Systems Principles for Collaborative Networks

Guiding themes for working together toward transformational change

By Ruth Rominger

Here at the Garfield Foundation, we’ve been supporting and promoting experimentation with collaborative networks for 15 years in pursuit of an approach that helps grantees and funders engaged in monumental systems change agendas create greater impacts. The practices that make up collaborative networks have often been criticized as creating “too much process” in a field that prioritizes action and quick outcomes. Turns out, we’ve discovered these process-practices are the means and ends necessary for systems change.

We see in our work (and similar work) that when a group of people with sufficiently different perspectives and skills come together to openly explore how to deeply transform an unhealthy system, something awesome happens. People who choose to spend time together to build collaborative networks can achieve results beyond anyone’s expectations. Time is simply required for a group to bring the essential ingredients together to:

  • build strong, trusting relationships
  • discover their deep common purpose,
  • create a shared vision of the future,
  • understand the complexity of the system,
  • design interventions that get at the root cause of problems, and
  • take coordinated action to create lasting impacts

Business-as-usual philanthropy poses a considerable barrier to these practices. Networks don’t grow, thrive, and adapt in routine funder-ngo transactions with short-term project grants, desire for quick outcomes, and classic hero leaders. So what explains the proliferation of collaborative networks across issues and geographies? Against the odds, people are working together to overcome standard practices and relationships. They are aligning on shared goals, interests, and issues, and they are weathering shifts in foundations’ programmatic priorities. At the Garfield Foundation we believe these communities of systems change actors are connecting because our dominant institutions — media, medical care, government, corporations — have lost their efficacy. The cultures they create stifle hope, or simply never served everyone in the first place. Through collaborative networks, change-makers are building their power and fostering hope for the future.

Collaborative networks are significantly different from other multi-stakeholder efforts, such as social or information networks, alliances, campaigns, associations, or political parties. The current proliferation of different forms of collaborative networks focused on systems change is creating a rich and emergent field of study. Specifically, collaborative networks build trust among diverse and unusual allies who share a deep purpose and use systems and network practices to create strategic synergy. This means that different organizations — predominantly foundations and nonprofits in our experience — can align their strategies to build upon one another’s work and to create greater, reinforcing impacts. What seems to distinguish collaborative networks from other forms of organizing is that they embrace the complexity and the long-term nature of the challenges they address. This means their actions are guided by basic principles, not a single theory of change, the size of grants, or the latest trend in “best” practices.

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Photo by Vu Viet Anh on Unsplash

The guiding principles we build upon come from current understanding of healthy ecosystems, complex adaptive systems, and network theory. While what follows is not a complete list of principles needed to inform collaborative network practices, the list offers guidance, based on our experience, for decision-making and coordinating action.

Stability. Just enough. Just as in natural ecosystems, collaborative networks need just enough stability to thrive; too much hinders their ability to innovate, adapt to always shifting contexts, and succeed at creating transformative change.

Typically, when people start working together, they think they need to build network structures based on organizational models they already know. In practice, this principle means resisting centralized, hierarchical structures with lots of imposed rules and command-and-control leadership. Collaborative networks don’t require building any structural elements or operational agreements until they are absolutely useful. Putting just enough in place will keep the network connected yet flexible enough to adapt. When this stability is needed, build structures that distribute responsibility and power to support the following principles.

Connectivity. Build it to navigate it. Collaborative networks seek to create change within complex systems that are defined by many interdependent relationships connecting elements within them (e.g., stakeholders, legal structures, local, state and federal policy, et cetera). Effective networks need to foster their own connectivity — both internally among participants and externally between participants and system elements — to shift relational and behavioral patterns within the larger system.

What’s crucial to understand about the interdependent relationships within complex systems is their nonlinearity. Nonlinearity means elements are linked to one another through multiple direct and indirect paths, and no single influence, such as a stakeholder group, alone can determine the behavior of the system; instead it is the accumulation of multiple influences that determines the resulting effects.

To understand and work with multiple influences, network participants need to intentionally develop a web of mutual relationships, both internally among participants and externally between participants and system elements. Strong connective tissue can prevent information from getting stuck in bottlenecks or silos. When connective tissue is absent due to a lack of trust, an insufficient network communications platform or one-way information channel, information can be blocked, lost, or hoarded leaving some participants without a way to stay informed or keep others informed. This isn’t to say that the whole network is densely connected to each other. Some areas of the network may be highly connected, some less connected, depending on the roles. And connections will shift over time.

Diversity. More resilience when connected. Collaborative networks need participants from different parts of the system to connect, align, and take action for greater resilience. We are stronger together than alone.

Working with complexity requires a diversity of perspectives, competencies, strategies, and actions. Creative tension comes when we engage in healthy, challenging conversations across difference, and it often inspires the development of novel ideas. Fostering this kind of diversity within collaborative networks can support participants to experiment with different actions and “theories of change” simultaneously. Honoring diversity among actors and actions can help to iterate on strategies and tactics quicker, towards more resilient solutions.

Power Differentials. Shift, distribute, and build it. Collaborative networks need to work with power strategically. Different levels of power within the system create the dynamics, that is, the forces between relationships that affect the behavior and outcomes, for better and for worse.

To shift dynamics in a system, collaborative networks build collective power to strategically disrupt existing power differentials, shift relationships, and transform behavior throughout the system. Networks, at their best, grow and spread power strategically. When power is concentrated or stuck, systems will stagnate, destabilize, and eventually collapse.

Minimum Specs. Minimal structure makes the difference. Healthy systems and, by design, collaborative networks require minimal operating agreements to be nimble, adaptive, and (ironically) strong.

Too many rules, complicated structures, and bureaucratic processes will bog people down, stifle creativity, and diminish the power to act. Collaborative networks need to resist over specifying rules, structures, and processes. Doing so puts infrastructure and rules before needs and can grind everything to a halt. Developing too big of a governance group in an effort to “give everyone a seat at the table,” for example, makes it difficult to make decisions; too small of one doesn’t create enough collective intelligence in the network. Use the guidelines of “fit for purpose” and “only when it becomes essential” when putting infrastructure in place.

Information Flow. Builds shared intelligence. Collaborative networks need to build infrastructure that eases the exchange of information among actors at every level and scale to increase learning, responsiveness, and adaptability.

Useful information flow, which relies on trust and an explicit culture of learning, is the life-blood that circulates in and out of a network, making rapid feedback and intentional adaptation to changing conditions possible. The growth of online, mobile, social networking platforms makes this easier than ever before. A common communication platform that fits the culture of the network and agreements on how to share information are essential.

Knowledge circulation — that is, analyzing, organizing, and redistributing good information from around the network — is only possible when quality information flows in all directions, both inside and outside of a healthy network. Simply put, when a useful amount of information is periodically collected, analyzed, and discussed within the network and with external stakeholders it is possible to recognize emergent patterns in which many signals of change add up to shift behavior and inform the next wave of actions. Thus the life of information, as it were, in a network has to be intentionally designed.

Measure Patterns. How we see systems transform. Collaborative networks are intentionally designed to fundamentally shift relational and behavioral patterns inside systems to reach a shared goal and create lasting transformational change. They therefore need the capacity to notice, create, influence, and measure patterns.

Nature doesn’t count individual data points. It works with patterns, which are trends among many data points or variables. Similarly, there is no single type of data or one variable that can be measured to show if the system is transforming in the direction of the network’s shared goal.

Patterns in nature repeat as fractals (or smaller versions of the same pattern at different levels in the system). Over time, these patterns evolve, creating clusters of activities that are aligned on a similar course or direction. Observing growth or shifts in patterns requires a different approach to measurement and assessment. While it is still essential to move forward with individual and small team actions to make progress, it is necessary to connect and align them to create patterns and “ripple effects” that cascade the change through the system. Counting or isolating a simple cause and effect alone overlooks patterns and trends. Networks are well suited, when intentionally designed to do so, for collectively noticing, creating, influencing, and measuring patterns.

These complex adaptive systems principles provide some important guidance for developing and managing a collaborative network, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. The evolving field of practice is truly interdisciplinary, drawing from the humanities and social, natural, and physical sciences.

The scientific understanding of complex adaptive systems is relatively new, but the foundational values or principles relevant to large-scale social and environmental change are not. Today collaborative networks are connecting a greater diversity of social change practitioners across issues and cultures and bringing together complementary values, beliefs, and principles rooted in systems sciences, indigenous wisdom traditions, and social justice movements. This integration offers new, promising, and more holistic ways of building trust and designing and implementing strategy, structures, and operations. We see that the integration is guiding significantly different choices among collaborative network actors when compared to business-as-usual philanthropy and politics. This integration of traditions and disciplines is a topic we hope to dive into in an upcoming blog.

It’s 2020, and we are in a new era at the Garfield Foundation. We see ourselves as part of a growing pattern emerging in philanthropy and cultural change writ large. We are committed to connecting with other systems change and network practitioners, funders and capacity builders to learn more and move faster together. We are eager to help expand access to and capacity of the field of systems-informed network practices, as a collective action.

Ruth Rominger is the Collaborative Networks Program Director with the Garfield Foundation.

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