One of the biggest questions arising out of Art of Hosting trainings and related work I’ve been part of these days is, what’s next? How do we actually practice and sustain what we have just learned? How do we grow our skill, courage and capacity as practitioners? How do we create fertile conditions in our organizations or our communities to shift the shape of our future, the way we work and even the work we do?
In March 2011, I co-hosted the Art of Collaborative Leadership in Nova Scotia with good friend and colleague, Jerry Nagel from the Meadowlark Institute in Minnesota. He shared a model he and Chris Corrigan have been using in Minnesota as a means of thinking about and being in a Community of Practice (CoP). I refer to it often now as it reminds me and the groups I work with of key elements that contribute to learning, growth and shifting the way we work and are with each other.
Work alone can be drudgery. Learning alone can be a great intellectual pursuit and might lead to some shift within you as an individual but does little to generate collective learning. Building good relationships is a good skill to have but in and of itself, you might as well be in a social club. It is where and how work, learning and relationship intersect that creates the potential for a rich and relevant community of practice.
The intersection of work and co-learning is where innovation happens as people think about the context of their collective or co-learning in relation to work. Ideas are generated and possibilities emerge. Without relationship though, there is often no traction or sustainability to the innovative ideas that emerge – they simply dissipate into thin air because there is no impetus to work with them on an ongoing basis.
It is at the intersection of work and relationship that sustainability happens. And not just any relationship will do. The relationship needs to be of good quality, filled with respect, trust and deep caring for each other – the quality of field that enables divergent points of view to be expressed, where passion for the conversation, the work, the future and friends is welcomed. Friendships we will fight for and support. We don’t necessarily start there but how beautiful when we tend to the relational field with such care and intentionality that so much more can spark without risk of offending anyone, without having to tiptoe around the conversations that are most necessary in our learning, relationship and work. These are friends with whom we will venture into unexpected places, uncertainty, emergent fields and creative explorations as well as nurture and cultivate the innovations that most spark our passion and curioisty. When these people call us because they need something, we respond. Sometimes we drop everything else and respond.
Powerful friendship, kinship or mates is fostered in the place between relationship and co-learning because part of what we are learning is how to be together in new ways that break old patterns that have defined relationships, at work, home or in other places where we make contributions and commitments – patterns like hierarchy and culture, old ways of moving work along,old ways of meeting and of thinking about meeting agendas, conferences or programming.
One of the key reasons we want to shift our relationships, aside from the experience of feeling better, working more effectively and enjoying showing up at work and projects is to focus them on achieving something meaningful and relevant in the world – maybe systemic change, maybe some smaller initiative. Otherwise, nothing happens. We are at such a pivotal time in our human evolution on this planet, a Community of Practice will be most meaningful when we bring our relationships and collective learning to bear on the shift we are wanting to create rather than putting up with the shift that just shows up.
Having now been in several conversations about community of practice, most recently with emerging leaders in Halifax – none of whom are following conventional career paths, this model becomes extremely helpful in focusing on the purpose of a community of practice, especially as conversations tend to veer to one component or the other. The power in the model is that it reminds us that each of these elements is fundamentally important to shifting patterns of work, organizations and communities, as well as individual patterns of relationship.
Communities of Practice could and will be many things – defined by the people who gather in them. There is some core that attracts people into them – it could be creating an active practice ground in a community or organization for new skills, a safe haven in an environment that seems resistant to new work and new ways of working, an opportunity to grow individual and collective capacity.
The ones I’ve been part of seem to have an energy and magnetic attraction of their own that keep people showing up, an ease of flow and relationship, shared leadership and shared responsibility. Nobody has to make them happen, they almost seem to make themselves happen. They are fun. People who show up really want to see each other, be with each other and dive into deep places within themselves and with each other. There is some intentionality applied and the CoP is able to follow the path of emergence that points to what needs and wants to happen next to be most meaningful to work, relationships and learning. Many of these CoPs don’t just know that something different is possible, they are beginning to demand it and showing up together, cultivating deep relationships and imagining what is possible that none of us individually might have imagined on our own while growing skills to support what we are envisioning is one way of creating movement, maybe even creating a movement.