02 June 2011

Transformation of an Activist Organization

Volunteer groups are often the most challenging in which to effect organizational transformation, since people don’t “have to” be there (as in, they aren’t earning a paycheque), and those who do come bring with them long-vested and entrenched ideas about how organizations are run. Most of them, after all, are members of well-established organizations from which they are earning a paycheque, and those organizations almost invariably locate themselves towards the BAH end of the Valence Theory typological spectrum. So, it is fascinating to observe (even more so to have the privilege to facilitate) the transformation of such an organization.

Last weekend, for the second time, I facilitated the annual retreat of a volunteer-run, activist organization. This group has been established for a very long time, although most of its currently active members are relatively recent (as in, joining within the past three to four years or less). In reviewing the intended activities and objectives decided at last year’s retreat, as I usually do, I took a page from Appreciative Practices to ask three key questions that I commonly ask of each planned initiative: What worked well? What didn’t work as well as it might have? What was missing that might have improved the experience? The current chair of the group was a bit wary of the first question; she says that one of the group’s shortcomings is that they consider that they do everything well, and lay blame at the feet of external actors and circumstances!

Despite her misgivings, (and this is part of the art of my facilitation, of course), I never allow a group to look for blame, but rather, learning. What the group learned through this part of their retreat day can be summed up in two important principles of Valence Theory. The first is embodied in the idea of Effective Theory of Action: it is important to differentiate between achieving the desired and intended effects for a given situation, and achieving the nominal objectives or goals of an initiative. In one instance in particular, an initiative that had been designated as the group’s secondary focus for the year, had accomplished pretty much none of its objectives. However, when we answered the question, “what worked well?” with respect to this initiative, it was clear that a whole bunch of desired effects had been created—in fact, far more than the group could even have imagined a year earlier. Was the initiative a success? According to conventional measures of effectiveness, no. But when considered from the ground of Valence Theory and effectiveness – focusing on effects enabled and rippling through the complex system of human interactions – the initiative was considered to be tremendously successful.

Through the first half of the day, the group struggled with the paradoxes of more and less formal leadership and structure, the need to coordinate and keep track of certain activities while allowing sufficient flexibility for people to jump in and take up responsibility for tasks of their own volition. They realized that for those projects in which there were common values, common understanding, common sensibility, and a common volition to action – characteristics that describe ba – things happened well, including outreach and engagement with “external” organizations. People felt a sense of individual autonomy and agency, and worked not independently (nor strictly interdependently, which suggests tight-coupling), but rather with a sense of collective responsibility and mutual accountability. The conclusion they came to – although I didn’t suggest the specific language – was that their organization functioned better in an environment of organization-ba. To this end, the group decided to recast its traditional governance model of a formal executive with a designated Chair in charge (including taking ownership of meeting agendas and running meetings, a very strong measure of control). Instead, the group’s governance has moved to a contemplative consensus model, with a coordinating committee to tend to the coordination and “business” aspects of the group’s operation, and rotating facilitators managing agendas and meetings (in which the facilitator attends to process and cannot speak to content).

I will be working with the group to facilitate a revisitation of their values to provide fundamental guidance for future decisions, and to help the cadre of future facilitators to learn and practice their craft in a way that is consistent with their transformed governance. And, I anticipate that I will be invited a year hence to once again facilitate their annual retreat. I am most interested to see the successes that the group will be able to effect operating now as a more-UCaPP organization, one that is consistent with the conditions of today’s world.

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