The Special Sauce

November 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Sauces for jianbing 煎饼. Jen Leung. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I just wanted to tell all of you that I feel truly honored to have played even a small part in what transpired today. In fact, I would go so far as to say you are the best, most fun, most highly evolved group of humans I have ever worked with.”

This is not the kind of email you get everyday.  It comes from one of the participants in the process design group of a state-wide food system building effort with which I have been involved for the past year and for which I am the lead designer and facilitator.  To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to blow my own horn.  It would be outrageous for me to take credit for something the size and complexity of which goes well beyond my individual talents and contributions.  Rather, I am very eager to explore what stands behind this comment, as it reflects a commonly held feeling that something special has been going on with this initiative and group since it was initiated and led up to the launch of a Food Policy Council last week.

While I appreciate and agree with the comment that the people implicated thus far have highly evolved competencies around self-management and collaboration, there is much more to this story that is illustrative of the ingredients in the special sauce that has imbued this large scale cross-sectoral collaborative system change effort.  Here are 10 factors that might explain our relative and collective success to date:

  1. Learned Skillfulness – The convenor of this initiative has been very intentional about building her skills around collaboration and Facilitative Leadership.  She has attended a couple of courses here at the Institute, including Pathway to Change, which resulted in the use of collaborative frameworks to develop a well thought out, compelling and ultimately successful grant application to initiate the process of designing a food policy council.  Beyond the application, which laid out a clear process for tackling this complex undertaking, the underlying thinking has led to artful and strategic convening of a diverse group of stakeholders who together represent a variety of perspectives on food, from health to agriculture to environmental justice.
  2. Vision – The convenor has also provided tremendous visionary leadership, by holding up the possibility of what might be achieved and what we collectively might become as a result of taking this collaborative deep dive.  She has also consistently conveyed confidence in the capabilities of the people around her.  All of which has give rise to authentic . . .
  3. Shared/Distributed Leadership – It is my perspective that leadership never resides in a single individual.  It is necessarily a collective function, tending to both the survival and thriving of a system (group, organization, community).   There has been throughout the last several months a “can do” attitude and willingness to jump in (and allow others to do so) to move different parts of the process forward, from coordinating input gathering, to planning events, to conducting research, to reaching out to possible Council members, to facilitating communication, to hosting meetings (it’s been great and refreshing to shift locations).  No one around the table demonstrates the sense that they have all the answers.  We know we need each other.
  4. Preparation/Coordination – It has been in large part my responsibility and that of the project coordinator to ensure that each time we come together, there has been sufficient and thoughtful preparation done to make the best use of people’s precious time and that taps their talents.  Designing agendas that yield results, build relationships, and use processes that bring people to life has been a real key, as has ensuring that people have access to good, timely information, including rich data yielded by a food assessment conducted by Karp Resources.
  5. Loosening Grasp on Ego – The group has not lacked friction or conflict.  On a number of occasions we have been faced with significant strategic choices around focus, stakeholder involvement, framing and the like.  What has allowed us to move deftly through these conversations has been the ability to keep our eyes focused on the goal of this effort.  At the end of the day this is not about individuals having “issues” or not but rather what stands in the way or facilitates strengthening the food system.
  6. Holding the Big Picture – In order to facilitate this loosening of our grasp on ego there was an initial and intentional effort to frame  a big picture of what this collaborative endeavor seeks to achieve, with respect to results, process, and relationships.  This included some robust discussion about where things currently stand and where we would like them to be.  Building consent around this higher level intention has provided a strong resource to guide and ground us.
  7. Working Agreements/Design Principles – In addition, we spent time at the front end of our process building working agreements to guide our conversations and meetings (answering the question, “How do we want to work and be with one another so that we can reach our goal(s)?”) as well as establishing design principles for the food policy council.  These principles help to ensure that we stay clear of replicating what we know does not work.
  8. Facilitation – The essence of the word “facilitate” is to make it easy, make it easy for people to show up fully, to be their best selves, voice their dissent, ask otherwise un-askable questions, and ultimately reach their shared goals.  Often this has meant doing the bare minimum of guidance in the room, and the maximum of process design up front to ensure that conditions are ripe for fruitful collaboration.  And so the people will say, we have done this ourselves!
  9. Passion, Commitment, Open-Mindedness, Creativity – These have been fully on display and embodied in each person.  These may reside in some latent fashion in any individual or group and seem to have been fully brought to life through many of the points above.
  10. Food! – It’s a good rule of thumb to feed the people, and in an initiative like this, to do it with fresh locally grown produce.  Breaking bread together has been a wonderful connecting activity, where we also get to practice what we preach.

And so we have both established a promising foundation, and have our work cut out for us going forward as we open ourselves to more ideas and energy and strive to add value to what is already good and must be better.

No Comments

  • Gibrán says:

    Congratulations Curtis – what beautiful work! And thank you for the recipe – it resonates!

  • Curtis says:

    A conversation with a couple of people lifted up the importance of highlighting the fact that IISC’s design and facilitation skills come to this project as the result of FUNDING. Money has certainly been a key to our success as well, with deep appreciation to the funders!

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