Networks: Balancing Acts for … Life

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

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I have had many conversations recently about network form and transition, all of which have me thinking of what we often talk about in our practice at IISC: balancing acts. The core approach that informs our work in the world is Facilitative Leadership, which strives to create and inspire the conditions for collaborative and net work that yields greater, more sustainable and equitable changeIn co-creating these conditions, as process designers, facilitators, trainers and coaches, we invoke a variety of practices and frameworks, each of which has its own dynamic range of considerations.

For example, in helping those with whom we partner to think about their ultimate and ongoing aims, we offer up our R-P-R triangle, which invites thinking about the multi-dimensional nature of success as viewed from the perspectives of results, process, and relationships (see this reflection on its use by an existing network). What we like to say is that where and how we focus with respect to these elements depends upon context and strategic moments, which are always shifting if even subtly. At times we might heighten focus in one domain, but its serves not to get stuck there and to keep eyes on all areas in the long run.

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Likewise in terms of decision-making, we believe and experience that there is no one right way to make a decision, seeing a range of legitimate options in a collaborative and networked environment from (informed) unilateral to consensus to delegation to decentralization. A key question is – How does any given approach serve the long-term collective interests and satisfy the multiple dimensions of success? Always making decisions unilaterally is hardly collaborative, and making every decision by consensus is hardly strategic. Context matters, and so we suggest to not simply default and rather to mindfully choose (for those big or collectively significant decisions) and balance.

Same holds true for facilitation and process design practices, including how expansive and structured to be. It goes on, with respect to social velocity – How quickly does a networked effort need to (try) to move, in a particular instant (however long that instant may be)? How inclusive does it need to be? And who on earth does it make sense (if feasible) to make these decisions? Whatever answers are arrived at, expect them to change over time! Dynamic movement, which is all in keeping with the larger living systems of which we are a part. Expand, contract. Breathe in, breathe out. For everything there is a season. 

For some this may be maddening, especially if seeking ordered, predictable and prescriptive approaches. But these don’t seem to work so well in the realm of complexity. As Niels Pflaeging offers up in one of my favorite (slightly modified) quotes – “People can pay a high price for the illusion of control.” Complexity pushes us to what Mitchell Waldrop calls “the edge of chaos,” a fertile and yet potentially anxiety-provoking state. I like Waldrop’s extended quote from his work Complexity, that serves (at least for me) as a pull forward into the future as we dance and design with complex systems and evolving networks:

The balance point — often called the edge of chaos — is where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either…The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life. The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo, and where even the most entrenched old guard will eventually be overthrown…. The edge is the constantly shifting battle between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive and alive.”

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