Late last fall I had the opportunity to conduct an intensive review of the Vartana initiative on behalf of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Vartana was an initiative to create a chartable bank in Canada dedicated to serving the voluntary sector. It held the promise of changing the availability of capital for the sector and as a Schedule I chartered bank, influencing the Canadian financial services industry. While ultimately felled by the financial services collapse of 2008, it holds some valuable lessons in entrepreneurial pursuit of systemic change.
In brief, the key lessons learned were:
- Systemic interventions amplify strategic vulnerabilities
- Ideation is the missed opportunity in systemic entrepreneurship
- Communication is a critical organizing capacity
To put it simply, systemic entrepreneurship is, well, really stinkin’ hard. The path is more ambiguous, the context more complex, and resistance greater. It tests the entrepreneurial process to its fullest. If I look to my own entrepreneurial experiences, communication was always the ultimate core infrastructure. But the more systemic the aims, the riskier the initiative and the longer and more iterative the ideation process. It’s in those areas that entrepreneurial self-destruction most show their face.
From the Vartana experience, I found:
Vartana demonstrates that initiatives seeking systemic change require both adequate investment in up front ideation and strategy formulation and an infrastructure that has the capacity to respond commensurately to systemic resistance and volatility.
More broadly, I pressed the issue of entrepreneurial infrastructure:
…entrepreneurial infrastructure is not to be confused with conventional governance models that focus on executive limitation. Rather it should be designed to enable proactive and focused attention to governance, strategy, and execution. It must enable founding contributions from many; leveraging instead of hampering what are traditionally seen as conflicted roles like founder and funder. It must enable entrepreneurs to do the impossible in an environment that is flexible, yet that has the capacity and rigour to address the scale of the challenge at hand. It must create a space that nurtures meaningful engagement, rapid iteration and routine reflection, and transparent decisionmaking that remains grounded in achieving the intended impact with optimal levels of investment.
It reminds me a lot of what I’ve since read in The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison of Deloitte’s Centre for Edge. Even the sub-line “How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion” echos of systems thinking and social innovation.
Which brings me to my final point. As we pay attention to the systems of our society and find whatever we are working on increasingly influenced by changes in those systems… we elevate ourselves out of traditional sectoral silos. This isn’t an issue isolated to commercial, social, government or civil sectors. It’s an issue about our future and particularly those intent on creating a better future, sooner.
So, whether you buy into the Big Shift, the Great Reset, the Macropocalypse, the Macroshift, the Great Remix, or just think “we’re screwed”, the time is now. It’s about our future. Don’t wait. Try. Reflect. Share. Repeat.
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