I am often asked to help clients sequence their collaborative work. We identify a need, we get the right people in the room… then what? That’s usually when folks call me. Figuring out the through line in our work is a balance of theory, practice, context and a little bit of, well: magic. What I call flow.*
In any ambitious community endeavor, such as supporting families in the early years of childrearing, reducing substance use and abuse, or expanding affordable housing, there are many variables that lie beyond our control. Complex problems can be hard to frame, there are diverse stakeholders, there is no single measure of success. And then there is context, which is ever evolving. This can include a change in community or organizational leadership, a shifting policy environment, a natural disaster or an economic downturn.
How do we navigate complexity and change to keep the work moving forward?
I live in Montana, a land informed and enriched by its mighty rivers, and so I often find myself drawing on its lessons to help navigate the shifting waters of community change.
Ebb and Flow
Just this week, I shared with a client, “This work has a natural ebb and flow that we sometimes have the ability to direct, sometimes we end up – literally – going with the flow.” In working within the complexity of our work, what Donella Meadows called “dancing with the system,” we recognize there are times to act and times to pause. There are times when other events in a community become urgent, and our work must either pivot to address that urgency, or lay low for a bit. At other times, there is momentum that rapidly advances our efforts.
I was recently invited by Zero to Five Missoula to spend time with 20 community builders – people who believe that we can and will solve big problems when we have a good approach, methods and support; and who are invested in building community capacity for innovation and change. They are leaders working alongside community to improve early childhood, health care, affordable housing, substance abuse prevention and many other pertinent challenges of our time. It was an honor to be with them.
Over the course of two workshops, I shared strategies to deepen understanding of what it takes to align the efforts of multi-sector, multi-organizational collaboratives. There are many ways to do this, and one of the key strategies is to design and facilitate awesome meetings.
While most of us think of a meeting as the hour or so we gather, community builders know that the work we put into the meeting beforehand – thinking through its purpose and desired outcomes; preparing key stakeholders; and planning the agenda – is critical to not just the success of a meeting, but to our ability to advance our collaborative efforts.
For many of us, this past year wrought havoc on the way we work. Seemingly overnight, I went from leading roomfuls though daylong convenings – replete with cool hands-on design labs, community building activities and awesome food options – to Zooming at my dining room table.
The future of work seems likely to be, at best, a hybrid of WFH (a pandemic-popularized acronym for Work From Home) and in-person office spaces. In other words, our need to excel at virtual collaboration may well be here to stay.
As an early adopter of on-line communication tools, I was able to make the shift more easily than I anticipated. Here are some approaches I find helpful.
Welcome in our whole selves
On a recent call, my client’s husband ambled through the room and handed her a cup of coffee. Earlier that day, on a call with an early childhood collective, two moms held their babies as we talked. Working on-line has diluted the artificial separation between our work life and our home life, and I think that’s a good thing.
We do this work because we want all communities to be safe and loving places for all to thrive. The traditional workplace, with its unspoken “Leave your true self at the door” conformity unnaturally separates us from this core purpose. This robs us of the greatest strengths we bring to our work: our personal stories, our vulnerability, imperfections and creativity.
Welcoming in our whole selves can mean beginning a virtual meeting with an explicit acknowledgement that we are working in new ways, and that kids/pets/homelife, our messy rooms and unanticipated interruptions are welcome. It can mean taking the time to do check-ins that matter, such as “In the past week, have you worked more from your head, your heart or your hands?”
My love of facilitating is closely matched by a love of making other gatherings in life meaningful. Hosting a great birthday party or dinner soirée can bring a deep level of satisfaction, just as hosting a daylong conference on civic engagement, a retreat on affordable housing or a design session on health equity in rural communities can rock my boat.
Imagine my delight when a dear friend gifted me a copy of The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. Parker, a professional facilitator trained in conflict resolution, explores how we gather in personal and professional venues, and illustrates just how much intention goes into connecting people to one another and to the larger purpose of our work and world.
Parker defines a facilitator as someone who is trained in the skill of shaping group dynamics and collective conversations, and goes on to share lessons learned on what works in the art of gathering. Here are two themes I found particularly resonant with my own facilitation practice.
Commit to a bold, sharp purpose
Too often our reasons for gathering are under-examined or muddled.
“We always have an annual conference,” we say to ourselves, and so we go about the tasks of finding a venue, lining up speakers and planning what’s in the give-away bags. We don’t examine the reasons why we’re gathering, and so we don’t design for that deeper purpose. Continue reading “On the Art of Gathering”
Late last week, I met with a group of nonprofit leaders to explore how we can best be of use to our communities in the aftermath of an intense, draining season. We asked, “How might your organization and community be impacted by civil unrest and intensified civic stress? What will your communities (clients, donors, neighbors) be looking for from you?”
This group has been meeting regularly under the leadership of the Montana Nonprofit Association since COVID-19 hit in the spring, and our trust has deepened as we’ve navigated uncertainty together. The conversation was a delicate conversation among colleagues who respect one another’s differences in experiences, political viewpoints and regions of the state.
We discussed our commitment to build bridges between people with unmet needs and those with resources to meet them; between our missions and new leadership in the state; between those who have no voice, and those who can elevate the voices of those with the deepest needs and most barriers.
Unspoken is a commitment that no matter who’s in the room, we can bring respect and we can anchor our work in community.
What’s the “secret sauce” of effective collaborations? A great logic model or grant source doesn’t guarantee success. Too often initiatives fall short of their original aspirations. Collaborative work is at its essence a human endeavor, and underlying most success stories are people who intentionally cultivate the work.
What do we mean by mindset?
Our mindset is the collection of underlying assumptions, beliefs and habits of mind that influence how we think about our life and work. Picture the popular iceberg metaphor, in which all the things visible above the surface – our plans, goals and measurements – are being influenced by things that lie below the surface: our assumptions, fears of failure and fears of success, our beliefs about how things work, about other people and their motives and agendas, our sense of self-worth. These things form our mindset.
Being aware of our mindsets, and “mindful” of others’ is critical to growing our own collaborative practice. As a facilitative leader, I’ve found tools to help nurture the collaborative mindset within teams. Here are some of the ingredients in my “secret sauce.” Continue reading “Illuminating Collaborative Leadership”
Like many of you, I’m reaching out to friends and colleagues to help me better understand the scope, dangers and opportunities of COVID-19. A recurring worry that we share is, “Are we doing enough? How can we balance the need to get up every morning to do what we can, with a sense of the insignificance of our efforts within the enormity of this crisis?”
It reminds me of circles of concern and of influence, popularized by Stephen Covey. I wrote about this idea a few years ago:
“Circles of concern are things we care about, from global warming to the choices our grown children make and the upturn or downturn of the economy. It’s the “stuff” we read in the paper, or watch on the news. Circles of influence are the things we can actually impact or affect – how we respond to an impatient coworker, whether or not we participate in a volunteer project, how much time we take to dig deeper and connect more dots in our work.”
Last night, after the Governor of Montana declared a shelter in place for our state, I took a picture of my kitchen sink and posted it on Facebook with the caption:
“Hello beloveds. This is where I do my daily schmata*: washing dishes, worrying about our world, replenishing my family… How about you? Where do you tend to what needs to be done?”
It may seem odd to share a photo of something so mundane, and to invite a glimpse into others’ homes and hearths. Especially on social media – a platform that feeds on the brighter side of life – the family vacations, job promotions, kid awards and recent weight loss.
And yet, as COVID-19 upends our lives, it is to the rhythms of daily life I turn for solace. I’m reminded that when you take away all the self-induced busyness we’ve built into our lives, it’s the day-in-day-out acts of washing dishes, sweeping floors, feeding the dog and calling a neighbor that define our humanity, that give us purpose and use. Continue reading “To Be of Use”
If collective impact efforts have any certainties, one surely is the ever-revolving (one might hope ever-evolving) door of community partners coming to the table. Our efforts for inclusivity, the reality that multisector coalitions invite instability as people leave jobs and new people come in: it’s inevitable that we will be regularly onboarding new partners.
How do we invite in new faces without disrupting the focus and momentum of the team? I’m often asked this as I coach collective impact efforts. Here are a few strategies that seem to work.
If you know someone is joining the collaboration before they attend their first meeting, make every attempt to grab a cup coffee – in person, through Zoom – to talk through the history, the current work and where you’re heading as an initiative. Visuals can really help. One of the best visuals I’ve found is a journey map, which is developed by the team and can be used to orient incoming partners. Talking through the journey map gives new players critical context for the work. Invite the new partner to add their story to the map to continue to evolve the collaboration’s shared understanding of the work. If you can, invite another team member join you over coffee to help tell the story, build relationships across organizations, and position the backbone less as a gatekeeper and more as a weaver. Continue reading “Welcome to the Party! How to onboard new collaborative partners”
When working with groups, I like to begin with Margaret Wheatley’s observation, “People own that which they help to build.” It neatly sums up the monumental shifts that can occur when we embrace a core truth of community building:
Engaging community in the process of change work is fundamental to design, impact and sustainability.
This is hardly new news. Practitioners of collective impact regularly strive to engage community in their work. We get the why of engagement – it’s the how of community engagement that presents challenges.
A few things first. I encourage teams to think of community as an ecosystem of people, organizations and patterns of interactions. I ask them to “get up on the balcony” to see the network of patterns and behaviors, ways that people, businesses and organizations navigate their community. This allows teams to see where they can leverage existing momentum, and where to anticipate roadblocks. Continue reading “Helping build what we own”