Networks for Creating Change

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

|Photo by Philip Bouchard||

I just had the great fortune of spending seven days in Dakar, Senegal (and traveling back and forth to it). An amazing trip – and the two twenty hour travel days gave me time to really dig into the book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.? I read it within the context of doing work in Senegal on a project that’s global in scope – and also thinking back to many of the other initiatives I’ve worked on.

What struck me while reading (and thinking about how to really engage disparate people in creating real change) was Christakis and Fowler’s descriptions of the ways change occurs in networks.? They describe that if you want to change things like voting behavior, obesity, smoking, and the spread of disease, that it’s critical to understand and use the network to create change.? So rather than large scale public relations campaigns to try to influence everyone, they describe a few different ways to think about making change.

First, they describe that by finding those people who are the most connected (the hubs) and focusing on them, you can have incredible results creating change around them.

Then they describe that the ways to change behavior of your friends in things like voting behavior, obesity and smoking is to engage the friends of your friends.? It is, in fact, more effective to change a behavior with friends of your friends than with your friends. Because if you only make the change with your friends, you’re all still getting pressure from a large group of people wanting you to change back. But if you engage the next rung, you can start to create cohesion for real change. And that this form of creating change is even more powerful as their friends get to know each other and are themselves connected and reinforcing the change.

So what does this say about creating social change? It would seem to imply a few things. That understanding who the hubs are is incredibly important in creating change (so that you know who to target in changing behavior), as well as understanding who they’re connected to. That in trying to create change, engaging not only a group of “known” people in a field – but also the group of people they know and trust will have a much larger effect. And that it’s very important to build relationships at all of these levels.

It has me thinking in some new ways about how to engage people for change. And I’m wondering, how might this apply to social change work you’re doing?

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  • Wow, Linda.What a great find and insights. Wonderful implications for our client work. This can be practically applied, when we sit down with design teams and others, in our stakeholder analysis, outreach efforts for community work and eh…for me, in terms of changing my own behavior — anybody’s friends headed to the gym lately? (I have some lbs. to shed! 😉 Thanks, Lin, for offering these insights. Did you get to go to Goree Island while in Senegal? Do tell!

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Melinda. I was pretty excited thinking about the importance in much of our work of engaging the next rung of stakeholders, importance of relationship building, etc.

    And yes we did go to Goree Island. Spent a day working at the Goree Institute (with the Trust Africa staff working next door), then visited the slave museum, walked around for about an hour. Incredible.

  • Gibran says:

    I’m wondering how this all relates to the principles of “nudging” for behavioral change, and I think it further supports our thinking around creating conditions for change. It seems like thinking in networks is akin to thinking of an ecology of relationships – what is the way to influence or affect such an ecology?

  • Nice post, Linda. I like the friends of your friends idea a lot. I’ll need to think about how to exploit that in creating change in the field of organized philanthropy 🙂 …

  • Linda says:

    Gibran, it seems to me it’s more related to “we’ve got you surrounded”. If everyone around you is doing something, it seems you’re more likely to do it too. (Unless you’re a rebel, I suppose).

    And yes, Albert – creating change in the field of philanthropy! Lots to think about there – as well as in many other fields!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Yes! As some of the folks in the Boston Climate Action planning process have said, it’s also about individuals taking steps to create “the new normal” around them in their daily lives. You create a new normal and the people you interact with experience that and begin to adopt it themselves, and so on…
    And, I also believe that there a things that can be done in the broader environment to make these individual and hub-centered attempts to create the new normal actually take hold more broadly.

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