Get a real, deep, dynamic hang on what you do and who with through *Ecocycle planning*

Ecocycle Planning‘ is one of my absolute favourite structures from the Liberating Structures repertoire.

What is it?

Ecocycle planning is a structure that gives you a peek at your activities and/or relationships, mapped onto an ecocycle (the graph you see below). It helps you understand where each of these activities or relationships is in its own lifecycle. Looking at the whole picture gives you a hint at what you might want to rethink, push forward, invest int, let go of etc.

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Ecocycle planning: deeply helpful, dynamic, conversational… and so much more!

Why is it such a hit for me?

Maybe it’s because it’s deeply helpful: Ecocycle planning is a ‘what-so what-now what’ about your activities or relationships bundled in a dense but done as a very neat and visual exercise… and then it reveals many insights: about individual activities (or relationships), about your whole portfolio, about decisions you are not making, about the risks associated with doing ‘business as usual’, about what you could/should seriously invest in, and what you could/should let go of. About what you might want to move forward with. Combined with panarchy it reveals a whole new world about how innovation and transformation comes about and how agency in one sphere is connected to deeper, more systemic change in related spheres or levels.

Understanding what relationships/activities are – the conversation is rich (photo credit: O. Cornelissen / ILRI)

Maybe it’s because it’s dynamic: we tend to think of our work in rather static terms. Like things are set and don’t evolve. But it’s anything but true: In fact all activities and relationships are going through their own lifecycle, and ecocycle planning helps us see the direction some of these are taking, or should be taking. It’s also dynamic as it helps us realise where we want to see more direction, speed, change and how to put our intentionality into moving things in the right direction.

Maybe it’s because it is a great conversation tool: Like a theory of change or a strategy, it’s not so much the end result (the ecocycle plan) that you end up with that matters, but the conversation about how everyone in the group sees things and makes sense of the collective journey. It’s the collection of points of view, the agreements and overlaps, and the differences and outliers that reveal the richness of your activities and/or relations. And sometimes it’s just like the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ (as on the illustration here): different people will have a different take on what the same relation or activity looks like, because they look at it from a different vantage point.

How does it work?

The ecocycle planning framework is structured in four areas (and two traps): birth, maturity, rigidity trap, creative destruction, renewal, poverty trap.

You start ecocycle planning by first listing all activities (or relationships) that matter, numbering them, and when you have your list ready (with probably a manageable list of about 7 to 40 items, though there’s strictly no lower or upper limit), you place them where you think they fit on the ecocycle.

When that is done, you analyse the ecocycle – alone or indeed preferably together with whoever has that list of activities or relationships in common with you. You both analyse the placement of individual activities, of the entire portfolio, you inspect the patterns that emerge, the risks and opportunities that you see stand out, the actions that might need to be taken. You confront differences of view with your peers, and try to come to an agreement on what fits where, and possibly document that conversation for future reference, as ecocycle planning gains from being revisited over time.

But then doing ecocycle planning for the first time does not quite feel natural or easy. It’s a lot to swallow at once. It’s often confusing to feel what each phase really means. So a little journey through it comes in handy…

Walking through the ecocycle to get a feel for it.

The first time I was ‘formally’ introduced to ecocycle planning, it was face-to-face, with Fisher Qua and Anna Jackson, and we did a physical walk (backwards, walking behind) through an ecocycle made of a rope on the ground. At the time I thought the idea a bit quirky but worth a try in the ‘yes and’ spirit, but didn’t quite see the deeper point behind, other than that it was fun to do!

And only recently it became more obvious to me that there is value in getting a real feel for it, not just going through the motion of the ecocycle, but seeing this as the eternal recommencing journey that it is. So let’s walk this through together and see what we come across… And let’s take the example of activities here, though a very similar logic applies for relationships.

If you start your journey at ‘birth‘ you have basically started all the activities that are in that quadrant. They may be more or less advanced. They may have just started (they’re right at the beginning of birth, right under the poverty trap which we’ll come back to later)… But they have started, they are being implemented, they’re happening. They may be good or bad activities, helpful or not, but they’re a concrete thing now.

As these activities are getting more stable, experienced, they progressively move towards the ‘maturity‘ phase. When they reach full maturity, these activities are the ‘bread and butter’ activities, the daily activities that matter and show that you have developed some mastery at one/several thing/s. They are what people recognise you and come to you for. These activities become the staple of your work, perhaps the main source of income or the main time investment for you. They’re the bulk of the work, and usually what you are mostly – sometimes indeed solely – focusing on.

But as you keep changing, and your context with you, some of these mature activities prove perhaps less relevant. They may become a bit of a burden, a series of pans tied to your ankle that prevent you from walking gracefully towards more important or more exciting matters. Perhaps these activities are no longer needed. Perhaps you have lost interest in them. Perhaps someone else can do them better. Perhaps none of the above, but there is something else that you should keep busy with and keeping these ‘mature activities’ prevents you from investing in these other activities.

That’s when you hit the ‘rigidity trap‘. You are stuck in a place where you just can’t let go of some activities. You may have known all along that you should dump them, or you may discover this starkly for the first time when analysing your ecocycle, but in any case the rigidity trap tells you that there are activities that need to be discontinued – at least the way they have been carried until now. It’s time to take one decision… to symbolically kill your darlings and make space for what really matters.

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Ecocycle planning in action – with the typical functions involved (entrepreneur, manager, heretic, networker (photo credit: Nancy White)

If you dare taking that decision, you are in the ‘creative destruction‘ area. Here, you have made the step of accepting that some of your ‘business as usual’ is no longer so relevant. And you need to either stop it entirely, or modify parts of it (how it’s done, who does it, why it’s done etc.). The word ‘destruction’ may make you think that this is radical but it doesn’t need to be. A typical example of creative destruction that I often witness is the annual report that companies have to produce, and every so often need to modify to keep it fresh and interesting. The annual report as a standard (annual / perennial) activity remains, but the way it’s done is different. The process of creative destruction is sometimes long and chaotic, and is often confusing. You first need to draw lessons, to identify the wheat from the chaff, and to decide what needs to be adapted, or entirely abandoned.

As you progress in that thinking, you slowly but surely get into the ‘renewal‘ phase where your ideas are crystallising and gelling into something entirely new, or modified, compared to its previous avatar. It’s the moment of conceptualising what might become a new or next activity. The closer you get (physically, on the ecocycle) from the ‘poverty trap’, the more clearly conceptualised the activity is. At some point, you know exactly what your next activity should be like, all the ins and outs. You just haven’t launched it yet. But you’re ready. And maybe in this renewal area you have a whole bunch of ideas at different maturing stages. That tells you something about how creative you are, but also at how much of a ‘plant’ or scientist you might be – staying the conceptual world – as opposed to an entrepreneur that makes an idea come off the ground.

What separates you from the birth of a new activity is the ‘poverty trap‘. The stage that delineates the decision between – as Sam Kaner et al. would have it – “the world of ideas” and “the world of actions”. We all have many ideas that never see the light. For a variety of reasons: no money, no time, no capacity (qualitatively, so the actual knowledge, skills and capabilities), no approval or authorisation etc. It takes courage, skills and some resources to turn an idea into an effective activity. That said, there’s no problem either to have lots of ‘ideas of activities’ in the renewal area. You let it simmer. Gently does it. At some point you’ll be able to invest in one, or some, or all of these ideas. Until that time, keep stirring 😉

And when you get over the poverty hurdle, you start another cycle, with ‘birth’.

It’s a beautiful, and wonderful journey across this ecocycle… And once you embrace it, it becomes a fundamental part of how you see what you do and who you engage with, at work and/or in life. It’s an incredible epiphany.

What have you noticed yourself, using Ecocycle Planning? Where does your curiosity go with it, regardless of whether you have experience with it? And what are you waiting for to give it a go?

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