Read Paul Born's latest book:
Read Paul Born's latest book:
How do we know it is time to bring our work or our organization to completion? And how do we
actually go about doing it? What does it mean to steward our organizations through their
lifecycles, including the phase of dying, completion, release?
A sustainable system has an inherent ability to shed what is not needed and transform from one
form to another in order to continue to evolve. Forests, animals, and even our own families do
this seasonally and with every generation. But it seems this natural process is very difﬁcult for
organizations. Yet the skillfulness in discerning when it is time to let go - and the collective
practice of doing it - is one of the most crucial learning opportunities for our own, and the social
sector’s, vibrancy and evolution.
Too often endings mean “foreclosure”; they are done quickly, aggressively, without the
celebration and acknowledgement of the work, and the people who have contributed. However,
when we look at endings as essential to beginnings, dying as a natural phase of ongoing life,
indeed as the transformative element for renewal, then we have many choices - and
responsibilities - in how we move through such transitions and change.
“What does it mean to be sustainable?”
In December 2007, I was hired as executive publisher of ascent magazine & timeless books, an award- winning Canadian non-proﬁt publication group based in Montreal, Toronto and BC. At a time
of many changes in the publishing world, and the global economy, the Board was asking one
question “what does it mean to be sustainable?” They were serious. It was not “how do we keep
going?” or “what is our next growth strategy?” but what does it mean to truly evolve into our
greatest potential, relevance, service?
The answer we discerned collectively over the course of a year was that we had completed an
important cycle of our life as a pioneering magazine of yoga, art, and engaged spirituality. ascent
is a 40-year old publication. For the last 10 years, it had been published out of Montreal by a
group of creative young people, in the form of an international yoga magazine. We saw clearly
that the external environment (funding and publishing trends) had an impact on our future. But
more importantly, from our internal environment we sensed we had achieved the goals we had set
out for ourselves in this form of expression - as a magazine. It was time to bring this decade of
work to a close, and send the magazine back to its source place (the Yasodhara Ashram where it was founded) in order to "let come" the next stage of life from a place of deep reﬂection and learning.
In the phase of the lifecycle we were in, sustainability meant bringing our present form to an end.
This was a scary realization, and what followed was a period of uncertainty and confusion. In
this time, we began to learn how to hold and transform uncertainty.
ascent magazine already had in its organizational DNA two pre-conditions to enhance our ability to work with change, transition, and uncertainty. First, a mature culture of reﬂection, a skillfulness in the practice of looking inward individually and collectively. Second, an inherent appreciation of
living systems and the value of impermanence. Soon we began to look at the work ahead as a
kind of collective practice of conscious action. We called our process a “Conscious Closure.”
Right Questions Lead to Right Actions
We began by asking “how do we want to do this, how do we want to be in this, what do we want to create from this?” From this, we framed our Conscious Closure work in two ways 1) as an
organization-wide project in which everyone is involved and essential and 2) as a collective
learning process and unique opportunity to learn and practice a speciﬁc kind of work.
Critical to our success was a very clear mandate and detailed Plan which included our
principles, goals and outcomes, a 3-month timeline with a speciﬁc end date and a revised budget
approved by the Board. Within this, we made the decision to fundraise for and publish a ﬁnal
10th anniversary issue of ascent magazine. This was a very important aspect to cultivating a
collective sense of celebration, legacy and completion.
The priority was to work consciously and with great care, in line with the values and culture of
our organization - a yoga magazine. As such, we explicitly worked with the values of wholeness and integration. Each individual, role and task, and the organization as a whole would be treated
with dignity and integrity. For example, we made a commitment to have the resources to bring
our operations to a close as a whole team, finishing the work together rather than "when your job is done, you can leave." This shifted from the focus on fulfilling "roles" to putting the "purpose of closure" in the centre, and as such, we could be adaptive and creative in how we responded as a team. We planned our timeline and our budget accordingly. Stated upfront, this created clarity, and generated enthusiasm and solidarity in our team.
Working with Uncertainty and Clarity
The greatest challenge, and most important skill-set that we cultivated, was to navigate
uncertainty in the stress of the completely new work of closure and our short timeline. We noticed that roles, tasks and structure were in constant ﬂux depending on what was needed at that time. The boundaries would solidify only long enough to get the task at hand completed before they would shift again. We decided to create a “minimal-optimal” structure that could adapt to, and hold, the constant change and that combined our values with practices of integration and wholeness.
We experimented with forms and structures - for meeting, decision-making and accessing our
collective intelligence by:
The Big Learning
This experience taught us how important it is to make conscious the need to foresee and steward endings in organizations. Endings are the compost for new beginnings, new visions and paradigms - and certainly the compost for new life. We cannot pour more water in an already full cup, so clearing the space to bring in the new is essential.
We learned the importance of, and created a personal and an organizational practice around, cultivating the patience and ability to hold the paradoxes of celebration and grieving, of doing good work together and doing our final work together. We were simultaneously letting something go AND in the creative process of producing a legacy (in the form of the 10th Anniversary issue of ascent magazine). Holding these paradoxes and these seemingly divergent emotions was a core capacity we cultivated - and if our organizations are truly "organismes", then we need to FEEL them, rather than simply strategize around them.
Here are some other key learnings:
· Listening to what the work is asking rather imposing on it what we want or expect.
· Naming and framing and ending can catalyse an immense amount of energy, dynamism
and focus. It can literally give new life.
· Shifting the attention of leadership towards the practices of “collective stewardship”: the
inspiration to lead in different ways, develop skills and open up ways of thinking in order
to steward transitions and endings.
· The importance of understanding how systems learn; creating conditions and skills in
organizations to work with and not to resist or hide from the natural processes of
And lastly, being courageous. By stepping into this newness together, by being at each other's backs and by creating a beautiful legacy with both the magazine and with our friendships, we discovered a resilience and resourcefulness in us - both in terms of the skills and the contributions we could make to the work and to each other. We found ourselves also hosting, to a certain degree our own personal conscious closures and supported each other in creating space to prepare for life transitions that leaving a job inevitably engenders. This was a form of legacy that we were very proud of, and which I hope was felt in the final issue of the magazine, themed "Union", which was a result of this "collective yoga" practice we called Conscious Closure.
***attached is the final editorial of ascent magazine which describes our organizational process of "collective yoga" and the "beautiful death" that we stewarded together.