Posted in Networks

May 19, 2009

Learning and Living Networks

I’m intrigued by the idea of living systems and so I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that gives a network a life of its own. If I’m convinced of the need of decentralized structures and in the power of self-organization then I have to concern myself with what it is that motivates networked efforts to take on a life of their own. When I look at my own experience of life in a network I understand that learning is a key motivator for decentralized self-organization.

To be specific: I want to learn the best way to apply the logic of decentralized structures to movement building efforts.

In order to do this: I read, I experiment, I share my learning, I become engaged in relationships with others who want to learn the same thing.

People who are engaged in a quest for something that they are passionate about come together of their own volition. I am part of a network of friends who are people interested in movement building and social transformation, we come together to socialize as well as to problem solve and learn together. In order to keep this network alive we most often have to overcome obstacles like being too busy working in some social change nonprofit!

So my own experience of life in a network demonstrates that the desire to learn about something that you are passionate about is great fuel for decentralized self-organization. But there is one more layer of nuance here. Among my group of friends we are not doing the kind of learning that is defined by some specific quantity of knowledge being transferred from one head to another, we are engage in the type of active learning that informs creative action.

So there is learning, but there is also something about creative power. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Leave a comment
May 14, 2009

The Other Side of Complexity

Last week I had the privilege of working with my colleague Daryl Campbell in offering IISC’s Pathway to Change workshop for the first time to the general public. Overall it was a very positive experience, and seemed to confirm our suspicions that the course is timely given the growing demand and desire for working collaboratively. That said, as we were wrapping up we heard a few comments that are not so unfamiliar. “This is wonderful, it’s just what we need, and it’s a lot!” “There’s so much to absorb. I need time to sort it out.” There were a few suggestions to slow down the pace next time, or to space out the days to give time for both absorption and application. At the same time, people recognized that the three consecutive days had a certain power and punch to them, both with respect to connecting content and creating community in the room.

Sitting with this conundrum, it occurred to me that it just may be unavoidable. As we like to say, it’s important to meet complexity with complexity. What we were addressing in the room was the need to work with complex social and environmental issues by bringing more people and ideas to the table, with a variety of tools at one’s disposal. Indeed, it is a lot to take in and apply. And the point certainly is not to overwhelm folk, but rather to help them eventually reach what our colleague Cynthia Parker calls “the simplicity the other side of complexity.” In other words, there is necessary work and wrestling to be done before reaching mastery.

That said, I made an effort in the workshop before we closed to offer some consoling words. Underlying all of the various concepts and tools we discussed, there seem to be a few core ideas for guiding one’s work as an effective collaborative leader/change agent:

  1. Awareness – Everything we talked about pointed to the need to be attentive to the various situations we face as well as our own interior condition. Being aware of what circumstances might call for and not acting on impulse are critical steps in helping to ensure that we are more “in tune” with reality.
  2. Intention – Another theme that emerges is the importance of acting with some forethought, being plan-full in light of the unique situations in which we find ourselves. The basic idea is that we act as an extension of our awareness.
  3. Balance – Collaboration is not about working with everyone all the time or only working through consensus. It comes down to balance – knowing when to make more unilateral decisions and when to be more inclusive; holding results, process, and relationship in dynamic tension as dimensions of collaborative success. Problems arise not so much when we make a wrong call (which we can correct) but when we make the same call over and over again.
  4. Wisdom – It is important to remember that the models we teach are based on practice. Somewhere, someone was doing something effectively and the models capture this success. In a sense, there is something very intuitive about what we teach, and so as important as learning the skills may be, there is also work to be done around getting in touch with our inner knowing, and grounding all of our actions in an ethic of service, authenticity and love.
Leave a comment
May 5, 2009

A Subprime Story

I’m trying to negotiate the relationship between simplicity and complexity, and I find this video a perfect example of what can happen when this negotiation is successful. The subprime crisis has been sold to us as the byproduct of a highly complex financial system, but it wasn’t just that, was it? We also know that it had something to do with what turned out to be high-stakes gambling sold to us as banking, but it wasn’t just that either, or was it? This piece gets us closer to the answer, and I wonder what we can do to bring such capable storytelling and visual imagery to the work of social change and the development of more skilled organizations. It’s only 2.5 minutes, check it out!

Leave a comment
April 28, 2009

Decentralization and Human Development

I have been a zealous (some would say over-zealous!) proponent of networks and the application of network theory to the work of social change. I have been pushing and working for a radical rethink of our very approach to social transformation. I believe we have to move away from a model that is organization-centric into a mission-based model that maximizes the potential of decentralization. My vision calls for an approach that creates the conditions for the emergence of ideas, opportunities and formations that we could not have been imagined through our visioning and strategic planning efforts.

I am still a believer, and I’m probably still a zealot, I still see the ways in which an unbelievable wealth of passion, conviction, dedication and self motivation is wasted away, trapped by organizational structures that constrain this energy rather than liberate it. However, I have also been delving into a multiplicity of frameworks and studies addressing human development and it is increasingly evident that we are all at different stages of development. Being an adult does not always mean one has advanced through every stage of development and so not everyone can work with the same layers of complexity.

Now, I am clearly aware that I’m delving into dangerous territory, and I have no intention of getting into “who decides who is how developed,” but I will be bold enough to agree with the proposition that human beings evolve through a set of developmental stages, that these stages allow us to deal with greater and greater levels of complexity, and that we are not all at the same developmental stage. This is an important insight for someone working to shift organizational structures. It is possible that the more idealized decentralized models we are looking at might actually be making an idealized assumption about the developmental levels of the human beings involved.

However, rather than pulling back from this push forward along the paradigm shift, I think that what is important is that we understand that such developmental dynamics are always at play. Accounting for this layer of complexity does not mean that we move away from facilitating decentralized, self-organizing systems, it means than in fomenting this next phase of social movement we also seek to create the conditions for developmental progress among the human beings involved. Our job is not to assume that some people just can’t shift, but to understand how certain organizational parameters can support our evolution while liberating our will to create change.

Leave a comment
April 21, 2009

Sifting Pragmatisms

Courtesty of Enlightnnext.orgLast Friday night I went to a great talk by Jeff Carreira, Director of Education at EnlightenNext, it was titled “The Roots of Integral Spirituality and Evolutionary Enlightenment in American Philosophy.”  It has been almost ten years since I last gave such focused consideration to the tradition of American Pragmatism, a strand of philosophy that focuses on “considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.” Ten years ago I was privileged to take a memorable class on the subject, it was called “American Democracy,” and was beautifully lectured by contemporary pragmatists Cornel West and Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the term “pragmatism,” specially as used in popular culture, which is somewhat different from the way it is used in the academy. My activist roots were grounded in an ideological framework that tended to equate pragmatism with compromise. In my work for social change I have often found myself identified with those communities that are more likely to have their needs and demands compromised away by some “pragmatic” solution or other. With this lens, pragmatism has often felt like a way to keep the balance of power stable while giving away enough crumbs for the excluded not to riot.

However, our recent national experience shows us this argument from the other side. We have seen how eight years of ideological leadership wreaked havoc on the country and the world. And today we find progressive hope in the thoroughly pragmatic approach of an even-keeled Obama administration, whose approach to leadership that has thus far proved amazingly steady even in the throes of ongoing turmoil. So I am interested in sifting through the sort of pragmatism that seems to generally keep things as they are, from the pragmatism that facilitates change and the pragmatism that Carreira was talking about on Friday night.

While the conversation has only just begun, I am starting to understand that the pragmatism of the American tradition, which Jeff was connecting to the Integral Philosophy of Ken Wilber and the Evolutionary Enlightenment of Andrew Cohen, is called pragmatism because it demands to be experienced. This sort of pragmatism looks suspiciously at a philosophy that is purely conceptual, it is a pragmatism that calls for the observation and experience of the actual – but it doesn’t stay there. We are talking about a sort of experiential pragmatism that demands we engage the very process of evolution, and this is what makes it exciting.

This is the first of a series of blog posts. Next, I’m interested in distinguishing between pragmatism as doing “what works” vs. pragmatism as doing “what could work.” Your insights are needed and welcomed!

Leave a comment
April 14, 2009

“Pre-Planning” or “Readiness”

We were in a learning session the other day and I was amused when I heard Marianne Hughes, our Executive Director at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, refer to “back when it was still ok to talk about planning…” I appreciated her currency in the field, as well as the decades of experience she is able to bring to the table. Marianne was talking about how important it was to apply a “pre-planning phase” to any organizational change process. What I specially appreciated was her call for an equivalent moment in group process as we are coming to understand it today, what she called a “readiness” phase.

What is important here is that as paradigms shift we are not just playing around with language but we are actually learning to look at the world with an entirely different lens. I forget who it was that said “strategic planning is obsolete, what we need is strategic thinking.” This to me is a lot like what Marianne was saying, understanding the state of a group that is clamoring for change is not exactly pre-planning, it is actually testing for readiness. When I hear “pre-planning” I get right into linear thinking, and it feels like linear thinking is actually a limitation for groups that want to deal with complexity.

“Readiness” on the other hand seems to be testing for something else. In my experience, testing for readiness must include the skillful probing into a group’s interest or capacity to engage an “adaptive challenge.” And here I’m using the language of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky who skillfully make the distinction between technical problems and those challenges that demand a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions. It seems to me that a “pre-planning phase” can serve to solve a technical problem, but an adaptive challenge demands organizational readiness.

One of my key learning edge questions is found somewhere around here. I have a core interest in helping people and groups of people shift out of what I call the “dominant-and-dying paradigm” into what I see as the “emergent paradigm.” I am passionate about this specifically because the dominant paradigm has calcified while this emergent paradigm seems to have potentially liberating attributes. Certainly there is much more to explore here, but I’m currently highlighting a key question – how do we test for readiness?

How do we know a group is ready to make a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions?

And if a group is not ready, is there any way we can help?

Any ideas?

Leave a comment
April 14, 2009

"Pre-Planning" or "Readiness"

We were in a learning session the other day and I was amused when I heard Marianne Hughes, our Executive Director at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, refer to “back when it was still ok to talk about planning…” I appreciated her currency in the field, as well as the decades of experience she is able to bring to the table. Marianne was talking about how important it was to apply a “pre-planning phase” to any organizational change process. What I specially appreciated was her call for an equivalent moment in group process as we are coming to understand it today, what she called a “readiness” phase.

What is important here is that as paradigms shift we are not just playing around with language but we are actually learning to look at the world with an entirely different lens. I forget who it was that said “strategic planning is obsolete, what we need is strategic thinking.” This to me is a lot like what Marianne was saying, understanding the state of a group that is clamoring for change is not exactly pre-planning, it is actually testing for readiness. When I hear “pre-planning” I get right into linear thinking, and it feels like linear thinking is actually a limitation for groups that want to deal with complexity.

“Readiness” on the other hand seems to be testing for something else. In my experience, testing for readiness must include the skillful probing into a group’s interest or capacity to engage an “adaptive challenge.” And here I’m using the language of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky who skillfully make the distinction between technical problems and those challenges that demand a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions. It seems to me that a “pre-planning phase” can serve to solve a technical problem, but an adaptive challenge demands organizational readiness.

One of my key learning edge questions is found somewhere around here. I have a core interest in helping people and groups of people shift out of what I call the “dominant-and-dying paradigm” into what I see as the “emergent paradigm.” I am passionate about this specifically because the dominant paradigm has calcified while this emergent paradigm seems to have potentially liberating attributes. Certainly there is much more to explore here, but I’m currently highlighting a key question – how do we test for readiness?

How do we know a group is ready to make a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions?

And if a group is not ready, is there any way we can help?

Any ideas?

8 Comments