Thinking Like a Network

December 12, 2013 11 Comments

Over the past five years or so of supporting self-declared “networks” for change, I have evolved in my understanding of what is new when we call something a network, versus a coalition or 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 . . . I 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 me propose that network approaches at their best call on us to lead with some of the following:

  • Adaptability instead of control – Thinking in networks means leading with an interest in adaptability over time.  Given contextual complexity, it is impossible for any actor or “leader” to know exactly what must be done to address a particular issue, much less keep a more 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.
  • 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.

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


  • Sachin Yadav says:

    Interesting take & it also has similarities to engaging in Complex Adaptive Systems.

  • june holley says:

    I especially like the last point. Also am convinced that “marginalized” individuals are the source of the kind of breakthroughs and innovation we need for transformation.

  • Lisa Kimball says:

    Great piece – i also think engaging the UNusual suspects is key to creating new ways of working.

  • Carmen Siberon says:

    Hi Curtis, I heard your blog was inviting, so I accept the invite! The beauty is that “unusual suspects” and “marginalized” tend to be wonderfully akin to these ways of being together…I believe that engaging in adaptive leadership practices is hardest for those with power and connections to loose. In systems change endeavours, I think it important to imagine ways to undergird and co-create the conditions whereby existing networks with a strong presence of the “marginalized” can flourish in designing the changes needed. Enjoy the new year!

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