Jun 28, 2023 4 min read

Both, And...

Book Cover for Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, by Damon Centola

In the work of building a more inclusive and equitable community, we seek out and value diverse and sometimes divergent positions. We learn to search for and see more than one right answer for any question or challenge. Sometimes we find harmony in those divergent positions. You might even say they rhyme.

This post is intended to challenge you with seemingly opposing ideas. But, if you look closely enough, I argue that they are actually harmonious parts of a more complete way of thinking.

In a manner of speaking, they rhyme.

As my old boss used to remind me, “It often isn’t either or, it is both and.”

My colleague, Emma Winiski, and I are recording a series of episodes we call the Practice of Building a More Inclusive Community. We’ve identified six practice areas. One of those areas is this area of Program Work. Many projects and initiatives take the shape of programs, and that structure is leveraged by many communities in their work of equity and inclusion.

We recently published a new episode in that series called, Focused on Results. It was based on many conversations with community change agents across the country. Over several years, I spoke with communities undertaking coordinated programs of projects, actions, and initiatives to strengthen inclusion and reduce disparities. Those communities and those teams are focused on plans, actions, and results. They are having success.

At The Inclusive Community, we consider Program Work to be one of the six practices for a community to consider and master as they work to become more inclusive and equitable.

Still, we know Program Work, the process of creating a coordinated plan of actions, projects, and initiatives, is not enough. No matter how well designed, how focused, or how well run, more is needed. Much more.

In an upcoming episode, Emma and I will talk about another practice area, the practice we call GroundWork. Groundwork is all about reaching across the community and preparing the community soil for the seeds of equity and inclusion to germinate, take root, and grow. It includes things like community learning, touching hearts, motivating others to join this work, and even shifting the community culture. This is another practice that we have seen in community after community all across the country.

An author I follow on Medium, Fabian Pfortmüller, recently had a post where he made the following assertion:

In the early 21st century, there is a well-established playbook on how to get things done. You set objectives, you develop strategies, and you deploy resources toward it. You’re focused on outcomes. The community playbook is fundamentally different. Community = Relationships 

Now, having just posted an episode all about Program Work, the very playbook Fabian is decrying, you might think I’d be concerned, maybe even annoyed. I wasn’t. His post was great. I love his thinking and almost everything he writes.

I wasn’t concerned because in my world, as my old boss said, “It isn’t either or, it is both and.”

In this work of community equity and inclusion, I’m a student of, a believer in, and a practitioner of both Program Work and GroundWork. Of both outcomes and relationships. Of structured change initiatives and of emergence. I have to be. Most communities have to be.

Because I believe in both Program Work and GroundWork, I couldn’t help but find myself intrigued by the work of Damon Centola, a sociologist who studies the science of social networks.

His book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, helps, as he says,

“unravel some of the mysteries of societal transformation by showing you how these social networks work.”

In his book, Centola focuses specifically on how complex changes are adopted across networks. He considers the model of viral spread: the rapid transfer of ideas and information across broad networks, often accelerated by influencers. He shows us how that works and why it works in certain instances. He suggests that kind of viral model of contagion or spreading change works for simple ideas and for information but not for complex changes. For complex changes, his research suggests a very different model.

Centola argues that influencers have many connections, but they are weak connections, what he calls narrow bridges. Those kinds of bridges are good for quickly transferring simple information or ideas where a high degree of trust is not required. Centola argues that for complex change to take root and travel, you shouldn’t be looking for the who to help you in the spread, but rather the where. In his research, he shows that it is the area in the network where wide bridges exist, where people have many levels of interconnectedness. That’s the place where complex change can take hold and spread. He argues that rather than looking for one person at the center of a far-reaching network, we should be looking for a very interconnected group at the fringes of the network as a place for complex change to take hold.

In his book, Centola gives example after example of different types of changes and the principles that govern the spread of complex changes. In this way, his work rhymes with the work of Fabian Pfortmüller, but also of more organized change initiatives like programs. He gives us ways to understand how to use social networks to, as the title says, Make Big Things Happen. You might even say his research is a scientific proof of sorts for Fabian’s assertion that Community = Relationships.

If you are a student of structured change and also a student of emergence, I couldn’t recommend this book more. I’m not saying Centola has all of the answers. I’m not sure anyone does. But, for those of us who look for more than one answer to a problem, who know that community change will require many different approaches and many different practices, Damon Centola offers new and unique insights.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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