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.” Read More

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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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May 7, 2015

“Mapping” Questions to Enrich Networks

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to facilitate some of Farm to Institution New England‘s (or FINE’s) Summit at UMass-Amherst. Specifically I was asked to offer a bit of thinking, a few prompts and guide conversation here and there around the potential of further developing the Farm to College network, as represented in the room that day by students, faculty, college administrators, community organizers, institutional procurement professionals, farmers, funders and others from the so-called “value chain.”

I told the story that has been passed on to me by Beth Tener about her work with the Barr Foundation around the Green and Healthy Buildings Network in Boston. This is a well documented example of the power of mapping and connecting agents in related but otherwise separate fields for mutual benefit and greater impact. We used this as a jumping off point at the Summit to encourage people to be more curious about existing and potential connectivity in the room.

As we invited people to consider their connections and close triangles throughout the day, I offered the following questions for reflection that I find useful when helping participants in networks become more aware and intentional regarding their potential:

Who is here and who is not here and how does that matter?

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May 5, 2015

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

We’ve heard this call and response chant echo down boulevards from St Louis to Baltimore as the #BlackLivesMatter movement takes to the streets. This is what democracy looks like, when the people most affected by a situation organize for change. They call out to us from the streets to remind us that democracy is not about the mechanics for voting for representation.

We don’t all have to march in the streets to use our power and privilege to push for a more just society. I received a copy of a wonderful letter last night. A friend who lives in Baltimore was deeply disturbed by a video that appears to show a Baltimore city police officer violently assaulting a man from behind, even though his hands are raised in surrender. Read More

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