Healthier Together communities focus on developing localized networks to define problems facing their neighborhoods and to develop and test solutions to address those problems in their highly complex environments. The central characteristics to Healthier Together networks are inclusion, shared leadership, prioritizing emergence and adaptive leadership skills and qualities:
Central to the Healthier Together work is the phrase “nothing about us without us” and “anything you do for me, you do to me.” Through these new localized networks, sectors of the population that are not typically included in decision-making processes are actively sought out, in the belief that those closest to the problems will likely have the most effective solutions to tackle the problems.
Within networks, where the infrastructure is less formal and established, groups can be highly responsive and adaptable, compared to organizational settings, where personnel roles are defined and policies and procedures exist to establish orderly responses and guidance to work environments. Because Healthier Together networks have less structured and formal norms, they offer an inclusionary approach by establishing safe environments for people to come together for the greater good.
One of the initiative’s larger goals is to build communities’ capacity for action, which includes developing leaders and leadership qualities among those who engage in the work. As Healthier Together communities genuinely invite community members to be part of the change process, there is a recognition that “the work” will take place in many different settings – not all decisions and influential discussions will take place sitting around a table with a prepared agenda. To that end, “leadership” will look different too. Rather, the work takes many different forms, and leadership emerges as a result of the process being open to new ways of working.
As the community work evolves, Healthier Together communities focus on emergent leaders, who may move into more formal roles within the initiative and even alongside the initiative.
Key to the problem-solving process is knowing when a solution requires technical or adaptive approaches. Technical problems can be easily defined and fixed by individuals or groups with learned expertise. Often a technical problem has a knowable solution which can be replicated, and procedures may be in place. Adaptive problems are those challenges where expertise in a specific area won’t help. Approaches require flexibility in how a challenge is defined. Context is key. And even the smallest “experiments” incorporating “probe, sense, respond” can lead to greater clarity of what may or may not work.
In the Healthier Together communities, many of the problems require adaptive solutions. The project directors who have been hired to oversee the work, should possess adaptive leadership skills beginning with a comfort level in working in nonlinear, messy environments where pathways emerge built on a sense of urgency; and where energy among a “coalition of the willing” is apparent and there is notable momentum among existing efforts.
The Key to Network Building: The Project Director
Network building is a critical factor for capacity for action. Healthier Together’s project directors serve as the network leaders and hold the key for growing networks with authenticity.
Project directors have to possess several skills and characteristics to effectively develop and lead Healthier Together communities.
Dustin Stiver of Eastern University has created a “Network Leader Profile” comprised of five super-characteristics:
- Lead as one among many
- Demonstrate relational competence
- Practice agile discernment
- Accelerate social processes
- Hone the craft of network leadership
Click the graphic to view details for Stiver’s Network Leader Profile summarizing the super- and sub-characteristics embodied by network leaders.
Healthier Together found that the following additional related project director qualities were critical for community change work:
- Established relationships in the community with a good understanding of its people
- Sensitive and culturally competent
- Approachable, flexible and non-judgmental
- Problem solver with a “can do” attitude
- Highly responsive
- Excellent communicator
- Comfort with ambiguity
- Able to embrace complexity
Resident Leader Investment
A significant turning point that demonstrated the foundation’s desire to create a truly community-led initiative was our decision to invest in project directors alongside resident leaders by sending them to the Tamarack Institute and NeighborWorks America for training on leading community change. Residents returned with a stronger set of skills and a deeper understanding of network building to fuel their decision-making power and boost their confidence. The investment laid the groundwork for richer participation and became one of the initiative’s sustainable features by strengthening residents’ influence, authority and ability to create change across the community, no matter the issue.