Category Archives: Group Dynamics

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is with us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves.

Of course, it is a fitting question when we are contemplating a collective aspiration or vision. It’s a question that is also about right now. Why are we here, right now? What do we understand about the moment we are in? Have we made the time to connect with those around the table so that we can know them beyond their titles and their organizational roles and authorities?

As is true for all compelling questions, they produce additional questions. If we prefer a jargony label, one could call it a prime example of generative inquiry, but that’s  just a fancy term for the fact that good questions lead to more good questions. That’s easy to understand.

When groups are stuck or, worse, when their members are at odds with one another, this question has the potential to be a game-changer, if people are willing to abandon their positions and certainties and turn together to answer the question. The question is not asking for an argument, but rather implies a need to understand ourselves and one another and, as much as possible, those we represent.

This can be where groups go wrong: failing to devote sufficient time and energy to connecting with one another as human beings, not just professionals with organizational ties and confinements. Getting to the human part of the question is important because our humanity cannot be governed by an organization, but we can and I daresay we should try our best to share who we are as we talk about why we are here.

It’s hard to do. And it takes a lot of trust, which also requires time to form and nurture. Trust is an exchange between human beings, not professionals. Either you trust the person or you don’t. There is no such thing as half-trust. Lack of trust leads to blaming and closing doors. It causes us to deflect ourselves from grappling with what matters most and devote our waning energy to process details, rules of order, and snipes – sometimes to such a degree that the only common agenda is the group’s dedication to its own dysfunction.

Those of you who know me understand my sensitivity to addressing capacity when setting strategy. Our tendency is to take on more than we can effectively handle – or should I say, “juggle?” That said, when groups do not understand and embrace why they are here it can result in the claim that “we lack the capacity” to do this stuff. “We have to do this off the corners of our desks.”

It is true that capacity considerations must have a strong presence in strategy development and even more so when forming implementation plans. But in my many years of consulting with leaders and community change practitioners I can’t recall a group that understood why it was “here” and why each individual was, too, ever stopping itself from doing anything because of a lack of capacity.

The purpose of factoring in capacity challenges is not to identify what will defeat us, but  to first recognize and then do something about the capacities required to move forward on the shared aspiration.

After all, we will never bring about significant community change is all we do is articulate all the reasons we can’t make the changes we say we want to make.

Why are we here?

Our answers are worth knowing.

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By the way, why do we see juggling many balls as a badge of honour, as if it is a skill to be aspired for? Realistically, if you are focused on juggling a bevy of balls in the air, you can’t do much anything else, can you?

The Music of Collaboration

 

At the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayor’s Lead gathering that Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities hosted in Edmonton April 5 to 7, one of my many roles and privileges was to be an MC at a reception at City Hall for summit participants. At this event, the trio Asani performed their version of our national anthem and two other incredible songs, sung in their native language. (At the end of this posting is a video of them singing O Canada.)

What I heard and saw and felt were received by me (and I imagine many others) as joyful revelation of the human spirit of these three women.

I watched these beautiful singers, the expressions on their faces, the look in their eyes, as their harmonies washed over us, weaved through us, and became a part of the air we breathed. Everyone there felt that and everyone felt the magic of their music each in their own way. Art is always experienced personally.

As a singer-songwriter, I look for more than the music or voices intertwined. I watch the human beings making the music. Watch how they breathe, how they sense one another, how they embrace their individual roles in the “we” of their creation. As I watched them, there were times I saw in their faces those moments of joy as they folded their voices into harmonies that I sensed not only brought chills to my body, but to theirs as well.

There are times when one is creating with others that such magic happens. New discoveries reveal themselves in the moment. Perfect blending of voice and rhythm reveals itself. What is created is bigger than, and beyond, the artists’ expression or expectations.

Asani’s performance was the epitome of collaboration. What they created far exceeded what they could create on their own. But even more so, what they gave to us exceeded the incredible voice they created together. Their impact went beyond their own unified expression of their music because as soon as it reached us, it was more than when their voices left their bodies. They became us. Singer and audience made their songs even bigger and more profound than what the three of them created. Their gift became the gift we gave to one another.

Artists understand this or at least intuit this phenomenon. The eloquent, well crafted story is not as powerful on its own. It finds its power in the reception of the reader. The sculptor, the painter, the weaver, all artists are unable to reach the promise of their talent without those watching, viewing, engaging in the art. Don’t get me wrong. To engage this way requires stellar artistic expression. All I am saying is that such expression is not fully realized without those of us who engage in their art.

Art’s power and grace are revealed not only in those who receive it but also because of those who embrace it.

Those of us working to end poverty or homelessness; those of us advocating for human rights; those of us who believe in the sanctity of being human – the work we are doing is the same work as the artist. We must engage others for our work to have its full meaning. In fact, the meaning of our work is to be found in the response and embrace of others. Like the work of the artist, our work must be stellar work, but the impact we seek must be embraced by our “audience.”

Our collaborative efforts, as powerful as they may be, fall short if they do not touch others in ways that inspire, motivate, and cause the engagement we hope to instill in others.

The  Asani singers are such consummate singers not just because of natural talent. Their beauty is precision that emerges from practice, long hours, struggle, debate about which way to turn a voice, up or down, softer or louder, and when to shake a rattle or beat the drum. It is mutual orchestration and no doubt the sharing of leadership required to attain their connection with us, their audience. And if they do it right, which they did, their music becomes ours to celebrate, to cherish, and to uphold as beautiful, amazing, joyous expressions of our  humanity. And once that happens, we carry that with us.

Imagine if our collaborative efforts to end poverty could achieve such harmony. Imagine how it would feel to see the impact of our songs on those we wish to engage and inspire. Getting there would be no different than the work of the artists, the work of the Asani women. I am sure they had their times of disagreement. I am sure there were times when egos may have stalled their collective commitment to their craft. I am sure they had times of being weary or lost or wondering if what they had created would be good enough. And I am sure there are some who may not appreciate their gifts. Some who might not be open to hearing, much less celebrating, an Indigenous version of O Canada.

Thankfully, they moved through such obstacles and resistance. Thankfully they did not allow themselves to be dissuaded by the naysayers or those who prefer different music. I am thankful they kept their focus and chose to be present for whomever was open to their embrace and to worry far less about those who might turn away.

This, too, is a lesson for us in collaborative work. We must focus on those who will walk with us to a better place, who despite differences of  opinion or talents still want to walk together. Should we remain open to the naysayers? Should we listen to their objections? Yes, but only to make ourselves better, never to stop us from creating the beauty we must create to make communities rich with harmony and peace and joy.

Oh and one more thing. I have no doubt, the Asani trio does not ever reach that point where they say to themselves, we cannot do better. The reason why they are so good at their art is because they never tell each other, “We are done. There is nothing more we can do.” No matter how incredible the collaboration, our work together can always get better, do more, reach further, and have more impact.

Thank you Asani for your inspiration and your art.

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Together, Differently

I sit on the Mayor of Edmonton’s Task Force to End Poverty. It’s a diverse group including the expected mix of leaders from government, business, education and community services. At a recent gathering we were working together to increase common understanding about poverty as well as to move forward with identifying strategies.

In this session we were gathered in small groups around round tables. At my table the folks there represented those that might be considered to be on the far left and those on the far right and everything in between. (I will let you imagine where I fit on that spectrum!)

This little story is not about left or right, but about how people from all walks of life, each with their own ideologies, their lenses and biases, as well as their compassion and insights can walk together toward a day when poverty is no more.

One of the gentlemen there clearly operates at the opposite end of the “spectrum,” than I do. For a time, he and I (and others) seemed like we were debating positions more so than exploring possibilities together.  We listened to one another, expanded on one another’s thoughts or beliefs and there were numerous points where we did not agree.

Here is what I found to be so amazing and encouraging. No one was facilitating our round table conversation. We went back and forth; everyone spoke, granted some more than others. I imagine some of the things said by one rankled the sensibilities of another, but we were respectful and we kept at it. I remember thinking as things progressed that despite our differences, all of us were there for the same purpose: to end poverty in our community.

I know it wasn’t magic, but it had that feel to it. Perhaps it is was more like a mysterious convergence. Why? Because we all discovered, through the sharing of, and dialogue about, our differences that at the end of it all, we were on common ground. We just travelled to it from different places.

Yes, our differences remained. Our politics were not transformed. Our fundamental beliefs were maintained, but we used them to create understanding and commitment to the work before us.

There are a host of tools we can use to foster dialogue, but in the final analysis, it takes people to welcome other people into their minds and hearts, accept our differences as well as our imperfections, and move forward together.

I discovered as the meeting drew to a close that the gentleman that was most different from me had become my ally and I had become his. To paint a bit of a stereotypical picture: imagine a gentleman in a suit I could never afford, neat and tidy hair, shoes that shone and another gentleman in jeans, untucked shirt, sandals, and a tad scruffy walking together toward the same place. Together, differently.

It made my heart sing. And I have to believe, his did, too.

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More About Generative Conversations

Reprinted from our e-newsletter – see back issues and sign up HERE

What is a Generative Conversation?
A generative conversation is basically a dialogue among people interested in learning and exchanging ideas about a topic they have agreed to talk about. More specifically, dialogue is: “shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility” (Co-Intelligence Institute).

Another way of saying this is that dialogue is the art of listening together. An effective generative conversation, then, has people engaged in the sharing of perspectives, questions and ideas that produce a common understanding and help identify a common sense of direction or conclusion.

Assumptions
Effective Generative Conversations are reliant on the following assumptions of those engaged in the conversation, as follows: Continue reading More About Generative Conversations

ON COLLABORATION

We all know collaboration is at the heart of making positive change in society. We know this primarily because we tell one another it must be true. We tell ourselves that the range and depth of change needed to improve our communities can only be accomplished by working together. We deploy maxims like “no one can go it alone.” We are so convinced that collaboration must permeate everything we do that funders now demand it as a matter of course.

Sometimes we proclaim collaboration is a great way to reduce costs or duplication, despite the lack of comprehensive evidence that this is true. We grab onto new versions of collaboration like “collective impact.” It is almost as if individual effort has become devalued in and of itself.

But is collaboration the answer we keep telling ourselves it is? Here’s a perspective offered by Todd Cohen who blogs for Inside Philanthropy, which is published by The Philanthropy Journal.[1]

Collaboration has to be one of the most bloated, overworked and misunderstood buzzwords in the charitable marketplace.

Funders and donors preach and demand it. Trade groups and consultants peddle it. And nonprofits, nodding to the sermonizing of their funders and donors, pay endless lip service to it.

Sadly, far too few of any of them actually practice it or even know what it is or what it takes to make it work.

Collaboration sounds great in theory.

But in practice, it can prove to be slippery, complicated, risky and sometimes plain unworkable. Continue reading ON COLLABORATION