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Creating the Future: a new method for enabling change

Co-authored by: Allyson Hewitt, Geraldine Cahill and Dave Kranenburg

Let’s start at the end

When asked to reflect on their learnings from the Creating the Future workshop they had attended, participants stated just that:  when thinking about creating change, start at the end (envision what you want) and determine how to get there (work backwards to achieve your end goal).

This was the simple yet powerful message of Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder and chief boundary pusher of Creating the Future. Hildy also declared that creating the future is something we do every day…except when we’re thinking about creating social change.

For example, if Hildy asks us what time she has to leave to get to the airport, we all know what to ask her.  What time is your flight? Pearson or Billy Bishop? Will you be checking baggage? We know what has to be done in order for her to accomplish her end goal.

We need to transfer these skills to the world of creating change.  We need to practice them in this new context, or - as a member of the audience stated - we need to practice this way of thinking and being in the world. Our real job should be to determine what favourable conditions would enable us to get to where we want to be, and then take the actions required to create those favourable conditions.

This is what I enjoyed most about the evening.  Hildy took the complex challenges we are facing and gave us tools to make the change we desire to address those challenges. 

What were some other lessons?

Take the time to get to know each other. We started this session by giving people a chance to “describe their meandering journey”. The buzz in the room as people shared their stories, before the session even really got started, was inspiring and suddenly the room felt opened to new possibilities.

There is real power in asking good questions.  This is a great lesson, especially for those of us who are perceived to have the answers. The best thing we can do for you, anyone can do for you, is to ask you really good questions that challenge your operating assumptions.  Then reflect on those questions honestly and make yourself vulnerable to what the answers might reveal.

Be aware of the stopping words. Phrases like “if only” can see us focusing on the obstacles, barriers and challenges that stop us from progressing, despite the fact that human progression is part of our DNA.  Hildy encourages us “not to invite fear into the room” but rather to focus on the conditions that need to be established to create social change.

Hildy took us back to a time when we were programmed for survival – when as hunters/ gatherers we knew surviving was good enough.  By reflecting on this history, she asked the room to realize how some of us still believe we are doing well if we just “keep the doors open”.  We don’t allow ourselves the chance to think big, to create substantive change, when our focus is rooted in survival.

She gave one example that resonated with many in the room:  the misplaced focus on strategic planning.  We spend untold funds and resources in one area while many plans are parked, others dismissed, and yet others referred to, if only occasionally. Still we get no closer to social change.  It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we don’t do it. No strategic plan will get us where we need to go. We need to focus on areas that will lead us to make change. 

But we don’t have the systems in place to do that. Let’s look at governance. Right now, board members are brought on for their expertise in finances or legal or other skills linked to accountability for adherence to certain rules.  They look back to see what an organization did over the past month/ quarter/ year. The focus is misplaced on this kind of accountability, not on what the organization is doing to make real change or create real social impact. 

More often than not we end up saying we need more of the same, such as, more food banks as the answer to reducing hunger. We need to a challenge our own assumptions, to questions the stories we tell ourselves as this leads to our actions and the results we achieve.  We need to question what we believe is possible and what we believe about each other.  We need to get beyond a sense of scarcity and limited resources to considering how we can work together to grow the pie.

When you are stuck in a place of disagreement – go bigger. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who agrees we should have more homelessness or hunger in the world, but each of our ways of solving these problems differ dramatically. When working with groups from different perspectives - which is required when making real change - we need to get beyond details and back to the world we are trying to create.

We often believe that getting to the root causes, instead of the focus on symptoms, is the secret to success. But Hildy warns us that this approach can also be narrow and unfulfilling as it sometimes leads us to focus on finding the thing or person to blame instead of focusing on creating a thriving community.  Ecosystem and community are the real solutions.  It is messy but nothing is working if we don’t open the context.

So who is Hildy Gottlieb? In addition to her current work on Creating the Future, which is described as “a learning and teaching laboratory for accomplishing social change”, she is also a social scientist, an activist, and a prolific writer and speaker.  Her writings can be found in the Huffington Post, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  She is the author of several books on the nuts-and-bolts of creating social change - the most recent of which is The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing ‘Nonprofit Organizations’ to Create the Future of the World. She claimed the word “Pollyanna” before the others could use it against her. That works for me.

Having begun her career in the world of politics, she quickly found her calling in building successful businesses with Dimitri Petropolis, her business partner for over 20 years.  In 1993, Hildy and Dimitri founded their first social enterprise, consulting to community organizations across North America. Since that time, the team has founded three more social enterprises - the first two Diaper Banks in the world, and now Creating the Future. Hildy has received numerous awards for her work and the entire team at Creating the Future won an award from the Awesome without Borders Foundation, for their efforts towards Radical Openness which sees them using online tools, like Google hangout, for their board meetings.

If you are interested in more information on Creating the Future, or in supporting them in their 10-year mission to learn what practical tools it takes to change the world, please sign up here.


Good overview post

Hi Allyson, Geraldine and Dave:

The 3 of you have written a great collaborative post on the 'Creating the Future' workshop.
Nice job. Nice technique.


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Thanks & credit to Allyson

Thanks Tina - credit is fully owed to Allyson who made this event a reality and the blog post.