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April 20, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 2

Image by Alexander Baxevanis, “Flow,” shared under provision of the Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0.

New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability

This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.

Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.

At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:

  • Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
  • Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
  • Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
  • Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communication and conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
  • Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
  • Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
  • Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
  • Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
  • Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)

And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.

And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.

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April 16, 2020

Hope Out of the Muck

This is the first post I ever wrote for IISC and dates back to this day 11 years ago. I have edited it only a little, in light of Václav Havel‘s passing, and it seems telling that it could have very easily been written for these COVID19 times, which are an extension of the patterns that have been at play for a while in our world.

Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel told a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident-poet-and-playwright-turned-politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague.

In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls, which he realized was a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely ending.

From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continued to be a profoundly hope-full man. He saw hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerged out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reached not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, was not the same as optimism. It was not the belief that something would ultimately work out, but that it felt true in a very essential way, beyond what was relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.

Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth.

Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm once said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” (maybe because they realized that security is over-rated or not really a thing). That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots and shoots, how far are we willing to go? And who will be out fellow travelers?

How can we go from emergency response to stewards of emergence?

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April 9, 2020

Ripples, Spirals, Loops and Love: Mapping a Networked Change Effort

Image from abstractartangel77, “Spiralling,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

About a month ago, I worked with a regional education network focused on racial equity in education to do ripple effect mapping (REM) based on the past three years of its work to diversify the teacher workforce, including efforts to help paraprofessionals advance into formal teaching roles. REM is a technique to evaluate the results of an initiative or intervention by pulling together a diverse and representative group of stakeholders to make sense of the impacts they see as rippling through the system. The methodology is very participatory and has extra added benefits of helping to strengthen relationships and understanding between what otherwise might be siloed stakeholders. REM can also help to guide the refinement of a theory of change (rooted in actual experience!) and lift up areas for further investigation, including barriers to and accelerators for greater impact and systemic shifts.

Ripple effect mapping combines four different methods: peer interviews, group sense-making, mind mapping, and qualitative data analysis. In general it happens through the following steps:

  1. Conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify the right set of participants that has participated in the initiative, including beneficiaries, implementers, sponsors, key decision-makers, resource providers, those with relevant expertise and lived experience, and critical connectors/boundary spanners.
  2. Convene the identified group. Our convening was a bit larger than the recommended size of 15-20 people – we had about 35 people representing different roles, institutions, geographies, perspectives and backgrounds.
  3. During the convening, conduct interviews using Appreciative Inquiry questions. Appreciative Inquiry invites people to reflect on the positive aspects of a project. We had people share something positive that they had experienced or witnessed associated with the project, including outcomes, relationships, learning, new collaborations, etc.
  4. Do a group mapping session, during which people build on what they shared and heard in the interviews, brainstorm and record the effects (the “ripples”) of the initiative or intervention. We used a large bank of chart paper and large stickies with two facilitators (one to steward the conversation, the other to place and move stickies) and several scribes. The resulting “mind map” illustrates the effects of the intervention and explores connections, causality, and virtuous cycles. Before ending the mapping session, we invited people to “take a step back,” take in the map and ask what stood out to them, what seemed most important, and what they wanted to know more about.
  5. Clarify, connect, code, and analyze data. After the session, a smaller group organizes the mind map and collects and connects additional details by following up with participants.
Image from Washington State University Extension – Sample Ripple Effects Map

This week a small team of us met for a second time (virtually, of course) to make sense of the data, including notes that were taken by a recorder and photographs of the mind map. It was helpful to do this in two meetings as there was a considerable amount of data, people are reeling from COVID, and it was important to have some time in-between the two sessions to do some more individual reflection, looking for patterns in the data.

In this second meeting, we started threading together our individual reads, and also reminded ourselves that we are dealing with complex systems and as such, linear causality is not necessarily what we should be looking for. What began to emerge as we talked (over the course of two hours) was a circular, or spiral, progression and lattice-work of nested impacts. We started to think in terms of “causal loops,” DNA helixes, and networked flows. An overarching question started to form –

What intersecting “virtuous loops” are we learning need to be supported to advance change and overcome “vicious loops” oriented towards keeping the system(s) as it/they are?

What we are working with as a core loop/spiral (for now) is the following:

  1. People who care and are committed come together across boundaries (districts, schools, roles, disciplines, perspective, culture)
  2. People practice deep listening to and learning from paraprofessionals, students, one another …  
  3. People start making different choices and behaving differently (changing job descriptions, altering programs to accommodate spoken and respected needs, engaging in mutual support, moving from competition to collaboration between programs, sharing information more transparently)
  4. People start to taste “transformation” (a sense of their and others’ potential, the power of lived experience in the classroom, the essential nature of community, the benefits of working together)
  5. The resulting enthusiasm feeds back into care and consideration, and the cycle repeats, and ideally takes in more people … (we have seen some evidence in this as paras become seen as leaders and mentors to other paras)

This core loop operates at and across different levels:

  1. The individual “beneficiary” level (students and para-professionals)
  2. The individual support level (mentors, teacher prep educators, those who hire/fire/retain)
  3. The individual school level
  4. The district/teacher prep program level
  5. Larger system levels (community, state policy and support)

And the loop will play out in different ways in different contexts. And so we are asking about differences and similarities across systems (trans-contextual, in the words of Nora Bateson).

This is all very emergent and still exploratory, as it should be, and we will continue to make meaning and test take-aways. And I think that we would all agree that the foundation of all of this is care, or a word we like to use at IISC – love. One definition of love is “seeing and treating the other as a legitimate other.” If we don’t begin with this at the level of students who we see as deserving to have the benefit of having teachers who look like and can experientially relate to them, if we do not see and believe in the potential, humanity and “expertise” of para-professionals of color, well, we go no where.

And so we continue to mull over and be guided by the dynamic “ripples and collisions” (in the words of a network participant) of this work to what we hope will be a better place …

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April 1, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 1

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.”
Nicholas A. Christakis

At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.

I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”

  1. People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
  2. Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
  3. Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
  4. The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
  5. Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.

Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.

And more to come on this …

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March 27, 2020

We have to work on line: “Don’t they get it?!”

Much of what I do as a mediator, consultant, trainer, and facilitator involves conflict resolution, leadership training, and organizational development.  At the core of my work lies addressing the issues of racial justice, white supremacy in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.  A number of employers – both for profit and non-profit as well as and educational institutions – have begun this work in earnest. They are taking steps to face the presence and impact of these issues on their staff, faculty, students, client base, and their surrounding communities.

I am pleased to be supporting a number of organizations that are taking this racial justice and equity work very much to heart.  The hard work and painstaking efforts can be gratifying when we see changes on the other side of it all.  Finding answers to the questions: “Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” is a journey as individualized as each organization involved. More and more groups are diving in with courage and, in some cases, with trepidation as they acknowledge the need for and benefit of doing this work. 

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, through municipal and state mandates and, in many cases, self-imposed efforts, organizations have wisely begun to move their core work on-line as much as possible.  This has required herculean efforts since so much community work, education, and even business initiatives, are best accomplished face-to-face. Most employers, large and small, are making every effort to sustain their employees through this crisis. Even our federal government is making some efforts. (Although, I have little faith in this administration; two trillion dollars is still going to wind up in the hands of the corporations and very rich people in this country.) 

Many employers who have seen the need and started racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, have decided to put these activities “on hold” until they figure out just how to sustain their core output efforts on-line during this sensitive time.  All have the sincere intent of restarting these racial justice and DEI initiatives once “things are getting back to normal.” On the surface this seems like a prudent, cautious approach.  First, make sure you can deliver what is at the core of your mission; then, you attend to the little things that have been getting in the way.

While this cautious approach seems reasonable, there are aspects of it that leaders of these impacted organizations need to keep in mind. And it is to you that I speak directly now.

First, the efforts you have made to address issues of inequity and social justice were made for a reason.  Now that you are taking action to change and correct the environment and functionality of your organization and its leaders and maximize the contributions of your employees, students, or colleagues, you are expected to sustain the positive changes and continue to grow them, even in tough times.  And none of your people want to see your efforts stall.

Second, maintaining emphasis on your core mission is important and your efforts to address inequities are for valid reasons. If everything is “put on hold” during this critical time, the cultural issues, leadership practices, and personal biases that created the need for racial justice work in the first place will still be in place. Our emotional traps, as described by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, tend to kick in. Our knee-jerk responses are those immediate responses we know happen and we don’t mind doing them.  We often find these responses to be “just who we are” or how we respond. We often see no reason to change our behavior or apologize for its impact. Then, we sometimes have the emotion of the “lurking response” or the things we really try hard to suppress because they raise feelings or actions we are not proud of. Finally, there are those responses we don’t even notice or know are present. These are often rooted in our unconscious biases. These are the values and behaviors we have learned through our cultural upbringing or through our social conditioning. They are often some of the things addressed in the racial and social justice work embedded in these DEI initiatives.

While the occasional on-line meeting is nothing new to most people, full-time leadership practices via Zoom, Skype, or any of the other video apps are a relatively new practice and require skill development for most of us. In trying times like these, we often “go with what we know” since we think that’s what got us here to our successful space in the first place. As a result, we do what we’ve always done and multiply our efforts since we are no longer able to be physically present. This means we also multiply the impact of our unrecognized or unacknowledged behaviors. 

During a time when corrective initiatives are “on hold” there is a real chance that our behaviors can have an even more detrimental impact and, instead of just holding ground until the corrective initiatives are begun again, we can lose ground to the multiplied behaviors.  So, what can we do in the meantime?

Do……something……different!   

  • First, be quick with the praise. Seek a reason to offer genuine praise to each individual and to each work group. 
  • Second, breathe before you speak. A self-pause and analysis may help you see where you may be making a wrong move.
  • Third, check for understanding, THEN check for agreement. (You can do this one even in person). Once clarity and buy-in have been established an initiative can be successfully executed.
  • Fourth, work actively with your DEI core team, affinity groups, and/or task force to make sure the initiatives are translated into the on-line community. 
  • Finally, say “Thank you.” People like that!

I believe that if you do all these things, you can have a smooth transition to the on-line work world with a unified, happy workforce that feels valued and seen and recognizes your enduring commitment and continued efforts to establish equity and justice.

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March 24, 2020

Living and Working Virtually in Uncertainty: Balancing the Dimensions of Success

Facilitative Leaders balance three essential dimensions of success: results, process, and relationship. That means not just paying attention to getting the job done successfully, but paying attention to the relationships among people along the way, and to the processes and use of resources to get it done. Most leaders tend to emphasize one of these dimensions more than the others. That it makes it important to create teams with people who are inclined to focus on different dimensions. That way the effort is more likely to experience three-dimensional success.

Dimensions of Success

© Interaction Institute for Social Change

Typically, when in doubt or under stress, I default to process. I’m asking questions like: Are we including all the right people? Do we have the resources we need in place? Can we get it done on the timeline we envision? Sometimes, like recently at IISC, I’ve been defaulting to results. On a recent Monday, we began thinking through how to create some short webinars focused on bringing love, equity, and network practices to virtual meetings. The question was how to offer something that was uniquely IISC, that could be useful in this time of uncertainty and virtual working, and that wouldn’t require more than we had to invest in the effort.

I was focused on the results. We have a lot of content and enough know-how to create something that could be really useful that could be complementary to the resources we’ve seen others share recently. As for process, I thought we could put together a viable product with minimal effort, and I wanted to engage the relevant stakeholders within IISC early. As expected, bringing in a broader set of players kept making the ideas better. As for relationship, I was focused on doing this in ways that honored our different kinds of expertise. I was hoping this would also build our team spirit through an “all hands on deck” experience that didn’t create much stress.

But I was wrong … As the week progressed, it seemed that around every corner there was a new technical impediment that made the effort seem less and less simple. And, team members were feeling more and more burdened by this new effort on top of various personal and workplace challenges. So, in order not to get way out of balance in our efforts to help others get in balance, we are rethinking the project. In the meanwhile, here are a few ideas about how you can attend to results, process, and relationship as you design and facilitate your virtual meetings.

Results

  • Establish clear desired outcomes. What are we trying to accomplish in this meeting?
  • Make sure the outcomes are can be accomplished in the time allotted. If your team is new to virtual meetings, you may need to make the outcomes even more bite-sized than usual.
  • Make sure the outcomes are relevant and meaningful to the participants, particularly in light of everything else they have on their minds.

Process

  • Remember your best in-the-room meeting processes
    • Make sure you have a clear agenda. Ask for input and feedback on the agenda before the meeting.
    • Assign or ask for volunteers to facilitate, keep time, and take notes.
  • Especially for virtual meetings
    • Assign virtual meeting roles (e.g., people to check the chat, help with technical problems, check the energy in the virtual room, etc.).
    • Create multiple opportunities for engagement within each agenda item (e.g., spoken comments, chat, white board, writing in a shared document).
    • Use visuals (e.g., slides, shared documents).
    • Call on people, mix up the speaking order with each conversation.
    • Ask a question and have each person “toss” to another person until everyone has answered.
    • If you don’t have access to video conferencing, use real-time shared documents (like Google Docs) to create notes that everyone can see and contribute to while the call is in progress.
    • Keep audio-only participants in the loop, by updating them on anything you’re sharing visually and remembering to invite them into the conversation.

Relationships

  • Begin and end with time to connect personally, through full-group check-ins and check outs.
  • Use breakout rooms to increase opportunities to connect.
  • If you (or some of your participants) don’t have access to video conferencing, create a visual team roster in your shared document so everyone can see a photo of everyone on the call.
  • While it may not always be appropriate to have other household members “pop in” to your meetings, we make a point of acknowledging and welcoming children, partners, other household members, and pets when they pop into the room. Especially in these times, far from being unwelcomed distractions, we view these moments as precious opportunities to really see our colleagues.

All the best as you balance the dimensions of success in these trying times. And stay tuned. More resources are coming – whether they are webinars or something else remains to be seen.  🙂

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March 20, 2020

Network(ed) Adaptations: A Regional Food System Network Responds to COVID19

Image from K. Kendall, “Fragile Resilience,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Yesterday I was on a call with the Food Solutions New England Network Team, meeting virtually instead of in-person, to do some checking in and also to move forward ongoing efforts focused on strengthening our collective work towards the FSNE Vision. This included talking about ways to use the current moment to strengthen resilience, even as so many in-person convenings, including the FSNE 2020 Summit, are being cancelled or postponed.

Many of us feel like there is an opportunity to take the network to another level in this time, to deepen connectivity, to ramp up exchanges, to facilitate greater alignment, to engage in much more mutual support. Evidence of this came from a round of sharing announcements, updates, requests and needs (riffing on the “network marketplace” that we have adapted from Lawrence CommunityWorks), among the nearly 20 participants on the call (representing all 6 New England states, different sectors and perspectives in the food system). I think we were all heartened to hear about the adaptations, creativity, and care happening in so many places amidst COVID19.

Image by sagesolar, “Mesmerized by murmuration,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Examples of emerging activity, which came up during our call and in email exchanges since, include:

  • Various mutual aid initiatives (see Big Door Brigade for resources on this front)
  • A coordinated call for stimulus funds to invest in communities to build out critical infrastructure between local and regional food producers and families in need of healthy food
  • More robust activity around the upcoming 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge to advance equity considerations and actions especially in these times (see and register here)
  • Advancing research and work on regenerative food and economic hubs in western Massachusetts and in Connecticut (see Regenerative Communities Network)
  • Rapid response grassroots funding (see The New England Grassroots Environment Fund and opportunities to donate)
  • Farmers opening up farm stands, home delivery, etc.
  • Food delivery route adjustments to ensure people who are most vulnerable have food
  • Rapid responses around work visas for farm workers to keep farms working
  • Work to reimburse private childcare centers for caring for the children of essential workers, including grocery store workers
  • Just and sustainable food organizers digitizing campaigns (see Migrant Justice and Real Food Challenge)
  • Efforts to meet current needs amidst COVID19 with needs to address climate change (see some reflections from Otto Scharmer on this front, which have been making their way through the network)
  • Food funders revising guidelines and getting money out the door quickly and for general operations
  • Innovations around education in food system programs through universities
  • Rallying support for small food-related businesses
  • Re-galvanized food policy council activity
  • Getting food to children who are now out of school and otherwise depend on schools for breakfast and lunch
  • Open forums on institutional needs around providing food during COVID19 (see Farm to Institution New England)
  • Collecting COVID related resources and reporting on impacts on the food system (see this Google doc started by FSNE Network Leadership Institute alum Vanessa García Polanco)
  • Free virtual/video cooking demonstrations
  • Leveraging online platforms to connect people across geographies and systems to talk about taking action around systemic alternatives (see Now What? 2020)
  • Utilizing virtual tools creatively to advance strategic thinking under changing and challenging conditions (there was also good discussion about the importance of considering issues of inclusion and equity, given uneven access to certain tools, dependable wi-fi, and supports that allow more focus when working virtually, etc.)

There are others that I’m sure we did not hear. That said, beyond the warmth of the personal connection time during our call, which we always make time for, and the emails of mutual support since, there is a hopeful sense that in what we are sharing are the seeds of systemic alternatives to the system that is failing some more than others and all of us in the long run. All of this needs more tending, more care, more connecting, more inclusion, always more considerations of equity, and more coordination. And more time and space for wisdom and innovations to emerge …

Please share with us what else you are seeing emerge and adapt for the good and the better in these times!

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March 16, 2020

Shared Leadership: We are all Guardians

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Leadership is intrinsic in every role in an organization and now with a public health crisis on our hands we understand this even more clearly. With shared leadership, each role is viewed as an important connector to all other roles, and all roles weave together to accomplish more in dedicated collaboration. Roles are additive, with all roles functioning as essential parts of the greater whole of an organization. 

As IISC we talk about the importance of facilitative leaders as leaders that have both the mindset and heartset to inspire these roles to work together through a common vision and shared power. A facilitative leader sees their organization as a network, with distributed leadership and decentralized roles so more can be done with greater autonomy and impact. 

In the backdrop of our national state of emergency, we have so many social problems to solve, and they are much more complex. We need collaborative practices of shared leadership to handle the sheer volume of extraordinary challenges and the many decision-points that are coming our way. 

We need to liberate systems to solve problems through shared leadership.

How can we practice shared leadership on a day-to-day basis? Consider these core principles:

EQUITY & SHARED POWER

  • Foster equitable leadership and radical power-sharing by ensuring that people historically blocked from or denied power (people of color and younger staff, for example) in the organization are meaningfully leading work (and you), without mistrust and paternalism, and with resources and authority.
  • Operate in ways that foster “power with” instead of “power over”. If you are a central leader in the organization, operate with others in a cycle of mutual respect, learning, and action, knowing that your role is just one in the whole system. To the degree that you are holding leadership back, blocking innovation, or asserting unnecessary authority, release control and shift decisions to others. 

ROLE RECIPROCITY & DECENTRALIZATION

  • Understand that each role in an organization or system is of equal value and is contributing to the whole of the organization. Recognize the value of each role and the person in it, and how they help the work and culture to flow.
  • Distribute roles and decentralize decisions and actions as much as possible. Help people share the burden and the success. 
  • Create and dissolve teams of work as needed rather than relying on static committees or departments to foster innovation and bring in new voices. When work is complete or things shift, close down the team and rebirth a new one.

DECISION-MAKING AND STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT

  • Consider the different ways to make decisions. We no longer have only two choices for making decisions: doing so alone or delegating it to others. At IISC, we offer a framework (see below) for understanding the levels and approaches to decision-making with a range of choices to arrive at decisions based on the unique context in which each decision needs to be made.
  • Engage stakeholders in the decisions that most impact them. Test new ideas and potential decisions with great consequences with your stakeholders and, better yet, ask them to come up with the ideas in the first place. If the decisions are not working, undo them, and get input to come up with new solutions. 

In the end, we have more vibrant, productive, and resilient organizations when we share leadership at every level. There may be one person who has ultimate responsibility for the organization, but they are not the sole guardians of the organization. That is the job of everyone in the organization – in their respective roles – pulling together, working for the mission, protecting its fundamental beliefs, and making sure that it ultimately flourishes, even in times of crisis. In this period of uncertainty, we may not have a choice other than to try shared leadership. It may be the very strategy that sees us through.

© 2013 Interaction Institute for Social Change. All rights reserved.

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March 16, 2020

A Framework for this Time: Collaborative Change Lens

At IISC, we are guided by a Collaborative Change Lens of Love, Equity, & Networks. During these unsettling and challenging times, what are you thinking about how we can live into love, equity, and networks? Please share what you’re doing and learning in the conversation that is unfolding below.

Love.  

It’s deeply important right now to be gentle on each other and show compassion in your actions and policies. Ask people when you talk to them how they are doing, look them in the eye, and smile into their humanness. Be kind and patient with your co-workers, your boss, your partner, children, mothers and fathers, and customer service representatives. Be good to the people you live with, including your roommates and family members. You will be stressed. You will want to fight each other. Give grace and learn to work through conflicts. Breathe and love.

Equity.

Be creative and resourceful and, above all, share resources. Remember that some people, families, and organizations already have less access to resources such as money and food. Listen to the ideas coming from people who need resources. They know what they need and can teach us best.  Design strategies to ensure your actions, policies, and protocols design for the margins, are non-discriminatory, and have no undesirable impacts on specific groups. Equality assumes that everyone needs the same thing right now. People don’t necessarily need the same things; some may need different things, and some may need more of some things than others. 

Networks.

Now is the time to create a resilient network in your community. Create channels of communication and share resources, whether that’s food, community gardens, or technology. Networks are also helpful with finding those trusted sources that can give you good reliable information amidst all the noise and confusion. In the case of organizations and social justice organizations, now is the time to create resilient networks of your stakeholders and partners so that you can easily collaborate for change.

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March 16, 2020

The Pandemic’s Silver Lining

Constitutionally,  I tend toward remaining calm and seeing possibilities. This might not be true for everyone. I do know, however, that there is clear evidence that what we talk about influences our moods.

With that in mind, I am sharing a list of things I have seen amplified in the last week – things  that contribute to social health and well-being and long-term survival, even as we adjust to a world that feels topsy turvy.

Intersectionality

Some people are taking this moment to recognize that the Coronavirus, like all things, affects us differentially. There is some attention to the fact that those who are already burdened because of chronic health issues, or because fewer resources are invested in their communities, or those who experience racism day in/day out, are experiencing this moment on top of these existing inequities. And it is important to see the resources and resilience that these highly impacted communities do have! 

Lived expertise

We are reminded that, in fact, there are people who have lived through similar times of epidemics and uncertainty and lack of attention. How can we turn toward those who lived through and created through the start of HIV/AIDS? What can we learn from disability rights activists and people living with chronic illness? How can we use this moment to honor the wisdom of those who have related life experience….and pay them for their knowledge?

Slowing

Many of us experienced an extra busy week—our regular work and then we’re being called to use our personal or work leadership to think well about others, to plan for drastically different economic models, and to attend to family and colleagues. Amidst that, I also experienced a sense of radical slowing as I realized that my current pace of life is changing. I had a long business trip planned for March that would have allowed for slowing and I know I was craving that. I am going to ask myself how I can get that need met while staying put. This weekend, I let myself wake when I needed to wake rather than setting an alarm, and I then  settled into each day at a slower pace.

Interconnectedness

There are people who are able and willing to lead with generosity. I spoke with a stranger yesterday who said she had purchased two rolls of paper towels so that she might share one with someone who needs one, even though she had been laid off recently. I’ve asked a family member if he would be willing to help parents working at home with baby sitting if doing so can be done safely for all.

What are the ways that we can continue to connect even if we are not in proximity? What are the ways that we can look at those maps of disease spread and vectors and use it not to become fearful but to see how we are connected globally?

Within a work sphere, we are connecting with others in similar work to share best thinking and talk about everything from joint responses to pooled resources. We are looking at networks that we support and seeing how they are activating for mutual support and for the sharing of ideas. We are asking how we can support one another as colleagues in an increasingly virtual workplace. More on this as it emerges.

Care for our planet

Is there a way to live through this public health moment and not be more aware that our planet needs our attention and love? We should all know about the climate crisis and that shifts in behavior on a massive and structural scale are needed to heal. And, I believe that this global pandemic is a concrete example of what climate crisis in an interconnected world looks like.

Humor

Laughter is curative! I have been relaxed and relieved this week with humor, from hilarious memes about bras as masks and lesbians with lanyards solving the world’s crisis to silly jokes about farting in public as a way to mask a cough. And laughter on the phone with friends and colleagues about the absurdity of the moment. It is helpful that I live with a very funny human being (thank you,son!). 

Not knowing

There is a lot we do know and yet COVID-19 is surely a reminder that so much is emergent and not known. We are reminded that knowing can only happen collectively—from decisions about whether and when to close an office to determining how best to support an organization through challenging times and how best  to support hourly workers, many of whom have no access to benefits. We must think together, more than ever, during these challenging times. I’ve experienced the power of  this all week at work as we navigate in this moment, asking what individuals need, how we can support networks of leaders to think together, and – all along the way – as we remember to admit what we don’t know.

Creativity

Here at IISC we have been interacting virtually more and more over the last two years, facilitating meetings and connection through video applications. Colleagues are generating a lot of ideas and willingness to share knowledge with one another and more broadly with the world. Let’s be creative and equitable, thinking well about how to connect and how to support those most vulnerable in this moment.

And, given that words matter so much, I am adopting a rephrase that I heard this morning from my daughter: Let’s practice physical distancing. Socially, let’s work, think, laugh and slow down together, albeit remotely! Let’s be hyper-connected, spending time with one or two people in our households or our apartment buildings or neighborhoods, connecting by phone and text, with video when possible, and by taking walks and smiling at others along the way

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March 16, 2020

Pandemic: A Poem for These Times

By Liz Ungar, 3/11/2020

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar is a minister for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online congregation for Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals.

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March 13, 2020

Living (and Working Virtually) in Uncertainty

Artist: Prawny

By the time you see this post, you will no doubt have read a lot of reflections on this time of uncertainty. In a recent IISC staff check-in, we lifted up several principles and practices to support our community as we, like so many other organizations, move to largely virtual work. We hope these ideas will provide some comfort and guidance to you, as well.

Lean into relationships.

The COVID19 crisis brings into stark relief an awareness that we’ve long held dear. We are all connected and the well-being of each of us is important to the well-being of all of us. So, first and foremost, we want to lean into our relationships, engaging with our colleagues, clients, and partners as people first. If ever there was a time for people to know how much you care, it’s now.  You can demonstrate that care in very practical ways.

  • Pause and connect. Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a meeting, make space to find out how folks are doing before diving into what they are (or should/shouldn’t be) doing.
  • Think respect. Knowing what we know about human differences and structural inequities, expect that people will have different perspectives and experiences of these uncertain times. Respect will look different for different people. So, upgrade your Golden Rule (do to others as you’d have them do to you) with the Platinum Rule (do to others as they’d have you do to them). Find out what respect and support look like from their point of view.
  • If in doubt, communicate. Connect with people more, not less. Be as clear as you can about actions, risks, policies, and open questions. Be clear about how decisions are being made and when/how contingency plans might go into effect.
  • Pick up the phone to handle tough or emotional conversations. Enhance that with video conferencing whenever possible so folks can see one another.
  • Minimize unnecessary emails to leave room for critical communication.
  • Be a spirit, not a ghost. In other words, let folks know that you’re available. Don’t let virtual work turn into a disappearing act. Reach out to colleagues through whatever communications mechanisms you have at your disposal.

Deepen trust.

Now is a time for us to deepen our trust in both people and the process. When we know who’s around us and what they are about, and when we have confidence that they operate with integrity, transparency, and skillfulness, it’s much easier to trust leaders and the processes that they facilitate.

  • Continue to tap into one another’s strengths as individuals and as a collective. Remind yourself of what you and others are good at. Connect to folks within your network who are good at different things from you.
  • Trust the process. This is often easier said than done. It’s easier to do work in community when we trust our leaders and have experienced their commitment to transparency and to our core values. Here are some of IISC’s core values:
    • Shared power: People have a right to be involved in the decisions that affect them so they have influence over the quality of their lives
    • Love: We believe in the dignity of all human beings and in taking care of each other and of our planet. Love is a force for social change.
    • Accountability: We align our work with frontline and grassroots communities of color most impacted by racism in general and this crisis in particular. 

Take appropriate actions.

  • Take care of yourself so you can take care of people around you. If ever there were a time to “put on your own mask before helping others,” as the airlines advise in an emergency, it’s now. Everything we can do to stay healthy makes us able to resist the virus, reduce the likelihood of spreading it, and be in a position to support others at work, at home, and in our communities.
  • Take risks for what we might do. As a small organization, we face economic and other risks, just like every other nonprofit, foundation, and small company. We may need to take some financial or other risks in order to support our colleagues and serve our clients in these times.
  • Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. While it’s important to be prudent and thorough, we don’t want to be immobilized by a false expectation that we can act with perfection. In fact, that expectation is a marker of white supremacy culture that we’d do well to abandon in general, and especially in these times. Let’s figure out what “good” looks like and move forward.

An addendum: Given the specific conversation we were having as a staff, we didn’t discuss several very common sense and justice-oriented actions beyond our work community. Here are a few other important actions that we can take as individuals and as a society.

  • Keep yourself informed about how to avoid spreading the virus. The CDC’s guidance for individuals and businesses is a good place to start. If you see something in social media that’s hard to believe (or if it’s new, outrageous, and too easy to believe), be sure to fact-check it before heading the advice or sharing it with others. Start with the World Health Organization’s Myth Busters page and sites like Snopes.com.
  • Support mutual-aid efforts in your community. Check with your local Black Lives Matter chapter for starters.*
  • Support the hourly workers in your life and community. “Tip outrageously if you are out. Say, ‘This is for the tips I know you’re missing right now.’ Call your hair stylist if you’re not coming in like usual. Ask how they are doing. Send your tip or the cost of your haircut via Venmo.*
  • Advocate for government action. Remember that our government is supposed to be of, by, and for the people. Let your local, state, and national representatives know what you and your community need. Advocate for school districts to keep feeding children even if schools are closed. Insist that evictions be halted during the emergency and help people find support if they face eviction. Insist that water and utility shut-offs be halted during the emergency. Help people connect with legal aid if needed in these situations. Support efforts to provide economic relief to hourly workers and small businesses. Insist that everyone needs access to health care and all workers need paid sick leave. “Call and … talk as long as you want. Tell whoever answers the phone that you think healthcare should be for everyone. Now more than ever.”* See this list of demands from organizers for even more concrete things to demand from the government to protect the public and especially the most vulnerable members of our communities in these times.**

*Thanks to Jen Lemen for these ideas. Check out her post 31 Things You Can Do in the Time of Corona Virus for even more.

** Thanks to our friends at Change Elemental for this. See more ideas in their message, With Care

Cultivate a strategic, collaborative mindset.

Human actions are driven by a complex set of factors, including how we are thinking, how we are feeling, and the relationship between the two. In times of uncertainty, we want to lean into a few essential aspects of the collaborative mindset. 

  • Assume the best. Without overlooking the difference between intent and impact, we also want to make the generous assumption that everyone is doing their best to show up and contribute.
  • Offer and receive grace. If people make mistakes, offend, cause harm, or miss opportunities to do good, we want to offer grace and forgiveness. This isn’t an effort to erase the harm or error. Rather, it’s an offer to see the whole person and support them as they correct or repair. If we are the ones making the mistakes or causing harm, we invite ourselves to be gentle with ourselves, avoid self-shaming, and graciously receive grace that is offered by our colleagues.
  • See challenges as opportunities and growth.Like “trust the process,” this is not new advice. And yet, in these times, it’s especially important to look for opportunities as we survey the landscape. We’re asking questions like: How can we move important work forward without face-to-face gatherings? How can we share our particular strengths in this moment? How can we repurpose “found time” that will no longer be used for workshops or convenings so that we can advance projects that have been waiting for time and attention? How can we improve our communications and deepen our relationships?

When we introduce IISC’s Dimensions of Success framework, we point out that the goal is for leaders to balance their attention on results, process, and relationship over time. The corollary is that sometimes, as collaborative leaders, we need to focus more heavily on one dimension than the others. In these times, it’s hard to overdo the focus on relationships. And, if we’re going to achieve the results we are seeking to manifest in the world, it’s essential that we build or strengthen our processes so that they are sturdy enough to carry us through these tough times.

So, as you go about your day-to-day work, and even as that work is interrupted and transformed, we hope that you’ll hold tight to the people around you, stand firm on your values, and take the actions you can to mitigate the crisis. Let’s all strive to water seeds of hope and nurture the seedlings of possibility, wherever we find them.   

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