February 2013


I am the kind of writer who doesn't use an outline approach to expressing myself. Somehow, such an orderly approach to capturing my thinking seems confining. Rather, I just write things down when they "come" to me,  save these snippets, and then weave them together when I have a sufficient number in my basket of ideas.

For the last year or so, I have been working on a major paper, tentatively titled, Leadership in Complex Times: Must-Have Leadership Qualities and Abilities.

I touched on some of these qualities/abilities in the February 2012 issue of Anticipate. Since then I have continued my work and what follows are a few snippets I am in the process of weaving together.

Catalytic Thinking
and Disruptive Inquiry

Our organizations must embrace catalytic thinking and disruptive inquiry. Yes we need plans, policies, and orderly structures,  but the pace and degree of change are such that steadfast devotion to prescriptions, formulas, and rules can blind us to the imperative to alter or dramatically change not only what we are doing, but why. 

Like a substance that  increases the rate of change in a chemical reaction, I suggest an effective leader in complex times like these must be able to not only facilitate conversations but also trigger ideas, ignite passion, and stir a desire for change into the organizational soup. 

Often we do not even know the questions we should be asking but move forward trying to come up with new answers to old questions. Leaders need to stop themselves from asking status quo questions that elicit safe answers and at best toe dipping in the waters of transformation.

Find the Positive
All too frequently leaders in the sector are overly positional and unfortunately adversarial. We see this in government when opposition parties seem to continually lambast the government, find fault with everything, and point out that not enough is being done. It is almost an automatic reflex, and from where I sit is most often antithetical to effective leadership.

Not too long ago, Alberta’s Premier Redford announced that the Province was going to embark on a poverty reduction strategy and also undertake actions that would end child poverty in five years. Within an hour, non-profit groups were criticizing the Premier for not having sufficient details identified in the strategy announcement.
Somehow, those voices forgot that all of us who work with the poor had been calling on the Province of Alberta for many years to recognize poverty as a major issue and to make a commitment to address it. Instead of raking the Premier through the coals for not offering up a comprehensive strategy, perhaps a better strategy would have been to celebrate the announcement and to voice our willingness to work with the Province to create one.
Imagine, if you will, the criticisms that would have flowed if indeed the Province of Alberta had announced a comprehensive strategy. I wonder if the same voices would have criticized the Premier for not consulting with the community before releasing such a detailed strategy.
Operating in positional and rigid conditions typically achieve little more than lose-lose scenarios.  Finding the positive does not mean ignoring differences. It does not mean collective work to create a poverty reduction strategy will produce a panacea of like-mindedness. However, if we engage one another from the viewpoint that everyone has a common or at least similar aspiration and if we focus on building positive relationships around that, we stand a better chance of creating synergy and moving forward together. 
Leaders create opportunities for engagement, especially with those where they anticipate differences. They do not see advocacy as a vitriolic undertaking. They point toward areas of common interest and make invitations to address them. Effective leaders know that effective collaboration does not rise up out of a miasma of criticism and blame.
Change Leadership, Not Management
Change leadership calls for leaders to understand and accept that people identify with their work. Their mental and emotional view of self is entwined with the work they do and the accepted reasons about why they do it. As well, their work is more often than not aligned with the education and experience they bring with them and the aspirations they have as professionals. Changing those fundamental aspects of self is a huge and unnerving undertaking.
Such personal change cannot be decreed or brought about by strategy workshops. There is not a course to take that will result in personal transformation. Rather leaders must be able to give birth to and sustain an environment of inquiry and reflection, authentic dialogue, and transparent, honest communications about the challenges all individuals are facing together. 
While facing challenges to personal identities, people need to be engaged in creating the processes that allow them to face these challenges. New patterns of interactions, of exploration, of values at work must emerge not be offered up as prescriptions to follow.
And yes, this takes time. This may be one of the biggest barriers we fail to recognize as leaders. Transformation takes time. It’s messy. It’s scary. It’s not a science. Organizational transformation is always sourced in human experience and struggle. Always. 


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Based in Edmonton, Alberta Mark Holmgren is the CEO of Bissell Centre. His consulting practice is still active but is now focused on select work such as strategic retreats, governance consulting, and strategic communications. Mark works with a smaller client load these days, given his commitment to Bissell Centre, but feel free to inquire if you have work you believe he can help you with.

You can reach Mark at 780.299.0780 or at


We all know collaboration is at the heart of making positive change in society. We know this primarily because we tell one another it must be true. We tell ourselves that the range and depth of change needed to improve our communities can only be accomplished by working together. We deploy maxims like “no one can go it alone.” We are so convinced that collaboration must permeate everything we do that funders now demand it as a matter of course.
Sometimes we proclaim collaboration is a great way to reduce costs or duplication, despite  the lack of comprehensive evidence that this is true. We grab onto new versions of collaboration like “collective impact.” It is almost as if individual effort has become devalued in and of itself.
But is collaboration the answer we keep telling ourselves it is? Here’s a perspective offered by Todd Cohen who blogs for Inside Philanthropy, which is published by The Philanthropy Journal. 

Collaboration has to be one of the most bloated, overworked and misunderstood buzzwords in the charitable marketplace.
Funders and donors preach and demand it.

Trade groups and consultants peddle it.
And nonprofits, nodding to the sermonizing of their funders and donors, pay endless lip service to it.

Sadly, far too few of any of them actually practice it or even know what it is or what it takes to make it work.
Collaboration sounds great in theory.
But in practice, it can prove to be slippery, complicated, risky and sometimes plain unworkable.


What's Going On?

Mark Holmgren speaks to groups about the trends and forces coming at our communities, in particular, the non-profit sector. The ground he covers includes: demographic projections, the changing workforce, poverty and income, immigration, philanthropy, technology, and social media. Presentations can be tailored for boards, seniors staff, and large audiences.
Call 780 299 0780.

Learning Sessions

Becoming a Generative
Board of Directors

This session is for non-profit boards that want to move beyond dealing primarily with fiduciary and strategic obligations. Mark introduces the generative "model" of board governance and helps directors understand the importance of having generative conversations, how to dialogue, and how to make the changes they will need to make in order to move in that direction. Read More

Creating a Strategic Touchstone
Mark has developed an approach to strategic planning called, "The Strategic Touchstone," which is a five to ten page strategy document that can also serve as a board's policy on organizational direction.

It can include a review and adaptation of your organization's foundational statements (mission, vision, values, outcomes, etc.). Each session includes identifying change requirements the organization will have to consider in order to act on the touchstone document. Read More 

The So-What about Social Media
This workshop is tailored to the needs and aspirations of your organization. Its focus is on presenting and discussing the strategic mind-set one should have when thinking of how to integrate Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIN, and other social media platforms into your marketing and communications and community engagement strategies. Read More

Take Aways

The following publications are free for the taking. Share them with others if you think they will help.

Are There Too Many Non-Profits... (UPDATE)
Recently released- the 2012 update and expanded version of "Are There Too Many Non-Profit Organizations in Alberta Duplicating Service?You can download it by CLICKING HERE.

Why Strategic Planning Goes Wrong
Organizations might be better served if they thought less about what strategic planning model or exercise to deploy and focused more on having meaningful dialogue throughout the organization about the future, how to innovate, what results to aspire to achieve, and how to create and sustain a nimble, risk tolerant and outcome-focused team of people. Download HERE.