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The Benefits of Circular Thinking

In pre-modern times, when all we had was either moonlight or firelight to find our way in the dark, people had a way of orienting to the world that was largely based on the circle. Despite our technological advances, it’s difficult to find a more effective teaching tool than the circle. The old Taoists recognized that energy moves in circles. Agrarian-based peoples, and until very recently in our history that included virtually all of us, saw the cycle of night and day and cycle of the seasons as unfolding along a circular path. From the advent of the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago, up to say the early 20th Century, the circle was the primary organizing metaphor for storing knowledge for many of the world's people. The circular approach to looking at life helped us to capture, recall, integrate, and apply learning in ways that eventually helped us develop wisdom.

Of course, today's digitally mediated world, with its bits and bytes moving at near light speed, has greatly increased the pace and complexity that we deal with in life, rendering the idea of a seasonal and diurnal circle rather a quaint notion, especially when it comes to managing projects or people. Yet, if the circle model held sway for so long, then perhaps, in our headlong rush into modernity, we may have lost connection to some valuable ways of thinking and learning that could serve us well if they were reclaimed. The resurgence of circle-based thinking as demonstrated by the rise and embrace of Cradle-to-Cradle business models, and the framing of business and economic models such as the Circular Economy and Doughnut Economics are examples of this kind of reclaiming. Of course, there are many peoples who have never abandoned the circular way of knowing.

In this post, I'd like to reintroduce a very old circle, one easily recognizable to those who still maintain close ties to the land. So, if you are a gardener, this will no doubt be familiar to you. This particular circle combines the attributes of indigenous wisdom and folklore with four simple questions that orient us to the stages and phases of life. These same stages and phases readily apply in the realm of business and project management. Using a circle to help us track what is important is as useful to leaders and managers as it is to farmers and gardeners.

Here's one version of a very old way of looking at the world - note it is northern hemisphere-centric:

Notice the questions that accompany each of the directions. We'll begin in the east with dawn, the Vernal Equinox, the element of fire, and the energy of birth, of something new entering the world. The question of how to support what is being born in the world applies just as much at the start of a project as it does at the start of a life. Anyone with interest, expertise, and care can help to midwife a project into existence. The task of midwifery is to work with what is trying to emerge to support an easy transition from womb to world or, in the case of projects, from concept to concrete. As we attend to what's emerging we might consider some other questions:

  • What exactly is it that we are attempting to bring into being here?

  • What kind of nourishment (time, attention, expertise, etc.) will it require?

  • What outcomes do we intend to have as a result of our efforts?

  • How does this fit in with the larger pattern that we are working to create/maintain?

Turning to the south we find ourselves at noon, the Summer Solstice, the element of water, and the energy of growth. Now we shift from midwifery to husbandry, which is the application of scientific principles to skillfully manage and cultivate what is in our care. Here we’re faced with the question of supporting that which has taken root and is growing on its own. We need to shift our focus and consider how to work with this more mature energy. The element of water gives us some clues.

  • What is flowing here?

  • Where is flow impeded?

  • What do we need to weed, prune, or fertilize?

  • What is the simplest, most elegant step we can take that brings forth the optimal result with the least amount of effort?

Turning to the west we find ourselves facing dusk, the Autumnal Equinox, and the time of harvesting, dying, gathering, holding on and letting go. Just as we needed to become midwives to bring something new into the world, and husbands to what is growing and maturing, we now need to become hospice workers to support a smooth transition for that which is passing away and returning to the Earth, which is the element associated with this direction. The fruits of our labors form the ground upon which we judge of our work. Here the questions shift to:

  • What value did we produce?

  • What lessons are worth harvesting?

  • What do we need to let go of?

  • How can we use fruits of our labors to sustain us during the upcoming fallow time?

Turning to the north we confront the darkness of midnight, the cold of the Winter Solstice, and the element of air – which many traditions associate with mental energy. This is the time for integrating learning, for resting, regenerating, and celebrating. Before the Industrial Revolution, winter was filled with feasts and holidays – the sharing of ourselves with each other while we save the seeds from our harvest over the winter to be planted again in the spring to bring forth another cycle of life. In an age of machines (smart or otherwise) it’s easy to forget, as we so often do, that we live half our in the dark and that the darkness is fruitful. Rest is what renews and regenerates life. Constant work, with no time to stop and acknowledge our efforts, no time to celebrate our accomplishments, and no time to rest and integrate our learnings leads not to greater productivity but to breakdowns in the fabric of our lives, our families our cultures, eventually bleeding out to fracture the very foundations that make life possible. The inquiry into how to conserve what sustains and regenerates us is deepened by considering:

  • Whose work deserves to be acknowledged? (Hint: everyone’s.)

  • What did we do that is worth celebrating?

  • What did we learn that is worth remembering and conserving - what will we plant next spring?

  • What do we want to do differently next time around the wheel?

  • How are the results of our work making the world safer, saner and more livable?

Circles are a highly useful metaphor and organizing model for iterative processes and for consolidating and sharing our learning. How might you map a project or phase of your business to this circle and gain practical insights from the questions offered?

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