Each year the Stewards of Sunflower River take a few days away from the farm and ‘retreat’ to a bed and breakfast to reconnect with each others vision for our community. This year we headed to Fite Ranch in San Antonio, NM. Jenny and I had visited last year and thought it was a good fit (even if it does not have hot tubs or pools to get warm).
If you have ever had the chance to spend time with us during a bi-weekly project house meeting you know that the four Stewards know how to hit the ground running. It is no different for retreats. Within 30 minutes of our arrival we had already transformed the Evelyn Fite Room into our own meeting space complete with massive sticky notes and blank index cards.
This is our fourth retreat and our process gets refined each year. In fact part of the point of the retreat is to improve any area of how we work together, as well as put that into action over the next year. We draw our meeting process from a combination of basic corporate meeting strategies, formal consensus processes, software development productivity tools, and good old common sense. We start the meeting by reading and reviewing our vision statement
Sunflower River is joyfully creating a sanctuary wherein we embody and promote sustainability, spirituality, adaptability & safety within our selves, community, our land and Gaia.
This vision statement continues to be our focus and relavent to each of us as much as it was when we created it five years ago. It does not always encompass every aspect of where we are right in this moment. What it does do is act as a key to all the various items we are working towards at any one moment. It also focuses us back at what we came together to create. I am personally impressed at how well it still represents us as a whole.
The next segment of our retreat is getting our ground rules and agenda sorted out for the remainder of the weekend. The ground rules help us stay present and let us all remember we are human beings who need to be reminded to play nice from time to time. The agenda has settled into a similar flow from year to year. Starting with us using from level thinking about ourselves in relation to the farm in the past year to where we see ourselves in the future. This serves us in two ways. First it allows us to see where each of us is with relation to the farm and our future self. Second it becomes a spring board into generating the remainder of the topics we will cover for the retreat.
To actually manage all the different types of topics we need to cover during the retreat we use an emergent system to help us create the remainder of our agenda. We spend time simply brainstorming topics that we individually want to cover. Our topics come from a built up list of items left over from house meetings, personal agendas, high level view notes. We also do a process called the land walk. During this process we imagine ourselves walking the land and reviewing what we want to talk about in relation to the land. Another process I would like to use is walking through time over the next five years and seeing the land change. Whatever the process we end up with stacks of topics to cover over the remainder of the retreat.
This year we broke up our topics into four categories: intangibles, events, cycles, and projects. We then handled all the topics in one category at a time. Of course themes emerge and multiple topic cards can be handled in a single conversation. New topics are sometimes generated as we progress but that slows down over time and we eventually catch up with ourselves
This year we began refining the process by which we track and think about projects. Alan and I both come from software development backgrounds and are familiar with project management concept called Agile Software Development. One way of manifesting Agile is the Scrum process. Alan started applying this process to some of the topics at our house meeting over the last year. From that experience, over the weekend we came to a collective idea of how to use the key elements from Scrum. The basics are that we are maintaining a master list of projects we will work on at some point this year (called the project backlog) or next (someday/maybe backlog). We have two weeks between project house meetings which then become our sprint. During a sprint we choose projects we each will be working on from the project backlog and move that project closer to finish in some tangible way. Then at the next project house meeting we review the last sprint and select out projects for the next sprint. Wash-rinse-repeat.
I would like to say that we had a nice organized discussion and came to this process smoothly. The reality is that it took at least four different discussions, some check out time, two bottles of mead, and some trusting in the process to make this go. I don’t want you dear readers to think everything is fine and dandy all the time in Sunflower River land. No we witches have our warts too. In the end though we do have a new process. We will work with this process for a while, see where it takes us. A few years ago we started with our first major process overhaul by saying something like ‘could we put our tasks on the refrigerator door’. That system has turned into a major way we work with ourselves and our interns. It too has had some bumps in the road.
Projects however are not the only thing we do, or the only way to categorize our life. Time has its place as well. So before we leave the retreat we schedule the coming year with those cycles and events that happen on a regular basis, as well as whatever special tasks we can reasonably plan. This leaves most of us with a very full calendar for the year. So if you would like to schedule some time with one of us please do. I seem to have some free time in April.
We had one major change this year to our retreat and that was the addition of Gawain to our meetings. There are good reasons to not bring an six month old child to a planning retreat. We found out most of them at some point. We had added a day to our schedule to accommodate and by and by that helped us get finished on time. But screaming babies, even when they are your own, can be distracting and stressful. Neither Kat nor Alan have had to spend that much time with Gawain so they got all the extra stress. As a process improvement we will likely ask a friend to be a weekend nanny for next years retreat.
All in all it was as productive if more so a retreat than we have had. Maybe that is why we came back exhausted, yet still ready to go. Already emails are flying and small items have been accomplished.
Next year I think our big process improvement will be playing more and relaxing more as we plan to transform our land and our selves yet again.