We just completed a third year of providing coaching support to a state-wide health equity network. We began our partnership before the pandemic and have spent the last couple of years checking in as life with the pandemic and intersecting crises have evolved, working with both staff and key partners. It has been interesting to see how there has been a natural inclination to build on recommendations from our first year, as people have appreciated the power of and need for leaning into more networked ways of thinking and acting (spending more time connecting organically and getting to know one another, providing mutual support in light of intersecting crises, staff operating as more of a gate-opener for and facilitative leader with partners, creating stronger alignment around shared policy priorities across the state and between communities).
In our first year report we used the Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action framework to assess gaps, strengths and possibilities for the network. What this framework suggests is that movements for social change and advocacy organizations can be more effective when they bring a network lens to their work and intentionally cultivate diverse, intricate and robust connections and exchanges of various kinds through those connections to advance their goals.
creating stronger connectivity and trust between people, organizations, and communities;
facilitating greater alignment amongst those who are connected around shared purpose, values, and/or common goals;
coordinating action and also creating conditions for/supporting self-organized initiative among aligned people, organizations and communities.
In conversations with organizational staff who steward the network throughout 2020 and into 2021, it was clear that much had moved on different fronts with respect to all three realms. Some examples include:
Virtual retreats seeking maximizing network connections and deepen relationships.
More care and attention given to onboarding for new members.
Mindfulness being given to tech tools regarding how best to use virtual spaces so that they are accessible, allow for equitable engagement, and do not distance or marginalize participants.
Staff working to facilitate connection and alignment between partners working on advocacy for the state budget and organizing in local communities.
Advocacy work that has included more network mobilization and in a way such that staff is less protective of connections to lawmakers.
Community partners have been invited to bring along a community member and there was an opportunity to work with relatively high level staffers.
Virtual retreats have featured an activity around “contribution mapping,” to look at, appreciate and celebrate how the network more broadly was engaged in action.
The report also included a set of recommendations, many of which we feel could be applied to many different networks in these times, especially as people grapple with issues of capacity and the need to front and center care and wellbeing. And so we offer this slightly edited list for wider consideration, with an invitation to add:
Keep doing what you are doing! Continuing to facilitate deeper trust and connection, stronger alignment and broader network action will only help to support the overall movement for justice and sustainability.
With respect to creating new and strengthening existing network connectivity going forward, ask what few key connections would really bolster the overall network and its work. As Grace Lee Boggs puts it, “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
Consider how you might continuously cultivate a set of “network weavers” (and weaving behavior overall). Look for who is already engaged as “network champions” and consider supporting their capacity to do what they might naturally be inclined to do.
Consider deepening values work with staff and key partners. As there continues to be tumult in many places and spaces, helping people to ground in and be accountable to shared values can be of tremendous benefit in strengthening alignment. More on this here.
Pay attention to how you are spending your time and energy around network development, for the sake of all network members. There is so much overwhelm in so many systems now. Ask what brings life to the overall network and to participants and co-creators throughout and follow that. For more on connection, flow and energy management, see this.
Related to the above, if you do not do this already, consider bringing in a trauma- and burnout-informed lens to your work with partners. Some guidance can be found in the context of this post.
And by all means, take time to celebrate your successes and recognize how you are changing and evolving in “small” ways as an organization and a network. Experience shows that his will go a long way to keeping people fueled and engaged. Keep telling the evolving story of networked change.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a state-wide health equity network, comprised of smaller coalitions, that has been looking at living into being more of a network in thinking and action. After some conversation and consideration, we decided to use a framework that derives from the writings of Madeleine Taylor and Pete Plastrik.
The Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action/Production framework (see graphic above) lifts up three different network modes, through which value and impact is created. First of all, network value and impact is grounded at a fundamental level in creating connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; closing triangles, sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also might happen is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better.
“Healthy networks measure their impact, in particular by establishing the links between decentralized network action and outcomes.“
Up a level, networks may be compelled to create some kind of collective and aligned commitment or value proposition in the form of shared vision, values, public statements, etc. This can create greater impact/ripples, and provide additional value to individual participants and self-organized efforts, as they are more prone to head in the same general direction or with some kind of deeper shared understanding of context.
And then there are those instances when there is a call to some form of collective action, such as advocacy, a communications campaign, fundraising, or some other co-produced venture. This can happen even as smaller self-organized action continues (really, from a network perspective, most collective action should be about creating the conditions for those self-organized efforts, which is what is meant by “making the periphery the norm” in network building lingo).
With all of this in mind, after doing interviews, some observation, as well as evaluations and other documentation from the sub-networks of this state-wide advocacy network, a few patterns seemed to surface that suggested ways for the network to strengthen itself and leverage network effects.
Here is a list of what was surfacing as opportunities seen through the C-A-CA/P lens:
In the calls that the network does with its members, there appeared to be more of a one-directional download of information from staff (the hub) to its members (the periphery). And in various documents there appeared to be some suggestion that people were not connecting except through the hub. Furthermore, an annual report said that state partners expressed a desire to know more about one another’s capabilities, constituencies, and connections. All of this suggested an opportunity for creating greater CONNECTIVITY, especially member-to-member.
In an interview the observation was made that on membership calls there were often the same people speaking while others were silent. This suggested that greater CONNECTIVITY could be created for those who were less outspoken and silent. There appeared to be some correlation between those who were longer standing members (more outspoken) and those who were new to the network (more quiet).
In assessments of meetings, comments were made that while people appreciate the great information and education they receive, they were also eager to meet, learn from and strategize with one another. This again suggested an opportunity to strengthen member-to-member CONNECTIVITY.
Questions had come up about whether relationships with state and county lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and others might be better maximized for trust and information sharing. Another area to explore strengthening CONNECTIVITY to and among those stakeholder groups.
Related to the above, while the network’s political capital was appreciated by many members, there were also questions about democratizing that power, and helping members to be more involved in the legislative process. This suggested that beyond creating greater CONNECTIVITY among members, there might be some opportunity to provide COORDINATION support to enhance access.
“Clusters” of members in certain parts of the state had been mentioned in interviews and documents. It was observed that in one region, there is some evidence of people getting tighter and that in another region, organizations were using lists to get together. This lifted up the question about more intentional CONNECTIVITY and ALIGNMENT that the network might suggest or provide to those existing and other potential clusters to strengthen their advocacy work.
An annual report identified some expressed concern about the challenge with creating alignment among collation partners on behavioral health priorities, and that “collective buy-in” and “intentional relationship building” will be key to establishing alignment. This is another reason to keep building that trust and CONNECTIVITY and also to explore actively facilitating ALIGNMENT around core priorities.
It was shared in staff interviews that there have been questions from members about the network’s long-term vision – “Where are you trying to go?” This raised some possible opportunities to facilitate ALIGNMENT around a shared, guiding and galvanizing vision with members.
Related to the above, the suggestion was raised around exploring he coalescing of sub-networks to consolidate and create more ALIGNMENT and COORDINATION between those separate coalitions.
And here is what was offered as a set of initial recommendations:
Consider the points above and if there is agreement among staff about where to weave greater connectivity, facilitate alignment and/or coordinate activity in different domains. Specifically: Who needs to be better connected and what would that achieve? Would alignment around a shared vision and high-level goals be helpful? Who would need to be aligned?
As these opportunities are identified, consider existing network (staff) capacity to provide weaving, facilitation and coordination support. Where and how might this capacity be added or developed?
Think about ways to create greater connectivity within existing calls, meetings and trainings. For example, have a check-in question; invite people to share news, victories, needs; break people into pairs and smaller group discussions; create open space for people to explore interests and opportunities to work together.
Consider creating a toolkit and perhaps a training for building relationships and maximizing connections in networks.
Reach out to less out-spoken and newer coalition members to see if there is anything that would support their participation. Related to this, make sure there is an on-boarding process for new members so that they feel up-to-date and know how to participate.
To gauge “network impact,” follow up with members to see what they do with the content, capacity and connections they get from calls. Are they able to leverage these for greater impact in their communities and regions to create “ripple effects”?
Reach out to other networks to see how they go about democratizing power and opportunity in a network. In addition, look to other groups across the state to see how they are working with grassroots groups to mobilize around policy.
Consider having an open conversation with member organizations about how to strengthen the sub-networks (coalitions) as a network. What ideas do they have? This might include giving them some overview of networks and network effects/impacts.
Consider conducting an assessment to find and leverage “network champions.” Are there certain members who are particularly enthusiastic about and active in network activity and might be ambassadors for the collective work? Might they be more formally enlisted as network weavers?
Consider the virtual tools currently used for keeping members connected (virtual meeting platforms, shared files and documents, archives, private group pages). Are they working? Are people taking full advantage of them? Is there additional value they are looking for that might be provided by other tools?
Consider using a more formal network assessment to look for strengths and areas for growth and improvement in the network’s structures and practices. This could be conducted among staff alone and also include key partners. Examples include “Network Effectiveness: Diagnostic and Development Tool”, “Partnership Self-Assessment Tool” and “Network Health Scorecard.”
Currently engaged in a number of state-wide and regional network-building initiatives focused on food, health and education system change, I am beginning to see some interesting patterns across efforts to build connectivity-based and more fluid movements for change. Watching these dynamics unfold, I can’t help but come back to one of our foundational frameworks at IISC, what we call the R-P-R Triangle, for all that it has to offer our thinking about network strategy and success.
This framework (see below) makes the point that any kind of collaborative endeavor is a multi-dimensional affair when it comes to the core determinants and definitions of success. Of course, many of us come to “net work” and collaborative efforts eager to see results, to work in new ways to have greater impact on the issues that we care most about. Without concrete results or “wins,” it is hard to keep people engaged and morale up. But results are just a part of the story, and the big results may take some time in coming.
A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:
Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most: (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.
Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.
Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later …
Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”
Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,
“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.
Mila N. Baker
Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.
I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.
Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.”
For the past 5 years, IISC has supported FSNE to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and focused on systemic transformation. Over the winter, editorial staff from the Othering and Belonging Journal at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society solicited an article submission from FSNE to tell the story of why and how the network has operationalized its commitment to racial equity and food justice.
“While Othering processes marginalize people on the basis of perceived group differences, Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members. As [john a.] powell has previously written, ‘Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.'”
In sustainable agriculture you hear talk about no and low-till farming. These are approaches that emphasize minimal disturbance of soils to preserve their structural integrity and also to keep carbon in the ground. No-till increases organic matter, water retention and the cycling of nutrients in the ground. As a result it can reduce or eliminate soil erosion, boost fertility and make soils more resilient to various kinds of disruptions. This flies in the face of mainstream approaches that recommend ongoing and significant intervention, “fluffing” soil and digging down to considerable depths to get rid of weeds and aerate the ground. What actually happens can be quite destructive to the long-term productive and regenerative capacity of the soil.
“When we harvest, weed, rake or trim gardens and landscapes, we remove the organic material that feeds the soil.”
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”
The past twelve months I had the pleasure of working with a team from Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate its first Network Leadership Institute. This initiative grew out of FSNE’s ongoing commitment to cultivating thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the Institute was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership. Read More
Through its myriad nodes and links, as well as the ongoing addition of participants and new pathways, a dense and intricate network can expand quickly and broadly. This can be critical for spreading information and other resources and mobilizing actors in ways that organizations simply cannot achieve.
“The world as we know it emerges out of the way we relate to each other and the wider natural process.”
In other words, according to Maturana and Varela, it is through connecting and relating that “a world is brought forward.” The quality and qualities of that world depend, in large part, upon how people and other elements of living systems connect and relate to one another. Read More