From the very beginning, these learning events were intended to be a way to welcome people into the inquiries that the four of us are in specifically around how to move our approach to participatory leadership from planning and hosting events to working with the underlying patterns and systems that keep us stuck. Along the way we’ve gathered some interesting questions and insights as we have taught about our learning edges and shared practices and hypotheses that are advancing our own way of looking at the work. And importantly it has felt like this has been a juicy learning journey with 120 friends and co-discoverers along the way.
So as we go into the summer, I’m thinking about what my questions and inquiries are now. Although they are always shifting and changing, I think I have a few that I’m pondering at the moment. These are questions that are alive in my work as much as they are in our practice space.
How do we convene at scale rather than “take things to scale?” In the Beyond the Basics workshops we are trying to change the language about how system change works. We are avoiding using the term “go to scale” and instead looking at how to broaden what we are doing. I had a big insight these last few months in a workshop with Zaid Hassan from REOS who was talking about the idea of convening at scale rather than starting small and going to scale. When you convene at scale you bring as broad a set of the system into the project, including power and influence as well as the margins and stakeholders and agree to build prototypes which can then be resourced and broadened. This is different from starting with whoever you have around you, trying a few things out and then trying to get buy in from investors (of human, social and financial capital). When we start big it takes time to get going, but the investment to support promising innovation is already there.
How can participatory leadership help sustain innovation across a system? I believe that a participatory approach to innovation can bring long terms support, nuanced consideration and sustainability to initiatives, especially controversial ones. When faced with the choice to be inclusive or go to war and get your way, participatory leadership may actually be the way to go. I am currently exploring this hypothesis in a land development project that may teach me something about this approach. Land development, including projects like the Halifax Public Library and the Nova Centre that Tim has been involved are particularly fraught with either/or and us/them dynamics with the results that the biggest and wealthiest stick often gets its way. Can we do this differently?
Where are the opportunities for change work to invite a deeper engagement with the systems and patterns that keep us stuck? I was talking with a friend yesterday who said he feels stuck in his work. He delivers great engagement services but finds himself relying on the same methods which, while they work, also replicate a lot of the stuck patterns that we see in public engagement work these days: simplified decision making, an unwillingness to release control and no way of designing around intangibles and unmeasureables. We decided the antidote to this is to come to new engagement projects not afraid to ask questions that push the client deeper, that use specific projects and events as a chance to reflect on the unhelpful systems that locks us in place. This flies in the face of traditional consulting practice that “meets the client where they are and gives them what they want.” Instead it addresses the underlying malaise that perhaps by doing that we are perpetuating patterns that are reducing democratic involvement, undermining community or severing relationships. Perhaps we can start asking systemic questions, even as we take on specific events.
How can we build capacity in a system when quick results and early returns are expected? There is so little time to build the community and depth of relationship that sustains good change work. Funders and leaders want results right away and they want them tangible. There is nothing wrong with this of course but if we are sacrificing relationships and a depth to the quality of the work then we are unlikely to get results that truly move the needle. Even in work I do with Churches, where a premise to actually being together is that we might experience and be made better by the transformation of community, a linear managerial mindset takes over that seems to suck the depth out of initiatives that could truly benefit from it.
How can leaders with power negotiate the realities of balancing mandates and accountability with strategic openness? This is a question that I have been in with Tim for a couple of years now as we have been working with leaders who have ore and more responsibility. CEOs and those at the top of hierarchies can make things move very quickly but they are also beholden to those who give them their mandate, and often they are expected to create quick returns on investments. This is as true in non-profits as it is in the business sector. Working with leaders to support this balance is crucial and the best leaders are able to walk the precarious tightrope of holding mandates while also holding space for uncertainty. But it requires special handling and deep resourcefulness and it requires grace and help from strategic teams to empathize with the leader’s position and give them what they need to be successful. This is an evolution of servant-leadership that creates a two-way flow of trust and support.
What are the beliefs about power in systems that prevent us from using it well? We all carry beliefs about those who occupy higher positions in the hierarchy. Some of these beliefs stop us from being in relationship with those who have the power and ability to implement our strategic innovations quickly. We are also finding that as people ascend into these positions, the beliefs don’t automatically leave them, and many leaders are wracked with insecurity and a deep mistrust about their own abilities. Limiting beliefs like this stop us from being able to step up in to our power and use it effectively.
Why is friendship the hardest art to master? In our BtB sessions we have been surprised to learn that of these nfour strategic pillars for deep change, friendship seems to be the hardest to master. Perhaps it is because friendship is fraught with beliefs and dynamics that are deeply embedded in who we are, and touch us at the very core of our identity. Issues of inclusion and exclusion, of self-worth and judgement are quick to arise when we work closely with one another and there is a deep shadow side to all of this. We are exploring this more fully together in our work and noticing how inhibiting is can be, while knowing from our won experience that hard, challenging and transformative innovation wrecks havoc on fragile relationships.
When do we commit to friendship as a strategic pillar and how does that change our work? Not every project needs the depth of relations and friendship that we are talking about. How do you say no and respect boundaries? How do you save your deepest relationships for what matters most? How do you balance this pillar with the other three?
As we convene on Bowen in September I invite you to think about some of the questions you have about this work and about how it resonates with you. We don;t have answers. We are exploring together four deep pillars of participatory change that seem important for long term, sustainable and resilient work. We hope you’ll join us on Bowen!