Fluid and evolving identities: Uncovering roles in change

Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

Over the years I’ve struggled to describe the work I do, wincing whenever that age-old question “so what do you do?” comes and grappling to really pin down the precise words for what I’ve been doing and the roles I’ve been playing. Going through old notes and reflecting, I realise I’ve been experimenting with different terms and language around this over the last decade. I’ve picked out some of the words, phrases and roles I’ve used to describe, predominantly, my professional identities.

Job titles and words can both enable us and signal to others what you will offer and your boundaries. But they can be constraining too — not allowing for the multiple and intersecting identities that we all hold. There’s lots of metaphors and analogies used as I’ve found they can be the easiest way to describe otherwise seemingly abstract roles to people. I’m sharing these here as whenever I have shared them with others it has helped them to see different possibilities and options and reframe how they see themselves. It also gives some visibility to some of the less visible roles needed in creating change, particularly those involved in bringing ambitious visions and collaborations to life.

I first used this around 2012/13 when working on the Sustainable Shipping Initiative — a big part of that was a coordination and project management role.

“I’ve been feeling like glue recently. The things I have been doing both personally and professionally have all relied on me sticking things together.”

The connecting and binding work was of people, schedules, timings and the web of relationships that made that work possible, but also of intentions, plans and skills needed to coalesce people around a shared vision and intention.

“It struck me that the thing that glues all of these things together is trust. Without trust these things would have fallen apart. Trust, much like glue, is often invisible and easy to take for granted. So here’s me making the invisible visible by sharing some reflections.”

I guess this is an evolution of the glue analogy and more ‘adaptable’ take on it. Perhaps no coincidence that I dabbled with knitting around this time too.

“a knitter… connector, holder of things until they have their time — seeder of bigger things?” 2013 System Innovation team away day — Deptford Creekside

Many of the projects I’ve been part of have had multiple strands of activity, mini projects with one large vision. It’s felt like a lot of the roles I have played have been either holding (loosely and tightly) the different threads, or finding ways to weave them together to create coherence or to spot patterns.

I’ve used it to describe the role I play with the Peckham Coal Line, too — a community-led initiative that in one world you would say I was a ‘co-founder’ of, but I’ve always felt that gives the wrong impression as it does not engender the community ownership that is so needed for that work to thrive. But I recognise some of this might also be underestimating the leadership role I play in catalysing and leading work at the same time.

Looking back through the different pieces of work, I now see that some of the threads and facets of this role cover:

  • Holding multiple pieces together — synchronising things
  • Navigating the complexity — and being bold enough to make the next move
  • Building connections and relationships — that can lead to activity and impact
  • Inviting and welcoming people on a journey — to do and to be
  • Seeing the bigger story — prototyping and modelling what a different paradigm could be

This is one of my least favourite, but it is useful. In a world that is full of and incentivizes experts and content specialists, in my late twenties I felt that I needed to get really good at one thing. I started a distance learning masters in sustainability (well before online learning was normalised) as a way of plugging that gap. But that wasn’t me and the content was so dated relative to the practice and work I was doing at Forum for the Future that I didn’t follow it through.

It’s taken me time to see and really value, but in all honesty so much of the work I have been doing is about sensing what is changing and what is needed, adapting to those needs in that moment in time, and finding a way to take the next step or locate the necessary people and skills to support that. To be flexible — a chameleon who can adapt to the context or the situation they find themselves in — is about being a specialist generalist and really owning that.

‘You have to be a Generalist in order to survive and thrive in this 21st century.’ http://permamarks.org/world-needs-generalists/

This is critical when working in the emergent and uncertain environments that Covid has really highlighted.

Most definitely inspired by my Sustainable Shipping Initiative days, I’ve described leading projects as being a navigator. This was a rejection of the conventional project manager language — which is great when you have projects with a known outcome and tried-and-tested approach, but is often linear, loaded with assumptions and has an over-reliance on Gantt charts which don’t always allow you to flex. This is useful, but for the work I was doing it didn’t feel like it reflected the many adaptive iterations of plans, activities and approach.

In reality what I was doing was charting a course, sensing and understanding what might lie ahead, shifting direction as needed and ensuring all the different parts and people were aware of what was going on. This awareness includes where you or those on the journey are positioned in relation to others with similar intentions and ambitions,both within the wider ecosystem of activity and in relation to what needs to be anticipated next.

“A navigator’s primary responsibility is to be aware of ship or aircraft position at all times”
Wikipedia description of a navigators role

In systems change work more generally it often feels like we’re really just guides and expedition leaders, going on the journey with others. ).

Experienced guides — have information to share with people venturing along known and lesser explored paths.

Expedition leaders — come equipped with some of the skills that allow us to enter into the unknown.
Productive Flourishing

Both involve navigating and staying alert along the way as you never quite know what’s coming next, but the experience of being on lots of expeditions before means you have the skill mix to handle whatever comes your way. But there is a discomfort that comes with these terms for the colonial undertones and associations, so I find myself using them less today.

There were a number of years where I was rejecting the notion of job titles completely as there was no one term that summed up all the role(s) I was playing, I used three words to try and sum up the range of roles I would be playing in any one project — this is where I landed.

I remember the idea of ‘coach’ becoming more of a thing. It came from a series of different places. The work we did with Innovate UK exoloring how to create more leverage for the circular economy around 2015. We were playing with the concept of ‘value networks’ and innovation ecosystems, and recognising the people and teams needed to build the muscles to experiment and push boundaries over a sustained period. We drew on sporting analogies, recognising that professional sports teams would never perform or prepare without having a coach to enable them to fulfil their potential and to be the best they could both individually and collectively.

Having the language of coach also helped give form to what I found myself doing formally in projects, and informally when people were asking me to help them think through an idea or project with a systemic lens or when wanting personal support and input. This combined with the positive personal experience of having a ‘coach’ (with thanks to Anna and Corina playing this role for me — and not that we ever called it that at the time). We found it helped to have someone removed from specific projects to talk to, to reflect with, to test ideas with, someone to help give distance and perspective without being in the weeds/detail of the work but who understood the logic and process and how I worked. Learning that all coaches have their own coaches, so why should this be any different for systems change? I’m so pleased that ‘system change coaching’ is now part of the practice and offering of Forum for the Future.

Despite having led multiple different projects and activities, I still struggle to fully own this one for all the many negative associations with hierarchical, top-down leadership, dominance and unhealthy power that it comes with. I know I’m not alone in this one — I’ve found that many of the people I most admire have some resistance to the notion of being a leader and of leadership. But there is a challenge in not fully owning your power and leadership too.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t points in time when I am ‘leading’ — I know I do, and I’m ok with it when I am doing it in a way that feels authentic to me, which might look somewhat different to ‘conventional’ leadership.

‘An enabling, empathetic and courageous leader. Questions and challenges the way things are done, models what is possible and enables others to do that too. Living change while knowing how to strike the balance between adventure, rest, work and care and nurturing.’
My own leadership aspirations for the next cycle, 2021

I know that many of these roles I’m describing here have been ways of describing my professional role and identities. Alongside all this I have been a friend, partner, daughter, sister, citizen, a consumer, an oppressor, oppressed, a community organiser, a living being, I’ve become a mother. I’ve rejected, shed and welcomed some of the words above along the way.

“rather than knowing yourself we should strive to know ourselves”….”we are always becoming something different”
Meg Barker — Rewriting the Rules

What Civil Society Futures taught me is that we have many different identities all coexisting simultaneously. As part of that work we offered a wide-ranging definition of civil society itself — which was both embraced and rejected for its plurality:

“Civil society is all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society. When we bring together our friends or colleagues or neighbours to have fun or to defend our rights or to look after each other, we are civil society. Whether we organise through informal friendship networks, Facebook groups, community events and protests; or formal committees, charities, faiths and trade unions, whether we block runways or co-ordinate coffee mornings, sweat round charity runs or make music for fun; when we organise ourselves outside the market and the state, we are all civil society.”
Civil Society Futures

In reality there are formal and informal identities coexisting with a unique interplay between each of them. Some of which we starve and some of which we relish and uphold and which change over time. These many parts of ourselves can be in conflict with each other, or not in balance. Not appreciating or acknowledging the multiple different identities can feel like you’re in crisis; I have often felt that tension.

“Huge blurring of boundaries — feeling like I have an identity crisis”
2017 reflections

I’ve found myself over-relying on my work/professional identities and needing to counterbalance that. Add a pandemic into the mix and working from home for over a year only adds to this reality.

But if we see ourselves as all of these things — as complex living beings in all our wonderful variety — how might that change the way we make choices about where we put our time and energy?

“all our lives are in process, so we constantly lose old versions of our selves to be replaced by new ones.“
Meg Barker — Rewriting the Rules

Where am I now? Perhaps a doula of change. Doulas support people through key life transitions — be that birth doulas providing emotional, spiritual comfort and practical assistance to women and their families having a child. Or death doulas who support individuals and their friends and families as they transition from living.

Any type of change impacts those individuals involved. It requires emotional support; an enabling environment; flexible and context specific support; allowing people running and participating in these things to bring all they want to be. Change doulas can support this — and be there to accompany the journey and all of its needs.

This framing helps me now as I’ve spent much time ‘birthing’ new collaborations and experiments, and feel I have a lot to offer to others embarking on these journeys. I also know very little focus — relative — has been put on closing, transitioning and ending things well, and that’s what feels important now for those seeking change. If we want to enable a regenerative future then we need to see this closing cycle as equally as — if not more important than — the start. So I am going to put energy into this in the next cycle.

The doula of change spans personal and professional identities, but if the last decade has taught me anything, I know this is likely to change and evolve again over time too.

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FOOTNOTE

I’m thinking about sharing the stories/doing interviews of people who are playing vitial but often unseen or overlooked roles in change. If you know of a role or play a role that you think fits the bill, get in touch.

#livingchange freelance intently navigating / designing / coaching / doula of change