What Makes a Network Work?

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment
networks work

|Photo by Richard-G|http://www.flickr.com/photos/richard-g/3573703421|

It’s been my pleasure to partner with Beth Tener of New Directions Collaborative these past few weeks in support of the Vermont Farm-to-Plate Network as it evolves a governing structure to support its goal of boosting local food production by 5% in the next 10 years.  As part of our work, Beth and I are designing and facilitating two convenings that feature stories of successful networks, tips for doing “net work,” and robust conversation about what will work best in support of Farm to Plate.  One resource to which we’ve turned is the Working Wikily blog, which featured a post in May that offers additional insights into what stands behind the successes of the much lauded RE-AMP Network.  In a discussion featuring convenor Jenny Curtis of the Garfield Foundation and consultants Rick Reed and Heather McLeod Grant, a number of points are made that resonate and merit consideration for leveraging the power of networks.

  • Networks at their best are a a platform for promising and emergent ideas to find a constituency and supporters. Create conditions such that innovation can come from different places and levels without having the originators first prove themselves or put in their time.  It’s about finding the best ideas that resonate with the network.
  • “Self organizing is a great guiding principle and people still need hand rails.”  While emergence is a powerful force in networks, it is important to put in place  structures (people, roles, technologies) that enhance and catalyze self organizing.  Think “design for serendipity.”
  • People need multiple opportunities and modalities to connect and communicate, combining online and offline tools. Think about what are the best ways and spaces for people to share information, create and edit documents, pose and answer questions, get to know one another, coordinate efforts, make decisions, etc.
  • Leadership is key and is ideally shared.  At the end of the day, “somebody has got to raise their hand.”  Think of the different ways to make room for and fill key leadership functions.
  • There is no “outside” in networks, and so it is critical to include all sectors in the work from the get go.  More often than not, it seems the business sector is overlooked or assumed not to be interested in these multi-stakeholder social change efforts.  Challenge that assumption, keep reaching out, help bring in.
  • Networks are about aligning self-interest with collective interest, not sacrificing the former for the latter.  Help participants recognize and experience “the network bargain” – that they  have more impact, are more successful and attract more resources as active participants in and contributors to the network.

Surely there is more.  What would you add, extend, challenge?

No Comments

  • Hector Acevedo says:

    Curtis Thank you so much for sharing. Your post is incredibly insightful. Networks are can be so powerful and impactful. They are a powerful tool when grass roots organizing, I’ve been thinking of calling it “Grass Roots Networked Organizing” hahaha. Thanks again. Very powerful.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    One thing that I find folks constantly struggling with is juggle time and multiple commitments. Networks typically involve individuals who are participating as part of their work or personal life–wearing a given “hat.” And, sometimes that participation enriches other things they do while wearing that hat. Sometimes, though, the effect is more about adding more without taking anything else away. It can get easy to be involved with so many different networks that intersect your interests in different ways that it’s hard to stay focused and be fruitful in any of them.

  • Gibrán says:

    Another brilliant post Curtis, you really are nailing the essentials here, an it really resonates with my experience.

    I agree with Cynthia’s point about time and multiple commitments. Networks are the better way of working but we are still organized in structures that make it challenging to swim in a networked world. I’m interested in tackling this challenge. Interestingly, even under current conditions, it seems that networks thrive because those who are engaged have crossed the threshold towards prioritizing net work as a way to enrich or fulfill their mission.

    Finally, I am also learning from and working with relatively “closed” networks. These are not hierarchically organized but “membership” necessarily excludes… I’d like to look more closely at how your outline holds in these environments.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks CSP and GXR. I agree with the challenge of taking on too much in any single or multiple networks. I wonder if that has to do with operating out of an old paradigm of needing to be involved in too much for fear that everything really isn’t connected. It strikes me as somewhat ridiculous that some people can be so overburdened while others go literally unemployed. There is too much to be done to justify that. We can surely be smarter!

    And I like your idea, Gibran, of differentiating between more closed and open networks and seeing how this list holds up or shifts. Perhaps it has more to do with the particular “mode” a network is in – connectivity/learning, alignment, action/production. I’ll keep thinking!

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