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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Use Ecocycle Planning to leverage what isn't working

Updated: May 2

A chart on a wall consisting of the infiity sign and many stick notes attached to it

Recently, I met with a group keen on implementing projects related to emerging environmental threats in their community. I led them through the Ecocycle* to help them see the big picture and to identify their next steps.

In the Gestation and Birth phases of the Ecocycle chart on the wall, they placed stickies describing their many budding projects. They assigned a few things to Creative Destruction and nothing to Maturity. They felt trapped by not getting help from local officials and having very few people willing to volunteer (Scarcity Trap) and by how things like powerpoint presentations were not working for them (Rigidity Trap).

As they discussed what they were seeing in the Ecocycle, they were able to identify and add a few things in Maturity, but their attention was still mostly on projects they wanted to start (on the left) and on what they believed was preventing them from moving forward (in the traps at either end).

I asked them, "What exactly is painful for you, personally, about this situation?" They cited not being able to convince people to care about emerging environmental threats, which meant they didn't have enough people to implement their good ideas.

The group's big "aha" was recognizing that their way of engaging the public, businesses and local officials -- telling facts about environmental threats (such as changing rainfall patterns, flooding and invasive species) and trying to scare their audience into action -- were not inspiring their audiences to do anything and were actually inhibiting progress on several fronts.

Two sticky notes, one about talking at people, the other about listening to people.

Once the group became curious about why their presentation style wasn't working, their curiosity led them to a way transform and leverage it.

By creatively destroying those heady presentations, they decided to meet with people as equals, listen to what they care about, and explore together how these threats could impact their lives.

I then asked the group, "What one next step could you take that would help you make the most progress?"

Their answer: listening, especially to people who seem to care about the environment (such as particular local officials, green businesses and faith communities) but who are not engaging in the group's initiatives.

They reasoned that the next step will help them in 4 ways:

1) by raising awareness about environmental threats that are coming,

2) by inspiring people to taking small meaningful actions, based on their personal motivations,

3) by gathering data and anecdotes to share with potential funders, and

4) by helping them adjust communications (messaging) in the future.

The group then identified two of their several projects that they had capacity to do and that would provide them either results or future support. Those were:

-- assisting a low income neighborhood on an energy-saving project and

-- inviting local officials to visit innovative environmental projects in surrounding communities.

In contrast to their earlier urgency about seeing tangible results soon, they were now willing to let the other projects rest until there are people willing and able to do them.

After deputizing two group members to lead the two chosen projects, the remaining members determined that, for the next six months, they would reach out to citizen groups, green businesses, faith communities and others and simply listen, both through a survey and in person.

To sum up: by investing less than 2 hours in this simple yet profound activity (the Ecocycle), this group found a way to shift out of frustration about scarcity toward curiosity about how they might authentically connect with others who could help them. They thoughtfully leveraged what is not working and reoriented their available resources toward something that will work.

I hope this group continues to use the Ecocycle to track their progress and to discover other ways to transform apparent problems into solutions.


If you have not used the Ecocycle before, you can access instructions and suggestions for how to use it here. You may also want to read "What's better than good old strategic planning?"

And if you have used the Ecocycle before, have you found that when a problem is seen in its context, it can become part of the solution? Share your story below! * Ecocycle Planning is a Liberating Structure developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. Used under a Creative Commons License.

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Photo credit: Barb Bickford

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