Leading with a Network Mindset

Working in a network is different than working in an organization. When we invite people to join a network, we cannot expect people who have spent their entire careers working in organizations to know how to “show up” to work in networked ways. Traditional organizational structures are based on certain way of seeing the world (i.e., a mechanistic model of reality.)  Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa International, makes the point in this article how unconsciously this shapes our views and behaviors: So for four hundred years we’ve been trying to build all our organizations as though the Newtonian mechanistic internal model of reality were universally applicable. You know, this person reports to that person who reports to that person. Planning comes from the top and is distributed down. Everything else—money, power—is distributed up. Everything has linear cause and effect, which leads to endless manuals of rules and regulations.

If you think about it, you realize that every institution you have experienced in your lifetime is consciously or unconsciously based on that metaphor and that model. Your school operated that way, and your church, and your community, and your state. Your internal model of reality is the machine. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s difficult to think otherwise or even to really understand that you are thinking in a mechanistic way. 

Networked ways of working are based on a different metaphor and model, that of an ecosystem, where everything is connected and interdependent and the focus is glasseson self-organizing and learning/adapting. It is a shift to see the world from this different point of view and to hone the leadership skills and capacities to work in networked ways. The skills to succeed in a “command and control” hierarchy may not work that well in a network where different skills are needed.

What does it mean to lead with a “network mindset?” We recently had the opportunity to co-develop and present a webinar called Leading with a Network Mindset with Ruth Rominger of the Garfield Foundation for the RE-AMP Network. A second opportunity emerged to facilitate a brown bag lunch on the same topic with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance a few weeks later. In each, our discussions focused in on what it means to work with a network mindset and how this is different than working in an organization. Here are some highpoints:

  • With a network mindset, we focus on building relationships to create a dense web of collaboration and connections. Everyone can play the role of being a network weaver, connecting people and ideas, with a spirit of generosity and “pay it forward.” We focus more on roles and contributions than on job titles.
  • Instead of advocating and trying to convince others to adopt our idea or stand apart from the crowd, our focus in a network is on facilitating the “collective intelligence” of the group to emerge. We lead with questions not answers, trusting that if we show up with the right strategic question, that the diverse perspectives of the system can together come to a better solution than any one part could alone.
  • In a network, we focus on building relationships and bringing people together in new ways where something new can emerge, encouraging participants to self-organize. This means we cannot always predict ahead of time what the results will be, which can be an uncomfortable place for those used to defined plans and measurable outcomes. As Ina Anderson of MA Smart Growth Alliance said “It is an experiment in faith.”
  • If we want people to work like an ecosystem, we need to provide ways for them to see how their work fits into the larger whole. A range of tools, such as social network analysis or surveys/graphic summaries of who is working on what, can enable people to self-organize to better align their work and find areas of common interest and gaps or overlaps in their work. Clay Shirky said it well: “It’s not just about delivering content to members, it’s about the convening power to help members discover each other.”
  • In networks that are working to change complex systems, we focus on creating stronger connections across what are typically fragmented parts of a system. This takes leadership skills in how to listen and engage across difference. There is a shift from focusing on our work and the problem at hand to the higher level of the larger system, e.g., asking the question of “what does the system need?” or “what can we do together that we cannot do alone?”
  • Natural ecosystems evolve and are full of feedback loops to enable them to adapt to change. In networked ways of working, we mimic this by adopting a culture of innovation, experimentation, and action/peer learning. This takes a willingness to be continually learning and adapting as you go. “Life in Perpetual Beta” is how Harold Jarche terms this way of working, in a blog by the same name about working in networked ways. He writes about the power of “social learning” – “Social learning networks enable better and faster knowledge feedback loops, essential for innovation and creativity. In an environment of constant innovation and faster market feedback, social learning is how we will share implicit knowledge and get work done.”

This shift from a mechanistic view to a systems view is the same one I have spent years exploring in my work on sustainability strategy. Networks are essentially about taking this same shift in consciousness into how we organize ourselves to work together.

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