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A powerful question to revitalize your passion for impact

By February 22, 2016Leadership, Social Impact

This weekend, I joined my colleagues in the SFU RADIUS Fellowship in Radical Doing at a retreat at Crescent Beach. The retreat was a program launch retreat – it combined goals of introducing us to each other and to the program, but to also start getting us to think about what we wanted to develop over the course of the program.  Our program leader, Tamara, had us do one exercise that I thought was particularly powerful – all based on question that seemed to simple as to be innocuous.

However, that one question gave me a burst of inspiration and revitalized my passion for change. Read on, and I’ll share that question, and tell you how you and your organization should ask it of yourselves. It’s really that simple and that powerful.

Start with success – but don’t assume anything

We launched into this session in the late morning, after having a great group breakfast. And the question that we were posed was really incredibly simple, but simplicity can hide the impact of what’s being asked. Here’s what we were asked:

“It’s one year from today. Where are you? How did you get there?”

In answering this question, we were asked to think about two key things:

  • Where we were. We were hypothesizing a world one year from where we were; we may have reconvened for a reunion event, or we may have just bumped into each other walking the lovely Crescent Beach trail because we were feeling nostalgic. When we were asked to ponder where we might be, we were being asked to imagine our successes over the next twelve months. Not just imagine what we wanted to do but imagine what we had done. What would we be talking about? What successes would we be celebrating? What failures would we have learned from?

But importantly, we weren’t asked to simply assume success. We had to do some backwards thinking, too:

  • How did we get there? We were also asked to share with each other how we had gotten to this position twelves months in the future. What steps we’d taken, what we had done to bring us to that place that we were. This part of the question allowed us to move backwards from an audacious goal – a picture of success twelve months hence – through what we did to get there. Those interventions that helped us along the path are crucial – we may know what they are at some level of our consciousness, but this question and this process allowed us to bring them to the surface.

Part of our weekend was also setting community expectations. First up amongst those was not assuming anything – because assumptions can create misunderstandings when people are not on the same page. We were asked to apply the same analysis to our twelve-months-future vision – identify the assumptions we had made, because they were preconditions to the success that we had charted and were working our path back.

This is a theory of change approach to personal development and success.

I felt so energized through this process because we were developing personal theories of change – identifying changes we wanted to see in ourselves and starting to think about ways to work back from there. It’s like strategic planning, but it’s an approach that teases out those interventions that you need to accomplish on the way to your goal – the actions you need to take to make it happen. It also makes you deal with the assumptions you’ve made along the way.

This was so powerful and so energizing, for me. It wasn’t just a strategic planning exercise. It was building up a theory of how I was going to change myself to change my community.


Make this happen with your organization.

If you’re building a social enterprise or a nonprofit organization, you really need to take this approach up yourself. Do it for your organization and do it for yourself personally. Here’s some things we did:

  • With partners, we did 15 minute ‘deep listening’ exercises. These were effectively freestyle thinking out loud sessions – each of us had 7 minutes to answer our theory of change question above and our partner needed to listen deeply. Not asking probative questions of the speaker, but just truly and deeply listening. Then we’d switch sides and listen as well. It was amazing to me how much came out of my semi-conscious mind as I attempted to answer this question, and this deep listening is something I need to do more often.
  • We then free-wrote for about ten minutes, answering the same questions in journals. Do this with your fellow social entrepreneurs and leaders.

You’ll be amazed at what happens. If you or your organization could use some help in developing an organizational theory of change, get in touch. We’ll make it happen.

About Kevin Harding

Kevin Harding is a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, and is a volunteer board member of the Art for Impact Society. He has worked in the nonprofit, public, and cooperative sector for some time, and has a passion for working with coops, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that want to make a better world. A coop developer, he strongly believes that cooperatives can build a better world.

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