Monday, July 9, 2012

Dangers of following what emerges

One of the primary orientations in my work is listening for what seems to be naturally emerging in organizations and communities and supporting groups to follow the path that is emerging. While I deeply value this approach, it has its shadow sides.  Here is a story of one of those shadows.

Earlier this year, I worked with others to initiate a new Social Innovation Lab in Minnesota. There was a lot of momentum going into the lab, and many people and organizations were excited to be a part of it. The lab was successful on many levels. The registration for the first gathering of the lab filled up quickly. About 250 of us gathered in May, and there was a lot of excitement and energy. In preparing for the lab, I had followed where doors opened, what glimmered. Volunteers, co-sponsors, projects to work with, and other connections arose easily and abundantly. I put in many more hours than I had planned on, but I found it energizing and compelling. 
A few weeks before the lab event, I went on a retreat by myself and spent the weekend in the woods. In that quiet, I was surprised by what I found. It became clear that under the excitement and dedication I was putting into the lab, I felt a strong insecurity and grasping. On the retreat, I noticed how much my work with the lab was motivated by the belief that if enough people came to the event and if it was viewed as successful, then (and only then) would I be OK. With this grasping motivation, I had overworked and attracted lots of people that look and think like me. I had created an overrepresentation of white, liberal, nonprofit, middle class, artsy, do gooders. I like those people. I am one of those people. But my over functioning crowded out space for other partners on the team and other intentions and priorities. For this event, we were seeking to maximize the diversity of perspectives involved, as a way to increase chances for innovation. The way I followed opportunities as they arose also quickly brought in many people in ways that were confusing. I often skipped over the preparation of clarifying our purpose and building our team. All of this contributed to a higher level of anxiety in the event and planning and became overwhelming for me.

Thankfully, I am working on this project with an amazing team, and they were able to challenge and redirect the patterns I was starting and strengthening. As a team, we then corrected course to be more intentional about how we were inviting people and clarified our goals. The excitement, anxiety, confusion and inspiring sense of possibility were all mixed together in our May gathering of the innovation lab.   
The process was a reminder to me that my intention is not just following what is easiest and what seems to be emerging naturally. There are other layers in following what is emerging and ways to ground that practice in wisdom and thoughtfulness. As I'm now preparing for the next large gathering of the innovation lab, I'm seeking to pay more attention to the motivations and energy I'm bringing to the team. I'm stopping myself from always rushing ahead when opportunities arise to make more space for our team to build common goals and for us each to take our own kinds of leadership. I don't want to beat myself up about the mistakes I made in the last round, but to notice and learn from this experience and pay attention in a different way next time.

I see many of us dancing between intentional choices about what we want to do, while also responding to opportunities as they arise. I'm very interested in your stories and lessons from doing this dance. I'm grateful to be working with many of you as we experiment with this in our organizations. 

You're Invited

Sept. 12, 8:00 am - noon, St. Paul. I'd like to invite you to join us for the second Social Innovation Lab, which will focus on how we see and cultivate synergy between different social innovation projects. The lab is a place for community change makers to get new thinking and connections to advance their work. You can find out more and register online here.