Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

July 25, 2017

Pulling Threads from Small Arcs: Reflections on Complexity, Living Systems and Leadership

In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patternsa collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:

“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”

“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”

“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”

“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”

“No living thing exists in just one context.” 

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July 18, 2017

Letting Go For Life, Liveliness and Response-ability

Photo by Neal Fowler, shared under the provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

(I want to give a BIG shout out to Marsha Boyd for helping to inspire this post with her words and spirit. Thank you, Marsha, for your collegiality, mentoring, and leadership by example!)

For the past couple of weeks, I have been savoring a book by Nora Bateson entitled Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. Bateson is a filmmaker, writer and activist, and also the daughter of Gregory Bateson, ground-breaking anthropologist, philosopher, systems thinker, cyberneticist and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a mind-stretching and heart-opening amalgamation of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks. Throughout Bateson offers a ranging exploration of systems theory and complexity thinking with an invitation to embrace a broader epistemological lens (what people think of as sources of legitimate knowledge) including embodied knowing and aesthetic experience.

In an essay entitled “The Fortune Teller,” Bateson explores the human tendency to stave off consciously or unconsciously anticipated disaster and decline by trying to keep things stable or as they have been. Think the most recent financial crisis. A recent article on the site Evonomics entitled “It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory” reminds us of the story of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a champion of unfettered capitalism. Greenspan fought against initiatives to rein in derivatives markets even as there were signs of turbulence and calls to make substantial changes. On October 23, 2008, Greenspan admitted he was wrong, making the following statement to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: “Those of us who have looked to the self- interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” But what has significantly changed? Or consider a very recent article about local government efforts in Ventura County, California to site a new fossil fuel plant on a beach starting in 2020 that ignore protests from organized low-income residents concerned about air quality and lack of access to the beaches, and environmental organizations pointing out the real danger stemming from underestimations of sea level rise.

Photo by Duncan Hill, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

While in some ways understandable (few of us probably like the idea of collapse and chaos), actions taken to preserve a certain kind of order and direction (not to mention power and privilege) can be particularly perverse when they reinforce the very patterns that are leading us down the road to collective ruin. And what more people are beginning to sense is that many social, economic and political patterns that have been established and gotten us to where we are must change for the sake of long-term survival and thriving. Read More

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July 11, 2017

Complexity, Equity and the Place of “Expertise”

“Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong … willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories.”

– Nora Bateson (from Small Arcs of Larger Circles)

“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get a good vetting every now and then, and in the current climate of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good reason for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert was being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view; when a set of “outside” eyes can lend fresh new perspective to a situation. And it is also the case that deference is often given to this version of expertise at the expense of local and other diverse sources of knowledge. Read More

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June 13, 2017

Network Bridging: How a Regional Network is Creating New Connections, Flows, and Opportunities

“Life moves toward other life… If we trusted more in these cohering motions, we could move into an essential role … supporting the system to explore new connections, new information, new ways of being. It means focusing on   opening the system in all ways.”

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, a simpler way

Image by Bruce Berrien, shared under the terms of Creative Commons license 2.0.

“Bridging” in the work of network development speaks to the act of creating connections between socially heterogeneous groups (or putting it a bit more crassly, building bridges between “us” and “them”). The benefits of bridging include making it possible for diverse groups to share and exchange information, creating new forms of access, as well as leveraging new ideas and spurring innovation between groups representing different interests and/or backgrounds. Bridging widens social capital by increasing the “radius of trust.” Unlike “bonding,” or more in-group relationship building (think “birds of a feather flocking together”), bridging can help create more inclusive structures that can have implications for long-term resilience and more equitable development. The following is a story of a network engaging in intentional bridging work for more robust connectivity, flows and opportunity …

Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” FSNE is convened by For the past 5+ years, IISC has worked with the convening “backbone organization,” UNH Sustainability Institute, to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and worked for systemic change.

Eighteen months ago, FSNE was faced with making a decision about where to hold its annual Food Summit. The Summit was originally conceived to bring together delegates from across New England to strengthen collaboration for regional food system sustainability. The commitment was made early on by the convenor to move the Summit around the region, holding it in each of the six New England states once before going to any of them for a second time.

Delegates to the 2015 New England Food Summit gathered in Boston, MA.

In 2016, Connecticut was the last state to host the New England Food Summit. The network’s backbone organization was faced with a decision about the specific location within the state. Previous Summits had been held in prominent hubs in the other states – Portsmouth (NH), Burlington (VT), Portland (ME), Pawtucket/Providence (RI) and Boston. While places like Hartford and New Haven might have been natural considerations given their respective amenities and relative centrality in the state, the choice was made to bring the Summit to Bridgeport. This decision was spurred in no small part by the leadership of State Senator Marilyn Moore, who hails from that city and is a member of the FSNE Network Team. Senator Moore pointed out that not only would it be significant for Bridgeport to play host, given it is often overlooked in favor of its more well-known and regarded neighbors, it would also be enlightening for Summit delegates to see reality on the ground. Furthermore, this choice was viewed as an expression of FSNE’s commitment to racial equity and food justice.

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May 29, 2017

Spreading Connections in the Network Sandbox

 

Image by Marco Verch, shared under provisions of Creative Commons license 2.0

I recently received an email from the NorthSky Nonprofit Network about a practice group they have called the “Network Sandbox.” They introduce a tool (for “Tuesday Tool Time”) and invite members to play with it. I was happy to be told that they recently incorporated “connection stories” as a tool. Here is their invitation to participants to stretch and innovate:

This week’s tool is inspired by the new connections catalyzed by the mini-grants. While the survey we used collected some anecdotal information about the new connections, it left all of us wanting more… richer, deeper stories about these connections. Curtis Ogden from the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), calls connection storiescritical nutrients” for networks that “feed a network forward.” 

Tool: Connection Stories

Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Purpose: Collect and share stories of connections that have happened because of networks and share them back to the network to inspire more of the same. 

From Curtis’s blog: Making these stories more explicit and accessible can have a number of different impacts:

  • They model the importance of reaching out across boundaries and to “the other”
  • They encourage network behaviors that build a foundation of trust and understanding, which …
  • Contribute to “network effects” such as resilience, adaptation, and innovation.
  • They can encourage cultures of equity, inclusion and diversity.

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May 8, 2017

Facing Dynamics of Othering and Belonging in a Sustainable Food System Network

“Clearly, we made some people uncomfortable. Good. For too long, our comfort has come on the backs of many who have been uncomfortable for a long, long time.”

Niaz Dorry, FSNE Process and Network Team Member

Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.”

For the past 5 years, IISC has supported FSNE to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and focused on systemic transformation. Over the winter, editorial staff from the Othering and Belonging Journal at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society solicited an article submission from FSNE to tell the story of why and how the network has operationalized its commitment to racial equity and food justice.

“While Othering processes marginalize people on the basis of perceived group differences, Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members. As [john a.] powell has previously written, ‘Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.'”

Andrew Grant-Thomas, from Othering and Belonging Editors’ Introduction

The article was published last week under the title “Equity as Common Cause,” co-authored by El Farrell, Tom Kelly and Joanne Burke of the UNH Sustainability Institute (the convenor of FSNE), Karen Spiller of KAS Consulting and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (Karen is lead FSNE Ambassador) and myself, as network facilitator, with input and voices of many others, including Connecticut Senator Marilyn Moore, Julius Kolawole of the African Alliance of Rhode Island and Niaz Dorry of North Atlantic Marine Alliance. Read More

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April 25, 2017

Strategic Questions From and For Liberating Structures

With inspiration from Nancy White – thank you! (and make sure to check out Nancy’s blog) – I have been returning to and reviewing the list of Liberating Structures created and collected by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless for application to some strategy development work with a couple of social change networks. As described on the website:

Liberating Structures are “easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust.

Liberating Structures are meant to foster enlivening participation in groups of all sizes, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone.”

In reviewing the various structures, I’ve pulled out and added to a list of strategic questions that could be offered in concert with different group processes (World Cafe, Open Space, pair shares, fishbowls, individual reflection, etc.) to open up possibilities … Read More

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April 19, 2017

Cultivating Connectivity: Understand the Soil Before You Till

In sustainable agriculture you hear talk about no and low-till farming. These are approaches that emphasize minimal disturbance of soils to preserve their structural integrity and also to keep carbon in the ground. No-till increases organic matter, water retention and the cycling of nutrients in the ground. As a result it can reduce or eliminate soil erosion, boost fertility and make soils more resilient to various kinds of disruptions. This flies in the face of mainstream approaches that recommend ongoing and significant intervention, “fluffing” soil and digging down to considerable depths to get rid of weeds and aerate the ground. What actually happens can be quite destructive to the long-term productive and regenerative capacity of the soil.

“When we harvest, weed, rake or trim gardens and landscapes, we remove the organic material that feeds the soil.”

Elizabeth Murphy, soil scientist

I like this as a metaphor for what can happen when there is failure to see and respect the networked structures that already exist in communities, organizations and other living systems. Read More

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April 4, 2017

Liberation and Self-Organization for Social Change and Life

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

– Toni Morrison


Once again, I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity (and eager for the release of the English version of Complexitools) amidst the growing demand we are hearing at IISC from people who want to liberate their organizations and themselves to be able to intelligently respond to change and to come back to life! Here’s the gist – as things shift more, and more rapidly, some people’s inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar, but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them  increasingly irrelevant, ineffective and irresponsible.

Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Eric Kim) new muscles and mindsets.

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March 22, 2017

Network Innovation 3.0: The 2017 Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

James A. Baldwin

For the third year in a row, IISC is working with Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge (April 9-29) as an extension of our mutual commitment to racial justice. The challenge is a virtual and networked remix of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and Debby Irving, offered as a way of spreading and deepening commitment to learn about, talk about and take action to solve racial injustices in the food and other related systems.

This year, we are adding additional tools and prompts to create a rich environment for learning, conversation and action. This includes:

  • a more extensive resource page with readings, tools, videos and organizational links,
  • a new list of daily prompts with links to resources and room for participants to offer written reflections,
  • a series of original blog posts on the FSNE website committed to relevant topics and themes
  • a Twitter hashtag (check out #FSNEEquityChallenge)

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February 27, 2017

Network Development Tools: Connection Stories

“We add value to society-at-large when we dare to connect.”

– Gibran Rivera

For the past five years, Food Solutions New England has been building a regional collaborative network organized to support the emergence and sustainability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities. This network was formally launched with support of IISC in response to a shared sense that greater connection, trust, deep collaboration and innovation were needed across food system efforts throughout the region. To create this connectivity, we have engaged in a number of structural and procedural innovations, including creating an Ambassador Team to do network weaving and the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which will happen again this year from April 9-29.

Along the way, we have been witnessing some important boundary-crossing and new partnerships emerging. One example in particular stands out, stemming from a field visit a number of us did to a fishing community in the region to learn more about the challenges to and innovations among small scale fishermen. Our tour was organized by a network team member and community organizer of color who focuses on fisheries who has many deep connections in that community. One of the attendees of the tour was an older white man who does policy work in another state. Personality-wise, these two individuals are quite different, along with their chosen points of intervention in the food system. And yet on the heels of that tour, the organizer and the policy wonk became good friends and colleagues who continue to learn from one another and coordinate more around fisheries and policy analysis/development, creating new opportunities in and across their respective worlds. Read More

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