Today's workplaces are rarely straightforward. It is especially true of organizations that are looking to grow and innovate. As my colleague Rick Smyre has stated, "We're preparing for a future that hasn't yet been invented". As a result, my community building work typically results in me working with organizations where solutions are complicated and messy.
Not only that, the need for change is sometimes driven by a belief (usually that of the funders or elected officials involved) that there is a one-size-fits-all secret sauce solution that can be implemented within several months.
Needless to say these days it often takes much longer to check anything off my to-do list. Sigh.
Without a doubt this drive for change is due to our constantly changing, hyper-connected world, and a growing recognition that the systems built for the industrial era are broken and no longer valid.
This is complicated by a growing understanding that hierarchical, command-and-control, top-down leadership simply doesn’t work anymore, and trusted relationships, networks and webs and “meshwork” are the foundation of any change we need to put into place.
All of this is further compromised by the fact that not everyone is wired for leading the often messy system-thinking and innovation that will be required. That’s not a judgment as much as it is an observation. And ultimately it truly is a good thing because chances are that if you’re not wired for transformational leadership you are essential for what experts call transactional leadership. Transactional leadership is more about keeping the ship afloat and everything flowing smoothly and goodness knows that is just as important.
But, by far the greatest challenge, is the hard work and creativity it takes to make the complicated simple as strategies for change are implemented. That’s the piece that often trips me up.
However, as the result of being blessed with previous learnings and some not so insignificant funding for boots-on-the-ground projects across the country focused on transformational change, here’s my best shot at explaining three well tested paths for implementing any kind of systemic organizational, neighbourhood, or community transformational change.
We know if an organization, neighbourhood, or community wants to be stronger, more vibrant, and positioned for the future, it must have stakeholders (employees, citizens, clients, funders, etc) who are active, creative, and engaged. To make that a reality, three paths are essential.
The first path on the journey to transformative change is one that focuses on prioritizing the support, learning, and growth of a cohort of diverse leaders. And, by leaders we’re not talking just about those with the formal position, because everyone leads with or without a title. Change and success simply doesn’t happen without community leaders who can act as agents of change, ensure continuous improvement, provide big picture or system thinking, promote stakeholder responsibility, advocate for quality of life and the public good, and plan using a community development approach. It should come as no surprise to realize that the development of these competencies will require an ongoing investment in training, coaching, and the development of a culture of learning. The result of this investment will be a diverse cohort of leaders at all levels who have the competencies necessary for implementing innovative change.
The second path, driven by that cohort of leaders, needs to focus on a short term, cross-sectoral, stakeholder-driven initiative or project(s). It needs to be something that everyone agrees is important as well as be one that requires collaboration across departments, organizations, sectors or silos.
This short term project contributes to the hope, spirit, and potential impetus for change by illustrating what can happen when everyone works together. Think of it as a quick success or as low-hanging fruit.
Organizations, neighbourhoods, and communities committed to change have often chosen projects related to children and youth, recreation, parks, arts, culture and heritage as they are typically both an inspiring and non-threatening place to start. Examples could include building or renovating a playground, park, skateboarding facility, or trail. It could also be something a bit less tangible such as a training event for volunteers, a conference for youth, or a stakeholder focus group. We’ve also worked with stakeholders who have focused on putting a temporary floor in a curling rink so it can be used year round. Another built a nature park that had teens laying sod, and seniors and kids joining efforts to build birdhouses. Yet another town initiated a calendar that chose from hundreds of photographs submitted by residents to illustrate what they were most proud of in their community. The 12 photographs selected were unveiled at a spirited, well-attended launch.
Ultimately it is not the project or initiative itself that is important as it is more about the travel together along the path and the trusted relationships that result. These trusted relationships, networks, and webs form the essential foundation or basis for ANY kind of meaningful change.
The third path involves the implementation of a longer term, stakeholder-driven, adaptive plan that is future-focused and addresses quality of life and public good as well as economic impact. Ultimately as much about outcomes and values, this collective, community-owned plan is essential for inspiring and engaging stakeholders to engage and own the meshwork that will be required for transformative change. <p">Hopefully that sounds simpler now. Not a quick fix but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Just keep in mind that ultimately change requires three paths - (1) investing in the development of a local cohort of community leaders, (2) a short term project or initiative, and (3) a longer term future-focused plan. Local leaders, low hanging fruit, and long term planning. Maybe its not so complicated after all.