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.