Issues arising in complex systems often have multiple causes connecting with multiple, often unpredictable outcomes. Therefore, taking any action intended on strengthening a community food system requires a whole systems approach.
As whole systems approaches to community engagement in food systems are critical for council development, during the expansion phase it is important to incorporate a reflection process into the strategy for continued action. Exploring collaborative action builds capacity for council members involved in different projects to come together and learn about what seems to be working, and what doesn’t.
In review, a systems approach involves an intentional network that collaboratively decides on actions to take to advance the council’s aim. However, It isn’t enough to simply take action––the learning process is critical to success, thus, it’s necessary to amplify what works and release what doesn’t. Collaborative learning leads to smarter actions, better results and accelerates transformation. We see two key prerequisites for a successful learning-oriented culture in whole systems work:
● Trust and reciprocity. Relationship building within a network is essential to building a culture of trust and reciprocity. Such cultural norms provide a supportive context for collaborative learning to occur.
● Results thinking. Thinking in terms of results rather than activities brings a broader set of network voices into the conversation, allowing for more observation and data sharing about what changes are taking place across the system.
With those critical pieces in place within the council network, it can work toward shared results and identification of successes and avoidable actions.
A council might ask these questions of it’s own activities:
● What are the first thoughts about our activity? Did we evolve at the intended result? Why do we think that was possible?
● What assumptions did we have going into this activity? Do we still think those assumptions make sense, or do they need modification? How might our changed assumptions influence the way we take our next action steps?
● How did our activity appear to impact other elements in the community food system? Was that what we expected? What can we learn from its impact on other parts of the system?
● Each of us may have had different approaches to attaining this result. What did we notice about these differences? Did any of these differences make more of a difference than others?
● Were there any roadblocks? How did we deal with them? How can we all learn from that? What was easier than we thought? Why do you think that was so?
● What had a greater impact than we thought? Why was that? What did we do that was really not that successful or necessary? How could we have noticed and stopped doing it sooner?
● Are there any shifts happening in the area where we are working? Have we noticed any opportunities for us to build upon?
Once collaborative learning takes place, the council is better informed about what to do next. Often, this involves revisiting earlier high-level strategies: network development and exploring collaborative action. In this way, collaborative learning is an underpinning part of the reflection process, providing a foundation for future actions that will help strengthen the council network.