Network Thinking

December 14, 2011 22 Comments
networks

|Photo by Simon Cockell|http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjcockell/3251147920|

Last week, I had the opportunity to work with a cross-sectoral group of emerging and established leaders from around southern Maine through the Institute for Civic Leadership, an initiative IISC had a hand in establishing some 18 years ago.  For the past six years I’ve offered three days of collaborative capacity building entitled “Facilitative Leadership and Teams” to each successive cohort, and it’s been interesting to see how the offering has evolved over time.  Throughout there has been an interest in looking at how to leverage what is now an incredible base of 500 + individuals who have been through this leadership program.  And so this year we dived formally into network building strategies.

My challenge was to tie together what we have traditionally offered as collaborative skill building with networked ways of thinking and doing.  To this end, I invited people to consider the differences between networked and more traditional organization-centric ways of getting things done.  I then summarized with the following list of elements of network thinking:

  • Adaptability instead of control – Thinking in networks means leading with an interest in adaptability over time.  Given contextual complexity, it is impossible for any actor or “leader” to know exactly what must be done to address a particular issue, much less keep what should be a more decentralized and self-organizing group, moving in lockstep.  Pushing response-ability out to the edges is what helps networks survive and thrive.
  • Emergence instead of predictability – As with any complex living system, when a group of people comes together, we cannot always know what it is they will create.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Vying for the predictable means short-changing ourselves of new possibilities, one of the great promises of networks.
  • Resilience and redundancy instead rock stardom – You see it on sports teams all the time.  When the star player goes down, so goes the team.  Resilient networks are built upon redundancy of function and a richness of interconnections, so that if one node goes away, the network can adjust and continue its work.
  • Contributions before credentials – You’ve probably heard the story about the janitor who anonymously submitted his idea for a new shoe design during a company-wide contest, and won.  “Expertise” and seniority can serve as a bottle neck and buzz kill in many organizations, where ego gets in the way of excellence.  If we are looking for new and better thinking, it should not matter from whence it comes.  This is part of the value of crowdsourcing.
  • Diversity and divergence – New thinking comes from the meeting of different fields, experience, and perspectives.  Preaching to the choir gets us the same old (and tired) hymn.  Furthermore, innovation is not a result of dictating or choosing from what is, but expanding options, moving from convergent (and what often passes for strategic) thinking to design thinking.

What do you think?  What would you add?  And what do you make of this?

22 Comments

  • Gibrán says:

    This is excellent AND resonant Curtis! Thanks for breaking it down this way.

    I’d like to work with you (and others) on identifying the practices and tools that facilitate working with these principles.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Great list! Thanks, Curtis!

  • Curtis says:

    Gibran, thanks and let’s do it.

  • Thanks Curtis,
    When I hear “networks,” I always translate that to a “structured collaboration for purpose.” Therefore, some thoughts:
    – What is the network’s purpose and how is it defined?
    – What is its structure? Noting that emergence happens within the context of a structure (which often is not perceived).
    – What sustains or “juices” the network or collaboration over time so it can create collective impact versus a series of convening meetings and isolated/siloed actions?
    – How do people coordinate their work across boundaries so that efforts don’t get lost or overcome by complexity?

    The “empowerment container” of EASE Initiative can support the elements you described and the questions I posed.

  • Curtis says:

    Adam. Good questions. I agree that if the network is organized for action and/or production that the last couple of questions are of particular importance. The structure question is a good one, and is something we talked a lot about in Maine. How do different arrangements support different kinds of functioning? And what holds the whole? The kind of infrastructure you are talking about with EASE seems to have tremendous potential in answering this question.

  • Beth Tener says:

    Interesting synchronicity: the blog I just posted today (before I read yours) was about your last two points:
    – Contributions and credentials – how a company-wide innovation contest surfaced great ideas from people across the company, what ever department they were in, and connected innovators globally.
    – How the diversity of perspectives enabled by crowd-sourcing leads to successful innovations on problems

    http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/61-creativityinnovation/141-gibn11

    I like Gibran’s idea on practices and tools. Building on that: what are the strategic questions that result in a more network-oriented approach?

    One other point to add is about Weaving/Connecting – dedicating resources to building the relationships among/between organizations and individuals in the network; enabling effective information-sharing; helping members see the system and how their work fits into it and find potential connections, etc.

  • Melinda Weekes says:

    Count me in on the practices and tools committee! 😉

  • Melinda Weekes says:

    And — as a church girl, preacher and gospel music theorist, I must say that some of the oldest hymns are the best!!!!! But — I get your point, friend. 🙂 Nice post. Now, back to my sermon….

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Beth and Melinda. Looking forward to continuing to walk this path with you both!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis
    Two more cents to add … Resonnance rather than consensus. I think one of the gifts of network think as distinguished from coalitions or collaboratives is the idea that folks don’t have to agree on a complete platform or program. They can act in concert with what resonates for them without having to press for a resolution to what might be unresolvable differences.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. That’s a nice addition. Reminds me of the piece from the sociocracy literature about the difference between consent and consensus – http://www.sociocracyinaction.ca/consentvsconsensus.html

  • Emily Read Daniels says:

    Curtis…your name keeps “popping up” in my graduate courses (I attend Antioch University New England – Green MBA program). I’ve been talking with Beth and she’s been leading me towards this revolutionary way of thinking about the capacity building potential of network thinking. My current practicum research topic has been “the art of facilitation as a vehicle for collective change.” I’ve been trying to accurately articulate how to weave in network science, analysis and mapping as a background context for facilitation (which I still see as a critical skill – that has a potential to be lost in the network approach). This blog posting succintly put those all into perspective. Thank you for helping to clarify my thinking…I’m hoping to get a change to witness you (and Beth) in action.

  • Emily Read Daniels says:

    Curtis…your name keeps “popping up” in my graduate courses (I attend Antioch University New England – Green MBA program). I’ve been talking with Beth and she’s been leading me towards this revolutionary way of thinking about the capacity building potential of network thinking. My current practicum research topic has been “the art of facilitation as a vehicle for collective change.” I’ve been trying to accurately articulate how to weave in network science, analysis and mapping as a background context for facilitation (which I still see as a critical skill – that has a potential to be lost in the network approach). This blog posting succintly put those all into perspective. Thank you for helping to clarify my thinking…I’m hoping to get a change to witness you (and Beth) in action.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Emily. I’d love to hear more about what you’re finding from your practicum topic. Have you looked into the field of Human System Dynamics at all. Glenda Eoyang is a big thinker there. I think there is a lot of room for more explicitly weaving in (so to speak) network thinking. If you are interested in writing a post for this blog, let me/us know. Glad to hear the post was helpful and keep up the good work. I’ll look for you in the VT/NH area.

    Curtis

  • Emily Read Daniels says:

    Thanks for your reply, Curtis! Never heard of the Human Systems Dynamic approach; I’ll be certain to check it out! This whole approach to systems thinking I’ve only been exploring over the last two months. Mary Day Mordecai (of Growing Edge Partners) has been mentoring me. She led me to Beth Tener and Beth has led me to this whole way of seeing network capacities. I’ve since “thrown” myself into trying to understand the world of network science and how facilitation relates to it. Earlier this month, I attended a network workshop with Patti Anklam reached out to Dr. Christakis to learn more about his work. I think it would be cool to share with your audience some of my thinking/observations through this journey. I feel like the more voices I add to my learning, the richer it becomes. Thank you for offering…

  • Curtis says:

    No problem, Emily. We are on similar paths. Something that might be of interest to you is a webinar that my colleague Gibran and I will be offering through the Leadership Learning Community on January 18th, entitled “If You Till It, They Will Come: Nurturing Collective Leadership.” We will talk some about how facilitation is part of creating the conditions for collective leadership to emerge, which is very much in the spirit of thinking systemically and engaging in “net work.” More information about the webinar can be found here – http://leadershiplearning.org/blog/bcelnik/2011-11-10/upcoming-2012-webinar-if-you-till-it-they-will-come-nurturing-collective-lea

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Bernie. My colleague Gibran has used something like what you mention to support meditation practice. Helpful!

  • Curtis,
    Yesterday I presented my practicum project to the Green MBA community at Antioch. I crafted this video as part of my presentation to remind us all that when it comes to making a network approach work, one must foster the spread of love through the network (e.g. empathy, compassion, understanding, commitment, honesty, generosity). In my estimation, this is the “art” and “gift” of a network approach. I surmise its the lifeblood of your work at IISC…so I thought you might enjoy this. Thank you!

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Emily! I would love to post the video on our blog.

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