Finding the ‘I’ in Teams

This column originally appeared in the October 21, 2021 Tulsa World

By Alison Anthony

If you have participated in sports or a business training program during the last few decades, an enthusiastic coach likely told you “There is no ‘I’ in team!”

Yet, lately, I’m noticing team blogs, podcasts and lunch-and-learn panels chock-full of I-words. Without a doubt, the last couple of years have required teams to fully embrace Innovation, Invention and Imagination.

In fact, our ability to solve challenges in new ways has depended on these important I-word behaviors, and not just in business or our personal lives. Our community’s hard-working nonprofits are leading with innovation while serving those in need.

If you know me at all, you may be saying the next line with me: We all need help sometimes.

The need for driving new approaches to overcome community challenges led the Tulsa Area United Way to launch the Social Innovation Grant Program in 2014, which has since provided over $1.8 million to startup nonprofit ideas.

The grants allow organizations to incubate initiatives and bring new strategies to Tulsa and the surrounding counties, creating relevant and timely solutions.

Humble and creative leaders like Dr. Camille Teale of Sapulpa’s Caring Community Friends spend time daily thinking of ways to make life better for kids. Dr. Teale generated a plan in 2018 to address two critical needs in a fun, respectful and interactive way.

Many children near Sapulpa in rural Creek County were unable to access libraries or food distribution sites during the summer months, so the Book and Snackmobile was born.

Funded by a modest United Way innovation grant, this simple and clever new model fights food insecurity and the summer drop-off in reading scores. The colorful bus turned library and traveling kitchen takes reading materials and nutritious snacks to nine locations each week throughout the summer.

“Hi kids! Need some books? How about a snack? Would you like to take some food back to share with your family? No problem!”

And no stigma.

Another former Innovation Grant participant now thriving is the 1st Step Male Diversion Program, designed to help young men stay out of prison and move toward better lives. Those steps include sober-living housing, legal advocacy, treatment, job placement, mentoring, education and celebrating success.

Recently, Executive Director David Phillips along with board member and retired district judge Bill Kellough shared the results of the work with a group of funders.

From 2017-2020, the programs saved Oklahoma taxpayers $3.3 million and delivered a 92% success rate, taking a common-sense approach toward relieving our overcrowded prisons, reducing recidivism and changing lives for the better.

Columnist George Will, in writing for The Washington Post, called innovation America’s most important product.

“The common denominator” of progress, he writes, “is the restless, risk-taking spirit of a talented few.”

I’ve been asking myself lately how we help more than a talented few nonprofits feel safe and empowered to test new ways of thinking. How do we fund and encourage learning in ways that mean things don’t always go as planned?

Can we get rid of the “We’ve always done it this way” response? Can we stop freaking out if someone makes a mistake?

Maybe we don’t “should” all over people and let our teams learn the lessons that can only come with experimenting and testing new ideas.

I’m trying to embrace the wisdom I heard from a 5-year old STEM student at Darnaby Elementary who once told me, “If something doesn’t work, that’s not failure; we call it learning.”

Turns out the “I” in teams means admitting we don’t have all the answers and opening up to the freedom to learn and the grace to support one another along the way – to innovate, to invent and to imagine the possibilities in this community we call home.

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