Five Tips for Care and Feeding of Networks

In a recent strategy project with a cross-sector network working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we explored what it takes to coordinate collective action and to capture the full potential of the interconnections within the network. Facilitating goal-oriented teams is fairly straightforward; however, even more value can be created for each participant and the network as a whole if the facilitator adopts a network mindset. This calls for a distinct role/orientation as a network weaver. Bill Traynor, of Lawrence Community Works, defines weaving as:

the intentional practice of helping people to build – and connect to – more relationships of trust and value, mostly by virtue of being genuinely interesting in building and connecting oneself to more relationships of trust and value. 

A network weaver listens to network members and identifies how the many “threads” in the network can be woven to support each other, achieve larger goals, and enable members to do more together than any could alone. Convening a network requires the right enticements and opportunities to enable the relationships of trust and value to be discovered and cultivated.

Here are five tips for weaving a network:

1. Help People Advance Challenges Already on Their Plate – Most people already have a full plate, so participating in a network has to be worth their time. A network weaver understands participants’ key priorities, barriers, and challenges and continually checks in as these evolve and change. The activities of the network are targeted to help people advance those priorities. For example, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) works worldwide with health care organizations to implement equitable, ecologically sound and healthy alternatives in hospital buildings and operations so that they no longer pollute the environment and contribute to disease. In Boston, HCWH offers targeted technical briefings and facilitated meetings for over-stretched hospital facility and engineering staff, based on the staff’s current and emerging challenges. At the end of each meeting, an evaluation form for participants includes a list of potential future topics, which participants rank by level of interest, creating the agenda for future sessions.

2. Enable the Parts to See the Whole and Align and Coordinate Work – When the Boston Green & Healthy Building Network was formed, each of the ten environmental and health non-profits completed a survey about their work, identifying the types of buildings, target audiences, and strategies they were using to make them more green and healthy. This data was translated into a matrix where members could easily see where there were overlaps and gaps and connect to others doing similar or complementary work. Social network analysis is another useful tool to create maps of relationships and other pictures of what are often invisible connections. Key questions to consider are: What strengths, connections, research, experience, information, or skills can each organization/person bring to the table? How can these “assets” be utilized by the network and combined in with other organization’s assets to create something better?

Networks13. Encourage Self-Organizing – The aim is to help the network self-organize with many interconnections and collaborations among the members. Imagine a three-dimensional web where information, conversation, and collaboration are flowing through many links and pathways as opposed to an organizational pyramid with established up and down information flows or a “hub and spoke” model where most of the communications flows through the network weaver at the center. Network weavers make introductions between people, convene sub-groups of network participants with similar interests, and enlist network participants to become network weavers so there are multiple hubs. The network structure should make it easy to collaborate, for example, a network of sustainability professionals from various cities had a fund to provide support and resources when network members found a common area they wanted to collaborate on.

4. Create Spaces for Joint Learning and New Ideas to Emerge – Many network members can learn from the mistake of one member so others do not repeat it. Likewise, new ideas or innovations can be replicated and built upon.  Facilitation techniques, such as strategic questioning, Open Space, and The World Café, are valuable for creating the space for sharing, cross-fertilizing of ideas, and for something new to emerge. A network weaver or facilitator can never predict all of the connections or insights within a group, which means that meeting design needs to be more open to allow for these to naturally emerge. Diana Scearce of The Monitor Institute in the excellent report Connected Citizens calls this “designing for serendipity” and writes:

The good news is that if you can let go of control and create environments that empower the community to act, the results can be impressive and long lasting. The ultimate goal of designing for serendipity is meaningful connections that lead to exchanges, cross-fertilization and collaborations benefiting the individuals and the community.

5. Feed People – The trusting relationships that are the life blood of a network come about through joint work and even more so through conversation and time to build personal relationships. As the stories in our Power of Potlucks blog illustrated, food and shared meals is an age-old way to enable those real bonds of connection to form and create a welcoming place that people want to keep returning to. So skip the working lunch or lunch speaker and let people eat and talk freely.

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