When all the perspectives have been heard and the problem is known, but no decision has been reached yet, no solution designed, what is the role of a leader in the change-making process? This episode we explore the importance of holding space for ideas and solutions to emerge—in the work of innovation and in our daily lives.
The Way We Hold Space
Domain7’s Facilitation Practice Lead, Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Veronica is Domain7's Brand and Editorial Director, exploring themes around digital making and human flourishing. A creative leader with rich experience in brand and storytelling for tech, social purpose, and higher education, Veronica enjoys cultivating a deeper understanding of how contemporary technologies can aid and support healthy human connection and create new spaces for meaning to emerge.
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Veronica: Emergence. It’s where something new surfaces, is born, evolves. In nature and in life we see the phenomenon every time a seed begins to grow, a new baby joins the world or a relationship is formed.
Kevan: In organizations we see it when a culture changes, when a company transforms and when a new idea is born. As a leader and facilitator of change, this is the moment you have been waiting for. It’s also when all eyes are on you and people expect you to solve the problem.
Veronica: How do you hold space for what can naturally emerge when all the perspectives have been heard but no decision has been reached yet? How do you stay open when the problem is known, the pain is felt but no solution is here yet, how do you act?
Kevan: This episode is about the way we hold space. It’s part of our season called The Changemaker’s Journey, where we’re sharing tools and stories about leading co-creative change. Veronica, as I was thinking about this, I remembered the very first time the phrase popped into my head, “change is in the making.”
Veronica: Oh really?
Kevan: Yes. This was probably five or six years ago. We were going through a redesign and rebrand process at Domain7 and I was tasked with doing a bit of the user and customer research. So I was having all these phone calls with people who had been clients of Domain7 before, teammates who have worked here, advisers that are part of the picture and people were telling me their stories. I was just writing them down, just taking notes, asking more questions, listening and listening and listening. It’s just like the process we’ve been describing the past few episodes, right?
Kevan: What I was hearing people say was that the process itself was where the value was. That yeah, something new resulted in what Domain7 was creating, but that it was in the midst of these activities of doing the listening and doing the designing and doing the development that the real culture change was taking place. The change was in the making. I wrote that down on a post it and I slapped it on my monitor and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s not just like an optimistic view of the future. This hopeful statement of change is coming, changes in the making, but it’s this reminder that the real transformation happens in the process of getting into something.” That’s what this episode is about.
Veronica: It reminds me, Kevan sort of before design thinking I had hit sort of at least the creative mainstream, as a creative professional earlier in my career. Do you remember to trust the process? That phrase was everywhere. I mean it’s still a popular phrase, but it’s the same idea of like a process that feels messy. You’re going to hit, I mean every creative knows that stage of just like not being sure if you’re going to come out the other side of this with a solution or anything to show for it and you put so much time and heart into it. There’s always a where you’re just not sure. I think that phrase meant a lot for a lot of people in that moment. It just trust the process. It’s something will, a change will emerge here.
Kevan: Yes. You know what? My cynical side, when I’ve heard that phrase before, trust the process. I assume people are referring to some sort of process trademarked thing to be, like…the process I designed. It’s the specific step-by-step workflow that I’m going to walk you through is the thing you can trust, whether it’s my educational format or my consultants process…and I get a little bit uncertain about that and am like, “I can’t trust your process.” But the process that exists that is part of how nature works is the one to trust — the Capital P process. This would have come to life for you Veronica, and for my partner Kendra in the process of having babies. The process that your body knows to go through is the thing to lean into where change emerges. It’s already encoded into your DNA. There is a physical process here that is going to take place, you simply need to be a participant in this.
Veronica: Yeah. It’s so interesting. I think this sort of taps into this tension that we sit in when we use the design thinking double diamond, or any sort of framework to describe very true realities that would exist whether or not you mapped it out in a double diamond or named it design thinking or not. It’s helpful to put frameworks and words to things to create a map of a known reality of felt reality, ways that we have kind of learned shared wisdom over time. But since we have been using that framework, this episode, How We Hold Space, where would this moment be in that framework?
Kevan: Yeah, so this is the part where you’ve participated in what would be seen as field research or focus groups or user surveys. You’ve engaged in the activities that are about listening. So you have gathered perspectives and it is now time to begin distilling them or synthesizing them or making sense of them. Understanding how you now see the problem with a better sense of people’s needs. So a few episodes ago we talked about framing the problem that’s about getting you positioned well to listen openly and see where this journey is going to take you. You’ve done all this listening and now you’re at the spot where you need to take these disparate threads and set yourself up for what comes next, which is a bit of new ideation. So here, you’re not yet even ready to come up with the ideas. What you’re finding is a new sense of understanding people’s needs.
Veronica: So at this point you have, if I’m hearing you correctly Kevan, you have a lot of research that you’ve probably gathered. You have a lot of sort of raw feedback. You’ve kind of put your own views to the side early in this process and you are sitting with a lot of signals, a lot of clues. And you know something is going to change. That is the goal here. I love the phrase, holding space. It feels so applicable for so many moments in life and work. But you’re almost holding yourself back from rushing forward at this time it seems.
Kevan: Yeah. It’s a bit of noticing patterns, holding space I can think of as being like preventing this trash compactor from crushing you. I don’t know if that’s a metaphor we’ve used before.
Veronica: I don’t think so.
Kevan: Yeah. I think of those movies scenes where your smart analyst or detective has all the different clues and news clippings and threads and maps up on the wall and trying to just sit back and be like, “What is here that I haven’t noticed yet?” You’ve got all your clues, your pieces of insight and it’s exactly as you say, you’re trying to stay open enough to notice what you haven’t noticed yet.
Veronica: Okay. Yeah. It seems like within an innovation effort in an organization, this is probably a fairly small amount of time, but an important one, a very important one. Because it’s almost as much a mental state, like a state of mind or a mental posture as a step. Would you say that’s true?
Kevan: Yeah. I would say that’s true that there are distinct activities you can do during this process and sometimes it is just the thing that clicks on as you look at a piece of data in a new way. It’s sometimes just something that happens independently. It’s sometimes something that happens in a group. I think of a session we were doing recently with the Crown Corporation. It was a brief about employee engagement and we had just commissioned the teams to go walk the hallways and connect with their teammates and colleagues and ask them questions about employee engagement.
Kevan: How satisfied are you here? What are things that help you tune in more to your work? When do you feel most effective in your job? One particular team as they were coming back to the room to begin distilling their insights, they said to each other, it’s so interesting how positive everybody was. We think that we might not have an employee engagement problem but rather a problem about talking too much about employee engagement and that’s creating the problem.
Kevan: That we haven’t acknowledged people’s lived realities that are working well. So for them they were going to take that into a new kind of ideation sprint, to discover what to do with that instead. But their insight there in that micro moment after they’ve listened to their colleagues was to say, “We see our problem statement in a new way. People don’t need to get more engaged at work, they need to be acknowledged and even just equipped to to see themselves as satisfied and prepared in the rules they’re already in.”
Veronica: It seems like that ability to kind of put your agenda to the side for a moment and listen in a way that really does make space for something new to come out. That seems like a leadership trait. Like when you’re describing that I was like, that’s something I feel like I’ve been really lucky to see happen at times. We’re not perfect, not all the time, but at Domain7 and I think of Shawn our CEO. And there’s this way that Shawn has of just not… sometimes it takes some patience because of not rushing it. Of like really hearing everybody out. Letting there be time for something to evolve, time for us to explore it, time to sit with it. That can be over a series of days or weeks or even months sometimes.
Veronica: But it also strikes me that there might be like dozens of almost micro moments in a leader’s day where for kind of new school organizations and new realities that are emerging in the ways we’re working together in 2020. Or a leader that’s really clued in to helping people thrive at work and helping organizations thrive in this new volatile reality that we find ourselves in has to just be really good at holding space to really hear and not to rush to impose. But to hear what’s actually happening and to have an agility to respond to the reality.
Kevan: Those are all amazing words. That word agility and responsiveness, that openness. I think you’re exactly right. If we already knew the answer, we wouldn’t need to go through a process of innovation and listening. There’s organizations that are designed to consistently deliver predictable results based on something that has already been figured out. I’m assuming that there’s less of a need there to stay open to other solutions because you’re in the midst of deploying the answer. But if you’ve undertaken a process to consider what else is possible, then absolutely it’s that sensitivity to what else is in the environment that you need to pay attention to that is different than what you’ve assumed and that’s a discipline. That’s a practice that takes care. It means leaving exactly that openness that you’re describing.
Veronica: So Kevan, when people reach out to you to do a design thinking activation within an organization, quite often it is because they know that they’re doing something new where they don’t have like the answer to just sort of stamp on the project and be like, “There you go. We’ve done this 50 times, we’re just going to do the same old, same old.” So I was thinking about when Accelerate Okanagan brought you in, which was really interesting. So people who deal with innovation but found themselves in sort of a new space.
Kevan: Yeah, exactly. For this group it was really neat. Like they didn’t need to use the words design thinking and they didn’t. They didn’t need to use the words co-creation and they didn’t. What they needed was some help bridging a leadership gap. They had said goodbye to their previous CEO who had done great work and was taking a job in a similar sector or they needed to ask themselves some questions about what’s next. So it’s that transition moment that we talked about a few episodes ago, of like they noticed an opportunity to use this opening to become the organization that they wanted to be. They didn’t just want to make assumptions or alerts ahead on defaults, even doing the great things they were doing. So we took that opportunity to work with them to have some conversations with their community.
Kevan: So several different open focus groups, our conversations with different facets of their network. And we brought together those insights into a synthesized but still open summary. We worked together with their board and staff to take a look at what we were learning and to ask them questions about what values drive them as an organization.
They eventually independently after this session, spent a little bit more time together with each other and they solved their question and they realized they wanted to promote from within. The person who was the acting CEO who represented that deep alignment with the values and she had been part of this process all the way through. That’s part of what they were able to notice through this is, her leadership was so aligned, her presence was fully participatory. And it helped them see that if they wanted the region to be growing economically, that it needed to be led by somebody who connects deeply with that. I just would honour their own steps that they took to be open to seeing what was right in front of them the whole time. That the person ready to lead them was right there. I think it took some of their humility to honour that through going through a process like they did.
Veronica: Something that’s striking me right now about both of those stories that you’ve just shared. The one where the organization thought they had an employee engagement problem and then talk to the employees and they were very engaged and it was just a perspective problem or an idea that had grown within the culture and was hard to shake. Then this one where the answer was in the midst of them. It was somebody who was sitting with them doing this and they didn’t need to look outside. It reminds me of sometimes how we encounter newness as individuals as well. I think of, it’s the new year, so resolutions abound in January and the way that we are very fixated in the West at least on habit formation. That sometimes it feels like people… I know in my own experience, you push for a change, you push for a change or you feel like there’s a change that you want to see in your life. Sometimes it can be really hard to make it stick and other times there’s just something that happens where you suddenly see…
Veronica: I remember Gretchen Rubin who has written books on happiness and also on creating new habits. She calls these types of habits, like a lightning strike moment. Sometimes there’s just something that happens where you see yourself or your life in a completely new light. You’re the same person that you always were, but for some reason you believe in yourself in a different way or you see your reality in a different way and you are just able to change. I mean, I think parenthood is one of those things quite often. I remember my dad always saying like he was able to stop smoking after many attempts when I was born. I was his first child. Sometimes you can…like, pregnancy is a good example. Kevan, you brought that up earlier. That takes nine months and you can’t rush it.
Veronica: You don’t want to rush it. But there is sort of a lightning strike moment when your life is changed, when the baby comes. That can change your perspective on what you’re capable of, what your values are, everything. There’s so many other things in life that do that. There’s these moments where the ground kind of shifts and we see what’s in us, what’s possible. Sometimes you can’t force it. Sometimes it takes just sort of waiting, holding the space for like making the conditions right for that tilt to happen.
Kevan: Oh my gosh, I love that. Those stories all line up so well. I don’t know if this connects. There was this beautiful Netflix sort of travel documentary about different foods that are cultivated in different regions. They took us to a soy sauce. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s not a factory. It’s a …
Veronica: Distillery? Is it a distillery? I don’t know.
Kevan: Distillery, sure it’s a distillery but what he described was, he says, “I don’t make the sauce. The microbes make the sauce. I just create the conditions for the microbes to do their work.” That’s what you’re describing is like you can’t force change, you can’t rush the process. You can help it happen in a healthy way. Often what it is about is it about being able to acknowledge that what you have already that it’ll do. That you have the potential. You have the thing you were looking for. You are able of being that thing you were hoping you could become. Whether it’s the problem you want us to solve, is solved when you look at it in new light. The leadership you’re looking for is right in front of you. The life you’re nurturing is literally inside of you. That is that Capital P process we were talking about at the beginning. That this isn’t some trademarked method. This is the way life functions. That the change we’re capable of, whether in our persons or in our organizations is going to happen. It’s in us already.
Veronica: Yeah. Kevan, it reminds me earlier, I think in the fall, you were describing how you feel like our organizations and sort of like the accrual of traditional systems that aren’t very human over decades has kind of like as sealed over or like encrusted what is real between people. And that it’s not necessarily that we need a new formula or a new 12 step sort of trademarked way to get to what’s real. But what’s real is actually underneath that and we need to get it out of the way. I mean, I know I quote Brene Brown just about every episode, but I heard her say something really similar the other day. She was saying, I think I’ll just try to read it so I don’t miss quote her here. “When we’re our best selves, I don’t think that’s what’s possible between people. I believe that’s what’s true between people and I don’t think we have to work to make it true between people. We just have to get this stuff out of the way that stopping it from happening.”
Veronica: I was just reading the minutes from our school board, the December minutes the other day. I believe it was the chair she was describing emergence as something that happens when systems become stale and sort of stop producing certain, the new ideas and the growth and the relevance that is needed. And kind of getting those old systems out of the way, so that is what’s true can emerge. Sometimes it’s what’s been there all along. We think of it as something sort of new coming out of the void, but sometimes it’s just the bedrock.
Kevan: I love that. That’s so good. The way I phrased it before is that true systems change is a coming home, it’s a letting go. It’s a realizing that at the top of the hill, the reason why things aren’t progressing or rolling down hill or becoming easier is because we’ve like erected a hamster wheel at the top. And we’re like actively spinning it, trying to keep these bureaucracies managed and these status quo processes maintained. If we’d only realized that we don’t have to keep doing that, the gravity will do the work of bringing us back home to this connection with each other to this potential that’s within us that is waiting to happen, that we’re simply not letting take place.
Veronica: We worked so hard to keep that hamster wheel going too because it’s what we’ve been told is responsible. I think of the exhaustion that a lot of us experience, especially in midlife as we try to like stretch ourselves to care for ourselves, our families and our work and just keep these sort of systems running the way that they’ve been designed to run, which often is not very flexible or very life affirming. But we’re doing it because we believe that’s the responsible thing. I think it can be challenging sometimes for responsible people to say, “The right thing to do here is not to keep running. The right thing to do is to push back against the pressure, to realize that I am separate from the pressure. That I have a choice, that I have agency, that I can help create a different way of doing things that helps thriving emerge.”
Veronica: I think that can be really hard sometimes. It feels like we’re letting something down, some sense of duty, to like say I will choose to relax into this and to rest. I mean I was telling you earlier, I heard a phrase that’s really been coming back to my mind quite often when I’m very checklist oriented at home. I have two young children. I can be a bit of a perfectionist. I can feel like it’s all on me to make everything happen. The phrase was see what comes to you without effort. Like just observe what comes to you without effort. We can be very effortful trying to be good, trying to do the right thing, trying to be responsible. Sometimes when I’m fatigued I just remember that phrase. If you just stop micromanaging everything, it’s amazing what does just go on without you, what does merge without you pulling all the strings all the time.
Kevan: That’s so amazing. I hear what you’re saying in there and a beautiful metaphor comes to mind that’s very current events. It’s Harry and Megan. It’s like here you have two people who are part of the Royal family. The Royal family is a mechanism driven by duty and like obligation to continue participating in symbolism and ceremony. And for two people within it to say, “For our own roles as parents for our own mental health, for our own preferences as human beings, we want to step back.” That is a choice that bucks duty that looks really irresponsible through some lenses and is a human reclamation of what is necessary through other lenses.
Kevan: What we’re describing is the choices that we in our organizations and as humans face of pulling a Harry and Megan to be like, “I’m not interested in propping up something that is not giving me life. I’m interested in pursuing what does give life here.” You’re totally right, like the queen might frown at you. She might disapprove. It might not look like the traditional status seeking and climbing that we were motivated by in other stages of our career that wins our organizations awards. But it might look like the very reclamation of what we need in order to survive.
Veronica: And it’s the only way that innovation in this paradigm and the way in the way that we’re describing at least through this journey, this change makers journey and can actually emerge. Because Kevan, I asked you the other day, I was like, “Okay.” As a creative I’ve done plenty of sort of discomfort inducing processes where I don’t think something’s going to come out with the end and it usually does. But there was one time where there was a very long involved process and I was like, “Just stick with it. It’s like, it’s good to happen.” It wasn’t designed thinking I was using something else, but it was very similar. It’s years ago now, so I don’t remember all the different factors, but for some reason it just didn’t work. It was so painful. I asked you this question of like, “Does it ever not work?” You’re like, “Oh yeah, you can break it.” You had a story for that.
Kevan: There are definitely situations where it does not work and some of the times it’s because it’s been misapplied. We issue warnings and disclaimers anytime we do training and facilitation on design thinking to say, “This isn’t for every situation. Don’t try to wedge it in, in places where it doesn’t belong. You could cause greater problems than the ones you’re trying to solve.” There’s also just ways that as participants we can sabotage it. There was one session I ran the summer where we got to the end of it and we also just sort of scratched our heads. We’re like, “What are these? These aren’t the creative solutions we were expecting. They almost don’t even really connect with the insights that we had before.” I was chatting with the participants afterwards and they admitted that they had intentionally just written down the ideas that they had before the session because they really wanted those to happen, as opposed to listening to what was emerging in the session.
Kevan: It’s like, okay, well you deliberately betrayed the process because there’s something you really wanted to have happen, which is fine. I’m glad we’re helping you get where you want to go. But if we’re choosing to not participate in emergence, then it is absolutely within our control to break it. And the process if done faithfully allows us to get to the end of seeking change, gets to an idea and say to ourselves, “Is this what we wanted?” Because if not we can go back and we can iterate. And if it’s not what we wanted, is it at least what the people we’re trying to serve want? Because the point is to test it with them. It’s a really human centric process of leading change. So the answer doesn’t need to be that I get what I wanted, but are we serving the people that we came here to serve?
Kevan: In that sense, you can’t really go wrong following a process like this. You trust it, you get to the end and it’s either something that you would learn from or something you move on from. But at least you did the exploration to see if newness was there or if you just wanted to keep maintaining that thing you already had.
Veronica: Something else I’ve heard you say that’s related to it is that there’s more than one outcome to this process. There’s the innovative ideas that you come up with that you might never have uncovered on your own, wouldn’t have uncovered on your own. But there’s also what happens between people in organizations, within communities, between an organization and its community, between employees, between teams. There’s a whole cultural thing that happens when you listen and hold space.
Kevan: Absolutely. It’s so true and Veronica we could equate it to family life too. Like we don’t just parents that we can launch our children off to their own careers. We do it because we believe that in the fabric of our family connection is that there’s meaning and story and growth and character formation. That this is valuable. These tiny moments matter and the same with how we work together in our organizations. It matters how we connect. These are cultures and communities that we belong to everyday. If we can work with each other in ways that are meaningful and generate interesting products and ideas that launch, that’s a much more holistic way of looking at what work is and why we do it.
Veronica: Yeah. That word belonging is so interesting. I was just having a conversation with my five-year-old-
Kevan: Those are fun.
Veronica: … last night actually. It is fun. She’s a very talkative five-year-old, as many five-year-olds are. But I was saying, “We spent a lot of time having fun, seeing how much we look alike or how much we talk alike or how we share interest. I just wanted to let you know what’s as important as that is the ways that we are different. Because the reason that you belong in this family is because you are you and not because you’re so much like mommy. And that I really want to pay attention to how you and my son are different from each other and different from me too and say like, yay for that. Because we’ll be a richer family for that. We’ll learn more. We’ll discover more because you’re interested in things I’m not interested. I’m afraid of heights. You climb to the top of the playground every time. You belong not just because you’re like me, but because of the differences too.”
Veronica: I think that belonging it’s such an essential human need and it’s something that’s always at play within our organizations too whether we like it or not. But this idea that one of the reasons that a process like this is so helpful to culture is it welcomes difference. It doesn’t say fall in line, conform with my idea. There’s a mono idea here that you must follow. It’s saying, “We are richer, we are stronger because of our different perspectives and we want to create space for that and say you belong because of that.”
Kevan: Yes, absolutely. The point is participation. The point is difference. The point is the richness that comes by creating space for that belonging. I love how you’ve said that. It connects well with the story that you and I were talking about a little earlier. We shared on this podcast, this transition experience that the church I’m part of went through. There was a moment that happened during this transition that I find really interesting. I heard second hand from two different groups of friends, very similar experiences they were having. One group said, “Hey, there’s no leadership or direction or vision here right now. I am not feeling very satisfied or fulfilled. I’m going to make a choice to find a different community to be part of.” The second group of friends said the same thing. There’s no direction or leadership or vision here right now and we don’t know if we feel very connected. But their answer was so different.
Kevan: They said, “Therefore I’m going to get as involved as I can to help shape this community to be what I want and to use what I can contribute.” It’s like in these moments where we’re seeking change, we have the opportunity to bring our best to the table. That’s what helps us get to the other side of innovation. It’s what helps shape the community and the culture that we’re in anyways. Believing that we have a role to play, believing that we belong. I just thought that was just a really interesting sort of case studies of choices that we can make when we’re participating in something that’s nebulous and evolutionary and takes a while.
Veronica: Yeah. The word participating is really interesting because I think this can be a very slippery topic or stage or moment to try to describe because it’s not passive. Like holding space, I actually think of it in the way that like physical balance requires a lot of strengths. Like you might not look like you’re moving if you’re balancing on a beam as a gymnast, but the amount of strength, muscular strength involved there is huge. And trying to describe like what you’re doing, you’re participating, you’re engaging. I think of that term like wholeheartedly you are tuned in, you might not be like moving or acting in the ways that we kind of traditionally think of it, but it is you are doing. Kevan, there is something there.
Kevan: Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely you are. I mean, I got to go back to the metaphor of childbirth. Like are you doing something when you’re in labor? It’s like, it’s this full hot bodied engagement in a process that… I can’t rightfully give words to that. You’re welcome to if you want, but just to say is this isn’t a passive spectatorship of change. This is a full bodied participation in something that is transformative.
Veronica: So Kevan, I think there’s a little bit of something you just have to feel out intuitively here, which is always an uncomfortable thing to try to explain. But like what I’m wondering about is, okay, we’ve held space, we’ve practiced that discipline, how do you know that it’s time to move from that into the next phase where you’re actually beginning to put words to or create form around the reality that you’re beginning to understand. So with the employment engagement thing, they started put words to that. They started to come to a bit of conclusion. You don’t want to rush that. You don’t want to start synthesizing too soon, but how do you begin to like, “Okay that’s time now. Now we’re going to start going back into something that’s different in approach, different in energy.”
Kevan: Right. That’s such a good question. It’s really tricky because sometimes I think that the moment is now and I’ll try to close it down, synthesize, state with clarity the distilled insights and move forward. Only to discover it quite jarringly, it’s not time. I think of, there’s a nonprofit we’ve been working with recently and we did this whole process of connecting with their teammates and partners all across their international organization. Tons of video calls, dozens and dozens of pages of notes leading towards a co-creative session with them in person for two days. So we deliberately wanted to not over synthesize and we didn’t want a fancy presentation. We just wanted like highlights and key themes from these interviews. So my teammate Carrie and I were working through those notes from the calls on our airplane ride over to deliberately keep it a little light. So here’s this theme, here’s that theme.
Kevan: So that we could just put it up on easel charts with their team in person and say, “Here’s some rough themes emerging. What are you seeing?” When I thought that was great, that was like beautiful, best practice, keep it open, lightly present it. Let some input from others shape it so that after that two days of workshops, now the report I write, it’s going to be amazing. It’ll be on point. People will get it. They’ll totally agree. They’ll feel like it’s really familiar because they spoke into it. They’ll recognize the insights we presented, but now it will come with clarity. So I worked really hard on that report. I shared it with my teammate, we shared it with the client and what occurred were more questions, more insight. I had clamped us down too soon. We hadn’t answered our questions. We hadn’t distilled and arrived at that insight.
Kevan: So we had to sort of reopen it, keep asking. And it ended up being really beautiful because in this conversation with this organization, they’re asking questions about how they change, like how their whole organization, which is international, can embark on this multi year process of change. That’s not my job. I don’t deliver that in a consultant’s report that goes, kablam, here’s your transformation plan. Like they do that. They do that by asking questions, by staying open, by listening, by co-creating, by conversing, and I’m the one shutting them down too early by saying, “Here’s your plan.” So I need to somehow cultivate a condition in their minds that this is all a beginning. That they get to keep staying open to what they’re going to continue to learn. And that is, if I can bring this full circle to the beginning, that’s change that’s in the making.
Veronica: Yeah. As you’re describing that like this, it’s funny, even when you’re working in change and that’s what you do is like innovation workshops and you know these things. It’s human nature to really fight against, well transients really, the continually changing nature of things. We were so tempted to just nail it down and sometimes they nail it down too fast. I felt the impatience that you must… A little bit of the impatience you must’ve felt when you’re like… and then they opened it up again. I mean I feel like I’ve been in those processes where like I just want to be… I want this to be done, I want to put a pretty bow on it. I think we want to do that even in life like over and over again. You referenced nature a lot and if we learn anything from nature and from the brevity of life is just the transients that is like embedded in life. We seem to be like always going to stability and nailing things down.
Veronica: But kind of knowing that like we’ll reach a solution for a while and we’ll come back to this process again like learning to flow with and hold space for that change and be okay with that and actually work with it instead of against it. I think of that Parker Palmer quote that I use all the time. That we don’t make our lives, we grow them. This idea that there’s like yes, that you do have harvest time. There are plans that come to fruition and designs that are fulfilled and you do need to create space for that to emerge and grow to fruition. At the same time that won’t last forever. That cycle will need to repeat next year. So just that sort of ebb and flow that’s in the natural world that sometimes we seem to shut out and especially in our corporate lives.
Kevan: Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely. It’s like we don’t remember that as humans, we are actually nature and the things that we create are not just organizations, they are kind of organisms. And we don’t give ourselves the expectations that they should behave according to the principles of nature or that we should. We just either want to stay the same because that’s safe or we want to get different without the process of moving between those states because that’s where it’s ambiguous and scary. And we believe that we should be able to control that. I think when we tune into the reality of our nature, that is where the clues exist for what change and transformation really look like. What emergence looks like is on display every day, every season right outside our windows. If we would just look a little closer for some inspiration.
Veronica: Yeah. I think we’ve mentioned it already in this podcast, a season, but reminds me of James Phillips or people in culture lead. I’ll say that again. Reminds me of James Phillips or people in culture lead in a piece he wrote about, shifting from paradigms of the leader as a conqueror to a gardener and just this idea of ecosystems instead of factories. And that that is the emerging future of work and the emerging future of societies as well.
Kevan: Yeah, absolutely. It’s those conditions we create, the spaces we cultivate.
Veronica: Kevan I know that you have a really endearing and like actually I think kind of profound children’s poem that you wrote up your sleeve. Is it a children’s poem or is it poem for like children and adults? I don’t know what to call it, but I love it.
Kevan: I like to think it’s for both.
Veronica: I was wondering if you would mind reading that for us just as we sort of close this episode.
Kevan: I totally can. I just wanted to say that I’d written this up and printed it out for my kids to illustrate. As they were illustrating it, I hadn’t seen what I’d written yet as being finished. But watching my kids draw on it helped teach me how it was supposed to end and it actually, I would say it taught me a lot about what it means to be a change agent to lead change even in our organizations. That’s all I’m going to say. I’ll read this now. It’s called The Seed. “I had a little chat with my friend, the Seed and I tried to tell her that one day she’d be a zucchini plant. You know what she said? I don’t think that’s true. I think I’ll be dead. No, no, I said, here’s how it works. Then I explained that if she goes in the dirt and gets all covered up and then watered with rain, she’ll spry right back up as a new kind of thing. Huh, said the Seed, oh boy, did she laugh, that won’t ever happen. It will not. It can’t. If I go underground and get covered in dirt, only one thing can happen.
Kevan: It’s this, I get hurt, a tiny old seed like me cannot change from my tiny round shape into a new kind of thing. I’m a seed. That’s my world. That’s my job. That’s my name. I live in this package and I won’t ever change. My seed, my dear seed, I said back to her then, I wish you could see that this isn’t the end. The shape that you’re in is not your last form. You won’t stay a seed. In fact, you’ll transform. You will break apart. Yes, it will hurt and yes, in the dark and yes and the dirt, but after a while reaching up for the sky, you’ll break through the and come up alive. You’ll be greener than ever. You’ll even be brown. You’ll drink up the raindrops, so grow in the ground, your leaves, they will flutter. And here’s where it’s good, you won’t just look pretty, you’ll even grow food. Beautiful vegetables that animals eat, that people can harvest and sell on the street.
Kevan: And when it’s all over, you’re not done the deed, you’ll also be growing 100 more seeds. When all of my talking finally came to an end, I closed up my mouth and I looked at my friend. I expected a smile or maybe a cheer, but instead what I saw was one tiny tier. I asked her, what’s wrong? How come you are sad? That vision of changing, I thought you’d be glad. She looked at me then, look me straight in the eye and then what she said next made me want to cry. That story you told me makes me feel alone. If I’m in the dirt, I’ll be on my own. I wanted to challenge and try to persuade. I wanted to tell her, believe in the change. Instead, I just nodded. I looked in her face. I said, I believe you. You’re feeling unsafe. You’re lonely, you’re scared. You’re all by yourself. You don’t want to change without anyone else. She nodded inside.
Kevan: Then I sat in the dirt. I’m with you, I told her, loneliness hurts. We sat there a while, the two of us then just down on the dirt. The two of us friends, it lasted a while and neither one talked. The quietness mattered, it mattered a lot. I stayed there beside her, not saying a word. I washed her with raindrops and shoo away birds. And as the days passed she started to change and yes, a zucchini plant finally came. As sunshine was soaking her speckled green skin. I thought that I saw her zucchini face grin. I didn’t need speeches, said the one who had seated, but someone beside me was just what I needed.
Veronica: Thank you Kevan. I love that and maybe we’ll see if we can put some of your children’s illustrations online with a copy of The Seed for our listeners to check out.
Kevan: They would love that. My children would love that.
Veronica: That brings us to the end of our episode today. If you’re curious about ideas around leading change and holding space, you can find those drawings and related articles at domain7.com/podcast where you can also get in touch with us, sign up for our newsletter or follow us on social channels. That’s domain7.com/podcast.
Kevan: This episode was planned and written by myself and Veronica Collins. It was produced by Kirk Wilkinson. Our team lead Sarah Butterworth helps create the space for creative endeavours like this podcast, and the Domain7 culture as a whole provides incredible support. Domain7 is an organizational change agency working to transform systems and culture through people-centric methods. You can learn more at domain7.com
Veronica: Thank you for spending your time with us. If you enjoyed this conversation, please consider sharing this episode with someone else who you think might find it valuable.
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