Generating ideas, connections, and action

What We Are Learning From Our Work with Networks

LLC has been providing network building support to a number of emerging networks, and we ourselves are on a journey to be more network centric in our own work. Ericka, our fabulous new Co-Director, recently asked a great question, “How are we applying (or not) what we are learning from our work with other networks to ourselves?” Time to take a look in the mirror. Hopefully these three lessons and the strategies that suggest will be helpful to you as well.

Realistically, we are still a spoke and hub network, not where we would like to be at all. In the diagram below, notice the network image that looks like a bicycle wheel where most communications occur between the center (staff) and members of the network, rather than among members of the network. This image is a fair characterization of LLC at this point because most of our work is still directed by our staff with some experiments in supporting network driven initiatives intended to help move us along this spectrum to become a stronger multi-hub network with the ultimate goal of being a systems shifting network contributing to justice and equity.

To make more progress we need to focus on three strategies that we hope will take us to the next level: Support Self-Organizing; Focus on Place; and Create a Communications Ecosystem that help members of the network find each other and self-organize to support peer learning and joint action. This will be a three part blog post diving into each strategy in more depth, although all three strategies are integrally related. Part one will focus on self-organizing.

Support Self-Organizing: Self-organizing is the secret sauce of network impact. As the network builds, and the number of potential connections jumps quantitatively, our staff will never be able to track what is happening in the network, scout all of the opportunities, and seed all of the potential connections that could yield great work. However, if we can encourage people in the network to initiate contact and explore areas of common interest, the opportunities for collaboration (and impact on the issues we care about) will quickly multiply. There are a number of reasons that self-organizing initiative is hard to activate in a network. For many people who operate in organizational contexts, it’s not part of the culture, and realistically, if you have to operate in a hierarchy, you may not have the authority to run with good ideas. We surveyed people in the networks we were supporting, and in addition to these issues, people also named time, i.e. people are already often maxed out and don’t think it’s possible to take on one more thing. We have learned a couple of things from the Wellbeing and Equity Bridging Network (WEB) network about how to support self-organizing that activates new hubs of activity, independent of staff support.

 

  • Create a network weavers facilitation pool: In the WEB network, we recruited people from the network who were interested in being trained in a broad set of network facilitation areas that included providing support to self-organized initiatives, learning weavers who are capturing and sharing learning through stories, and communications facilitators who help people learn to use platforms to support self-organizing. Training is being provided by experienced network weavers who also convene the facilitators in a Community of Practice to deepen and spread learning. The person managing the pool matches facilitators with self-organizing initiatives that request support, and the facilitators are paid for this work. As an example, we helped to facilitate a network training in MN attended by close to 70 people who were all passionate about health equity. During clustering, 8 groups formed, and at the end of the day, 6 said they wanted to continue exploring their ideas and requested the support of a facilitator who will help them organize follow up meetings. The results are not in yet, but I am willing to bet on two things: that it is more likely that these efforts will continue with facilitation and support than they otherwise would, or that the staff of the center supporting this meeting has the bandwidth to provide support to multiple initiatives. I am eager to try this, and have also learned that it does require resources, though I think it is a much more cost effective and sustainable way to grow a network than through traditional staffing.

 

  • Seed funds: The WEB Network used a Network Activation Fund that was able to stimulate on the ground work and new collaborative relationships. In addition to providing seed funds to projects focus on issues like food security and equity the process itself activated leadership and engaged over 50 new people in the process of running the fund.  LLC has successfully experimented with Innovation Funds in the past, please check out this earlier article to learn more about how we used it to spark innovation in supporting the leadership of people of color while engaging over 200 people in the process. We will continue to use innovation seed funds so keep an eye out for our next Innovation Fund which is coming soon, and if you would like to help with designing and administering it let me know, deborah@leadershiplearning.org.
     

  • Tools for self-organizing: Open Space technology (described here), and/or other process tools that support self-organizing and clustering in real time, have been a signature part of Creating Space, our national convening. This is because they provide an opportunity for people to identify shared interests and explore future work. In the first case this happens when people pitch an idea and others who share that interest can find them, and in the case of clustering, a group of people can together make meaning of interests that have been expressed to figure out where there is the most energy and potential. There are tools that can bring these efforts to scale, especially in larger communities that work virtually. For example, with a Social Network Analysis enables you to visually represent these patterns of relationships and shared interests in maps of the network so that you can see who is clustering around specific issues along with the potential for creating new connections. Maps are created through surveys, and some surveys also ask who would be willing to initiate work on a topic so you can also identify people willing to self-organize. LLC used an SNA many years ago when we were connecting with hundreds, not thousands of people. We are now exploring tools that make it possible to do mapping with larger groups. 

 

What is really needed to augment these tools is a platform that supports self-organizing, assuming you are also consistently tackling the issue of culture mentioned earlier in this post. This is a nut we still have to crack. Lots of money has been put into platforms that don’t get utilized. Not to be a spoiler, but I have heard about an interesting and innovative approach to co-designing a shared platform that promotes self-organizing and learning across networks. This is the teaser. In the next post on Communications Ecosystems, I hope to share more about this work.