"Let's Talk About It": How Much Process is Too Much Process For Green Businesses and Activists?

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I am a huge fan of Transition Towns.

As shown by the astounding impact of just one Transition group, an awful lot can happen when a community gets together and decides to actively build a better, more resilient future.

But when a Transition group formed in my own town, I attended a few meetings and then ducked out of the process. I just didn't have the energy to sit through meetings discussing collectively-written mission statements.

I wanted to do things.

Maintaining Momentum is Hard Work
I planned to re-enter the process at a later date once the visioning process—which I have never been good at engaging with if I don't feel it is going anywhere—was over. But I haven't yet had the opportunity. Between the usual excuses of jobs, kids and a busy life, it took me a long time to get back in touch with the group. And when I did, it seemed that the energy had fizzled.

As someone who was busy changing diapers, rather than attending meetings, I have no particular insight (nor right to comment) on why Transition has not (yet) taken off in my town. But I do think it's a useful reminder that movements need momentum, and that they have to engage more than their core of founders if they are ever going to grow.

Appreciative Inquiry Seeks to Replicate Success
Which is why I was interested to note that the Transition movement has a new course—Transition:Thrive—which is squarely aimed not at setting up initiatives, but building and maintaining momentum. Naresh Giangrande has a candid reflection on Transition:Thrive's first outing over at Transition Culture, describing how the training used Appreciative Inquiry—a method that "uses a process of ‘Discovery’ to find out what has been working well and then helps us to figure out how to do more of that."

Interestingly, the response from participants was far from universally positive:

Appreciative Inquiry is a good example of an ‘inner’ transition method that helps achieve tangible, practical results. This weekend, and it commonly happens in Transition groups, some found the process side- ‘navel gazing’, group building, and other such ‘new age’ tomfoolery- uncomfortable and pointless.

Skepticism Reformed
What fascinates me is that in the past I would have quite likely been one of the skeptics. And yet I have learned from personal experience that this type of process can be a powerful means to achieve real-world end results. The Occupy Movement's collaborative nature and ability to maintain momentum despite a hugely diverse range of stakeholders is an important example of how understanding the structures and spaces we create for discussion can be a vital tool in moving things forward.

Practicality is Key
For those of us who don't easily open up to lengthy workshops and endless discussion, we need to know that there's a reason for all the talking. It's important to communicate that there is an end goal, and that there are demonstrable examples of how the process we are being asked to engage in helps achieve success. And (this part is crucial) we need to trust that there is someone stewarding the discussion too. Because process is nothing without the people with the wisdom and expertise to apply it. A skilled mediator who understands people's concerns, and channels potential conflict toward a constructive outcome, is absolutely central to success.

It's also important to know when the talking has to stop.

From Discussion to Action
I've written a lot, for example, about the thriving Crop Mob movement here in NC. This is an initiative that grew out of a series of local food roundtable discussions. While other groups were meeting, and talking, about everything from food distribution to education efforts, one team of young would-be farmers decided that rather than holding yet another meeting, they would rather meet up on a farm and do some bloody work for a change. The resulting energy was astounding—and it has helped Crop Mob to be the single largest legacy of the original series of discussions.

It might be tempting to view the Crop Mob story as a rejection of overly-lengthy discussion, or a preference for action over process, but I'm not sure that's fair. What it shows more than anything is that process doesn't end when the talking stops. The group met, they talked, they figured out how they worked best, and then they got on with the task of making it happen. And they've been learning and growing as a group ever since.

We need to understand the dynamics of the groups we work in. To do so, we must learn to view processes and methodologies not as magic bullets that will "fix" what is broken themselves, but as tools that we deploy so we can fix it ourselves.

Tags: Activism | Communities | Occupy Wall Street | United States

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