Six Keys to Shift from Organization to Network Mindset

Networking as an active verb for global change is something that we are still in early days of exploring. And of course networks can come in many forms – some are purposely structured to facilitate control. But change strategies like those of Global Action Networks require a networked mindset that a great report describes as working wikily: “characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making, and distributed action.”

Living these principles requires effort for most of us who carry elements of an organizational mindset. That prevents us from developing the potential of networking. Here are six elements I find useful to remind myself about, when I feel I may be slipping back into an organizational mindset.

Share Power

Change networks usually have few carrots or sticks. Most depend on voluntary energy and enthusiasm. But people and organizations have lots of ways they can spend their time and resources. They won’t bring all of that to the table, if they don’t feel like they have an appropriate amount of influence. Through a leaderful culture, a liberating structure and an inspiring vision, people become engaged.

One exception to the lack of carrots is with financing networks, like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, that distribute large amounts of money. For them, the challenge to appropriately share power is even greater, since power is traditionally associated with controlling allocation of resources. To avoid this requires emphasizing peer-like relationships and decision-making. One rule the Global Fund has instituted is that both recipients and donors on the Board must agree to the person hired as Director.

Sharing power requires resisting many learned proclivities. For example, Global Reporting Initiative Chief Executive Ernst Ligteringen who is stewarding development of standards frameworks comments: “Standard-setters have centralizing tendencies.” It is important to point out when participants bring anti-network assumptions and behaviors.

Sharing power means empowering stakeholders who have traditionally been marginalized. And for the powerful sharing power means changing behaviors to encourage participation. This often involves building the capacity of the traditionally marginalized and the powerful to interact productively.

And sharing power involves sharing information as well. Alexander Kashumov, with The Access Initiative in Bulgaria, points out that “Trust is dependent on how satisfied the participants are about sharing information.”

Be Accountable, Maintain Integrity




Ania Grobicki, Global Water Partnership Executive Secretary comments: “Absolutely the first quality is personal integrity. For people to be able to trust what you do and what you say. It’s absolutely essential.” In a network, peer-like relationships dominate. No one is above questioning by other participants. But accountability must be facilitated through regular meaningful reference during decision-making to not just objectives, but also principles and values.

Partner Yourself

Particularly once a network realizes some success, it can become inward looking. It may increasingly feel it does not need others. However, for growth, openness to partnering with others is critical. This requires listening and identifying opportunities, as well as responding to those proposed by others.

The partnering also means pushing the boundaries about how you work with participants. Cobus de Swardt, Transparency International Managing Director gave a great example of this, being leaderful, and giving up power in preparation of Transparency’s annual report. “The annual report before I took this job had four pages on national chapters and about 40 pages on the Secretariat. The first one I had a role with had exactly the opposite, but it was still structured in accord with how the Secretariat is organized. This year the report was prepared by the network and you can’t even see that there’s a Secretariat.”

Acknowledge the Roles of Individuals and Hierarchy

The dominate dynamic may be networking, but that does not mean that individuals and hierarchy have no role. As explained in an earlier blog, networks integrate partnerships and, in their nodes, hierarchy.

A nuanced balance is needed. In an article titled The Ignorance of Crowds, Nicholas Carr writes: “…peer production is a good way to mine the raw material for innovation, but it doesn’t seem well suited to shaping that material into a final product. That’s a task that is still best done in the closed quarters of a cathedral, where a relatively small and formally organized group of talented professionals can collaborate closely in perfecting the fit and finish of a product. Involving a crowd in this work won’t speed it up; it will just bring delays and confusion.” (Carr 2007)

Create Coherence

Remember that social change networks are about creating alignment in direction and collective energy of all the participants. Don’t get lost in trying to coordinate the activities of the network, although you may do that for a subset of participants. In the midst of great complexity a network steward’s role is to identify strategic projects that can cause shifts in speed and alignment amongst and beyond direct participants.

Be Role-Centric

Perhaps the most important thing that Verna Allee has taught me through her work with value networks is that networks are not the sum of the organizations within them. Rather, they are the sum of the roles that participating organizations play in a network. The focus is on defining the roles that are necessary for the network to be healthy, and stimulating participating organizations singly or collaboratively to play the needed roles. Understand the role that organizations play vis-à-vis the network’s purpose, and encourage them to play the role really well collectively.


Four Network Change Strategies for Complex Systems

People easily get into arguments about “correct strategies” to realize change. Often with a little bit of dialogue, they discover that they are actually talking about complementary strategies. Then, they start to understand the limitation of their own advocated strategy, and that it cannot succeed on its own. These types of insights spurred Ken Wilber to popularize an integral approach to support a comprehensive and integrated view of the world, and to found the Integral Institute.

In audacious titles and substantive books,A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything, Ken developed “a model that would unite all the known laws of the universe into one all-embracing theory that would literally explain everything in existence.” He is driven by the questions about what will move us to a world that has the benefits of modernity such as increased freedoms and longevity, and address the substantial problems of modernity such as environmental degradation and inequality.

A key product of this work is what is now referred to as the “four-quadrant” diagram. Very simply put, this arose from looking at all the great writers and theorists in spiritual (Christ, Ghandi, etc.), developmental (personal development with Jean Piaget, institutional development, those who integrate them such as colleague Bill Torbert, etc.) and other scientific, cultural and thought traditions.

The four quadrants are behind the Table Four Change Strategies. This was developed with particular help and influence of colleagues Philip Thomas, Jim Ritchie-Dunham and Mari Fitzduff. The Table suggests that a successful strategy must address four change challenges. Quadrant 1 deals with intention, personal identity and ways of perceiving, Quadrant 2 with behavior and how it is developed, Quadrant 3 with culture, beliefs and values, and Quadrant 4 with the structures and processes of social systems. There is a lot in this one Table, and it deserves study by all interested in change, particularly of the transformation type.

In order for an issue to change in the way Global Action Networks (GANs) and multi-stakeholder networks aspire for, there must be action in all four Quadrants. That does not mean that the network itself has to lead the activity. However, to realize the change it is working for, it, its participants or others should undertake strategic interventions to ensure change is proceeding in all the Quadrants. Lack of change in one of the Quadrants will hold back development in the others.

There is a tendency for change networks to focus on the exterior, both at the individual but especially at the collective levels. There is usually resistance to incorporating spiritual-psychological strategies, because this can conflict with the external action-orientation of most networks to get others to change and to focus on, physical technology, structural and intellectual change. Also, inappropriate methods are often applied for a particular change challenge and goal. The Table is a draft that aims to get at some of these issues…feel free to comment! You might find this a good tool for analyzing your own change strategy.


Change Networks Require Three Types Of Expertise

The work of Global Action Networks (GANs) as global change networks requires three types of expertise.  The types shift if importance as a network evolves.

Particularly in their early days GANs lead with physical or substantive issue expertise such as expertise in some aspect of water, forestry, labor, conflict prevention, and youth employment.  In early days, a network’s leaders are usually seen as experts in the issue.  This is important to ensure the network is grounded in its issue expertise to build its legitimacy with key stakeholders. 

A second type of expertise is tool expertise.  There are certain activities that networks elect to realize their vision.  These include such tools as certification, resource management, index development, and financing. 

But as networks develop, these types of expertise become less central.  Networks do not aim to develop leading substantive issue expertise – that is the work of universities, think tanks and consultancies that participate in networks.  And after applying tool expertise to create a financing or certification system, simple expansion in detail and maintenance are required.  Networks just need to make sure that they have these types of expertise in their network to maintain legitimacy, relevance and an appropriate level of quality.  They often have a place for issue and tool expertise, such as with a Technical Committee.

As global change networks develop, a third type of expertise becomes increasingly important.  It is change process expertise in applying the tool to the issue arena to enhance social, economic and environmental outcomes in the issue field using the tools.  The type of change process expertise that networks need is driven by their particular theory of change that, for Global Action Networks, is a multi-stakeholder one. The work of developing (1) change through (2) multi-stakeholder processes is what defines the complexion and array of the competencies that networks need for success, although a different complexion of similar competencies is often needed in other types of organizations.

To understand how this change process work distinguishes networks, consider the tool of “certification and standards”. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO:  often mis-referred to as the International Standards Organization because of the acronym mis-match) also produces standards that are used in certification. ISO is a business-government network.  ISO has an important “system organizing” role like other GANs.  But it is not a GAN. Its goal is not about change, but rather about summarizing current standards and ensuring there is some international uniformity and way of translating standards between countries. ISO emphasizes tool expertise rather than change process expertise. It does not have transformational change as part of its fundamental purpose – transformational change that includes change in power relationships.  

In contrast to ISO, GANs like the Global Reporting Initiative, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council that are involved with measurement and certification, take a position of leadership by gathering stakeholders who want to significantly advance the standards in terms of their social, environmental and economic impact.  Advancing practice for this triple bottom-line impact is distinctive in GANs across issues.  GANs’ belief that the certification should be done by embracing diversity and voluntarily, gives additional wrinkles to the particular competencies that they have to both develop and integrate for success. 

This change competency must not relax into complacency if the GAN is to maintain its leading edge…something I refer to as “getting stuck” (good scientific term!).  To get the feeling of the posture GANs require, think of yourself standing up and tipping forward and barely avoiding a fall.  Organizations like ISO are about standing straight up, in place. In GANs there is always a feeling that things are somewhat “out of control” as they tumble into the future.  

How to maintain this position is a core challenge for success.  It demands great skill in ensuring stakeholders are really challenging each other effectively, rather than sinking into comfortable familiar relationships.  Change processes of the duration that the global ones GANs are tackling must not only manage differences, but also familiarity. 

A large number of brilliant processes have developed over the past decade that, by and large, GANs make little use of.  These include such methodologies as dynamic facilitation, future search, world café, scenario development, change labs, appreciative inquiry and deep democracy.  More on these in a future blog. 


Zadek On Business, Sustainability and Incremental Versus Disruptive Change

Simon Zadek is a leading thinker about paths of change that truly respond to the sustainability challenge.  He is founder ofAccountAbility (although left), and works with numerous academic, corporate and governmental entities;  80% of his time is spent in Brazil, South Africa and China.   This is an edited transcription of thoughts he shared at a meeting of GOLDEN for Sustainability, a global academic-business initiative I am working with.  GOLDEN aims to spur through engaged scholarship, the development and application of knowledge about change processes and dynamic capabilities

SIMON:  (In response to sustainability) we can broadly distinguish between approaches taken by companies: (1) at the optimizing end of the spectrum and (2) those at the disruptive end.  What we’ve seen over the past 10-15 years is a professional community emerging largely to deal with optimizing issues…metrics, codes, management incentives, training…geared to squeeze more sustainability blood out of the existing business model. That is a good thing.  But we have to understand its limits, and potentially its negative unintended consequences.

Then you look at people like me…and we talk more about disruptive change, new business models…major change in the way businesses and markets operate.  But the gap between these two is extreme.  There is little being done by companies in the disruptive change area.

The vast majority of companies won’t make it through the next round of innovation – they won’t exist in 10, 15, 20 years.  Historically very few companies make it through two innovation waves, and this innovation wave is of a size that is very rare.  (There are a couple of approaches to this wave:)

  • There are real process companies – like General Electric – almost incapable of experimenting in the heart of the business, so they have skunkworks to understand how they may shift the business.
  • Then we have got another class of company like NIKE:  high performance, but attention span of a pea…its incentives encourage rapid innovation…they try to integrate disruptive learning into the business model as it runs.

Sustainability is a Disruptive Change Challenge

(W)e know in theory the answer (to climate change)….but where we are making (progress), it’s happening at a pace and scale that is far too small in relation to our understanding of the problem, and our timelines associated in dealing with the problem.  We know in theory the answer, but practice is hugely difficult to advance at the pace that we need it.  In some instances that is a failure of imagination, in most instances that has to do with incumbent interests. 

Our underlying fiduciary models are rewarding the wrong things, incentivizing the wrong results.  We can imagine “the great disruption”, but we find it very hard to drive into practice, and that has a lot to do with our existing institutional configurations and underlying incentives and patterns of accountability and the difficulty in overcoming that.  And that’s true within individual companies, subsections of companies and much larger systems.

We are challenged to understand what the levers for significant scale are.  Most people do not to bother with the important question, but focus on two easier questions.

  1. Can we illustrate Black Swan practice – there’s a great company that did X.  But that doesn’t tell us anything about how the larger system works. 
  2. Or…can we illustrate large-scale irrelevant practice…ISO 14000…scale when it doesn’t have much impact

So we need to understand how to scale rapid change

Governments and the Disruptive Change

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has been built post a discussion about state ownership…therefore (it’s about) how to squeeze sustainability blood out of a private capital market obsessed about making large quantities of money in short periods of time. 

15-18 years of experience shows we can’t get much more blood out of the existing model, so we need to change the game somehow.  And one part of that has to do with the technical and legal purpose of business.  Which means bringing the state (government) back in.  The next 2-3 decades will see profound interventions by the state.  The state in emerging markets – where the action is – is very important, and these countries will be increasingly important.  Two indicators of this are with the growth of importance of China’s state-owned enterprises investing, and of sovereign (state-controlled) wealth funds (China, Singapore, OPEC, Norway, etc.). 

It’s the relationship between these new models of state intervention in the economy and business innovation, creativity, technological dynamism – it’s the intersections of those two areas – that are going to be where the significant points of disruption in international markets will actually lie. 

When you talk to any forward-looking companies looking at the business model through the lens of sustainability, they are deeply involved in emerging markets and they are increasingly engaged in understanding the significance of public policy change to enable the business innovation and technological dynamism to flow through their business into value creation. 

The Role for GOLDEN

Simon calls for GOLDEN to understand the emerging nature of state-business intersections, and “to really focus on problems that we don’t know how to solve”.  In this list he includes helping companies to understand how to:

  • Deal with capital markets
  • Experiment with more disruptive changes in the business-model, without disrupting the business model
  • Ensure skunk works are not becoming marginalized by the dominant model
  • More effectively engage governments and international public institutions in creating the correct enabling policy environment…there is largely corporate capture

He also urged GOLDEN to spend 75% of its effort with emerging markets – that’s where the action is.

Comment by Steve

Simon’s use of “optimizing” change is similar to how I use “incremental”;  “disruptive change” is similar to how some use “revolution” and I use “transformation”. An earlier blog distinguishing between incremental, reform and transformational change further describes the underlying challenges and dynamics that Simon is getting at.  Particularly valuable is his ability to “operationalize” the change modes in terms of such things as key questions and focal issues.  And particularly intriguing is his suggestion about reimagining the state-business nexus as critical to an effective response to sustainability challenges, and the role of emerging markets that are not so locked into the traditional models as loci for development of the needed new business model. 

The tipping point theory suggests that lots of small (incremental) changes can accumulate to eventually produce a transformational change. However, as Simon points out, a market dominated by the traditional business model rarely allows incremental changes to continue in isolation — they will be reversed by the pressure of tradition as has been seen innumerable times with social enterprises like Stride Rite, Ben & Jerry’s and Body Shop.  This suggests that there needs to be collective action — either voluntary or enforced — to give rise to a fundamentally new business model. 


Scaling Up – Change – Complex Adaptive Systems

“Scaling up” and “change” are two topics whose relationship is preoccupying me these days.  I was delighted to discover an article that presents important insights by tying the topics to “complex adaptive systems”. 

From what I’ve seen, “scaling up” strategies can be characterized in two extremes (with some mixing, of course):

  • the linear, top-down, roll-out, adopt-the-model form; 
  • a systems, growing from the bottom up, action learning, stimulate-the-change form.

My recent reading clarifies that the “roll-out” form is good in “simple” and “complicated” situations;  the action learning form is appropriate for complex situations as distinguished by David Snowden.  The roll-out top-down format requires the stable, predictable situations with few unknowns and linear power structures that are associated with simple and complicated situations;  the action learning format is for situations where there are many unknowns, great variation in contexts and rapid change as is associated with complexity.

With the burdensome but clear name, Understanding pathways for scaling up health services through the lens of complex adaptive systemsis a great article that synthesizes others’ work, rather than drawing from first-hand research.   In fact, it makes the point that has not found complex adaptive systems (CAS) thinking actually applied to health issuesThe authors set the scene by describing problems with applying simple/complicated perspectives to CASs:

“People’s understandings of systems that are actually CAS are often over-simplified or erroneous, which creates problems for decision-makers who cannot control such systems through conventional means, often while being vulnerable to sudden changes in public opinion.  It is not unusual for systems to show little response to many attempts to control them, or to change suddenly when a tipping point is reached.  For example, many high-cost health investment projects have had little impact on people’s behavior or health status, in contrast to sudden changes that can occur in public opinion about smoking bans or in the demand for contraception.”

The real value of the article is that it makes two contributions to facilitate application.

Key Complex Adaptive System Phenomena

One of the article’s key contributions is its summary of five models of phenomena that are behind CASs. These demonstrate the problems with a roll-out approach taken in such circumstances.

1.  Path dependence:  history, culture and other contextual features can produce different outcomes even when starting from the same point.

2.  Feedback:  You can start from the same point, but during the process there are responses that affect the precursors of success to produce differing trajectories

3.  Scale-free networks:  In many issue arenas, some networks have hubs connecting many sub-groups of people/organizations, other hubs connect only a few (hence “scale-free”);  large nodes can facilitate both connection and collapse of a system (think of the financial system).

4.  Emergent behavior:  new connections create new possibilities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

5.  Phase transition:   this is the “tipping point” factor:  small changes and connections can suddenly “gell” to become dominant.

While people commonly focus on one or two of these phenomena — feedback and phase transition are, in my experience, the most popular — they all require consideration. Collectively these five phenomena produce a confusing array of action that is associated with complex adaptive systems and emergence; understanding them individually helps immensely in understanding complexity dynamics.

Application of Insights

The second contribution of the article is that it begins connecting these definable patterns (complexity being distinguished from chaos by such patterns) to both an action logic and methodologies with tools.   The action logic is a play on the plan-act-learn one of traditional learning cycles and development strategies of simple/complicated issues. 

Planning in CASs is predicated on the understanding that new, unforeseen opportunities and events will emerge that should be treated as an asset rather than a disruption in a planned set of outcomes mapped in advance.  The process of learning, envisioning, clarifying and experimenting will “emerge” the outcomes, in contrast to engineering outcomes as in a roll-out processes. 

Planning tools the article references include stakeholder analysis, network mapping, agent-based modeling and scenario planning. These “…deepen the understanding of path-dependent actions and consequences;  …test their abilities to anticipate and adapt to changing conditions; (identify) feedback loops and emergent behavior;  (and) identify neighborhood or place effects…”

The authors comment with respect to the next step of the action cycle: 

“During the implementation and monitoring of scaling up ,,. an understanding of CAS would emphasize the importance of adaptation, learning and flexibility to emerging issues rather than the rigid following of initial plans.”

Tools identified for this stage include small-area statistical variation analyses, facilitating and analyzing dialogue, and time series analysis to identify patterns.

The last step, evaluation, is handled in an unsatisfactory way in my opinion.  The authors recognize that unintended consequences must be addressed and point to problematic approaches such as creating unsustainable islands of excellence (is anything really an ‘island’?).  However, they make no reference to the developmental evaluation of Michael Patton and others’ works that emphasize that in CAS situations “evaluation” and “learning” must be integrated – initiatives cannot wait for evaluations after-the-fact, given CAS interventions are typically lengthy and new learning must be integrated into actions on a very short cycle.  Of course this does not deny the value of periodic reviews and assessments, but traditional simple-complicated evaluation methodologies in this situation are highly inappropriate in comparison to a more broad-looking assessment

The authors conclude with particular reflection on the health field, but their remarks can be broadly applied:  “The old assumptions have led to disappointed expectations about how to scale up health services, and offer little insight on how to scale up effective interventions in the future. The alternative perspectives offered by CAS may better reflect the complex and changing nature of health systems, and create new opportunities for understanding and scaling up health services. “


Connecting Physical and Social Science to Address Complexity

While working with Ashoka to scale transformational change, I recently met a most remarkable man with a most remarkable insight.  Allan Savory is associated with environmental land management; his most remarkable insight is to integrate a physical science observation with a governance one. In 2003, he was awarded the Banksia International Award for extraordinary contributions to improving our environment on a global level.


Allan was born in Zimbabwe when it was still named Rhodesia and part of the British Empire.  He has been a game ranger, biologist/researcher, soldier, farmer, rancher, politician and international consultant working on four continents;  he is President and Co-Founder of The Savory Institute.

Allan’s physical science observation is about the critical role of “large herbivores” (cattle, sheep, elk, elephants, bison, etc.) in the health of grasslands, rangelands and savannas of the world.  Rather than being the cause of degradation, they are critical to maintaining and improving the quality of land.  Their hooves break up the soil, their excrement fertilizes, and their grazing spurs new growth.  Allan’s particular physical science insight is about the massing, movement and timing of herbivores on a particular piece of land.  Through proper management even the most devastated land can be revitalized to support many more herbivores than traditional management practice.

Holistic Management: Physical and Social

However, his genius is realizing that this is a necessary, but not sufficient, insight to produce the paradigm shift he refers to as “holistic management”.  You also need change in decision-making processes, for which he has developed a “holistic framework” that he compares to a traditional or “core framework”.  He explains that: 

“Conscious, as opposed to instinctive, decisions by humans (at all levels from household to government or international policies) are made toward the achievement of an objective. The only tools with which to manage the environment at large considered in any government’s (or development agency’s) policies or projects fall under the categories of technology, fire or rest (of the environment).  And all actions to achieve the objective are based on one or more of many factors, such as past experience, expert opinion, research results, public opinion, cost, compromise, expediency, cultural beliefs, intuition, peer pressure, fear, propaganda, cost, cash flow, profitability, and so on.”

This core framework is good in simple and complicated issues, such as application and development of hard technologies – as he points out, with everything humans “make” from buildings, computers, genetic engineering to space exploration vehicles.  However, the core framework is counter-productive with complex issues – everything humans “manage” – agriculture, desertification, economies, species, environment – where there are significant unknowns and uncertainties that require an on-going strategy for learning and exploration.  These are sometimes called soft social systems or natural systems.

Allan points out that complex issues cannot be addressed by objectives and goals or through them visions or missions.  That is because these are emergent in complex situations, and defining them in advance denies their complexity.  With a complex issue, without a holistic context you cannot address the social, environmental and economic aspects of a situation simultaneously, and both short.

Applied to desertification, Allan’s holistic framework enhances the core one with three main additions:

  1. Holisticgoal or holistic heading that ties what people value most deeply in life to their life-supporting environment.
  2. The addition of two tools that make reversal of desertification possible in the world’s seasonal rainfall environments – grazing and animal impact from large herbivores such as livestock.
  3. A set of filtering questions that ensure all decisions, policies, projects or actions are leading toward the future people desire.

This is further described for Holistic Management:  A New Framework for Decision MakingI don’t agree with it all.  For example, he includes seven “testing questions”; I don’t agree answering them thoughtfully will “take minutes rather than hours”, particularly when participatory collective analysis take significant time.  I was surprised to see a system thinker like Allan refer to the “root cause of the problem”, but then saw his description of a “mesh of factors”.  There seems to be some contradictory qualities here.   Nevertheless, it is a useful framework and I much appreciate his assertion of the importance of on-going testing.  Allan comments that:

“I actually enjoy using the holistic framework in so many situations – it helped me decide to give away valuable land and so retain all I valued in life during Zimbabwe’s tragic land grab (while family and friends told me how foolish I was), it enabled me to refuse to support people in my village when all were signing a petition protesting a new bridge across the Rio Grande that would destroy the culture of our village, it enabled me recently to show our staff the folly of grading the roads on our Zimbabwe property rather to use pick and shovel – for social, economic and environmental reasons (where everyone would have graded).  And as you know we are reversing desertification perhaps the oldest problem faced by city-based civilizations using the framework.”

Allan responds:

Some tests take time in some situations, but once those are done – like gross profit analysis of a possible enterprise for example, or structured diagnosis of a natural resource problem – the rest of the testing is very rapid deliberately. In the textbook I use a picture of Lincoln’s face to make the importance of this point. Look at it for hours and one cannot make out what it is – squint your eyes and you see Lincoln. Take hours over each testing question and you see nothing – rush through them fast not making a decision and you get a “feel” and the final decision is “how do you feel?” A little training and people do it very quickly and well.


Sustainability Networks for Stability, Durability, Resilience and Robustness

Lack of sustainability is, to a significant degree, the product of governance – our decision-making processes and structures favor non-sustainable outcomes.  What does “sustainability governance” look like?  The book Dynamic Sustainabilities (DS) has expanded my thinking about this.

The authors characterize traditional governance as “closing down” questions to conform to “planned equilibrium” thinking and an artificial world.  What they propose is governance that “opens up” questions and actions to embrace more fully the challenges of a dynamic world.  Well functioning Global Action Networks are governance arrangements that do this.

Particularly useful is a diagram the authors concocted titled “The Dynamic Properties of Sustainability”. Their basic argument is that we need governance structures that can address all four of the quadrants.

Most governance systems are designed to address shocks.  Shocks come in two forms:  ones with controllable (tractable) drivers such as fires that destroy buildings, that can be managed through “stability” responses such as building codes and fire response systems.  Then there are intractable shock issues – ones that cannot be controlled.  Some of these are episodic, such as floods that can evoke responses such as constructing dikes and restricting building on floodplains. The DS authors label these types of situations as warranting increased “resilience”:  the problem can’t be eliminated, and ways must be found to live with it.

Our governance structures are much poorer at addressing stress issues – ones that arise over a longer period of time – in part because governments have election-cycle horizons.  The DS authors distinguish between two types of action styles here, as well.  One is with issues that require a durability response: they are controllable chronic changes, but where there is insufficient knowledge about how to control them.  This is smog circa 1950.  And then there’re the most challenging of all situations:  those that require robustness.  The development of an ice age is a good example of this – its drivers cannot be controlled, and responses require more fundamental change such as evacuating colder regions and changing crops.

This diagram very much reflects David Snowden’s one that describes “Sense-Making Domains” that distinguishes between simple-complicated-complex-chaos.  Simple is associated with stability, complicated with durability, complex with resilience, and robustness with chaos.

The table arises from another one below that looks at the concept of “risk”.  The insurance industry basically works in only one of the quadrants, labeled “risk”, where they have lots of data and well-developed frameworks to predict the occurrence of an issue such as a death (hence life insurance).  We see that the government gets involved in flood insurance in part because the predictor models are weak although there’s lots of knowledge about (and experience with) floods.

To address smog required the development of conceptual frameworks to connect “dirty air”, “poor health” and emission sources.  It required the development of impressive data sources and ways of measuring, tracking and controlling emissions.  In the case of the ice age, there are enormous unknowns – theories abound (indicated by lack of consensual frameworks) and data (and experience) are sparse.

This all suggests that issues can evolve:  for example, the smog issue moved from ignorance up to risk (hence lawsuits).  The climate change challenge is facing this evolutionary crisis:  can it move up to “risk” quickly enough?

The Role of GANs in Resilience, Durability and Robustness

So this is where Global Action Networks (GANs) come in. One of their seven core characteristics is “entrepreneurial action learners”. They work to “open up” issues by engaging diverse participants who have mutually challenging perspectives on an issue. Indeed, they reflect the five empowering design principles of the DS authors:

  1. Diverse participatory engagement
  2. Extend scope, enable choice
  3. Take a dynamic perspective, accept incomplete knowledge
  4. Attend to rights, equity, power
  5. Be reflexive

In the language of the DS authors, GANs are developing resilience and durability, and trying to transform robust issues into ones that can be addressed through one of the other action styles.  Transparency International has taken the issue of corruption, and added both data and conceptual frameworks;  the Global Reporting Initiative, the Global Compact and the Forest Stewardship Council are doing the same with their issues.

The DS authors work with four case studies, but they never do draw out governance lessons to the point of operationalizing.  They take a bit of a detour into descriptions of “adaptive, deliberative and reflexive” governance – nice academic concepts, but again they don’t readily produce good organizing models.  As well, I feel like their focus on “policy” solutions inhibits them.

Nevertheless, the book makes an important contribution.  Its major point – that we need governance structures to address all types of knowledge situations if we are to address sustainability – is right on target.  As they write:  “’Sustainable solutions’ are thus those that offer stability, durability, resilience and robustness in specified qualities of human well-being, social equity and environmental quality.”  Governments can’t do this, but the right governance arrangements can.


The GOLDEN Global Network Sustainability Change Strategy

For over a year I’ve been working with an emerging academic research center – business network called GOLDEN.  It has produced a very powerful strategy to realize the depth, speed and focus necessary to transform business into sustainable enterprises.

GOLDEN starts from the position that capacity for realizing, and clarity about, the needed changes is a major inhibition in current corporate sustainable efforts.  This is a distinctly unique niche, different from those who are measuring triple bottom line impact, developing initiatives in the CSR tradition, or founding new social enterprises.  GOLDEN is about core strategic questions regarding the future of organizing wealth generating entities, and developing a broad change platform supported by the vision, discipline and rigor of academic thought leaders.

GOLDEN aims to stimulate capacity for corporations to change and to identify key change initiatives required to realize the “sustainable enterprise of the future”.  Behind this is the observation that there are many embryonic changes occurring – such as new ways of corporations and NGOs to work together – that collectively suggest that the iconic corporate model is transforming.   GOLDEN aims to dramatically speed up its definition and emergence globally.

GOLDEN’s strategy has three interacting components that work on the three critical levels of change that I identified in my 2005 book:  Societal Learning and Change: How Governments, Business and Civil Society are Creating Solutions to Complex Multi-Stakeholder Problems.  The societal learning and change “matrix” points out that many transformational change strategies are doomed because they do not tackle individual-, organizational- and societal-level change.  Classically, Americans tend to emphasize individual change, drawing on heroic leadership traditions.  Europeans in contrast tend to focus on social structures and institutions, seeing them as key to inhibiting or facilitating change.  Of course both of these views are true.

GOLDEN is addressing these three levels of change by developing three types of labs

Decision-makers (individuals) labs:  These will “map” the distance between current mental state and envisioned future and identify strategies for to develop the behaviors and aptitudes necessary for sustainable enterprise leaders.

Enterprises (organizations) labs:  These will experiment with innovative policies, programs and actions.

Industry eco-systems (societal) labs:  The collection of stakeholders in an industries’ operating environment (see Figure 1). 

These are called “labs” because they involve real-time experiments with innovations that can be broadly disseminated throughout the GOLDEN network. They are connected to two other key activities

  • The Observatory which is a data-base to initially assess corporate capacity to identify the (a) relevance of sustainability issues (set direction), and (b) effectiveness of functional change initiatives; and
  • Multi-level simulation modeling, that will use the Observatory data to forecast the impact of specific corporate strategy and policy choices.

Obviously this is a hugely ambitious undertaking.  It is led by the indefatigable (necessary quality) Maurizio Zollo, Director of the Center for Research on Organization and Management at Bocconi University, a leading European business school in Milan.  He is incredibly well-networked (necessary quality) in academia on both sides of the Atlantic, and President Elect of the European Academy of Management.  Microsoft and Telecom Italia are key corporate investors.

I’m particularly interested in the early stage development process of these types of networks. I’ve found that typically it takes 3-5 years from initial meeting around the idea of a Global Action Network, to doing something like the initiators envisioned. The first meetings around GOLDEN started in early 2010. This latest formulation is a huge leap forward that happened with a January meeting in Vienna, and saw the addition of the eco-system and decision-maker activities. Pilots are now being organized with companies around The Observatory and corporate participants for a broad 2013 engagement are being recruited.