I’m just coming home from a couple of days in Victoria where Caitlin and I were with colleagues Rebecca Ataya, Annemarie Travers, and Kelly Poirier. We spent two days working on what I can only call “polishing the core” of the Leadership 2020 program that we offer on behalf of the Federation of Community Social Service of BC. We have run this leadership program for 8 years now, putting around 400 people through a nine month intensive program of residential and applied learning. The program has built collaboration, trust, and connection between the Ministry of Children and Family Development, indigenous communities and organizations and people working in the social services sector.
The program has evolved with every one of the 13 cohorts that has come through. Our core team has changed and this new configuration is our latest version. We are playing with a new set of constraints and ideas as we take the core need and purpose of the program and discover other ways we can offer it to meet the demand in the sector for leadership training that strengthens resilience, creativity, and the ability to thrive in complexity.
When we arrived on Thursday morning to begin our work, we had no agenda on tap, but instead had a compelling need. We started talking and discovered the path as we went being very careful to harvest. Our insights emerged in very deliberate conversation. As skilled dialogue facilitators, we are also skilled dialogue practitioners and we have a refined practice of hosting and harvesting our own work. When we get in flow, it feels like ceremony. With attention to a practice, working this way is extremely productive. Here are a few principles that I observed in working this way:
- Tend to relationships. As we were both building a new team and developing new ideas and products for our work, the most important focus in on relationships. We always build in social time in our work, and enjoyed a nice dinner out at 10 acres bistro, an excellent local foods restaurant in Victoria.
- Nourish bodies and minds. Working like this is physically and mentally draining, and we are very careful to nourish each there when we are working. This meant good snacks (bananas, nuts, and chocolate), ample time for tea and coffee breaks, a lovely prepared lunch by Rebecca and physical breaks to walk, or maybe even dance to Beyonce songs a little!
- Don’t silo the conversation, but structure the harvest. Our conversation wandered from program content, to context, to history, to practicalities, to new ideas for structure. We were all over the map. But as we went, Caitlin made good use of our supply of post it notes and we harvested into the Chaordic Stepping Stone categories that we are using the structure the evolution of the program. Sometimes the best hosting is good harvesting, and Caitlin took on that role beautifully.
- Don’t control the outcome. It sounds almost absurd to think that we would have controlled the outcome. Pure dialogue is about following the energy of the conversation and seeing what emerges. There was no facilitation tool used beyond the ability to listen carefully and address the need and purpose of our work. We stumbled on many beautiful ideas over these past few days and we constantly look for ways to incorporate them in our work. This leadership program has the quality of a polished gem, reflecting years of attention to what is needed, and what is no longer needed.
- Stay with the flow until it doesn’t flow anymore. In Open Space we talk about the principle of “When it’s over it’s over” meaning that all creative work has a rhythm and flow to it. When the brains are no longer engaged and the mental and cognitive tiredness sets in, it’s time to stop. Two intense six hour days of work can produce tremendous results, but when the flow stops, there is no point forcing it. Wrap it up, make a date for some next steps and celebrate the work.
Working like this has the feeling of working with the simplest and most ancient way of talking about what to do. For tens of thousands of years, this is mostly how humans have talked about need and purpose in the world. Long before there were professional facilitators and methods for strategizing, decision making and evaluating, there was dialogue.
Sometimes all you need is a powerful need and purpose, solid relationships, a good way to listen, and time. When it takes on the feel of ceremony, you know you’re getting it right.