This essay was originally posted to IISC’s blog on January 29, 2015.
“Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.” – Group Works
Just recently in work with a national network, we turned the corner to start creating a structure to channel the alignment it has achieved around core goals for system change and ultimately to realize “collective impact” in a particular domain. As we were kicking off some of the early discussions, someone asked what I thought were the keys to creating a successful network structure. That’s a huge question that merits a complex answer, and I’ll admit that in reflecting on the dozen or so large scale change efforts I’ve been a part of the past 7 or 8 years, the first thing that came to mind was – “really good facilitation.”
Simplistic as this response may sound I was thinking of lessons learned from numerous efforts that no beautiful or well thought out network/collaborative structure stands up to a lack of strong facilitative capacity (skillset, mindset, and heartset). To be more nuanced, it is not just facilitation that ultimately came to mind, but what we at IISC call facilitative leadership.
For over 20 years, IISC has been teaching, preaching and practicing Facilitative Leadership (FL), and in many ways it seems that this approach has never been riper in light of the burgeoning call to collaborate and cooperate across boundaries of all kinds. At its base, FL is about creating and inspiring the conditions for self-organization so that people can successfully achieve a common (and often evolving) goal. The logical question that follows is, “How does one ‘create and inspire’ these conditions?” The answer is found in a variety of practices derived from successful group work and that have indeed shown promise across different networks and large scale change efforts to create solid foundations and momentum for social change. Among them are these:
- Working with power dynamics, diversity and towards equity – Naming power, seeing and working with its different dimensions, paying attention to privilege and “opportunity structures,” engaging systemic diversity and working towards social equity . . . this is both an ongoing practice and a lens for Facilitative Leadership and in many cases it is THE work.
- Measuring collaborative success in multi-dimensional ways (results-process-relationship) – Ultimately it might be said that collective work is measured by the results a group achieves and whether these measure up to the changes it seeks. And simply driving for results without being mindful of how a collective moves forward, with whom, and how it relates internally and externally, is not strategic and can salt away at the long-term potential to achieve the desired impacts. Alternately, being engaged only in process management and relationship building without results to show risks being irrelevant.
- Managing collaborative decision-making for maximum appropriate involvement – Before arriving at any approaches to decision-making (consensus, sociocracy, gathering input, unilateral, etc.), which is an important strategic choice, this practice emphasizes the need to think broadly and strategically about those “stakeholders” who must be considered in plotting a path forward. This includes assessing who would be most impacted, who has expertise/vital important lived experience, who the important connectors are, who has what kinds of power and influence, etc.
- Facilitating for agreement, alignment, innovation and understanding – This practice is about being a savvy “process steward” who guides conversations to desired outcomes, and in developmental ways, while making room for diverse and divergent perspectives. Facilitation is very much a plan-full and mindful undertaking, that requires clear-eyed understanding of where a group is in a given moment, where it wants to be, and how it might want or need to proceed.
- Thinking systemically – While there are very skilled system mappers and analysts out there, this practice is really about instilling a practice of inviting people to “go beneath the surface” of presenting issues to see where “leverage” may be and looking at how things connect, not simply in linear ways, but via circular and non-obvious dynamics. The invitation is for people to bring and be explicit about their change models, to look for connections between them and be mindful of the larger context.
“Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”– Paola Antonelli
- Designing processes that lead to action/change – Facilitation is often only as good as the process one is asked or develops to steward. Design is not just about creating physical objects, but also social and collaborative experiences that bring out the best thinking and commitments from people. This includes agenda design for meetings/convenings and longer term processes that yield meaningful engagement, significant achievement and deep connection.
- Listening to and inquiring of others – Expertise has its place, and in complex situations, expertise is more of a shared and distributed phenomenon, which requires drawing out multiple perspectives to do collective sense-making work. Furthermore, as trust is so central to the work of crossing boundaries, tuning in to one another becomes a critical undertaking.
- Expressing gratitude and appreciation – So much has been written about the role of gratitude in creating individual and collective resilience. Social change is long-term work, and for the purposes of maintaining engagement, growing trust, and increasing overall “positivity” for impact, this becomes a central practice that is important to model.
- Setting teams up for success – Effective teams do not just happen. There are things that can be done to increase their likelihood of success by being clear about and building alignment around purpose, goals, constitution/diversity, roles, and processes (such as decision-making). Furthermore, there is an important facilitative role to be played around helping groups to evolve their capacity to collaborate and self-manage.
Certainly there is more that could be added to and fleshed out in this list and in answer to the question about what it takes to develop a successful network for collective impact. The point really is that if we take the primacy of human interaction seriously in the process of bringing about change, then we will also put more of a focus on social dynamics and social architecture, creating and inspiring the conditions for interaction that works.