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In the space between chaos and shape,

there was another chance.

-Jeanette Winterson

As someone who helps guide individuals, organizations, communities, and collaboratives through change to achieve greater impact, I am constantly in the process, personally and professionally of learning about how we navigate transitions so that we achieve the results we seek.

All too often, I witness people (including myself!) stating a goal and having a challenging time executing on the steps to achieve that goal. One opportunity here is to look more broadly at building systems based on your individual or community values that support practices that lead toward your intended result. I wrote about this at the start of the year, and have found it to be a useful shift in perspective.

There are two related trends that I want to highlight in social change and sustainability work in particular that are important to understand if want to navigate change successfully.

The first is the shift in understanding leadership as a collective process rather than an individual pursuit. And similarly, the second is about an evolution moving us from a field defined by organizational and institutional actors to one that is increasingly shaped by networks.

Both of these trends create more opportunity for impact, and they require a philosophical and practical shift in the way we navigate change. These transformations are the movement building equivalent of setting up systems rather than goals. There is a clear vision and result attached to working in a more collective way, but the mindset and behavior is often at odds to how we currently operate.

In order to successfully navigate change, we need to build competencies as leaders that see us in relationship with those we work with in a different way. We need to build teams where everyone is able to bring their leadership to bear and hold ownership for results–as opposed to a single individual with ultimate authority and accountability. We have epidemic rates of Executive Directors and other senior leaders burning out or leaving the work and this does not help sustain morale or achieve the depth of change we seek.

How can we lead in a way that still allows for clear decision-making, but strengthens team responsibility for leadership? It requires acknowledgement of the need to work differently, clear guidelines on team roles and responsibilities, and embracing the practice of organizational learning and the value of evolutionary improvement.

In networks, there is a similar dynamic, especially where people see the network as comprised of a set of organizations and organizational interests rather than defined by the power of the linkages among members. While it’s critical to uphold the value that institutions bring to networks, I’m often told that network or collaborative practice is something “in addition to our day jobs”, which is inimical to network success.

Networks only succeed when people involved in collaborative efforts see them as core to their work, and the pathway-inclusive of yet beyond the boundaries of their organization-to accomplishing results they could not achieve by acting alone. If we are committed to large-scale systemic change, we should participate in networks “early and often.”

Two recent companion articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review support this by celebrating The Dawn of System Leadership detailing the skills needed to lead in new ways and Bridge Building for Social Transformation looking at the structures we need to create to affect change.

This is hard work, and a path which has not entirely been defined, but a philosophy and practice of transformative change which is only growing-and which requires many of the same innovations as the shift in leadership demands: an understanding of the systemic and interdisciplinary nature of the challenges we face, a commitment to structure relationships across teams and institutions to create ongoing connections and lasting change, and a greater consciousness on the part of both advocates and philanthropy to be patient with and supportive of “longer arc” processes.

Featured Resource: Navigating Change

Several years ago, I was asked by Smart Growth America to prepare a webinar on Navigating Change, along with some supporting materials.

It focuses on both the practice and underlying philosophy of running effective community and coalition meetings and understanding overall engagement for community, policy, and place-based initiatives. Here are some additional hallmarks of how we might successfully navigate change using a collective approach. You can apply these principles and practices to your own leadership or to your participation in a network or collaborative effort.

  • Do a “collective leadership” inventory. Whether you are assessing your own leadership or that of your organization, reflect on how well you are working to build bridges between organizations for a larger goal (not simply supporting your own agenda). Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of  collective leadership and what might you change?
  • Talk to your close partners. We don’t have many forums for performing network evaluation, though navigating change collectively depends on this practice. Reach out to those you work with and schedule time (regularly) for an honest conversation or process.
  • Set (and revisit!) a clear vision and roles. Even in established networks and collective efforts, it’s common for participants (new and existing) to lose sight of the overall vision and what roles each individual/institution is playing. At all meetings, or at least quarterly, time should be taken to remind all of vision, agreements, and roles. (An MOU or cooperative agreement never hurts either.)
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