By Nedra Chandler, 4-minute read
There is an end to everything, to good things as well. –attributed to Chaucer, probably about 1374
In every situation where humans are working with other humans there comes a time when the work that is being done becomes stale, overwrought, or otherwise finished.
Methods or strategies lose their edge after a while. Structures need to be torn down, rebuilt or otherwise transformed. It takes great courage to let go of some of these things to the compost heap, the burn pile.
I was recently working with a large intergovernmental partnership, one with a complex agenda of almost 6 dozen projects — each of which was vying for limited staff and funding resources. They needed to trim their burgeoning portfolio of projects back, but how? They wanted to take a hard look at their big spreadsheet of a list and sort them out. It wasn’t easy.
There are lots of ways to approach a task like this. One obvious way is to slog through them one by one, take a power vote of some kind on each one, and move on. But does it have to go like that? Is there another way to move through a useful process that’s less of a grim death march?
There is. It starts by adjusting your approach to take a learner’s stance, to dare to look with curiosity at the whole picture, not separating the do-ers from the deciders.
Letting go of structures and particular activites or tasks is made harder by our human tendencies to avoid looking at the big picture. This is true especially when the project portfolio has grown to a size and complexity from which most mere mortals would run and hide.
Are there projects in the list that are demanding ongoing investment even though they may no longer be delivering what you hoped for or now require? Maybe these are the ones that need to go to the compost heap in order to free up resources to enable some other activities that are more effective.
Last month, in Permission to Learn, I said I’d offer you at least one practical move you could make to get yourself into a “learner’s stance.”
In that November post I mentioned a lot of agency leaders and teams are finding themselves in “pile on and pedal harder” as they are increasingly overwhelmed with demands.
Those teams report feeling chronically overextended, less resilient. Yet still, so many of us resist letting go of anything. Sound familiar?
“Let’s stay calm,” said a branch chief encouraging her staff in a similar situation in another part of the country as they moved through their own ecocycle mapping last fall. “There is victory in having the courage to look at it. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. Awareness leads to conscious choices.”
What is an Ecocycle Map and How Can I Use One?
Ecocycle mapping is systems theory applied to your context, your projects, your relationships. You choose.
Picture an old growth forest or any natural system moving through the infinity loop from birth (see lower left) up the front loop of growth to maturity (upper right) then moving into creative destruction (lower left), then moving up the back loop toward renewal.
On either side of the model you have the scarcity trap on the left where things may be formed but stalled out maybe because they haven’t attracted the resources necessary to launch them. There you have the crowded bunch of saplings, each being stunted by the others in their scramble for moisture, nutrients, sun.
On the right is the rigidity trap where projects or investments slide that are requiring ongoing investment even though they are no longer delivering what is needed. There are the barely-standing trees taking up space and sunshine, while holding on to resources that could be used elsewhere.
Any project or activity that is in either of these traps needs to be looked at deliberately.
Here’s my personal ode to the always-moving ecocycle dance: the facts of all life cycles/systems can seem existentially bleak and amazingly wonderous at the exact same time. Birth, growth, death, renewal.
Even the sun will die eventually. Rather than choose grim all the time though, maybe it’s challenging and enjoyable enough to just be fully present more often. I owe this full-body knowing partly to the eclipse of August 2017: standing on a ridge in Idaho watching it go dark and feeling the chill…
As I just heard one of my new heroes, Joanna Macy, say in an interview last month, “we’re here now. Let’s not make our love of the world dependent on whether we think the earth will last forever. That’s just a thought anyway. We’re here now.”
Apply the Wisdom of Ecosystems to Your Portfolio of Projects
To recap using different labels for the quadrants:
Birth is entrepreneurial, you’re growing it and shaping it.
Maturity is managerial, a bureaucratic stance in the best sense of that word, managing effectively, producing quality results (nice ripe tomatoes!)
In creative destruction, you’re taking a heretical stance – burn it, put it into the compost, you get the picture.
Then, moving up the back loop of renewal, you’re linking people and ideas together networking into the next initiative.
Looking at all the things we’ve committed to is messy. If you feel irritable, afraid, confused, overwhelmed: bravo! You are bravely taking a learner’s stance.
Why? I see so many of you leading and dealing with what’s real in these weird times. In the face of disheartening evidence of so much extra bleakness in our American government and broader ecosystems, we’re still here now. You are somehow making room for the commitments that matter most.
Successfully confronting difficult times, and navigating increasingly complex and conflictual partnerships requires taking a learner’s stance.
I heard from one of the leaders who is part of that aforementioned intergovernmental partnership as she was looking at the results of the ecocycle map the group created together:
“It’s going to be hard to keep adjusting our view of the big picture as things keep changing…yet by looking at it all together and having some conversations we had been avoiding, we saw our choices better, and left just a little less overwhelmed…”
Here’s a standing ovation for all of you willing to keep wading into the mess day to day, week to week. Thank you for daring to look and make even one more doable move, and then another, in the direction you know is right for now.
Here is encouragement to stick with the mess, all the ways you keep focusing on what is working, and have the patience to generate clarity. Together.
A bit about me: I work with government clients as partners in professional and team development, navigating conflict and learning opportunities of all kinds. For the past several years I’ve been writing on this theme of how our collective trust in government is linked to trust in ourselves. In the coming few months in I am continuing to write about practical moves we can make to give ourselves and each other permission to keep learning. I focus on the government space because that’s where we do most of our work. Find me and my long-time work mates at http://www.triangleassociates.com and/or sign up to receive my monthly posts into your inbox on the right side of the page at Cadence.
Extra fun for process mavens:
Ecocycle is one of many micro, ‘learner stance’ moves. Go see 30+ more of them on the free app on your smartphone called Liberating Structures. These are immediately useable by novices and process experts alike.
If you have 15 minutes to do a personal ecosystem map for your personal life see instructions below. If you have 60-90 minutes you can effectively do this with your group and your whole shared portfolio.
Map Your Stuff: 5 personal ecocycle steps. Ready to make your own ecocycle map now?
- Choose activities OR relationships for the first one. Don’t try to map both at the same time.
- Make a list of all the activities you are spending your time on now. I suggest you set your timer for no more than 10-15 minutes as a way to avoid overthinking.
- Done? Set your numbered list aside briefly while you draw your version of the ecocycle as above, on a sheet of paper.
- Place each of your numbered activities where you decide it is now. Is it right in the middle of one of the 4 quadrants? Is it moving up the front or back loop? Is it right inside the scarcity or rigidity trap on either side of the infinity loop?
- Step back and look at the big picture of all your activities as you placed them in this first round. Ask: are the items distributed across the different phases of ecocycle or clumped up in one or two of the quadrants? What’s happening? What do you see? So, what does it mean to you? Now what do you choose to do next with these insights? Things shift, move and change fast sometimes. Don’t hesitate to do this repeatedly and often. Quarterly?
final quote on endings:
I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, next to cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride