Chapter 5 - Collective Leadership Site Work

Facilitation in Complexity - Case Study: Anti-Sectarianism

The collective leadership work around tackling sectarianism began a year ago with a group of leaders who had backgrounds in policy making, academia, faith, mediation, the third sector, charity and statutory work. Discussions on the next phase of the work highlighted the feeling that it would be good to bring the conversation about our collective leadership work to a wider audience to test out some of the thinking that was emerging from our work.

To do this we hosted an event as part of the Fire Starter Festival to discuss the experience of the collective leadership group. This allowed us to explore perspectives, theories, achievements and barriers in relation to this seemingly intractable issue. Like all Fire Starter events, this was a  public event which considered  what it takes to change a system by doing things differently, emphasizing it’s as much, if not more, about how we create change.

The aim of the festival is to provide a platform for all those passionate about public services to share, think, reflect and take action together on complex issues.  The festival is an important platform for sharing experiences and asking questions about work that is in progress and therefore still developing and evolving. Engaging with people in ways that aren’t necessarily comfortable and can be challenging is important in helping to understand the risks involved in doing things differently. The process can vary enormously, it can look chaotic, feel relaxed or surprisingly structured, but essentially it needs  to provide a safe space to talk openly and freely allowing  individual and collective voices to be heard, and careful thought needs to be given to how an event is structured.

Caption: Fire Starter event on Anti-Sectarianism held by the Collective Leadership for Scotland team and partners in February 2020.

For some joining the tackling sectarianism event the expectation may have been to delve deeply into the origins of sectarianism, attribute blame or identify action.  However, the event was held so we could explore two questions:

  • How do we speak about polarising issues?
  • How do we make sense of sectarianism through a systemic lens?

We were particularly interested in the following inquiry question; 

  • “Is it possible to have a conversation about polarising issues in a respectful and inquiring way and what enables this?”

Reframing the question of sectarianism around:

  • How can Scotland move on from its sectarian past?

We wanted to create space to hear the story of the struggle of those who have come together to collectively make sense of the complexity of sectarianism through deepening understanding and knowledge of different perspectives, and to talk about what it’s like to work together and what impact this has had on the group. We started by explaining that as this was part of the Fire Starter Festival we needed to acknowledged the experimental nature of the event and that the process of collective leadership was a key part of the discussion.   

We wanted to set out some of our thinking at this point as a way of inviting people to come into the space with open minds and hearts so they could hear each other’s stories and perspectives. So, we provided an overview of some of the theories and concepts that were informing our thinking as facilitators and the thinking of the group. 

We looked at the interconnected nature of complex systems; the different factors that were present when we tried to unravel its causes and consequences; and the underlying issues rather than what we see immediately present on the surface. So, instead of asking “What is happening?” – reacting and firefighting, and “What has been happening?” – looking at trends and patterns, we were seeking to get to  “Why is this happening?” – looking at how we get to the root of the problem.

We discussed how adopting a systems approach takes persistence and curiosity and might be helped by asking questions;

  • What are the influences on that person or group?
  • What might another perspective be on this?
  • How are they saying this?
  • What are they not saying?
  • What are the themes that are emerging?
  • What is motivating the behaviour?
  • What forces in the system are pushing people toward one thing or another?

In seeking to understand how we work more generally with polarities where people take widely opposing views, we considered Peter Reason’s words in Sacred Experience and Sacred Science;

“So while a traditional logic creates a dichotomy …the paradox of opposites…involves a recognition of the inseparability of two apparent opposites, and an exploration of the interplay between these interdependent poles, because “what lies between the poles is more substantial than the poles themselves” (Watts, 1963). ..we explore and seek to understand the interdependence and the unity of the two poles. Then we can maybe understand the co-created realities within which we live.” 

Additionally we considered Otto Scharmer’s work on mindsets that  hinder us by amplifying the triad of fear, hate and ignorance. A mindset that manifests in the form of five behaviours:

  1. Blinding – not seeing reality 
  2. De-sensing – not empathising with others 
  3. Absencing – not wanting to take the journey that might lead to something better 
  4. Blaming others – an inability to reflect
  5. Destroying – destruction of community, of relationships and of self

Otto Scharmer also highlighted mindsets that help us by amplifying the triad of curiosity, compassion and courage. One of the generative questions we have been asking in the collective leadership group was, “Why is fear and hate such a thriving business?” Another was to ask, “Where are courage, curiosity and compassion thriving, and how could this help us toward action?”

Meg Wheatley’s words also help us in thinking and taking action with polarities;

“We live in a world of extremes and polarities. People take positions on the far edge of an issue and then scream across the distance they created…living at the extreme consumes enormous resources, we spend time justifying our position, attacking our enemy, defending our ground…somewhere in all the furore and drama we’ve lost sight of the middle. Yet it is in the middle where possibilities reside. Some call it “compromise” or “consensus” – terms which have come to mean failure or mediocrity or loss…one way to rediscover middle is to notice your everyday behaviours…Are you sitting out on one side, justifying your behaviour, assuming you’re right and others are wrong? Or are you open to the possibility that you can’t see very well from where you’re sitting, that you don’t know all the facts in the case? Humility and curiosity is what shifts us to the centre. Just by being curious, we move toward the middle ground, with its fertile promise of new ideas and new relationships”

At the beginning of the event we set out to provide some insight to the process we had been through so far as a group, what had helped our thinking. We also wanted to both invite and challenge everyone in the space to come to this conversation with compassion, curiosity and courage using the following questions;

  • What actions can we take to uncover something more than our own existing prejudices and beliefs?
  • How can we be open to having deep and honest inquiry into what we might learn together?
  • What new conversations could we convene and structure that don’t simply reinforce the existing power dynamics?
  • What would help us to be adaptive and experimental with what we do, towards our agreed purpose?

When this was concluded we were conscious that participants had been listening for some time and we wanted to give them an opportunity to move,  to reflect on what they had heard and meet someone they hadn’t met before to share their thoughts.  We call this brief encounters, giving participants opportunities to share, listen and create connections with those previously unknown.  It is not an ‘ice-breaker’ but an important element in creating a climate for curiosity, diversity and the potential for deeper connections. 

The main method of working was through a fishbowl – where the voices of those who were part of the collective leadership are given space and time to share their reflections on their story.  

The fishbowl methodology is well documented but essentially is a small inner circle with two empty chairs, surrounded by an outer circle where the participants are seated.  In the inner circle the participants give their response to a question, a viewpoint and after a short time of discussion between members of the group, the outer participants are invited to temporarily join the inner circle, to ask a question or provide an different viewpoint. 

In this instance the inner circle was invited to reflect on their journey as a collective leadership group: to share what they noticed, what they were curious about and what they had learned. 

This creating of space mirrored the experience of the work on collective leadership and was noted by a participant: 

 “For those of us working in big bureaucratic hierarchies, having this space to reflect, share, learn and build trust is remarkable”

Their reflections and insights revealed the ‘difference’ of the collective leadership programme and the sometimes surprising impacts. The notion of going slowly was explored; 

“It’s a slow, valuable process but how do we widen it?  And how do we deepen our conversations as well as broaden them?” 

“The narrative at the moment is that Slow is Bad and Quick is Good but I’d see the collective leadership movement akin with the slow food movement …But there are expectations of pace…  Slow doesn’t mean stalling though…and there isn’t just one gear for slow.”

This issue of slow versus fast reminded us of another Fire Starter event about walking, where the keynote listener, Tim Ingold talked about the origins of the word fast – to fasten onto- to become stuck. 

The faster we go, the more stuck we become. The slower, the more we can loosen our grip and allow some freedom to move.  The cross-fertilisation, the themes that emerge never fail to amaze me. “

Had we solved sectarianism – no. But, the collective realisation of taking steps, actions rather than fixating on solutions is what sets us free to experiment, to go deeper and understand more. 

“The dynamic is live and changing all the time.  This lives more deeply than the actions we can take do… We need to take steps not solutions… it’s not like we’re going to finish this…”

It was clear that working in the group did change individuals- making things more complicated, rather than simplifiying;

“I don’t go away (from the CL group) with the view as I came in with…  the issue often becomes more real and complex rather than simpler.” 

The safe space away from anyone institution and one sector was prized;

“You’re in hierarchies where you can’t say what you really think or you realise that you don’t understand the whole issue and can learn from others”. I value the opportunity to vent frustration here because it’s a frustrating issue.  It’s a more complex issue than people think.  They say we should just close schools or football teams or that it’s an education issue when there’s loads going on in education already” 

So is it all about reflecting, sharing, talking?  No;

This isn’t an alternative to taking action; it’s about taking better actions.  I go back (to my work) with more voices and knowledge in my head to help me in my actions… because there’s not one single action that will work.  There’s a whole load of single things that need to be done, just not by themselves.” 

 Voices joined the group to challenge the use of the word sectarianism and their perception that it is used to hide the oppression of one group by another.  Their contributions and perspectives are part of the story. We needed to hold a generative space for all views and model the values and ways of working that allow for differences to co-exist. The conversations that were ignited after the event finished were perhaps the most interesting. There were those who would have a preferred a method where they could participate from their seat, finding the joining of the circle too intimidating.  The structure was deliberate – we did not want the potential for many voices shouting over each other – the strict structure was deliberate in providing space and time for each voice to be heard. 

People had the opportunity to discover the human behind the organisation and meetings were organised that had not been expected. It was not until one of the members of the group brought it to our attention that we spoke about the facilitation – the hosting of the space to make this happen. Time and again it was said that good facilitation is invisible. People’s experiences of being in the group talk about the conditions but scant attention is paid to how this is created. For us, in facilitating, we are not looking for recognition of a job well done but in not highlighting what it is we do, we pave the way for it not being done well.

“One thing we didn’t talk about explicitly, but the role of the facilitators has been absolutely crucial. It’s the thing that makes the difference even though it isn’t necessarily seen. I need to say to X that this is the thing that makes the difference.” 

The fishbowl approach we used is one which enables structure and safety around a “hot” issue. It allows people to be heard and is also open to different people with different perspectives to join and have their say. One lesson we learned from this event was the willingness of the collective leadership group to be in this space because of the high level of trust they had developed without the need for complete agreement on every point. 

This was about the collective leadership group trying something, some different action in a spirit of inquiry. There is a necessary place for complexity in this work – and a recognition that there is no one resolution to that complexity. We were seeking to build, not consensus, but a place for difference. To build relationships and communities, not denying difference and diversity, but understanding and accepting the complexity.