Followers Need Not Apply

Change is hard sometimes.  Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, uncertain and fearful.  Sometimes we outright reject the change and call it out as wrong.  Occasionally we see the signs and step into it with curiosity and openness.  Other times, we put our heads in sand, and hope the signs are wrong, and that ignoring them will make them not true. No matter our reaction, change is never simple or straight-forward.

Let me tell you a story about change, and how it impacts each of us. I recently gave a 20-minute “TED Talk” type speech at the IAP2 North American conference.  Presenters were asked to present provocative, inspiring ideas that create opportunity for important conversations.  I took the request seriously, and thought hard about the practice of engagement, the context within which we work, and the future of the field.

To make 20 minutes shorter, here is what I spoke about in my “Followers Need Not Apply” talk:

  • That the context in which we work has changed significantly in the last 5-10 years.  There are permanent changes in the way people come together, engage and participate on issues that matter, and these ways of being have resulted in long-term change in society.
  • Factors such as globalization, social media, online engagement, the growth of activism, increase in large-scale opposition movements calling for enhanced voice in decision-making, the impacts of climate change, financial crisis and energy needs, the growth of celebrity and sensational media culture, polarization, uncivil discourse….these are all the norm now.
  • These changes are having permanent impacts on society and on our organizations, structures and systems and the ways decisions are made.
  • However, our systems, structures and decision-making processes have not adapted to these changes.  Neither has our practice of public engagement.
  • IAP2 has made an important contribution to the field and practice, and the Core Values, Spectrum and training program created over 20 years ago have made significant positive impact on the field and the practice.
  • However, IAP2 has not changed with recent times or context, and the teachings are insufficient to address the challenges we face as practitioners.
  • And since we as public and community engagement practitioners are each IAP2, because it is our professional association, we are each individually responsible for having the courage to step forward to meet these new challenges as practitioners, and to create a new future where the organization steps into the challenges that are calling us.
  • I suggested that the Core Values are foundational but need to be updated to meet international standards.  For example, respect for the rights of indigenous people, capacity building, and an emphasis on trust and relationship building would bring the Core Values into the present context.
  • I offered that the IAP2 spectrum needs to be re-thought because it is presented as if the decision-maker has the control, and that the Inform and Consult levels are irrelevant at best in our complex, controversial world, and at worst are part of the problem by contributing to polarization and conflict through suggestion that those levels are acceptable in situations where there may be an outcry to be heard, but that the organization doesn’t want or is unable to meet the demands. I think I probably also said that the “empower” level suggests that the organization or decision-maker has the ability to empower others, without considering that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.
  • I also suggested that if our responsibility as engagement practitioners is to be guardians of the process, and to hold that space for important conversations so that all participants can participate in respectful, open, constructive ways, then we must consider the possibility that we as practitioners are failing in our obligations.  And that we can’t blame this on the organizations we work for and with, or on the participants.
  • I’m pretty sure I suggested that the IAP2 teachings in the Certificate program have made a major contribution to the field, but that the emphasis on worksheets, level of influence, focus questions, decision-making, techniques, clear expectations just does not address the complexity and controversy of our existing context.  And since this context has permanently changed, the way in which we work must also change. (And the update to the training program that is coming in 2014 does not address these issues).
  • This responsibility to be held to account for a meaningful process that works for everyone is ours.  That like engineers and architects put their names on their work, we should also do this, and be held to account for constructive, meaningful process. Right now it is our profession, but not our responsibility or obligation for this.
  • I gave some examples of what is required that goes beyond meaningful public engagement, and talked about trust, relationships, leadership and change.
  • And finally I called on each of us to contribute to the practice (and to IAP2) by creating a culture of compassion, to build caring communities, to support all participants in a different way of having these needed conversations.
  • I called on each of us to stop demonizing the “other” and to use all our skills, knowledge and experience to create a different future, and to advocate for civil discourse.

Now none of this was a new thing for me to say.  I’ve been saying this for a number of years, and I know there are others who have said similar things in recent time.

My work is in the space of high emotion, complexity and conflict and so I see these challenges daily, and I see them increasing over time and the context changing.  Perhaps I also see these signs because I am an IAP2 trainer and an Assessor, Coach and Mentor of new trainers and I see the challenges to our practice but also in the teachings. I bring this new and innovative thinking, materials and approaches into the training I give, but the training program content of IAP2 needs to go further.

(FYI, Soon you will be able to watch the video of this talk, and we’ll post it on our website when it is ready so watch for the update.)

However, this is just the first half of my story.  The second half of my story has to do with the change I called each of us to have the courage to step into in that IAP2 Talks, and what happened next.

After the speech I had many people come up to me to express gratitude and appreciation for message, and to offer their enthusiasm for working with other practitioners (and IAP2) to address the challenges we are facing.  I had a Conference committee member tell me that she had waited a long time for someone to say what I said, and that is was about time the issues I raised saw the light of day. I was informed that my session received highly positive evaluations.

On the other hand, I also heard through the grapevine that some people felt what I had said was inappropriate in that venue – that I should have promoting only “good” things about IAP2 at a conference, and that if I had wanted to say “negative” things I should have offered solutions (which I did offer in many sessions at the conference). One person who expressed concern, talked with many others who were not in my session, suggesting that someone should address what I had said and talk to me “officially” about these issues. Emails, meetings and rumours swirled – among people who hadn’t actually heard what I had said. At no time were these concerns raised with me.  I found this hurtful, sad and deeply disappointing for an organization that stands for inclusion, bringing people together and has a Code of Ethics that speaks to how we should be held accountable for ensuring we do not run processes that “divide and conquer.”

My point of telling this part of the story is not what happened, but to reflect on how people react to change.

I think that when systems and structures are stressed and stop working, there are 4 possible ways forward:

1. To deny the problem exists
2. To avoid the problem and situation
3. To defend the status quo and seek to protect it
4. To step into change and see what happens

In this situation, all four paths were present.  I named the signs of change and called for action.  Many participants in my session embraced this possibility.  For one participant, her actions exhibited various aspects of the first three paths.  And those she involved in the emails and meetings also exhibited different reactions.  Most fall into the first 3 reactions, but a small number fell into path 4.

The Berkana Institute has a wonderful video that concisely and thoughtfully talks about what happens when systems stop working. You can watch the video “Two Loops – How Systems Change” here.

Some people cling to the status quo far beyond the time that the signs of broken systems being noticeable.  This provides comfort and certainty, and sometimes the things you know and understand are easier to cope with than the things you do not know.  Some people step strongly and courageously into the future, but fail to notice that others are not coming with them and while they break ground for all of us, their path is bumpy and hard.  Others step into the change with curiosity and possibility, looking for ways to caretake those in the old, while fostering support for those in the new, until the new path has emerged.

We need all of us to make effective change.  It’s a violent revolution without those standing in the middle or those who act as guardians of the old process.  If we all stand in the middle it becomes hard to find the future with no guides, and if we all stand in the past we get stuck clinging to the old ways even when they no longer serve us.

We are in this together.  To address the realities, complexities and challenges of our time, we need the courage to work together, to have challenging conversations, to be curious and compassionate with each other, with participants, and with organizations so that we can step into the future and make our practice, and therefore our communities better.

Next time someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, or that you disagree with, whether it is in a community conversation, your organization or your life, I encourage you to practice a new way of stepping forward into that space.  You might be surprised and encouraged by what happens.  When we aren’t focused on “good” versus “bad” or “winning” versus “losing”, if we can be open with each other rather than demonize each other, imagine what we could achieve!

You might have thoughts or comments on my talk or my messages, and I’d love to hear them!  So send me an email at with your reflections.

Wishing you the ability to be comfortable in the discomfort that comes with change,

Stephani Roy McCallum

Steph Roy McCallum