Group Play or Parallel Play?

 I was with Dr. James Marks a few months ago at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation talking about the stunning emergence of the network of health systems taking form after the White House gathering last September.  He is a pediatrician and a long veteran of the CDC, so he asked whether the health systems were engaging in “group play or parallel play.” Were they just playing in the same room with the same toys or actually playing together? The first is interesting, but the second is more useful. 

Maybe another metaphor is better. If you place a number of heart cells together in a neutral medium they will begin beating–together. Nobody has to wire them together; they do that because that is their nature. Somehow they know the rhythm of their life is found in the larger rhythm. Once they find that rhythm, they can find their role in the life of the whole body.

Margret Wheatley, borrowing from the “new science” described how social networks in times of profound change find themselves finding order around “strange attractors” whose lives give help a new rhythm and coherence emerge. People are alive and that is what happens, no more (or less) surprising than the orbits of comets, black holes or the big bang.

In such a world faith is not about the old certainties, but about what has not happened, yet; what is not certain, yet. People of faith and institutions based on faith (such as hospitals like those finding their emergent community now) are marked by optimistic uncertainty, expecting and finding order around strange attractors in these very strange times. This sounds like, but is not, passive acceptance of magic (another kind of false certainty). It is the confidence of people who lean into the future and give themselves–their intelligence, energy, trust–generously. I saw this in Memphis and Winston Salem in two different ways this past week. In Memphis, Gary Shorb, our CEO leaned into the chaos of broken communities by riding with Rev. Bobby Baker and Rev. Dr. Chris Bounds. He found strange attractors, agents of trust and the possibilities of order where most hospitals could only have seen bitter poverty and street after street of incoherent need. So in a few weeks, he is going to bring back the whole senior management team of the hospital to see that these are knowable–and thus actionable–communities. Not easy, but possible.

At Wake Forest I sat in on a town hall convened by Dr. John McConnell and the senior team who were unwrapping the ATI (Accelerated Transformation Initiative). Any hospital without something like that in these wild days is just waiting to get bought. What was different here was the transparency, spirit of adventure and, most striking, humor. This is as scary  a body of work as exists, but it doesn’t have to be grim. Indeed, the more grim the group, the less likely they are to find their life. Backing away from death won’t find the future; you have to lean into it and commit to what hasn’t happened, yet.

I suppose each one of those heart cells is afraid, too. But they find a heartbeat and then find themselves to be  heart of something larger. Of course they–we–do.

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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