Network Impact: Hidden in Plain Sight?

December 15, 2015 1 Comment

“Networks are present everywhere. All we need is an eye for them.”

Albert-László Barabási

You may have heard a version of this story before:

There was a man who had worked at a factory for twenty years. Every night when he left the plant, he would push a wheelbarrow full of straw to the guard at the gate. The guard would look through the straw, and find nothing and pass the man through.

On the day of his retirement the man came to the guard as usual but without the wheelbarrow. Having become friends over the years, the guard asked him, “I’ve seen you walk out of here every night for twenty years. I know you’ve been stealing something. Now that you’re retired, please tell me what it is. It’s driving me crazy.”

The man smiled and replied, “Okay, wheelbarrows.”

This tale about not seeing something in plain sight reminds me of a dynamic that can ensue in network gatherings where at some point anxiety is expressed about not getting to “concrete” outcomes. This happened recently at a large convening of a national network attempting to set systemic change strategies.

While progress was being made, and many people were delighted with what was happening given the unusual diversity in the room, there was also dissatisfaction expressed by some with the speed with which we were getting to alignment and the sense that we were not going to finish the exercise around strategy setting.


At that point, as facilitator, I intervened by acknowledging the range of reactions in the room, and then asked everyone to look around at those who were gathered. “No matter what we do or do not get to in terms of strategy, this is the real story. The new and stronger connections and conduits we are forging here are what is going to carry us forward.” The experience I often have is that there are people who, like that guard in the story above, spend a lot of time sifting through the straw and feeling that they are not finding what they are looking for. Meanwhile, the larger container passes by right under their noses.

This is not to invalidate good strategy. But without that larger container of trust and alignment across differences, our best strategies will only take us so far. Furthermore, what experience proves is that the benefits of networks carry over beyond the moment of discussion, creating ripples of possibility through emergent action and micro-collaborations. Much of the magic of networks, like in all living systems, resides in self-organization that is not centrally planned and that is often not tracked or easily seen. Unless we train our eyes and lines of inquiry accordingly.

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness.”

– Grace Lee Boggs


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *