Time and money – the impossible balance


I recently did a short unpaid session on “team-building” or “how to be a good coop member” type of thing for a small animal rescue charity. I’d been asked by a friend who volunteers there to help with some staff issues, and she felt that a day spending time on their working relationships would be beneficial. I had a phone meeting with the woman who runs the charity and is overall manager, who gave me a picture of a group “who would rather set each other up to fail than help each other”, didn’t take a pride on their work and were not team players. We agreed that we needed to develop trust, appreciation, understanding and support for each other, with some communication awareness added in.  I developed a 4 hour session with activities and times for reflection to cover all of those elements.

One of these activities was the Chairs Game, where each person is given a different instruction about what to do with a set of chairs and they have to work together as a group to fulfil all of these instructions without showing them to others, or fail. They completed it beautifully in ten minutes, through making suggestions “How about we move the chairs over there?” ” I’m sitting down, why don’t you all join me?”, listening to each other, compromising “I’d prefer it if the chairs were more like this”, being thoughtful and observant. It was the last exercise of the session and quite a challenging one, but I had not expected it to go quite so smoothly. They laughed and joked and admitted to a great sense of achievement, though one of them was a bit worried she’d been “too bossy” which was contradicted by others  – “No you made suggestions and we did it as it might have got us somewhere, and it did!”

Observing this and other moments during the session I felt that this was not at all a dysfunctional team. Communication issues and lack of clarity about who was doing what, which were causing stress and feelings of being ignored or undervalued, emerged. As so often, there were also issues of power and rank at play, and by accepting the original assessment and request without question I had become complicit in the structure. What I should have done is spent time observing the situation and also insisted that everyone be involved in the training session, as everyone is part of the team. But if a client has decided what it is they want (and are paying you to do), can the trainer/facilitator refuse to do that and offer to do something else which will be much more relevant and effective and will really change things – will be a catalytic intervention?

I’ve been in discussion with another client recently about some work which, when we started talking, was one thing and an hour later had turned into something else completely as we dissected the reasons behind the request. The more time we can spend talking with clients, finding out exactly what is needed, not what they think is needed, the better and more satisfying the work we do and the more substantial the changes we help to make. But time is money and of course money seems to be more important – a quick fix is what is often looked for. If we say, “But you will actually get greater quality and a better outcome if we spend more time talking with you and others, and really the session should be a full day not a few hours”,  people may think we’re just trying to get paid more. Yes and no – we want above all to do a good job, to make real change, to be effective. We can, and often, do it with less time and for less money but the risk is that it will be neither satisfying for the facilitator, nor, in the end, valuable for the client. As a coop which works with small coops, community and grassroots groups we also want to be able to offer our time for what is affordable, to give top quality for less than we need to charge. Last year our income was half what it had been the previous year, as funding and “luxuries” such as training and facilitation are cut. Do we cut our costs and cut down the time and effort we spend on each client’s project? Do we hang on to delivering quality work for a decent wage? Answers please…




A lurch to the dwight

Our journey through the community that is the Rhizome blog wouldn’t be complete without talking to the blogger Dwight Towers. We’ve interacted with his blog, and he with ours for almost as long as we’ve been around. Here’s a brief interview:

It’s obvious from your blog that you’re an avid reader. So…

your favourite dystopian read and why?
So many!!  Brave New World was extremely challenging. Whose side are you on? Mond’s or the “Savage”.  That said, I’ve not read BNW for 20 years…
favourite utopian read and why?
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – showed me how and why no utopia is without the egos and status games, no matter how ‘egalitarian’ it is.
single most life-changing read?
Gah!!  Probably World Orders, Old and New by Noam Chomsky.  The pieces of
the puzzle started to be re-arranged into a logical pattern…

Your blog’s full of neologisms. What’s your all time favourite?
Smugosphere!!  Because it is so easily understood, and enrages people who
police the borders of the smugosphere.

It’s also obvious that you attend a lot of meetings, events, workshops etc, and equally obvious you find many of them painful and enraging. What’s the worst of a very bad lot and why?
I’d say the October 2006 Climate Camp meeting that was facipulated to get ‘consensus’ on having another camp in 2007, without any discussion of the dangers in going down that path.  That said, I should be grateful, because it helped me start the necessary process of disengagement and disentanglement, so I ended up being a lot less cooked by the climate camp bonfire than other people

It can’t all be bad (can it?). What’s your most uplifting meeting moment (walking out the door doesn’t count)?
When people decide that it matters to talk to strangers, and they start finding common ground

Here’s one I like to call “Desert island dicks”. Who are the people – real or archetypes – we should strand on a desert island and not save from the waves?
The pseudo-anarchists who proclaim themselves as great critics of power (state and corporate) but fawn over charlatans who know how to stroke their egos, and then start a lynch-mob against anyone who demurs to adore the charlatan. They can FUCK. RIGHT. OFF.

One blog, other than your own and our own, that Rhizome readers should visit?

  • Dave Pollard’s How to Save the World. I don’t always agree of course, but he’s asking a lot of the right questions, and coming up with some damn good answers.
  • Glasgow Sex Worker (now defunct?), on feminism, patriarchy, puritans etc.

The motto you live you life by in 140 characters….
Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.  It’s later than you think, and remember that the last laugh is on you…

Just what do you want?

The Rhizome blog’s been kind of quiet of late. One thing that might change that is you. We asked ourselves what was stopping us posting, and for some of us it’s astumbleweed simple as not knowing enough about who you are and what you want. So why not tell us? In fact, why not use this space to tell us.

You are hereby invited to guest post on the Rhizome blog – tell us about you, or your work, or your worldview. It’s a blatant opportunity to self-publicise, promote your work or cause, tell us your favourite joke and simultaneously help us to understand what makes you tick at the same time.

We always intended this to be a community space and you are that community.

If you need a little prompting, then get in touch and we can chat to you by the communication medium of your choice and your guest post can be an interview instead.

It’s that or the tumbleweed continues…

Strategy……or evolutionary purpose?

We recently blogged about Rhizome’s internal discussions on strategy. Here’s more on one perspective in that discussion:

Values are obviously very important in helping people make decisions about how to prioritise one thing over another when there are various options. But to continue the metaphor, if you arrive at any place on a map, and you have your compass with you, then your compass will help you find your way- if you know where you want to go. A compass doesn’t help you decide where to go. For me, having values without some sense of direction/purpose/strategy certainly helps in some contexts, but doesn’t do the job for me in terms of helping with all of the many complex and subtle decisions that are made in organisations. It leaves too much open to individual opinion and interpretation, which can then take a lot of time to process, normally in some kind of group context. That’s fine if you want to be in an organisation which spends a lot of time processing individual feelings, exploring interpretations and creating shared understandings about lots of stuff which is undefined- but not so much if you want to get a lot of stuff done effectively! Its like having a map, and a compass, but not knowing where you are going and not having any criteria about how to decide that either.

So I do think there is a need for some sense of organisational purpose, but not in the sense of a traditional ‘Mission Statement’. I find the notion of evolutionary purpose more helpful here than a traditional mission statement. More conventional ways of thinking about mission and vision involve a leader individually, or a group collectively, exploring and sharing their ideas about what they would like to happen/the world to be like/the organisation to do, find what is shared and create a sense of shared purpose around this. One of the problems with this is, as Brian Robertson, one of the founders of Holacracy says, that it can foster a sense of individual and personal attachment to the mission/ vision/ purpose of the organisation which the leader or group comes up with. These attachments can then get in the way of the purpose being achieved, as we can identify with them and this process invites our egos to get involved. Evolutionary purpose on the other hand is about listening to what needs to happen and being in service to that.

And its about a different kind of ‘listening’ too. The more conventional kind of listening to what’s required from the environment is often done in the form of market research, user-consultation, stakeholder engagement etc. These ways use our minds to engage with the world and what is needed, which is important and necessary. There is another form of listening, which is done beyond the mind. Its not rational or evidence based. Its more transpersonal, where we sense into what is looking to pop up next in the evolutionary unfolding of the universe. What is there, not yet manifest, but waiting to be realised? An organisational purpose which coalesces around this can be a powerful attractor. This is an example of where the two domains of personal/spiritual and group development overlap, and is where its helpful to an organisation for the people involved to have meditation and mindfulness practices. This is dealt with in the work of people like Andrew Cohen and Craig Hamilton’s spiritual teachings on the Evolutionary Impulse.

Its about making a distinction between pushing and pulling. If we have an idea about what we want to happen, we can push to make it happen, and our egos can get engaged and this makes getting it done complicated. On the other hand, if we listen to what is needed in the surrounding environment, that will serve the evolution of the whole, we can be pulled in that direction. Values obviously inform this, and so are necessary, but not sufficient. When we listen to what is needed, and an organisation’s purpose can be formed around this, we can then be in service of that. Being in service to an organisation’s evolutionary purpose can help us disidentify from our ego’s getting tangled up in achieving the purpose. And most crucially, it can provide criteria to help people in the making of the hundred’s of small decisions as well as the big ones, that are needed in any organisation which is being effective in getting things done.

And once there is a sense of purpose, values can help in working out how to achieve that purpose (how to get to where you want to go), and a strategy doesn’t have to be a fixed plan about how it happens. It can be a framework which is referred to which help people decide which path to choose from a range of available options in any one moment.


Strategy…….or Unstrategy (here be dragons!)

mapbigStrategy, emerging strategy or unstrategy? 3 approaches the Rhizome coop discussed at our last meeting. We didn’t reach unanimity. We didn’t push for a consensus decision – in the relatively short time we had together it’s unlikely we would have reached consensus anyway.

We’ve grown in recent months and at the meeting potential new coop members were trying to get a better feel for who we are and what we do. So the question of our strategy arose naturally and inevitably. After all there’s usually a document somewhere that contains a mission statement, a set of objectives and so on, that allow the reader insight into who an organisation is, and what they try to do in the world and how they go about achieving it. Perfectly reasonable to expect Rhizome to have one. And yet we don’t.

When we founded Rhizome, Carl and I took a decision that we wouldn’t write policies and mission statements. Instead we’d publish our values and the work we were doing, and be held to account by being as transparent as we can through this blog and elsewhere. This post is in itself part of that drive for transparency.

So we found ourselves in tension (and I don’t mean to imply that’s a bad thing). We discussed whether the time had come to write our mission statement and plot our strategy; whether we could work with an emerging strategy by stating our desired end point but being flexible as to how we got there – adapting to the terrain as time and events shaped it; or whether we shouldn’t even map out an end point and simply continue to state our values and use those as a filter for all of the decisions we make – a sort of unstrategy.

If we worked by majority I’d say we were moving towards the latter, an unstrategy, a conscious decision not to put energy and time into creating a detailed map of the world and the work we do in it, but to put that same energy into cultivating and holding firm to our collective values and using those as a compass by which we navigate whatever terrain we encounter. I like this approach – it works for me. If we ever come across new territory, marked only “here be dragons” we’re not paralysed because we always carry our values compass with us.

But there are downsides, and it would be foolish to pretend there weren’t. And these were strongly articulated, meaning this is very much a live discussion within the coop.

One argument is simply about our credibility. We are asked to support and facilitate others in their attempt to map out the world and their path through it to their desired endpoint. And yet we might not have undertaken that same process ourselves.

Another is about identity and consensus. Can we have a clear and shared identity and purpose without a clearly defined strategy? And if we don’t have that clarity can we really do consensus decision-making. After all the final safety net of consensus is the block – a veto to stop a group doing something that would damage their integrity. Many would say that the yardstick against which the validity of the block is measured is a group’s shared identity and purpose. If we go down the route of an unstrategy, we’re substituting that with shared values – is that enough?

The discussion will no doubt continue when we next meet. We’ll also be posting more on the individual perspectives we’re hearing as part of the conversation. It’s an important dialogue. It may be a make or break decision for those interested in joining Rhizome. And as always we welcome your wisdom…..


Filthy Lucre

It’s a pretty mad world when a project’s sustainability is measured by its ability to bring in a sufficient amount of money. Forget the changes it makes, the experience, wisdom, energy of the people involved. But there you have it folks. That’s capitalism. And sadly here at Rhizome we’re not exempt.

Generally folk in our movement are not great at talking about money. Maybe it’s a UK cultural thing? Maybe it’s a class thing? When I’m negotiating a fee with a client I’m never sure who’s most embarrassed – me or them! That needs to change.

So for a while now I’ve been thinking of giving you a peek behind the scenes at how the whole money thing works here at Rhizome – as an attempt to demystify the whole money thing. But how to pitch it? No-one wants to hear us whine about being cash strapped, and I don’t want to write that.

When we’re asked to do a piece of work we usually offer a sliding scale. But we don’t always offer much information to allow an organsation to know where to place itself on the scale. From time to time we get asked “what criteria should we use?”. Great question. I hope this post helps.

Rhizome’s an odd creature. We’re a co-op, but a type of co-op called a co-operative consortium. In essence that means we’re a collective of freelance facilitators, trainers and mediators. We’re all self-employed but band together under the Rhizome banner for mutual support, and to offer you a coherent and yet diverse resource.

The nature of self-employment means that much, often the majority, of our working week is unpaid. All that admin, promotion, networking, ongoing learning (so that we can be better at the work we offer you) and much more is done on our time and at our expense. Then, of course, at present the majority of Rhizome’s work is with unfunded organisations or groups – so we do that for free or donations. So when we do get paid, we need to get paid a reasonable rate. We might only be getting paid for a handful of days in the month.

I have a feeling that on occasion when I name a rate for a potential client there’s a sharp intake of breath and a quick mental calculation – “£350 a day? that’s £1750 a week which is over £90 grand a year“. Hmmmmm, not by a long chalk. And that’s OK because Rhizome folk don’t aspire to that kind of money.

Recently I spoke with a potential client, a small charity in Bristol. We chatted about fees and I explained that we were OK with something significantly lower than a commercial rate, but aspired to a sustainable rate. The client commented that she’d spoken to a neighbour that facilitated for government at £175 an hour. It puts our £350 a day example into context.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s take the £350 figure, because it seems pretty common:

Sadly it’s often not £350 a day, but £350 for a piece of work (a 1 day training, for example). But that’s not a day’s work. We prepare, often in detail and at length. 1 day spent with a client can easily be 2 1/2 to 3 days of work, if not more. Then there’s time spent travelling. Let’s call it £350 for 3 days work. £117 a day. That’s about the national average wage, right? Not for the self-employed. Firstly Rhizome takes a 20% cut to support the ongoing development of the organisation, and pay for inevitable collective expenses. And in the long term to build up a kitty to pay for co-ordination time. So £93.60 a day.

Unlike employees we cover our own national insurance, pay for our own IT equipment and support, insurance, our own office costs, materials for the work we’ve done for you and more. We don’t have HR people to fill in our forms, IT departments to help us avoid frustrating hours trying to get the printer to work. We either do it ourselves or we pay for someone else to do it out of our own pockets. In reality £93 is much closer to the minimum wage than you’d imagine.

OK, I’m in danger of slipping into that whine I mentioned. Apologies. What I’m driving at is that that’s not a sustainable income for Rhizome members and not enough to pay our co-ordinators. Fortunately we’re attracted to Rhizome for non-monetary reasons too – the collective space in which to learn and share and grow; the opportunity to work with great organisations and groups; to make the “catalytic interventions” we talk about in our internal meetings; and to feel like they’re making a difference.

So what can we do? And what can you do to help?

One issue we hit time and again is the limitations to the budgets of the folk we work with. Even in organisations with multi-million turnovers, the training or event budget for activists and the capacity builders that support them is tiny. When we ask for our £350 fee we could be wiping out the entire budget for an event. So there’s some long-term education to be done. How do we get those who hold the purse strings in organisations to appreciate that they need to budget more, to prioritise differently, if they want folk like us to be a sustainable resource?

Here are other ways to show your appreciation for the work we do if you can’t pay us that sustainable rate –

  • write us a blog post sharing the experience of working with us (good and bad).
  • use other social media as well as good old-fashioned word of mouth
  • mention our contribution to your work to your funders – more and more grant funders are refusing unsolicited applications, and we need to get their attention in other ways
  • if you know of sources of funding for the work we do, tell us about them – don’t assume that we already know. We’re very happy to work with you on joint funding applications too…
  • put realistic figures in your funding bids – don’t think what could we get Rhizome to do it for. Think what are they worth.
  • talk to your managers – show them this post, put them in touch so that they can appreciate the need to increase your budget
  • use us more – we’re a talented bunch – training, facilitation, mediation, capacity building, consultancy, coaching and mentoring, research, writing and so much more. As a collective, we have well over a century of experience of doing this stuff, and of doing it well.
  • pay us more when you have it. We’ve used an example of £350 for a piece of work. That really needs to be £350 a day for our long-term sustainability. So for pieces of work where you do have good funding pay us at least that.
  • put up with us getting tougher on you. Being hard-nosed business types doesn’t necessarily come easy to us, but it’s likely to be necessary
  • acknowledge the reality, don’t be embarrassed. We think you do a great job. Many of you think we do a great job too. That’s appreciated, but we can’t guarantee to be there to keep doing that job until we reach a sustainable equilibrium. And we’re some way from that.

In fact recently a few of us discussed whether our fee needed to include a commitment to doing some of the things from the list above – ie £350 + travel + a blog post (or contribution to one)

We’re worth every penny and a good few more besides!


Rhizome gathering – ten out of ten

It’s not that long ago Rhizome was just Carl and myself. Then last November Emily, Hannah, Jo, Maria and Perry joined as associates. Then there were seven.

We met again for 2 days last week in the straw bale room of Hackney City Farm. It was a dynamic meeting that took in Soma games, an introduction to Holacracy, and discussions on our purpose and our place in the world in which we work, as well as on the details of our governance and co-ordination.

We’re still in that post meeting haze of collecting all the various write-ups, and photos of flipcharts into a set of coherent notes. We’ll share the highlights with you through the blog.

One thing that was decided is that we are now 10. Adam, Gill and Nick have joined the co-op. Their biographies will appear on our Who we are pages as and when we find the time, and their views and learning on this blog over the coming weeks and months. They bring with them a wealth of experience  and practice drawn from co-operatives, eco-villages, the women’s movement, experience of consultancy and management, the Transition movement, community development and much more. That makes Rhizome an even more exciting co-op to work in, and a stronger resource for you.

Rhizome: another year in the life

Rhizome is two years old! This year has been the year of cuts, Occupy, the Dale Farm eviction, riots in the streets of several UK cities and so much more,an interesting year to be doing the work we do.

The biggest development in our second year as Rhizome was our expansion from just 2 to a whopping 7 people involved in the co-op. Having said in last years report-back that we didn’t feel we had much to offer new folk, we took the time to listen to those who were interested in getting involved. Most of them told us that the collective work environment, skill sharing, peer support and so on were as important as, or more important than, access to regular paying work. We heard that we got a lot of offers of work, and interesting work at that.

So in November 2011, 7 of us gathered for 2 days (with another 4 people unable to make the gathering, but still interested). By the end of the gathering existing Rhizome folk were happy to welcome everyone aboard, and everyone was still keen to get aboard. We’ve still got a lot to hammer out in terms of policies and processes, but we checked in on values and aspirations, and are keeping the dialogue alive through shared practice in the form of co-facilitation at all possible opportunities.

To me, it feels as if there are already significant and positive differences in our approach and practice – the inevitable result of co-facilitation with energetic, interesting and interested facilitators. At our gathering we talked about making radical, ‘catalytic interventions’ in the groups we work with. That seems to be happening, and is being well received.

In the coming year we’ll meet again, and almost certainly bring in at least some of the 4 folk who weren’t able to join us the first time around. We’ll get down to details and discuss our internal processes to ensure equitable distribution of work, to maximise sharing of ideas, energy and skills, to strengthen relationships and give newer folk the chance to see whether Rhizome is for them in practice as well as in principle

We try to be transparent wherever possible. To that end as we evolve processes we’ll let you know about them through the About Us pages of our website. As always we welcome your input and feedback from your own experience and ideas

There are distinct benefits for the movement(s) within which we’re active. Clearly there’s more capacity available in a co-op of 7 than a co-op of 2 (which is how we started). But more importantly, an expanded Rhizome brings a wider range of experience, resources and skills to the communities, organisations and groups we work with. And of course it brings new focus and energy to Rhizome as a learning community – and the more we learn from each other, the better a resource we are for the movement.

Walking our walk

Sticking with the same format we used last year, we’ve broken this down into:

  • Who we’ve worked with
  • What work we’ve done
  • Our footprint – choices we’ve made
  • A few issues that we’re dealing with at the moment

Who we’ve worked with

In the last year we’ve trained, facilitated, and offered phone and email support to a wide variety of groups, networks and organisations. Some we worked with for the first time, with others we maintained and developed our existing relationships:

38 Degrees | Amnesty International UK | Climate Camp/Climate Justice Collective |Climate Rush | Christian Ecology Link | Co-operatives UK | Fairtrade Foundation | Greenpeace UK | Leeds University People & Planet | Building Activist Networks Forum | Peace News Summer Gathering | Quaker Peace and Social Witness | Radical Media Conference | Suma Wholefoods | Steiner School Leicester | Stop New Nuclear | Talk Action | The Land Is Ours | Transition Leicester | UK Feminista | Wildlife and Countryside Link | World Development Movement

The following word clouds give you some idea of the nature of the work we’ve done, its proportion (bigger the word the higher the proportion) :

and how much work we did for paying clients and how much we did for free (or just for expenses):

This is in similar proportion to last year, and probably too weighted towards free work for our long-term sustainability, especially now there are more mouths to feed.

Of that work here’s how it broke down in terms of facilitation of meetings and training, and the other support we offer (consultancy work, mediation, phone and email support etc):


Rhizome online

We continue to blog and maintain a role within a community of online activists and facilitators. It’s a role that we could usefully devote more time to, and as new Rhizome folk settle in we hope you’ll hear more of their voices on the blog. The blog has attracted an increasing number of readers – in terms of hits on the website, every month in the last year has been better than our best month in our first year. We’ve more than doubled our readership and have jumped from 56th most influential UK environment blog to the 23rd and then slipped a little to 30th. Our most widely read post is our brief history of consensus decision-making.

We’ve also uploaded many new resources to the website, especially around consensus decision-making, mediation and open space, and overhauled many more. This is an ongoing process – there are more to overhaul, and some obvious omissions. Your suggestions for subjects you’d like to see our take on very welcome. We’ll also continue to signpost readers to some of the best resources that exist elsewhere online.

Our ecological and social footprint

Nothing major has changed in the last 12 months:

We still bank with Triodos Bank. We still insure with Towergate Professional Risks. We’ve continued to use the services of green designer Stig to design new resources. We also entered into a relationship with Coopportunity, a fellow co-op, who have dealt with some of our accountancy needs. We’re still travelling by foot, bike, bus and train or not at all when we can deal with something by phone skype or email.

Issues arising for Rhizome

We thought we’d share some issues that are ‘live’ for us this far into the journey that is Rhizome.

Finance: Last year we said “Times are hard, unless you happen to work for a transnational bank, energy company, or be a Tory cabinet minister. Times are especially hard for a lot of the folk we traditionally work for. That translates as hard times for us. We haven’t brought in as much paying work as we’d hoped to despite reasonably good contacts, and, we think, decent reputations. We’re exploring a few avenues, writing a few funding bids, but not expecting miracles. One of the consequences of hard times is that we’ve been slower than expected to expand the pool of people who make up Rhizome.” and not that much has changed except for taking on new folk regardless. We haven’t put as much time and energy into fundraising as we ought to have but hopefully we’ll address that in the coming year. It’ll certainly be on the agenda of our June co-op gathering. Meantime you know where we are if you want to support our free work!

The running of a diverse network of facilitators: Now we are 7, with another 3 possibles coming along to our June gathering, we have to address issues of policy and procedures head on. When there were just 2 such things worked better organically, and at times they may still work best that way but not everything and not every time. So we have some work to do making decisions such as:

  • how to allocate work out equitably amongst the co-op taking into account a host of factors such as people’s existing skills, their desire to develop skills or learn new ones, geography, how significant a part of their income Rhizome work is and much more
  • refining a decision-making process that works for a co-op of busy people based in London, Leicester and Manchester – regular face-to-face meetings aren’t possible, so how do we decide? How do we use social networking, the phone and so on? What decisions need full co-op input? Basic stuff, but still in development!

Engaging with the movement: As we said at the beginning – it’s been a momentous year for activism. The Arab Spring has fired the imaginations of activists across the globe, and the Occupy movement and its cousin the 99% Spring are clear evidence of that. Have Rhizome done enough to get involved with these emerging movements? Personally I’d say no. We’ve joined the community of bloggers talking about the issues that arise. Some of us have wandered through Occupy encampments and spent short periods of time there, for example, but we’ve not had much of a sense of collective involvement. That means we’re missing out on the growth and development of techniques like consensus. Sometimes that’s a good thing (it can be painful and frustrating to see movements making the same mistakes that were made just a few years before…), but new ideas and new ways of expressing old ideas do emerge and we need to stay relevant. That’ll change when we settle into better communication channel and share the individual experiences we have.

Anything else you want to know?

We said we wanted to be transparent and we mean it, so feel free to use the comment function below to pose a question (or of course, make a comment!)

On being a facilitator

In early February, Matthew and I delivered a facilitation training for staff at the World Development Movement,  which had developed out of a Rhizome discussion last November with all seven facilitators. We had talked then about the difficulties of delivering meaningful training in a few hours, a single day. We understand why this happens – releasing significant numbers of staff and volunteers from their day to day jobs has a real impact. So we then talked about how we could have an equally real impact in a relatively short time. The phrase we used was making catalytic interventions. How do we ensure that our work catalyses real change?

Our training design changed because of this discussion, manifesting  in the training for WDM which in turn built on a recent facilitation training with 38 Degrees .  It was more playful and more powerful. It was not the traditional, logical progression of facilitation training but nevertheless clear, shared learning took place about what it means to be a facilitator as opposed to doing facilitation. We’re into ‘states of mind’ territory here, and that feels like a place where change can happen faster than when we’re training in technique and toolkits.

Maybe considering an analogy between photography and facilitation helps to explain this more clearly. Suppose you love photography, are fascinated by the work of say Shirley Baker or Diane Arbus, Mitch Epstein or Clement Cooper. You want to be a photographer, so you research in depth what tools your role model uses, which cameras, meters, lenses, equipment for reproduction, techniques for cropping or colouration, digital enhancement etc. But to be a photographer you need more than just the tools; you need to be able to see, to observe, to notice, to frame, to take risks, to wait, to trust yourself, to act at the right moment.  It also involves luck, fortuity, serendipity, happening to be in the right place at the right moment. The only way to be a photographer is to be a photographer – having a photographer’s state of mind, the instinct and the vision. The tools are only as good as the artist who uses them.

Being a facilitator is similar. The tools are useful, but unless you really are focussed on being a facilitator the tools will not work on their own – a facilitator needs to be open, listening, observing, taking risks, know when to speak or wait, sense the dynamics and energy of the group… it’s a state of mind.

A participant asked us during a break in the afternoon whether you could actually be trained to be a facilitator or was it a matter of having the right kind of personality and skills already. Through many years of running different kinds of training, I have several times come away with the feeling that some people there could not be trained to do or be whatever it was we were working on. Underlying this is the idea that someone has to “know” already whatever the training is aiming at, although they may not be conscious that they know it. In the course of the training they will recognise what is being developed and thus become conscious of their own understanding. The trainer’s role is to open people’s inner eyes, to make explicit what is already understood, to affirm their own understanding and enable them to voice it and thus to build their confidence, their trust in themselves. This is not to say that the people I’m thinking of could not be trained but maybe only that they were not at a point in their own development which coincided with what the training was saying. Maybe a month, a year further on it fell into place or began to make sense, maybe not.

Our agenda didn’t offer an explicit list of facilitation tools, but activities to get people thinking about group dynamics, power and decision making, mainstreams and marginals, listening and sensing, and most of all how everyone in the group is actually involved in facilitating. The question that the participant put to us seemed to show that, for her, it had worked, as did feedback from the organiser:

“Thanks for yesterday, it was really great, lots of people told me how much they enjoyed it and we already saw benefits in our meeting today. “

So how was it received? Some of the comments, either on the learning that people took away with them or what could have been improved on are:

“There are lots of ways of facilitation – I like the idea of shared facilitation, co-facilitation”

“The holiday graph visualised the complexity of a meeting”

 “More on how to facilitate groups… where there isn’t a shared culture”

“Lots of useful things we can use in practice – these have built my confidence”

“In the weather reporting discussion the question was too difficult and led to confusion”

“Time for us to talk about how we could apply what we’ve learnt”

“Problem behaviour session could have been longer”

“Shape and structure of the day – moving from the conceptual to the practical worked very well”

And as always we, the facilitators, sat down together to reflect on and learn from what we had experienced before running for our trains home.



Another year older…..are we any wiser?

Rhizome’s second birthday is more or less upon us, depending on how you measure these things. It also means I’ll be writing up what passes for an annual report here in the rhizosphere. So before we blow out the candles and tuck into a slice of cake, what do you want to know? What would make such a report useful to you?

Feel free to read what we wrote last year and see if that does the trick, and we should go for more of the same. If not, get in touch or leave a comment…

Co-operation – 2012’s not all about the Olympics

As of yesterday, it’s International Year of Co-operatives, a UN initiative to promote co-operative models of business. Rhizome is a co-op, so it seemed a good idea to tell you a little about that – what does it actually mean, and why would we bother?

I’ve been involved in 2 previous co-ops, both workers’ co-ops in which the employees of the company are also its directors. Employee ownership. Very simple. Rhizome however is different. We’re a co-operative consortium – a collective of freelance trainers, facilitators and mediators who come together to do some of their work under the Rhizome banner. We’re all self-employed. We choose how involved we want to be in Rhizome, and we can be flexible about that – doing more or less as fits with the rest of our lives.

So why the co-op? What’s in it for us? What’s in it for you?

For the 7 people involved in Rhizome mutual support, and the sharing of ideas, skills, and challenges ranks high. At a recent Rhizome gathering the energy just from all being in the same room, and from getting an opportunity to share ideas, thoughts and approaches on issues that we found challenging or interesting was tangible. One person even said (and I paraphrase) that “in 20 years of facilitating I’ve never had the chance to have these conversations”.

We also get asked to do very interesting work with interesting and exciting groups of people who are making real change in the world (and in themselves). That isn’t something all facilitators can say of their work.

And of course Rhizome is also a known entity with a reputation and an ever-growing list of groups and organisations that have chosen to work with us. That brings in some paid work, so there’s some income (very modest at present) to be had. But most Rhizome folk earn the bulk of their living elsewhere, coming to Rhizome for the challenge of the work we do, and the mutual support.

For you there are equal benefits. One of the most exciting things, for me, about Rhizome is that it makes a vast array of skills and experience available to communities and activist groups and organisations. Because of our co-operative consortium structure there’s less pressure to earn 100% of your income with Rhizome, to commit 100% of your working life to Rhizome. If that pressure existed, most of the 7 of us would have to decline and take our skills elsewhere to earn our living. But as things stand people can get involved in Rhizome on their terms and thus be available to you and the groups you work with.

Being a co-op also keeps us in tune with many of the skills we support others to develop – what it means to work in a group, what it means to be doing consensus, what it means to be communicating effectively, developing empathy and trust and much more. A hierarchical structure doesn’t foster those values in the same way and we’d be more likely to lose touch. And a solo freelance career doesn’t create the opportunities for peer reflection, and to learn from co-facilitation and observation that Rhizome gives. All that means we’re better at what we do when we work with you

We also get to support each other in innovating and taking risks – both in creating a space in which it’s OK to try out new ideas, but also creating a space in which you can be pushed further than you had planned to go in your risk-taking. And trust me when I say that that means better support for you.

There are other aspects of co-operative working. One of the 7 principles of co-operation is mutual aid between co-ops. As a co-op we’re more likely to look for another co-op for any external support we need – so we’ve used Calverts Co-op for our printing, and Cooportunity to do our end of year accounting. We’re also more likely to get asked to work with another co-op. As I type Carl is training mediators drawn from co-ops across the UK for Co-operatives UK.

Personally, I find that co-ops are the only place I can flourish. They’re not without their challenges. But I hope the benefits to you and to us far outweigh the problems.

And then there were 7: Rhizome expands

Rhizome started small. We always had plans to involve new people but times are hard and we wanted to offer them a living. Well, we changed the offer and instead offered a place in an interesting co-op doing interesting work with interesting groups and organisations (and a very modest contribution towards a living).

Emily Hodgkinson, Hannah Clayton, Jo Melzack, and Maria Franchi found the offer enticing enough to join Carl, Perry and I for 2 days of discussion and play on Friday and Saturday. We explored topics related to facilitation and Rhizome’s place in the world.

For example one conversation explored what it means to be radical in today’s world. Is that just a political analysis? Is it about the way we might interact with each other as a co-operative? Is it in the way we approach our facilitation work? Whatever it means, we agreed that it was OK to mean different things to different people and that it almost certainly meant different things in the different groups and organisations with which we work. Diversity, tolerance, and supportive criticism rather than judgement were important themes for us. We’ll update our Thoughts on Rhizome’s organisation and structure and Values, ethics and practice pages in due course to reflect the conversations we had.

I’m delighted to say they all decided to get involved and we are now a more diverse, exciting, experienced and skilled organisation than ever, which we hope will become apparent in the quality of the work we do with and for you. Their biographies will be added to our Who we are page over the next few days and weeks.

And of course you’ll start to hear their voices through the blog from time to time.

A year in the life… report back from the rhizosphere

Rhizome’s a year old! We did our first work in February 2010, and formally incorporated as a co-op in March that year.

At the time we took the decision that rather than write policies detailing our ethics and standards we’d borrow from the principles of open source software and adopt a practice of transparency – reporting back on what we do through our blog, and through a yearly post (let’s not call it an annual report – it’s far too informal for that), and letting you decide whether you think we’re an ethical organisation. Ethics on paper are meaningless. Ethics in practice….. that’s altogether harder. Here’s what we said at the time:

Why not just write a policy? We talked about that. Everyone has ethical and environmental policies these days from governments to arms manufacturers. Policies are ten a penny. We’ve decided that for now we want our values to live, breathe and possibly grow and change – we want to share the concepts with you here and then share the practice with you through our blog. We’ll be taking the value of transparency seriously, posting regular thoughts and evaluations of our work in practice, sharing the tough choices we might sometimes need to make, posting information about our ongoing ecological and social footprint. And of course we’ll be asking you to interact with us every step of the way.

Walking our walk

We’re far from perfect, and you’re very welcome to engage us in dialogue about where you think we could improve our practice. We’ve broken this down into:

  • Who we’ve worked with
  • What work we’ve done
  • Our footprint – choices we’ve made
  • A few issues that we’re dealing with at the moment

Who we’ve worked with

Over the last year we’ve trained, facilitated, mediated and offered phone and email support to around 27 groups, networks or organisations as diverse as Bridges, a Shropshire development education centre and Greenpeace UK.

6 Billion Ways | Bretton Woods Project | Bridges Shropshire | CPRE | Crude Awakening | Fairtrade Foundation | Friends of The Earth | Gathering Momentum | Greenpeace | Labour Behind The Label | Leeds University People & Planet | Low Carbon Communities | NGO Capacity Building Forum | Peace News Summer Gathering | PEDAL: 100 days to Palestine | People & Planet | Reclaim the Fields | Sheffield University People & Planet | Steiner School Leicestershire Interest Group | Sustrans | Threshold Centre | Transition Leicester | Transition Towns Conference | World Carfree Network | World Development Movement

The following word clouds give you some idea of the nature of the work we’ve done, it’s proportion (bigger the word the higher the proportion) and how much work we did for paying clients and how much we did for free (or just for expenses):

Of that work here’s how it broke down in terms of facilitation of meetings and other processes, training, and other support (mediation, phone and email support etc):

We’ve brought in a modest income from the paid work we’ve undertaken (too modest if truth be told- see below) and used that and some seed money we started Rhizome with to fund the pro-bono work:

Of course our work isn’t confined to these things. We also maintain a blog and a website with, hopefully useful, resources. We’ve uploaded over 130 posts – a mix of reflections on the work we’ve done, signposts to other people’s events and resources, and thoughts and advice on the issues we concern ourselves with – participation, activism and consensus. We won’t pretend we have a huge readership, but it’s growing steadily. For some reason we also became the 56th most influential UK environment blog though we’ve sadly slipped in the rating a little since then!

Our footprint

The people we choose to give our money to for the various services that an organisation like Rhizome needs to exist probably gives you a fair idea of our ethics in practice, so here’s a quick rundown:

Banking: we opened an account with Triodos Bank – we like their ethics. With Triodos, it’s not just avoiding the bad stuff, but actively supporting the good.

Insurance: we hunted around for an explicitly ethical insurer, but failed to find one that would either offer the type of insurance we needed or answer emails and phone calls efficiently enough to make doing business with them viable. So we went with Towergate Professional Risks who are, at least, specialists in our field.

Another big expense for us is travel. With the exception of a couple of taxi journeys (eg: to venues that weren’t accessible by public transport on a Sunday) all of our Rhizome related travel was by foot, bike, bus and train. That’s not to say it’s without consequence. There was a lot of it. We contemplated working out the mileage and from there the carbon emissions, but life’s too short.

Design and printing: Stig helped us to design and lay out our publicity materials. Calverts printed them. Stig’s a designer for many activist, green and arty folk. Calverts are a London-based workers’ coop with good environmental credentials. The card is 100% post-consumer waste. We used digital printing to accommodate our small print run. Vegetable inks aren’t available for digital printing, sorry.

Office space: we don’t have an office, we both work from home. As such all of those decisions on things like utility providers are made by us individually and with our families and not as Rhizome. Our registered address is at an Ethical Property Centre

Website: we opted for a low-cost, do it yourself approach and started a wordpress.com blog. WordPress produce the wordpress.org open source blog software that enables you to host a blog using their themes and structure. We like them for this. We have recently heard some criticism of wordpress.com via Network 23, and will keep an eye on things:

Issues arising for Rhizome

We thought we’d share some issues that are ‘live’ for us one year into the journey that is Rhizome.

Financial sustainability: Times are hard, unless you happen to work for a transnational bank, energy company, or be a Tory cabinet minister. Times are especially hard for a lot of the folk we traditionally work for. That translates as hard times for us. We haven’t brought in as much paying work as we’d hoped to despite reasonably good contacts, and, we think, decent reputations. We’re exploring a few avenues, writing a few funding bids, but not expecting miracles. One of the consequences of hard times is that we’ve been slower than expected to expand the pool of people who make up Rhizome.

Growing a diverse network: A year in we had expected Rhizome to be more than just Carl and myself. We’d like to bring you an even wider range of skills and experience, and we’re fully aware that 2 white men of roughly similar age doesn’t shout “diversity”. It hasn’t felt like we have that much to offer potential members of Rhizome. We’re not bringing enough paying work to offer them a secure income. However money isn’t all, and we’re thinking that now’s the time to invite a few people to dip their toes into the water and join the fun. We can offer exciting opportunities to train and (co) facilitate. We can offer mutual support, a window on the world in the shape of the blog, and a chance to help develop Rhizome.

Anything else you want to know?

We said we wanted to be transparent and we mean it, so feel free to use the comment function below to pose a question (or of course, make a comment!)