Eight Weeks of Muscles & Mindsets

I’m facilitating the “workouts” that make up Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets, which we’re undergoing together as part of the Future Forward project. The workouts are designed to help the group practice the skills and mindsets that will help the group think and act in innovative ways.

Why are we doing this? At its core, Future Forward is an innovation challenge around the following question:

How can resources be generated differently to enable Forward Together and the social justice field at large to evolve sustainably, with agency and autonomy, toward a future in which all families can thrive?

Next month, my colleague, Rebecca Petzel, will facilitate a brainstorming session with stakeholders and people at the edge of our networks to come up with possible ideas. The group will then spend the next three months experimenting, sharing and building on what it learns in an open way. The success of this process will depend in part on the quality of facilitation (we’re lucky to have Rebecca for this), but also on the participants and partners having the right… well, muscles and mindsets.

For example, innovation requires risk, which means having the willingness and tenacity to fail repeatedly, all in the name of experimentation and learning. This is much easier said than done, which is why some groups are very good at innovation and others are horrible at it.

Our hypothesis is that the culture and capacity for innovation can be developed through practice. Just as you would expect to train for many months before running a marathon, we’re having our participants train together in preparation for the innovation challenge.

Everybody in our group is paired with a buddy. Once a week for 12 weeks, each pair meets for an hour, performs a series of “exercises” together, and shares a takeaway from their workout with the rest of the group via an online “water cooler.” (We use a tool called Yammer.) Every four weeks, we have a group checkin, where we all come together (using a tool called MaestroConference), reflect on what we’re learning, and do a workout as a large group.

This week, we completed our eighth week of workouts. We’ll do our second group checkin next week, then will do four more weeks of pair workouts, which will take us right to the Innovation Challenge workshop.

When we kicked off this process, we converged around five sets of mindset shifts that we wanted to focus on. The overarching theme was moving from a mindset of Scarcity to one of Abundance. Specifically:

Less Of… More Of…
Feeling stuck. I’m scared of the unknown and would prefer to avoid it. Innovation. When I walk into the unknown, I’m going to learn and grow. I don’t know what the answers are, but I’ll figure them out by trying things.
Not enough time. I don’t have time for anything more than what’s in front of me. Slow down to speed up. Slowing down will help me make better choices
and save time.
Fixed reality. There aren’t enough time or resources. Flexible reality. If we think outside the box, we’ll see ways to create time and resources. To do that, we need to be conscious of power and equity.
Assumptions. We’re using the same language, so we must mean the same things. Shared understanding. We need to get specific and frank to be sure we’re seeing and talking about the same things.
Me. Everything depends on me. We. We’re in it together. I don’t always have to be out in front. I need to be compassionate with myself so that I can be supportive of others.

We were able to use these mindsets and my collaboration muscles framework as the basis of a group-wide assessment, which we took after four weeks, right before our first group checkin. You can see the full results here:

Some observations:

  • For the most part, the discrepancy between the collective mindsets we have and where we think we should be was not huge, which is promising.
  • We have a strong mindset around the importance of developing a Shared Understanding rather than relying on Assumptions.
  • We need to work on our mindset around Slow Down to Speed Up.
  • We have decently strong Core muscles and very strong Relationship muscles as a group.
  • We’re weak on Sensemaking muscles.

Last week, Amy Wu (who’s guiding us through our storytelling process) shared a visual synthesis of the takeaways our participants have been posting internally every week after their workouts. In a few weeks, our participants will start sharing what they’re learning here in their own voices. For now, I want to share a few patterns I’ve noticed from watching our participants exercise.

This group has really embraced the spirit of these workouts despite not knowing what to expect. That willingness to dive into uncertainty is a critical mindset and muscle for any innovation process, and it also reflects the strong relationships and trust that this group already has with each other.

That said, our participants have had a mixed comfort level with “making mistakes,” even in low-to-no stakes practice sessions. Many of the workouts are designed to force people to accept imperfection, to let go of strongly held assumptions and beliefs, and to try the same things over and over again. I’m happy that people are experiencing this now and are sharing their experiences with each other honestly. We’re not likely to see any serious shifts before we dive into the Innovation Challenge, but we are hopefully at least priming our participants for a shift.

A few weeks ago, we did a power workout designed to help people understand their own personal lenses around power, recognize different power dynamics in the room, and experiment with shifting those dynamics. One very common pattern among our participants was that they were very comfortable trying to raise other people’s status, but they found it incredibly uncomfortable trying to raise their own.

To me, this demonstrated a fundamentally humble mindset strongly oriented around equity, which is overall a positive attribute for changemakers who care about learning. However, I also think there are limitations to this mindset.

First, raising your own status does not have to come at the expense of others. I think everyone in this group understands this intellectually, but we will be doing more workouts in our remaining four weeks to try to get them to understand it viscerally.

Second, this mindset acts as a barrier for doing things that may be incredibly important but that are perceived as raising your own status. The simplest and most relevant example is writing a blog post. I think some of our participants question whether or not their experiences or thoughts “deserve” to be shared, that this is almost a narcissistic act that draws attention to yourself.

Amy, Rebecca, and I are encouraging our participants to view the storytelling exercise as leaving a trail of learning, allowing others to decide on their own what is worthy and what’s not. Sometimes, the signal that work is happening is more valuable than the content of what you’re sharing. It shows that a group is alive and that something interesting is happening there. At worst, writing things down is a great way to force yourself to pause, reflect, and integrate what you’ve been learning.

We’ll see how well our workouts have prepared our participants for this! I’ve loved listening to our participants share their experiences with the workouts over the past two months, and I’m excited that others will be able to do the same starting in a few weeks!

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