“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
– T.S. Eliot
For the past few weeks I have been re-reading the book Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. I am deeply grateful for Daniel’s gift, a rich distillation of his PhD thesis that points in the direction of a more sane, hopeful and health-promoting future. Regenerative development is a broad body of study and practice that informs much of my own thinking about and practice around social change. A fundamental recognition of the regenerative lens is that in order to live we harvest from the larger living systems (communities, ecosystems) of which we are a part in such a way that weakens them, and can put us at risk. Regenerative thinking and practice then asks:
What might we do not simply to wreck less havoc or do less harm, but to leverage the natural connections we have with living systems to contribute to the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of people, places, and ecosystems?
There is so much that could be highlighted from Daniel’s book, rich as it is, and that has been mentioned in other reviews. Here I wanted to highlight some lines that jumped out at me from the book, along with quotes attributed to others, that continue to stimulate my thinking and guide my practice.
“Win-win-win cultures ensure that life can continue to evolve towards increasing diversity, complexity, bio-productivity and resilience.”
“Exploitative and degenerative cultures tend to have economic systems focused around notions of scarcity and competitive advantage, whereas regenerative cultures understand how collaborative advantage can foster shared abundance.”
“The future of our species depends on finding this higher ground as humanity, as nature, as life, as expression of a living transforming whole capable of self-reflection.”
“It is precisely [the] collision of immoral power with [relatively] powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time. “
“Sustainability is a dynamic process of co-evolution and a community-based process of continuous conversation and learning how to participate appropriately in constantly transforming life sustaining processes.”
“As apprentices [to life] we have to be willing to question and, at times, give up what we know and who are for what we could become.”
“The local and regional scale is not only the scale at which we can act most effectively to preserve biological diversity, it is also the scale at which we can preserve cultural diversity and indigenous local wisdom.”
“The systems view understands life as networks of relationships.”
“Engaging in systems thinking and design is not an exact science but the art of participation.”
“Diversity is the bedrock of resilience and systemic health.”
We need to “i) consume nature’s flows while conserving stocks and ii) increase society’s stocks (human resources and institutions) and limit the flow of material and energy” as central elements of regenerative culture.
– Valerie Brown
“Nurturing qualitative growth through the integration of diversity into interconnected collaborative networks at and across local, regional and global scales facilitates the emergence of regenerative cultures.”
“Design intentionally shapes interactions and relationships. It can do so in ways that favor the collaborative creation and sharing of abundance, or in ways that reinforce the narrative of separation.”
“Inner resilience is about the capacity to face the horrors and misery of the world square on, rather than trying to ignore them, but it is also about seeing the beauty, collaboration, compassion, care and love that is all around us.”
Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. While this is true, it is also the case that not every collaborative form maximizes network effects, including small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptability, resilience and system change. In this regard, experience shows that a big difference maker is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following revised list continues to evolve as our own practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of network principles to guide thinking and action:
A secret I don’t share with many people is that I have trouble reading books. When I went to law school, they made us read so many dense pages of legal reasoning I lost my love of story – until I discovered the podcast. In the comfortable confines of my car I stand witness to stories of personal accomplishment, quirks in our daily lives, and social commentary about our world. The other day one really caught my attention.
It was about Toys R Us, the biggest toy store in America. I love toys and I thought everyone else did, too. So I was surprised to learn that Toys R Us had filed for bankruptcy. Turns out, Toys R Us had invested in bricks and mortar without seriously expanding into the internet sales market. And at the same time, they kept those physical spaces disorganized, stale, and predictable. Amazon swooped in and sold toys at a record pace.
A toy and business analyst said if Toys R Us could have jumped in early and creatively into internet sales they would have avoided their decline. And if they had made their stores places of experience, fun, mystery, and discovery, they could have saved their business that way. He believed they should have created large and open areas where kids could ride around on bikes and play with other toys. He thought another miss was not thinking about how to combine physical toys with technological interactions.
As I was driving on the highway heading into traffic, I started thinking about lessons IISC or our network of clients and partners could learn from this story. Are we missing opportunities for integrating our knowledge and expertise with web-based learning and social media? Are we creating experiences in physical rooms and meetings that kick leaders and participants out of the norm and into experiences of fun, exploration, and surprise? Are we combining online and in-person strategies to more effectively and creatively share learning and ideas around collaboration, leadership, equity, and network building?
IISC is not a for-profit corporation like Toys R Us, and we have different values and approaches from them, but we can benefit from understanding that the way we do our work now and how we do our work may not be the standard for the decades to come.
IISC has started piloting some unique approaches in our workshops, in our consulting work, and through our experimentation with public engagement that use web-based learning, social media memes, and narrative. We are cooking up ways to fashion our training and consulting expertise in modular and less expensive ways so we can share it more broadly. I think that’s an early sign of us growing and stretching. We are pushing ourselves to domore experimenting and I know it’s going to help us stay relevant and live into the power of the future.
What experiments might you try out that will help you live into your future? What’s the risk of not doing so? Supporting leaders, organizations, systems, and networks to engage in social change is never out of date, but the way we as consultants and leaders approach that work might be. We may know at a gut level that something new and different is called for, but are we leaning into what’s necessary to make the leap?
Check out how Toys R Us plans to turn around: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toysr-us-bankruptcy-brandon/toys-r-us-ceo-sees-future-with-smaller-shops-idUSKCN1BV2Y7
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
These days, it’s hard not to drift into apocolyptic thinking. With the fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, mud slides, ongoing flirtation with nuclear war, rising visibility of virulent white supremacy, ending of DACA, daily dismantling of federal level protections of civil rights and the environment, and the list goes on, it’s easy to despair. I keep saying to myself and my colleagues that a strong spiritual core is the only thing that keeps me moving! That, and the reality that it’s actually possible to make some progress within my sphere of control.
I’m reminded of two poems …
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
— Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) Unitarian Universalist minister
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
In spite of the times, I hope you are looking for and encouraged by the acts of resistance, reform, recreating and reimagining that are all around us. There is much we can do to advance justice and sustainability, even in these trying times. Think carefully. Love fully. Work together. Practice community care. While each of us is only one, together, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“It’s great that I’m learning all of these practical leadership and facilitation skills, but what happens when I’m not the one leading or facilitating?”
How can we keep things rolling when we aren’t formally in charge and when formal leadership is perhaps not so skillful? My answer: There’s usually some opportunity to lead, ask good questions, and to facilitate from the chair! Read More
Collaboration Lab participants discuss social and economic resiliency at The Point CDC.
The following post and pictures appeared recently on the Hunts Point Resiliency website. Since 2015, a team of us at IISC have been working with the New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience (ORR) to design and facilitate a robust public engagement process around a HUD-funded resiliency planning effort in the Hunts Point community of the South Bronx.
The Hunts Point Resiliency Project builds off of Hunts Point Lifelines, one of six winning proposals from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rebuild by Design competition in 2013. The City has $45 million of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding to advance resiliency in Hunts Point through further study and implementation of a pilot project. In March 2016, the City selected HDR, Inc. to lead two feasibility studies for energy resiliency and flood risk reduction, as well as conceptual design and environmental review for a resilient energy pilot project. IISC has taken the lead in designing an engagement structure and process for community organizations, business owners, elected officials, City agencies, and local residents to identify resiliency priorities, do public eduction outreach, and provide feedback that informs the project.
The Collaboration Lab was designed in partnership with The Point CDC to help deepen these conversations, looking at resiliency in more holistic terms (economic, social, cultural) and also strengthen connections between community members and organizations and City agencies.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
In the late spring, we had an unseasonably sticky stretch of days where I live, and after school one day, my wife and I took our girls to a local swim hole to cool down. As we eased into the cold water, one of our seven-year-old twins clutched desperately to my torso, not yet willing to put more than a toe or foot in. As the sun beat down, I began to feel both the weight of her body and the ebb of my patience, and I managed to negotiate her to a standing position in water that came to her waist. She continued to clutch my arm vice-like with both of her hands.
After another few minutes it was definitely time for me to go under water. But Maddie was unwilling to release me. I continued to encourage her to let go first, to get her head and shoulders wet. Initially totally reluctant, she got to a point where she was in just up to her neck but was still anxiously squeezing my hand. We did a bit of a dance for a few minutes where she would get to the end of my finger tips with her right hand, seemingly ready to take the plunge, and then the same part-anticipatory part-terrorized expression came to her face and she was back against me.
I kept coaxing her, and then let her know that whether she let go or not, I was going under, and if she was still holding on to me, that she would be doing the same. “Okay, okay!” she yelled, stamping her feet and once again got to the tips of my fingers while breathing rapidly. And this time … she let go. She pushed off and immersed her entire body in the water. She came up shrieking but with a big smile on her face, a bit shocked but also more at home in the water, moving around quite gracefully, actually. She splashed me and laughed and then I dived in. A few minutes later she was swimming along next to me.
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.
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.
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?
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.