Taking the Time to Realize the Full Value of Networks

What I appreciate about my work is that I get to team with various consultants on various projects in various sectors. We, and our clients, are all in an evolving conversation and experiment about how to work in networked ways to create social change. Whether the context is energy efficiency, local food, transportation, or education, the challenges are similar, e.g., enabling many organizations to coordinate work, measuring progress, scaling what works, and collaborating to create collective impact.

Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) is one of my colleagues and collaborators who I value for these conversations about networks. His recent blog, Dimensions of Network Success, captured well some of the patterns he and I have often talk about as we each work across a number of network initiatives. One particularly common tension in networks is a desire to focus on action and results, which can show up as impatience with “process” and talk.

While results are critical, networks deliver value and benefits on more dimensions that just results. IISC has a framework for any collaborative effort that defines three Dimensions of Success:
–    Results – completion of the task, achievement of the goal
–    Process – how the work gets done and measured, how we work together
–    Relationships – how people relate to each other and the organization/network

Actually, establishing an effective process for collaboration and building relationships are integral steps to be able to capture the full value of what a network can create in terms of results. One of the realities of networked work is that it takes time to create a process for people to come together, learn about who does what, find common ground for joint work, figure out how to best work together, and build trusting relationships that enable successful collaboration. Several networks I have worked with recently found that it took 6-18 months of this phase before there could be more rapid progress on results-focused work. Often there is a tipping point, once the foundation of relationships and conditions for collaboration are established, then joint work can really start to happen.

What I like about the Results/Process/Relationships framework, is that it encourages us to design for and recognize the full value of what a network can deliver. By building and strengthening relationships through networks, we are creating change and future potential for impact. For example, any two people who meet through a network can find opportunities to work together, share information, or access resources that help them do their job better.

One of the best examples of this was with the Boston Green and Healthy Building Network. At the initial meeting, my colleague Paul Lipke from Sustainable Step New England was introduced to Gary Cohen, Executive Director of Health Care Without Harm. They immediately saw ways that their organizations could benefit from working together. An exchange of business cards and follow up meeting led eventually to a joint project and funding proposal, which has since led to over seven years of highly productive collaboration that helped the health care institutions of Boston adopt leading proactive green and healthy building practices, helped influence shifts in state policy, and generated many more tangible accomplishments.

As we design networks and evaluate their effectiveness, we need to consider all of these dimensions, particularly realizing there can be a time lag between investing in network structures and seeing impact on outcomes. It also takes a recognition that by strengthening relationships, we enable new ideas, innovations and possibilities to emerge that we cannot predict. Curtis Ogden made this point well:

“Relationship-building strategy is an absolute must to net work, not an afterthought or window-dressing.  Change begins and ends with relationships, and a big part of systems change is re-wiring and bringing greater depth (trust) to existing patterns of relationships. This is worth noting explicitly as we design network strategy so that talking and interacting is not simply seen as “shooting the breeze” and “breaking the ice.”

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