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The Power to Convene and Set Context

While working at the World Bank as a Knowledge Analyst in the late 90s I witnessed a significant change in how knowledge was amassed and applied for greatest impact. Previously, the emphasis had been on certain individuals, those remarkable people recognized for their exceptional experience and acumen. However, aided by collaborative technology, communities of professionals brought their collective know-how to bear on difficult issues and they achieved extraordinary results. Etienne Wenger called these Communities of Practice. At the Bank, we called them Thematic Groups.

This happened not only inside the organization, but also across the planet. The boundaries of community are different than the borders of organizations. Many of our Thematic Groups included people outside the organization.

What the World Bank had to offer was not only the knowledge of our staff, but the ability to convene those who were most knowledgeable anywhere around the world in a powerfully meaningful context.

The power to convene and the power of setting the right context are value generators. Together they are often far more powerful than the influence one person can exert. The robustness of multiple points-of-view is generally greater than what an individual can wield. And the field of impact grows much larger through the resulting expansion of the social network.

For dealing with the most complex problems, we must involve stakeholders from every critical point in the system. Solutions, the good ones, are multi-dimensional. Therefore, we must bring together the most valuable players, helping them to work collaboratively – i.e., lend their enthusiastic engagement – using a framework that embraces their differing needs and unique perspectives. This is what the power to convene and the power of setting the context is all about.

Case in point: Today we are in a complex mess with the national and global economies, energy, healthcare, and the environment. The Wall Street Journal is convening a CEO Council to shape the agenda for the new president.

This is an example of the power to convene: the WSJ has a unique vantage point from which to summon core players. They define them as "The CEOs who have committed to participate in this meeting lead companies that employ 5.9 million people, generate more than $2.2 trillion in annual revenues, and represent a diverse cross section of industries."

The WSJ has chosen a context that is constructive to our predicament: "focusing on the key priorities facing the next U.S. President and the new Congress as they take office during tumultuous economic times."

I applaud the context as having the right scope, providing guidance to our incoming leaders. But, I ask, are these the right people to convene? If the WSJ had a magic wand, is this the best possible set of people they could bring together for optimum results? I think the guest list is incomplete. These are certainly some of the most powerful people as measured by traditional standards, and they appear uniquely representative of a WSJ call to action. But, are there others the WSJ could also rally?

What about Warren Buffet (one of the world’s most successful investors) on the national economy, Jim Wolfensohn (former President, World Bank and continuing activist on global issues) on global interdependence, Thomas Friedman (Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of just released, Hot, Flat, and Crowded) on environment and energy, or David Cutler (Obama health care advisor) and John Goodman (McCain health care advisor)? These five are not going to make it onto the list of corporate leaders, and that is my point.

To keep the conversation most effective, practical, and focused on generating powerful breakthroughs, you must bring in other points-of-view, not to dominate the conversation, but to challenge it.

There are other stakeholders missing. For example, the public at large: mortgage-holders, people caught in the healthcare system, children, business owners pinched by rising fuel costs, and so on. You get the idea. For effective change in a complex system, you need to find ways to constructively involve everyone who is impacted. This is because in a complex environment if you are impacted, you exert influence.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the WSJ’s effort and look forward to their results. I applaud them for exercising their power to convene and set context.

- Seth Kahan,