I joined the REDF team just as it was embarking upon a period of conscious change, stepping midstream into a project that had definitely left the station but was not nearly at its destination. That project is now REDFworkshop.org. Initially intended to share REDF’s expertise and reinforce its investments in social enterprises providing jobs for people facing barriers to work, it now had an additional requirement. It needed to accommodate new strategic targets in REDF’s future. In order to move forward, I needed to simultaneously assess the project’s current state and map where we’d be in five months. Or five years. Fashioning that timetable and switching tracks was one part calculated navigation and another part intuitive conducting. The latter is not to be confused with the elegance of a symphonic leader — it was more like getting up, putting on the railroad engineer stripes and laying track. All the livelong day. While some lessons will remain specific to the particular time, place and passengers, others may well apply to any endeavor where one hopes to change course.
Lesson #1: Risk Retooling
There is a particular elegance in an unwavering focus on a desired end state and driving all resources to that outcome. However, there are times when being willing to change your direction, or at least your approach, is really where it’s at. I think back to the childhood board game Perfection, where uniquely shaped pieces fit precisely into particular holes, and you are up against a timer. If your perfect placement of all of those pieces doesn’t take shape before the buzzer, they literally explode and all work to date is lost. Knowing when to stay the course and when to retool is a tricky maneuver, especially with a deadline approaching. In the case of our web platform development, I saw the scope of our design had many pieces already in place, yet overall they could be limiting, preventing us from accommodating our emerging needs. I took the risk to broach this disconnect with our developers. I laid out a new framework with the team, and waited for the pin to drop. They not only adapted swiftly, they were energized by the challenge and expressed that they understood our core audience needs much more clearly. We didn’t blow up the game board at all. We simply added more puzzle pieces shaped to our anticipated future demands. We built a dynamic frame to accommodate their placement.
Lesson #2: Embrace Complexity
In general, to simplify is a very sensible and welcome approach. In the information glut this can never be a bad decision. After all, I’d already dedicated energy and resources to retool the parameters of our core design. With content it might be best to literally stick to the script. But why stop there? We had outlined video interviews with thought leaders in the field. When we arrived in studio, I reached for even more complexity by stepping outside the scripted expectations and allowed divergent themes to surface. If we’re inviting others to the table, shouldn’t we really be open to listening to what they have to say?
Sitting down in the interviewer’s seat I posed a question and received this candid response: “This won’t be REDF’s definition.” Then tell me your definition, your experience. That’s exactly what I want to hear. It would be simpler if every talented individual parroted the same party line. In many ways the field would progress more swiftly with aligned messaging. But in the case of a one-on-one interview where I have the opportunity to draw out unique challenges and insight based on years of experience in the field, I’m going for complexity. It behooved me to listen to what speakers were really offering. Embracing contradictory viewpoints and allowing for experiences that do not corroborate expectations deepen a collective understanding. I listened attentively in order to energize others. To be fair, as one newer to the field and my internal team, I did not have the attachment to a particular approach or the REDF brand itself. In early days of new experiences, relationships or workplace environments, you have an opportunity to see things anew. There is something in the willingness to receive the complexity around you as an incredibly rich resource that is grounding. The question here is will I be able to walk into the studio or edit a piece with that same beginner’s mind 18 months from now?
Social enterprise dedicated to job creation and placement spans countless industries, myriad professional roles and related employee supports, and boundless operational expertise. The geographical contexts are nuanced. The business models are evolving. Did I mention that no one agrees on a given definition, and no two approaches are the same? Talk about complexity. Get out your retool kit. Embark upon the unknown. Get on the platform and engage your fellow passengers. This train is bound for equity.