AMP-ing Up Our Work

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment


Over a year ago, during a network building community of practice meeting, future IISC board member, Idelisse Malave, suggested that I take a look at the RE-AMP Energy Network as a successful example of a multi-organizational network.  I made some initial calls to their coordinator and ended up dropping the ball (oh look, a squirrel).  Then a few weeks ago I was alerted to a new case study from the Monitor Institute about that very network.  And so we have Transformer: How to build a network to change a system, a wonderful report about what has contributed to the successes of a regional network that has been making great headway in reducing greenhouse gas reductions in the Midwest over the past six years.  Lead author, Heather McLeod Grant, a past participant in our network building community of practice, renders a great service in elucidating six key and contributing principles to RE-AMP’s success, many of which have great resonance with our experiences at IISC around designing and facilitating complex and collaborative multi-stakeholder change efforts.

These principles are as follows, along with some of my own editorializing:

  1. Start by understanding the network you are trying to change. The convenor of this network building initiative, the Garfield Foundation, encouraged participating organizations to invest in a year long process of mapping and understanding the complex regional energy system it was setting out to transform before taking any action.  This included identifying key strategic levers for intervention.  This is in line with a key working principle in our practice at IISC – you have to have agreement on the problem(s) in order to reach agreement on the solution(s). Furthermore, this kind of initial undertaking creates the opportunity to build relationships that will form the foundation for any kind of joint implementation or prototyping going forward.
  2. Involve both funders and nonprofits as equals from the outset. I alluded to the importance of this in a recent post that speaks to the difficult balancing act convenors, including funders, are called to strike between utilizing their convening capital with sharing responsibility for creating the agenda going forward.  Even if roles are different, if is often best when parties come to the table as equals in articulating strategies, otherwise there is a risk of losing the richness of diverse systemic perspectives and getting bogged down in power posturing.
  3. Design for a network, not an organization – and invest in collective infrastructure. Often the tendency is to formalize structures before we really understand the function and guiding principles we want them to fulfill.  The result can be onerous arrangements that squash rather than unleash collective energy.  This is part of the reason I’m a big fan of articulating design principles up front.  Thinking about what it means to be inclusive, transparent and emergent, for example, can lead to more fluid structures that minimally facilitate conversation and requisite decision-making, and at their best lead to new thinking, stronger relationships and greater adaptive capacity.
  4. Cultivate leadership at many levels. It behooves leadership in complex collaborative endeavors to be diverse and multi-faceted, filling a variety of different roles as needed, and shifting as things evolve.  As the Monitor case study points out, shared leadership has been key in creating resilience and greater effectiveness in the RE-AMP network.
  5. Create multiple opportunities to connect and communicate. Quoting directly from the case study – “Communication is the lifeblood of networks.”  The more robust the communication platform, the better.
  6. Remain adaptive and emergent – and committed to a long-term vision. In dealing with complex issues and environments, uncertainty reins supreme.  It behooves us to remain flexible and responsive to shifts, and to hold on to an authentic, deeply held and shared vision that grounds and guides collective efforts.

The case study is also careful to say that there are important questions about the transferability of the RE-AMP model to other geographies and issue areas.  The point is not necessarily to strive for replication, but to think up front about what we are aiming for, not just in terms of results/outcomes, but also the way in which we want to engage in the work, and the quality and nature of relationships.  There are many ways to get there, and some will hold more promise than others.  The RE-AMP case certainly helps to expand our considerations.

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