Thursday, December 16, 2010

Leadership and the Role of the Social Architect

The Social Architect's task "is to design and bring into being organizations and communities that serve both the marketplace and the soul of the people who live and work within them. Where the architect designs physical space, the social architect designs social space."

According to author Peter Block, the role of the Social Architect is to create service-oriented space (in business, organizations, governments, schools) by giving those involved the necessary space and freedom to act on what matters most to them.

Three design criteria for Social Architects (and other leaders) as they line up the organizational structures / conditions necessary for promoting and acting on what matters:

1. Is vision, hope, idealism, energy fostered, promoted, encouraged?
2. Is intimacy, collaboration, open process made possible and held open?
3. Is there adequate space (emotional process) and allowance for depth, dialogue, exploration and a sense of adventure and risk allowed?
4. Is there room for failure in the midst of positive movement?

It seems that today's bias is toward more control rather than more freedom, more practicality than idealism, barter rather than intimacy, and greater speed rather than depth.

As responsible citizens and community members we are all called to show up and accept an invitation to participate, to create, to function as co-designers. Acting on what matters is an act of leadership that is not dependent on the response of those around us whom generally say "no we can't" rather than "yes we can try".

Leadership is about creating space for people around us to act on what matters while having the will to action, believing that it is possible to bring about change, growth and positive momentum.

Here are some of the essential capacities of the Social Architect / Leader in supporting and acting on what matters:

1. Convening: with a focus on all aspects of how people come together, the quality of the contact we make with each other, knowing the future is created as a collective act that requires attention to physically arranging the room appropriately, structuring the interaction and dialogue, allowing for open debate, focusing on capabilities (strengths) rather than on the needs (weakness) inherent in the gathering. Some key elements of convening include:

a. Leadership here is about creating an environment that knows what matters and fosters the ability to act upon it.
b. Care for the physical space of the gathering - including the aesthetic qualities of the room, making it conducive for group dialogue, for peers talking to one another in intimacy and openness.
c. Include high-interaction activities - we can't act on what matters alone and we need to make contact and encourage participation as we enter into context, content and agenda of the challenges and opportunities ahead.
d. Design airspace so that all voices can be heard - giving enough airtime is important, especially for the most doubtful and concerned...allowing for doubts to be expressed publicly, makes commitment possible for all and doubts do not have to be answered, only heard.
e. Aim at capacities and strengths - prioritize the discussion around people's strengths and gifts rather than focusing on their limitations.

2. Naming the Question: A leader (Social Architect) has the obligation to define the context, or the playing field and then help define and determine the right questions to start the conversation. Picking the right questions is a way of naming the debate. The Social Architect works within the community's requirements - including the concerns of funders, customers, and other stakeholders, opening the process by which compliance/achieving goals is measured and achieved.

a. Finding the right questions - and having them open-ended enough to engage everyone personally and organizationally while asking for ways to increase people's freedom so that better decisions can be made. How fast to grow, what are the challenges of growth...the person who names the question generally carries the outcome and we can't get bogged down answering too narrow a question.

b. Broadening the questions - Leaders job is to keep broadening the questions as this is what engages people, creating room for idealism, hope, and depth. We may need to stay with questions of purpose, feeling and relationships which require postponing the how? (Questions of methodology will never disappear and they don't need our nurturing.)

3. Initiating New Conversations for Learning: Technology can support relationships but we need to keep implementing high-contact and human being-based face to face conversations as much as possible, keeping all the voices involved over time. We foster positive change when we create the time and space for heartfelt unique conversations that discuss values, recognize doubts, and affirm feelings and intuition.

4. Sticking with Strategies of Engagement and Consent: Implied is that positive engagement is the design tool of choice. It is how social and cultural change occurs over time,

a. Complex challenges - when we face these difficulties, especially when we create systems that go against the default culture, dialogue itself is part of the solution. Productive conversation is an action step, not only a means to an end, but it is also an end in itself.

b. Chosen not mandated - keeping our intentions and will to live on the margins of culture requires that we talk through the implications and challenges of our choices with intentionally. We are looking to create a future that is chosen and not merely mandated.

c. Conversation - commitment and accountability can't be bought and sold, they have to be evoked, which happens as we dialogue over time. We become engagement managers helping decide who needs to be in the room at various stages and what questions they should confront while keeping to the ground rule that questions of intent and purpose precede questions of methodology.

5. Designing Strategies That Support Local Choice: We want to create social systems/ communities that people want to inhabit, so their input and collaboration is necessary. At a minimum members can begin to define and describe their requirements for participation. A Social Architect/Leader enables this participative design, and it may take a bit longer, but the alternative is to choose a plan/direction that may not be supported.

Here are some design elements necessary to construct a high functioning social system:
  • What is the mission of the system? Who decides this? Who are we really here to serve?
  • How do we construct the job of leadership? Who decides this?
  • What measures have meaning to us? Can we choose these collectively and limit their number to a few high priority ones - maybe three to five?
  • What learning and training is needed? Who decides this? Can different levels learn together in order to help overcome the social distance between levels?
  • What constitutes reasonable, transparent, just rewards? Who makes these choices?
  • How do we improve quality and introduce change? Who makes these choices?
  • How do we stay connected with our marketplace and those we are here to serve? How does everyone get involved in doing this?
  • What is our belief system about people's motivation? How does it fit with the values we came here to live out?
Who decides? Who is in the room? These are key elements in answering these questions. We are promoting activism and we intend to keep technology, barter and speed in perspective. It requires faith in our own capacities and the willingness to stop focusing on our weaknesses. Our weaknesses are always hanging around while our strengths have hardly been touched.


1. Focus on strength - and we confront ourselves with our freedom and other people with theirs...which is so much more powerful than the usual deficiency-oriented view which only limits us and reminds us of imaginary boundaries.
2. Support local control and local capacity - try placing as many choices as possible as close to the work as possible helping them understand the economics of the business while becoming financially literate.
3. Be undeterred by failure - learn from it, hold steady, continue to support local choice while remaining on the side of challenge.
4. Care for the whole - all statements of purpose reinforce the lives of those in the communities served.
5. Be willing to be vulnerable - take the heat, admit failure, no rationalizations, no forced optimism, just dogged determination to move forward in the midst of doubt.
6. Value the human system first - people who do the work are the business, the community is the focus, highlight and tell their stories (not the leaders or funders).
7. Name the debate - carry optimism and idealism out in front of the institution/organization/community with faith in people as primary motivation, with a commitment to foundational ideals that transcend the daily grind of work and responsibility.

Something only has to happen once in the world, and then we know it is possible, and that it can be possible for us in our own can be translated into our own context.

Social Architecture generates an image, fostering imagination, a position and role for each of us to help co-create. Acting on what matters for one person happens in concert with those around them, as individual effort will not be enough if we don't encourage others to find their own meaning, their own voice. Without them we will not be able to sustain our own.

Adapted from the great little book, The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block

Enjoy the challenge,

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled upon this post as I was searching for quotes by Peter Block about social architects.

    It looks like the site is no longer active.

    As someone who has been part of Peter's A Small Group community in Cincinnati for over 10 years and a church refugee, it warms my heart to see that you are introducing Peter's work to your Christian community. Thank you, Elaine