Rhizome Assumptions and Outstanding/Guiding Questions

I just had a great conversation with June Holley (Network Weaver) and Emil Vincentz (Acter) about the Acter platform and how it might connect with Rhizome, the platform I’ve been working on.  One of the things that came of it is that I realized I haven’t written much about my assumptions yet that undergird the work I’ve been doing on Rhizome.  So, thanks to that convo, here are most of the assumptions I’ve been using.  I’d love to hear your thoughts – whether you agree or if you hold different assumptions.

Countless (hundreds of?) similar platforms have been created before and have failed: we must design in a different way.

  • They’ve failed because they:
    • are proprietary (not open source),
    • have heavy gate-keeping (usually include only one closed network),
    • are not based in co-design (do not question assumptions together),
    • overestimate the role of technology in solving the problem (over-focus on technology),
    • are not nimble enough to support learning given so many unanswered questions (over-invested in technology and therefore rigid),
    • do not consider questions of the cultural change called for by [systems change].
  • Therefore a better approach would be: open source, cross-network, co-designed, embedded in network activities, and promote distinct cultural rules:
    • Open source or developed more openly, not only represents alternative culture, but also promotes collaboration on the platform itself.
    • Cross-network: what is learned in one network can be applied to other networks – mutual benefit.
    • Co-designed: embrace with humility what we do not know yet.  Do not assume that technology will solve the problems of collaboration or of the lack of systems change, rather share and ask questions of actual users who are jointly moving toward self-organizing.
    • Embedded in network activities: technology is not separate from or prescriptive of how people should behave.  Rather than technology leading engagement, engagement leads technology.
    • Culture: see culture section for more details, but also that the technology should have these cultural rules embedded in its design.

The “non-technical” pieces of a platform are much more important than the technical, especially in this phase of learning together.  A shared technology platform can also be the platform for conversations about these activities – this may be the true promise of the tech/communications platform.

  • Non-technical pieces include culture, learning, governance, network engagement, self-organizing practices, systems transformation. 
  • This is really the bulk of the work – practicing these things together.  The promise of a cross-network platform which asks similar questions on these topics in a diverse set of networks lets us learn faster together.
  • We can apply co-design principles to those activities.  We can use a tech platform to spark conversations, especially when we are clear about how we see that the platform is lacking.

Cultivating a shared network culture is (may be?) necessary to *feel* like we’re moving together.

  • Culture is a broad container that includes, at least: our behaviors that create and sustain relationships, our visions and worldviews, how we talk about and understand issues, and our diverse contexts – across, past, present, and future. 
  • If we are not explicit about the cultures that we are creating, we will inevitably fall back into patterns from dominating, oppressive systems (white supremacy, cis- hetero- patriarchy, colonial mentalities, etc.)
  • We should seek to be explicit about our shared assumptions: of how we want to be in relationship with each other, about where we disagree, where we’re still learning, and about where we are moving together.  If we are not explicit about these things, we may be acting together based on assumptions that are incorrect.
  • How do we feel that we’re moving together, that we’re on the same page, that we’re wanting to move toward a shared horizon/vision?
  • Part of this is being clear about what we don’t want.  We don’t want white supremacy culture to govern our groups – so we learn about what that means and practice ways to interrupt it when it inevitably shows up.  We don’t blame each other for having internalized these ways of being, rather, we see them as something we’re all learning to move out of. 
  • We also don’t want to continue to perpetuate siloed, competitive, and organizational-centered thinking/being.  So: we share what we’re working on freely when there is trust, we seek to re-integrate, re-connect, and look for synergies across perceived silos.
  • Other cultural aspects that might be worth questioning in this work:
    • How do we understand scale?  Movement Generation’s “translocal autonomous organizing”
    • See below, but what is our relationship to dominating systems?
    • What do we hide and what do we share?  Do we hide our failures?  Do we hide how money is allocated?  Are we ok with these things?
    • How do we understand our individual actions in relation to the systems change we seek?  Do we act in a way that suggests “we are the change we want to see?”

Within many networks, our theory of change in relation to systems is foggy at best.  Similarly, self-organizing has not been practiced in a way that has led it to become natural to us or embodied.

  • Some networks are more explicitly “transformative.”  Leadership I’ve seen in relation to systems comes from:
    • Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Block, Build, Be
    • Movement Generation’s making alternatives so irresistable idea
    • Gender non-conforming and trans- individuals: @alokvmenon, @thejefferymarsh
    • Black and Afro futurism
    • Indigenous land back efforts, movement, and visioning
  • Most of these are acting outside of dominant systems (capitalism, gender binary, colonialism, racism), which is to say they do not follow the same rules that govern the dominant system, and from within it may be illegible.  The people who are least likely to reify dominant systems are those most marginalized “within” those systems.  (“Within” is in quotes because it is likely that the dominating system wants to include these people, but these people do not necessarily want to be included; they may see themselves in other systems.)
  • It is a major barrier that we have not gotten more explicit about our relationship to the system within network weaving work.  Do we want to change it, shift it, destroy it?  Do we want to create a new system that could serve some similar purposes?  Do we want to help articulate and support efforts that are already happening in parallel to the existing system?
  • Further, most of us are unclear what the practice(s) of self-organizing is/are.  Though we may see it as aspirational, we are still fumbling with how to do it, and we aren’t necessarily learning together from our experiments.

Trust is only required as an entry point for certain types of relationships – or, we overestimate the role of person-to-person trust in seeding relationships.

  • For more transactional relationships, trust is less needed than, for example, beginning a long-term collaboration.
  • Part of how we understand trust is through understanding the relationship someone we trust has with someone else.  “Strength of weak ties” theory.
  • Perhaps, there is a person-to-network contextual kind of trust that can serve as fertile ground for new relationships. Think about networking at a conference: we know we’re both interested in the same topic and even though I don’t know you, there is trust because of our shared presence.
  • Or alternatively, we could trust the process. I wrote a blog post in 2016 justifying this in the context of next economy work. That context – one that includes a lot of unknowns and a lot of places where we know we want to move away from – is a good place to try out focusing on a shared process as we transition.

Network maps are most useful for a specific type of user.  Other ways to understand the ecosystem (“see the network”) are needed for other user roles.

  • I propose 3 user roles: network strategist, network weaver, and network member.  One person may play multiple roles.  Network maps are most useful to the first two roles and may be a distraction to the third.
  • Network maps can support an evaluation-based understanding of the network, often held by funders and other people in the role of holding a strategic vision of the network.
  • Network maps can support network weaving.  (Read June’s book.)
  • The majority of network members are looking for specific things (a person with a specific skillset, a particular resource, an organization located in a certain city).  Because of this, network maps are often overkill, providing way too much information and in a way that is not easily digestible or actionable.
    • Furthermore, an outstanding question is: how these types of network members want to understand what’s happening in the ecosystem/network, or, what alternatives to network maps exist that can help us see the network as a whole?
      • Is it like a Twitter feed with trending topics?  Is it a huge dashboard of all activities, in long-form like we often see in Slack?  Or receiving less frequent email-based curated newsletter with network-wide updates?  How do we not inundate people with a fire-hose of information but rather offer them what they’re most likely looking for: do we rely on an algorithm for this, and/or do we make it possible for them to do targeted searches?
  • A major design assumption is to consider these 3 roles as based on the same dataset but looking at it from different perspectives: whole-network maps, sub-group network map (ex. based on an interest, a geographic location), a directory with search capability.

Governance and learning require transparency for networks to thrive.

  • Integrating these two aspects alongside with other network activities challenge dominant narratives of privileged government and hiding failures.
  • Shared governance is being practiced through many emerging forms: civic governance, new forms of democracy, consent-based decision making, advice based/circles/sociocracy, etc.  We are learning about sharing decision-making roles and making decisions more accessible to more people.
  • As we learn about the possibilities represented by networks for the creation of new systems, sharing what questions we’re asking, what we’re learning, what we’ve tried and failed, etc. is important for us to iterate faster.  Dominant narratives of success and perfectionism can be major barriers to communicating about these things, as well as how these dynamics have been connected to receiving (more) funding.
  • Both governance and learning happen in networks, however, if they happen in secret, they can be susceptible to old forms – governance happening behind closed doors and not representing the full network, learning in a way that showcases outcome and not process, hiding what’s seen as failures.

Flexible formations for networks

Thinking about co-design embedded within a network presents additional challenges. Ideally a design team creates many spaces to engage in co-design – both online and in-person – that allow for maximum input and creativity as well as respond to shifting levels of availability/capacity to participate. What follows is a brainstorm I did with my sister Licia of the list of formations (groups within a network) that enable this. Furthermore, these formations can be organized from a central group, like a design team, or self-organized as they emerge from network members.

Advisory group
Small group that lasts for the length of the project to advise and provide context for the design work; similar to design team but broader
One person does a one-on-one, then takes on work to do other one-on-ones, or takes information to broader group; “train-the-trainer” might fit here
Large group comes together with potential breakout groups, usually in-person
Design team
An ad hoc group that meets throughout the duration of the project (or sub-scope within it) to provide planning insight
Innovation fund
Selected group of projects that are funded for specific outcomes
A conversation between two people
Ongoing focus group
A representatively diverse group of people assembled to participate in a guided discussion about a particular product before it is launched, or to provide ongoing feedback on a political campaign, television series, etc.
Outreach team
Spreads the word about design process and reflections to rest of network
Pop-up focus group
A representative group of people that meets once to provide structured feedback on a specific topic
Seek external expert
Someone reaches out of core network for advice or thought leadership
Small group experiment
An ad hoc group that meets to engage with and provide feedback on a project, product, or part of it
Structured interview
A one-on-one with very specific outcomes
An online lecture with potential Q+A
Working group
Small group of people who meet regularly with specific outcomes in mind; could be called a committee.

Network Mapping and Power

To the extent we are concerned about ushering in a future that looks different than today, we must not only understand how power operates, but seek to shift and democratize it. (I’m using this handout from powercube.net to ground my understanding of power.)

Network mapping inherently illuminates power.

Network mapping and/or analysis inherently seeks to bring to light several kinds of power. Here are several ways it can include power:

  • Demonstrates where capacity and resources exist in a group of entities
  • Visualizes previously invisible patterns, structures, and dynamics that existed but of which we were unaware
  • Elucidates relationships and pathways for exchange; help understand how things flow through a set of entities (and where they don’t flow)
  • Surfaces gaps like who’s not being represented by providing an overview of a set of entities
  • Supports an understanding of these things as they change over time so we can reflect transparently (rather than anecdotally) on improvements or regression

Network mapping is different and broader than power mapping.

My understanding of network mapping differs from power mapping (for example, see MoveOn’s Community Power Map Guide) in a few ways:

grid from Danielle.
MoveOn’s power grid
  • It’s not necessarily about a campaign victory; network mapping can address power over the long-term in heterogeneous communities
  • Doesn’t have one/few explicit target(s); rather, takes a broad approach to understanding power dynamics within a larger group of entities
  • Network mapping is broader than only looking at power. Taking an example of clustering for power mapping from MoveOn’s page, we can think of several other useful ways of understanding a network, and view those side by side.

Network map credit: Valdis Krebs, copyright 2013 from http://orgnet.com/contagion.html.

Collaboration, Coalition, Networks: What’s the difference?

I’m sure you’ve heard of these three words, but what do they mean if they’re used interchangeably? Read on to learn the key differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks.

At its most basic, collaboration just means working together. In non-profit lingo, collaborations generally include things like information sharing, program coordination, and joint planning (source 1). Two or more organizations get together and have a limited interaction, achieve a mutually beneficial goal like jointly planning an event or learning from each other. Key characteristics of collaborations:

  • a few organizations
  • limited in time
  • not necessarily formalized in any way
  • may be around a shared, specified goal

Can you think of any collaborations you’ve recently been part of or heard of?

Usually formed for a specific, common goal, a coalition involves a group of organizations that get together, share responsibilities, and may disband after achieving their goal. Coalitions exist to bring broader attention and action to a large goal that affects many stakeholders. For example, if a coalition formed to pass or prevent legislation, it would have more leverage than an individual organization, because it can reach more people, access greater resources, and bring different perspectives to the strategy. Often, coalitions are short-lived and end after successfully accomplishing its goal. Key characteristics of coalitions and alliances:

  • multiple organizations
  • usually limited in time
  • usually have a specific goal
  • varying levels of formalization
  • may have a specified convener or facilitator

What goal, larger than your organization’s mission statement, would be best achieved by a coalition?

A network is a set of organizations with diverse relationships, strengths of relationships and trust between them. One way to think about it is like an ecosystem – there are different types of actors, but they work together – some more closely than others. Collaborations and coalitions happen within larger networks. As June Holley writes, in her Network Weaver Handbook: “networks are different than organizations: there is no boss who can fire members if they don’t do their job, there are no weekly staff meetings to ensure that communication and learning are taking place, and there are no teams or departments to organize the work and distribute funds.” Key network characteristics:

  • multiple organizations,
  • no necessary convener,
  • evolve over time and persist beyond goal,
  • not necessarily formal or intentional, but can be,
  • may exist for specific goal, or for broader support function

Armed with the knowledge of the differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks, what is a good next step for your organization to strengthen its relationships? Will you choose a time-bound partnership, facilitate a group toward a common goal, or get to meeting and greeting new peers?

List of sources used: 1. La Piana Consulting, The Partnership Matrix 2. June Holley, Network Weaver Handbook