Differences that Make a Difference


I encourage people to look for the "difference that makes a difference," but that is much easier to say than to do. Here are some examples of how I have used differences to make a difference in the past couple of weeks.

I was facilitating a roomful of physical and social scientists as they launched an exciting project. The check-in that I had designed to bring the group together for shared work did just the opposite. Each comment seemed disconnected from the last. Worse than that, many of the comments were controversial, and the tension in the room ebbed and flowed. I could see that there were more differences in the room than we could resolve in our two short days, besides, many of the differences that were showing up were not relevant to the work we needed to do. So, I asked myself the usual question, "What is the difference that makes a difference?" Clearly it was the special areas of expertise that each person brought to the room and would bring to the project, if we could find a way to harvest them. As soon as the opening circle was complete, I invited people to divide into groups of same or similar disciplines. This took a bit of time as they decided what was close enough to the same and what was too different to include. We ended up with five groups. Then I asked each group to name and then share three things they would contribute to the project and three things they would need from others to be most successful. Suddenly, that messy bunch of differences was transformed into the raw material on which the project will thrive.

In an executive leadership program, our faculty of three shapes learning experiences for fifty-five talented professionals from across the healthcare system. In the group there are physicians and nurses and human resource professionals and technicians and academics and logistics managers and software engineers. They specialize in emergency services, surgery, mental health, community services, public health, and everything in between. Some come from rural and others from urban settings. Some are early in their careers, and some are near retirement. The goal of the training is to bring these people together to transform a massive, crumbling system that focuses on illness rather than health. The differences in the room were overwhelming, but the difference that made a difference—the reason we were together—was the future of the healthcare system. So, we did not begin this six-month program with personal awareness and reflective practice, as most leadership programs do these days. Instead, we used the frame of "networks for transformation" and began our journey with three powerful methods to map systemic patterns. As participants used these tools to see their shared environment, their individual differences faded into the background in service of the whole. By the time we reach the end of the program and invite them to engage in personal reflective practice, we think they will see the old differences with new eyes, in the context of the powerful work they will do together in the future.

Creative CityMaking Minneapolis 2015 is an innovative program, guided by the City of Minneapolis and Intermedia Arts and funded by the Kresge Foundation. Its goal is to bring artists and city professionals together to discover new ways to engage with underrepresented communities. The hosting team worked together to design and develop engaging and transforming learning experiences. We focused our design on what we thought was the difference that made a difference—artist and city employee. After the first convening, we learned two things. First, the city professionals felt overwhelmed by the ease and exuberance of the artists. Second, the artists felt constrained as they navigated new relationships with their activist communities. We might have continued to see these patterns as distinctions in practice and identity, but those were differences we neither wanted to change nor imagined we could. So, we went in search of another difference—one that could make a difference and contribute to the expanding skills and insights for both artists and city professionals. We found the difference while negotiating the first potentially destructive political run-in of the project. The underlying difference we saw there turned out to be influential in many other challenges of the program. The difference that made a difference was the concept of "inside and outside." Artists had trouble not because they were artists, young people of color, or community activists. They had trouble because they were accustomed to working outside of the City system and didn’t know how to play the inside game. The City professionals had trouble not because they were bureaucrats, people of a certain age, or unaware of their own privilege. They had trouble because they were accustomed to working inside the City system and didn’t know how to play the outside game. When we reframed the program challenges from this perspective, each group became mentors for the other. They released the energy locked inside bias and habit on both sides. Teams are using this energy to create a community of shared practice that creatively serves both the inside and the outside.

In retrospect, these interventions may seem obvious, but I can promise that they were not obvious in the moment. Participants and observers talked about the shifts in group dynamics as if they were magic. Even as I used what I saw to set conditions for some new pattern, I was never sure whether it would help or make things worse. What I am sure of is that patterns shape experience and action and that difference informs patterns. So, if I can put my finger on a difference that makes a difference, then there is a good chance that a more productive pattern will emerge. And, if it doesn’t, I can always ask the question again, "What difference makes a difference?"

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