Community – is it relevant to your work? Peter Block’s latest thinking

Peter Block’s recent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, will interest anyone who is concerned about strengthening the vitality and connectedness of communities.

Block highlights a toxic cocktail of forces: widening inequality, imbalance of power and resources, self-interest, isolationism and a fragmentation of community, all resulting in what he calls ‘avoidable political suffering’ in our communities. He contrasts human suffering, such as illness, sadness, loss, which are painful but unavoidable aspects of life, with political suffering which is avoidable and unnecessary:  poverty, violence, homelessness, neighbourhoods in distress; and the more subtle suffering of people’s learned dependency, absence of possibility, the powerlessness that breeds violence, and disregard for the worth of a human being.

The book is a passionate call to action and a practical reference guide in how to build community.  He points out that the current disconnection in our communities results in too many people left at the margins with their gifts and contributions to society unrealised, with detriment to them and to the wider community.

Lest you think Peter Block is alone in his focus on communities, influential business thinker, and father of Corporate Strategy, Professor Michael Porter last month (in the Harvard Business Review) reminded business leaders of their interdependence with the communities that they operate in and “that at a basic level the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined”.  Porter argues for a new notion of shared value: creating economic value for the business in ways that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.

In Porter’s view many companies remain trapped in an outdated notion of value creation, a narrowly optimisation of short-term financial performance, while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their long-term success. Business must reconnect company success with social progress.  In terms of the development implications for leaders and managers Porter notes they will need a “far deeper appreciation of societal needs, a greater understanding of the true bases of company productivity, and the ability to collaborate across profit/non-profit boundaries.”

Block’s observes that the silo mentality of public and private institutions, each operating in their own parallel worlds, maximising their own purposes, does not create a connected community. His call is for each of us to claim our latent power as co-creators of our world, our role as citizens as well as consumers, and to recognise how we unwittingly contribute to the fragmentation. Blocks challenges us with our freedom and accountability to make different choices.

So what are some of Block’s key ideas that apply to organisational as well as community settings?

Social fabric – community and relatedness are built one conversation/one room at a time. For those of us involved in organizational change (the latest research indicates that 70% of change projects still fail to achieve their expected benefits) we would do well to remember Block’s poetic advice that: “community building is so complex it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye.”  Block talks eloquently about a quality of aliveness that is needed in each step. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, each meeting we attend. This is subtle and easily overlooked in contrast to the ‘big ticket’ items we are usually encouraged to focus on in change management; I don’t recall any advice like this on how to manage change in my ‘Prince II’ programme and project management training!

Conversations are central. This includes the stories inside our heads as well as how we listen, speak and communicate meaning to others.  Block asserts that all transformation is linguistic. Nothing in our doing will shift until we can question and then choose again, the basic set of beliefs – the mindsets that lie behind our action. Clearly there is much more to say about how this happens in practice. Mindset always trumps technique and tips, which is why focusing on the latter without the former is often fruitless.

Too little is understood about collective change. And too much attention has been placed on the individual with a naïve view that if enough individuals awaken, the shift in the organisation or community will follow.  Block’s work, like Barry Oshry’s, includes a focus on how to work with context and power in bringing about collective change.  Block’s approach to conversations is aimed at building community: where people show up by invitation rather than mandate and experience an authentic relatedness; where the focus is on the communal possibility and the creation of a feeling of  ownership and accountability even though others may be in charge; where diversity and dissent are given space; commitments are made without barter or coercion (this one item merits a posting in its own right); and where the gifts and contributions of each member are acknowledged and valued.

Look for what’s already there and working and amplify it! Block underlines the importance of focusing on gifts, assets, resources and possibilities rather than problems and deficiencies. For a number of years I worked with what were some of the most embattled public authorities in the UK. At the time each Council was under threat of government intervention. I soon discovered that a problem-solving mentality invariably makes things worse and invoked defensiveness. Focusing on what is beginning to work, where strengths lie, what possibilities people are prepared to experiment with, what conditions create success in this place is a much more fruitful and effective approach, and this applies not just to organisations or communities in crisis. When you look for deficiencies and shortcomings, you find them, and the same is true for strengths, capability and possibility.

Every gathering has to be an example of the future we want to create. Block challenges us to pay more attention to how we gather: be aware that how you act as the leader/convener in setting-up the conversation, including the nature of the invitation, affects whether you fall into the same-old conversation patterns or not; experiment with how you ask powerful questions that engage people in an intimate way, confront people with their freedom, and invite them to co-create a future possibility. He maintains these insights and disciplines about convening conversations are ones that can be learnt by anyone with a little teaching, practice and reflection.

Understand the importance of leading across boundaries and working productively with difference. If we want to meet the complex, fast changing needs of our customers and beneficiaries, we have to understand and work with the law of requisite variety: the degree of internal complexity within the organisation has to match the degree of external complexity. You can see this law in operation in commercial settings. For example the question of which of Apple, Google or Microsoft will successfully surf the competitive crest of the technology wave will in major part be due to their ability to sense and respond to emerging customer needs and also how far they can create high levels of internal integration and collaboration within their companies to anticipate and respond to those needs faster than their competitors. The same principle of requisite variety applies in public settings where the offerings of social services agencies have to be as complex and varied as the lives of the families and individuals they serve. When these agencies make their services too simplistic they create enormous havoc: bringing the hammer of heavy intervention and supervision to bear where encouragement and support would  work better is counterproductive; and in other circumstances not having the capacity to be directive or fast enough to intervene can cost lives.

Projection sustains itself in the absence of relationship. To bridge different worlds and work effectively with difference we need to practically understand inter-group dynamics:  how projection and steroptyping work, how we rapidly form ‘us and them’ group identities that polarise and separate us, and how we problematise the ‘other’. We are all subject to this reflex reaction of projection. Learning  how to take back the projections and build relationship with the stranger or the ‘other’, be that our neighbour down the road, or colleagues in the technology or marketing department, is a key skill in building community. Collective or communal transformation happens when we get connected to those who we previously saw as the ‘other’.

Build your confidence in how to work fluidly between the small and the large group. It is the small group, 3 to 12 people, that Block sees as the unit of transformation, the place where a feeling of belonging is created.  Small groups are at their most powerful when they meet as part of larger gatherings for example to create connection, to move the action forward, and for members of the small group to see and feel their relationship to the larger whole.  Block gives an overview of the field of large group methodology – bringing large groups of people together – from 20 to several thousand – to work on visions, build strategy, define work processes and create direction for institutions and communities.  Large group methods create ownership, engage larger numbers of people, help the culture evolve, and in community settings put democracy into practice. Block’s comment is that this competence in convening large groups well, needs to be more widespread and not treated as the sterling silver for use on special occasions.

Lastly remember simple, ordinary things are important: offering hospitality and paying attention to the physical space. How do we set up the room? How do we choose a meeting space that fits what we want to create? These are things we often neglect, or outsource to others without much thought.westminster boating base  

In London for many of our public programmes we choose a venue overlooking the Thames with wonderful natural light, the drama of the river with its changing moods, lots of space for conversation, and the hire fee supports the charity which owns the venue.

How do we bring artistic disciplines into our gatherings so that more of the whole person is engaged?  We have at least six other intelligences besides our IQ .

Answering these questions can be fun – remember Peter Block’s encouragement to create a quality of aliveness in each step!


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