Changing the Way We Change the World – What is Expressive Organizing?

In our practice as social innovators participating in organizations that exist for a social purpose, we tend to put our attention and energy into the change we want to see in the outer world. While this makes sense, there is a growing recognition that what happens inside of our organizations is also worthy of attention.

Why? Because the systems we’re trying to change also exist in us and in our organizations. Unless we give adequate care, the patterns of inequity, marginalization, dehumanization and unhealthy power dynamics present in society will also be present in how we work together.

There is a special name for organizations who turn their outer purpose in on themselves – expressive organizations. People who participate in these organizations experience themselves the kind of change they’re looking to create in the world. Special attention is paid to the ‘social field’ of the organization through a practice called Inscaping.

In June this year 20 social innovators from around Canada gathered over three days to explore what this practice is and how Canada could benefit from a more widespread awareness of expressive organizing. We were hosted by Tana and Warren from Organization Unbound who are leading researchers in this field.

Excerpts from ‘Intimate System’, a poem by gathering participant Hannah Renglich

“It turns out a lot of people are pretty wonderful if we create the space for that wonder to come out”

In sharing our experiences of expressive organizations there were many different structures and processes used, but the thing that each example had in common was that the people there felt that they were really the best version of themselves in that organization. There was a sense of human vibrancy, authentic connection and trust. Work would be at least as much about the relationships as the tasks.

Often this came about through making regular time and space for reflecting together – getting out of operational mode. One example, Santropol Roulant, would take a whole day together each week as their ‘Living Lab’ time where people had a chance to think about their work, how it was affecting them, ideate on improvements and deepen relationships – all held with a strong connection to the organization’s purpose. To many of us busy social innovators, taking a whole day a week for this would prove a big challenge! However Santropol Roulant found that it had no detriment to their operations – quite the opposite! With this time to deeply engage and reflect, people became imbued with the meaning of the work they were doing and had the time and support to continually improve it in ways that were important to them. The quality of work went up and so did the engagement of employees and volunteers. People even got sick less often!

So what kinds of things would expressive orgs put their attention on? Tana and Warren have identified the following three keys :

  1. The Gift  – how do we organize around people’s gifts and passions? Who is in the room and what do they have? What are they thirsty to learn and develop?
  2. The Wound – making space for accepting and receiving people’s pain. Carrying it together with care and compassion.
  3. The Root – constantly exploring the organization’s purpose through both daily actions and big picture, each person encouraged to find their own meaning. There is a felt core purpose that is expressed in diverse personal ways.

So expressive organizations care just as much about the experience of the people working in them, as the action they are having on the world. They see the internal experience is as much of an expression of the change they stand for as the service they do. 

What would it take for this way for organizing to become more common in Canada? 

In our discussions we talked about how we might begin stimulating widespread experimentation of expressive organizing in Canada. Nine hotspots were surfaced as places we could begin doing this :

  1. Cross-sector convenors like Social Innovation Canada
  2. Organizational capacity-building initiatives such as Innoweave
  3. Organizational mindfulness and burnout initiatives such as The Wellbeing Project
  4. Higher education institutions such as Simon Fraser University’s Art for Social Change program
  5. Funding organizations
  6. Expressive organizations such as The Muslim Resource Centre for Support and Integration
  7. Organizational ‘shift disturbers’ such as Ouishare
  8. Governmental organizations
  9. Boundary-crossing relationships

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