Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Permaculture Association Design Cycles

The Board of Trustees in London, photo by Hedvig Murray

Last weekend I attended my first Permaculture Association Board of Trustees meeting since being elected at the AGM in November 2013 (thanks again if you voted for me!). The Association is probably the most mature permaculture system I have engaged with (discounting the permaculture education system), having celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

As more people become involved with and inspired by permaculture, whether as practitioners, volunteers, students, apprentices or the usual combination of all those things, there's an increase in the application of permaculture thinking, and more active designers, more projects implementing those designs. With so much new activity it's inevitable that a lot of energy is being expressed in the early stages of a design cycle  - goal articulation, surveying and getting baseline data, analysing survey results, discovering and choosing strategies to try and meet initial goals in the light of all the boundaries and resources that have been identified, ethical considerations and the natural patterns we've codified as principles. A smaller subset of our design decisions are implemented, have designs for how they will or might be implemented. Of the designs that have, many are in the early stages of maintenance, a few cycles of activity old, re-evaluation has sometimes happened during these cycles and tweaking has occurred consciously or unconsciously along the way. Which is another way of saying, that many our permaculture systems are young.

"There's no material, no design that can long survive the accumulated effects of neglect" 
- Stewart Brand

One of the interesting parts, therefore, of participating in a mature permaculture system, of becoming an element in such a system is noticing, acting and reflecting in those later stages of a design sequence. Being a trustee, might reasonably be described as being engaged in the work of maintenance with its run on tasks of evaluation and tweaking.. The Governance Hub, a partnership of organisations working to improve the levels of good governance throughout the voluntary and community sector in England, describes the role thus: "trustees are the people responsible for ensuring that a charity or community organisation has a clear strategy and that it remains true to its original vision, and that it complies with all necessary rules and legal obligations."That sounds a lot like maintenance to me - keeping things clear, remaining in service to our goals, operating within our boundary conditions. My thoughts on maintenance have been influenced by ideas I first encountered in Stewart Brand's book and television series How Buildings Learn, especially the evocatively titled chapter/episode called The Romance of Maintenance.This classic piece of work has much to offer the permaculturalist, and that particular chapter ends with a statement we might all take to heart:

"The romance of maintenance is that it has none. The joys it has are quiet joys, but it's a high calling: tending to a ship, to a garden, to a building. One is participating physically in a deep, long life."

What is true of visible structures is, I believe, true of invisible structures too. None of which is to say, of course, that maintenance is stasis. While we might seek stability as an organisation, as ecomimetic practitioners we recognise that that stability must be dynamic, that is: that it continues while existing in and as part of conditions characterized by constant change. The ecology here is a rich source of debate, offering a range of natural system analogues and as many or more theories to describe them. In the face of changing conditions are we/should we be constant (able to remain unchanged), or resilient (able to return to our previous state after a perturbation), or instead might we be, as Rhamis Kent has recently suggested 'Anti-fragile' (able to benefit from shocks, and to thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors). All of these characteristics offer benefits, but I think that a strategy that maintains, through also re-evaluating and tweaking - that maintains by cycling, or spiralling, back through earlier design stages offers us a particular permaculture approach.This is creatively using and responding to change.

Ed Sears leading us through the research poster.

The Association's Board of Trustees (BoT) presently meets physically 4 times a year, alternating locations between the Association offices in Leeds and the transport hub of London, with teleconferences in between. The physical meeting, like the weekend I just attended is one and half days of focussed activity.  CEO Andy Goldring updated us on the work of the office, present and future opportunities, and the range of permaculture activity going on around the UK from Paramaethu Cymru/Permaculture Wales, Permaculture Scotland, LAND projects, working groups, planning for #IPCUK in 2015 and more. Trustee and treasurer Philip Blandford gave us an update on finances and reviewed the accounts. Ed Harris showed as the poster on permaculture research which contributed to the Radical Emissions Reduction conference (read his report and the poster here). The bulk of our time however was directed  to the interactive task of revisiting - re-evaluating, tweaking - the organisation's strategy.

Deano strategizing

Prior to the meeting, fellow new trustee Deano Martin had circulated documents offering his comments on how well the Association was keeping to a clear strategy and remaining true to its original vision - areas which we as trustees had a responsibility to ensure. Were we describing our vision accurately, had we developed the best strategy to achieve that vision? The Association has a range of documents describing its aims and objectives, its areas of focus and services - are all these in alignment? Over the weekend, Deano workshopped these areas with us, supported by Hedvig Murray as an outside facilitator.

Information Amassing
Deano prefaced the workshopping with a case-study from his previous employment- considering how strategy had brought success through orientation to the right goals and concentrating on a path towards them, through difficult decisions along the way. After that we started looking at the wording of our charitable objects – first individually, then in small groups, snowballing to everyone. We considered what certain key words and phrases meant to us, how we each interpreted them. In the whole group we then considered where we were in broad concurrence and where the edges of difference were. This helped to support our confidence that we were broadly in consensus, while opening an opportunity to explore our alternate interpretations. As representatives of a membership with various views, this was a chance to use and value the diversity reflected amongst us.

Thinking in groups diagram from Winning Decisions by J. Edward Russo & Paul J.H. Schoemaker

Many patterns have been identified in group process. The simple model illustrated above indicates the dangers of hasty agreement that moves to action/implementation without exploring the breadth of relevant information and opinion, and the perils of discussion that does not move toward a form of agreement and therefore does not act at all (thus privileging the status quo). Both are negative outcomes in this model. While we want to benefit from the emergent possibilities of a ‘group mind’ – we do not want to be trapped by groupthink: everything works both ways. At the ‘mini BoT’ meeting following the 2012 AGM, the Board introduced a new technique to counter the pull towards dangerous conformity – the joker. One trustee is allocated the role of being a dissenter, encouraging others not to take sides too soon on issues, reducing the pressure to conform and  establishing and maintaining creative disagreement as a normal tool of work.

'The Joker' by Viv

By the end of Saturday, as energy levels dropped, my thoughts were getting a little muddy. Social engagement in the evening over beer and curry provided some time to relax and reflect. I was a little late on Sunday morning, but it was great to come back into our meeting space and feel a new burst of energy taking us forward. Sleeping on it had, at least for me, moved us from end of day fog to morning clarity. With Deano and Hedvig’s facilitation we reformulated and clarified the Association’s vision and mission before moving on to our aims and how we meet them. I don’t think anything here will prove controversial and as a membership organisation, it now goes out to consultation for all to comment, agree or disagree. While the Board feels that this work provides a better articulation of the Association’s goals, consultation applies some self-regulation and encourages feedback, which we take into the finalisation of the strategy work at the next Trustees meeting. If you haven’t already – expect communication shortly from Andy and the staff on how you can respond.

Visioning and Missioning
I think it’s great to see the ethics there in the vision and design there in the mission. To formulate the mission we each wrote on bits of paper three words we thought important to be in there. Then we gathered them together, identified the common ones and began to form sentences that expressed our combined vision. For a while we had the word ‘sustainable’ in there – but with the words debasement it didn’t seem to fit (a word I’d put in the mix ‘regenerative’ pointed to a more ambitious agenda but didn’t have a common enough resonance.) From our brainstorming the word ‘flourishing’ has taken its place and I think it fits beautifully. It speaks of how we work with nature, it offers a positive direction, it's active and it resonates both with normal speech and the specific uses within the psychology of well-being and the work of ecological designer John R. Ehrenfeld.

Teresa ponders the mission brainstorming

Rebecca & Stef with food to share

I hope that gives a picture of some of what went on. Tending to the Association is proving more than a quiet joy.

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