2020 Reflections – Finding Fellow Travellers

This week I spent three hours with my friend and mentor, Al Etmanski. Al is a social activist and innovator extraordinaire, author of the recently published book Impact (see the weekly read below), world leader and connector in social innovation – and he will be with us for the 2020 Social Impact gathering on October.  I have known Al since 1986 when I was a naïve but earnest public servant working as the Provincial Coordinator for Deinstitutionalization. Al was a larger than life and passionate leader in the disability movement that had, with others, raised awareness about the state of institutional care, painted a picture of positive options, and successfully poked, prodded and inspired the government to close the three institutions of the day and develop a community-based care system.  Our working relationship was difficult at times – me being in the middle of a government bureaucracy with limited resources and high expectations, and he being a progressive leader in the community and a passionate parent. I often didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but Al was a good teacher and there were lots of amazing people involved.  We figured some stuff out along the way. However, as is often the case, I didn’t really grasp the depth of the learning until much later. 
Fast forward a few decades and I am the ED of the Federation. Al calls to invite me onto the Premier’s Advisory Council on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I am sceptical of government’s intentions – is this about offloading responsibility or unrealistic expectations for the community sector? We talk and he understands my fears, and I trust him and his intentions.  What happened on the Advisory Council is an interesting and positive story for another time, but what has been most important to me is re-kindling a relationship with Al, and in the process learning to give voice to ideas, fears and questions.
What Al does brilliantly is listen, question, connect and reflect. He readily admits that he wasn’t always this way, and that in the past he fractured some working relationships, but he intentionally cultivates these practices now. He has learned that it is critical to creating positive social impact. He has an immense depth of knowledge and experience, but he never makes you feel anything but interesting. He asks wonderful questions and seeks to understand, and in so doing, has helped me give shape and form to some of the ideas and questions that I carry. He is also humble – willing to share stories of his own crises of faith and in so doing has given me permission to share my own doubts and frustrations.  This is not done just to feel better about ourselves, but rather to think bigger about ourselves. To his core, he, and his wise partner Vicki Cammack, believe that the tough, complex, and intractable social, economic and environmental issues that we face can be addressed. And they don’t just talk about it – they are out in the world wrestling with the work, generating and testing action, failing, floundering and trying again.
In 2020 we talk about great leadership being participatory, and I gained a more nuanced understanding of this after my conversation with Al. As leaders and change-makers, we need to be skillful engagers and collaborators as we cannot do this work alone. However we also need to create bonds with people who are, as Al says, ‘wise travellers’. These are the people who: can challenge and disrupt our thinking and practice; who can accept us in the times when we are excited and flushed with the delight of seeing an idea come to life or some good happening in the world – and make it even better; who accept us when we have fears, anger and doubts, and can craft a safe container for exploration of it all; who connect us to our ideas and to others and their ideas.  He notes that innovation often arises from and at the margins – with people who hold different views and have had different life experiences and are not often welcomed into the centre. This is one of the key teachings in the final residency of 2020 – as leaders in this field we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to set the table for diverse views and perspectives in order to co-create social impact. It has been interesting to consider who the wise travellers are in my life, and who I need to ‘set the table for’ to challenge my thinking in these times. What about you?  

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Impact

Al Etmanski’s new book is Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Impact bring social innovation to life through stories and makes it accessible. He invites us in: social innovation “always begins with what you care deeply about” (p. 36). It “is the latest descriptor of the ageless human pursuit to make the world a better place. It is a bundle of new learning, technologies and methods blended with the best traditional approaches to social change” (p. 24). In this, I am reminded of Wedlidi’s wise teachings about bi-cultural practice and ways of being – bringing traditional and contemporary knowledge and practice together to meet the challenges of our time.
This reimagining and connecting is needed because, as Al goes on to say, “what is new is the recognition that many of our toughest social and environmental challenges have had time to develop deep roots that are resistant to just about anything we throw at them…If we are to be innovative about anything in the future, it must be about how we work together…as wise travellers. Social innovation spreads through sharing, not selfishness. The heroic, “great man” model of social change makes for a great story, but it isn’t true in practice. It is only through generous, respectful interactions across sectors, expertise and roles that social innovation achieves lasting impact” (pp.24-25, bold type mine). He goes on to quote my favourite definition of social innovation from Tim Broadhead, “social innovation is both a destination – the resolution of complex social and environmental challenges – and a journey – devising new approaches that engage all stakeholders, leveraging their competencies and creativity to design novel solutions” (p. 25).
I can’t do justice to Impact in this short post, but I do want to share the six interconnected patterns that Al illuminates in the book and focus on several that resonate for us in 2020:

  1. Think and act like a movement:A movement is composed of a million small acts. It is impossible to predict which one will ignite a spark or cause the next surge. And it doesn’t really matter” (p. 48).Al notes five characteristics of progressive social movements and illustrates them with examples from diverse sectors. He suggests that they: ignite our imagination; are multi-generational; comprise small acts; are self-organizing; and marry art and justice (pp. 50-53). In this way, they are ‘messy’ and don’t lend themselves to the project plans and predictability that many of our systems love, which creates a tension that we need to manage skillfully. He invites us to discern what movements we are already a part of and “make our contribution, no matter how small or insignificant we think it is”(p. 58).
  2. Create a container for your content:  Make it easier “for people to do the right thing” by attending both to content and framing so that people can grasp what you see and feel. So often we turn people away from the discussion and the work by making our aims unclear or inaccessible. Al illuminates some more patterns of effective content containers. They: are playful and fun; are non-judgmental; ignite the imagination; personalize the abstract; and tell a story. How might we invite and share stories and ideas in a way that mobilizes and inspires people to act?
  3. Set the table for allies, adversaries and strangers: This one resonates most strongly with what we have tried to design into and convey in 2020, “changing the situation requires more than the usual suspects at the table. Dialogue and convening are more than means to an end. They give structure to our need to belong, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. They broaden understanding, puncture assumptions, change authority flows and allow us to cultivate new relationships. Solutions spread when we move beyond blame, competition, misunderstanding and mistrust” (p. 27). Al points out that working together on tough issues is no picnic at times – even when we work with friends. However, some of the qualities of effective convening that he notes do, in our experience, enhance the likelihood of connection. Civility, hospitality, and curiosity are key, as is personal agency: “Convenors strive to bring out the best in everyone. They convene around gifts… If convenors usually enter a room composed of leaders and followers, they hope to leave a room full of leaders, people who are emboldened and willing to take responsibility for what they say and do. Front-of-the-room leadership isn’t enough. Neither is leadership that suggests they will do it all for you” (p. 84). He notes that Paul Born (Tamarack) asks the following question in any gathering, “Why is it important that you are here?” as it invites people to be ‘doers’.
  4. Mobilize your economic power: This one is a harder pattern for me to get my head around and activate as I/we have grown up with a sector-wide scarcity mindset – scrambling for funds and support. There are 2 considerations here. The first is, what is the economic power of our constituencies that we might leverage? Certainly many of the people we serve have limited economic means, but when you consider the broader constituency of people working in the field, family members, social justice advocates, etc. we can have a stronger collective economic impact. The Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), which Al was instrumental in establishing in Canada, is a case in point. The second idea is that social innovators are getting better at disrupting typical business models for their agencies or causes and are looking beyond government or grant funding and creating new partnerships with unlikely allies in order to spread innovation ideas.  
  5. Advocate with empathy: I have been strongly criticized in the past for not being harsh enough as an advocate, and this pattern spoke to what I have felt in my heart: Most people are doing the best they can within the system that they are operating within and if I can’t have empathy for their situation they may not be able to have empathy for mine. “Strategic inquiry is the process of discovering the priorities, language and tools of the group you are trying to convince” and being solution-focused as advocates (p. 116). It doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t “raise a little hell” as needed; lines in the sand are important; anger and outrage can fuel us. But if we accept the premise that we need to set the table for diverse perspectives, we can’t expect to be successful if we throw rocks and abdicate responsibility for finding solutions to government or others. 
  6. Who is important as how: One of the great takeaways from this book is the concept that the question ‘How?’ is a “killer question. It can stop you dead in your tracks. One way to undermine a new initiative or stop someone from pursuing a big idea is to ask them how they are going to do it. How dampens the imagination and favours being practical far too early…More cruelly, how can imply that because you don’t have the answer, there must be something wrong with you…” (pp. 135-136). The more generative question is ‘who?’ and invites us to think about who we can learn from and work with and what qualities the issue will benefit from. “Social innovation is enlightened by who we are – by character, not technique. The conviction of today’s social innovators arises from their emotional and spiritual maturity. They pay attention to what nourishes and replenishes their spirits. And they have the humility to admit their limitations and fears” (p. 28).
Al will be joining us for the 2020 social impact gathering and copies of his book will be provided to all participants.