“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has” Margaret Mead
We are all part of a group of people – a family, a social community, a team, an organisation – and often our motivation, both individual and collective, comes from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Margaret Mead also tells us that helping someone through difficulty is where civilization starts; using your understanding and experience to enable someone else to have a different experience.
There are three overarching elements of community success: start small, build on the learnings created, and be thoughtful and committed to what the community sets out to achieve. I am a big believer in the power of community and communities of practice. The concept of a community of practice was first proposed by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book, Situated Learning, and they define it as a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. Although such communities have been around for centuries, they are experiencing something of a comeback at the moment as they make their way into the business vernacular and bring a tangible and falsely new label to what organisations need to thrive – human collaboration.
Brené Brown tells us that empathy is about connection, and being aware of this is the first step to creating an environment where people feel safe. Let’s think of it as creating a container. Like a jug of water, it is a specific size and made of a particular material – glass in this case. The qualities of the container will determine how much liquid it can hold, and whether it can withstand that liquid being of varying temperature or in different states (with or without bubbles, for example). We can then also anticipate changing to a different container when we need more space. And it is the same for the ‘container’ you create for your community: what do we want to create in that space? How can we define the space we need, how do we create confidentiality and depth, yet keep the possibility of expanding and adapting to accommodate other contents and needs?
It is again about the presence of connection – both connection with self, and selfless connection with others – and constantly enhancing and sharing the learning that is happening in the container. This is the rich tapestry that allows us to tolerate threat, challenge healthily, say what we think, and question the status quo. And it is true both for the collective and the individual space: we all have a developmental container in our minds, and the capacity to learn. When we gain new information or skills, we fill our mind with knowledge, but the container doesn’t change form. When we change our perception or understanding, we can see nuances or are more able to manage uncertainty or multiple complex decisions – the form of the container for our knowledge transforms and we can step into a different state of mind.
Let’s take an everyday situation. Have you ever seen someone not listening, or only listening to their own opinion and not understanding what people need? Maybe it is more because they cannot yet hold multiple perspectives and therefore it is difficult for them to practice empathy. In each form of mind, there’s an identifiable change in the perspective-taking capacity and complexity from the previous form of mind, and each state of mind brings a different perspective. Jennifer Garvey Berger, an expert and prolific author in the field of adult development, explains these different states of mind, which range from self-sovereign to self-transforming, and what they can bring to leadership and communities.
As a leader, it can be incredibly useful to understand how these states of mind show up and therefore how to use this diversity to take people on a journey, to develop psychological safety in the system, and to help create the conditions for people to connect. This can be as simple as having a check-in at the start of gatherings, to allow people to tune in, adjust and adapt to the context, to be really attuned to the purpose of the community of practice and what they bring to the collective cause. Leaders can intentionally look at the container they’re building and invite themselves to be less reactive, to try and hold multiple perspectives, and to take the requisite distance in order to gain these different perspectives. It is particularly about understanding ourselves from a greater distance (the famous balcony and dance floor analogy), which allows more perspective, empathy and essentially more mindful moments for leaders. It allows people to step away from situations and people (including themselves) to connect deeply to the collective picture.
When building the container or the space we are going to share, community members need to explicitly detail and align on what type of behaviours they want to have in that space. What is ok for us? What is not ok for us? And how do we show up when things get difficult? These are seemingly simple questions, but hard to enact. Once we have created connection and a space for learning, the next step is how to move from reflection and connection to action and interaction. How do we do this? How do we engage our personal accountability in this place for sharing and learning, and what do we take out of this as actions?
Communities in general need:
· A collective purpose built on empathy
· Connection for action
· A safe place to learn and share
· A collective vision for learning
· Healthy challenge
Only once all these are in place can we then look at getting curious enough to have conversations we don’t normally have; to actively and intentionally commit to coming from a lens on curiosity and emergence; to take ourselves to the edges of our comfort zone and step into growth. Breakthroughs and new learning happen at the edge of our systems.
“Taking a stand says who you are being and what you are committing yourself to, while life is working out the way it does.” – Tracy Goss
Commitment is also about standing up for something, committing to showing up and walking the talk. There is an important distinction to make here: communities of practice aren’t just about practicing and performing actions, but above all about practicing how you are being, what purpose are you serving, and how are you are embodying this (collectively and individually)?
It is about creating emotional resonance through your purpose and inspiring the rest of the community. This comes from a place of intrinsic motivation and therefore abundance, as you see what emerges from the community of like-minded people who are aligned with this collective purpose and committed to creating change. This is achieved through the paradigm of sharing and learning together and using collective wisdom to enact change.
This may sound ‘fluffy’ – where’s the action plan? what does that mean for my objectives and actions tomorrow? – but it is far from it. It means that there is a commitment to creating this action through looking at the system: it is not about blaming the system and explaining why we can’t figure it out or enact change, it is about looking at the system curiously to see what we can do differently. If we want sustainable and meaningful change, how can we create deliberately developmental practice? How can we bring about change, one habit at a time? How can we empower ourselves in order to empower others?
What is clear is that talking about it is not enough. Fernanda Carapinha explains in our recent podcast (listen here) how she has intentionally built, engineered and spread widely her purpose to transform the system for women entrepreneurs to create a more equitable system where women and innovation can thrive and grow. She uses her life experiences, knowledge, opportunities and challenges to create a systemic lens through which to build strong foundations and enact change for women through communities of care, practice and business outcomes.
Change: collective wisdom
Committed citizens – learning communities or communities of practice – are groups of people who drive change with a shared objective of building a more networked and collaborative organisation in which we can collaborate and learn across the organisation to drive business success regardless of function, role or hierarchy. This approach is often linked to agile ways of working and the agile manifesto sets this out for us in the principles of: focusing primarily on interactions and individuals as opposed to processes and tools; customer and stakeholder collaboration; and adapting to change and iterating as we go (learning by doing) as opposed to responding to a preordained plan. Communities of practice in their truest sense not only create the container for this to be the case, but also provide continual wisdom on how we can keep creating the conditions for these to be the guiding principles of the way we work. Sounds simple, right? So why is it so hard? Why do we still not have ‘learning organisations’?
I would like to suggest the following: communities are dynamic, they are collective, and they co-evolve. By using collaboration as a lever for change we can create value differently. Digital enables communities to be more active than ever, and communicate across the boundaries of different teams, different sites, different ages and different business challenges. However, for these differences to co-exist happily, and to harness what they bring to the system, we need intentional understanding and reflection as well as empathy for the different perspectives, cultures, thoughts and experiences.
Today, most processes, measures and corporate cultures talk about performance, and high performing teams. Deliberately developmental organisations are designed to be cultures of practice, not performance. When we are practicing, we aren’t wasting energy trying to show what we know, or be right, or be the best. We are focused on experimenting, learning, improving and connecting.
As leaders, we can enable the system to reach a different level of maturity, to create the conditions for making decisions and for people to thrive. We can fill the space with energy and inspiration to do things differently. We must accept that systems are uncertain – they evolve, change and emerge regularly, and whilst this may not always be an inviting concept, it is a necessity. Imagine what could be achieved in a more networked structure, if as leaders we were to question ourselves intentionally as to how curious we are, how much we understand others’ points of view, how we take ownership of our actions and interactions, and how capable we are of anticipating and managing our emotional reactions to pressured situations?
Such reflection questions are key to understanding the dynamics of creating the container and the conditions for change and innovation to happen. The answers to these questions will bring us back to the first step of ‘connect and create’, i.e. what is the container you’re creating and how does it support creating the conditions for commitment to the community purpose and commitment to constantly driving change (as this is indeed our only constant)? These are all tenets of a newer, more humble type of leadership that has its roots in a conscious understanding of oneself and others, and a will to develop and grow both people and the business.
Harvard Business Review tells us that over the past five years, communities of practice have improved organisational performance at companies as diverse as international banks, major car manufacturers and U.S. government agencies. It also underlines the fact that they can drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, develop people’s professional skills, and help companies recruit and retain talent.
This is testament to inviting people to push themselves to the edges of their thinking (and their own developmental container) intentionally and creating the space to do so. Communities of practice are normally informal, and even when formalised, they continue to self-organise and are driven and self-led by their shared purpose. The community grows through organic and purposeful connections to increase membership and impact – a very different process to the current way (project) teams are formed. How much do you really collaborate across your communities today and how is it rewarded? What could you influence to unlock the power of existing communities? And what is the quality of the relationships you build with yourself, your communities and your organisational ecosystem?
Ultimately, it is undeniable that connection, commitment, emotional regulation and collective wisdom lead not only to change, but also to inclusive and collaborative systems. These systems in turn then give rise to improved business results, enhanced well-being, more conscious leadership and sustainable systems. I think it’s fair to say that this is an outcome that most of leaders would be happy with.
Thank you for reading.
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