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We imagine a better world - why not better organizations?

Most people enter the non-profit/social enterprise sector because they’d like to see the world change in some way. The change might be something specific like, say, less cruelty to animals, or something big and structural, like less power for corporations. One challenge for anyone in a leadership role is helping people maintain a sense of connection to that larger purpose amidst the day-to-day routine of meetings and emails (more on that in another post).

We work in the social change sector because we have a sense of how the world might be made better. Yet too often we get stuck in critique instead of vision – and this is especially true of our perspectives on our organizations. Critique is necessary and can be the only place to start, but it's not a good place to rest in a world that's calling for everyone to step up and articulate clearer, more compelling visions of better alternatives to the way we do things now.

All more democratic systems of organizing — everything from a housing cooperative to a spokes council to a credit union - require some behaviour change from all of us to really work well and remain democratic. That's true whether that’s something as simple as engaging with board of directors selection in a meaningful way every few years (most cooperative members don’t) or learning to see when the needs of the group require some compromise from us and it’s our turn to adjust.

Most of us would like our organizations to be more democratic and collaborative, but we’ve all been socialized (in different ways depending on our location) into a very competitive and ego-centric economic system. It’s not just the top management of organizations who need to model different types of behaviour to make greater democracy and participation work, though their involvement is essential. It’s all of us – especially those with the privileges that can make being an advocate for organizational change much easier and less risky.

One new system that directly tackles this need for behaviour change is Holacracy by Brian J Robertson. In it, Robertson introduces the very useful concept of perceiving tensions as opportunities. Most of us feel some tension at work on a weekly or even daily basis. We consider the tension a bad thing, something to be gotten rid of - usually through someone else doing things our way. But we don’t contemplate that the tension comes from a gap between the way the world is now, and the way we’d like it to be - an experience related to that restlessness for justice that makes many of us choose this work in the first place.

What I like to challenge people to do is take time, sit with that uncomfortable tension (here’s where all that of cultural zeitgeist around mindfulness practices yet again comes in handy) and then imagine what that better world looks like inside their organization. Turn tension into a concrete proposal for change that could actually be implemented. Spend time imagining, as concretely as possible, how you think things could be improved inside your organization. What people usually find is that this is much more challenging than they might have thought it would be. It’s an empathy building exercise (maybe that other person's job isn't as easy to do as you assumed? maybe the precise steps to greater empowerment aren't that obvious?), and also a source of some great ideas about how to improve the organization. Imagine how powerful it could be to have all that energy that goes into fretting over tensions inside the organization channeled into finding solutions. These are the kinds of shifts in consciousness that we need to make to evolve as people and as organizations. And if we need to move on from organizations that can't grow with us, we can take those visions along to our new home, making the whole sector richer in solutions and alternatives.

Want some big-picture thinking to help you imagine a better organization? Check out:

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