The “Right” Network Form?

June 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Photo by Jenny Downing


Every now and then we get the question about what is the best way to structure a social change network, to which the most frequent response is, “It depends.” Case in point, in a past post, I offered examples of three different network forms growing out of the same region (New England) in a similar field (food systems). These forms that have evolved in three states have largely depended upon the initial framing question for the change effort (how to tackle food insecurity vs. how to grow the agricultural economy vs. how to achieve food justice), contextual factors (political dynamics, what already exists, who is engaged), and resources (not just funding, but certainly funding) available. And since the writing of that post, each has evolved, more or less significantly, in line with new challenges and opportunities. Some of the take-aways from this align with the lessons of moving from a more mechanistic to a regenerative outlook –

  • start where you are with what actually is,
  • avoid buying into “best practices,” and
  • expect and even desire it to change as you go.

Here I want to mention something else in light of a couple of recent conversations about collaborative form and process through a “network lens.” The first conversation grows out of another project I am currently supporting that is still in its relative infancy. As we are trying to sort out the specific focus of this collaborative effort, a question has come up around decision-making, and conversation about how formal decision-making structures may block or enhance the so-called “network effect” (for example: small world reach, rapid growth and diffusion, resilience, adaptability). At IISC, we fully subscribe to the belief and experience that networks can get bogged down in paralyzing decision-making processes that inhibit their nimbleness and capacity for self-organization. This is a call to build foundational trust in one another’s intentions, open things up, and embrace more of a “without objections” approach to decision-making.



Photo by Ian Sane


At the same time we are also concerned about what both research and experience have to show about how opening things up without considering fundamental questions of social equity can simply privilege the privileged (see for example, The Power Curve Society).  The second conversation, to which I made earlier reference, builds on this point via a thoughtful blog reflection entitled “Structuring Our Beloved Communities?” Liam Barrington-Bush begins his piece with this question:

If we believe that changing the world involves changing the kinds of relationships we have with one another, what’s the role of organising structures in helping or hindering the relationships we’re trying to create?

He covers some timeless and increasingly well-trodden territory with respect to the limitations of hierarchy and the tensions between more open and closed structures. Along the way he revisits Jo Freeman’s writings about the tyranny of structurelessness and how a preference for less formal hierarchy can still privilege those who hold formal power and are more familiar with the related structures and processes.

… those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

There is also some consideration of the juxtaposition between structure and relationships, noting that there is a call now in many change efforts for relationships that transcend structures, especially when considering outmoded and untrustworthy institutions. While understandable, before putting relationship on a pedestal, it might be good to ask ourselves what we expect to come of this. Simply investing in getting to know one another does not guarantee that we will reach the (structural social change) ends we seek. Much of this, then, comes down to the question of intentions and getting clear and aligned (within ourselves and our collaborative/network efforts) about these and ensuring our tactics and approaches flow accordingly.

Another helpful resource is an article that appeared in The Nonprofit Quarterly entitled “A Network Way of Working.” This is a compilation of thinking about networks from different sources for different purposes, and shows that structural considerations will likely vary if one is thinking about a learning network as opposed to an action network as opposed to a movement network. This can all get a bit dizzying, which is where a common denominator may be helpful. All networks ask that we foreground the quality, quantity and patterns of connectivity (relationship) as that which gives power to what we are trying to make happen in the world. As such they ask that we think about the world and how we lead in different ways than may be our usual practice. A beginning question which might give some strategic guidance is this rift on an offering from Liam Barrington-Bush:

Imagine if we organised ourselves primarily from the intention of liberating human potential and supporting the regenerative capacity of the systems of which we are a part.

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