One of the things I love most about working for the Transition Network is the cheerful disclaimer…
“Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale…”
There have already been some posts from Transition groups about when an experiment fails, like this great article by Charlotte du Cann. Within the Transition Network organisation, the board and staff team are incredibly supportive of this experimental attitude within our own organisation. If things don’t work out as expected despite our best attempts, there is a collective shrug, a gathering of learning and openness to a new direction instead.
Sometimes we just don’t know why something doesn’t work, and we put it down to ‘it just wasn’t meant to be’. This is not to say we use this as an excuse for half-assed attempts or covering up our own deficiencies, these are also inspected as part of the process.
In our work, we’re very good at focusing on positive outcomes. So given this month’s theme is celebration, and to show you how deeply we have taken this permission to experiment to our heart, I’d like to celebrate my biggest ABLO with you. What’s an ABLO? It’s “another bloody learning opportunity”. Here’s how I spent £10,000 of the Transition Network’s hard won money trying to start a consulting practice that went nowhere.
I come from a consulting background so I’m used to working with businesses in this capacity, and it seemed to me that Transition had much to offer these kinds of companies – and it would help create an income stream to reduce our reliance on funding. Based on my business plan, the board agreed that this would be a useful area to explore and in 2009 funded some of my time to develop the ideas further.
In a nutshell, this consulting practice would help organisations of all shapes and sizes to understand their risks in relation to peak oil (i.e. rising energy prices) and climate change, and see the flaws in their operating models so they could take appropriate action. Partly informed by some work I had done with Simon Snowden of the University of Liverpool, I developed a process which could be used to estimate the risk exposure of manufacturing and distributing a company’s key products or services.
This would, for example, pinpoint the cost of oil-based materials like plastics used in the supply chain, and allow modelling of what would happen to the costs – and end pricing to the customer – if the oil price doubled, tripled etc. The company could then take action to reduce its exposure through substitute materials, closer suppliers, reduced reliance on export markets and so on.
I piloted this Energy Resilience Assessment (ERA) service with 2 organisations with good results and feedback (see the case studies here). So I then developed a practitioner training course and recruited 2 groups of Transition business practitioners who were trained, and then unleashed to sell the service to their local public and private organisations. We were well organised and ready for the rush of work. And then… nothing!
Despite the best attempts of a small number of the practitioners in particular, no one managed to sell a single service. While we all believed this was a useful service, clearly the market did not agree. We did a review as a group, and concluded there were likely 2 main issues – that the market just wasn’t ready for this service and at that time, and possibly still today, they are still just getting to the basics of energy efficiency and some ‘greening’ actions. We were probably positioning something a step too far from where they were at – a classic lack of understanding of our customers?
We also didn’t have any sort of marketing budget or profile and were relying on our personal contacts which greatly limited our reach. A number of practitioners put in a lot of unpaid time, and also paid to do the ERA course. While we made clear there were no guarantees of income, I wish it could have been otherwise. While we generated a little bit of revenue, by mid-2010 I had spent about £10,000 of the TN’s precious funding and failed to deliver the business plan.
Interestingly, there was a similar lack of interest in a course for local authorities that had been developed by Transition Training. They did 3 pilots and had good feedback, but it never took off after that. Naresh Giangrande who led the work says “partly I think this was due to the coalition coming to power at that time, and local government budgets were being cut to pieces, but also we never got hold of what the training was supposed to do. ‘What could local authorities do about Transition?’ was the question we could never really answer. We created some interesting exercises which we have ‘composted’ and used for other trainings. But as with all ‘good’ ideas, I think timing plays a part and also how the landscape is shifting must be considered. But also it lacked the spark that set it alight and made sense of things”.
What have I learned from this? I know that I have a strong attachment to ‘being a success’ (and that some part of me is very clear on what this should look like), and that failure for me is a place I really don’t like to go – I can be very hard on myself. But I’m understanding more that words like success and failure are just judgements, and actually what matters are my good intentions and doing my best, and I’m not in control of the outcome anyway. A Rumi quote sums this up nicely for me… “You know how it is – sometimes we plan a trip to one place, but something takes us to another”.
The place that this ABLO took me was the REconomy Project. It was becoming clear to me that working with existing businesses was a limiting approach, and I have never been convinced that the majority will be willing or able to make the fundamental shifts that are required for Transition – though I hope to be proved wrong.
And so, the ideas for the REconomy Project began to emerge, with an understanding that growing a new kind of economic system needs to include the creation of new types of enterprises, projects that put infrastructure in place to support a local economy, and a leadership approach that works with local councils and other key partners – as well as helping existing business to transform, if they so desire.
It became clear that our role is to help build the capacity of Transition groups to bring about their own economic transformation. You can read more about the REconomy Project on our website. In 2011 we found a few funders who were very interested in these ideas, and the project is still going from strength to strength.
The learning from the consulting practice that never was, was one of being willing to stop heading in a direction that required too much efforting to make it work (and was perhaps too entrenched in traditional thinking), and to admit it wasn’t working. Then lift up my head, take time to reflect and then tap into a direction that felt/feels much more effortless, where energy and results naturally seem to flow. It’s a learning I’m taking into many other areas of my life.