Which Comes First: The Purpose or the Work?

by Bob Bertsch, MFLN Network Literacy, robert.bertsch@ndsu.edu

Have you ever had one of those moments when you realize, “I’ve been thinking about this all wrong!”? That’s what was going through my mind as I listened to Tuesday Ryan Hart and Tim Merry’s keynote presentation at the recent North Central Leadership Conference, hosted by Michigan State University Extension. As Tuesday and Tim shared their knowledge and experiences, I kept thinking, “Yeah but what about…” and “That might work for you, but it would never work in my organization….”

In the midst of this resistance, I remembered something from Adrienne Maree Brown’s beautiful book, Emergent Strategy, “Just at least consider that the place where you are wrong might be the most fertile ground for connecting with and receiving others.”

So I embraced “being wrong,” stopped my imaginary sparring and began to receive what they were saying.

Hart and Merry were presenting on their shared work model, an important tool in understanding how meaningful shared work happens.

Shared Work Model - http://www.tuesdayryanhart.com/method.html

The model hinges on the idea that the work is the most important thing. In a network or community that intends to do collective work or take collective action, everything we do is focused on helping us continue the work.

“We do not need agreement on what we want to become or achieve to get started, we just need to get started and stay connected  as we move,” – Tim Merry in “We don’t need purpose, shared work is enough.”

This challenges how I’ve thought about collective work. I’ve been thinking of network building as a progression: people connect with each other, they align around a shared purpose or interest, then they produce work together. I think this is still a helpful guide, but, as Hart and Merry pointed out, finding a shared purpose or vision is not a prerequisite for doing the work.

Shared purpose is really hard to reach and can leave some voices marginalized. We often insist on shared purpose too early and leave some people out. Attempting to agree on the cause of a problem and what to do about it holds us back from doing work.

I wonder if this is exactly why organizations exist. Only a small subset of people affected by or interested in an issue can come to consensus on a shared purpose and a course of action. That subset creates a structure to protect their purpose from influence from those who differ. By creating something that people can be included in, they also create a way to exclude people who disagree.

Rather than seeking a shared purpose as a prerequisite for work, we need to find alignment through our work together. The Shared Work model offers 5 ways we can do that.

  1. Relationship as Resolution –  It is our personal connections with each other that keeps us working together even when we disagree. When we nurture our relationships with each other, we can truly see each other even when we are feeling angry or hurt.
  2. Inquiry as Answer – Most collective work focuses on complex issues, because they cannot be addressed by any one person or organization alone. Complex issues resist answers because they are made up of smaller, intertwined problems, they span different systems and they exist in ever-changing environments. So it makes sense that asking questions, rather than focusing on answers, is a better approach to working on these issues.
  3. All Levels All the Time – The issue may be dealt with on one level, but we need to understand that all levels are engaged in the issue all of the time. This is a way of understanding and addressing complexity. We need to acknowledge the personal, interpersonal, systemic and structural aspects of the issue we are working on, even if we can’t focus on all of those levels at once.
  4. Seek Multiplicity – People are more than the groups and categories we often like to place them in. When inviting someone to engage, invite the whole person to show up, not just as a representative of one group or another. We are many things and need the space to express them. As Nora Bateson puts it, we are “blurry.” To work together on complex issues, we need to bring our own complexity to the work.

    Integrity is loyalty to the ambiguity of my own edges, and permission for you to be blurry too. I do not need precision to know myself, or you. I need room for all our selves to hold counsel.” – Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

  5. Power Matters – We need to be conscious of and understand the role of different types of power when coming together to address issues.

The Military Families Learning Network encourages the “formation and expansion of a skilled and collaborative network of professionals who support significant positive outcomes for military service members and their families,” but when it comes to forming such a network we have more questions than answers. As a military families service provider, an Extension educator or a community member, what shared work are you doing to support military families? What shared work could we be doing together? How could the “shared work” model help sustain that work? Maybe by using inquiry as answer and exploring these questions together, we can begin to find our shared work.

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