Podcast Pick: SSIR – Whose Story Are We Telling? (Andrew Means)

Before hearing Andrew Means on the SSIR podcast, I would listen to the stories Not-for-Profit organizations tell about their work and couldn’t help but be inspired.  Hearing the exceptional rags-to-riches story about a person experiencing homelessness that used an NPO’s employment program and now manages a local million dollar company would move me to open my wallet.

Another common narrative is based in data.  After hearing that upon completion of the employment program 85% of participants (people experiencing homelessness) became employed, I became convinced the program is ‘doing something right‘.

Look more closely at the stories and you’ll notice they have two common deficiencies.

First, they fail to link the complex nature of the problem to the need for their program.  As a complex problem, homelessness is multi-faceted with causes sprouting from racism, poverty, abuse, family violence, mental illness, and addiction to name a few.  Are you able to articulate how the employment program addresses some of these broader facets of homelessness?

Second, the stories tell us what has been accomplished in the past but fail to articulate why it matters for the future.  Has the story about the employment program taught us about the ways in which being employed will impact people experiencing homelessness in the future?

Means believes our stories need to go beyond our comfortable narratives to include how the program/organization has impacted the broader systemic context.

Yes. Impact.  When I think about measuring impact I am immediately overwhelmed by where to start while remembering past attempts rife with pitfalls and blind alleys.  But Means believes it’s the key to making progress on complex, systemic, nasty, intractable social problems and he has a tidy little formula to get us started.

World with your organization – World without your organization = Impact of your organization 

Tidy to say. Still messy to do.  Fortunately Means gives us a couple tips and some excellent examples to get us thinking about starting.

Counter-factuals:  provide us with an accounting of what would have happened if the organization/program had never existed.  This would mean asking how many of the participants getting a job after completing the employment program would have landed employment anyway.  Then setting this against the 85%.

Displacement: helps us articulate how our work causes ripples in the broader context.  It might mean asking how many participants getting a job after completing the employment program are filling positions otherwise filled by equally qualified people already in the labour market and setting this against the 85% too.

Granted. Quantifying displacement and counter-factuals can be time-consuming and possibly expensive.  But Means is nudging us towards authentically confronting the gap between what we want to accomplish and what we are actually accomplishing. 

The result will be a community making more informed decisions about contributing towards outcomes we actually want to achieve rather than outcomes we pretend we are achieving.

When we join the crowd at the Annual General Meeting, it is with the expectation that we will hear the stories that make us feel like we are in the presence of something that matters.  But the stories are stuck in a rut.  They have a predictable plot involving the usual characters.  Think the movie Star Wars.

Means is nudging us towards telling more complex stories by introducing compelling storylines and new characters illustrating the relationship between complex problems and our work.  Think the movie Interstellar.

 

Whose Story Are We Telling? Featuring Andrew Means from Stanford Social Innovation Review Podcast

 

Your Situation Is Ideal for Scenario Thinking If….

When I first began reading about scenario thinking I was equal parts intrigued and skeptical.  If resources are already stretched and people are already too busy, how does an organization allow itself the time and space to ensure the initiative has a chance at success?

For successful scenario thinking, the authors of What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits recommend the organization be:

  • oriented towards learning by engaging in authentic conversations about its warts and wonders.
  • comfortable with not being comfortable by intentionally and constantly acquainting itself with change
  • open to hearing divergent perspectives to unlock the otherwise unrealized opportunities or mitigate previously unnoticed threats.
  • comfortable with implementing change where and when needed.
  • lead by someone who understands and champions the scenario thinking process including the implementation of its discoveries.
  • willing to commit the resources needed to do the work.

The authors also supplied an excellent initial litmus test you can use to determine organizational readiness for scenario thinking (What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits, p.21)

Do not use scenario thinking when…

  • the problem you are dealing with is not central to your organizational strategy and/or your problem and solution are clear.
  • the outcome is largely predetermined due to internal or external factors.
  • the leadership want to maintain the status quo.
  • there is too much urgency to step back for a reflective and creative conversation.
  • your desired outcomes are poorly aligned with your dedicated resources.

Your situation is ideal for scenario thinking if….

  • you are dealing with a strategic issue and the solution is unclear.
  • you are working in a highly uncertain environment.
  • there is leadership support for the scenario thinking process.
  • your organization is open to change and dialogue.
  • you can attract the resources necessary for a successful initiative.

Liminal Principles in Practice

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I like ideas that can be incorporated into my practice….with minimal effort.  I don’t have great success when I’m given a 350 page textbook and need a degree in advanced science to decipher its contents.  Instead I like books that are accessible and practical.  Gray’s book has been a joy to read and I encourage all of my readers to try to locate a copy. 

My past few posts have explored the first part of the book outlining the six principles of Liminal Thinking.  The second part of the book explores the nine practices of a liminal thinker.  Below are three I found most compelling.

Create safe space.  Have you ever been confronted by a behavior you couldn’t even begin to understand?  Gray would say it’s because the person has an unmet emotional need they don’t feel they can share because it isn’t safe.  To get others to reveal their needs and beliefs (true motivations for their actions), we need to create a safe space in which people are able to break from their self-sealing logic and belief bubble.

Triangulate and validate.  Have you ever been so sure of something that later turned out to be wrong?  Practicing Liminal Thinking means investigating as many differing perspectives as possible regardless of how obviously wrong they may seem.   “If you think something is obvious, that’s an idea that bears closer examination.” (P.95, Liminal Thinking)

Make sense with stories. I’ve always believed in the power of the narrative but just never had the words to explain it until now.   Asking someone to share their story is a way of telling them that their experiences are worth learning from.  “When someone tells you a story, they are sharing an experience and expressing their beliefs about that experience at the same time” (p.125, Liminal Thinking).

This brings my series on Liminal Thinking to a close.

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)

How Our Beliefs Limit Us

Last Friday, my wife and I ventured into downtown. You could tell it was game night.  People were clad in their orange and blue on the LRT, in the streets and in the restaurants.   As it happened we would be joining the crowds as the Oilers took on the Nashville Predators.  When describing the experience of attending the game to friends and family I find myself saying “It was exciting for an Oilers game”.  Which really means “In the past, most of the excitement at an Oilers game came from the concession stands, so I’m not ready to believe they have a legitimate chance at winning a game”.

It’s a strange belief to maintain.  The Oilers have a new Stanley Cup winning General Manager (Peter Chiarelli), a tested, stable coaching staff (Todd McLellan), the brightest player to enter the game since Sidney Crosby(Connor McDavid), numerous other amazing young players (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam Larrson, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl), quality free agent signings (Milan Lucic), a reliable goaltender (Cam Talbot) and a fabulous new arena. The Oilers have a chance to make the playoffs this year rather than being mathematically eliminated by December.   However, in the face of such evidence, I continue to believe they have a greater chance of losing then they do of winning.

Gray calls this a limiting belief.  It’s a belief that limits my ability to see other possibilities.  I can’t believe the Oilers could be a winning team because I still believe they are a losing team.

Being a liminal thinker requires us to identify our limiting beliefs and look beyond them to the possibilities they obscure from our view.

What beliefs do you have about yourself that limit your potential?  What beliefs do you have about others that could be limiting their potential?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 4: Beliefs create blind spots.  Beliefs are tools for thinking and provide rules for action, but they can also create artificial constraints that blind you to valid possibilities” (p.39, Liminal Thinking)

Unpacking Beliefs

My belief is not reality.  My constructed contractor Pete is not the real contractor Pete.  Seems very straightforward and even obvious.  The challenge emerges when trying to apply this to practice.  To begin thinking liminally, if I understand Gray correctly, is to understand how my belief about contractor Pete is formed.  To help understand this process Gray introduces the Pyramid of Belief (based on the Ladder of Inference) in which Reality forms the base and The Obvious sits on top.

Reality:  As mentioned in Is Contractor Pete Really an Assshole?, it begins with acknowledging reality as unknowable.  It is not possible to know everything about everything. I can’t know the contractor Pete that exists in reality because I can’t know everything he does and thinks.

Experiences: My experiences of reality through my senses form the basis of my beliefs.  This includes everything I perceive from reality whether I can recall it or not.  How I perceived contractor Pete through my senses generates my experiences of him including the things I noticed and the things I didn’t.

Attention:  Because our experiences of reality are so vast, our brains need a means of prioritizing the information we encounter.  This means we pay attention to some pieces of information and disregard others.  When I’m craving a salty snack my attention is drawn towards the Old Dutch chips rather than the M&Ms, pasta, or canned beans in the pantry.  When I first encountered contractor Pete to do the installation in the kitchen I noticed his walk, his dress, the way he talked, the way he treated his assistant, the way he treated his tools, and the way he treated the materials he was installing.

Theories and Judgments:  Based on what I noticed about contractor Pete, I began to form theories about what to expect.  Can I expect a quality installation based on how he treats the materials and his tools?  What can I expect from him if I have a problem in the future, based on how he treats his assistant and how he chooses to answer my questions?

Beliefs:  Experiences, attention, theories and judgements are ways to make reality manageable by molding it into beliefs I use to navigate its complexity. My belief that contractor Pete is an unprofessional asshole allows me to simplify our interaction.  It also simplifies what I can expect from him in the future making it easier for me to ‘never use his business again”.  “Beliefs are the foundational model that you use to navigate the world” (p.18, Liminal Thinking)

The Obvious:  My pyramid shapes the contours of my ‘obvious’ otherwise known as my version of reality.  “Learning how to navigate this ‘below the obvious’ construction  zone is one of the core skills of liminal thinking” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

You’ll notice I did not go into a tediously biased narrative about what contractor Pete did to earn his moniker (unprofessional asshole).  This was intentional.  My goal is not to have you simply agree or disagree with my obvious.  Instead my goal is to think liminally about what happened so I don’t have a repeated experience with another ‘contractor Pete’ in the future.

“Liminal thinking requires you to become more conscious of that invisible belief construction process, in yourself and others” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

 

Liminial Thinking Principle 2:  “Beliefs are created.  Beliefs are constructed hierarchically, using theories and judgements,  which are based on selected facts and personal, subjective experience ” (p.21, Liminal Thinking)

Is Contractor Pete Really an Asshole?

Over the past few months my wife and I have been renovating our kitchen.  During the process we had two contractors.  Contractor Joe was communicative, open, and pleasant.  Contractor Pete was aggressive, defensive and hostile.  Choosing a path towards becoming a liminal thinker compelled me to pause and look more closely at why there was such a difference between the two contractors.  It would be easy (simple) to conclude that Pete was asshole and Joe wasn’t.  Joe was a professional and Pete wasn’t. But being a liminal thinker requires thinking beyond the simple. The goal is to think differently so I can do things better.

“Liminal thinking is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and redrawing beliefs”  (p. xxiii, Liminial Thinking).

If I want to avoid experiencing unprofessional asshole contractor Pete in the future (change), I need to understand, shape and redraw my beliefs about him.   So how do I proceed?

It starts with realizing that the contractor Pete existing in reality is unknowable.  It’s simply not possible for me to know every action and thought contractor Pete has ever had.  So this leaves me with my belief about Contractor Pete.  Gray illustrates this so clearly by asking you to think of an elephant.  Now that you have an elephant in your mind, is there an actual, real elephant in your head?  The elephant in your mind is a construction of an elephant based on your past experiences with elephants.

The unprofessional asshole contractor Pete is my construction based on my experience with him.  He is not a fact in reality.  The unprofessional asshole version of Contractor Pete only exists in my mind like the elephant in your mind moments ago. Undoubtedly, Contractor Pete will have a different belief about his professionalism and character.  His belief is also a construction and is not a fact in reality.

A belief is something you hold in your mind, a kind of map or model of external reality” (p.6, Liminal Thinking)

The result is a situation in which I will battle for my version of reality and Contractor Pete will battle for his – because it is so obvious to both of us who is right.  Unfortunately, the argument over whose belief is right distracts from the learning needed to do something better.  We get stuck battling over whose obvious is more obvious and forget that the original goal is to do a better job of the kitchen installation.  

Liminial Thinking Principle 1:  “Beliefs are models.  Beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, but, in fact, they are imperfect models for navigating a complex,  multidimensional, unknowable reality.”