Rosetta Thurman of Perspectives from the Pipeline points us to a most excellent post--Are You Ending or Beginning? In it, Hildy Gottlieb asks us to stop trying to end things and start focusing on beginning something amazing. She points out that for 40 years we've been had "wars" on poverty, hunger, homelessness--you name it, we've been fighting it. Yet little seems to have changed:
And the reason we feel like we are not getting anywhere is because we are, in fact, not getting anywhere.
But then, we have not been aiming at getting anywhere. We have
instead been setting our sights directly at our problems. And as
happens when we give that much energy to anything, it grows. Yes, it
We have aimed all our energy at our problems, and they are thriving under our attention.
The solution, Hildy suggests, is for us to start focusing on what we want to create, rather than on what we want to destroy. What we pay attention to grows, so why are we focusing on problems? Good advice, but how to get there?
This focus on problems and endings is a legacy of that scarcity thinking I've written about previously. It's difficult to get out of that mindset of seeing the world as a series of problems to be solved rather than as a series of opportunities to create something new. And we've spent a lot of time dwelling there, building up a system, skills and staff that are focused on getting rid of problems, not on creating a new world.
One big area of change I see being necessary is in staff skill sets. The skills it takes to solve a problem are not necessarily the skills it takes to create a new vision. Problem-solving seems to me to be more analytical, left-brained work, focused on identifying the problem, generating solutions, weighing pros and cons, and applying the solutions. There may be some creativity in generating solutions, but because the focus is on essentially destroying something (a problem), can it truly be creative?
Creating a new vision for what the world would look like without hunger seems to me a vastly more artistic exercise, one that requires us to picture something we've never seen before and to focus on what's working, rather than on what's not. It feels like an artist's eye is required here and I wonder if we even have the skills to do this in a consistent, long-term way? I wonder if you asked a staff person to describe to you what the world would look like without your nonprofit's "problem" if they would be able to do that?
I also think about the staff systems we've set up. Have we created a process where we hire staff who see the problems and can solve them, but don't necessarily have the vision to create something different? In my own work I know a lot of wonderful people who have excellent abilities to keep things running smoothly. But ask them to picture a different world? Not so good with that.
And what about staff development? We have all sorts of trainings that support teaching the skills to solve specific problems. But when was the last time we taught a creativity course? How are we teaching people to challenge their own mental models so that they can break free of old ways of thinking (the ones that focus on "ending poverty," for example), making room for new ways to see the world.
I believe that many of the things that play out in our personal lives are a microcosm of how things work in organizations, so I'm going to end with a story.
Five years ago I was in the process of getting a divorce. We knew every problem we had in that marriage and we had spent years trying to fix those problems. What happened instead was that the marriage ended, in part because we spent too much time "fixing" our problems and not enough time creating the relationship we really wanted.
Even more difficult for me was that once the "problems" were gone, I had to picture a life without those problems. And I didn't know how to do it. I only knew how to define myself in relationship to ending our problems, not in relation to beginning a new life. I still struggle with it actually, even though I'm married again and going in different directions. Sometimes I find that I'm more focused on avoiding the problems I had in my first marriage rather than on creating a new marriage, and that's when things don't go so well. When I focus my energy on what we're trying to create, then things seem to fall more into place.
I share this more personal stuff to say that I think that what I've experienced on a personal level is what happens on an organizational level when we focus on fixing problems. I do believe that where we put our energies is what we get more of and that the first step to dealing with what we want to end is to begin creating something else. The challenge lies in making sure that we have what we need to do the creating.