Professional Development for a Complex World

Photo by Banff Centre   

Photo by Banff Centre


Interview with Julian NorrisHaskayne School of Business/Banff Centre and Lynn RandallCapacity Canada

There is a growing recognition that we are living in an increasingly complex world where technical expertise alone cannot tell us how to resolve a problem and where we are forced to deal with unexpected outcomes and emerging new trends when we try to take action. New mindsets, knowledge and skills are needed.

Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency, a new offering from The Banff Centre, brings this kind of training to people working for social change ( Its target audience is people with a broad range of capacities and from different walks of life that share a genuine motivation to transform systems. The core premise of the program is that this can only be done in a holistic way. Therefore, the program blends many ways of knowing in order to build their capacity to perceive, understand and act in complex situations.  The first cohort of the Getting to Maybe Residency completed the program in July 2015 and it has been highly evaluated. Early evidence shows that, in addition to the impact on individuals, the program has also had a positive effect on their organizations and initiatives.

How are they achieving this kind of impact?

A holistic approach to professional development: The Social Innovation Residency grew out of the conviction that there needed to be professional development that truly dealt with a change agent as a whole. Social innovators are individuals with an enormous personal commitment to their work and that leads to a risk of burnout.  Julian Norris, a member of the design and delivery team, explains that he councils participants to,  “be really clear and centered in your purpose. Understand your own motivations around that at a quite personal level because when all of that is aligned you can move mountains and when it’s not you can create spectacular dramas”. That is why the residency places as much emphasis on inner work for participants to understand themselves and their motivations, as it does on understanding the systems around them.

Recognizing the unique needs of social change agents: Capacity Canada is another organization dedicated to supporting social innovation and community organizations around Canada ( Lynn Randall stresses the need to recognize the particular challenges of the sector, for example in working with volunteers, or in their unique relationships with their clients who often have nobody else to turn to. Similarly, Norris agrees that systems changers have particular needs that need to be addressed: “If you’re just running an organization it can be your job, it’s not necessarily your life’s purpose. For social innovators there’s a much closer link between their life’s purpose and their work in the world. So although the sector can learn from other leadership programs, there is a need to develop unique training, tailored to the social profit sector.

Education and training trends: These programs find themselves part of broader intentional efforts throughout the field to support learning and skill building for the sector. Research and curriculum developed as part of Social Innovation Generation has been seeded in multiple places across Canada, like the SI Residency online modules, and the SiG knowledge hub. Innoweave is a national capacity-building program that incorporates funded coaching for organizations. Tamarack has rapidly grown its learning events in recent years. Capacity Canada offers a broad suite of programs that cover everything from board governance and key organizational skills to evaluation and mentoring, and are partnering with firms such as Axonify to look at how new technologies can make leadership training more effective and accessible.


What are the key challenges to this type of work?

Resources, time and prioritization of learning seem to remain the key challenges to taking full advantage of professional development training for the social profit sector. Based on his experience, Norris suggests that the sector lags behind its corporate counterparts in terms of investing in leadership training. In part, this can definitely be attributed to a lack of resources. Lynn Randall from Capacity Canada agrees, but also suggests that culture around learning within the sector needs to change. She shares that there can be reluctance for some organizations to change what they see as an already successful formula for their work, a hesitancy to engage in learning that invites scrutiny, and most of all to divert resources away from those who so desperately need them. But professional development makes organizations more effective and efficient and may hold the key to actually solving complex problems, in addition to the need to address serious symptoms.

What does this tell us about system change?

Managing complexity: Coming to grips with complexity and building understanding and skill to effectively operate within complex contexts may soon be considered as fundamental as accounting. The ability to actively and strategically manage complexity can fundamentally change the relationship between individuals, organizations and the broader system. System entrepreneurship or system leadership is becoming more widely understood as a set of capacities that can be developed to engage as individuals, organizations and networks of actors, across sectors, and actively shaping the systems they operate within. This holds great potential for tipping social and environmental systems in more positive directions.