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…..


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!)

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.