Powerful Stranger

It’s been a while since I blogged about one of the chapters from Getting to Maybe. I think now is the right time to return to that book after getting a refresher on developmental evaluation (which has been described as the “practice” to Getting to Maybe’s “theory”) and because the chapter on the Powerful Stranger might resonate with organizations preparing grant applications right now. 🙂

Any social innovation that begins to show results will inevitably encounter what the authors of Getting to Maybe refer to as Powerful Strangers. Power as defined in the book refers to the control of resources, be they physical (money, space), social (connections, networks), or human (effort, talents): any of these forms can be used to maintain the status quo or to instigate change. Social innovators usually start with a surplus of personal energy and enthusiasm, but at some point they will need to focus on how to unlock resources to further their cause, including money and support from powerful individuals that can open doors previously impenetrable.

It’s easy to cast the world, including programs, organizations, and innovations, into haves and have-nots; in the sphere of non-profit organizations or community-based initiatives, we often see ourselves as being on the receiving end of any power conflict, be it from funders and their rules or government policies that can dramatically alter the environment in which we operate. Taking the suggestion from the authors and viewing the situation through a complexity lens, however, we start to realize that nobody is completely without power, that we often embody some of the qualities and characteristics of “the others”, and we do have resources, particularly social connections, to draw on.

One example in the chapter explores the evolution of the AIDS movement from protest and activism to connecting with the powerful in the medical, insurance, and political fields. As people with feet in both camps started drawing connections between the two sides, boundaries between key players began to dissolve: “Advocates constructed themselves as business-minded community people while company representatives constructed themselves as community-minded business people.” In building these connections, social innovators have to understand (and perhaps confront) their own power, while being willing to forgive those powerful strangers and find common ground to work with them.

Points on Collaboration

The chapter delineates these encounters into three phases: connection, confrontation, and collaboration. In sharing some insights on that last phase, I want to start with a joke on collaboration that Michael Quinn Patton shared at the developmental evaluation workshop. Collaboration is like teenage sex, the joke goes – everyone’s talking about it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, nobody’s doing it well, but everyone goes on about how great it is. The key lesson to take home here is that collaboration doesn’t “just work” without problems. Beyond a willingness of the partners to work together, there needs to be honest communication and an understanding of the other.

Another key point about collaboration comes from an example in the book detailing the origins of Canada’s first palliative care unit at Royal Victoria hospital in Montréal. Dr. Balfour Mount, one of the early leaders of the effort to introduce palliative care, knew that there were three key people – powerful strangers – who he had to get on his side at Royal Victoria, namely the chief of surgery, the chief of professional services, and the heading of nursing. Mount identified what interested and motivated each of them and used those insights to connect those in power with his passion and idea for starting a new unit. As noted in the chapter, “[Mount] did not fool people into supporting his initiative; he made them realize it was an opportunity for moving forward a range of cherished agendas.”

That anecdote brings me to my final point on collaboration, or more specifically, a tool that could prove useful when you foresee encounters with powerful strangers. I was introduced to social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s field theory in graduate school, and found it an interesting tool when planning for a new initiative. Lewin recognized that any change will have both driving forces and restraining forces, whether these forces are people, organizations, cultures, policies, or attitudes. The tool I learned about had a team involved with a social innovation divided into two groups, one for driving forces and one for restraints. Each group would then brainstorm ten factors for their side (for/against) and assign a strength value of 1-10 for each factor. Often times, the sum of the restraining factors would outweigh the driving forces; the whole team would then discuss ways to bolster the arguments in favour or weakening the factors arrayed against them. This tool could also be useful in identifying powerful strangers and how to connect, confront, and collaborate with them.

What are your experiences in encountering Powerful Strangers? The comment field is waiting for you below!

Leave a Reply