It’s not easy to be a change maker, ie. to be someone who wishes to shake up the culture around them and stop the endless cycle of ‘business as usual’. Even when everyone agrees that ‘business as usual’ is broken.
I am thinking here specifically about the kind of change maker that should actually be ordinary: someone who wants to change the culture, etiquette and rituals of bad meetings and collaboration in their company.
Someone who has seen too many bad meetings without clear purpose, without participation from most, without any respect for people’s time, intelligence and feelings. Someone who’s seen how taxing that is to everyone over time, leading to complete exhaustion, mental check-out (physical presence but mental/emotional absence) or cynicism…
That someone would want to host the one meeting that every group of people should have: the meeting about our meetings that Daniel Stillman encouraged us to have. And based on that, change the norms and practices around ‘meeting and collaboration hygiene’.
Along that journey, there are many ‘themes’ that would be likely to crop up. These themes encompass opportunities, challenges or obstacles, qualities that help, principles of success etc. And these themes are what can make or break the changemaker’s journey.
So let’s dive into those themes and see what matters about them… My little finger tells me I’ll get to unpack these themes with my friends later on this year…
Clarity / Intention
The first step is to be clear on what’s not going well in ‘business as usual’, and developing an intention to go against that ‘business as usual’. Because you see that people are getting stressed, jaded, cynical, exhausted, absent-minded. A change-maker has to be able to see it, describe it, and state what it is they want to do about it. And as much as possible, have that eye-opening conversation with other like-minded people that can join the movement of ‘let’s do something different here’, because change is not easy.
This is probably one of the most useful features of a change-maker at all times. Curiosity about ideas, curiosity about people. Not a fixed mindset, a liquid mindset, ready to accept different data and perspectives, curious to understand what tickles people in a different way, knowing that remaining open to deeply understand peoples’ deepest motives is the key towards mutual understanding. That also means not having a fixed idea about the exact itinerary towards the end result (or even what that end result is); instead, having some idea of where you’re headed but keeping open to anything that could make that path more strong and true. Like a bird builds a nest, picking up different twigs and items that show up along their flyovers.
This derives naturally from the previous item: it’s not just about a mindset of curiosity, it’s also about having the skills to be able to understand others, and that is through building listening skills. Active listening skills: paraphrasing, mirroring, everything that Community At Work and others encourage you to build up. It takes mindful practice to get good at listening, but that’s a non-negotiable skill to have, and it happens to be both an incredibly useful lifeskill but also seemingly the most important leadership skill according to many successful business people. So there: 1-2 flex your listening muscles 💪 !
Crafts (and arts of process facilitation)
Up next in the bag is having some command over participation formats (or structures, facilitation methods, work forms etc. however you call them). These ‘exercises’ allow you to organise collaboration and meetings. It’s the ‘toys’ that very often people think about when they think about facilitation. And usually the bit that people calling meetings might want to concentrate on. I generally tend to underplay these because they should always follow function and objectives -thus come quite late in the process- but I also recognise that not having any knowledge of these crafts is a real hindrance for any change maker to achieve their goals. It just takes some practice mastering some repertoire of these participation formats. Liberating Structures is one of many repertoires that comes in handy here.
If you are hoping to achieve long-lasting change, you can’t really dodge trust. You need to build it in order to make some of the change more acceptable. Trust is the truth as I’ve been saying all along… Trust takes authenticity, vulnerability, openness and open-mindedness, honesty, respect and no-nonsense… it’s about creating an atmosphere where everyone feels invited to reveal as much of themselves as possible… easier said than done, but this is one of the key differences between successful change and anything else that might look good but just doesn’t happen.
And of course it takes some braveness to challenge the status quo and to wish to establish a new norm. Because change does not feel good, even when you are the one initiating it, let alone when you are not so much involved in it. And here again I’m thinking about the courage it takes for our change-maker to bring it to their boss and colleagues that business as usual is broken and needs to be reconsidered. It takes courage to imagine a different practice, to share it with others (who are partly going to be skeptical about it)… but courage it is that drives every change maker to face being mocked by the mainstream because deep down they know there’s no other way.
And one of the main reasons why it takes courage is because the proposed change will meet resistance. For the change maker, this is the famous ‘snap back’ effect (that Brenda Zimmermann coined) which risks ruining all good will to change things for a positive result. Being aware of that resistance is essential. And not just that and quickly waving it off as an irrelevant ‘force from the past’. No, that resistance is real, and understanding its deep roots is of the essence. What is creating the cringe about change for some people?
No matter what challenges are put on your way, no matter how much resistance you encounter, as change agent you don’t want to give up. Grit is what it takes: some combination of determination, resilience, learning and of social creativity to keep going at it. Indeed, it’s an attitude (not giving up and bouncing back no matter what happens), mixed with knowledge (based on what we learn works or doesn’t) and creative skills to try out other solutions. And perhaps it’s also about finding allies along the way, that allow us to nurture that determination. I remember one of the KM4Dev gatherings that focused on this notion of ‘keeping the fire alive’. That resonated strongly with me. We get inspired at times, but that spark of insight and willingness to change can easily get snuffed out unless we create a network of care around it that allows us to keep going, it’s that notion of keeping the fire alive.
And provided you have all the above in place, then you still need teamwork to make these new collaborations and meeting processes stick around. You need a distribution of roles, including the impromptu facilitator, the documenter etc. Especially for online meetings there’s even more need for additional roles (e.g. tech support, chat box or graphic platform steward etc.). So bring along your mates to show that ‘the new way’ works. Because if your attempts at setting a new norm fail early on, and more than once, you are dead in the water…
At some point – often even at various points – in the process the question comes up of ‘who owns this?’. Who is sponsoring this change, who has vested interests in it, who takes decisions, who is actually involved in thinking about and implementing this, and who is impacted by this new way of doing things? All these are facets of the ‘ownership’ issue and they all matter. At least all these questions deserve to be raised at least once. Getting this right builds up the trust mentioned above. And when it comes to setting new norms for meetings and collaboration, it’s pretty much everyone’s business, not just the concern of a few, so how to make sure everyone’s on board and feels vested in this change?
Finally comes the point of involving various profiles that cover all the bases. At least all the ones that matter in your ecosystem. If you don’t have that diversity, your change initiative risks falling apart because some ‘groups’ will call out their lack of involvement, representation, ownership, power in it. So make sure you have representative demographics of your group (whether the latter is a network, an organisation, department, team or whatever…). This is about having all points of view taken equally seriously and contributing to the conversations and solutions as legitimately as anyone else.
And here we complete our change maker tour and can conclude that though not exhaustive, the above themes will matter at a point or another in bringing about the change and getting it to stick…
Any obvious theme that you would add here?