“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”
Over the past 20 years of working with a variety of social change networks, I have observed a common dynamic surface after the initial enthusiasm and launch phase. As happened recently with a place-based network about a year into its development (navigating COVID and political uprisings along the way), some members started to bang the “What have we actually done?” drum. Contextual crises notwithstanding, this is not an inappropriate or unhelpful question. As important as relationship and trust-building is, there can come a time when people want to know … “So what?” Sometimes this comes from what we might call more “results-oriented” people in the network. Or it may come from the more time-strapped and stressed, those from smaller organizations, or those who just genuinely don’t see the return on their investment. When this has come up, and people are either holding back (“folded arms”) or threatening to walk, I have witnessed and facilitated several different ways of moving through the real or perceived lack of progress.
“If you want it, thenyou better put a ring around it” – In one instance, the convening team of a state-wide network essentially drew a line around all of the network participants and started claiming their successes as network successes. This might sound a bit shady, though it was not done in that spirit. By celebrating “your success as our success,” people felt appreciated and started to turn towards one another and see themselves as a bigger we. They didn’t have to wait to get to mass action. Smaller subsets having success counted.
Get a quick win – In another state-wide network, fraught at the outset by folded arms despite the fact that people would regularly physically show up for meetings, a network coordinator seized upon a timely policy advocacy opportunity that surfaced, which resulted in a mass outpouring and a legislative win. Nothing sells like success. That early victory got people eager to see what else they might be able to accomplish and they settled in for some more relationship-building.
Collect and share connection stories – We know that relationship-building is not just about the relationships. It can lead to new partnerships and projects. Often this happens at the start of a network, but is not tracked. We worked with another place-based network that intentionally set out to track the results of connections made in and through the network, and then shared these with the network as a whole. More about connection stories here.
Highlight the unusual and adjacent conversations – What makes many of the networks we work with unique is that they bring together people who do not often work with each other. Highlighting this and also what emerges out of novel interactions across fields can make “just talking” into exciting explorations and engines of innovation. For a little inspiration on this front, see “Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines” from Steven Johnson at Adjacent Possible (!).
Pump people up, individually and collectively – Let’s face it, in these times (and really all times), expressing genuine appreciation can go a long way. We work with a network convenor who does this wonderfully, tracking and celebrating people for their individual contributions outside of network gatherings, and constantly speaking to the power and potential of the collective. She just makes people feel good! This can make the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint” more enjoyable.
Get a super weaver going – Having a really adept and energetic network weaver can make all the difference in the early stages of a network. We have seen the impact this can have when ample capacity is created to regularly check in with people, listen to them, make connections between different needs and offers in the system, and encourage people to share more with one another. When those exchanges start happening, the “there” there is often more apparent.
Lift up the network champions – Generally there is a small group of people who really appreciate and lean into the value of the network from the get go (gratefully receiving and using resources that are shared, following up with new connections, testing out new ideas, leveraging the network as a platform), making it happen and not waiting for it. Observing this, capturing it, and sharing it with the network can help make the point that the network is what people make of it and give ideas for how to make this happen.
What have you done to successfully navigate impatience and intransigence in impact networks?
For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”
Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.
Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.
Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.
LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”
LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant inputbuilds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.
LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—andbuild authentic relationshipswith—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.
LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.
LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.
LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication.
LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.
LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework thatlegitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.
And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.
For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.
We recently wrapped up a series of workshops for members of the Wallace Center‘s Food Systems Leadership Network focused on Organizational Change for Racial Justice (OCRJ), which was adapted from our IISC workshop Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (ARJ). This offer was made by IISC under the auspices of The Wallace Center’s CORE Project, and with generous support from the Garfield Foundation. It was a wonderful and challenging experience for our collective Wallace/IISC team, as we welcomed representatives from 21 different food systems-focused organizations from around the US, along with a talented group of 16 small group facilitators who had participated in a customized Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work (FFRJW). That made for over 80 participants over 4 four-hour sessions, that took people from fundamental DEIJ concepts to change process design work to anticipating inevitable roadblocks and detours. We deeply appreciated how people showed up and went along for the ride, giving us helpful feedback along the way, and ultimately sharing all that they had taken that sets them up with a stronger foundation to do the work.
As we wrapped up our final session, my colleague Erika Strong shared an excerpt from a piece by Herbert A. Shephard, “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents,” which appeared in the OD Practitioner in December 1984. It has appeared by permission in our course Collaborative Social Change: Designing for Impact in a Networked World. And we now include it in many of our racial justice trainings as a way of bringing focus back from systems to individual and groups of change agents, and what can support them in doing this work over the long haul. These are re-shared below with some additional commentary.
Stay alive, literally and figuratively. The work is indeed long and often hard. And it can also have its moments of joy and satisfaction, as we experience connection and development of different kinds. But this does not happen if we are not enlivened, or breathing, in a deeper sense. Self and community care is crucial.
Start where the system is. This is about getting clear-eyed about where things actually are, which comes not just from an initial assessment, but over time, especially as people try to do things differently. Action is certainly about trying to make change, and it is also about nudging living organizational/social systems to see how they respond, so that we better understand defenses, patterns, logic, etc. Starting from where the system is not can waste valuable energy.
Speaking of energy conservation, another guideline is to Never work uphill.
Don’t build hills as you go. Don’t make the work more difficult than it needs to be, or too insurmountable for people. It is not easy to begin with, requires stretches, but putting people in panic or overwhelm mode does not help. Use accessible language, make clear asks, try not to overly trigger people’s defenses.
Work in the most promising areas. Look for early wins. Because this always inspires confidence, that change is possible, and it can build a sense of accomplishment and community. Don’t try and tackle it all. We encourage people to start with a couple of areas in their organization/community/network where you can start and then build/connect.
Build capacity. Don’t go it alone. Build your team! As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” Start with your core/design/equity team. Let them become a model for the rest of the organization. And share transparently about how you are working, as there is much to be gained from trying to create network effects through this work.
Don’t over-organize. Don’t fall into the trap of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Yes, get necessary supports in place. Yes, do some initial assessment and grounding, and then know that a lot of the learning will come through acting, trying out different things, and iterating as you go. And you want to leave place for others to add their ideas and initiative.
Be bold.Doing this will send important signals to those around you, be a “chaotic attractor” of sorts, will help you identify allies and some of the strongest blockers. And given the many roadblocks that come up, boldness is an important energetic counter, especially when held by an even small but mighty group.
Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends. The idea for change does not need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough” (reasonably well informed), have legs (can be put into action) and people who are willing to try it out.
Load experiments for success. This connects to much of what appears above, along with being as clear-eyed as possible about what is actually happening in any given system in any given moment.
Light many fires. Don’t rely on only one intervention or one place in a system to create change. A few interventions in different places, especially when connected, can help create ripples of change over time.
Keep an optimistic bias.Negativity bias is real, and can help us to be both realistic and to survive. And it can also quickly kill ideas and initiatives outside of “the norm.” Part of the value of finding a few friends to move things forward is developing a core group that can maintain and spread an attitude of positivity and possibility.
Capture the moment. Timing may or may not be everything, yet is can matter immensely. Staying tuned in, in both a collective and holistic sense, to what is changing and where energy might be shifting and effort applied is key to being able to nudge living systems in more just, prosocial, and sustainable directions. And it turns out, there is something of a science around “when” decisions.
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and we are always eager to hear what you would add.
Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.
I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.
“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”
“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”
“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”
“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”
“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”
“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”
– Shaun Coffey
“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”
“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”
“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”
“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”
“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”
“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”
– Donella Meadows
“Change the business models and change the world.”
“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”
“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”
“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”
“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”
“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”
– Nicholas Christakis
“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”
“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”
“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”
“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”
“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”
“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”
I mentioned in a previous post how much I love Twitter, for a variety of reasons, including how it helps me to see networks at work and can help create a variety of great network effects. Well I have reason to yet again appreciate it, as a recent blog post I put up inspired Claudio Nichele, who is located in Brussels, Belgium and works at the European Commission, to create the great sketch above of the network principles I wrote about (see below).
Just like that, an unexpected gift and enhanced visual value! I asked for Claudio’s permission to post, which he granted, and we both agree it is a wonderful example of what happens when you work out loud (see principle #9 below). Enjoy, and please feel free to rift on these images and the principles below, and if you do, let both of us know what you create. Read More
Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. While this is true, it is also the case that not every collaborative form maximizes network effects, including small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptability, resilience and system change. In this regard, experience shows that a big difference maker is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following revised list continues to evolve as our own practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of network principles to guide thinking and action:
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.”
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.
“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
My friend Adam Pattantyus recently reminded me of the concept of “active laziness”, attributed specifically to the writings of Sogyal Rinpoche. This reminder came at a very opportune moment. It is no secret that there is, at least in a number of circles in which we at IISC operate, a burgeoning culture of busy-ness. Many people seem increasingly pressed for time, and move between the temporal equivalent of sound bites throughout their days. The ensuing “frenzy” and exhaustion, while perhaps seen as necessary (or by some as a status symbol), is also being called out for its dysfunctional nature, including how it detracts from efforts to create positive and lasting social change. This is what Rinpoche calls “active laziness,” the compulsive cramming of our lives with activity that leaves no time to confront “real issues.”Read More
“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. Or, as my colleague Cynthia 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
Conferences and other large in-person convenings provide a great opportunity to launch and further develop networks for social change. As has been mentioned previously on this blog, and borrowing from the work of Plastrik and Taylor, at IISC we see networks for change as developing in various inter-related “modes,” including connectivity, alignment, and action. Paying attention to multiple dimensions of success can inform a variety of approaches to support a more robust, trust-bound, commonly-oriented, self-organizing and (as needed) formally coordinated collective.