Why we work the way we work

by Sep 30, 2021News

Organisations; Leadership; Systems work.

It’s been the challenge and one of the rewards of my life to lead the Resilience Brokers over the last two and a half years. But let’s face it, we’ve each, in one way or another faced major changes that have affected our health, work, lifestyles or our friends and families due in part to the Covid pandemic. So I was asked by the team to share some of the ideas we use in our organisation that have kept us going, through the difficult times and the good. We thought they might help others who are trying to figure this out, and maybe stimulate a few new conversations – as you’ll see we’re always learning, and welcome challenge and exploration.

In times of great winds, some build bunkers, others build windmills

Perhaps within this piece I am talking about the ancient Chinese Proverb that translates as ‘in times of great winds, some build bunkers, others build windmills’. The short answer is that really, both are ok, that looking after ourselves in ‘times of great winds’ is just as important as creating something new.

For context, we work on transformational change with cities, regions and communities. We aim to bring systems thinking and collaboration to help unlock value and improve the climate resilience of places. But this is less important for this short read. What is more important here is we are a small, dispersed, global team that operates as a networked organisation and an evolving sense of how we work given the basis that business as usual isn’t working. Here at least we had a head start in dealing with the switch to remote working as we already had the toolset for online, collaborative ‘frictionless’ working.

From the beginning our broad strategy has been to achieve a sustainable platform for the team to be able to bring our best selves and levels of creativity to do the best work of our careers. This means financially and operationally sustainable. This is so we are well placed, match fit if you like, to grow and develop new exciting activities, partnerships, impacts and to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. This comes from a firm belief in managing for serendipity.

Over this time I have questioned this strategy incessantly, is surviving really an adequate approach? Is paying our team and our bills the real object? Shouldn’t we be building windmills rather than hunkering down?

It is true, like many small and medium sized companies, some contracts dried up, grants with Europe came to a halt.  We have each had to reduce our hours, and accessed the furlough scheme on a temporary basis, and cut down on non-essential costs. We reluctantly left a treasured office space in London, which was alive with plants and home to many new ideas. We maybe, at times weren’t able to keep up with the demands of all our partners but throughout we kept doing our best.

Bringing our best selves

One of the reasons I believe that we pulled through, and are stronger than ever, is that from the get go I always wanted to put us, as human beings, with all our own complexities, relationships, private situations, us, as people and our health and wellbeing, all front and foremost in how we organise ourselves. A human-centred place to work. Recognising we work to energy rather than time and that extra efforts are needed to socialise and be together in a remote setting, and at the same time extra pressures may arise at home.

We introduced the meeting check-in to help us ‘arrive’ into a space ready for the next topic. These have included music, quizzes, meditations, all designed to put distance between any busyness or distractions from before and bring us ‘into the room’ together ready for the topic at hand. We’re also experimenting by moving beyond agendas to more dialogic spaces where we can riff and spark off of each other, share new knowledge, work on a new method or offer open feedback. We’re also encouraging the idea of walking meetings. Even online calls can be done walking outside, particularly if there are no detailed presentations, and the creative spark of in-person walking meetings by a lake or in a park with bird-song are wonderful.

More structurally, we are trying out unlimited holidays. We use a calendar and trust system so as a collective we make sure our work gets done but also that no-one has to scrimp on their time off needs whatever the reason. Many of us are part time and the most anyone will be putting in is a 4 day working week. This combination gives our team licence to pursue other interests, travel, spend time with the family, volunteering in the community and crucially taking time for health and wellbeing without feeling guilty about it.

We do sometimes burn the midnight oil, and working globally there are those early, or late online calls and events. Which all makes the idea of taking a few hours out e.g. when it’s sunny to go for a walk on the canal or a run in the park, or a jam on the guitar more appealing.

We also focus on life-long learning, over and above professional development. We’ve had some brilliant ‘brown bag brunch’ sessions where a team member or a partner will talk through a topic of interest and we’ll all discuss it, these are recorded so anyone joining has access to a growing library of content. Most recently James, our community manager who is supporting the Exeter Living Lab, dived into a piece by Anna Birney on Facilitation and I explored Systems Convening by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner thanks to a super compendium on public sector reform by the RSAs Ian Burbidge. We’re exploring how these ideas and others can complement our work and help us to support teams and places to more transformative outcomes.

Windmills

The Pandemic did lead us to answer a call from a retired IBM leader Colin Harrison who felt we should get our minds together to figure out how we can ‘pivot’ to a more sustainable, resilient, hopeful world rather than return to business as usual. We set up the collaborative space for Pivot Projects and are active participants in a growing network of leaders, volunteers, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts all giving time to support each other, and to lean-in to the big challenges of our time. Indeed Steve Hamm, our embedded story-teller wrote a Pulitzer nominated book The Pivot: Addressing global problems through local solutions which will be launched in Glasgow at COP26.

Whatever the outcome of COP26 we feel comfortable that we’re exploring the right spaces of leadership, organisational design and systems work to support better outcomes in places globally. We also notice a lot of excitement in this space with some amazing teams and initiatives also exploring the way and showing how it can be done. If our work or approach to organising is of interest to you, or you’ve tried other approaches then do get in touch, or give us a follow on Twitter and LinkedIn. We’d love to hear from you and carry on the conversation.

Inspiration

We have drawn on some amazing sources of inspiration to implement these ideas and to continue to experiment and explore what it means to run a sustainable, effective and pleasurable, human place to work. 

Frederic Laloux and his book Reinventing organizations advocates shared leadership, non-hierarchical, managing for serendipity/emergence and is the source of some of our ideas above. Giles Hutchins in particular with his leadership course in nature immersion and book (with Laura Storm) on regenerative leadership has a great toolbox for Regenerative Leaders. Louisa Harris of Curiously Liminal who is a brilliant change specialist and Jeroen Brink who is a sustainability leader at Akzo Nobel are both great mentors and coaches. We’re also finding very fertile ground with the Warm Data labs, Cognitive Edge and Cynefin, Edgewalkers, Sustainable Happiness and the Presencing Institute. We’ve also had the pleasure of connecting to leaders globally through our Pivot Projects, and particularly the Interdisciplinary group there led by Deborah Rundlett. Thank you all, and we look forward to continuing learning together.

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To join this dialogue contact Stephen directly at team@resiliencebrokers.org

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Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash