Vertigo and The Intentional Inhabitant; Leadership In A Connected Environment:

bt44Vertigo (from the Latin vertigin-, vertigo, “dizziness,” originally “a whirling or spinning movement,” from vertō “I turn”[1]) is a specific type of dizziness, a major symptom of a balance disorder. It is the sensation of spinning or swaying while the body is actually stationary with respect to the surroundings. The effects of vertigo may be slight. It can cause nausea and vomiting and, in severe cases, it may give rise to difficulties with standing and walking. From Wikipedia

The “world is flat” and the traditional functions of leadership are on the decline.  And in “connected environments” like networks, the function of leadership is anything but traditional. Lawrence CommunityWorks is a case in point. We are far from a “pure” network, but we have  many of the characteristics of a ‘connected environment’. And so, over the years I have grappled with trying to find a way to lead when many of the traditional levers of power and decision making are not useful.

In several settings over the past few months I have been asked to reflect on the role of the leader in a connected environment or a network setting.  Here is a summary of  some of those reflections:

I remember the first time I drove in the desert in the southwest United States. Being from New England where windy roads and trees provide only a glimpse of the sky and far away horizons, in the desert, I was rattled by the size of the sky and the enormity of the space. I had a mild panic attack in the car – a case of vertigo. I literally had to stop the car and get out and put my feet on the ground and walk around to get accustomed to the environment. Slowly, I was able to absorb the dimensions and the perspectives of the desert, was able to find a point of reference, and ultimately I was able to get back in the car and move toward my destination with some comfort and confidence. But as I was walking around, random thoughts were moving through my brain, thoughts like. “This is huge..there is no mastering of this. Things are too big, to far, too flat, too beige. I am so small. I am stuck. I am trapped.”  But walking helped. Walking put my feet on the ground and gave me the vantage point that I needed. Walking, feeling, breathing, touching. It was the tactile connection that I needed in order to re-compute the environment that I was in and get a bearing. And things did come into focus. The rules of this “place” were different certainly, but it was a place, with dimensions that could be understood and with ground, air, plants and all things that I knew about. And when I was walking, breathing listening feeling I was there. I was inhabiting.

Vertigo is caused by being out of balance in relation to your environment. Moving from a traditional environment to a network or connected environment can cause a kind of vertigo because the environment is so radically different. It operates by different rules and responds to different stimuli. To try to lead in a network environment armed only with the perspectives and skills honed in traditional settings, is unsettling and disorienting.

Its About the Space

So what is so different about the network environment?

Well first, like the desert sky analogy,  a network environment is dominated by space and it is the space that dominates your attention.  The leader in a connected environment has to understand that the power of these environments comes from the space, not the forms that populate the space. Therfore the critical function of the leader in the network is the creation, preservation and protection of space.

What is meant by space in this context?  Time and opportunity mostly, as well as  accessibility, flexibility and options.  It is the time for unfolding, time for adaptation, time and opportunity for intentional and random bumping and connecting, for creation, for response, for listening and reacting, for deconstruction; the space in between, around, behind, on top of and underneath the action, the commitments, the transactions. These things are all form.  Networks die when the space closes because in the clutter of commitments, expectations, structures, programs, partnerships etc, there is no more space for adaptation or response. Demand (ie what people wanted) is now just an artifact and the appetite for listening has evaporated.

At LCW we try to build language, tools and systems to help us create, preserve and defend space. We try to resource the demand ennvironment in alot of different ways so that we can get better at resourcing real life opportunities rather than concepts and ideas that we or funders come up with. We try to keep all of our teams and committees loose and flexible and leadership moving from person to person so that we can stay focused on ‘what we do’ rather than ‘who we are’. This creates space for experimentation and allows things to grow and things to go away when they arent useful anymore. We try to do the routine things as efficiently as possible so that we can save time for the complicated stuff. Over the past several years I have found that there are three ways to create and preserve space in a network environment.

  1. The first is to keep moving the creative, adaptive edge of the network outward so that the universe of the network expands in 3 dimensions, even as it populates with forms. The principal challenge here is capacity, as an ever expanding network requires ever expanding resources. At LCW we have tried to come up with strategies so that exponential growth in the network wont necessarily mean exponential growth in the paid capacity we need to manage the network. Our goal is to have our “cost per member” decrease steadily as we grow. A few years ago we initiated what we called our “Sustainability Mission”. The principal strategy to emerge from that mission was the creation of MemberLink, a layer of stipended member volunteer and development programs whereby members start to take on aspects of the stewardship of the network. Now we have about 30 MemberLink-type opportunities for members such as Reviviendo Fellowships, NOF Internships, The Network Guides Program, The NeighborCircle Facilitators, The Movement City Residency Program and the Peer Leaders program. All of these ‘value propositions’ offer members developmental opportunities and modest stipends, in exchange for performing valuable functions in the network.
  2. The second way is to achieve efficiency through efficient demand, mostly through BOTH the rapid creation and rapid deconstruction of forms; programs, commitments, organizational structures and so on, so that new space is always being created. In the creation, the key is making sure that only those things that truly have value get resourced (fed) by the environment, and that they truly earn their way in the environment – at LCW we call this ‘resonance testing.’  This is more a discipline than a process. It is a discipline excercised by staff who are listening to ideas and demand from members. Thier job is to “stay close to the demand” and “resource the opportunity” and not make leaps of judgement about whether something is a good idea or bad idea. It might work this way: A member has an idea that we need a club for 10 year old girls because they are especially vulnerable and need their own space. Staff are asked to challenge that member to pull together others who might agree, and provide the space and time for that to happen. If a group actually assembles, staff are asked to challenge them to put on one event – bring some girls together and do something fun and helpful. If that happens, staff might work with them on a short series. In other words we are resourcing the specific demand and not jumping to program development before the thing has proven its value to other members. The collateral benefit of this process is that we learn by doing – through experimentation. In this example, we have learned by moving this idea through 3-4 life cycles in a span of a few months. Alternatively, if we had taken the initial idea, handed it to resource development, spent 6 months talking and raising money, we would not have learned anything and its possible that whatever demand that did exist would have evaporated. Of course, it is equally important to end things that no longer work or have resonance and to end them quickly. The environment has to ‘starve” bad ideas and tings that dont have genuine value.
  3. The third way is to shrink or contract routine and re-occuring actions to their simplest and most efficient forms;  everything from operating systems to routine functions like providing food for meetings or doing newsletters.  These things should be efficient but are not, due mostly to human things like poor communication, resistance to compliance, forgetting etc.. Because of this, ‘efficiency’ in these areas is less a system building challenge than a habit building challenge. One management tool we have developed to help us with this is called  the FOLKS Protocols – These are binders for all staff and key leaders that break down all of the routine and predictable functions in the network into a simple one-page description of what it is, how to do it, whose role it is to do what, and so on. This is a tool designed to help us make progess in the 3rd way of creating and preserving space – shrinking the routines. FOLKS is our network management motto and stands for:

F – Form Follows Function: We only want to build the level of structure and formality that we need to do the job – no more and no less. If we overbuild it will require more resources to support and it will be that much harder to deconstruct!

O – Open Architecture is Best: We try to build forms (ie committees, teams, processes) that are flexible, informal, provisional, with provisional leadership and always open to new people. These forms are more in sync with a network environment.

L – Let it Go: If it isnt working or if there is no demand, you have to let it go and let it go quickly. That goes for an idea you might have that you cant get interest in, or a program you have been running for 5 years that doesnt sell anymore.

K – Keep it Simple: We need to keep things that are simple, simple so that we have the time and energy for the complicated stuff. Anything that can be routine should be routine. A 5 minute problem shouldnt take 15 minutes.

S – Solve the Problem: In a flexible environment we need to move through stuck places a 100 times a day. Everyone needs to make ‘solving the problem’ the most important rule of our engagement with each other.

Not a Form, But an Environment

Leaders in connected environments know that transition – change – is the constant state. Because the network is not itself form, but space and form, it is best viewed as an ‘environment’ rather than an institution or organization.  That is, the relationship – the interaction-  between space and form makes it an environment, and as an environment it is dynamic –  always in transition.   We all know that transition is the constant state of living things. The rule, not the exception. But it is unsettling in the moment. So, we all try mightily, through form, to pin ‘now’ to the wall long enough for us to revel in our mastery of the moment. But things that are pinned to the wall dry up, shrivel and die.  That is the way of living things. That is the way of ‘now’.

My understanding is that environments, simply stated, perform two functions: they feed things and they starve things, and in this concept I have found some ideas about how to lead.  At LCW our team was intentional about creating an environment that felt substantially different (better) than the general environment for getting involved in Lawrence. So, years ago we set about using new language, experimenting with new ways of doing things, creating new and fresh rooms for people to come together, feel productive, get to know, rely on and start trusting each other. We tried to foster ‘habits of engagement’ – to feed the natural generosity and respect that we know that all people carry with them. We also were agressive at starving some of the behaviors and habits that we felt dominated the rooms in Lawrence. This caused problems at the beginning, particularly among the experienced ‘community leaders’ who were used to dominating rooms with mastery of ‘roberts rules’ or other forms of traditional leadership. Our task was to create forms that focused on creating space and creating habits around that process so that ultimately a culture could develop that could continue to feed the right stuff and starve the bad stuff. Some of these things are just intuitive: that all people appreciate and relax in environments that are fun and have food. So, early on we made a cmmitment to both.

We also looked at trying to create rooms that were more productive and less focused and reliant on structure and positional leadership. So, we started to experiment with and name our concepts of “Form Follows Function” and “Open Architecture” described above. The idea was to move process create habits of process that were more reliant on relationship and more consistent with transition, change and adaptation. We have found that, by and large, rooms where the feel is flexible and adaptable and informal are more productive and definately feel better to most people.

There are adjustments however. We have had to find ways to explore and recast the function of leadership in these rooms and reinforce habits of leadership that are more consistent with a connected environment. For instance, in 2004 we began to experiments with and recognize “weaving” as the principal and highest form of leadership in the Network. We started developing training curriculum and protocols around dialogue and debriefing so that we could really dig into the process of engaging and connecting people to each other. We created an annual award called Reviviendo Weaver Award that we presented to a member at our gala Annual Meeting each year and also had a leader of the month award presented at Board Meetings.  Now, “weaving” is a core part of the learning and teaching of the Guided program.

The Intentional Inhabitant

Leaders in connected environments know that networks are always teetering on the edge of balance, requiring many small adjustments in order to achieve some measure of dynamic stasis. I have found that the leader has to be in constant motion, paying attention to the habits and the small stimuli needed to incessantly reconstitute balance and motion.  One must have to  learn to feel the current of change, look for and recognize resonance and deploy oneself not as prod, but as pivot for the many moments of change that are called for everyday. I have learned that one cant possibly do this alone. In fact here is no “alone” in this process. If this is all madness, which of course it is, the leader is not a mad scientist on the outside pulling levers and pushing buttons, the leader is a mad-inhabitant, an intentional inhabitant, and is deploying his/her self as a key variable in order to influence the environment from the inside. This is a critical cognitive and functional shift in leadership. The leader has to genuinely participate in the environment in order to deploy his or herself appropriately. The challenges of this way of being are profound, and those challenges start with a fundamental reflection about who you are as a person and how you move through the world. How you deal with letting go of power and ego. How you listen and watch – your instincts for both conceptualizing and sythensizing. Your ability to let go of strongly held convictions about what is right and what will work.

In my case, I have had inumerable challenges with this. I have been challenged time and time again about my instinct to create logic models and  narratives about a situation or person – a great skill no doubt, unless and until one starts to ignore evidence that contradicts that model. I have been challenged to reflect on my tendency toward being solitary, especially when I an feeling overwhelmed and afraid or when something is going wrong and I think that I need to fix it. In those moments I have been challenged to lean into getting help from others in a way that, still to this day, can feel uncomfortable. I have been challenged to let go of structure and formality as the path to clarity and progress. This idea has been so central to who I was for so long, its astounding to me every time I choose to let go and let it unfold, to see the power that flows into the room from others who want that same clarity and progress and who are willing also, to give up closely held ideas in order to achieve that together. These types of challenges are about behavior but routed in deeper self-awareness, and so the process is long and hard.

The leader of connected environments is engaged and is committed to turning themselves inside out. To be sure, I still have moments of vertigo — it is inescapable it seems to me, as the environment is always shifting. But most times now, I can trust that my feet will find some ground eventually and my faith is reinforced by knowing that the payoff for hanging with and through those moments is so worthy. The mistakes that I make now are when a) I do not have the emotional energy to be truly engaged and b) when i have moments of forgetting or c) when I  fear the process of letting go. In those moments I pull in, try to prod, feel like a victim, and let my ego rule the day. I am lucky in those moments that I am a part of a team of people here – and I have colleagues around the country – who are all struggling together and who are intentional about supporting each other – through both forgiveness and truth telling – so that we can continue to build ‘connected environments’ that feed the world by feeding the best of what is so good about about being  human.



2 thoughts on “Vertigo and The Intentional Inhabitant; Leadership In A Connected Environment:

  1. Leo Romero says:

    This article was published on the home page of the Nonprofit Quarterly, and has attracted several comments, here:

  2. Bill I’m impressed by you’re fluid problem solving techniques, and your determination is seasoned with care – we should all be one continuous helpful network. chris

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