The above graphic is something that I recently created, borrowing heavily from the good work of Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, to help convey what is meant by engaging in “network strategy.” One of the challenges we’ve encountered in working with different networks is helping people to understand the difference between strategy development and network development. I try to meet this challenge, in part, by showing how they are not so different, or at least, that they are intimately connected. The diagram is also designed to help people get beyond some of the either/or thinking that we encounter. For example, it’s not that we have to choose between decentralized self-organized action and more formally coordinated collective action. It can be both!
So here’s what the graphic is meant to convey. First of all, network strategy is grounded at a fundamental level in creating (strategic) connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also may ensue is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better (see the arrow to the left side of the triangle). This is all well and good and is something that networks should try to track. Read More
“You have to remember that any boundary is a useful fiction.”
Photo by Fady Habib
As the story is told, a crucial element in the breaking of the genetic code was when physicists moved into the field of biology. These scientists, including Max Delbruck, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Erwin Schrodinger, brought with them a new perspective and new methods that changed genetic research. As Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi note in A System View of Life, it was Schrodinger in particular who suggested that “the gene could be viewed as an information carrier whose physical structure corresponds to a succession of elements in a hereditary code script.” This story illustrates how innovation and evolution occur at the meeting of fields. This is the promise of orthogonal thinking.
Orthogonal thinking draws from a variety of, and perhaps seemingly unrelated, perspectives to achieve new insights. It is the even momentary blurring of boundaries to see what might emerge. A while back I provided a portrait of a “facilitative leader,” neurophysiologist Erich Jarvis, who understands the power of thinking and doing orthogonally and has used this to create research breakthroughs around avian vocalizations and human speech. Another relevant story is WaterCredit, a model that has developed to address the needs of the nearly 1 billion people on the planet without access to safe drinking water. Through WaterCredit, micro-finance institutions provide micro-loans to individuals to finance their own water and sanitation solutions. The program resulted from the intentional pulling together of diverse private sector, public sector, and financing institutions.
The benefits of orthogonal thinking speak to the importance of diversity in supporting collective intelligence and resilience. A recent Scientific American article by Kathleen Phillips of Columbia University highlights a number of studies showing how racial diversity creates greater complexity in and broadness of thinking. The same holds true for gender and ideological diversity. As Phillips notes:
Being with similar people makes us think we all hold the same data and perspective, which stops us from processing and fully sharing information.
Bottom line: it may behoove us in our social change work to create spaces in which people and ideas that might not otherwise bump into one another, can interact. Are you getting orthogonal enough?
“Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found…. Local life may be as much endangered by those who would ‘save the planet’ as by those who would ‘conquer the world.’ For ‘saving the planet’ calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know and thus will destroy the integrity of local nature and local community…”
I’m grateful to the mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to regenerative thinking, an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life and a network way of working, as opposed to one that is more mechanical in orientation. To be clear, mechanical thinking has its place, but less so it seems in the unpredictable and complex world of social change and working with social systems, including networks. Yet there still seems to be a fair amount of it out there, underlying various change tactics and wholesale approaches that may be otherwise well-intended. The problem is that few seem willing to slow down to examine the roots of their chosen efforts, to lift up for closer inspection how their thinking may or may not be in alignment with what they are really after. Read More
My friend Joel Glanzberg is a constant source of provocation and insight. The way he sees the world, through a living systems and pattern-seeking lens, is not only refreshing but unnerving in that it is evident how simultaneously critical and rare his perspective is. Joel is great at helping me and others to see beyond objects and structures to underlying patterns and processes, and how these are what animate living systems. Read More
One mantra I have for working with groups is, “If you’ve seen one group, you’ve seen one group.” Part of the welcome and challenging nature of collaboration is that in each instance we are dealing with a unique organism or constellation of human beings coming together to get something done. As complex living systems, groups of people are not prone to simple “best practices” for getting them working in a prescribed way. There certainly are some “promising practices,” including what we teach at IISC in our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change courses. Still collaboration, including the practice of group facilitation, is a heuristic undertaking – an experience-based approach to problem solving, learning, and discovery that suggests solutions which are not guaranteed to be optimal. Read More
The other day I was working with an emerging inter-institutional collaboration of universities looking to move the needle on “transitioning to sustainability.” Like so many other conversations that I am a part of these days, there were bold visions tempered by structural realities, including robust conversation about internal constraints to the kind of progress people are striving to realize. These constraints are not simply internal to our organizations in the form of protocols and politics, but also to our thinking. As David Bohm once wrote,
“Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally.”
And so there is a call to constantly “mind the lines” that are not simply “out there,” but that are conscious and unconscious projections of our thoughts, and that do not serve our intensions. Perhaps no one says it better than the late Donella Meadows in a piece from which I read the other day and have pulled extracts below. For the entire essay, visit the Donella Meadows Institute.
From “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World” by Donella Meadows (December 24, 1987)
The earth was formed whole and continuous in the universe, without lines.
The human mind arose in the universe needing lines, boundaries, distinctions. Here and not there. This and not that. Mine and not yours.
That is sea and this is land, the mind thinks, and here is the line between them. See? It’s very clear on the map.
But, as the linguists say, the map is not the territory. The line on the map is not to be found at the edge of the sea. . . .
Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?
This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me. . . .
Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .
I have to work hard not to pay attention to you. When I succeed, when I have closed my mind to you with walls of indifference, then the presence of those walls, which constrain my own aliveness, are reminders of you.
And when I do pay attention, very close attention, when I open myself fully to your humanity, your complexity, your reality, then I find, always, under every other feeling and judgment and emotion, that I love you.
Even between you and me, even there, the lines are only of our own making.
You might have picked up that I’m down on too much process and too much meeting. It’s a funny place for someone that makes a living facilitating. It is part of a semi-conscious effort to look at the opposite of my core assumptions and seek the wisdom there.
You probably know this challenge. Start with 3 rows of 3 dots in the form of a square. Now using only three or four straight lines, connect all of the dots without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper (see answers above). I was reminded of this exercise by some of the participants in the Tillotson Fund Community Practitioners Network (CPN). They used it as a metaphor during a presentation about a multi-functional collaborative platform they are proposing to connect a rather vast and disparate region of New Hampshire’s northern most county, including parts of western Vermont, southern Quebec, and eastern Maine. The vision for the platform is that it would help to build connectivity and alignment around a core set of regional values that would also inspire action for community and economic development. Read More
In my current work with the Cancer Free Economy Network, I have the opportunity to partner with a very skilled team of consultants, including Joe Hsueh from Second Muse. Joe’s core offering to this initiative is system mapping and helping people to hold systemic complexity. The short video above, taken by another team member, Eugene Kim, features some of Joe’s thinking about what it takes to gain “strategic clarity” when striving to evolve a complex system.
One of the many things I appreciate about Joe is his holistic approach to system mapping which renders it much less mechanistic than I’ve seen from other practitioners. In fact, as this great article in The Guardian about Joe and his work illustrates, he comes from a very deep, some might call it spiritual, place. As the article quotes him, “Systems mapping, system modeling – all these scientific tools and methods – these are not ends in themselves. For me, they are tools for us to create a space where we open our minds, open our hearts and open our will.” In this sense, the (system) map is not the territory in more ways than one.
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
― David Bohm
I have learned a tremendous amount over the last several years from practitioners associated with the Regenesis Group – Carol Sanford, Bill Reed, Joel Glanzsberg, and Pamela Mang. Specifically, they have pushed my own thinking about my own thinking, and how this kind of awareness is key to supporting successful system change. I recommend all readers of this blog to check out the wealth of resources on the Regenesis website. And I want to highlight a blog post from Pamela Mang, a segment of which I have included below, that points to how our dominant ways of thinking can undercut our stated aims. The full post can be found here on the edge:Regenerate site.
“The way we think is shaped by patterns that we’ve been taught or picked up over the course of our lives, patterns that are deeply embedded in our culture and institutions. Over time, these patterns have become increasingly interdependent and self-reinforcing and, most problematic, increasingly habitual because they are invisible to us. If we want to change how we think, the first step must be to make visible the patterns that currently shape our thinking. Only then can we decide which are useful when, and which condemn us to degenerative outcomes. . . . Read More
Last week I had the privilege of being 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 changeprocesses. The last day 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 take a deeper view of 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 offers that our chosen change methods are always grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about humanity, the world and what constitutes “knowing.” Not being aware of or transparent about this can get us into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when we are not operating from the same system of beliefs as others. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More
It’s good to plan. It’s good to reflect. It’s best to do.
Here at IISC we spend a fair amount of time supporting others in articulating what they want to achieve, including those who must be included, and defining a pathway to action. When done well, this work depends on a fair amount of reflection on practice – how do you think about what you do? What are you learning about what you do?
We also train people. We help them become better facilitative leaders. We introduce specific practices – specific things people can do.
Without the practice the lessons are lost. We learn by doing.
I was just talking about this in our office kitchen with Danielle Coates-Connor, one of our colleagues, and she compared it to meditation.
It is quite hip to talk about meditation these days. Mindfulness is in. At least in theory. People have a sense that stillness of the mind and present moment awareness are powerful ways to live and thrive. But there is a huge gap between knowing this and practicing this. Too many of us still believe that thinking about meditation is a lot like meditation. But it’s not.
The same is true for our projects and our dreams. We can get the right stakeholders together. We can talk about what we want to do. We can visualize it. We can plot it out. But the learning doesn’t begin until we start. The change does not begin until we do.
Do you wonder:
How to integrate more “doing” in your “planning?”
How to integrate more “doing” in your “reflecting?”