Working it out as you go

Updated: Jul 30

An innovation project needs flexibility around outputs and activities when pursuing a big, large, hairy, audacious goal like 'strengthening networks'.



I’ve now asked a dozen people in the North East region about their networks and the conversations they think need more attention. Rather than assume an absence of networks, this approach assumes there are networks and conversations underway, and what's more, people who care about the conversations.


Government and professional-led programs often start from the premise that there's a deficit in the community that needs to be made good. Programs consistently under-estimate what they are dealing with when they talk about 'the community'. They under-estimate the capacity that's there. They don't even see what's there.


CLEA's purpose is to find out how networks running through the community environment sector can be strengthened. (Read the detail in the project scope and assumptions.)


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Working out how to do this with people in these networks is a smart move because these people who have most capacity to improve the functioning of networks. It's not me, that's for sure: my networks are in the Macedon Ranges. It's not NRCL either, though they can help kickstart what community initiators want to do. I've been assuming there are plenty of smart, motivated people with whom CLEA can collaborate. CLEA needs to cultivate their trust.


Government programs can make a second fundamental error: by assuming that there's one homogeneous 'community', they can't connect to the real life and liveliness of communities. An alert person living in a rural community knows that there is no such thing as 'the community', but rather, a seething tangle of contesting opinions and identities. In rural communities, working for the common good requires understanding this complexity, and framing shared goals that allow alliances to build between differing interests and identities. This takes years, not months.


There's a third error to be avoided by a project seeking to build local capacity, and that's the appropriation of local knowledge. The next step in CLEA's 2020 project will be to invite those I've spoken with to consider their collective body of thinking on the four questions. This must proceed with understanding and agreement. We live in a time where what people say and do in public is ripped off without permission - think about the use of personal data by Facebook and Google. People are weary and wary. Documentation of interviews is each person's property, and individuals need to agree to put this into the public domain.


'Free, prior, informed consent' it's called by First Nations people, who know a great deal about getting ripped off.


And so to a fourth dangerous assumption: that you have to know how your project is going to reach its ambitious goals before it starts. But I don't know how to strengthen networks. This might seem a bit disingenuous: I've been hired to do something, and I've spent twenty years working with networks as places where new knowledge is created. But experts are dangerous, and I actually don't know what's best in this situation.


It's an open question: if networks are seedbeds for innovation, how can we strengthen them?


Not knowing what to do is a good starting point. That's true for innovation in any field: for a producer working out how to handle more variable rainfall; for a facilitator enabling action in a diverse and changing community; for community alliances developing alternative power supply. Begin not knowing (yet) know what to do, and you can begin finding out.


This means feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable, but that's part of rigorous inquiry.


It also raises the question of accountability. CLEA is fortunate in having a funder, the Natural Resources Conservation League (NRCL) that is aware of the tensions here. In government projects, funders often insist on knowing what you're going to do, before you do it, and often before you've had a good look at the situation. They make the terrible mistake of approaching a complex situation as merely complicated. Treasury wants countable outputs, year-by-year, and the Auditor-General hovers in the shadows.


There has to be accountability for expenditure, but the focus on outputs set ahead of time doesn't allow for outputs created in real-time, which is what you want from projects that are finding out new ways to do things. Innovation starts with knowing where you want to go and not knowing how to get there. Working it out as you go is the point.


NRCL approach has been to invite CLEA to say why it is doing what it is doing. In their planning and reporting cycle, the request is: tell us your strategies for the year ahead, and the logic behind this; at the end of the year, tell us what you've learned, then use what you've learned to design strategies for the next year.


With CLEA 2020, I'm doing this publicly and progressively, documenting the project's journey from intention, through learning, to some more or less settled understandings of how to strengthen networks - in Dave Snowden's terms, to document each iteration of probe-sense-act. This takes time, but it makes it possible for others to follow the logic and the learning going on. There's isn't much money around for community capacity building: I'm looking to spread the benefit of that rare investment as I go, now, not two years after the project has finished.


Take a look at NRCL's view of community capacity building - it's comprehensive.

Community capacity building definition a
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