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  • Writer's pictureFyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the TLST Program: a Collective Narrative

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, June 30, 2021, a group of participants from Brazil, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Kenya, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States gathered for the closing session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their experiences and reflections.

Participants’ assessments were recorded and, combined with survey responses to include voices of those who were unable to attend the Zoom session, used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Out of 30 participants who joined at least one session of the program, 20+ contributed to this narrative including 16 who joined the closing session.


For many of us, the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program was an educational dive into great, delightful World Café style discussions and conversations with engaged and knowledgeable teachers and participants about the work that will become increasingly important in the ten years to come. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend time studying different teachings and hearing various perspectives—some aligned and some thought-provoking.

Some of us shared that this program met our need to enter into meaningful engagement and learning. It was a new way to see digital and remote learning, a different way of looking at the problems facing us, learning from and reflecting on teachers’ materials, putting problems in context, getting different perspectives from participants on how to address these problems, learning from other participants equally, and eventually obtaining further insights from the guest lecturer. Overall, we explored a new, contemporary way of learning.

Seeing a Tremendous Value in Sensemaking through Different Perspectives

As we reflected on the journey and the process, many of us expressed that we see a tremendous value in sensemaking through different perspectives. We discussed that none of us had a complete picture of all the different topics, but our peer learning experience helped us build a better understanding of the topics by listening to a variety of different teachers and blending different perspectives during World Café sessions about some of the most novel subjects—data, culture, systems, etc. We shared how the whole process was an enriching experience and how it helped us listen to different perspectives of participants and teachers.

Some of us expressed gratitude for meeting a community with so many dedicated people working for the future. We encountered a diverse array of critical thinkers who are all trying to contribute to tackling today's problems and they all brought different perspectives. We really appreciate the diversity of the teachers and the group: we had a great mix of different people—not only white men and conceptual thinkers—and different approaches including those of practitioners who do fieldwork. We discussed the feeling of being really connected with the group which was pretty nice. We appreciated that everyone fought to be here: even when some of us were not in the best situation, everyone who attended peer learning sessions was present and was exchanging ideas with others, and it was really cool to share the space with this group.

Appreciating How the Process Worked Overall

Some of us shared appreciation for the study materials and noted that when we requested more information over email, we got it and were able to study even deeper. Some of us expressed that we love the format—online World Café—as the use of small breakout rooms allowed us to really connect and exchange ideas with our peers a lot which was really interesting to see. The virtual environment was conducive for discussion and using the World Cafe and we appreciated how the process really worked: we were able to grasp what is going on and then do sensemaking together, spot patterns, and craft narratives and it seems like it flowed very well. The use of collective narratives created a different experience and an opportunity to have the teacher comment back on the areas of interest of the group rather than just their perspective solely.

So in this journey not only were we able to consume information but we were also able to make sense of it, to play, to explore, to try, to be in this almost discomfort situation when we want to learn but we are not in this seeking mode only, when we are also able to play, exchange, and really grow knowledge. Some of us shared that after the end of a peer learning session we continued to generate insights as the mind and the body processed the 2-hour session. Learning with each other and not only with the teacher gave us the capacity to bring different perspectives which was really impactful for some of us even during the journey. Some of us even said that we are already collaborating with other participants and it has been life-changing.

Sharing a Range of Personal Experiences

Our experiences as journey partners in this program included mindfulness, respect, listening, new perspectives and insights, profound knowledge, honest sharing from the heart, an exchange of information that was very constructive towards "making sense" of our projects, meeting of minds, a sense of community made of people from across the world, thinking and sensing what is possible together, considerate and generative dialogue, brilliant and compassionate facilitation and stewardship of the larger process itself by Fyodor, Tatiana, and the team. Some of us shared that we found camaraderie, a great learning experience—intellectual stimulation, mind expansion, thoughtfulness—and a wonderful opportunity to meet interesting people and form relationships.

At the same time, alongside these overall positive, all-in-all very worthwhile experiences, some of us felt like we were not given an opportunity as stronger voices dominated and this negative—or slightly less positive—experience is an area to work on. As we experienced the complexity of peer learning, it was interesting for some of us to see how people process information differently, screened by their own life experiences. Some of us said that we loved the diversity and the challenge to communicate clearly and with an understanding of others, which is not an easy feat.

Living is learning and learning never ends. In this space for reflection on thought leaders, some of us experienced deference for existing influencers in the sector and shared that there is more for us to do to be able to move to the level where the speakers are by building a network of like-minded people.

Some of us said that we had a hard time doing this type of work at this time but when we attended and had the capacity to do the work we had a lot of fun! It is a pretty demanding journey and the choice to jump in or stay out really made it possible for some of us to feel in the field whether we could be present in person or not.

Deepening the Participatory Aspect of the Experience

There was also an opinion that while we had some degree of iteration, participatory learning was maybe not at its best and that there is definitely more to desire. Some of us think that the critiques were not as absorbed as the content that the authors aimed to contribute—the content came across better—and that there was a gap in the application of learnings to our work. Some of us talked about the difference between dialogic spaces and didactic spaces, suggesting that what we experienced was a didactic space and it would be great to see it being more dialogic.

As for some of us the strongest message was that our experience was about creating concrete relationships, that the strong value point was not just the teacher experience, but the peer learning experience, a blended model might assist in that in the sense that the teacher was more of the catalyst to grow the experience or to emphasize the peer learning experience. The real magic, some of us argue, was within the peer learning and there was a need for more time and depth to build the relationships and possibly to consider additional components or elements of the program to build new skills, new abilities for sensing, building trust, etc.

For some of us this means creating some kind of dialog circles that are deeper and longer: 90-minute long, as opposed to 20-minute-long World Café rounds. This idea also came out in the form of a study group: instead of having two sessions per week we could have three sessions per week and one of them could be a study group where people would read documents, watch videos, and exchange ideas, so we explored that a little bit.

Building Trust and Coherence through Dialogue, a Shared Narrative, and Tangible Projects

We also touched upon the topic of trust: how we can build trust and work with it. The importance of trust should be considered when we look at how trust can be reinforced or supported during the process so that each of us could feel that we can be in a safe space, we can be heard, be seen, and know that our well-being as participants is being respected. We talked about the need for group coaching, the need to seek mentors, teachers, fellow searchers, so that individually each of us could evolve and learn where our contributions could be inserted into the community. We also talked about having an opening session: just like we had a closing session this time we could meet before the first peer learning session to build trust which would allow participants to learn more about the group and then we could build on that familiarity.

As key needs that surfaced included the thirst and the need for community, the need to enjoy our work together, and to grow as a group, we talked about taking some time to look inside the group so that we could find our own narrative. What is our purpose? What purpose do we have in common and what needs are being met? Where are we, what is our narrative, what has been crafted with this group? We were always working in teams and we had this connection as a group, but we did not go further in that so while we need to have a voice within this group, some of us also explored the idea of formulating a theme or the intent of what we are trying to achieve together so that we could become cohesive and have a common story to share outwardly, to say that our group represents this activity and others are welcome to join us in that way.

One idea that emerged in the discussions was to set a theme for the series, to have a graduation project, something tangible that the group works on together towards a purpose that is project-oriented. The group would then deliver an end product, a story that summarizes the collective learning. Along those same lines was the idea to ask the teachers to help the group along in its quest to learn and create an outcome. Setting a question seeking answers from the start would focus the discussions.

Exploring Complementary Ways of Engagement

For some of us, the real value continued and extended outside inter-group discussions, outside the program where further learning and relationships were being built. So what we could do as a group or as a community during the second iteration to share and to scale the experience is to look at co-designing or co-creating as a group and looking at the balance between structure and emergence. We could find some teams so we could focus and later branch for more knowledge and have a place where we could keep learning together, not only over email or through talks.

As we discussed things that we could see improving and what we can do as a community, some of the practical sides of it that were mentioned is to create an environment with special tools to be able to share ideas and continue dialog through a chat format like Slack, a dashboard, Miro Board, or another visual format tool like Miro Board, something far more visual for people.

Learning and Collaborating as We Move Forward

We also discussed some ideas about things that we can do once the program is over as a continuation of learning, something to digest our learnings as a cohort. We discussed the idea of a refresher session every now and then and talked a little bit about the different formats that such sessions can take. We could meet regularly to reflect, to have some digestion time together. That can be like peer sharing or peer listening as opposed to peer learning. We explored how we could use Clubhouse and how a switch between Zoom and Clubhouse may work. A different take on this idea was that we could have sessions where teachers or people who have more experience with certain aspects or types of work would share, talk about their work and help people who are less experienced learn from them and facilitate that.

It appears that we have this feeling that we should continue to keep meeting or to keep in contact. As we discussed ways to do it, some of us asked not to email but to find some way that we could use to invite and onboard other people. With this diversity, how do we bring other people to this play space, which kind of material do we need to produce so that other people could see us all playing and wonder how they can connect and collaborate with us? How do other people relate to and create this space? This could also be a place where we could share our own work and start making connections to see how it is related to other people’s work so that we could start exchanging and collaborating even more. Also, one interesting suggestion was if version two could be conducted as an experiment with this same cohort of participants so that we could learn together again, but on a different level.

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