Eco Cycle of Collaboration

Our communities are constantly changing.  People, policies, programmes, politics, economies, and the weather are all part of the constant flux around us.  Resilience or the ability to adapt to change is essential ingredient that needs to be understood and built into community change journeys.

We have a lot to observe and learn from eco-systems in nature.  There are phases of birth, life and death in the natural world that can be usefully paralleled with evolution, development and collaboration processes at project, organisational and community levels. Some instrumental work by Gunderson and Holling has informed the framing of what has become known as the Panarchy or Eco Cycle of community change, as noted in the diagram below.

eco cyle M-Cabaj-visual

At the start or development  phase, we have to have to invest heavily in our ideas to transform them into change and action on the ground – getting our seedlings to grow.  In a forest however, not every seedling makes it to the top of the canopy.  So it is with the many ideas we seed in our communities.  Not everything will or should take off.  In fact there is a fine balance between the number of ideas and the resources and implementation capacity at hand.  In kicking too much off with too few resources, initiatives fail to get traction and nothing succeeds as a result (poverty trap).

When things are working really well and everything’s stable, it feels like you can stand back and reap the rewards of all your hard work – you’re probably in the maturity phase.  But when your resources, energy and ideas are all at capacity, the walls still can come crashing down.  By doing things the way they have always been done (rigidity trap) and not continually innovating or responding to what may have been changing around you – again, a ‘crash and burn’ can occur.

In nature though, a forest fire isn’t seen as a disaster but as ‘creative destruction’ – an integral part of release and exploration phases, enabling new seedlings – or new ideas, growth and resources to emerge, and the cycle to begin again.

As alluded to above, within the innovation cycle there are many traps to be wary of – with ‘traps’ here referring to  choices about what to continue with and what to let go.  Three additional traps to watch out for:

  • Charisma Trap: without necessarily meaning to, charismatic leaders or drivers of initiatives can also pose major problems to growth and renewal cycles.  When things become dependent upon one person and they leave, the necessary infrastructure for ‘carrying on’ may not be there.
  • Chronic Disaster Trap: after the ‘creative destruction change’ there can be so much change, messiness and complications abound, that those left to muddle through the mess can feel helpless, isolated and simply unable to cope.  When this happens, taking time to re-group, not panicking and pairing things down to ‘bite size’ manageable chunks is usually the best approach.
  • Innovation Trap: rather than adding on to or adapting processes/initiatives already in existence, there can be a tendency to start something new, a process which can stretch/exhaust resources and capacity, put strain on existing relationships and miss the ability to leverage off existing successful community efforts and initiatives.

Evidence suggests that what matters is strategically observing and understanding where each initiative/collaboration is on the innovation cycle (knowing that different community initiatives will be at different points of the cycle at the same time) and carefully manage transitions between phases –with the aim being to minimise disruption between each stage as much as possible.  In this way, we can see change as part of a natural and continuous cycle of growth and decay – not something to be feared, avoided or ignored.


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