The Unfolding Practitioner: Capacity Development from Within

In 'The Unfolding Practitioner: Capacity Development from Within', Ingrid explores some of the qualities that make for exceptional practitioners. This article was originally published at and can be found at

Even after many years of working on complex change initiatives, there are times when I feel a bit lost. I come up against new kinds of problems or new complexity, and I become disoriented for a while.  The situation looks so unfamiliar; my old frameworks don’t seem to apply.  Many questions arise:  What am I to do in this situation?  Am I up to the task?  Is it really possible for me to make a difference here?  Do I have the courage, the audacity to continue on this path?  And then, somehow, I find a way forward.

In talking with capacity development practitioners I see they are often burdened with similar uncertainty, self-doubt, and feelings of discouragement about our capabilities to really make a difference.  We long for books and courses that can help us succeed, but when we get them we discover that they do not sufficiently address our fundamental concerns.   At the same time I notice that some CD practitioners are able to carry out initiatives that have meaningful and lasting impact.  Their names may never be memorialized in books, nor etched in monuments, but their ways of working inspire us.  We admire their determination, their humility, their deep listening, their courage, and their capacity to create authentically empowering relationships.   What do they have that the rest of us long for, and where does it come from?

Just like truly exceptional teachers, nurses, and other practitioners, extraordinary capacity development practitioners demonstrate behaviours, practices, skills and ways of being that are aligned and authentic.  They have access to the deeper layers of who they are, and they attend to the quality of their doing as well as to their inner state of being.

What is the difference between “doing” and “being”?  In an article on “Authentic Leadership,” Galvin and O’Donnell (2005:3) talk about the seven layers of leadership practice but they apply equally well to capacity development practice.  The seven layers (reproduced below) offer a powerful way of seeing the unique differences between “doing” and “being.”







Directly observable actions and activity

Effort and immediate results

Look for tools, tips and practical techniques to improve your execution.


Well-established, repeatable patterns of behaviour

Consistency and transferability

Look for best practices that you can adopt to improve effectiveness


Acquired knowledge and proficiency

Competence and efficacy

Develop your abilities to increase your capacity and performance as a leader


Unique capabilities and limitations of body, mind, and spirit

Personality, strengths, and style

Develop a growing awareness of who you are at your best



Assumptions and mental models in use when engaging the world and others

Connection to reality and to others

Examine your worldview and engage others in thinking deeply and learning together


Internalized principles that drive choices and behaviour

Values, ethics, and integrity

View your greatest challenge as becoming a more authentic person


Being in step with a larger purpose outside of yourself

Sense of calling, synchronicity, and flow

Ask yourself, “What is trying to happen through me?”


The top three layers:  behaviour, practices, and skills, are all about “doing.”  These layers tend to be the focus of human resource development activity in the organizational context.  They represent the skills and knowledge you have practiced and bring to the job.  You probably learned them in education and training programs as well as in your day-to-day work.  The bottom three layers:  framing, character, and alignment are more fundamental personal “roots.”  They inform your way of seeing the world, they colour your choices, and they offer you a way of understanding why you are called to do what you do.  They nurture and inform the fundamental principles you believe in and the spirit of your practice. You learned these from your family and community, you have been learning and testing them your whole life.  The middle layer, “self,” spans the two big pieces of “doing” and “being.  It is a combination of the “you” we see in terms of your unique physical characteristics; and the unique “you” which is manifest in the way you express yourself, your preferences and tastes inwardly as well as outwardly.

The dominant forces in the world tend to reinforce our addiction to “doing” and emphasise that “successful “or “effective” capacity development practice can be produced by concentrating on the top three layers.  Various forms of behaviour and practice are what get assessed and what “count” when we are compensated.  Although development work is not highly routinized, there are many routine and technical aspects of capacity development practice from report-writing through to specific methodologies for facilitating planning and change (e.g. logframe analysis).  There is no doubt that these upper (and more visible) layers are important in terms of performance and effectiveness.  The difficulty is that when the situations we face do not fit what we “know” or are too complex for our skill sets, we feel threatened, or unnerved.  Instead of stopping to re-examine our mindsets or models, there is a tendency to try and break down and over-simplify things; often force-fitting the problem pre-existing models, or ideas into the way we think it should be.  This type of approach results in putting our perfectly good ladders up against the wrong walls, and ultimately wastes time and energy.

But when we examine what truly authentic, effective and credible capacity development practitioners actually do, and what they and others see and say about their ways of working with people and systems, we discover a much richer and more complex picture[i]. The following elements are a brief summary of some of the approaches and characteristics these exceptional practitioners demonstrate in their work :

  • Exceptional capacity development practitioners have an innovative mindset.  They recognize that they may have some technical knowledge or expertise, but this will not be sufficient for sustainable change in a complex system.  They are able to shift from a know-it-all, authoritative stance to a stance which facilitates and mobilizes small experiments, or innovations, and they then work to scale them up once they have been proven.  Making the shift from being perceived as technical expert to being seen as colleague who is working with the system to mobilize innovation requires a deep connection with the “being” levels of Galvin and O’Donnell’s model.  To realize innovation, the practitioner must be willing to begin by authentically demonstrating humility, and a willingness to explore ways to incorporate differing and sometimes conflictual worldviews about what is “right” and “necessary” for change to happen.
  • Exceptional capacity development practitioners understand that change happens through trusting, mutually supportive relationships.  They have learned that trust must be earned, and this is achieved by proving to be trust-worthy.  Proving trustworthiness can be done various ways.  One of the most effective is when the practitioner must non-judgmentally raise issues and questions that are perceived to be risky to talk about, and not back away when resistance surfaces.  This is more than effective communication skills.  It requires inner courage.  Inner courage comes from continuously examining and testing the principles which guide your entire life and not just your work life.
  • Understanding resistance and treating it with compassion is another characteristic of inspired capacity development practitioners.   CD requires practitioners to skilfully disturb and change enduring patterns of activity.  Resistance arises most strongly when actors in the system see that changing patterns will result in losses.  These might be direct losses (status, wealth, power, importance), competence losses (we only knew how to do it the old way, we don’t know how to do it a new way); or loyalty losses (asking people to do things differently from their teachers means subtly threatening or betraying their loyalty to their ancestry or traditions).  Treating resistance with compassion is much more than having good negotiation skills.  It is about deeply understanding one’s own inner resistance about threat and loss.  It means being personally aware that positive change happens when substantive values are respected and preserved while we add new ways of being and learning to grow and change.
  • Integrative thinking: Capacity development theory is always changing, and there are innumerable theories and models to inform it.  Unfortunately, I have seen how these models can become entrenched and unhelpful “truths,” “recipes” or “formulas” for change.  Exceptional capacity development practitioners realize that their fundamental  assumptions and mental models always shape what they see and call “reality,” and that these are not always the best fit for the situation.  They are willing to reflect on what they see and to acknowledge a profound dissatisfaction with existing models.  They are willing to do the creative work of finding or creating new models or ways of moving forward and give themselves the time to test their ideas.  Most importantly, they are skilful at getting others to come and sit with them to explore how to do things differently and more effectively rather than following accepted wisdom.    Instead of seeking to influence people and systems towards the “right” model, these integrative thinkers constructively face the tensions of opposing models and generate a creative resolution, bringing the best elements of opposing models together.

How do exceptional CD practitioners acquire these skills?  How do they nurture and develop their “being” so that the quality of their “doing” will also be enhanced?  Of course they can be learned,  but they are more about practice.   But how and what to practice is worthy of a much longer article or perhaps a series of in-depth dialogues which I hope might be stimulated from this short article.  Here are a few thoughts:  learning how to “be” (in a more subtle sense:  to know how to be or savoir etre in French), cannot be trained the same way that we can learn how to do (savoir faire, in French).  Similar to the development of good health, the development of our “being” is not an outcome, it is a state which arises from healthy personal practices.   Some examples: exceptional practitioners have learned how to “hold the light.” They have activities or routines such as reading poetry, practicing music, participating in worship, or connecting with nature which help them remember their greater purpose and provide ways to stay grounded.  Many of them consciously develop what Chödrön calls “unconditional confidence,” a sense of kindness or gentleness towards themselves.  When they make mistakes they have self-forgiveness for the fact that they are human and therefore likely to fail.  They nurture their originality and independence of thought by reflecting on their actions and by practicing genuine inquiry through research and writing.  With these and many other practices they learn to “unfold”.  With this “unfolding” they can step into new challenges, knowing that no matter how the situation turns out, they can extend again and again.


From “I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough”

I want to unfold

I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,

because where I am folded, there I am a lie.

and I want my grasp of things

true before you.  I want to describe myself

like a painting that I looked at

closely for a long time,

like a saying that I finally understood,

like the pitcher I use every day,

like the face of my mother,

like a ship

that took me safely

through the wildest storm of all.

--Rainer Maria Rilke


Pema Chodron (2002).  The Places That Scare You:  A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times Shambhala Classics

Galvin, J. & O’Donnell, P (2005). Authentic Leadership: Balancing Doing and the Being. The Systems Thinker, Vol 16. No. 2

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers.  Cambridge, Mass:  Harvard Press.

Intrator, S. & Scribner, M. (eds) (2007).  Leading from Within:  Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead. San Francisco:  Jossey Bass

Martin R. L. (2007).  The Opposable Mind:  How successful leaders win through integrative thinking.  Boston, Mass:  Harvard Business School Press.

Parker J. Palmer (1999). Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Senge, P.M., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J. & Flowers, B..S. (2005). Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations and society. New York: Doubleday


[i] For detailed examples of effective capacity development practice see the following case studies published by SNV:  Multi-stakeholder development and complex change facilitation:  Environmentally Friendly Roads Construction in Bhutan (2009); Cultivating a Canopy of Relationships: Perspectives on Change Process Facilitation, Communal Forestry Initiative, SNV Albania (2006).

© Ingrid Richter, Ray Gordezky