Sensing What is Emerging
3rd in a series – Continued from Part Two – Tools
The bushCONNECT Monster Map started as just another incidental small project that gave me an opportunity to collaborate with someone I admired. In fact, jumping at small opportunities to do something/anything with people I admire has become core to my own personal network-weaving practice, and the Monster Map is a great illustration of why. That small co-creative experiment unexpectedly became the leverage point that has profoundly shifted the reality of my & Tim’s lives.
In some ways, both the least & the biggest shift is having honed & focused our skills. Tim & I have been the technical side of the mapping project since the beginning. In the first year, we had generic data-gathering, wrangling & visualization skills, knew how to find & collaborate with freelance programmers, and were adept at cobbling together the various free tools that were available. But everything specific to network mapping was new to us. We were driving by the seat of our pants, skirting the edge of failure every step of the way.
And now network mapping is our main work, we’re in the top tier of practitioners in what seems to be an emerging field of online social-change network mapping, and others learn from our experiments and follow in our path. None of which was (or could have been) anticipated that first year.
We, who have been lifelong roving generalists have unintentionally become happily-committed specialists. The go-to people in a niche that puts us in the contexts we most want to contribute to, in collaboration with the people we most want to build a new future with, drawing on what we’ve made ourselves to be.
As a couple, we’ve navigated a ton of ambiguity, challenged (& surrendered) a never-ending stream of our own dearly-held assumptions & beliefs, and faced multi-generational fears in order to create the marriage we have. The Monster Map gave us the privilege of moving that practice into a broader layer of connectedness beyond one another, and most importantly – into the realm of social & economic value-making where we have both always felt especially challenged and frightened.
So one thing that continues to emerge is a more generative relationship to money, value, community, work, and change – at least for us.
And while it HAS been a complex spiritual / relational / entrepreneurial adventure for us, it’s probably simplest and most applicable to others to frame it as a natural outcome of the practice of micro-collaborations.
The impact of micro-collaborations
June Holley says ‘always start with micro-collaborations’. I say ‘take that excellent advice seriously’.
The Monster Map wasn’t Michael Bischoff’s and my first collaboration. And we never sat down & decided to start a business partnership together. It was all much more random (emergent?) than that.
It began as a swap for a simple short survey analysis in exchange for the price of a 35$ event ticket. I wanted to be part of something I didn’t feel able to afford right then, so I offered up a small work contribution instead.
On the imaginary network map of the community we’re all working to develop here in the upper Midwest, I offered a link from the node of me to the node of Michael. He offered another link back. Then we both kept working to make those linkages thicker, stronger & deeper. We kept finding more little things to work on together and created something more than friendship, we created strong collaborator-ship.
And through that practice THAT became THIS – as we learned to work well together, to trust each other, to bring others safely into the mix & to carry more weight. We each played a different role, based on different strengths and perspectives, and over time, we launched something new & useful & unexpected. And we probably got there faster & with less cost and drama than we would have if we’d set out from the beginning, to get where we are now.
Which is the whole point of network weaving – leveraging our differences & our contributions into something greater than the sum of our parts, for the benefit of something more than just the individuals involved.
And it’s not lost on me that the vehicle that carried us through that shift was building the very tool that represents that shift. Network mapping is ultimately about helping us all sense, imagine and strategize our ways into the paradigm shift that dynamic represents. And the fact that the process of creating the monster map itself pulled us through at least a small part of that shift personally makes the whole point of mapping extra valid & meaningful to us. We believe in our maps, in a way we’ve not believed in any of the other data/technical crap we’ve made.
The next phase of sumApp development is to enable others to use it for mapping their own communities – with the intention to make network mapping more accessible to communities and action networks of all kinds.
So while what has begun to emerge is intimate & personal on one level, it’s also a wonderful example of how micro-collaborations can speed up innovation & change, both communally as well as technically – with ripple effects that benefit far more than just the original micro-collaborators. Micro-collaborations can make possible things that previously weren’t.
The Mapping Team
Among the ripple effects are the repeated bigger-ish micro-collaborations of the Network Mapping Team. This group has found or connected more to one another through the Monster Map project. They’ve begun to gel and to create other projects together outside of bushCON.
At bushCON, the Network Mapping Team has also become much clearer in our message about shifting from systems of dominance to systems of connection, increased our mutual trust and ability to work together, refreshed & expanded our capacity by bringing in new team-members & ensuring their sense of welcome, and practiced supporting one another through what could be a stressful situation.
Some of our team have become Greater than the Sum network mapping clients, others have brought us in to map their Network Weaving client communities.
And a bunch of us – at the original instigation of Michael & other mapping team members – now collaborate to convene a regular Network Weaving Community of Practice that enables experienced network weavers to support one another & share what they’re learning, as well as introduces the Network Weaving principles & practice to new members of our communities.
The quality of experience, information & shared thinking presented at the bushCON network mapping display has gone from being like a kid practicing her scales, to a jazz band. And each of us carries that increased expressive capacity back to our own networks – helping it spread throughout the community.
It’s not as if the ideas of this network weaving stuff are new or particularly radical to anyone at bushCON. It’s clear from the discussions that people have already been moving towards network weaving values & practices, prompted by both conceptual understanding and sheer inarticulate intuition. What the mapping team helps with is articulating a clear, actionable framework in a way that, I think, speeds up the process and increases people’s confidence in moving in this direction.
Community Leaders & bushCONNECT Planning Team
One of the ways I know bushCON attendees were already moving in a network-y direction is from attendee feedback about the event.
Every year there’s a call for more unstructured time, more opportunities for connecting, and more support for developing connections beyond the event. And the event organizers have adjusted accordingly.
From my vantage point it feels as if bushCON is being asked to (and is) shift from creating an interestingly ‘consumable’ event, to co-creating a participatory container & catalytic conditions. It’s still a far cry from Open Space, but I have felt a consistently growing call for, and move toward, greater and greater engagement of everyone’s agency.
Actual use of the maps – as more than a one-off example of an available tool demonstrated at an event – is shifting as well. The first year, the map was just another piece of programming for attendees to consume in that narrowly-defined time and place. Michael pitched it, Bush added it to the programming mix – that was as far as it went. A few hundred attendees shared their data, we built the map, some folks looked at it, it was done. We put it away like so much popcorn swept off the theater floor at the end of the night.
In year two, I kept saying ‘we could continue to make this available to the community after the event’, but it didn’t happen. It was still too abstract, and the new bushCON leadership team was still getting their bearings. We completed the temporal experience – everyone moved on.
This year, everyone is engaging it differently. Maybe it’s a result of actively inputting their own connections, but a LOT of attendees wanted continued access. Many people have gone back into the App even after the event to add connections (presuming we’ll keep things going). We’re working on a communications plan to help the community continue to access the map on their own and developing training for Bush staff to use the maps themselves in their Foundation and community-building work.
The most profound change I’ve sensed over 3 years of doing bushCONNECT network maps is on the ground, in the conversations with attendees about network weaving.
I wouldn’t claim that the annual monster maps have been the driving force for this conversational shift. But they’re also not irrelevant.
The maps have been a buzz-creating focal point for engaging those overlapping, reverberating conversations, in a specific time and place, with a lot of change-minded people. They’ve also been a visualization of a new lens -stimulating the imagination into deeper insight & recognition.
And from year one to year three, there has been a noticeable change in people’s reactions to the maps themselves. In year one, the map only spoke to few, really. It was an interesting technical abstraction, appealing to the technically minded. The use of LinkedIn data probably increased the sense that all it was merely a LinkedIn visualization, at best, and what was the point?
But it wasn’t just a data issue. It rested on a distinction I keep making between ‘networking’ and ‘network weaving’. The early interest was mostly about ‘how can I have the right first degree connections to get ahead’, it was transactional, not transformational. A couple people said to me ‘I’m not looking for a job right now so I don’t need that’.
The real change agents and community-builders generally weren’t even interested – it smacked too much of techno-bling and salesy self-interest. Or else it was just a picture of a popularity contest. That first year, it was sometimes an uncomfortable struggle to engage people.
But over time, perspectives have shifted from ‘how is it relative to me that there’s a random dot with my name on it & it tells me what I already know about who I know?’ to understanding the map as a picture of a whole that could tell us stuff about how to make the world a more beautiful place. People have begun to see the value in understanding the map’s patterns – identifying hubs, clusters, bridgers, spreaders. The meaning of those things has caught on – recognized as factors that can impact a community’s generativity & resilience. Attention is shifting from node to whole.
Being able to see & engage beyond one’s own first degree connections, to find triangles to close & others to reach out to meet – those have become meaningful bits of information, relevant to social change. It’s become neither a popularity contest, nor about advancing personal goals – it’s about identifying others to support, finding new & needed paths for value to flow through, and amplifying collective change efforts. It’s about measuring community resilience and increased connectivity over time, having a way of seeing what’s working at the most meaningful level.
It was like – in year one the interest was mostly in the technology. By year three, the interest was mostly in the network, and appreciation for how the technology enhances our ability to understand and nurture the network.
The Field Is Shifting
Like I said – I don’t attribute this shift many of us are experiencing & sensing to network maps. There are a lot of players spreading self-organizing ideas & practices here in the Twin Cities, in a lot of contexts. Funder’s views of how to create change is shifting, due to research on the effects of collective impact and network weaving. Uprisings like Black Lives Matter are shifting the dialog on collectivity in the face of systemic violence, and opening the door to discussions about the crucial importance of diversity and system-change.
There’s a lot contributing to these shifts.
But the maps have offered an opportunity to represent those shifts and make them more tangible, spark that collective-system-change discussion from yet another perspective, and to overhear how people’s thinking is changing.
Now of course, this is all just anecdotal, based on personal observation. But I spend a lot of time in groups of people listening in on conversations & watching faces and attention flows & sensing collective energies (which in some ways, network mapping is just another form of).
And what three bushCONs have felt like to me is a slow-motion video of those magical moments when a huge flock of starlings shifts from being a chaos of disordered individuals, to an awe-inspiring murmuration. Just at the beginning, when you almost can’t discern the patterns beginning to form, but you know what’s coming.
Ok – I can already hear the chorus proclaiming that I’m overstating. But wherever you think we are in the process – things are shifting. That much is really clear.
The Take Away
Most of our team were discouraged in the beginning. That first bushCON certainly didn’t meet our utopian ideals, most of the group wanted more, and Bush felt to some like a stolid monolith spouting empty platitudes.
The major thing I’ve learned from this process is that it takes patience, persistence, a LOT of communication (using a lot of vehicles) – and faith in people. We all get disappointed when things don’t go as we want/expect them to. But the truth is, we DO all want to topple destructive status-quos and build a better world, we just need to learn how to get there. And we all own a piece of that puzzle.
It’s funny, looking back. Each of us were nay-saying different parts of the puzzle, being mildly cynical about different aspects of what had happened. We each saw possibility in different aspects of the overall whole. And each of us pushing, each in our own way, on the things others were cynical about, without ever losing faith in one another (or only losing it briefly and repairing the damage asap) – that’s what really shifted the dial, at least relative to the network mapping project.
When we lose faith in people, we lose patience, we don’t care enough to persist, and our communication grows stunted. So – keep finding faith in people (which, I’ll be the first to admit, is an arduous challenge all by itself) and the rest can follow, if we let it.
So the take away is this – just keep at it. The crucial condition-setting dynamics are itching to shift, and everyone wants them to. It just takes some time. Remember the old Presencing mantra ‘Slow Down to Speed Up’.