“Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things – the people on the edge see them first.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
I have used the above quote in a number of cases to illustrate a network principle of thinking and action – Don’t get stuck in the core, make the periphery the norm. As we come to the end of 2020 (as arbitrary as that calendrical designation may be), I am thinking about Vonnegut’s words in different and perhaps more expansive ways.
Seemingly many of us have been asked to live (in some cases, even further out) on any number of edges over the past several months – political, economic, psychological, social, spiritual. While exciting in certain cases, it has also been quite exhausting and for some it has been a push to and over the brink.
It is also the case that many have woken or are waking up to the realization that life can only continue in some form or fashion at various edges, especially in times of considerable change. The Aboriginal artist and complexity scientist Tyson Yunkaporta reminds us that from an indigenous perspective –
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
And it would seem we are at an apocalyptic moment, if we take that term to mean a great revelation, along with a call for reckoning, healing and re-creation. “The Great Turning,” maybe, allowing that transitions take us to the edge, because that is where qualitative growth lies.
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”
– Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader)
Earlier this year I joined a beautiful community stewarded by Joe Weston, which has been brought together by a common desire to cultivate deeper shared capacity among people for what Joe calls “respectful confrontation” and “fierce civility.” The Weston Network is grounded in a set of practices drawn from martial arts, mindfulness and somatics, which help practitioners cultivate four core pillars – grounding, focus, strength and flexibility. These pillars support people to express and get their needs met in ways that can contribute to co-evolution (my word, not Joe’s), or mutualistic growth in groups and communities. I can really vouch for the power and the personal test of the practice!
A helpful concept that Joe introduced back in March at an in-person workshop, just before things started to close down because of COVID, was the idea that our individual and collective growth is found at “the resilient edge of our resistance.” The idea is that people tend to be resistant at the edges of their comfort zones, for some good reasons. And yet it is also true that staying hunkered down is not always helpful, and may even be dangerous. People also have the capacity to become more resilient at and over the edges of their perceived comfort zone. Life, in fact, requires this!
“Evolution is what happens when patterns that used to define survival become deadly.”
– Nora Bateson (filmmaker, writer, regenerative thinker and educator)
Through the Weston Network, I have been learning more about how to read resistance and sense its invitations beyond, “Don’t move. stay safe!” … feeling these messages in my body and a complex mixes of emotions, along with the dynamism of dancing on different edges. Resistance when met with a combination of respect, rootedness, receptivity, and recreation can build muscle, confidence, and open up new possibilities. How many people have I heard say that one thing they have learned this year is that they are in fact stronger and more adaptive than they might have thought? Or that they have found meaningful connection in struggle and disruption?
“We don’t have to resist entropy … or push the river. We just need to learn how to get out of the way and cooperate with the direction.”
As I have gone and been pushed to my growing edges this year, seen myself and the world from new vantage points, and tasted “resilient power” (Joe Weston’s words), I’ve been contemplating what this looks like as collective practice. And I’ve been dabbling a bit with both the Weston Network practices as well as those of the PROSOCIAL community in a few different groups and networks.
The ACT Matrix (see above) is a tool that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them, along with aligned behaviors, as a way of laying a foundation for transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. In essence, this helps to normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
I’m eager in the new year to lean more into these different practices with others, knowing that more of us are moving with intention into the “omega” (release) and “alpha” (reorganize) phases of the adaptive cycle (see below). While letting go and stepping into the unknown may not be a very compelling invitation to everyone, I’m hoping that the prospect of finding our resilient power and cultivating regenerative futures will be incentive to keep moving to meet, greet and play on our edges.
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:
Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
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:
Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
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?”
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
In the late spring, we had an unseasonably sticky stretch of days where I live, and after school one day, my wife and I took our girls to a local swim hole to cool down. As we eased into the cold water, one of our seven-year-old twins clutched desperately to my torso, not yet willing to put more than a toe or foot in. As the sun beat down, I began to feel both the weight of her body and the ebb of my patience, and I managed to negotiate her to a standing position in water that came to her waist. She continued to clutch my arm vice-like with both of her hands.
After another few minutes it was definitely time for me to go under water. But Maddie was unwilling to release me. I continued to encourage her to let go first, to get her head and shoulders wet. Initially totally reluctant, she got to a point where she was in just up to her neck but was still anxiously squeezing my hand. We did a bit of a dance for a few minutes where she would get to the end of my finger tips with her right hand, seemingly ready to take the plunge, and then the same part-anticipatory part-terrorized expression came to her face and she was back against me.
I kept coaxing her, and then let her know that whether she let go or not, I was going under, and if she was still holding on to me, that she would be doing the same. “Okay, okay!” she yelled, stamping her feet and once again got to the tips of my fingers while breathing rapidly. And this time … she let go. She pushed off and immersed her entire body in the water. She came up shrieking but with a big smile on her face, a bit shocked but also more at home in the water, moving around quite gracefully, actually. She splashed me and laughed and then I dived in. A few minutes later she was swimming along next to me.
In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns, a collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”
“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”
“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”
(I want to give a BIG shout out to Marsha Boyd for helping to inspire this post with her words and spirit. Thank you, Marsha, for your collegiality, mentoring, and leadership by example!)
For the past couple of weeks, I have been savoring a book by Nora Bateson entitled Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. Bateson is a filmmaker, writer and activist, and also the daughter of Gregory Bateson, ground-breaking anthropologist, philosopher, systems thinker, cyberneticist and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a mind-stretching and heart-opening amalgamation of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks. Throughout Bateson offers a ranging exploration of systems theory and complexity thinking with an invitation to embrace a broader epistemological lens (what people think of as sources of legitimate knowledge) including embodied knowing and aesthetic experience.
In an essay entitled “The Fortune Teller,” Bateson explores the human tendency to stave off consciously or unconsciously anticipated disaster and decline by trying to keep things stable or as they have been. Think the most recent financial crisis. A recent article on the site Evonomics entitled “It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory” reminds us of the story of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a champion of unfettered capitalism. Greenspan fought against initiatives to rein in derivatives markets even as there were signs of turbulence and calls to make substantial changes. On October 23, 2008, Greenspan admitted he was wrong, making the following statement to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: “Those of us who have looked to the self- interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” But what has significantly changed? Or consider a very recent article about local government efforts in Ventura County, California to site a new fossil fuel plant on a beach starting in 2020 that ignore protests from organized low-income residents concerned about air quality and lack of access to the beaches, and environmental organizations pointing out the real danger stemming from underestimations of sea level rise.
While in some ways understandable (few of us probably like the idea of collapse and chaos), actions taken to preserve a certain kind of order and direction (not to mention power and privilege) can be particularly perverse when they reinforce the very patterns that are leading us down the road to collective ruin. And what more people are beginning to sense is that many social, economic and political patterns that have been established and gotten us to where we are must change for the sake of long-term survival and thriving. Read More
This week we lost Dr. Grace Lee Boggs. She was 100 years old. The long-time Detroit political and labor activist, author, and philosopher was a source of inspiration for many of us at IISC and in activist circles around the country and world. Dr. Boggs’ life and work is the focus of a documentary film called American Revolutionary, which POV is streaming for free until November 4.
Last week I had an interesting conversation with an evaluator who was curious about some of the networks for food system development we’ve been supporting through IISC. We got to talking about “metrics,” which led into consideration of the role of story in not simply gauging network effectiveness, but also in stimulating network evolution. Communication and social learning are part of the life-blood of human networks. This is something that we’re coming to understand at a more profound level amidst the complexity of food system transformation work at all levels.
As we try to identify “leverage points” to shift regional food system dynamics in New England in the direction of increased local production, food security, economic development, resiliency and equity across the board, we are realizing that more robust connectivity and sharing across boundaries of many kinds is a significant strategy and form of structural change that can allow for critical self-organization and adaptation. Stories become one of the critical nutrients in this work.
Furthermore, we have begun to solicit stories of success and innovation around embracing the FSNE Vision (of 50% self-sufficiency with regards to regional food production by the year 2060) and racial equity commitment. And coming out of this year’s Summit, there is interest in sharing stories of how people are working towards “fair price” across the food chain, in such a way that food workers, producers of varying scales, distributers and consumers have living wages and access to health-promoting and culturally diverse food. The curation of these stories we see as beginning to change the underlying economic narrative.
Stories then become fuel in many ways, providing different points of access, connection, inspiration, education, and meaning-making. Stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth. Our work as a Network Team, as network gardeners, is to “close the resource loop,” encourage and support more equitable channels for expression, more cross-fertilization, more interest in diverse (and concealed) stories and “processing venues” for these (virtual and in-person).
How are you using story to feed your net work forward?
“Well meaning people are often trying to solve a problem by answering the wrong question.”
In some cases this is because they have not paused long enough, if at all, to consider the underlying question their efforts are trying to solve (risking “active laziness” which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago). Or, as my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said, they are “solving for solution,” essentially promoting and/or fighting over their own preferred approaches. And so they continue to offer the same old, ineffective and outdated, approaches or products. This is especially problematic in a time of such change and flux, when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know. Read More
Those who see networks as a fad likely see them only as a tactic, as opposed to a fundamental way of being.
By Calvinius [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Not long ago, Scientific American published a guest blog looking at the revolution in human thought that is being inspired by a network perspective. In the post, co-authors John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie and Mark Golitko write about how modern research in the natural and social sciences increasingly shows how the world does not revolve around people as individuals:
“Instead, what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks reaching far and wide.”
“Re-examine all that you have been told . . . dismiss that which insults your soul.”
– Walt Whitman
Developmental theory is the source of some good healthy discussion within the Interaction Institute for Social Change. On the one hand, some point out that the notion of “stages of development” has been used to classify and oppress people, especially when theories come from privileged and powerful purveyors, are overly deterministic and linear, and do not account for cultural location and variation. On the other hand, some point to the “empowering” notion of evolution and development that can help liberate people from fixed and mechanistic views of the world and humanity. I had this all very much in mind as I read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. Laloux brings developmental and so-called “integral theory,” including the work of Ken Wilber, into the palpable realm of organizational practice and through his research, posits an evolutionary trajectory from aggressive (Red) to bureaucratic (Amber) to achievement-oriented (Orange) to culture/empowerment-oriented (Green) to self-actualizing/authentic (Teal) organizations.
I’m just getting back from a four-week sabbatical, a special gift from IISC after seven years of service. I grew in leaps and bounds. A lot of what been brewing inside of me for the last year or two started to come together in a powerful way. My time off was anchored by a week-long, life changing, couples’ retreat in Mexico.