What can we learn about transformation and change from a simple act of mutuality?
It’s early May and I’m just back from working in Devon. For each of the last 7 years I’ve been running an annual workshop on ecological thinking and organisational change at Schumacher College, a few miles outside the town of Totnes.
I usually find myself there in early December which always brings its own seasonal aesthetic alongside the pressures and ‘culminations’ many of us feel in the lead up the winter break. People bring all that stuff with them and the world always seems a darker place – literally and metaphorically.
This time around we are approaching the Summer solstice and conversations have a lighter feel. Longer days bring more imagined possibilities. Or so it seems.
You don’t just stay at the College – you become part of the community for the best part of a week. The College is actually a grade II listed building on the Dartington Estate – the Old Postern. Apart from a handful of staff who run the learning curriculum and oversee the infrastructure of the ‘house’ and the grounds , the College is run by volunteers and the learning community – a mixture of MSc students studying holistic science, alternative economics and horticultural practices plus those on short courses (i.e. people like us). In other words it’s a transient community and it is your home for the week. Days start and end with cooking, cleaning, clearing and setting up, and gardening alongside the volunteers… because there is no one else to do it. Of course you can choose not to participate but then you are making a conscious choice of putting yourself in a position where you are expecting to be served by others.
To some it might stay at the level of novelty and perhaps easily forgotten after a while. But the penny finally drops when on your last morning at the College, you find yourself refreshing the bed-sheets and tidying your bedroom for the next occupant. Then you realise that is exactly what the previous occupant did for you. People say to me … “it’s as if I make an extra effort to clean, tidy and prepare the room because I am aware that a stranger did the same for me”.
It’s a small act with a deep meaning. An act of mutuality with an invisible other that could be seen a primary ecological gesture’ – caring about yourself and caring for others. It’s about relationship and it’s an act of leadership if you think about it. It’s also a beautiful way of bringing the point home…gently.
I recall one conversation last week where we talked about how people turn away when presented with a narrative of organic ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ and threats of the apocalyptic consequences of mindless consumption. Yet I know from my own experience that often we are drawn towards a change in behaviour through a simple re-frame of expectation or language. When you act into a new way of being and experience the consequences it is even more profound. It is no longer theoretical or aspirational.
As a practitioner during my time in Devon I notice myself slowing down, saying less, letting events unfold at a different pace. There are long silences and any intervention I make has to be weighed because somehow any gesture or commentary feels heavier than normal. In those moments I am learning about what it means to be less purposeful and what it means to do less.
So whenever I leave Schumacher and return to the ‘smoke’ I feel emboldened. I feel changed somehow.
We at Metalogue are sceptical of grandiose plans for transformation even though it is often the context for our work. We have been around long enough to have participated in all sorts of elaborate designs and strategies for bringing about change. Almost in spite of these purpose full plans, we have seen remarkable shifts in behaviour from a subtle turn of phrase, a simple gesture or a conversation – rarely from an exhortation by a leader or a project plan.
It reminds me of a recent client workshop where a programme director finally plucked up the courage to share some of his frustration with his line colleagues. Up to this point, the agenda had been dominated by presentations and project updates. It seemed to me like an elaborate charade or a verbal form of tai chi.
His words seemed to carry a directness that was difficult to parry.
“Whenever I email you all for information or to complete a report I often get no response. I know we are all busy but these actions are now time critical”. To which one business head replied “I am not sure why I am feeling that we have let you down. I really do want to help you but I often don’t know how to respond without a proper conversation”. It was followed by a long silence. My intuition here was to hold rather than release the tension. So I let the silence stretch for longer. But not forever.
My next question was simple: “what do each of you need from each other?”
Then finally somebody said:
“I think we need to have more of these conversations and less templates to complete. We have had 6 months of inertia because none of us have thought to find out what would be most helpful for each other”.
It was a simple ask and of course the programme director could hardly refuse. This was a complete inversion of his assumption that people wouldn’t have the time or inclination to get in a room together to work out what was needed.
Needless to say progress is now being made. They do meet more often though people can still be difficult to pin down. But at least now they are much more careful not to neglect each other’s needs. And more importantly the dreaded templates are in remission.
To use a little poetic licence with what the renowned economist E.F. Schumacher once said: small gestures (of mutuality) really can be beautiful.