Catalytic Thinking: A Framework for Creating and Scaling Powerful Results

Around the Moon - drawn by Émile Bayard (1837-1891) & Alphonse de Neuville (1835-1885) via Wikimedia Commons

Catalytic Thinking is a set of practices that make explicit the simple factors that create positive results, so those results can be consistently replicated and scaled.

The Back-Story
In 1998, Dimitri Petropolis and I found ourselves frustrated with the results we were seeing from social change efforts around the world. With a strong background in political and labor organizing, and an equally strong background in economic development and business turnaround, we began the most audacious “turn around project” we could have imagined – reinventing the processes groups use for moving the needle on social change in their communities.

What we didn’t realize at that time was that we were setting into motion almost two decades of research, development and experimentation that would result in the powerful set of practices we call Catalytic Thinking.

The Name: Why We Call it Catalytic Thinking
Before describing what it is and how it works, let’s look at the words themselves. Why call this Catalytic Thinking?

First, we call it catalytic because when this thinking is applied to any situation, results happen quickly and gracefully. With these practices, small actions create big results.

Importantly, though, we focus on the thinking because it’s not really actions that create results, but the thinking that goes into those actions – our assumptions and beliefs.
Assumptions graphic - plain (2) unframed

Our “thinking” is therefore the actual determinant of our success. When we change our thinking, it changes our results.

How do we change our thinking? By changing the questions we ask. Change the questions, and we change everything.

The Factors that Create Positive Results
If Catalytic Thinking is “a set of practices that make explicit the simple factors that create consistently positive results,” what specifically are those factors?

There are two basic tenets at the root of Catalytic Thinking.

• It’s always about the people; it’s never about the “thing.”

• Our power to create change lies in our power to create favorable conditions for success.

Those two tenets are a distillation of the Pollyanna Principles.

The Ends:
• We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.
• Each and every one of us is creating the future, every day, whether we do so consciously or not.
• Unless something is physically impossible, it is possible.

The Means:
• Everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent, whether we acknowledge that or not.
• “Being the change we want to see” means walking the talk of our values.
• Strength builds upon our strengths, not our weaknesses.
• Individuals will go where systems lead them.

Change the Questions, Change the World
If our thinking creates our results,
   and if we change our thinking by changing the questions we ask,
      and if the factors that create positive change are embodied in the tenets above
then logic tells us that embedding those tenets into the questions we all ask in our day to day lives is the key to unleashing our potential to create the healthy, humane future we want for our world.

The following are therefore the questions at the heart of Catalytic Thinking:

  • “What is the future we intend to create, and what will it take to create that?” and other questions that aim at creating what is possible (compared to questions that react to what is wrong, such as, “What is the problem, and how will we solve it?”)
  • “Who else cares about this? What can we accomplish together, that none of us can accomplish on our own?” and other questions that bring out the best in each other (compared to questions that suspect the worst in each other, such as, “How can I ensure you don’t take what is ‘rightfully’ mine? How can we ensure you don’t take advantage of us?”)
  • “What resources do we have together, that none of us has all of on our own?” and other questions rooted in the Stone Soup spirit of Collective Enoughness – the theory that together we have everything we need, that it is only on our own that we experience scarcity. (Compare that to questions rooted in scarcity, such as, “How will we pay for this? Where will the money come from?”)

The Practices
Catalytic Thinking - Graphic (no title)Because there is nothing more catalytic than bringing out the best in every part of our lives and our work, the practices that comprise Catalytic Thinking are intentionally crafted to

  • bring out the best in people overall
  • bring out the best in people when they are in specific (often difficult) situations
  • bring out the best in situations

Practices that Bring Out the Best in People
It’s always about the people, never about the “thing.”

When things go wrong, the real problem is the impact of that issue on people – or the degree to which people have been the cause of the issue in the first place. If it weren’t for people, a tsunami would just be a weather pattern. It’s always about the people.

What, then, does it take to bring out the best in people?

To bring out the best in people, we would need to know them beyond their position and beyond the stories we tell ourselves about them (he’s greedy, she’s powerful).

Catalytic Thinking provides practices that create and hold the space for inviting the whole person into the room, wherever that room might be – a public meeting about a community issue, a staff meeting in a Fortune 100 company, a family dinner table.

This aspect of Catalytic Thinking answers questions such as

  • What is really happening when people are at their best? What are the conditions that support that? What does it take to create and maintain those conditions in all aspects of our lives?
  • What does it take to lead when you don’t have positional authority?
  • What does it look like in practice to “walk the talk” and “model our values” (vs. simply codifying empty phrases like respect, honesty, integrity, transparency)?
  • What approaches help new groups coalesce quickly and seemingly effortlessly? What is at the heart of a successful collaboration? What does it take to create that synergy and alignment?

We have all encountered people who seem to always make others feel good in their presence. Those individuals instinctively bring out the best in others. Catalytic Thinking practices make those instinctive approaches explicit. Those approaches can therefore be replicated and scaled, so that anyone can consistently bring out the best in others.

Practices that Bring Out the Best in People in Specific (Often Difficult) Situations
Sometimes people are just being people – whether that is at a staff meeting or the dinner table. Then there are times when people find themselves in situations.
   • Joe’s boss is being demanding.
   • Mary’s spouse is coming home from work later and later.
   • Bureaucracy in Liz’s workplace is making it impossible for her to do her job well.

What, then, does it take to bring out the best in people who are dealing with situations in their lives – those circumstances we think of as challenges to their potential?

To bring out the best in people in specific situations requires listening deeply, with the dual intention of meeting people where they are and opening the door to their potential to create positive results.

Catalytic Thinking provides two practices to accomplish those goals: Catalytic Listening, and the Continuum of Potential.

Catalytic Listening
Catalytic Listening is a practice of asking, listening, reframing and reflecting. This single practice guides practitioners to
   • meet others where they are, in a way that allows them to feel heard and validated, and
   • opens the door to their potential by uncovering what is strong and powerful, upon which they can build actions and results.

For the purpose of catalyzing people’s potential, it is not enough to listen so that people feel heard. The critical component is uncovering what is strong and powerful, because fixing what is wrong is just one small step towards reaching for what is possible. Through Catalytic Listening, we begin to tease out what those other steps might be.

This practice answers questions such as:

  • What does “good” look like? What outcomes is the person seeking, beyond just solving the immediate problem at hand?
  • What is working well? What are the strengths, assets, resources upon which to build?
  • What values are surfacing? What is important to that person?
  • Which questions empower people to find their strengths, values, and potential – and which questions unintentionally disempower people?

Through Catalytic Listening, Catalytic Thinking makes these components for change explicit. Those approaches can therefore be replicated and scaled, so that anyone can create a powerful foundation for accomplishing great results.

The Continuum of Potential
We have all heard the expression, “Meet people where they are.” (I even used it in the section above this one!).

What that dictum suggests is that it is easy to know where people are. The truth is far from that. We often misread the signals people send us. As a result, we find it difficult to respond in a way that opens the door to their potential (or sometimes to even see any potential at all!).

The Continuum of Potential is a practice for understanding the verbal and behavioral cues that people are sending us all the time, that we simply are not trained to notice – or know what to do with when we see them.

Using the Continuum, practitioners gain deeper insights into where individuals are in their own willingness / eagerness to step into their potential. They also gain insights into the kinds of responses that are likely to be received well and acted upon – the first step towards catalyzing positive results.

The Continuum of Potential addresses questions such as:

  • When we say, “Meet people where they are,” where exactly are they? What does it take to understand what someone’s potential really is?
  • In the same circumstances with the same stimuli, why do some people take action while others either fail to do so or even shut down completely?
  • What can our role be as catalysts for bringing out the best in those individuals?

We have all encountered situations where we have walked away thinking, “If you didn’t want my advice, why did you ask for it?” Catalytic Thinking’s “Continuum of Potential” makes explicit what is really going on in that delicate interplay between people asking for help and the people from whom they are seeking that help. By uncovering those realities, positive results can be replicated and scaled, so that anyone can consistently bring out the best in people who are facing issues and challenges, large or small.

Practices that Bring Out the Best in Situations
Unless something is physically impossible, it is possible. That statement has resonated deeply with people since it was published in The Pollyanna Principles in 2009. Rooted in the other realities stated in those principles, that statement of possibility speaks to the reality that being a “Pollyanna” is the only thing that has ever brought humans closer to our potential.

The truth behind those statements lies in one of the most basic rules of physics – the rule of cause and effect.

What, then, does it take to bring out the best in situations?

Bringing out the best in situations requires that we deeply understand how causality works, and even more deeply understand what it takes to create favorable cause-and-effect conditions for success. Because our power to create change lies in our power to create those favorable conditions.

Catalytic Thinking relies upon the practice of Catalytic Strategy to uncover that critical path from today to the future we want to create. Catalytic Strategy is not a “planning process,” although it can be used for planning. It is a way of thinking about everything we seek to accomplish, from developing a website, to creating an amazing birthday experience for our 5 year old, to finding a company’s most effective strategies for creating a better world.

Catalytic Strategy answers questions such as

  • What do we want our actions to make possible? Possible for whom? What would 100% success look like?
  • What conditions outside our immediate control would lead to that success?
  • What conditions must be in place for us internally, to be able to influence those external conditions?
  • What actions will trip the levers to create those conditions?

Catalytic Strategy avoids the roadblocks created by the current norm in organizational decision-making – Idea-Driven strategy. Idea-Driven strategy is the process of envisioning the desired results, and then jumping directly back to the current situation, asking “What ideas might we try for accomplishing those results?”

Rooted in today’s reality (and the bigger the issue, the more that reality is reinforced with data about trends and best-guess future scenarios), Idea-Driven strategy is always reactive, creating a future rooted in what we do not like about the present.

Catalytic Strategy aims for what is possible, and then eliminates the need to forecast or predict, creating order out of chaos by uncovering the simple cause-and-effect path between today’s reality and the future we want to create. By making that path explicit, the thinking that creates powerful actions can be replicated and scaled, so that anyone can consistently bring out the best in any situation.

Background and Analysis
Catalytic Thinking is the result of almost two decades of research, development and experimentation.

Our research includes the fields of history, sociology, economics and ecology (the study of large group / system behaviors) as well as psychology and neuroscience (the study of individual behaviors).

In 2009, we began teaching these approaches to changemakers around the world. There are now 100 Creating the Future fellows who have made the commitment to add their learning to these practices, and to make this way of thinking and being ubiquitous, living the mantra they themselves created: “This stuff works, and it works everywhere, with everything.” *

The experimenting that happens in Creating the Future’s living laboratory has made clear the reason it works so consistently: the simple act of changing the questions we ask – and the order in which we ask them – creates a consistent catalyst for the brain mechanics that make up our human nature.

Catalyzing Our Human Potential
Wikipedia defines “catalysis” as follows:

“Catalysis is the increase in the rate of a chemical reaction due to the participation of an additional substance called a catalyst. With a catalyst, reactions occur faster and with less energy… Often only tiny amounts are required.”

In other words, introducing a catalyst to a situation unleashes potential that already exists. And in humans, that potential is our ability to bring out the best in each other and in the situations we encounter.

In part, that potential requires inhibiting the factors that bring out the worst in each other – fear, scarcity, suspicion, reactivity. However we cannot create something positive simply by eliminating something negative (see my TEDx talk at the bottom of this post for more on that). To create something positive, we must activate positive forces.

That is what Catalytic Thinking does. By changing the questions at the heart of our day-to-day activities, these practices simultaneously quell our fears and suspicions, while bringing to the fore our creativity, empathy, generosity and ability to dream big dreams. From there, the practices help us create conditions that align with that potential, requiring surprisingly little energy to create what is possible.

These days, the living laboratory at Creating the Future is a virtual community where committed changemakers in all industries and sectors are involved in ongoing development and experimentation with emerging and cutting edge practices to catalyze the best in people and situations. Their work is conducted in a variety of venues, from Creating the Future’s online learning communities, to small group projects meeting regularly online, to in-person gatherings.

Through that ongoing research, development and experimenting, we have learned the key to replication and scale:

Replication is successful when we replicate the thinking, not the doing.

The actual work involved in a task will vary from region to region, from business to business. But the questions that result in our decisions and actions can indeed be replicated.

By changing the questions we ask, and embedding those questions into practices that apply to our day-to-day lives and work, we truly can change the world.

* Our fellows actually say “This s…t works.” We’ve cleaned up this post to make sure it is safe for all workplaces!

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