Thinking Like a Network

February 9, 2016 1 Comment

“Long term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”

– Sally J. Goerner


Over the past several years of supporting self-declared “networks” for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, versus say a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. Yes, and . . . we believe that what can make a big difference is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. So let us propose here that network approaches at their best call on people to lead with some of the following:

Adaptability instead of control

Thinking in networks means leading with an interest in adaptation over time. Given the complexity of the situations we are often called to help address, it is difficult for any actor or “leader” to know exactly what must be done, much less keep a diverse and decentralized social structure moving in lockstep. Iterative design and adaptive strategy serve us better.

Contribution before credentials

You may have heard the story about the custodial staff person who anonymously submitted his idea for a new shoe design during a company-wide contest, and won. “Expertise” and seniority can serve as a bottle neck and buzz kill in many organizations, where ego gets in the way of excellence. If we are looking for new and better thinking, it should not matter from whence it comes.


Resilience and redundancy instead of rock stardom

You see it on sports teams all the time. When the star player goes down, so goes the team. Resilient networks are built upon redundancy of function and a richness of interconnections, so that if one node goes away, the network can adjust and continue its work.

Diversity and divergence rather than the usual suspects and forced agreement

New thinking comes from the meeting of different fields, experience, and perspectives. Preaching to the choir gets us the same old (and tired) hymn. Furthermore, innovation is not a result of dictating or choosing from what is, but expanding options, moving from convergent (and what often passes for strategic) thinking to “design thinking.” And network action is not simply about collaboration, but cooperation and parallel play.

Intricacy and flow not bottlenecks and hoarding

Networks are key to supporting life and liveliness – life is after all a network. A constant threat to aliveness is rigidity, hoarding and exclusion. Economically we are seeing plenty of evidence of this, pushing us towards what Jane Jacobs once called socio-economic “necrosis.” With hyper-concentration of resources, patterns of exclusion and growing inequality, we see the entire system put at risk. The antidote is robust, diversified local networks that are connected to other such networks, which are collectively able to move resources of many kinds fluidly from and to all parts of the social body.

Keep reaching out, keep interconnecting, keep things flowing. 

Self-organization and emergence rather than permission and the pursuit of perfection

As with any complex living system, when a group of people comes together, we cannot always know what it is that they will create. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Vying for the predictable means short-changing ourselves of new possibilities, one of the great promises of networks. Furthermore, network effects and change stem from many different experiments rather than looking for the single best answer.

Shift focus from core to the periphery

As living entities, networks are defined by the nature and quality of their edges. The core of the network tends to be made up of those who are most connected to others in the network, as well as interested in and engaged in the work (albeit in some cases through exclusionary dynamics of power and privilege). Those on the edge, or periphery, may be less connected and engaged, and also bring considerable strength, to the extent that they provide lessons about adaptation, a willingness and ability to play in different spaces, and have connections to other important domains. In many cases, there is strength in following the lead of the margins. As IISC’s Ceasar McDowell says:

“If you take a tent and you stake it far out at the margins … the middle is always covered. And the further out you stake it the stronger the structure you get. And why is that? Because in our systems and our social systems the people at the margins are actually living with the failures of the systems. And they are creating adaptive solutions to them. So when we design to take care of them we build stronger systems for everyone.”

What might the integration of these principles do to the way you lead and do your work? What opportunities and outcomes might be created?

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