Means and Ends

November 5, 2009 14 Comments

One of the core models of IISC’s practice (for both our training and consulting work) is something we call the R-P-R Triangle, which basically makes the case that success in collaborative efforts is a multi-dimensional affair, not solely defined by “results” (goal or task accomplished), but also by “process” (the way or spirit in which work is carried out) and “relationship” (the quality of the connections between the people engaged in the work).  Our Executive Director, Marianne Hughes, has called this “the spine of collaboration,” suggesting that if we are not thinking in terms of all dimensions, we are not really serious about seeking win-win solutions with others.  And indeed experience really proves that these dimensions are intimately linked and dependent upon one another when diverse stakeholders come together to realize a shared vision.

RPR chart

A twist was given to this triangle the other day when a Facilitative Leadership workshop participant said he was struggling, not because he did not find value in this notion of “multiple dimensions of success,” but because of his concern that even in this model, process and relationships might appear to be subservient, or the “so that,” to results.  He went on to say that he is part of an organization/community in which relationships are really paramount.  They are an end in and of themselves and in a way synonymous with results.  How then, do we account for this in this model he wondered.

This question is reminiscent of an ongoing internal conversation about collaboration at IISC and Interaction Associates.  Is it a means or an end in and of itself?   The same goes for a rigorous dialogue about networks.  Are they a route to social change or are they the destination?  As is often the case these days, the answer to these questions seems to be a resounding and perplexing, “Yes!”  Results are important, and . . . .  Simply viewing people, or process for that matter, as means to an end can be problematic, not just in terms of failing to respect others’ humanity (harkening back to Kantian ethics), but also in failing to deeply tap the potential that is ripe for our complexity-ridden times.  In this day and age we hear more about, and many experience, the importance of invitation, conversation, hosting, space, trust, and connection, not just as precursors to making something happen, but as being an embodiment of change.  And so the challenge becomes holding on to both truths – results matter, and they don’t, or not in the ways that we often imagine.

What do you make of this?  How do you strike the balance?


  • Melinda says:

    Nice CO! This hearkens me back to a meeting Cynthia and I facilitated last week at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity with a bunch of folks from around the country who are both systems thinking experts and activists and practicioners in the field of racial equity and anti-oppression.

    In comparing and contrasting traditional approaches to solving social problems with systemic approaches, this very question came up — whether approaches that were more inclusive were per se better (in effectiveness, in virtue) than approaches that were less inclusive (or “democratic” was used). In the RPR schema, thats “Process. But a question that kept coming up, that I found fascinating, was whether in advocating systemic thinking we were privileging Process without sufficient scrutiny for the (quality, ethics, effectiveness, sustainability) of the Results that are yielded. Is there a way in which we are quick to value Process to such a degree that it becomes the equivalent of quality Results? Is that the right thing to do? When do we bring in the fourth dimension, as it were — Ethics?

    Perhaps the triangle, my friends, is truly a diamond in the rough. 😉

  • Curtis says:


    Fourth dimension! Diamond in the rough! I like it! Certainly feels like this model has much unexplored dimensionality and application in these times wrought with challenge and opportunity. Do I hear you advocating for a pyramid?


  • Chris says:

    Great question, Curtis. I suppose in the pursuit of systemic transformation, the results we ultimately desire to achieve and sustain, the processes we must master, and the relationships we must cultivate, are generally accretive, or gradually attained. Real, deep change requires applying an artful balance of time, energy and attention to each element in due course. That said, I imagine keeping Relationships, Process, and Results in balance is like spinning plates. Perhaps, the desired process is to spin plates indefinitely and in balance, without any one falling. The desired result is to keep plates spinning indefinitely and in balance, without one falling. The desired relationship is applying the right combination of time, energy, and attention to each plate to keep it spinning indefinitely, in balance, without allowing another plate to fall. Right process yields right relationship yields right results yields right relationship yields right process yields right results etc. Every problem or challenge calls for its own equation, or combination of each dimension. That mystery makes the effort, the pursuit, thrilling, engaging, worthwhile. If we knew it all, or if it could be known, then the solutions would be technical, not adaptive. It seems to me that systemic social transformation is an adaptive challenge.

    It seems to me that, ideally, the R, the P, and the R may become one and the same. The Way, the Truth, and the Light.

    Speaking of the fourth dimension, ethics, Melinda, I would argue that ethics are the root. Right intention or right vision, the why to the what we do, the how we do and with whom we do it, must be the genesis of success.

  • Margaret Connors says:

    People and process are not the means to an end. As often as not, we know that in the daily business of reaching our desired results, egos gets stroked, compliments extended, comments overlooked in the formation of relationships and a process that works towards the intended goal . I am not sure that ethics ( so very essential to the final results) should be added as one MORE “dimension of success”, but rather imbued in each point of the triangle.

    I am watching this very issue unfold in the development of a new business that is powerfully innovative because of the diverse networks that are coming together to make it happen. Each partners goal is the same and full of ethical value. The struggle is in building strong relationships ( building up the trust), that is so undermined by racism and classism in this society.

  • Curtis says:

    Chris, I like the phrase the Way, the Truth, the Light. Brings real heft and importance to each element. And

    Margaret, you offer a powerful example of why relationship and process cannot be underestimated, especially in light of power dynamics that are ever-present and so often ignored.

    I was just in a conversation the other day with someone who was remarking how different cultures might add a twist to these dimensions. When we view ourselves as intimately tied to and dependent upon the planet, for example, how can we not lift relationship to another level?

  • Margaret Connors says:

    Curtis and all, thanks for the continued conversation. I feel like I need a refresher course already in FL for SC.

  • Curtis says:


    In a sense, I think many of us (including those of us who teach this stuff!) feel like we need an ongoing refresher and that we need to improvise as we embrace a new paradigm and find new and appropriate tools for the work ahead. This, I think, is the value of spaces such as these and why I so appreciate your and others’ contributions. I learn so much from your insights and experiences. This is how we’re going to do it!


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