Calgary’s “Kill Group” Carves out Space for Innovation

New Pathways | Calgary program participants found inspiration in a "random entry" activity, using the word carnivore during a brainstorming session. From there, they formed the Calgary "Kill Group" to help them dismantle outmoded ideas. ("Wolf Hunt: Walking the Plateau" courtesy of Flickr user AV Dezign |
New Pathways | Calgary program participants found inspiration in a “random entry” activity, using the word carnivore during a brainstorming session. From there, they formed the Calgary “Kill Group” to help them dismantle outmoded ideas. (“Wolf Hunt: Walking the Plateau” courtesy of Flickr user AV Dezign |

“Uh . . . what’s Killing Support Group, 11-12:30?” asked my husband.

When our daughter was a few months old, my husband and I started sharing our work calendars to help us arrange for childcare. Pretty much daily, new events pop up as we coordinate our various contracts as theatre artists and producers.

This was one of the harder calendar entries to explain.

Using Accountability to Make Difficult Changes
Downstage, where I’m the Artistic Producer, has been fortunate to be a participant in the New Pathways process in Calgary, Alberta. At the final gathering of the full cohort in spring 2016, we were asked to help brainstorm ways to sustain engagement between the 13 arts organizations that had completed EmcArts’ innovation workshops together.

And, I’ll be honest – that was an idea I was generally skeptical of. Realistically, I figured that we would continue the relationships that were most useful and call upon others at select times. Assembling folks from a variety of arts companies without a clear agenda can be frustratingly unproductive, often fizzling out after a single gathering. And those types of meetings often turn to the topic of funding (the insufficiency thereof) as an obvious thing we all have in common.

But the New Pathways approach [to network building] was a little different, starting with a “random entry” lateral thinking exercise. We were asked to brainstorm, individually, as many ideas as possible that directly incorporated the randomly selected word, carnivore. Then we shared our most interesting ideas, synthesized and voted on them, and split into groups to explore the top choices.

The small group I was in spent time discussing the suggestion that we “come together to dismantle and kill ideas.” Like how some carnivores work in packs to bring down big animals, we would collaborate to tackle our biggest challenges. This built fairly naturally off of the New Pathways principles of identifying and discarding core assumptions that are no longer useful, moving away from outdated organizational structures, and looking critically at existing programming to carve out space for innovation. Lots was discussed and generated, but a key idea was finding a way to build accountability between peers as we try to make difficult changes within our practices – a “killing support group.”

A few months later, five of us – including one person phoning in from a vacation across the country – met to see if this idea had legs. We decided that we would all bring a single idea, assumption, practice, or program that we would like to kill; most of us ended up bringing pretty lengthy lists. Themes between our lists include being more honest within our organizations about our current state, being transparent with stakeholders about the work being done, and seeking to lessen the gap between our intentions and reality.

Although the ‘kill’ part of the original idea came from the random ‘carnivore’ prompt, we found the weirdness of that frame to be useful and funny still.

So for now, here are the working principles of what we’re calling our Kill Group:

  • The group is centred around ownership: You can only ‘kill’ something that you are responsible for or implicated in. It is meant to be useful for the people who show up, rather than trying to address challenges facing the entire New Pathways cohort or the Calgary arts community.
  • We are working towards building a respectful, safe environment with explicit permission given to be critical about each others’ work and where gaps between intentions and practice might exist. We talked about how these critical discussions do take place in our community, but often feedback isn’t shared with the company in question. How do we connect up the difficult conversations happening internally and externally?
  • At this stage, our group will stay small, with only one representative per company so that we can explore tricky or taboo topics without feeling like there might be professional consequences or self-censoring.
  • When discussing ‘kill items’, we are forbidden to talk about money as a barrier or a solution (e.g. “If we had enough funding, we could . . . ”). Funding is understood to be a factor, but we’re looking to make space to talk about other challenges.

At the end of our meeting, we agreed that everyone would commit to one kill item from their own lists as well as one concrete step they could take towards accomplishing it. We met a few months later with updates and to discuss other initiatives we might pursue (such as a “failure wake”) in addition to continuing to meet as a small group. We also dug into something that had happened over the summer.

Noticing the Gap Between Intentions and Practice
I had noticed a job posting for an unpaid administrative internship from an organization with a Kill Group member. I knew that they had been discussing a better compensation model – working towards paying everyone fairly – as one of their complex challenges within the New Pathways workshops. This seemed to be an example of the kind of gap between intentions and practice we had been looking at in our group.

And here’s the thing – my fellow Kill Group member who was a leader at this organization? He’s my dear friend. We’ve known each other for nearly a decade; he came to my wedding; we’ve had many a happy hangout geeking out over arts admin topics. You can’t really ask for a more comfortable set up to ‘call out’ a problematic practice. But I’m also non-confrontational by nature and although this was pretty much exactly what we were interested in practicing in Kill Group, staff structure and compensation wasn’t on the list they had brought in so I didn’t have the “explicit permission” we had discussed building into our group.

So I hesitated before writing a pretty awkward email, pointing out the conflict between the job posting and what I understood to be the organization’s goals, asking him to reconsider the unpaid nature of the position, and offering to chat more. My friend responded graciously (while acknowledging the “justification, indignation, defensiveness and emotion” he experienced when first reading my message) and with permission, forwarded my message to his team as a conversation starter. We got together for a beer to talk through the challenge and yes, our conversation did include funding. They have since made it a paid position.

This small interaction gave me a better window into the difficult practice of agreeing to be accountable to each other, and how it might feel to be on the receiving end of a ‘call out’, however gentle, when  my organization’s practices don’t live up to our intentions or values. It may not be pleasant, but it will certainly be useful.

So far, the Kill Group seems to be an interesting way to come together as peers to support each other in often difficult work. It may yield more interesting things or it may fizzle out. If it continues, it will almost definitely evolve – and most likely continue to result in calendar entries that make my husband nervous.

Ellen Close is an actor, playwright and the Artistic Producer of Downstage in Calgary, Alberta – a theatre company that produces Canadian plays that create meaningful conversation about social issues. Much of her work at Downstage centres on developing approaches to remove barriers to accessing theatre, including touring to suburban and rural community halls, livestreaming work online, and a program that offers 25% of all tickets at no cost.