social movements + innovation lab


Co-Creating Our Future Together

For me, like for so many of us, the first few weeks after the election were a haze of confusion and despair. How was it possible that for all the progress we thought we’d made in the last ten years, we were being buried under an avalanche of redness – House, Senate, White House and soon Supreme Court? And not just middle of the road conservatism, but blatant, ugly, violent, apocalyptic racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia.

This crisis also invited introspection and re-evaluation. Three weeks after the election, as I unplugged from work while visiting my family in Little Rock, Arkansas, I started asking some hard questions about CoreAlign’s work. What did we need to do differently to respond strategically and thoughtfully to this new reality? How could we do our best and bravest work in this moment? Over the next eight weeks, this re-examination of our work in a new political context resulted in cutting 2/3 of our programming, radically redesigning the rest, and trimming our staff by 1/3 (four people) so that we could effectively meet this current moment.

As I look back on these last eight weeks, I am intensely proud of what we’ve accomplished, even as we are all still feeling the whiplash from the pivot. Our radically restructured team is stronger, more agile, aligned and streamlined, and has hit the ground running. And, as you saw last week, we launched our new programming with staff already functioning in their new roles.

As other friends and colleagues in the movement contemplate shifting strategies and tactics, I thought I’d share some of the lessons we learned, in case they can help inform your pivots.

Start with a clarity of purpose and a willingness to risk everything.
As the new political reality sunk in, it became increasingly clear that in order to grasp the enormity of this moment we had to abandon business as usual. As I shared in this blog, we could already feel the pull to normalize the tectonic political and social shifts unleashed by these elections. The challenge was to instead boldly confront them. From this deep commitment came a vision of the radical change needed to do things differently to be of service to this moment.

For me personally, this commitment also meant a willingness to risk everything. As I thought about a new direction for CoreAlign, I considered what it would mean if my staff or our funders didn’t get on board with this vision. I decided that I was willing to walk away from CoreAlign and all our funding if I couldn’t convince staff and funders of the importance of this change. The power and clarity of my purpose made a difference. There were moments in this process when, if I had been tentative, I could have easily drifted towards safety and certainty and away from the bigger purpose of the pivot.

Include everybody in the process. Once I set the vision – to focus solely on training 300-500 leaders a year in innovation and speaking race to power – I brought everybody else into the process. I invited all staff to propose scenarios for how we might reach our new goal. Staff self-organized, across programs, across hierarchy and across the operations/program silos to develop eight reorganization scenarios. Instead of a top down strategy, of management and leadership thinking that they/we knew best, we created a space where all voices and perspectives mattered. People could take initiative (or not) and contribute to designing and co-creating what our future work would look like and who would staff it.

It was intriguing to see how seamlessly operations and program staff ended up working together. For the first time, their perspective on how to best support programs was baked in from the beginning and not added later. Authorizing everybody to be a part of the redesign process created a powerful sense of transparency and inclusion, which allowed people to feel seen and heard, and minimized anxiety. Because all scenarios were discussed by everybody in all-staff meetings, there were no surprises. This transparency also allowed for the emergence of synergy around certain options: Some choices were obvious, even when they were difficult.

Go fast and be very clear about the process. The clearest request from staff was that we define each step in the process and when it would happen – and that it happen as soon as possible. We moved up the timeline for several steps because staff wanted to know the final decisions before the holidays or weekend. I had thought that people would prefer a slower, more contemplative process, and what they wanted instead was as much clarity, as soon as possible. Being up front about the steps and timeline mitigated the uncertainty and anxiety about the change, and the resulting transparency and sense of ownership helped to reduce resistance to radical changes.

Create space for feelings. At one meeting, I shared a wheel of emotions and encouraged everybody to name all of the emotions they were feelings throughout the process, and then decide what they wanted to do about them. At another meeting, we started by listing all the sabotaging and self-sabotaging behaviors that could show up during these kinds of intense change processes, discussed whether any of those were showing up on our team, and then set intentions for how people wanted to show up. This gave people the opportunity to work with their emotions and not against them.

The pivot started December 1, with a memo I shared with staff and leadership about the new direction. By January 9th I was talking with the staff that were transitioning out and those that were staying. We offered generous severance packages to those that were leaving and those that were staying started co-creating their new job descriptions. By mid-February we publicly launched all our redesigned programs for the next three months.

This pivot and co-creation would not have been possible without our existing culture of design thinking, curiosity, generosity and generativeness. It has been inspiring to lean on these practices in this moment to truly turn this crisis into an opportunity.

These are just some of the bigger lessons I learned in leading the CoreAlign team through this radical, agile, risky change. I hope that sharing this story was helpful, and I’d be delighted to share more if you are interested. Feel free to reach out, and I hope this encourages you to consider making some radical changes too.