Circles of Influence

circles of influenceGraduation Matters Montana (GMM) was fortunate to have Liz Weaver of Tamarack Institute deliver the keynote address at our June 2016 Summer Summit. Liz shared the findings of her recent paper, “Transformational Change is Possible”. Much of her analysis aligns with the GMM framework, and I was pleased that Summit participants connected with her presentation.

At a follow-up workshop, Liz provided an overview of collective impact, and led several activities to help collaborative efforts expand scope and effect. It was during one of the activities – 100 Names, in which teams brainstorm three people they know who can advance their mission – that someone commented, “It’s easier for people to talk about what we can’t do, rather than what we can do.” Several people nodded in agreement.

It made me think about “circles of concern and circles of influence,” and how I use this concept in my work.  Circles of concern are things we care about, from global warming and presidential candidates 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.

Knowing the difference between what we are concerned with and what we have influence over might at first seem a dispiriting activity: won’t it quickly be obvious that there is much, much more we care about than we can actually affect? Isn’t that immobilizing? Perhaps. But perhaps not.

It’s when we slow down and examine our circles of influence, that we are often surprised at what we find.

  1. We discover a vast network of relationships. The ”six degrees of separation” can certainly ring true, which is why exercises like 100 Names are so important. We realize that someone knows someone who knows the very person we hope to reach.
  2. We discover we can change program and practices. One of the beautiful things about collective impact is that it is often a matter of aligning existing resources, programs and practices to reinforce a larger vision. We have the ability to advance more effective approaches within our existing organizations and initiatives.
  3. We discover we can change our behaviors. If collaboration moves at the speed of trust, it behooves us to establish deeper relationships with colleagues, partners and key stakeholders. That starts with us: doing what we say, speaking our truth in respectful ways, and connecting on a more personal level.

We have many levers to pull within our circles of influence. Once we begin to do so, a remarkable thing starts to happen: we discover that our circle of influence begins to expand, increasing our ability to impact our circles of concern.

It’s unlikely that we will ever experience complete alignment between what we are concerned with and what we actually have influence over, but not leaning in to what we actually can impact assures that this misalignment will widen.

So the next time you find yourself in a meeting where people are feeling despondent about how things can change, ask a simple question: “What is it that each of us can do, right now, or right this week, that will have a positive effect on our mission?”

Let me know what you discover.


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