Fostering Self-Organization

An excerpt from Impact Networks on four key principles to realize the immense potential of collaborative and purpose-driven networks. Originally published in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

When working in collaboration with others, where there’s no single person in charge and the way forward is unclear, it can be hard to know when to lead and when to follow.

In these situations, you may hope that people spontaneously self-organize to get things done, but the reality is that leadership always matters. Leadership is needed to facilitate conversations, weave connections, coordinate actions, and catalyze a network of people with aligned goals. But it requires a different kind of leadership than we usually see in traditional, hierarchical, do-as-the-leader-says environments, one we call network leadership.

Networks have been around forever. But only recently have we been able to draw on a variety of fields — including network science, community building, systems thinking, and organizational development — as well as a range of collaborative software tools to intentionally create networks not just for social connection but also for collective action. Not only are networks the organic social structures that we naturally form; they can be cultivated to accelerate learning, spark collaboration, and catalyze systemic change. As a flexible organizing system that can span regions, organizations, and silos of all kinds, these purpose-driven networks, called impact networks, underlie some of the most impressive and large-scale efforts to create change across the globe.

Network leadership is rooted in trusting relationships, collaboration, and shared power; it is adaptive, facilitative, and grounded in the wisdom of living systems. Network leadership is also distributed — anyone can demonstrate network leadership, from wherever they are, in many different ways.

That said, at the heart of these efforts there are always certain individuals who willingly take on a greater level of responsibility to tend the network, on behalf of its purpose and for those who have chosen to participate. Individual leaders who steward the development of these networks with humility and care are an indispensable aspect of what makes them thrive.

Network leaders connect diverse stakeholders and foster learning and action to advance a shared purpose. They are there not to tell people what to do but to support them to discover what they can accomplish together. Rather than defining rigid structures and rules, network leaders nurture a culture of reciprocity. Instead of command and control, network leaders seek to connect and collaborate. In contrast to the heroic style of individual leadership often featured on magazine covers, network leaders demonstrate great humility, sharing credit and acting in service of the whole. In short, they are stewards of the network and its purpose. Network leadership is the fine art of taking responsibility for an endeavor while sharing that responsibility completely with others.

In the following excerpt from Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change, I outline four principles of network leadership that enable diverse groups of people to connect, coordinate, and collaborate within and across organizations to do more together than is possible alone.

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In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left hundreds dead and thousands in the United States without food, housing, or power. In the days immediately following this devastating disaster, a network of tens of thousands of volunteers calling themselves “Occupy Sandy” quickly stepped in to distribute food and supplies to communities in need. What resulted was one of the fastest and most effective responses seen anywhere in the wake of a hurricane. Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that Occupy Sandy didn’t even exist in the days prior.

Occupy Sandy was catalyzed by six volunteers who had met in the Occupy Wall Street movement. When the storm hit, they began delivering food to parts of New York that were being overlooked by other aid organizations, including the American Red Cross. As they got to work, they called upon members of the Occupy Wall Street network for support. An estimated sixty thousand responded.

Participants quickly self-organized to identify the urgent needs of specific communities and organizations and to help get resources to the right places. Those who could not be there in person helped out by purchasing essential items through wedding registries set up by Occupy Sandy volunteers, contributing over $700,000 in donated goods. Information flowed quickly through the network’s online channels, and resources of all kinds — human, financial, material — were coordinated at speeds that would not have been possible under the oversight of a centrally controlled system. The effort was so successful that the American Red Cross began delivering supplies directly to Occupy Sandy for distribution.

The success of Occupy Sandy demonstrates the immense potential of a self-organizing network. Self-organization is what allows networks to evolve into new forms and adapt to changing conditions. It also amplifies the gifts and creative potential of each person involved, which, in turn, increases their intrinsic motivation for the work. Self-organization is what gives networks a sense of aliveness. The capacity of self-organizing systems to combine the wisdom of large, diverse groups has led June Holley to assert that self-organization is “without a doubt, the aspect of networks that is most likely to bring transformation.”

In a self-organizing system, leadership is distributed — it can come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time, manifesting in ways that may stretch beyond some people’s narrow definition of the word. Entrepreneurial actions to advance the work of the network are celebrated, as long as they are done transparently, collaboratively, and in alignment with purpose and principles. As a result, each person who participates in a network has shared opportunity — and shared responsibility — for supporting its development. This level of agency is particularly important in complex and chaotic environments when it’s unclear which action will make the most difference.

One of the primary responsibilities of network leaders, then, is to cultivate the conditions for greater levels of self-organization to arise. Network leaders have the humility to step back and follow the lead of others. In Converge we follow the maxim of the Enspiral network: “No one should lead all the time, and everyone should lead some of the time.” This is what distributed leadership is all about.

Promote Emergence

Murmurations of starlings, schools of fish, and swarms of insects swoop and swirl seemingly in unison. There are no instructions or control mechanisms dictating the movements of these groups. The patterns of their movement are emergent.

In the case of the starlings, mathematical models have demonstrated that their cohesion is due to each bird taking cues from six or seven of its closest neighbors. When a predator arrives and disturbs the flock, one bird initiates action and the other members of the group respond. The leader changes based on who knows what to do next. Meanwhile, the whole group stays connected through communication.

This is the magic of emergence. When it comes to engaging with complex issues, we may not be able to accurately predict what happens next. What we can do is connect with one another and stay in close communication so that we can move together and adapt quickly to changing circumstances — adjusting as we learn. In other words, we can stay emergent.

You can foster emergent ways of working by prioritizing connection, sensing for clues of how the future is unfolding, and engaging in experimentation to test hypotheses and iterate strategies as you move forward. Each of these three ingredients of emergence is discussed below.

Prioritize Connection: The most vibrant conditions for creativity and new life are found in the places where different parts of a system intersect. The areas where ocean meets land in mangrove ecologies and where coral reefs meet ocean in reef ecologies are some of the most biodiverse natural ecosystems on the planet. In human communities, interactions between diverse actors yield new ideas and possibilities for action. One lesson we have learned is that instead of prioritizing the total number of connections, it is more worthwhile to focus on the diversity and quality of those connections. As activist and educator Grace Lee Boggs has said, “In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”

Sense into the Future: Sensing means tuning your awareness into what is happening and what is wanting to emerge. The key to sensing well is to ask good questions and listen deeply. Questions spark creative conversations that can transform our understanding of the world. “Questions, more than answers, are the pathway to collective wisdom,” writes Daniel Christian Wahl in Designing Regenerative Cultures. Meanwhile, the quality of your listening changes the nature of the conversation. When people feel deeply heard, they are more likely to be open and share more nuanced and intimate perspectives. As a result, new meaning arises that can help guide the direction of the network. “Look and listen for cues the network is sending you,” suggests Yadira Huerta of the Justice in Motion Defender Network. “The network is always trying to tell you where it does and does not want to go.”

Engage in Experimentation: Ultimately, emergence is practiced through experimentation. According to Patricia Patrizi and colleagues, the key to fostering emergence lies in recognizing and accepting that uncertainty exists, going beyond a reliance on overly simplistic indicators, and developing the flexibility to act, learn, fail, and do better. “Paramount to this is the realization that deep understanding of complex strategic work can only emerge through action, reflection, and more action,” they write in Foundation Review. Starting in exactly the right place is not as important as just starting — experimenting, learning, and adapting as you move forward with new partners. Then, when promising experiments catch on, you can help them to scale.

Embrace Change

In our world of rapid and unpredictable change, the ability to adapt and evolve is an essential quality for survival. The capacity of systems to withstand disruption is referred to in many fields as robustness, which is derived from the Latin word robus, meaning “oak,” a symbol of longevity and strength in the natural world. We prefer to use the term resilience, defined by the Stockholm Resilience Center as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop.” Resilience is a measure of how well a system can absorb shocks and use disturbances to spur renewal and innovation.

Given the complex and evolving issues that impact networks seek to address, a greater emphasis should be placed on increasing a network’s resilience than on achieving sustainability. Whereas sustainability enables a network to continue more or less in its current form, a resilient network can withstand disruption and shift course as conditions change. Two approaches for increasing a network’s resilience are to decentralize connections and create redundancies.

Decentralize Connections: When there is a dominant hub in a system, it provides a single point of failure that makes the whole system vulnerable to collapse. The dangers of overly centralized systems became painfully clear during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis when the failures of just a few major banks and financial institutions threatened the collapse of the entire financial system. Networks that have not moved past a hub-and-spoke structure, as defined in chapter 1, are also at risk of collapse if the central hub were to disappear. To avoid this risk and increase resilience, seek to move past the hub-and-spoke stage as quickly as possible. Focus on fostering strong relationships and decentralizing connections so that the network is not dependent on any one person (including yourself).

Create Redundancies: Redundancy is usually cast as negative, seen as a superfluous or unnecessary waste of resources that should be designed out. “Yet in living systems,” writes Wahl in Designing Regenerative Cultures, “redundancies at and across multiple scales are vital, as they decentralize important functions by distributing them across the system as a whole and thereby make the overall system more resilient.”

Forests remain resilient to disturbances by maintaining a dynamic diversity of development stages within their ecosystem: some parts of the forest are in mature stages, while others are in earlier phases of growth. Even machines are built with redundant components as fail-safes for crucial tasks. Most airplanes have three different flight computers that function independently, each manufactured by a different company and containing a different processor. If any one component fails, the redundant components immediately take over to keep the plane in the air and on course.

When I was contracted to map the connections between staff members of a large school district and its network of parent volunteers, using social network analysis, the importance of redundancies became abundantly clear. One of the most important insights that the network map shown in figure 4.1 revealed was the degree to which the school district’s connections with an important minority community, Hmong Americans, were due to a single staff member. While this staff member created an essential bridge with the community, it was a particularly narrow bridge given its dependence on a single node. If this person were to leave the school district or become unavailable, the district would be at risk of losing many critical relationships.

Connections between a school district’s staff members and its network of parent volunteers. Staff members are represented by the largest squares. Parents are represented by the smaller squares, with Hmong parents indicated by the slightly larger, darkest-shaded nodes. The critical staff member is circled. If the school district were to lose this staff member, it would also lose its connections with many Hmong parents.

FIGURE 4.1. Connections between a school district’s staff members and its network of parent volunteers. Staff members are represented by the largest squares. Parents are represented by the smaller squares, with Hmong parents indicated by the slightly larger, darkest-shaded nodes. The critical staff member is circled. If the school district were to lose this staff member, it would also lose its connections with many Hmong parents.

Upon seeing the map, the school district first recognized that it needed to do everything it could to retain the critical staff member. Second, the school district committed to increasing the diversity of connections between staff members and Hmong parents — to create what’s known as a wide bridge. Creating redundancies in networks through wide bridges allows resources and information to continue flowing even when certain individuals are unresponsive or unavailable.

Hold Dynamic Tensions

As impact networks evolve, they are bound to face a number of dynamic tensions: “dynamic” because they are always in flux, “tensions” to signify a relationship between ideas or qualities with seemingly conflicting demands or implications. If managed effectively, these tensions, also known as polarities, can be a powerful source of energy. Having “no tension in a system signifies no aliveness, no learning, no evolution,” write Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm in Regenerative Leadership.

Hundreds, or even thousands, of different tensions could arise as networks develop, but we have seen six in particular that show up time and time again:

  • Building trust and taking action
  • Participation and pace
  • Self-interest and shared interest
  • The parts and the whole
  • Planning and emergence
  • Divergence and convergence

When faced with polarities like these, the human brain likes to simplify things and see them as separate. The dissonance of holding seemingly opposing ideas at the same time is difficult. This is zero-sum thinking: for every winner there must be a loser; for every right there must be a wrong; there is only this or that with no gray area in between.

A more nuanced perspective is to embrace the duality of life by choosing both-and thinking instead of either-or thinking. Every aspect of life consists of interactions between seemingly opposing yet complementary forces. This inherent duality of life, called yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy, can be found in the reality that there can be no light without darkness, no up without down, no life without death, and that we must breathe in and out to survive.

With each dynamic tension, two perspectives that seem to contradict each other are both true and valuable. For instance, both trust and action are important, and we care about individuals’ needs and shared interests. An essential role of network leaders, then, is to sense and acknowledge polarities as they arise, to hold the tension between seemingly opposite paths, and to embrace both-and thinking when making decisions about what to do next. Dynamic tensions aren’t problems to be solved; they are polarities to be aware of, integrated, and held with care throughout the life cycle of a network.

Read the full book and watch the documentary at impactnetworks.xyz

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David Ehrlichman

Author of Impact Networks. Catalyst & coordinator of Converge (converge.net). Writing about the way we work together and how it can be different.