Maybe you heard the interview, too. On Sept. 27, 2022, an NPR host asked Manning to recall the days 25 years ago leading up to the historic Mars landing of Pathfinder and the Sojourner explorer.
Back then, Manning was a young engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in charge of the landing sequence. His team of committed young engineers and scientists were determined to make the Pathfinder mission a success despite a limited budget that necessitated untried technologies. JPL staffers who’d been part of earlier well-funded and meticulously planned missions were doubtful, but the longshot paid off and paved the way for the sophisticated robotic explorers that have landed since 1997.
“In the past,” Manning said, “we worried about – that the thing breaks.” Now the hardware is reliable, but controlling that hardware and writing the code to make it work has become increasingly complex. Individual members of the Pathfinder team knew how each system on the spacecraft worked.
“. . . And today,” Manning declared, “we can’t hold our systems in our heads anymore; . . . they’re far bigger than any human being can comprehend. It’s just too many things inside, and our brains aren’t big enough to hold it.”
The host quipped. “Since we’re not likely to grow bigger brains, it’s going to take some new strategies to manage these complex missions. And each time a mission succeeds, the pressure mounts.”
One reason for formulating the Generative Communication model—a new strategy for dealing with complex challenges—is the recognition that our world has grown so complex in the 21st century that there is more information to process and problems to solve than our individual brains can handle, even with the aid of intelligent computers. And so far, we humans haven’t learned how to engage optimally as a collective brain needed to understand the more onerous challenges we encounter, much less to resolve them on behalf of the common good.
We haven’t yet developed the instincts or skills to interact with one another, and the worlds we share, generatively. As I’ve written in previous blogs and elsewhere, the first step to doing so is to see ourselves in relation to other people and the realities we inhabit differently. Seeing in new ways opens us to thinking in new ways. Both are precursors to interacting—communicating inside and out—in new ways.
Generative Communication asks us to consciously do all three—see, think, and interact in new ways—understanding that our combined knowledge and multiple viewpoints make us collectively smarter, faster, and more likely to succeed than a single “expert” advising people what to do.
A similarly complex challenge in the nuclear power industry was the focus of a communication action research study I conducted some years back. A team of highly qualified nuclear engineers, nuclear power plant operators and industry regulators came together to resolve a growing dilemma: the high cost of responding to the regulators’ ever-increasing demands threatening the financial viability of U.S. nuclear power plants. Closure of nuclear plants, a source of low-carbon electricity, would reduce available power in the U.S. at that time by 20%.
Participants including near-adversaries, given the traditional regulator-regulated dynamic in any industry, were intent on co-creating a viable solution enabling nuclear plants to continue operating while maintaining absolute safety on behalf of a sometimes-dubious public. Having worked in the industry for many years, I was amazed to witness knowledge- and perspective-building interactions among participants yielding prospective solutions worthy of testing and implementing—a feat no single expert could have realized independently.
The six-month study identified five conditions—or participant sensibilities—characterizing their interactions and no doubt contributing to their success: 1) freedom to say what was on their minds without fear of reprisals or rejection; 2) inclusion of those with unaligned points of view; 3) a spirit of inquiry including questioning, probing, testing “off-the-wall” ideas, and endlessly learning from one another; 4) an almost playful sense of spontaneity resulting in interactive energy that ebbed and flowed, sometimes producing sudden and surprising revelations; and lastly, 5) a shared sense in possibility, an unspoken belief that WE can do this. The combination of these initial conditions set the tone and ongoing pattern of their interactions throughout the ups and downs of a difficult and contentious problem-solving process.
So, here’s where we land: Generative Communication seeing, thinking, and behaving provides a context for diverse-thinking people to achieve amazing—or maybe even “impossible”—results for the benefit of everyone involved—TOGETHER!