Interview with Two Coaches from the MIS Civic Incubator

To mark the occasion, two Civic Incubator coaches – Hugo Steben, Director of Capacity Building & Incubation, and Sarah Abarro, Incubation Programs Coordinator – share their perspectives on the experiences of project leaders within the cohort as well as on the evolution of the program and its mission to better support those who are committed to positively changing the world.

Cohorts have been coming to the Civic Incubator since 2018, which suggests it’s meeting a real need. Does your experience confirm this?

Hugo: The Civic Incubator responds to a need for support for initiatives that are in their pre-launch stage or that have recently been launched, and that have the potential for positive and transformational social impact. There are very few offerings in Quebec for projects at this stage and with this aim. Above all, there are few support options for people who want to develop an impact project without necessarily being driven by a purely “business” motive. In addition, we welcome people with atypical backgrounds and very diverse academic, professional and life experiences. This also makes MIS special! This wealth of perspectives and knowledge is one of the pillars of the program. It reinforces the potential impact of the projects we support, but also strengthens the capacities of the cohort’s members as agents of change.

Since its first cohort in 2018, the Civic Incubator has supported almost forty projects conceived by dedicated people facing a variety of obstacles. Why do these people come to the Civic Incubator? They may feel they’re missing pieces of the puzzle in terms of understanding the problem at hand and its solution. They may feel they need direction in terms of how to carry out an atypical project with an equally atypical deployment strategy. They may be hindered by a lack of access to networks or, quite simply, by the impostor syndrome, which can be relentless, and which undermines their confidence! In the Civic Incubator program, it’s precisely these barriers that we’re trying to break down.

Credit: Youssef Shoufan

Let’s talk about these atypical backgrounds. Some awardees in the cohorts tend to be familiar with social innovation, while others are discovering it for the first time. How do you work with people who have such a wide range of experiences?

Sarah: MIS is conscious of this diversity, and works to make it an asset in the construction of the cohorts, both in terms of projects and individuals. In order to maximize the true richness of a cohort approach, we adapt activities, content, and tools to each individual, regardless of their level of familiarity with the social innovation approach. Additionally, the participant experience is designed to encourage discussion and create links between members by highlighting their strengths, experiences, and knowledge. The generation and deployment of social innovation require the merging of several types of knowledge. For example, in the context of a workshop, different participants in a discussion may bring, respectively, a theoretical perspective, a professional perspective, an activist perspective, and a perspective drawn from lived experience, all of which can generate extremely rich reflections on a subject!

Hugo: The support offered in group workshops also allows participants to discover their blind spots and to enrich their perspectives with new knowledge drawn from the professional and experiential backgrounds of their colleagues. For example, I recall an exchange around a project targeting young people in the youth protection system during which a participant shared her personal experiences as a member of a foster family.

Additionally, the individual coaching phases give us the opportunity to offer more personalized advice. A relationship of trust develops which encourages project leaders to open up about their vulnerabilities and doubts. This in turn makes it possible to address subjects that are truly transformative for the entire cohort.

The Civic Incubator program lasts five months and is structured around four modules: understand, strengthen, design, and deploy. How does a project evolve through this sequence?

Sarah: In the first section of the program, we get to know the perspective of the project leaders on their problem, their stakeholders, and the solutions they’re considering. We dig and scratch to get to the bottom of what they’re thinking, then do an analysis in order to distinguish between what’s based on solid foundations (on data, for example) and what’s in the realm of intuition and would benefit from being validated. We then help them design and plan a validation approach, and connect them with members of our networks to enable the project leaders to meet them and validate their hypotheses.

Once they’ve returned from this validation phase, we adjust our understanding of the problem and our vision of the solution based on the information the project leaders have gathered. The design phase begins: The users to be targeted are identified more precisely and a prototype adapted to their needs and constraints is designed. This prototype must not only deliver the targeted impact; it must also be simultaneously useful, accessible, usable, desirable, and even enjoyable!

We then define the main stages of deployment, including the identification of key stakeholders, the strategy for mobilizing them around the project, the most appropriate legal form for the project (if necessary), and a financing strategy for carrying out the next phase of the project. It all culminates in a pitch meeting with a select group of stakeholders who provide feedback, offer referrals to potential partners, and even raise their hands to become project partners themselves.

Hugo: The proposed program works particularly well for coaching and deploying the ambitious projects we encounter in the cohorts. Unlike a company that sells a product or service to a specific clientele according to a relatively linear and simple process, some Civic Incubator projects include multiple components that need to be deployed in parallel or in sequence. It’s sometimes necessary to begin by addressing an obstacle to the project’s deployment or by creating the conditions which are essential to its successful deployment. I’m thinking in particular of projects that involve modifying a regulation, mobilizing citizens, or generating in-depth knowledge on a new subject. In each case, it’s necessary to establish a good global vision of the desired impact, to know how to prioritize and organize the pieces to be developed, and to be agile during the course of the deployment in order to adapt continuously.

When the various challenges are addressed and the blind spots are revealed, the project leaders may discover that the project, in its initial form, won’t in fact produce the impact they’d hoped for. How do you keep the participants motivated and support them in imagining a new solution?

Hugo: Firstly, as coaches, we lead members of the cohort to focus not on the project, but above all on the expected impact that addresses the social and environmental challenge at stake. Falling in love with the impact of your project rather than the project itself is one of the leitmotifs of the program! Furthermore, the information is not received passively, but rather is used to find ways to improve the project by marrying it to the individual’s own experience. Our job is not to tell them what to do, but rather to mentor them during their conceptualizing, to suggest scenarios, to offer options, and to challenge their blind spots. Ultimately, it’s the person who conceived the project who remains in charge both of their initiative and their decision-making. The worst thing you could do as a coach is to lead a cohort member to design a project in which they no longer recognize themselves!

If there was one element of the program you’d highlight in order to encourage potential impact project leaders to be part of a future cohort, what would it be?

Sarah: In their feedback, awardees frequently talk about how enriching and transformative the program was. What they’ve learned in the Civic Incubator they’re now applying in other areas—in their work, in their personal lives, and in their other projects, where social impact and innovation are now central.

Hugo: The strength of the projects and the capacity of the leaders who have passed through the Civic Incubator do not go unnoticed. The Civic Incubator prepares them well to rally stakeholders around their projects, as evidenced by the various partners who meet with our awardees, both at the end of the program and in the networking activities that we organize. The program also plays a role in strengthening the ecosystem of social innovation in Quebec by expanding the pool of change agents who are mobilized around social and environmental impact and determined to carry out their projects!

In 2020-2021, because of COVID-19, the Civic Incubator program switched to a 100% virtual format. Did you encounter any surprises or discoveries with this new way of working?

Hugo: Even though the first cohorts of the Civic Incubator were mainly face-to-face, we’d already begun transferring some activities online before the pandemic. We were looking to virtualize the program seamlessly—to maintain a human experience while also taking advantage of the flexibility digital offers. So when we had to switch to a completely virtual format, we had a head start. Furthermore, our team’s agility allowed us to make changes to tools, content, training strategies, or logistical elements continuously, sometimes overnight, in order to adapt.

Sarah: The challenge was to promote inclusion. To do this, we sought to better understand the various constraints experienced by the agents of change in other spheres of their lives – including work, family, and health – during a project’s initiation phase. We then designed a program that accommodates those constraints as harmoniously as possible: We had shorter meetings, but we met more often, and worked to establish a reasonable balance between fixed meetings and free work hours. Their increased autonomy allowed members of the cohort to reconcile their participation in the Civic Incubator with public-health constraints. And it paid off! We were able to observe a high level of commitment from the project leaders, even online, even over a long period of time.

Hugo: Now that the pandemic has opened up new opportunities in the way we work, we’re even more confident about the hybrid mode we’ve adopted for the next cohort. By combining the advantages of the virtual and the face-to-face, the new Civic Incubator formula offers a more flexible experience, optimized in terms of time and place. We hope to convince anyone who has an impact project in mind – even those who live outside of central neighbourhoods, and even if they have a busy schedule or mobility issues – to move from idea to impact by making their project a reality!

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The potential realization of a positive-impact project idea—one that has long been brewing in the back of their minds—has motivated over one hundred change-makers to join the MIS Civic Incubator.

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