Theory and Practice in Network Mapping: An Interview with Glenda Eoyang
Part 1 of a series of 3 posts:
Glenda Eoyang is the Founding Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute(HSD). About which, Glenda says:
The goal of the HSD Institute is to develop and disseminate the theory in practice of HSD. It works across four scales at the same time. 1) Individual practitioners understand and apply HSD. 2) The HSD Institute manages processes and products to support others as they apply HSD. It is a bounded, fairly traditional non-profit institution. 3) The network of certified HSD professionals connects individuals as they practice and learn about HSD and its applications. And 4) The Field of HSD Theory in Practice includes the intellectual property–ideas and products–that both feed into and emerge from the shared work of individual practitioners, the Institute, and the network.
Tim and I recently had the pleasure & privilege of helping the HSD institute create their very first network map of 800+ certified professionals across the globe. It was especially an honor because of Glenda’s historical attitude to network maps:
Given Glenda’s deep insight and experience in working with complexity in human systems, paired with her recent experience with our mapping approach, I was especially eager to get her thoughts on how well our process fit (or didn’t fit) with the needs she had set out to meet with us.
On the Relationship of Human Systems to Networks
Because I used Glenda’s CDE framework in my Master’s Thesis in 2011, I was particularly interested in learning how she understood network mapping in relation to her theories of change in human systems – especially change in the context of ‘change networks’ working on what Glenda calls intractable problems such as climate change, poverty & inequality, systemic violence, etc.
Dealing with intractable problems, she told me, requires understanding kinds of causality and change.
Glenda talked about three kinds of cause: The first and simplest is two-dimensional ‘Static Change’ – the idea that a thing moves from one stable state to another stable state–and stays there. The second is more complex and multi-dimensional – the Newtonian equation of Mass, Distance and Time. ‘Newtonian Change’ is predictable. It has definable milestones, giving us things like Project Management and Developmental Models. This second type of change-causality works great on a lot of things, but not on intractable problems.
And the third, the kind of change Glenda’s work focuses on is ‘Dynamical Change’, which comes out of complexity.
But, I asked her – how does that relate to change networks?
The ‘CDE’ and Self-Organizing Systems
What originally drew me to Glenda’s work was the concept of self-organizing systems. Natural systems self-organize all the time, and we think nothing of it, yet the idea seems so counterintuitive in human systems, and really difficult in practice. At that time, (~10 years ago), I was reading and learning as much as I could about the idea of Self-Organizing Systems – because, intuitively, yeah – it just seem so Right and so True. But still, at the practical level, what enabled, or triggered, or catalyzed self-organizing was all really confusing and vague to me. It clearly didn’t just happen. Then I came across Glenda’s CDE Model, which I found super-helpful. It gave me a way to think about self-organizing. So what is the CDE?
In HSD the CDE are the three conditions that influence the behavior of self-organizing in systems. They are: a Container (C), Differences (D), and Exchanges (E).
So when I asked Glenda about how networks relate to dynamical change, I suddenly saw the overlap – to the degree a network reflects the CDE in human practice, a network is a self-organizing system.
Networks, Intractable Problems, and Adaptive Action
But still – networks may be self-organizing systems, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently able to solve intractable problems – where does that part come in?
For that, Glenda says, we need Adaptive Action – that ability to take meaningful action within a context of not knowing.
Can a Network Become Conscious?
So, among organizational systems thinkers, there’s this idea of the system ‘waking up’ to itself, or ‘seeing itself’ – which I always imagine as this mystical moment, like when a clay dragon comes to life, shakes out its wings, belches out a tongue-lashing of fire, and swoops off to destroy the evil empire, or whatever. But it’s not really a dragon, it’s actually a murmuration of starlings or a swarm of bees or something, which somehow makes it even more powerful and awe-some than a single big drooling dragon would be. And the ‘flying off to destroy the evil empire’ is actually more like shifting tiny bee-sized patterns in a way that ripples out and has a dragon-sized impact.
By my reading, that generally only happens in those rare historical moments when so much is so imminently and clearly at stake for so many, that masses of people willingly set aside their everyday lives for a period needed to address a great risk – or when their everyday lives have already been destroyed, the disaster has happened, none of the old rules apply and pulling together is the only path to recovery. But once the threat recedes a little, or the crisis is recovered from or becomes normalized, we return to our separate selves, we abandon the collective order and revert to our everyday self-reliance and personally-ordered survival. Because what sustains that spontaneous kind of self-organizing is extreme and non-ordinary, it’s not sustainable, (I’m just saying, that’s how it seems to me) or, in the words of my new friend Jeffron Seely – it’s a ‘change’ (which means it’s reversible) not a ‘transformation’ (which is irreversible).
In other words – what a cool idea, the system waking up to itself – but WOW, do we humans generally neither understand nor act in ways that make that likely! I see that when presenting network maps all the time – ‘here’s who comprises your system’ I say to people ‘and all the things you can know about them, and how they fit together’, and the majority of them smile questioningly & say – basically – “so what?”.
So I asked Glenda, “can you talk about the challenge of helping the individuals within the system learn how to ‘see the system’, and most importantly what they could do differently as a result?”
There’s this question that haunts me – wouldn’t a directory be just as good? At the core of this question, I think, is that in a lot of ways, the maps we make are presented and used predominantly as directories – we make it easy to search for someone with X perspective, or X skills, we help you see ‘who is here’ – which is extremely useful.
But those are parts. And there are easier methods for finding out about the parts. I’m always left with the sense that we’re still overlooking the greater whole. I want to understand and help us all learn more about that ‘whole’ perspective, because I imagine that would help our systems ‘wake up to themselves’. But the whole, any good systems thinker will tell you, is in the connections at least as much as, if not far more than, in the parts. Yet, when sharing maps with groups, it’s the connections between the people/actor/organization-nodes that generally don’t seem to matter to most people (except if it looks like they’re winning the popularity contest). They often don’t see the relevance – and I don’t feel like I do a good enough job helping them recognize it.
So I press Glenda, because here is an opportunity for me to get better at that: “But why does a network map increase consciousness and choice more than something like a directory would?”
Theory in Practice – the HSD Network Map
I asked Glenda what she’d hoped for when we started mapping – why did we go ahead?
Me: “Can you define what you mean by scale-free network here?”
Sure, in a scale-free network, there are many hubs, and each hub has nodes connected to it. If you zoom in on any node it can look like a hub and if you zoom out there are many nodes. No matter how close or far away you are, the structure looks the same, so that the structure is fractal and coherent. The scale-free network is more resilient than a hub and spoke, because the stress is distributed across multiple hubs. It is also more efficient than all-to-all network because when there are so many connections, the nodes are locked in and the system has reduced freedom to self-organize and adapt.
Consciousness & Choices Generated by HSD Network Map
***The Tensions (oh, those perpetual tensions. . . )
I may be delusionally aspirational, but I consider my core work to be developing the data-gathering & visualization tools needed to help with this ‘system seeing itself’ problem. I’m content to let others who are wiser develop the activities and the stories and the frameworks and the processes that help with the ‘seeing’ – I just want to make sure they have valid and meaningful information to look at in support of that process. But in order to do that, I need to be conscious of what those others are doing with the existing tools and what more they’re looking for. I have to live in the midst of that particular tension, or gap between what is & what’s needed.
Glenda gave me some great ideas about how to inform the sense-making system-seeing process, which I’ll put into another post soon. She also helped me become more conscious of the tensions accumulating for her in the present moment – relative to our current data-toolset.
The tension accumulating for me is the need to translate what exists in other’s imaginations, is infinite, abstract, and non-linear down into processes and code that are easy to use, expressed in bits & bytes, fanatically linear, very finite, and as un-imaginative as hell, so that we can then model or represent all of that in visualizations that capture the imagination, point toward, and at least minimally ‘feel’ like those open, high-dimension, non-linear models Glenda and others are asking for. That may seem easy (I get that a lot ‘why can’t you just. . . . .’) to you, but to me – it feels intractable. But I take heart from Glenda’s approach to the so-called intractable:
Interviewing Glenda was one of those next wise actions on my part – I learned a lot! Thank you Glenda – on so many levels!