What are the practices you need to develop in order to embrace the mess that the world is and grow your business with it?
I love working with social entrepreneurs – the people who start a business with the intention to not only make money and be financially sustainable but also to make the world a better place for everyone. I love it because I feel inspired by idealists and dreamers, who have set out to re-imagine and reinvent life and they pursue their vision even when capitalistic society tells us that we should only care about ourselves.
Social entrepreneurs recognize the problems and injustices happening around us but choose to focus on finding the strengths in people, the opportunities, and the solutions. They identify a challenge they deeply care about and learn so much about it that they quickly become experts in the field of sustainable transport, fashion, energy, eradicating social inequality and whatever their enthusiasm leads them. Looking at social entrepreneurs I notice how passion is the strongest driver for learning and I admire this so much!
There is this paradox in learning, though, that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don’t know. Especially with complex global issues like food, climate change, social inclusion etc. it quickly becomes visible how interconnected and uncertain the challenges are and that no matter how much we learn about it, there will always be aspects of them that are unpredictable or beyond our reach. This is the moment when I usually get stuck – there is so much I care about, and so many related elements that I see and need to consider but I feel overwhelmed by the complexity and scope of it all.
A social entrepreneur promises to offer a solution to a challenge like that, however, it is close to impossible to predict what kind of change this solution could lead to. There are thousands of variables, influences and complex relationships between people, policies, organisations, business, government and sometimes a small action can cause huge damage but the right one can really flip the system. So, being in the role of an entrepreneur requires huge courage and and willingness to leap into this uncertainty.
I am not saying all of this to scare you, if you are a social entrepreneur because you should also remember that you are not alone in this, and in complexity, one of the most helpful things is to not be alone.
In fact, social entrepreneurs encounter also a huge support from their community – people who also care about the same issues, who might have a lot of passion, knowledge or energy to contribute, but often don’t see the solution in the way an entrepreneur does. So, they often reach out to those entrepreneurs with the question “So, how can I help?”
If you are a social entrepreneur you will need to address huge uncertainties of what impact could your new venture have and identify solutions on a systemic level. At the same time, you have to deal with the people who expect you to know the answers and lead the way. On top of that, as you develop your initiative, you often face criticism as soon as it fails to reflect all the different perspectives on the challenge you’re working on.
There are some opportunities in situations like that. Obviously, there is rarely ever a single, complete, and holistic solution for it a complex global challenge. There is need for a constellation of initiatives, prototypes, continuous innovation, and a combination of approaches that collectively work in the same direction. One thing to know about systemic change is that it often starts from the edges of the system and through multiple interventions that pile up until the system reaches a tipping point and something small completely transforms it. In uncertain and complex systems we can never know what will lead to the tipping point. This is why any new initiative is important part of the change process.
However, the way those ventures are brought to life matters and you as a social entrepreneur have some practices to learn in order to increase your chance to arrive at this tipping point. Those practices are sensing, synthesizing, and co-creating. Let’s break them down.
Sensing is a practice of noticing the environment, the current situation, the state of people.
Having a good understanding and overview of the current state of the system will help you identify what is most needed here and now. Then your role as an entrepreneur is to move in that direction to the best of your abilities. This process is similar to being lost in the forest. If you manage to climb on a high tree and get a good overview of the space where you are, you might be able to identify that if you go North, for example, you will get out of the forest and have a better view on where to go next. Or you see a village and go straight in that direction. The most important aspect of this is to sense what is emerging or possible at the moment and to focus in the direction where there is the most energy. The practice is to train our attention look at the big picture and to notice these small things that will create a big impact.
Synthesizing is a practice for the entrepreneurs and their team to collectively distillate the purpose of their venture.
If sensing was more intuitive process to identify current state and possible directions, synthesizing is about making it explicit why is it important to move in one direction and committing to move towards it. In the context of social challenges, this means bringing out the most important and relevant for the team aspects of the challenge and creating a collective commitment on how the new venture will address them. The purpose is like a guiding star that helps us make progress in the right direction. I call this synthesizing because the purpose is the intersection of the energy, interests and intentions of all people involved in a venture and they way they think their participation in it will become meaningful.
A purpose doesn’t have to be attainable, realistic or measurable. It has to be engaging, inspiring and aspirational. It may sound vague but only if all the people working on it have shared understanding of its meaning and the story behind it. A purpose can and should evolve – as we understand better the challenge and the possible solutions, as we influence the system and contribute to the resolution, we can adjust our purpose to reflect better our new intentions.
For example, a food company might initially have the purpose to provide cheap products for lower income people. Then their purpose might evolve into making nutritious and high quality food accessible for people with low income. Further on, their purpose might evolve into something like taking care that everyone involved in food production and consumption is aware of the importance of good quality food and that they collectively make sure that this high quality food is accessible for all and delivers a living wage for its producers.
Here the challenge for a social enterprise is to figure out the processes and practices that will lead towards the shared purpose.
- How could we work together in a way that we create the most impact on the challenge we are addressing?
- How could we organize in a way that leads us towards our purpose but is also financially sustainable and creates the most value for the employees, owners, partners, clients and community at large?
- How do we work together in a way that helps us to address the complexity of the challenge and engage the people that are willing to help us in the best way?
In the context of complexity, one of the great ways to address those questions is to tap into the collective intelligence of your community and use participatory practices to gain multiple perspectives on the challenge. This will create a palette of possibilities and different initiatives that could respond to the current situation you are in. When the purpose and the intentions are clear, you will notice the initiatives where there is a lot of energy to create and co-create.
There are many ways to get down to business and work – self-organisation in the right kind of “container” or framework can give you a lot of freedom to explore, co-create, and build the projects that are the most relevant for the community. Giving freedom and accountabilities to people around a shared purpose is sometimes all that it takes. Of course, offering some practices that will help you move forward and make the self-organisation more effective (increasing its impact) is always a great idea.
As you start engaging more and more stakeholders in collaborative processes around the shared purpose, you will notice that the value created on all sides of the spectrum increases. You will also notice that spin offs from your project that work towards the same purpose will emerge. Those spin offs are not competition, they are catalysts and they empower your project’s progress too.
You will also notice your stronger contentedness to other initiatives with similar purpose that can be great partners and you will learn to support and help each other. This is the moment when you will truly experience the power of the tide rising all boats and you will experience the flow and strength it brings as it tips over the edge.
Join me for a workshop where we will explore together how to practice all of those practices and use self-organisation and collective intelligence to scale impact. Get your tickets here.