Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From "mine" to "ours"

See a difference in the description of this blog? Yes, I'm opening it up to become a Circles community blog. The first new blogger to join is Jackie (formerly of The Knitting Room.) We'll be inviting those who teach, participate in the Design Collaborative or the Inventory Building Project to post their experiences here, as well. As other people join, we'll edit the descriptor even further.

I won't be the only one sending out our emails now, either. You'll begin to read different voices in our outreach to let you know what's happening here. (Hey, I said in the last post that this was not going to be "mine" anymore!) So, please welcome Jackie and those that follow as write about our experiences of being in a community-based fiber arts organization.

Cheers, Allison

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Out of the Scrap Basket

I woke up from a dream this morning thinking, "That was my biggest failure." It took me a bit of contemplation to see how this was related to the dream, so I won't go into the dream here. I will simply explain the thought.

In the 15 months since transforming Circles into more of a studio than a full-sized retail operation, I've had to grieve what was, work through a lot of emotions, assess the successes and failures, assess my new limitations and determine what, if anything, Circles is going to be in the future. I can be a harsh self-judge, which can mean being too focused on my shortcomings. At the same time, it can mean being slower to see some things. As though I'm protecting myself from some sort of disproportionate punishment I might mete out.

In 2002 when I conceived of Circles as a store that hosted a community, I had every reason to believe this was something I could manage. In the past, I had managed multi-million-dollar projects, leading teams comprised of people in different companies. In my 20s I was a commanding presence in the midst of the established white male order of the newspaper world. I had managed the finances of a complex non-profit organization immaculately. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Business School. I had built a start-up urban composting company with verve, again succeeding in a traditionally man's world. I had been a very competitive athlete, running, teaching aerobics, and competing with the men in tennis. In short, I was a high-energy, highly functional force with a nearly obsessive focus and drive. Compared to all of that, what I wanted to do with Circles seemed almost quaint in comparison.

Yet, things kept going wrong. Of course, I was a mother of a young one now. That impacts a lot in terms of "obsessive focus". Early on, months after Circles opened, my daughter developed a serious health problem that was draining. She was having seizures in her sleep and, therefore, I wasn't getting any. So, it makes sense that when I wasn't managing things perfectly at Circles, I thought I was simply sleep-deprived and stressed.

At this point, my major flaw begins to come into play: I had always been self-sufficient. Had always relied on myself to be the driver. I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't demand it from my partner, who didn't step forward on his own to say, "You've got something overwhelming on your plate, let's figure out how to shift some Circles responsibility for you while you deal with this." It simply wasn't in my makeup to think that someone else could take stuff on and cover for me. I was always The Responsible One. Had always known that I was resourceful enough to manage anything.

As the situation with my daughter improved and I was finally getting what would be considered normal rest, though, I wasn't feeling rested and I was still finding it difficult to manage anything. While it took a while to realize that I was not simply stressed, that I had a very serious health situation myself, this character flaw become more pronounced.

It's easy enough to note that Neuropsychiatric Lyme Disease has some profound cognitive impacts. If you read the symptoms list, it's more than frightening. One of the symptoms is loss of judgment. So, yes, there is a part of my failure at Circles that can certainly be attributed to that. A big part even. At the same time, disease attacks you where you're weak. With neurological diseases, any pre-dispositions will be exasperated. If it was foreign to me to ask for help before, it was even harder now. It became obvious that I wasn't able to manage. The person who had been compulsively organized and highly focused in the past, became a ship lost at sea with no tools for navigation. In knitting terms, this was akin to being the knitter who worked on one highly-detailed project at a time and drove through it to the end before starting another project and then becomes the knitter that has 75 projects in various stages of progress strewn about her life with no sense that any of them would ever be completed. The only difference was that with knitting, one might simply enjoy the process and not be concerned about completion, there is really no such thing as failure if you choose to change your perspective. Not so with business. Yet, even as I could recognize that something needed to change, I had no experience with the mechanisms of making the change that needed to happen, which was handing over leadership in a deliberate way.

I struggled with the notion that Circles was vulnerable to my availability and encouraged the development of the co-operative to transform it into a community-owned business. Though I urged the need to have others step up, I didn't actually know how to make that happen. I wasn't used to requiring that people be equally responsible to me. Nor was I emotionally prepared for letting go of the reins, handing off my vision. So, I hovered in this in-between place. I tried to hand off responsibilites, but not with the stringent demands of accountability. I was no longer vigilant about anything. In the past I had been known as "The Sargeant" because of my adherence to exacting demands. No matter the size of the project or business, accounts were reconciled to the penny at all times. Details were in order.  Now I was unable to impose discipline, even on myself.  The lines of ownership, responsibility and accountability got woven into a tangled mess. I was sliding into a cognitive oblivion, unaware half the time of what I was doing. Unable to remember my conversations and actions, days even. Periods of vision loss. Massively impaired hearing. Yet, I wasn't letting go.

By the time the doctors finally diagnosed me and told me that I needed to stop everything, Circles was nowhere ready to fly solo without me. As I crashed medically, the only way for Circles to survive was for it to contract and become minimalist. The community ownership, the yarn co-op, the education programs, the travel circles, the inventory, the social circles were all like partial skeins put into the scrap basket. In my leadership position, I had failed to provide for succession. My fate was Circles' fate. My physical, mental, emotional, spiritual health were partial skeins sitting right in that scrap basket, too.

Leaderless, the Circles community diminished. How long can people organize around a disabled person who has to focus what little energy she has on her health and her family? To be sure, there has been a stable core of people who continue to participate and build bonds. New people have discovered Circles and become attached. Still, it's a different entity now. Quieter. When I decided that the full-retail operation had to close and move to my house, I described it as a cocoon period of perhaps 9 months to a year. It's been longer than that and will be longer, still. But it has definitely been a transformation, not a death.

In general people don't do well with change. Moving and re-shaping Circles was a big change for many of the members. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that it's been such a journey or that it would take this long to get to a point where the remaining community would be ready to look at new growth possibilities. I've been wallowing in my sense of failure so deeply, that I was slow to notice the interest. Yet, here we are, with new models for growth being proposed.

Growing an organization out of a community, rather than growing a community out of an organization is different. On my own, I could simply write a business plan, put the money together, establish a brand and open the doors. Coinvincing people to embrace a brand is different than developing an identity out of shared experience. It will be a slower path. More organic. Less stressful and demanding for me, but a richer, more rooted entity is established. Right now, it feels like all those partial skeins are being considered for one of those knitting projects where you use a different yarn in every row. At Circles we call them Stripe Lights projects. A creative way to randomly use up leftovers and obtain a result more stunning than anything you might have planned. So, perhaps out of my failure at leadership will be born something more stunning than anything I could have planned. One thing I know for sure: it won't be a project that is mine. It will be a project that is ours. I'm more than ready to learn how to share the lead.