growing communities

Breaking the Ice

Here are three great ice breakers for meetings, as described in a recent column in the environmentalist.  They are:

  • what we have in common;
  • human bingo;
  • getting to know you.

NB the photo used to illustrate the article is not a meeting set-up I would recommend. And what's with all those tissues...?

Use, adapt, enjoy, tell me how it goes, and warm things up a bit.

Kübler-Ross on the Parkland Walk

We got together with friends to go for a walk last Saturday: an urban jaunt of six miles or so, starting from our homes in N16 (North London).  We picked up the Capital Ring walk at the Castle Climbing Centre, stopping off to have a quick look at the thriving fruit and vegetable garden round the back.  Part of this site is run by Growing Communities as part of its Patchwork Farm, and supplies salad to local organic eaterie the Fat Cat Cafe on Stoke Newington Church Street. On past the reservoirs and we followed the canal round to Finsbury Park, where local Transition Town group were holding some sort of event.  We stop for a bit of cake (no tea, sadly) and soak up the optimistic face of local resilience.

On to the Parkland Walk.  This is a disused railway line which has become a much-loved and well-used path for cyclists, walkers and runners.

This is where we met the Kübler-Ross change curve, restyled as an artwork helping Parkland Walk passers-by move "From ignorance to bliss... confronting the psychology of Peak Oil".

I've been impressed at how useful this model is in helping us to understand our reactions to climate change since being introduced to it in this context by David Ballard some years ago.

The artwork had the different stages at intervals along the path, each marked by a word and ceramic faces hanging down around it.  Enjoy this selection.

Our little party responded to this conversation piece.  It was a chance to explain Peak Oil, and discuss its likely consequences.   We also pondered the different ways you might "accept" climate change.

I was reminded once again about how much of my work at the moment is about adapting to climate change (for example, facilitating stakeholder workshops about managed realignment at Medmerry and a separate stakeholder engagement process of UK's first Climate Change Risk Assessment).

It was a chance to discuss terminal illness and debate the validity of the change curve. And we also wondered about the ceramic faces - which of them embodied the stages most convincingly?

Tasting the Future – tangy fresh process

As you may have noticed, I'm a process aficionado. I love to hear about innovative ways of helping people have the conversations they need.  I love to try out new processes as a facilitator and a participant.  I network with fellow facilitators through AMED, the IAF and a facilitators' group on linked-in.  I read about unorthodox approaches, and sometimes I even try them with paying clients.

On Monday, I had the great treat of being a participant in someone else's workshop.  There I saw for real - not in a training setting - open space, world cafe, graphic facilitation and live plenary mind mapping all used during the same meeting.

The event was the first 'assembly' for Tasting the Future, a collaborative whole-systems attempt to innovate the food system.   It was organised by WWF, ADAS, the Food and Drink Federation and Food Ethics Council. Facilitation was provided by Hara Practice and Natural Innovation and other members of the hosting team.  There were also some people doing graphic recording, from Intuitive Intelligence Training.

Some exciting conversations and actions emerged, and you can read more about them on the Tasting the Future ning.  I'm going share some of the things I learned about process.

Dressing the room

When we arrived we sat where we liked at small tables covered with flip chart paper, with a small stack of coloured pens, crayons and chalk. There were small bowls of sweets and a colourful cartoon diagram introducing us to world cafe. And on each table there was a unique food or herb seedling, grown at Hackney City Farm, which you could buy to take home if you liked. Plants included apple mint, chamomile, lettuces, cabbage and tomato.

There was also this great picture story of our lunch: very appropriate for an event like this.

Setting the tone

There were a couple of phrases I scribbled down during the opening session.  The hosting team asked us to be strong enough to work with our differences, to become a community of innovators, to speak with intention.  We were invited to 'listen louder' if we disagreed with what someone was saying, so that we could better understand their perspective rather than blot it out with our own.

Meta-planning

Following couple of rounds of world cafe, we were asked to come up with our best ideas about what we wanted to change in the current system.  We wrote these on A5 size stickies, and these were then meta-planned (clustered) in plenary. Bear in mind there were over 100 participants, and the facilitators among you will recognise the audacity of this.  The hosting team had mikes and runners, and the lead facilitator began as usual by asking for any one idea.  She then asked people with the same idea on their sticky note to shout 'snap!'.  This was a great way of gathering up the clusters very rapidly.  A supporter did the actual sticking up, while the facilitator asked for the next idea.  It didn't take long for all the ideas to be gathered and clustered.

Whole group mind-mapping

Another daring bit of process for such a large group was the method used to identify topics for the subsequent open space session on action planning.  We all gathered around a long wall, where a large blank area of paper was taped up.

The focus question was posed: "Where do we need to take action?".  (Actually there was an adjective in there, but my memory and my photo have let me down.  Could've been 'where do we need to take collective action' or 'urgent action'.)  Then the facilitator asked us to write our name legibly on a sticky note if we had an idea we wanted to add to the mind map.  Rules for the mind map included that there's no such thing as a bad idea, it's fine to disagree with a previous idea, and the owner of the idea gets to say where on the map it goes.  There were support facilitators  collecting up the names so the lead facilitator could call people by name. Other members of the team had mikes and ensured each person making a contribution could be heard.  Two of the team were scribes, with four colours of marker pens.  As a new theme and idea was added, the scribes would write it up on the evolving map.

One at a time, those who wanted to offered ideas for action, and said whether they were twigs to add to existing branches, or new branches.  This went on for about 30 minutes.  It was beautifully controlled, and everyone who wanted to had an opportunity to contribute.

When the mind map was complete, we were each given three dots and invited to use them to indicate which actions we thought were the most important.  Over tea, the dots were counted and around a dozen action areas were identified which had enough support to be the topics for the subsequent open space action planning session.

Open space

Over tea the room was rearranged so there was one large circle in the middle.  The topics which had emerged from the mind map were written up on large pieces of paper, each with a number which corresponded to a numbered part of the room.  The method of sorting out who went to which session was simpler than I'd seen before.  There was no signing up of participants to different topics, or assigning topics to time slots.  Instead, there was one 50 minute time slot.  Within that time, participants could go to whichever topic they wanted, and leave it whenever they wanted.  This is the law of two feet.  Topics were hosted by volunteer hosts, who put themselves forward while the open space was being organised.  If a topic didn't have a host, it didn't run.  There was also the opportunity for hosts to offer additional topics, and I think one was proposed at this stage.

Very soon we were ready to go to our spaces and discuss our topic. The host had a prepared flip where they were asked to record key information: topic title, who hosted, who participated, three key points to share and actions the group would take (if any).  The guidance was very clear on actions: they were to be things someone in the group had agreed to take on, not recommendations for action by others.  As the facilitator said "We're the ones we've been waiting for".

Graphic recording

As the day progressed, a team of graphic recorders captured the highlights in this lovely illustration.

Update

There have now been three Assemblies and other meetings and workshops as part of Tasting the Future. Check out the prospectus for more details.

What does growth look like, for an alternative enterprise?

Growing Communities is an inspiring social enterprise which grows and trades organic, seasonal fruit and veg in Hackney, North London.  Transparency alert: I'm the chair of the Board. It has three core activities:

  • growing food, mostly salads, in its urban market gardens.  The salad bags and other produce are sold through its own outlets, which are...
  • ...a weekly organic 'veg box' scheme, with food going to around 3,000 people...
  • ...and the UK's first weekly organic Farmers' Market.

The organisation was first set up by a small group of friends and neighbours paying in advance for produce to be produced on a single farm: a classic community supported agriculture scheme.  Later, grant funding from sources like the National Lottery, the Esme Fairburn Foundation and the Bridge House Estates Trust provided the capital for starting up new initiatives.  Hats off to all of them!

Trading fruit and veg through the box scheme, and an entrepreneurial can-do attitude meant that Growing Communities could, after a short time, move to being self-funding.  This freedom enables it to be nimble and to change rapidly as it learns about how to make this alternative local food system work.  Its work has always coupled a radical and strategic vision, with a deeply practical approach.  Standing on its own two feet financially is a value as well as a tactic. It demonstrates to customers, members, suppliers and the wider world, that an alternative food system can work even in the current context.

It also makes growth possible - bootstrapping rather than dependent on grant funding and subsidies.

Good growth

But what does growth mean for an alternative enterprise like Growing Communities?

Its principles and structure (its box-scheme customers are voting members who attend AGMs in surprisingly large numbers and elect the Board a.k.a. 'Management Committee') mean that it is community-led.  So a growth model which involves moving into a new area and opening up a mirror image of the Hackney original isn't good enough.  What about simply opening more outlets in Hackney, and growing the local customer base?  Yes, Growing Communities has done some of that, and intends to do more, with its satellite pick-up points for the weekly veg bags.  The things limiting the growth of the Farmers' Market include limitations on the space where it is held, limits on the amount of produce small farmers and growers can grow, and a dearth of small producers who fit the exacting criteria: e.g. local, organic, and producers / growers who sell their own produce, not someone else's.

Growing Communities wants to keep the community-led, local value while providing a stable and reliable market for sustainably-produced food which will enable more growers to build strong (albeit small) businesses.

The growth model also needs to be very lean - Growing Communities can't provide capital funding or flashy materials, and it can't expect fat franchise fees from the new organisations - which, like Growing Communities, will be social enterprises or some other form of not-for-profit structure.  And because every community is different, an emergent learning approach makes sense.

Mentoring and action learning model

So it's adopted a growth strategy which involves closely supporting other organisations which want to set up their own version of the Growing Communities model. The first few 'start ups' will be intensively supported with workshops, training, resources (things like copies of the ordering system, model contracts) and hands-on problem solving.  As the 'start ups' get going, their learning and experience will be captured in a series of on-line briefings, which will then be available to the next tranche of start-ups.  There will also be on-line discussions, so everyone can learn from each other.

This programme is being funded partly from the organisation's own resources, and partly by UnLtd, the social entrepreneur's organisation, which has provided some funding already. As it progresses, the idea is that successful start-ups will also help to fund the programme of live support and detailed guidance materials, and deliver parts of it.

Interested?

If you're interested in setting up a transformational pioneering food organisation, then check out the start up website here.

If you're interested in what it means for a sustainable organisation to grow, without being beholden to short-termist shareholders, being in debt to a bank or being dependent on grant funding, then keep an eye on Growing Communities.

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?

It seems to me that the distinction is brought most sharply into focus when critical mass is needed to make a behaviour viable.  Want to buy more locally-produced food?  A farmers’ market or a local veggie box scheme needs a critical mass of producers and customers to be viable.  Setting up a lift share scheme?  You’re going to need more than two members.  Freecycling?  Hackney Freecycle has over 17,000 members (yes, really) generating about 1,500 messages about free stuff for giving and taking a month.

Now this kind of critical mass isn’t going to be important for all the behaviours you want to change, which is probably why the distinctions isn’t so clear in some of the descriptions.  But where it is, then special attention needs to be given to recruiting the mass.

  • How will you make it as widely-known as possible?
  • How will you make it simple for people to let you know they’re up for it?
  • How will you make it easy to store information about a pool of people and then ‘activate’ them you have enough mass to start things?
  • And how will you use their good ideas and information to shape the system, so that it works for enough of them?

There’s a virtuous circle which can come into play here.  This was brought home to me by a stakeholder engagement planning meeting which I ran last week with a community organisation which has been awarded substantial funding through the Low Carbon Communities Challenge.  We did a quick brainstorm of all the non-carbon related ‘social capital’ in their village – the formal and informal organisations which bring people together and build a sense of community.  The population is about 2,000 and the group came up with over thirty formal groups, clubs or regular events (one for every 67 people!) and a host of informal groupings.  Active community organisations build community channels and hubs for conversation.  Members will have more connection with each other, and more trust, than people who are merely residents of the same place.  So a critical mass of ‘warm’ people is much easier to find.

I was bowled over by how many active societies there are, and we all felt very positive about the potential for drawing on this wonderful resource for the low-carbon activities the group has planned.

Actions we take which help build community – in our neighbourhoods or workplaces – all add to the web of interconnections which form fertile soil for future behaviour change.

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?