Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a state-wide health equity network, comprised of smaller coalitions, that has been looking at living into being more of a network in thinking and action. After some conversation and consideration, we decided to use a framework that derives from the writings of Madeleine Taylor and Pete Plastrik.
The Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action/Production framework (see graphic above) lifts up three different network modes, through which value and impact is created. First of all, network value and impact is grounded at a fundamental level in creating connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; closing triangles, 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 might happen is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better.
“Healthy networks measure their impact, in particular by establishing the links between decentralized network action and outcomes.“
Up a level, networks may be compelled to create some kind of collective and aligned commitment or value proposition in the form of shared vision, values, public statements, etc. This can create greater impact/ripples, and provide additional value to individual participants and self-organized efforts, as they are more prone to head in the same general direction or with some kind of deeper shared understanding of context.
And then there are those instances when there is a call to some form of collective action, such as advocacy, a communications campaign, fundraising, or some other co-produced venture. This can happen even as smaller self-organized action continues (really, from a network perspective, most collective action should be about creating the conditions for those self-organized efforts, which is what is meant by “making the periphery the norm” in network building lingo).
With all of this in mind, after doing interviews, some observation, as well as evaluations and other documentation from the sub-networks of this state-wide advocacy network, a few patterns seemed to surface that suggested ways for the network to strengthen itself and leverage network effects.
Here is a list of what was surfacing as opportunities seen through the C-A-CA/P lens:
In the calls that the network does with its members, there appeared to be more of a one-directional download of information from staff (the hub) to its members (the periphery). And in various documents there appeared to be some suggestion that people were not connecting except through the hub. Furthermore, an annual report said that state partners expressed a desire to know more about one another’s capabilities, constituencies, and connections. All of this suggested an opportunity for creating greater CONNECTIVITY, especially member-to-member.
In an interview the observation was made that on membership calls there were often the same people speaking while others were silent. This suggested that greater CONNECTIVITY could be created for those who were less outspoken and silent. There appeared to be some correlation between those who were longer standing members (more outspoken) and those who were new to the network (more quiet).
In assessments of meetings, comments were made that while people appreciate the great information and education they receive, they were also eager to meet, learn from and strategize with one another. This again suggested an opportunity to strengthen member-to-member CONNECTIVITY.
Questions had come up about whether relationships with state and county lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and others might be better maximized for trust and information sharing. Another area to explore strengthening CONNECTIVITY to and among those stakeholder groups.
Related to the above, while the network’s political capital was appreciated by many members, there were also questions about democratizing that power, and helping members to be more involved in the legislative process. This suggested that beyond creating greater CONNECTIVITY among members, there might be some opportunity to provide COORDINATION support to enhance access.
“Clusters” of members in certain parts of the state had been mentioned in interviews and documents. It was observed that in one region, there is some evidence of people getting tighter and that in another region, organizations were using lists to get together. This lifted up the question about more intentional CONNECTIVITY and ALIGNMENT that the network might suggest or provide to those existing and other potential clusters to strengthen their advocacy work.
An annual report identified some expressed concern about the challenge with creating alignment among collation partners on behavioral health priorities, and that “collective buy-in” and “intentional relationship building” will be key to establishing alignment. This is another reason to keep building that trust and CONNECTIVITY and also to explore actively facilitating ALIGNMENT around core priorities.
It was shared in staff interviews that there have been questions from members about the network’s long-term vision – “Where are you trying to go?” This raised some possible opportunities to facilitate ALIGNMENT around a shared, guiding and galvanizing vision with members.
Related to the above, the suggestion was raised around exploring he coalescing of sub-networks to consolidate and create more ALIGNMENT and COORDINATION between those separate coalitions.
And here is what was offered as a set of initial recommendations:
Consider the points above and if there is agreement among staff about where to weave greater connectivity, facilitate alignment and/or coordinate activity in different domains. Specifically: Who needs to be better connected and what would that achieve? Would alignment around a shared vision and high-level goals be helpful? Who would need to be aligned?
As these opportunities are identified, consider existing network (staff) capacity to provide weaving, facilitation and coordination support. Where and how might this capacity be added or developed?
Think about ways to create greater connectivity within existing calls, meetings and trainings. For example, have a check-in question; invite people to share news, victories, needs; break people into pairs and smaller group discussions; create open space for people to explore interests and opportunities to work together.
Consider creating a toolkit and perhaps a training for building relationships and maximizing connections in networks.
Reach out to less out-spoken and newer coalition members to see if there is anything that would support their participation. Related to this, make sure there is an on-boarding process for new members so that they feel up-to-date and know how to participate.
To gauge “network impact,” follow up with members to see what they do with the content, capacity and connections they get from calls. Are they able to leverage these for greater impact in their communities and regions to create “ripple effects”?
Reach out to other networks to see how they go about democratizing power and opportunity in a network. In addition, look to other groups across the state to see how they are working with grassroots groups to mobilize around policy.
Consider having an open conversation with member organizations about how to strengthen the sub-networks (coalitions) as a network. What ideas do they have? This might include giving them some overview of networks and network effects/impacts.
Consider conducting an assessment to find and leverage “network champions.” Are there certain members who are particularly enthusiastic about and active in network activity and might be ambassadors for the collective work? Might they be more formally enlisted as network weavers?
Consider the virtual tools currently used for keeping members connected (virtual meeting platforms, shared files and documents, archives, private group pages). Are they working? Are people taking full advantage of them? Is there additional value they are looking for that might be provided by other tools?
Consider using a more formal network assessment to look for strengths and areas for growth and improvement in the network’s structures and practices. This could be conducted among staff alone and also include key partners. Examples include “Network Effectiveness: Diagnostic and Development Tool”, “Partnership Self-Assessment Tool” and “Network Health Scorecard.”
“Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things – the people on the edge see them first.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
I have used the above quote in a number of cases to illustrate a network principle of thinking and action – Don’t get stuck in the core, make the periphery the norm. As we come to the end of 2020 (as arbitrary as that calendrical designation may be), I am thinking about Vonnegut’s words in different and perhaps more expansive ways.
Seemingly many of us have been asked to live (in some cases, even further out) on any number of edges over the past several months – political, economic, psychological, social, spiritual. While exciting in certain cases, it has also been quite exhausting and for some it has been a push to and over the brink.
It is also the case that many have woken or are waking up to the realization that life can only continue in some form or fashion at various edges, especially in times of considerable change. The Aboriginal artist and complexity scientist Tyson Yunkaporta reminds us that from an indigenous perspective –
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
And it would seem we are at an apocalyptic moment, if we take that term to mean a great revelation, along with a call for reckoning, healing and re-creation. “The Great Turning,” maybe, allowing that transitions take us to the edge, because that is where qualitative growth lies.
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”
– Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader)
Earlier this year I joined a beautiful community stewarded by Joe Weston, which has been brought together by a common desire to cultivate deeper shared capacity among people for what Joe calls “respectful confrontation” and “fierce civility.” The Weston Network is grounded in a set of practices drawn from martial arts, mindfulness and somatics, which help practitioners cultivate four core pillars – grounding, focus, strength and flexibility. These pillars support people to express and get their needs met in ways that can contribute to co-evolution (my word, not Joe’s), or mutualistic growth in groups and communities. I can really vouch for the power and the personal test of the practice!
A helpful concept that Joe introduced back in March at an in-person workshop, just before things started to close down because of COVID, was the idea that our individual and collective growth is found at “the resilient edge of our resistance.” The idea is that people tend to be resistant at the edges of their comfort zones, for some good reasons. And yet it is also true that staying hunkered down is not always helpful, and may even be dangerous. People also have the capacity to become more resilient at and over the edges of their perceived comfort zone. Life, in fact, requires this!
“Evolution is what happens when patterns that used to define survival become deadly.”
– Nora Bateson (filmmaker, writer, regenerative thinker and educator)
Through the Weston Network, I have been learning more about how to read resistance and sense its invitations beyond, “Don’t move. stay safe!” … feeling these messages in my body and a complex mixes of emotions, along with the dynamism of dancing on different edges. Resistance when met with a combination of respect, rootedness, receptivity, and recreation can build muscle, confidence, and open up new possibilities. How many people have I heard say that one thing they have learned this year is that they are in fact stronger and more adaptive than they might have thought? Or that they have found meaningful connection in struggle and disruption?
“We don’t have to resist entropy … or push the river. We just need to learn how to get out of the way and cooperate with the direction.”
As I have gone and been pushed to my growing edges this year, seen myself and the world from new vantage points, and tasted “resilient power” (Joe Weston’s words), I’ve been contemplating what this looks like as collective practice. And I’ve been dabbling a bit with both the Weston Network practices as well as those of the PROSOCIAL community in a few different groups and networks.
The ACT Matrix (see above) is a tool that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them, along with aligned behaviors, as a way of laying a foundation for transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. In essence, this helps to normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
I’m eager in the new year to lean more into these different practices with others, knowing that more of us are moving with intention into the “omega” (release) and “alpha” (reorganize) phases of the adaptive cycle (see below). While letting go and stepping into the unknown may not be a very compelling invitation to everyone, I’m hoping that the prospect of finding our resilient power and cultivating regenerative futures will be incentive to keep moving to meet, greet and play on our edges.
I am struck by how the network building and weaving field has really mushroomed over the past several years, and with it, so much learning around approaches, structures, roles, strategy, etc. I regularly hear myself say that there is no one right way to go about “net work” for change (which is why I regularly reference this compendium of thoughts on networks – “A Network Way of Working”). That said, I have found that “principles” (for lack of a better word) for network thinking and action have been helpful in a number of different contexts to support people in finding ways to leverage the promise of networks (or “network effects”).
This is a list that I continue to play with, expanding and contracting given new learning and different contexts. I recently offered the following version to a food system network. Always open to riffs and improvements …
Come First as Givers, Not Takers – Of course people should think about their self-interest, but if everyone holds out for what they are going to get, then nothing gets created in the first place. Generosity leads to generativity.
Support Intricacy & Flow, Beyond Bottlenecks & Hoarding – Many kinds of connection and robust movement of resources of all kinds is what contributes to the adaptive and regenerative capacity of networks.
Make the Periphery the Norm, Don’t Get Stuck in the Core – In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things–the people on the edge see them first.”
Work with Others and/or Out Loud, Not in Isolation – Otherwise, what is the point of creating a network?! Connect, cooperate, coordinate, collaborate, and for God’s sake, share!
Value Contributions Before Credentials – Valuable contributions come from all kinds of places and people. Credentials and holding out for a certain kind of “expertise” can get in the way of seeing the greater abundance around you, and benefitting from it.
Lead with Love and a Sense of Abundance, Not Fear and Scarcity – Fear and scarcity narrow our view, shrink our thinking about what is possible, and inhibit our willingness to share. Love is love and does what love does.
Think Spread and Depth Before Scale – Because it’s easier in many ways, can avoids mechanical/replication thinking, and helps to establish a more firm foundation (think roots under the tree).
Support Resilience and Redundancy Instead of Rock Stardom – Because we aren’t all that special and because its not strategic to put all eggs in one basket, however shiny. And then there’s the ego thing …
Trust in Self-Organization & Emergence, Not Permission & Predictability – COVID19 is driving this lesson home, big time. We are not in control. Life is complex, and beautifully so. Evolution is real, and so is people’s capacity to be response-able when they are trusted.
Say “We’re the Leaders!” Instead of “Who is the Leader?” – Who and what are you waiting for? And why?
Do What You Do Best and Connect to the Rest – Stop trying to do it all. It’s not possible, it creates unnecessary competition and it inhibits collaborative efficiencies (yes, they exist).
Attract a Diverse Flock, Not Birds of a Feather – Homophily (like being attracted to like) is a strong tendency in people. In network speak, we should not simply bond, but also bridge. This is important for the wok of equity and inclusion, tapping creativity and innovation, and and tasting spice in Life.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
As you navigate the complex times of COVID-19 and racial uprising, consider what it would take to transition through these four dimensions, what needs to be in place, what is already in place, and what we need to reimagine and rebuild.
1 – In the Trauma Dimension: How are we responding to the impact of trauma from COVID, racism, and other shocks?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we removing racialized barriers to emergency resources?
Are we using a racial equity impact analysis tool to understand and evaluate our response? Even when we feel rushed?
Are we recognizing deep racial harm in our organization and networks?
Are we pausing and engaging in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement to guide our responses and ensure less harm?
Are we attending to both relationships and results as we carry out our work?
Are we acting and responding with humility, empathy, and transparency?
Are we practicing presence and accountability?
Are we connecting with diverse networks to gather and share information and foster flows to address critical needs?
2 – In the Reckoning Dimension: How are we grappling with deep distress and the reality of shifting resources? How are we embracing racial uprisings for change? How are we embracing uncertainty?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we acknowledging inequities revealed by crisis?
Are we acting to undo the racialized impacts of our actions?
How are we recognizing the leadership of Black people and what are the lessons for our organizations?
A couple of months ago I was invited by Visible Network Labs to give a presentation to the Network Leadership Training Academy on regenerative networks. This was of course done virtually, and I was already wanting to not simply present or talk about the topic, but invite people into some kind of embodiment of it (given regeneration is about bringing life to life!). And so here is how I, along with a team of collaborators, invited people in …
We began with a truncated grounding practice that I received from The Weston Network/Respectful Confrontation community, which invites people to align their energetic center (gut), heart and mind, while cultivating deeper connection to self, surrounding and others. At its best, this practice boosts life force (chi) and gets energy and emotion flowing within and between people. Indications from the Zoom chat afterwards were that a number of people were indeed “rejuvenated” by the practice.
Then we showed a video for the song “The Play” by Minnesota-based singer songwriter Peter Mayer. The imagery is very evocative of the grandeur of life and the lyrics invite the listener/watcher to consider their role as both observer of and participant in this amazing show of creation and evolution. What do you feel moving for you as you take this in? See below:
Then we moved on to a group read (by the diverse, ad hoc and spontaneously named Regenerative Network Players) of a number of quotes that connect to these themes of networks, life, flow and evolution. People were then invited into trios to meet one another and share what caught their attention in one or more of these quotes and why. Inviting you to do the same:
“We are the living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile.” – Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light,” Penobscot lawyer and activist, author of Sacred Instructions)
“Life did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking.” – Lynn Margulis (evolutionary theorist, biologist, science author, educator, and science popularizer)
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world.” – Toni Morrison
“We must create civilization(s) for equitable human wellbeing within a healthy biosphere. Since our thinking produced self-inflicted existential threats, the main challenge is to find a practical way to reconcile our thinking with the logic of life.” – all-women Emerging New Civilization(s) panel. United Nations
“The basic pattern of organization of a living system is the network. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs, i.e. networks of organisms; organisms are networks of cells, and cells are networks of molecules. More precisely, a living system is a self-generating network within a boundary of its own making. Each component of the network helps to transform and replace other components, and thus the entire network continually creates, or recreates, itself.” – Fritjof Capra (scientist, educator, activist)
“Ultimately there is no independent heroic ego, only the collective work of sustaining and evolving life by reshaping the relationships between the community and its larger context.” – Carol Sanford (thought leader, regenerative “resource,” author)
“As we learn to become better observers of our aliveness, we can more fully participate in our evolution as human beings and generate sustainable action or change that is aligned with what we care about.” – Eunice Aquilina (somatic and leadership coach, author)
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.” – Joel Glanzberg
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.” – Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader)
From there, we moved into a brief presentation on regenerative networks, with some of the following points:
Networks are the underlying structure of life.
That said, there is sometimes not much life or liveliness in our human networks, and sometimes they can even become deadly.
We might think of many of the problems we face in this world as being linked to the difference (as Gregory Bateson once put it) between the way humans think and the way the rest of nature works.
A key going forward is getting back in right relationship with the rest of life, and to align with the processes of regeneration.
Regeneration points us to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that living systems (including us) use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time, as well as their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening, circumstances …
Long-term human thriving is rooted in large part in healthy socio-ecological webs that are diverse, intricate and dynamic.
We also talked about how stories can help point us in the right directions, including a growing number of cases of the practices of ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture (see below).
“What do these stories inspire in our thinking about how we might live and practice in our human networks?” we asked.
And amidst these stories of regenerative practice taking root and growing in different places, we also looked at how these approaches have impacted individual human beings, their life and liveliness. For example, research shows the following:
With the hope and and excitement that these kinds of revelations generate, we then presented a set of measures and design features that might help cultivate greater regenerative potential in and through people’s networks, with some time to discuss what most resonated:
There was not nearly enough time to process all of this very deeply, or to look at a list of network cultivation practices we had at the ready, but we did hear growing curiosity about what it would mean to intentionally focus on developing regenerative potential at the individual, group and larger systemic levels in a variety of contexts, which has expressed itself in follow-up emails and conversations.
Hoping the same will be the case here, if you feel so inspired. What’s moving for you now?
Note: This blog was authored as a framework to assist leaders moving people and organizations through COVID-19. Shortly after it was written, the racial uprisings of 2020 began after the many deaths of Black people in the United States. We have since updated this framework to bridge the approaches we believe are necessary for navigating both COVID-19 and racial injustice. Please view this blog and new resource.
As we find ourselves rowing in uncharted, uncertain, and scary waters, feeling like we’re up against waves of deep tension and crisis, we know that we need to row together in new and deeply collaborative ways. Yet under current conditions, many leaders are overwhelmed with concern about their own organizations; their staff, volunteers, Board, constituencies, and networks. We are all problem solving minute-to-minute and facing many critical decisions – decisions which could determine if people have a source of income, if they will receive essential services, and, indeed, even if they will remain healthy and alive.
We need to support leaders at all levels – individually, organizationally, and at the level of the ecosystem of networks around them – to work strategically and collaboratively in this critical moment. We are using IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens, to harness the power of collaboration by focusing on love, racial equity, and networks. We are supporting leaders online, and will eventually support them in-person (yes, that day will come), to plan and move through the stages of transformation offered in this framework during the pandemic and beyond.
Organizations, communities, networks, and even individuals may experience these stages in linear ways. Or, they may dip in and out of the stages at different times as they move through challenges and opportunities. We are supporting them to shift from emergency responses to creating conditions for resilient futures that create regenerative and equitable systems that are sustainable for the longer-term. This includes helping individuals and groups “do what they do best and connect to the rest,” and to act in networked ways to strengthen response and movement.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
Facilitate rapid problem-solving and decision-making in the face of immediate needs, heightened risk, chaos, and/or uncertainty.
Focus on relationships and results for rapid decision-making and crisis management
Engage in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement of those impacted by critical and consequential decisions to generate effective responses.
Ground all decisions in what is best for our shared humanity and fate.
Act and respond with love, humility, empathy, and transparency.
Let those in critical need know they are not alone.
Show up with and model presence and focus.
Avoid “savior syndrome” and respect the dignity and voice of those most in need in the moment.
Recommit to racial equity practices and approaches from the organization’s past that can build resiliency.
Anticipate and remove racialized barriers to accessing emergency resources and uniquely tailor responses to account for historic inequities to eliminate disparities in the emergency response.
Foster connectivity and flows between leaders in various sectors and ecosystems to gather and share information, understand the current reality, and respond to complex problems.
Tap into diverse networks to address critical needs and discover new possibilities.
Eliminate bottlenecks and liberate the flow of critical resources.
Grapple with the reality of fewer resources and more distress within the organization/community.
“What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit – and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization – is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.”
Elinor Ostrom (1996) Governing the Commons
“…there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as ‘decision making’ or ‘policy’ or ‘strategy.’ Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled ‘decision maker.’”
James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds
Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop for one of the sub-networks of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network focused on food access (including food justice and racial equity). Farm to Plate is moving into a second decade of work and looking to refresh its strategic work and structure (version 2.0). As part of this move, various members are interested in how they can engage others more robustly and/or responsibly in their work, including those who are negatively impacted by the current system (those living with hunger and in poverty, struggling farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, etc.). The workshop was designed around some core IISC collaborative frameworks, which participants applied to their work in pairs and small groups, and it also elicited different participatory methods that those in the room were already using or aware of.
One of the operating assumptions in the workshop was that engagement and participation can and should look different in different situations, and that more is not necessarily better. Rather, it is important to get clear on the aims of an initiative, carefully consider who the key stakeholders are, weigh various factors (time, complexity, readiness, power dynamics, etc.) and think about timing and different phases of the work. Doing this kind of due diligence can help to clarify when and where on a spectrum of engagement options different individuals and groups might fall (see below for some examples).
For the last segment of the workshop, we explored a variety of participatory models and methods, and here is some of what came up (specifically considering the context of Vermont food systems work).
Rural Vermont (community organizing, sociocracy as a form of governance)
Migrant Justice (community organizing, Milk With Dignity Campaign, sociocracy as a form of governance)
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.
I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.
And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.
In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.
Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.
In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.
From conversation and reflection with participants:
Connection is a social determinant of health.
Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)
Additional resources to consult:
The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.
In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.
I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).
Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.
It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.
It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:
Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.
“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”
I’ve been observing the role of Mercury’s retrograde on my systems. Paying attention to my thoughts and feelings, the shifts and entrenchments. Lately I’ve been feeling a bit stuck. Or to use another metaphor, a bit ungrounded. It’s easy given the flow of information, the speed of communication, and the function of social media to feel pulled in many different directions. In addition, as a consultant, balancing the priorities of several clients at a time can often make it difficult to focus. When this happens I try to strengthen the consistency of my meditation practice and focus on my personal and professional goals to provide a guidepost for my actions.
I realized as I sat in meditation the past few mornings that my sense of purpose had been unattended to for a while. No wonder I felt scattered or ungrounded. Having a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of what I feel committed to and associated goals provides an important filter or straight line through all of the choices I face daily and helps to ground and retain focus. So I’ve been reflecting on purpose, leaning in to what is resonating for me in my conversations with colleagues and what is I am feeling called to in the movement. I’ve also been thinking about what threads together the work I am doing at IISC and my cultural work with Intelligent Mischief.
My commitment, or purpose, is to engage in transformation of myself and others towards liberation. This work aligns with what I do at IISC by supporting the self-empowerment of transformational leaders and by creating possibility for liberatory organizations that can really bring about the social transformation…that world, that speaks of, that “on a quiet day we can hear her breathing.” It also aligns with my work at Intelligent Mischief by cultivating a cultural shift that makes this transformation irresistible through the use of popular culture.
I reflected on what principles underscore this transformation for me…principles we can embody now at all levels to move us in the direction of liberation.
I see this transformation being underscored by a shift from isolation to interdependence, from exploitation to love, from extraction to regeneration & healing, from disconnection to community, from competition to collaboration, from exclusive ownership to the commons, from othering to belonging…and there are certainly many more.
These principles exist currently in practice but are overshadowed by the dominant culture especially at macro levels of society. Capitalism, our current dominant economic system, has been built on the principles that we are transitioning away from. The transformation of this system thus requires creating new systems based on the principles that we are transitioning towards. The question is, how do we expand these principles?
What can be our role at IISC in supporting leaders to develop practices that embody this transformation? In building structures that prefigure this transformation? And what is the transition in alignment with those principles that we ourselves must make as an organization?
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
– T.S. Eliot
For the past few weeks I have been re-reading the book Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. I am deeply grateful for Daniel’s gift, a rich distillation of his PhD thesis that points in the direction of a more sane, hopeful and health-promoting future. Regenerative development is a broad body of study and practice that informs much of my own thinking about and practice around social change. A fundamental recognition of the regenerative lens is that in order to live we harvest from the larger living systems (communities, ecosystems) of which we are a part in such a way that can weaken them, and can put us at risk. Regenerative thinking and practice then asks:
What might we do not simply to wreck less havoc or do less harm, but to leverage the natural connections we have with living systems to contribute to the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of people, places, and ecosystems?