Network Building: Beginnings and Boundaries

August 14, 2013 2 Comments

|Image from Lefteris Heretakis||

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a gathering, convened by the Garfield Foundation, of “network building” practitioners interested in advancing this field for the sake of making more progress around fundamental social change, including greater social equity and sustainable communities.  The launch point for our discussions was the successful RE-AMP network that Garfield has supported for several years now in the midwestern United States.  We began by looking at a framework for change that has emerged from RE-AMP’s experience, while acknowledging that this is a data point of one.  From here we talked about what we are all learning in our respective experiences, and perhaps more importantly, what we do not know.  There were several themes that I heard emerging in our conversations, and I wanted to highlight one in this post, which is reflected in the title – how we begin and bound our efforts matters.

We all acknowledged that to start a network building initiative is an exercise in boundary creation. That is, it is necessary to go through a series of steps and conversations to define what the effort is and is not.  This includes defining “the system” we are seeking to impact, as informed by some kind of key question:  How do we create an early childhood development system that works for all children and families in this state, regardless of race, income, or ability?  How do we ensure that no one is food insecure in this community? At IISC, we have found that there is an iterative process of right-sizing the effort to, on the one hand, focus energy and, on the other, ensure that we are being inclusive enough to create the desired future.  Too wide and there can be dissipation, too tight and we can drive forward with an overly narrow and superficial emphasis.  At the gathering we agreed that this right-sizing is informed, in part, by the relative complexity of the system and the technical vs. adaptive nature of the change effort. We can think of this stage (“Phase Zero” is what we called it at the gathering) as being about lifting up three key areas for definition – Framing (what? why?), Stakeholders (who?), and Process (how? when? where?).  Here are some of the questions that surfaced as being important to raise at the outset:

  • Framing – What is the range/scope of this work?  What is the nature of the challenge we are striving to address? What is our explanation for why we are where we are?  What questions are helpful, critical, and/or legitimate in guiding this effort?   What has already been done on this/these front/s?  What else is happening?  What value will this network building effort(which leads with relationship and connectivity) add?  Why is this necessary now and how does it connect to other efforts?  What will success look like?
  • Stakeholders – Who has a vested interest in this effort?  Who is most impacted?  Who has what kinds of power?  Who has been engaged in this domain?  Who has what kinds of experience and expertise?  Who is currently defined as a “legitimate” stakeholder in this system?  Who needs to be?  Who needs to be more connected and in what ways to help facilitate systemic change?
  • Process – How will we move forward?  What kinds of inquiry and activities will we undertake to impact the system?  In what order?  Who will do what?  What constitutes legitimate forms of engagement and knowing in this effort?  What parts of ourselves are legitimate to offer?  How do we need to be in order to make the change we want to see (how have we been that has not worked so well in the past)?  What spirit will we bring to this work?  How will we measure our success?  How will we engage in a process of ongoing learning and development?  How will we deepen connectivity and commitment?

Answering these questions is never a one-time undertaking.  Given the developmental nature of this kind of endeavor, it is important to ask them throughout the process, adjusting as we go and learn.   And of course, who answers these questions also matters and is well worth considering.  This is not meant to create analysis paralysis, but rather deeper awareness and more informed action.  In this way, we move forward with our best and most transparent intentions and answers, knowing the boundaries we have drawn, agreements we have made, and why.


  • GibranX says:

    Sometimes a baseline network map of the system is helpful, at least after the specific “call” has been identified. This will tell you who is already linked (which is a place to start) while also revealing gaps – who is excluded, who we need to link to.

    I like framing a goal as an inquiry, this leaves us open and may eventually force us out of analysis paralysis – if you have a question, you better poke at the system!

  • christhompson says:

    Framing is so important and is often skipped by people who are eager to define what they should measure. Why we are coming together and what we are prepared to do together needs to come well before deciding on the metrics or the goals.

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