November 27, 2012

The Commons Exchange: An Alternative to "Next Steps"

A new way to galvanize ideas into action

Want a sure way to kill the generative energy in the room after several days of meetings? Start facilitating the “next steps” session. We’ve all participated in this part of an agenda before: It’s the time when all the great ideas, creativity, and connection unleashed by being part of a dynamic dialog gets pigeonholed into clear, definable, and achievable…next steps.

Don’t get me wrong. Groups of people coming together to advance a shared vision do need a way to galvanize their ideas into action at the end of a gathering. But, in my experience, we lose some co-creative energy in the name of landing a “strategic” course of action…or next steps. Another problem with next steps is that they typically require someone in a coordinator role to make sure the group stays on track and accomplishes the defined goals. In this scenario, people often end up being “coordinated” instead of becoming co-creators, and the traditional hub-and-spoke model gets reinforced¬—which means that individuals and organizations are connected through the coordinator(s), rarely directly to each other.

During On the Commons’s last two gatherings, we experimented with a more commons-based approach to “next steps”; namely, a commons exchange.

During the last day of our Great Lakes Commons Gathering, Robert Lovelace of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation closed our time together and moved us forward by facilitating an exchange among gathering participants. He noted that historically, people have gathered together to share stories and trade with each other. He encouraged us all to “trade” by stating needs and making offerings.

Later at the recent Commons Solutions Lab, we experimented with the same approach. What occurred in both instances was alive and inspiring. People felt free to ask for what they really needed to help them do their work better and advance the commons. Needs ranged from technical assistance for creating low-cost off-the-grid technology in urban areas around the Great Lakes to workshop designs and other methods for teaching the commons. Offers were similarly varied and abundant, ranging from work exchanges to homestays to collaborative funding ideas, and more.

In each case, we determined many achievable next steps and participants from each gathering followed up with one another to keep their connections alive. We also ended up with lots of creative movement building ideas that we likely wouldn’t have seen with a traditional next steps exercise: some planned local events and invited participation from other regions; others planned video and social media collaborations; many shared tools and resources; and new leadership emerged. The commons exchange surely propelled the energy and ideas generated during these two gatherings, because we each felt that we had much to contribute. It was also powerful to acknowledge that, in both cases, participants felt they had a new and growing community to turn to when in need of help.

We trust that the connections, needs, and offerings from these sessions are the best next steps for our work to create a commons-based society. And we thank Robert Lovelace for this simple and uplifting exercise as a new way to work together.