Generating ideas, connections, and action

Creating a Healthy Network: My Network Weavers Practicum Experience

Leadership that is more networked and inclusive is the way of the future, but how do we get there? How do we create a healthy and energized network that is thriving around a particular issue?

Recently, I have been privileged enough to attend a practicum led by June Holley and Kristin Johnstad on network weaving and I’ve been hoping to answer exactly this question. A network weaver is someone who “weaves” the network to create more connections for a healthier network. I have been hoping to learn how to better engage networks and come into projects with a hands-on network mindset.  
Lessons Learned
The practicum is only half done, but I’ve already learned a few things in growing a network that I thought I’d share:

  • Reaching out to so many people is a lot of fun and a lot of work. Networks in general require a lot of time to build and cultivate relationships, no matter how energizing and amazing!
  • A self-organized network essentially needs to become a doacracy. Those in charge need to encourage and let go of power in order to encourage other people to make decisions themselves with greater support and feedback from the crowd.
  • Barriers exist to creating a network, including time, an initial fear of reaching out, and uncertainty of overlapping interests. Even in this small group, small interactions at the beginning have made the difference in letting people know they have common interests and encouraging people to reach out.  
  • Keeping momentum going and increasing energy in the network starts with small actions, such as referring people to other people that might be a good connection, responding to people’s projects with feedback and enthusiasm, and sharing resources.


Network Weaving
June Holley is known for her Network Weavers Handbook, which includes a great checklist to help you determine where your network strengths lie. Together, she and Kristin have created a curriculum that is really taking a cue from the subject matter. Meetings have been people and action focused. Many of the people attending are already well-versed in network weaving concepts, so it has been less of an introduction to the concepts and more implementation of them. Many of our meetings have been centered around connecting and brainstorming next steps. We’re using a particular webinar software that allows you to break off into separate groups and discuss. This has meant that we’ve finally brought small group activities into the modern age!

Self-organization
Outside of the monthly “classes”, has been an effort in self-organization where we’ve all been active participants. When trying to figure out how to work together virtually, I suggested starting a Google groups account. I find that Google groups is amazing for self-organizing activities, acting as essentially an email list, but with a central repository in case people want to look at old conversations. At first I had suggested this idea, and then waited to see if the facilitators were on board, but then they pushed me forward saying it was my responsibility as part of the networked group to be a leader and champion for my ideas, so I went ahead and set up an account!

There was a little bit of a struggle to get everyone signed up, but once they did, it now only takes a single email address to email the group, and so no one is left off, and emails come not just from the facilitators, but also from the participants. This has allowed people to post on all sorts of topics and self-organize around interests.

Sharing Skills
So far, there have been several emails going around offering to share skills from within the group. We each have skills to share and capacities where we are greatest, so people have offered to show off particular skills to the rest of the group. Anytime we make contact with someone within the group, we’re supposed to note it in a spreadsheet. And, of course, because we’re network weavers and network mappers, one of the participants organized a great webinar on how to use NodeXL - a free software that integrates with Excel and can draw network maps. During that session we mapped our own network and are planning on using it as a discussion piece for the next practicum session.  

The map to the left is the network map that we created from this experience. We’re going into our third month now and people who didn’t know each other have slowly started reaching out and becoming more interconnected. The first map below shows the group about a month and a half into the practicum. Notice the small nodes to the side -- those are people who have not yet reached out to the group (or didn’t record that they did).

After creating the map, it was sent to the group. This was done both to engage the social science side of our network weaving, as well as to encourage people to make connections and record them. The second map below to the right shows the same group just two weeks later. It’s almost unrecognizable, as more people have reached out, and people who didn’t have a connection now do.

 

Other Ways of Supporting and Connecting
In addition to skillsets, people have also organized around topics and a brown bag has been suggested around the issue of conservation. Already I can tell there are many “weavers” interested in issues of food, the environment and in social issues.

Of course someone has also worked to set up a group blog and many different formats have already been tried. One of the difficulties identified in the practicum so far is that there was a rather large skills section which everyone was supposed to fill out, but few people have. Participants in the practicum are not sure who to reach out to since they don’t know much about their fellow participants. One of the participants took it upon himself to troubleshoot it himself and create a small survey so that everyone could get just a taste of who else is in the group. And, of course, he ran the survey by the group before he made it official, with a lot of people responding back with ideas.  

Homework
Our “homework” is structured around meeting with other people in the group. Our first homework assignment was to reach out to someone else in the group, through a hangout, a call, or an in-person meeting. Figuring out who to reach out to, and finding a time to do this once I’ve found a person, has not always been easy. However, the conversations I’ve had have given me a glimpse into work that other people are doing and the impact they’re creating through network weaving.

One of the fellow network weavers shared with me a project that she had been working on in Minnesota. She was part of a group that was trying to encourage more local businesses, and one of the network weaving activities was to encourage people in the group to meet up with each other at a local coffeehouse and talk about their city.  

A single call doesn’t make a relationship, however, so I’ve been trying to engage with the greater group through the skills sessions, through sharing resources, and by sending individual emails here and there when I think of something relevant to other people’s interests.

Overall, this has been a rewarding experience and has really helped me see how we can help others take a similar path towards a more networked whole.


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