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August 15, 2017

Change the Space, Change the Conversation

Graphic from Nadia von Holzen, used with the artist’s permission.

I love Twitter.

On the heels of the Hunts Point Resiliency Collaboration Lab (about which a blog post is forthcoming) that a team of us from IISC facilitated a couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the following –

“Change the space, change the conversation. Change the conversation, change the possibilities.”

Without getting into all of the details, by shifting what might otherwise might have been a typical meeting through the use of art, music, tactile objects, intentional arrangement of seating, delicious food, robust opportunities for interaction, etc., those in attendance acknowledged that we were able to get to authentic and important conversations that many had been eager to have. And these have opened some opportunities about which people are very excited.

My almost off-handed tweet was picked up and retweeted by a few people, including Nadia von Holzen, who then put together the wonderful graphic above and put it back into the Twittersphere. I love the enhancement and contribution. Thanks, Nadia!

This is another example of what can happen when you “think or work out loud.” In this intricately connected world, you never know who is listening and what gifts they stand poised to bring to your humble offerings.

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August 8, 2017

Why the Leader is the Network

Photo by Sandeep Mani, shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.

Mila N. Baker

 Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.

I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.

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August 2, 2017

Equity Endangered?

Photo credit: Ginko biloba leaves by James Field (Jame). Ginko trees are considered endangered even though they are cultivated worldwide, because so few live in the wild. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.

I’ve often said that language is difficult, but it’s all (or at least most) of what we have to communicate complex ideas. I can remember when doing “diversity work” was seen as cutting edge, relevant, and powerful. It was an effort to change historic structures of exclusion, to change outcomes for people of color and women who suffered the brunt of racism and sexism. It was a chance to speak truth to power, and it seemed for a while that power was listening. Until it wasn’t. Or, more precisely, until the listeners started to hear “diversity” and think only about “heterogeneity.” With the stroke of a pen checking off boxes, the work was domesticated, watered down, simplified, and downsized into simply getting different faces in the place. And folks who were thinking bigger thoughts had to find new ways to talk and to get others to think and act on inclusion and equity. 

I remember in the mid-2000s when I started saying “We don’t do diversity work, but if you want to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we might be the right people for you.” Now, I’m afraid, that equity might be running its course. I’m encouraged, on the one hand, by how many more people and organizations are asking questions about equity. And about how the equity conversation focuses on what we want, not what we don’t want. I’m all about the positive vision of life chances fulfilled without barriers based on any aspect of identity. And it’s also clear to me that some of those folks are using the language of equity precisely to avoid talking about racism, sexism, and other -isms that produce and sustain inequities. Somehow “equity” and even “inequities” are more comfortable rolling off the tongue than racism, classism, sexism, or homophobia. I wonder if “equity” as a concept is headed the way of “diversity.”

Still, if we are going to advocate for equity as the superior growth model for our country, as our friends from PolicyLink have so aptly argued, I wonder what language will help to keep our attention focused on dismantling the drivers of inequity in order to increase the odds that we’ll actually achieve something approaching equity. The science surrounding the origins, consequences, and remedies for unconscious bias or implicit association seem to be promising entry points for some people who are reluctant to enter a discussion doorway marked “racism” or “privilege.” And, research and practice around communications and messaging gives us other avenues to pursue. In these days of particularly fraught racial discourse, what are you finding useful in your practice? What are you finding gets in the way?

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August 1, 2017

Practice makes Perfect

Stevie Johnston from our Belfast, Northern Ireland office reflects on learning from delivering a Training for Trainers in North Carolina.

When we’re teaching Facilitative Leadership for Social Change (FL4SC), we stress that the workshop is made up of leadership practices and – like all things in life (playing the guitar, dancing, listening), if we practice we get better at what we do. The more we use our leadership skills the better leader we become. This fits with our belief that leaders are made not born. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers,’ disavows the idea of innate talent and focuses instead on the “10,000-Hour Rule.” His theory is that to achieve world-class expertise in any skill is, to a large extent, a matter of practising for approximately 10,000 hours.

Recently, I had the privilege of working with the leadership development team in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, supporting them to become trainers of IISC’s Facilitative Leadership for Social Change workshop. During the workshop, each of the participants got the opportunity to deliver two of the core training elements. For highly skilled educational leaders such as these, developing and delivering a leadership training piece held no real anxiety. And yet, each of the trainers identified that the delivery of their second training piece was significantly better than their first. As Nicole said, “I was much more relaxed when it came to delivering my next piece. When you have the first delivery behind you, you have much more confidence in how to use the charts whilst keeping the connection with the participants. It means you can concentrate on the materials and the essence of what you are trying to communicate.” When we discussed this as a group, it was clear that performance anxiety can get to us all and that both practice and positive coaching have a real impact on our future performance.

Whilst we may not all reach the giddy heights of being world class, we are presented daily with opportunities to practice facilitative leadership. For example, organising an outing with friends requires collaborative planning and is a great opportunity to think about the actual mental processes we employ when we go about doing something like this. We have to get clear on the types and order of conversations we need to have such as these questions. “Are we looking for the perfect trip out?” “Do we need to think about people’s work schedules first?” “Could we not just grab our gear and hit the road?” We also need to get clear on who is going to make the decision if we can’t arrive at something on which we all agree. This “pathways thinking” about the nature of the conversations we need to have, in what order and how are we going to make the final choice, tends to stop groups from going round in circles and helps them arrive at a decision more readily and with less aggravation.

Similarly, we can employ process thinking when helping a colleague make an important personal decision. Often, we want to rush to tell them what we think they should do: “If I were you, I’d definitely do this.” Or else we will latch on to the first idea they have: “Yes, that seems like a really good idea; I’d go with that one.” In reality, decisions are best made when we generate lots of ideas and talk them through and evaluate the merits of each before choosing the best solution. Sound obvious? It is, and yet often we are not consciously aware of the processes which good decisions entail. So, the next time you’re having coffee with a friend to discuss a decision they have to make, think about how you are going to generate options (open the conversation), evaluate the options (narrow), and choose the best option (close).

Let’s keep on looking for those opportunities to practice and to get feedback and support as we do so. I may not reach the 10,000 hours, but over the course of a lifetime I plan to come close.

 

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July 25, 2017

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

“The difficulty we face is that the ecology of the biosphere is at odds with the ecology of our institutions.”

– Nora Bateson

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

What I Learned From My Kids About Work

One recent night, my son stomped out of the house, hurt, telling me that I should stop defining who he is and what he can do. My daughter followed after him, asking that I think about what I had done to cause the blow out. I meditated, cooked dinner, and two hours later we were eating a great puttanesca together.

That evening – and other parenting moments – have led me to recognize that my best liberation and change work these days is mothering. While there is so much to write and share about parenting, here I will glean what I can from my children about ways to improve work.

Here are five things I do with or learned from my kids that might work for you as well.

  1. Play

Just do it. Be silly, open up new parts of the brain, laugh, release endorphins. Do it at home and do it at work. Brain science tells us that laughter and play opens us and what flows is much more effective than working from worry and constriction. It does not mean that there are not real-life worries and real dangers everywhere—poor health and racism, for starters—but it is an invitation to play along the way. I re-learned how to play from my kids. I invest time in being as goofy with them as possible and bringing some of that spirit of laughter and fun into my work. We work a lot, it should be fun and fun generates new possibilities. What is the work equivalent of running through the fountain or blowing bubbles? What do you do at work to create fun and be creative?

  1. Honor who they are and not only what they do or how well they do it

In work settings and movement building efforts we of course need to keep our eye on results. In racial equity work, that focus is particularly important as we have seen how changes in laws do not necessarily lead to changes in heart, nor does understanding lead automatically to reducing disparities. And yet, we know from parenting that honoring who a person is and valuing them for that is so much more important for long term well-being and success than a good grade or accomplishment. How can we keep our eye on the big changes as we honor ourselves and our co-workers for who we are and the spirit and talents we bring and not just what we produce?

  1. Be present

Walking down the street, it is often the adults walking with children—holding hands or skipping or watching the trains – who seem most present and look happiest. It is a reminder that of how critical presence is for all of us. At a recent convening, The Confluence sponsored by MAG, someone offered this gem: “less prep, more presence.” Let’s make sure that we bring impeccable presence to our workplaces. Whether at large gatherings, staff or member meetings, or one-on-one conversations, bring your full presence. How do you stay present, planting seeds that flourish in the moment and over the longer term?

  1. Show love and caring

While this may be an “of course” in family, it needs to be just as much so in the workplace. At a network gathering last week, I went to the bathroom, tired, after facilitating a challenging session on health equity. I found someone there in tears, having just lost a family member. I was able to show her some tenderness. The next day she reminded me how important the care I offered was for her and, in fact, opened her to learning. These moments, large and small, present themselves daily. What is the workplace equivalent of the schnuggle? Can you find more moments to show love to your co-workers and partners? What might that elicit?

  1. I don’t need to be in something with my kids to know how incredible it is for my kids.

While my daughter plans a social justice orientation program for students at her college, I can simply watch her and her peers create and experiment; I can stand aside and watch it blossom. I have to let my kids experiment in the world and experience their ups and downs. I don’t have to help or be in it to know it will be an incredible learning experience. This is a good reminder to allow people to try new things and to flourish and stumble with their work, and learn from it all along the way. How do you practice standing aside?

People in organizations – just like in our families – need this level of tending and love. We all need play, space, and autonomy to create great things. It is a truism that change starts at home. Perhaps it is less clear that home can improve our work. Let’s garner those lessons.

What else can we learn from the kids?

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July 18, 2017

Letting Go For Life, Liveliness and Response-ability, Part 1: Why?

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 21, 2017

IISC Welcomes Kelly Bates as New President

On behalf of the Board of Directors of IISC, I am delighted to announce that Kelly Bates has been appointed president of the Interaction Institute for Social Change effective June 15, 2017.

Since assuming the role of interim president in October 2016, Kelly has successfully led IISC with a sure hand through a time of significant organizational change, working effectively with the Board and staff to strengthen our organization. More recently, Kelly has pivoted to addressing IISC’s future direction and vision, launching and leading a joint Board-Staff strategy team and coordinating this with a comprehensive re-examination of IISC’s business model.

For those of you who do not yet know Kelly well, her appointment as our permanent president will draw on her 20+ years leading advocacy, racial justice, and women’s organizations.  Prior to IISC, Kelly was the founding executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research at Emerson College. She also served as the executive director of Access Strategies Fund, a social justice foundation funding organizations to expand democracy in communities of color and low-income communities. For ten years, Kelly led a consulting and training practice specializing in working with social change organizations and other institutions in the United States around issues of power, diversity, and organizational development. Read Kelly’s full bio here.

As we approach our twenty-fifth anniversary under Kelly’s leadership, the Board looks forward with great excitement to further strengthening IISC and – along with IISC’s talented and committed staff and our valued partners and affiliates – to shaping the next chapter in IISC’s future. Please visit our website to learn about our current work and services.  And stay tuned as we roll out our new racial justice organizational training and announce plans for the celebration of our 25th anniversary!

Very best wishes,

Frank Robinson

Chair of the Board, IISC

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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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June 7, 2017

Seeing Collective Impact Efforts with a Racial Justice Lens

A couple of weeks ago, IISC was invited to offer a post-conference session at the Collective Impact Forum Conference in Boston. The title of this 8 hour session spread over two days was “Advancing Racial Justice Through and Within Collective Impact.” This was an opportunity for Cynthia Silva Parker and Curtis Ogden to formalize our ongoing efforts to bring IISC’s core collaborative methods, frameworks and a variety of racial justice content and tools to the different elements of the Collective Impact framework.

We were heartened to see and hear the many conversations about racial equity during the main conference proceedings, and noted good and challenging questions and exploration about the fit between the Collective Impact model, such as it has been formally presented and understood, and community organizing and power building work. These conversations continued in some form or fashion during our session. Read More

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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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