Originally published on the Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics blog.
Nearly all of my efforts for leading change are focused on building people's capacity to do it themselves. That way you build sustainability into whatever endeavour is being undertaken. The Art of Hosting's work in the European Commission is a brilliant example of this with over 1000 people trained and working for change through applying participatory leadership methods and worldview. In Nova Scotia, where I live, we have trained large numbers of pactitioners as well and incredible work is happening in all sectors from civic engagement and organizational development to local food systems and youth violence. I have heard my friend and mentor, Toke Moeller, say a hundred times (at least) "we build capacity, to build capacity, to build capacity", that is how the momentum of change happens. The building of capacity embeds a relational worldview and set of practices that equip people to build their own path as they walk it - whether that be personal, organizational or in community.
However, a recent blog post by Alan Moore reminded me of the power of strategic intervention to embed change over the long term. Alan referenced an incredible project I was involved in to transform the Nova Scotia Public Health System.
In this work Sera Thompson and I worked intensively with leaders across the system to design and deliver a long term strategic intervention to shift the culture of working together and with the public. As the message went out at one point: "some things will stay the same, some things will be different. How we do everything will change." This long term work where Sera and I became part of the core team with Public Health leaders working on the change enabled us to do a depth of strategic work and capacity building by doing it on the job that far exceeds anything that could be delivered in a training. As Director Janet Braunstein Moody explains, “We are doing things today that would not be possible if participatory leadership wasn’t the core operating process of the organization.”
Furthermore, the delivery of strategic interventions is what builds the credibility for the work to get results. I am all for people learning on the job but sometimes we have to deliver high stakes, highly visible work to prove that this set of practices delivers in concrete and practical ways. Sera and I were able to do this in the Public Health system, ensuring a strong depth of quality and a rich training ground for the teams working with us. Another great example is the Halifax Central Library public engagement in Nova Scotia. We designed the new library through a series of participatory meetings going from a blank piece of paper to a $55million dollar building going up in our downtown. Morten Schmidt, the Danish architect said "for the first time in my career as an architect, the public became my client." This has lead to a whole series of civic engagement projects and trainings in Nova Scotia bringing participatory approaches right into the mainstream of people's lives.
A couple of years ago, Toke was in Nova Scotia and he drew a model I had not seen for a while. It outlines the critical elements that need to be involved in any effort that is seeking authentic and long lasting change. The combination of mandate from those who hold influence, strategic interventions to prove the strength of the work and capacity building to embed the worldview. Here's the drawing (with thanks to Marguerite Drescher of Brave Space):
The element of mandate is essential. Early on in my career I was involved in a piece of work in Europol where we went in and did all kinds of cool work that got everyone excited for change based on treating each other well and working collaboratively. However, we had not built the necessary mandate from decision makers and it went down something like this: leadership heard what was going on, I got fired, participants rebelled, they got fired, nothing changed. The first thing we did in the public health work was a retreat with the senior leadership team to establish their buy in and role, in relationship to a fundamentally innovative approach to getting things done. The library project gave us a mandate from senior decision makers in government (they had never been through a citizen engagement and looked so good!) and also from the public who felt authentically involved in the process. This mandate has enabled us to go through a steep learning curve in how to build effective and meaningful citizen engagement across cities, regions and nations.
It is not always that the mandate needs to come from established leaders either, it just about whether we all understand the risks, can courageously commit and are ready to go. I never forget being on a call with Phil Cass and some brilliant leaders in healthcare in Nova Scotia who were stepping up to make change in a tough situation. They did not have buy in from their CEO, so Phil and I were trying to slow them down and suggest they not go ahead as it was too risky for them. One of them interrupted us and said "look, we are going to do this with or without you. So do you want to help us, or not?". That kind of courage gets a "yes" every time.
Strategic interventions and capacity building without mandate can lead to some of the most painful results. It is the mandate that allows the work to become systemic and not just be limited to the specific "problem area". All too often we are invited into to host conversations to make things better rather than shift the systems that created the problem. It is like sending someone into a community to end youth gun violence while refusing to change the justice system, education system, community services and mental health systems (etc) that create the problem in the first place.
I find myself refusing the blinders that conversations are the answer. It is not as simple as getting everyone in the room and suddenly the love flows and solutions to inherently intractable problems magically emerge. We must apply these methods that invite the best of our humanity forth, cunningly and strategically. I suggest we keep our eyes open to the reality of a world that is profoundly dysfunctional and increasingly chaotic, constantly tuned to where we can act with the greatest impact. Not because a theory tells us but because we can feel it in our bones. Everytime I have gone into a piece of work which has ticked all the boxes in the mind but my gut has been screaming "no!", it has ended badly. That's another blog ...
Leading change in complex systems that are rife with historic patterns of oppression, control, privilege and power is not for the faint hearted. Building capacity is not enough, we must also demonstrate the power of the work to get results and make sure we have our ducks in a row with decision makers so the boot does not come down half way through and crush people's passions. There is enough of that happening in the world already.
I am learning a lot about creating the conditions for good work to last, it is the same as creating the conditions for a good conversation to happen, just at the next level. To be clear I am learning as I go. It is the unknowing that gives me the confidence that we may be onto something worthwhile, as Wendell Berry says:
It is maybe that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
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