“Emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies.”
-Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy
Last fall I was back home in Michigan to do a presentation and discussion with representatives from a number of inspiring networks focused on local food production, food access and public health. I was invited by my gracious hosts at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University to share a bit of network theory, tell a few stories and cover key concepts around network thinking and action to help advance and cohere some of the good work happening around the state.
Towards the end of that morning session, a couple of the participants mentioned that their heads were swimming and a few acknowledged that along with their excitement, they were struggling with how complex and difficult “net work” can be.
I felt their pain and was moved by their honesty, and offered something along these lines, with a bit of post-event embellishment…
Yes, networks can indeed be complex and messy, vertigo-inducing even. Someone once said that networks actually thrive on the edge of chaos. And there is simultaneously something profoundly intuitive, grounding and humanizing about them. Sometimes we can overthink it, or perhaps only think it, as opposed to feeling or easing our way into embodying the promise of making “critical connections” (in the words of Grace Lee Boggs).
A few mantras and small gestures come to mind that might help to illuminate simple ways that individuals and organizations can embrace the network way, and in so doing unleash emergence – “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (Nick Obolensky, Complex Adaptive Leadership: Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty).
“Connection changes what’s connected.” Network theory tells us so – we come to be who we are through relationship and interaction with others. What if we drink that in? Take it to heart. Let it tickle and play in our minds and imaginations. That’s a great starting point for doing networking.
“Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” Bottom line: we don’t have to nor can we do it all. Networks might be viewed as a welcome invitation to stay focused on our sweet spot(s), and link to those who do other amazing things better than we do (individually, organizationally). In that sense, networks can be liberating!
“Your generosity is more important than your perfection” (a favorite quote from Seth Godin). In some sense, there is no “getting it right” in networks. But we can certainly be better at leveraging network potential when we engage with others in a spirit of generosity as opposed to stifling self-consciousness or limiting acts of self-preservation. For example …
Create connections, not simply for our own sake, but for others. We can introduce people we know to one another, what is known as “closing triangles,” to bring new opportunities and richness to them and to the networks of which we are a part. Closing triangles can contribute to greater intricacy of network connections, and more paths for resources to flow. But that only happens if we also …
Make offers, even before anyone else asks! We can enliven otherwise latent or underutilized connections (not to mention the people on the other end of those connections) by putting forward our learning and ideas, our excess capacity, our presence, our thoughtful attention to others’ needs. We never know when someone will be looking for exactly what we have, and may not have known it until the offer was in front of them. And to limber up reciprocity and even more flows …
Make requests. That may mean practicing a little vulnerability. We can say we don’t know something, that we feel stuck, are struggling, that we could use a little peer assist or push. People generally want to help, if asked, and that can further limber up those pathways for abundance.
These steps may come easier to some than others. Practice and encouragement are key, as simple acts multiplied and connected can yield surprising results (emergence). To help nurture new behaviors, in a few networks that I support, we have created what is known as a “network marketplace,” time in the full group when people are invited to not simply share updates and announcements (including good news) but also requests and offers. These kinds of spaces can become very generative and energizing.
About the Author
Curtis Ogden is a Senior Associate with the Interaction Institute for Social Change, in Boston, MA. Much of Curtis’ work with IISC entails consulting with multi-stakeholder networks to strengthen and transform food public health, education, and economic development systems at local, state, regional, and national levels. He has worked with networks to launch and evolve through various stages of development. Curtis writes regularly about networks and social change on IISC’s blog.