Reflections on a week of nurturing and using relationships for change

Last night I was struck by just how much of my week was about fostering, nurturing and using connections. I was struck again by how central this ‘relational work’ is to creating change, and had six reflections I wanted to share.

This week I’ve done a few things for the first time: going to Wimbledon to see the tennis; meeting HRH Prince of Wales at St James’ Palace (see this Forum blog for more detail);  and, blagged a ticket to a big event.

On Thursday afternoon I was called by an innovation consultancy: could I be an interviewing in one of their projects?  (Answer: yes, how much will you pay Forum?) No sooner had I put the phone down than I got a call from a different brand consultancy, could I help them put together proposal? (Answer: see above. ) What’s more for the proposal they needed some background research on a specific change initiative. I know the person who get that initiative off the ground, so I was able to introduce them. Then on Friday I had an email from an old friend working in a government department. Her boss was impressed by a project by one of our partners, could I introduce them?   (Answer: of course, no fee.)

And that’s not all. I went to a really rather brilliant book launch and caught up with old acquaintances. Over breakfast on the next day I gave another friend feedback on the first draft of her book. (sidebar: I know a lot of people writing books.) I invited a different friend’s social innovation consultancy to give a talk in Forum on their methods, and then we tried to figure out how we can collaborate.

In between all of these I’ve had meetings with colleagues in Forum, moving projects along. I’ve had meetings with Forum’s partners (what other organisations might call clients), trying to understand how we can help them and vice-a-versa.

So, a hectic week of fostering, nurturing, connecting, encouraging, dissuading, persuading and influencing.

Pretty much all of this activity was based on relationships made and cultivated over the last decade or more. The innovation consultancy called because of a recommendation from a former Forum intern for 2005. The brand consultancy came from a connection through the Bath Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice (though we were in different years). And so on.

Last night a phrase floated up from my memory: relational work. During that masters in 2002 we were given a paper to read – Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work by Joyce K. Fletcher, PhD. Basically most of my week fostering, nurturing etc was relational work.

According to this website, in the paper:

Fletcher proposed that relational work, the work that builds, energizes, and maintains projects, teams, and one’s own professional growth, is essential for successful organizations. At the same time, Fletcher who based the book on a study of female engineers, also found that relational work is disappeared in organizations, that is, relational work is not acknowledged or rewarded and in fact is sometimes actively devalued in the work setting because of its gendered nature [i.e. it is seen as what women do]. While relational work is disappeared, it is also essential to productive organizational life.

 A couple of reflections follow from this.

First, I think there is a much greater general acceptance of the need for relational work today than the late 90’s. For one thing, we’re accustomed to the notion that your ‘social network’ is important to your well-being, career prospects and so on. The network metaphor is, if anything, rather over-used.

Of course, the Old Boys network has been around for a long time. But I think what Fletcher means by relational work involves a more generous approach to your connections than what my impression of those elitist, male institutions.  

Second, that this is the week Sally Uren has become CEO of Forum for the Future (announced on twitter here). Anyone who knows Sally knows that cultivating positive relationships is at the heart of her style. This is true of my other senior colleagues, and of course Forum’s founders. Partnership is key to Forum. So, it’s not surprising that Sally is the new CEO, or that a great part of my week was given over to it.

But, third, even at Forum we do sometimes accidentally ‘disappear’ the relational side – keep on pushing a concept or theory regardless of feedback, struggle to find time for conversations that are not task-orientated, or try to get to action before the relationship is ready.

My fourth reflection is: I don’t think of relational work as ‘female’. My way of nurturing will be different from my female colleagues, but I bet it’s different from my male colleagues too. If you want outcomes then you need relationships. For me its not a gender thing. Perhaps this marks a generational shift.

The fifth thing: diversity is key, and diversity takes time. It takes a long time in a set of different (but probably adjacent) fields to get all the different connections. And then each connection needs a little bit of time to give it attention.

Sixth, this is a lot easier in London than elsewhere in the UK, and maybe easier than most places in the world. There are more people, and more diverse fields to draw on.

Finally, relationships are crucial to outcomes, but, for me, the outcomes must hold the ultimate trump. A friend who worked in the High Commission in India got very frustrated with his colleagues because they would stop him trying to get things done just in case it harmed the relationship. An option has no value if you are never going to call it.

It’s too early to say what the outcomes will be from all my relational work this week. But most of it was done with a near-term outcome in mind.

With that, I’ll sign off. I’ve got a friend’s 40th birthday party to go to. And yes, she works in sustainability, so there may well be some relational work tonight, as well as fun.

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