Social Velocity

September 10, 2014 6 Comments
Running water

Photo by Guy Renard 25


My friend Joel Glanzberg is a constant source of provocation and insight. The way he sees the world, through a living systems and pattern-seeking lens, is not only refreshing but unnerving in that it is evident how simultaneously critical and rare his perspective is. Joel is great at helping me and others to see beyond objects and structures to underlying patterns and processes, and how these are what animate living systems.

A great example is when he talks about the so-called “water cycle” and how typically many people tend to see what they might otherwise understand as a “watershed” (or “lifeshed”) as simply a “water conveyance system.” In an effort to create efficiency and abundance, we have actually robbed water cycles of their richness, failing to see their connections to and dependence upon other systemic elements (soil, plants, etc.). When water is working, it enriches everything it flows through.  But in many cases, for example in industrial agriculture, we find water’s role simplified and the resource diverted and speeded up in such a way that its resourcefulness is diminished. And so we have drought and flooding.

The point that Joel makes is that it is not the absolute amount of a resource that matters in living systems, but its speed through the system. In other words, velocity matters. Which makes me think of the flow of information, conversation and relationship-building in social systems or networks. There are many instances where in an effort to “get to action” in a collaborative effort, conversation is speeded up and critical reflection by-passed, which can lead to real impoverishment of base-line and necessary understanding, alignment, and trust. The social soil is not enriched sufficiently to grow significant new possibilities and deeper roots are not established to withstand coming storms. Of course, there is also such a thing as sharing and talking too much, of not getting to action in a timely way, which can oversaturate and overwhelm people, bog down progress and momentum and carry some people away.

The temptation in times of rapid change and uncertainty can be to move faster and faster, and while this makes sense in some instances and domains, it is also true that modulating speed downward can be a very strategic choice. I’m reminded of the words of Angela Blanchard, CEO of Neighborhood Centers, who was interviewed in a Fast Company article on leadership in times of flux. Blanchard points to the critical importance of not getting swept away by the demands:

“Some of the things that matter most unfold in the same rhythm they always have. If the goal is to connect with all opportunities, we will be burned-out shells.  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.”


  • GibranX says:

    Two thoughts jump to mind, one is the idea that many people, specially high performers in things like sport, often speak of a state of flow in which things actually seem to slow down – interesting how our consciousness mirrors the way water works.

    The second and perhaps more practical note is that we can get better at reflecting through the doing, that the idea of “just starting” with what should probably be a small “smart step,” tends to provide a sort of hand rail for reflection or at least for those who have little patience for it.

    • Curtis Ogden says:


      I really appreciate your second thought and wanted to speak to it. Increasingly I’m looking at ways to “squeeze in” reflective moments in-person and through technology. An example is heading Google doc agendas with relevant quotes that speak to things like trust. Also, I have a regular practice of making an “offering” to open meetings, generally a poem or a story to open hearts and minds. Lastly, I use the refrain “self, process and structure IS strategy.” How do we need to be, act, and organize ourselves to embody and bring about the change we seek? In a meeting the other day about a system map for a change project, I made sure to ask both what they made of the map and what the map was making of/doing to them. In any case, I think there are many places to create moments of stillness or slowness.

  • Sandy says:

    This is a timely post, as I’ve been reflecting on Bejan and Zane’s “Design in Nature” and collaborative networks. Flow and timing are critical. The paradox of increasing flows and the timing of trust-building, the need for reflection and learning together. So glad you’ve quoted Angela. Her BIF7 presentation was remarkable.

  • David Kemper says:

    Intriguing post. Attentiveness to velocity and mindfulness as to whether it is the “right velocity” would seem to be a spiritual process and a surrendering of one’s own agenda to the flow that is occurring naturally. Right velocity isn’t always speeding forward to a decision; it’s not navel-gazing either. As examples, I have found it better to slow down and try to understand objections about decisions to get to a richer solution, rather than paving over the “loyal opposition” to new ideas. At the some time, there’s little value in a period of reflection, meditation, task force development when there’s a brush fire in my yard and I need to move quickly to put it out! Apropos: “Better to take the time to do it right than to make the time to do it again.”

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, David, for your thoughts. Very much agree that “right velocity isn’t always speeding forward to a decision.” My colleague Cynthia Parker also makes the astute point that “rushing forward” can be a privileged move. For example the push towards solution or “doing something” can be an effort to gloss over more in-depth conversation about “the problem,” including questions about existing power dynamics and arrangements. This can, of course, be threatening. So questioning one’s need for speed can be an enlightening and critical line of inquiry.

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