Reinventing Fellowship: lessons in distributed leadership at RSA - RSA

Reinventing Fellowship: lessons in distributed leadership at RSA

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Whoosh! How did that happen? I’ve just realised that in two years I’ve gone from shyly attending an RSA London pub Meetup to leading a huge experiment in Fellowship digital engagement. Let me share my story and some of what I’ve learned.

That Meetup in the Theodore Bullfrog in June 2015 was one of the first RSA events I’d been to, apart from public lectures at the House. I was on a personal campaign to extend my business network. I'm a freelancer, running training and team-building events over videoconferences for people all over the world, so it’s easy to get stuck at my desk. But finding clients usually means meeting people face to face. 

I’d just been reading Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations. It’s hugely inspiring — all about how distributed leadership, a focus on purpose and an invitation to wholeness are transforming workplaces worldwide. You might have heard RSA talks by Laloux himself or by Jos de Blok, whose Dutch home-nursing group Buurtzorg is a standard-bearer for the movement. Buurtzorg is structured so that nurses organise themselves. They have no “managers”, and have cut costs to the health service by 40 percent, while improving quality of care and employee satisfaction. Staff are expected to behave like adults, and they do. Jos de Blok received the RSA’s Albert Medal in 2014 for his work.  

It felt like an RSA Meetup was the right kind of place to find great people, but I wasn’t expecting what happened next. As I ordered a drink, I glanced at the name-label of the guy next to me. “My name is: Doug Crawford. Talk to me about: Reinventing Organizations”. Blimey!  

We only had time for a quick “Hello!” before the meeting was called to order. A young man announced that Fellows could form Networks around things they were interested in. “Just come and talk to me about it,” he said.  

I looked at Doug. He looked at me. “Let’s do it!” we agreed. And that was that. I love the idea that anyone can be a leader, that anyone should be a leader. So I don’t think I could claim to be a fan of self-organisation and distributed leadership and not step forward into an opportunity like that.  

Reinventing Organizations seemed like an idea whose time had come.

We quickly formed a small committee, gave ourselves the name RSA London Reinventing Work Network, and had no trouble pulling together a packed house for the first network event on 1 December… or the next… or the next…  

But we wanted to go further. We’d given our group a specific purpose: to encourage the adoption of these “reinvented” working practices by Fellows, their organisation, “and perhaps the RSA”. How could we make that happen? It was really hard to connect with Fellows outside of meetings: the digital infrastructure just wasn’t there. Every communication with Network members had to be sent out by RSA staff. There was no way to reach the Fellowship more generally. 

With the help of the London Fellowship Councillors, Pilar Orti and I got an audience with Matthew Taylor in summer 2016. He was friendly and gently encouraging, saying he’d like to see more Fellow-led activity across the RSA. But he was very clear that the RSA wasn’t going to break down its hierarchies any time soon, or indeed to change any of its ways of working. For him, it seemed, there was no contradiction between these things. 

There was election pending for Fellowship Councillors. After a bit of soul-searching I filled in the paperwork, thinking that an election campaign would provide a platform to talk about these issues.  

Distributed leadership is hard work.

Stepping up requires courage, and energy. As the Network Lead, I was constantly being asked to take decisions on behalf of the group. Every time I did so, I was effectively discouraging others from stepping up to do so. If the official leader always decides, there’s no reason for others to do so.  

I don’t think it’s OK to expect Fellows to take the risk of leading more activities, within a structure that severely limits their ability to do so. In particular, preventing Fellows from communicating directly with each other stops them from discussing what should be done, and gaining the social support which brings the confidence to do it.   

I was angry. Most organisations would give their right arm to have thousands of well-connected thought leaders clamouring to do more, to contribute more, as members. Most organisations spend thousands building a sense of community amongst their members and supporters. But not the RSA. Was the Fellowship as a nuisance, good only for paying the bills? 

Other Fellows apparently felt the same frustration. An ill-tempered discussion broke out on the RSA LinkedIn group between Christmas and New Year: “What’s wrong with the RSA in three words?”  

I could easily have joined in. But instead I watched and waited until a consensus emerged: what we actually needed was improved Fellow-to-Fellow communication. Technically, it seemed, that would be pretty easy to do. Emails started flying. Rod Hyde, chair of the Fellowship Council, supported the idea of making something happen. 83 Fellows joined an initial steering group…  

Fast forward six months. We have a lively Fellows Forum online here.  This self-organised project by Fellows, for Fellows, has over 700 members. It’s not perfect, but it means we can connect and exchange. More than 4000 posts have been made. Geographical barriers are crumbling - we have Fellow members from Australia, Africa, America and all over Europe.  

We’ve run our first videoconference events—an InConveRSAtion with Vikki Heywood, chairman of the RSA Trustees, and an RSA Ideas Online. Both earned rave reviews from the Fellows who participated. 

The Fellowship Council has backed the Fellows Forum, set up a Liaison Group to help, and offered a small budget. And perhaps more importantly, it has called for staff to support an ongoing videoconference events series, and to collaborate with Forum members and the Fellowship Council to create a Fellowship digital engagement strategy.     

François Moscovici FRSA now leads the Reinventing Work Network in London, a group which has just over 600 members and holds regular meetings.  

It’s very exciting — and a bit exhausting. But I think we’re demonstrating that Fellows can self-organise to make things happen, and perhaps even changing the RSA in the process.   
And I've certainly built my network. I've met some of the world's most interesting people, full of big ideas and the energy to make them happen. I've stretched my leadership skills and learned loads. I wonder what happens next? 

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  • Great article, Judy. 

    It's very refreshing to hear your comments - it was the attitude of the RSA in regards to traditional structures and hierarchical command and control structures that had turned me right off engaging with initiatives in the RSA... maybe things will change. Thanks for your (and all others in the RWN) for your work!

  • Great stuff Judy, happy to be onboard, if a little belatedly! The RSA talks 21C Enlightenment but doesn't seem to see the contradiction in persisting with 20C organisational structures, processes and tools. It is not alone in this regard and all public, private and social enterprises face this challenge. What better way to help achieve 21C Enlightenment and guide others (starting with Fellows and staff ) than by wholeheartedly adopting 21C tools and the alternative organisational models, cultures and work practices they enable? Cobblers' children do not have to be the worst shod.... 

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