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Creating participatory leadership with pipe cleaner and comic figures

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

What he didn’t say was how you get them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Hands up – how many of you have sat completely bored through endless planning sessions and multi-stakeholder meetings that have the intention to make the world a better place? Did you get bogged down in details rather than focusing on the big picture having a déjà vu with the “same old – same old” conversations? Have you left feeling you haven’t moved an inch forward rather than with a longing that makes you roll up your sleeves?

Well this blog is about how it could be done differently.

I was recently asked to facilitate a planning session in Barcelona for a large network of people working on transforming the world to be powered by renewable energy. The group wanted to identify key audiences and ways to engage them to move closer to their vision. Before coming together I gave the participants some simple “homework”: talk to someone you want to believe that a world powered entirely by renewable energy is possible. Just listen. Don’t preach.

At the meeting, a young woman told me that traveling to the meeting she realized she had forgotten about the task and started a conversation with an older man sitting next to her on the plane. He turned out to be a retired nuclear scientist – someone working on the energy system she would have normally never spoken to. She told me that just listening to him without the intent to argue her point changed her perspective and gave her so many ideas on how her organization and the network needed to communicate in a different way.

Getting people to “see” the area they are trying to affect with their work from a different perspective and moving people to not only download their thoughts but to really listen with empathy, represents for me the very key to creating change.

At the workshop I had brought along a bag of toys from my kids. Lego pieces, action figures, modeling clay, etc. I was slightly nervous about how the group would react to a workshop approach not including powerpoint and long discussions in a plenary setting.

The participants from many different organizations had to first physically build together the current situation of the transition to renewable energy using the toys or anything they found in the room. They had to jointly analyze their construction from different viewpoints and then change it to reflect the future they want to see in a few years.

With relief I saw that everyone went along and phones and laptops stayed stowed away.

Seeing adults deeply in discussion about whether the Donald Duck figure symbolizing energy utilities should be on this or that side of a fence made from pipe cleaner is one of the moments that fill me with happiness.

We moved away from discussing theoretic concepts and organizational positions to deeply listening, building on each other’s thoughts and creating a joint vision.

In the afternoon we used other participatory methods to create and harvest concrete ideas on the work ahead.

In the feedback participants said how much these exercises had shifted their perspectives, built personal connections between them, sparked curiosity for follow up conversations and created a shared understanding of where they wanted to head to. They were all keen to get going.

Sometimes we just have to dare using not only our head but our hands and hearts to get people to truly listen. In a world that seems to become more and more polarized and divided, this becomes more important than ever.

Who would have thought that Donald Duck and pipe cleaner can inspire a joint longing for a different world?

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