Friday, 14 September 2012

Community development, spiders and starfish

Twelve months ago I was a member of the board of CDX (Community Development Exchange), coming to the end of a two year period as the chair. For much of the time that I’d been chair I’d found our focus on regional networks (and less so regional networking) quite constraining. The focus was required due to our core funding being from the government, and our last government invested heavily in regional structures - we had well staffed Government Offices in the 9 English regions, supporting local authorities and local partnership structures, and there were well resourced Regional Development Agencies responsible for economic development. Despite the change in government in 2010 and the abolition of regional government structures, the activities and discussions in CDX often focused on English regions - even though of some of the regions didn't even have regional community development networks.

Inspired by ideas and observations in a book by Brafman and Beckman - The Starfish and the Spider, I put together a paper for the CDX board with our then CEO, Nick Beddow. The thinking took hold, and over the last year, as CDX’s resources have diminished, staff and trustees have been encouraging a ‘starfish approach’, looking for CDX members who are natural catalysts who could set up starfish meetings.

Later this month CDX members will meet at an AGM at which the wind-up of CDX is proposed. Those of us active in community development who have been close to CDX are keen to keep and strengthen our connections and, in different ways, continue doing the things that CDX was able to do because it was a staffed network. Along with Steve Sparrow and Sue Robson I’ve been asked to input a little about local ‘starfish activity’ that we’ve helped to make happen in Liverpool, Durham and Dudley.

From a CDX perspective, the Dudley/West Mids starfish started with a Community Engagement Network event in Dudley in July. My colleagues agreed that we would promote it to CDX members across the West Midlands, including members of community development network in Sandwell I had recently come across but the members of which had been unaware of CDX. We ran the networking event as an open space session, enabling a range of issues and ideas to be discussed.

From a personal perspective, I had been thinking that a lot of the things I do in my work are starfish activities - bringing people together around different projects and ideas, and bringing community development values to them. I use things like the Community Empowerment Dimensions as described by changes to prompt discussions around community development values without getting bogged down with struggling to define community development to people who don’t identify with it.

Today I’ve returned to The Starfish and the Spider book and re-read sections on the five foundations of decentralised networks and on the role of the catalyst. 

The pertinent points for me are:

  1. That circles are important to nearly every decentralised organisation’. They share a common heritage and tradition, but each independent, autonomous circle might have its own particular habits and norms.
  2. Circles don’t form on their own. Catalysts spur groups of people to action. They are inspirational figures, who move on when their job is done (like Mary Poppins). Catalysts are peers (not the boss), who develop trust and collaboration (they aren’t directive), who thrive on ambiguity and connect rather than organise.
  3. Ideology is the glue that holds decentralised organisations together, and is a strong motivator for action.
  4. Decentralised organisations are usually built on preexisting decentralised networks - providing a platform to launch from.
  5. Inherently hyperactive champions spread ideas in decentralised networks. They are relentless in promoting or selling a new idea.

If I consider the many projects, initiatives and networks I’m involved in and help to make happen from a CDX perspective, I still think they could be considered as a range of different starfish activities, because what I do is not managed by or through CDX. However the principles of decentralised networks must apply throughout the network. I’m coming around to a feeling that the Community Empowerment Network events I plan and facilitate with colleagues in Dudley aren’t decentralised (starfish) activities. This is because a small group of us organise and lead them, and the wider programme of work that they sit in. While the events themselves promote networking and connecting, there isn’t the kind of ongoing, horizontal networking which occurs in decentralised networks like twitter and online forums, with the occasional exception of when our event participants take each other’s details and contact one another directly.

A new programme of work I’m involved in developing focused on considering assets and services holistically feels much more decentralised in nature (I 'm in the process of creating a collaborative blog to share it). I hadn’t remembered the language from the book around circles, but it’s great to re-read it. What we’re trying to do with six pilot collaborative projects is to initiate independent and autonomous circles. We’ve found people willing to take on the role of enablers, the idea being that they enable (champion?) collaboration. Our early thinking around collaboration has used the Community Empowerment Dimensions, so if we can embed this, it provides a shared ideology. We’re sort of building the circles outwards from a cross-sector action research project team - though a struggle is that many members of the circles work in a highly centralised organisation - our local authority. In no way would I claim to be inspirational, but I feel that I have a role in this activity as a catalyst, and I am left reminding myself (as a community development worker would) that:
  • I must step back - not direct or lead
  • I should connect people rather than organise people
  • I must move on when the job is done (how will I know when that is?)

I think perhaps the catalyst role is a shared one in this particular programme of work (if indeed the whole idea actually applies), and I think those of us who are catalysts are also acting as champions. My colleague Bridget Brickley is champion for a whole systems approach to all that we do, and Donna Roberts is a champion and brilliant advocate for genuine collaboration. 

On the face of it Dudley's work on collaboration, assets and services has nothing to do with CDX. Except that I have been a CDX member for many years, and bring community development values to all that I do. And Sam Axtell, a colleague over the border in Wolverhampton is doing some brilliant different but similar work in an activity called MakeSHIFT. She brings community development values to her work. No doubt if I look further others will be doing similar but different things. We’re not networking community development practitioners or managers, as CDX did. But we’re developing independent, autonomous circles, responsive to our own particular environments and communities (professional, geographical, interest or identity), within a tradition of community development. And we connect to each other to share and learn from each other, through both face-to-face and online conversations. 

Is that what CDX might be looking for at a time when many spiders (centralised organisations) can’t survive, but the day of the starfish has arrived?


  1. Thought provoking stuff as usual Lorna. I just wanted to comment on your three bold bullet points.

    Rather than feeling compelled to step back perhaps you need to think more in terms of a ‘Starfish dance’ where at times you step forward and take the lead, at other times you step back and let others take the lead, whilst at other times you step to the side and jointly lead.

    Although it should be more about connecting people you still possess organising skills which are a valuable resource that shouldn’t be wasted. In the ‘Starfish dance’ you can still use them when stepping forward but you should also seek to enable others to learn these skills so they themselves can step forward (and ultimately learn to step back and to the side as well!)

    And rather than just moving on it’s probably more about moving to a different relationship with the group/network. Perhaps you have less day to day involvement but become a mentor or a resource to others who are taking more of a lead.

    The most important thing for me is to develop everyone’s organising skills within a group or network. The collective is made up of individuals and in order for the collective to thrive it must unlock the potential of the individuals.

  2. Yes, interesting and makes me want to go and read the book. I like the 'Starfsh dance' idea and agree that the role is more flexible than your bullet points suggest, although it is a major skill to sense when to dance and when to butt out.

    As we all know, some groups/networks take much longer to operate fully independently (sometimes this may never happen) and so that flexible approach is essential. In my mind it can be a bit like spinning plates,some find their own momentum *(and perpteual motion?!), others need a little more help, some don't spin. The type of intervention/assistance/spinning/dancing is all important.

    As you know, in my spare time I have been nurturing a community of interest Ning (networking) site. Four years on and it is happily functioning without me doing anything much at all - the sense of hope for its sustainable future is immense

    My major concern in all this isn't about the viable future of starfish activity (which, let's face it, has been going on for donkeys) it is the national sharing of experience and learning that I do not see in this picture and which is lost without the CDXs of this world.

  3. Thanks Lorna for this. Apologies as I thought I had published a reply last night.

    I like the idea of the "starfish dance".

    I think your points about champion are really important here. We need to connect the starfish. Indeed, the paper CDX base this on is called "Only Connect". The trick will be how those people who are starfish catalyst/champions/supporter relate to each other, so that the national sharing of experience can still happen.

  4. Thanks Nick, Sal and Emma

    Nick, I love the idea of a Starfish Dance, it conjures up such great imagery :)
    And as @seeandconnect said recently: "I tend to think of life as a dance - we are in constant movement - dancing internally and with the world around us. We are all dancers!!!!!"
    And I wholeheartedly agree with you about developing everyone's organising skills. My colleague Becky and I had a great experience last night when we asked a forum of people who haven't organised anything together (though they have in their own groups) to plan an activity - we're just leaving them to it, what a great feeling.

    Sal, I take your points about getting the plates to spin, and the national sharing. I think CDX and other national membership organisations will struggle without staff who facilitated the explanation of the policy and government level stuff, and who took back local perspectives and issues to national fora. Hopefully something changes can help with in various ways.

    Emma, yep, we need to ensure that we don't forget each other. Relationship building and nurturing between catalysts etc. is vital. Something important to think about on the 28 Sept.

  5. Thanks to Andy Heathman for this response to my post above:

  6. The following reply is from Sue Gorbing, Chair of CDX, received via email following problems posting here. Thanks Sue!

    Hey folks,

    Let's keep dancing! In my head I'm grappling with how to 'envisage' the starfish connections of the future. My instinct at the moment is for 'champions' in the different areas to keep connected and encourage others to do the same, so that gradually there will be lots of cross connections and a sense of a 'starfish community'.

    I'm also thinking about how hard it seems to be to get groups of people who ostensibly want to 'do' something, to 'get' the need to develop skills, knowledge, confidence to 'take responsibility', work collectively and not want to be led! This is not to do with work or CD particularly, but something I'm involved in locally. It's hard work, worth doing of course and, I guess, worth persisting for the longer terms gains!

    It would be really good to think about what we can do to support the developing Starfish so that they can remain connected once CDX is no more. Conversations to be had I think.

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