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.
“Opportunity favors the prepared mind,” is a quote often attributed to French chemist Louis Pasteur. It is a helpful mantra for community builders as we ride the ebb and flow. Use ebbs to deepen relationships, revisit backburnered projects, and turn outward. This will ensure that your work is ready to respond when the flow comes your way again.
Don’t Get Stuck in the Eddies
Much of collaborative work involves bringing people together. Every gathering should be structured to keep the work moving forward, as I recently shared in a blog, Anatomy of an Awesome Meeting. Yet inevitably, something jams our best laid plans. Our long-scheduled event gets bumped by a competing activity; two key organizational partners have a falling out in an unrelated project; a prickly partner gets offended by an inadvertent slight… The possibilities are endless for misunderstandings and roadblocks. I don’t have enough toes to account for how many times I’ve stubbed them in this work.
When you float a river, you often see eddies, an area of swirling water that forms behind an obstacle like a boulder in a river. Often the water in the eddy will reverse direction and will flow upstream. Sound familiar? While we strive to avoid eddies, we occasionally get snagged by them. The secret is to not get stuck in the swirl. Find the through line, the way forward. As Dory famously sang, “Just keep swimming.”
Find the Steppingstones
A favorite quote of mine is “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase,” by Dr. Martin Luther King. Often in our work, we develop a vision, we ascertain where we are now and what might bring us closer to our vision, but the interim steps are, well, a bit foggy. And that’s okay.
Recall that complexity means wrestling with many elements that are beyond our control, something I explore in my blog, Expanding Your Circle of Influence. As community builders, we strive to gather the right people and to guide their efforts to cocreate and to act in service of their greatest community aspirations. It’s not our job to know – or to act as if we know – every step of the way. Just as one seeks to cross a shallow river by hopping from rock to rock, testing for balance and changing course if needed, so too we strive to discern the steppingstones that move our work forward.
In closing, I’ll bring us back to the river, and its dancing flow. I invite you to take a step back from the day in/day out of our work. Observe the way our work ebbs and flows, how we are called to navigate the eddies, and welcome the creativity that discerning steppingstones requires of us. In doing so, we turn to the wise words of poet Emery Allen:
“I will lead you to the river so you can remember how beautiful it feels to be moved by something that is out of your control.”
* In this blog, I use the term flow to mean the organic way in which people, places and ideas self-organize at any particular time. Not to be confused with one of my favorite books, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which describes flow as the complete engagement in a creative or playful activity. If you’ve read Flow, or are inspired to read it, I’m ever-up for a virtual cup of coffee to talk about the Flow.