Three Actions to Challenge the Status Quo of Change

The symbol of the dandelion: resilient. resistant. regenerative. decentralized
(brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 34)

Emergent Strategy is about shifting the way we see and feel the world and each other. If we begin to understand ourselves as practice ground for transformation, we can transform the world.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 143

I have learned again and again (and again) the importance of transparency as a leader. I believe in its importance but sometimes struggle to make transparent the layers of my thinking and intention when working with organizations. That is why I am so grateful for the work of Peter Senge, Meg Wheatley, Bob Kegan and a line-up of others who both inspire and inform my work. I depend on their voices to help shape and share my own narrative of change.

Recently, I have been exploring a new voice that resonates deeply with my approach and belief about change. That voice is adrienne maree brown. brown is an American author, doula, women’s rights activist and black feminist based in Detroit, Michigan. At the heart of all her work is facilitating, within and beyond the organizations she served. Her 2017 book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds challenges change models that stem from linear organizing based on a belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change. Instead she highlights that “emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32). Emergent strategy mirrors my hypothesis that we need to shift from a mechanistic view to a living-systems view of organization design if we are to create the conditions where every individual within schools can thrive.

So what is meant by emergence? Emergence is the way complex systems and pattern arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions… Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 11,12

Principles of Emergent Strategy

I found that brown’s principles of emergent strategy provide a strong guide to anchor my efforts and tune my attention. (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32)

  • Small is good; small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.
  • Change is constant; be like water.
  • There is always enough time for the right work.
  • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  • Never a failure, always a lesson.
  • Trust the people.
  • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships
  • Less prep, more presence.

These principles, alongside the six elements she uses to inform her own work provide a sharp framework for challenging the status quo of change. Included in the book is a “quickie assessment” for measuring one’s embodiment of emergent strategy at this moment (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 135). Through the assessment and reading, reflecting and simply meandering through her book (which is as poetic as it is pragmatic) I landed on three actions I believe will advance my ability to cultivate a model of leadership that drives a new paradigm of change.

Challenging the Status Quo

Work to identify, “What is the next most elegant step?” Like brown, I love, love, love this question. Too often I am steps ahead in a plan, jumping into conversations with the intent to get people where I am now. This stems from my intention to support people, to provide them with a clear path so perhaps they won’t feel anxious or burdened. It also stems from history – the expectation that I know, as the leader, what we need to be doing. This, I realize, only perpetuates the current, short-sighted view of leadership. brown highlights, “an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. An elegant step allows humility, allows people to say “Actually we need to do some research” or “Actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room” or “Actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable.” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 163). The goal instead is to look for the next step as one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go.

Add to my listening repertoire. Once upon a time I would have said I am a poor listener. In various situations I would find my mind wandering, tuning out or even worse, turning in to listen for the moment I could enter to build on my case, responding before I had any real sense of understanding. My habits of listening were closing the space of possibility. “At the human scale, in order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. We have to recognize that a multitude of realities have, do, and will exist” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 115). I continue to deepen my practice of listening (and it does take practice) to amplify what is emerging within a conversation. I recognize now it’s not just about being a “good” or “bad” listener; instead, it is about what level of listening do I engage in, and when.

Recently, I had an experience that elevated my awareness of the levels of listening. As part of a cohort of change leaders across the globe, I had the opportunity to use a case clinic protocol to investigate what would typically be a problem of practice. Unlike other protocols I’ve used to help a colleague think through and respond to a challenge they may have, this format invites a level of listening that requires stillness and mirroring back through imagery what was heard. It’s the first time, I understood the power of Otto Scharmer’s four levels of listening, especially in the space of collective creativity.

For more, check out Kelvy Bird‘s beautiful visuals and write-ups on this work in practice.

Utilize proposal-based decision making. There is little that frustrates me more than a group spinning around a decision, unsure if a decision has been made or if they even know what they are deciding to do, or if they are making a decision at all! (Perhaps it’s just a conversation.) Reaching consensus on ambitious proposals aiming for big results can be a daunting task, and I often go about it all wrong. This tool for facilitators leading proposal-based decision making creates the opportunity for equity by making space
for everyone to provide input and is used to get decisions that stick, decisions that everyone can support and that lead to action. I’ve had varying success so far with this approach. When the process does fall short, it is because I’ve failed to devote enough time to the conversation, I don’t have the right people in the room or I’ve set inappropriate expectations for the level of consensus that is needed. As brown points out, however, “eventually in most groups, you develop your own rhythm and code for this. Some groups only move forward when everyone is all in. Others do modified versions of consensus. The key is cultivating transparency, honesty in the decision-making process” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 174).

brown’s book is more than a treat for leaders seeking new ways to empower and elevate possibility. It is a treatise on how deep attention lends to emergent acts that can impact a learner’s experience in fundamental ways.

… begin. Again: Re-owning the learner experience designer mindset

This moment away from our campuses has taught us much, and I imagine, it will be some time before we surface all the key learnings that will seed all that is possible. One thing, however, is becoming clear: when I fail to design an experience without putting the “user” at the center, I fail to create opportunities where people can thrive. At this stage, the user I’m focused on is most often educators and leaders. I’ve learned it’s not enough to focus on the usual instructional and meeting facilitation moves, instead I need to focus on developing engaging and collaborative experiences that extend beyond business as usual if I hope for long-lasting change. For that to happen, I’ve been thinking through how to tackle and cultivate a mindset shift from an instructional designer to a learning experience designer (LXD) whether we’re online (where this lesson has become very clear) or when we’re together as a learning community. (The importance doesn’t go away).

So let’s break this down a bit. Learner experience designer? Huh? Let’s start with a basic definition.

Margaret Weigel, from Six Red Marbles, defines LXD as a synthesis of instructional design, educational pedagogy, neuroscience, social sciences, design thinking, and user experience design. It truly takes the best practices of each of these fields and combines them to create learning that is experiential, engaging, impactful, and designed with the learner (instead of the instructor) in mind.

Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience:
Moving From “User” to “Learner”

What’s powerful about this? A designer at heart is a problem solver. Without a problem to solve a designer has little value. We continue to learn that traditional instructional design is more and more dated. Advances in cognitive science are consistently showing that understanding doesn’t happen through instruction but through the experiences themselves, guided reflection and the application in new and meaningful situations. So why do we keep focusing on the instruction and not the learner? As a learning experience designer, my focus should be on the problems my user (learner, educator, leader) is trying to solve in order to meet their desired outcome. My first question should always be: what is the user (learner, educator, leader) trying to accomplish?

Andre Plaut, a LXD for Apple, Obama for America, and General Assembly., highlighted the top five “problems” that typically emerge:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete their task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

The LXD mindset has proven to be a powerful guide for both designing and reflecting – and that is why I write today’s post. I kinda blew it (remember this is a learning blog, not a showcase blog). It = a meeting with 9 leaders grappling with a re-opening plan. Without unpacking the whole darn meeting (essentially a design session to solve for an extreme scenario) I failed to lead with the most important thing: what is the user trying to accomplish? (Yes, the critical empathy piece). I solved for knowledge, for skills, and certainly for access, but I didn’t design an experience where my user walked away confident – and this is what mattered to them most. What leader wouldn’t want to feel confident in re-opening campus after a global pandemic? D’Oh!

It strikes me that we do this all the time with kids. We seek to solve for the wrong problems — problems we imagine or think important, instead of those that are authentic to them. This is hard. Some days more than others. So, as my meditation teacher says, just find your breath, and begin. Again.

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