Roles of Collaborative "Leadership"January 26, 2011 26 Comments
Last week it was my humble privilege to be part of an august team of network thinkers and consultants as we delivered on our contract of working with community-based organizations that are involved in the pioneering Renew Boston initiative. My teammates included Steve Waddell, Madeleine Taylor, Beth Tener, Tom Cosgrove, Nick Jehlen, Noelle Thurlow, Carl Sussman, and Bruce Hoppe. Our deliverable ultimately emerged in the form of an action learning forum focused on best practices and challenges around enrolling community members in an exciting money-saving program that promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy. As part of the forum, we collectively offered and demonstrated net work tools and strategies for enhancing overall success.
At one point a comment was made by one of the participants about the importance of leadership, which spurred some break-time conversation between a few of us on the consulting team. Truth be told, we never came to full agreement as a consulting team on what we mean by “networks” (I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to avoid conversations about orthodoxy and instead focus on the practical implications of what is otherwise a shared felt sense or essence) but I think we all agreed that leadership is a tricky concept when applied to new distributed ways of working.
To the extent that leadership is about “holding the whole,” thinking big about the state of a system and paying attention to what will be required to ensure its survival and evolution, it is a concept that has application in networks. However, the traditional, individualistic, heroic, top-down images we have developed miss the mark. Network (and perhaps all) leadership is a dynamic, shared and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of the people with whom we partner at IISC understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help our clients be more explicit about this by clearly delineating the multiple roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative networked endeavor.
- Convenor – The convenor is the person or group who has “convening power,” the social capital and connections to pull people together and some of the resources to support the initiative (money, space, technology) and build the network. In our IISC practice, convenors are often foundations, municipal governments, and community-based organizations. Their role includes championing the cause, raising awareness, and making the initial and ongoing invitation to come together.
- (Process) Designer – The “process design team,” in IISC’s practice, is comprised of a diverse group of people representing different parts of “the system” who have an aptitude and appetite for mapping out a pathway of and individual activities (meetings, research, stakeholder outreach) that help to move a wider group of stakeholders from vision to action. They are charged with, and delight in, the creative endeavor of fashioning experiences that enliven and bring out the best in people, including the creation of space for difficult conversations and strengthening connections.
- Facilitator – The facilitator is a person or team responsible for stewarding the process, for holding the space for difficult conversations, listening to the wisdom of the group, helping to build alignment and agreement, and balancing structure with openness for emergence.
- Provocateur – This can be an informal or formal role, and is filled by the person or people who can ask the un-askable questions, challenge the group when it is reaching agreement too easily or getting too comfortable and safe with its work. The intent is stimulate new and bold thinking.
- Implementer/Prototyper – Implementers are not simply putting into action a “strategic plan,” but running with nascent and promising ideas, experimenting and honing as they go. We often find prototyping occurring at the “edges” of larger projects in the form of new partnerships and conversations going off and trying out new things.
- Weaver – (taken from Network Weaving) “A weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.”
- Coordinator – In our practice, network coordination comes down in large part to creating and maintaining a communications infrastructure, scheduling common meeting times, and ensuring that people have access to good information when they need it. And there is overlap between this role and the function of . . .
- Governance – This is the function that people most often want to turn to first, because the knee-jerk reaction is to want to bring some order to the perceived chaos. How will we make decisions? How will we develop policy or make strategic recommendations? How will we get things done? Valid questions, and if the default is to a traditional governing board structure, it can limit network potential. As our friend Jessica Lipnack has said, “You only need enough structure to facilitate conversation and make key decisions.” Less is more, and structure can be fluid. We’re talking jazz here, rifting on the tune emerging in our heads, not playing notes on the page written by someone long dead and gone.
And surely there are other valuable roles and takes out there. Please do jump in.