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

NOTE: This post is Part 2 of Creating the Future’s “Theory of Everything.” You will find Part 1 – the theory – at this post here.

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 three basic tenets at the root of Catalytic Thinking.

• The Power of Causality: Our power to create powerful results lies in our power to create favorable cause-and-effect conditions towards those results. 

• The Power of People: It’s always about the people; it’s never about the “thing.” The most favorable conditions we can create are those that bring out the best in people vs. focusing on stuff. 

• The Power of Collective Enoughness: Together we have everything we need; it is only on our own that we experience scarcity. 

Those core 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 big wave. 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 several practices to accomplish those goals, including 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? 

Catalytic Strategy / Decision-making
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; from determining how to approach a family member about an uncomfortable situation, 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. Often the result of brainstorming, Idea-Driven strategy is the process of generating ideas for directly reacting to an issue, without the benefit of reaching for what is possible and creating a context of causality for accomplishing that ultimate result.

By reacting to 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 reactive in and of itself. In addition, though, Idea-Driven strategy actually fuels reactivity among others who are invited to respond (react) to those ideas. The result is not only a reactive strategy (failing to bring out the best in the situation), but stressful encounters with others, as both parties in the interaction are beset by the chemicals that surge through our brains when we are in reactive mode (failing to bring out the best in each other). 

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 focusing on what is possible, and then illuminating the favorable conditions that will lead to that success, Catalytic Strategy creates agreement while creating a path to the best possible outcome. 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.

Collective Enoughness
Whether we are thinking about our own individual activities, or creating strategy for an organization, a small business, a government office or a division in a large corporation, “lack of resources” is often the biggest roadblock to taking action. When scarcity is present, all our fear mechanisms are triggered, making it more difficult (and often impossible) to make decisions that build upon our real potential.

Seen through the lens of scarcity, small actions tend to replace possibility. Conversations of “Can’t” tend to replace “What will it take?” When we are in scarcity mode, reactivity shuts down our creativity.

Collective Enoughness is the principle that together we have everything we need; it is only on our own that we experience scarcity.

In our modern society, when we think about “resources,” we think “money.” But money isn’t a resource – it really isn’t a thing at all. Money is a piece of paper that acts as an intermediary between people who need real things and people who have real things. Money is therefore always a means; it is never an ends. 

So, then, what do we really need? We need buildings and skills and food. We need a roof repaired or a parking lot paved. We need a letter written. We need space in which to provide medical treatment or build an airplane. We need a computer program that does X, and maybe even someone who knows how to create that. We need wisdom, knowledge, information. We need stuff of all kinds.

And in our communities – geographic, virtual, familial – someone that stuff. Often, they don’t even realize their stuff has value. Just as often, they are willing to share.

Seen through the lens of Collective Enoughness, we realize that when plans and activities seem impossible due to lack of resources, it is simply because we haven’t included enough people. Because together we have everything we need; it is only on our own that we experience scarcity.

The practice of Collective Enoughness is therefore a practice of asking and answering questions such as

  • What are we hoping this activity will make possible? For whom?
  • Who else cares about this? What could we accomplish together that none of us could accomplish on our own?
  • What do we really need? If we think we need money, what do we need the money to buy us?
  • What do we have together, that we don’t have on our own? Who else has the stuff we need?

Collective Enoughness not only removes the final barrier to accomplishing powerful results – it does so by building relationships that can make any effort stronger than if we had done that job on our own. By being explicit about the reality of resources, and asking questions that take us out of our assumptions about doing it all ourselves, the thinking that creates abundance out of scarcity can be replicated and scaled, so that anyone can consistently find the resources they need to accomplish their goals and dreams.

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 over 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!

18 Responses to Catalytic Thinking: A Framework for Creating and Scaling Powerful Results
  1. Sepp Hasslberger
    July 26, 2015 | 12:53 pm

    The direction this goes is spot on.

    I am so happy to see that what I am doing in my interactions with people in a small way is actually being studied and codified for more general application.

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      August 4, 2015 | 8:52 pm

      I’m so glad it shined through that this is about things that are already working, Sepp. Thank you for your comment here – it is most helpful!
      HG

  2. David Eggleton
    July 27, 2015 | 11:20 am

    “…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.”

    Many regard assumptions and beliefs as frozen thinking, if not non-thinking or mindlessness. How did you make peace with them for your definition of thinking?

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

    • Individuals will go where systems lead them.”

    These seem to cancel out. Whence comes the initiative to change questions, if everyone is going as led?

    “a tsunami would just be a weather pattern”

    Needs correction! Tsunamis are movements of water caused by movements of Earth’s crust.

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      July 28, 2015 | 8:31 am

      So helpful, Dave – thank you! HG

  3. Marilyn Mehlmann
    July 28, 2015 | 3:10 am

    Very nice indeed, Hildy.

    There are strong similarities to Enspirited Envisioning, a methodology and toolbox developed by Warren Ziegler (then professor of futures studies at Syracuse) in the 1970s. His work, he said, was based on Taoism. One tool from his box, Deep Listening, I think you will appreciate; we teach it widely.

    I particularly appreciate the clarity of your writing. Warren was a magnificent colleague and coach, but at best a circumlocutory author. Few of his works have been published. I do have quite a lot of manuscripts, shared with the international community we developed in the 90s, simply called the Community of Learners. CoL has withered but I’m still in touch with several practitioners with whom I’ll share this site.

    The parallels are many and the topics for discussion unlimited! For instance, what you refer to as Assumptions & Beliefs was by Warren called KVBAB – Knowledge, Values, Beliefs, Assumptions, and Biography. You may like this gem from him: “We all know that we know much more than we know we know.” Uncovering that hidden ‘knowledge’, not least through Deep Listening and Deep Imaging, is at the heart of empowering deep (or catalytic) change.

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      July 28, 2015 | 8:33 am

      I look forward to learning more, Marilyn.
      There are many faith traditions with which Catalytic Thinking resonates. It’s affirming to know that Taoism is among them! What we have found in our research is the common themes / threads. When something works, it works everywhere, for everything. And faith traditions at their best are all about bringing out the best in people!!
      Thanks so much for giving us one more place to connect.
      HG

      • Marie Nelson
        August 24, 2015 | 9:26 am

        I could not agree more, Hildy. In my research on teaching and learning, starting with years teaching writing in English departments followed by years supporting experienced teacher development, I’ve documented similar patterns.

        Studying writing development–with basic and ESL writers, graduate students in MFA programs in writing, and teachers returning to graduate school–I’ve found that shifting contextual conditions is key. In the classroom this entails shifting away from fear-based and so-called “objective” (but actually negatively biased) assessment where grades are determined by weaknesses and points docked from a “perfect score” and/or by averaging entry-level competence with that revealed after growth occurs.

        Instead, the most successful teachers I studied did two things. They created a “sanctuary atmosphere,” ensuring that ALL learners felt safe taking the substantial risks that significant learning requires. And they focused on learner strengths and learner development over time. In the process they helped students find a strong foundation on which to build and avoided misrepresenting what students had actually learned.

        Of course focusing on strengths requires not grading on a curve as that pre-determines how many succeed and how many fail regardless of how much progress individuals make.

        But the other thing that is clearly related to what you have written is that the growth process starts with shifts in learner (both teacher and student) awareness after which thinking (ideas, assumptions, beliefs) shift in response. The new patterns of thinking in turn reshape behavior and the new behaviors impact final outcomes (quality of student writing, or teacher success).

        I also found that these two are interdependent. Improvements in student writing led to a shift in teachers’ thinking–from an elitist view that writers are born, not made and that writing therefore cannot really be taught–to a growing realization that everyone can learn to write well. This shift in awareness led to new teacher assumptions and behaviors which in turn produced greater success (with most or all students thriving instead of few or none).

        In short, the shift from negative/fear-based assessment conditions to “positively-biased” ones disrupted downward spirals of increasing failure and frustration and kick-started upward spirals of growing confidence and success, the final outcome being expanding professional reputations for the teachers involved.

        • Hildy Gottlieb
          August 24, 2015 | 4:41 pm

          Marie:
          I am so thrilled at what you shared here, and the extent of your comment. I am sharing it with the team that is in the process of developing an online curriculum for Creating the Future’s education programs, because so much of what they are aiming to accomplish is addressed in your comment here. Deep gratitude to you!
          Hildy

  4. Gillian Haley
    July 28, 2015 | 1:46 pm

    What a happy accident to stumble upon your website! I admired the thinking behind your blog post in the July 27, 2015 issue of The Stanford Social Innovation Review and clicked a through-link.

    I recognize the power of the insights and practices you share in the above blog post from having come to similar realizations myself. You have made these practices catalytic by providing a simple explanation of why they work, and by outlining clear steps with examples for those who wish to act upon this information.

    Now I can stop trying to figure out how to explain the value of starting with the desired future, and spend more of my time creating the future I want to inhabit. Thank you so much for the work you are doing and for sharing what you have learned!

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      August 4, 2015 | 8:53 pm

      Gillian – and I am so happy you stumbled here! 😉
      Your words here make me smile, to know that what I’ve written is clear and is resonating – and importantly, that you are recognizing yourself in this. Deep gratitude to you for stopping by, and for letting us know you’d done so!
      Hildy

  5. Bill Veltrop
    August 4, 2015 | 4:42 pm

    Hildy, what a gift you are to our world.

    All of the above is really, really solid, obviously the product of a LOT of experimentation and conscientious learning.

    Congratulations!!

    Go forth and multiply 🙂

    bill

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      August 4, 2015 | 8:50 pm

      Honored to be walking the path with you, Bill. And humbled by your words. Thank you for the encouragement!
      Hildy

  6. Robert Cremeans
    August 18, 2015 | 4:12 am

    Can I talk with you about this. I am developing The Center for GoodWorks, a catalyst for good.

    Out of my own thoughts and ideas I could have written this blog. I struggle with translating my ideas to paper.
    Recently learned the root of my problems and obstacles is called Dysgraphia. It’s a real hurdle.

    The second hurdle is getting people to understand my point of view and reasoning.

  7. Pauline Urbano Hechler
    August 18, 2015 | 6:49 am

    I get it! Yay! Thank you, Hildy. This is a great piece of writing on a difficult concept, and I will use this thinking in my work with nonprofit boards and teams. I guess I was stuck for too long in a process I thought was working, but this is so much better. Now to the deep listening and right questions…

    • Hildy Gottlieb
      August 18, 2015 | 8:03 am

      Knowing the language is clear is so helpful, Pauline. I’m excited to be on this journey together! HG

  8. Catalyze your HR practices – Part 2
    September 29, 2015 | 8:47 am

    […] 1, I talked about how every human resource management policy and practice could be re-thought using Catalytic Thinking as the […]

  9. Donna Shines
    October 4, 2015 | 10:03 am

    Each piece you share (e-journal, white papers, blogs, videos) out resonates deeply within me in all aspects of my life and this amazing movement becomes clearer. I have so much to learn and I am so grateful to you and the Creating the Future team for so generously sharing out this practice in real time as it continues to evolve and as the stories continue to be told. I look forward to being on this adventure with all of you.

  10. Pauline Urbano Hechler
    April 19, 2016 | 10:21 pm

    I enjoyed reading this again tonight. Thank you.


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