social systems on, you know, either environmental or, or physical systems. But later when I, I did get a public health degree in environmental science and public health has a really quite a long standing history in thinking in systems. And um, although they weren't really as much using the tools that I'm, that I'm currently using. I also, uh, have a passion for organizational learning and a participatory processes. So, um, I love designing spaces where people can come together and create new knowledge and new ways of thinking. And um, my sense has always been that these, uh, deeply contentious policy processes that we see now I'm required new ways to help people have a conversation and the idea of having sort of, um, building together and having an artifact. And this is where like, Kumu comes in for me having an artifact to work for actually invites participation and rather than people being across the table kind of disagreeing or pointing fingers are making points. It's more shoulder, shoulder to shoulder and it's not just me looking at the system and saying how I see it, but it's me looking at you, looking at the system and that creates a container for a lot more interesting conversation.Sam:
And on that theme, what is it that you're currently working on? I know that you're working on various different projects. But maybe you can give us a bit of a highlight of those.Karen:
I don't know that I've ever worked across so many time zones as I am today. I'm working with two teams, one in India and one in Indonesia that are working with smart cities. I have a team in, in Zimbabwe that's a really exciting project that is addressing peace building and rebuilding the social fabric after many decades of divisiveness and conflict. I have a team in London that's working with refugees in Jordan. I'm working with a team in Hawaii that's got all kinds of things going on and they actually support many systems based projects themselves. And then we have a whole area, my colleague Bailey, she's really leading the charge, domestically, in public health, so we've been doing some really exciting projects on adverse childhood experiences and trauma and housing affordability. So pretty exciting projects. That's a big range, a big list. Um, and just so we're working with teams that are working on a lot of really tough and often intractable issues and they're all looking for better ways to, um, build a shared understanding with often with many, many stakeholders around what's going on in the system and then together designing a way forward. Um, and that, that has been just super exciting for us as we get to work in those spaces with a lot of different stakeholders.Sam:
It's such an array of projects. I almost hope you have a systems map just to kind of hold your, your projects in your head. Um, uh, so, so given that you are so busy at the moment, do you, do you actually get a chance to, um, I know you do, but do you get a chance to sort of think about your practice and yeah, maybe we can explore a little bit of what you're doing and maybe a little bit of how Kumu fits into that and a little bit of your edge of learning at the moment.Karen:
For me, the edge of practice really is about how we, how we can more holistically at every level of system, and by that I mean the individual system. So when I show up in the space what I'm coming into that social field with, whether it's a frustration, you know, white knuckling it on 395 trying to get in to the city in Washington DC or um, you know, my, my dog just bit the neighbor or whatever it might be. If I'm coming in, I'm bringing all of that with me. Um, how does that then shape the social field and what happens there? Then how teams operate and build shared knowledge, how they build trust, how they build, meaning, how then they work with stakeholders or beneficiaries of. And then just how, how things, how a system that's whole and um, and responsive and sensing can, can transform a system much more broadly. So I'm starting to think more like this. And, and, uh, have, have all these decades built my technical skills and now I'm turning a little bit inward to be sure that I'm showing up and serving my clients. So I've been doing some work around like embodied leadership and sort of sensing my, my own system and saying, hey, what's going on here? I said something and then being able to notice it, bring it into the space, um, you know, uh, and, and work better together with partners and with systems of all kinds. So that's kind of my, my edge of practice. And um, and I think that this gets really important too when we're dealing with systems and their complexity and we build these maps and I would say the map is not the territory. Very. A very famous philosopher said that. And basically the idea is that, you know, it's sort of all our beliefs and understanding about what something is. It's a um, it's not a model of reality. It's our beliefs about reality or some part of or some lens on reality. And so the importance that these mats are not perfect, they're wrong, right from. And everybody knows the George Box, all models are wrong, some are useful. Um, and so I think the thing about that that becomes super important is just, you know, that doing this work and having and fostering these kinds of conversations in the system itself is a system intervention and it brings insight and change. So the ability of a system to begin to see itself and see parts of the system, but it also challenges our ways of working and their structural systems that push back. Right? So most of our organizations, mostly organizations I've worked with still have oversight of some kind, whether it be at the State Department or USAID where I've done projects. They still have to do paperwork that flies up the flag pole or you know, my foundation, I'll have boards and um, and there's the sense of, and especially with foundations now and the amazing philanthropists who are really trying to move the needle and hoping of course to see things in their lifetime. I think often the question is, well have we had impact? And so I think that that becomes a stressor. Um, and it really takes a commitment to, to working and practicing together in new ways to be able to begin to start to reframe what that really looks like. So, um, and I see that needing to happen, you know, right now a lot of times the, um, the real pain point is in talking about impact and measuring impact in a system where things are really interconnected and complex and you maybe can't attribute change that you might be seeing specifically to your intervention. It may be a whole, you know, uh, it may be a whole compilation of things that are helping to shift some but, but at the heart of this impact to me impact and how we feed our sense of impact back into, um, our beliefs about what we're doing and the value we're bringing. It all has to do with strategy. So like where I really love to camp out, is in the strategy conversation. Um, and I kinda like to say that, that we're always either creating, executing or adapting strategy at some level. And we're kind of always in that, um, you know, in that process when we're doing this kind of systems type work, right? Because we're deep in the work we're zooming in doing and hopefully we're sensing and responding in those very tactical moments. But then we zoom out and we try to observe patterns, right? All of this is part of strategic practice and, and, um, again, you know, some of these things are hard and, and people we start, we try to have these conversations and um, it can hit touch nerves with different stakeholders and difficult conversations. We need a lot of skills. So, um, so yeah, I don't want to get too abstract, but those are the places that I'm finding in a super practical way. This is really the edge of practice, is being able to, um, both do and be super active, but also noticing and sensing as you, as you're doing so that the system at every level is getting stronger. Both of us as individuals and how we show up and how we engage and teams and, and down the line.Sam:
Do you want to give us a bit of a flavor of how, I know this is something that people are struggling with and you're clearly working at the intersection of, almost like a flavor of the practicalities of going from a systems map where, you know, you've really looked at a system and built that systems sight, to strategy or to action. What does that look like in a, in your practice and the projects you've been working with recently?Karen:
What I've started to work with this kind of a format that I, it's really simple and it's kind of a type of evaluative inquiry and it's just: what, so what now what? And I've adapted it a little bit because I have a what, so what, what if, so that's where I want to get into making hypotheses and then uh, uh, now what, or you know, or how might we, um, so one of the things I really find that's challenging, you know, you get teams really focusing on this first system map is our theory of contexts. And it's all about the what? Like it's just what's happening here. What do we see? What do we sense? What do we believe about what's happening here? What are the voices saying and how do those come together? So that's the what we usually do a really good job of getting that first systems map. Then the next system map, then on top of that, we want to build another layer of context, which is so, so now we found the underlying patterns where, what's happening, what are the, where's the dynamism happening? So that's where we ask people to think about where are the bright spots. So maybe it's a little, um, it's, Oh, you know, this community has started holding these spontaneous meetings. It started off with a small group and now, you know, there's 25 people that are leaders that are getting together every week to talk about these issues. And so that, that would be like a bright spot and sort of what it's doing in the system. And we find where there's energy, we find where there's things are frozen or blocked and we do this whole other layer of, of, um, context on top of the map. And then you start to play with, you know, the, the, so what, which is what have we already learned from these things. So then people will say, well, we learned that you always want to consult this person because if you don't, everything goes, you know, they block everything, so you start to get really concrete about, it's more like what have we already learned. And then you start to then I start to get teams to think about, you know, one of the things I love about the idea of leverage and my passion for sort of a, you know, sort of asset based thinking in a community or in a system, you know, my belief is that systems always have everything they need to be healthy and make the change that they need. It's a very appreciative approach. Um, so you start to have the conversation as, you know, what do we need to amplify or bolster or, or, um, or bring out in, you know, in foster in this community and what, what simultaneously we want to disrupt or mitigate or do we want to bridge a new type of connection or. So I think this part really excites me from the sort of appreciative and asset based side of it. Get teams starting to think about, you know, what it would mean and use the map. We use Kumu so I try to keep, I try to keep my teams looking at the map as long as possible before they go off on their own designs. Right. Because one thing that's really easy to do, they get the map and then it's like, oh great. That strategy that I always knew I was going to do is exactly right. So we really get them to stick for a long time in the map. And I know one thing you talked about earlier is like, you know, interested in how I use the map and so trying to get teams to understand a lot more about the usefulness and the utility of the artifact itself for storytelling. And I always tell teams the use of Kumu rises, at least for the dynamic mapping, rises and falls on your ability to tell a really great story and invite participation. That to me is like the game changing part of Kumu and then also that, um, that it can hold all those stories so people in the tool itself. And so more and more on my team, we've developed sort of, um, I don't know if there's lack of better, like a standard of care of teams we work with where, um, we, we really commit with them to filling in a very robust storyline. Like you said, some of that, uh, you know, that ethnographic, you know, those deep descriptions of um, you know, the stories that are being told, um, so that, that has become super powerful. Um, and the same then when we saw our first map, our theory of context are separate. Second map, we call it a systemic theory of change, kind of answers that question of like, you know, uh, where might we engage to move this, this entire system to a greater state of health. And then the theory of action being really more on the strategy which is starting to get you to the TAC that the tactics and the approaches, the programmatic approaches that you might use to, um, to engage. So that's where you're actually designing against where you're seeing leverage in the map. And that's where you might take it into a design lab or an innovation lab. And all points of this process, I really more and more the other edge of my practices when I started doing this in the qualitative, you know, getting away from the engineering and the defense department, quantitative stuff. I, I, um, I worked primarily within foundations and teams that were maybe preparing to go to a board meeting. And so it was just, usually it might be a team say sitting in Washington DC kind of talking to themselves. It's still pretty useful because you get out a lot of their assumptions, you realize and say, wow, we have a lot of assumptions in here. Maybe we better go talk to some people. I'm really loving when uh, and encouraging. I'm really encouraging my teams to, um, if I'm sitting in London and I've got a project in Jordan, let's go to Jordan and actually do the not just talk to the Jordanian Syrian refugees in Jordan, let's do mapping with them locally. And that has been so rewarding. And there's some interesting things that happened. So I've done that. I did this with a very experienced team where I'm, they had done some mapping in their Home Office. It's a foundation and then they decided they wanted to go to Nepal and do it with a group of Nepali people and that map got built in I think it got built in a week and a half and they were just stunned at how beautifully it came together because we had the stories we didn't have, you know, we're not sitting back in DC make, you know, like talking about this place way, way far away. We're here listening to stories and I think that was a huge eyeopener for me. Um, and that's what I said. Yeah, this is a tool to use to bring communities together and it's, it's, it itself is a strategic play in a system. So I love Kumu I'm a huge fan.Sam:
Thank you so much for sharing about your practice and as always, I have 100 more questions for you, but we'll end the podcast here. And if people want to find you and talk to you more about what's what you do and the like how, where, where would they go?Karen:
Well, we do have a, a web page. Our new gal hasn't gotten a chance to get in there and update it. So many, many of our projects are not, um, listed there yet, but it's just engaginginquiry.com. And you can find me specifically at email@example.com and I'd love to hear from you and geek out with you and probably seen some of you on our slack group and I'm really proud of that amazing community and uh, yeah, so thanks for. Thanks for asking. And if you ever want to talk more about a strategy impact learning any of those topics, I'd love to come back and talk to you again.