Tag Archive: design

January 4, 2021

Leaning Into Values and Trust Building in (Food) Systems Work

Word cloud generated from participant comments/conversations

Transformative change in the food system will not happen unless we work towards racial justice and equity. 

Anderson, S., Colasanti, K., Didla, N., and Ogden, C. (2020). A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

In September of 2019, I was fortunate enough to be invited to co-facilitate a gathering of over 70 people from across the U.S. to learn from one other about the work of coordinating state and regional level food system plans. At least that was the initial idea. The gathering was convened by the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. I was joined in this work by the very generous and talented Noel Didla, Sade Anderson, and Kathryn Collasanti. As is the case with so many good things, the out of the gate vision for the convening gave way to a more emergent planning process that moved us away from purely technical practices and knowledge sharing to the more complex and adaptive work of bringing people together across various lines of difference to have “real talk” and wrestle with tough questions.

What became clear very quickly, with the leadership of Sade and Noel in particular, was that considerations of racial equity and economic justice had to be at the center of our design and facilitation. That included:

  • how we got in “right relationship” with one another as a team
  • how we framed the gathering for invitees
  • who was invited to attend and present at the gathering
  • the choice of where to have the convening
  • the way we designed both the agenda and the gathering space
  • the way we held what essentially became one rich two-day conversation

“I am taking away a lot of thoughts about meeting structure and facilitation from the overall convening planning, structure and flow. The structure of the agenda to put racial equity at the forefront and the structure of the conversations that allowed for honest discussion and audience participation was very effective and made for interesting conversations. These are techniques that would be helpful for us to use in our presentations and to share with food policy councils.”

2019 national gathering participant from the Mid-Atlantic

What we experienced during and heard after the event was pretty encouraging – how for many this was one of the best “conferences” they had ever attended, how people left challenged and inspired, how many of the conversations we started at Wayne County Community College stayed with people and continued.

Our original intent as a co-facilitation team was to write up a report of the event not long after we arrived back in our respective homes. Instead, things simmered for a while and the right time to wrap up the writing emerged during COVI19, as certain things that we had already been emphasizing were put into more stark view.

The linked publication, entitled “A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work,” is meant to be a way to holding ourselves accountable to the work of racial justice by sharing our reflections on two practices to advance equity that anyone can incorporate into their life and work: building trust and centering values. Here we describe what these threads looked like in this national gathering—including both our personal experiences of the process, the practical event decisions we made, and more about what what participants had to say.

Our collective hope is to challenge readers (and ourselves) to consider the many ways in which food systems activity is either welcoming or exclusionary and either embodies equitable belonging or perpetuates “othering.” And because the conversation must continue, we welcome any reflections and reactions, including how you are leading with values, including racial equity, and trust in 2021.

Kathryn, Noel, Sade and Curtis

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May 10, 2020

Rooting for Change: A Living Systems Approach to Thinking About and Better Linking Our Organizations

“The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change by changing itself.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer

I just finished reading Leading From the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World by Dr. Kathleen E. Allen. It was a great resource to dig into for the past few weeks as I have been getting out into the woods in western Massachusetts and tuning into the emergent spring season in a way that I never have. Allen’s book has certainly helped with my attunement, along with some interesting readings on edible plants (Northeast Foraging), becoming more local to place (The Natural History of Western Massachusetts), and regenerative gardening and farming (Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture). This is certainly one of the mixed blessings of these times, noting the relative privilege that my family and I have, to focus in a slower and more concentrated way on some of what might feed us more deeply and over the long-term.

Allen’s book provides a lot of food for thought. It is an exploration of a series of design principles from mature ecological systems (living systems) and how these can be applied to human organizations. These principles include:

  1. Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
  2. Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
  3. Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
  4. Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
  5. Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
  6. Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
  7. Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
  8. Tap the power of limits (constraints can inspire creativity)

In the first chapter, Allen also highlights some of the key dynamics of living systems that provide a better understanding of how generous and generative human organizations might operate.  These include:

  1. Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
  2. Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
  3. Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
  4. Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
  5. Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
  6. Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
  7. Living systems only pay attention to what is meaningful to them here and now.

As I was reading, I pulled out a number of quotes and posted them on Twitter, which provoked some fun interactions. Many of these have to do with the underlying network structure and dynamics of living systems, for which I have a particular fondness. Here is a sampling, that will give you a taste of the book and perhaps entice you to dig deeper. Curious to hear what thoughts, feelings and sensations these inspire:

“Once we shift our worldview to seeing our organizations as living systems, then we can begin to see that generous organizations behave more like dynamic networks rather than traditional hierarchies.”

“The quality and authenticity of the relationships between people, and between people and ideas, increase the flow of positive energy in organizations.”

“The structure of nature’s network, the connections and interdependencies, allow the living system to self-regulate, adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.”

“Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.”

“Diversity allows for multiple ways that nutrients can be exchanged, making the entire system more resilient.”

“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”

“When we recognize organizations are in constant movement, we then see organizational strategies as adaptive cycles instead of linear constructs.”

“We need to let go of the assumption that all of our assets are tangible.”

“Wet sand operates like a network. It is made up of grains of sand held together by saline. When it encounters force, those elements combine to resist; however, when it encounters a slow entry into its system, it accepts the presence of our foot. Living systems are networked and the nudge and wait for change is very effective in influencing them.”

“Generous organizations are open to the wider world. There are no silos in a generous organization.”

“What if a job description articulated a philosophy of relationships and connections that this person would need to develop and maintain while doing their job?”

“What would leadership look like if its highest purpose was to ensure that future generations thrive?”

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April 29, 2020

Dimensions of Network Success

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.

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April 20, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 2

Image by Alexander Baxevanis, “Flow,” shared under provision of the Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0.

New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability

This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.

Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.

At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:

  • Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
  • Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
  • Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
  • Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communication and conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
  • Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
  • Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
  • Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
  • Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
  • Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)

And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.

And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.

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June 18, 2018

A Network Learning Lab: Centering Story, Love and Emergence

“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”

– Christina Baldwin

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.

As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

– Maya Angelou

We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More

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December 19, 2016

Systems Mapping and Strategy Development for a Better Food Future

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The following post recently appeared on the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) website. I have had the great pleasure and privilege of supporting FSNE for the past five years as a network design and development consultant, facilitator, and trainer. As we near the end of 2016, a year that has proven challenging to many, I continue to find some of my greatest hope in the work of this important and unique initiative, grounded in the tremendous commitment and generosity of its shared (net) leadership. This is not the first time that I have written about the work of FSNE. Other posts include: Distribution, Diversity, Dignity: Networking the “Business Case” for a Regional Food SystemLeveraging a New (Food) System NarrativeRacial Equity Habit Building 2.0Peeling Away Layers for Impact in Networks for Change; and Networks: A Love StoryThe post below speaks specifically to the past year-plus of work identifying “leverage areas” for coordinated collective action … 

In 2015, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team began a year-long process to better understand how we could support the region in achieving the New England Food Vision. The Vision describes a future in which at least 50% of our food is grown, raised, and harvested in New England and no one goes hungry. It looks ahead to the year 2060 and sees farming and fishing as important regional economic forces; soils, forests, and waterways cared for sustainably; healthy diets as a norm; and racial equity and food justice promoting dignity and well being for all who live in New England. Read More

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March 10, 2016

Network Impact: Different Approaches and Common Ground

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Photo by Randy Read|http://www.flickr.com/photos/randyread/3583187019|

In an article in Fast Company, entitled “The Secrets of Generation Flux,” Robert Safian writes that in these uncertain times, there is no single recipe for success. Safian profiles a number of leaders who have been relatively successful at riding the waves in different ways, and notes that they are all relatively comfortable with chaos, trying a variety of approaches, and to a certain degree letting go of control. This resonates with our experiences at IISC helping people to design multi-stakeholder networks for social change. For example, even in a common field (food systems) and geography (New England) we witness different forms emerge that suit themselves to different contexts, and at the same time there are certain commonalities underlying all of them.

The three networks with which we’ve worked that I want to profile here exhibit varying degrees of formality, coordination, and structure. All are driven by a core set of individuals who are passionate about strengthening local food systems to create greater access and sustainable development in the face of growing inequality and climate destabilization. They vary from being more production/economic growth oriented to being more access/justice oriented, though all see the issues of local production and equitable access as being fundamentally linked and necessary considerations in the work.

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February 24, 2016

Network Leadership Roles 2.0

“Network entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they are few among many working across the larger system, and in this way they embody a special type of … leader[ship].”

– Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, & David Sawyer

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Image from Taro Taylor – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tjt195/30916171

The concept of leadership has been undergoing an evolution. In this “network age” there appears to be both an expanding appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership really must be much more of a shared endeavor.

In our collaborative consulting work at IISC, leadership (or what we often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole,” thinking expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, ecosystem, etc.) and paying attention to what will be required to ensure resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustainable benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall far short.

Network leadership is at best a dynamic, diverse, more decentralized and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom we partner at IISC understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them be more explicit about this by clearly delineating the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked change endeavor. Read More

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July 28, 2015

Networks: Don’t Wait, Animate!

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Just coming off of co-delivering a 2 day Pathway to Change public workshop at IISC with Maanav Thakore, and I’m continuing to think about how important context is to the work of social change. In particular, I’m thinking about how seeing the foundation of all change efforts as being fundamentally networked can yield new possibilities throughout the work. There is the change we plan for, and the change that we don’t plan for and perhaps cannot even imagine – emergence. This is the stuff of networks, of living systems, of decentralized and self-organized activity, which can be encouraged and supported but not often predicted or controlled. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How do I have to be for you to be free?

Orland Bishop

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July 15, 2015

Living Systems Leadership: Lessons from a Permaculture Master

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I posted the following about five years ago on this site, and have been actively thinking about and experimenting with its core lessons ever since. I have only become more compelled by the need to bring a living systems orientation to work for social change. Curious to hear reactions and what you are already doing to apply insights from and living systems. 

Part 1

Last week I was in the presence of a master.  For more than 25 years, Lauren Chase-Rowell has skillfully and intuitively cultivated the land around her house in Nottingham, NH to the point that it exists in great harmony with the beautiful farm house, people and fauna occupying that space.  Lauren is an ecological landscaper, organic farmer, and permaculture design teacher.  Her home, Dalton’s Pasture Farm, is a vibrant classroom and testament to the possibility of practicing “earth-centered living.” Read More

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January 29, 2015

Facilitative Leadership for Net Impact

“Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.”

Group Works

Just recently in work with a national network, we turned the corner to start creating a structure to channel the alignment it has achieved around core goals for system change and ultimately to realize “collective impact” in a particular domain. As we were kicking off some of the early discussions, someone asked what I thought were the keys to creating a successful network structure. That’s a huge question that merits a complex answer, and I’ll admit that in reflecting on the dozen or so large scale change efforts I’ve been a part of the past 7 or 8 years, the first thing that came to mind was – “really good facilitation.”

Simplistic as this response may sound I was thinking of lessons learned from numerous efforts that no beautiful or well thought out network/collaborative structure stands up to a lack of strong facilitative capacity (skillset, mindset, and heartset). To be more nuanced, it is not just facilitation that ultimately came to mind, but what we at IISC call facilitative leadership.

For over 20 years, IISC has been teaching, preaching and practicing Facilitative Leadership (FL), and in many ways it seems that this approach has never been riper in light of the burgeoning call to collaborate and cooperate across boundaries of all kinds. At its base, FL is about creating and inspiring the conditions for self-organization so that people can successfully achieve a common (and often evolving) goal. The logical question that follows is, “How does one ‘create and inspire’ these conditions?” The answer is found in a variety of practices derived from successful group work and that have indeed shown promise across different networks and large scale change efforts to create solid foundations and momentum for social change. Among them are these: Read More

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