On communityship and social architecture: perspectives from Canada’s North


Recently, we had the absolute pleasure of working with the communications community of the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT).

The challenges faced by GNWT communicators would seem daunting to any “Southerner” in the industry – their task is to provide high quality government communications and information services to citizens living in 33 remote communities, in a landscape of a (world-record breaking) 11 official languages. When you layer on the typical trials of government communications, such as rising expectations for timeliness and transparency, an increase in digital communications and an overall requirement to do more with less, you get a sense for the challenges at hand.

Throughout our week in Yellowknife, we worked with the communications community through a series of facilitated workshops exploring the themes of strategic communications and change.

For me personally, the highlight was facilitating a session on Shaping Our Future – an exercise in uncovering what’s possible when the power and wisdom within a community is unleashed.

It was experimental, highly experiential… and (thank goodness) it worked.

For facilitation geeks out there (you know who you are!) the session design was a mash-up of models inspired by the following thought leaders:

  • Henry Mintzberg’s body of work on communityship, and his belief that “organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources”;
  • Luc Galoppin’s ground-breaking work in Social Architecture, and its focus on looking at organizations as communities to develop, rather than machines to fix;
  • Open Space Technology and its principles for cultivating the creative spirit of a group through a relentless pursuit of the authenticity and legitimacy of the community;
  • Peter Block’s work on Community: The Structure of Belonging, which encourages us to reclaim the power delegated to others and progress forward by driving community;
  • Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis model which provides a useful framework for mapping forces for and against change in a clear, visual way.

We also added a dash of mind mapping for a bit of fun, generating a web of connected ideas for the path forward and adding to the overall sense of the community.

The half-day session moved from an opening introduction in an Open Space-style large circle, into work done in teams of six, guided by a series of worksheets. Ideas on how the community could unlock its potential were uncovered through group discussion, and individual contributions. The results were impressive – both in the tone and energy of the room, and in the quality of focused, strategic and insightful suggestions that came from the group in a very condensed period of time. The session wrapped up with a Force Field Analysis – a technique I’ve used often with clients, but never in this group-driven, visual fashion. The model worked very effectively in providing a counterpoint to the community’s introspective examination, turning our attention toward the external landscape for change.

As a practitioner, it was an extraordinary opportunity to be a part of moving a community forward through such an inclusive, open, creative and legitimate process. Sadly, this is not the norm.  In this case however, the conditions for success were set in large part because of the level of trust and partnership we enjoy with our client group in the GNWT. Trust is an absolute pre-condition for collaboration, and can yield tremendous results when it helps tap into the power of community.

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