Networks for Change: Inquiry and Emergence

September 18, 2013 4 Comments

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet


|Photo by muffinn||

In their article, “Using Emergence to Scale Social Innovation,” Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze highlight the critical role of self-organization, spontaneous and purposeful arrangement and action without formal or “external” management,  in facilitating social change.  As self-organization occurs in social networks, emergent and unexpected phenomena flow through the strength and flexibility of connections between people and groups.  As Wheatley and Frieze note, these emergent phenomena tend to result in “a powerful system that has many more capacities than could ever be predicted by analyzing the individual parts.”  This is part of what constitutes the “intelligence” and resilience of networks.  This capacity flows naturally when conditions are ripe for individuals to freely find each other and create.

One of the practices we have found to be very helpful in supporting and nourishing self-organization in networks is the artful use of inquiry – asking questions that create movement and boundary crossing within individuals and groups.  Activist Fran Peavey developed the technique of strategic questioning, which invites people into a space of “not knowing.” From this place, rather than defaulting to the known or comfortable, people seem better able to access the power of emergence.

As a concrete example of using inquiry to cultivate emergence, I offer up this process that Carole Martin and I recently used with a regional network leadership program that focuses on community and economic development. The funder of this two year program has held up an expectation that cohort members engage in some kind of hands- on “project” that benefits the region. Not wanting to impose ideas on the members or plug them into pre-existing initiatives, we decided to follow a process for deepening inquiry and tapping intrinsic motivation:

  1. During an in-person meeting, after a few months of skill building and group development, we asked that the cohort enter a place of not knowing by avoiding leaping to project ideas through a “solution mindset,”  or putting forward their favorite pet project.  This made some people very uncomfortable, and we asked that people sit with that discomfort.  We asked that they consider the question(s) that, if answered, would help to advance their work and the region.  Individuals were given 15 minutes to reflect and write these down.
  2. Then through a series of paired conversations over about 45  minutes, we asked cohort members to hone and narrow in on the questions that were most powerful as “attractors.” Specifically, we asked that through conversation, people pay attention to the questions that: create movement or energy for change, dislodge old thought patterns and assumptions, broaden a sense of options, and help to see the bigger picture and new perspectives.  We asked each person to ultimately come up with 1-3 refined questions.
  3. At this point we invited everyone to offer up their leading questions, and we captured these in writing on newsprint. We then asked people as a large group to pay attention to what they noticed: patterns and themes, questions that drew them in, whether or not they had offered them up.  Some natural categories and connections emerged.
  4. We then asked that people spend the summer, the next three months during our break between years one and two of the program, to continue to sit with and wrestle with these questions: test them out with colleagues, see what resonates, let them evolve.  We posted the full list of questions on a virtual collaborative site, and designated one cohort member per week to be the “conversational fire stoker,” to post a question or observation, extend an idea and the various lines of inquiry.  Everyone was invited to respond to these provocations as moved.
  5. In September, during another in-person session, we distilled what had evolved over the summer in people’s thinking and through the on-line conversation.  We then invited people to propose a question that they most wanted to move forward as a focal point for a project, using Open Space Technology.  People were free to move around between different proposed questions, combine, split off . . . .  Ultimately three small groups organically formed around distinct lines of inquiry.

In reflecting about this process over the past four months, people were pleased to see the method behind the madness, the light structure that encouraged emergence.  As one person said, “We didn’t rush to sort things out, but we pushed and influenced each other.  And we built stronger relationships in the process, which will be essential for the work.”


  • GibranX says:

    Thanks for describing the process. Really helpful! It seems things are still unfolding, keep us updated! I’m really interested in what is “integrated and included” from the planning paradigm.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Gibran, good question about the planning paradigm. I did not mention that we initiated the inquiry conversation by showing people the Pathway to Action, and said that their inquiry might initially fall in any of those domains (problem-oriented, opportunity-oriented, solution-oriented, vision/values – oriented, etc.). We made the point that their entire “project” might simply remain in that domain (deeper problem analysis, a community visioning initiative, appreciative inquiry, moving forward a solution, etc.). Or it could move forward through other domains.

    People are now more or less settled on their “project” ideas, and we will introduce process mapping soon. And we are asking that people remain adaptive and flexible, as more stakeholders come into the mix and as they learn more than they know now. I invoked this Robin Katcher quote – “Networks that emphasize structure are less effective than those that adeptly learn and change.” Which leads to the question/mantra I left the cohort with today after a 2 hour virtual call, “How will a network approach and mindset inform your ‘project’?” We plan on sharing the Joichi Ito video and Wheatley/Frieze article with folk before our next meeting, which will be at Lawrence Community Works in two weeks.

  • deborahfrieze says:

    I appreciate your attention, Curtis, on the space of “not knowing” and uncertainty. In our work, we’ve been calling this place the “trembling” — the fragile and unsettling time between walking out and walking on, when we let go of our limiting beliefs and allow new ideas to emerge rather than seizing prematurely onto ideas that may ultimately repeat the past.

    Thanks for sharing how you are creating processes that cultivate space for emergence.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Deborah, for your comment and all of your good and important work! I can definitely feel the “trembling” in those moments of uncertainty. And part of our role is to help people not to give in to the temptation to turn back . . .

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