I recently worked with the Garfield Foundation to design and facilitate a gathering of people who specialize in collaborative networks and systemic approaches to social change. This meeting convened about a dozen experienced practitioners for two days of rich, inspiring, expansive conversations about what it takes to do this work effectively. These insights will inform Garfield’s approach as it plans to launch the Collaborative Networks Initiative, a systems change initiative on a new issue, building what they learned in the RE-AMP Network. The collective experience and complementary expertise of the people in the room made this meeting one of the best peer-to-peer learning events I’ve ever experienced. Plenty of insights emerged that will provide fodder for more blog posts to come.
In designing the agenda with my co-facilitator, Jen Berman (who helped create the VT Energy Action Network modeled on RE-AMP,) we considered all the topics we could discuss, related to a four-phase framework that Garfield has developed. We recognized how many elements and nuances there are to address to enable these kinds of efforts to work. The much-referenced article Collective Impact articulates five key elements that characterize this type of collaborative approach. Seeing how quickly our list got to 20 elements illustrates that, as they say, “there is much more than meets the eye” to doing this well…or “the devil’s in the details.”
There’s more than meets the eye
The phases of work and elements to consider are shared below, phrased as questions. A pre-survey of participants was used to prioritize the questions of most interest in each phase, which we discussed in the meeting (these are in bold.) This list provides a great sense of the emerging questions and issues on the minds of some of those who are at the leading edge of innovation and emerging practice in this field.
We recognized that critical activities happen before a group is ever convened, which we described as Phase 0. Curtis Ogden of IISC wrote this blog Network Building: Beginnings and Boundaries explores how important decisions and activities are as we initiate a network.
Phase 0 – Initiating the Conversation – Engaging an initial set of participants to explore the possibility of accelerating change through network organizing. This includes defining the issue, the geographic reach of the initiative, and inviting key stakeholders to the table.
- What issues lend themselves to a systems approach and network organization?
- What needs to happen at the very beginning of a process (e.g. who initiates the conversation and decides who gets invited, what resources need to be in place, how do issues get framed)?
- What are essential components, or practices, of fostering a participatory learning environment, building respect, and relationships?
- How do decisions about who to have at the table play into this?
Phase 1 – Map the System Together – Mapping the system, defining a shared goal and deciding on shared priorities. This includes developing a common understanding of how the system works and identifying high leverage interventions.
- What mapping tools and approaches are most appropriate for which situations?
- What are other ways to create a shared understanding of the system?
- What are effective processes/tools for aligning around a shared long-term goal and highest leverage points in the system?
- How can carry forward that shared understanding of the systems mapping as the network expands?
Phase 2 – Organize Teams and Strategic Planning – Participants self-organize around leverage points and invite others to the network to help develop strategic pathways (short and mid-term) to move toward the goal.
- How do we bring in enough diverse voices to generate breakthrough strategies, actions and approaches?
- What are leading practices for how networks can help address inequities/injustice and/or power dynamics as we change systems?
- How is strategic planning different when we are trying to achieve systems change and work in a network structure as opposed to traditional strategic planning?
Phase 3 – Cultivate Collaborative Learning – Building members capacity to think systemically and act collaboratively.
- How do you create an environment in which sharing failures and reflective learning is encouraged?
- How do you support leaders and participants to work in a networked way?
- How do you design for adaptability, to be able to shift quickly when you need to?
- What are the most effective ways that funders are supporting and participating in network-oriented systems change initiatives?
- How do we design and support democratic network governance and distributive leadership? (e.g., centralized vs. distributed leadership, steering committee vs. board, etc.)
Phase 4 – Network Implementation – Cultivating network leadership and shared infrastructure.
- What are ways to evaluate this kind of collective work? How do you determine success?
- How can evaluation techniques inform ongoing adaptive management and foster the behaviors we need to catalyze the full potential of a networked systems change effort?
- Knowledge management, action/learning cycle – how do you do this well?
- How can online collaboration work effectively with a high level of participation?