Living, learning and loving systems

Early explorations – what, why and how

Having moved on from Global Integrity at the end of 2022, I’ve begun the new year with a bounce. I’m excited to dive more deeply into exploring whether and how complex social challenges, where simple cookie cutter solutions won’t work, can be addressed in ways that centre on kindness, relationships and cycles of collaborative action and learning.

I’m happy with the start I’ve made, clarifying what I want to be doing and why, thinking through the approach I will take, and taking some initial steps forward. My plan is to explore, and contribute to, the landscape of theory, policy and practice around embracing complexity, nurturing relationships and catalyzing collaborative learning, for social change, both internationally and closer to my home in Brighton, England. Inspired in part by the work of Nora Bateson, I’ve registered as self-employed under the name of “L3 Systems” for living, learning and loving, which I was pleased to do!

I am particularly interested in relationships and the role that they play in making social systems more than the sum of their parts (see for instance my 2021 reflections on integrity, relationships and systems). More specifically, I’m interested in how relationships can support or hinder the collaborative learning and collective sense-making that is needed to develop the systemic capacities that are required to address complex challenges – for instance around poverty, corruption or climate change – in ways that meet people’s needs.

Source: The Relationships Project

Practically, my explorations around complexity, relationships and collaborative learning will have a number of elements:

  • First, mapping the landscape of ideas, actions and evidence, and connecting with people and organizations that are involved in interesting work;

  • Second, engaging in a portfolio of varied initiatives where I can make a useful contribution, and where I have the opportunity to make connections and support collaborative learning in, across and beyond those initiatives;

  • Third, sharing the fruits of my explorations with the wider field, to contribute to the emergence of increasingly effective approaches to addressing complex social challenges; and

  • Fourth, progressively working out how I can most usefully contribute to the wider ecosystem of actors embracing complexity, nurturing relationships and catalyzing collaborative learning for social change.

The fruits of my foraging

Much of my first month of freelancing has been spent getting some clarity about the constellation of issues that I want to explore and thinking through the approaches I might take. I’ve also invested quite a bit of time getting up to speed with an amazing new piece of software – Tana, a tool for networked thought and “building a second brain” – which is helping to make my various efforts, and my explorations about systems, more than the sum of their parts, which feels very appropriate. I’ve also had plenty of time for reading, watching, participating, chatting, and reflecting, which has helped me to get a stronger sense of the landscape I’m exploring, and the ways in which I might contribute. Some of the fruits I’ve foraged in this time are as follows.

Unpacking systems change philanthropy: Five alternative models

This piece, by Paulo Savaget, Marc Ventresca, Marya Besharov and Jessica Jacobson at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, reviews five alternative models of systems change philanthropy: empowering changemakers; scaling up; coordinating actors; experimenting and exploring; and, scaling deep.

For each of these models, the authors set out their mode of intervention, outline the assumptions the models implicitly make about how change happens, and explore their strengths and weaknesses, before then considering the practical implications for funders and the broader social impact field. I was particularly pleased that the authors teased out the assumptions, and theory, about how change happens, something which I find lacking in some discussions of complexity, emergence and systems change. The comparative table, assessing the five models, provides a great summary of the article.

I’d like to see social and systems change initiatives set out explicitly how their modes of intervention are expected to shift the power dynamics that hold problems, and systems, in place. For me, this would very likely involve building on the sorts of relational approaches to systems change that the Collective Change Lab is exploring; see for instance The Relational Work of Systems Change, which was the most popular Stanford Social Innovation Review piece of 2022! But that dream – an important focus for my explorations – is something that will take some time to achieve.

Source: Collective Change Lab, in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Causal pathways: Understanding how, why and when our strategies matter

In a somewhat similar vein (causality is about power, after all?) I was glad to be able to catch up on a webinar which was the first public outing for the Causal Pathways initiative that – led by Jewlya Lynn – has been emerging over the last couple of years. Funded initially by the Walton Family Foundation, the aim of this initiative is to promote the use of approaches to monitoring and evaluation that – because they are not tied to experimental and quasi-experimental notions of evaluative rigor (see Redefining Rigor by Hallie Preskill and Jewlya Lynn from 2016) – can help us to make sense of the complex contextual causality that characterizes complex systems.

The webinar recording is, it seems, only available to people who registered for the event (perhaps the Stanford Social Innovation Review will make it more widely available, given that it was a free event?). However, the slides can be found here and, if you want to see my notes just drop me a line. Do check out the Causal Pathways website to get involved and help to shape the emergence and adoption of approaches to evaluation that can better support effective and collaborative engagement around complex and systemic challenges. Resources include a two-pager debunking some myths and misunderstandings about causal analysis and sharing some methods that can help to move beyond those myths.

If approaches to monitoring, evaluation and learning that are appropriate for complex and system challenges is your thing, don’t miss the fantastic collation of resources that Søren Haldrup and Samuel Tran at UNDP have put together on innovative M&E from the M&E Sandbox series and beyond.

Source: Innovative M&E from the sandbox and beyond, by Søren Haldrup and Samuel Tran

Relationship-centred practice

The Relationships Project is an initiative I’ve gotten to know over recent months. I love what they are doing and the way that they are doing it; facilitating conversations, connection and learning, with kindness and warmth, to nurture and support a growing community of people and organizations that are putting relationships at the centre of their work. I’ve been happy to begin to get to know the team. Take a look at David Robinson’s piece on What is relationship-centred practice? for a good introduction to their work.

I was sad not to be able to attend their workshop on relationship-centred practice at Northumbria University in November, but very much enjoyed reading A letter from Northumbria, the workshop agenda and speaker notes, and Fabian Pfortmüller’s reflections on The magic of finding my peers. If you’re interested in putting relationship-centred practice at the centre of your work – or if you’re already doing this – I strongly recommend checking out the Relationships Project, and perhaps putting yourself on the map.

Being part of this emerging community is making me bolder and more confident about trying to put relationships – and the power dynamics that are part of all relationships – at the centre of my work. Healthy relationships, with kindness at their core, enable the collaborative learning, and the adaptive and emergent behaviours, that are needed to address complex social challenges. On a similar note, see also Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy, by Julia Unwin. I’m very much looking forward to staying engaged!

Becoming an authentic learning organization

I was delighted to be able to catch up with Kecia Bertermann, the Director of Learning and Impact at Luminate. Envisioning a future where everyone has power to shape society, Luminate – a philanthropic organization – is focused on contributing to outcomes relating to participation, dissent, and healthy information ecosystems. I know Luminate, their strategy and approach, pretty well and have been hugely appreciative of their – and the wider Omidyar Group’s – leadership in the realm of systems-focused and learning-centric approaches to supporting social change.

Luminate’s strategy for 2022-27 notes that “Continually learning, reflecting, and adapting is central to our approach. This informs all of our activities and decisions and enables us to adapt our work as we go and achieve more impact. Our approach to monitoring change is based in setting and testing hypotheses related to our organisational outcomes, and collecting confirming and disconfirming evidence over time.” So it was exciting to hear about where things are at for Luminate with positioning learning at the centre of their ways of working, in ways that extend from strategy and hypotheses, through operations, to programmes and partners, and impact.

I was also happy to find a fellow enthusiast for the idea of building a second brain and using tools for networked thought to support systemic approaches to social change! [side note, to clarify my enthusiasm: the specific approach that Tiago Forte sets out in Building A Second Brain – inspiring as it is – does not perhaps make the most of the possibilities for emergent knowledge management made possible by recent advances in note-taking and personal knowledge management tools such as Roam Research, Obsidian, LogSeq, and Tana].

Kecia will be talking about Luminate’s experience with testing a systems-oriented approach to learning in a future edition of the UNDP M&E Sandbox series. But if you want to find out more, now, do check out How can funders become authentic learning organisations?, a summary of Firetail’s experience of helping Luminate to develop a low-friction, user-friendly, knowledge management system that will help the organization to gather, share and use evidence and intelligence. 

On the horizon

Energized by the connections I’ve been able to make in my first month of freelancing, I’m excited by what will unfold over the coming weeks.

I’m thrilled to be working with Jeni Tennison, Tim Davies and colleagues at Connected by Data on a project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which is about developing an insight infrastructure to inform policy and practice focused on reducing poverty and tackling inequality in the UK.

I’m looking forward to re-connecting with Wasafiri Consulting, whose online training for their Systemcraft methodology for navigating complex change I was glad to be able to pilot.

I’m happy to have scheduled further conversations with colleagues from the Centre for Public Impact about their Global Development Initiative and the scope for deploying their Human Learning Systems methodology in the global development space.

I’m eager to participate in discussions about Governance in an Age of Complexity at the launch event of the Systems Innovation Network’s new Governance Hub. Join the Systems Innovation Network here.

And I’m expectantly awaiting an invite to the next edition of UNDP’s M&E Sandbox!

Let’s connect!

I’d love your feedback on this update, so that I can make future versions as useful as possible. What did you find useful? Will you read it next time? Would you prefer something shorter, or do you like deeper dives? Does monthly sound about right? Do you have other thoughts about how I might share the fruits of my foraging?

Also, if you are exploring similar terrain, I’d love to connect. I’m happy to share more about the things I’m doing, and am open to all forms of interesting and potentially impactful collaboration and engagement. And if there are articles, events and initiatives that you think I might be interested in, and which I might feature in a future update, please feel free to drop me a line.

Find me on Linked-In, drop me a line at alanhudson1 at gmail dot com, or share your thoughts in the comments below.

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