Gardening in a Social Innovation Ecosystem
My role as gardener began March 2010 when I cancelled a Yoga of Leadership workshop scheduled to run in Costa Rica. I put a lot of my self into making the workshop happen, and all along I felt like I was pushing a boulder through a swamp. As much as I was disappointed in cancelling the workshop, I was relieved to stop pushing the boulder.
At the time, I was working as a Service Manager in the Ontario Public Service. At the edge of my awareness was the idea of bringing the practices of social innovation and authentic leadership into the Ontario Government. As I reflected on the cancellation of my workshop I became curious about how we move with flow in creating new things.
Wayne, a friend and successful Innovation Facilitator at Procter & Gamble, told me to just start doing what I wanted to. I was waiting for someone to validate my right to take action, to give me permission, to see the value of what I saw, to ask me to do something. I realized change isn’t approved, it’s begun.
I became a servant to the idea that social innovation needs to find expression in the government of Ontario, and I became a gardener of this social innovation ecosystem.
Interestingly, the first thing I did was leave Ontario. I went to Cincinnati to take the P&G Innovator Facilitator training with Wayne and then to Halifax for the ALIA Shambhala Summer Institute. P&G and ALIA were my greenhouses. They were also the source of the seeds of relationships and ideas I would use in my new role as gardener.
When I returned I began mapping the Ontario social innovation ecosystem – the garden – to see who was there and what they were doing. I began contacting people and telling them about my ideas for social innovation. I began to feel my way into the garden.
I convened a meeting in Toronto between Laura Bunt, a Social Innovation Policy Advisor at NESTA in the UK, people from Social Innovation Generation (SiG) in Toronto, and 30 self-identified innovators inside government. This nurtured the ground for the growth of an Innovation Community of Practice in the Ontario government.
I designed a workshop called Design Thinking and Innovation: Solving Wicked Problems and ran it at the Ontario IT Showcase. It was an experiential “Stop, Look and Act” workshop loosely based on the U Process. This planted seeds with over 60 participants for the potential of non-linear creative innovation processes.
I suggested a story about my experience at the P&G Innovation Lab in Cincinnati to the editor of the Ontario Government employee newsletter. She liked the idea and the theme for the upcoming issue is Innovation and my story will be included.
Ironically, I suspect this all happened because I didn’t have formal authority or a strategic plan. I wasn’t trying to make something fit, or create something that didn’t want to be there. It happened because I just started doing what I wanted to. Ultimately, gardening begins with the gardener.
The following is what I am learning about tending an innovation ecosystem.
- People won’t see what is obvious to you. You see what could be, what is ready to happen, where the potential is. Allow that people see ideas in their own time.
- I draw mind maps of the ecosystem when I meet with people. I plan my meetings to ensure there is a white board in the room and I take my own markers. I draw the picture of the ecosystem – and the idea wanting to emerge – and we look at it together to co-create.
- All gardening is personal. Don’t try gardening the whole organization. Tend to people and situations one at a time and spend time meeting them where they are. They are part of the ecosystem you need to understand.
- Don’t confuse your role with that of Nature. Let Nature grow the garden. Give up being attached to results. It is much easier and more creative when you are surprised by what happens next.
- Non-attachment to results means not chasing people; go in the direction where the energy is moving. This is easier when there are many seedlings to pay attention to. Visit the herbs, the flowers, and the potatoes. It is easier to leave one plant when there are others to visit.
- Work with the other gardeners in the ecosystem. Be transparent about the different roles you play. Having no authority, beyond the value of the ideas I offer, allowed me to work across the silos in our organization in ways not available to my colleagues.
- Use the dynamics of the U-Process. I am always gently Sensing the field of the garden in the Ontario government, in Ontario and internationally. I allow myself space to Presence when I become quiet and just listen. Then something “pops” and I know the next action to take. I take action immediately, like the release of the arrow.
- It’s not just about shooting arrows. There is making compost and mulching new ideas and relationships to make sure they have the best chance to grow. This means, for example, ghost writing the article for our internal newsletter.
- Gardens have regular seasons and cycles of growth. In organizational ecosystems the seasons can overlap and one cycle may be at its height when another is slowing. Hold in your awareness of the long cycle that the warmth of spring follows the darkness of winter.
- Gardening should feel like flow. If it feels like you’re pushing a boulder in a swamp, then you’re trying to do Nature’s role. If it feels like work – stop, breathe out, give up on the result and go back to Sensing. It takes a lot of trust to give up, but your role as the gardener is to water the plants, not to build a tomato.
Brad Johnston lives in a small community north of Toronto and continues to work as Service Manager for the Ontario Public Service. He is interested in connecting with other ALIA program alumni in Ontario, and with anyone anywhere engaged in bringing social innovation into government. He highly recommends Leading Public Sector Innovation, a new book by Christian Bason, founder of the Danish MindLab. You can reach Brad and/or comment on this article on the ALIA Community Site.