Challenging and changing the narrative – confronting the BBC’s stance: Election2014

For those of us interested in a more peaceful, sustainable and socially just world, the local and European elections make for a pretty depressing day.  

There’s been plenty of comment about whether the rise of UKIP has been as momentous as the British press would have us believe.  Anotherangryvoice.blogspot does a great job of exploding the media myths.  In the local elections, their share of the vote went down and they’ve gained control of precisely zero councils but they grew their share of the vote and number of seats in Europe.

However, facts rarely get in the way of a good story and the story we’re being fed just now is that UKIP are an unstoppable new force in British politics because they’re speaking to justifiable grievances held by large swathes of the voting public.  

The BBC is as culpable in peddling this story as any of the right wing press.  Farage has been omni-present in the media – in sharp contrast to the visibility of the Greens, say. His frequent appearances gave him credibility he didn’t deserve and did more to build his campaign than his own party machine.  And the absence of robust challenge to UKIP’s many and varied inflammatory and plain wrong statements meant that they were able to live on in the world as if they were true.

It’s this lack of challenge and moral relativism that needs confronting.  It’s the same moral relativism that allows the BBC to think it’s reasonable to put up Nigel Lawson as an authoritative voice denying climate change.  

Farage’s farrago of lies and scaremongering only serves one purpose.  It protects the powerful from any real scrutiny and instead creates imaginary terrors to divert us from real critical debate.   Instead of asking why our politics and key institutions are largely run by a white male public school elite (of which he is one, in spite of his ‘man of the people’ schtick) we end up worrying about which country our neighbour comes from.  Instead of asking why banks continue to pay eye-watering bonuses after having been comprehensively bailed out by the taxpayer, we worry about whether we can ‘afford’ our precious NHS.  Instead of focussing our attention on the urgent need for change to protect our planet and our ecosystems, UKIP supports fracking and an end to green energy subsidies.  Instead of directing our righteous anger at the violence meted out to women, children and gay people around the world, they fuel debate about whether women should be ‘allowed’ to hold senior posts or whether gay marriage should be sanctioned.

 

Last week, I went to the Leavers Ceremony at my old college, UWC Atlantic College, where I’m now proud to be a governor and trustee.  Its mission – “…committed to making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future” – and how it is expressed in practice through the students and alumni, is inspiring.  The model of education practiced here, and in the 12 other United World Colleges around the world, is based on Kurt Hahn’s post war vision for education ‘to engage young people from all nations in finding peaceful means to bring together a world divided by political, racial and socio-economic barriers by learning with and from one another.‘   It’s a rigorous and demanding education, delivered through the International Baccalaureate and an experiential component focussed on service, self-discovery and personal challenge.  Central to the curriculum is the requirement to develop curious and critical thinking; to question taken-for-granted assumptions and mindsets and to value and celebrate differences, challenging prejudice and valuing enquiry and robust evidence. 

And so back to the BBC and it’s role in the current political situation.  The BBC’s mission is “to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”  Seems to me that BBC’s fixation with Farage is more about entertainment than information and education…

In my view, it’s high time the BBC took this part of their mission seriously again and applied a rigorous, critical stance to UKIP and its policies. Education does not exist in a neutered political vacuum.  Education privileges serious enquiry and proper evidence.  It’s time to challenge the bitter, cynical, nasty and dangerous narrative UKIP puts out into the world and to shine a light instead on the many examples of optimistic, generous, positive and generative alternatives which are presently ignored and thus silenced.

 

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Why do I do it…?

So I was having one of those conversations, this week, that I both value and dread (Thanks, Alan Barnard, at BBM, for lunch and the deep probing questions).  Alan asked: “So why do you do it…?”  I chose to hear this as genuine curiosity and not to hear the silent “…For God’s sake, why…?!”  

The ‘it’ in question is living on and running a small permaculture, organic farm. If you follow my tweets, you may have noticed that there is, possibly, a disproportionate number at the moment on lambing, with – some might say (Alan) – too many references to earthy stuff like poo, wee, milk, life and death… The midnight barn checks, the 5am feeds, the emergency trips to vets… He may have been noticing the inevitable effects of this – the dark shadows under my eyes, hands like a hod carrier, slightly unkempt hair and the faint odour of ‘eau-de-farm’ that wafts behind me like Pig-Pen’s cloud… 

So why do I do it…?  It’s true I live what some might call a portfolio life. The ‘day job’, and the thing that pays my way in life, is about consulting, researching, writing and coaching in leadership and change for more sustainable futures. I’m a Visiting Fellow at Ashridge Business School and University of Leeds Engineering Projects Academy and various other affiliations and connections besides. Most of my time is spent working with clients and organisations on interesting but more the more expected stuff – strategy, governance, culture, learning, projects leadership.  You know the kind of thing…

I also run a farm. We arrived here 12 years ago, wanting a place with a couple of acres that would be a home for us, my parents and my children.  We found Llananant Farm, a 52 acre holding that, in spite of its small size, encompasses a wonderful variety of habitat, from old species-rich meadows, ancient coppiced woodland, ponds, streams and hedgerows.. There isn’t an ‘us’ any more and two of my three children have already grown up and are making their own way in life, with No 3 not far behind.  We’ve all had to make some tough choices in the last few years (see blogs passim) and we’ve chosen to stay here, We keep sheep, cows, horses, pigs, goats and poultry and grow produce in the kitchen garden and orchard. I’m developing a centre here, for growing skills for sustainable futures. So as well as growing the farm business, I take schools visits and work with young people who can’t or won’t stay in mainstream school, supporting their personal development through acquiring practical land based skills.  I host wwoofers and run courses – this year on strawbale building, woodland horse-logging (with Bobby the Bolshie Shetland) and coppicing.  

So that’s what it is.  But Alan was asking why… That’s so much harder to answer…  And to answer honestly and authentically reaches deep.

I do it, of course, because it’s where I live and it’s our home. Because as tough as it is, it is easier to stay than to leave. Because the farm nestles in its landscape and living here feels like being cradled by the hills.  Because as the years pass, I learn so much more about its secrets, discovering places I’ve never seen before.  Because I’m watching projects take shape off the page and come to life, experiments come to fruition – hedgerows we planted springing up, new woodland seeding and establishing, new species appearing in the meadows, the stream carving out a new course for itself…  Because when I walk through the old woods, it’s like a layer of skin or two is peeled away and I can feel its story in my bones…  

Here, I understand and live with how ‘complex systems’ work, in ways that I can’t replicate elsewhere.  Instead of only an intellectual appreciation of working with complexity, ‘whole systems’ and change (which I value too, by the way) I get a visceral glimpse into what interconnection and relationship, adaption and emergence really mean.  I understand more about patience, resilience, persistence, purpose and connection through watching the flock at lambing time. I understand more about what it means to respect and value the really fundamental things – like food, energy, water – when I take my steers to the abattoir after a well lived life; when I lose my crop in the rain; when I collect wood for the fire and when the spring water pump shorts out and the shower stops!  

I don’t deny that at times it’s hard. Managing on five hours of sleep a night (max!) for a month is a big ask at my age… Euthanasing a cow who’s just calved because she’s broken her pelvis is hard.  Juggling the many pressures for attention when money is tight and you have to come up with ‘creative’ solutions is hard.  Making a good choice, when there’s no easy or obvious option is hard.  Doing nothing – because sometimes that’s the right thing to do – is hard.  We work as a team here.  We’re interdependent, each of us contributing whatever we can, so as to take the next available step – and sometimes that’s as simple as cake, tea and laughter.

It is a gift to be here and a privilege to be able to share it.  I am learning so much from conversations with the young men who come here and who might be called – in other settings – disconnected from society.  I see what I take for granted through fresh eyes. Watching them learn to look after and work with the ponies I see the most uplifting shifts taking place. From the first anxious, tentative moves, through to real attention, awareness and connection. Watching the horses adjust to the situation and to offer what is needed of them.  Reciprocity in action, with no need for words.  And finding ways to talk about the toughest things, just through watching ewes and their lambs – rejection, fostering, sharing care, taking up the slack… what it really means to be a sheep… and perhaps what it really means to be human…

So ultimately what I’m learning most about is what it means to be a fully invested part of a deeply interconnected and interdependent system; in short, what it means to love and to be loved…  Is there anything more important…?

And that, Alan Barnard, is why I do it… 

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It’s what you DO that matters. Remembering Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning, 10 years on

Clearing out a pile of old papers this morning, I found a lovely obituary for Professor Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning, written by Simon Caulkin. Reg died 10 years ago, this month, in January 2003. I was privileged to meet him several times, when I was Visiting Fellow at the eponymous Revans Institute for Action Learning and Research. Simon’s opening sentence remains as true today as it was then. “Original British business thinkers are thin on the ground, and they often find their insights drowned out by more easily marketable management fads.”

It is no doubt in the nature of the times that some serious questions are resurfacing above the thick flotsam of the airport lounge business paperbacks and ‘just add water’ management fads. I’m spending a lot of time with my clients pondering questions like “How do we know that our work is having the impact we intend?” “How do we close the knowing-doing gap?” “Where are the next innovative ideas to the really difficult issues coming from?”

Reg’s ‘deceptively simple’ approach to management education dealt with practical actions for ‘Big Questions’. His practice of ‘Action Learning’comprises small groups of ‘comrades in adversity’ (people who share a real stake in resolving their problems) meeting regularly to learn from each other’s successes and failures, rather than simply from off-the-job expert instruction. He proposed Revans’ Law – that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment. But – as we know – learning is hard. We have myriad examples of this, from the personal – learning to eat less/exercise more for the sake of our health, through to the political – delivering a national-critical project on time and to budget.

Through his research in the newly nationalised coal board (working with E.F. Schumacher), in the NHS in the 1950s and 60s and in Europe, he was convinced that people learned faster and more enduringly from a deep reflection and response to their own problems, “sharing their ignorance (his quaint phrase), without fear of ridicule or reprisal” and experimenting with solutions that worked from the ground up. He noticed that people resolved problems faster, services were safer, patients had better outcomes, in those places where managers and staff really shared their problems, worked on them together and listened to each others’ different perspectives.

But, as well as being deceptively simple, action learning is a profoundly ethical approach to learning. People come together to inquire with deep and critical rigour into the underlying conditions that lead to the serious problems we face – and do something practical and purposeful to solve them. Reg was scathing about the then new business schools, churning out MBAs from academics who had never themselves even run a business. (His rather scathing joke was that MBA stood for ‘Moral Bankruptcy Assured’…!) And in his latter years, he was equally scathing about the swarms of management consultants who took up action learning, peddling it as if it’s another ‘silver bullet’ solution, all about personal development in hermetically-sealed little groups.

Happily, I see the the green shoots of change peeking through again. As Simon said in 2003 (with his usual prescience) “Conventional business education, and indeed UK management as a whole, is coming under increasingly sceptical scrutiny: [Revans’] grounded idea of management as something pragmatic, concrete and rooted in experience – the very opposite of the prevailing wheeling-dealing, short termist model – has never been nearer vindication”

Academics too are drawing attention to the deep divide between what goes on by way of academic research at Universities and the gritty reality of every day practice in organisation life. In a recent exchange with lovely Professor Peter Morris, from the Bartlett School at University College of London, he said:

“Project management is a ‘doing’ discipline. Yet universities approach to it is to emphasise theory. Academics too rarely get involved with the practice of managing projects. As a result they are in danger of being seen rather like the priesthood: a conscience; useful, to an extent, for reflection but not for the real business of living (doing)…. …Academics, understandably but to the profession’s loss, disaggregate the discipline and tend to seek expertise in one or more of its elements (like risk management, knowledge management, etc.) or else ‘problematise’ aspects of it and critique what knowledge or practice has been built up…. …. Meanwhile, practitioners hone their own view of the discipline, based, if they’re lucky, maybe on a MSc, possibly on some training course, mostly on what they pick-up over the years from reading, listening, and reflecting on their work experience. Learning and improving is quite ad hoc.”

Of course, Reg wasn’t against theory per se. Rather, he was most concerned that people developed the skills for themselves to seek out good theory or information to really assist their learning: he called this Programme Knowledge. This relationship between theory and inquiry is captured in his equation for learning.

L (Learning) = P (Programme Knowledge) + (Q) Questioning Insight.

He was clear that increasing our capacity for questioning insight, or critical reflexivity, is best done through the support and challenge of colleagues experiencing the same pressures and problems – and with the same interests in acting on them.

Learning IS hard. It does not take place between the ears in classrooms (as we so often assume in the Western world). Sometimes it means unlearning bad habits and letting go of deep assumptions about what has served us well in past. It is a doing, practical, reflexive, iterative, visceral process, tested and honed in application in real, live, serious situations and with real practical support from colleagues who are similarly committed to change.

Seventy years after Reg started writing and ten years after his death, creating these conditions for learning and change in the workplace, or in the communities, where real, sustainable, grounded innovation and improvement needs to happen, remains the challenge for our age.

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Leadership is not a game…

I’m in the middle of editing my next book “Leading Complex Projects” (Gower, 2013) and this week I’ve been working on the ‘leadership’ and ‘culture’ chapters.  Meanwhile, alongside the day job, I’ve been helping community groups in Abergavenny who are opposing Monmouthshire Council’s plan to close the Livestock Market and sell the site to Morrisons.

If you’re interested in this tale, look here, but for this blog, I’m more interested in reflecting on how it feels, as a citizen, to be on the receiving end of so called ‘radical leadership’ and ‘innovative thinking’.

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot; thinking about the messy reality as well as the theories; and how to write about it, as an antidote to the reductive leadership literature that trades on selling simple solutions and slogans to what are, in the end, bloody difficult and serious problems.

Over the last few years I’ve been privileged to work with leaders of complex projects who are steeped up to their ears in the mess and challenge of leading some of the big, national-critical, politically sensitive projects that you’ll have heard about in the media (and, often, not in a good way).   We’ve talked a lot about the painful reality of leadership in these complex systems – which is, all too often, a million miles away from the neat, denatured theories and simple 2×2 models, so beloved of leadership theorists and (some!) management consultants….

It has been both a humbling and an inspiring experience, sharing stories about what it takes to get up every day, feeling, deep down, that you are operating – precariously – at the very edge of your experience and competence. Your people look up to you, up there at the pointy end of the organisational pyramid, for the answers: others question your leadership and wait for you to topple off.  You have few folk, if anyone, to really talk to.  And all in the certain knowledge that you will carry the can for failure if it all goes wrong.

So it jars when I read how the Council is spending a lot of money on innovation trainers and leadership consultants; promoting themselves to win awards; spending scarce resources on more office space to create ‘innovation labs’ for a culture of ‘playful creativity’ in their new location in Magor (which, if you know Monmouthshire, you’ll realise is a long way, literally and culturally, from the main towns in the county).  I follow their tweets, exhorting each other to “Come play!”

Where we sit, in the communities where we live and work, their leadership doesn’t feel like a game to us.   At least not one we want to play.  “Come play” is not an appropriate catch phrase from leaders to their teams when communities are frustrated, angry, disconnected and marginalised.  I’m experiencing what it feels like to be part of a community which has been systematically marginalised, patronised and rubbished…  I’m experiencing what it feels like to have local knowledge, deep experience and real expertise ignored.  I’m experiencing how frustrating it feels, when I look at my campaign colleagues and see an incredibly skilled, politically, socially, economically diverse group being homogenised by a Council who can only see a singular ‘them’ in opposition to ‘us’.

Seems to me, what is billed as innovative leadership is just the re-labelled, same old behaviours – this time, hermetically-sealed inside an impermeable bubble of mutual self congratulation and cultural autopoeisis.*

Leadership is a relational practice: for leaders to have any legitimacy at all, they need followers – and that is not simply expressed once every four years in a ballot box.  For local authorities to claim leadership of the local space and to be able work resolutely with communities on the ‘wicked issues’ that affect them, they need to work with humility, honesty and transparency, with what is and what could be.   This means acknowledging and working through difficult and complex issues, not ignoring or hiding away from them: it means working through issues of power and control, creating the conditions in which communities can discover their own leadership and get things done in a way that works for them. It means valuing local intelligence and experience and really believing that solutions designed by and in communities, with the right resources, are always more valued, robust and sustainable.

Curiously, the result of this gives me some hope.  In the face of this broken relationship, local groups – in Abergavenny at least – are finding the energy and expertise to just get on with things.  They’ve given up waiting for the Council to provide any leadership they want to follow: people are organising for themselves, within interest groups and between groups.  This is local leadership in action.  It’s about practical, roll-your-sleeves up commitment, persevering for the long haul, building and sustaining relationships with the people we’ll continue to live and work with – who get things done, on the ground.  It’s about finding common purpose and working with differences.  It’s about noticing what’s going on at the edges, working on the boundaries, where all the interesting stuff happens and where the potential for radical, sustainable change really lies.   It is about mutual respect and – yes – having a laugh together, in spite of everything…  But it’s not a game…

Monmouthshire County Council would do well to look and learn from what’s going on, on their doorstep…

* Here’s an example: Monmouthshire County Council are promoting their ‘radical new strategy’ for their new county ‘brand’ – Monmouthshire: the Food Capital of Wales.  Monmouthshire has been a food destination for decades: this is entirely due to local food entrepreneurs – the producers, the restaurateurs – who make and market their products; and to Abergavenny Food Festival, an internationally renowned event, started up and run by local people… For the Council to claim ‘radical leadership’ of this just makes local people even more cynical…   Spotting the parade and rushing to the front of it is neither ‘radical’ nor ‘leadership’…

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“I’m feeling my age…” Misogyny and the Middle Years…

I’m feeling my age*.  After reading a great piece in the Guardian this week about Kat Banyard, ‘Britain’s leading young feminist,’ entitled: “We were sold a lie,” I’m realising I’m on, probably, my fourth wave of feminist revivalism.  And whilst I’m delighted that this is all back in the public discourse again, I can’t help but feel I’ve been here before…  

In the last week we’ve seen; Australian PM Julia Gillard’s epic denunciation in parliament of the Opposition leader’s casual sexism; the Taliban shooting of Malala, a 14 year old girl for the crime of campaigning for education for girls; the sheer number and variety of stories featuring on the @EverydaySexism twitter feed; the studied lack of curiosity or concern about the Jimmy Savile rumours which persisted over decades; the Women in Journalism report, showing how few women either report the news or feature in the news (other than in lite porn or the sneery/judgey/‘faux-worry’ “oooh, isn’t she looking a bit fat/thin” stories…) And – new to me this morning – the Gawker exposure of Reddit, who claim that they’re ‘protecting free speech’ (it’s a huge social network news site, so mainstream it hosted an Obama Q&A session last month) by keeping open the ‘subreddit’ groups, called – and I don’t need to explain these – ‘Jailbait,’ ‘Niggerjailbait,’ ‘Chokeabitch,’ ‘Creepshots’ and ‘Incest’, where group members share photos on the above themes.   It’s moments like these that remind me – in case I’d momentarily forgotten – how pervasive, persistent, deeply-entrenched and widespread misogyny really is.  

I’m just going to take a moment to explain misogyny here.  Only last week I had an amusing twitter exchange with Philip Blond on abortion time limits; he seems to think that his views can’t be misogynist if some women agree with him.  With all due credit to Wikipedia (I’m using easily accessible sources here, so as not to disadvantage the likes of Blond – who isn’t, it seems, so hot on the more rigorous research methods): 

Michael Flood says: “Misogyny functions as an ideology or belief system that has accompanied male-dominated societies for thousands of years and continues to place women in subordinate positions with limited access to power and decision making.”   

Allen Cooper says: “Misogyny …. is a central part of sexist prejudice… and, as such, is an important basis for the oppression of females in male-dominated societies. Misogyny is manifested in many different ways, from jokes to pornography to violence to the self-contempt women may be taught to feel toward their own bodies.”

But back to Kat Banyard, whose key headline I’ll just quote here. “Throughout the 90s and much of the noughties, we were sold a lie on an almighty scale. That equality had been won, that the battle was over, and now was the time to enjoy our rights.”  

And whilst I agree whole heartedly with Kat on many things, my own memory of that time is, in fact, a bit different.  Those of us who were having our kids in the 90s, trying to combine parenting with working, really wanting to buy the ideas we were being sold, encountered something quite different.  

For example. In the late 80s/early 90s I worked for a huge, highly regarded, multinational company which was a founding member of Opportunity 2000 – the campaigning group set up to improve women’s representation and retention in the workplace.  This was, it must be said, largely driven by the ‘business case’ that the country was about to face a demographic time-bomb and that there wouldn’t be enough workers to go round by Y2K, rather than the moral imperative that equality and inclusion might be good things per se… but hey! you take your opportunities where you can…  

So when I got pregnant, I thought it would be an easy ask to take three months maternity leave from my job as Head of Management Development and to come back for a year part-time.  How wrong I was.  Apparently, the fine words written in the Opportunity 2000 manifesto were clearly meant for those other companies.  I was told, by the American HR Director, that I had two choices: I could either come back to work full time (as quickly as possible, please) and keep my seniority; or I could ‘mommy track’, take a demotion – and work part time.   As it turned out, he discovered that I had a third choice; The Equal Opportunities Commission took up my case and the payout funded the start up of my freelance consulting business.   Meanwhile, for many poor and working class women, the ‘opportunity’ to work simply continued to mean to work in part-time, low paid, low status, insecure work: the idea that the battle for equality had been won rang a bit hollow there too…

So I don’t think there has ever been a time when women – at a certain point in our lives – weren’t aware that society was working really hard to package up and sell us a big fat lie.  The trouble is, I think we really want to believe it – it’s hard to take in, sometimes, just how vile misogyny is – and perhaps we can’t really believe that ‘generic men’ could possibly really think like that about the particularity of us – real, living, breathing, feeling women; their mothers, their sisters, their partners…  But I think it’s a process of realisation that we all come to, given time, when we test the boundaries of what’s acceptable; of how a woman is supposed to be; and when we bump into those things that reveal the dark shadow of misogyny, just behind the shiny marketing and seductive doublethink that has, meanwhile, “co-opted the language of feminism.”  

I am delighted that younger women like Kat Banyard and the UK Feministas are loud, out on the streets (demonstrating in London on 24th October), taking action and – yes, angry – as they come to their own point of realisation that the world is not quite so welcoming and benign for them as it said on the packaging…  At my age, I have also come to terms with the realisation that picking apart the structures of misogyny, with its couple thousand year history and its fundamental, fungal grip on all aspects of human culture, is also just going to take us all some time… 

 

*49, for the avoidance of doubt!

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You can’t sub-contract your diet….

Wow.  It’s been a year since my last post here. How time flies….  So what’s been happening in my world? Divorced – which was painful and – truth be told – still is: work is complicated – with brilliant bits (such as a new appointment as Visiting Research Fellow at University of Leeds) and difficult bits (it’s a recession: I do consulting… duh!): kids growing, leaving to explore the world, coming to terms with their own versions of the changes in the family and their own lives…

In amongst all that, I’m still plugging away with the plans for the farm. Frustratingly, one of the things I’m discovering about being a single, working, farming, parent, is (how boring and mundane!) everything takes so much longer.  And my absolute, cast-iron, copper-bottomed priority is to maintain some sense of security and continuity for my brilliant kids and my aged parents, who also live here.  So I’m not as far ahead as I thought I’d be.  But I AM moving ahead.

I managed to keep the farm, cashing in everything I had in the process and wangling a massive mortgage from a sympathetic mortgage adviser.  So when that finally happened at Christmas, everything else became possible.  Wwoofers (www.wwoof.org.uk) have been a godsend. I have a French couple living with me who exchange six hours of work a day/5 days a week for bed and board.  They are hard workers and really sweet.  And they’ve taken on the everyday farm jobs and some of the ‘development’ jobs – expanding and developing the kitchen garden and looking after the orphan lambs and calf, among many other things.  They even painted my kitchen when it rained 🙂

I have grant applications in, to build the infrastructure for the farm business, courses and visits – some compost toilets; improving the access; a posh polytunnel and aquaponics…  Again, it’s been slow, but if I stop berating myself for a moment and take a clear eyed view, there’s progress.   I’ve installed a big solar PV system (just in front of the tariff change, phew!) and have first courses booked.   Monmouthshire’s Adventa team have been brilliant.  I’m even in their Wye Valley Guide already!

The Llananant Farm Facebook page is up, at last – pop across and ‘like’ it, if you do – that’s where I’ll update that particular strand of the story most regularly, I guess.

And the biggest lesson I’m learning?  Whether I like it or not some things have their own rhythms, their own patterns, their own pace – and you have to do them yourself…  You can’t sub-contract dieting , you can’t get someone in to practise the piano for you, you can’t contract out your learning.  And you can’t short-cut the basic human processes of loss, grief,  fear, anxiety, anger…  But since I know a bit about all of this stuff – after all it’s what I help other people to do – I suspect I thought I could ‘know’ my way through, with all the frameworks and models and theories at my disposal.  But knowing what to do is not enough.   You still need to roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, gird your loins – what ever metaphor you choose – and just get on and grunt your own way through it.

So what helps?

1. Knowing when to talk – and when to stop talking,  let it go for a bit and give yourself space to notice when things are shifting

2. Accepting the wisdom and experience of those who have lived through their own distresses – acknowledging you’re not alone in this

3. Appreciating the love of friends and family who want to help – and also remembering that they have their own worlds, lives, issues

4. Letting go of ‘grand plans’, strategies, visions…. and instead living with ’emergence’ – using ‘planning’, ‘strategising’, ‘imagining’ as verbs – doing words – trusting that things will shift, adapt and change depending on what happens next

5. Coming to terms with the fact that progress doesn’t come in neat, straight lines – and sometimes you might slip back a bit.  This is not a disaster.

6. That it’s possible to be, feel, think many – often seemingly contradictory – things simultaneously. This is normal.

7. When things seem impossible, taking a next baby step – ANY next step – in the sure and certain knowledge that the world will look a little bit different from a new place…

Perhaps I won’t leave it so long until the next post…

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A practical plan with the resources at hand

Applying the ideas in Jamie Young’s “How to be Ingenious” is bearing fruit.

When unexpected events occur, the shock and disturbance can cause many reactions, from paralysis to raging anger, confusion and denial.  Mine tends to be to ‘take charge’ and run round like a headless chicken attempting to ‘do’ things to alleviate the distress.   But sometimes, in the most complex of situations, knowing just what to ‘do’ for the best can feel an almost impossible task.

So for the last few months, I’ve been practising an approach which is a bit unusual for me; pausing, drawing breath and allowing myself to be alive to possibilities I may not otherwise have considered.

At the same time as coming to terms with separation and divorce, I have been thinking about how we can stay here on Llananant Farm.  It’s a lovely 52 acre holding in the beautiful Monmouthshire countryside, home to me, my parents and my children.  But with a day job that takes me away a lot, and offspring needing support with their with busy lives,  paying attention to this place and all its possibilities has somewhat taken a backseat of late.

But out of crisis comes opportunity – storm clouds can have a silver lining.  Friends rally round and come up with options and proposals; ideas appear from the most unexpected places.

And I think I have a plan.

Thinking about all the resources I have available to me and putting them together in new ways, I am setting up Llananant Farm (llananant.co.uk) as a Permaculture Project and a local hub for learning and networking.

I’ve been aware of the Permaculture movement for many years (www.permaculture.org.uk).  It has its roots in the same ‘whole systems’ traditions as the theories and methods which guide my consulting practice.  We apply permaculture principles to the way we manage the farm (www.permacultureprinciples.com).  For example, we work in harmony with the conditions we find here, only intervening when we need to improve yields.  We’ve restored habitat to create a diverse and self supporting eco-system – planting hedges and corridors, woodland and orchards.  We apply old techniques – making hay later so that the different plant varieties self-seed; using foggage farming through the winter; growing lamb slowly on to hoggets before selling the tastier, leaner, bigger joints to friends and family.  We have plans to make more use of what we produce here – largely lamb, beef, apples, eggs.

Alongside developing the farm itself, we’ll start converting some of our buildings as informal teaching and learning spaces.  Working with the principles and practices of ‘systems thinking’ and ‘systems working’ – including Permaculture Principles – we can explore and experiment with how we can apply these methods for positive effects for our organisations, communities and our planet.  Visitors will be able to experience, in a very practical way, the interconnections and relationships in the real, living environment of a working permaculture holding.   And with my wonderful and varied crowd of friends and colleagues, we can offer all sorts of teaching, learning and networking possibilties – as well as simple spaces for connection and plain old fun!

We hope that Llananant will become a hub for all sorts of activities, helping to grow our vibrant, inter-connected, sustainable local communities.  Importantly, for me, it will allow me to connect and integrate my professional life and my home life in much more reciprocal and mutually supportive ways.

And that’s good…

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