Generating ideas, connections, and action

Collaborating from the Place of Common Ground

Written by Beth Tener

Case Study of the Energy Action Network of Vermont

While the news is full of partisan politics, an alternative model is emerging for how to make progress in addressing large scale challenges: collaborative networks. Through network initiatives, parts of a system can come together, find common ground, and pursue solutions and collective action from those points of agreement. The Energy Action Network (EAN) in Vermont is a compelling example of this approach. EAN not only created a way to find common ground among people/organizations with divergent views, but also created a structure for on-going collaboration toward a goal that is decades away. At the December 2013 Leadership Learning Community Boston Learning Circle, Jennifer Berman shared the story of EAN’s formation and Andi Colnes, the Executive Director of EAN, shared how collaborative work has continued in a networked way. Their story and the discussion offered many valuable insights about how networks can affect change in a large system and what collaborative leadership means.

Jennifer shared the impetus for EAN. As Executive Director of Maverick Lloyd Foundation, a family foundation in Vermont, she received many proposals for similar and overlapping work, by organizations that were not connected. As the Foundation explored how to fund work focused on environmental issues, “we talked to about 40 people across the state and no one had same interpretation of the problem and no one agreed on a solution.” The foundation took an innovative approach to EAN logoinvest in a process to bring together diverse people who had not worked together from across the energy system, build a common sense of the problem, set an audacious goal, and align the work of many players to move toward the goal. Today, EAN is a collaborative network of over 70 non-profit, business and government leaders working to ensure that 90% of Vermont’s 2050 energy needs come from renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Gaining Alignment, Seeing the System
Here are some of the key steps that were used (quotes are from Jennifer Berman):

  • A multi-sector planning team worked with a team of consultants and posed a goal that would capture people’s imagination: what would it take to get to 100% renewable energy by 2030 in Vermont?
  • Consultants interviewed about 20 people from all parts of the energy system about the opportunities and challenges of reaching this goal, e.g., from business, government, non-profits. “You can’t just have environmental advocates - or people who tend to think about the issues in the same way- involved if you want to understand the whole system.” After each 1-2 hour interview, the consultants used systems mapping to generate a map documenting that person’s view of the system. People really felt heard, e.g., one said “you captured in one graphic and conversation what I have spent my whole life trying to articulate.”
  • Those interviewed were invited to a convening. The interviews had built interest and engagement: when people realized that the consultants were having this quality of conversation with others from across the system and learned who else would be in the room, talking about a big goal, all of the interviewees wanted to be in that conversation.
  • The way that the individual stories were shared in the first meeting created a strong sense of trust in the group, with people feeling heard and respected in a way that hadn’t happened before. The consultant then shared a system map that had integrated all of the individual perspectives so that people could see new patterns and connections and how the part of the system they had expertise in fit into the larger whole.
  • Through several days of discussion, they identified four key “leverage points” for action that needed to be addressed simultaneously to enable the whole system to shift to create a different outcome. The initiative then moved into strategy planning as work groups formed for each leverage point that engaged experts on that topic, widening the circle of people involved in EAN.
  • They were able to gain agreement among this diverse group (e.g., including major manufacturers and corporations, utilities, fuel oil dealers, government, environmental and energy advocates) on the audacious goal of 80% renewable energy by 2030. Shifting from the original goal of 100% to 80% was not only more achievable, but it also helped to keep people at the table who might have left, since there was room in that 20% for coal, nuclear, oil, etc.

Jennifer had some helpful insights about systems change. She said “systems are made up of people that have beliefs about what is possible and until we change those beliefs, we can’t change systems.” The process they used helped each person appreciate the perspectives of others and understand the system in a fuller way. “The process was important to help people understand why their traditional opponent was making choices the choices they were.”

She also emphasized the importance of leadership: “systems stay the way they are for good reason, the key is to persevere and to have a strong leadership team that can be advocates when things get tough.”

Network Formation and Progress
The group realized that a structure was needed to support work over time on each of the leverage points and to keep that work aligned and connected. Andi shared how the network is structured and the work underway in each of the leverage point groups. Details are available on their web site at this link, for example, looking addressing energy finance, common messaging about energy, and creating a demonstration project to make Montpelier the first zero net energy state capital. The following are some of her thoughts about how a network can enable collective work on long-term systems change: (quotes are from Andi)

  • “EAN is truly a network, in contrast to a campaign or alliance where most of the players are like-minded and are aligning their work for greater strategic effect. We have people coming from very different places and perspectives so we have to find ways to move the equation from that place of agreement.”
  • When inviting people to the table for this kind of work, a key capacity is that they can come with an open mind. The person is as important as the perspective they bring.
  • The spirit of EAN is to work in a way that lifts others up. EAN is rarely out in public – its role is to work to support its members to work in alignment.
  • The early formative conversations were by-invitation with a smaller group to enable a deeper inquiry and build trust and understanding. Now EAN has a more permeable inclusive spirit. It has taken some “art and relationship building” to navigate this transition.
  • We can only accomplish fundamental systems change by getting diverse interests to work in strategic alignment. That doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, e.g., EAN left the issue of nuclear off the table as it was too divisive.
  • We need to get some real tangible things done – “if it’s not real, people won’t stay at the table.”
  • EAN’s compass is to focus on identifying where we can use our connections and network to truly add value to other work underway independent of the network. This is hard work and takes constant strategic vigilance.”

In summary, one of the participants, Madeline Snow shared these overall take-aways: Developing a network is hard work and requires patience and persistence. It’s all about deepening relationships and trust between members. There will be resistance/push-back. Systems mapping can be a powerful tool. To truly bring about changes in a system, you (1) need a network and (2) “can’t do this in a room of like-minded people.”

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Originally published through New Directions Collaborative on January 8, 2013 

 

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