Peer-to-Peer Action Network 101

How to build an effective support network

Co-written by Ben Kadel and April Struthers

Welcome to our online blueprint for how to create your own peer-to-peer support network of people who are trying to respond to the current global environmental and social emergency.

This is a blueprint for the people on the front lines of making the world a better place and gives you a step-by-step process for bringing together your allies to increase your mutual effectiveness.

It’s a process for people who understand that the best way to find the support you need is to offer support to others.

And really, it’s about a network that already exists in the relationships we have already established. The idea isn’t to a new network so much as find ways to make our existing relationships that much more effective.

Goals

The network has four goals: cross-pollination, collective learning, social support and increased effectiveness. The first three goals exist to support the fourth and most important goal.

Cross-pollination and Collective Learning

The primary goals are to create more opportunities for cross-pollination and collective learning. We know lots of people who are doing good work, but often they are working in isolation and/or silos. How can we find more ways to connect the dots between different projects and approaches and weave together the hard won learning about what works and what doesn’t, when, where, and why?

These goals are the nominal reason most people will want to get involved in the network and the ones we focus most of our efforts towards. Social support develops organically through these activities.

Stronger Social Support

You can’t engineer strong relationships, but you can support their organic development. Engaging in meaningful learning and collaboration naturally brings up strong emotions and often triggers our defense mechanisms. For learning to happen effectively, we need to 1) anticipate and make room for those emotions and defense mechanisms and 2) use the opportunities available to develop the skills necessary to support the healing that this work requires.

Saving the world is hard and emotionally challenging work. We are all exhausted, scared, angry, demoralized and/or confused much of the time. It’s just the nature of doing this work; of the times we live in. But we can make sure that no one feels like they are the only person in the world who really cares. Knowing that you aren’t alone and that there’s nothing abnormal or pathological with these feelings can be one of the most powerful healing tools there is. Pain may be unavoidable, but we can minimize suffering.

Increased Effectiveness

Ultimately, though, the goal is to help each and every one of us have more positive impact in the world. We are at a time in history when it’s absolutely essential that we figure out how we can get all-hands-on-deck and get the most out of the effort we make. The challenges that we are facing are pretty enormous. Let’s find ways to focus our efforts on what brings the biggest positive returns.

The Approach — High-Level

This blueprint is a derivative of “Sociocracy 3.0 — A Practical Guide” by James Priest, Bernhard Bockelbrink and Liliana David used under CC BY SA. and in particular a variant that Bernhard Bockelbrink calls Sociocracy 3 for 1; we like to call it “S3.41.”

S3.41 was originally developed to apply sociocracy principles to individual personal development. We recognized that a lightweight system that focuses on intentional, incremental feedback loops to create long-term habit changes like this could serve as the perfect model for a small-scale, peer-to-peer self-organizing network.

The Challenge: Business as usual

Sociocracy and sociocracy 3.41 are based on an understanding that most decisions aren’t *actually* decisions. Most actions are simply habit; we do it because that’s what we’ve always done.

Neurobiology shows that even when we think we are making a rational / intentional choice, our brain has often sent out the order or impulse before the frontal lobe even started processing the thought. These “decisions” are really just after-the-fact rationalizations of impulses we don’t recognize.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is a good strategy. Our brains have developed to preference this way of making decisions because, on the whole, it’s a good survival skill. These kinds of instinctual / habitual responses are very efficient in the short-term and in stable circumstances.

The problem is that they are subject to known and predictable bias and errors. You will always over-estimate your contribution to the team and underestimate the time it takes to remodel the bathroom. It’s just how our brains are wired.

Usually, these biases are mostly harmless. But they are worse than ineffective in a changing context. If your habits have developed for one environment and you find yourself suddenly in a different environment, the habits that used to serve you well will get you into trouble.

Bottom line: if you always do what you’ve always done you’re going to get what you got.

One thing we can all agree on in our current situation, business as usual is no longer an option. That way of thinking is what brought us to the current crisis.

Agile and Responsive

Sociocracy responds to this challenge by incorporating insights from Agile as a project management system, and Design Thinking as a responsive problem-solving approach. It taps into the fundamental process that both of these represent (which is actually the heart of the scientific method): the action-reflection cycle — aim > act > reflect > refine aim > repeat as necessary.

It’s a pretty common sense idea: in situations of uncertainty — like when we encounter new situations or environments — it makes sense that we invest a bit more energy to make sure we are making choices that will actually work.

And that’s really what’s at the heart of both Agile and Design Thinking — just doing things in a way where you can use the feedback that you’re getting through experience to make it work better.

As a result, whether the experiment goes the way we planned or not, we are still set to learn from it and can then apply this learning to improve our next effort.

The process ensures that we are learning as quickly as possible from experience so that each time we do an experiment we get closer to a solution that actually works.

Experimental

Bernhard Bockelbrink boils down the definition of an experiment to the bare minimum:

1. try something you think will work

2. do it in a way so you can tell if it worked or not.

That is the essence of an experiment.

It’s not complicated and doesn’t have to involve expensive equipment or complicated protocols; you just need to , in a way that you can or not. Easy.

Treating decisions as a series of experiments removes the pressure of “having to get it right” the first time out. We focus our efforts on the highest ROE (return on effort) activities — the things we think will work / that we can do right now / that have the biggest impact.

This approach ensures that we don’t “damn the good with the perfect.” Instead, the standard of action becomes “good enough for now, safe enough to try.”

“Good enough for now and safe enough to try” helps us get the experience of doing something safe but meaningful in the real world as quickly as possible because that’s where and how we accelerate our learning — to put things out there in the world and see how they work.

The Process

The process for the system is very simple — four steps

Step 1. Decide what to do.

Step 2. Maintain a logbook.

Step 3. Review and evolve approach based on results.

Step 4. Navigate via the tensions.

Step 1 — Decide what to do.

Many of us have been through visioning and/or strategic planning exercises and this is remarkably similar to those kinds of exercises. Independent of the specific techniques that we use to get there, we simply try to answer four questions to the best of our knowledge:

Where are we now?

What is the reality we’re working with? What are the forces that are working with or against us? We don’t need a perfect representation, but one that is good enough for now, safe enough to act on.

Where do we want to go?

What is the reality we are trying to create? What about that reality is appealing? Why is it important? What do you think it would look like, feel like, taste like, etc.?

How could we get there?

Based on our understanding of where we are and where we want to go, we brainstorm options of what we can do to get us there: what are some of the things that will get us from where we are to where we want to be? Here, we want to be expansive in our thinking — the more ideas the better. Be creative.

Which way do we go?

Then we prioritize those so that we’re looking at the actions that we think are going to be the highest ROE (return on effort) activities, so that we’re picking the actions where we’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck. Here, less is more. Be focused.

Create a road map.

Once we prioritize those ROE actions, we create a plan to document our expectations. We write down we’re doing it; and what we’re hoping to see as a of doing it, then we lay out the plan for we think we’re going to get there and figure out . This is the road map of our next experiment.

Step 2 — Conduct Experiment / Maintain Logbook

Once we’ve decided what to do, we commit to running the experiment; to taking the actions we agreed to take and observing the results we get. It works best if you can let go of the idea of “pass/fail” and approach the results with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Literally, make a game of it.

Learning is fundamentally a process of comparing expectations with experience and updating your understanding of both with the insights drawn or lessons learned.

We amplify this process by documenting our expectations and our experience in a way that allows the comparison (step 3, described below) to yield the richest learning. In practice, this looks like a project logbook to track important information about your experience as it’s happening.

Your logbook has two parts, the context (to help you remember what your expectations were) and the logbook itself.

Context:

1) Why are we doing this?

2) What are we hoping to see, feel, etc.? What would “success” look like?

3) What are we concerned about? Where might it go sideways?

4) How do we think we’ll make that happen? What’s our logic model?

Logbook

You already discussed what success would look like in Step 1, so now set up your logbook to answer the question: “how will we know if it’s working or not?”

It doesn’t have to be complicated. The simpler the tracking process the better! Just make sure you capture the information you need to know whether it worked or not. Consider three kinds of indicators:

1) Guardrails

2) Center Lines

3) Red Flags

Guardrails

Guardrails are indicators that you might be slipping off track. What are the potential weak links in the process? What are some early signs that you might be heading into problems?

Center Lines

Center lines are the opposite of guardrails and far more important. What are the signs that you are making progress? What are some early tangible results that show you’re on the right track?

There is great advice for people learning to ski: “you ski where you look, so look where you want to go, not where you are afraid you might.” The same is true for projects. If you spend your time and energy mostly trying to avoid potential problems, somehow you tend to multiply the problems. Conversely, if you stay focused on where you want to go, you will naturally ski in that direction. So, focus on center lines and let the guardrails do their work on their own.

Red Flags

Red flags are warning signs that things are significantly off track and require immediate attention and replanning. As Allan Savory points out, when we are attempting to alter any complex system we should expect it to not go according to plan. Developing some “red flags” acts like scenario planning and provides an opportunity to think through how you might respond before you have to respond under pressure. When red flags are triggered, you should jump immediately into the reflection process.

70/30 Rule

No project EVER goes according to plan and the more innovative the idea or the earlier you are in developing it, the more things will go awry. DON’T PANIC! Even if the first experiment goes completely haywire, stick with the process.

First, see if you can get back on track — “what would get you from where you are right now to where you want to be?” It works even when you find yourself suddenly in a different place than you expected.

Second, take the time to reflect and regroup. What worked according to plan? What seemed to be showing promise? What was unexpected or surprising? What can we learn from this experience and how would we revise our plan with this in mind?

The 70/30 Rule states that optimal learning and performance happens not at 100% success rate, but actually at about 70%. Here’s why: if you are hitting 100% of your goals, you just aren’t aiming high enough. Getting 100% all the time means the test is too easy. A small amount of things not going according to plan creates healthy opportunities for learning and innovation. However, if performance dips below about 50%, then you need to lower your expectations about how much or how quickly you can move forward. Staying in the doldrums for long will demotivate everyone on the team and undermine the ability to focus efforts. There’s nothing wrong with scaling back expectations; you are simply responding to reality testing.

Step 3 — Review Results

Periodically, say every three or four months, you need to commit to doing a deeper dive. It’s best to schedule the time ahead of time and do it with others to guarantee (as best we can) that it actually happens. Use the time to compare recent experience with original expectations to refine both strategies and understanding the situation — which in sociocracy lingo are the drivers; the forces at work below the surface.

This process can be done after any activity, even if you didn’t develop a project road map or maintain a log book. You can 1) attempt to recall your original expectations about how it would work and why, then 2) collectively reconstitute what actually happened to 3) compare the two to explore any potential lessons learned.

Step 4 — Navigating via Tension

One of the interesting things that sociocracy adds on top of these fairly common “aim — act — reflect” steps is the idea of “navigating via the tensions.”

This is an important enough concept that we cover it in a separate document here.

The idea in a nutshell is that we resist seeing tensions as an “either/or” struggle between “right” and “wrong” options. Instead we work with them as mutually valuable forces that are in dynamic tension with each other where the goal is identifying the vital center and avoiding the dysfunctional extremes.

Navigating via the tensions creates a space to unearth these felt imbalances and a structure for processing, learning from, and responding to those tension.

Process in a Nutshell

1. Be as clear as possible about what you are trying to accomplish and how you think it will work. Be explicit. Write it down.

2. Incorporate simple techniques that allow you to reality test those ideas to know whether or not they are working.

3. Commit to periodic reviews of those experiments and integrate learning into future actions.

4. Along the way, stay aware of and respond to felt tensions or imbalances in the system as indication of forces that are getting out of whack.

What it might look like…

So, what would this look like in the real world.

The key is identifying a network of people who are committed to treating their actions as experiments, documenting experience, sharing lessons learned, and processing tensions as they develop. It could work effectively with a small group of five or six committed people. An ideal starting group size is probably 10 to 15 people. It could easily grow to groups of 50 to 100.

Periodically, a group of folks might decide to work through Step 1 — deciding what to do — together. Even if working on different projects, the process of thinking together can help increase cross-pollination and collective learning from the start. Everyone would leave the meeting with a “good enough for now, safe enough to try” project map for an experiment and a way of tracking progress.

This group would also commit to meeting again in 3 or 4 months to review their experience compared to expectations and share their lessons learned with others while simultaneously updating their project map for the next 3 or 4 months.

In between, the group would find ways to provide structured support to help keep people on track. It could be as simple as an email follow-up to see how things are going or it could be a standing navigating via tensions meeting. The important part is creating a simple way to check in with people periodically to provide a little outside accountability and social support if desired.

We suggest setting the network up as an experiment itself. Start by talking in the group about what you are hoping to get out of it and how you think it could work. What actions or experiments could you take to make that vision a reality? Then use the same quarterly check-ins to do a quick check-in on how the network is doing moving towards its goals. Based on those experiences, refine the network and its activities to meet your shared goals even better.

From there, the members of the network would be responsible for evolving it to be what it wants to be to maximize effective support. The possibilities for greater collaboration and cross-pollination are endless.

Next Steps

What would your perfect support network look like and how could you get from where we are to where we want to be? So, what experiments can you start that are “good enough for now, safe enough to try.” It’s time to choose-your-own-adventure.

Changing the way you feel about work.

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