Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Flying to the Moon via Gregynog...

Fern Smith and Phil Ralph, directors of Emergence, share a conversational blog about their experiences devising and facilitating change workshops for Welsh Government... 


Fern: Six months ago, Phil and I were ready to begin the first of our workshops at Gregynog House, commissioned by the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales – called ‘To the Moon and Back’. 

We’ve been meaning to write something about this whole process since then but somehow it never happened. In the aftermath we were so relieved that the workshops went well - we survived and the feedback was overwhelmingly good – that the last thing we really wanted to do was to revisit the whole process of preparation, planning and production. We moved on after a bit of celebration to preparing, planning and producing the next thing, and then the next and then the next… Sound familiar?  I am feeling a sense of unfinished business and a need to return. To look back in order to move forward. To remember and to harvest the learning…

It was in May 2019, in the fresh green budding Spring, that we spent two lots of two days at Gregynog House in mid Wales with two large groups of Welsh and Wales-based land managers, policy makers, educators, community organisers and growers. We’re planning a meet-up with our commissioners at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in the next few weeks but before that I wanted to sit with and remember what called us to act, to accept the invitation and to put months of preparation time into offering ‘To the Moon and Back’. It’s six months on and I’m asking why did we go, how did we get there and what did we do that it felt like we had spent all our combined lifetimes preparing for it…

Phil: Fern had been telling me about her meetings with Welsh Government for a while. It seems that there was a real concern about how responding to the climate and nature emergencies we face will mean different sectors - sometimes with very different world views - coming together to find new solutions. Building trust and enabling a real sense of community and collaboration will be absolutely vital. This is an increasingly common occurrence as our personal and professional worlds become ever more siloed and specific. 

The upshot of these meetings was that Fern had been commissioned to deliver some pilot workshops bringing together some individuals and groups, in order to look at ways that we might begin to see and hear each other in deeper, more practical ways, with the hope that strong connections and collaborations might result. All of which makes perfect sense when you think about it – the very definition of sustainability stems from systems thinking: the idea that no part of a system is discrete or separate from any other and all parts combine to co-create the world together. Wales, being an unique place with a long history of environmental activism and concern, is arguably an ideal place to look at these issues. 

Fern and I had been looking for projects to work on together, putting our growing skill base of facilitation, systems thinking, group processes and personal transformation together. So, when she asked me if I would work on the pilot workshops with her, it seemed an obvious – if very daunting choice...


Fern: The invitation to work with the Welsh Government came as a result of having been invited by Kelli Rose Pearson, a PhD researcher at SUSPLACE in Cardiff University, to work with her on a couple of previous workshops whilst she was on a placement with Welsh Government. We’d shared an interest in Theory U, a deep individual/group/organisational change process which was developed out of years of research by many leading figures working at MIT in the U.S.

Theory U offers a model, a map and a methodology for anyone wanting to launch an inquiry into what supports and blocks innovation. I’m interested in processes of change. There are a huge amount of theories with their various strengths and idiosyncrasies. I engage with them as they see change as a process rather than just something which happens overnight. Theory U speaks about leading from the emerging future. This means we need to let go of pre-conceptions and fixed expectations, focus on listening rather than speaking, relationship building, and fully and consciously enter into a phase of ‘uncertainty’ or ‘unknowing’ to create a new field of possibilities from which new ideas, projects, and processes emerge.

I’d done a couple of one-day workshops with Kelli in 2018, we’d had good feedback, and one of the commissioners, Usha Ladwa Thomas from Welsh Government, was an active participant in these workshops. She’d been involved with working with Emily Finney from Welsh Government to support a process working with land managers and policy teams across Wales in line with the Natural Resources Policy in the Environment Act. Natural Resources Wales and their responsibility under the WFGA (Wellbeing of Future Generations Act) and the Environment Act enable a crucial part of this new policy – the Area Statements which determine how each particular area, body, and community are going to support the delivery of the Natural Resources Policy and deliver actions which take into account each area’s unique opportunities and challenges.

Emergence Land Journey - The Walk That Reconnects 2014
I was invited to speak to a team from Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in early 2019 and come up with some ideas as to how we could encourage more cross sectoral working, and not get lost down rabbit holes involving old frustrations or allegiances. Could we really create an environment of trust, listening, possibility and participation? I spoke to the team about my particular approach as an artist and the kinds of things I’d developed or delivered before: a major arts and sustainability conference at Centre for Alternative Technology; a consultative document for the Arts Council of Wales mapping sustainable arts practice in Wales; leading and facilitating creative walks involving dialogue on the move; producing a landmark DVD series about a major peace activist and spiritual teacher. They were intrigued, excited, committed to doing things differently… they said ‘yes’. The brief was essentially to get the people in the room to talk to one another and perhaps some way down the line to work together on collaborative projects.

Theory U was very much in the air at the time of the invitation. Phil and I were facilitating a small group in our home town of Machynlleth where we travelled ‘through the U’ with a small group made up of educators, a community organiser, town counsellor, artist and an engineer. I knew there was an interest from Welsh Government in the whole Theory U process too as Diana Reynolds is actively working to promote its use through her work supporting learning, innovation and relationship building across sectors internally. So, working with U Theory felt like a no-brainer. However, as Phil said, there was something else very much in the air – both inside our house and across the universe… the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I always listen to and trust what is emerging in the ‘spirit of the times’ as well as connecting to what I like to call ‘the spirit of place’. The creative process that began to emerge through our conversations brought the Apollo Mission front and centre. Back to Phil…

Phil: Alongside the burgeoning practice that Fern and I have together, I still have my ‘day job’. After training and working as an actor, I segued into writing about 15 years ago, first for the stage, then television and film. As the energy to create these workshops for Welsh Government was building, I was spending most of my time a quarter of a million miles away from Earth...

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon by the American astronauts of NASANeil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, ably (and vitally) assisted by Michael Collins. I’d been approached by the BBC Science team in July 2018 and asked if I would write a script for a new and unique form of documentary, telling the story of Apollo 11 from blast off to splash down. The producers had access to previously classified audio recordings from the mission, detailing the astronaut’s communications between the spacecraft and Mission Control in Houston and, crucially, between themselves when no-one else could hear them. I’ve always been a lifelong space nut and so it was a heavenly experience for me to work on such an unique project. As I immersed myself in the minutiae and human experience of the mission, I shared my revelations and learnings with Fern. Little did I know that the gleam in her eye would lead to more adventures for the two of us…

Buzz Aldrin emerges from the Lunar Module about to become the 2nd man on the Moon...
You see, the dominant thing that emerged for me from all of my research was that the extraordinary nature of the achievement of landing men on the Moon was only possible because of some quite remarkable teamwork on the part of NASA. The Apollo missions were kicked off by President John F Kennedy in the early 1960s when he blithely announced to the world that the USA would “by the end of this decade land a manon the Moon and return him safely to Earth.” The only problem was, at the time that he said this, no-one had the faintest idea how to do it… Over the course of the next several years, driven by ingenuity, teamwork, a burning desire to “beat the Russians”, and the combined efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, they managed to do the impossible. But history – as it so often does – paints an overly simplified picture of how this feat was achieved.

Success always seems to come as an inevitability. But at every point in the process, failure was only moments away. In fact, failure – one could argue – was what enabled the success to happen. Without making millions of failures (including the tragic death of three astronauts in a launchpad fire on Apollo 1 in 1967 - a mere two years before Apollo 11’s successful mission) and being able to learn from them and adapt accordingly, the Apollo program would never have achieved its goal. Iterative learning was key. Prototyping, failing, learning, changing and prototyping again were the order of the day. Combine this with the remarkable ability of different departments across NASA to listen to one another and to work together towards a common goal and you have a recipe for success that is almost unparalleled and arguably largely absent in much of the modern world.

As I told Fern these tales of failure, learning, teamwork and success, she began to realise – long before I did – that the story of Apollo 11 offered a distinctive, exciting and unique lens through which to view the task we were being given by Welsh Government. In the place of landing on the Moon, substitute the seemingly impossible challenge of man-made climate change. In the place of NASA, substitute those people who work within the environment sector of Wales. All of them siloed in their own particular organisation or department, all of them striving towards a common goal, and all of them fighting to be heard amongst an increasingly loud landscape of change and fear for the future. The lessons of Apollo 11 were not just to be celebrated for the anniversary. They could offer real insight and have practical use today…

And so another element was added to our plans. The workshops now had a title, borrowed from the documentary – ‘To the Moon and Back…’ Combining our new lens with Theory U, we felt we had something of great value to share.

The documentary itself aired this summer on BBC2. 
If you didn’t catch it, it’s still available on BBC iPlayer in the UK 
And on PBS in the United States. 

Our planning began in earnest. We asked Welsh Government for two 2-day residential workshops to enable us to immerse our participants away from their normal, day-to-day lives to really try out our ‘prototype’ and learn by doing (and possibly failing). We had our source materials. Next thing we needed was a venue and a special guest or two… Over to you, Fern…  

Fern: We decided in consultation with our commissioning team to hold the event at Gregynog House in mid Wales. This venue has a vibrant history and connection with innovation, education, Welsh culture and international relations. It also has breath-taking grounds and a nearby train link. Gregynog gave us the chance of working in one venue in the heart of Wales which itself was undergoing a significant transition in terms of its own relationship to sustainability. At the time it was moving from being a part of the University of Wales to setting itself up as an independent trust. Gregynog, like so many other institutions is needing to change the way it operates and in a context of increasing unpredictability and uncertainty. The new CEO, Janet Wallwork Clarke, was really interested in looking at how we create lasting change in ourselves, our teams and our institutions. It felt like a great match.

Fern grapples with Theory U...
In the month or so before delivering the event we spent time mapping how we might get to the moon and back onto the famous ‘U’ of Theory U. Meanwhile the team at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales were busy sending out invites. Who did they want in the room? Who might be the change-makers, innovators and collaborators who might be an active and willing part of this pilot process?

Theory U has come from the stable of MIT though it does acknowledge its debt to research and models involving transformation and change. It’s something you can spend a lifetime on or something you can explain and ‘prototype’ in a minute. At the heart of the U – and yes, it is the shape of the letter U which gives this beautiful theory its name – are three main steps. These are ‘letting go’, ‘presencing’ and ‘letting come’. 

‘Letting go’ involves a process of listening, collecting information from as many sources as possible and ‘sensing’ into the feeling of an issue, a dilemma, a challenge. The second step, ‘presencing’ is perhaps the hardest, but the most important. Waiting, suspending activity, connecting to a deeper ‘source’ and not jumping immediately to solution. Only when we have hung out in this uncomfortable territory do we begin to move towards ‘the right-hand side of the U’ and ‘letting come’, which involves ‘Crystallizing’, ‘Prototyping’ and then ‘Performing’. Each phase is an important step in the process. Dialogue and listening are at the heart of the process as is suspending habitual ways of doing things, noticing difference, establishing emotional or empathic connection with self or others, and ultimately listening closely to ‘the future that wants to emerge’. The theory of this is mapped out and backed up in the Theory U research by many examples from all over the world at different operating scales. In practice, it is different every time and involves establishing a connection to the specific issue, specific location and specific culture, history and players involved. This is not about finding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

The process is completely emergent in that it is predicated on what happens in the room with and between those people who are actually present. It is an entirely democratic process. We as facilitators are not determining the outcome, nor are those who commission the process. Herein lies the challenge and the excitement. We were encouraged by Welsh Government and NRW to create a process where the outcome was not known beforehand. This needed trust and great commitment from us as facilitators, the commissioning team and those who responded to the invitation to participate.

Phil prepares to meet the participants...
And so, on the 2/3 and the 15/16 of May this year, we did get ‘To the Moon and Back’ during those warm days at Gregynog. We were blessed with fantastic weather. In total 55 people participated including representatives of local government, NRW, Farming Union Wales, National Trust, RSPB, and many community organisers. We asked ourselves many questions and opened ourselves to hear the answers from the emerging future: How do we create a Wales that works for all? How do we ensure the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations’? How do we put our histories or differences aside and commit to listening rather than telling others what we think they need to do? This was a live experiment, active place and people-based research.  

Greta Thunberg
We brought the ‘future generations into the room’ in the form of 18-year-old Jasmine Jones from Newtown, a straight-talking young woman who had been inspired to organise a school strike in her town by the extraordinary climate activist, Greta Thunberg. The future generations were also brought into the room by a particularly powerful ‘Council’ where each participant talked about their fears and challenges when they think about the future, especially in terms of their children, grandchildren and those yet unborn.

People spoke about their love and knowledge of soil – the soil of a specific place significant to each participant. We walked together outside in nature, practicing forms of what Theory U calls the 4 levels of listening. We underwent a deep and challenging process of questioning to find a new intention for our work, which then crystallised into a proposed prototype project which then led to conversations about collaboration throughout our participants.



The days were long, intense and challenging. There was listening, trust, and deep and significant connections were made. New projects and processes were seeded, and new collaborations envisioned. Many reported back that they had been hungry for conversation, connection, space to think, and to connect to individual and shared visions. Here are just a few of the comments we collected detailing what people took away with them…

Space and time for people to let themselves out of their boxes

Sharing experience, new ways of working, support network

Sense of community – you managed to create it!

Having the time to step back and deconstruct both personally and professionally

Brilliant group of people

Going out for walks!

Using walking exercises with questions

17 Questions

Learning deep listening

Opening up

Understanding different perspectives

Loads of time to reflect and share

Having time and space to be in the moment

Making connections

The sense of shared journey

Meeting others in a wonderful setting

And now, months later, the first frost has settled, and the darker nights are here. What impact has this event had? Has there been change of any significance? What has been put in place, has emerged or evolved six months on? Later this month we meet again with our colleagues at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in Cardiff to take stock and see how we might take this forward. From this pilot event, what have we learned? What might we want to do together in future?

We are both deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in this way at this time of great change and turmoil. More than ever, it feels vitally important that we learn again the skills of listening, community, and collaboration. We need to see each other better. We need to learn how to fail better. We need to learn how to learn better. It’s work we feel called to dedicate ourselves to and we hope to do much more of it in the years to come.

We leave the final words to the ecologist and systems thinker, CS Holling -   

“The only way to approach such a period in which uncertainty is high and one cannot predict what the future holds is not to predict but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living”…

Copyright © 2019 Emergence CIC Ltd.

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2 comments:

  1. Great blog. It's got me thinking about Theory U again and I'm going to watch To the Moon & Back! Interesting to read about the Gregynog event, after having attended one of the pilot sessions in 2018. Clearly the follow up questions about the impact of the session would be fascinating.

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