[In the News] A Place That Invites
Where it all started…
It was November 2008, the end of a 600-hour, five-month, three-major-rewrite marathon. The major project for my MBA was completed, approved, and I sat there thinking “now what?” Was this all simply nice theories and concepts? Did it have any meaning besides generating enough words to fill a 100+ page report? It was truly a crisis of confidence—everything I thought was important on this singular journey about collaboration between government, business and not-for-profits was perhaps simply just a nice idea.
Fast-forward six months to the spring of 2009. I notice that ALIA is offering “Leading Profound Innovation” in Toronto with Otto Scharmer, as well as the ALIA West program to be held a few weeks later in Victoria BC. I debate with myself about investing more time and resources into my now-what journey, but finally make the decision. It all seems surreal but somehow I do it— dragging my feet, registering at the last minute, and finding myself at the Kingbridge Centre outside Toronto in April and Royal Roads University in Victoria in May of 2009.
To say this decision changed the course of my life would be an understatement. Yes, life would be much simpler if a different path had been chosen; but as I say to anyone who will listen, “I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone; and wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
From comments and observations that unfolded during those two ALIA events, ideas started to percolate about the power of the spaces in which we hold our conversations and engage in the challenging work of collaboration (because in all honesty we know it’s not always neat and tidy—it can be messy).
I began imagining a place where people could feel safe to be real, to be themselves, to engage with each other in ways that foster vulnerability and authenticity. A place where the tools that help foster the whole person—both analytical and creative—could come out and play. A place where people know they can relax, build trust and respect. But most of all—a place where people shift how they view their world and expand that view to recognize and respect the diversity of ideas and opinions from their colleagues and team members. And with any luck this would spill over into their relationships with family members, clients, and organizational partners – other government, business and not-for-profits. It all seemed so circular.
But I’m ahead of myself…
When I took time to connect the dots I realized that the collaborative space I dreamed of creating needed to be holistic, personal, and nurturing. Not only would the environment need to be natural, organic, fun, and appealing to the senses, it would require light, trees, greenery, and access to the elements of nature.
From this framework THiNKSPOT came to life—a place that asks people to contend with something different from the moment they walk in the door. Why are there crayons on the barn-board table? Why are there wigs and costumes in the tickle trunk? Why is there a bird-feeder outside the window? Why is there a sand-tray with wooden cutlery in the middle of the table? What we ask is for people to contend with “why is that there?” They can easily choose to ignore it, which some do, but it is a choice, and for those who choose to connect it is providing them permission to tap into their creative intelligence.
Michael Jones is a gifted pianist who aligns his music with his leadership belief in the need for reflection, the importance of the commons for relationship building, and understanding the “spaces in-between.” Michael’s analogy is that 85% of a tree’s growth is derived from the soil—a space easily overlooked. Deeper, reflective conversations can only happen when we take the time to slow down and invest in building the engagement together. At THiNKSPOT we watch individuals and groups shift their way of being when they invest the time to be, think, and engage differently.
So how do we give ourselves permission to engage this way, when traditionally we fill the space with words and activity? At THiNKSPOTwe know that providing access to unique spaces can shift the energy. When people move from one level of intimacy to another (board tables are more of a barrier than an encourager of building relationships; and couches and chairs invite conversation), it creates a way for people to begin changing the dialogue.
One team that met at THiNKSPOT said it best:
“The time invested upfront in creating a safe place for all of us to express our thoughts was worth it and set the tone for the next two days of meetings. We accomplished all we hoped to and more—plus finished before our deadline. By spending time together at the beginning discussing how we would engage in conversation, it established THiNKSPOT as a safe place to say what we mean and not worry about being misunderstood.”
The group also said that when they were anxious and moved to another location, the energy shifted and allowed the conversation to begin anew. One individual drew a dog behind a tree and shared at the end of the time together, “It’s like the puppy waiting to know it’s safe to come out and play. I knew at THiNKSPOT I was safe to say what needed to be said.”
Does a great environment determine a stronger outcome? Not always – some things are beyond the impact of the space. But when the “right” individuals come together (right doesn’t mean agreeable!) and recognize they are part of a greater common purpose than themselves; when they focus on the key issues (that is harder than we think); and when they engage in effective dialogue (messy is okay) the outcome unfolds from the wisdom in the room.
But to engage in conversation without creating optimal conditions for wading through the challenges that can occur, we increase the likelihood of the wisdom in the room holding back, disengaging, or worse, checking out. As members of teams, organizations, and communities we need to hear all the voices and anything we do to encourage how and when we hear them will serve us well.
So, what was the key learning as a result of the crisis of confidence that started this journey? That when we respect the analytical and creative perspectives of each of us, when we create an environment that nurtures collaboration, and when we recognize our whole selves as a symbiotic relationship of unique gifts that work best in tandem and less in isolation, then we can see this work fostering our evolution as individuals and is our personal contribution to building communities and nations. But the most important lesson learned? These experiences can never be labeled a theory or a concept—they are simply the essence of our humanity.
Article originally printed May 4, 2011 by the ALIA Institute.
THiNKSPOT is a lovingly designed meeting space in the historic centre of Burlington, Ontario, and a living expression of Debra Pickfield’s dream.