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December 2011

In this Issue: Readers Write about Filling in the Gaps

Say It Quick
a thoughtful message in exactly 99 words

bits of serendipity to inspire and motivate
fuel for your own continuous learning
tips and tricks you can try today
Being the Crowd Organizational Constellations The Answer is in the Stars Play in the Sandbox

Say It Quick

Sometimes a complex problem is difficult to understand because we cannot see the whole of it all at once. This issue of the Firefly News Flash offers a method for gaining perspective on an entire system but we'll begin by examining why the big picture is hard to see with this 99-Word Story.

Being the Crowd
When I walked into the pool for a swim, a small group was just leaving. I overheard them grumbling about how crowded the pool was that day. When I mentioned this to Phil, a swimming buddy, he replied with irony, "They would certainly know about crowds. They brought one with them!"

He was right. When you add four people to this small lap pool it's suddenly very crowded, but the place was nearly empty now.

Some say you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. I say each of us is both.



Organizational Constellations

"Today we are going to help you get a new perspective on a problem or issue. You'll be able to see the whole system in a new way and end up with fresh insights that will inform your approach to the issue."

This was the promise at "Organization Constellations: Understanding the Hidden Dynamics Driving Systems," a breakout session at this year's conference of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA). The facilitators, Karen Porterfield and Harrison Snow then launched into the session by asking for sample issues from the participants.

One person was trying to decide whether to make a career move from the corporate to the non-profit world. As our "subject" she was asked to select other participants to play various roles: herself, a mentor, her past professional experience, the new job, the job interview committee, etc. One by one, the subject physically guided each actor into a position in the room in relationship to the other actors. She made a living sculpture of her situation and the decision she needed to make.

At this point, things got interesting. Each actor described what they were thinking and feeling from their position and in relationship to the other actors. For example, the actor representing our subject ended up facing the person playing the subject's new decision. Past accomplishments were at her back. When reporting, the actor said she could feel the solid support of all the years of experience backing her up.

"Wow!" exclaimed our subject, "I've always seen all my corporate experience as if it were about to stab me in the back!" Our subject had just gained a new viewpoint, one that empowered her to approach her decision with confidence and a clear purpose.

This is the essence of Organizational Constellations, a concept pioneered by psychologist Bert Hellinger: to offer a new way to experience a complete system. Originally, Constellations work was focused on improving personal dynamics and family systems. Over the years and through the work of many practitioners, the concept has expanded to be used for personal therapy, coaching, and organizational development work. It is intended to reveal the hidden dynamics that hinder high performance. With the insight from constructing and analyzing a Constellation, one can develop solutions that balance competing forces within a system.



The Answer is in the Stars
I have my own theory about why Organizational Constellations can be such an effective strategy: the power of metaphor and the importance of meaning. We are creatures of meaning. We expect it. We look for it. We plan our lives around it. If given the choice, we would select an occupation that holds meaning for us over one that only provides a wage. Meaning and purpose are what keep some of our oldest citizens alive and vibrant.

Metaphor is one way we derive meaning from our experiences. By associating the characteristics of an event, situation, or system with an object, animal, or concept, we make it manageable. New complexities are seen within a familiar context. And, the more novel the associations, the more prominently the metaphor and its meaning are stored in our brain.

My friend Stephen is a successful child therapist. When youngsters enter his office, he does not invite them to lie on his couch. Instead, they play in a sandbox. Toys represent people and the children create a fantasy world that mirrors their own. Stephen teaches them to see their world in a new way.

Similarly, Organizational Constellations challenges participants to create metaphors on a human scale. The subject defines the goal, assigns roles to players, and moves them around the space to their logical positions. The subject becomes an omniscient player in the middle of an oversized game board. When players are asked to share observations from the perspective of their role, they deliver their thoughts without judgment. It is the subject who determines the significance and meaning of those observations.

Like the 99-Word Story, we always have a role in both the problem and the solution. We are a part of the crowd. We can be nothing else. But playing with a system as a constellation allows us to see where we are in the crowd and what we are doing there.



Play in the Sandbox
If you have a large space and a group of people, you can easily play and experiment with Organizational Constellations to think about a problem or challenge. But if you don't, you can always make your own personal sandbox. Here is an activity adapted from one written by Harrison Snow, one of the trainers that introduced me to Constellations.

Set aside 45 to 60 minutes of uninterrupted time for yourself. Begin with a few moments of silence then identify and define your creative challenge or problem. Write it briefly on a card.

Place the card on an empty table in front of you. Write your name on another card. This is you. Place it anywhere on the table where it seems most appropriate in relationship to the other card. Notice what comes to mind as you look at the two cards and their juxtaposition to each other.

Next, identify the other factors or people that have a significant impact on you and your challenge. Write each on a separate card and place them on the table in relationship to the other cards. Go with your feelings about where they belong.

As you place each card, make note of any changes in your thoughts and feelings. Position the cards with enough space so you can walk around and see them from all sides. Stand behind each card and try to see the whole constellation from that point of view.

Ask some pointed questions: How does each particular perspective see the challenge? How do they see the other factors that impact the challenge? What does each need to say to those other factors?

Finally, return to your own card. After having seen the challenge from so many different perspectives, what has changed for you? How might your viewpoint have shifted? What new opportunities, solutions, or insights have emerged?

I can imagine using this technique for strategic planning, brainstorming, product development, problem solving, team development, and more. I hope you will take the opportunity to step outside of the crowd and play in a sandbox of your own creation. If you do, please how you put Constellations to use and what benefit you received as a result.

Harrison Snow is an organizational development consultant based in the Washington DC metro area. He has been conducting teambuilding, management training, coaching, and change management activities for corporate and government clients for more than twenty years. To learn more about Organizational Constellations, email him directly (teambuilder(at) or visit his website:


Readers Write

A Response to the November 2011 Issue Filling in the Gaps

I wonder how much we could learn from or sense about the future for a 6 yr old who has begun to lose their baby teeth and has that hugh gap in his or her maxilla. A great deal of life to fill! --Jim, Phoenix, AZ


If you like what you have read in this issue, I would like to bring the same innovation, creativity, and playfulness to your next meeting or learning event.

Whether you need a keynote speaker, or help with strategic planning, performance improvement, or training facilitators and trainers in your organization, I look forward to your call (802.257.7247) or .

-- Brian

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