By Nancy White
How can cross-disciplinary teams improve their project results and cross-team learning, especially when they are part of a portfolio of funded projects?
I have worked with cross disciplinary teams in international agriculture development, ecosystems management and mental health. For the most part, these are externally funded initiatives and have requirements both for results (application of the work) and for cross-team learning. Often there is not useful clarity about how funder and grantee agendas work in sync. And there is rarely opportunity or support for shared optimization and exploration across different portfolios of funded work.
I have used the six knotworking questions plus ecocycle planning from Liberating Structures to make it possible for a group to look back critically, assess the current state, and prospectively generate options to move forward.
The six knotworking questions are:
- What is the fundamental purpose of our work (as individual projects and as a portfolio)?
- What is happening around us that demands change?
- What are the critical uncertainties and paradoxes we must face to make progress?
- Where are we starting, honestly?
- Based on what we have discovered, what is now made possible?
- What are our next steps and how will we know we are making progress?
From answering the six questions a shared language evolves. Fresh ideas across portfolios of work within or across funded programs come into focus. Relationships form and deepen creating space for peers to ask for and offer specific help. Teams can more easily refer to issues across different contexts for optimization. Emergent ideas can be supported across portfolios of grant-funded projects.
What shows up repeatedly is how silos become more permeable and even networked. Two aspects of knotworking, discussed next, seem most useful in this context.
Action and learning entwined
The first is the provocation of the six questions that allows emergent thinking, grappling with very real tensions and contradictions in full view (rather than furtively worrying about them but NOT discussing them), and the iterative way they unfold. This iterative function keeps monitoring, learning and evaluation as PART of the entire process, not just something tacked on at the end in a report. Knotworking transforms learning and adaptation, as concepts and observation morph into practical and visible next steps.
Exploring together generates new options
The second is the ability to layer ecocycle planning (described in the box below) and see what is similar, what is different, where there are possibilities alone and together.
Ecocycle Planning (taken from Liberating Structures: https://www.liberatingstructures.com/31-ecocycle-planning/)
Ecocycle planning aims to eliminate or mitigate common bottlenecks that stifle performance by sifting a group’s portfolio of activities, identifying which elements are starving for resources and which ones are rigid and hampering progress. The Ecocycle makes it possible to sift, prioritize, and plan actions with everyone involved in the activities at the same time, as opposed to the conventional way of doing it behind closed doors with a small group of people. Additionally, the Ecocycle helps everyone see the forest AND the trees—they see where their activities fit in the larger context with others. Ecocycle planning invites leaders to focus also on creative destruction and renewal in addition to typical themes regarding growth or efficiency. The Ecocycle makes it possible to spur agility, resilience, and sustained performance by including all four phases of development in the planning process.
The group is invited to view, organize, and prioritize current activities using four developmental phases: birth, maturity, creative destruction, and renewal. The group is also invited to formulate action steps linked to each phase:
The leadership stance required for each phase can be characterized as entrepreneur, manager, heretic, and networker.
In comparing across projects, one project may excel at moving things from birth or piloting to scaling or maturity. Another may be full of amazing ideas, but gets stuck in the scarcity trap. The team that moves things well through that trap may have stories and approaches that break the log jam. Yet other teams may have the great self awareness that shows up in creative destruction to make space for something new. Teams then look to see how to balance their own work and when to collaborate with teams who have complementary strengths in their work.
Creative destruction makes space
I want to call out specifically how ecocycle planning and the first three knotworking questions help to make creative destruction visible, discussible and valued, rather than feared. This rebalances the relationship between the grantees and their funders into a more collaborative relationship. And it does this because it is not some abstract thinking, not blaming, but concrete sense making, practical-yet-ambitious dreaming, and actionable, measurable next steps. Once the concept and language of ecocycle planning is shared, then more rapid and useful reviews begin to happen.
For example, a group of researchers leading projects in Africa and South Asia did a traditional face-to-face kick off meeting, essentially presenting their plans and then everyone went home. When the COVID pandemic hit, the next annual face-to-face meetings were not possible, so we designed an online gathering that used the six knotworking questions with each team doing an ecocycle mid-way through the event. The online interactions were spread out over three weeks to give teams time to amplify their ecocycles and consult with others. The group did a “virtual tour” through each ecocycle, positing questions, noting similarities and differences, and noting where they could help each other. This became the basis for their almost-monthly community of practice meetings. They had a basis to want to come together across projects.
A challenge that needed more than a little nudge was replacing field research with online research due to the pandemic. AND something had to be removed to make space for new practices, provoking good conversations of creative destruction. So often new ideas and practices are added to existing work, reducing the chances they will take root. Creative destruction helps remove the deadwood in a way that shows the value, rather than simply critiquing old practices or punishing those who were practicing them. For more on creative destruction, see the recent i2Insights contribution by Keith McCandless.
Although strategy knotworking and ecocycle planning generally meet resistance at first, that changes when results happen. Across time, we know we are making progress when:
- teams have used the six questions to generate ideas, needs and relationships and understood where they are on the ecocycle,
- there is concrete action,
- across-portfolio teams continue to identify shared challenges and opportunities and act on them.
What’s your experience been with strategic knotworking and ecocycle planning? Are there other practices that you have found helpful?
To find out more:
This i2Inisghts contribution is adapted from:
Strategic knotworking across projects by Nancy White. (Online): https://fullcirc.com/2022/09/11/strategic-knotworking-across-projects/. Also published as Knotworking ACROSS by Nancy White in Field Stories : Liberating Strategy SuperAntiFragilisticExpialidociously. (Online): https://keithmccandless.medium.com/field-stories-3-liberating-strategy-superantifragilisticexpialidociously-992ffa3e436a
Biography: Nancy White is founder of Full Circle Associates, based in Seattle, Washington, USA. She is an international practitioner in understanding and practicing online and face to face group facilitation. Her wide focus includes distributed work, strategic planning, social learning, technology stewardship, communities and networks. She is an experienced Liberating Structures practitioner.
14 thoughts on “Improving cross-disciplinary collaboration with strategy knotworking and ecocycle planning”
Thank you for the great post, Nancy. I esp. enjoyed the concept of creative destruction and the two tools you shared that enable creative destruction and making room for new practices. I am curious about “the balanced relationship with funder” part of your article. In what ways were the funders involved in the process? Could you say more about it?
Hi Gemma, thanks for your question. The first few times I used the Strategy Knotworking approach the gatherings were donor driven “learning meetings” — where projects were intended to learn from each other. This is often a funder’s desire, but as they say, harder done than said. So lets break that down.
Ecocycle to reveal value
Funders often set their sights on the end goal – impact is often the term used. And there is this implicit assumption that the impact is so successful it sits squarely in the maturity area. This may be another way to say “scalability is working.” Grantee reports and deliverables are theoretically stepping stones towards the impact and scalability goals. But in complex contexts things are a) rarely clear and predictable at the start and b) often change, even with short term three year cycles. Ecocycle makes visible a wider set of conditions and dynamics and offers the view that perhaps what we THOUGHT we were pushing towards maturity may be something else AND that we need the areas of creative destruction, gestation and birth to be active and functioning to move more towards maturity. We need to INVEST in those areas as well.
The sources of these insights is FROM the projects. They are knowledge sources and can inform the funder’s understanding. Thus the power dynamics become more multi directional and not just “how can we make this look good for the funder so we can keep/get more funding.”
TRIZ to Make Space for Innovation
TRIZ makes what we are doing that does NOT ADD VALUE accessible and discussible. And it can involve all parties. Discovering where demands by funders or grantees are rooted in things that don’t add value – and to do this crisply and easily, is like removing a log jam. It is less about “this is right or that is wrong” and more about “this isn’t adding value anymore and let’s get rid of it.” Funders often have (or are perceived to have) the power to remove things. That may be true. But grantees also have the power of inviting the creative destruction, thus another opportunity to make a grantee/funder relationship and its potential mutuality more present!
Let me know if that does or doesn’t make sense. We can keep going
As I was checking LinkedIn, Curtis Ogden reposted a brilliant piece of work from Donella Meadows from many years ago which relates to this way of being in relationship as funders. https://donellameadows.org/danas-principles-for-impact/
Thank you Nancy for the very insightful reply and for the link to Meadow’s work. I appreciated both.
Most of the projects I work with are funded by the National Science Foundation. I have not experienced a funder sponsored peer learning event as you have described, so I really appreciated that perspective. I could definitely see the application.
Btw, I am a big fan of Liberating Structures, and use the tools quite regularly. Ecocycle planning is one I have been wanting to try. Thank you for the nudge!
Gemma, I’m doing an Ecocycle intro session from a bit of a different entry point – ecocycling something in one’s own life – with the Washington DC User group in January https://www.eventbrite.com/e/monthly-community-of-practice-for-facilitators-tickets-160151159429
I really enjoyed this article. It resonated with me. I saw in it similar approaches that we use in strategic design and facilitation, namely around intent: what outcome do we want / our purpose, and also paradoxes: what makes this space difficult to ‘resolve’. I’m definitely going to lean on this in future. I’ve not heard of knotworking nor Liberating Structures before and looking forward to digging into it a bit more!
Hi Mariana – yes, it is how we USE the paradoxes versus trying to (futilely) try and resolve them.
If you get interested in Liberating Structures, there is a Slack based community of practice https://join.slack.com/t/liberatingstructures/shared_invite/zt-1kj0lg71c-KyCd7ukUy4UzoysjF7bhQw , as well as a range of “local” user groups. Many of them are still operating virtually so anyone can participate. I’m trying to find the link to the groups! I’ll circle back with that.
Hot topic, Nancy!
I especially appreciate that you couple that with liberating structures.
I first read about knotworking in the works of Yrjö Engeström https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/en/persons/yrj%C3%B6-engestr%C3%B6m
whose writing was introduced to me by Simon Buckingham Shum while working on a PhD at Open University.
Back then, as I recall, knotworking was not the topic it is now, as witnessed by the depth of hits on a google search today.
Hey, Jack, good to “see” you here! When the Liberating Structures (LS) gang first starting playing with the name “knotworking” I did a search and came up with Yrjo’s work. Knotworking is an evocative (if not overly clever in the LS context) term. I confess, it always reminds me of the church of the flying spaghetti monster.
Church of the flying spaghetti monster; now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a long, long time.
Are you suggesting that the DNA of “knotworking” is different for the Liberating Strategies gang than was articulated by Yurjo?
Jack, thanks for your patience. I’ve been down for the count with an upper respiratory foo. Luckily, Keith stepped in (next comment) to answer your questions! (Thanks, Keith!)
Hello Nancy, great article! Re origins of knotworking use: Dan Pesut, nursing school professor, introduced me to the concept in healthcare settings before diving into Yrjo’s elegant description and research. At the time, Dan was chair of the Plexus Institute… an organization focused on practical applications of complexity science. We were always searching for ways to describe how people work with the entangled-ness of their operating reality. When including more voices in shaping the future, working across and between iteratively is at the core of productive strategy making. I suspect there are similarities and differences in practice. Seems like a nice research project to pursue…
Thanks Keith. All of this reminds me of how the Red Cross is said to work: swarming. Birds flock, humans swarm, after a fashion. When I think of knotworking, Yrjo notwithstanding, I think of Celtic Knots of people hammering away at some urgent situation. It seems to me that all of this relates to the nature of high-level organisms, which are complex, adaptive, and anticipatory. John H Holland has penned a number of books on the complex-adaptive side, and Robert Rosen covered the anticipatory side. Knotworking, it seems to me, drops right in the center of that universe.
Yes, agree about humans swarming. Theorizing by Stuart Kauffman, Brian Arthur, John Holland, and Ralph Stacey about the patterns of relationships (in contrast to looking at smaller and smaller parts) shaped my thinking. So much fun to explore!