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Supporting Innovation in Rural Alberta

Last year, Volunteer Alberta’s Managing Director, Annand Ollivierre, started a new, additional role as Journeyman Partner at Alberta Social Innovation Connect (ABSI Connect). The inaugural role was created as part of a new project which engages champions working full-time in Alberta organizations.

Bringing together the work of Volunteer Alberta and ABSI Connect, Annand is working to reveal, engage, and support the social innovation capacity in Alberta with a unique focus on rural communities.

In this blog post, originally posted on ABSI Connect on December 15, 2016, Annand shares how he developed an interest in supporting rural communities in exploring new, innovative possibilities and his hopes for his new role:


In my early years at Volunteer Alberta (I’ve been here for over 5 years now), I spent part of my time presenting on volunteerism statistics. I would speak to nonprofit sector leaders about the volunteerism rates by age and demographic and the reasons why people volunteer and why they don’t. The whole purpose was to provide people with information that challenges assumptions and inspires new actions.

After one of these presentations, in a smaller rural community, a couple of participants approached me, thanked me and then proceeded to let me know that as valuable as the presentation was, they did not see how the information applied to their experience or how it was going to help them.

These community members were worried because it had become increasingly difficult to engage their neighbours, especially in volunteer opportunities. From their perspective, youth and young families were not volunteering, traditional institutions were losing funding, the volunteer base in the community was aging, and no matter what strategies these community members applied, nothing changed.

I empathized with their challenges, but, at the time, I did not have anything of value to offer them that would make a difference.

I returned to the office confused and concerned. I was confused as to why we were presenting information to communities that seemed to make no difference in reality and I was concerned that communities were asking for something that I did not have.  It was at that moment that I started on a journey to explore and unearth the root causes of volunteerism and engagement challenges facing rural communities. This has lead me down a number of paths and shaped a lot of my work over the years — and it continues to shape me.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there are limiting mindsets/paradigms/ways of thinking that pull the levers of what is possible in community. They are often hidden from our view, in the back of our minds and hearts, yet inform us all at the same time. It is often called ‘the status quo,’ but is more accurately the operating assumptions we don’t think to challenge; the established way that doesn’t have to be the only way.

Where communities are stuck or struggling, our operating assumptions are often an unchallenged stumbling block to change.  I’ve learned that there are effective approaches to disrupt and disconnect from our set mindsets and that transforming community with new perspectives and mindsets can make all the difference.

I am excited to be joining ABSI Connect as the first Journeyman Partner. I am privileged to be embarking on an adventure to surface, advance and grow the Alberta social innovation ecosystem by bringing in the perspective of rural Alberta.

I will be connecting with community and organizational leaders from Alberta’s diverse communities who are challenging, reshaping and transforming their communities. There are leaders throughout Alberta who are champions for mindsets and actions that are renewing and transforming communities. By illuminating the ways Albertans are addressing the complex challenges faced by rural communities, I hope to uncover unique patterns and approaches to amplify, expand our collective perspective on social innovation in the province and intentionally connect leaders across the province.

I look forward to meeting you!

Annand Ollivierre
ABSI Connect and Volunteer Alberta

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From the Vault: Six Insights for Systems Leadership

This blog was originally posted August 11, 2015.


In the Winter 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania co-authored an incredibly valuable article: “The Dawn of System Leadership”. Leading up to Volunteer Alberta’s collective impact event, interCHANGE 2015, I have been reflecting on this article and, more generally, the world of systems thinking and leadership.

The article offers three key points regarding systems leadership:

  1. System leaders are not singular heroic figures but those who facilitate the conditions within which others can make progress toward social change.
  2. Any individual in any organization, across sectors and formal levels of authority, can be a system leader.
  3. The core capabilities necessary for system leadership are the ability to see the larger system, fostering reflection and more generative conversations, and shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

As a follow up this article, WGBH, FSG , and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley convened and recorded their event, Catalyzing Collective Leadership, which further expanded on the concepts introduced through the original SSRI article. In addition to the three key points offered in “The Dawn of Systems Leadership,” here are my three highlights from that recording:

  1. A system leader is not full of answers. They have a clear understanding that nothing will change if others are not able to contribute. Systems leaders are skilled at asking questions that surface the ingenuity and know-how of others.
  2. Change is accomplished through teams. Systems leaders foster compelling team cultures that inspire others but aren’t solely dependent on one leader. The culture ripples through the team and is perpetuated by each team member.
  3. Letting go is a pathway to success. Systems leaders bring what is most important to them to the table and are completely willing to have others take it on. This often looks like letting go of control and ownership over decisions and solutions. Sacrifice is not a loss but rather a gift given for the sake of the larger cause.

flockAs Peter Senge puts it: “We need lots of leaders in lots of places everywhere, all kinds of people stepping forward and doing all kinds of different things. We live in an era where the effective use of hierarchical power and authority is simply inadequate for the problems we face.”

The capabilities used by systems leaders are learned and more importantly practiced, reflected on, and refined. I encourage all of us to try on the capabilities of systems leadership and explore our world through a systems lens. Through practicing the capabilities above I am sure new worlds will open, old assumptions will crumble, and access to previously unidentified levers for positive change will emerge.

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

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From the Vault: When the Going Gets Tough, Be More Like a Penguin

This is a post from our vault. Originally posted Sept 17, 2012 as There are Penguins in Grande Prairie.

I recently took a quick trip to beautiful Grande Prairie, or “GP” as the locals say, to give the keynote address at the first Non-profit & Social Purpose Expo hosted and located at The Community Village.

The theme of the talk was The Power of Community. In the weeks leading up to the event, I spent my usual post-work walk home mulling over the approach I’d take. Would I talk about Martha Parker’s ideas around managers and directors of volunteers becoming “strategists in community engagement”? Or I would I speak about the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report and the common global values regarding volunteerism? Although both of those topics interest me (among others), the one idea that made the most sense to me was to talk about Emperor Penguins.

To be clear, I’ve never paid much notice to penguins, I have always considered them cute, quirky birds that dress well, but after seeing the movie March of the Penguins I had a new found respect for Aptenodytes forsteri. While reflecting on the movie I came to the conclusion that these penguins can teach us something about the power of community.

give wayFirst, what are the similarities? Penguins and humans are both social animals, survive harsh winters and like to summer by the sea, are large and flightless, are mainly monogamous, and look good dressed up. How penguins endure, survive and thrive in their environment is where the lessons can be learned about the power of community. As a side note, when I refer to community I am talking specifically about a community of nonprofit/voluntary sector organizations that operate in the same community trying to improve said community. Without going into a lot of how penguins live (you can look it up on Wikipedia like I did) let’s just say Emperor penguins have chosen a tough path to survival and have chosen to band together during the toughest times.

So, what are the lessons the nonprofit/voluntary sector can learn from these birds:

1)      Survival depends on working together – Without each other, penguins would not be able to stay warm. Without other nonprofit organizations, no one would be able demonstrate their importance. It is a community of organizations that truly has the most impact.

2)      We are all trying to nurture something we care about – For penguins it is their eggs, and for organizations it is the cause, broader community, clients, volunteers, and employees we aim to nurture.

3)      Not everybody makes it– Despite our best efforts, sometimes environmental stresses and ever so slight missteps claim victims. No matter how difficult it is when a fellow organization fails or flounders, it is the larger community’s responsibility to show resolve and continue on to set the example of what is possible.

4)      It is worth the time, effort and energy it takes to work together as a community – In the end it’s about building a stronger community with more to offer and a brighter future, working together guarantees it.  Penguins hatch chicks, organizations get stronger networks working together to more effectively hatch positive community outcomes.

5)      When it feels cold and lonely that is the time to come together as a community – Penguins could chose to do it on their own rather than, literally, huddle together. Nonprofits should think the same way. When resources are low, and the future seems bleak, that is the exact time to look to your peers and find the opportunities to collaborate and find creative solution to common challenges.

There it is. Penguins demonstrate the power of community and, if nothing else, it is a strong image to remember. So, the next time you are feeling yourself out alone in the nonprofit world, think of the Emperor Penguins huddled together staying warm and surviving. It should at least inspire to reach out and connect to your nonprofit community.

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

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What is Intrapreneurism? 6 lessons for adaptation, innovation, and leadership

Recently I had the privilege of being the moderator at a panel discussion on social leadership and intrapreneurism with intrapreneurs Carla Stolte, Ian Howat, and Pieter de Vos presented by IPAC Edmonton. It was an opportunity to gather with curious leaders who are interested in finding out more about what social leadership looks like and what intrapreneurship means.

From perspectives shared by the panelists, to questions asked by participants, the panel generated many useful lessons worth sharing.

Young teamSo what do social leadership and intrapreneurism mean?

  • Social Leaders are people who have the ability to bring people together, facilitate agreements, and drive efforts in the same direction.
  • Intrapreneurs are people within groups or organizations who are willing to take risks in an effort to innovate and solve important problems.

These are complementary skills that can be developed by many people. In fact, lots of people already work in these ways – they just don’t know it yet!

The six lessons I took away from the panel fall into two categories: individual and organizational.

LESSONS FOR INDIVIDUALS:

1. Discover for yourself that “I am enough.” This is more than a true statement – it’s a way of being, living your life, and working. Discovering that you are enough will allow you to see the opportunities in taking risks and sticking your neck out. From the place of “I am enough” you can build resiliency, commitment, and the ability to be invested in both your goals and the goals of others.

2. As intrapreneurs it is likely that you will face “no.” It’s important to take rejection as an opportunity to learn what others see as important so you can increase the likelihood of a “yes” the next time.

3. Intrapreneurs bring their whole selves to the table – all their identities, perspectives, experiences, and “ways of knowing.” Hobbies, interests, previous roles, community/volunteer work, and current roles are all resources that you can rely on to inform and advance ideas and projects.

LESSONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS:

4. Develop a tolerance for change. Intrapreneurism requires space inside of organizations to incubate ideas, generate buy-in, and communicate within the organization. Often we work in organizational cultures that are unnerved by small groups gathering to discuss “pet projects.” These movements should be encouraged because there is the potential for these conversations and projects to be the birth places of innovation and positive impact.

5. Create a framework for intrapreneurism. Organizations can create and implement frameworks for endorsing and encouraging intrapreneurism. This allows those who are not the intrapreneurs, but are often affected by intrapreneurs work, to understand how the approach fits into the strategic directions of the whole organization.

6. Support a “learning environment.” The space and opportunity to apply learning is often limited. A learning environment encourages people to explore new ideas and apply new skills and thinking to their work. New perspectives and ideas may disrupt the organization’s status quo; however, outcomes are likely to improve when learning is given space to grow and to thrive.

Ultimately, every organization has forces that vie for stability and status quo, as well as those that pull for change and adaptation. Professionals that are emerging intrapreneurs and social leaders can bridge this tension, resulting in increased capacity for innovation and impact.

For more information on intrapreneurism, check out www.leagueofintrapreneurs.com

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

There are No More Silver Bullets

To understand and address 21st century challenges, we have to become familiar with complexity, systems thinking, and resiliency.

There are no shortage of tools, resources, and information available to guide and support our capacity to tackle these challenges. At interCHANGE 2015, Mark Cabaj outlined the approach leaders need to implement when embarking on challenging, complex work.

MeetingTo start, we must move away from leadership that relies on a “born with it” attitude, to leadership attitudes oriented toward developing the capacities and capabilities of others to support authentic responses to 21st century challenges. For example, developing a leadership capacity for situational awareness or “knowing what’s going on around you”.

Leaders who increase their situational awareness are able to effectively identify issues as simple, complicated, political, complex, or chaotic. The capacity to differentiate between these types of issues begins to orientate leaders and teams towards appropriate responses. Issues that are often the hardest to shift (i.e. poverty, hunger, inequality, community resilience, sustainability, etc.) always fall in the complex category and these types of challenges require leadership capacity to engage in adaptive responses.

Adaptive responses are participatory, systemic, and experimental in nature:

  • Participatory responses engage multiple stakeholders and build broad-scale ownership and action. They are about gathering a wide sense of the multiple facets that make up a complex challenge and understanding the issue from multiple perspectives. Participatory approaches are inclusive, and stakeholders are instrumental in defining the problem and shaping the solutions.
  • Systemic responses begin by understanding a complex challenge by exposing the roots. They recognize the challenge has many interconnected factors and interventions in one area of the challenge will likely result in unanticipated outcomes in another area of the system.
  • Experimental responses aim to learn by doing and iterations (trial and error). The strategy or plan emerges over time as lessons are learned and new approaches are developed. Experimental responses are flexible and shift along with the context they are a part of.
    Adaptive responses move conversations away from silver bullet or cookie cutter solutions and into a new space where unpredictability is embraced, root causes and connections are explored, and diversity of perspective, knowledge, and experience is necessary.

For more information and resources on adaptive responses, check out the interCHANGE 2015 resources page.

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