Strengthening the Network Within

April 21, 2016 6 Comments

Image by Steve Jurvetson

Much of the work we do at IISC includes some element of helping to develop networks for social change. This entails working with diverse groups of individuals and/or organizations to come together and create a common vision and clear pathway to collective action and impact. I’ve been reflecting on how important it can be to not simply focus on creating or developing networks “out there” and across traditional boundaries, but also “in here,” within different recognized borders.

“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”

– Francisco Varela

The notion that part of the process of healing living systems entails connecting them to more of themselves is derived, in part, from the work of Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist. As Varela and others have surmised, living systems are networks, including individual people, groups, organizations, and larger social systems. Furthermore, they have noted that when a living system is faltering, the solution will likely be discovered from within it if more and better connections are created. In other words, as Margaret Wheatley puts it,

“A failing system [or network] needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.”

I find it interesting in the context of social change work to consider how the process of re-connecting at and within different systemic levels can be beneficial to those levels and initiatives as wholes.

“A living system is a learning system.”

Margaret Wheatley

At the individual level, this process of creating more connections to one’s self can take the form of biofeedback, whereby people become more aware of their physiological state through sensors and respond by controlling their breath to alter heart rate, relax muscles, reduce pain, etc. This is essentially mindfulness practice, which can help change agents be less reactive to circumstances, aware of harmful prejudgments, more open to possibilities and strategic in outlook. Another form is journaling – research suggests that writing about traumatic or challenging events can help the body heal up to four times faster than it would otherwise.

Application has also been made to helping people work through psychologically challenging circumstances through written reflection, which has shown great promise in supporting meaning making and resilience. This would appear to be another example of the benefit of closing loops and supporting “virtuous cycles between body and mind. Furthermore, individual change agents can support inner loops around learning in general by engaging in reflection and what Harold Jarche calls “personal knowledge mastery” and “working out loud,” narrating work as a way of developing consciousness and externalizing learning for oneself and others (this blog post being an example).

“We have an interior condition.  This interior condition is significantly affected by our thinking, but it is more than our thinking.  This interior condition is significantly affected by our objective conditions, but it is more than our objective conditions.  This interior condition is profoundly individual, but it is greater than the individual – our interior is ‘inter-subjective.’ We have a collective interior.” 

Gibran Rivera

At the level of group or organization, tending the network within can be about repairing and strengthening connections in the form of communication channels, trust building, seeing one another more fully, as well as working in ways that support and draw on one another’s strengths and potential. The benefits of engaging in this work at this level include helping social change groups and organizations become more resilient, increase organizational intelligence and “surface area,” and make responsiveness more timely and relevant.

Many people know the ongoing challenges of silo and bottleneck busting in organizations. Efforts to confront these and strengthen internal networks include:

Another technique which may help strengthen internal group and organizational networks is network mapping, which can reveal how work actually gets done and where glaring gaps in connectivity may be.

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

john a. powell

At larger systemic levels, including communities, regions, countries and societies, the need to reconnect (and newly connect) is evident in the state of growing inequality and systemic discrimination. One need only disaggregate the data in the US to see how the so-called “social contract” is unevenly applied and benefits derived along lines of race, gender and other dimensions of difference. Furthermore, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, epidemiologists and authors of The Spirit Level, cite the “growing body of research that shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.” From comparing different countries around the globe, Pickett and Wilkinson state that health and social problems are between twice and ten times as common in more unequal societies.

Pulling on the writings of Pickett and Wilkinson, as well as others fighting for a fair and inclusive society, the work of strengthening networks at this larger societal level includes:

  • Bringing people together in place-based deliberative spaces to (re)build trust and develop shared solutions (see Big Democracy);
  • Convening social change advocates, organizers, policymakers and researchers to strengthen alignment and systemic impact;
  • Extending legal rights, pro-active policies and moral inclusion to those currently being left out;
  • Using de-biasing strategies and equity screens to address demographic anxiety and discrimination;
  • Power and bridge building;
  • Producing counter-narratives to exclusionary and individualistic frames;
  • Providing greater and equitable access across systems.

Perhaps this is the new meaning of “the work that reconnects” and the work of health writ large. And its success would seem to be built upon the strengthening of networks at all levels.

Where are you being called to build stronger networks within?


  • Curtis – this is a beautiful post, and I’m not just saying that because you quoted me! You are talking about integration. Newtonian physics and the industrial revolution led us towards compartmentalization, which wasn’t all bad, it allowed the human race to do some big things. But our systems breakdown has everything to do with being too fragmented ourselves and with having a fragmented view of the world. I think you are pointing us towards an integral approach and quite frankly I believe that the only hope for our species is found there.

  • Kelly says:

    Dear Curtis,

    This is fascinating. I really appreciate your reflection here on the strength of networks.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Francisco Varela’s quote, “When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”

    My question is: Is the remedy for illness always greater connection? Or is there a point in which connecting with the illness actually leads to greater damage throughout the entire system?

    A practical example would be cancer. If your body is growing a cancerous tomb, the standard medical procedure today is for the doctors to remove the tomb, rather than to allow it to grow in hopes that eventually it will heal itself.

    In thinking systemically, it seems as if there is a point of malignance where the best systemic response is removal rather than reconnection. What are the implications for this, in your mind, in expanding this view to the broader networks of social systems?

    I am eager to hear your thoughts.

    • Curtis Ogden says:


      Thanks for your comment and provocative question. First of all, I would say that every answer, in my opinion, is always contextual, so there may well be contexts when reconnection, or reconnection “now,” is not the right move. The example that comes to mind is when we create caucuses around race, which can be very important to enhance “the parts” before reconnecting to the whole. That said, it seems that there is an overwhelming trajectory of dis-connection in mainstream culture. So what I hear you adding, and I appreciate it very much, is the importance of being nuanced and strategic around the work of reconnection.



  • Amy Varela says:

    I’m wondering if you have a reference for the Francisco Varela quote. I’d be grateful to have it if you do!

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