These are not quite “wicked problems” so I think of it as messy or muddy. I spoke with a co-founder of my client organization today about the work we are doing. Being in the thick of it needs to be documented, so I present you with my reflections on being in the middle of the work of changing governance process in a social venture several years old.
Cool Factor — not so fast
I could talk about them as a Teal organization — if we wanted to use spiral dynamics and the work of people like Laloux in Reinventing Organizations. I could talk about the organization being thrivable, as it lives into paradox, cultivates an ecosystem, and aims to generate more value than it consumes. I could talk about it in the framework of co-creation and participatory process. And so on — there is so much that is “cool” about what they are doing and how they are doing it. But actually being successful at that isn’t as cool as it may sound. It is actually thick and messy. Let’s talk about thick and messy. Let’s play in the mud a bit, shall we?
The Challenge of Thick
What makes this organization such a joy to be working on is how graceful they are in the muck of figuring out competing tensions as they seek to be transformative. Graceful. My second child’s middle name is Anne, which means grace. I wanted this child to have a sense of groundedness and a scope of perspective to be resilient amid the vagaries of life. This organization also demonstrates that quality of grace, to me.
When you are building bridges you have to live in two worlds — the old paradigm and the new, all while building the path you are walking on. So what seems so cool — the new paradigm, has to still be successful in the old paradigm. And you are building it with people who personally each have one foot in the old way of doing things and one foot in the new. So it takes an intense level of mindfulness — of our own personal journey, of our organizational development, and of the larger systemic forces we operate within.
While often the work is inspiring and visionary, it is also full of the muck of composting who we have been, what we have been doing, how we have been doing it, and the healing of systemic wounds as well.
We act in the present moment of now-ness with open-eyed awareness of our past and the good company of our vision of the future.
Me, Myself, and I
I show up to the conversation as three selves: me, myself and I. As does everyone else, with their own version of the me, myself, and I combo.
- There is me: in my own personal work, facing my insecurities and shadow, mindful of my motivations, presence, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, history, and dreams. Me, I am the one doing this work, and who I am being influences the work itself.
- Myself, my role in this work as a midwife to the new forms. Myself, writing a book about cultivating social flow, working on the embodied practice of transforming governance, strategy, and culture for a more thrivable organization. The role I am playing and the skill or talent I bring to that role influences the work significantly.
- And there is I. I am a multi-faceted being, operating in a system (or actually more like inter-operating systems) of this here and now time in history: during an economic, environmental, social crisis. I am a white woman with a gender and sexuality and class and 50+ other facets of identity. All that comes with being alive and aware of my facets, my identities, in systems of power and privilege. It means using what I have to bring about the more wonderful world we hope is possible, mindfully resistant to past collective patterns that are far bigger than me and myself. I am in my own state of healing, grief, and transformation as I relate to that system(s), also conscious that others often do not share my stage of grief. (And we all know the practice is way messier and recursive than the diagram below.)
Really doing this work well means being in the thick of all of this awareness of where me, myself, and I are positioned (as it is for everyone else involved), and with that presence of mind making meaningful change with others who are also on their own journey of awareness. This isn’t simple recipe stuff! It isn’t homogenized and pasteurized white milk of glorious social change where unicorns frolic and rainbows attain their rights.
Two Roads Diverged…
You make the trail as you walk it. It isn’t simply about taking the road less traveled by, it is often about making a path where there was not one before. It isn’t about a shining north star to light the idealized way either.
It is about the dynamic tensions of being in the real mucky world with real messy humans trying to do real meaningful work.
You probably don’t have a single factor to align with, rather instead you have several (and to varying degrees with others in the group). In our case, we have three core priorities that we need to be sorting for and aligning around, and those need to be held in dynamic tension with each other because they are often not magically aligned. The math of the complexity increases quickly, my three layers times three layers for each other person multiplied by the three organizational priorities, as well as our past experiences, present desires, and future vision. I do like the number three, I assure you. We are here to get things done. Together.
Let’s be pragmatic here, after all. Often this means having individuals who value one of those priorities, more than the other two, experiencing actual respectful tension with the other two or more people (who hold the space for one of the other priorities). In our case, there is a vision of what the organization does, how it does it, and how it operates. What that looks like in practice, as we evolve and grow through our lifecycle, is not yet clear as we seek to honor our priorities. There are many good options for how to embody those priorities. Which way fits best? What constellation of people, time, and priorities running through which processes generate what bridge into the future we want?
How do we balance our commitment to what we do while also transforming how we do it, as well as how we operate?
This is the thick work of transformation, of building the bridge while you are walking on it.
Lessons in Co-creation
A couple years ago I went to Thailand to co-facilitate our LearnShareLab. By “our” here, I mean ci2iglobal (Co-creative Innovation and Impact Institute). We brought together co-creative social change projects from across the world to learn and share about co-creation. What we found is that very few were co-creative about who, how, and what simultaneously. Co-creative projects all have some emergent quality, but they differ in whether that emergent element was who, how, or what.
This matrix has co-creative about who on the right and co-creative about what on the bottom. It does not include the co-creative about how element.
- By co-creative on who, I mean it is an open question who is included and invited. Who participates is who responds to the open invitation.
- By co-creative on how, I mean the process of working together is not clear but emerges through leaderfulness of all participants helping to shape the process.
- By co-creative on what, I mean the output of a working group is not clear at the beginning but emerges in the process of being together.
So, we often see some combination of dialing it up on one aspect of emergence and down in another, to help us reach our goals within the limits of the time and resources we have. Or we see a recursive pattern: being emergent with process rarely, people regularly, and output always, for example. There is no single perfect way of doing and being in this thick muddle of transformation. The alchemy isn’t worked out already.
Right now, with this client, we are clear on who is present to co-create, we have a sense of what kinds of process we prefer, and we have some vision for the output. Being a bit fuzzy on the second two gives us an opportunity to co-create what the next phase governance and communication structure and process can be, within some reasonable limits or boundaries. And we need boundaries to manage the complexity!
We see, in our research for the book on social flows, the value of creating process hierarchy when we are trying to move away from structural — positional hierarchy. If the work is not about having a few core people with positional power making decisions; then maybe process, which we all agree on, can make decisions for us as a collective.
What I am designing for the client is just this type of process — well, more like a process generation engine — that allows us to start with a few simple protocols and build and evolve process hierarchy over time (on top of — or in harmony with — the existing process architecture).
So far we have worked out our principles. I don’t mean a bunch of trendy phrased statements that get stuck on a report and flash across the website. I mean something with the passion of a manifesto and the clarity of operating instructions. We don’t want a set of rules that restrain us to an ever increasing bureaucracy of rule creation, maintenance, and mediation.
We want a set of principles to operate on, so that all decisions and actions that honor those guiding statements have coherence with the organizational body, regardless of what position the person acting on them holds.
We want to learn from the insights of swarm behavior, that a few clear and simple principles can guide and shape collective action without anyone dictating what that action ought to be.
Running Small Experiments
We don’t magically transform to look like the new way of doing things, we build the steps to get from here to there. Doing so means picking what ways we are not going to be like what has been in bite size chunks. What is the one thing we are going to do differently this quarter? What are the three things we are going to avoid doing? Tackling the ideal list of 12 things or 42 things isn’t kind to the humans who are trying to do the real work of becoming me, myself, and I in the emerging organization.
Changing organizational habits is a fractal version of changing personal habits — very few succeed by going whole hog and sticking with it. This has less to do with persistence and more to do with not knowing what the consequences of a shift are. If we commit to not interrupting each other at meetings, what does that do? So, we run small experiments to test out a new habit for the organization.
Next we will work on some simple processes to try, test, and iterate on, given our combination of priorities, while blending what we see working at Morningstar, Holacracy, Liquid, etc. We create something of a style guide for organizational culture. But you can’t force that on everyone! It has to be home grown from the very foundations of the organization. I use participatory process to involve the people who will be acting on the new process in the very development of that new process so they understand the drive for it, the way it works, and feel like they had a hand in creating it. (Liberating Structures, for example, has participatory processes to select from, based on the goals set.)
It is such an honor to be part of an organization with such a profound approach to a learning culture. I have recently completed reviewing the survey assessment from various participants in the organization. It is quite clear that the day to day processes, the way meetings are held, and conversations conducted are full of care and compassion as well as highly open to feedback. It is also inspiring to get some challenging feedback about what more participants want from us. For example, if someone rated the organization as 3/5 on something that matters to us, they also rated us 5/5 on learning and feedback, commenting that they have faith we will get there because of our commitment to evolving. It is so encouraging to read participant feedback that says we are doing a good job of practicing our values, have clarity about where we need to evolve, and have demonstrated a willingness to listen and reflect with our participants.
When I left my job at a publicly traded company, I could not have imagined an organization that was doing what we are doing now, being in the thick of it as we are.
Whatever process and governance alterations we come up with that help the organization grow, the core DNA of the culture of the organization amazes me and will inform the direction we take. This is messy work being done by messy humans with a great deal of self-awareness at multiple levels. We aren’t changing the world overnight, though sometimes we change ourselves overnight.
We are here for the long journey of personal, collective, and systemic transformation, finding and co-creating our own messy path into the future.
I am deeply honored to be working with this client, the individuals creating and recreating the organization inspire and amaze me. Their personal awareness and purity of intention make playing in the mucky mud a real pleasure. It is so mind-blowing to get into a conversation about transformation and be understood so quickly when pointing to various bodies of work that the transformation builds upon. So much gratitude to the giant shoulders we spring from. I am deeply thankful for the wisdom of practice with others in this field: my co-author Herman Wagter, my practitioner circle at ci2iglobal, and my friends in personal, collective, and systemic transformation that have shared with me.
[simultaneously posted at https://medium.com/@nurturegirl/the-thick-of-it-44ee5a509a7d#.bkk2xohdq]