Creating space for dream projects

Making an impact beyond fires and funding requirements

Imagine showing up for work one morning with nothing on your plate. No fires to put out. No urgent issues calling for your attention. No long-standing priorities to tackle. Where would you direct your time and energy? What would you do more, or less, of?

There will always be outside factors that require your focus, like funding requirements or unplanned emergencies. Leading through these situations is part of the job at public institutions—but it doesn’t need to be all of it.

At Civilla, we’re exploring ways that leaders can create space to focus on the less urgent (but no less important) priorities too. We call them dream projects.

What legacy do you want to leave behind? Whether it’s a process you’ve dreamed of reshaping or a service that could change the lives of the people you serve — there’s never been a better time to get started than now.

it starts with a dream

Every leader has dreams they hope to accomplish through their career. They’re the things that motivate you to keep going or perhaps the reasons you joined the job in the first place. They’re foundational and incredibly important, but are often hard to go after because they’re less urgent in comparison to other day-to-day priorities.

Here at Civilla, strengthening the unemployment insurance system was a dream of ours for many years. Early on in the pandemic, we saw how much strain the system was under and how many people were being impacted by it. We wanted to help change that.

Other Civilla dream projects have come from the past experiences of our team members, observations in the world around us, and the partner institutions we work alongside. They typically reflect our mission and shared values.

Beginning to articulate your dream projects can be a powerful first step. What’s the impact you hope to leave in the world? By putting it to paper, you’ll more clearly be able to recognize the right moment, time, and conditions to bring it to life.

where dream meets reality

Bringing a dream project to life can often feel overwhelming—where do you begin?

At Civilla, we start by stepping into research. Discovery research helps us understand a system through the eyes of the people who are closest to it. It allows us to surface themes, tell a story about what’s happening, and offer proofs of concept for solutions that pull people’s imagination’s closer to what could be—all of which are important in building support.

Our team recently spent 6 months speaking with residents and frontline workers impacted by Michigan’s unemployment system before beginning to design for it. Going deep allows us to see challenges and pain points more clearly, and uncover key dominos that will have the biggest impact.

Though it can be time intensive at the start, research allows you to transform dream projects from something aspirational to something achievable. What can you go after within a quarter, year, or administration to make a lasting impact?

power in numbers

Change rarely happens alone. Having the right partners can help bring your dream to life.

For our team, partnering with the Director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, Julia Dale, has created space for our work and amplified its impact.

Julia is a courageous leader who came into the role at a pivotal moment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UIA had just begun to emerge from an influx of pressure, demands, and lawsuits. In the midst of that, Julia brought strong leadership combined with deep empathy.

As a leader, Julia focuses on listening to residents, employers, and her frontline team. With their feedback, she advocates for finding solutions not just for the short term, but for the long haul. By working together, we’ve been able to shape a human-centered vision for what unemployment insurance delivery can look like and have begun taking steps towards that future.

As you begin to bring others into your vision, look for leaders and individuals who share your beliefs and can help amplify the work. For our team, the single most important factor in dream project success has been partnering with like-minded leaders like Julia who are willing to team up and make change together.

creating time & space

For most leaders, the biggest challenge in going after dream projects is time. With other priorities requiring your attention, how do you create dedicated space to focus on your dreams and the legacy you hope to leave behind?

What we’ve learned through ours, is that these efforts can start small and grow over time. Rather than launch a new strategic initiative out the gate, consider pulling a small and passionate team around the dream project to do some initial research. Use it to create a proof of concept to start the conversation and help people imagine what’s possible. The work, and support for it, can build over time. As it does, your dream project will begin to earn more time and space within your organization.

Dream projects are meant to inspire, not overwhelm. Consider this the first step in a journey towards those things that have felt important to you as a leader for a long time.

Together, we hope to keep the conversation going around dream projects. The more we hold ourselves as leaders accountable to what ought to be, the more beautiful our civil society can become.