July 28, 2015

Networks: Don’t Wait, Animate!


Just coming off of co-delivering a 2 day Pathway to Change public workshop at IISC with Maanav Thakore, and I’m continuing to think about how important context is to the work of social change. In particular, I’m thinking about how seeing the foundation of all change efforts as being fundamentally networked can yield new possibilities throughout the work. There is the change we plan for, and the change that we don’t plan for and perhaps cannot even imagine – emergence. This is the stuff of networks, of living systems, of decentralized and self-organized activity, which can be encouraged and supported but not often predicted or controlled. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How do I have to be for you to be free?

Orland Bishop

I like to say that “designing pathways to change” is not simply a “so that” but an “as,” especially when we see every step in design, planning and implementation as an opportunity to deepen connectivity, coherence and collective intelligence. Every encounter, every conversation, every exchange, every meeting is a chance to deepen trust, create new connections, strengthen collaborative skill and will and advance social learning as social change.

How are you bringing people and systems alive through your change work?


Photo by whologwhy

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July 22, 2015

Network Development: Social Learning as Social Change

“We are actually waiting for civilization both to learn and reorganize itself with more intricacy, more collaborative coherence and greater social intelligence.”

– Sally J. Goerner, The New Science of Sustainability

social learningTwo weeks ago I wrapped up Harold Jarche’s on-line course on social learning and am committing to practicing some of what I learned through blogging as “learning out loud.” This is not an entirely unusual practice for me, but Harold has helped me to better appreciate the value of turning off the critic and putting “rough draft thinking” out there, as a way of crystalizing and mastering my own knowledge but also (possibly) connecting it to others who may be on the same wavelength/ have similar lines of inquiry and (perhaps) contributing to social change. Preposterous? Maybe.

But consider how our understanding of how the world works is shifting through our ability to see connections, appreciate the social creation of knowledge and grasp the emergent nature of change. Seeing reality through a living systems lens helps us to understand ideas as seeds, expression as sowing, interaction as fertilizer and social networks as the metabolic infrastructure to bring new things fully to fruition.

For the course, Harold recommended the article “Why Even the Worst Bloggers are Making Us Smarter,” and I strongly recommend it to others. One of the points that author Clive Thompson makes:

“The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think.”

This then is accelerating the creation of new ideas and the advancement of knowledge, in a growing number of spheres globally.

Image by Julian Stodd

One of Harold’s refrains is that in this age of increasing complexity and disruption “the work is learning and learning is the work.” In both organizational and trans-organizational contexts, it is important to more intentionally practice social learning to stay afloat, abreast and ahead. My particular interest here is to explore how social learning relates to the work of social change, and specifically work for greater social equity and sustainability.

“The web metaphor does not fully capture the essence of today’s change. The real story here is learning.”

– Sally J. Goerner

In her exploration of “the new science of sustainability,” Sally J. Goerner notes the primacy of learning in maintaining cultural “fit-ness” amidst dynamic conditions. As systems evolve in their complexity, one of the keys to resilience is to keep energy (communication, resources) moving through all of its “parts.” Failure to do so can lead to atrophy in some parts and risks the health of the whole. Indications are that mechanical-industrial era ways of thinking and operating have rendered “mainstream” society unfit for the planet. Furthermore, the rise of oligarchy (elite hoarding of power) is benefitting the very (and largely white) few at the long-term expense of the whole.

Part of the answer to this situation is to create more intricate, decentralized, distributed, life and earth-honoring processes and structures that can help to feed the whole, with one of the core nutrients being real time social learning.  As conditions change unpredictably, it is important to be able to circulate information from a variety of sources more rapidly, and create “processing venues” for people to make collective sense of what they are taking in. What Goerner and others suggest be done to “organize society” to be more fit for long-term survival includes many of the goals for social change of those with whom IISC partners  – preserving diversity, creating equitable access, supporting healthy connections and self-expression.


Key to this kind of organizing work is some of what Harold Jarche mentions as being critical to the practice of social learning – transparency, openness/acceptance, sensitivity to other perspectives and the world around us. And all of this can contribute to a fundamental sense of community, common fate, and belonging necessary to make deep social change.

So the next time you do some thinking or work, consider doing it out loud, via a blog (internal or external) or social media. Sow – put your ideas and narration out there for the seeing and the rifting. Water and fertilize others. It’s not simply self-indulgent. It can help things stick, and it may even contribute to evolution.

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learn-ed find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer


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July 15, 2015

Living Systems Leadership: Lessons from a Permaculture Master


I posted the following about five years ago on this site, and have been actively thinking about and experimenting with its core lessons ever since. I have only become more compelled by the need to bring a living systems orientation to work for social change. Curious to hear reactions and what you are already doing to apply insights from and living systems. 

Part 1

Last week I was in the presence of a master.  For more than 25 years, Lauren Chase-Rowell has skillfully and intuitively cultivated the land around her house in Nottingham, NH to the point that it exists in great harmony with the beautiful farm house, people and fauna occupying that space.  Lauren is an ecological landscaper, organic farmer, and permaculture design teacher.  Her home, Dalton’s Pasture Farm, is a vibrant classroom and testament to the possibility of practicing “earth-centered living.”

I visited Lauren at the invitation of her neighbor, Beth Tener of New Directions Collaborative, to discuss our evolving vision of creating opportunities for people to cultivate the skills and perspectives required to bring them back into right relationship with local and global ecosystems.  As we discussed our beliefs about the leadership competencies for getting on track, Lauren weaved in constant metaphors from her amazing permaculture garden, which has achieved near regenerative capacity.  Three that I want to share here are the concepts of biodiversity, biodynamism, and bioelasticity.

  • Biodiversity – One of the keys of success to Lauren’s garden (lush despite a 4 week drought and with minimal intervention on the gardener’s part) is the inherent diversity of the system she has designed.  Diversity exists with respect to the assortment of plants, trees, and shrubs in the garden as well as the life (not “pests”) intentionally attracted by these elements to help manage the system (birds, bugs, etc.).  Everything serves a purpose and is honored for this, all of which serves a greater whole.  The interactions between these diverse elements form a web that creates a richness and resilience beneficial to wildlife and humans alike.
  • Biodynamism – Biodynamic agriculture is an approach to organic farming that has roots in the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner.  Lauren seems less interested in Steiner’s specific philosophy than she is in the perspective that her garden is part of a larger systemic whole, and that its tending is aided by awareness of and action around various atmospheric and elemental cycles.  In other words, she sees her garden as an open system and is aware of and works with the vital energy flows within and without.
  • Bioelasticity – As described by Lauren, this concept is what drives her practice of setting aside the best specimens of each of her crop so that they go to seed and can be planted for the next season, rather than consumed.  Taking a long view, she sees the plants in her garden as going through a learning curve to adjust to a particular (and changing) environment and encourages successful and ongoing adaptation by constantly reinvesting and feeding learning back into the system.

These three concepts give me a lot to consider with respect to how to practice and encourage more synergistic and regenerative leadership through paying attention to and protecting diversity, studying living systems dynamics, and supporting adaptive capacity.  More insights from the master gardener tomorrow.

Part 2


Picking up from my last post, I want to share some additional insights gleaned from my tour of Lauren Chase-Rowell’s permaculture garden and land. Something else that struck me was when Lauren said that beyond her training and intuition as a master gardener, “attitude is everything.”  Illustrating this statement with stories it became clear that while she is incredibly skilled in her craft, Lauren’s psychological and emotional approach take it all to another level.  In essence, permaculture starts with one’s self.

Channeling Lauren, I offer these three attitudinal guidelines for your consideration and application to social change/collaborative leadership efforts, especially those geared towards leveraging the potential of living (including human) systems and collective intelligence:

  • Turn problems into solutions – Lauren’s approach to problems is that they can be solutions in disguise to other problems.  For example, when the local utility company cut down a number of trees on her property, a decision over which she had little influence, Lauren made lemonade by asking how she might use those downed trees, which now serve as mulch for her garden beds and shrubbery.  Getting hung up on what we cannot control or hyper-focusing on isolated problems can be inefficient and unproductive.  What problems are you currently facing that contain the seeds of solutions in other parts of your system?
  • Lack of creativity can be the biggest limitation – The driving energy of life and systems is to create, to generate new (emergent) traits and relationships.  Sometimes one of the most damaging things we can do is to stand in the way of that impulse or not join fully with that energy.  When we view arrival of insects as “pestilence,” for example, and act to keep them out of a garden we may end up overlooking the valuable systemic functions of those critters and then contaminate our edens with harmful chemicals.  How might you better align with the creative impulse of the system in which you are working so that it can better do what it was meant to or evolve to what it wants to be?
  • Mistakes are tools for learning – Lauren is an exemplar of the mantra “improve not prove.” As an educator and consummate learner, she understands that mistakes are the crucial seeds of insight and better practice.  Mistakes are not to be taken personally or as license to beat ourselves up.  Rather, they are to be harvested, mulled over and fed back into the system.  Were we to truly embrace the ethic of learning then we could better align with nature’s tendency to prototype, innovate, and adapt.  What is your attitude towards learning and making mistakes in your leadership and change efforts?  How might you better enable a culture of learning?

Happy gardening!


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July 1, 2015

Stories: Feeding Networks Forward


Photo by NASA Goddard

Last week I had an interesting conversation with an evaluator who was curious about some of the networks for food system development we’ve been supporting through IISC. We got to talking about “metrics,” which led into consideration of the role of story in not simply gauging network effectiveness, but also in stimulating network evolution. Communication and social learning are part of the life-blood of human networks. This is something that we’re coming to understand at a more profound level amidst the complexity of food system transformation work at all levels.

As we try to identify “leverage points” to shift regional food system dynamics in New England in the direction of increased local production, food security, economic development, resiliency and equity across the board, we are realizing that more robust connectivity and sharing across boundaries of many kinds is a significant strategy and form of structural change that can allow for critical self-organization and adaptation. Stories become one of the critical nutrients in this work.


For example, as much as we have begun to share data, and importantly disaggregated data, across the region, we have found that stories often have more stickiness and staying power. The stories that were shared at last year’s Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Food Summit about racial equity and white privilege have been referenced for their impact in creating an environment of genuineness, that have spurred others to speak up and take up the conversation about the reality of structural racism in our food system. This has in turn brought more trust and diversity to the network, which has helped to create a more comprehensive understanding of the food system and possibilities for decentralized and more formally coordinated network action.

Furthermore, we have begun to solicit stories of success and innovation around embracing the FSNE Vision (of 50% self-sufficiency with regards to regional food production by the year 2060) and racial equity commitment. And coming out of this year’s Summit, there is interest in sharing stories of how people are working towards “fair price” across the food chain, in such a way that food workers, producers of varying scales, distributers and consumers have living wages and access to health-promoting and culturally diverse food. The curation of these stories we see as beginning to change the underlying economic narrative.

Stories then become fuel in many ways, providing different points of access, connection, inspiration, education, and meaning-making. Stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth. Our work as a Network Team, as network gardeners, is to “close the resource loop,” encourage and support more equitable channels for expression, more cross-fertilization, more interest in diverse (and concealed) stories and “processing venues” for these (virtual and in-person).

How are you using story to feed your net work forward?


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June 25, 2015

Beautiful Questioning for Social Change

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

– Warren Berger

Question Everything

Photo by Duncan Hull

One of my favorite reads of the past couple of years is Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.  It continues to strike me as being an important book for any social change agent.  Early on, Berger begins with the following provocative statement, that rings true to personal experience: 

“Well meaning people are often trying to solve a problem by answering the wrong question.” 

In some cases this is because they have not paused long enough, if at all, to consider the underlying question their efforts are trying to solve (risking “active laziness” which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago).  Or, as my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said, they are “solving for solution,” essentially promoting and/or fighting over their own preferred approaches.  And so they continue to offer the same old, ineffective and outdated, approaches or products.  This is especially problematic in a time of such change and flux, when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know. Read More

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June 17, 2015

Network Building: Bringing Together “The Barnyard”


Photo by Rebecca Siegel

Still fresh on the heels of the 5th annual Food Solutions New England Regional Food Summit, many attendees seem to be buzzing about the two days of conversation in Boston that focused on the 2060 Vision, racial equity commitment, food chain workers campaigns, and the challenge of creating “fair price” across the food system. It was my privilege to facilitate for a third year, and to help set the tone for the evolving spirit of regionalism and ongoing work of network building. I opened with the following story, which some of you may know well, and comments. Read More

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June 11, 2015

Beyond “Active Laziness”

“One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call ‘crazy-busy.'”

Brene Brown


Image from Alan O’Rourke

My friend Adam Pattantyus recently reminded me of the concept of “active laziness”, attributed specifically to the writings of Sogyal Rinpoche. This reminder came at a very opportune moment. It is no secret that there is, at least in a number of circles in which we at IISC operate, a burgeoning culture of busy-ness. Many people seem increasingly pressed for time, and move between the temporal equivalent of sound bites throughout their days. The ensuing “frenzy” and exhaustion, while perhaps seen as necessary (or by some as a status symbol), is also being called out for its dysfunctional nature, including how it detracts from efforts to create positive and lasting social change. This is what Rinpoche calls “active laziness,” the compulsive cramming of our lives with activity that leaves no time to confront “real issues.” Read More

June 4, 2015

Facilitative Leadership and Fueling the Fire of Change

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

Viktor Frankl


Photo by Soreen D

I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking about Facilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in the ethic of “creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.” It is a form of leadership, rooted in a series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.

Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professor Judy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change. Read More

May 20, 2015

The Networks Revolution

Those who see networks as a fad likely see them only as a tactic, as opposed to a fundamental way of being.


By Calvinius [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, Scientific American published a guest blog looking at the revolution in human thought that is being inspired by a network perspective. In the post, co-authors John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie and Mark Golitko write about how modern research in the natural and social sciences increasingly shows how the world does not revolve around people as individuals:

“Instead, what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks reaching far and wide.”

Read More

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May 15, 2015

Hearing Voices from the World of Philanthropy

The European Foundation Centre (EFC) is an international membership association of foundations and corporate funders working to strengthen the philanthropic sector in Europe and further afield. It is currently creating a new strategy for 2016 and onwards. IISC staff based in Belfast are supporting the EFC with the design and facilitation of this process. In developing the strategy EFC really wants to engage with a wide range of stakeholders so that the plan will be aligned closely with the needs, interests and aspirations of foundations and corporate funders in Europe and the wider world.

From Louise O’Meara, Regional Director of IISC Ireland: “We are delighted to be working on this project. The future of philanthropy in Europe and beyond is hugely important in addressing issues of social justice. Across the planet people are looking for new ways to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives. Philanthropy is central in enabling this and the European Foundation Centre has an important role in helping foundations and others to maximise their impact”.

IISC has worked with the Board of EFC and its staff in the early stages of the planning process and is now reaching out to its wider membership, seeking their views and wisdom, to inform the new strategy. A key mechanism for this is EFC’s Annual General Assembly and Conference, this year being held in Milan, Italy. IISC and EFC staff members will be hosting strategy workshops, conducting one to one conversations and employing a ‘strategy booth’ where participants can post ideas on where EFC should be heading in the future. They will all be donning super sized ‘strategy spectacles’ during the conference to help promote the strategy process and encourage people to get involved – even if at risk of looking a little bit silly!

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May 13, 2015

Networks for Change: Full Benefit Accounting

“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

~Kurt Vonnegut

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

Last week while having a discussion with a group about food system economics, I was reminded that the word “externalities” does not always refer to something bad. An externality can also be something beneficial that is not formally accounted for by “the market.” This had me reflecting on what can happen in networks, really any collaborative endeavor, where some of the real “goods” remain out of sight, on the edges of peripheral vision, at least with respect to where people typically tend to concentrate focus. Read More

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May 7, 2015

Boston Visioning Lab: a City Imagines

Mayor Walsh opens Go Boston 2030 Visioning Lab Friday at noon.

Boston is making (future) history May 8-9 at the China Trade Center. Led by Mayor Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department, the Go Boston 2030 Visioning Lab will inspire people in Boston to think big, another chapter in an unprecedented public planning process for the city.

The event will open with remarks by Mayor Marty Walsh. “Boston is a city of innovation, diversity and collaboration – a city where creativity and imagination are some of our most powerful assets,” said Mayor Walsh in a recent press release.

Go Boston 2030 spent the fall and winter collecting over 5000 questions from residents, workers and visitors across the city about getting around Boston in the future.  Now these questions will be turned into a public vision at the two-day event. Read More

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