Category Archives: Education

Arts & Culture Civil Society Education Environment Multi-Stakeholder

Connecting a University and its Community around Earth Day

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell was looking to find ways to collaborate with organizations in the community to plan events around Earth Day. The previous year, a Lowell professor in Political Science, happened to sit next to a local artist/puppeteer at a meeting. Their conversation led to a small collaboration around an Earth Day parade, which is now being taken to a greater scale to create and connect various Earth Day events around the City.

The plan was for UMass Lowell to host an Earth Day Planning Forum inviting a wide range of organizations to share ideas, plans and opportunities for making Lowell Earth Day Celebration 2016 a city-wide, month-long celebration of the arts, nature and sustainability. Madeline Snow and Beth Tener (author here) designed an agenda for the Forum to develop plans for Earth Day activities, while also giving people an experience of participatory meeting techniques. These techniques offer the added benefits of helping people meet and connect with many others in the room and find those with similar interests. In my introductory remarks, I said that the intention of the meeting design was to create a web of connections, similar to mycelium, a web underneath a healthy forest that sprouts mushrooms and exchanges nutrients with trees.

The meeting was held in a beautiful meeting room with large windows overlooking the Merrimac River, as the fall foliage was at its height. There was a great turnout with people from a wide range of organizations such as the City departments, University staff, the National Park Service, a local high school science teacher who runs the environmental club with several of her students, and environmental, health and community non-profits. The day was split into three parts:

People introduced themselves and offered one word to describe Lowell. This served as a colorful way to remind everyone of the place they had in common, experienced from many perspectives.
Lowell words

Small conversations were held in a World Café format around the question: What could Lowell Earth Day 2016 do with and for the Lowell community? People discussed this in groups of four and then the groups mixed, sharing themes from the previous conversation, and generating more ideas. The World Café format is designed to generate lots of those serendipitous connections that spur innovative ideas, like the way the idea for this Earth Day initiative emerged when two people who worked in different places got to talking and came up with a new idea of how to work together. As I listened in on conversations, I could hear new connections being made not only for Earth Day plans but also for how people’s work could connect as well. Many ideas emerged, as well as some common themes, including the vision that Earth Day events would continue to grow each year.

Using Open Space Technology, we asked participants to suggest topics for conversation and assigned spaces for groups to discuss these, encouraging people to join whichever conversation they were drawn to, and move around among them. Instead of the facilitators mapping out every part of the day, this technique opens up the format, trusting the group to identify and generate good timely ideas. Sure enough, some great suggestions emerged that the facilitation team would likely not have come up with, for example:
– Planning activities in each neighborhood. Previous to this, the focus had been on events downtown.

– The river. A group explored what events could be done along the river and how that could be an organizing theme that connected events and organizations.

– Community/marketing/publicity. Another group jumped into conversation about how the mailing lists of all of the organizations could be connected to promote Earth Day events. People recognized that this will enable them to better communicate and connect their organizations’ work and events in an ongoing way.

The feedback from the planning forum was quite positive and an ambitious plan of activities is now underway. Reflecting on the experience, it is a great example of a simple way that a university can use its position as a convener to bring people together and strengthen connections with and within its community. A university can become insular and inward focused, even within its campus, the departments many not talk and share ideas and work. Likewise, within a community, organizations working on similar issues are often not aware of each others work or too busy to make the connections.

The planning forum enabled the many parts of the community with an interest in the environment and the arts to “put the pieces together in new ways” while also experiencing meeting techniques they can use within their own organizations. The meeting design enabled many new connections to be made and the participants now have the opportunity to work together immediately on a creative tangible project with a time line, which will likely strengthen the connections. Within the group, you could sense the desire for Lowell Earth Day Celebration to be an annual event that will grow and expand in each successive year. May it be so!

Education Health

‘Stressing’ Academic Success – Campus conversations focused on student mental health

The forum provided a way for campus community stakeholders to address our grand challenge: To create an university environment where students, faculty and staff can thrive and reach their full academic potential. Nearly 200 University of Minnesota leaders, faculty, staff and students representing academic and administrative units and student organizations participated in this all-day forum. The number of bold ideas, strategies and action plans generated to address stress, mental health and foster success was remarkable.

The Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health organized this day to:
• provide a participative forum for all stakeholders to engage in the strategic conversation;
• strengthen campus-wide relationships; and
• generate strategies to foster and support true mental health and advance student success.

Attendees had multiple opportunities to connect with others in meaningful conversations. In
the morning World Cafe conversations, we focused our collective attention on the issues, connected ideas to find deeper insights, and generated bold ideas that create forward movement and action. In the afternoon ProAction Cafe, we focused in on the strategies and some of those bold ideas and generated action plans for supporting true mental health and advancing student success.


Hosting a Leadership Development Cohort: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

Upon completing The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) training, I was excited to apply what I experienced to my work with leadership development. The use of powerful questions and slowing down to allow for deep reflection seemed well-suited to helping people further their leadership journey. In a leadership development cohort where relationship-building is so critical, I saw great potential for using Art of Hosting methodologies and core principles with their ties to participatory and collaborative leadership.


Enhancing Volunteer Engagement Using the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversation

The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations practices are easily adapted to traditional volunteer programs. As today’s volunteers want more from their volunteer experience, the practices can be used to engage volunteers differently, breathing new life into stagnant programs. Utilizing different Art of Hosting techniques has lead to a better engaged group of volunteers.


Collaborative Creation for Technology Implementation: The University of Minnesota Portal Story

The University of Minnesota is implementing a new portal, a central website that will provide personalized information, tools, and services to the entire University community—more than 100,000 students, staff, and faculty across five campuses throughout the state. It potentially could mean a significant change in the way that people in the University system meet many of their daily needs at work. The new portal will first be available in late 2014, continuing to develop and evolve after that. The following story takes us from the first meeting of the portal leadership team to the end of the first phase of the project. The practices move us from initial team formation to a concrete list of priorities. They provide a vehicle to move from idea to action.

Arts & Culture Civil Society Education Multi-Stakeholder

CHANCE: Creating Community Through Collaboration

There is an important distinction to be made between working in the community and working in community. Though subtle in syntax, the real life application is vastly different. This is a story of how University of Minnesota students came together with community partners to collaborate in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Arts & Culture Business Civil Society Education Environment Government & Public Sector Health Home & Family Multi-Stakeholder

New Conversations fora Better Future – Pacific Ocean coast SE Australia

Our current crucial public conversations are dominated by win-lose politics and media driven, crisis focussed drama and short-termism. People don’t fully engage or are depicted as hapless victims; and leaders are criticised as never good enough, continually letting us down. We often feel frustrated and stuck.

We need a new conversation. We need people strong enough to hold a container to host and lead these new conversations.

Our positive and engaging future lies in collaboration and innovation. This requires a conversation of trust. possibility and engagement.

The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter demonstrates and teaches the structures, processes and skills to lead crucial multi-stakeholder conversations.

If these challenges and opportunities speak to you please join us for New Conversations for A Better Future an Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations That Matter training workshop for all people interested in dialogue, collaboration and participative decision making. It will be held at Murramarang Eco Resort on the NSW south coast east of Canberra on 28-31 July.

Education Government & Public Sector

Hosting the classroom

Being introduced to the Art of Hosting has fundamentally changed how I teach in ways that I can clearly discern. Being introduced to hosting has enhanced how I prepare my students to practice engagement, facilitation, and hosting. But it also helps me reflect on and advance not only my practice as a host, but also my practice as a teacher. The two are closely intertwined; I now regard the classroom as a hosting environment and have reoriented my role to being a host of professional learning.

Arts & Culture Business Civil Society Education Environment Government & Public Sector Multi-Stakeholder

The Living Soil Forum: Building a Movement to Steward Living Soil

This is a story with which any grower will be familiar. It is the practice of sowing and harvesting; the cycle of growth and decay; the dance between chaos and order. It is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the planning of the first Living Soil Forum; a humble gathering of soil stewards designed to grow a movement to secure a better future for our soils.

As a gardener I am fascinated by the potential of seeds. As a process host I am fascinated by potential of questions. Jostein Gaarder writes, “An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.” This statement asks its own questions to a culture where many of us look to so-called experts for answers or solutions to complex problems. “What if solutions can also be found by asking the right questions?” “What if wiser action can come through activating collective intelligence or by utilising the knowledge and resources at our disposal”?

In March, 2013 the ‘Summer of Soil’ team met together for the first time in person. Six young change-makers from Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. We asked ourselves: “How could we sow the seeds of a collaborative and regenerative agricultural system?” “What if the principles and processes we apply to grow good food could also be used to grow a movement to steward soil”? If questions like these represent seeds of the Summer of Soil, then the Living Soil Forum is a fruit of these seeds.

The Living Soil Forum (LSF) took place at Kulturcentrum Järna , Sweden from 22-26 July, 2013; part of a larger five-week festival called the Summer of Soil. This festival also offered a series of courses designed to raise awareness and share knowledge on a range of soil related topics, and a beautiful exhibition showcasing the power, potential and vulnerability of our soils. The Forum itself brought together 130 policy-makers, scientists, artists, farmers, retailers and youth; concerned citizens from around the world. No ordinary conference, the Forum has been celebrated for succeeding where many conferences fail, by effectively engaging and connecting people and ideas; creating common understanding; integrating existing initiatives; and promoting genuine, cross-sector collaboration.

This story also represents a harvest, so to speak, of the LSF journey from intention to realisation. And it offers some personal insight into the arts of convening, hosting and harvesting meaningful conversations like those held at the LSF.

“Collective clarity of purpose is the invisible leader” Mary Parker Follett

It could be argued that the success of any initiative, organisation or action begins with, and depends upon, the skilful alignment of need and purpose. The Summer of Soil began as an impulse; a response to a clear need. Many readers will be familiar with issue of soil degradation. Yet sadly, despite being one of the most critical challenges of our time, it is still largely unknown to the majority. The issue affects the future of not only our species, but of all life. So the question of maintaining healthy, living soil should be central to conversations on biodiversity, food-security, health, climate and more. The challenge of soil degradation is of a magnitude and complexity such that it is beyond the power of any single organisation, industry or country to address alone. A broad-scale, cross-sector, collaborative approach is needed. Collective will and collective wisdom are needed. And they are needed now! Our first important step was to recognise and respond directly to this urgent need. We did so with the following statement of purpose; the objectives for the Living Soil Forum:

• Build an inclusive, global soil movement
• Inspire concerned consumers and especially youth to become active soil stewards
• Promote soil awareness throughout the entire agricultural system
• Showcase innovative practices and inspirational centres of agricultural production, living soil conservation and regeneration
• Design and initiate real projects and campaigns to leverage soil acupuncture points across the globe

This purpose resonated enough with others we contacted to enable them to step forward in support of the project. What had begun as a core team of six suddenly became a much larger field. 

“The quality of the field determines the quality of the yield.” Otto Scharmer

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of preparing the field. Wise growers understand that healthy soil is a living system in and of itself. It is essential for supporting healthy crops, healthy ecosystems and healthy humans. So it follows that stewarding living soil should be the principle practice of every grower. The same is true when it comes to nurturing life and health in our communities and organisations, only here, the field of practice takes a more intangible form as we create and host spaces for relationships to deepen and grow.

What emerged from the LSF, after roughly six months of preparation, was only possible due to help from the local community. Within this existing field, time and energy was invested in maintaining collective clarity of purpose; building a broad support network of international partners, sponsors and contributors; and gathering a team of dedicated interns and volunteers from across Europe to assist with practicalities. In all of these areas, the quality of the field depends on the consciousness and the intention with which people are invited into relationship.

“The need translates into a clear purpose and some defined outcomes. These two fixed-points can offer the coordinates for a good harvest.” Nissen, Corrigan et al.

Very few growers would plant a crop without a clear purpose. It would be foolish to invest time preparing the field, sowing the seeds and tending the crop only to find that it bears no fruit; that the fruit is of no use; or worst of all, that perfectly good fruit goes to waste. Yet this is precisely what many of us experience all too often in meetings, conferences and strategic conversations where despite the best intentions, results leave us feeling unsatisfied.

When we plan a meeting, what we are really doing is planning a harvest. To avoid frustration or failure it is important to establish clarity around purpose and desired outcomes. When these are clear, planning a meeting becomes more focused as we can now imagine which practical elements are necessary to generate a harvest that can be put to best use.

The planned harvest of the LSF led to outcomes whose impact can be seen and measured as well as those whose impact is felt or sensed. These intangible outcomes are no less important as they support the life and health of the metaphorical field and create favourable conditions for the seeds of tangible action to germinate.

“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place, but a seed to be planted and to bear more seeds toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” John Ciardi

If good questions are seeds of ideas and potential, a clear, purposeful invitation ensures that a seed finds a good seedbed in a fertile field of relationships. Appropriate timing ensures the temperature is right for the idea to break dormancy. Publicity provides the oxygen to allow the metabolic exchange of ideas. And good communication and dialogue behave as water to activate the growth of an idea and transfer nutrients around the living system. Once the idea has sprouted, collective will photosynthesises inspiration into energy for continued growth.

Much attention was given to crafting the LSF invitation. Our audience was anyone concerned enough about the state of the world’s soils to want to be part of the solution. Care was taken to clearly communicate the need and purpose to them, with seeds being planted in the form of calling questions around key focus areas. Communicating our objectives and intentions through the invitation was the best way to ensure that those who responded shared our intention. The invitation also planted expectations of a different way of working and collaborating; one that focused not on problems, but on solutions that work to secure and restore healthy, living soil.

“Who we are together will always be different and more, than who we are alone.” Margaret Wheatley

Just as working with the land is a practice, working and meeting well with others is a practice. It involves exploring the deeper patterns around effective relationships within groups and designing meetings where people can do their best work together. Experience shows that when working in complexity, dialogue-based methodologies and participatory processes are a way to generate fruitful results. These provide sufficient structure without prescribing the outcome, and they allow for the emergence of new insights and collective wisdom.

At the LSF itself, simple yet powerful processes were carefully chosen to serve the intended harvest. The program was composed of three main elements:
• Inspiration in the form of keynote talks and workshops,
• Conversation and participant led dialogue around the four Focus Areas, and
• Designing for Wiser Action, a 2-3 day design process in which participants formed design teams to collaborate on the development of actionable projects.

Work was balanced with generous breaks and mealtimes during which local, organic/biodynamic food was thoroughly enjoyed. Evenings provided opportunities to connect informally with other participants around cultural offerings and time was dedicated before breakfast each morning for those participants wishing to get their hands dirty by taking part in fieldwork.

“The fruits of our most important conversations need to be harvested if they are to have an impact in the world.” Nissen, Corrigan et al.

Picking the fruits corresponds to creating a collective memory. Collective meaning can then be generated by processing these fruits. During the LSF a team of ‘harvesters’ worked tirelessly to pick the fruits of the program. These were captured using a variety of media, from written word, film, photography and graphics to art installations. Many fruits were picked and fed back to the Forum right away. Some are undergoing further processing and some will be saved as seed for the next season to inspire future collaboration.

The LSF was a success on many levels with each of its objectives being met in some way. Tangible outcomes of the Forum included the coming together of 130 colleagues and friends, comprehensive documentation of inspiration and conversation tracks in multiple media, and 13 active projects for securing and restoring healthy, living soil. These projects included Solidarity, a volunteer program aimed at enhancing soils through organised engagements; a crowd-built, online course called Understanding Soil hosted by Allversity; and plans for a global network of beacon farms, research training and innovation centres for ecological restoration. Intangible outcomes were also significant and included a shared sense of purpose, a strong network of relationships in the field of trust and goodwill, renewed energy, inspiration, collective insight on a number of key questions, and individual and collective learning.

It was inspiring to witness the energy generated by the LSF 2013. Participants spoke of lives changed and commitments made as we accepted collective responsibility to work together, to restore and maintain living soils. Many of us came as growers with experience of stewarding life in the soil. All of us left as growers of a movement committed to stewarding soil for life. The Living Soil Movement continues to grow, with Forum participants planting its seeds widely into other initiatives and with projects initiated at the LSF already bearing fruit.

Visit for more information on how to join the Living Soil Movement and for details on the outcomes of the Living Soil Forum and the Summer of Soil. Or contact James Ede, Summer of Soil core-team member and coordinator of the Living Soil Forum, 2013


Open Space in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota

It was the morning of January 17, 2013, and the hosting team and the callers were gathered in Circle just moments before we welcomed 75 guests. A lot of planning had gone into this day. We had hopes for what would happen, but we went into it with no predetermined outcome, trusting that those who were convened today would bring the questions, ideas, and possible solutions that would enable the co-creation of a web strategy that would advance the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. As we settled into nervous anticipation for what was about to unfold, I shared that as a team of hosts and callers for the conversation we had been unconsciously following the Eight Breaths of Process Architecture—beginning with a question and progressing through a series of phases that lead to wiser, more informed action.