Etmanski: Advocate with Empathy

When people ask what it is like to work in government I get them to imagine all the work for all parts of government as a giant slow-moving stream.   Since the stream is moving so slowly, it takes deliberate choice to expend the effort to actually get anywhere.   95% of government employees are happy to bob along like driftwood at the whims of the stream.  The other 5% are problem-solvers in boats trying to make a difference by paddling.  Inevitably though, the boats reach a place where the driftwood has clogged the stream and the paddlers must decide whether to work through it or bail out for the shore.

After reading Etmanski’s Advocate for Empathy, I realize my analogy isn’t entirely fair because it leaves out one important group.  There are some pieces of driftwood, tired of bending to the will of the stream, that want to climb into the boats to paddle.

But climbing into the boat means accepting three realities.  First, we can’t change the pace of the steam.  It is so cluttered with competing requests that it can be difficult to tell which direction the stream is flowing.  Second, we can’t change the technology of boats and paddles.  Even though voters expect government to move more rapidly by utilizing motors and GPS, they don’t want to pay for it.  Third, everyone can see you’re paddling effort from the shore and offer their critiques and condemnations.

The result is an intensely risk-averse environment rife with fear, stifling opportunities for innovation, change and impact.

Despite this, people want to paddle, so how do we help them into the boats?  

Etmanski points to Solution-Based Advocacy which focuses on solutions over criticisms and improving the ability of government to make better decisions.  It means acknowledging we are all in the same boat, government included, so we may as well learn paddling techniques from each other.

Five Characteristics of Solution Based Advocacy

  • Searching for a Heart of Gold” – Taking the time to look beyond what our political leaders do, to learn about who they are.
  • Using Strategic Inquiry” – Aligning your agenda with the government agenda by “…discovering the priorities, language and tools of the group you are trying to convince…” (p.116)
  • Cultivating a Network of Champions” – Although we think one champion is great, it just isn’t enough.
  • Solving Problems Together” – Shifting government from the role of parent to partner.
  • Doing it Themselves” – Regardless of how amazing the idea is, there will always be opposing interests being considered decision-makers.  Forging ahead without them can create the space they need to champion your idea and your success in the face of opposition.

Are you a paddler or are you driftwood?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

Etmanski: Mobilize Your Economic Power

Etmanski’s first three Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation have been comfortable to comprehend.  Think and Act Like a Movement, Create a Container for Your Content, Set the Table for Allies, Adversaries are not easy but they make sense.

The fourth pattern, Mobilize Your Economic Power, is not so easy.  It means having conversations about assets, profits, liabilities, customers, marketing strategy and cash flows.  Notice words like funding, grants, beneficiaries and outcomes do not appear.

It makes me a bit squeamish because mobilizing economic power requires the not-for-profit organization to participate in the markets creating many of the injustices it is trying to correct.  I have a natural visceral reaction against the idea.  How can we talk about assets in one meeting and the suffering of people in the next?

It seems wrong.

However, after setting aside my discomfort, I realize Etmanski is encouraging me to uncover new possibilities for systemic impact.  Identifying economic power gives me access to more levers to alleviate or eliminate the suffering of people I serve.  Most importantly, can I really say I am serving people well if I’m not accessing all the avenues open to me just because it makes me squeamish?

What would change about the way you do your work if your organization was presented with a check for $10 million?

Likely your organization would shift mindsets from “scarcity to abundance” and from “victim to agent”.  Etmanski believes we shouldn’t wait for the check.  Find our economic leverage points and use them to become an independent fearless agent for change.

Five Ways to Mobilize Your Economic Power

Admittedly, I became a bit foul as I read through these.  They seem impractical and inaccessible until I read it from the perspective of a person seeking to move an idea from the local context to the mainstream.

  • Influencing the Operational Practice of Business” – really this is about disrupting the way it has always been done.  Etmanski uses an example of the environmental activist shifting her attention from blocking logging trucks to developing a process for recycling paper so the publishing industry would no longer use virgin forest products.  She blocked the logging trucks using the market instead of her body.
  • Commercializing Intellectual Property” – Take stock of your intellectual property and see how it might generate revenue for your beneficiaries/clients.  Charge market value for it!
  • Nurturing a Sharing Economy” – Besides the conventional market, not-for-profits are uniquely positioned to tap into the world of swapping, bartering, and lending.
  • Purchasing Locally” – Buying your office supplies from Walmart might be cheaper, but much of profits associated with that transaction are siphoned out of the community.  Buying your office supplies from a local business increases the likelihood that profits will be recycled into the local community.
  • Starting a Social-Purpose Business” – Becoming an entrepreneur by forming a business that focusses on financial return and social impact.

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

Etmanski: Set the Table for Allies, Adversaries and Strangers

Have you ever been asked to participate on a committee or in a community meeting and left wondering why were invited?  A situation in which the conversation was swirling around you but you never quite knew how to contribute to it?

Looking back to the occasions in which this was the case for me, I realize the people calling the meeting (conveners) had a broad range of reasons for inviting people (job titles, organizations, to not hurt feelings, to get things done, to access resources, for expertise, to make new connections, because they were told to, and so on).  All of which are valid reasons but it was unclear why I had been invited so I contributed little.

As a convener, we need to be deliberate and thoughtful about the people we invite and the environment in which they gather.  Remember, to have the idea picked up by the mainstream, means inviting supporters, opponents and others beyond the immediate context.  Everyone needs to feel welcome and to be assured that their contributions will be valuable and important.

 

Four Characteristics of Effective Convening

To avoid the gathering in which a few people speak and nothing is ultimately accomplished, take a minute to run through the questions below.

  • Civility” – Has the group crafted (agreed upon) ground rules of conduct by which they can respectfully, openly, and safely contribute?
  • Personal Agency” – As the convener, have you encouraged the best from all participants?  Have you given each participant an opportunity to shine, show their strengths and lead in their own way?
  • Hospitality” – As the convener, are you able to articulate the importance of each participant’s contribution and made them feel like they belong?
  • Curiosity” – As a convener, have you created a group culture in which uncertainty leads to inquiry and eventually new answers?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

Etmanski: Create a Container for Your Content

Being on the Board of Skills Society, I find myself wondering how we might get our message beyond our immediate community of supporters.  A common problem confronting most not-for-profit originations.

 

How do we get people to care about something that doesn’t really matter to them?

 

 There are lots of strategies.  The Elevator Pitch.  The One-Pager.  The Brand Message.  The Narrative.  Social Media Strategies.  Flashy Brochures.  All of these are effective to a certain point.  However,  how can the message a person hears be converted into an action they take?

 

For Etmanski, “Presenting the right content in the right container makes it easier for people to do the right thing” (p.64).   For impact beyond the local context, the message needs to inspire people beyond your community of supporters to  contribute to the million small acts of the movement.

 

5 Characteristics of Effective Containers

I crafted questions to  help you evaluate your message and its ability to reach beyond your community of supporters.

  • They are playful and fun.” – Does your message make people feel good?
  • They are non-judgmental” – Does your message blame or guilt the people you are trying to reach?
  • They ignite our imaginations” – Does your message inspire people to think about what is possible?
  • They personalize the abstract” – Does your message articulate how the issue is connected to the people you are trying to reach?
  • They tell a story” – Does your message have characters and a plot?

 

After running your message through Etmanski’s tips, I would encourage you to ask yourself one more question; does your message still have the ring of authenticity or does it feel contrived?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

 

 

Etmanski: Think and Act Like a Movement

Al Etmanski’s book assumes readers are striving to achieve real systemic change and his first pattern articulates the importance of movements.  For Etmanski, “Institutional change cannot happen without a movement” (P.49) and “A movement is composed of a million small acts.” (P.48).

This is not new.  Change occurs when enough people are moved to action for a long enough period that it finally happens. Gladwell talks about this type of change in Tipping Point.

The new piece for me was Etmanski’s insistence that systemic change requires us to look beyond our immediate context and missions to the broader goals of the movement. As an example you might identify a gap in mental health support for veterans. To impact the system creating the gap, Etmanski believes you should align your efforts with broader movements like The Movement for Global Mental Health or The Canadian Mental Health Association.

Think back to the occasions when you were involved in developing a mission and vision for your organization.  Was the movement a part of those discussions and considerations?  Was a movement objective devised alongside the mission and vision?

It’s not unusual for us to focus on the local context where we can see the ways our work makes a difference.  Spending time and energy on thinking about how we will contribute to the ‘movement’ seems like an abstract, ambiguous, pointless task.

To keep conversations about developing a movement objective meaningful, Etmanski provides some loose boundaries in his characteristics of an effective social justice movement.

Five Characteristics of an Effective Social Justice Movement.

  1. “They ignite our imaginations” – Do you contribute to a bold vision that disrupts the status quo?
  2. “They are multi-generational” – Do you contribute to movements as they reappear in new forms with successive generations?
  3. “They comprise small acts” – Do you contribute to the same thing that others feel compelled to contribute to?
  4. “They are self-organized” Do you contribute to something in which everyone sees the goal without a central command structure or charismatic champion?
  5. “They marry art and justice” – Do you contribute to something in which art has created new ways of seeing the world and transformed what we see as a possibility?

 

Would you say efforts to help the flood of Syrian Refugees is a movement?  Or the Arab Spring? Or Occupy Wall Street?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

 

Is Incremental Change Good Enough?

I was at an event last week that left me uplifted and energized with undercurrents of irritation and discomfort.  It’s the mix I look for when I attend an event because it signals that I’m learning outside my comfort zone.

I attended an SDX (Systemic Design Exchange) event in which panelists candidly shared their Epic Tries: Innovation Stories from the Field for the first part of the afternoon.  In the latter half of the afternoon, SDXers broke into smaller groups to discuss a question or problem posed by a panelist   I like this format because it gives participants an opportunity to contribute their ideas and expertise to the panelists.  Near the end of the afternoon, we became one large group again to debrief the conversations and what had been accomplished.

However there was one phrase that kept bubbling to the surface that both resonated with me and frustrated me.   It was the idea of incremental change.

Incremental change, as I am taken to understand, is created by seizing opportunities to make micro-changes that eventually coalesce into more substantial change over time. On the surface it makes sense.   It’s easier to move a few smaller boxes that one huge box.  Incremental change is actually a very smart strategy and its very difficult to argue its logic.

Unfortunately, my experience working in government has taught me that the lasting impact of incremental change is undermined by three corrosive forces; lack of coordination, indecision, and apathy.

I have witnessed situations in which one team will make an incremental change, be high-fiving each other while another team is unintentionally countering their change with one of their. This happens all too often in government.  Sometimes I hear the question; didn’t we fix this problem last year?  From year to year we haven’t really ‘moved the needle’ by any lasting measure.

I know a few middle managers in government that really want to do things better but are fossilized into inaction because of indecision above them.  I’m sure some of these indecision-makers would appreciate the freedom to try new things but they have to be mindful of making a ‘career limiting move’.  In the meantime, the idea being considered becomes stale and losses its relevance.  An opportunity to make an incremental change passes and people move on.

At this point you might be tempted to say “that’s the way it is in government”.  When I first joined government I was astonished at how casually people accepted this as a reason for not doing better.  This apathy is the most lethal killer of any kind of change and signals someone that believes doing better is not possible.  Worse, it signals a person who believes doing better is no longer their responsibility.  The system is the people who run it.

My apologies.  I see this post has taken a turn towards hopelessness.  But I think hopelessness is how many people in government feel as they tirelessly and continuously push an agenda of change from their cubicles.   I’ve seen it in the faces of people around meeting tables who know they will return to dealing with the mindless, soul-crushing minutiae that matters urgently today but is forgotten tomorrow.

But not all is lost.  The people I meet at SDX refurbish hope that change is possible.   I agree that change is hard.  But it is also inevitable.  The greatest potential for meaningful incremental change comes from intentional coordination and integration of our efforts.  This leaves me with three questions to which there may not be answers. Yet.

  1. What can I do to coordinate people and their incremental changes?
  2. How can I access and support indecision-makers so they feel comfortable transitioning to decision-makers?
  3. How do I influence others to shift from the ‘way it’s always been’ to the ‘way it can be’?

The Disgruntled Mentee

The Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC) administers a mentorship program for immigrant professionals unfamiliar with the skills required to acquire professional employment in their fields of expertise in Alberta.

I mentor in this program as often as my schedule will allow because I selfishly enjoy hearing about the journeys people take to arrive in Edmonton.  For mentees, access to mentors can expedite their job search by helping with their resumes, cover letters, interviews and networking.  However, one skill that consistently causes resistance and distress amongst mentees, is the need to differentiate themselves by cultivating a personal brand.   

I had one mentoring experience in which the mentee repeatedly dodged activities related to personal branding.  After a few conversations, I found that he was not comfortable differentiating himself from everyone else.  He told me “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down”. It simply felt wrong to him.

Although there are informative intercultural lenses from which to explain his feeling of ‘wrongness’, using the liminal thinking lens, Gray would say personal branding challenges his governing belief about how a reputable, credible, honourable, and professional person should act.  

“A belief that is deeply tied to identity and feelings of self-worth is called a governing belief” (p.53, Liminal Thinking)

But it still leaves the problem.  To increase the likelihood that my mentee would get a job in his field of expertise in the Canadian labour market, he would need to understand the importance of ‘being the nail that sticks up‘…..at least a little.

This would require altering his governing belief that personal branding activities were shameful, changing how he sees himself and inevitably how all the people in his life see him.  If it sounds formidable and transformational, it’s because it is.  But it helps explain why, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people refuse to change.

In liminal thinking terms, governing beliefs are the foundation for the bubbles of belief a group uses to navigate and survive reality together.  Being the member of the group to challenge a governing belief can jeopardize relationships, making them risky to discuss and very difficult to change.  But being a liminal thinker means having the awareness to identify your governing beliefs and the courage to confront them.  

Over time my mentee began building a personal brand because he was seeing that he was having limited success without it.  No matter how many resumes he sent, he still received few requests for interviews.  Circumstances forced him to challenge his governing belief. Ultimately, it lead to forging new relationships while letting others go.  He was co-creating a new reality with a new group.  

To shed light on your governing beliefs Gray has an excellent exercise   Begin by writing down the beliefs that make you the person you are and form the foundation for all the choices (large and small) in your life. Then sit down with a person you trust, and ask them to tell you what they think your governing belief(s) are.  Comparing notes will lead to a lively and revealing conversation.

 

Liminal Thinking Principle #6:  “Beliefs are tied to identity.  Governing beliefs, which form the basis for other beliefs, are the most difficult to change, because they are tied to personal identity and feelings of self-worth. You can’t change governing beliefs without changing yourself.” (p.57, Liminal Thinking)