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March 5, 2015

Racial Equity Habit Building, Networked

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Two years ago, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team, with support from IISC, committed to putting racial equity at the center of its work in trying to bring the six state region together around a vision of a more sustainable food system. Since formalizing that commitment with more than 150 delegates at last year’s annual Food Summit, and taking it to other food system-focused networks by invitation, the FSNE Network Team has faced the big question – Now what? How to deliver on this commitment and in a regional context? At the very least we continue to deepen our learning around and commitment to equity, modeling for and learning from and with others, growing and strengthening our understanding and action. A sub-committee of the Network Team, of which IISC is a part, has put together a racial equity plan consisting of various areas of activity, including education, communication, convening, network weaving/organizing and curating tools and resources for food system advocates at all levels (organizational, community, municipal, state).

One step that has just been launched is a bit of an experiment, and takes the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge from Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White) and Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. (founder of the White Privilege Conference), and turns it into a virtual community of practice. The ongoing challenge of the Network Team is to figure out a variety of means to keep knitting the network, and to keep communication and learning flowing. This is where the proliferation of social media tools and collaboration platforms has been extremely helpful. Read More

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March 4, 2015

(Self)-Organize for Complexity

“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

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I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly, people’s natural 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 and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.

If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .

“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Throughout his book, Pflaeging notes that in all formal organizations, there are informal structures, and that these are really the life blood of those organisms. They are what contributes maximally to value creation, that is to being more intelligently responsive to needs and opportunities “out there.” Yet formalized structures often stand, by intention or by accident, as impediments to these informal structures. When things are complex, it can be helpful to connect the social system to more of itself so that people are better able to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes mean getting out of the way of informal structures and inherent self-organizing tendencies, or creating spaces for informal sharing and connecting.

“Self-organization in complex systems is natural. Having “a leader” is not.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Whether we are in nascent or long-standing organized efforts, there are threats of being pulled to the overly formalized, bureaucratic and centralized side of things. Pflaeging echoes others (including Mila Baker, Carol Sanford, and Frederic Laloux) in some of his recommendations for keeping eyes on and supporting the less formalized and life-affirming prize. These can be of great support generally-speaking in encouraging network ways of working.

  • Let purpose [not incentives] drive behavior.
  • Cultivate [guiding] principles, not rules.
  • Emphasize roles, not [fixed] positions.
  • Support and practice maximum transparency.
  • Encourage informal knowledge forums, guilds, communities of practice.
  • Decentralize, rather than delegate, decision-making (delegation still smacks of hierarchy).

This kind of work may be more difficult than what some typically lean towards. And there are those who might question its effectiveness and efficiency. But this is very much intelligent systemic work, organized as social and emergent processes.

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February 27, 2015

History is Here Today

When the injustice done to Mike Brown and Eric Garner unfolded before our very eyes we witnessed the racial fault lines in this country as they made themselves painfully obvious. I witnessed anger, misunderstanding and resentment. I saw an oppressed community blamed, questioned and invalidated when we chose to protest and scream at injustice.

This is what happens when people don’t understand history. It is what happens when people don’t co-exist in community, in the context of authentic relationship.

It is what happens when we don’t understand that structural oppression is manifested across generations.

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the horrific report released by the Equal Justice Initiative, and reported by the New York Times, is a painful but helpful way to give historical context to people’s rage.

The report names 4,000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. 1950 was not too long ago; do you know anyone over 65?

It is good to claim our nation’s contribution to the idea of freedom and democracy. And it is also impossible to skip over the darker parts of our history. All of history is with us today.

“That was a long time ago” simply isn’t good enough.

Let us have the courage to face where we come from and let us have the dignity to right our wrongs.

#BlackLivesMatterLynchingReportCOVER Read More

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February 26, 2015

Connectivity Creates Value

One of my mantras around network building and social change is that creating greater (and new forms of) connectivity is not simply a “so that” or a “nice to have” but is really an “as” and critical to the work of systems and structural change. This is echoed is some way, shape or form in many of the posts that appear in this space, and I think it bears repeating. Consider the following:

“Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self-love cannot flourish in isolation.”

bell hooks

  • Isolation can kill. Science shows how loneliness and social isolation can ravage the body and brain. As noted in an article in The New Rebublic – “A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.” And who are the lonely? In many cases the poor, the bullied and oppressed, the “different.” When we consider how isolation can impact genes, we see how the cycles of poverty and oppression can play out at a fundamental psychobiological level. What this calls for, in part, is work that reconnects those who are currently in isolation and on the margins from/of myriad social goods including emotional support, tangible services and other critical resources.
  • Disconnection breeds irresponsible behavior and prejudice. Science is helping us to understand the role of implicit bias in all of our lives and in society. Furthermore, the work of people like Paul Piff shows how those with considerable privilege who isolate from the rest of society (and keep to their own) tend to lose touch with empathy and any sense of egalitarianism. As my colleague Cynthia Parker notes, “Engaging with people unlike ourselves in situations that involve meaningful activity [and] counter-stereotypic experiences” helps to eliminate biases. In other words keeping and strengthening direct connection is a key part of the work for equity and democracy.

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February 24, 2015

A Good Board Report

Today the role of the organization is in question. We make things happen through networks. Governance still matters, for both networks and organizations. Most of our models are obsolete; they don’t work so well. It is up to us to re-imagine governance because accountability is important.

I’ve seen Web of Change evolve over the years, and like to think I am part of its evolution. I am consistently impressed by the way this community is willing to transform and to govern itself.

Following is a link to the best board report I’ve ever seen. Can more of us get this good please?

Web of Change Board Report

Web of change participants around bonfire.

www.webofchange.com

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February 20, 2015

Intuition, Iteration, and Group Visualization for Change

Important considerations for collaborative social change work: What are considered “legitimate” ways of knowing and doing? Why? What does this allow? What doesn’t it allow?

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Photo by Juhansonin

I’m always interested to see diverse cognitive styles and preferences show up in the collaborative processes we help to design and facilitate at IISC. A classic difference is between those who bend more towards the analytical side of things and those who prefer to lead with intuition. This, of course, paints too stark of a dichotomy of what most people present overall, and context can often be a determinant in what people lead with. Nonetheless there are undeniable tensions that arise within groups about what constitutes “rigor” and “right method” for deriving what might be considered strategic insights. I would say that in many more “mainstream” (one might say “professional”) settings, it is often analysis and deference to some kind of “expert “that has a better chance of winning the day. And so I’ve been interested to come across a few resources that talk about and validate the place of intuition and iterative group visualization in coming up with good answers.

In a piece that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Justin Fox writes about how instinct can beat analytical thinking. In particular, he lifts up the work of Gerd Gigerenzer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. Gigerenzer’s research suggests that rational, statistical, analytical approaches work well in situations where one is able to calculate risk. The trouble, however, is that in many situations, decisions are made in considerable uncertainty, where risk and consequence are unknown because everything is quite dynamic. Read More

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February 19, 2015

Smart Teams

Appreciating our colleague, Maureen White, for bringing our attention to recent research on smart teams. She highlighted a couple of things when she shared the articles, and I thought it important to share them with you.

The smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics:

  1. Their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.
  2. Their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.
  3. Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women.

Darth Vadar tells Princess Leigha to make a sandwich.

Maureen noted and I agree that the first point makes a strong argument for good facilitation (as well as for more conscious team members). She also noted the importance of the third point, the importance of having more women on a team.

This third point made me think about the ways patriarchy and the industrial model, which is inherently patriarchal, have wreaked havoc on collaboration. The exclusion of women is the most obvious. But a boy world in which masculine energies compete to dominate seems to be behind the first point. A culture that de-emphasizes emotion, intuition and empathy also smells like patriarchy to me, and we see its effects behind point number 2.

Everything has changed forever. True inclusion and a stance against patriarchy now prove to be the smartest option.

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February 19, 2015

Lessons From Snow

I live in New England, where everything is under a thick blanket of snow, and the temperatures are in the single digits. Many forms of transportation have come to a full halt. And I still needed to get to New York to lead a Facilitative Leadership training! My train was very late, and I realized, I could fume and panic, but that isn’t likely to change the situation.  (Tried that. Didn’t work.) Since leadership often means noticing and naming what is really happening right now, I decided to take a few moments to notice what this weather can teach me about leadership.

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February 18, 2015

A Leader-ful Movement

We are living through the early days of the next civil rights movement. It is an exhilarating moment. No, it does not read like the linear narrative of our history books and movement building manuals. That is because books and manuals are usually written with the benefit of hindsight to weave a story together. This movement is emergent and it takes a sharp eye to understand it.

Tip #1: You and Oprah should let go of old definitions of leadership

Jodie Tonita of the Social Transformation Project has recently published one of the sharpest articulations of leadership and how it works in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I urge you to read it in its entirety.

Image of leaders

Names, bios, and more at revolt.tv.

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February 12, 2015

Boundaries as Useful Fictions?

“You have to remember, every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”

- Buckminster Fuller

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One of the more memorable stories about my late father, who passed away 3 years ago this month, happened not long after the Great Recession began in 2008. At the time, he was on the board of a national organization devoted to the study and promotion of human consciousness and the connection between science and spirituality. During a phone meeting of board members, people got to talking about the economic crisis, at which point one member made the following remark: “It’s at times like these that it’s especially important to remember that we are all one.”

“Bullshit!” was my dad’s response (not prone to such outbursts on that board or in general).

After a momentary and no doubt stunned silence, he elaborated – “Clearly we are not one. Some people, a very few people, are making out like bandits from this crisis. Meanwhile of the so-called 99%, some have been much harder hit than others, their wealth decimated. How can we say we are one at a time like this?”

To be fair to my father and full in the storytelling, my dad acknowledged that he believed that it is important to recognize interdependence and shared humanity, and that how and when to do this is an important consideration. Which brings me to the quote from Buckminster Fuller above, a personal favorite and one that I seem to keep sharing recently. Fuller, the eminent systems theorist and design scientist, understood the interconnected nature of reality, as well as the human need and tendency to draw boundaries. Theoretically these boundaries are drawn to be of use to something and/or someone – to name important distinctions, focus attention, aid with analysis, etc. In fact boundaries, or at least difference, might be said to be crucial to life, as dynamic exchange is required to keep living systems alive. Yes, boundaries can be very useful . . . except when they’re not. Read More

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February 4, 2015

What’s Your Question Truck

The most unique feature of the Go Boston 2030 Question Campaign is happening: a glass truck is collecting questions in Boston’s neighborhoods, making two stops a day through Feb. 7. To find the truck in your neighborhood, visit GoBoston2030.org.

goboston2030_739The Mayor’s office announced the What’s Your Question truck and it debuted at City Hall Plaza. 

“The Go Boston 2030 initiative is using the latest technology and real grass roots activity to achieve an unprecedented level of community engagement. We’re hearing directly from a broad group of people about what their needs and hopes are for Boston’s transportation future,” said Mayor Walsh. “Together, through this initiative, the public and city officials will build a bold and innovative plan that will improve mobility for residents, commuters, and visitors.”

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February 4, 2015

Strengthening the Network Within

Image by Steve Jurvetson

Much of the work we do at IISC includes some element of helping to build networks for social change. This entails working with diverse groups of individuals and/or organizations to come together and create a common vision and clear pathway to collective action and impact. I’ve been reflecting on how important it can be to not simply focus on creating or developing networks “out there” and across traditional boundaries, but also “in here,” within different recognized borders.

“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”

- Francisco Varela

The notion that part of the process of healing living systems entails connecting them to more of themselves is derived, in part, from the work of Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist. As Varela and others have recognized, living systems are networks, including individual people, groups, organizations, and larger social systems. Furthermore, they have noted that when a living system is faltering, the solution will likely be discovered from within it if more and better connections are created. In other words, as Margaret Wheatley puts it, “A failing system [or network] needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.” I find it interesting in the context of social change work to consider how the process of re-connecting at and within different systemic levels can be beneficial to those levels and initiatives as wholes.

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