I come to my work at Reos Partners after having spent 20+ years as a theatre director. From that perspective, I am keenly interested in exploring the ways that the creative process and artistic practices can contribute to multi-sector system change work. Specifically, I am curious how practices from the performing arts – particularly from theatre, improv, and music – can provide examples for how to bring people together to creatively address challenges. It is not the product of those arts, but rather the processes and capacities they entail that I believe must find their way into change work. As enjoyable as it is to listen to a jazz trio play or see improv actors perform, I think of that as the consumption of art. Instead, it’s the engagement with artistic sensibilities that I believe could fuel the work of multi-sector system change.
In a series of blog posts over the coming months, I will share this ongoing exploration as it plays out in different projects. I will also reflect on what this approach requires from each of us to fully engage in it.
Alt/Now: The art of venturing
In 2016, I was part of a unique project called “Alt/Now.” Hosted and convened by the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute at The Banff Centre, this program brought together 20 entrepreneurs, community builders, and innovators to address the question of economic inequality in Canada. The idea was to assemble a diverse group of people with entrepreneurial power to create social change ventures. As outlined in the program description, the goal was “to create ventures and initiatives that exemplify a new set of principles and mechanisms on which we believe solutions should be built to achieve better outcomes. Building those exemplars as live ventures reveals the system infrastructure – the technologies, relationships, conditions – needed for similar models to develop.” The ventures focused on four challenge themes: rethinking models for housing, land, and real estate; the squeezed middle; wealth creation and opportunities for all; and the future of work and good business in a changing economy.
The 9-month program began in January of 2016 and brought the cohort together for three residencies and then an incubation process over the summer. It culminated in a Summit held at the Banff Centre in October. At the Summit, cohort members presented eight ventures developed over the course of the project to a national audience. These initiatives included a new model for housing development, alternatives to pay-day loans, and indigenous place-making. All of the initiatives showcased have moved beyond the structure of the initial project to become ongoing ventures.
The “right” distance
The line from the start of the program in January to this sharing of ventures in October was not as straight as the description above makes it sound. It was an evolutionary process of exploration, insight, and experimentation led by Jennie Winhall, a remarkably talented service designer from London, UK. A past associate with Particple in London, Jennie is now the Social Innovation Associate at the Rockwool Foundation in Copenhagen. The Banff Centre asked Jennie to design and lead the process for creating the Alt/Now project. Jennie invited Shawn Smith (co-director of Radius at Simon Fraser University) and me to work with her on the design and implementation of the process. My focus was to create the relational conditions that would support participants as they engaged in the design process.
As I looked at ways to support participants as they developed their ventures, I noticed something about what this kind of work asks of us as creators: In putting our ideas up for revision and testing, it can feel like we are putting ourselves up for revision.
The act of making a declaration and then seeing whether it has value is at the centre of the creative process. In improvisational theatre, this is the idea of “making an offer”: You come into the exploration with a solid idea you have developed in order to start the inquiry. You then discover how much of your offer the other actors take up (and there is always the chance that they won’t take up anything).
Training in theatre focuses on developing actors’ ability to create these kinds of offers. Central to that skill is creating offers at the “right distance” – close enough so that what you bring matters to you personally and removed enough so you can let go of the offers if necessary.
A sense of vertigo
When creating in service of a challenge you care deeply about, the ability to hold the right distance is difficult. Furthermore, when testing an idea that forms the basis for your approach and cracks begin to appear in that idea, you can feel a sense of vertigo. There is a term from psychology that captures this feeling well: dis-coherence. We each have valued beliefs that form our worldview. These beliefs – and they feel like “truth” rather than belief – create a sense of coherence for us as we engage with the world. When one of our interconnected “truths” starts to show signs that it is incomplete, we can feel a threat to our sense of coherence (and we literally do feel it). This lack of coherence can result in another well-known concept from psychology: the backfire effect. When confronted with information that challenges a valued “truth,” we tend to reject that information and double down on our original belief.
One strategy for dealing with dis-coherence and the backfire effect is to establish the practice of consciously articulating the “right distance” for the ideas we “offer” as a part of the process. When we acknowledge to ourselves and others on the team what matters deeply and consider the possibility that we may have to let go of an idea in service of the larger goal, we build resilience. This is what I witnessed in the Alt/Now program:
When participants offered their ideas for testing at the right distance, they were able to stay with their sense of dis-coherence as old beliefs gave way to new understanding. By doing this, they uncovered rich areas of potential for their ventures.
As we each venture in service of social change, our projects will continually ask us to reconsider our basic understanding of ourselves and of the world. In this context, we have to be willing to put ourselves up for continual revision. The ultimate act of creation is when we transform ourselves to advance the work we are doing. The ability to support people in doing that well requires us to nurture the conditions that encourage reflection and working through of the vertigo that accompanies dis-coherence.
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