This morning we began our Harvesting and Collective Sensemaking online course. Rowan Simonsen, Amy Lenzo and I were really excited to be able to share our first little insights with people, and especially this new mnemonic that we created to capture five key principles of harvesting practice: PLUME. We are excited to introduce this into the world.
Specifically these principles apply to harvesting in complex situations where you are using participatory methods to make sense of and make decisions. The purpose of a participatory process is to produce a harvest. A harvest is the output and can be tangible and intangible, collective and individual. It can be documentation, relationships and insight. The form of the harvest is context dependant, but these principles are useful to help design a set of outputs that make a harvest of service to a group and a process.
PLUME stands for Participatory, Learning, Useful, Multi-modal and Emergent. Taken as a set of practice principles (heuristics) these can be used as the first forays into designing a strategy for harvesting from participatory process.
It almost goes without saying, but if you are engaging in a Participatory process, then it follows that the harvest you produce should be participatory as well. This means that the record of learning, the meaning the group makes of it and the insights should all be made by the group. It is all too common for example that facilitators direct clustering of post it notes in brainstorming, or worse, go off and type up meeting reports making a scheme for ordering and understanding the outputs of a process. This seems like an efficient way to do things, but it denies the group the possibility that they might learn something from the process and that is where the insight belongs. The facilitator can too often impose their own view of things on the data manipulating the results of the conversation or simply not seeing it through the lenses through which the group sees things. Do what you can to make your harvesting processes participatory.
When working with complexity it’s key to remember that the harvest of a process produces information that serves Learning. In an ordered system, where everything is knowable and analysis provides us with answers, the data can provide all the information you need to make a decision. If you are building a bridge, your measurements, experts and materials science will provide a reliable set of information to decide on the design. You bring in the right people to minimize unpredictability and design a bridge that is fail safe. But with complex problems your goal is to learn about what’s possible, what you might try, what the system is ready to do. You gather diverse voices together so you can be challenged out of complacency and enter the sphere of innovation. The concept of the learning organization has been with us for 30 years,but it surprises me shallow the practice of learning together has become. One of the questions around which the development of Art of Hosting occurred was “What if learning was the form of leadership we needed now?” It is a good question. And what if collective learning WAS the harvest? That would help us a lot in dealing with the complex, intractable problems that require innovative, trial-and-error actions to address well.
Of course a harvest should also be Useful. Usefulness is very context dependant and it happens across many different scales. There is harvesting that is useful in the moment, such as small group reflection on a process, sketchy notes drawn on the back of a napkin, or information dropped into a process to stimulate creativity. There is also the usefulness that comes after the meeting is over. How can we make the harvest useful to the people that need to use it? What form should it take? How do we support action to give ideas and relationships space to grow after the event?
With the growth of participatory processes and the accessibility of media technology we have also seen in the last 20 years entirely new fields of harvesting practice spring up. There are jobs now that didn’t exist even ten years ago: graphic facilitators, digital video editors, social media curators. We have at our finger tips a media rich environment in which to share the learning we are generating. Harvests therefore should be Multi-modal. We should take advantage of these rich tools to make learning visible and useful. And like the previous principle, we need to be aware of the modes we are using within meetings and afterwards as well. Within meeting participants have many different learning preferences, from the auditory, visual kinesthetic, to introverted and extroverted. Using tools and modes that work for a variety of learning preferences enhances the ability for all voices to contribute in a process. And capturing the results of your work in different ways allows it to speak to different audiences with gravitas and influence.
Finally we need to be aware that in participatory work, the harvest is Emergent. While we may have a good sense of how we are going to harvest and capture the learnings, insights, actions and data from a process, we need to be operating in a container that allows for the content to be emergent. This is easier said than done, especially in a world that passes of “sell and tell” for legitimate engagement and co-creation, or where strategic plans and change initiatives are rolled out top down by mandate. If we are committed to co-creation (and it is one of the four essential practices of the Art of Hosting) then we must truly allow for emergent content to arise. That doesn’t mean that you can’t provide directionality to work, or provide guideposts and boundaries to the conversation. But it does mean that we need to stay aware of where we are overly controlling the group’s content. Don’t give into the temptation to make sense of things for a group. Let them do that together and see what is learned. That way insight and capacity grows with the group, where it belongs.
I think PLUME offers us a useful framework for planning and designing harvesting strategies alongside the design of meetings and longer term strategic processes. What do you think?
EDITED: and changed “learning styles” to “learning preferences” as per the comment below.