Alumni Network design – Full

Read the design summary first

The Design

I would like to tell you a story, so pull up a chair, make yourself comfortable and I will begin…


It all began as a design task for a Sector39 PDC on designing an alumni network for the graduates of Sector39 permaculture courses.

Or, it all began in May 2012 on a farm in the Welsh borders with a 2 week PDC where our narrator, unsure of the next steps in her voyage of life, got inspired and empowered by the ability of permaculture to make things happen! To cut a long story short she ended up trying to set up a new life in that area and to continue her journey of permaculture discovery. She knew that there were lots of other people in the area who had done PDCs, but how to find them? She didn’t know, so she asked her PDC tutor Steve Jones. He told her a few people, but it all felt a bit awkward and difficult. Out of this confusion a seed of an idea emerged – there should be a way for people who have done Sector39 courses to get in touch with each other, so that they don’t finish their PDCs and feel a bit lost and alone when they go back home to ‘reality’.

So our narrator took this idea to Steve who could see its potential. As fate would have it, it coincided with another discussion about what design tasks could be set for the modular PDC Steve was running at the time, and the problem is the solution, so it began…


So the wheel of the year turns and we find ourselves in January 2013 on a PDC weekend. All the students were given the choice of two design tasks and three people chose to join our narrator in designing her vision. So let us meet the players.

  • Nia True wanted experience of people-based design and had been wondering whether this idea existed already.
  • Gemma Jerome already had lots of other experience of working with communities and this was where her interest was focused.
  • Paul Stocking is a community artist, although he was most used to working alone, he felt that connections and people were the edges which he needed to stretch next.
  • And then our narrator, Kerry, who had felt the lack of this network and wanted to make it a reality, which meant being closely involved in its designing and implementation, even though she wasn’t on this course.

Before the weekend drew to a close a plan of action was decided on. Using the SADIMET handout the surveying stage was sorted into four sections, with one person responsible for starting each:

  • defining an alumni network & researching existing ones
  • surveying Sector39 to set the ‘context’ of the design
  • preparing a Client Interview for Steve Jones; and
  • preparing a Client Interview for all the alumni (Kerry’s role)
The whole PDC group

The whole PDC group – on the front row from left to right – Nia, Gemma and Kerry and on the far back right is Paul.

Kerry: I was very aware during the whole design process of letting the group take their own path and make their own decisions. I wanted to be an equal group member, not a leader and was very conscious that given my greater designing experience it would be very easy to take over. As part of this I asked everyone to share why they chose this design and what they wanted out of it, so that I could name this situation and we could all get the yields we wanted. 

I was pleased with how the first discussion went and how the group was working together, although I was worried that Paul wouldn’t get to play his full part as he was quite quiet and the least experienced in people systems amongst three strong women!

And once again I was frustrated by the SADIMET design handout and how land orientated it was. I was pleased to be able to offer my experience to help work round this.


The group of designers lived far and wide across the land, so they couldn’t meet up in between the monthly weekends. But in the modern digital age that challenge was easily overcome through virtual meetings on skype and sharing documents on google drive. However, not all of the group were familiar and comfortable with these, which inevitably led to a degree of segregation even though every effort was made by the others, as we shall see.

So their first virtual meeting came to pass, through the magic of the internet. One of the group couldn’t find their magic word , but the intrepid members who did make it had a look through everyone’s work so far, tweaked it and then decided which path to take next.

The skype meeting worked really well, apart from Paul not being able to join us. We got on well and worked together smoothly and with fairly equal contribution. I was very grateful to Nia for offering to take on some of my action points, as I had quite a few! In the end I only had to put the questions for the alumni into an online survey for everyone to test.

They tried to have a second meeting, but this time someone else had to rush away at the last minute. Nevertheless the yields were good, everyone was in the loop and further decisions were made. Following the meeting, the survey and an introductory email was send to all of the Sector39 alumni to collect their resources, limits and preferences, with a mighty 52 responses.

Principle - Use and Value DiversityPaul was struggling to understand the design process and our aim. On reflection I believe he just did not think linearly which made me feel like he was going off on tangents, which I struggled with as I was quite determined to follow SADIMET step by step and not jump into designing early. I did try to explain things to him, but in hindsight still very much from my perspective without recognising and valuing a diversity of approaches.


Paul couldn’t make their next gathering, but they did a Client Interview with Steve anyway,  all taking notes on different sections in recognition of the diversity of perspectives on a shared experience. The great breadth of knowledge they had gathered was the then distilled into a basemap – a snapshot of the situation now.

Basemap - goal

Goal – Click to enlarge

Basemap - current situation

Current situation – Click to enlarge

Basemap - values

Values – Click to enlarge

Basemap - resources

Resources – Click to enlarge

Basemap leaks

Leaks – Click to enlarge

Basemap constraints

Constraints – Click to enlarge

The three women stayed together that night, with multiple yields including getting to know each other better and having more informal discussions about the design.

Principle - Use small and slow solutionsI find these informal discussions are where some of the most valuable ideas and insights come from. I think the Client Interviews (Steve and wider alumni) captured lots of useful information and generally confirmed what we had already been thinking, which was reassuring. In hindsight one of the things we didn’t survey was what facilities and organisations already existed that fulfilled similar roles or that we could utilise as resources, this lack of information hampered us later on and meant we may have missed some potential small, slow solutions.

Paul traversed the country roads to join the gathering the next day. After filling him in and adding his thoughts to the basemap, we presented it to Steve, who agreed it matched his perspective.

An important decision was made this day, since the beginning there had been many discussions of the word alumni, what it meant to people and whether it was right. After reflecting, the group decided Friends of Sector39 was a clearer and more welcoming name.

But time was drawing in, the design was to be presented at the next gathering, so to speed things on their way the group decided to do some individual analysis to combine on the final weekend.


As it often goes no-one found  time to do much analysis in advance, so our narrator stacked functions when staying with Nia on the eve of the final weekend. They tried to do some analysis using Aranya’s book and after much head scratching the functions of the design emerged.

  • Increasing the yields for Steve from the resource that is the Friends of Sector39
  • Increasing the yields of the Friends of Sector39 network for it’s members

It was great to do the analysis together as I had struggled with applying the mainly land-based explanations to our design and muddling through together was much easier! I also believe the analysis we did was better than what either of us would have produced individually. I was initially reticent to share the functions I had already thought of, as I wanted to see what Nia thought first, but all the other ideas seemed to be systems and elements.

Overnight the world turned white and no-one made it to the course, so it was postponed until next month. This bonus design time was not put to good use and when the final PDC weekend arrived there was a mere half a day to finish the design and prepare for presenting it. Time was of the essence so after explanations the group decided to plough on with the functions Nia and our narrator had devised. The group struggled to use SMART goals for this people-based design, but so as not to completely lose their function the group replaced them with another method of measuring the success of the design. which was doing an annual ‘informal survey’ of the Friends and Steve to check what was going well and what could be even better.

I found that coming up with SMART goals for people-based designs is more challenging as the yields and functions are often less tangible than a handful of carrots. We didn’t persist with them as we were short on time, but I wanted to find a good solution, so I asked on the diploma facebook group and got lots of useful advice, such as WISE goals (written, integrated, synergistic & expansive) and stars, whose use I tested in future designs. On reflection our method of measuring is pretty energy intensive and is actually more suitable for the ‘tweak’ stage. 

It was decided that all systems and elements had to fulfil both functions. And with no time left for the intended unboundaried ideas session, they were driven down a certain path. This path, however, was only there due to all the observation and consideration of the last three months. As both functions were around increasing yields they included the yields which would be gained from each element of the design.

Analysis process

To demonstrate the process. Systems and elements in the middle, functions down each side and the yields in between.

The time restrictions meant we didn’t have the space to be properly creative and explore all the options, it also made it less enjoyable. I could have chosen to spend more time exploring it myself in between sessions, but I wanted it to be a group design, not just mine.

But coming up with it wasn’t enough, the group now needed to explain it to others. So they created a flipchart with mindmaps of each element and how they would be implemented. This has been summarised below for your viewing pleasure.

Friends of Sector39 design

Click to enlarge and see the full design

The two phases were so named as Phase 1A would not finish before Phase 1B began!

I was quite pleased with the design and that it clearly met all the functions and needs. Although I felt if we had had more time we could come up with something even better. Reflecting now, it seems a pretty ambitious design.

Interestingly because I was intending to actually action this design, we automatically transformed it into a basic implementation plan rather than just a static design.

And so, the design was presented, to Steve and the rest of the course.

The reaction to our presentation was disappointing, I didn’t feel we put it across that well, but there was a real lack of enthusiastic response. After reflecting on this afterwards I decided that as we were actually intending to implement it, the design was much more realistic and practical, rather than exciting and visionary and that this was what it needed to be and would hopefully lead to greater success.

The design only included very basic details on implementation and as such didn’t provide easy momentum for making it happen once the demands of every day life took over.


Nia and our narrator were the only ones able to make it to the ‘launch’ at Steve’s Party  and with no time to prepare together the responsibility rested with our narrator for making it happen.

Principle - Apply Self-regulation and Accept FeedbackA summary and feedback sheet was put together to put up at the party, which had an added yield of being a good refresh of the design. To test the waters it was presented to the residential PDC course running at the time and the feedback was positive.

At the party, as always, plans changed, ending up with a presentation to everyone there, which despite a personal crisis resulting in entirely the wrong frame of mind, actually went quite well. A couple of routes forwards were suggested, including integrating with the Shropshire Permaculture Network or using Project Dirt. As it was beautifully sunny day no-one went inside and filled out the feedback sheets.

Launching the Friends of Sector39

Introducing our design to the guests at Steve’s party

Maybe the lack of feedback was also due to the fact that it was a party and therefore people weren’t in that kind of headspace. Several talked to me personally, but due to the above mentioned challenge and the fact that it was a party I didn’t manage to remember that much useful information.

Despite my best attempts to decentralise the implementation plan and our groups best attempts to decentralise the whole design and get lots of people involved it still ended up being up to me having to follow people up and put the effort in on the ground.


The impetus for the design rested with our narrator and personal circumstances meant she had low energy and motivation for taking it forward, but once she had decided to postpone the first eBulletin until the Autumn equinox everything seemed more manageable and the ball started slowly rolling again.

In September group contact was re-established and a plan for getting the first eBulletin out was devised by Gemma and our narrator, which included dividing the workload in two so it could be worked on independently.

An executive decision was made to put the Directory of Friends on Project Dirt, because Steve had pre-empted the decision in an email he sent out to everyone and it was already established so required minimum effort. So after liaising with the organisers it was decided that Friends could sign up and befriend Sector39 on there, that way everyone would be able to find each other. So the group all signed up to start it off!

Then a series of obstacles presented themselves, firstly trying to get the relevant emails off Steve to set up the googlegroup, then by limitations on entering the emails on to googlegroups and finally trying to get news off Steve to go into the eBulletin. But eventually it all came together and out it went.

I was pleased with the eBulletin, unfortunately the response was fairly low, mostly people asking me to change their email address, but Steve liked it. Thankfully, we already had a volunteer to edit the second eBulletin, but no-one has volunteered since. I tried to stack the functions unfulfilled at the launch into the eBulletin, but got no response.

Co-ordinating the eBulletin remotely with Gemma when we were both busy was quite challenging and meant I ended up doing the lions share. I also decided to reduce the burden on myself by not fighting to get it out exactly on time and by taking the responsibility for making decisions myself so I didn’t have to wait for others input.

Because I was planning on using this design for my diploma and because I had come up with the idea in the first place it ended up being me keeping up the momentum. At this stage I was still hoping that I just had to deal with the growing pains and then it would roll on itself.

I found that the designs weren’t in a very easy format for me to refer back to. 

To help those that came after her, our narrator put together an eBulletin template to guide people on their way.

The Winter Solstice (second) eBulletin went out eventually, but our narrator had to do lots of chasing people up. By this point she was starting to question the wisdom of this path and where she might go next and so here we are, reflecting and telling stories.


To write this story I have again reflected on the design and results myself and have also sent an email round requesting feedback from my design group and a few others people I know in the Friends of Sector39 network.

The insight that I have reached through this reflection process is that there is currently a leak when people finish a PDC and aren’t sure what to do next to continue their permaculture journey. I believe that there should be a greater diversity of post PDC pathways offered on top of the current one of, start the diploma straight away. Some with a slower route to starting the diploma and others that don’t involve the diploma at all. These probably exist already, but aren’t publicised. Exactly how and what this would look like would need another design to clarify.

The mistake I made in this design was moving straight from my motivation of feeling lost and unsure of my pathway after my PDC to an assumed solution of an alumni network for Sector39. It is actually a potentially broader pattern and there are many possible solutions to it, which should be explored.

I shared some of these thoughts on the diploma facebook group and the ensuing lively discussion helped me to clarify my thoughts, so thank you to those involved.

I have decided to self-regulate and accept feedback that our design wasn’t gathering momentum and therefore I am not going to keep putting energy into it, but I would like to use my learnings and potentially some of the resources in other contexts, including the one above.

Overall Evaluation

Design Framework Evaluation: SADIMET

As I had found previously it was a bit clunky for using on people systems. I find it a bit too rigid for accommodating all of their different variables. This is compounded by the fact that most explanations on its use are very land orientated.The survey stage works okay, but the analysis is quite challenging to get your head around if you don’t have experience of it – trying to identify functions and make SMART goals.

It didn’t feel like there was a good space in the structure for capturing and generating ideas, all the way through we were trying to hold back from designing too early. In hindsight and with more experience under my belt I would have set up a cycle rack for parking all the ideas we came up with so as to capture and store that energy.

We more or less combined our Design and Implementation planning stages. The flow of the process and the relationships between the elements was too important a part of the design for us not to put it straight into a time frame.

The Maintain stage was never really reached and Evaluation is being covered in this write up.

SADIMET is a very linear (or at least step by step) process and therefore not so great for people who don’t think linearly and for the creativity that flows in lots of different patterns. I am sure there are techniques that could be used in conjunction with it to alleviate this, but equally the design web is specifically designed as a non-linear process.

Tools used evaluation

It was challenging to design long distance and therefore virtually. I didn’t feel skype was a great medium for it as it encourages a more linear and less creative approach. Especially as we weren’t using video. It also excluded people who were less technologically able. However, it was free and did enable us to have meetings in between weekends.

Flipchart mindmaps
These are good for thinking when you are together as a group and are useful for presenting, but they are difficult to then share with each other and to be easily added to. They are also no good for including in diploma portfolio write ups as they are too big!

Online mindmaps (specifically mindmeister) were quite hard to follow, were constantly trying to get you to sign up and were also very difficult to then convert into any other form, such as printing off. It was however, the best solution we had at the time for sharing the basemap, which was in the form of a mindmap.

Group working
This is great for increased ideas and creativity and I really enjoy designing as a group and valuing the diversity of skills and perspectives. However, you need the time and processes in place to ensure that you use everyone’s skills to their full. I feel we really missed out on using Paul’s skills as he is very creative and capable, but didn’t contribute much to the design.

Survey Monkey
This was very useful for sending out the survey to lots of far flung people, it is also free and I was familiar with it. However, with the free version I couldn’t download the results so had to just take screen shots which were more awkward for sharing with others and more time consuming for me.

We decided to use them because they are free, you can control who is a member of them and all members can contact the whole group, which was important when having rotating editorial control. It was however hugely time consuming and fiddly to put the email addresses on to it. And I don’t think new graduates are being added to it.

Overall design reflections

What went well?

  • We worked well as a group, trying hard to be inclusive
  • We did a very thorough and diligent attempt at using SADIMET for a people-based design, working things out as we went along
  • Some of it was implemented and resources were created

What was challenging?

  • Limitations on time in general and time physically together
  • Using SADIMET for a relatively abstract people-based design
  • Sharing the workload, especially in the Implementation phase
  • Responding to change – trying to doggedly carry on with the design we had constructed despite changes in circumstances
  • The initial survey of the alumni showed a will to engage and network, but we didn’t find the spark to ignite this into action

What would I do differently next time?

  • I would ensure that I had identified the why and motivations behind the design and was designing the right thing
  • I would survey the resources and limits for the design process too such as limits for those implementing it and resources available for using during designing
  • I would ensure the final base map and implementation plan were going to be easily referred to and used at a later date
  • I would try and integrate more learning/thinking styles into the design process.

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