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  Sustaining Social Innovation - Panarchy with Frances Westley

There is knowledge embedded in different structures – illuminating and animating that knowledge is a creative exercise and that's what Frances Westley, who co-authored the book Getting to Maybe with Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton, does. She brings together different knowledge sets to solve problems. She helps to make the impossible happen.

Getting to Maybe recognizes the experiences of a wide range of people and organizations and applies the insights of complexity theory in an effort to lay out a brand new way of thinking about making change in communities, in business, and in the world.

On this page, Frances shares her thoughts on social innovation and panarchy. Panarchy, a concept that has emerged from ecology, can be useful for understanding organizational, systems and social change processes.

On this page you'll find:

Meet Frances Westley

Frances WestleyFrances Westley served as the Executive Director of the McGill-McConnell Program, the first program to offer specialized graduate-level education for national leaders in the voluntary sector. Frances is also the James McGill Professor of Strategy in the Faculty of Management at McGill University and leads the Social Innovation initiative, a partnership between DuPont Canada and the Faculty of Management.

She is currently heading up the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, a think tank for innovative thinking and environmental problem-solving at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the first woman to head the Institute.

Frances is an accomplished author and an active consultant. She co-authored the recent book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed with Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton. Learn more about Frances and her journey here.

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Panarchy: A Summary

Writing Getting to Maybe

Brenda, Michael and Frances have all been involved in change efforts and have also been teachers, hoping to build experience and competencies in their students. They found that while both prominent social innovators and large-scale changes are often lauded and profiled, there are few resources available that marry the two or accurately describe the real work and the role of the individual in the change experience.

They wrote the book for themselves (to articulate their own experiences), social innovators (to create a mirror that expressed their experience) and, those wishing to support social innovators (to understand the pressures and environment social innovators work in).

Along with Brenda and Michael, Frances asks, “What could I offer? And, what does the world need?” Getting to Maybe reflects these questions and offers a practical guide to social innovation for others in the field, as well as for anyone who wants to make a difference but are unsure where to start.

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Stand still & see the larger patterns

Frances advises social innovators to take the time to reflect on the dynamics you intuitively sense so that you are able to accurately articulate the environment and the issues at play.

At the McGill-McConnell Program, the faculty recognized that they couldn't necessarily teach participants new content, but they could provide time for participants to engage in "thinking about the thinking" and to learn about how to act and how to manage in a complex environment.

In the highly innovative and creative world that social innovators work in, there's a need to respond intuitively, synthetically, but there's seldom an opportunity to share the language with each other. Often, the most powerful opportunities we can give social innovators is the opportunity to reflect in a different way about their experiences.

If we self-reflect, we're able to articulate the what and the how (e.g. How to find leverage points in the system. How do you think of tools and methodologies to understand the system you're in?)

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An introduction to panarchy

Panarchy is inspired by the notion of the god Pan, the god of chaos. Systems are complex and chaotic, requiring us to look at other levels of scale in order to make change.

Much of Panarchy theory is drawn from ecology. Ecologists understand that to create ecological change at the global level you have to understand dynamics at regional and local levels. For example, if you’re looking at the needles on a pine tree, you need to consider the health of the tree, the forest, the crown, the general region, etc.

Growth and change don't happen in a step by step or linear way. There are tipping points - moments when structures collapse or ideas take off. These aren't continuities or predictable phenomena.

Change occurs because of trophic cascades, those sudden shifts that occur because conditions are ripe for change at multiple scales – this is the way to understand abrupt shifts in the environment.

These moments of alignment or tipping points are critical. They call upon different skills and competencies from social innovators. We often speak about "thinking like a movement". Thinking this way helps us to see that it takes the connection between initiatives to pull enough information into the system to see cross-scale connections happening. Each individual initiative is dependent upon connection with other innovations and initiatives.

Eco cycle IllustrationIn the panarchy framework, change unfolds through various and inter-connected stages, including ‘exploitation’, when ideas begin to take shape and focus; ‘conservation’, when ideas are put into action, key priorities are identified, programs become operational, and diversity diminishes; ‘creative destruction’ when there is an implosion or collapse as lack of diversity/inability to adapt make a system or an organization vulnerable – it can be salubrious but the more connected a system, the greater the destruction; and finally ‘renewal’ when potential begins to gather under the soil, which is an essential phase for innovation.

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Tips for social innovators

  • We often say that knowledge and action are different – action is really a form of knowledge. Panarchy can create a framework that gives some shape to experiences of social innovators. Frameworks are only as useful as they illuminate. Panarchy can be a powerfully illuminating framework for understanding the work of innovation.
  • Train yourself to look at or query what’s happening at different scales. If you want your innovation to have maximum impact, monitor both the broad (e.g. economic, policy, etc.) and individual scales. Social innovators often burn out at the moment they seem most successful. Your individual sense of energy, passion, and excitement are important measures of your ability to achieve the change you want to see. The individual scale affects all scales.
  • Good social innovators move quickly when they see an opportunity (e.g. at the policy level). They’re aware of multiple scales and are able to see an opportunity to connect the dots, connecting resources to opportunity. They can feel the “now” – like an athlete knows when to swing the bat . When you’re starting out, your timing can be off, but you get better at swinging – if you don’t move, the opportunity to create deep change is minimum – so keep moving forward.

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Related Links and Resources

Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed - In this book, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton lay out a brand new way of thinking about making changes in communities, the business, and the world. Written for ordinary people who want to make connections that will create extraordinary outcomes, this book looks at complexity theory to make the impossible happen.

Larry Brilliant - Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist who presided over the last case of SmallPox on the planet. He also founded the Seva Foundation, which works to reverse cases of blindness, and co-founded several technology start-ups, including the legendary online community, The Well. He was recently named Executive Director of the Google Foundation. In this talk from TED, he explains in fascinating detail the key behind the successful WHO campaign to eradicate Smallpox, and then unveils his TEDPrize wish: to build a global system that detects each new disease or disaster as it emerges or occurs. Learn more here.

McGill-McConnell Program - The first program to offer specialized graduate-level education for national leaders in the voluntary sector

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies - This institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focuses on understanding the relationships between people and the planet, and on seeking solutions to environmental problems on all scales.

The Resilience Alliance - The Resilience Alliance is a multidisciplinary research group that explores the dynamics of complex adaptive systems.

Experiments in Consilience – This book, co-authored by Frances Westley, describes the work of the Biodiversity Research Network. Members of this network examine the ecology and population dynamics of key species in particular ecosystems in order to understand the impact of human populations, and to develop tools and processes for involving a greater variety of stakeholders in conservation efforts.

A Change Would Do You Good – This paper, co-authored by David Cooper of Case Western Reserve University, looks at how the failure to organize can cause an organization to become trapped in unsatisfactory situations.

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Audio Description

Interview: Panarchy - A conversation with Frances Westley

Run time 00:32:40








Audio Description

Q&A: Panarchy - A conversation with Frances Westley

Run time 00:33:49