Four creative-thinking insights from Te Ohu with Tūhoe
Karakia at 4.30am was not something I was expecting when I signed up for an intellectual working bee at Te Ohu (People, Land and Kinship), a collaboration initiative between Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua (Tūhoe’s settlement entity) and the Living Futures Aotearoa Collaborative. To be honest, my main goal was to experience the amazing Te Kura Whare building, New Zealand’s first certified Living Building Challenge construction project, and to understand the motivation driving Tūhoe to demonstrate such visionary leadership in the tribe’s post-settlement investments.
What I discovered went way beyond my expectations. Not only did we gather valuable experience of working with Iwi; we gained first-hand experience about the genuine power of sustainability context, and the very real benefits of taking more time than you might dare ask for. Reflecting on the whole experience, I identified four important insights about what it means for those of us seeking breakthrough outcomes in our working sessions with boards, executive teams and colleagues.
Insight #1 – The power of outside thinking
A four-day live-in event is pretty intense for a working bee; I mean, when was the last time you thought about running a four-day design workshop? But that’s exactly what Te Ohu was all about – a unique exchange between manuhiri (visiting participants bringing valuable external perspective) and Tūhoe (brining the necessary internal perspective) to explore living systems thinking, regenerative development frameworks and sustainable design. The main purpose was to support Tūhoe in thinking about how to develop living communities centred upon existing hapu and marae settlements surrounding Tāneatua as an integrated part of the wider Te Urewera ecosystem, and as an initiative to regenerate these Tūhoe communities towards a net positive future.
The first thing to acknowledge here is just how difficult it can be to persuade internal stakeholders about the value of actively inviting external perspectives to shed new light on old problems. But, where do new ideas and fresh thinking come from? And, how do you make sure external perspectives are focused on the right challenges? Unilever’s approach to open source innovation is a great example of how outside thinking can pay huge dividends, with its Challenges and Wants webpage listing specific challenges. Amazingly, that single webpage accounts for around 60% of Unilever’s innovation pipeline.
Insight #2 – Knowing the value of who’s in the room
Ten hours of welcoming and introductions sounds like a lot – but I’d urge you to reconsider next time you allocate just 5 or 10 minutes on your next workshop runsheet for ‘Introductions’. Ask yourself, how well do we really know each other, where is each person coming from, and what value do each of us bring to this working session? You might even invite people to share something about their personal values; or ask them how they feel about something relevant to the day’s discussion that will encourage them to share more about what drives them, and what they’re passionate about.
For Te Ohu things kicked off at noon with a formal powhiri at Te Kura Whare. Then, the group of 100 or so manuhiri were transported to four different marae for another powhiri before settling in for a shared dinner. This prolonged welcome, the majority of which was in te reo Maori, was both challenging and delightful. After dinner we gathered in the wharenui, where we would sleep, to do introductions in English. As we went round the room, each of us had a few minutes to introduce ourselves, share our intentions, and get to know more about why we were all there.
And so finished the formal welcome and introductions around 10pm. By the end of that day we not only had a stronger feeling for who Tūhoe were; we had a much better idea of the people who were offering to invest their time and support, as well as the knowledge, skills and expertise they had to offer. I already sensed that had unfolded that day was more powerful than any standard workshop introduction, and had added a lot of value.
Insight #3 – The power of deep contextual awareness
We all know how action-focused some people like workshops to be, particularly when time is short. And I have to confess to being one of those people who feels impatient when talking goes round in circles without heading towards a concrete outcome. But there can be good reasons not to jump too quickly into decisions and action planning, to make sure everyone is crystal clear on the context, and how it fits within the bigger picture reality. It’s like going to a doctor who prescribes a treatment based on little evidence other than the symptoms, without really delving into the details of your diet, exercise regime and lifestyle habits. Do the symptoms alone really describe the full context of the problem, and the most appropriate responses? Or is it worth taking the time to really understand the whole system before making a judgment about the best course of action?
Our second day at Te Ohu had us on coaches, travelling to the four corners of Tūhoe territory. Our group was fortunate to have the Chair of Te Uru Taumatua as our guide. We followed the Whakatane River; visited the place where Tūhoe (the person) once lived; listened attentively to stories of the past and the present; and dipped our feet into the discoloured, brown river water which persisted still 4 days after heavy rainfall due to soil erosion from forestry and agriculture. We spend the day listening; learning; and immersing ourselves in the world of Tūhoe before even thinking about how to address their challenge.
That night, as the night before, we gathered in the wharenui with our hosts. This time we were invited to ask them anything. Questions flew thick and fast about what was said during the powhiri; the history of the marae; relationships with the more corporate Te Uru Taumatua; and an explanation of the 4.30am karakia (which relates to the transition of time, from night to day, when the the living souls take over from the spirits which watch over our dreams). There was a generous and frank sharing of perspectives, stories and opinions that extended our bond as new whanau members of Tataiahape Pa in Waimana.
Insight #4 – Creative thinking calls for a different approach
I often sense that managers are reticent to invite senior decision-makers to roll-up their sleeves and engage in creative thinking that might involve drawing pictures, creating maps, or building a model of some sort. It’s almost as if it’s considered too childlike or facile. And yet this is actually the way human brains work best. The scientific community have repeatedly confirmed that we make sense of, and remember pictures far better and more quickly than words alone. Moreover, it’s fun, encourages different thinking, and forces discussions about how things fit and flow together.
On Te Ohu Day 3 we were finally invited to roll-up our sleeves and inject our expertise. The process was simple, starting by choosing a personal preference from one of four themes: land, energy, justice and livelihood. Ideas from those four areas were then merged into a design idea for an ideal living community using a wide range of simple Play School materials to actually build the design. The creative personalities went to work, and high-level design ideas were truly brought to life, with shape and colour. Tūhoe representatives were allocated to each group to provide insights and critique – some of which was challenging, as well-meant ideas were shot-down as unworkable.
When instructed to select the final four of sixteen designs, automatically and immediately there was constructive compromise. Good ideas from one design were quickly transferred to another, as the spirit of collaboration and a genuinely shared context recognised the strengths and weaknesses of different ideas. What stood out was the level of understanding about what would, and would not work based on the shared knowledge about Tūhoe’s aspirations, needs and way of life.
In the space of four hours, four design concepts created by around 100 different brains were developed and presented. Each one was explained with words that complemented the pictures, maps and models which had been created under intense time pressure. Although the actual work had been done in only a few hours, the true value of that labour was the culmination of a much larger investment of time spent studying and understanding the systemic context.
How easy would it have been to explain the design ideas, the systemic context and interconnection of proposed technologies without the pictures, maps and models? My guess is that much of it would have evaporated and disappeared. The inspirational ideas literally came to life because they could be pointed to, visualised and tangibly envisioned. Although it may not be appropriate for every working session, where you can bring ideas to life like this for decision-makers, it’s worth doing. I can recommend from many years of practical experience using pictorial maps of business systems and value chains just how much value and clarity it can add.
Final reflections – Is trust the core of sustainable success?
The final day at Te Ohu was a 4-hour session dedicated to allowing every participant an opportunity to share their reflections; and everyone had plenty to share. Closing out a working session by allowing everyone a few words to a carefully focused question is an important opportunity to harvest knowledge and insights that perhaps haven’t made it onto the whiteboard, but nevertheless carry valuable information about next steps or implementation challenges. I’ve often encountered resistance when asking people to sit in a circle for these final sharing sessions; but a circle format is easily the most effective set up, and we all know how frustrating it is to listen to the back of someone’s head.
What emerged from my experience of Te Ohu was a reminder about how important the issue of trust is. In the field of human, community and social relationships (let’s call it social sustainability) trust – in my view – stands at the same level of importance as microplastics-in-water do for environmental sustainability. Trust is the glue that binds the fabric of our human society and organisations together. Trust underpins brand value, strong customer relationships, as well as being fundamental to partnerships and collaborations that can solve complex challenges way better than any single organisation. Trust is value; and a loss of trust can be very expensive.
For Tūhoe, I gleaned a lot from star-lit conversations with the kaumatua of Tataiahape Pa, Mawi Te Pou. Not all Tūhoe tribal groups and hapu have complete trust in Te Uru Taumatua, or don’t fully understand it’s intentions and strategy. So, even if the ideas from Te Ohu were brilliant and perfect, there may well be some community resistance and sub-optimal commitment. And I don’t think this challenge is unique to Tūhoe. It is a challenge that many traditional organisations face.
Trust comes from open, honest and transparent communication. It is fostered by a caring and empathetic culture; and grows where control is relinquished and those with genuine interest are allowed influence. Trust breeds loyalty and commitment, and – alongside knowledge – is perhaps one of an organisation’s most valuable assets. And yet, levels of trust all around the world are falling as institutional systems and processes fail to reflect the simple recipe for nurturing, rather than eroding trust.
All in all, I learnt a lot from Te Ohu about the value of truly immersing yourself in someone else’s world before trying to help them tackle their issues. I’m familiar with the Theory U change process advocated by Otto Scharmer, and believe this was a perfect demonstration of how to implement it in a practical and easy-to-digest way.