Network Tipping Points

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Image from |Isaac Mao|||

A couple of weeks ago I put the following question out into the Twittersphere – “What leads to tipping points in networks for social change?” While I did not get any direct responses, I had a number of people say they were curious to hear what answers came back, and then my own brain was activated to look for movement towards greater impact in the networks with which I am involved in various ways.  I also have been in touch with other network capacity builders about their observations.  Clearly there is no silver bullet for rendering networks more effective, but there are some key ingredients and rites of passage that seem to come up in most.  Here is what I’ve seen and heard:

  • Different parts of the network start at different starting points, and therefore will have different progressions.  Accepting this can be vital to keeping key players in the network game.  And it is helpful to establish some common benchmarks to bring all Working Groups, for example, up to speed.  This can come in the form of setting deadlines for selecting a strong facilitator, providing support around team building, doing an initial stakeholder analysis to make sure the “right” people are engaged, and surveying the landscape of what is already going on and what gaps exist.  As groups get clear on these, we see greater cohesion and confidence take hold.
  • Greater momentum is achieved when networks are able to validate multi-dimensional aspects of success.  The dichotomy of talking vs. doing is generally not helpful.  Looking at the important strategic elements of results, process, and relationships acknowledges the critical areas for adding value and aggregating impact via net work.
  • Seeing the whole, not just the center, is another key for amplifying impact.  When networks get focused exclusively on the impacts of their formally organized/coordinated activities or the impact of the core steering and working bodies, it loses site of the innovations on the “periphery,” the partnerships and innovations that are spurred on by interactions throughout the network.
  • Sharing good information and data can be tremendously galvanizing.  We’ve seen network mapping, systems mapping, and the pulling together of inter-sectional data sets to be enlightening and motivating for network members, who are often not given the chance to see more of the whole and see themselves as part of the whole.
  • We often observe people standing back as networks launch, curious but perhaps skeptical.  And we have noted that a tipping point happens when more of the network shifts its stance from asking, “What do I get from this network?” or “How is this different?” to “What can I give to this network?” and “How can I help to make this different?”
  • The shift above is encouraged by creating more open and receptive spaces for people to show up and share their questions, aspirations, and stories.  Not only does this feed the speakers, but also the listeners, and the network as a whole, encouraging a culture of robust cross-fertilization.

What else?  What have tipping points in social change networks looked like, and what has contributed to these?

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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis!
    Another important thing to consider is the power of the narrative. When the story shifts from “ain’t it awful” to “we can do something about this” good things happen.

  • I think there’s a level of interdependence among your bullets. I was also struck after clicking over to the “Dimensions of Network Success” post with the last few lines of that post: “All networks rely on connectivity (or relationships) and benefit from intentional weaving. Some will strategically align themselves under a banner of shared vision and/or goals, and rely upon strong process facilitation to do so. Others will move in coordinated fashion to action to achieve more concrete results as a collective. I do not think of these as existing in any kind of developmental framework, such that one always leads to the next. It all comes down to what the network wants to do.” Sorry for the long quote, but I’ve got a direction!

    I actually think that those “modes” – relationships, processes and results – are quite interdependent. My experience has been that often networks get caught up in the relationships or process aspects of network development and the results get lost (or forget to answer the question, “network for what?”). The corollary being networks that focus almost myopically on the results and ignore the relationships that create the momentum for sustained work.

    Shorter version being: the network benchmarks allow a network to track its own growth (or lack thereof); sharing good information builds the relationships; and validating the “multi-dimensional aspects of success – which I read as “results” – gives hard data to the other activities. There’s got to be a goal or objectives for the network (beyond developing the network). And there have to be goals for the network itself.

    Once upon a time I lead the development of a network development rubric that had programmatic goals and objectives embedded within five dimensions of network development. All with a purposeful interdependence. And the “tipping point” was often when network members could see the interdependence of programmatic objectives and network activities. Those “ah ha!” moments.

  • Thanks Curtis, these resonate, as do the points made by Cynthia and Mark.

    I think a network has tipped when it moves towards the equivalent of “unconscious competence.” When members of the network are seeking each other out, in different combinations, unprompted by the structure and according to emerging needs and desires.

    The most powerful networks that I’m a part of have become organic in such a way that I rarely move forward on the things that matter to me without tapping the power of the most relevant connections.

  • Thanks for the article. For almost 35 years I’ve been building a network of people focused on helping inner city kids connect with volunteers in organized tutor/mentor programs. I started aggregating information formally in 1993 and have been sharing it on a web site since 1998. I’ve been using GIS maps to show assets in a specific zip code who should be working together to help kids and I’ve been looking at how SNA maps could show the growth of a network, demonstrate the impact of intermediaries and network builders, and open the members of the network up to other potential partners. I have a page on my web site that points to my own library of SNA resources and to some of the work I’ve been piloting in this area.

    Finding the talent to build, map and manage networks is essential to being able to understand them and stimulate their growth. I’ve found this to be one of the biggest challenges.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Daniel. I think helping people understand that networks do require a set of competencies and a variety of roles to support them (facilitation, curation, weaving, etc.) is critical! As people are grasping the new ways of being and doing that are suggested by net work, there is a growing awareness of the value of these roles and competencies. Let’s help people name and see these!

  • Curtis says:

    Something else I would add, as evidenced by the presentation I am witnessing right now here in Vermont, is the power of a good and accessible technology platform to bring greater coherence to the network across geography and the vastness of data! This is to build upon the in-person trust and coherence.

  • Carole Martin says:

    I agree that when mindsets move from conscious awareness of building connections and working across boundaries to a deeper, unconscious knowing and doing – that is when you’ve hit a critical tipping point. In the networks in which I am involved, I take the time to point out when I first see this shift happening in people. It is such an important thing to acknowledge and celebrate!

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Carole, for your addition. And agreed that there is a vital role of celebrant in helping people in networks see and reflect upon their development. I also appreciate these indicators of reaching a tipping point expressed by Jack Ricchiuto: expressions of gratitude and appreciation; sharing of success, progress, and dream stories; closing triangles and expanding circles through personal introductions; random acts of kindness and generosity; people learning and discovering new things together; planned and unplanned open invite entertainment and celebration events. For more, check out:

  • Annie Miller says:

    I am not familiar with the usual network tipping points and this article is a great way for me to know about these things.

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