Transformational Governance: an ever evolving journey

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At the end of last year I stepped back from the Transformational Governance Stewarding Group after the best part of 2.5 years. With this it felt like an opportune moment to take stock on what I’ve learnt from being part of the process and reflect on what the wider state of (transformational) governance looks like now.

I’m still surprised that I’ve put so much time and attention to something I once thought was so boring but that I have some to see as foundational for any impactful change work. It’s become one of my personal undercurrents and themes in my work over the last 15 years and a thread I am committed to continue following. Over this time it has become a personal practice ground; something I’ve been experimenting in how to best organise and design new governance approaches for ambitious collaboration and collective inquiries, something I’ve been writing about and exploring what collective learning spaces and programs might be needed for more people to pay attention to it.

A burgeoning field of transformational governance

What I’ve seen change in the last two to three years is that governance has gone from an overlooked part in the lifecycle of change making work to governance being something that was starting to be spoken about in events that found themselves inundated (Beyond the Rules and Liberatory Governance)). I’ve noticed more people starting to admit and talk about how hard it can be to shift and change cultures and structures, to a point where it seems there is more and more acknowledgement about organising and governance being a really important element of any change work. The breaking of the taboo of not talking about the tough governance work so many are doing alone or on the fringes of other change work, has been an unlock that is now unleashing a torrent of experience that is willing to be proactively shared, deepended, explored and new practices developed. It feels like we’ve now got to a point where there is a nascent field of transformational governance that seems to be emerging and gathering momentum. One that recognises ways of organising as being a criticall tenant in any change making work.

But what is Transformational governance?

As for what Transformational Governance is….that is still evolving.

Years ago I thought it was about finding the perfect model and ideal set of legal structures and processes to follow. But of course every context is different and there is no such thing as a cookie cutter model or approach because people and the relationships are so different and unique.

I then came to see it as a set of practices of how we organise — that consider both hard and soft elements:

Governance Figure 8: Systemic governance incorporates both the hard and the soft elements

But now I’m thinking about Transformational Governance the capacity for any organising group or form to continue to adapt and evolve as it needs to. And that cultivating culture is the binding element and something to be nurtured and invested in that enables all else. This recognises our forms of organising as alive and living. This might seem too obvious to state — but in a world where our organisational structures are too often thought of as static and fixed and unchangeable, seeing them as malleable and flexible and something we can change is actually quite counter cultural.

Noting, my own thinking of what transformational governance is has evolved over this time and is likely to continue to.

Lessons from the Transformational Governance experience

All of these ideas have been hugely shaped and influenced by the experience of being part of the Transformational Governance Stewarding group. This space was initially set up to do two things:

1. Creating the learning space/s for those looking to transform their governance to come to / learn with peers. There are places and people to go to and things to do if you want to start and build organisations from scratch, but less if you want to transition and shift an existing culture or organising form.

2. The organising and stewarding of this intention itself was an experiment in how to design, implement and live what a genuinely transformational governance structure could look like.

The whole experience has really raised the bar for the quality of culture and relationships for all future collaborative work i’m part of and shown me what good can look and feel like. It’s a piece of work that’s never kept me awake at night — I’ve always looked forward to meetings and conversations about it. I’ve found myself thinking about it / wanting to get stuck in at surprising moments and it’s never felt like a slog.

I know that this can all feel quite abstract and not grounded in what it means in the day to day, so I’m sharing some of the elements and enablers of an evolutionary and transformational culture I experienced by being part of this group.

  • Tending to culture
    I’ve really appreciated the reflective nature of the group — making time in gatherings together to just be, to come as you are, value and honour the different experiences both good and bad and everything in between. Practically this has meant co creating relational agreements, having moments to reflect honestly on what is working and not working and changing in response to that. It’s meant toggling between times to do and create and times to take stock and reorientate or stepping back. It’s created a really subtle but significant quality of space.
  • Shared leadership — fluidity of roles
    We resisted the temptation to assign roles to this work — knowing its easy to get trapped and resentful when you fix them too tight. I’ve enjoyed the fluidity of roles- the practice of handing over tasks- being emergent together. Leadership not just as 1- 2 people who bring that quality, but cultivating that as a collective. It’s been a co-leadership experience that’s felt really different for me and one that is genuinely shared.
  • Transparency and collective working with money
    So often we leave the finances to one person or a small group of people. In the first iteration we took months to agree on the first budget — going back to assumptions about the purpose and functions of budgets, creatively exploring different ways to design it, options for how we allocate money (landing on a flat rate calculated as a percentage of actual time input to each stage) and a beautiful rainbow spreadsheet to track it. We took the time and gave permission to ourselves to design some of the organising elements we often take as a given and aren’t to be innovated.
    In the second iteration it took months and a supportive process to agree on the day rates we were each comfortable with — in this case differential rates informed by personal needs and circumstance. Working with open collective in this latest iteration has been brilliant — having a way to make visible the payments being made, freed from the constraints of doing experimental work in the confines of an existing organisations finance systems.
  • Transforming governance means being open to transforming yourself.
    Particularly the early conversation about money, finances and timesheets have really stayed with me and has helped me be more confident talking about money and contributed to me transforming my own relationship to it. Working on this has been a constant and offered me stability as I have transitioned and transformed my role and work over the last 2 years too. Being able to remain involved even when my employment arrangements shifted. This work is not just about supporting people ‘out there’ to transform their governance but inviting and allowing the journey to shape us and our contexts too.
  • Personal practice of stepping away — legitimising this practice.
    There are two interconnect parts to this:
    1.Stepping back: Too often those who instigate things stay, feel an obligation to keep going or aren’t sure how they can step away. The initiating group stated this knowing we weren’t the people to continue this over the long term — so baking this is allowed and gave permission to do this at the right time.
    2.Inviting in: The other challenge can be not having the routes or ways for people to step in. After a year we opened up an invitation to the stewarding group. (We were overwhelmed by interest which itself was humbling and showed there was demand for more spaces to explore this and we designed an open recruitment process to play with some of the norms around deductive processes). A small group of us were ‘continuing’ members which provided continuity while things settled.
    The combination of these two elements means I felt I could leave as we built trust in each other and as a group and I have utmost faith in the group that are taking it forward they will take this where it needs to go. While I would and could have happily continued and would get alot from it — I learned that you can step away from something you love. And this is making space for me to explore transformational governance in other parts of the change ecosystem system now.

Niggles and constant tensions

This might make it all sound a bit too good to be true, but of course that’s not the reality. Some of what was challenging about this is the pace, and time — literally EVERYTHING took longer than we anticipated- 3,4,6, months longer — a year longer in some instances and that can be frustrating and demoralising. The feeling of going round in circles and sense of deja vu, but then suddenly things would manifest really quickly. This illustration really helped to see that in context (thanks Jen Hook for sharing this fab Liz + Mollie illsutration with me.) and showing we were deeping each time we would come back around.

Credit: Liz + Mollie https://www.lizandmollie.com/ | Illustration of ‘going round in circles’ from above, and the same image from the side to show cycles of progress

We’ve tried to make space to not shy away from difficult conversations. An ongoing dialogue and exploration about power, diversity and race have been present. It has been healthy to acknowledge this, constantly pushing to get beyond binaries and simplifications of the reality of complex intersecting identities. To keep sensing into personal experiences and sensations as well as actively design for a wider audience and reach, stretching beyond the whiteness too often prevails these spaces. This then interplays with the use of the term governance itself. Governance has traction and currency and we’ve shown there is interest/demand for more spaces to explore this. But often simultaneously just feels like the wrong term and represents so much of the old we want to shift away from. It has strong colonial undertones — so on a bad day, I worry about intrenching not transforming that. It is really about ways of organising — but then that is so big and unbounded that is seemingly everything. I don’t have an answer — but something to hold.

So now what?

From my vantage point, what I seen now as the next needs and edges of this field, and the next evolution of the things needed to real enable transformational governance now are:

  1. Time and spaces to deepening learning and practice: so great to see the Power Shift cohort kicking off soon and the new community space to explore this
  2. Investment in the capacity and time for people to pay attention to this — more core and unrestricted funding for people to do this work, this work will only happen if we prioritise and fund it
  3. Funders commit to transforming their own governance as an unlock for the wider field (more writing coming on this soon)
  4. Continue to make transformational governance part of the narrative and dialogue about how change happens

Big gratitude to the transformational governance team past and present for such an enriching experience and for all those who are making time and space to explore this in their contexts.

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