Posted in Social Innovation

September 13, 2021

Weave Back Better: Investing in Network Weaving as Part of Core Infrastructure

I was recently in conversation about the creation of a systems change programmatic offering for funders and nonprofit leaders, and as the discussion turned to the “once in a generation” billions of dollars investment from the US federal government into states and towns, a thought occurred more clearly. Part of “building back better” is weaving back better, connecting and reconnecting the social and cultural fabric of places and communities. This work could fall to official and unofficial “network weavers,” in places that are so inclined, and perhaps there is a need to make this work more official, visible and well supported/compensated.

At a time when many are disengaged from work because of disenchantment, uncertainty and burnout, what could be more engaging than being paid to build trust, facilitate communication and learning, and weave more functional, equitable, resilient and democratic structures of all kinds? A Civic Weaving Corps (CWC)!!!

A few years ago I worked with a place-based multi-organizational collaborative initiative in Massachusetts with a focus on health and fitness. What they recognized is that there was not nearly enough interstitial tissue between organizations and agencies, so that beneficiaries of the system were dropping through gaps or confused about how to navigate. Relying on existing staff to do this was not realistic (except for the energetic few who then risked burnout, or not doing their “day job” well). The same came up in a national education network, where school coaches were discovered to be playing a crucial weaving role between schools within and across regions. This, however, was not what they were formally paid to do, and so it was the first thing to go when people got pressed.

So what if part of Build Back Better lifted up the strong suggestion that cities, towns, states and regions take seriously the importance of weaving activity, and officially supported the creation of network weaver positions (called that or something else contextually meaningful)? Isn’t this the time? What if we really took this opportunity to promote relational stewardship at different scales as being central to ensuring long-term human thriving? While there is some risk to institutionalizing anything, this seems to be worth doing so that it becomes more of a habit and value in systems. And certainly institutionalizing network weaving behaviors in many more positions might help to create the regenerative flows and resilient structures needed for a just and sustainable future.

There could be many models for this. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Ambassador Program. This team of passionate and skillful weavers takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity in food and related systems to communities across the region. They work together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda. 

What do you think? Where is this happening already? How might we advance this as a cause collectively?

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July 30, 2021

Rules of the Road for Change Agents

Image by Eddi

We recently wrapped up a series of workshops for members of the Wallace Center‘s Food Systems Leadership Network focused on Organizational Change for Racial Justice (OCRJ), which was adapted from our IISC workshop Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (ARJ). This offer was made by IISC under the auspices of The Wallace Center’s CORE Project, and with generous support from the Garfield Foundation. It was a wonderful and challenging experience for our collective Wallace/IISC team, as we welcomed representatives from 21 different food systems-focused organizations from around the US, along with a talented group of 16 small group facilitators who had participated in a customized Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work (FFRJW). That made for over 80 participants over 4 four-hour sessions, that took people from fundamental DEIJ concepts to change process design work to anticipating inevitable roadblocks and detours. We deeply appreciated how people showed up and went along for the ride, giving us helpful feedback along the way, and ultimately sharing all that they had taken that sets them up with a stronger foundation to do the work.

As we wrapped up our final session, my colleague Erika Strong shared an excerpt from a piece by Herbert A. Shephard, “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents,” which appeared in the OD Practitioner in December 1984. It has appeared by permission in our course Collaborative Social Change: Designing for Impact in a Networked World. And we now include it in many of our racial justice trainings as a way of bringing focus back from systems to individual and groups of change agents, and what can support them in doing this work over the long haul. These are re-shared below with some additional commentary.

  1. Stay alive, literally and figuratively. The work is indeed long and often hard. And it can also have its moments of joy and satisfaction, as we experience connection and development of different kinds. But this does not happen if we are not enlivened, or breathing, in a deeper sense. Self and community care is crucial.
  2. Start where the system is. This is about getting clear-eyed about where things actually are, which comes not just from an initial assessment, but over time, especially as people try to do things differently. Action is certainly about trying to make change, and it is also about nudging living organizational/social systems to see how they respond, so that we better understand defenses, patterns, logic, etc. Starting from where the system is not can waste valuable energy.
  3. Speaking of energy conservation, another guideline is to Never work uphill.
    • Don’t build hills as you go. Don’t make the work more difficult than it needs to be, or too insurmountable for people. It is not easy to begin with, requires stretches, but putting people in panic or overwhelm mode does not help. Use accessible language, make clear asks, try not to overly trigger people’s defenses.
    • Work in the most promising areas. Look for early wins. Because this always inspires confidence, that change is possible, and it can build a sense of accomplishment and community. Don’t try and tackle it all. We encourage people to start with a couple of areas in their organization/community/network where you can start and then build/connect.
    • Build capacity. Don’t go it alone. Build your team! As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” Start with your core/design/equity team. Let them become a model for the rest of the organization. And share transparently about how you are working, as there is much to be gained from trying to create network effects through this work.
    • Don’t over-organize. Don’t fall into the trap of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Yes, get necessary supports in place. Yes, do some initial assessment and grounding, and then know that a lot of the learning will come through acting, trying out different things, and iterating as you go. And you want to leave place for others to add their ideas and initiative.
    • Be bold. Doing this will send important signals to those around you, be a “chaotic attractor” of sorts, will help you identify allies and some of the strongest blockers. And given the many roadblocks that come up, boldness is an important energetic counter, especially when held by an even small but mighty group.
  4. Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends. The idea for change does not need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough” (reasonably well informed), have legs (can be put into action) and people who are willing to try it out.
  5. Load experiments for success. This connects to much of what appears above, along with being as clear-eyed as possible about what is actually happening in any given system in any given moment.
  6. Light many fires. Don’t rely on only one intervention or one place in a system to create change. A few interventions in different places, especially when connected, can help create ripples of change over time.
  7. Keep an optimistic bias. Negativity bias is real, and can help us to be both realistic and to survive. And it can also quickly kill ideas and initiatives outside of “the norm.” Part of the value of finding a few friends to move things forward is developing a core group that can maintain and spread an attitude of positivity and possibility.
  8. Capture the moment. Timing may or may not be everything, yet is can matter immensely. Staying tuned in, in both a collective and holistic sense, to what is changing and where energy might be shifting and effort applied is key to being able to nudge living systems in more just, prosocial, and sustainable directions. And it turns out, there is something of a science around “when” decisions.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and we are always eager to hear what you would add.

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April 13, 2021

Embracing Perpetual Beta: Leaning Into Life, Learning and Livelihood in the Network Age

Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.

I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.

“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”

“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”

“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”

“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”

“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”

Image from andressolo

“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”

– Shaun Coffey

“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”

“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”

“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”

“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”

“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”

“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

– Donella Meadows

“Change the business models and change the world.”

“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”

“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”

“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”

“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”

Image from igarashi.edward

“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”

– Nicholas Christakis

“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”

“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”

“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”

“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”

“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”

Image from Yogendra Joshi

“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”

– Jeremy Johnson

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October 17, 2020

“Lean Weaving”: Creating Networks for a Future of Resilience and Regeneration

I’m fInishing up David Fleming’s book Surviving the Future, and buzzing with ideas and questions about the role of networks, network weaving and energy network science in these times of “systemic release” (see the adaptive cycle above, and more about the cycle here).

Fleming’s book, a curated collection of essays from the heftier Lean Logic, offers some compelling thinking about the trajectory of globalized and national economies – at best de-coupling, de-growth, and regeneration, and at worst catastrophic collapse – and the ways in which intentional and more localized culture building and reclamation as well as capacity conservation, development and management, might steer communities to healthier and more whole places post-market economy.

One of my favorite quotes from Fleming is that large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large scale framework. That resonated immediately, even if I didn’t know exactly what he meant when I first read it. Re-reading more carefully, I hear Fleming making the argument that to take on systemic breakdown at scale is a fool’s errand – too massive, too slow, too much rigidity to deal with, too much potential conflict, too abstracted from real places and people.

Instead what is required is more nimble small-scale solutions happening iteratively and quickly (relative to how slow things move at larger levels). This suggests that action for resilience must happen at more local and regional levels, connecting diverse players in place, helping to encourage more robust exchanges of all kinds (including multiple “currencies”) and culture building. David Fleming offers the following definition of the lean economy (as opposed to the taut perpetual growth economy): “an economy held together by richly-developed social capital and culture, and organized around the rediscovery of community.” How might we weave that fabric even as others unravel?

Lean (network) weaving (a new term?) would focus on helping to create more intricate, high quality/high trust and diverse connections as well as facilitating robust, nourishing flows in tighter and more grounded cycles and systems. Part of the lean weaving would entail ensuring that smaller systems remain alert, quick and flexible so as to experiment, learn and adapt. And it would also maintain connection and communication between these smaller systems/clusters (Fleming’s “larger framework”), to facilitate learning and feedback of various kinds between them (not unlike proposed bioregional learning centers).

“The more flexible the sub-systems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole.”

David Fleming

This idea of “lean weaving” also brings to mind the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections we have. Connectivity, like so much else in our mainstream economy and culture, can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative that is not strategic or sustainable and can cheat us of quality in favor of quantity.

More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if we are spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how we mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”

The COVID19 pandemic along with other mounting challenges may already be presenting the mandate and opportunity to get more keen and lean in our network thinking and weaving, not simply in the spirit of austerity and regression, but to cut an evolutionary path of resilience and regeneration (renewal). Network weavers of all kinds, what are you seeing and doing in this respect?

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September 27, 2020

Network Weaving in a Time of Breaking, Unraveling and Hunkering Down

For the past month I’ve been checking in with a dozen or so networks that I support and participate in in various ways, looking at how best to navigate these times when in some cases it feels there may be a need to ratchet down or right size expectations. With so much in flux and uncertain, with many new challenges and barriers to how people may have operated in the past, when the impulse might be to pull back or bunker down, what can weavers/coordinators do, what are they doing, to keep their networks and net/collective work vital?

Below is a list of some ideas and practices that I am seeing, hearing, and trying myself, in the name of maintaining baseline connectivity, alignment and coordinated momentum. No one of them is necessarily the “right answer” in every situation, everything being context-dependent and also needing to suit the particular nature and situation of specific networks. And having shared some of these with others, I’ve heard these can be helpful for anyone now working virtually or in-person in times of greater stress. Curious to know what resonates, and what you would add!

  • Bring an open heart to network interactions. People are feeling a lot in these times. It can be important to allow for and acknowledge this.
  • Let people know you are thinking of and appreciate them. One of the practices out there that I’ve seen and am leaning into is people sending “love notes” to others in their networks.
  • Create more frequent, optional and informal opportunities for people to connect. I’ve been seeing and participating in “coffee chats” that happen weekly, bi-weekly and monthly for those who are interested to drop by (virtually), check-in and share gifts and needs. This includes setting up phone calls where people can walk and talk instead of being glued to a screen for videoconferencing.
  • Release your grip on certain standards of performance and accomplishment. This can often create more frustration and exhaustion. Model patience and grace with yourself and others.
  • Allow for, and maybe even celebrate, messiness, malfunctions, and “mistakes.” This is not just about cutting people slack and reducing stress, but also inviting ongoing experimentation, improvisation, creativity and playfulness.
  • Shore up the core of your network. With some coordinating teams working virtually for the first time or much more often, while juggling many other balls, it can be important to establish some basic expectations around communications and other working agreements. What minimally do people need from one another in order to function well in these times? What are they able to give?
  • Find time to disconnect and replenish. From Zoom overload to balancing needs of home and work simultaneously, it can be crucial to find time to disconnect from conversation and interaction.
  • Lean back into alignment. This can be a good time to put a network’s mission, vision and values back in front of its members, to remind people what holds them together and what might ground them more deeply amidst the tumult of the times. How can these values and larger goals provide ballast and guidance?
  • Create more slowness, stillness, spaciousness and even silence in your network interactions. Even when connected, we can practice different kinds of pacing and spacing that can help people to restore, maintain or increase their energy.
  • Stem degenerative flows. The 24 hour news cycles, social media wars, and spirals of outrage can conspire to overwhelm us and suck us dry, especially when there is an insidious fear of missing out. Other than simply disconnecting, we can ask what actually nourishes us in terms of connections and flows of information, interactions and other resources. Be mindful of what you consume, as well as what you send out and communicate with others.
  • Lead with joy and laughter. Because it feels good and can be so radical and welcomed in these times.
  • Really practice shared leadership. All the time, and especially now. Do what you do best and connect to the rest. Remember you are not indispensable and that networks benefit from redundancy of role and function. I was recently in a call with 8 other facilitators to develop both an agenda and executive memo for an important meeting, and while in the past I would have dreaded these kinds of endeavors, in this instance we really needed each other given the complexity of the situation and constrained capacity of each of us.
  • Keep an eye towards bridging. While comfort and care are important, watch the tendency to fall back into familiar patterns and relationships that can bolster bonding (birds of a feather flocking together) in your networks at the expense of bridging to those who are different in some way, shape or form, where those differences are vital to the health of the network and its work. On this front, see this resource, “On Bridging,” from the Othering and Belonging Institute.
  • Keep listening for and helping to meet needs, fill gaps, and leverage opportunities. What are the critical connections and flows that the network is asking for right now? Who can help to create and support these?
  • Ask yourself the following question and see where it takes you:

“What is something I/we can do today that our future network (and collective work) will be grateful for and benefit from?

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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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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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October 7, 2019

Participatory Methods and Approaches for Equitable Food Systems Work

“Nothing about us without us is for us.”

South African slogan

“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).

Organizational/Network Models:

Tools, Techniques, Roles:

Governance/Decision-Making:

Participatory Planning and Assessment Approaches:

Of course there are many others out there. Please feel free to suggest additional models, examples, techniques and tools!

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December 3, 2018

Net Work: Overcoming Scarcity Mindsets and Practice

“Scarcity alters how we look at things; it makes us choose differently; … our single-mindedness leads us to neglect things we actually value.”

-Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives

Image by geckzilla, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

A few weeks ago, the inimitable Seth Godin wrote a blog post about “the magnetic generosity of the network effect.” In the post, he talks about how a “scarcity mindset” can impact our willingness to share ideas. This can happen, says Seth, when we treat ideas as if we were sharing a pizza. But ideas are not pizza slices. Ideas can grow, inspire, flourish. Ideas when offered freely can give birth to innovation; in dialogue they can create even better ideas. The exchange of ideas can grow energy and enthusiasm among sharers and recipients. This is central to the notion of “network effect” – as a network grows, so does the potential of the network. It’s potential grows. Having connections is only as good as what gets shared through those connections, and in which directions. In other words, networks are made valuable not just through connectivity, but through generosity and mutuality.

I work with some groups, aspiring to be networks for change, that struggle with what I would call an “organizational mindset” in their work. Their tendency is to want to immediately put structure and boundaries on what they are doing – who is in, who is out; how we will make decisions; what committees need to be formed, who has what kind of power, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it is driven by a scarcity mindset, an overly protectionist stance that can result in the hoarding and unwillingness to share things that are not scarce – ideas, appreciation, a skill, gratitude, love, an image, a tune – and whose sharing can create the richness of emergence and greater abundance. Read More

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November 6, 2018

Emerging Network Governance: An Evolving Conversation

 

“Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.”

-Carl Moore (quoted by Dr. Ceasar McDowell)

A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of network thinkers and doers pulled together by Steve Waddell and Diane J. Johnson, on behalf of the Emerging Network Governance Initiative. Our time together was designed for us to (1) get to know one another better and our respective work (because that’s what network weavers do) and (2) explore possibilities for collaboration to bring different network processes and forms of governance to bear at various scales in the face of the struggle/failure of traditional government to hold and do justice to demographic complexity and address a variety of social and environmental issues.

We spent some time early on unpacking the words “emergent,” “network” and “governance.” While we did not come to final agreement on set definitions, here is some of what I took from those conversations.  

Emergent and emergence refer to the dynamic in networks and in life in general through which novelty arises in seemingly unexpected ways. 

What is emergent is not planned per se, but rather surfaces through complex interactions between parts of or participants in systems.

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October 12, 2017

Lessons from the World of Toys

A secret I don’t share with many people is that I have trouble reading books. When I went to law school, they made us read so many dense pages of legal reasoning I lost my love of story – until I discovered the podcast. In the comfortable confines of my car I stand witness to stories of personal accomplishment, quirks in our daily lives, and social commentary about our world. The other day one really caught my attention.

It was about Toys R Us, the biggest toy store in America. I love toys and I thought everyone else did, too. So I was surprised to learn that Toys R Us had filed for bankruptcy. Turns out, Toys R Us had invested in bricks and mortar without seriously expanding into the internet sales market. And at the same time, they kept those physical spaces disorganized, stale, and predictable. Amazon swooped in and sold toys at a record pace.

A toy and business analyst said if Toys R Us could have jumped in early and creatively into internet sales they would have avoided their decline. And if they had made their stores places of experience, fun, mystery, and discovery, they could have saved their business that way. He believed they should have created large and open areas where kids could ride around on bikes and play with other toys. He thought another miss was not thinking about how to combine physical toys with technological interactions.

As I was driving on the highway heading into traffic, I started thinking about lessons IISC or our network of clients and partners could learn from this story. Are we missing opportunities for integrating our knowledge and expertise with web-based learning and social media? Are we creating experiences in physical rooms and meetings that kick leaders and participants out of the norm and into experiences of fun, exploration, and surprise? Are we combining online and in-person strategies to more effectively and creatively share learning and ideas around collaboration, leadership, equity, and network building?

IISC is not a for-profit corporation like Toys R Us, and we have different values and approaches from them, but we can benefit from understanding that the way we do our work now and how we do our work may not be the standard for the decades to come.

IISC has started piloting some unique approaches in our workshops, in our consulting work, and through our experimentation with public engagement that use web-based learning, social media memes, and narrative. We are cooking up ways to fashion our training and consulting expertise in modular and less expensive ways so we can share it more broadly. I think that’s an early sign of us growing and stretching. We are pushing ourselves to domore experimenting and I know it’s going to help us stay relevant and live into the power of the future.

What experiments might you try out that will help you live into your future? What’s the risk of not doing so? Supporting leaders, organizations, systems, and networks to engage in social change is never out of date, but the way we as consultants and leaders approach that work might be. We may know at a gut level that something new and different is called for, but are we leaning into what’s necessary to make the leap?

Check out how Toys R Us plans to turn around: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toysr-us-bankruptcy-brandon/toys-r-us-ceo-sees-future-with-smaller-shops-idUSKCN1BV2Y7

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