Understanding Sustainable, Collaborative Change

(Reposted from Faster Than 20)

I grew up in a theater. The work was serious. 7–11pm rehearsal every night and longer on the weekends. You were never to be late. You were to show up ready to work. You were part of an artistic practice, expected to understand the historical background of the play and the design principles for the production. I never questioned the fact that I was a contributing member of the collective.

In order to truly work as an “ensemble” (the actors, the dramaturge, the director, the designers, everyone involved), we were expected to work as one. Sometimes, during rehearsal and performances, there were moments where the group “clicked.” Individuals transformed into something greater than themselves. It was fulfilling, thrilling, addictive.

In conjunction, students at the conservatory were building the tools to make those transformational moments happen. The resident actors and their students spent long hours together, respecting a shared philosophy about how to work and create (say yes, take risks, respect each other).

Those of you who have been a part of a sports team or an improv group or a band might know what I mean. There is the work of working together, and then there are those private moments of collective breakthrough that feel amazing, that inform the group’s collective sense of self and that often do not require an audience.

Probably because of this upbringing, I remain fascinated by collaborative, creative moments that transform individual inputs into a collective encounter. In high school and college, I started designing and teaching workshops that created spaces for communities to connect through storytelling. After college, I started a nonprofit that enabled encounter through art across borders.

Over time I learned that creating amazing, isolated experiences with a small community or team is very different than building systemic change. Bringing “transformed” individuals into an untransformed environment often leaves them feeling isolated. And the proximity of that experience to how we live and work day-to-day can feel very, very far away. Being part of moments where we create new possibilities together is important, but only as consequential as the work of building a culture and environment that allows that to be the case.

For the past ten years I have been seeking to understand what sustainable, collaborative change looks like, experimenting with ways of cultivating environments and experiences that enable it to happen. This work has led me to explore diverse, creative, collaborative worlds (creative communities, maker spaces, hacker spaces, social movements, corporate innovation labs).

I frequently find myself at the intersection of worlds that often do not speak to each other, peering through social and political difference to understand shared systems, communication processes and experiences that embody the work of change. The way people experience collective breakthrough and the techniques that we use to get them there aren’t necessarily that different. The challenge lies in building a context-specific environment and culture that invites communities of people to do this, for the long term.

Eugene has asked me to make a guest appearance on this blog, and share a little about what I’ve learned. So, over the next few months, I will share my thoughts on collaboration and change in three additional parts, each exploring different communities / cultures that I have worked with. It will look something like this:

  1. Understanding sustainable, collaborative change (this post)
  2. Building ecosystems in organizations: Lessons from Gap Inc.
  3. Exploring emotional and operational networks
  4. Theorizing apolitical activism