“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us to see with new eyes.”
– Harold Jarche
A couple of years ago I teamed up with Bruce Hoppe, a very skillful and savvy network mapper, to do a network capacity building and analysis engagement with a national education organization comprised of a growing number of member schools. While the organization referred to itself as a “network,” leadership recognized that it did not necessarily intentionally leverage itself as such, or do so with great consistency. Furthermore, there was reported unevenness of understanding among member schools of what it meant to be a member of this network. So Bruce and I were invited in to work with the leadership team to see what might be done to grow network awareness, intention and activity.
In addition to doing some “thinking like a network” training and coaching with the core leadership team, we put together a network survey that yielded some interesting results. The survey was intended to surface how people in the network currently took advantage of the network, what they valued about it, and what other value they would like to see come from their membership and participation.
In analyzing both the pattern of responses and the network map that Bruce constructed, we were interested to see stories emerge of mediated and self-organized collaborations between schools. This included reports of information sharing, staff exchanges, and coordinated learning. This raised a few questions – Was network leadership aware of these collaborations? Were others in the network familiar with them? The answer was that there was some awareness, but this was not at all widespread. The hypothesis emerged that if examples of collaboration were more widely shared and celebrated, this might become both license and motivation for others to do so.
Something else that emerged from the network map were signs of various geographic clusters of schoolswhere there was relatively robust and/or growing communication and coordination. At the same time, there were schools that were in relatively close geographic proximity (in a state or sub-region of a state) where there was little if any interaction and exchange. Clusters in a network can become very powerful engines of collaboration, innovation and influence, both for members of the cluster and also the rest of the network. Leadership was invited to look more closely at the conditions that might be supporting interactivity in some clusters as opposed to others, and also to share examples of robust cluster activity with the rest of the network to inspire curiosity and connectivity.
Another take-away from the survey analysis was that there were clear (what we called) “champions” in the network, individuals who participated in many different virtual and in-person network activities at a relatively high degree of frequency. These super-users were identified as an asset to be further engaged to the extent that they might be ambassadors for the network as a whole, given their apparent enthusiasm. In addition, we raised the idea of creating a cluster of the champions, or a community of practice, that might exchange and prototype promising practices for network engagement.
Also related to this notion of champions was the discovery that the formal school coaching role that existed within the network could play a potentially powerful weaving function within the network. That is, coaches worked with multiple school leaders and often saw opportunities to make connections for the sake of peer exchange. However, this was not a formally condoned aspect of the coaching role. Leadership was invited to consider what it might look like to move coaches out of the role of highly customized support for individual schools and to do more generalized workshops and connecting of peers to ramp up interactivity, and support capacity, in the network.
Collaborations, clusters, champions and coaches-as-weavers – helpful isights from a network survey and map that we look forward to continuing to build upon and learn from, including how to leverage both virtual and in-person convenings to energize the network.
In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, on her radio program On Being, the poet/philosopher David Whyte offers up some beautiful reflections about the story behind and theme that runs through his poem “Working Together.” Having been commissioned to write a poem to celebrate the completion of a wildly successful group project, Whyte found inspiration one day while looking out the window of his descending airplane and watching the misty air rushing around the wing, marveling at how the elements of the air and the particular shape of the wing come together to make flight possible. He then rifts on this observation to consider the elements inside of himself, inside everyone, that have yet to be combined, or even discovered, and wonders about the distances that might be bridged as a result.Read More
Much of the work we do at IISC includes some element of helping to develop networks for social change. This entails working with diverse groups of individuals and/or organizations to come together and create a common vision and clear pathway to collective action and impact. I’ve been reflecting on how important it can be to not simply focus on creating or developing networks “out there” and across traditional boundaries, but also “in here,” within different recognized borders.
“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”
– Francisco Varela
The notion that part of the process of healing living systems entails connecting them to more of themselves is derived, in part, from the work of Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist. As Varela and others have surmised, living systems are networks, including individual people, groups, organizations, and larger social systems. Furthermore, they have noted that when a living system is faltering, the solution will likely be discovered from within it if more and better connections are created. In other words, as Margaret Wheatley puts it,
“A failing system [or network] needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.”
I find it interesting in the context of social change work to consider how the process of re-connecting at and within different systemic levels can be beneficial to those levels and initiatives as wholes.
“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”
Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness
Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux
As I look back on 2014 through the lens of the work we have done at IISC supporting networks and movements for social justice and system change, one of the most significant themes that I’ve distilled is the value of “making the invisible visible.” This month I’ve facilitated a number of reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they have felt and observed from our work over the course of the year. I tend to ask people how they see change happening at different levels: self, group, larger systems (organization, neighborhood, community, state, region, etc.). I also like to ask them to reflect via the use of stories, which I find often help to capture and convey developmental processes.
What has come from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability remain elusive, there has been movement and a significant part of this development comes down to seeing what had previously been unseen. While the methods for getting to this recognition have varied – from system mapping and analysis to network mapping to structural and power analysis to learning journeys to dialogue and tackling difficult conversations– by creating ample space to see, share and suppose, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), change processes, and potential impact.
“Creating a culture of trust in a network can have a big payoff. Why is this so? First, when trust is well-developed in a network, people are willing to get involved in high-risk projects where their reputation and resources are at stake. These kinds of projects usually have a lot of impact. Next, high levels of trust usually make decision making easier and less time consuming. Finally, a culture of trust enables people to accept and work with people who are quite different from them, which increases the number of people working on network activities.”
|Photo by Mike Baird|http://www.flickr.com/photos/72825507@N00/6827018401/in/photolist-bphfHP-ayA7wy-bKZzec-e4iaNi-aaixFs-bKZArr-e58faj-e52zee-e58ah1-e5838j-e586eo-e58cR5-e584Hq-8Wcf9Q-csNfzU-dftPtq-dZTbw9-bWm4ku-d6vnvU-d6vg8U-awDsBx-dz9vRu-7CW4pj-acYjbQ-agyEHk-9XrqN1-9XouvF-9XowsD-9XrpRj-9XrorW-d6vBWJ-d6vpE5-d6vFUQ-d6voKN-d6vJaN-d6vuLJ-d6vRoQ-d6vUZW-d6vxbE-d6vDLf-d6vSBq-d6vvPL-d6vWoA-d6vXLJ-d6vybf-d6vqN1-d6vQrY-d6vGTA-d6vma9-d6vzeb-d6vKqG|
The importance and power of trust in networks for social change cannot be overstated. Time and again, and despite what might show up as initial resistance, being intentional about getting to know one another beyond titles, official positions, and transactional exchanges reaps tremendous benefit, for all the reasons June Holley mentions above and more. Taking time and making space to build trust helps people to do the important work of social change and is in many cases an embodiment of the change we are trying to make in the world – when we expand our circles of compassion and inclusion; when we create new patterns of opportunity, exchange and resource flows; when we see and validate previously unrecognized or undervalued assets.