Learning, for me, is more than acquiring knowledge; it’s also about putting it into practice and sharing my experiences so that others can benefit from them. Below are some good practices I’ve been using for bringing people across organizations together to collectively address complex challenges, like inequality and climate change.
1. Know what you’re good at and what your partners can do better
A gathering for members of a network I was involved in sparked an idea for a ground-breaking initiative. Shortly afterwards a couple of members volunteered to take this idea forward. In addition to hosting meetings for this new initiative, network staff contributed their technical expertise. This resulted in the development of a tool institutions can use to assess their impact and prompted industry influencers to comment on its potential to be taken to scale.
At the same time, participation of network staff in developing this tool diverted resources from other collaborative efforts. While ‘the juice may have been worth the squeeze’ in terms of impact, my colleagues and I learned a valuable lesson in sticking to what the network does best—catalyzing innovative ideas that members can take forward together – instead of being an implementation partner.
Jane Wei-Skillern, who has spent more than a decade researching successful networks, defines network leadership as “mobiliz[ing] various organizations and resources that together can deliver more impact rather than to become a leading organization first and then engaging in collaboration at the margins.” Communicating the network’s role in supporting collaborative efforts to members has helped maintain positive relationships.
2. Add more value to gatherings by focusing on the most powerful leverage point in the system you’re working to change
My colleagues and I once organized a gathering for industry leaders to discuss addressing a gap in progress by political leaders. Instead of a series of panel discussions about who’s doing what and debating what needs to happen next, we took an unconventional approach. This involved turning the tables on what it means to act with urgency; we invited participants to pause and reflect on their actions and to assess whether the cumulative impact of these actions were collectively adding up to the impact they wanted to make.
In this highly participatory meeting, we provided the space for participants learn from their peers and to decide what changes they wanted to make in their day-to-day work as well as in how they wanted to work together.
What made this an especially powerful gathering is that it centered on practical actions that can be taken at the individual level. We challenged everyone to consider: How do I relate to my work and the people I’m working with? According to Donella Meadows, in her influential work, “Dancing with Systems,” the most powerful place to intervene in any system is our mindsets. This is because institutions, societies, and cultures are all based on ideas, and ideas originate from how we perceive the world around us and interact with it.
Changing our mindset begins with self-awareness. When we’re aware of our intentions and the impact we want to make, we can consciously choose to act in ways that increase the likelihood of getting desired results.
There was also enjoyment in exploring the irony that sometimes moving faster means taking time out to pause, reflect, and take care of ourselves. If we choose to keep running ahead on the path we’re already on, without pausing now and then to check we’re going in the right direction, we run the risk of losing our way and burning ourselves out in the process.
This has been an important lesson for me personally as a leader of a small team that is under continuous pressure to deliver out-sized results. I’m getting more practice in simultaneously navigating the demands of systems change and self-care; I plan to share more on this subject in a future article.
3. Provide the space for failing and learning from it
I co-facilitated a series of dialogues for organizational leaders we convened to discuss opportunities to achieve a common goal they had been working on separately. When groups come together for the first time it’s important to provide the space to get to know each other, provide information about each other’s organizations, develop a shared understanding of the problem to be addressed, decide what to do together, and to build relationships that facilitate moving ideas into action.
Accomplishing all of this in a way that leaves people feeling like their time is well-spent on both personal connection and making collective progress is a tall order, and even more so when busy schedules make it hard to meet.
In this situation, I erred on trying to accomplish too much in a short period of time instead of building in more spaciousness for connection and working together over the span of longer meetings or hosting meetings more frequently. As a result, these meetings felt rushed and, unfortunately, didn’t accomplish as much as had been planned. In hindsight, I could have done a better job of communicating expectations upfront and also learning more about individuals’ motivations for participating early on.
This experience brings to mind FAIL as an acronym that Abdul Kalam refers to as “first attempt in learning.” This is a helpful reminder that when we’re working on complex challenges, like inequality and climate change, it’s unlikely that we’re going to come up with the perfect solution straight away; and even when there is a good solution, it takes time to experiment with how best to put it into practice and can be taken to scale.
Co-creative, a consulting firm that specializes in collaborative innovation, calls for normalizing failure as a natural part of systems change. For more information on mindsets and practices for embracing failure in systems change, check out Co-Creative’s resource.
Redefining fail as first attempt in learning is also a reminder for me to be kinder to myself when things don’t work out the way I planned. I’m also learning to extend graciousness to myself as I do for my colleagues. One of my intentions for 2023 is to be intentional in providing the space for failure within my team and the networks I work with.
Kimberley Jutze is a social activist and founder of Shifting Patterns Consulting, a Certified B Corporation that builds strong collaborative teams and networks. She partners with changemakers to solve complex problems involving social justice and climate change by helping them to develop the relationships, strategies, and organizational structures and processes that are essential for working better together. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShiftPatConsult and LinkedIn.