What I Learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

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It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

Alberta has a rich tradition of social innovation. It is the province of the Famous Five, who secured women legal recognition as ‘persons’ in Canada, leading to a radical shift in our social relationships and in Canadian jurisprudence. It is the only province where the Métis have a legislated land base, with the goals “to secure a Métis land base for future generations, local autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency” (Source: Alberta Indigenous Relations). And it was the first province to develop a formal interface for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues directly with government officials – the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative.

Alberta has consistently been the home of key justice and equality movements, from the United Farmers of Alberta to the Pembina Institute.

What is common to all of these milestones? Each transforms a critical relationship, introducing a new status quo that advances, in some way, inclusion, openness and deeper collaboration.

Author Thomas King (and a former professor of Native Studies at University of Lethbridge) writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories, 2003). The stories we tell about ourselves matter; they inform how we see, show up and act in our daily lives. The Fellows amplified Alberta’s story as a leader in doing what it takes for community well being and equality, shedding light on an inspiring legacy of operating at the radical edge of innovation.

It is time to raise a barn together.

While there is this rich history of social innovation in Alberta, one contemporary pattern the Fellows surfaced was in the opposite direction. Today, the social impact ecosystem celebrates and rewards individualism over collective action. There has been a shift toward communities of heroes, rather than heroic communities. Short time horizons for results and a focus on individual agency undercuts an otherwise deep interest in collaborative action and isolates successful initiatives embodying this approach.

Listen to speak.

When the Fellows began their journey last summer, social innovation was a vexed concept in Alberta, specifically in Calgary and Edmonton, where their efforts were concentrated. Some folks considered it a critical new process to advance long sought social change, others considered it an empty fad, others still saw evidence of neoliberalism in the approach, and yet others felt it was either a useful or obnoxious term to describe the kind of breakthrough work they had already been dedicated to for years.

The Fellows started from a place of deep listening, inviting each person they spoke with to share what they thought the value, definition, and possibility of social innovation is. In doing so, the Fellows killed two birds with one stone: they discovered that there is a common direction that people want to walk together  (toward solving root causes) and, by listening and resourcing, they empowered the work of a diverse array of actors in both their current work and towards that common direction.

The Fellows learned that it absolutely matters to have a shared story, but that story must be accessible, inclusive, inspiring and democratic. Here is how I heard it: our common ground is in our deep dedication to aligning our social change efforts with our fundamental intent. If the goal is to solve something, then we focus on solving it. If the goal is to change the status quo, then we reimagine it. There is a growing movement of processes, models, approaches and shared learning that will help us align intent with action, whether we must invent, innovate, adapt, adopt or collaborate to get there.

Social innovation is the stuff of culture.

With little or no preconceptions of what they would be sharing back with community at the end of their term, the patterns and opportunities the Fellows identified through emergent learning all relate to the cultural elements shaping how and why we seek to forge solutions to our most complex challenges.

What they heard and learned strikes at the heart of how we think about, enact and vision impactful social change. What we call it matters less than identifying the systemic patterns shaping how we go about it and working to break the patterns holding us from our core intent.

Like any journey without a map – and solving complex social and ecological problems is as far from having a map as possible – we must constantly check-in on our direction and our path, referencing the changing landscape, the local know-how, resonant examples, our experiences, the experiences and stories of others, and our own courage to try a path untested. With an appreciation that we alone do not have the answers, but the answers are out there, we can make a concerted effort to contribute to their collective creation.

Thank you to the Fellows for leading and inspiring a unique inquiry, learning journey and community. Thank you all – especially the funding partners, hosts, advisors and contributors – for your time, contribution, support, insights and partnership. The journey continues with the Fellows’ insights offering pathways forward and a true shock of the possible.

Chrysalis – A Social Innovation Incubator

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on January 28, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

“Creating meaningful solutions starts with gaining a deep understanding of the individual’s need…”
Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

On November 19th, I had the opportunity to visit Chrysalis. To gain a grasp on Chrysalis, its history is important. In 1968, Chrysalis emerged as a Centennial project guided by the University of Alberta. It was created by community members and parents who envisioned adults with disabilities having equal opportunities to be involved in community. Historically, Chrysalis trained adults with developmental disabilities to produce manufactured goods using automated machinery. It was the first of its kind in the world.

Over time, Chrysalis has evolved and now also provides personalized services to help adults with disabilities receive training, develop life and vocational skills, find employment, discover volunteer opportunities and realize a better quality of life.

A CATALYST FOR INNOVATION

When designing programs for clients, there are always many questions to ask and answer to understand whether or not programming supports a person’s needs. Above all, Chrysalis asks: How do organizations connect more deeply with the individual’s life to understand how programming can support them?

Staff at Chrysalis recognized that the traditional system of setting up highly structured, top-down programming was inherently chaotic. There were deep barriers around scheduling and pressures on staff to have every detail defined to the exact second. When one thing in the system broke down within the original model, everything fell apart. On top of this rigid and vulnerable approach to services, staff were not even sure if clients enjoyed the programming being offered. Chrysalis staff began to explore other models for supporting individuals in the community.

They landed on ‘Leaders as Designers’

LEADERS AS DESIGNERS

Leaders as designers inherently have to see things differently. Meeting with the leaders at Chrysalis, I learned about programs being co-creatively developed through a human-centred design approach and collective impact model. In discovering how this way of working became a reality, I began to notice that the leadership at Chrysalis understands themselves as those with the ability to think critically and use design to create processes for change.

I think this is happening because the leadership fosters a space for innovation through what John Kotter calls a dual or a secondary operating system. One side of the leadership spectrum is management working with reporting, budgets, and strategic planning in the space of caution, along traditional business lines. Simultaneously, the other side is building relationships and planning by design with the permission to be creative. This is supported through an environment that offers training for staff to think, learn and work in ways that add value by reimagining how programming can be designed. In fact, Kotter suggests the duality should not be in competition, but a confluence of the formal and the informal, if successful transformation is to be achieved.

The duality of this operating system enables Chrysalis to lead as an incubator for social innovation that is creating new ways to develop, design and implement services for the individuals they serve.

WHAT IS HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN?

Human-centered design is a tool for social innovators, and organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free for more information go to https://novoed.com/design-kit-q1-2016

Organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free.

Human-centred design (HCD) is a creative approach to problem solving that starts with the person and ends with an innovative solution to meet that person’s specific needs. It supports service delivery by better understanding what the individual and his/her/their family or community want. HCD does not claim to solve the root cause of a problem rather it is a process that gives designers and clients the opportunity to try together!

In learning about and understanding HCD, the Fostering Innovation Group emerged at Chrysalis and is what I call the creative nebulous for innovative programming that starts with the person!

Becoming a baker: a client of Chrysalis wanted to work in a bakery. Having a disability created barriers to access whereby the individual was unable to secure employment in a bakery. Staff turned to HCD. Through the process of listening, observing and being open to the unexpected, a new idea was tested and designed for the individual to have the opportunity to bake. This individual was able to bake her own goods and sell them at community fairs across Edmonton.

Using a creative yet structured problem solving process (HCD) develops trusting relationships and builds a strong sense of resiliency among staff and individuals. This culture is supported by strong leaders who preserve the culture of trust, allowing participants in the design process to try things out and fail at first, because they know it takes time, inquiry and iteration to provide meaningful opportunities for people to engage in designing their own solutions.

WHAT IS COLLECTIVE IMPACT?

Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinct. John Kania & Mark Kramer describe collective impact as:

“…the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants” (SSIR, Winter 2011)

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Chrysalis is in the process of using the Collective Impact model to provide improved services to the individuals they serve. In doing the day to day work at Chrysalis, and by interacting with employers and other service agencies, the Chrysalis staff had realized that everyone was operating in silos, while expecting global or broader outcomes. This acknowledged that the expected overall impact was not being met. Unemployment for persons with disabilities has remained at around 80% for many years. So the idea of collective impact was proposed. Chrysalis has managed to garner buy-in with service agencies, employers, and funders for a generative look at the real systemic issues that people face. The outcomes are unknown, yet the vision is strong. As the process continues to unfold, I will keep you updated on how it unravels.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT?

Creating new ways for developing new things is not easy, especially within historically strong and influential organizations. Yet, as the nucleus of innovation works in parallel with the traditional operating system at Chrysalis, the positive results speak for themselves and make the case for continuing to support HCD approaches and processes internally.

Embedded HCD as a change process within Chrysalis has led to the discovery of hidden talents among staff, a shift away from resistance to change towards an embrace of HCD among individuals’ parents, and a renewed sense of positivity, knowing individuals are participating in outcomes they want to see for themselves and being included in a process that supports their own vision of a good life.

As social innovation continues to grow in the province of Alberta, how do we begin to create a culture among organizations where it is “cool” to do things differently and place people and innovation at the heart of the how we design social change? Perhaps in the spirit of Chrysalis, this is our project for 2017 and Canada’s sesquicentennial.