Shared work is enough

The original version of the diagram above came from colleagues of mine working in the European Commission. Toke Moeller drew it for a group that was meeting at Windhorse Farm here in Nova Scotia. Ever since then I have applied it in all kinds of places - from community initiatives to organizational culture change work.

The original version of the diagram above came from colleagues of mine working in the European Commission. Toke Moeller drew it for a group that was meeting at Windhorse Farm here in Nova Scotia. Ever since then I have applied it in all kinds of places - from community initiatives to organizational culture change work.

Great to be back on my own blog. I have been blogging with the HUB and Lighthouse Now for the last month... this blog is exciting for me, I am changing my model Collaborative Advantage based on learnings over the last year... read on, read on! —Tim


Too much control and we kill innovation, too little order and everything falls apart. I have always been inspired by the question that comes from Dee Hock and the Chaordic Path:

What is just enough order for us to organise meaningfully and effectively in inevitable chaos?

The chaos is inevitable. I am working with humans, and what's more, humans bring conflicting perspectives and experiences. There is no mechanistic predictability available! What will happen in the room or over the duration of the project is largely unknown... I can prepare, but planning is usually futile. In these situations, figuring out what is the minimal order for people to be able to organise and move forward meaningfully and productively is essential.

I have always thought of shared purpose as one of the essential ingredients for good work. I have quoted "purpose is the invisible leader" many times. However, in my work over the last 18 months, particularly with Tuesday Ryan Hart, I have come to question this assumption. Tuesday first gave me the language of "shared work" when we were discussing how reaching for shared purpose actually often ends up dividing the room rather than uniting it.

On the Elements of Success I have pulled "purpose" out of the centre and put "shared work" in. That's the diagram above.

Purpose is out, shared work is in

Tuesday and I both shared that we are often in situations with such divergent opinions that getting to purpose is just not possible. Yet it remains clear there is work to do together. This is especially true for some of the social innovation initiatives I find myself in where we are working across multiple sectors, industries, regions—let alone backgrounds and life experience. Forcing clarity of purpose actually ends up alienating a large percentage of the room from joining in the work, rather than being the platform to launch off. Much of the work Tuesday and I have collaborated on has been around social justice and equity in education in the USA. You can imagine the vast range of perspectives and ways of working we are bringing together.

Shared Work allows us to start together without agreement. In that way it is a bigger container and more inclusive of marginalized voices. It creates lots of space for disagreement (and therefore learning) and lots of space for action (and therefore learning).

In some ways it is similar to what Zaid Hassan is talking about with social labs where you create a container for people to get to work together and through the work they discover the data and information that can build a common purpose. We do not need agreement on what we want to become or achieve to get started, we just need to get started and stay connected as we move.

I have found this distinction incredibly useful in recent work around Elder Abuse Prevention across Canada and in the engagements we have been running with the Aquaculture Industry in Nova Scotia. In both of these places we needed the conditions for conflicting perspectives and strategies to work together. If we had forced agreement on anything the projects would not have got off the ground. In this way shared work prioritizes our relationships to each other over our agreement on what we want to become or get done in the long term. This was especially important in the Aquaculture work where the nature of the conversation among the different stakeholders was extremely adversarial. Nine months on, the codes of practice that were developed through the engagement are in the constitution of the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia and a plan for implementation through stakeholder engagement is being developed.

I am not saying to avoid clarity if it turns up! Of course that is always welcome—but I am saying that we do have not to wait for it before beginning the work. Purpose is not an essential ingredient to get into good work, in fact it can be the outcome of getting into work together - one of the things we discover along the way. In terms of the Chaordic Design process (see my blog if you want to know more about that) "shared work" means that we can unite around the need and get to work straight away, rather than have to have clarity on purpose before diving in. For me this has been refreshing and freeing because I love getting work done. The key is to build reflection and evaluation so we can capture what we are learning and develop the shared work as we go. Which is where a framework like the chaordic stepping stones can be so useful. It helps us to know what to look for and what to articulate together as we move forward.

Need is the invisible leader

As I said, I have quoted for years that "purpose is the invisible leader" and now I think it is more that "need is the invisible leader" because everything arises from there. This is a consistent experience for me, ranging from our current expansion of the HUB South Shore, the change of direction with NOW Lunenburg County to the growing focus of my work with senior leaders and organizational culture change. It is not that any of these things have been designed, planned or orchestrated but that the need has lead me into this work.

The more I relax into what is actually happening in my life and accept reality, the more I am able to effectively meet the needs in front of me. I feel the momentum of these times is fundamentally beyond my control—so all I can do is go with it and get to work with whoever else turns up. Shared work but not always shared purpose.

I continue to enjoy building a model that allows me to present my work clearly and usefully to colleagues, clients and friends. It gives me a place to return to and adapt as I learn. Thanks for following on. I look forward to hearing any questions, connections and insights you might have. #changeahead.

Many thanks to Meg Craig of Skysail Media here in Mahone Bay who continues to do fantastic design work for my own brand and all kinds of work with clients from workbooks and models to infographics and card decks.

This post was originally published at Tim Merry's site.

Tim Merry