This week I’m at the 17th Annual Global Conference of the International Leadership Association in Barcelona, Spain. This morning the keynote speaker, John, Lord Alderdice, of the United Kingdom, said, “The leader is not necessarily the brightest or best person, but it is the right person for the time.” Again we are reminded that context matters in leading change, whether it is in organizations, communities, and whole societies.
Here’s the question we were asked to discuss and I pass it on to you for your reflection: When in your work has the situation or context required you to go beyond the typical and usual idea of leadership to arrive at a solution?
On Saturday I’ll be presenting on the Roots to Fruit (R2F), an ecosystem for sustainable community change and tool for measuring change. R2F is a model created by Dr. Ed Saunders and me, over the past several years, that first and foremost considers context in creating change. To learn more, send me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?
It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.
The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.
I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.
Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.
As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.
“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.
“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.
“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.
“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.
“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”
Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.
I’m a really lucky guy. I got to spend a week with my Canadian friends earlier this month and, once again, they both affirmed and pushed my thinking. Boy, did they affirm and push! The occasion was Tamarack’s inaugural Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Featured plenary speakers included Melody Barnes, John Kania, Brenda Zimmerman, and Jay Connor. In this space I want to highlight the five biggest ideas that came out of this event for me. The concept of a “big idea,” of course, is relative. What is big to me may not be big to you so I will explain my criteria. The five ideas that follow were big to me because they both confirmed what I have been learning through my own work with Collective Impact since December, 2011 and inspired me to go even deeper.
In the opening session of the summit, Tamarack’s Mark Cabaj set the theme and tone by arguing that the Summit was marking a new phase in the development of Collective Impact. The first phase, Collective Impact 1.0, was marked by experimentation with the approach. Collective Impact 2.0 saw the framing of broad parameters and the emergence and development of practices related to it. Collective Impact 3.0, though, would extend and build upon these previous two phases as it deepened understanding of the practices, capacities and ecology or context required for CI. The CI Summit did a great job of focusing on Collective Impact 3.0 and, as a result, these five big ideas emerged for me.
Big Idea #1: “Collective Impact” Does Not Need to be Applied to Every Collaboration. This idea represents a major leap in the maturation of the Collective Impact framework. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized “Collective Impact” as #2 in their top ten list of philanthropic buzzwords in 2011. In doing so, though, it suggested that CI was merely a new term for an old way of working together. Shortly thereafter the term was applied to every sort of collaborative effort. My regular readers will know that I am one who has been frustrated by the wholesale application of the “Collective Impact” label to every group effort. New ideas can benefit from such publicity but they can also die when, as a result, they are misunderstood as simply “new and shiny” objects. When a new idea’s label is, therefore, misapplied it can be devalued and its benefit to the field lost. I think Collective Impact 1.0 and 2.0 was at risk of devaluation as a result of its popularity.
At the CI Summit, Brenda Zimmerman delineated known, knowable, and unknowable problems. Isolated efforts and traditional collaborations are usually sufficient to address the known and knowable problems. Complex social issues, which is the realm of Collective Impact, are unknowable problems. That is, the problems are difficult to define and the solutions are even less clear. The appropriate application of Collective Impact 3.0 is to complex issues.
Big Idea #2: “Context Experts” and “Content Experts,” a 50/50 Proposition. The CI Summit introduced new language, as well as a new understanding, for how to think about the residents with lived experience that CI initiatives are trying to serve. “Residents with lived experience,” for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who are living directly with the issue a CI initiative is trying to address and are, therefore, likely to be the people who see the greatest benefit from a successful initiative.Context Experts are residents with lived experience, including children and youth. Typically, they are the people who experientially know about the issue. Content Experts are professionals, providers, and leaders with formal power who have knowledge, tools, and resources to address the issue. Typically, they are the people with the technical knowhow. The language is new and quite friendly to use though the concept of having both types of experts in a collaborative effort is not.
The really big idea is with regard to achieving the right mix of the two types of experts. For too many years and in too many collaborative initiatives, Content Experts have far outnumbered Context Experts, to the point of tokenizing them. The information coming out of the Summit, though, argues that it needs to be a 50/50 split to achieve Collective Impact 3.0. This reformulation of the equation has profound implications, particularly, I believe, among CI initiatives in the United States. In future blogs, I will try to unpack some of those that are most significant.
Big Idea #3: Ownership and Buy In are Not the Same Thing. This idea has an important correlation to the previous one: the more we involve Context Experts the more likely it is that we will facilitate “ownership” and not merely “buy in.” Why is this? The explanation lies in understanding how these are defined in the context of Collective Impact 3.0. “Buy in” means that Content Experts have come up with an idea and now have to get Context Experts to “buy in” to it, if it is going to stand a chance of working. This, I argue, is the sad status quo for most social change and public health initiatives I have both seen and been a part of in the United States. “Ownership” means that the idea comes from the Context Experts and, as a result, it is theirs from the outset and, therefore, need no convincing. We Content Experts are infamous for coming up with ideas for doing good to or for others, but not with them.
Big Idea #4: Best Practices are the Enemy of Emergence. The CI Summit highlighted that Collective Impact 3.0 is designed to address complex problems with emergent solutions. As noted earlier, complex problems do not have known solutions therefore evidence-based and best practices from past experience have very limited value. While they may offer clues, they cannot provide the definitive answers we expect of them. When best practices are applied, in fact, they stifle the creative thinking and adaptive responses needed for the solutions to emerge. Here is the danger of best practices when applied to complex problems: If we are convinced we already have the solution through an evidence-based or best practice, we stop thinking about and seeing other solutions when they emerge. As a result, we keep pounding the square peg into the round hole. Collective Impact 3.0 asks us to take the leap of faith that our Context Experts and Content Experts, when working together in a close relationship based on respect and trust, can allow the solutions to emerge and, together, see them, test them, and implement them.
Big Idea #5: Change Happens at the Speed of Trust. “Change happens at the speed of trust” refers to comments made by FSG’s John Kania when he was speaking about the mind shifts that are needed for Collective Impact 3.0. Among the mind shifts John identified was the need to establish deeper relationships among CI partners to support the movement needed for progress to occur. It is not clear to me whether John actually used the phrase “change happens at the speed of trust” or whether this was an interpretation given to his actual words by another. I heard one of the members of my Learning Lab use this during our final meeting together of the Summit. It immediately resonated with me. The following week I used the phrase in my keynote presentation at the Iowa Department of Human Services Breakthrough Series Collaborative meeting in Des Moines. It strongly resonated with the group there as well. Wendy Rickman, Administrator of the Division of Adult, Children and Family Services, was so taken by it that she proposed that “change happens at the speed of trust” be carried forward as the theme for the next phase of the Iowa Breakthrough Series Collaborative, a five-year-old initiative of Iowa DHS and Casey Family Programs to improve the state’s child welfare system.
Regardless of the origin of the phrase, it says a lot about the look of Collective Impact 3.0. As one of John Kania’s slides did said, “typical social sector mindset and behavior has it backwards.” It is not about pre-determined solutions and emergent interactions and relationships; it is about pre-determined interactions and the relationships and solutions that will emerge as a result.
The many pieces of information I gleaned from the Summit that congealed into these Five Big Ideas came so fast and furious that I am not sure I can accurately cite any single source. Some came out of the plenary sessions, some came out of the workshops, and some came out of the interaction with Learning Lab #20 (you know who you are and thank you for all I learned from you) which I had the honor and pleasure of facilitating. Regardless of the source, I am deeply appreciative of the insights and ideas that were shared at the Collective Impact Summit. I hope to meet you there next year!
Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.
Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.
The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.
This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.
What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.
The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.
The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.
The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.
It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?
Be greater, do good, every day,
[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.
I’ve recently come across a couple of resources that I wanted to share.
First, FSG has recently put out a video about the Cincinnati, Ohio “backbone” meeting in March. In some recent posts I wrote about my experiences at that conference which focused on “backbone” organizations for Collective Impact initiatives. If you’re not familiar with Collective Impact or the concept of “backbone” organizations, this is a nice introduction. If you look closely, you may also see somebody you recognize. Watch the video here!
Second, my son, Jake, gave me a new book for my birthday a few weeks ago. Jake and I have a similar, but odd, sense of humor so he often gets me a funny book or DVD. This year he gave me “Using Complexity Theory for Research and Program Evaluation” by Michael Wolf-Branigin. Not quite the usual fare and not really a funny book. And, the book already had about a half-dozen pink Post It flags distributed throughout it. Really odd. Then I began to look at each of the pages the flags were marking. Turns out Jake was Dr. Wolf-Branigin’s research assistant at George Mason University for over two years when he was getting his MSW. During that time he worked closely with Dr. Wolf-Branigin on portions of this book. Jake’s contribution was signficant enough that he gets several mentions and is credited as the co-author of chapter 7 (Developing Agent-Based Models). Dr. Wolf-Branigin was a terrific mentor to Jake and certainly gave him some extraordinary opportunities, including co-authorship, not just on this book but on some upcoming research articles as well.
Now that I’ve had my “proud dad” moment, let me also say that the book is really good and quite useful for anyone that is a fan of complexity theory (which I am) and yet is somewhat puzzled to understand how evaluation research works in complexity (which, again, I am).
In closing, I think I’ve also mentioned in previous posts that I’m deep into data analysis and writing up research findings for my dissertation. I’ve been trying to write occasional posts on this blog as well to try to shake off “dissertation brain” but haven’t been a regular in my posting as I’d like to be. I’ve got another in progress that I hope to be posting by early June. So, stay tuned. In the meantime, check out the video and the Wolf-Branigin book. Good stuff!