Emergence

A week or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from a manager who works for a local non-profit agency. She was interested in social innovation and had done some work in that area, and recently learned about the First Tuesday session I had hosted in January on the topic. We met for coffee and had a great conversation, coming up with some ideas on how to promote and support social innovation in Saskatoon. Our next step was to reach out and connect with some other people locally who might be interested in helping out with the planning: although I was already expecting a positive response, I was a bit surprised by the strength of interest expressed and the ease by which we were able to convene an in-person meeting (past experience in the non-profit sector has taught me that finding a date and time for everyone to meet is easily two-thirds the battle!).

This experience of going from a couple of blog posts and a one-off session on the topic to finding an ally, developing some concrete ideas, and quickly connecting with a group of co-conspirators reminded me of the concept of emergence, as described in Getting to Maybe. One of the social innovation examples that the authors drew on was Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s work organizing the Live Aid concert to help alleviate famine conditions in Ethiopia. In describing his experience, Geldof noted that once he started on the project, momentum and energy flowed in, almost beyond his control. “No one particularly stood in my way,” Geldof recalled; “On the contrary, doors impenetrable a week earlier swung open effortlessly.” In Getting to Maybe, this and similar experiences are held up as examples of emergence. Based on ideas from complexity science and in contrast to traditional views of the heroic individual or the deliberate plan that is followed inevitably to a logical conclusion, emergence recognizes that disparate actions from a variety of actors can unexpectedly come together and multiply one’s efforts. New and surprising outcomes often result, while cause and effect can become hopelessly tangled.

In a similar vein, this developing movement on social innovation in Saskatoon has demonstrated emergent properties. Did I plan that my blog posts and the First Tuesday session would be found by someone who would contact me, and that we would subsequently find such a good reception amongst others? Although I may have hoped for such an outcome, I saw my work as simply laying the ground and waiting to see what happened. The situation could have turned out differently – someone else could have contacted me, or perhaps at a different time, or maybe someone else in the city might have started something similar that I would have learned about later and joined in. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that I had no impact, that this issue was fated to happen regardless of my individual action. If I didn’t write those posts and hosted that discussion, would anything have happened?

Although emergence can seem like something inherently uncontrollable, there are some means to encourage it, or at the very least to be prepared to recognize and act on the opportunities that come along. Getting to Maybe articulates a number of principles in this regard, several of which jump out at me: speaking passionately about the issue, practicing and developing the expression of one’s vision, and supporting intense interactions, networking, and information exchange among those who are interested. I think I was (unconsciously) following those principles through writing on this blog, holding the First Tuesday session, developing my own learning and understanding on the topic (such as by reading and commenting on Getting to Maybe), and building connections with like-minded people in Saskatoon.

Going back to our ideas and plans, I’m going to hold off on sharing specifics for the time being because we’re still very much at the beginning stage: I’m hoping to have something more concrete to announce before the end of the month. That being said, if you are interested in supporting and promoting social innovation in Saskatoon (especially if you are or have connections with powerful strangers), please drop me a line! I think there are some real possibilities here, and I’m excited to see where this venture will lead.

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.
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Getting to Maybe – Stand Still

The second chapter of Getting to Maybe, somewhat confusingly sharing the title of the book itself, focuses on how social innovators get started. For many, there is a sense of calling or having reached a personal tipping point. There’s a realization that some aspect of the current reality is not merely a problem, but that it is inherently unfair, wrong, injust; a lack of action is no longer an option. Fortunately, by speaking out and taking small steps to change the situation, these change agents often find that they are not alone. Not only do they find allies, but the system itself that previously appeared to be fixed and unyielding suddenly seems ripe for change. The dichotomy between the heroic individual who single-handedly changes everything and historic inevitability breaks down: “[social innovators’] responses both epitomized and provoked a new pattern of interactions”.

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Getting to Maybe

Non-profits, charitable organizations, third-sector, helping professions, social enterprises, grassroots. Whatever you call it, the people who are drawn to working in this arena share the common intention of making a positive impact in our world. Another commonality shared by these socially-minded folk is the vast scope of the problems they set out to tackle, be it poverty, environmental degradation, social exclusion, or any other complex issue that defies a simple solution. It’s a bit of a paradox – we want to change the world, but we know that the efforts of an individual or even a group of people has a snowball’s chance in a hot place at making a difference. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that many in these helping professions face frustration, cynicism, and burnout. But – there’s always a but – history is full of examples where a small group of individuals does make a difference.

A few years ago, I serendipitously found myself at the launch of Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. As the subtitle suggests, the book focuses on the process of change around issues of social complexity, where the “best” methods, context, and even the definition of success are amorphous and can change drastically over time. Through interviews with a number of social innovators and analysis of others’ autobiographies, the authors (Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton) identified how these individuals grapple with complex issues to bring about change. The purpose of the book is not to place the innovators on a pedestal or provide a definitive how-to guide for social change, as these topics of consideration defy such simplistic approaches by their nature. Rather, Getting to Maybe shows how people working for social change wrestle with uncertainties and tensions in their work, not to obtain a definitive end state of success, but to “reach the summit of realized possibility” – even though that accomplishment often points to “a new mountain of maybe [that] inevitably becomes visible in the distance”.

In starting Strong Roots with the purpose of helping organization build their capacity to make a difference in the world, I find myself returning to the insights from this book. In their introductory chapter, the authors list some orientating points for those starting a journey of social change, including the importance of asking questions, engaging with tensions and ambiguities, understanding relationships, and adopting a mindset of inquiry that “embraces paradoxes and tolerates multiple perspectives”. The authors admit that reflection and questioning may seem like odd activities for action-oriented change agents, yet their studies found that doing and thinking are inextricably linked for these innovators. Strong Roots’ four areas of focus likewise address both sides of the coin, with community-based research and strategic planning more on the reflection/information-gathering side and grant preparation and volunteer management lending themselves more towards action.

Over the next month or so, I’ll be re-reading Getting to Maybe and sharing any ideas that arise here on this blog, on a chapter-by-chapter basis. If you have a copy, feel free to follow along and share your own comments!