Friday, August 12, 2016

Moving Regional Physics

As I wrote about a few months ago, I am now operating a consulting business called Civic Collaboration Consultants. I am slowly (very slowly) building a web site to help support that business. And part of that web site includes a blog that I hope to update more frequently than I managed to update Regional Physics.

I appreciate everyone who has followed Regional Physics for the last few years and I hope you will make the journey over to the new blog. And I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Best Wishes,


Monday, August 1, 2016

Russ Pry: Galvanizing Leader

Collaboration is a term many politicians use, but very few are up to the challenge of actually doing it. Summit County Executive Russ Pry, who died on Sunday, was always up to the challenge.

He understood that collaboration required galvanizing leadership. And he used his immense leadership skills to unite diverse stakeholders to pursue change in such diverse areas as public health, workforce, early childhood education, economic development and government efficiency. The one skill he was most known for was building trust. He knew that he didn't have the power to order the mayors of Summit County, or anyone else for that matter, around. Instead he took the time to figure out what others needed and then helped them achieve their goals.

People trusted Russ because he was only concerned with making a contribution. Others could take the credit. Russ just wanted to make sure that at the end of the day the people and businesses of Summit were better off.

And unlike so many leaders, Russ was willing to trust others. A few years ago I brought a proposal related to fostering a talent development collaboration to Russ. Talent development was important to Russ. He wanted to create a world-class talent development system in Summit County. He said he wanted it to be his legacy. The proposal I made to Russ was more than a little vague, rife with risk and full of ambiguity. His peers would have not only passed, they would have run from it. He embraced it, telling me that as long as we both were willing to adapt and adjust things would be just fine. He knew that something as complex improving the performance of the talent development system couldn't be done with a simple program or even a detailed strategic plan. It would take a long-term commitment and sustained effort across multiple sectors. He knew the approach would have to evolve over time.

Tragically, Russ' time was cut short. But all of us who were blessed to work with him owe it to him and the people of Summit County to make sure his legacy is fulfilled.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Leadership Starts With Inquiry, Not Answers

The tragedies and turmoil of the last few weeks reinforced in dramatic fashion that we live in a VUCA world – where volatility accelerates, uncertainty abounds, complexity prevents control and ambiguity creates more unknown unknowns with each passing day.

It is unsurprising that such an environment generates wanna-be leaders who promise stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity. We are trained to expect this from our leaders. This training begins in the first grade with the teacher at the front of the class and continues through to the organizational chart that guides the entities where we work. We are trained to expect our leaders to have the answers. The problem is there are no easy answers in a VUCA world where inequity – whether measured by income, health, environment, safety, opportunity or whatever – persists. 

The challenges and opportunities at the root of these issues cannot be solved by a single solution designed by an expert (even one who is “really smart,” with the “best words,” and excelled at “like the hardest … school to get into”). Going to the moon is a technical problem, as is, I guess, building a wall between countries. The answers to technical problems are knowable. In contrast, most of the critical challenges at the root of the turmoil that we see in our streets and feel in our hearts are adaptive in nature. The answers to adaptive challenges aren't clear, and indeed they only emerge through the interaction of stakeholders. Creating communities where all residents feel safe is an adaptive challenge, as is creating an economy where all residents have access to opportunity.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” wrote Dr. Ronald Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Technical challenges may require us to behave differently, but adaptive challenges force us to think differently – and even to believe differently. To develop solutions to adaptive challenges we must challenge our assumptions about what we think we know, and help others do the same.

 When faced with adaptive challenges we need to expect inquiry from our leadership, not answers. Adam Grant, in his powerful book Originals, describes in detail how pushing for solutions too soon limits originality, creativity and ultimately restricts our ability to create enduring, positive change. And David Peter Stroh, in Systems Thinking for Social Change, writes of the benefits of starting with inquiry rather than advocacy.

Practicing inquiry is a profound acknowledgement that we don’t know the answers, and a confident assertion that together– despite the realities of living in a VUCA world – we can develop sufficient, shared understanding from which solutions will emerge. Inquiry is leadership.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Changing Places, But Still Focused on Change

I work to create change and it’s time to change my work. I will stay in the change business, but where and what I work on will be different.

On July 1, I will stop being a full-time employee of the Fund for Our Economic Future. I will use my time and talent to help leaders and organizations catalyze enduring, positive change in their communities. Through my business, Civic Collaboration Consultants LLC, I will provide training and support services to leaders and organizations who want to use cross-sector collaborations to create the kind of positive change we can see, feel and touch when we walk out the door in the morning.
“Cross-sector collaboration” is how independent organizations, institutions and individuals assume shared responsibility for achieving shared goals.

Through coaching, workshops and presentations I help leaders better understand:
  • Why cross-sector collaboration is necessary to solve wicked, persistent problems within our communities
  • When cross-sector collaboration is possible
  • How to create the conditions for effective collaboration · The capacity and process needed to support effective collaboration 
  • And the leadership skills demanded to launch and sustain such collaborations.
In addition, Civic Collaboration Consultants provides technical and staff support to design, develop and implement new and evolving cross-sector collaborations.

I am fortunate that my first client will be the Fund. I will provide support to a few key Fund initiatives, including work in Akron – a community that both embraces collaboration and is experiencing a remarkable transition in civic leadership. I will also serve the Fund by providing collaboration coaching and training to its staff, members, grantees and partners.

I look forward to expanding my client base in the months ahead. I am having exciting conversations with leaders inside and outside Northeast Ohio at foundations, United Ways, advocacy organizations, leadership development organizations and planning agencies. I expect a few of those conversations will turn into interesting projects.

Nine plus years at the Fund provided me with an all access pass to an amazing learning laboratory for collaboration. The Fund itself is a collaboration. The Fund supports collaborations. And several Fund members support collaborations separate from their work with the Fund. This concentration of collaboration gave me the opportunity to work on numerous and diverse efforts. Their scope range from bringing change neighborhoods to creating alignment across multiple states. The Fund’s work is focused on collaborations that improve job creation, job preparation and job access outcomes. I’ve been fortunate that Fund members have also asked me to help build collaborations that create change in other areas, as well. One of the many lessons I learned while working and observing collaborations in such diverse areas as public health, youth development, early childhood development, education and the environment is that how collaboration works is pretty much the same regardless of what change is sought. Effective collaboration – which is far different from its more common cousin, “coblaboration” -- requires a potent mix of leadership, capacity and process.

The Fund itself embodies this mix. For more than a decade a handful of foundation executives, including the Fund’s current chair Brian Frederick of the Community Foundation of Lorain County, have exercised the leadership necessary to encourage dozens of independent grantmaking organizations to pool resources and assume shared responsibility for achieving common goals. That the Fund has no peer across the philanthropic world is a testimony to the effectiveness of its leadership. A small staff, more than ably led by Fund President Brad Whitehead, provides the capacity to perform the critical functions that make collaboration possible. And the diverse members of the Fund have created a process that builds trust, fosters shared learning and gives all of its members an equal voice in its decision-making.

Working with Fund members and staff changed the way I look at our communities, how I work with others and what I know is possible. I am blessed to be able to continue to work with them, and to have the opportunity to share the lessons they have helped me learn with others inside and outside of Northeast Ohio. Over the next few months you will be hearing a lot more about Civic Collaboration Consultants LLC. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about how I can help you catalyze enduring, positive change in your community drop me a note at or @ccarsonthompson.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

On Unnatural Acts

A decade ago the Council on Competitiveness aptly described cross-sector collaboration as an "unnatural act among non-consenting adults. Rarely do I give a presentation without using that line and it always draws a knowing laugh from the audience.

It is a dead-on assessment, but why?

The non-consenting part is actually kind of easy to grasp. Collaboration requires us to work with others. Most of us would prefer to be in control of our own destiny so it's understandable that we are reluctant to join in on a process that we cannot control. Cross-sector collaboration requires all of us to leave our egos and our logos at the door. Because we each work for an organization that pays our bills (and is likely a source of great personal pride) we are not eager to leave either behind. We can overcome our reluctance if we truly value the potential outcome of the collaboration -- the enduring positive change. But even if we consent, collaboration remains unnatural.

More accurately, I would say that we've been trained so that collaboration is unnatural. Anthropologists and others have highlighted that humans evolved as a species because of our ability to collaborate. I'm not nearly skilled enough as a social scientist to fully understand why such a fundamental skill to the health of our species is now unnatural, but I believe one reason is that we have developed other skills; those required to form organizations. We form organizations to more efficiently and effectively achieve goals. Organizational skills -- the ability to build clearly defined structures with rule, procedures and clear lines of authority -- have become the dominant skills within our modern societies. Nearly all of us work of an organization (one could argue even the self-employed work for an organization of one). Every organization has its own org chart. And we learn how to navigate org charts from the first grade (class seating charts) through the rest of our academic life.

Those that aspire for leadership positions take courses in organizational leadership. Effective organizational leaders learn all of the tricks of exercising power and influence within the clearly defined structures of the organization. And organizational leaders are required to focus on the long-term health of their organization.

In contrast, there is no organizational chart to guide cross-sector collaboration. The best we can hope for is a systems map that identifies the relationships among the diverse stakeholders within a complex civic system. And the focus of systems leaders is the outcomes of the entire system, not just one organization. Rare is the organizational leader who is also well versed in complexity and systems leadership described by Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline.

Organizational skills are critical in environments where outcomes can be controlled by a single entity, or even a small group of entities. But in environments roiled by rapid, disruptive change organizations are less likely to be able to keep pace or stay in control (examples range from Apple's efforts to stay ahead of hackers and the military's ability to contain non-state threats). In such evolving environments, adaptive networks are much more effective at taking advantage of the altered landscapes. Such networks demand collaboration. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, those that succeed will be those that aren't confined by their organizations.

And just maybe collaboration will become natural again.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Searching for Galvanizing Leadership

"Zero leadership."

"Business leaders have done squat on this issue."

"They're too important to lead."

Over the last week three normally optimistic leaders I know vented similar frustrations. The leaders are from different communities. They were talking about different issues. But their concerns were the same. They know that achieving systemic change demands galvanizing leadership -- the kind of leadership that can unite diverse stakeholders from different sectors to work together to achieve a shared goal. They are frustrated that such leadership is in such short supply. While they each are leaders, they recognized that they weren't in a position themselves to exercise such leadership. Each would be seen as self-serving if they pushed too hard for change.

What made them more frustrated was that other leaders in their respective communities -- leaders who are in a position to exercise galvanizing leadership -- were more than willing to complain about the issue that each were trying to address. They just weren't willing to take the risk of leading.

As Heifetz and Linsky make clear in Leadership on the Line, leadership is risky business. And "galvanizing leadership" is particularly risky as it requires organizational leaders to lead well beyond the walls of their own organization and bring other leaders to the table.

Organizational leaders are very familiar with what it takes to effectively lead within an organization. Many such leaders aren't accustomed to exercising leadership beyond their organization's boundaries, particularly within complex civic systems that lack clear lines of authority and established rules and procedures.

Organizational leaders can be made more comfortable with the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership if they have a better understanding of how change can be achieved within complex civic systems. Yes, achieving such change requires different leadership styles and skills, but many organizational leaders can make the transition. After all, they were smart enough to figure out how to lead within an organization.

Some leaders need to know that the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership have been reduced before taking on the challenging of uniting diverse stakeholders. The risks can be reduced in a few ways, and philanthropy is well positioned to help reduce those risks.

Funders can help reduce the risk of exercising galvanizing leadership by assuring leaders that they are prepared to support a collaboration process if the leader is able to galvanize enough commitments from other stakeholders. They can reduce the risk even more by making multi-year commitments, recognizing that cross-sector collaboration is never a short process.

And the heads of foundations can choose to join with other organizational leaders to exercise galvanizing leadership. There is strength in numbers. Two or three leaders exercising galvanizing leadership is much less risky than asking one leader to go out on stage alone.

Philanthropic leaders have the greatest freedom to choose to exercise galvanizing leadership. Leaders from other sectors have significant organizational/institutional constraints that can limit their ability to cross boundaries and engage others. Philanthropic leaders face few such constraints and often have the kind of credibility and trust that is necessary to help persuade others that the time is right to collaborate to achieve change.

Those of us who find ourselves searching for more galvanizing leadership should probably spend less time looking and more time trying to figure out how we can lower the risk so that organizational leaders are willing to take on the challenge.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Donald Trump Makes Me Feel Young Again

I apologize for writing about politics, but Donald Trump makes me feel young again. And that’s very frightening.

Friends know that in my teens and twenties I could get irrationally emotional about issues that I was certain foreshadowed the coming apocalypse. I grew up in a household run by a liberal from San Francisco, so it wasn’t surprising that I thought Ronald Reagan would turn our planet into a charcoal briquette if we were crazy enough to elect the former actor president. And I was convinced that the CIA would lose us the Cold War with their bumbling efforts to overthrow the leftist leaders of the third world. Of course, I was being hysterical. Thankfully, I stopped seeing doom around every corner (it’s exhausting). Over the last three decades I’ve learned that no matter what party thinks it is in charge, things stay pretty much the same in America thanks to the supernatural wisdom of our Founding Fathers.

Until now.

David Brooks said it better than I ever could in this morning’s New York Times, and I think it’s particularly telling that Paul Krugman’s column today reinforces Brooks’ dire warning. Usually those two seem more interested in taking pot shots at each other than reinforcing each other. Please take the time to read them both.

For several reasons – but mostly because it’s so damn lucrative for so many, including Fox & Friends – too many Americans are now fueled by fear. Fear makes us abandon our values. The Bill of Rights will not survive in a country ruled by fear.

Yes, I’m hysterical enough to suggest our nation may not survive this election.

National demographics have long foreshadowed a fundamental change is coming. The 2016 election is likely to be the last presidential election where a party that appealed primarily to white Americans even has a slim chance of winning. This is why Republican Party leaders declared their intent to broaden the party’s base after 2012. Not so fast.

Instead of changing the party, the party’s front runner wants to change America. He says he wants to make America great again, but there is nothing great, nor anything American about what he promotes. Again, Brooks said it better than I can.

I’ve believed since last July that Cleveland (the city I call home) will host the “Donald Trump Coronation Ball, ” aka the GOP convention, this summer. Back then I saw humor in that. Not now. There’s nothing funny about fear.