Connecting the Dots 2.0

As regular readers know, I’m writing a book and creating a community of practice that will help social change activists “connects the dots.” Connecting the dots has become such a widely used buzz word, that I should start by defining what I mean by both dots and connecting.

The dots are activists (I’m one of them) who are seeking to produce a paradigm shift in the way Americans solve what I’ll be calling our intersectional or wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that they can’t be solved quickly, easily, or separately—if they can be truly solved at all. They connect by building broad coalitions that cross issue-based and ideological lines by working “inside the system” as we used to put it in the 1960s.

Connecting the Dots 2.0?

I should  also explain the question mark at the end of this post’s title .

Software developers usually take a while before launching their version 2.0. I’m doing so barely six months after I went public with Connecting the Dots (without the 1.0) last November. Should you be interested, you can see where I was headed then on my website and my new Substack newsletter. 

I thought I knew what the book and community would be like back then. Six months later, I realized that my initial plans fell far short of the mark because:

  • I had found that a lot more “dots” were doing a lot more connecting than I had expected  
  • I had initially planned to focus on young (under 40) activists. Now, many of the new dot connecters I discovered were older
  • All of them wanted to work across ideological and/or issue-based lines, but all too often, they found it hard to break out of their own “silos” for a variety of reasons ranging from their funding to the demands on their time to their member base
  • Despite the political setbacks of the last six months, the evidence from the new dot connecters has left me even more convinced  that they and we can at least make a major progress in addressing if not completely solving those wicked problems

So, after spinning my gears for a few weeks, I went back to the drawing boards. As is the case with the next version of your favorite software package, I haven’t thrown everything away, including most of the book’s first draft. However, I’ve added more dots and ways of connecting. More importantly, I’ve focused more on the problems we will face taking these efforts to scale that the community of practice will have to take on because the book can only lay the groundwork for such efforts. 

I’m still not convinced that connecting the dots will work–hence the question mark. However, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the best strategy for people like me to follow.

The Book

When I finished From Conflict Resolution to Peacebuilding in late 2019, I assumed that I had written my final book. I knew my fingers would get itchy, but I assumed that I could take care of that with blog posts.

Then, as 2020 dawned, I discovered the dots—along with everything else that happened that year. It was literally discovery, because I hadn’t heard about most of the dot connecters beforehand—except for the peacebuilders, of course. Luckily, I was already an experienced Zoom user, so I spent the next two years getting to know the wonderful men and women you will meet in the book, most of whom I still haven’t met face to face.

A few months into the project, I was on a Zoom call with two of my favorite dot connecters when one of them said, “Chip, you don’t want to just write a book about them, you want to help the dot connecters succeed.” At that point, I realized that Connecting the Dots would have to quite different from any of the other books I’d written. Sure, I would have to describe and analyze the dot connecters in print in much the same way that I had dealt with comparative politics and peacebuilding since the 1970s. However, I would have to go farther so that the book could be used by other dot connecters to create what I’ve since come to call a community of practice.

Part 1—Why We Need to Connect the Dots

Connecting the Dots will begin with the first of several self-deprecating stories that will provide the scaffolding for the intellectual and political journey that led me to the dots. I had already been talking about many of the themes outlined in those four bullet points in the late 1980s when one of my favorite students called me the “most naively optimistic person in the word.” 

Although Matt meant it (mostly) as a compliment, he was on target then. He might not be now.

Although it will not be a memoir, Part 1 traces how that handful of turning points led me to add  complexity science, innovation, startup culture, and more to my home fields of political science and peacebuilding into a plausible theory of change which is based on four core ideas.  

Changing Times. Even when Matt took courses from me, you could make the case that we were at a turning point in human history. Our lives were already unusually interdependent by historical standards and have only become more so in the decades since then. That interdependence, in turn, gives rise to the kinds of interconnected or intersectional problems that define our lives today, including racism, peacebuilding, climate change, economic inequality, and more.

New Mental Lenses.  Unfortunately, most mainstream activists and leaders are trying to solve these problems using versions of “business as usual.” At best, they have been able to produce incremental reforms, the results of which leave most of us frustrated and angry. 

That leads me to a statement that is often attributed to Albert Einstein. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” As Einstein suggested many times, the alternative is a new paradigm, although he never used the term because it only entered our lexicon in the early 1960s, several years after his death. To use his terms, we need a new “mode of thinking” or fundamental change in the way we make sense of the world we live in. 

Today, that means  adopting  new mental lenses that are anchored in systems theory and related frameworks including network analysis, complexity science, and the like. All take interdependence as their starting point which, for the purposes of this book, leads us to radically redefine the way society unfolds, especially the way(s) new opportunities for significant, but non-revolutionary change, emerge. 

For the Roaring Twenties. I am by no means the first observer to link systems theory to a social and political paradigm shift. This book’s unique contribution starts with the way it  combines insights from traditional approaches to movement building with what we know about social change in the first quarter of the twenty-first century to see why connecting the dots across ideological and issue-based lines makes sense.

Going to Scale. Simply connecting dots in a given community or on a given issue or two will not be enough. To use the language of the start-up world, those efforts have to be taken to scale. But even that can be more complicated than it might seem at first glance, since the dot connecters themselves have already learned that the term “scale” itself has four only slightly overlapping dimensions. As I will demonstrated especially in Part 3, these movements have to go to scale—horizontally (spreading from place to place), upward (impacting policy makers), and inward (changing the cultural norms we live by), and into the future.

Part 2—Connecting the Dots 2020s Style

Each of the organizations covered in Part 2 is in the process of making a pivot in which it is experimenting with ways of connecting the dots while also concentrating on work within its original silo. It is that pivot which is leading them to seek common cause with their colleagues who concentrate on other issues that leaves me so hopeful.

Peacebuilding. When I started this project, I was upset that my colleagues in the peacebuilding community weren’t pivoting and seemed to be assuming that people who worked on other issues ought to prioritize conflict resolution, political depolarization, and the like. However, as events unfolded in 2020, I realized that we were in fact making our own pivot and the organizations that had focused on those other issues were doing the same. In practice, the issues facing the United States today all but forced us to pivot. As important as toxic polarization may be, most peacebuilding organizations have realized that we will not be able to ease tensions over time unless we deal with other problems I’ll be dealing with in Part 2.

Economic Justice. My first book dealt with the French Unified Socialist Party (PSU) that won as much as five percent of the national vote in the late 1960s and early 1970s by supporting what it called autogestion or a decentralized self-managed version of socialism. When I first heard a podcast by Mara Zepeda and Jenn Brandel of Zebras Unite, I was transported back in time to the PSU and similar organizations that could be found throughout Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. But with a twist. The Zebras and the other organizations I’ll focus on in this chapter have decided to work within the capitalist system because events since the PSU’s heyday have shown that properly constructed private enterprise can be used to reduce inequality and address other economic shortcomings. Zebras Unite is but one of dozens of organizations that are helping entrepreneurs who are committed to changing the world as well as turning a profit succeed. In the process, they are finding that they, too, have to pivot because they also have to consider the other issues covered in Part 2 at the same time that they create a new kind of economic ecosystem.

Systemic Racism.  We should not have needed the murder of George Floyd or the other horrific events in 2020 to show us that America suffers from a long-standing and debilitating case of systemic racism. Nonetheless, those events helped unleash a storm of protests, many of which understandably and justifiably emphasized the rage that so many people of color and other Americans felt. Here, however, I will focus on the activists who have used the crisis to step up their efforts to heal racial divides. Most existed before 2020, including Kellogg Foundation’s Truth and Racial Healing initiative or consulting firms like Symphonic Strategies. Since then, however, these and other organizations have seen their impact skyrocketed 

Climate Change. As my eleven year old grandson (who will be a coauthor of the book’s final chapter) keeps reminding me, climate change is the overarching issue  of our times, especially his generation whose members will spend their adult lives in catastrophic conditions if we fail to meet the challenge. I’m writing this book at a time when the climate change movement is pivoting in two ways that give me hope that Kiril’s generation might be the first to spend their adult lives in a sustainable world. First, the pendulum has swung toward organizations that are building coalitions behind proven technological solutions involving electric power that is generated from wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal sources.  Second, Katherine Hayhoe, Robert Inglis, and others are showing how conservatives and  one-time climate change skeptics can be persuaded to adopt the new and increasingly popular alternatives to fossil fuel. Here, too, we are seeing attitudes toward climate change shift because these new groups of activists stress the overlap between the threat of environmental collapse and all of the other wicked problems I could have included in Part 1.

Part 3–Going to Scale

Ever since I started learning about startup culture and hanging out in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of taking ideas about social change to scale. As we have learned from the problems in the tech world over the years, we should not emphasize rapid growth at the expense of other goals. More importantly, the very question of what scale means is more complicated than the authors who have written about exponential growth have suggested. In fact, as shown in the figure, I now think of scaling in terms of four overlapping targets that all social change organizations should aim for.

Scaling Inward—Personal Growth. As someone who began his career as a political scientist, this is the aspect of scaling that has forced me to change the most although it has been on my radar screen at least since Matt was taking classes from me. The dot connecters go even farther than I ever have in arguing that activists have to change the way that they understand their role in the world. In the simplest possible terms, we have to become more self-aware in the ways that have gained so much popularity in recent years and that has to shape the way that they deal with social, economic, political, and environmental issues. This chapter will explore the ways that the social change organizations covered in Part 2 incorporate personal growth not only in their everyday activities but in their broader strategies.

Scaling Outward—Movement Building.  The “good news” stories I will recount have mostly occurred at the local level. That only makes sense given the gridlock in Washington which makes it hard to imagine innovation progressing in a top down manner under today’s circumstances. Therefore, some of the dot connecters like Zebras Unite or Lead for America have adopted programs in which they try to build on the successes they’ve had in one community or one industry. What worked, for instance, in Portland OR is not likely to succeed in Columbia SC in exactly the same form. Still, these and other dot connecters have at least begun to build regional and even national coalitions that could be used over time to produce policy shifts on the part of the federal government and other national level decision makers in the private sector.

Scaling Upward—New Leadership. Going to scale in these first two ways will lead to the adoption of new cultural norms about problem solving in general as well as new attitudes on the specific issues Americans are worried about. That, however, won’t be enough. Dramatic public policy change will have to follow, too. And that can only happen if our leaders also think and act in new ways. While this third kind of scaling is less well developed than the first two, many of the activists you will meet understand that they are training a new generation of leaders who will embody the new paradigm in the ways that they manage their own organizations and in the ways they interact with policy makers who still operated from what I will call the traditional mode of thinking.

Scaling Forward—The Next Generation. Going to scale undoubtedly has a fourth dimension which made the figure I used to begin this section much harder to draw. If I’ve learned anything in a lifetime of activism, it is the importance of sustaining our engagement over an extended periods. Time and time again, I’ve seen movements evaporate long before their goals were met because their supporters lost hope that they would ever “get there.” Since I’m now in my mid-seventies, I have to assume that I won’t be around to see any of the dot connecters reach their goals. So, I decided to write the final chapter with my then eleven year-old grandson who often says to me something like, “Grandpa, kids can solve problems, too.” And, since his generation will be needed to continue this work even if we succeed beyond my wildest expectations, Kiril and I are using the final chapter to explore the role he and other kids who are too young to have a generation named after them yet could play by exploring the intersection set in a Venn diagram combining the problems facing the world, the things he enjoys doing, and the skill set he has developed in the first eleven years of his life. For the moment, Kiril’s intersection set is quite small. His challenge—and ours—is to make it bigger so that he learns how to help solve more and more of the world’s problem and have a good time in the process. With any luck, readers who make it to the end of the book can do their own version of the exercise. And act on it.

From Book to Community

Any book on dot connecting will fall short of my goals. I can make the conceptual case that connecting the dots makes sense. I can demonstrate what is already happening. However, the argument about potentially taking things to scale is just that—a case about what might be. Indeed, much of Part 3 will focus on the obstacles the dot connecters are facing on each of those dimensions of taking their work to scale.

So, I quickly realized after my dot connecting friends told me that I wanted to make these efforts succeed that I would have to do something more than just write a book. At first, I thought in terms of creating a full-blown political movement that brought together the dot connecters from these communities and beyond so that they could speed up the policy and cultural changes outlined in the book. Quickly, however, I realized I didn’t have either the skills or the resources I would need to create one.

So, I decided that it made more sense to help create a more modest community of practice. The term itself was coined by anthropologists in the 1990s and is now used widely in the NGO world to describe loose collections of like-minded professionals who share ways of working more productively together. In this case, I expect to build four at least somewhat overlapping sub-communities that can help the dot connecters go to scale by working in these four areas that roughly correspond to the four pathways to scaling which I will begin rolling out this summer by testing cool new software from Social Roots.

Learning from each other. The first one could just as easily be called getting to know each other, because the most obvious conclusion I’ve drawn from my research is that the dot connecters don’t know much—if anything—about each other. And, from what I’ve seen when, for example, I’ve brought peacebuilders into Zebras Unite initiatives, everyone learns a lot, and everyone ends up doing better work. In addition, simply sitting down in the same virtual room for an extended period of time beta testing collaboration software from Social Roots should help the dots identify ways of defining projects they can carry out together in addressing intersectional, wicked problems. 

Build on bright spots. Even in the most dysfunctional of systems, something is almost always working in what Chip and Dan Heath refer to as bright spots. The logic behind horizontal scaling suggests that we can learn from and build on those isolated examples, which public health experts refer to as positive deviants. Whatever term you prefer, it is my expectation that as people who have helped create a bright spot on, say, race relations sit down with colleagues who have done so in peacebuilding, climate change, or race relations, they will come up with ways of expanding those efforts into new communities or on new issues or with new supporters.

Create new narratives. Some of the older activists I met after I started writing convinced me that we also have to build a similar network among thought leaders who may specialize in one of the specific issue areas but who also experience in one or more of the others. Some of them, too, have already thought about how we can use our increasingly diverse media and communications channels to help American as a whole rethink the stories we tell ourselves about the kind of society we want and/or what works in giving birth to that kind of community. So, I will be bringing together individuals who may not themselves have extensive recent grass roots experience but do have a talent for rewriting the narratives that most of us rely on when we decide how to act in the world.

Toward a new politics. We will probably this final part of the community of practice after the others for two reasons. First, there already are some highly promising initiatives that are trying reduce toxic polarization, and the dot connecters would not (yet) add much to their work. Second, once the dot connecters who specialize on specific issues pivot and see the need to work across issue-based lines, they will see the importance of the kind of new politics that the members of the Bridge Alliance, for example, emphasize. Once that happens, any least some members of the community of practice will be ready to take that next step and carry out their political work in the kinds of ways that will emerge in the pages of Connecting the Dots.

The Bottom Line—We Have a LOT of Work To Do

When I reread the first full draft of this post, I almost fell out of my chair. Although I had talked about each item covered in this post before, I also realized just how much more ambitious Version 2.0 is than the first one.

I know that, on one level, Matt is still right. The odds still aren’t in my favor especially if I want to see many of these initiatives succeed in the time I have left. Still, I’m a lot more optimistic than I was forty years ago and am eager to get back to work both on the book and the community.

PS Matt doesn’t think I’m that naive any more either.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.