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What We are Learning from Our Work with Networks: Part II




In an earlier post I began to share our reflections as we asked ourselves at LLC, “How are we applying what we are learning from our work with networks to our own effort to become a network?” I described three key take-aways from our network building work: Support Self-organizing; Focus on Place; and Create a Communications Ecosystem. In the last post, I talked about Self-organizing, and this week I am going to talk about Focus on Place.


Focus on Place: In a number of our network building projects we have developed a healthy respect for place. Leadership programs that focus on specific regions or localities have an easier time organizing alumni networks for several reasons: the participants have greater access to each other and can meet up more easily; even when working on different issues, and for different organizations people and groups are more likely to intersect with each other around citywide issues; people are able to bring their local connections to a network effort in their own city; and participants share a sense of place that is often enriched by different perspectives and histories. In a recent network building project, we found that local meetups brought more energy to the network, and were more likely to activate self-organizing. When you are trying to shift systems, bringing people together across a city can also create more opportunities to work at the intersection of issues. 


LLC’s Early Place Focus: As we reflected on our own trajectory, these reflections gave us pause.. 

  • What we did right: In LLC’s early history, we encouraged regional circles. We assumed that people locally, who got to know each other, could be a more reliable source of ongoing learning, e.g. people got to participate locally in other leadership program’s selection processes to learn first hand from how ‘other folks’ did it. We also knew that face-to-face time helped to build relationships that would support generative learning. A number of folks who met each other in Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area and MN developed independent ongoing relationships. 

  • What didn’t work so well: We used more of a chapter, centralized model than a network model. By this I mean we developed guidelines and expectations for folks from different regions who wanted to start a regional circle with the expectation that it would be sustained. It was a heavy lift for self-organizing volunteers, and when their life and regular jobs got in the way the circle stopped meeting. We had a conversation with our board many years ago about whether this was a liability to our reputation when we met people who said, “Hey you guys had a presence here for a little while and then kind of disappeared.” 

  • What we learned:

    • We realized a less centralized meet up approach makes more sense. People can meet where there is energy, and for as long as it makes sense. We need to talk differently about these often ad hoc efforts and their value. If there is energy to keep meeting, great; and if not, the value to be had was gained, and perhaps some new relationships formed and continued outside the context of formal meetings.

    • The value of strong ties: The reason we stopped focusing efforts on regional meetings is because we realized that to influence the field of leadership development with models that were equity based, networked and collective, we needed to reach a lot more people. Through our regional meetings, we had a more close knit community of 500 or so folks. I knew most by name. We hired a social media consultant who did such a great job, we now reach thousands of people. In focusing on reach, we did not pay sufficient attention to the importance of also maintaining close ties and the role of place based connections in building the cohesion of the network. Networks require both depth and breadth.

  • What we are going to do about it! We are going to start encouraging local work again, starting now. As you saw from Ericka’s article, we are going to host three regional Creating Space meetings building to a larger national meeting in the spring. We also will be using a Network Activation Fund to support peer learning initiatives among the network, and supporting local initiative will be one of our criteria. In the last post, we talked about having network facilitators to support self-organizing efforts. If you are interested in meeting folks in your region and hosting a conversation, let us know. We can help!