Getting to the Goods (and Beyond “Folded Arms” Syndrome) in Impact Networks

July 13, 2022 6 Comments

“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”

Seth Godin

Over the past 20 years of working with a variety of social change networks, I have observed a common dynamic surface after the initial enthusiasm and launch phase. As happened recently with a place-based network about a year into its development (navigating COVID and political uprisings along the way), some members started to bang the “What have we actually done?” drum. Contextual crises notwithstanding, this is not an inappropriate or unhelpful question. As important as relationship and trust-building is, there can come a time when people want to know … “So what?” Sometimes this comes from what we might call more “results-oriented” people in the network. Or it may come from the more time-strapped and stressed, those from smaller organizations, or those who just genuinely don’t see the return on their investment. When this has come up, and people are either holding back (“folded arms”) or threatening to walk, I have witnessed and facilitated several different ways of moving through the real or perceived lack of progress.

  1. “If you want it, then you better put a ring around it” – In one instance, the convening team of a state-wide network essentially drew a line around all of the network participants and started claiming their successes as network successes. This might sound a bit shady, though it was not done in that spirit. By celebrating “your success as our success,” people felt appreciated and started to turn towards one another and see themselves as a bigger we. They didn’t have to wait to get to mass action. Smaller subsets having success counted.
  2. Get a quick win – In another state-wide network, fraught at the outset by folded arms despite the fact that people would regularly physically show up for meetings, a network coordinator seized upon a timely policy advocacy opportunity that surfaced, which resulted in a mass outpouring and a legislative win. Nothing sells like success. That early victory got people eager to see what else they might be able to accomplish and they settled in for some more relationship-building.
  3. Collect and share connection stories – We know that relationship-building is not just about the relationships. It can lead to new partnerships and projects. Often this happens at the start of a network, but is not tracked. We worked with another place-based network that intentionally set out to track the results of connections made in and through the network, and then shared these with the network as a whole. More about connection stories here.
  4. Highlight the unusual and adjacent conversations – What makes many of the networks we work with unique is that they bring together people who do not often work with each other. Highlighting this and also what emerges out of novel interactions across fields can make “just talking” into exciting explorations and engines of innovation. For a little inspiration on this front, see “Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines” from Steven Johnson at Adjacent Possible (!).
  5. Pump people up, individually and collectively – Let’s face it, in these times (and really all times), expressing genuine appreciation can go a long way. We work with a network convenor who does this wonderfully, tracking and celebrating people for their individual contributions outside of network gatherings, and constantly speaking to the power and potential of the collective. She just makes people feel good! This can make the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint” more enjoyable.
  6. Get a super weaver going – Having a really adept and energetic network weaver can make all the difference in the early stages of a network. We have seen the impact this can have when ample capacity is created to regularly check in with people, listen to them, make connections between different needs and offers in the system, and encourage people to share more with one another. When those exchanges start happening, the “there” there is often more apparent.
  7. Lift up the network champions – Generally there is a small group of people who really appreciate and lean into the value of the network from the get go (gratefully receiving and using resources that are shared, following up with new connections, testing out new ideas, leveraging the network as a platform), making it happen and not waiting for it. Observing this, capturing it, and sharing it with the network can help make the point that the network is what people make of it and give ideas for how to make this happen.

What have you done to successfully navigate impatience and intransigence in impact networks?

Image by Sylvain Raybaud, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

6 Comments

  • Miriam Messinger says:

    Thanks Curtis. I love the practical suggestions. This also feels akin to the political moment we are in in which some of the challenges to liberty have come from people (a network(s)?) who have been organizing in the most recent iteration since 1972 and don’t fold their arms. Patience and the strategies to connect and organize over time are vital.
    One other place I have seen the “what have we done?” energy is from people most at the margins and suffering the most disinvestment. In that case, I think the question is critical, holding the network accountable. And some of the above strategies may still work. As well as the simple one of asking: what is needed/would be meaningful to you in this moment that we might be able to achieve together?

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Miriam,

      I appreciate what you life up here – the patience required and demonstrated by organizers over time, and the fact that crucial questions may be coming from those who are on the margins and suffering the most disinvestment. So I’m hearing, good to sit with the questions, at least for a bit, see where they are coming from, and consider carefully what that means. And keep engaging!

      Curtis

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    One other challenge I’ve seen lately is the need for clarity about what the network is trying to achieve and on what time horizon. In particular, what is the relationship between survival programs, meant to relieve suffering in the short term, and political and policy wins and structural changes needed to change the conditions that give rise to the suffering in the first place? If the network is focused on survival programs, sometimes the work at the periphery of the network is about structural change – network members supporting the few who are take the lead in that area. By periphery, I don’t mean unimportant, only that it’s not the core work of the network. If the network is focused on structural change, sometimes the work at the periphery is about supporting network members who are working on survival programs. In either case, network members can be energized and motivated to focus on the network’s core focus by also engaging in support for network members who are working at the periphery.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. Also a few networks that I’ve seen have figured out ways of doing both, either through different working groups, or by having “cross-cutting teams” tackle some of the larger structural/systemic issues. And this requires support!

  • I am not sure I am successfully navigating my impatience (!) or the group’s intransigence in the impact network I joined this past year, but I just keep showing up, confronting the resistance I observe, and bringing my own ideas and suggestions forward, even if the older members (by age and duration) seem inert to me.

    In reading your 6 ideas above, I am one of the ‘pumper uppers’ in any group setting, and I also am realizing how much of a networker I am, how much I enjoy and naturally lean into sharing resources. I am trying to trust that over time, these qualities will be motivating to others who are more shy and introverted than I am.

    I also LOVE the quote you close with, about safety being tied to connection. Because I am comfortable making connections with a wide array of other folks, I believe I unwittingly foster safety even though that isn’t my conscious intention. And seeing the quote helps me remember that even in the face of conflict, if connection exists, there is opportunity. Thank you!

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Kristine. Sounds like you are doing a lot! And also seems important to continue to trust your inclinations over time. In my experience, it can sometimes be difficult to see impacts immediately. And in many cases, those impacts are somewhat out of view. There is much to be done to help train people’s sightlines to see and appreciate impacts that they might not otherwise. Best, Curtis

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