I recently interviewed Dylan Skybrook, Network Manager of the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network – a land stewardship network with 19 member organizations. It’s a role he began there last June. You can read more about the network (and learn a LOT about network development) from this case study.
Dylan and I worked together on the leadership team of the Social Innovation Lab in Minnesota a few years back. A choreographer in his earlier life, dealing with lots of moving parts comes naturally to him. With a Master’s Degree in Sustainability and having taught Systems Thinking at the University of Minnesota he has a robust theoretical background.
Now he’s putting all that theory into practice –and learning to work with some classic network leadership tensions.
Classic Network Leadership Tensions
Dylan’s network’s tensions are interwoven and particular to his specific context. He wasn’t framing them as classic tensions – he was simply talking about his challenges in response to my questions.
But I spend a lot of time trying to understand what it is we’re shifting from – when we talk about paradigm shifts for a just and sustainable future – and what we’re trying to shift to. Mostly, I try to understand how we get tripped up in making that shift, and what would help us find our footing. So as he was talking, I started hearing his challenges as specific examples of some fundamental patterns we see occurring in action networks in general. Patterns we need to understand if we want reduce our time getting tripped up while shifting them.
I learned a lot by exploring the patterns Dylan shared with me, and by how he has dealt with them. The tensions I heard in Dylan’s context were:
- The tension between Theory and Practice.
- The tension between the Parts and the Whole.
- The tension between Action and building Trusting Relationships.
- The tension between Network Leadership Ideals and Cultural Leadership Norms.
Dylan’s story reveals useful insights and practices for new network leaders.
Some Archetypal Tensions
1. Theory v. Practice
By THEORY I mean ideas about how things work. Such ideas are crucial. Our newest paradigms about systems & nature; human motivation, collaboration and transformation; organizations & organizing; social power, social value, networks, and change are integral to creating the new realities we desire.
We start with ideas of what would make things different. We start with some thoughts about impact. Without those ideas, we often don’t know where to begin and we don’t know what to check our impacts against. Without those ideas, when things don’t work out right away we revert to what’s familiar – and failing us.
But PURE THEORY is fundamentally non-situational, outside of time and space. And all of life is deeply situational, grounded in history, unique and complex. Which means that PRACTICE is always contextual. All that specific history and complexity muddies the pure theoretical waters and challenges the application of our ideas about how things work.
So theory may be the pivotal & potentially transformational 10-20%, but applying it in practice is the often grindingly confusing and unpredictable 80-90%.
In that sense, we can understand all the other tensions Dylan is managing through the lens of Theory v. Practice. In almost every instance, at this time in history, our ideas about how the world works are, in some sense, changing much faster than our ability to fully implement (or maybe I should say to ‘live into’) those ideas. In Dylan’s case (as is probable in most cases), some of that lag is due to structure, and some is due to socialization – i.e. how we’ve learned to identify and define ourselves. And much is due to history – the past trajectories, conflicts and challenges inherent in the specific context. We can sum it up by saying that each particular context confronts theory anew. So are there relevant patterns that supersede context?
2. Parts v. Whole
One way self-definition and identity create a drag on theories about co-creation & self-organizing is in where we place the boundary. Where does ‘me’ or ‘my organization’ or ‘my work’ end, and what is ‘outside’ myself. Self-preservation is a must for most entities, so when we experience needs that lie outside of ‘self’, we start to experience tension. We still tend to see ‘non-me’ needs as conflicting or taking away from self-needs. A short term zero-sum game mentality takes issue with longer-term win/win/win goals.
Dylan’s network is designed around a geographical region, while the network members themselves all represent and care for smaller properties within the region. One motivation to form a network in the first place was the recognition that animals, insects and invasive species don’t recognize property lines – so ecological protection & action shouldn’t either. However, organizational missions do.
Dylan describes an underlying force, like centers of gravity, in his network – that makes finding common goals difficult. He also describes it as like antibodies, each member protecting its own mission.
The THEORY here is that having a regional – or systemic – perspective should enable/inspire network members to act on behalf of the region as a ‘whole’, beyond the boundaries of their own properties (the ‘parts’). But it’s much harder in practice than it sounds.
A big piece of that challenge is structural and outside of the network, relatively unsusceptible to the network’s influence, requiring a larger civic conversation and shifting some organizational trends.
In a sense, this resonates to June Holley’s concept of ‘readiness’ that she discussed in my previous interview: not all network members are equal in terms of ‘readiness’, in terms of being prepared & able to contribute effectively to something beyond their own habitually-defined boundaries.
That readiness looks different for people and for organizations, and is probably always a ‘readiness in THIS context (and perhaps not in another)’. But in any case, part of the work is learning how to situate ‘the ready’ as models for those just beginning on the path.
This ‘parts v. whole’ tension has led Dylan to an idea he calls ‘complex purpose’ – an understanding of how, while each member of a system has its own unique and individual purpose, there are multiple overlapping broader purposes that member has to take into account and be accountable to.
How can we begin to structure ourselves with bigger, or layered and increasingly permeable boundaries?
3. Action v. Relationships
The tension between Parts v. Whole often manifests as a tension about DOING.
We have a cultural preference for Doing. Getting Things Done is often an important part of our sense of self and a value related to how we engage with the world. Especially among those of us who seek to change things. We come together to get more done, or to get done what we can’t do alone. We come together eager for action. We come together with people who have a bias for action – we choose them because they accomplish stuff.
Action-oriented types prefer to build relationships while doing. I’m like that – I connect best while working. I need to co-create with people before I trust them or have a true sense of who they are. So I count myself among the more action-oriented among us – who often forget, neglect, avoid, or outright reject too much ‘process’. Too much talk or threat of excess ‘kumbaya’, and many accomplishment-oriented types disengage or never show up.
Self-Organizing Theory ties action and relationship together. But a good network represents different histories, relationships to power, perspectives, and sometimes conflicting priorities. In that context, determining WHICH actions take precedence can become a mine-field—especially where enough trust hasn’t already been baked into the foundation.
But action can also be a bonding force. Work is how we learn to be reliable & to rely upon, how we learn to collaborate. Working together alters relationships. Doing transcends talking – and puts our intentions into impact.
On top of our cultural preference for action, and the bonding capacity of work, most networks are trying to address SERIOUS, URGENT problems. Most of us working on shifting paradigms don’t have the sense that we have any time to waste.
So the effort to guide ACTIONS through shared purpose and to define common goals makes so much sense. Yet, action built on shaky relationships quickly falls apart, or never gathers enough steam to even get started.
This tension reminds me of a Theory U slogan people used to reference in the Social Innovation Lab Dylan & I worked on together – ‘Slow down to speed up’.
However, without knowing what to do while ‘slowing down’, to enable speeding up, many efforts just run out of steam. ‘slowing down’ equals sputtering out – which reinforces the bias towards fast action.
So this is where a little theory can be helpful. As I’ll address in Part 2.
4. Leadership Ideals v. Cultural Norms
On top of our cultural bias toward action & immediately measurable outcomes, we also hold ‘leaders’ more responsible to those outcomes than everyone else. Even if leaders aren’t expected to have all the answers, even when we embrace vulnerable leadership, even as we reject the great-man theory of leadership – those in positions of responsibility for and to a formal group (especially when being paid for their role) understand that their value will be measured by collective outcomes more than by their individual contribution. Which, paradoxically, can put them at odds with what’s best for the group.
Supporting a resilient, impactful network requires things that are, in most contexts, only vaguely understood & rarely even articulated, let alone recognized, measured, valued. Which inclines one to succumb to standard measures – dollars saved, people served, programs begun or expanded or improved – action, action, action – ASAP, often prematurely.
It’s an ironic catch-22 – the measures we use to validate leaderly effectiveness and responsibility, the measures that prove one is earning one’s paycheck – these can easily undermine the requirements of building a resilient, impactful, co-creative network.
Even when we KNOW the difference between heroism and leadership – the two are so conflated in our culture, our norms demand the one from the other (in both directions) so much, it’s really hard not to get sucked in.
We still put so much weight on leaders when we should be putting it into collectively changing systemic conditions.
So, the tensions I heard Dylan dealing with in our interview were Theory v. Practice, Parts v. Whole, Action v. Relationships & Heroic Leadership v. Co-Creative Leadership.
I’ll share with you how he’s handled those tensions in the next post.