Networks aiming for large systems change go through development stages as they grow and move from initiation to realizing their potential. But throughout these stages, there are three particular dynamics important to nurture across these stages.
These days the terms network weaving and boundary spanning are often presented as new concepts. But for anyone like myself who has a pre-internet history in systems change, the term community development gets at the essence of what network development is about. Some people might resist community development because they think of it as “geographic”, but this was never a necessary quality. Global Action Networks are community organizers – it’s just that their community is global.
I like “community development” because it’s grounded in a very rich history of strategies and activities that are very adaptable to network development. Moreover, framing a network as a “community” emphasizes its human rather than technical qualities that are the essence of healthy networks.
Community development starts with understanding who is in the community. At the beginning, this is often more complicated that it might seem. For the Global Finance Initiative we spent significant time analyzing this with mapping processes to identify key stakeholder groups and organizations/networks within each of those stakeholder groups.
As a network develops it brings out participants’ common interests and builds a common sense of purpose that are essential to successful networks. One key outcome is enhanced understanding of inter-dependence. A second key outcome is enhanced coherence. This is a really important systems thinking concept that describes the process of creating alignment among the stakeholders towards a common vision. By increasing stakeholders’ contact with one another, they understand and begin integrating diverse perspectives and developing shared activities.
Colleague Otto Scharmer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the Deep Change figure to describe transformational change processes. This followed interviewing over 150 thought leaders on innovation and leadership. Social change networks are about realizing this type of profound change with their diverse participants.
The process is sometimes referred to as the “U process” because of the shape of the figure. It begins with “co-sensing” to develop a collective understanding of “the current situation” with respect to an issue that appears “stuck”, complicated, and of high complexity. Scenario development and other processes help people realize particular patterns that can make sense of diverse perspectives. For large systems, this initially might take a year or two.
This moves people into co-inspiring, what Otto also refers to as “presencing”. It is so central for him that he has established the Presencing Institute and some of the great open source online resources like the U toolbook. Presencing requires a process such as a retreat where people can get in touch with what might be and what is possible to “emerge” from “what is”. This might take six months to a year.
The next stage is the “co-creating” which is my particular focus with networks as vehicles for this: development of the strategies, relationships, resources, skills, structures, processes, and cultures to support responses to the network issue. This involves fundamental realignment of power relationships that are deeply challenging to traditional organizations and individuals. For global impact, this takes a couple of decades or more.
This approach guided the development of the change network called the Sustainable Food Lab. This change process involves significant “shifts” in power and relationships amongst individuals, organizations and with society as a whole. It is a process that I describe as “societal learning and change”.
Experiential learning processes are the third dynamic present throughout change networks’ development. Sometimes people refer to Scharmer’s dynamic as one of “learning from the future”, which means going through a process of deep reflection upon the current state, possibilities to address some issue and how to realize those possibilities. Traditional learning is about learning from experience and the past. This is often referred to as the “experiential” or “Kolb” learning cycle. It draws from work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and others that David Kolb summarized.
This is the essence of creating a learning network as processes and a culture that encourage reflection upon what has been done, and integration into future actions. This should not be thought of as a great chore or require some huge effort. Rather, it is something that is integrated into the daily, weekly, monthly and annual rhythms of a network. I like the term “action learning” to emphasize that there are not huge gaps between the steps in the cycle, but that they should happen as decisions are being made.
The health of these three dynamics is developed through a variety of activities. Assessing their health should be part of assessing the health of a change network itself.