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From the Vault: The Learning Journey

Tomorrow, we will be convening with change makers from all sectors at interCHANGE. In the spirit of multi-sector collaborating and collective impact, we are sharing this blog from the vault on building understanding in a partnership, originally posted Oct 13, 2015: 

blogI just spent the large part of the last two weeks at two very interesting and dynamic professional development opportunities; the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) and the Tamarack Communities Collaborating Institute (CCI). These opportunities have filled my head with a lot of ideas, tools and have built new connections and many new possibilities. It is hard to summarize what I have learned and thought about throughout the last two weeks but one idea that has stuck with me was introduced by Adam Kahane at the CCI.

Adam Kahane talked to us about a “learning journey” as a tool to build a greater understanding between players in a complex system so that social systems change becomes possible. As Mr. Kahane described it, a learning journey is when individuals who are from different parts of a system or community go and visit the system together to learn more about each other, their perspectives, and how they are impacted by, and contribute to, the community. It is a literal walk together that Mr. Kahane has seen as an essential component in orienting people towards working on complex problems together. It is a tool to build shared understanding between members within a diverse group, community or society.

It is so simple, going on a walk together, but how often are we asked or interested in walking with someone we don’t understand, have an opposing view point with, or can’t identify with? I find that in professional circumstances the risk for these types of conflicts are high and are also avoided. We go into meetings knowing we may not agree and are unsurprised when we leave without a shared understanding of what needs to change. I have found myself thinking that for community or society to improve we just need to take a “walk in the other person’s shoes” however, I think what the learning journey approach suggests is that we should seek to listen to how someone else lives in their “own shoes”. It’s not about switching places, rather it is about experiencing that same place together and sharing perspectives.

More information on Adam Kahane’s approaches to social change and dealing with complex societal challenges can be found in his three books; Solving Tough Problems, Transformative Scenario Planning, and Power and Love and at REOS Partners.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

Working together to co-create a better future

tm-tm  photo on flickrThis September, Volunteer Alberta is hosting interCHANGE, a multi-sector event bringing together leaders from all sectors – government, business, nonprofit, and community – to collectively make a positive impact in Alberta communities.

We know collaborating is difficult. We know working together poses challenges. We also know that our communities are complex, and that we are all invested in their health and vitality. We originally published the following blog July 23, 2014 on the scope of what collaboration can achieve – and why it is so important that the nonprofit sector leads the way:

There has been a recent development in the world of electric cars that’s got me thinking about strengths and opportunities in the nonprofit/voluntary sector (NPVS). On June 12, 2014 Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced that the company “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”[i] Essentially Tesla released their patents for others to use, for me the questions are why and what is the broader lesson for us in the NPVS? One of the reasons cited as to why Musk chose to do this is that, due to the increased pace of technological innovation, there is a new challenge for innovators where the highest hurdle innovative organizations often face is no longer the theft of their ideas, but rather the development of new markets for those ideas to flourish[ii]. Tesla seems to be indicating that in order to move to electric car based transportation, we need to create the infrastructure and technology to support that market. In other words, Musk is basically saying is “the old system isn’t working, creating a new way of life is a big challenge, too big for one company/person to solve so let’s work together to co-create a better future.”  For me it is from this mindset that I see the connection to the NPVS and why I believe the sector is increasingly well positioned to be a strong voice and essential contributor in the emerging economy.

It seems to me that the NPVS is increasingly stating that the “challenge is bigger than me” (whatever that “challenge” may be) and is continually moving to a place where co-owning and sharing the burden of the challenge is the norm. There is the growing realisation that the challenges our communities face and the resources to sustain the fundamental structures of a resilient society are bigger than one organization, one program, one person, one sector. In fact with the NPVS, everywhere I turn collaboration is the word/approach mentioned as the way forward. We are all increasing familiar and participate in collective impact initiatives, social labs, cross-sector collaborations and partnerships, to mention a few. Although the constant barrage of these collaborative opportunities could make us weary and/or sceptical, there is growing evidence demonstrating that the NPVS is achieving measurable impact through collaboration.[iii] It is this collaborative mindset, the sharing of ideas/approaches, the scaling out and up of social innovation, which is the emerging economic model in the 21st century.  The sharing/collaborative economy is growing and turning the “traditional” economic and social systems on their heads in small but increasing pockets of our society.[iv]

I see Tesla and Elon Musk’s releasing of patents as a further indication that the collaborative/sharing economy has significant momentum. Now is the time for the sharing of ideas across and within sectors and the co-ownership and co-creation of innovative solutions (social and technological) for addressing large systemic challenges. The NPVS is an early adopter of this emerging model as we have an intrinsic understanding that the most effective approaches need to be shared, reused, and improved to have the most transformative impact. Let’s continue to share with each other and further overcome our need to act in a proprietary manner especially when we know that challenges we are trying to solve require constant innovation and the efforts of many.

[i] http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you (July 23, 2014)
[ii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/07/17/rethinking-patent-enforcement-tesla-did-what/ (July 23, 2014)
[iii] http://www.fsg.org/KnowledgeExchange/FSGApproach/CollectiveImpact.aspx (July 23, 2014)
[iv] http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/category/collaborative-economy/ (July 23, 2014)

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

Stand out

Six Insights for Systems Leadership

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


From the Vault: Three Lessons of Vulnerability


Originally posted June 18, 2013

More and more the nonprofit/voluntary sector, for a variety of reasons, is looking towards collaborative models as the dominant context for achieving missions and visions. Given this “collaborative buzz”, it would be naive of us to think that because we are in the business of citizen engagement and positive community change that we will get all collaborations right. Brene Brown’s popular TED talks “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame” speak very well to the nonprofit sector and how their lessons can help lay the groundwork for strong, impactful collaborations.

Three Lessons of Vulnerability:

1)      Vulnerability has two sides

On the negative side, vulnerability allows us to blame others and ourselves when things are uncomfortable. It helps us believe that things are never going to work out and the work we do will never make a difference. On the positive side being open and vulnerable is the pathway “to joy, creativity, belonging, and connection.” If we can, as a sector, walk into our collaborations open to where they may go then they might be more creative, bold, and impactful.

2)      Vulnerability has to be embraced

As Dr. Brown points out “connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives” and this rings true for the nonprofit sector. We are invested in connections. Nonprofit organizations work at fixing broken connections/relationships, improving connections and starting new connections. So, in the nonprofit sector, if we are in the business of connections and we are compelled to collaborate for sustainability and impact, then we must embrace vulnerability. When embraced, when viewed as not good or bad but necessary, being vulnerable is at the root of meaningful connections. In other words “in order to allow connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be really seen”.

3)      Vulnerability is not weakness

Although many of us look at our own vulnerability as a display of weakness we also look at others being vulnerable as courageous and powerful.  As Dr. Brown says “vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change”. Positive vulnerability demonstrates to others around that table that your organizations is open to possibility and can be an authentic partner.

The main reason the sector is looking to collaboration as the new model of business is to be more innovative, more creative and affect positive change. We are more likely to achieve these desired outcomes if we accept that putting ourselves, and organizations, out there is the only way to move forward. The next time you are asked to collaborate, consider choosing to be vulnerable, embrace it and see it as a strength to bring to the table and an opportunity to inspire others to do the same.

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

Get Up and Move: The Value of Changing Spaces

Tim Dorr / photo on flickr

Tim Dorr / photo on flickr

Volunteer Alberta is beginning a new chapter, we’ve moved! After about 10 years in a downtown Edmonton heritage building overlooking Jasper Ave we have moved four blocks east to a different downtown Edmonton heritage building overlooking Jasper Ave.

So I guess you could say not much has changed. However, I believe our move has shifted everything. I am not going to delve into a conversation on design and décor, as I don’t have the interior design acumen of my colleagues. Rather I will touch on the connection between how we listen, think, and act and how they are effected by the physical spaces we work in.

I believe that we often want to make changes at work, yet we rarely acknowledge that the familiar physical spaces we are in may be limiting how we listen and pay attention to others. For me, an example of the importance of this connection is the change process Volunteer Alberta has been going through. Connected to all the internal shifts over the past 24 months is the opportunity to reflect on who VA is, what we do, and how we do it, and, as a result, we have started to re-define our internal organizational culture. For anyone who has embarked on a journey of organizational culture change you will know it is complex but ideally rewarding.

As an initial step in our change process, we decided  to pull the staff team together to surface the current strengths and weakness in our organizational culture to help decide where we wanted to change. As I had the opportunity to influence this process, I insisted the first “big” conversation needed to happen in a different space other than our usual meeting room. We wouldn’t have had as good of a conversation in the usual meeting room and I wanted people to listen deeply to what others were saying. I anticipated that a different space would likely take us all out of our comfort zone and allow the opportunity for an open, honest, focussed and meaningful conversation. In the usual meeting room we would all likely fall into old patterns of listening and paying attention and the likelihood that we would have a truly rich conversation would be limited. For that meeting we were lucky enough to find a vacant space in our old building to borrow for a few hours.

During that meeting we had a very frank and open discussion where we empathetically listened to each other. It laid the foundation for us to renew and establish an organizational culture that reflects the values of the organization and now we are moving forward together. I know for me this meeting allowed me to pay more attention to how others felt, I was able to see things from others perspectives and heard many great ideas that I may have missed previously. The new room we went to wasn’t that remarkable; it was just different and that’s all it needed to be. I’m not saying we have figured it all out or that internal culture change process is complete but rather it got started on the right foot!

So like I said, we have moved and I think our new office changes everything. The whole space is new to all of us and we have already begun changing the way we communicate and work together in the short amount of time we’ve been here. There are things I miss things from the old office, but I think we’ve brought the best of that place with us, the people, and together we’ll build this new space into a supportive hub for our new organizational culture.

Annand Ollivierre
Program Manager

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