Learning Teams, Learning from Communities

Over the last decade, I have spent a lot of time listening to operational, technical, specialist, support and managerial staff in small groups around Europe. The conversations – aimed at learning about safety – have changed over the years. What started off as strongly facilitated workshops to interrogate safety culture questionnaire results, became only loosely based on questionnaire results, and more on what mattered to participants, but still with predetermined issues in mind. Finally, the conversations became much more open still. In small groups, we sat in a circle to understand the issues that mattered to the participants, concerning safety and the effectiveness of work more generally.

This latter transition has occurred alongside an increasing interest that I have developed over the last few years in natural communities. It is rare that organisations and professions try to learn from communities, and yet there is much to be learned from how healthy communities work.

Descriptions of healthy communities can be found in asset-based community development (ABCD). ABCD is an approach to understanding and developing communities from the inside based on that they have– assets. As well as being asset-based, it is citizen-led, relationship-oriented, place-based, and inclusion-based (Russell, 2017).

This interest has paralleled the development of Safety-II – learning from ‘what goes’, including how things normally go right, as well as how thing occasionally go wrong (see EUROCONTROL, 2013). Both resonate with a longstanding interest – humanistic psychology, which is more interested in human potentials than deficits.

Having listened to thousands of people in person, what people most often said was critical to safety was relationships with direct colleagues (including direct managers). This is backed up by quantitative data from tens of thousands of completed questionnaires. Years ago, we would gratefully accept this finding, and ask few more questions of it, focusing only on deficits. Now I find relationships to be fundamental assets – just as people said – worthy of much deeper understanding and development.

A major figure in the history ABCD has been Professor John McKnight. He has worked in activist organisations and civil rights agencies, and learned the Alinsky approach to community organising before developing ABCD, along with John Kretzmann. McKnight went on to create university departments to support urban change agents. Another major figure in community development has been Peter Block, known for work on organisation development, community building, and civic engagement. He works on building the capacity of community to value its gifts and see its own possibility. The work has been developed and applied further by Cormac Russell, a faculty member of the ABCD Institute, who has worked with communities in over 30 countries and has brought ABCD to many. Cormac and I have worked together with 20 or so small group Learning Teams, bringing insights from ABCD to working groups.

In this article, I refer to some of the ideas and writings of ABCD to reflect on Learning Teams, and small group conversations and action more generally in organisations. I highlight four lessons from ABCD for Learning Teams, health and safety professionals, and their host organisations. The lessons do not form a complete set, and there are of course other lessons from outside of ABCD, but I hope that the lessons are of value to those work with Learning Teams, or plan to.

Lesson 1: Talk about everyday work

ABCD is about everyday life in communities, and the capacities and potentials that exist and are used (or could be used, or extended) to improve community life. Everyday life is rich, with many values, goals and activities jostling for attention. There is no singular focus. Health, safety, security, education, housing, mobility…all are important, all interact, though each can be more important at particular times for different people.

As we know, workers are often only marginally interested in ‘health and safety’, and even caricature “elf ‘n’ safety gone mad”as a counter against bureaucratic controls. What workers are interested in is work and worklife. When work is viewed in the whole, rather than through the lens of health and safety (or accidents) alone, many things emerge: the patterns, the goal conflicts, the trade-offs, the dilemmas, the messy details, the joys, the successes, the meanings. Holistic discussions inevitably include health and safety, and other things, all of which are inextricably linked. There are benefits to this broader perspective that extend beyond traditional conceptions of health and safety and connect different values.

Lesson 2: Start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong

Health and safety, like many medical specialities, is one of few professions that views what it wants through the lens of what is doesn’t want – what’s wrong or what could be wrong. This is rather like viewing happiness through the lens of misery. We know that we don’t want people to be harmed in accidents. And so we tend to organise around avoidance. Yet we also know that we don’t get what we want by only avoiding what we don’t want. I don’t want to have an accident on the way to work. One way to guarantee that is not to go work.

In The Careless Society: Community And Its Counterfeits, John McKnight (1995) noted that “The obvious centre of the medical mentality is the focus upon malady, deficiency, disease, and need – the empty half of the glass. Clearly, the empty half is present. And just as clearly, the half full is present.” (p.75). He also made a remark that challenges many ‘helping’ professions: “The medical system needs the empty half. The healthful community needs the full half …The raw material of community is capacity. The raw material of medicine is deficiency.”(p.76). In health and safety, do we need the empty half more than the organisation and workers needs the full half? Perhaps such a ‘need’ is legitimate, as a counter against an organisational focus on efficiency and productivity. But what are the unintended consequences of a deficit-based approach? How does it affect our view of the world?

In Cormac Russell’s (2018) conversation with McKnight on the heritage of ABCD, McKnight remarked that “many people, and even whole institutional systems, live by inaccurate maps; they have incorrect definitions or perceptions of people, places and things. They judge people and events through the labels they assign them, such as “needy”, rather than through observable actions and verifiable accounts.” (p. 84).

In health and safety, we can fall into the trap of viewing work, those who do the work, and their behaviour, through a deficit lens. This is easy to demonstrate. Take the content and glossary of any safety report, or the minutes of a safety meeting. The language and terms tend to be overwhelmingly negative. And yet, everyday work is mostly rather effective. Our lens reflects a sort of ‘déformation professionelle’ or ‘trained incapacity’ – a tendency to look at things from our limited professional perspective, developed via professional acculturation, means that our abilities function as inadequacies or blind spots (see Shorrock, 2013).

When we view people through a deficit lens, we tend to view them also in terms of their needs, as we imagine them. But our imagination of the work and needs of others is vastly simplified. It is also wrong in important ways. Imagined work and imagined needs is the wrong way to look and the wrong place to start. We need to startwith their assets, as they understand them. This is the startingplace for ABCD, and is a way of thinking that resonates with Safety-II. It is valuable to focus firston what we have and what is working well, including our gifts, skills and passions, which can be illuminated, connected and mobilised in Learning Teams. Starting on an asset footing results in a profoundly different conversation compared with starting on a deficit footing.

The valuable capacities of people, and other assets, that create safetyneed to be illuminated and connected. I find it helpful to start discussions with questions like, “What is going well for you/us in the day-to-day work”, or “If you had to explain to a neighbour why things work well here, what would you say?”I’m trying to understand the assets (relating to people, environments, activities, processes). I’m also interested in what people perceive to be limits of these. If everyone’s answer is very local to their self or immediate team, I’d have more questions to ask about the organisation as a whole.

Lesson 3: Find ways to cross departmental boundaries

When we think of a ‘team’, we often think of people who routinely work together doing similar sorts of things. When it comes to Learning Teams, this means that people understand their own work and know the relevant health and safety issues. And there will be bonding social capital, bringing trust, commitment, and reciprocity. But people in teams also tend to be more like-minded, and less diverse. There will be unstated assumptions and taboo topics. Drifts in behaviour may be hard to see. There will tend to be pressure to conform (to opinions, beliefs, behaviour patterns, etc) in order to belong. These latter features of teams are, unfortunately, often the enemies of learning. The ‘divisional’ design of organisations can reinforce this. Divisions and departments, and the teams within them, can make it hard to see how our work interacts with that of others.

John McKnight recalled to Cormac Russell a story about John’s ‘County Labrador Retriever Owner Association’, where people and their Labrador dogs got together. One day, someone with a beautiful dog approached the group. The trouble was, it wasn’t a Labrador. It was a German Shepherd. In a delightfully Monty Python-esque scenario, it illustrated something about the often arbitrary boundaries that we create and maintain. In organisations, we tend to organise around function instead of the flow of work and information.

Teams exist within a much larger, interconnected network, and a flow of work. ABCD would encourage us to think about the boundaries of Learning Teams. Where are the edges? Is there an invitation to the stranger at the edge? Crossing boundaries requires invitation, participation and connection (see Shorrock, 2017).

In my podcast conversation with Cormac Russell (see Shorrock, 2018), he highlighted roles in ABCD discourse that are important in crossing organisational boundaries. ‘Gappers’ link together functions and people at the edges or boundaries, often quite purposively. ‘Connectors’ connect individuals in a special and natural way. Connectors are well connected, see the best of others, are trusted & create trust. They believe in community & move around comfortably between different groups. They get joy from connecting people. You can probably identify people with these informal roles in your own workplace or organisations you’ve worked with. They are as important as ‘leaders’, but rarely recognised as such.

In The Abundant Community, McKnight and Block (2010) wrote of community connectors, “we want to elevate and make more visible people who have this connecting capacity. We also want to encourage each of us to discover the connecting possibility in our own selves … The operating question becomes, who are the proven and potential connectors of our acquaintance? Who sees the gifts of local people and figures out ways to share them? Whom do people turn to when something needs to be done on the block? Who are the people who take responsibility for civic events? Who are the leaders of our local associations?” The same questions could be asked in organisations. But do we?

In working with interdisciplinary Learning Teams, Cormac and I asked each person what they appreciated about the sessions. The responses of the 200 or so people were heart-warming, but also sometimes sad. We heard from many people who said that they work in the same corridor, or do work that affects each other, or passing one another daily for years or even decades, and had a conversation for the first time during these small group conversations.

Lesson 4: Understand first what can be done BY teams

One parallel for Learning Teams in communities is ‘Listening Tables’ of neighbours and their representative associations, and institutions that want to become friendly with communities. McKnight and Block (2010) remarked that“these initiatives can create a dialogue that begins to redefine the powers and responsibilities of institutions and communities. This dialogue can be framed by three questions: First: What functions can neighborhood people perform by themselves? Second: What functions can neighbors achieve with some additional help from the institutions? Finally: What functions must institutions perform on their own?” 

They go on to say that “the order of these questions is very important. It shows that the basic productive force is the local community. What citizens can do for themselves is the primary question. What institutions can do is a secondary question. A neighborhood doesn’t know what it needs from outside until it is clear on what is has inside.” This message is echoed by Russell (2019), using the question of change done BY, WITH, FOR, and TO people.The question of agency and power in health and safety is important. If we start by asking what can be done TO or FOR people, rather than BY people, we end up disempowering them.

Just as systems and professionals cannot provide health and safety for communities, health and safety professionals cannot provide health and safety for workers. Safety is created at many levels of organisations, and by startingwith what health and safety professionals can do, we end up colonising health and safety, perhaps creating and even believing an illusion that only the professional has the capacity to create safety. As McKnight (1995) remarked, “As you are the problem, the assumption is that, I the professional service, am the answer. You are not the answer. Your peers are not the answer. The political, social and economic environment is not the answer. Nor is it possible that there is no answer. I, the professional, am the answer.”(p.46).

McKnight went on to say that “the disabling function of unilateral professional help is the hidden assumption that ‘you will be better because I, the professional, know better’”.

He identifies a second disabling characteristic of professionalised remedial assumptions as the remedy defining the need. “As professionalised service systems create more elegant techniques and magnificent tools, they create an imperative demanding their use.” (McKnight, 1995, p.47). By making workers the subjects of systems, rather than co-creators, we disable their capacities – gifts that are essential to health and safety, and effectiveness more generally.

Health and safety professionals, and organisations, can help learning teams by creating space and time for them to convene, illuminate what’s going well, document their dilemmas, state what they want, and what they can offer.

Summing up

I find it hard to think of a more important aspect of organisational life when it comes to health and safety, and effectiveness more generally, than small group conversations and action. Learning Teams are nothing new in this regard (being similar to action learning) but there are some useful orienting insights to be had from fields such as community development. To sum up:

  • talk about everyday work
  • start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong
  • find ways to cross departmental boundaries and get multiple perspectives
  • understand first what can be done BY teams.

Our recent feedback from around 200 people, is that Learning Teams, integrating insights from Asset-Based Community Development, can:

  • help better understand one’s own work
  • introduce new perspectives on problems and opportunities
  • illuminate the work of others, and how it interacts with one’s own
  • introduce colleagues to one another
  • foster a sense of inclusion, and
  • give hope and optimism.

These outcomes relate to health and safety, but go further still to help focus on what matters to those who do the work, to make work as effective as possible and worklife as fulling as possible.


EUROCONTROL (2013, September). From Safety-I to Safety-II. A White Paper. Brussels: EUROCONTROL Network Manager. Retrieved from https://www.skybrary.aero/bookshelf/books/2437.pdf

McKnight, J. (2008). The careless society: Community and its counterfeits. Basic Books.

McKnight, J. and Block, P. (2010). The abundant community: awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Russell, C. (2017). Asset-based community development – 5 core principles. Retrieved from https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/asset-based-community-development-5-core-principles/

Russell, C. (2018). Asset based community development (ABCD): Looking back to look forward. Cormac Russell.

Russell, C. (2019). Four modes of change: to, for, with, by. HindSight, Issue 28, Winter 2018-2019, EUROCONTROL: Brussels. Forthcoming at https://www.skybrary.aero/index.php/HindSight_-_EUROCONTROL

Shorrock, S. (2013). Déformation professionnelle: How profession distorts perspective. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://humanisticsystems.com/2013/12/12/deformation-professionnelle-how-profession-distorts-perspective/

Shorrock, S. (2017). Editorial: Invitation, participation, connection. HindSight, Issue 25, Summer 2017, EUROCONTROL: Brussels. Retrieved from http://www.eurocontrol.int/publications/hindsight-25-summer-2017

Shorrock, S. and Russell, C. (2018). Learning from communities: a conversation with Cormac Russell. Retrieved from https://humanisticsystems.com/2018/01/11/learning-from-communities-a-conversation-with-cormac-russell/

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