Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Rhizomatic Leadership and Meadian Networking

I'm interested in the way movements and their leaders have effectively delivered transformational change. It's quite different from the straightforward almost mechanical model that we usually begin to use when considering how to lead and how to deliver change.

The way we tend to construct organisations, and the way change actually happens can be quite different. We tend to build organisations with a 'pyramid' shape. A small group at the top, a larger number at the bottom. The group at the top sets standards and rules that determine how the whole organisation works. Every organisation has it's flowchart showing the lines of power and responsibility stretching down from the top toward the bottom.

When we apply this model to reality however, we find it doesn't match how human beings actually think and organise. It doesn't reflect the complex knots of different circles and coalitions we participate in, particularly when working to deliver change in a highly complex society. It gives a very false picture of who the leaders of change actually are.

The rigidity and inflexibility of pyramid shaped organisations means they can become obstacles to change and to the kind of coalitions that work. I was privileged to hear John McKnight talking in Preston a couple of years ago about how voluntary community organisations tend to be more 'circular', while companies and statutory organisations tend to be 'pyramid shaped', and that the interaction of such circles and such pyramids can be very problematic.

In thinking about this blogpost, I googled 'Rhizomatic Leadership' and found this PInterest board by Renee Charney.  I haven't had a chance to speak to her or read her work, but in may ways the pictures of different kinds of rhizomes she has collected together in themselves show the 'knotty' way humans organise ourselves naturally.

In my experience of work for change in my own local area, people with affiliations to different local, national and international organisations, with very different cultures, belief systems, backgrounds, still often managed to network with each other in their every day work for change and to create productive results. These people were showing true leadership, prepared to take on each others ideas, be eclectic, experiment, and work together to see how things come out. Being doctrinaire, being 'pure'; insisting that your path is the only true path are all obstacles to such networking (Though the energy behind such single-minded commitment can be very useful to networks if ways of working together can be found)

Rhizomes are really really interesting. The biggest 'single' living organism in the world is a rhizomatic forest. To the eye it looks like thousands of separate trees, but under the ground, they have a single multiply intertwined and interconnected root system. If a piece of that rhizome root were detached and planted elsewhere, in the right conditions,  it would be capable of forming it's own rhizomatic forest. Rhizomatic root systems are strong because they go in all available directions, what nourishes one, nourishes all. Often they're hidden beneath the surface - people's unofficial, social and virtual networks being at least as significant as their 'official' position in a formal organisational structure. Chop down a tree, the rhizome that grew it is still there, nourishing more saplings!

Margaret Mead wrote a lot about forming networks of very diverse people around common goals, and a rhizomatic approach strikes me as being very similar - understanding that we gain when we're prepared to join with others, let the root systems that nourish us, also nourish them, and vice versa, what is a resource for one, is a resource for all.

David Towell blogs about this 'Meadian Networking' in his blog 'Networking for a purpose' with examples from the work done by very many different people and organisations with many differing interests and visions, to shift the culture of social and health care toward personalisation in the UK.

He uses a graphic developed by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze to argue that in any major cultural change process, there are 3 stages of emergence for radical new ideas and practices:
1.  A stage where small separate groups of individual pioneers develop groundbreaking countercultural ideas and new ways of doing things

2. A stage where these radical and experimental ideas are being applied in small areas, learning from this is happening and communities of practice are developing and sharing them, and then finally

3. A stage where these communities of practice themselves develop and network further into whole systems of influence that are much more widely accepted. It's easier when you see the picture he uses, so here it is:
From a network, to a network of networks, to a whole movement for social change"

So what implications does this have for people who wish to be part of leading person centred change today?

First of all I'd suggest that in terms of person centred practices, we're at a point in the transition between stage 2 and stage 3. The word 'person centred' is now widely used, the need for person centred practices and values is widely recognised, even if there are still many people unaware of the practical ways such change can be delivered. The practicalities need to occupy the space opened up by the aspirations before those aspirations become diluted buzzwords.

The experience of the UK suggests the deep value of being willing to network and connect with people with similar and values and aims, even where their way of doing things may seem very different - in complex multifaceted environments many different tactics may be necessary to achieve a single overall strategic aim: Any movement for diversity and inclusion, must by definition be diverse and inclusive. Sometimes this may lead to unfamiliar, uncomfortable and difficult compromises, but the most creative work happens when people with very different ways of doing things get together, and use the conflicts that happen between them as sources of productive energy rather than allowing them to become destructive rivalries.

To become part of  a 'system of influence' we need to work on what helps us influence: Our personal relationships, our work relationships, our online networks, all the multiple circles we inhabit where we can use influence. In areas close to us the chromatography of our influence will be clear, further away it may be fainter, and tinted with shades of the influence of others. This leads to the other role of influencers - finding ways to protect the integrity of the original values that motivated the change, without preventing the change. A subtle and difficult balance, but not an impossible one.


  1. This is really interesting - particularly the part about 'chop down a (rhizomatic) tree and it crops up again' - throughout the history of services we see people coming back with the same ideas, which are essentially about the instantiation of social justice issues, and we see systems develop ever more subtle (?) ways of cropping them down or as Tanya Titchkosky says including them as an excludable category. I think that the diversity of other influences and other kinds of lenses on the accountability of inclusion and person centredness as social movements is really enriching. Maybe, to go with your metaphor, it is like a fallow crop of clover adding nitrogen to the soil and energising the other rhizomatous forms. I am fascinated by bringing people from other fields in and watching the pot boil... thanks for putting these ideas together so nicely! you might also like this:

  2. Hello Max -- Just came upon your blog from a few months ago; thank you for extending the conversation that is near and dear to my heart and interest -- rhizomatic leadership. I coined the term early last year while working on a learning achievement essay for my PhD in Leadership and Change at Antioch University. I became interested in the practice of rhizomatic learning through an educator friend of mine and in reading the shared perspectives within the rhizomatic learning community. As I learned more, read Deleuze and Guattari and other sources, it occurred to me that rhizomic principles, when applied to how people lead, work together, and create together, those principles could expand the way we lead our organizations -- hence, rhizomatic leadership. The metaphor of the rhizome made such sense to me; it's how I like to work and, as I can imagine, resonates with many and how they might like to work, as well. Happy to keep in touch, if you'd like. I'm hoping to write my dissertation focusing on rhizomic principles as they relate to leadership and learning sometime in the next year or so. Your insights might inform my thinking! Cheers ~ Renee