Making decisions

Three aspects of decision-making at the Learning Exchange are especially relevant to the practices of social innovation and community-university engagement: how we were guided by input from people external to the team; how we made decisions within the staff team; and how I made decisions as a leader. The way decisions were made changed as the Learning Exchange moved from being innovative to becoming institutionalized.

External guidance

As the first tangible forms of UBC’s engagement in the Downtown Eastside took shape, the question of how to govern this new initiative was a frequent topic of discussion. The 1999 community consultation had been guided by a small advisory committee. This committee had been very effective. Its members did not always agree with each other, but there was enough shared commitment to the goals of the consultation that we always managed to reach some degree of consensus about what needed to be done. The fact that it was a small group helped, as did the fact that its task was short-term and limited in scope.

The assumption among senior UBC administrators was that we would create a larger, more formal advisory group that would bring representatives from UBC and the community together to provide direction to the developing Downtown Eastside initiative. I have strong values about collaborative decision-making. But the expectation that I would create a formal advisory group made me nervous. Creating this kind of body is often the default strategy when institutions decide to engage with a community. However, experience has taught me that such groups can become highly dysfunctional. I have seen hijacked agendas, endlessly revisited decisions, fact-finding processes undertaken as delaying tactics, and the silencing of voices that question the status quo. I have also seen the role of such groups become degraded such that they simply rubber stamp decisions that have already been made. I did not want UBC’s initiative to get mired in these kinds of dynamics.

Who represents whom?

In the Downtown Eastside, the question of who represents whom is extremely contentious. In the early 2000s, the coalition of about 50 organizations and 200 individuals involved in Community Directions (an effort to organize the community so it would be represented in government planning decisions) considered themselves the voice of “the community.” But many residents considered some of the social service and health agencies in the coalition to be “poverty pimps” whose interests were in conflict with the interests of residents. Plus there were important segments of the community who were not part of the social service sector.

poster for event co-sponsored by the Learning Exchange
poster for event co-sponsored by the Learning Exchange

The three levels of government were trying to “revitalize” the neighbourhood by bringing in legitimate businesses and higher income residents. Anti-poverty activists were doing everything they could to resist these forces of gentrification. The city was developing a drug policy based on the four pillars of harm reduction, treatment, prevention, and enforcement in response to a crisis in drug overdose deaths, HIV transmission, open drug use, and petty crime. Business people were organizing to ensure that enforcement was the pillar with the highest priority so that customers would feel safe coming to the area. Meanwhile, drug users (about 30% of the local population) were organizing to ensure that the harm reduction pillar withstood attacks from those who were outraged at the idea of giving drug users clean needles or a safe place to inject illegal drugs. (For more on the forces at work during this time, see Moving in from the Margins.)

At the same time that all these groups were arguing about what should be done to solve the problems in the area, it was well-known that there was a significant number of ordinary people whose voices were not being heard at all. The interests of Chinese seniors, parents with young children who worked long hours at subsistence-level jobs, immigrants finding their feet in a new country, people with physical or mental disabilities who lived in the Downtown Eastside because it was all they could afford, and older single men who had worked in the province’s resource industries were not adequately represented by any of these groups who were advancing particular agendas.

Whenever I made a list of which entities or individuals should be involved in a governance committee or who would demand to be involved, I generated a list of 30 names without even trying. This was way beyond any reasonable limit for a functional decision-making body, in my view, especially in such a contested context. How could one or even a series of committees make sense of the intersection of UBC’s new initiative and all these other interests?

Who decides what?

Even if a group could come to some consensus about which interests should be served, how could it give meaningful direction about which particular actions should be pursued? It was obvious that there were some people in both the campus and the community environments who were receptive to UBC’s goals and others who were not. There were some people in both environments who wanted us to fail. It was difficult to predict who was in which camp. Occasionally someone would start out in the opposition camp and become a supporter. How would these changing dynamics influence efforts to get a decision-making body pulling in the same direction?

There was also the question of what kind of decision-making authority a committee would have. Would its role be to advise or to steer? These are very different functions. It would not have been sensible for UBC to give up its right to make decisions about its initiative. But it was already clear that some players in both the community and the university felt they should be able to determine the direction, pace, and day-to-day activities of the initiative. How much time and energy would be spent debating just the terms of reference for the committee(s)? And what would be the relationship of this committee’s authority to other decision-making bodies at UBC, including the Board of Governors, which is designed to ensure community oversight of the university’s operations?

How quickly can decisions be made?

The scope of the activities that UBC might pursue was very broad. When I met with potential collaborators in the community, their degree of receptivity depended on factors other than objective variables such as the type of organization they represented or the sector in which they worked. My conversations about UBC’s initiative often resulted in the emergence of new ideas, ideas that could not have been anticipated. In order for these ideas to develop, they had to be nurtured as they emerged. Usually, decisions about whether to pursue an idea had to be made immediately, in the moment. There was no time to consult with an advisory group about whether to proceed. It would have been almost impossible even to define categories of ideas or programs or partnerships that would be acceptable to pursue.

Leaving well enough alone

poster for I love the Downtown Eastside event

As I learned more about the campus and Downtown Eastside environments, and became more confident that my team and I had the knowledge and instincts to determine what would be feasible and worth doing, I became more and more convinced that having to work under the direction of a governance structure that included representatives of all the discordant voices in both contexts would be fatal for UBC’s initiative. We needed to be able to move quickly in response to emerging opportunities. More importantly, I and the other members of the staff team needed to have and be seen as having the authority to make our own decisions.

My colleagues at UBC agreed to let go of the idea of creating an overarching governance body. Instead we decided to ask the members of the original consultation committee for advice when we needed it. We also created program-specific working groups as necessary (e.g., we created a small group of agency representatives and students to provide guidance to the Trek Program).

As the Learning Exchange became more established, people stopped asking whether and how the team’s decisions were influenced by external stakeholders. It was clear that we were embedded within the university structure and therefore subject to the usual institutional influences. Similarly, the Learning Exchange became integrated into the community. We were collaborating with many organizations on different initiatives. We had daily interactions with dozens of residents. It was clear that we had our fingers on the pulse of both of the environments where we worked.

Making decisions within the team

In the beginning, the Learning Exchange staff team was small and we pursued lots of different ideas. We made decisions on the fly. The staff all worked in the same small space. Team members’ roles were fluid. There were status differentials and a chain of command, but the organization was relatively flat. When a question came up, if the relevant people were not already involved in the discussion about what to do, it was easy to find them and get their input. Lots of decisions got made in the kitchen of the storefront as we gathered around the coffee pot.

From my point of view as a leader, this is an ideal scenario. Everybody is involved. Everybody has access to the same information about the issue under consideration. Everybody has a chance to offer their ideas and hear others’ perspectives. Everyone can watch decisions get made. People do not feel excluded or wonder why things happen the way they do.

Gradually, as the Learning Exchange staff team grew and the operation became more complex, this informal way of making decisions was no longer feasible. Some staff were located in our campus office. People working in one program did not know what was happening in other programs. Instead of being a small, close-knit team working on common activities, roles became specialized. People made decisions about their own specific activities, sometimes in isolation from each other.

I could see the team fragmenting. Instead of each of us being nodes in a network where everyone was connected equally to everyone else, the network became hierarchically arranged. Instead of information flowing freely across all the nodes, it was segmented and channeled through control points corresponding to levels in the staff hierarchy. Instead of the team responding to opportunities and threats in the environment like a flock of birds, quickly moving as one loosely organized but coherent whole, we began to look more like a group of factory workers, following pre-determined routines, driven by orders from above.

I tried to counterbalance the tendencies towards separation and rigidity that came with our need to be more organized and efficient. I struggled with the question of how to keep the organization flat and decision-making participatory. The vision graphic which laid out our values and practices was an attempt to reinforce the spirit of the original team even though its size and form was changing. I believed that these values and practices would protect us from becoming too bureaucratic. I hoped they would keep us grounded in our commitment to do things differently, to be the change we wanted to see in the world. I still believe these values and practices were an important part of what made the Learning Exchange innovative. But I am not convinced that they safeguarded us from the dangers of institutionalization. Is such rigidity inevitable? For more on this question, see Institutionalization: Holy Grail or dead end?

How I made decisions

When I was doing my PhD I was introduced to a model of learning that offers profound insights into the practice of leadership. The Dreyfus model of learning describes a progression of the capacity to perform certain skills starting at the level of a novice, moving to advanced beginner, then to competent performer, to proficient performer, and finally to mastery. (For a cogent discussion of this model and its implications,  see Flyvbjerg [2001] Chapter 2.) The model was based on the study of the learning of skills such as mathematics and chess, but I think it applies equally to the skills of leadership.

The model describes how novices begin performing the skill by using objective descriptions of the task at hand and following general rules for action given by instructors. As people practice the new skill, their experiences inform them about when and how the rules must be adapted to fit different contexts. At the competent performer level, the variations in the rules become overwhelming. People must learn how to prioritize information and select key pieces of information on which to base decisions and actions.

At the highest two levels of the learning ladder, people’s performance of the skill becomes qualitatively different. Instead of performance being based only on rational analysis of the merits of different options, intuition plays a key role. The learner has accumulated an organized store of knowledge through extensive experience in different contexts. Memories of what worked before in similar situations lead to spontaneous interpretations and judgments. This intuitive knowing combines with rational analysis to guide action. At the level of mastery, not only situations are recognized intuitively, but so are relevant decisions. strategies, and actions. Performance becomes effortless. This is the level of the virtuoso. People acting at this level are “in the zone.”

I find this model compelling because it fits with my experience of learning to be a leader and performing the role of leader at the Learning Exchange. I especially appreciate the way the model acknowledges the value of direct experience and the importance of intuitive knowing. I do not claim to have performed like a virtuoso all the time. But there were many times when I felt like I was part of an effortless flow of activity, moving in harmony with impulses and forces not accessible to the rational mind.

I was guided by rules of the game originally learned from working with other leaders and managers as well as from reading mainstream texts on leadership and organizational dynamics over many years. I had played leadership roles throughout my life, starting in elementary school. In my professional life, prior to my work at UBC, I had been a leader and manager in the private sector, government, and the non-profit sector. I had lots of opportunity to see how different leadership strategies and behaviours played out in different contexts.

tai chi medI was also following rules and incorporating experiences from what may seem at first to be a very different domain: teachings from spiritual disciplines that have been central to my life for decades. For example, one of the steps in the Buddhist eightfold path to liberation is the practice of right speech. My efforts in this area are unquestionably imperfect, but I always strive to tell the truth and to do so in ways that will not hurt others and may even contribute to their learning. In addition, I was guided by insights obtained through years of studying the I Ching, an ancient text from China. The I Ching gives advice about how to live an ethical, wise life using evocative images from nature as teaching metaphors. Its pages contain descriptions of paradigmatic situations in the lives of families and states that often helped me determine how to navigate bureaucratic or political challenges. I think my Tai Chi practice also contributed to my skills as a leader. This soft martial art taught me something about combat, including the lesson that the highest form of protection is to be so gentle and yielding yet strong and grounded that no adversary would think of attacking you.

Increase and decrease

In the early years of the Learning Exchange, the team and I faced many obstacles but some things came easily. Even though our position was precarious and many features of the environment were unknown, decisions about what to do or not do usually seemed obvious to me. The level of risk seemed to evoke a level of attentiveness that brought an easy clarity. Once the membership of the staff team stabilized around a core of people with a shared history and a base of mutual trust, my job as leader became highly rewarding. I felt the joy of being at the centre of a high-functioning group of people working to achieve a common goal. At times, it was like being a jazz musician in an ensemble reaching for heights never before imagined.

In contrast, after most of the original team members left and the staff team got larger, with many new recruits, I no longer felt that I was at the centre of the team. Instead of being part of a jazz group, I was the conductor of an orchestra. I was standing alone, at the front. And instead of improvising, the musicians were trying to reproduce complex, difficult symphonies written by someone else.

Occasionally, I still felt the thrill of being in the zone as I played my leadership role. But mostly I felt like I had fallen a couple of rungs down the Dreyfus ladder. I was still being guided by the same rules. I still had the same moral compass. But the decisions I had to make were not about what innovative idea or project we should do next. They were about how to strategically position the Learning Exchange so as to further its progress along the arc of institutionalization. Decisions became routine, the options constrained by bureaucratic considerations. I still cared deeply about the fate of the Learning Exchange, but I felt the more advanced leadership abilities that had been evoked in the early days of the Learning Exchange were atrophying. I was not being challenged in the same way.

Instead of spending my days in the Downtown Eastside where my encounters with people who were living on the edge kept me alert, I was spending my days in campus meeting rooms where not much happened and no one seemed to notice. As the Learning Exchange became institutionalized, so did I. I still had some original ideas about initiatives we could pursue. But I forgot what I had learned about how innovation happens. I fell into the trap of thinking money and meetings by themselves would produce change. I forgot that risks need to be taken.

For my reflections on risk-taking, go to Taking risks.

For reflections on social innovation generally, see The Learning Exchange as social innovation.


Flyvbjerg, Bent (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again Cambridge UK: The Cambridge University Press