Posted in Learning Edge

November 19, 2015

Equity and Urban Planning – Lead boldly, collaboratively, authentically

This is the fourth of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 4: Lead boldly, collaboratively, authentically

Finally, working in this kind of collaborative partnership is unfamiliar for many planners and also for many community residents. It requires everyone to do their best to embrace the discomfort and awkwardness that comes with learning and develop both attitudes and habits that support collaboration. IISC has found that several key values and attributes are important for collaborative change agents to be well-positioned to support this way of working. The attributes include demonstrating a collaborative mindset, strategic thinking and a receptive and flexible skillset for facilitating collaboration. Core values include mutuality and service, authenticity, and love – a deep regard for the well-being of others. Read More

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November 16, 2015

Equity and Urban Planning – Build institutional capacity and culture

This is the third of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 3. Build the capacity and culture within public planning institutions to focus on equity and to facilitate broad-based public engagement.

Most planning agencies, regulators, and planning consultants are not well equipped to take on the challenge of seriously engaging communities that chronically experience social inequities. As a planning agency prepares to launch a planning process, it needs to build both a culture and capacity that welcomes and supports engaging community members. This often begins with acknowledging the expertise that comes from lived experience, and the awareness that the agency may not have all the knowledge and skill it needs to take equity seriously. Read More

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November 13, 2015

Equity and Urban Planning – Engage those most directly affected by inequities

This is the second of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 2. Design the process for maximum and meaningful involvement, particularly of those who are most directly affected by the inequities, and build the community’s capacity and infrastructure to participate in the process.

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November 9, 2015

Equity and Urban Planning – Weave equity into process and content

This is the first of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 1: Weave equity into the planning process AND the content of the resulting plans. 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 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

April 16, 2015

Regenerative Thinking for Social Change

“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”

Howard Thurman

Spiral Fern

Spring seems to have finally arrived in New England after a long and very hard winter. For me this brings with it gratitude and utter amazement at the regenerative power of life. To have seen the mounds of snow and ice only a month ago, and along with it many frozen hearts and souls, I find it amazing as I watch the colors and sounds and spirit of this new season come forward with what almost feels like reckless abandon. Such is life and its regenerative nature, the ever present “growing edge.”

This is cause for me to reground in the teachings of mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to the power of “regenerative thinking,” an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life. Regenerative thinking can stand in contrast to mechanical approaches, which assume a rather linear, predictable and controlled environment. The very notion of regeneration is an invitation to examine some of the underlying assumptions of our actions, to lift up for closer inspection how our thinking may or may not be in alignment with what we are really after, what we are trying to bring to life, in the realm of social change. Read More

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April 1, 2015

Aligning Tactics and Beliefs for Collective Impact

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

-The Talmud

A year ago at this time I had the opportunity to be part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco.  My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder change processes. On the last day of the launch I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and consider their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.

This framework starts with the notion that our chosen change methods are grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about people, the world and how we know what we know.  Not being aware of or open about this can get people into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when people are not operating from the same system of beliefs. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More

March 19, 2015

Big Democracy and Protest

Image credit: The Guardian

Here is the fact: one segment of the population suffers daily humiliation from the sanctioned authorities. These humiliations too often lead to the most tragic of outcomes – murder by police. Another segment of the population, a much larger and dominant segment, does not have any direct experience of this sort of injustice. So they deny that it exists or that really matters that much. And here is where we find ourselves. Read More

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March 16, 2015

Deep Work Culture

I’ve long said that the ways in which work and organizational life are changing should be advantageous to those of us committed to social movements. Our organizational imperatives should never supersede our movement’s imperative. We should be willingly able to discard any organizational structure that does not serve our ultimate purpose. Read More

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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?


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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