Inquiring Systems

One my aims as an agency leader is to cultivate an organizational culture that is characterized by continuous and ongoing inquiry—a “culture of inquiry.” I’ve worked with staff and the board here to continually take time to reflect on three key questions: “What are we doing?”, “Why are we doing it?”, and “How’s it working out?”

Those questions are a good start. But the inquiry can go much deeper. Each restorative assignment we get–be it a juvenile justice case, a circle in a school, or a presentation in the community–is an opportunity for inquiry. And by using it as such we can keep our practice fresh and relevant.

Friday last week I attended a networking event in Sonoma. There I met Loren Cole, who is CEO of Inquiring Systems, Inc. I had a very interesting conversation with him about his speciality; he is an “ecosystemsologist” who takes an ecosystem approach to working with organizations. Sounds right up my alley. On his website ( this bit of description appears:

“Inquiring Systems is the mechanism for, and the process of, making a systemic inquiry into the situation, activity or organization that is to be managed or not, as the situation warrants. That is, we never approach a situation with a predetermined set of insights about that ecosystem nor do we necessarily apply the same methods or techniques for addressing the situation regardless of the ecosystem involved. The methods and techniques to be used must be compatible with each unique situation and the corresponding ecosystem of which that situation is a part.”

Now, that sounds to me like a good description of how restorative practitioners should aspire to operate. I think we often fall short of the mark. Which is unfortunate; because our principles are entirely in accord with the above. Where we err, in my humble opinion, is when we decide on what procedures to apply to a given situation before we even know what the situation is.

I recently had a conversation that touched on this with a friend who is an activist and social worker in our local Native American communities. She explained that it is a fundamental principle in  her work that she does not plan any sort of intervention until after she has gotten to know the people involved–as individuals, as families, and as members of a community.

We learn procedures. They work well. Now, let’s abandon them and learn all over again.  The meta-procedure is inquiry; from it all other procedures arise.


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