“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!
I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen …
and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Image by Bill Smith, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
Earlier this week I posted on our blog a piece drawing from lessons learned in over a dozen years of supporting Food Solutions New England to launch and evolve as a network. These lessons were also drawn from other collaborative networks we have supported over the years at IISC, and fed forward into our work with FSNE, not as a way of forcing fit, but seeing if the system/network reacted favorably.
A colleague and collaborator from outside of IISC read the post and fed it to into an AI interface and asked about the top three take-aways (the original post has a list of 25 developmental milestones and lessons). That generated a very interesting summary, which I continued to play with a bit. Collaborating in this way has yielded the following three core elements for long-term collaborative and networked success in our experience, without declaring final victory (which is surely a bit of fiction).
1. **Foster a Culture of Collaboration and Shared Vision/Values**: The importance of working together as a collective rather than as isolated entities underscores the need for a unifying vision and values. The vision and values should bridge real and perceived differences, creating a sense of belonging and purpose across diverse groups. Co-creating a guiding vision and values not only aligns efforts but also amplifies impact through collective action. Engaging in storytelling and shared experiences, like breaking bread together, further solidifies shared vision and values by humanizing the collaboration, making it more than just a professional undertaking. This approach encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of one other, fostering a more cohesive and inclusive network.
2. **Build and Maintain a Robust, Trust-Based Network**: The call to build networks that are vertical, horizontal, and diagonal emphasizes the importance of creating spaces where trust and accountability can become the foundation. This involves not only bonding within similar groups but also bridging across different ones, ensuring a rich tapestry of connections that are resilient and creative over time. These networks are strengthened by dedicated support for convening, coordination, and facilitation, ensuring that collaboration is effective. Enrolling network weavers or ambassadors to keep the network vibrant and inclusive is crucial through ongoing outreach.
3. **Commit to Continuous Learning, Equity, and Systemic Saluto-genesis**: Recognizing and addressing social inequities within the system is vital for achieving a fair and sustainable future. This involves a commitment to racial and other forms of equity, both broadly and deeply. Leveraging “network effects” for spreading learning, understanding the persistence of dominant systems/power structures, and identifying leverage areas for “collective impact” are critical steps towards systemic saluto-genesis (ongoing health-promotion for all “participants” in the system and the system as a whole). This also highlights the need for integrated policies that reflect the network’s core vision and values, making policy along with financial and other resources more equitably available and relevant to people. It also encourages embracing complexity while striving for simplicity in tools and approaches, preparing for disruptions, being trauma-informed, well-being oriented and dedicated to accessibility.
Recently a colleague and I were invited to present to partners in Mississippi about what we have learned over a dozen years of creating a network in New England dedicated to advancing a just, sustainable, democratic and collaborative regional food system.
It has been quite a journey to date, filled with twists and turns, much joy, and some hard-earned wisdom. Over this time I have done my best to capture insights and developments as they have happened in blog posts. In reflecting on those, along with content that has been curated on the network’s website, I pulled together the list of developmental lessons/milestones below.
This could easily be longer, and if one were to “double click” on any item, a whole story would unfold with other learnings. Some day we hope to capture this in a fuller telling, and for now, here is an offering of 25+ take-aways, some of which might be of interest to others depending on where you are in your own network stories of change.
Identify leverage areas (we now call them “impact areas”) that we can lean into collectively to create the better system(s) that align with our shared vision and values.
“Do what you do best and connect to the rest”– keep focusing on what is ours to do as a network in the region, while respecting, appreciating and linking with what others are doing that aligns with and complements our efforts.
Create an integrated policy platform across the region and sectors, grounded in our core vision and values, and help make policy more accessible and relevant to everyone.
As Toni Morrison once wrote, “Keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.” Normalize complexity in our shared work, while avoiding making things more complex than they need to be.
With respect to technology tools and platforms, remember that less can truly be more, and that they are as much about sociology as technology. Ask what you really need to facilitate fluid communication, sharing and decision-making.