I recently kicked off a new research project by interviewing June Holley. June has long been a pioneer in the emerging field of ‘Network Weaving’, having consulted with organizations for 35 years and practiced weaving change networks for 30 years. She currently works with 15-20 networks annually and is author of The Network Weaver’s Handbook: A guide to transformational networks. June has done as much as anyone, and more than most, to promote, practice & teach this still-new approach to change in complex systems.
I wanted to learn what she sees as the outstanding critical issues for this new field of Network Weaving. En route to that topic we touched on the worldviews that conflict with network culture, her own latest research into change, and the 4 major levers that help shift us towards what she calls the Culture of the 21st Century: Place, Process, Relationships and Tools.
Worldviews at Odds with Network Culture
From her grad-school days, June has identified 3 main ways of understanding that don’t align with network values and that hamper the development of transformative networks. They are Hierarchy, Boundedness, and Dichotomy.
Hierarchy is not simply a contrasting structure to networks, but also a constant implicit assumption of superiority vs. inferiority. It’s the mechanism of supremacy. That ‘over/under’ dynamic is harmful to networks.
Boundedness. The sense that ‘this’ is separable from ‘that’. That there are ‘things’ and ‘other’ things. That things don’t overlap & bleed into one another – a blindness to understanding that not only is everything connected to everything else, but that everything is a network, there are networks within networks – that we ourselves are this amazing network.
Then there’s Dichotomy – the sense of us vs. them, this vs. that, everything is either/or, with no ‘both/and’.
So, according to June – those are the ways of seeing & being in the world that need to be shifted for us to be able to weave transformational networks.
But, the question I most wanted to put to her is this: most of us have spent our entire lives being indoctrinated through exactly those old lenses. So when we hear those new ‘network value’ words, they sound lovely, and we may grasp them mentally, but how deep do they actually go? And how can we help deepen them?
Because as David Deida says “knowing the truth is fairly useless. Feeling it is profound. Living it makes all the difference.”
How do we get to living this change? How do we get to the point where enough of us are living it to make a systemic difference?
As it happens, June has recently been studying everything she can get her hands on to understand what it takes to support culture change, at scales from the individual to the large organizations. So she had plenty to say on the matter.
Necessary elements of meaningful change:
Choice is fundamental – Change is always a personal choice – no-one can force real change on another. So for starters, people have to WANT to change, and DECIDE to change, and COMMIT to change. So inspiring people to want that change is necessary.
Collectivity is key – When people examine their options, decide to change, and share their intention and commitment with others, they are far more successful. They support one another’s efforts. They share their goals, their successes, their backslides, and what they’re learning. Being ‘in it together’ amplifies everyone’s efforts.
Reminders and reflection – Changing behavior requires constant reminders. Reminder apps & tracking sheets & check-ins are critical. And the more an individual or group practices self-reflection throughout the process, the faster they’re likely to progress.
Supporting Collective Change in Networks
Develop ‘seeing’ tools – the problem I was alluding to earlier is that we all have blind spots. We may sincerely believe we’re showing up according to our values, but because of our history, mental habits, or place in society, we may be unable to see the ways we fall far short of our self-assessment. Lack of awareness of our privileges (be they race, gender, class, etc.) and their impact is one salient example. Creating tools that help us discover our own blind spots is crucial.
These ‘seeing tools’ could be assessments, group activities, structured discussions – gentle mechanisms that help us uncover our impact on others and on the network, and discover the personal work we need to do in supportive and encouraging ways.
These tools can help us to learn WHAT to change, as well help us make the CHOICE to change.
Create shared commitment and collective feedback loops – Add reflective tools (like June’s ‘Network Fitbit’), and avenues for collective commitment and mutual support.
Work on multiple levels at once – Apply the ‘seeing’ tools, feedback loops and collective support processes at the individual, group & system levels at the same time to intensify the change so that it rapidly spreads throughout the network.
Levers for the Culture of the 21st Century
During our conversation, June articulated the four necessary & interconnected elements we need to use to develop & strengthen the network culture:
Place is the field, the collective ‘space,’ the context in which network change happens – or doesn’t. And place must be cultivated.
Ways of cultivating the field might include:
- Creating simple rules for contextual shifts – like always ensuring mixed-race facilitation.
- Creating spaces/processes where those hurt by privilege don’t have to be the ones to surface other’s blind spots & unaware privilege.
- Using ‘seeing’ tools ahead of sensitive sessions.
- Having learning pop-ups about privilege before mixed gatherings.
- Developing collective change support processes & tools when beginning change efforts.
- Starting with those who already willing & able to model the work.
- Shared learning.
- Shared reflection.
- Weaving it all together to create a tipping point.
Place also includes recognizing the contexts that simply aren’t ready for the transformational shifts network weavers are seeking, and not beating our heads against the wall. June finds that magic of co-creation most likely to happen with other independent network/organizational consultants & people who work in smaller organizations. It’s the rare large organization where this kind of work is possible.
Process, Holley says is ‘not meetings’ – she says convenings are over-rated. And that any time you get a group of 20 people talking together you’ll have the tyranny of structurelessness. According to her, the best process is shared work. More collaboration in small groups and twosies. Less talking. More action. June says we need to design processes for new behaviors & learning activities.
Network weavers already know it’s all about the relationships. In our discussion, June focused on the need for supporting new connections, especially across differences – and the gentleness required when doing that. She connects this back to the need for ‘seeing’ tools & processes that help people identify blind spots to avoid obliging oppressed people to surface challenging dynamics.
The topic of Relationships also circles back to the magic of clustering together groups of ‘the ready’ – those who are ready and able to be magically co-creative. Put them together and let them make magic in contexts that others can observe and learn from, which will go a long way in helping to create that ‘tipping point’.
June is a strong believer in using online tools.
Tools for collaboration, reminders, sharing information, project management, gathering online, exploring together, assessing, creating powerful feedback loops (like her ‘Fitbit’) – all of these are crucial to scaling up the power of networks. They increase transparency, and facilitate deeper, faster co-creation. And they powerfully shift all kinds of dynamics.
There are great tools out there, there’s a ton of value in learning them and introducing them to others and using them in networks. And at the same time, the perfect platform for networks remains to be developed. Especially missing are platforms to help people cluster and ways to get the learnings of one group out to the rest of the network so opportunities for synergy can be identified.
Outstanding Critical Issues
In summary – what does June see as critical issues for the practice of weaving transformational networks?
- The need for greater access to the knowledge and learning of network weaving by culturally appropriate means, especially to those marginalized & cut off from economic & political power.
- The need for more diverse contribution and discovery in the field – for it to be much less of an all-white field.
- The need for tools that help us supportively identify our personal and collective blind spots.
- The need for tools & processes that help us shift behaviors from unconscious network-blocking into more generative dynamics.
Issues of Scale
- Access – how do we provide the information to everyone who wants access.
- Training – how do we help people develop & access the skills needed to implement network work?
- Impacting old-school culture. June says 90% of the people she has worked with on network projects have been women – she’s concerned that we’re barely making a dent in the mainstream masculine culture (which still controls the bulk of the economic & political power in the world). How do we begin to move that dial?
Lack of foundation & economic support
- Need for better, more targeted tools
- The need to organize & share our learning & apply it to the Network Culture.
- The need for greater economic support and better understanding by foundations about how to support networks & network learning.
I’ll end this post by expressing my profound gratitude to June for her years of learning and sharing that learning. For her generosity and insights, and for her tremendous contribution. As I’ve said elsewhere, Network Weaving (by whatever label), distills so much of the valuable (tho generally still abstract) recent discoveries about systems, leadership, and change – into a grounded, pragmatic, and actionable approach. As much work and learning as there remains to do, it is already a true direction and generative practice for moving forward into what promises to be a chaotic, challenging and pivotal (for better or worse) century.
Thank you June!