Pattern #33


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Iteration Card - version 1


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Wisdom is not a one-time thing. It is intelligent learning stretched over the long haul and applied mindfully. Situations change, calling for course corrections—or an unexpected level of complexity appears, revealing new paths and challenges. So use periodic, iterative processes whose outcomes give birth to—and feed into—new inquiries, insights, possibilities and activities.

Related: 22 Enough Time, 29 Generative Interactions, 37 Multi-Modal Intelligence, 43 Possibility Thinking, 45 Powerful Questions, 64 Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively, 69 Wise Use of Uncertainty

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Iteration involves the output from one process or formula becoming an input into a subsequent and often similar kind of process.

That’s the fundamental dynamic of intelligence: We learn something and we take the resulting understanding out into life to see how it works. Sometimes it works really well and each time it works it becomes more validated and embedded in our understanding. Or it works sometimes but not at other times. We start to develop a nuanced understanding and say, “Okay, I have now learned a new thing to apply to life – when this works and when it doesn’t.” Or it doesn’t work at all and you trash it, saying, “Okay, I have to start over again learn how this works.” So iteration is fundamental to the construction and unfolding of intelligence itself.

A main dimension of wisdom is that this learning process doesn’t stop. A lot of people and groups will learn something, attach themselves to what they’ve learned, and then hold on to it no matter what’s going on.  That’s foolish. Wisdom is more responsive to the challenges that life presents to the things we know. Maintaining our iterative learning process over the long haul and being conscious of how we’re doing it – that is the applied mindfulness part, which is a big part of wisdom.

We can ride along stable situations for a long time until we run into things that are changing. At that point we need to change, too. That’s the fundamental lesson of adaptive evolution: When the situation changes, you’d better change how you’re thinking and responding and feeling to fit that.  Because if you can’t, you will get hit by reality, by the world around you. Hopefully that will get you to change, because the more you resist, the more you’ll get hit. So being able to continually respond as things change is calling forth your iterative responsiveness. Over and over you are asked to respond newly and to correct your course and adjust your behaviors.

Sometimes it isn’t change per se, but rather that new dimensions of the situation, of reality, or of yourself show up. The complexity of life is almost infinite, and our understandings are always built on a particular level of understanding. You may have gone to a particular depth or to a particular extent and said, “Okay, I understand that.” But there’s always more involved, there’s deeper we can go, there’s more dimensions to what is going on in and around a situation. We can suddenly realize we need to learn something new. It’s not so much that things have changed, but we realize something else is going on there, and that may be a problem or it may be a new opportunity, a new direction to go. So we may think, “Okay, we’ve been looking at this totally wrong. Let’s shift how we look at it.” And suddenly there’s a whole pile of new things we might do that would resolve it. There is a kind of breakthrough.

If you are going to have a wise democracy, you take this dynamic that is so clear in individual and group life – this need to respond to changing circumstances – and you apply it to the whole democratic culture, to the democratic systems, to how you set things up so that instead of just doing a democratic process once, as an event, you do it over and over again.

You have a Citizen Deliberative Council, for example, and what comes out of that goes out into the government, into the population, and it gets digested and used and challenged and all that. Then you do that process again so all of those effects and insights that come from impacting reality get fed back into a renewed learning process. So having this happen over and over and over and over is part of wise democratic culture.

In majoritarian representative and republican systems, voting is supposed to be the main iterative process. We vote for a bunch of people and they do what they do. Then we look at how much we like or don’t like what they’ve done. And then we do another vote and say, “Go ahead, try again,” or we say, “You’re out”, or we say, “We need some new blood.” That feedback loop is an iterative process, and many democracy activists are trying to intensify and upgrade it. And with wise democracy, we want to get more sophisticated and not just do voting. We want to actually be looking at issues over and over again, and looking at our relationship to the broader reality over and over again.

As we make this kind of iteration an intrinsic part of how our different processes, protocols, or institutions operate, we start to move toward a more wise democratic system.

Video Introduction (10 min)

Examples and Resources

Multi-day Open Space events are one of my favorite examples of this because I have experienced half-day Open Spaces and I have experienced five-day Open Spaces. These are almost like different processes because Open Space is really good at taking a subject or a field of energy and splitting it up into parts that are natural and then having those parts develop further. If you only do one half day, those parts develop a bit and that’s it. But if you do five days, those parts develop and start interacting and particularly the dissonances and potential collaborations get manifested and influence each other. On iterative multiple days people are sleeping on what’s up for them and it looks different in the morning. There is a transformational potency in a multi-day Open Space. It is so different from a half-day or one-day Open Space.

Annual Wisdom Councils – Wisdom Councils – groups of dynamically facilitated randomly selected people – were originally created to be held at least every year and preferably several times a year, like quarterly. Whatever the Council comes up with goes out into the larger population. The larger population talks about it, follows it, critiques it, pushes for it. And whatever impact all that engagement has then gets picked up by the next Council. As you do iterative Wisdom Councils, it’s like you are seasoning the soup and tasting it again, seasoning again, tasting again in an ongoing feedback loop. And it starts to nurture a community-wide sense of We the People.

Multiprocess Public Engagement – I have a major paper on my website about this idea. For example, a Wisdom Council could recommend some policy direction or social initiative that it doesn’t know enough to get specific about but it does know that it needs to be done. You could then convene a Citizen Jury (for example) whose members learn about that area and make recommendations from a position of lay expertise that the Wisdom Council couldn’t have. That would be an example of one process feeding into another process.  Alternatively, you could engage a lot of ordinary citizens around some issue using a more basic simple process like World Cafe. You could have thousands of people participating in World Cafés over a period of six months. From among all those participants you could then select a bunch of people randomly to be members of a Wisdom Council.

There are many ways for iteration to happen, for people and ideas to come out of one process and fold into another.