More Cracks in the Network Code

September 25, 2013 Leave a comment


Our friend Jane Wei-Skillern recently co-wrote (along with Nora Silver and Eric Heitz) another valuable contribution to the growing “network building” body of literature, entitled “Cracking the Network Code: Four Principles for Grantmakers.”  This piece is part of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ learning initiative, Scaling What Works.  While the guide mainly addresses funders, it also has something for those outside of the philanthropic world.  Its core offering is a set of principles to guide what the authors call “the network mindset”:

  • mission, not organization
  • trust, not control
  • humility, not brand
  • node, not hub

The guide fleshes these principles out in more detail and with some examples and practical guidelines.  For our purposes here, I wanted to extend these principles with some that we have discovered in our own work at IISC with helping to evolve multi-stakeholder social change networks:

  1. Connectivity and alignment before action. Especially for networks developed for the long haul and addressing complex problems, the creation of trust-bound relationships and alignment around core values and purpose is critical.  We have experienced and heard stories of networks that jumped to transactional forms of action and campaign work, in the name of “crisis” or because of impatience with process, and were unable to ultimately develop much long-term momentum, critical social capital, or support innovation and emergence.  Invest in building trust and facilitating deeper forms of commitment.
  2. Contribution before credential.  In many fields we see how many people continue to bow to the “expert”  in the room, which is often someone with a certain level of educational attainment and/or power and privilege.  While there is certainly room for traditional forms of expertise in complex social change work, successful networks thrive on leveraging multiple forms of knowing, experience, skill and contribution. Focus on the value of the actual and diverse contributions, and be less concerned with the formal credentials behind them. Be ready to be surprised.  
  3. Self-organization and prototyping, not permission and the pursuit of perfection.  As Harold Jarche says, in today’s world, “Work is learning and learning is work.”  We are all trying to figure it out in what increasingly feels like unpredictable times.  Part of the power of taking a network approach is unleashing many different leaders and experimenters to go about the work of deciphering “wicked problems,” crafting solutions, learning from mistakes, and creating greater systemic resilience and adaptability.  Structure and governance certainly play a role in networks, but when we lay it on too thick or in the wrong way at the wrong time, we get in our own way.  Convene and create conditions for people to find one another across boundaries, use more open space and a light touch, tap intrinsic motivation, trust people.
  4. Periphery, not center.  Perhaps one of the most difficult traps to avoid is when the “center” of a network garners all of the attention, either through intention or bad habit.  It seems to be customary in many places to look at what is happening among members of some central governing body to see evidence of action and progress. However, in effective networks action is distributed, and often emerges unexpectedly and informally through new pairings and groupings of partners beyond what transpires or is planned at the center.  This can make traditional evaluation approaches rather unhelpful.  Perhaps the drive to claim and own results keeps us from seeing what is really happening.  Let’s get over ourselves and look to the growing edges of our networks.  

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