Several years ago friend, colleague and network mentor, June Holley, reminded me that LLC was a pretty traditional organization and not very network-like. Given the extent of our writing about the importance and power of network approaches, it seemed like a good time to experiment and venture away from our default organizational behaviors. Some of our lessons were the fruits of intentional experimentation and some are reflections about serendipitous change. We hope that some of them will be helpful to you.
Three lessons about tapping the talents of the network to do the work:
First: Staff the work not the organization.
We operated on the assumption that it was more cost effective for us to hire staff to do the bulk of our consulting work, especially junior staff that we could grow with the organization. We had a chance to test this assumption over the past two years…and this was definitely the case of more happenstance than network genius. We were lucky to be able to take advantage of transitions and attrition to experiment with tapping the large pool of consultants who are part of our network for consulting projects rather than relying on an organizational staffing model. This had many advantages: we were able to distribute financial resources within the network through consulting projects; we could draw on the diverse skill sets of a large pool of consultants in the network to customize teams that met the specific needs of projects, and; the biggie, it turned out to be a more financially sustainable model for LLC. We were able to grow and shrink with projects by using consultants and reduce our infrastructure, remaining more lean and nimble. We are in a better financial position now than in the first 15 years of operation using a network approach.
Second: Work through partnerships.
In an organizational model, it’s easy to focus on brand and ownership. Throughout our history, we have hosted LLC learning circle meetings on different topics related to leadership in different localities, around specific issues and even around professional affinity like leadership evaluators or funders. After a while I noticed that other people in the network were also holding learning oriented meetings on similar and overlapping topics. In a traditional model, you are supposed to figure out your niche relative to the work that others are doing. This can foster a sense of collaboration, or maybe more often than not, competition. At first it felt challenging, but when we took a larger ecosystems view of the work that needs to be done (which is immense), all of the different contributions of others with similar ideals was a good thing. We are embracing the power of partnering with others who are part of the network. For example, this year we are partnering with important leadership equity organizations on Creating Space. Instead of just hiring staff for organizing an event we usually led, we took the resources raised for the event as a budget to be managed by partners. Together we bring deeper thinking and reach more people who can value from our leadership and equity frame.
Third: Use resources to action research and self-organizing.
Leading up to Creating Space, we wanted to learn more about how to support the leadership of people of color and push ourselves to get beyond typical leadership development approaches that may not work well for everyone. We know there are folks who are part of our network using creative approaches and we wanted to create an opportunity to learn from them. We decided, instead of hiring someone to try and discover these programs through research, to have our network help us identify and support interesting approaches through the use of an Innovation Seed Fund. We took the funds we would have used to staff the learning and offered seed fund grants to people who were doing the work, and with a little extra support could share what they were learning. The network was tapped to design the process, read proposals and select grant recipients. Read Miriam’s article for more information about how hundreds of people were engaged in the process. The awardees are being supported in a community of practice to help generate lessons for each other and everyone who cares about how to bring more equity consciousness to leadership development work.
In short, we were able to distribute the resources we raised for the network’s work to more people in the network over the past year or to tap network members for consulting projects that increase our learning, to support learning meetings and to support action research. Some people like to say that networks can do more with less and we need to be careful about that. Good learning and practice work does take resources, but in a network approach you may be able to deploy those resources in ways that engage more people with better results.
What’s the next experiment? Our next experiment will be with how to open up governance to the network. We will use an open nominating and selection process in addition to thinking about how to open meetings and of course share board materials transparently. If you would like to join us in thinking about our approach let us know and stay tuned for more information about our current board audit.