The Intersection of Systems and Network Leadership | Beth's Blog

The Intersection of Systems and Network Leadership

Leadership, Networked Nonprofit

I’m facilitating a peer learning course on practical networked leadership skills with a group of community foundation leaders for the Knight Digital Media Center and part of the “practice” is having conversations and sharing thought provoking ideas with our professional networks via social media.   Rebecca Arno was doing some research on systems thinking, found this excellent, very friendly visual that defines systems thinking as:

  • Looks at  the big picture
  • Talk about ideas and listen to the ideas of others
  • Be patient when things get confusing or complicated
  • Check results and changes actions if needed, getting better and better
  • Consider how our thinking affects what happens
  • Figure out the effect of actions
  • Find the keys to a system
  • Identify how connections change over time
  • Think about change over time
  • Looks for ways to help system work better, doesn’t blame
  • Looks at things from different sides

It made me wonder about the similarities and differences between “systems” and “networks.”    Heather McLeod Grant, a colleague who works at the intersection of social change leadership, networks, and systems, explained it to me like this:  “A system describes a wicked or complex problem that is the object of change, while a network is a group of people or institutions in relationship working on activities to change the system.”

I shared a copy of the visual on my Facebook wall and asked colleagues who are involved in social change networks, wondering out loud about the overlaps between “system leadership” and “network leadership.”   June Holley, guru of network weaving, said “Big overlap! I think systems help us find those key places where change/transformation is more likely to happen. Network leadership is about helping many people identify and grapple with systems collaboratively. But I love the one about ‘Identify how connection cause change over time.’   The common thread for these two leadership approaches is the value of sharing versus control, recognizing that social change issues can’t be solved by a single player or hero.

Hildy  Gottlieb added that the diagram is missing the word “context” because “systems thinkers don’t just “look at” things, it is the way they see (subtle difference, but a big one in effect). They see everything through the lens of the system as a whole, and therefore are always seeing how the pieces fit and interact. That’s different from just looking at the big picture (one can always look away, and non-systems-thinkers often do. Consider the strategic planning session that starts with establishing a vision, and then jumps right into reacting to the present – vision is not the context, just a quick look).”

Systems thinkers will not consider the small picture unless it is in the context of the big picture.

Sara Shapiro-Plevan, a network weaver in NY, mentioned that the visual speaks to helping the different parts of our systems AND networks learn visually and in ways that are thought provoking and challenging.    Sara has just posted an update about gathering in New York City for Network Weavers to share insights about their work related to network leadership and a healthy network.    They started with June Holley’s definition of a network weaver and did a simple reflection exercise.

June Holley’s definition of a network weaver:   “A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier.  They do this by helping people identify interests and challenges, connect people strategically where there is potential for mutual benefit and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing.” By this definition, Network Weavers are system thinkers, if not system leaders as well.

Janne Flisrand, a network weaver based in Minnesota who I met last month at a gathering of network designers and weavers here in San Francisco, recently shared a reflection from a similar meeting of network weavers in Minnesota — all from different networks with different purposes and scale.   She talked about the magic of connectivity – by convening people and providing the space for conversations, it is a way to talk about ideas and listen to the ideas of others, another systems thinking competency.


10 Responses

  1. Mary Roscoe says:

    I also have been thinking recently about networks and systems thinking — one overlap is that both are about relationships

    Climate Interactive has 8 minute videos about system thinking — relevant to other areas of work, beyond climate change — here’s one example:

    Reinforcing Movements –

  2. Yukie says:

    Hi Mrs. Beth, I have read more than one article about systems thinking. I already learned that this way of thinking is prerequisite for leaders. However, I am still trying to figure out how to practically apply it in the real world to create lasting impact. I think it is straightforward to talk about ideas and listen to the ideas of others. Yet, how about practicing the other definitions? Do you have some practicable tips or principles of systems thinking that people can simply perform?

    Thanks in advance for your answer. I am presently running a social enterprise with the purpose of educating as many people as possible about global citizenship via the internet. I pray for your increasingly successful future in networking and helping nonprofits make broad and significant social influence. Great to know you!

  3. Eitan Reich says:

    Thanks Beth for this question. An important point I think is to see how systems behave in non linear and unexpected ways, as their elements are constantly effecting each other and create feedback loops.In this way a system can be viewed as a network itself. But networks and network weaving especially are great ways to deal with this non linearity of systems.

  4. Curtis Ogden says:


    Thanks for this important reflection and inquiry (and thanks Mary for the resource link). I too think about and work on systems and networks (through the Interaction Institute for Social Change) and see plenty of overlap.

    To pick up on Eitan’s last comment, living systems are networks. That is, systems biologists have noted the common underlying structure of life to be a network that gets more complex at greater scales. For this reason I like to think of networks and network leadership not simply as a strategy (as a “so that”) but also as the starting point and destination (or an “as”). To me there is tremendous power in seeing ourselves, individually and collectively, as networks as well as the larger systems of which we are a part and may be trying to shift. This makes the role of “weaving” that much more important, and also one of bringing about aligned shifts of connectivity at different levels of systems.

    In a recent post on the IISC blog, I reference Francisco Varela’s notion that when (living) systems are faltering it is helpful to connect them to more of themselves. This is a key to health at all systemic levels – individual, group, and larger scales. This has bearing for (net)work around economic and ecological systems (both networks of exchange) and for social equity (considering who is NOT connected, and NOT receiving flows of critical resources; shifting who and what matters; building and re-channeling power and wealth).

    All of this to say that I think noting and working with the overlap and synergies has great power. For more musings on this, you can check out this post – “Strengthening the Network Within”



    P.S. A nice and accessible resource on systems thinking (in answer to Yukie’s question) is “Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situation” by Rosalind Armson.

  5. Sara Shapiro-Plevan says:

    Beth, thank you so much for sharing the conversations that came out of our meetup, and for continuing to spur our thinking forward. One issue that came up is the role of the network weaver in conjunction with or as a part of or even complementing the work of community organizing. What do you make of this intersection? Are we artificially constructing an overlap there? Would be curious what others have to say….

  6. Shaheen Mamawala says:

    Great post, Beth!

    I had the opportunity to attend the NYC Meetup and one of the themes that has really been sticking with me is the idea of a network as an organism that’s living and growing, while there are also many 1:1, 1:many and many:many relationships developing within the network and at varying degrees and paces.

    I’m fascinated with the idea of network weaver as “culture ambassador” because that role allows for harnessing of serendipity and raw potential while still giving members the freedom to exercise those systems thinking competencies you mention above.

    On another note, your mention of wicked problems reminded me of a recent article I read and discussed with colleagues, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Though more than 40 years old it touches on some elements of network theory that fascinated me and still ring very true today.

  7. Beth says:

    Wow, these are amazing comments!

    Mary: Thank you for sharing that video about climate change and systems thinking.

    Yukie: Not sure if you’ve come back to see the other comments, but comments have suggested a wealth of great resources on systems thinking. I would also look at:

    Eitan: Thanks for the reminder about the non-linear aspect of systems and networks.
    Curtis: Been a fan of your work, but delighted that you shared that article .. helping me get smarter about this.

    Sara Shaprio-Plevan: I think there are many overlaps in skills and activities of community organizers and network weavers. Both try to make connections. I think the difference is that one might be bounded and the unbounded.

    Shaheen: Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience and resources. I think the “living organism” part of networks is so hard for many to grasp — and that’s part of really appreciate about networks.

  8. Jess says:

    This is a great post for many reasons. First, the actual content reflects the network at work – it’s a compilation of others’ expertise rather than just of the author. I think that makes the piece even stronger as each person’s insight provides new perspectives and more credibility.

    Second, I see the importance of networks come up all the time with our clients, who find out a board member knows one of their key prospects or a donor who’s involved in an organization that could be a new partner. The difficulty, however, is making these networks transparent and accessible (video about this: It’s been fascinating to see what new technology (beyond social networking) is leading the charge.

    One point I’d add, which could be an interesting follow up post, is about open and closed systems and open and closed networks. Steve Jobs famously touted the importance of his open and diverse network as the key behind his creativity. It’d be very interesting to see what your panel of experts think about the strengths and traits of an open vs. closed network.

  9. Elenore says:

    Hey Beth! I came across your blog for my Social Media class assignment. I find your explanation of system thinking coherent and intriguing. An interactive program which stimulates effects of management decisions and interaction is nonetheless, ideal. Yet our heritage like objective reality could work against the adoption of system thinking. Brand leaders and managers have to obtain the skills to lessen those existing impediments. There are other elements from situational impediments as well, allowing them to alter their behavior to remove the obstacles standing in between creativity and consistency.

    A. B. Freeman School of Buseinss

  10. Beth says:

    Hi Elenore: Thanks for stopping by. Can you tell me more about your social media assignment? Sounds like a great assignment.

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