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?”
“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.” – Nicholas A. Christakis
At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.
I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”
People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.
Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.
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.'”
The following is a slightly edited re-post from a couple of years ago. The impetus for both the re-posting and editing was a recent conversation on On Being with Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk, writer/speaker on the topic of gratitude, and known for his participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science.
In a recent interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast, On Being host Krista Tippett introduces the topic of gratitude, by saying that at times it can come across as fairly cerebral or precious without much gravitas. Case in point, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, approaches gratitude with considerable skepticism, seeing it as another “feel good” way to be self-satisfied and unconcerned with the world and people who are suffering and oppressed. Yet Brother David, who has lived through war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country (Austria), teaches what he calls “gratefulness” as a deep and important spiritual practice.
Gratefulness in Brother David’s view and experience is not at all superficial, or a practice purely for the privileged. It allows for and leans into the very real anxieties of life, and when invoked in “full-bodied ways” can help prevent those anxieties from becoming disabling fear. Brother David acknowledges the tragedies and injustices of the world, while saying: Read More
“You have to remember, every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”
– Buckminster Fuller
One of the more memorable stories about my late father, who passed away 3 years ago this month, happened not long after the Great Recession began in 2008. At the time, he was on the board of a national organization devoted to the study and promotion of human consciousness and the connection between science and spirituality. During a phone meeting of board members, people got to talking about the economic crisis, at which point one member made the following remark: “It’s at times like these that it’s especially important to remember that we are all one.”
“Bullshit!” was my dad’s response (not prone to such outbursts on that board or in general).
After a momentary and no doubt stunned silence, he elaborated – “Clearly we are not one. Some people, a very few people, are making out like bandits from this crisis. Meanwhile of the so-called 99%, some have been much harder hit than others, their wealth decimated. How can we say we are one at a time like this?”
To be fair to my father and full in the storytelling, my dad acknowledged that he believed that it is important to recognize interdependence and shared humanity, and that how and when to do this is an important consideration. Which brings me to the quote from Buckminster Fuller above, a personal favorite and one that I seem to keep sharing recently. Fuller, the eminent systems theorist and design scientist, understood the interconnected nature of reality, as well as the human need and tendency to draw boundaries. Theoretically these boundaries are drawn to be of use to something and/or someone – to name important distinctions, focus attention, aid with analysis, etc. In fact boundaries, or at least difference, might be said to be crucial to life, as dynamic exchange is required to keep living systems alive. Yes, boundaries can be very useful . . . except when they’re not. Read More
“We can only have honest, effective hope if the frame through which we see is an accurate representation of how the world works.”
– Frances Moore Lappe
|Photo by Jim Bahn|http://www.flickr.com/photos/gcwest/6142854588|
With a warm welcome and opening offering of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Escape,” Danny Martin and I launched into our session last week at the Bioneers by the Bay Conference entitled, “Belonging and Becoming: Practices for Regenerative Leadership.” The framing of our 90 minutes was the call to connect more deeply with the ways of complex living systems, to align ourselves more fully with life so that we might thrive as a human community.
During the first half of our session we took the poet’s suggestion to escape the “glass bottles of our egos” and access “unlying life” by engaging in some paired storytelling focused on the values that have guided us in our lives. This was our effort to cultivate a deeper sense of belonging in the room, and we were amazed to hear how much people took from listening to one another for even 10 minutes. Read More
|Photo by Flowery *L*u*z*a*|http://www.flickr.com/photos/luchilu/747345256|
For the past few weeks, in a series of Thursday posts, we’ve addressed what it takes to tap the full potential of collaboration to shift to more environmentally sustainable ways of living and working. We’ve explored the importance of bringing diverse systemic perspectives together and developing shared identities and values as a way of achieving greater ecological intelligence and commitment. And as a friend of mine says, you can bring great groups together with the best of intentions and still end up with nothing or a mess. So what else can we put into place to help ensure we reach the sustainable ends we seek? Read More