After listening to poet David Whyte I felt driven to get down some reflections on the pilgrim, the camino and some of the lessons I have learnt in the work I am doing with a number of organisations and communities, leaders and peers. These are universal reflections and not connected to any one single initiative I am working in. They are my reflections only and are offered without prejudice. Special thanks to all those who hold conversations with me along the way.
Poet David Whyte reflects on the pilgrim’s journey to Santiago de Compostela, arriving without the fanfare and coming to the realization the arrival at the destination was only to recognize the road stretching ahead. So too is this work in collective impact. We make the path by walking it, and most of the time are not really sure of what we are doing or where we are going, but we keep moving on risking and knowing we are walking far our of our comfort zone into uncharted territory. And when we travel, we walk together some of the time and take comfort in one another, as well as having time on our own to catch our breath and reflect before we join up with the caravan again and continue on. The walk will continue without us and the path will still lie ahead even if we do not take the steps.
In travelling on this collective impact road, there are some signs along the way, just like the camino’s scallop shell. The icon pointing the way, being an excellent substitute for a cup, bowl or scoop, like the instruments in collective impact, a container to hold ourselves and our work so we don’t stray from the path and can come quickly, back to the centre, in conversation with the inner and outer layers of the work.
Along the way there are inns where you come to rest, strangers recognizing the journey you are on, tables set with simple menus to nourish you and to help you break your fast.
This wonderful word “way” – the noun and the adverb – the method and the path – such a useful word. In my experience of collective impact, the way is both how we travel and where we are travelling and so our guide needs to do both as well, providing pointers and the invitation to examine our selves and our practice.
There are lessons we learn, tips and crumbs to leave for the next travellers following in our footsteps, and messages and advice from those who have made the path before us. So it is with some trepidation and, I hope, visible humility I offer four of the lessons I have learnt along this collective impact camino.
The Default Delusion
I am often reminded by Dr Michael McAfee that collaboration is not a result. Collective impact work is collaboration obsessed in getting lasting results, yet it is very easy to default to doing just collaboration and thinking that is enough to achieve a result. We all t know that not to be true, because if it was we would not have so many things either going backwards or at least not improving. It is a delusion. This delusion manifests itself in all sorts of ways such as:
- reverting to language of funders instead of partners
- applying for grants that don’t add value or even address the must do result
- working with the usual suspects only and not looking to new players who could be sharing the responsibility in getting the result
- selecting staff for the work who are seeped only in service delivery
In this delusional state we also seem to have bouts of amnesia, where we forget what we are doing and why we are doing it returning to old patterns and paradigms that no longer serve us, because if they did we probably wouldn’t be needing a collective impact approach! (Think of all those homeless services to women and children fleeing domestic violence – well how well has that worked? Creating generations of homelessness out of women who were housed in their own homes – how is that a solution to the problem?)
There is the risk, always close at hand, we won’t have the courage to try new forms of governance in this work. It is time to look for new models that properly reflect the shared responsibility of the result in the governance and decision-making processes. Rubbing salt into the wounds, many of the governance structures also have the usual suspects sitting around the table and old patterns creep in, if the leadership doesn’t keep raising the ambitions. Respectful challenges that call us to grow into the next steps along the way take courage and need to be received with courtesy. No longer served by command and control methods, yet somehow they do seep into our behavior and language. We need to employ dangerous questions that will disrupt our governing so we stay the course and recognize the stumbles, the stones in our shoes and the misread signs.
In this work you are not governing an NGO or a local government program or State government department, you are mobilising a movement and directing social innovation start-ups. This is the work of entrepreneurs, risk-takers and catalysts. It is not for the faint hearted or fearful.
Leadership needs to be adaptive, visible and invisible, curious and humble, courageous and vulnerable. Leading is deep listening, being silent often and facilitating with the lightest touch. Facilitators are the architects of trust and all leaders in this work need to be facilitators and enablers with imagination for the possible, willing to ask questions like Why? Why not? Can you help? What’s next? and my favourite question: What are we making together?
Governing this work requires leaders willing to back those along the way, like the innkeepers on the camino to offer comfort and repast, a haven to re-charge, the governing bodies hold the space for the travellers as they journey and are waiting for them at day’s end without judgment ready to hear the tales of the road and the hopes coming when day dawns. And finally, leadership is not governance, yet without leaders you don’t have good governance.
Getting over yourself
A few of my peers in this work have chatted with me about the great Australian mantra “get over yourself”. This is indeed a universal lesson that like a comet circles around us often ( and there are times the orbit is shorter than we would like). It is an invitation to humility and reflection, an opportunity to get feedback on your own performance and most often is delivered by those we have had the hardest ones to hear or that piece of data we just can’t quite believe, or the surprise that might come packaged as a Trojan horse. The Getting Over Your Self phenomena may masquerade as Work Avoidance and make appearances as cancelled meetings, data that is available, as opposed to data that is required for decision-making, sniping about someone not knowing what they are doing … when actually none of really know what we are doing, but we are on the way and looking out for signs to help us get there. Work avoidance is what happens to the status quo and a sign of being on the cusp of disruption. The way things are done around here is no longer true and it is time to “get over yourself”. The easily distracted benefit from the discipline of the container for the work, the result to focus on, and this also helps those of us who have “get over yourself” moments. Another strategy that seems to work with this lesson is understanding your role and asking for support from others to stick to that role. We all have a contribution to make, you don’t have to do it all, and you need to invite others to take their role and their responsibilities – #knowyourrole.
Community engagement is not community development. There I have said it! Connecting, building, networking, fusing, creating a tapestry are all part of the toolkit of a community developer. The threads of community are knitted together in new ways and the request goes out not via SMS or an e-News to a meeting, but through building a relationship of trust and inviting / seducing/ attracting/ cajoling. Community development sets the foundations for engagement and without it no engagement will have deep roots. Community development both a precursor and product to engagement. As a social worker I don’t actually know how anyone in leading collective impact initiatives can do the work without a practice and discipline founded in community development. The principles apply across all parts and phases of the work. The United Nations defines community development as “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.” This work does not exist outside of community. All players in the collective impact movement who are involved deeply are community and one of the tasks in leadership is to facilitate and support the experience of being community. It is a practice of authorizing and being authentic.
Taking the next step
So like to road that is seen, then unseen, the path of collective impact has times of clarity and mystery. We are held when we think we will fall by companions on the journey and fellow travellers who know the way or can point you to the next scallop shell even though they are not sure where it is themselves. There is promise and marvel, especially when you look back and see how far you have come. There is the golden tower when you think you have arrived, only to see the next part of the road stretching out ahead of you when you turn that corner and you are all the better for having walked so far along the way. This is the camino of collective impact and I am grateful for the lessons along the way and the way the lessons come to me.
The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way that you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something that seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.
– David Whyte
©2012 Many Rivers Press