By: The ABSI Fellows
The ABSI Connect Fellows set out on a journey to figure out how we could bridge and amplify social, economic, and ecological impact initiatives that are successfully challenging the status quo in Alberta, and to transform the way we forge solutions to our province’s most complex challenges. We engaged in an inquiry to develop an understanding around how various groups were addressing such problems. Along the way, we identified various key players and elements within our province's social innovation ecosystem, forged new intersections, carefully connected diverse relationships, and shared stories with the intent to weave together stronger ties between social innovators and the social innovation support system in Alberta.
Below are some personal reflections on the 'journey'....
As the exploration phase of the ABSI Connect Fellows’ inquiry comes to a close, the need to take a step back and reflect on where we started, and where we’ve ended up, has arisen in the Fellows with great force!
Indeed - before we put all our data and findings on the table and start to try and make sense of it, it’s imperative we take the time to understand our personal journeys first. It needs to be stated that going from social innovation newbie to ‘sorta-kinda’ getting it (and back and forth again) in just a few months, has been the most intense of roller coasters! By no means does understanding social innovation personally, while also attempting to understand the various ways others understand and embrace it, a forward and upward journey only. We’ve found ourselves shifting from feelings of deep cynicism one day, to hopelessness the next, and then brimming over with excitement for the future by the end of a long week!
We suppose it’s fitting that it took a series of ‘shifts’ to get us to a comfortable and encouraging space - because that’s what seems to be going on all over Alberta! But enough said about that - official results to come soon! For now, here are a few curated excerpts from the various check-ins and reflections we composed over the course of our inquiry.
Whaddya MEAN Social Innovation Isn’t Just the New, Bright & Shiny Way of doing things?
“Jeez – I know I said in my interview that I THRIVED in uncertainty (after all, people say a lot of things to get jobs they really want!), but going from a structured 9-5, “get’er done and go home” work environment, to an open, generative, exploration of a complex and often misunderstood concept, hasn't been the smoothest of transitions! Attempting to feel truly and genuinely comfortable with this much uncertainty feels just as unnatural as trying to confidently and gracefully hop across a high beam with a blindfold on. We’ve been conditioned (our whole lives!) to be as certain as possible of as many variables as you can, before moving forward on a task...doing the opposite at the flick of a switch isn’t as simple, or immediately as gratifying as I’d hoped it would be.
All of that said...there’s still something SO WONDERFUL about waking up in the morning, sitting down at my desk, and taking a deep, excited and open-minded breath before diving into a concept and space that’s totally new and full of potential. Who else get's to say that that is their job???
Perhaps if I focus more on that 'SO WONDERFUL' aspect of this work, I’ll be able to worry less about how ‘comfortable’ I may or may not feel…”
Black and White is the New Grey
“Why were we ever taught that definitions, categories or ways of being are static and limited things? That you either ‘are’, or you ‘aren’t’ something?
If I take anything away from this work - it will be that continuums are everything.
When it comes to social innovation – this is especially true. Innovation isn’t a static classification. Rather, it represents a wide and often non-linear spectrum of activity. There are those individuals or organizations at the far left of it, with the EXPLORING ways to work toward big change, that need just as much knowledge and support as those SYSTEMS CHANGERS toward the far right, who are already seeing shifts and changes toward the transformation they’re working to achieve - but might need help scaling or sustaining.
Everyone on the spectrum plays a key role. Who you are, or where you stand, doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you collaborate and support others so we can ‘get there’ together.
I suppose our role, as a group trying to support the entire spectrum, could be to make sure that we’re all shooting for the same ‘there’, regardless of what we’re calling it....
Once Upon A Time...
“Man! I’m really struggling to find a balance between genuine relationship building and leveraging people’s stories to move this initiative forward! People are revealing some really personal details about their social change journey and with that, exposing numerous vulnerabilities, doubts and frustrations. Asking them to then let me share those details, in MY words instead of theirs, is proving difficult.
On the other hand, offering them control of the pen so they can write their OWN stories in a compelling and concise way, on their OWN time is even harder. Why? Because everyone in this ecosystem seems to be working themselves to the bone just to keep their heads above water - especially the actual social innovators with the really fascinating stories to tell! Time is a critical resource that so many people and organizations don’t seem to have. What’s frustrating is that so many individuals and organizations seems to lack the time to do useful and personally fulfilling things like tell their story, because of the numerous and often over-the-top funding and administration obligations they have to attend to to make sure they keep their doors open. Not to mention the systems-change work they're also supposed to be doing day-to-day....
I suppose if we want this work to simultaneously build trust and momentum, we’re going to have to dive in and start telling some inspiring stories the best we can. They’re not OUR stories and they won’t be perfect, but at least they will be told!
Balance or Bust!
“Ahhhhhhhh! All the competing demands of a complex job in a complex ecosystem are becoming terribly overwhelming to manage! Wasn’t that ‘comfort with complexity’ I was searching for supposed to manifest by now? How on earth is one supposed to prioritize when there’s no clear demand or task that jumps out as an obvious choice? They all feel CRUCIAL: the outreach, the relationship-building, the philosophizing, the mapping, the connecting, the storytelling, the pattern-finding, the space-making, the tracking/note-taking/filing, the reading and learning...
I can’t shake this fear that if everything on that list doesn’t get done as quickly and intentionally as possible - our work won’t shift the community towards a palatable/or doable ‘what’s next’ space. I do NOT want to develop another snazzy report to put on a shelf! I want to leave this experience feeling like there is community capacity, energy and willingness to move from where we left off. To effectively disrupt more stuck systems!
Did we bite off more than we could chew? Or is that just the nature of this kind of work?
Insert cheesy-‘journey not a destination’-type quote here...."
When Doubt Creeps In...
Source: Bud Caddell
“WHAT IF WE’RE NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO SOLVE ALL THE BIG, SCARY, COMPLEX PROBLEMS???? WHAT HAVE WE GOTTEN OURSELVES INTO???? AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!"
“We’ve been having a lot of chats (and a few friendly arguments) about definitions and classifications since this work started, and I’ve approached explaining our inquiry in a variety of ways to try and make progress on shared language; from showing people this SiG video, to sending them articles like this, to throwing all the academic/technical language out the window and referring to basic transformational social and environmental change. Through all these approaches and back, I have realized that as long as the ecosystem is aligned when it comes to aiming for stopping stuck problems (instead of putting band-aids on their symptoms), we are going to be ok.
Hence my New Years resolution - stop getting stuck on language!
No more chats about social innovation where I respond like this:
“No - social innovation isn’t just about using business principles to solve social/environmental problems.”
“No - social innovation and social enterprise are not the exact same thing.”
“No – social innovation isn’t just about finding NEW ways to do things.”
Instead, I plan to start responding more like this:
Yes – social innovations can be _______, _______ and _______.
Yes – when you strip it all away, social innovators embody the same qualities that make any problem solver effective:
they get at the root of a problem,
they collaboratively to fix it
and they never give up.
Yes – let’s never give up together!”
There you have it. We hope that our sharing of some of the more personal reflections of a social innovation explorer have allowed at least a few readers to feel better about how challenging and less-than-straightforward they’ve found their own journeys as problem solvers to be! Because that’s what we’ve found social innovation is really all about - being the best problem solver you can be. How you get there is a ‘whole other story’ :)