Feature Article: Open Invitations: Engaging People One Dialogue at a Time

Debbe Kennedy

Debbe KennedyIn every direction we look, we are reminded that we have pressing problems to solve as the pioneers of the twenty-first century. The urgency is sounding with a constant and quickening drumbeat. What we know for sure is that bombs and bluster and military might will not bring the solutions we need. As we clamor to discover the next theoretical approach or to unveil the results of still another study, or reach further than we ever imagined to weave the power of technology into all aspects of our existence, there is great wisdom that we need to be sure we consciously include in the mix, creating a powerhouse collaboration of past, present, and future.

One such example is what we’ve learned about dialogue and its potential to solve problems and generate the new ideas that will fuel innovation. History is replete with leaders, who by their example, shared wisdom, and influence have taught us about the profound power of dialogue in engaging people to bring about change. Plato in his Allegory of the Cave in the Republic(Waterfield, 1993) told us it isn’t easy and that engaging people requires a special kind of leadership mastery for working in the dark in order for people to trust enough in themselves to come out into the light. So it is with other great thought-leaders, philosophers, prophets, and sages. In their own way, they seemed to consciously build the wisdom of dialogue into their new thinking and strategies for change, using unique and different ways to touch and connect with people. Here are three examples of how leaders have spread their messages—by example; with precision; through a rippling influence across time:

  • Mahatma Gandhi’s Life: Gandhi’s famous Dandi March became a dialogue with a nation. He connected with people by inviting them to experience the force of change with him, finding a symbolic common denominator between rich and poor: salt—and by making his life the ongoing day-to-day message to the people. (Dandavate, 2005; Gandhi, 1999).
  • John F. Kennedy’s Clarity: It took the mentoring of Dr. Oguchi Nkwocha, M.D., an Igbo visionary from Biafra in south-eastern Nigeria, for me to realize the deeper meaning in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s now famous vision to go to the moon. (Kennedy, 2008) “…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Dr. Nkwocha pointed out that there was more to President Kennedy engaging our nation in the goal. When it was realized just eight years later, it demonstrated that Kennedy through his leadership vision had “snatched from a time 50 years in the future” according to worldly standards. He also noted the power of Kennedy’s form of dialogue with the people—the clarity of one sentence; thirty-one words; two or three lines of text.
  • Mother Teresa’s Whisper Across Time:On a day when the frustration of bureaucracy had reached its peak, I walked into a card shop to cool my impatience only to be tugged by the words on a card on the bottom row. It was Mother Teresa whispering across time with an open invitation of another kind, “Don’t wait for the leaders. Do it alone. Person-to-person.” It changed the premise of all my work.

To prove how leadership wisdom has been passed down for yourself, consider the leaders who have influenced your life, the famous, and perhaps the great unknowns, that crossed your path. I am certain if we could share our stories, we would discover each used their unique leadership qualities to invite us into the process through some form of conversation that connected us, built trust, and common ground with others – sometimes with words; sometimes by example in a gathering of many; often moving us into action through their belief in possibilities, one conversation at a time, person to person. King Hussein bin Talal of Jordon once described the kind of miracle that takes place from his experience of bringing people together:

“We decided on a dialogue between our people…I often witnessed the wonderful discovery that occurs when people suddenly realize that they are the same, that their problems are the same, that their fears are the same, that their hopes are the same, that their aspirations are the same.”

Today there are a mounting number of impressive studies springing up that confirm that it isn’t just good for us to talk with one another in order to find common ground. Compelling practical reasons for working together more effectively across many dimensions of difference are also coming into the light. The conclusion: Organizations and individuals all over the world are discovering that putting our differences to work is the most powerful accelerator for generating new ideas, creating innovative solutions, executing organizational strategies, and engaging everyone in the process. For clarity, let me use the summary findings of my long-time collaborator, futurist Joel A. Barker, documented in his film Wealth, Innovation & Diversity (Barker, 2000), “Societies and organizations that most creatively incorporate diversity will reap the rewards of innovation, growth, wealth, and progress.”

The Grand Field Test of Differences:
Linking Leadership, Vision, Theory, Study, Technology, and Practice

So, how do we link up the best of what we collectively know and have studied? How do we put it into practice? Peter F. Drucker in his book, the Post Capitalist Society (Drucker, 1994) gave us encouragement to do just this and a formula to make it happen: “Most of us, (perhaps all of us) know many times more than we put to use. We do not mobilize the multiple knowledges we possess. We do not use all our knowledge as part of one toolbox.”

Drucker went on to point out that most of us tend to classify what we know into specialized areas of knowledge, instead of combining the strengths of all our knowledge and applying it to different problems–looking at the problems and issues we face and asking ourselves, “What do I know what have I learned that I might apply to this new task?”

Sometimes the most meaningful advice comes before we are ready to fully understand it, accept it, and even comprehend how and where it can be applied. It was over a decade after learning from Peter Drucker’s insight that I would see it come to life. The following story is a demonstration. It also showcases the powerful foursome of leadership, innovation, diversity and inclusion. The story is adapted from my book, Putting Our Differences to Work: The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership, and High Performance (Kennedy, 2008).

habitat jam logo

The Habitat Jam Story:

Great firsts in history start with an idea and belief in the unseen. Sometimes new possibilities are observed. Sometimes they go unnoticed. Always they cross a threshold, opening the way for more innovation to follow. What I know for sure is that people have the capacity to work together. They can move with speed, dream big, and achieve way beyond what most of us expect. People and all their differences are the fastest way to innovation, leadership, and high performance. How I can make such a claim? I witnessed it. I was part of it. History recorded it.

On December 1, 2005, nearly forty thousand people logged on to participate in the Habitat JAM, a seventy-two-hour global experiment, when the people of the world came together in an unprecedented online dialogue for the first time.

The idea behind the jam was to engage people from all walks of life, including architects, business leaders, planners, teachers, activists, NGOs, bankers, government leaders, slum dwellers, ministers, experts, thought leaders, doctors, entrepreneurs, and visionaries young and old, poor and wealthy all over the world. The goal was to get everybody working on the most pressing problems of our day for cities around the world. Seven unique forums framed the most critical issues:

  • Improving the Lives of People Living in Slums (two forums)
  • Sustainable Access to Water
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Finance and Governance
  • Safety and Security
  • Humanity: The Future of Our Cities

ideas into action

There was an open invitation to participate, inviting anyone with something to say about the cities in which they live. The intent was to give people an equal voice to share their thoughts on issues affecting their lives. The plan was to give the people of the world—not the experts—the opportunity to set the agenda for the World Urban Forum III hosted by the Government of Canada in June 2006. Everyone’s ideas were gathered, sorted, and refined with a quite miraculous outcome.

The Habitat JAM was a courageous experiment sponsored by the Government of Canada in partnership with United Nations—Habitat Programme and IBM. It was built with an unlikely collaboration between government, public sector, corporation, and people from every across business and society. The experiment was innovation at its best. It put differences to work for the common good. We talked with each other. We shared and explored ideas. We began putting talk into action.

Together, we etched an indelible mark on history during three unforgettable days. Theories, studies, and practice were put to the test. Visionary leadership, technology, and people around the world crossed a new threshold of communication and connection with one another, pioneering a new level of collective problem solving on issues critical to the sustainability of our cities and our planet.

It was serendipitous that our organization got involved. In 2004, I founded the Global Dialogue Center (, the newest entity of our Leadership Solutions Companies. It is an online virtual gathering place for people throughout the world. It has an intentional focus on leadership, professional, and personal development with the belief that by thinking, questioning, and exploring new ideas together, we can be a catalyst for creating a better world than we know today.

So, when I received an e-mail from London from someone I didn’t know, introducing the upcoming Habitat JAM, it caught my attention. The vision, possibilities, and the empowering example of leadership ignited a kind of enthusiasm we couldn’t deny. It made our whole team want to be part of history in the making. Members of our community found big and small ways to get involved. We did lots of blogging and promotion to spread the word. Eight distinguished thought leaders from our Global Dialogue Center community served as “subject-expert jammers” during the event for the Humanity: The Future of Our Cities forum. No one with a pioneering spirit turned down the invitation.

In a podcast recorded and published before the event, Charles Kelly, Commissioner General of the World Urban Forum III (WUF), the visionary leader who saw the opportunity and went after it, described how the Habitat JAM happened:

I discovered the concept of jamming reading a Harvard Business Review article, talking about IBM’s experience with their ValuesJAM that engaged 300,000 of their employees in 160 countries. What impressed me was the focus on ideas to action. That is in essence what the World Urban Forum is about. This will be the first time that citizens of the world will have the opportunity, without the filters of national governments or repression, to state their points of view.

In that same podcast, Charles Kelly extended the invitation to participate, one I couldn’t overlook. He likened what was soon to take place to being present at some important moment in history, such as October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. NASA cites that the successful ninety-eight-minute orbit around the Earth as an event that ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. I wasn’t there in 1957, but how many times in one’s life are you invited to be present when some threshold of innovation is being crossed? It was a must.

Also in the same podcast, Mike Wing, Vice President of Strategic Communications for IBM, added the perspective of a pioneering spirit, telling about what was to be:

Jamming is genuinely revolutionary. It is a kind of dialogue, a kind of interaction, a kind of idea discovery and opportunity that simply has never been possible before on Planet Earth. Our experience with jams at IBM has been overwhelmingly positive. It is a trust-based and trust-generating medium. It empowers people in ways that previous forms of organizational communication simply haven’t done…We don’t know what is going to happen [in Habitat JAM]. It is an experiment. It is a fascinating one and one we are very hopeful about.

At 5:00 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, the official clock on the Habitat JAM website began its job—tracking the seventy-two hours we had to participate in the world’s largest Internet dialogue on sustainability (see the illustration). The world showed up with participants from 158 countries.

Although Habitat JAM was my first jamming experience of this size, I’ve learned since that there was something very special about this one. It wasn’t just the opportunity or the technology or the people showing up that made this jamming experience stand out. There was a distinctive human care and consideration in every detail of how people were included, in how the event was produced, in the way it generated involvement and action around the world, and in the way it was directed, facilitated, communicated, and documented.

Not one aspect of the whole event was ordinary. It was extraordinary. Gayle Moss, director of international marketing for Habitat JAM, and her team of committed people-focused innovators created an experience for everyone involved before, during and after the event that honored the many dimensions of diversity. Gayle Moss reflected on the experience in a commemorative cover story:

Of the over 39,000 people who participated, many had never touched a computer, but through facilitation and interpretation their voices were heard. We had three makeshift Internet cafés in slums in Africa where facilitators would type on participants’ behalf. People were so passionate about getting their voices heard, they found ways to get it done.

habitat jam

Dr. Anna Tibaijuka, an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), one of the visionary leaders for the Habitat JAM, shared her personal perspective about what she witnessed and experienced during the event:

Kenya had the second-highest number of registrants participating in the HabitatJAM. The fact that thousands have been willing to patiently wait in line, sometimes for hours, in order to be able to contribute to this debate has been a profoundly moving experience for me. The fact that the debate on slums has moved from the academic world to streets and cities such as Nairobi, Dakar, Cape Town and Mumbai, Rio, Lima, and Manila is in and of itself a powerful signal to world leaders on the need for concerted action.

Habitat JAM Results Achieved

The Habitat JAM was an outstanding success in terms of its inclusiveness and global reach. What is even more remarkable is the number of actionable ideas that came from it. More than four thousand pages of discussion and ideas were captured; six hundred ideas generated; and seventy actionable ideas chosen, researched, and summarized in a workbook and CD for the World Forum III, an international UN-Habitat Event on Urban Sustainability held in Vancouver, Canada, in June 2006 with fourteen thousand people attending from around the world.

Charles Kelly summed up the miracle that took place:

World Urban Forum III (WUF) was unique, reflecting a rather embryonic process that UN-Habitat, under the leadership of Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director, initiated to bring civil society into the decision-making and sharing about setting the agenda for UN- Habitat. WUF wasn’t a policy conference this time. It was a gathering of practitioners from civil society and the private sector, exploring these questions: What things have worked? What have we learned? What mistakes have we made? How do we do things better?

The Rest of the Habitat JAM Story

The goal of the Habitat JAM from the beginning was “ideas to action.” The seventy actionable ideas chosen for the World Urban Forum III didn’t stop there. One example is the Global Urban Sustainability Solutions Network (GUSSE;, an online network designed to connect municipal government, NGOs, urban professionals, researchers, business, and citizensa place where the world is invited to collectively discuss, review and apply the best ideas for sustainable cities. Many of the ideas were not grand programs with huge budgets. Some were just simple down-to-earth suggestions that emerged out of necessity to bring unlikely partners together.

I know the spirit of the Habitat JAM still lives. I led a forum called “Being a Good Neighbor.” I wanted to talk with others about what it meant to be “good neighbors” to one another. I did. Together, we built a list of attributes, explored creating a charter for cities and shared ideas on how to keep momentum alive.

The Good Neighbors dialogue made the top ten themes in the Humanity forum. A small group formed to turn talk into action. Three years later, many Good Neighbor actions have been taken. We meet about every other month for two hours via Skype from the United States and Canada. Early on, we made a decision that the best way we could promote the idea of “being a Good Neighbor” was to use our unique differences in our own spans of influence and support one another in whatever endeavors we chose. The Global Dialogue Center’s Knowledge Gallery created a commemorative exhibit, “We Came to the Habitat JAM: Celebrating Three Remarkable Days in History,” to share the experience with people around the world. The exhibit includes a video story and other resource links. Come visit at

An Open Invitation to You

Gandhi once said, “The machineries of governments stand between and hid the hearts of one people from another.” We’ve proved they don’t have to separate us. I know there are many other stories, big and small, that demonstrate the power of people coming together, bringing all that makes us unique and different, to work together to solve problems in our own world. We’re proving over and over again we can make positive change; we do have the best ideas, knowledge, and know-how to achieve results. So, I also extend an open invitation to you to join me and other leaders across the world in pioneering a new era marked by mastery of putting our differences to work. The opportunity for each of us, and all of us, is to distinguish the twenty-first century as a time where, through the strength of our differences across the world, new levels of meaningful and useful innovation are realized, transforming business and society. It may seem a lofty goal, but we have a lot at stake. Futurist Joel Barker says it best:“You can and should shape your own future, because if you don’t, someone else surely will.”


  • Barker, J. (2000), Wealth, Innovation & Diversity video/workshop, Star Thrower Distribution,
  • Dandavate, M. (2005). “Gandhi’s Dialogue with the Nation,” The Hindu: India’s National Newspaper, India, April 6.
  • Drucker, P. (1994). Post Capitalist Society, San Francisco: Harper.
  • Kennedy, D. (2008). Putting Our Differences to Work: The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership, and High Performance, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Moss, G. (2006). “Connecting the World,” Backbone (November–December).
  • Putnam, R.) 2007). “Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” in the Nordic Political Science Association Journal, June.
  • Waterfield, R, trans. (1994). Plato: Republic, New York: Oxford University Press.
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Debbe Kennedy is founder, president, and CEO of the Global Dialogue Center and Leadership Solutions Companies, an award-winning enterprise since 1990 that specializes in custom leadership, organizational, and virtual communications solutions. She is a pioneer and innovator in people-focused leadership and employee communications using Web 2.0 technologies and social media. Formerly, Kennedy had a distinguished leadership career with IBM Corporation for more than twenty years. She is a Berrett-Koehler author. Her newest book is Putting Our Differences to Work: The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership, High Performance from which this article was adapted in part.

Note: Find online tools, resources and studies to support your renewal at the Putting Our Differences to Work Resource

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