All this talk about transformation! Are you tired yet?

This article first appeared in our e-newsletter.

Yeh, me too. Not because I don’t have the energy for it, but because everyone has an opinion on what transformation is and isn’t and I wonder if sufficient clarity and alignment will be reached.

Then again, I tell myself, transformation is not about clarity and alignment at all; it’s more of a mindset and an approach to things than an end result.

Actually if you think about it, the very nature of “transformation” suggests there is no end result, no nirvanic stasis we discover and that allows us then to venture off to bake on the beaches of self-congratulation.

(Hmmm, perhaps “transformation” has to be accompanied by a healthy, if not twisted, dose of cynicism.)

Not long ago I attended a community forum. I have attended quite a few in my career. Most of the forums, conferences, symposiums, etc. that I frequent are typically about some kind of social problem or social change. Here’s two observations about my experience of such events.

First, they are events. With few exceptions, they are one day sessions that, despite often being very informative and challenging, have no momentum. As soon as we all leave, the potential for collective action on what we accomplished that day fades away as we all cooperate to get out of the parking lot.

Second, it appears that what we are talking about today, the issues that challenge us, the problems that worry us — they seem like the same conversations we had last year, the year before, ten years ago… as long as I can remember. How come?

These two observations got me to thinking that maybe, just maybe, “transformation” is far less about new or revolutionary ideas about doing social good and far more about making big changes to HOW we do what we do — perhaps even HOW we behave.

Maybe transformation is about revolutionary behaviour and practice. The new ideas are actually easier to generate. Acting on them in ways that give new ideas a chance of being actualized – that’s a whole other matter.

One of the things that always comes up at human services forums or planning sessions is collaboration. It has become a foundational principle to everything we do or are supposed to do. The call to do it is formalized by funders who demand to see it reflected in proposals (as if it is just an objective truth that collaboration is always needed).

It is as if collaboration is now an end, as opposed to what it actually is: a way of practicing our work. However, I suggest  collaboration is a practice to employ when it makes sense to employ it.

Think about it. I can’t believe I am doing this but here’s a sports analogy. Basketball is a team sport and clearly requires a significant amount of collaboration, but not all the time. Sometimes the best course of action is for a player to get the ball, dribble all the way down court on his own and shoot the ball – all individual effort. His teammates might cooperate by getting out of his way, but beyond the effort is primarily an individual one.

Too often, we invoke collaboration as a means to achieve our singular agendas. In other words, we don’t purely collaborate for the good of the people we serve. We collaborate to advance our organization’s perspective on how to deliver good things to people. There is a difference. Not saying one way is always right or wrong, but maybe we should just admit that often collaboration is a strategy to achieve self-interest too.

Self-interest is a good thing. In fact perhaps the best collaboration will manifest through the participants in it being clear and transparent about their self-interest. Maybe that’s the pathway to common ground.

There’s other things about “transformation” that wear me out sometimes. It’s the tendency we have sometimes to glom on to a new theory or model, which becomes the new basket in which we place all of our eggs. I have written about this before – most recently in a piece I wrote called Watch Out for the Pendulum Swing.

Theories or models like Positive Deviance, Collective Impact, Social Return on Investment, and so forth have brillant ideas we should engage. But like all brillant ideas, they need to be processed through a discerning mind or better yet with others who together are seeking the value-add such concepts offer.

Not everything we do now has to reflect John Kania’s postulations around Collective Impact. Sometimes the impact we have all on our own is impact enough.

Positive Deviance cues us to find out, for example, why some people can be healthy in an environment where most are not healthy. What we discover, however, is very unlikely to translate into a simple recipe we can apply to everyone else.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) adds lots to our conversations and work with respect to being outcome focused, but if we swing that pendulum too far, SROI will confine our thinking to financial metrics, which we all know is only one of the measures we should use to assess progress toward improved quality of life. (See Is SROI just another bandwagon).

Of course sometimes transformation is about new, big ideas and new big practices. Cellular technology, the Internet, robotics, and so forth represent both I think. Others I am not so sure of.

For example, is Facebook a transformative idea or just a profound innovation brought about by new technology? Is Facebook redefining relationships or is it changing how we engage in them? Okay, maybe it’s both. Yet it still seems so to me that the “transformation” is experienced and lived in the “how” not the “what”.

And if that’s true, then transformation is very personal, isn’t it?

Changing how we practice our professions is about personal change, about changing our self-view, and coming to terms with the difficult truth that our past identities and behaviours don’t cut it anymore.

Now the prospect of what to do with that makes me feel tired already, but it’s a good tired, I think. Yes?

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