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The Rhizome Method


Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)

One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability and growth is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. It also has the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant … and a new node of above ground activity.

This phenomena of decentralized activity in rhizomes was articulated in philosophy and societal innovation. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s were pioneers in the field civic innovation. To Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome structure had no beginning or end, it was just there always in search of opportunities to present themselves.

The Rhizome Method can be modified to work for project management. In the end, the Rhizome Method aims to identify, nurture and maximize resources. Those resources can be that of a community, or those available to individual projects or clusters of them.

Deleuze and Guattari broke down their model into four main components. Below are several that are applicable community based construct. From here we can extrapolate we can our adaptation on a micro level.

  • Rhizomes: Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things.” A rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences.

  • Nomadism: Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The Nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change, and is unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the Nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (i.e. the journey rather than the destination). The Nomad can shift from project to project carry with them cross-sector operational knowledge.

  • Smooth Space: The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community operates is called the Smooth Space by Deleuze and Guattari. In their societal model, it represents an array of “need and opportunity based activities.” This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences and constructs that inhabit it. On a project basis, the Smooth Space encompasses the resources. It will be everchanging as resources become available or disapate away.

  • Body Without Organs: Without Organs is what happens. It’s verbs and adjectives while the Smooth Space is nouns. The community’s personality and overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its members and businesses; it’s its Body Without Organs.

The Rhizome Method can be used on both micro (project) and macro (community) situations. On a project basis, it offers fluidity and self-determination on the part of those involved. Hierarchies are torn down and those often left out are given an opportunity to rise through Situational Leadership. A collective potential is unleashed. All that said, emulating a rhizome isn't an automatic. Not everyone is prone to exercising their nomadic civic self-efficacy.


Tarnishing The Sheen

A fundamental obstacle to scaling collective intelligence is that claimed benefit is vague and uncertain — and this by itself does not provide enough motivation for most people to participate. While there are civic-minded people who will contribute for social good, when the initiative depends solely on civic altruism it will struggle to scale beyond the core of committed activists and stakeholders. Initiatives are literally competing with cat gifs for people’s free time. Efforts to scale collective intelligence must invest in social architecture — on-boarding, process and experience design, valuing and creating opportunities for participants at least as much, if not more, than software features. (Scaling Collective Intelligence — Simon Tegg)

As Simon pointed out, the internet can be an effective tool, but not one without problems. Identifying and synchronizing the different motivations and goals of the ‘players’ can be very difficult to do online. Whatever emotional momentum initially achieved is difficult to maintain. In comparison, meeting face-to-face enables engaging in trust building making complex conversations easier. And it’s trust that carries the interest and desire to continue when activity wanes or disagreement surfaces. It's often too easy to 'vanish' during online collaborations.

The goal here is not to look at collaborative decision-making as an “either or”proposition (online or face-to-face), but rather determine what are its most effective applications and develop ways to make it work in the situations where it has the highest likelihood of success. Here the context is local and community driven efforts. Taking advantage of the physical proximity of community settings, let’s use the Front Porch as the conduit for participation and governance, as I covered in the last post. That’s not to say online collaborative tools can’t be used in conjunction. In fact their use is an integral part of the management of the implementation process.



As a part of the Melvin's Neighborhood platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come out of a Front Porch engagement. These examples represent solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter. By no means is this roster comprehensive, but it’s a start.

  • “I’m Not Alone Anymore” ~ Elderly and shut-in well-being assistance

  • “Label the Town” ~ Community “places of interest” labeling

  • “Pretty Pictures on the Wall” ~ Amateur art showings

  • “Is it Art” ~ Vacant area art projects: art, music, theatrical

  • “Showing our Stuff” ~ Street fairs

  • “Recess Time” ~ Playground restoration

  • “Help Me … I’m Dirty” ~ Public and private space clean-up

  • “Stop and Smell the Roses” ~ Public and private space beautification

  • “Fixing the Neighborhood” ~ Neighborhood renewal and repair

  • “Hey … We Need Some Help Over Here” ~ “On-demand” help services

  • “Apollo 13 ... Please Come Home" ~ “Resource Maximization”

  • “Pop-up Community” ~ Vacant building resource maximization

  • Get Out of the House” ~ Adult athletic and intelligence leagues

  • “Love Comes From the Ground” ~ Gardens and farmers market

  • “Play Ball” ~ Youth sports and intelligence leagues

  • “Getting Up to Speed” ~ Student tutoring

  • “This is What I Think … ” ~ Youth writing project

  • “Making the Transition” ~ Apprenticeships and post school transition

  • “Millennials Rising” ~ Millennial Anti-Congress and activist effort


Identifying And Recruiting Talent

A community is the product of its people. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. A community is a living thing, a microcosm; and a lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (literally and figuratively). Social inbreeding creates a weak species, vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. A community that allows this inbreeding assumes its byproduct, myopic thinking. It will not be able to combat the problems of the future … let alone realize its potential.

The Rhizome Method looks past existing structure of power and those who hold them. Instead is encourages the residents of a community to identify those in their ranks who hold special talents that can be used in specific situations. These Situational Leaders are then nurtured and put in positions to exercise their talent in leading and engaging with projects that fit them.


Art Of Collaboration

The Minneapolis-based rap collective Doomtree is a case study in collaboration. Going against a history in the genre where many would rather kill their peers than work them. For the record (literally and figuratively), this has changed in recent years — but still Doomtree is different. The five rappers who collaborate with the crew’s two DJs are forward-thinking in that they view the idea of hip-hop as a collaborative enterprise; and it’s evident in the group’s work. Their most recent album, not unintentionally, is titled: “No Kings.” To accomplish their distinctive results, they religiously abide by four axioms:

  • Check your ego: Most of the members have been in situations where rap is considered a competition. In fact Eminem’s famed psuedo-biopic, “Nine Mile” was all about how he used a rap competition to rise above his sordid upbringing. But in the end, as troupe member Sims says: “We’re a band … there’s no killing anyone else here.”

  • Get to where you need to get: This sounds mundane, but if everyone can’t get together physically — you can’t collaborate. And by getting together, you committed. It says this matters and “I’m prepared and willing to take the time.” In Doomtree’s case, “We end up driving a few hours from home, out of cell-phone service, like a cloistered jury or something,” Dessa says.

  • “Let’s get this done:” Once they’ve set up shop, Doomtree doesn’t do a lot of waiting around. Once one of them throws a good idea, whether it be a beat, verse or rhyme — they run with it. Not having to be the one who starts it is liberating. “I don’t have to have a verse, or I can make my verse a little bridge. It’s freeing in a way,” Sims says. “I find it really fun — it allows me to be more playful and take more risks, because if they don’t work, I don’t care.”

  • Trust the collaboration: Trusting yourself and your collaborators to know how to run with a creative instinct is a gift that comes with the freedom that this sort of process brings. And it’s something that is easiest to find when you’re not looking over your shoulder, or trying to hoard all of the elements you think you need to be great.


“Herding cats”: We’re Still Animals, Not Plants

Breaking from my normal utopian outlook, I can’t stress enough a transition to a participatory society won’t be easy. America’s founding fathers proclaimed democracy is a messy endeavor. And one where “the people” actually do the work will be even more so.

However well intended collaborations are, and how they attempt to represent an equality of views — they almost inevitably end in creating bottlenecks. Often little gets done without getting run past informal “top contributors". Special effort must be made so the most active and overburdened collaborators know how to filter and prioritize tasks and requests. They have to know it’s alright to say no (or to allocate only half the time requested). And maybe best of all, encourage them to make an introduction to someone else when the request doesn’t draw on their own unique contributions.

We also can’t lose fact that the “deep thinking” needed to bring a project to fruition is a solitary task. Collaboration runs contrary to this assumption. Collaborators need to know when to collaborate and when to remove themselves from “the party” and burrow down and inside themselves.

And we can’t forget the collaboration “time drain". More collaborations mean more meetings. And more meetings mean more time spent in meetings … and less time actually doing the work. Even though the social aspect of collaborative efforts is important, having meetings for the sake of having meetings shouldn’t be the default. Just because it’s a collaboration … doesn’t mean it automatically needs a meeting. Make the time together worth everyone’s time. Collaborations should be synergistic … not antagonistic.

Not everyone flourishes under a system self-determination either. Gabriela Krupa illustrates this on her experience with Holocracy.

“I caught myself in a paradox: I’m happy to have leeway in my work and be able to do things as I see fit, but at the same time I would appreciate someone who could point me in the right direction: ‘this is right, just continue that way’ or ‘change direction, you can do better.’ I caught myself looking for confirmation that my choices and actions were right, wanted, or useful for my colleagues.”

Just because an open organization doesn’t have a formal management structure, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t set up informal mentoring arrangements. In fact these informal relationships can work much better than formal hierarchical ones. Making these informal arrangements easy to set up should be a priority of your collaboration as they can result in substantial member development.

The above obstacles are not normally encountered in traditional hierarchical structures. But just because collaboration-based organizations have their problems doesn’t mean we should shy away though. We can’t accept the status quo and the inefficiency, inequality and ineptitude it’s giving us. A society based on collaboration and inclusion must be an ideal we strive for. We have to accept the fact its going to be a challenge, a challenge that will involve a collective effort probably unlike anything modern society has seen. Herding cats is not supposed to be easy.

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