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Experiments for 2019

Colleen Magner
December, 2018


The Reos team hosted an end of year conversation with old and new colleagues, clients and friends. The intention was to mark the end of the year by reflecting on “successes and failures” of 2018, and to turn these reflections into learnings for new experiments.

We met for a few hours over breakfast, close to our offices in Johannesburg. The conversation didn’t disappoint. Attendees included clients MSF South Africa and WWF, partners ORSC,Enterprise Coach, IDG,  The Barefoot Facilitator, and development think-tanks such as MINDS to mention a few. All of us shared challenging stories of working together, dealing with peace-building initiatives, addressing health challenges related to dietary transitions, working with race in educational institutions, creating more inclusive financial and insurance industries, and building more competitive cities. Across these experiences, some common questions were raised:

  1. How do we engage with intention in order to open up and be ready to act in light of fear, conflict, resistance and bureaucracy?
  2. How do we move the dial from the individual to systemic impact?
  3. How do we innovate at scale?

In his book: “Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust”, my colleague Adam Kahane outlines three capacities and conditions required for alternative ways to collaborate, coined “Stretch Collaboration”. The first stretch proposed is that collaboration requires both conflict and connection. We often assume that to successfully collaborate we strive for agreement on what the problem is that we’re trying to solve, always aiming for the one common purpose. In our experience, this can seldom happen when there are different and diverse interests involved. Secondly, conventional collaboration focuses on identifying a solution as quickly as possible then creating a plan to achieve it. Stretch collaboration suggests when the future is highly volatile and contested, we need to experiment our way forward. And thirdly, conventional collaboration tries to advocate for influencing others’ actions – to change “them”. The third stretch suggests we need to change ourselves, and step into the game.

In our shared experiences during the breakfast conversation, we recognised the first stretch requires us to acknowledge the people involved in these challenging processes need to hold multiple roles at the same time – as a person, as a representative of an organisation, and as an activist trying to find a way through a situation within which they often feel compromised. The learning explores how to be in conflict and relationship simultaneously. It’s not a choice between the two, it’s the dual nature that’s required of this work.

On the question of scale, we reflected on the often high levels of frustration on lack of progress, yet very productive dialogue. “We know how to talk to one another”. Yet change can be frustratingly slow. Initiatives that seemed ripe for impact fizzled out. Shifts don’t happen only from workshops or breakfasts. Inspiration certainly happens, particularly in those moments of insight or connection. However, long-term change happens by recognising one’s old patterns and by intentionally attempting a different approach, experimenting our way forward.

In reflecting on the practice of stepping into the game, we shared examples in our work of where “we got in our own way”, and how this resistance to collaboration was often a way of self-preserving a status quo or identity. Each of us then shared small, measurable experiments of how we might challenge our fears of the unknown, or behaviours that keep the status quo in check.

These are the questions we often pose to groups with whom we work, and yet it was a difficult pill to swallow when we applied it to ourselves! In these instances, as we’ve experienced in the work throughout 2018, making time to pause and check whether the course of action is in service of what we’re trying to do, has often presented a breakthrough.

As we draw nearer to the end of the year I wish you an opportunity to reflect, rest, and recalibrate.

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