Leadership@Scale Brown Bag Recap


People have the tendency to think of large-scale change as intimidating, scary and perpetually complex. At our most recent Groupaya Brown Bag, held at Impact Hub Oakland, strategist, speaker, and social entrepreneur Ahmad Mansur shared his insights for understanding the knottiness of large scale change. In his hour-and-a-half talk, Ahmad walked us through Leadership@Scale.

Leadership@Scale is a community engagement platform based on the knowledge, patterns, and practices Ahmad developed over the last 10 years as a director, facilitator, and trainer. Ahmad identifies 7 practices critical to the success of large-scale change.

Groupaya Brown Bag: Ahmad Mansur

Photo by Eugene Eric Kim

The seven practices in Leadership@Scale include:

  • Mobilize as an Ecosystem
  • Diagnose the Challenge
  • Envision the Future
  • Learn for New Capabilities
  • Experiment for Impact
  • Connect as a Network
  • Reflect for Understanding

Perhaps the most critical element required for untangling the complexity of large-scale change is defined in the second practice of Leadership@Scale: Diagnose the Challenge. In addition to gathering information and identifying patterns, diagnosing the challenge involves identifying whether a challenge is technical or adaptive. According to authors and scholars, Marty Linksy and Ronald Heifeitz, technical challenges are the easier kind of challenges; these can be easily identified and solved, often requiring changes in only one or a few places. Adaptive challenges on the other hand are complex “wicked” problems. They are much harder to diagnose, define, and solve, and often require shifts in values, beliefs, roles, and relationships.

A great example of a wicked problem is seen in the Delta Dialogues, a series of meetings which Groupaya has been designing and facilitating for two years with the purpose of creating shared understanding among multi-stakeholders from the Delta around water issues in California. With wicked problems, identifying a problem as adaptive is just the first step; one of the key challenges with wicked problems is figuring out the right questions to ask.

Ahmad points out, the best questions for adaptive challenges begin with WHAT rather than HOW. HOW questions have the tendency to push toward technical challenges, using your expertise to figure out “how can we get there.” WHAT questions give you more room in an engagement process. For example, in the Delta Dialogues a critical question was, “What were the criteria that were used to develop a solution to the CA water conveyance issue? And what criteria were missing?”

Adaptive or “wicked problems” are some of greatest and most difficult challenges facing organizations, cities, and communities. Success demands leadership capable of tackling complexity. But what does tackling complexity mean? And what makes a leader capable of tackling complexity?

Ahmad discovered his answer after traveling the world, which he describes as his Tocqueville experience. Ahmad found there was a major shift happening across the globe. The economy was moving from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, business was moving from corporations to entrepreneurs, social was moving from justice to innovation, and leadership was moving from hierarchical to distributed.

Groupaya Brown Bag: Ahmad Mansur

Photo by Eugene Eric Kim

Ahmad recognized that in order to address the adaptive challenges of large-scale change a new kind of leadership was needed. The old leadership’s industrial age thinking and tactics are no longer capable of solving these complex problems. The emergent leadership is adaptive, connected, distributed, and relational. Ahmad began to see the rise of citizen-led innovation or ecosystems that served as platforms to address complex adaptive challenges.

Tackling complexity doesn’t need to fall on a single leader’s shoulders; it can be done more efficiently with an ecosystem, a community of people engaging each other around a shared purpose. When we engage with others in making a shared purpose a reality, we are leading.

One of my questions going into the brown bag was, when thinking about mobilizing around a challenge, how do you get a large group or a group of multi-stakeholders to consensus? Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for Ahmad to answer my question but when I reflect on my experience with the Delta Dialogues I believe the first step to getting to consensus is building shared understanding. Shared understanding is about looking past each others’ positions and really listening to understand the data and stories that influence our thinking.

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Developing shared understanding is important because not only does it help people find common ground, shared understanding also builds relationships. As shared understanding is established and relationships are formed, trust begins to emerge. I see shared understanding and trust as fundamental to getting to a consensus.

Leadership@Scale is an approachable framework that has been used to create large-scale change, as seen with the Better Baton Rouge project – a project Ahmad designed that brought together 150 leaders across government, nonprofit, and business sectors to figure out what’s best for Baton Rouge. Learn more about Ahmad and his work at http://www.ahmadmansur.com.

Ahmad Mansur is a leadership strategist, speaker and social entrepreneur. Ahmad helps leaders – across sectors – develop the global foresight and adaptive capacity to address complex system challenges in regions, cities and communities. His work primarily focuses on economic growth, sustainability, educational transformation, etc.

  • http://eekim.com/ Eugene Eric Kim

    Thanks so much for sharing your synopsis of Ahmad’s brown bag, Dana! I like how you connected Ahmad’s point about technical vs adaptive leadership to the Delta Dialogues and especially his emphasis on WHAT versus HOW questions. I would go further than that and add the importance of WHY questions.

    I also agree with your argument that building shared understanding is the first step toward building consensus. Of course, how that happens and what happens as a result of that shared understanding is also quite interesting, and I look forward to hearing your, Ahmad’s, and other’s explorations of that topic!

  • Dana Reynolds

    Hi Eugene,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree WHY questions are very important; WHY questions are particularly good at generating deep thinking.

    I’m really interested in group decision making and how to get to consensus- if anyone has any thoughts/ reading recommendations I’d love to hear. In my experience with the Delta Dialogues I can’t imagine the group getting to a consensus without first developing shared understanding and later trust, what else is needed to get to consensus?

    • http://eekim.com/ Eugene Eric Kim

      I would point to three key ingredients: knowledge, frame, and power.

      In theory, better knowledge leads to better decisions. If Kristin, Brooking, and I wanted to do something nice for you, we might decide to give you flowers. But if we knew that you hated flowers and loved sweets, we might choose to give you a cupcake instead. Better knowledge leads to better decisions, right?

      Here’s where frame (and shared understanding) comes in. What if Brooking thought that culturally, you would find sweets insulting? Or what if Kristin felt that giving you a gift at all might be misconstrued? Now we start getting into two things: worldview and intention (the WHY question). Our alignment (or lack thereof) around the why and our frame around what would or wouldn’t be appreciated will affect our opinions of what the “best” decision might be.

      Here’s where power comes in. Group decisions are never made in a void. There’s always a power dynamic at play. It could be very explicit (e.g. you are the boss, we are your underlings) or hidden from plain view (e.g. you and Kristin are best friends, and I’m trying to bolster my relationship with you to even things out). Our power lens is part of our frame, and it will affect how we act.

      If you want to reach consensus, you have to figure out a way to take all three of these factors into account. How you do that is the ten million dollar question.

      Last week, I heard Huggy Rao, a brilliant professor at the Stanford Business School, describe the Persian philosophy about meetings. It can be summed up as follows: Serve booze the first night, withhold the second. When you’re drunk, you talk more liberally, and so you put everything on the table for all to see. When you’re sober, you withhold, because you’re thinking and acting more strategically.

      I’m not advocating for getting your clients drunk (although you might sell more work that way!), but the basic principles hold true. With the Delta Dialogues, we wanted to make it very safe for people to talk and to listen. We did that by focusing a lot on humanness and empathy — from how we framed our checkin questions to rotating our site locations — and on capturing and reflecting back that shared understanding. We wanted our participants to put everything on the table. It was our more refined version of getting our participants drunk.

      I’m guessing that, in Phase Two, you were still doing a lot of that, but you were also having to deal with people who were starting to sober up. I’ll leave it to the current leaders of the project to describe their theory of how they tried to bring that group to consensus (or whether that was even important). ;-)

    • http://www.groupaya.net Brooking Gatewood

      Consensus decision-making is a big can of worms, but here’s a few brief thoughts… I think an important and often under-recognized component is that it’s often actually not about getting everyone to agree on a solution that they think is best.. It’s getting everyone to agree on a solution that they think is sufficient to move a process along, avoiding blocks unless views are really strongly held, and with the understanding that issues can be raised again down the road as they arise. In groups with ongoing conflict and wicked problem sorts of situations (whether it be the perpetual chaos of messy kitchens in cooperative houses or the perpetual challenge of competing water interests in the Delta Dialogues), having a mechanism by which the process can continue is in my mind key. Regular meetings to raise tensions as well as some sort of shared intention for why the group is coming together and what if any shared goals may be (this can be trickier in Delta Dialogues sorts of groups, I imagine), creates a certain safety to move forward with decisions. Getting to that sort of shared intention and understanding of what a group understands consensus decision-making to be is a helpful starting point in my mind.

      • http://eekim.com/ Eugene Eric Kim

        These are great thoughts, Brooking. I want to build on them and bring this back to adaptive leadership.

        There is an assumption of boundedness in order to reach consensus. If your group makeup constantly changes, then what does consensus actually mean? This is especially a problem with open networks, and it was a fundamental roadblock to the Wikimedia strategy process I led in 2009-2010. More on that in a second.

        If you do have a bounded group, there’s still a practical question around time. In reality (and this goes back to frame), there will always be individuals who make decisions based on their desire to keep things moving, but there are groups (the Quakers being a primary example) who do not have a strong collective ethic around this principle. It’s more important to have everyone agree than it is to move.

        And then — to open that can of worms just a little bid wider — there’s the question of what “decision-making” even means. Is a decision a decision if there’s no follow-through? This happens all the time in groups — everybody “agrees” on a decision, but not everybody follows through, and so the “decision” is rendered meaningless. So simply getting the entire group to say, “I agree,” in a room together does not necessarily mean you have consensus in practice.

        Given all that, if consensus is still something you want, one tool that helps drive groups to consensus is consensus polling. Basically, you see where the group is at, make the aggregated results transparent to the group, move forward with the discussion, and repeat. It facilitates the dynamic you’re describing, Brooking, and it’s a form of developing shared understanding. Consensus polling is the cornerstone of large-scale, deliberative processes like deliberative polling. At a micro-level, it’s what you and Dana witnessed when we watched that clip of 12 Angry Men during Changemaker Bootcamp.

        Here’s the thing. With open networks, you’re not looking to build consensus. You’re looking to build alignment. Those are two different things.

        When I do meetings, I rarely repeat an exercise, even though there are a set of common patterns I use all the time. There is one exception to that. It’s without question the most popular exercise I’ve ever done. I’ve done it all over the world, it seems to resonate across cultures, and I constantly get requests for more details. (I really need to get off my butt and write a definitive blog post about it, although folks like Beth Kanter have written about it.)

        The exercise, fittingly, is named after a metaphor that Heifetz and Linsky use all the time — the dance floor and the balcony. Put simply, one of the tenets of adaptive leadership is the ability to move skillfully back-and-forth between the dance floor and the balcony, so that you’re constantly seeing both the big and little pictures. This exercise models that by taking a large group of people, giving them a simple set of rules, and a goal. It sounds impossible to do without planning, but it demonstrates in a very visceral way the power of alignment in a network.

        Our approach to Wikimedia strategy was not to get consensus, which would have been a largely meaningless concept. Our approach was to enroll as representative of a group as possible (we ended up with about a thousand people), and get them aligned. We had clear stop and start points where we would point a stake in the ground based on where the discussion was at, move forward, and see where that took us. The group was open, and we did our work transparently. We also encouraged others to do their own thing (i.e. “fork the process”) if they disagreed with where this group was going, but to do it transparently and in the same space, so that everyone else could see and learn from them. That led to a much broader, deeper discussion that was constantly diverging but always reconnecting, growing, and moving forward. It also led to lots of process innovation. We changed course a number of times, because other people were doing things that were working better.

        In summary, I think the points around shared understanding and moving forward are critical. I would add that for open networks (such as the Delta Dialogues work) and for wicked problems in particular, the goal is not consensus, but alignment.

        • Dana Reynolds

          Your distinction between consensus and alignment (in open networks) is very interesting Eugene. My original question at the Brown Bag was “when thinking about mobilizing around a challenge how do you get multi-stakeholders/ large groups to consensus?”. Your answer is the goal isn’t about getting to consensus, the goal is about getting alignment. This raises questions for me around alignment: How do you articulate the benefit of simply being aligned to clients? Consensus feels more tangible like you are moving in a specific direction, what does alignment get you in terms of mobilizing around a challenge? How do you measure alignment? You don’t have to answer these, just food for thought. ;)

          • http://eekim.com/ Eugene Eric Kim

            Great, great questions. :-) I’m glad I don’t have to answer these, because I’m most definitely still figuring this out. Worthy of a future blog post perhaps. I do think the Dance Floor and Balcony exercise I mentioned before is a wonderful experiential way of demonstrating the value of alignment, but it’s not enough.

  • Ahmad Mansur

    Great discussion … Once again, thanks to Dana for the post.
    ‘Why’ questions definitely have a place in large-scale change, somewhere i would imagine. However, i think ‘why’ questions are best for personal reflection. When it is directed towards a participate in a strategic conversation, it can potentially incite defensiveness. ‘Why’ questions can make one feel like there is a need to justify or prove perspective. It can potentially close or limit the conversation.

    • http://eekim.com/ Eugene Eric Kim

      I would frame it a little differently: Be thoughtful about when and how you raise different questions.

      It’s fine to have people reflect on WHY questions from a personal perspective, but if that’s never shared, you’re going to have difficulty developing shared understanding.

  • ahmad mansur

    Brooking, I agree.
    It is essential that we constantly facilitate stakeholders to put ‘the work’ in the middle, in service of an adaptive challenge (the shared understanding). I often remind stakeholders that a (their) perceived solution towards a “wicked problem” is a valuable contribution towards a challenge. However, it’s perspective, only. We do not know what a solution looks like until we experiment and see what emerges.