The good sport
When Carolyn Townsend joined Sport Nova Scotia, she entered a passionate team of collaborators. They had energy, devoted partners, and a unique approach to working together, with plenty of opportunities for improvement and growth. But sometimes, a fresh set of eyes means we see what long-time team members cannot. In this guest piece for The Outside, Carolyn writes about how to keep a clear frame of view on our organization, our team, and our work together — whether we’re brand-new or years in — and why it matters.
When we join a team, we benefit from the fresh perspective only afforded to the new. We can observe episodes of tunnel vision; silos; missed opportunities; how well the organization represents (or doesn’t represent) the people it serves. As we integrate, it’s normal for that window of clarity to close. Our vantage point from within a team’s culture makes it hard to see beyond it. We want the time and effort we spend to be well-spent, and that desire can make it hard to see clearly.
As soon as the need for change becomes apparent, we get our back up. What if we’re not on the right track? What if the change is bigger than us? What if our time and effort is not being well-spent?
I’ve never been part of an organization whose self-perception matched reality perfectly. If an organization is growing and evolving as it should, there will be a gap between how we’d like things to be and how things are on the ground. What customers or partners experience may differ from what staff experience, and that much more between staff and leadership. That’s normal, but what if we could cultivate clear vision all the time — no matter what?
After years of being on-staff, I moved into a leadership role with Sport Nova Scotia as it launched an effort to transform this province’s sport system. It’s a big ask that draws on many different people, organizations, fields, and jurisdictions. To help us work together, we enlisted Tim and Tuesday for one simple thing: to help us see clearly. When our most familiar assumptions, expectations, patterns, and narratives were starting to feel like blocks, what could we do to stay focused on a better tomorrow?
Don’t think to-do list. Think paradigm shift.
For better or for worse, the opportunities and challenges we’re facing can feel too big, too complex, or too dispersed for us to address. It is not our mandate, our fault, or our shortfall — and thus cannot be our solution. We deflect.
In order for big change to stick, we need more than a to-do list. We need a paradigm shift. We need to ask an entirely unknown and new set of questions to an entirely unknown and new set of voices — including individuals, teams, and organizations with intersecting universes. We can share (insight, questions, concerns) more than we compete.
Encourage fresh air.
We’ve all been through seasons of short-term wins that don’t sustain momentum. We experience spells of momentum and gather steam, but it’s not enough to last beyond a quarter. We can only seem to manage incremental change within the current system, and we cannot seem to re-engineer the systems themselves.
At the end of the day, a lot of good people work in your organization — people who genuinely want change. But when a flawed system sucks all the oxygen out of the room, the good will get starved out.
To encourage fresh air, be less attached to the narrative of what is (or isn’t) happening. Dig deeper into why people show up either drained or invigorated. Demonstrate a curiosity for why — and how — people want to contribute. What is the deeper calling? Show that it matters.
Rather than seeking proof, seek discovery.
It’s hard to say ‘I don’t know’. Leaders can feel like they should have the answer to every question, but change is a learning journey. If we set out thinking we already have all the answers, what we’ll end up with will not be fresh and new.
To get beyond incremental change, invite new voices to the table.
If you’re only singing with two voices, any harmony you make will be predictable. But with more voices, you’ll have exponential harmonization and potential. Don’t be dismayed by the collective feeling of restlessness inherent to new points of view.
Ask questions that spark more questions.
Even if our collective intention is to listen to new voices, we’re often stumped by what questions to ask. When we don’t know what we don’t know, who and what should we surface?
Rather than habitually amplifying or relying on the voices that will affirm our version of reality — insulating our own truth — introduce the variety and good health of a broader spectrum of colour. Reach out to people who might wish to get involved, but have historically not been a part of system design. They may be deeply experienced — in our case, players; families; community leaders — but they may have never been incorporated.
When your collaboration is set up for listening, the new design will be a direct reflection of what people truly want. Invite people from all corners of the system — especially those new to the experience of designing it.
Make a platform, not a plan.
When we’re in a state of resisting change, we may decide that we are functionally dysfunctional. It’s not a dumpster fire, so why shake things up?
We all know how it feels to be in an organization that thrives in its controlled, insulated silos. But long before dysfunction reaches dumpster-fire status, it still wreaks havoc by cancelling the good contributions of good people. Don’t wait until the dysfunction does its worst to begin shining light on it.
Don’t worry about not having a ‘plan’. Focus instead on establishing a platform for reimagining the work not only to reach ‘non-dysfunctional’, but to seriously light-up and excite the people who want to do good work.
It’s like we needed a blueprint for change before we started the work of it. Tim and Tuesday gave us the ground rules to sit down together and start out by asking the obvious questions:
Why are we doing what we’re doing? Why does it matter?
Is everyone on the same page? What do we all share?
What is the glossary of terms of our universal language?
Is there consensus on our core assets, objectives, challenges, and hopes?
From the beginning, one of our biggest breakthroughs was the imperative to seed every conversation with new voices. It was instantly some of the most exciting work I’ve ever done. It energized the room.
This seeding became a wider frame of view. It’s the only way we could truly reimagine the sport system in Nova Scotia: from elite athletes to recreation-minded seniors and low-income families and kids of all abilities. Now, we not only attract a broader range of input, but we know how to do something useful with it.
It’s not easy for an organization to embrace and model the future when we’re constrained by obligations and expectations of the present. But already, we can see the most beautiful thing about this work: it’s not shaped by a small, exclusive group in a boardroom. It’s shaped by passionate people — coaches, volunteers, parents, kids, advocates, neighbors, athletes, and friends — in places of play across this province.
We seek big shifts. We encourage fresh air and ask questions that spark more questions. We don’t shrink from feeling uncomfortable and challenged. We may not know quite yet what our new system will look like, but in practicing a new way of working together, we have a taste of how it will feel.
— Carolyn Townsend