“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
As current President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation Bill Roper tells the story, a couple of decades ago Lyman Orton, proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, was involved in local town planning efforts in Weston, Vermont. In the 1980s, at a time when the state was experiencing a building boom due to the rise of second home ownership, Weston and other small towns found themselves struggling to preserve their unique character while continuing to grow and embrace change. The local town planning commission in Weston, of which Orton was a member, discovered that it was ill equipped to address existing zoning restrictions and bylaws, which left town members powerless around policies that affected land use in their community. The frustration of this experience spurred the creation of the Orton Family Foundation, which began supporting small towns by providing resources, including user-friendly GIS mapping and visualization tools, to citizens to help them envision and ultimately have a say in their communities’ future.
Under Bill Roper’s leadership, the Orton Family Foundation places a particular emphasis on helping towns identify and protect the essence of their community through the collection of shared stories. Like all of the work of the Foundation, efforts have been made to make planning accessible to non-planner types. To this end, language is everything. Roper and his staff avoid jargon by asking residents simply (but profoundly) to identify the “heart and soul” of their community. As they say on their website, “Traditional quantitative approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make community. . . . Furthermore, a collection of quantifiable attributes without an understanding of shared values and a sense of purpose does not motivate citizens to show up and make tough, consistent decisions.” In other words, when it comes downs to it, it’s about people.
Time and again, this revelation comes up in various policy debates where experts come together and more often than not leave out the people who are most impacted by (and who have much to offer) their decisions. We know the devastating impact this can have, and yet it continues. In a recent blog post, Dave Snowden rails against obsessions with outcomes measurement when it comes to reforming social services, saying that we continue to look for fail safe, quantifiable, and expert-driven solutions to problems that are much too complex to lend themselves to expertly engineered solutions. He makes a case for greater involvement of the system (including everyday citizens) and the use of narrative to understand the dynamics of and ways of working with the system. With the Orton Foundation example, we might add the importance of using language that invites broader and deeper engagement. This is about creating space for people to share their own experiences and perspectives, allowing not only for the relevance of these stories, but their power to shape something new.
How might we do more of this in our work, to make room not just for the sharing of facts and figures, but stories? And what are the stories we are telling ourselves that are shaping our worlds?
I keep returning to the cover article of the New York Times Magazine of a few weeks ago entitled “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” Other than being a fascinating piece on what might prevent people from getting into a more environmentally sustainable mindset (and therefore sustained sustainable behavior), it makes a very strong case for collaboration as a smart (and potentially species saving) decision-making process.
Author Jon Gertner has spent considerable time with behavioral economists, looking at the limits of individual decision-making when it comes to long-term trade-offs. For example, researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University have pointed to the shortcomings of two different ways individuals process risk: (1) an analytical approach that seems to have less tolerance for delayed benefits and (2) an emotional approach that is restricted by one’s lack of experience with certain phenomena (such as rising sea levels). Both approaches disincline individuals from making choices that have short-term costs (reduced consumption, paying a carbon tax) but may ultimately be better for the planet. Hence, say some decision scientists, the tragedy of the commons – the overgrazing of land, the depletion of fisheries, the amassing of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Just when Gertner is ready to say, “We’re screwed,” he points to other research that suggests that an answer to our individual failings on the front of risk assessment may lie in our associational tendencies and community-based intelligence. For instance, Michel Handgraaf has conducted studies in Amsterdam that show that when people make decisions as a group, their conversations gravitate more to considerations of “we” and delayed benefits. Similarly, anthropologist Ben Orlove at UC-Davis has studied farmers in Uganda and observed that when they listened to rainy season radio broadcasts in groups, rather than as individuals, they engaged in discussions that led to consensus decisions that made better use of forecasts – collectively altering planting dates or using more drought resistant seeds.
In other words, it may behoove us all to collaborate more, and with a twist. Evidence suggests that it is best to begin thinking through decisions in groups, rather than weighing them as individuals and then coming together. This just might get us more quickly to the “group effect,” to a collective identity and ability to think and act long-term. As Jon Gertner puts it, “What if the information for decisions, especially environmental ones, is first considered in a group setting before members take it up individually?”
Last week I had the privilege of working with my colleague Daryl Campbell in offering IISC’s Pathway to Change workshop for the first time to the general public. Overall it was a very positive experience, and seemed to confirm our suspicions that the course is timely given the growing demand and desire for working collaboratively. That said, as we were wrapping up we heard a few comments that are not so unfamiliar. “This is wonderful, it’s just what we need, and it’s a lot!” “There’s so much to absorb. I need time to sort it out.” There were a few suggestions to slow down the pace next time, or to space out the days to give time for both absorption and application. At the same time, people recognized that the three consecutive days had a certain power and punch to them, both with respect to connecting content and creating community in the room.
Sitting with this conundrum, it occurred to me that it just may be unavoidable. As we like to say, it’s important to meet complexity with complexity. What we were addressing in the room was the need to work with complex social and environmental issues by bringing more people and ideas to the table, with a variety of tools at one’s disposal. Indeed, it is a lot to take in and apply. And the point certainly is not to overwhelm folk, but rather to help them eventually reach what our colleague Cynthia Parker calls “the simplicity the other side of complexity.” In other words, there is necessary work and wrestling to be done before reaching mastery.
That said, I made an effort in the workshop before we closed to offer some consoling words. Underlying all of the various concepts and tools we discussed, there seem to be a few core ideas for guiding one’s work as an effective collaborative leader/change agent:
Awareness – Everything we talked about pointed to the need to be attentive to the various situations we face as well as our own interior condition. Being aware of what circumstances might call for and not acting on impulse are critical steps in helping to ensure that we are more “in tune” with reality.
Intention – Another theme that emerges is the importance of acting with some forethought, being plan-full in light of the unique situations in which we find ourselves. The basic idea is that we act as an extension of our awareness.
Balance – Collaboration is not about working with everyone all the time or only working through consensus. It comes down to balance – knowing when to make more unilateral decisions and when to be more inclusive; holding results, process, and relationship in dynamic tension as dimensions of collaborative success. Problems arise not so much when we make a wrong call (which we can correct) but when we make the same call over and over again.
Wisdom – It is important to remember that the models we teach are based on practice. Somewhere, someone was doing something effectively and the models capture this success. In a sense, there is something very intuitive about what we teach, and so as important as learning the skills may be, there is also work to be done around getting in touch with our inner knowing, and grounding all of our actions in an ethic of service, authenticity and love.
“Shhh! What was that?!” I barely heard my wife over my concentrated efforts to keep my marshmallow from falling into the fire. “Curtis! Did you hear that? Something’s out there!” I looked in Em’s silhouetted direction and saw that she, my daughter Annabel, and my mother-in-law were all peering into the darkness and at the bushes on the edge of the pond. “What is it, Daddy?” Annabel asked. I got to my feet, grabbed a flashlight and slowly walked towards the now clearly audible rustling, my daughter right behind me. “There it is!” I heard someone say. I saw it too. I gradually moved the light onto the shadow moving across our line of view, and had the glint of two beady eyes return the beam. Annabel’s hands clenched my calf. “A porcupine!” A very big slow moving porcupine. After a few seconds’ stare-down, the creature turned and went lumbering into the woods and out of view. “That was cool!” cried Annabel, still clutching my leg.
Cool indeed. An adrenaline rush, a mystery uncovered, a dramatic stand-off. Everything any child, or adult, might want on an excursion to the woods. Our weekend in Vermont was filled with moments of exciting encounter like that, from having tussling and territorial woodpeckers dart over our heads, to finding crayfish under rocks, to hearing and deciphering the distant whistle of a black bear; much of this done in bare feet (or sandals), with dirt under our fingernails. I find our forays into the wilderness to be liberating and invigorating, and as much about wildness as wilderness. In the North Country I feel certain veils drop, inhibitions lift, and an inner aliveness bubble up. I see this palpably in my daughter, and it makes me long for more of this in my life overall.
Wildness is something that often seems to get cast as chaotic and “uncultured”. And yet I know from experience that it can be a gateway to something wonderful and powerful. I think about those times when, as a trainer or speaker, I have been unleashed, more uncontrolled and less measured, when unbridled passion took hold. I think about the impact that this has had on me and those around me. As scary as it can be to let go, these moments have given me a glimpse of something profound and true that may be overlooked in a more buttoned up existence. And so I’ve been thinking about bringing more Vermont to Cambridge.
What would it mean to be wild in the work we do? What would this look like and what might it achieve? For a humorous peek at a possible answer, check out professor and nature writer David Gessner’s “transformative” performance . . .
Last week Melinda and I had one of those experiences where everything seemed to come together. We were in Farmington, Connecticut with grantees of the Graustein Memorial Fund’s Discovery Initiative, training them in collaborative leadership techniques for their community-based work around improving early childhood education and care. For starters, the group was remarkable. The chemistry of those that came together from around the state was what any trainer or participant dreams of, and the shared passion for and commitment to their work was nothing short of inspiring. Beyond that, Melinda and I just seemed to be on our game, pulling from a wide range of tools with a well-coordinated readiness to go as deep as the group seemed willing to go. Collectively we created a space that filled gradually with rich learning, self-revelation, strong connection, and things that are still difficult to articulate. It was the kind of session that people left saying, quite literally, “I am different than when I arrived.”
Later as Melinda and I were driving back home on Friday evening, still savoring those three days, we turned a corner on the Mass Pike, and the city of Boston leapt up to greet us. It was around 7:30, the end of a beautiful clear spring day, and the sun was in such a position that it illuminated everything in a rosy hue and accentuated every nook and cranny, making buildings seem almost more than three dimensional. I have always loved that time of day, when the world becomes softer and more vibrant. Come to find out from Melinda that there is actually a name for this in photographic circles – “the golden hour” – the first and last hour of sunlight during which the sun’s rays travel obliquely through the atmosphere, lending indirect radiance and enhanced color to whatever they touch. Read More
A colleague and I recently met with staff of a client organization to discuss their interest in crafting a regional “partnership” strategy. Leading up to the meeting there had been some discussion with folk about what it would mean to bring a network lens to their work, to perhaps approach this as a “network building” opportunity. Needless to say we were excited and came ready to dive deeply into the conversation.
My colleague and I decided it would be best to “start where the people are” and hear what their interest was in a partnership approach, how this had come about, and how they saw it as different than what they had been doing up until now. There was some very interesting discussion about the need and desire to break out of silos, change from being project-focused to creating more of a coordinated continuum of services, and develop stronger relationships among stakeholders in each of the regions in question.
Then the time came to pop the question – “What about networks? How do these fit into your work?” I was invited to say a few general comments about network theory and network building and how this might be different than general collaboration/partnerships/coalition building. On the heels of my brief presentation, there ensued commentary that is coming to be a bit of a refrain. “I still don’t understand how network building is different than what we are trying to do in terms of partnering.” “I’m not sure how we fit our work into that theory.” In some instances, there was palpable consternation expressed along with these comments – “Frankly, that just makes it all the more confusing for me.”
Okay, I said, let’s stop right there. If we are working too hard to fit our efforts into network theory or bending our brains too much to understand how networks are different than other kinds of collaboration, then we may not be headed in a very productive direction. I decided to add simply that partnerships have a lot in common with networks, that they may in fact be networks of a sort. The only caution is that partnerships can be overly deterministic in terms of who is in and who is out and how things get done, which might not move the needle as much as we hoped. If network theory can offer anything, it is the suggestion that we not make our partnerships too much like business as usual with the usual suspects. It might be of some benefit to hold space open for new ideas to emerge and make efforts to reach out to those to whom we might not otherwise engage.
To these comments, all heads around the table nodded. Brows unfurrowed. And we moved on. With each of these kinds of conversations I realize that we are all truly where we are. I am also reminded that practice often makes a more powerful lead than theory. The two must, of course, dance together, but the real star is what we make happen in the world. So I say, let’s not wait until we get it right, because there is no such thing. Let’s just remain open as we go, because there’s life in that.
Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel tells a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident poet and playwright turned politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague. In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls – a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely and messy ending.
From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continues to be a profoundly hopeful man. He sees hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerges out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reaches not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, is not the same as optimism. It’s not the belief that something will ultimately work out, but that it feels true in a very essential way, beyond what is relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.
Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth. Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities has said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots, how deep are we willing to go?