Elephants, Riders, and Networks

April 2, 2010 Leave a comment

|Photo by Robert Nyman|http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertnyman/189668104|

On Wednesday, IISC hosted an impressive group of network building practitioners to discuss what we have collectively learned and have yet to discover about building networks for social change. Melinda and I tweeted ourselves silly with participants’ insights (which you can find by searching hashtag #NTWK). While there is still so much to sort through and have sink in, one of our small group break out sessions got me thinking about how we can preach the potential of networks without turning folk away. As we talked, some pieces began to fall into place in part with the help of the work of Chip and Dan Heath.

In their most recent book Switch, the Heath Brothers distill a lot of personal and change management literature down to three steps likely to help people overcome resistance to creating individual, organizational, and social change: (1) “direct the rider” (provide intellectual clarity about the ends we seek), (2) “motivate the elephant” (engage people’s emotional selves), and (3) “shape the path” (tweak environmental factors and choose processes to make it easier for people to move forward). Applying some of Wednesday’s learnings about network building to these steps, this is some of what’s come up as strategy for bringing people to the network side of things:

  • Direct the rider: People consistently made the point that we should not lead with network theory or tools. These can overwhelm people who immediately feel like they have a steep learning curve. Furthermore, telling people that they should “build a network” can be too vague and daunting. It’s really all about purpose. Get people rallied around a concrete direction or goal.  What specifically are we trying to accomplish or change?
  • Motivate the elephant: Use story as a way of encouraging people to engage in and stay committed to collective net work. What success stories can we tell about other networks? What’s the story we want to be able to tell about our efforts? What stories can we tell about our successes along the way (unusual partnerships, small wins, new and more effective ways of working together?)
  • Shape the path: How can we make it easier for people to embrace networked ways of seeing and working? Show how they are already doing “net work” (in organizations/communities; with friends and family). Introduce tools and processes to make people’s lives and work easier as the need arises. Less is more on both the tool and structural front of networks. Furthermore, consider the “cultural” fit of tools to a particular context.

As I said, still much to process. And if you were there, or if you weren’t for that matter, what might you add/challenge?

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  • Gibran says:

    Brilliant Curtis! This really is the sort of thinking that turns us from theorists into practitioners, truly sorting out what is it that is necessary for change to happen, experimenting with it, seeing it through. Personally, I know I will be applying these three guidelines with greater intentionality.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, G. And thanks for your very capable and inspirational facilitation on Wednesday.

  • Jeremy says:

    Hi Curtis (and Gibran), nice post.

    I definitely agree with your three points, and I’m also very interested in learning about what tools there are out there to activate networks towards shared ends.

    Gibran is doing some work with us in April. We are a network of 7000 people who share cars for mobility in Vancouver, though we are also a business.

    One thing we are talking about a lot lately is how can we equip our network with the tools to grow itself and make it more effective. We’re looking for ways to decentralize our marketing function, and to make ours idea self-replicating – and have our members engage others around our purpose, on behalf of the group.

    Do either of you know of any online resources to this end? Toolkits, frameworks, etc.?

    Many thanks!


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I’m with you about not leading with theory–even though that is often my first impulse. I recently met some folks from Ohio’s Mahoning Valley Organzing Collaborative. http://www.mvorganizing.org/

    They are “a grassroots community organizing initiative dedicated to improving the quality of life in urban neighborhoods in the Youngstown and Warren region.” As I heard them talk about their work, I thought “networks in action” though they were not using that language. They are a group of faith-based, neighborhood-based and union organizing groups that have decided to support one another’s work for social justice. Rather than create centralized initiatives, they support one another’s efforts and follow one another’s lead. The role of the collaborative is capacity building/training, technical assistance and connecting neighborhoods and efforts to one another. Sounds a lot like network weaving to me! And, if I had not been listening with a networks filter, I might easily have just thought “great, strategic collaboration.” All this to say that a lot of the principles of networks are not new, but conscious attention to pushing power to the edges, supporting decentralized action, and elevating the importance of relationships can make all the difference!

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for your response, and for your question. Very excited to hear about Gibran’s work with you. There are certainly many tools out there. The challenge is sorting through them. A few resources that are helpful to this end include Cause Communications (http://www.hersheycause.com/clients-cause.php) and http://www.idealware.org. Madeleine Taylor of NuPolis referred me to this matrix of networking resources which I’ve found very helpful – http://www.hersheycause.com/pdf/CauseCollaborationToolsMatrix.pdf. And again, as we heard from the participants in last week’s convening, it’s probably in your best interest to get very clear first about what you want to be able to do with the tool. We see a lot of people going for the tool first and then getting clear about its use later.

    Best of luck and thanks for your good work!


  • Curtis says:

    Cynthia! What a coincidence. The Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative is featured in the video we did jointly with GEO for the Engage for Results training. And they are featured in our upcoming joint publication. Would love to hear more about what you learned from them.

  • Jeremy –

    Have we talked about the Starfish and the Spider? I’ve done some work that uses their “5 legs of a decentralized organization” as a framework. I’ll send you that specific chapter, but the book is a great buy. I’m also into Godin’s work on Tribes, though I’m a bit pissed about not getting into his nano-MBA!

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