Social Change Networks: Keep Telling the Evolving Story

August 9, 2016 Leave a comment


Social change networks are complex, compared with other human organizational forms; they are not so easily controlled, directed or predicted. And that is as it should be, especially when dealing with real life diversity and uncertainty. This can cause some anxiety on the part of those who would like to be able to better control for outcome and process and may not be very comfortable with emergence and self-organization. But these are the life blood of complex networks, part of their intelligence and effectiveness, even as people may struggle to wrap their heads around the full picture of what is happening. That’s the way life works.

That said, experience suggests that there is an important effort to be made and role to be played in tracking (even if imperfectly and incompletely) the unfolding story of a social change network over time. This is especially important for those in pursuit of hard evidence of effectiveness and/or some kind of guarantee that there is return on one’s investment of time and other resources. I have noted previously and continue to be struck by the fact that seeing signs of network impact can indeed be difficult, perhaps because of a kind of conditioning around what constitutes “action” and “success.” Furthermore, the pace of life can cut against an appreciation for what is moving right before one’s eyes in fairly nuanced and perhaps more measured ways.

“Some of the things that matter most unfold in the same rhythm they always have. … The pace of life hasn’t changed, even if the pace of communication has. Do people fall in love more quickly? Do people trust each other more quickly? I work in my garden: You cannot make flowers bloom faster.”

Angela Blanchard


What I have found to be helpful as a network coach is to provide some support in training people’s sight lines through inquiry, reflection and explicit naming. In any given moment, there are multiple important developmental storylines occurring in and through a change network. One way we like to think about these at IISC is via the lens of one of our favorite frameworks (from our popular training, Facilitative Leadership for Social Change) – the “R-P-R Triangle.” This framework suggests that success in any collaborative effort, including networks, unfolds across multiple dimensions. We like to use the shorthand of Results-Process-Relationship. Each of these dimensions is dynamically interlinked with the other two, and each provides important insight into the unfolding story of change.


The Process Dimension is the story of how the change and net work is organized and carried out. Focusing here can highlight important developmental indicators around factors such as transparency, inclusion, shared leadership, support for self-organization, critical conversations and democratic engagement. For more formal evaluative purposes, telling the story of process aligns with elements of a network health assessment.

The Relationship Dimension highlights the story of connectivity as it evolves and deepens between people, groups, as well as between people and ideas or the work itself. It lifts up development around critical human factors such as trust, sharing, caring, alignment, love, reciprocity and diversity. In terms of formal evaluation, this is where network mapping and trust surveys come in.

The Results Dimension looks at what most might consider to be the traditional wins of change work – policy and legal changes, new narratives and capacities, equitable outcomes, power shifts, behavior and culture changes. These wins can be small and large, implicate certain parts or members (at least initially) of the network or the network as a whole. Network impact or outcomes assessments formally figure here.

The telling of these stories in various ways – informal and formal, in person and virtually, via text, image and audio – can fuel further momentum and success in the form of social learning, spreading enthusiasm and helpful network behaviors, including generosity, making strategic connections and giving recognition and gratitude to one another.

So the bottom line is that is important to start now and to continuously collect and tell the story of the social change network as it unfolds in all of its dimensions.

“It’s essential that systems as a whole and not just their constituent parts learn and evolve…by repeatedly reflecting, critically, on systems level performance and impact.. through continuous learning cycles.”

Jeff Piestrak


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