Network Development Through Convening

April 16, 2014 3 Comments
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Photo by Kevin Doyle. Some rights reserved.

Conferences and other large in-person convenings provide a great opportunity to launch and further develop networks for social change.  As has been mentioned previously on this blog, and borrowing from the work of Plastrik and Taylor, at IISC we see networks for change as developing in various inter-related “modes,” including connectivity, alignment, and action. Paying attention to multiple dimensions of success can inform a variety of approaches to support a more robust, trust-bound, commonly-oriented, self-organizing and (as needed) formally coordinated collective.

Here are some methods to consider for convenings to help feed and grow networks for social change:


  • Invite people to connect before the convening happens, either through a shared virtual space and/or video conference call(s). If a large group, use breakout functionality. Have people introduce themselves to one another, talk about some of their guiding questions, and what they hope to get out of the convening.
  • At the start of the convening, invite people to look at a roster of participants and note who they know and who they have worked with and who they might like to get to know. This might also be done through a rating scale (1 = know them, but not well, 2 = know them somewhat and have worked with some, 3 = know them very well and have worked closely together). You can invite people to revisit this list as the conference closes and note what new connections have been made or deepened. Ask people to consider how they might want to follow up on this.
  • Conduct a “closing triangles raffle” where people are invited to introduce people to one another throughout the conference, completing a raffle ticket when they do so, and then holding a drawing where the lucky “connector” gets some kind of thematic prize.
  • Introduce the concepts of “bonding” and “bridging” and what these can do to create different network effects. Also talk about homophily in networks (birds of a feather flocking together), and encourage people to bridge across difference and note what happens and what they experience.
  • Hold a massive “cocktail party” or “speed dating” session where people are invited to find those they do not know, introduce themselves, and share an aspiration they have for their participation in the convening/network (what they hope to get and give), a burning question they hope to have answered, etc..  Perhaps they even find a “buddy” they can check in with later about the convening and what they are learning.
  • Engage people in interpersonal resonance practice where in pairs or trios, they tell each other more of their story, who their people are …
  • Initiate a “network marketplace” facilitated in the room at certain points, on newsprint and/or virtually, where people can articulate “needs and offers” and find those who can meet those needs or would accept those offers.
  • Create virtual or wall wikis, where people can post in writing the questions with which they are struggling, resources they would recommend, shout outs, etc.
  • Set up space for live blogging and/or a live Twitter feed that is projected on a wall in a strategically visible place
  • Facilitate a few large group interactive exercises to boost morale and connection, for example: have the entire gathering try to clap at once, do a group chant or cheer, unleash Rock-Scissors-Paper Olympics (high energy).
  • In terms of any kind of smaller break-out sessions: set them up so that people can cluster and have conversation rather than simply be “talked at;” prepare some “speakers” or “panelists” to be “conversation sparkers” not “know-it-alls” or “talking heads”; coach session designers and presenters in interactive techniques.
  • Engage people as whole people (minds, bodies, emotional beings, spirits) through different modalities (art, music, movement, contemplative practice, etc.) so that they are connected to more of themselves and to more of one another.


  • Use a guided imagery exercise about the future people are collectively trying to create.
  • Implement the ACT Matrix from PROSOCIAL to surface shared values and behaviors that align with those values.
  • Hold a “celebration bizarre” where people share in pairs or trios small and large victories in their work or the larger field’s work; do in several rounds so folks engage in 2-3 different trios; harvest in large group… and/or a celebration wall where people could write and draw about victories throughout the evening or throughout the conference/convening.
  • Engage people in landscape mapping that identifies goals and strategic priorities that may be shared or complementary.
  • Do asset mapping during the convening that surfaces shared questions or areas of focus around which their might be more intentional and strategic coordination.
  • Make space for storytelling — could be focused on victories, struggles, funniest (sweetest, most galling, etc.) thing that has happened in the course of our work (since the last conference/ convening?); this can be done in small groups, or from the front of the room and then have people at small tables respond and build upon these


  • Hold an Open Space session where people propose topics they want to discuss/move forward and invite people to self-organize by interest.
  • Facilitate an “innovation exercise” that invites people at tables to “flip their thinking” to open up new possibilities for their participation in the conference and engagement in education reform/ investment work
  • Use “panarchy” to help people look at different systemic levels and points of leverage (gaps and opportunities)
  • Invite people to explore together what it would mean to “change the game.”
  • Leverage design and or systems thinking to surface choice points or agreements where something else might happen. Create space for people to create prototypes (safe to fail experiments to carry out in the short-term).

Please feel free to share others.

To be clear, this is a list of techniques.  Like any tool, their effectiveness is in large part determined by the “interior condition” of the user(s).  A large part of leveraging convenings for network development is about modeling and making space not just for doing but being, for our full humanity – our deepest drives, needs, desires, generosity, and expression.


  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks, Curtis! This is a helpful list of design ideas that can serve the purposes of connectivity, alignment, and action at a network gathering. One I would add to the list is an activity where network members map themselves visually across various approaches to change that are represented in the network. This visual map of orientations to change allows network members to see the diversity of approaches in the network and then hopefully to more effectively leverage the full range of approaches as an asset, as well as pockets of deep alignment that exist between subsets of members.

  • Miriam Messinger says:

    This is an incredible list of ideas and I like Jen’s addition which makes space for both alignment and dissent or divergence, all of which help to strengthen a network. I do think the admonition of the condition and intent of the facilitator at the end of your piece, Curtis, is critically important. These kinds of activities can land flat if not done with the right intent or with the spirit, from all, that in fact trust is possible to build.

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