The Reflection Pool: The Value of Uncertainty

Making, and sticking, to detailed plans has its perks– you have a clear path forward, you can stay on top of your goals, and you can make contingencies. There’s also huge value in being flexible and adapting the plan as you go, even if that scares you, unsettles you, and isn’t always the easiest (and quickest) way forward. I recently experienced all of that when I was fortunate enough to serve as logistics point for the Wallace Center’s Equitable Food Oriented Development learning journey to Minneapolis, MN: what had been identified as a “cultural foods site visit” in our workplan a year ago evolved into an “EFOD learning journey” as the date for the event approached. How did that happen and what did that mean? It meant that, not only was I going to have to wait to nail down many of the logistics, but I’d need to start learning about EFOD, finance, and – perhaps most importantly – how to let go of a workplan and trust the shift would result in a richer and more dynamic experience. And it did. You see, this event began as a ‘cultural foods site visit’ in our workplan about a year ago. We had heard an interest from our partners in visiting the Hmong American Farmers Association, Asian Economic Development Association, and others in the Twin Cities area. In our conversations with partners along the way, as we learned about their sophisticated initiatives to build equity and community wealth through food systems, the topic morphed to focus on EFOD, and a set of partners emerged as content experts to guide the way. What a great opportunity! I was going to get time with the leaders in this arena! In going through the pre-journey readings shared by our partners, I realized there was a long history here that I was not familiar with and I was excited to spend time with experts and learn from their extensive experience. This new opportunity came with some consequences. As the logistics point, this morphing agenda and timeline was unsettling. When planning an event like this, I always try to think of what information I would want to know as a participant, and when. But, with these last-minute changes, I was worried our participants would feel unsettled or uncertain, so we did our best to openly present our adaptive agenda: we had the core agenda of Equitable Food Oriented Development Learning Journey, the dates, and hotel set well in advance - sharing this ensured that participants could plan accordingly. Even so, as the date approached, our agenda and participant list were not finalized per the workplan! In addition to the normal cancellations and other last-minute items come with event planning, our conversations with partners on the ground and EFOD experts meant that we were still tweaking the agenda two weeks before the event. As unsettling as this was to me, when the final agenda came through a week before the event, it was at an appropriate time for participants to see it and start grounding themselves for the journey. One of the rewards of this adaptive approach was that as we reached out to organizations in Minneapolis/St Paul to discuss them being stops along the learning journey, everyone said yes! The topic and focus of our conversations seemed timely and relevant to partners on the ground. When we finally convened our group in MN for the journey, the conversations were very lively, and it felt like we made the right decision in adapting after our initial idea. During the closing session of the journey, people were defining themselves as part of this group, and pushing each other to carry the work forward after returning home. This ownership of the work and drive to continue working together after the journey made my heart swell! As an emerging leader myself, this was a valuable learning experience in keeping my ear to the ground and shifting the roadmap accordingly. If we had stuck to the original workplan and timeline, this would not have been nearly as dynamic of a journey. The credit for this waiting, listening and adapting goes to Susan Schempf, our Program Officer, and after experiencing it myself I hope to embrace this style of leadership in the future. Through this event I learned that we don’t have to have all the details set months in advance. Workplans are just *plans* and need to be kept in check with reality. In the end, we received excellent feedback from the group, with a few suggestions for improvement on the next journey. I appreciated that everyone embraced the journey with us and held us accountable where we can improve. This one event represents the overall approach I hope we are taking with Food Systems Leadership Network. We listen, think of ways we can support what is happening, and adapt those ideas based on more feedback before we implement. This approach complicates the planning process and does not always line up with our projected workplans. Having seen the value in waiting, I am prepared to stick it out and get more comfortable with uncertainty until we land on the right plan.

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