Huddlecraft
Published in

Huddlecraft

How can we create ‘microclimates’ for learning and change inside organisations?

This blog was written collaboratively by Katie Slee & Zahra Davidson. It draws on a panel discussion called Change from the Inside Out held on 16th August 2022. The event brought together 4 speakers to explore their experience of fostering a culture of transformation within their organisations.

In nature, microclimates are pockets of weather conditions that exist only in a small area. Things thrive there that can’t in the surrounding environment.

Microclimates exist in the natural world. For example, trees in the Amazon generate their own clouds, rain and wind patterns. Caves, with their dark, damp interior, create the perfect habitat for thriving algae communities, which in turn provide food for cave insects and other creatures, creating a vibrant ecosystem and food cycle.

Microclimates can also be formed by human intervention. This can be undesirable — cities with their concrete and glass, absorb and release heat. Forests of skyscrapers create dangerous wind tunnels. Cars add pollutants and humidity.

Yet in the world of ecosystem restoration, our ability to encourage particular microclimates can also be regenerative.

Take the example of ‘waffle gardens’. This is a Zuni community gardening practice, which involves building grids of sunken cells with hard, hand-built walls that protect from the elements, erosion and water loss. Combinations of crops are planted in each cell providing shade, structure and nutrients to the soil.

Each cell is only 10 cm deep, but this small change alters what can grow.

The image is a spread from Julia Watson’s book ‘Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism’, showing the special design of waffle gardens. There is a photograph and 2 diagrams. They’re essentially a grid of low walls with a combination of plants in each cell.
Diagrams of waffle gardens from Julia Watson’s book, ‘Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism’

In some cases, microclimates can create ripples of impact. In Kenya, ‘stone lines’ are used to regreen dry land affected by climate change. By creating a pile of stones stretching across the land, the erosive force of water is halted whilst infiltration of water in the soil increases. Seeds are captured behind the stones, giving them time to sprout. As this small area becomes greener, it changes what is possible at the edges, and beyond.

Social microclimates

This interest in microclimates has come out of our work at Huddlecraft, where we specialise in peer-to-peer learning, support and action, through our Host Fellowship, Huddlecraft 101 training and studio work.

Over the last 5 years, we’ve been running peer groups — now known as Huddles — which bring together small groups of people to pool their resources and learn with/from one another. These groups develop their own culture and rules, that are often quite different from participants’ wider lives.

While we began working outside of organisations, we increasingly work with and inside them. That takes our interest in micro-cultures or climates to a new level.

‘Change from the Inside Out’ explored how people can create microclimates for change in a variety of contexts, and how organisations can foster their beneficial ripple effects.

A graphic image promoting our event: Change from the Inside Out — How can we create ‘microclimates’ for learning and change inside organisations? A discussion between practitioners who will share insights about how to craft these spaces, and how to ripple out their impacts. The event was on the 16th August 2022 from 1–2pm BST. We heard from Joanna Choukier at the RSA, Collin Lyons from UsTwo, Jolana Amara from the League of Intrapreneurs and Anneka Deva from Huddlecraft.
The flyer for our Change from the Inside Out event

Our speakers included:

  • Joanna Choukier, Design and Innovation Director at The RSA
    Joanna shared how the RSA has fostered microclimates as part of their work to accelerate a shift to a more resilient, rebalanced and regenerative world.
  • Collin Lyons, Delivery and Transformation Director at UsTwo
    Collin explained how his role often involves working within client organisations to create the environment for products and services designed by UsTwo to thrive.
  • Jolana Amara, Head of Experience at the League of Intrapreneurs
    Jolana brought the perspective of ‘intrapreneurship’, where individuals harness the assets of organisations and institutions to achieve systemic change.
  • Anneka Deva, Director of Partnerships at Huddlecraft
    Anneka gave examples from our own work of how peer-led approaches to learning and change can have long lasting, positive impact.

Below we take forward a few ideas emerging from our discussion: the features of microclimates, the challenges they face and their potential for impact.

Features

Environmental microclimates are defined by their relationship with light, topography, temperature, shelter, humidity, the soil.

But what are the features of an organisational microclimate?

1. It’s a group of people with ‘energy for change’

In the RSA’s 2017 report ‘Releasing energy for change in our communities’, Ian Burbridge examines the make-up of successful social movements. He suggests that often movements are born from pain points that cause people and communities to act — there is pressure for change.

But he also points to the individuals involved needing “a feeling of agency and a sense of the possible.” Whether they’re innovators, early adopters of new ideas, people with particular expertise or lived experience, they are likely to be clear about the change they want to see and have the energy to begin to bring it about.

From our point of view, these groups are also most rich and resilient when they are diverse — when there are multiple perspectives, backgrounds and resource pools to draw on.

2. Their participants have a shared North Star

In our discussion Joanna shared that, in order to be resilient to the dominant culture, microclimates need a good and aligned starting point.

When approaching any sort of change, participants need to ask:

“Why are we doing this? What are we hoping to achieve? What are we valuing here? What are we valuing more or less of? Are we valuing productivity, efficiency, equity?”

3. They have some kind of structure and container

A group of people with energy for change and a common purpose has emerged. But how do they connect and relate to each other?

Our work tells us that peer groups have a higher rate of survival if they have a strong ‘container’, essentially a space created between participants, shaped by mutually agreed ways of relating to each other, which allows people to show up with safety, to experiment, to grow and move together. Otherwise it’s like herding cats.

In our Huddles these spaces are co-created during a kick-off event, where participants collaborate to create a group contract or manifesto. Containers can be reinforced by having a Host — someone to take responsibility for the experience — by creating rhythms — regular, consistent times to meet — and rituals — like whole self check-ins.

As Jolana explained, rituals anchor the group: “Having rituals keeps the container contained, they protect the microclimate from whatever is happening on the outside.”

4. To realise their potential, they should be porous

It’s important that microclimates do not become echo chambers, too insulated from the outside.

This was another beautiful insight from Joanna:

“For microclimates to influence the dominant culture, they should be porous. As long as those involved in creating, shaping and stewarding the microclimate are aligned around the purpose and North Star, then it’s good to create a permeable membrane to invite others in.”

Challenges

There were lots of questions on the call about the fragility of microclimates. Other than lacking a North Star or a strong container, some key challenges are:

1. Encountering resistance

Jolana defined intrapreneurs as people working within organisations to create systemic change. This work often challenges the status quo, and so inevitably meets resistance. Jolana described how the intrapreneurs work is about pathfinding through uncertainty.

Peer learning and action learning are valuable tools here, as each environment, each roadblock is unique and there is no one size fits all solution. Instead, the League of Intrapreneurs holds space for peers to come together and support each other by asking questions, which help each intrapreneur to find a path forward.

2. Getting buy-in

Working in counter-cultural ways can be threatening to the dominant culture. Collin shared his perspective from UsTwo, where often they’re brought in as a digital consultancy to create products that the client couldn’t create in house. However often when it comes to handover, the client doesn’t have the environment for the products to survive. So his role looks at wider transformation, and what needs to be in place in the client organisation for the product to thrive.

Fascinatingly, Collin shared an experience working to improve the web processes of a very traditional organisation. At the outset, his client said “do not try to change us”.

Whereas Collin’s practice would usually be to talk, to make presentations about the process of transformation they were undertaking, his approach here was just to get on with the work.

By working in the open, by being transparent with UsTwo’s methods, by visibly achieving results, the client was won round. The takeaway? Sometimes it’s strategic not to talk about change!

3. Pace

Joanna shared how difficult it can be to pace working for change. There’s the saying — if you want to move fast go alone. Bringing others along is slower. Yet if you move too slowly, people might not see the fruits of what you’re doing… it’s a very hard balance to strike! Perhaps this is where the strength of your container and rhythms can help to create momentum that carries your microclimate along.

Impact

So what is it about microclimates that has the potential to influence wider change? What kind of impact can they create?

1. They pollinate change

In individuals: In our own work we’ve seen how when people connect as part of a peer group, they boost their sense of purpose, network of relationships capabilities, resilience and wellbeing. In some cases, individuals become ‘pollinators’, spreading peer-led values, practices and ways of relating. In a 2020 survey, 98% of our Huddle participants had applied peer-led principles in their life or work after the Learning Marathon.

In the wider ecosystem: Anneka talked about how storytelling and externalising learning is built into our peer-led journeys via a showcase event and/or booklet. These public presentations create accountability for the group to make a tangible expression of their learning, but also invite others in.

Collin’s advice was to work in the open, with regular ‘show and tell’ events that bring clients (or colleagues) into the process rather than presenting a shiny final result.

2. They give permission to think and behave differently

Joanna shared an example from a recent project at the RSA. They’ve been working in Scotland with NHS Lothian and local residents to build capacity for long-term thinking.

They set up a ‘public entrepreneurship’ programme, where 12 NHS Lothian staff across clinical and operational teams were supported to engage the public in collectively imagining how wellbeing might sit at the heart of future service delivery.

This role gave the NHS employees permission to work flexibly and responsively to harness the opportunities they found, creating an agenda for civil servants to then innovate around.

3. They create stamina

Anneka also shared an example from a project we ran with NHS South West Leadership Academy, established in 2012 to develop outstanding leadership through programmes, training and networks.

We adapted our Huddlecraft 101 programme into a 7 session immersive training programme to build the capacity of 16 NHS employees — from people in both clinical and supportive roles — to use peer-led approaches in their work.

While participants got a lot from the content of the programme, its form — a microclimate of people exploring peer-led approaches in their setting — provided the energy and fellow travellers needed to get projects off the ground.

Thanks for reading! If you have ideas about what makes a successful microclimate, tweet us @Huddlecraft.

And if you’re interested in learning more…

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Katie Slee

Katie Slee

Katie is a self-taught designer, whose work bridges visual, experience and web design.