“The revolution begins in the kitchen.” - Anon
Forty strangers are circled in a music hall on the edge of a frozen lake. These are the innovators and advisors we’ve recruited as wayfinders for this two year journey we’re calling Nourish. The vision has been hundreds of conversations and a few prototypes in the making, and now my co-facilitator Beth and I are weaving back and forth, in English and French, offering an unrehearsed, wholehearted welcome to our first retreat.
Over the next four days, the cohort will be put through the paces of various systems change, foresight, organizational development, and design thinking methodologies to introduce the tools and approaches that will resource our learning. We will...
… hold space around roughly 1635 human hours (we know the days were long!) for the cohort to begin to get to know their fellow wayfinders, and to find some clues for some first steps forward.
“It felt like a moment in history,” was the reflection echoed repeatedly back to us: a moment to find like-minded peers; to overcome the isolation of working in a siloed environment; to find kindred thinkers who imagine more for food in health care; to find power in the questions; to recognize the very real possibility of a movement for a food-fueled revitalization of healthcare, driven by the willingness of the people and networks represented at our snowy retreat.
But nevermind the final tallies, let’s go back to an incident on opening night.
It is a wintery Sunday evening. Dinner is almost ready. Forty strangers are circled in a music hall on the edge of a frozen lake. The echo of forty roads travelled is fading as first introductions are made among the innovators, who will doubtless journey far less-well travelled roads together in the two years ahead.
One of the food service directors from Quebec is very funny. There is a cathartic laugh from the group and a collective sigh - or maybe it is my own relief projected across a group whose very presence validates a hypothesis that there is a need for a container and community like the one we’re setting out to weave.
So I am caught off-guard when an angry cook strides in unapologetically - interrupting one of the innovator’s introduction - to inform us we are very late for dinner - the fish is getting cold.
“Hayley that chef is very angry with you,” muttered one of our guests as I jumped up. The room froze in the discomfort of the interruption. I felt my credibility to facilitate this conversation with this group dripping off of me. There is probably an equation somewhere that lays out the tolerance for undesirable behaviour proportional to an offense committed; whatever it was, I didn’t understand how my offense had warranted such an explosion.
But then again, the fish.
Here was a cook who espoused so many of the virtues we want to highlight in healthcare, who took pride in his food, who wanted the meal to be respected - and I had offended him by being late for dinner on the first night. The moment was a microcosm for the paradigm shift we want to see in healthcare: toward a recognition of the value of food and a reprioritization of its role in care.
Change, we repeat many times in the days ahead, begins with ourselves. One of my favourite thinkers, Donella Meadows, writes that our paradigm gives rise to the systems we live and seek to change. If you can transcend a paradigm, you can imagine a new system. You can reconfigure the relationships of the actors and find new places where value is tucked away, or a teacher is hiding.
I made frequent visits to the kitchen that week. I listened to the cook. I apologized that my actions lacked respect. I committed not be late again. Humility is a powerful teacher. When he felt heard, he and I began to trade anecdotes throughout the week. He went out of his way to keep our group caffeinated and told me how much this kitchen and this work meant to him. Mealtimes became an anchor of our connective, creative discussion. In fact, I think most people wished those lively, buzzing mealtimes had gone on longer. Despite all our teams’ best session designs, it was likely over a colourful daily spread that the relationships that will underpin the difficult conversations ahead were really forged.
By the end of the retreat, no logistical feat or systems model was tougher for me to navigate than this interaction with a person who initially seemed irrationally unwilling to level with me. In a designerly way of thinking, the solution is buried deep inside the problem, and our own paradigm on that problem - it can only be untangled by empathizing with and understanding the pain of another.
The frontiers for our cohort will be different. They likely aren’t so foolish as to cross paths with the ones who feed us. But for real change, the moments will likely be as uncomfortable (truthfully, much more), and they will force us to reconsider many of the things we believe. As the cohort identified, many of the first steps out of the retreat begin with conceptualizing, discussing, and reframing the problem, to better understand the pains - better known as barriers - that will point us in the right direction. Empathy for patients, our allies and adversaries - and a willingness to look at ourselves first - I believe, will open up the way.