Animating in Brazil: Concluding thoughts

Jo & Joette BrazilWe’re sitting in the airport having a glass of wine before getting on the plane. We said goodbye to the sisters this afternoon during a beautiful closing ritual. It is great to go home, but it is hard to leave a community we have become part of over the last 3 weeks.

New Leadership

In our last installment week we told you about how the sisters had started work on their strategic directions. Three quarters of that work had been done before they went into the election process for their new leadership team, so they had a rough idea of where they wanted to go before they decided who might lead them there. It is an unusual recruitment process. The sisters surface names themselves through a combination of prayer and discussion. All those who receive more than 5 votes get to ‘speak to their names’. Some of what we heard was sisters asking to be taken off the list – the role requires relocation and considerable international travel. It sounds glamorous but is hard, and sometimes isolating, work. After 2.5 days, a leadership team was elected through a secret ballot.

It is not an easy process; nuns are just as human as the rest of us, and it is easy for people to feel exposed or excluded. There is both anticipation and disappointment, but in the end a celebration of a team of 4 who come from 4 different countries and have 3 different first languages.

The handover ritual took place at the end of the Chapter. It was preceded by a week in which the old leadership began to step back and the new team moved into the space, gradually and in their own way.

The ritual itself symbolised the importance of the transition. It was physical as well as a mental experience including singing and dancing, and it culminated in the old leadership team putting their prayer-shawls round the shoulders of the new leadership team. It enabled the sisters both to honour and thank the old team, and to welcome the new. Nobody can deny the change has happened, as it has been made so visceral for everyone.

New structures

In religious life, strategic directions are referred to as mandates. The outgoing leadership team had a mandate to restructure the congregation, encouraging more collaboration on an international level, more decision-making at local level and ultimately a greater sense of being part of one body as opposed to being ‘siloed’ in geographical regions.

During their 6 years they have made a strong start, creating international teams and pooling finances so that they are held by and available to the whole congregation, as we described in our last blog.

The new leadership team has a mandate to develop these new structures and to strengthen a sense of responsibility and authority at all levels. There are 9 regions, each containing between 6 and 40 sisters. While each region has a leadership team, the real decision making is supposed to happen at Regional Assemblies to which all sisters are invited and which normally take place once a year. The Assemblies have a responsibility to operationalise the Chapter mandates at a regional level in a way that suits the local context. They, in turn, delegate responsibility to teams and local communities. Every 2 or 3 years Congregational Assemblies meet to take decisions about life and priorities for all sisters in the region.

Self-managing teams

In the new model, where leadership is held at many levels, the Congregation could be seen as one large self-managing team with a number of smaller self-managing teams in local areas. Leadership is dispersed across the whole system as is the aspiration in many of the organisations we are currently working with in Scotland and England.

Although this has huge potential, particularly for collaborating in the best use of resources, it also brings challenges. It makes it imperative that each sister uses the authority she is given by the Assembly to take her part in delivering on the shared purpose. In the old model everyone knew who was in charge and waited to be told what to do; now it is not always clear, and sisters need to take the initiative, and decide together on the best way forward. It requires more communication across and throughout the congregation, and ultimately greater insight into their own strengths and weaknesses.

We noticed a pattern that was familiar from other work and indeed from our own team, which was how much easier it is to think about and agree on how to act in the interests of those we serve; and how much more challenging it is to reflect on ourselves.

This is exacerbated in a group where there are such differences; of age, of nationality, appetite for change, and in priorities. Being able to truly listen to each other’s pain as well as each other’s passion was difficult at times and we struggled to support them to stay with uncertainty in the large group. As a consequence, the tension and conflict surfaced in smaller groups. It slowly became clear that their struggle was the struggle of the whole Chapter, and needed to be addressed by all, and not just a few.

Final thoughts

Spending 3 weeks working with nuns in Brazil sounded like it was going to provide a stark contrast to our normal work, and in many ways it did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found familiar patterns – people aren’t short on commitment and big ideas, particularly when it is about what they do for others; significant diversity means that it takes a lot of time and a deeper level of listening to define our common ground and find the best way forward; effective leadership enables others to offer their leadership, thus increasing the resources available for both thinking, and doing.

It was a luxury to have had considerable time in which to accompany them in their explorations and take their first steps into the next 6 years.  We learned a lot, both about them and about ourselves, and how we might improve our practice.

We were sure to thank them.

Animating in São Paulo, Brazil

Brazil may be hosting the olympics this summer, but Animate partners Jo and Joette have travelled to São Paulo on a very different mission. They’ll be facilitating forty nuns for three weeks whilst staying in one of the city’s favelas. Here they reflect on their experiences coordinating a group that speaks four languages but that is not afraid to speak from the heart.

We are in São Paulo a city of 24 million people. We drove 1.5 hours from the airport, through a landscape of high rises, favelas and artistic graffiti, on a quiet Sunday morning, to the retreat centre where we are staying, which is a gated compound in a favela. The people feel stigmatised by the word favela preferring it to be known as a community. The trees in the garden are festooned with kites, which the local children make from plastic bags and bin liners. The retreat centre is run by the Cabrini Sisters; their foundress Madre Cabrini is the patron saint of immigrants and greeted new arrivals as they landed at the docks in New York in the early part of the twentieth century.

We are facilitating a Chapter for a international congregation of 40 nuns, a few brothers, and a handful of partners and associates. The Chapter takes place every 6 years. It reviews progress over the last 6 years, analyses the current context, sets the direction for the future and elects a leadership team with a 6-year mandate.

It’s Day 3 of 21. One of the things we are noticing is how quickly they can get to the heart of things, because they put their whole hearts in. They make more of themselves available to the work. For example, when we ask them to present back an experience creatively rather than through a PowerPoint, nobody groans, and all of them get involved. The result is a variety show, which gets us thinking as well as laughing. Because they present the issues back in a way, which engages them at every level, we continue to work with them at every level. We move beyond words very quickly.

This is important because we are working in four languages, and words are limiting. We need to work more slowly which has the advantage of giving us time to listen and reflect. We need to check back to make sure we truly understand. It makes us all really aware of the complexity of communication and the need to pay attention to both listening and making ourselves understood.

They welcome us in our role as facilitators, and expect us to use all of who we are and what we can do. It is very comforting and at the same time, it pushes us to the edge of our comfort zone.

There is a lot of love in the room, which is no surprise. But there is anxiety and fear too. Fear for the future and how it will impact on them both individually and collectively. We are used to working with anxiety and fear, but we are noticing just how important it is that it is counter balanced by the expression of love. Without that we are only bringing half of ourselves in.

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The (great!) results of Animate’s customer research

Much of our time as Animate partners is spent understanding how people outside an organisation view it, and the staff team. It only seemed right, therefore, that we should put our own work under the microscope to see what our customers really think! Listening to how people think we are doing is an essential part of our commitment to quality assurance.

Scotinform, an independent market research company, was selected to conduct interviews and survey customers online. Their independence, and vast experience of a range of sectors, meant we could be sure they would probe assertively but respectfully.

And how did we do? Well, to be honest we were blown away by the results. Nearly half of our customers responded; ¾ rated their experience as ‘excellent’ and the remainder rated it as ‘good’ – there were no negative ratings. The comments were equally supportive:

“Very customised solutions, well researched consultancy and effective delivery. Love the depth of knowledge and underpinning theory with a practical delivery approach. Calm in complexity.”

“I have always found Animate Consultants to be very professional, knowledgeable, flexible, approachable and responsive.”

Six key aspects of our work were rated by participants on a scale, where 5 = excellent and 1 = very poor:

•   Quality of work – 4.8 out of 5

•   Communication by consultants – 4.8 out of 5

•   Achievement of objectives – 4.7 out of 5

•   Quality of materials/reports provided – 4.6 out of 5

•   Value for money – 4.5 out of 5

•   Turnaround times – 4.5 out of 5

Again, there were some lovely comments:

“The satisfaction they get is from working rather than the money they make. They are motivated by the people they work with not the money.”

Ultimately, a key proof of customer satisfaction for us is a willingness to recommend. On a 0-10 scale of likelihood of recommending Animate to others we scored 9.3. 86% of respondents gave Animate a score of 9 or 10, where 10 is ‘extremely likely to recommend’.

We’re also pleased that our customers were honest about areas where we could be even better. A key area for improvement relates to developing our communication, particularly in relation to the presentation of feedback on facilitated sessions. In addition, customers suggested that for some projects it would be useful to receive enhanced reporting on progress and outcomes.

Thank you to all of our customers who took part. If you’d like to read more, an executive summary and our full report are included below. We’d also love to hear your feedback – this is not a one-off process for us – so do drop us an email or get in touch via the contact us page.

Animate Customer Survey – Executive Summary – April 2016

Animate Customer Survey – Full Report – April 2016

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The challenge of asking difficult questions

Animate partner Jo is working with leaders, managers and practitioners to help them understand and embrace health and social care integration. Here she tells us of the challenges that creates.

It is hard to keep asking questions – especially when the answers we get clearly show us that we are not getting it right.

We have been attempting to adopt an action inquiry approach to collaboration, which means supporting leaders, managers and practitioners to ask questions of their experience of the implementation of policy change in health and social care. The action inquiry encompasses not only what they are doing but also what we are doing with them.

What we have learned is that the more we stand back, inquire, listen and really try to understand, the more chaotic and complex it becomes. That feels scary for us and really scary for the senior leaders, who bear a lot of the ultimate responsibility.

I found re-reading Margaret Wheatley’s 20-year-old article on Chaos and Complexity (and sharing it with the leaders) reassuring. She states that science shows us that it is in the darkness of chaos that our ‘self-organising processes’ and our creativity come forth. She makes an interesting distinction between control and order:

‘All these years we have confused the search for control with the search for order. So what if we reframed the search? What if we stop looking for control and begin the search for order?’

The search for order starts with looking for simple patterns and recurring themes and it relies on information:

‘The kind of information that does create fundamental shifts in the self-organising system is always information that it doesn’t want to hear. It is information that is new and disconfirming, that is difficult and challenging…’

Otto Scharmer’s U Curve is helpful here too. It shows that when we go beyond ‘downloading’ and really listen with an ‘open mind, an open heart and an open will,’ suspending the ‘voices of judgement, fear and cynicism’, we get to a place of not knowing before we are able to begin to see opportunities emerging.

‘chaos is no longer an abyss – it is filled with information that we cannot yet make sense of…’

Holding this uncertainty and being able to take actions, however small, requires faith not only in ourselves but in each other. At the same time, the reality of the budget cuts is really biting.

The temptation is to skitter away from the despair rather than try to hold it together. Some people are really suffering now, because they can’t get access to the support, which meant that they could get out of their houses every day. Some organisations, which were doing brilliant work are going under. There is nothing good to say about that, and no positive spin we can put on it, but we need to face it together.

For operational leaders and practitioners, it is just downright frustrating a lot of the time. What they see is lack of direction and a refusal to make decisions at a senior level. What they experience is a lack of acknowledgement of the real skills and experience they have. Without clarity and ‘a plan’ they don’t feel able to take up their leadership role.

What gives me energy at the bottom of the U Curve is when I see a GP open enough both to admit how her attitudes are changing – and to tell us what her colleagues will think. Or when I see people being brave enough to challenge one another from their different perspectives. Because they know that they will be listened to without being judged, they can come to questions like: was that really a crisis – or was some of it caused by our inability as individuals and organisations to ask for help?

What inspires me is that when we work in this way, what can emerge makes the radical seem logical. We have to do things completely differently; it becomes the only way that makes sense. For me that heals the split between transformation and improvement science. We stop doing what we used to do, because we know it doesn’t work anymore, we start doing something completely different, because it suddenly begins to make sense, and we keep an eye on it, carrying on learning whether the ‘small tests of change’ which we begin to implement, really do mean that people’s lives improve.

What Margaret Wheatley concludes is that ‘…it is only when we allow organisations to look at troubling information and trust people within them to reorganise around that information that we get truly transforming levels of change, however most organisations do not trust their people to act as adults…’

I hope that we are brave enough to take that risk, and brave enough, too, to ask the really difficult questions which challenge government targets and the expectations of society at large: given what we know, given what we have, what difference can we realistically try to make?

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We’re listening…

Many of you will have heard the Animate partners – Jo, Ian, Joette and Richard – speak of the value of gathering independent external feedback. Showing we practice what we preach, we’ve just started such a process. Richard explains why.

Like many of our clients, we regularly receive feedback on our work. Our leadership courses are evaluated, our research reports commented upon in draft form and concluding thoughts shared at the end of programmes.

So why go to the expense of contracting an independent market research company?

There are two reasons. Firstly, we want to ensure people feel free to give us truly honest feedback. Secondly, we want to understand the impact of our work. To establish this we must leave clients to embed the results of our work for a period of time, and then ask them about its effect.

Scotinform, our chosen market research company, has already spoken to a small group of our clients to draw out themes. Today, 18 January, sees our online survey for all of our clients go live.

And what will we do with the results?

Whilst it’s always interesting to know what our clients think, this isn’t just a listening exercise. Our intention is that the feedback will have a direct impact on the way we work. Experience in implementing an ISO9001 quality management system means there’s no doubt in my mind of the importance of the ‘Act’ part of the ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’ quality cycle.

January’s a good time to listen, and to use what we hear to plan for the rest of the year and beyond. I hope you have your say!

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