Networks for Social Change: A Developmental View

September 12, 2013 4 Comments

“If what we change does not change us we are playing with blocks.”

– Marge Piercy


|Image by Nico Paix||

At IISC we see taking a developmental view as being critical to effective collaborative and network-based approaches to social change.  This is largely because of the complexity of the issues we are striving to address with our partners and the “adaptive” nature of the work.  It is also because we hold an evolutionary perspective; that is, we see change and development as being part of the underlying dynamic of reality. As scientist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once declared, “We are moving!” And so we are interested in paying attention to and working with evolution as it occurs at different levels – individual, team/group, organization/institution, community, etc.

As we pay attention to the developmental dynamic at play (think about children or gardens as they grow), we come to better understand how life happens, how it wants to happen in specific circumstances, and we can appreciate both the unique patterns of strength and where there is room for enhancing capability.  And we can create opportunities that invite new and different forms of connection to occur at different systemic levels, for the sake of greater capacity, integrity, justice, health, resilience.  This work of connecting or reconnecting, can occur through:

  • learning
  • interpersonal relationship and trust building
  • deep alignment around values and purpose
  • coordinated collective action
  • institutional reorganization/structural rearrangement

This is how developmental network building is so much more than simply engaging in say strategic planning work with networks as an afterthought, if a thought at all.  There are people who see networks as simply being a new vehicle for carrying out preconceived strategies or achieving predetermined outcomes – a delivery mechanism, if you will. While there is certainly some demonstrated value in this approach, we also believe that it just scratches the surface.  The deeper developmental view sees network building as engaging in a dynamic and emergent experience that opens up new ways of seeing and being.

Taking a developmental approach to building networks for social change invites us to stretch and deepen our work at multiple levels, for example: trusting in everyone’s capacity to evolve; thinking about our own thinking and what this facilitates or inhibits, and encouraging others to do the same; internalizing our own internal locus of control; creating conditions that support people engaging in self-organization; and opening ourselves to being unimaginably transformed.

Some suggested practices for moving forward . . . .  Assume movement.  Stay open and curious.  Watch how life is happening and wants to evolve at different levels and scales.  Ask others what matters most and is moving inside them.  Ask the same of yourself.  Listen.  Jump into the flow.  Connect, connect, connect.


  • Jen Willsea says:

    I love the phrase “assume movement.” That one’s going to stick.

  • GibranX says:

    Lots of resonance here Curtis. I appreciate your naming the limitation in seeing networks as simply a new vehicle for carrying out preconceived strategies or achieving predetermined outcomes, as a delivery mechanism. I have made the same observation. It confirms the pattern of paradigm shift, the moment at which an old paradigm, no longer able to deny the emerging paradigm, moves on to try and turn that new paradigm into its tool. It is a survival tactic that cannot work. When a paradigm shift is demanded, our work is to take the leap, not to hold on.

  • GibranX says:

    I also want to make a whole other comment, one I should write a post about. When contemplating this developmental approach to networks, we can also see it point to an evolutionary development in the way we conceive of self. Which I also connect to john powell’s indictment of the “European Enlightenment’s Project” and the way it uplifted the “isolated self,” with the white male as its apex.

    Networks move us away from the “me as center of the universe” and towards a “being-with” as our central orientation. A true evolutionary leap! The cultivation of a “we space” as integral to our next stage of development.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks for your comments, Jen and Gibran. And I really appreciate your last comment, Gibran. In an “old school” world I think the temptation is for people taking a network approach to see “going higher” as putting themselves at the center, in more of a hierarchical sense. Here the invitation from a “leadership” standpoint is to go deep and wide, being of service to help actualize more potential in the systems of which we are a part. Meg Wheatley talks about this stage of network development as one where “periphery is the norm.”

    And as I have said elsewhere, the promise of shifting what we value (what and who matters) and actually delivering on this, is closely linked with what we are talking about at this deeper level.

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