Photo Credit: Mitotic cell cycle network. Photo by Simon Cockell via Flickr Creative Commons.

A screenshot of Connecting to Change the World.

A screenshot of Connecting to Change the World.

Connecting to Change the World, authored by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland, is a handbook for network builders. The book starts by comparing networks to other group efforts (such as coalitions, alliances and associations). The case for how networks can be uniquely leveraged to work in hyper-complex situations—offering a nimble and expansive approach—helps readers see how taking the leap into a network way of working can yield big impacts.

So, why would you want to build a social impact network, and if you built one, what could you expect to accomplish?

There are plenty of valid ways of working with others. Part of human nature is our penchant for organizing ourselves into social systems. Over time, humans have created all kinds of systems to relate to one another and the world. Of these systems, networks have several unique characteristics and benefits, including the following outlined in Connecting to Change the World (pp. 31-34):

  • “adaptive and sustainable capacity;”
  • “novel and flexible combinations of human talent;”
  • provide opportunities for people to “interact occasionally, but not continuously, to do work that is not highly predictable;”
  • “connect efficiently with many people…a multiplier effect;”
  • “expand explosively when its members bring their networks into the network;” and
  • “move information quickly and widely.”

The book goes on to frame network efforts in three main categories: connectivity, alignment and production. A network may be designed for any combination of these, but there is a development pattern the authors have observed where many networks begin focused on connecting members and progress to aligning members and eventually producing work or results. Not every network will follow this linear progression, and the pace at which a network will evolve is influenced by many factors.

 How do you “avoid defaulting to organization-centric habits”?

Connecting offers five “operating principles” that can guide a network builders’ practice. After all, as the authors point out, with a network you can’t just “wind the clock” and walk away. Because a network is more like a living organism than a machine, it takes care and attention to its growth and development to keep it functioning. The five principles offered include:

  • Make the network do work. Rather than rely on staff to do the work, this principle is a reminder that network members are the center of the network’s assets. In order to make the most of what the network can do together, you need network members to use their “connections, knowledge, competencies and resources.” (p. 71)
  • Do everything with someone, not alone. If people are not connecting, the value of being networked isn’t being drawn on. Network members who reach out to other members for help get more value out of the network than members who are less connected.
  • Let connections flow to value. “Network organizers and funders should not insist on having the network continue to do things that members don’t find valuable.” (p. 72) This point highlights the importance of network members being involved in determining priorities, defining the value and identifying the opportunities for a network to pursue.
  • Keep network information and decision making open and transparent. Organizations are often pyramids—with power centered at the top. Networks strive to distribute power across a flat line. A system where “no member is more powerful than any other” requires an open and transparent approach. (p. 72)
  • Keep plans flexible. Networks operate on a different timeline than organizations. Because they are designed to reflect the interests and energy of members, networks don’t create long-range plans. (p. 72)

When I think about how a network should work, one of the images that comes to mind is a flock of birds—moving simultaneously as individuals and as a whole, able to quickly reorganize, shift and change. If you have an extra 2 minutes you can watch them in action.

Why do fire adapted communities need a network?

Addressing complex problems–like how to create resilient fire adapted communities–require us to use new tools. The way we’ve been trying to manage fire isn’t working. We can’t put every fire out. We need a new set of goals that recognize the role of fire, the reality of human development and the limits of our resources. The answer can’t just be more money, or pushing our impacts on to future generations. We need tools that will help us learn how to adapt, and how to spread that learning to other places. Networks are one of those tools.

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