The Chaordic Stepping Stones as a Tool for Designing Large-scale Interventions

A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with some friends and chatting about a colleagues upcoming UnConference in Adelaide. Together we were exploring some potential design elements for the conference and how these might be stitched together to form a cohered whole that would deliver the greatest impact for those attending.

As the conversation unfolded I found myself becoming less and less clear of the real need and purpose of the gathering – what need in the community did the UnConference serve, what were the fundamentally important outcomes required of the conference, etc. It reminded me again of the deep value of the Chaordic Stepping Stones (an element of the Art of Hosting Practitioners Toolkit) in designing large scale gathering that deliver a profound impact for those that attend. The ‘chaordic stepping stones’ describe the steps involved in navigating the chaordic space (the space in between chaos and order) of emergent and transformative change

The work of The Holos Group is the development of high performing organisations and leaders who have the courage and conviction to generate game-changing solutions to complex business and social challenges. All of our work is highly collaborative, innovative, adaptive and transformative. Most of it occurs within an organisational context. Most of it seeks to capitalise on the novel solutions that arise from emergence contexts. We use the chaordic stepping stones as a high level pathway for navigating the emergent spaces we co-cultivate with our clients.

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In applying the chaordic stepping stones in our work contexts, we have adopted a sequence of eleven 'stepping stones' to assist us in designing profound learning experiences that deliver positive ripples into the future, including:

1. Context

The largest and most comprehensive frame possible for what might be happening in the organisation or community (or world!) that might impact what the focus of a project or intervention might become, or the form it might ultimately take.

Questions I might pose to gain a deeper and more comprehensive appreciation of the Context for an initiative might include:

  • What do I need to know in order to know what is going on?
  • What is the larger context that is influencing what we are experiencing in our day-to-day?
  • What conversations are happening about what is happening around us, and what conversations are we avoiding?
  • What hidden forces are at play at this time?

2. Need

The Context informs the need to initiative 'something' as a co-creative response to what we are sensing from our environment.

The Need is the more immediate and compelling reason for initiating some form of 'intervention' into that broader context. A clearly defined 'Need' allows the players involved in novel and transformative change journey to identify the most appropriate entry point into the the chaordic space.

Need clarifying questions might include:

  • What is the 'real need' of this initiative – why now?
  • What need can this initiative fulfill that nothing else already does or possibly could?
  • What does the context need this initiative to be?
  • What is the challenge/opportunity we face now?
  • How can we best conceptualise what we are sensing needs to come next?

3. Purpose

The 'Real Need' to initiate the exploration of something different to what currently is forms the foundation for an intervention's purpose.

The Purpose forms the focus of the initiative and brings together three 'whys' – why us, why now, why this entry point into the chaordic space of transformative change? An intervention's Purpose is its reason for being and the unique difference it is seeking to make.

As described by Chris Corrigan, an initiative's Purpose Statement provides a clear and compelling guide for use doing our best possible work. Purpose clarifying questions might include:

  • What is the core purpose of this intervention?
  • Why us, why now?
  • What is the next level of our work – where do we sense we need to head next?
  • What is the most affirmative outcome we could possibly imagine for this intervention?
  • What is the ideal outcome?
  • In ways that address the need we have identified, what clear purpose can we adopt that crystalise our direction now?

4. Story

The Purpose of the initiative (the initiative's 'why' as well as its focus and high level outcomes) sets the direction and desired outcomes, but does not (necessarily) set the scene for the journey itself.

Crafting a positive and compelling Story of the change journey ahead allows the people undertaking that journey to dynamically steer towards a self-sense of their predefined hopes and dreams for the journey once it is underway.

Story crafting questions include:

  • What inspiring story of our journey to our 'new place' can we share now?
  • What story of our journey do we want to create together?
  • Once we conclude our journey together, what story do we want to tell about what that journey was like?

5. Principles

Principles inform those involved in the change journey of how the players involved in the change journey work together, make decisions together and address the inevitably tensions that will arise during the change journey work to support the telling of the change story.

The Guiding Principles for how the chaordic space will be traversed are not just words on a page, but a series of crisp 'lived' statements for how the players on the change journey will engage together. For example, a guiding principle might be to work independently and maintain the cohesion of the whole, or embrace novelty as a reason for making change happen.

In identifying the Principles for a change journey, consider the following questions:

  • What are the principles for how we work together in making our 'new reality' happen?
  • In service of our purpose, what are the most vibrant and inclusive principles we can adopt for working together?
  • In bringing out each others best, what vision or dream do you have for how we work together?
  • What are the unique and novel ways we can effortlessly traverse the unknown pathways before us?

6. People

In order to deliver upon our Purpose and address the Need we have identified, the next question that needs to be considered is who needs to be involved.

Ensuring that the 'right people' are a part of co-creating the desired outcomes from the change journey will make it more likely that the desired outcomes will become a reality. This includes involving the 'usual suspects' as well as those players that may provide a minority voice or a voice of dissent from the collective view.

In identifying who needs to be involved in cpo-creating the Story of the change journey, consider:

  • Who needs to be with us as our journey unfolds?
  • Who is not already with us who needs to be?
  • Who are we 'afraid' to ask (and why) and what can we do to invite them anyway?
  • Who will be interested in the results of our efforts who could also be involved in those efforts?
  • What '˜voice' is missing from the collective story we want to tell of our journey?
  • For this initiative to be all that it can be, who needs to be involved?

7. Concepts

An initiative's organising Concept is the high level architecture for how the change journey might best be traversed. It is not the specific content to be worked with during the journey (this is identified in a later stepping stone), but the design elements that support how the People involved might 'organise' in traversing the unknown landscape ahead. For example, if the 'unknown territory ahead' was made of water then a key concept for traversing that territory might be a bridge, plane, boat, etc. Within a business context, if an organisation were to enter into a new market with an existing product then it might adopt an organising concept of a joint venture, contracting independent sales people, create a network sales model, or deploy a more traditional hierarchically organised sales team.


  • What deeper patterns inform our work and what organising forms might we adopt so support those patterns?
  • How can we bring our guiding principles to life in how we organise ourselves now?
  • What high level architecture or 'story deployment model' can we adopt to fulfill our purpose going forward?

8. Beliefs That Limit

At the precipice of stepping into the chaordic space it is inevitable that those involved will have doubts, or adopt more blinkered thinking about what might be possible. Deep seated assumptions about 'how thinks should be' can emerge as we try to find an anchor point within a chaordic space where anchor points are not possible.

Fundamental to traversing the charodic space is the dissolving of our current sense of who we are (both at an individual level and at a collective level) and the entering into the liminal space of 'no longer this, but not yet that' thinking. Gaining a deeper appreciation and naming some of the 'limitations of current reality thinking' enables us to step into the chaordic space without some of the unhelpful baggage that can (unintentionally) travel with us.

In discovering some of the Beliefs That Limit consider asking some of the following questions:

  • What keeps us up at night when e think about this initiative?
  • What are we most afraid of when we share what is ahead with others?
  • What is our learning edge for this intervention?
  • What limiting beliefs do we need share now for us to be free to be all that we can be going forward?
  • What aspects of who we currently are do we notice we are invited to let go of now as we prepare to enter into a yet to be defined future?

9. Structure

Once the high level Concept (the fundamental design elements) for how we will traverse the chaordic space have been identified, and the Potential Limiting Beliefs for how we might embrace those Concepts have been uncovered, it is time to detail the specific content and Structures that will be used to focus our attention and channel our resources.


  • What information can we offer that will support the aspirations of those involved in the change journey?
  • What is the lightest structure we can deploy now that will serve our purpose and fulfill the need we have identified together?
  • How will be convene in ways that continue to reinforce our story and help us deliver upon our purpose?

10. Practices

A 'practice' is a behaviour or set of behaviours undertaken for the core purpose of gaining mastery beyond the practice field itself. In other words, the Practices we adopt as we traverse the chaordic space serve a greater purpose than just enabling us to successfully navigate the unknown. For example, we might establish a Practice for how we might relate together so as to intentionally 'rehearse' how we will relate together once the change journey is complete.

The Practices we adopt serve the Purpose of reminding us of the Story we told of the journey ahead and how we want to engage together once the purpose of the initiative is fulfilled. In identifying the practices of an initiative, consider:

  • What do we need to practice together to sustain our work together?
  • How do we best sustain and nourish our relationships going forward?
  • What are the practices of our work together?
  • What commitments to each other are we willing to make now, and how do we practice those commitments going forward?

11. Harvest

In a recent post exploring the foundational elements of a successful Community of Practice, I wrote about the foundational elements of effective ‘wisdom capture’. Harvesting ('wisdom capture') includes making meaning from the journey travelled in ways that make that learning available for subsequent journeys into a chaordic space.

The most comprehensive summary I have read of effectively 'harvesting' the learnings from a chaordic journey is by Monica Nissen and Chris Corrigan – called, The Art Of Harvesting. I cannot do justice to that summary in a few short sentences here and highly recommend you review it for yourself.

Back to my colleague's UnConference. As we overlaid my colleague's upcoming UnConference on the stepping stones, we began to see together the real Need addressed by the gathering: Deepening the connections between inspirational change-makers and new paradigm-creators in Adelaide.

And in suggesting a way forward for the UnConference we suggested applying the chaordic stepping stones to the co-creation of the gathering a a way to further cultivate:

  1. shared understanding of the Why of the UnConference and what its core purpose or focus should be;
  2. shared ownership for how the UnConference might best be designed/delivered to address the specific challenge or opportunity identified through our conversations; and
  3. shared commitment from all of the people invited to attend the UnConference to staying connected to the journey of adaptive and transformative change inspired by attending the gathering.

I look forward to seeing how the initiative might unfold.