The Network Lifecycle

Networks, like organizations, evolve through five phases. We call this natural evolution process the “Network Lifecycle.” Each lifecycle phase is characterized by a key question and a set of network formation milestones.

While networks can take many forms to address its mission, below we have outlined the formation milestones for one possible form: a structured “impact network” whose purpose is to connect stakeholders from across a system to intentionally coordinate actions and collaborate at the systems level. For more details on different forms of networks, see our Networks FAQ.Network Lifecycle

Concept: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve, and who needs to be involved?

  1. Clarify the purpose of the network.
  2. Determine the optimal form of the network.
  3. Identify the core set of people and institutions that should be involved in the network formation process.

Startup: How can we build a strong foundation upon which the network can do its best work?

  1. Organize initial convenings for the Startup phase. We recommend 2 or 3 two-day meetings over the course of 6-12 months to form the network.
  2. Convene the right people from across the system you’re trying to affect to form the network.
  3. Cultivate strong relationships across the network.
  4. Find agreement on a shared vision and action plan and determine the bases on which each organization will participate.
  5. Develop a shared understanding of the network’s norms and procedures, such as governance structures, membership criteria, funding strategies, meeting frequency, and decision-making protocols.
  6. Elect a network Core Team of 4-7 people to support the network’s ongoing evolution. Core Team members have a term of 1-year.
  7. Coordinate the existing actions of network members to leverage resources, eliminate duplication, and collaborate around common goals. How can we support each other’s work on behalf of common goals?
  8. Identify the network’s 3-5 strategic priorities (the primary leverage points in the system) where members can collaborate at the systems-level to strengthen the whole system. Form network teams around each priority, and have members self-select into those teams. Each team needs a Lead, while others will choose to Partner or Follow the work of the team. What are the things we can do better together than we could ever do them alone?
  9. Establish an online communications platform (e.g., Basecamp or Slack).

Systems-Building: How do we ensure the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of the network on behalf of our mission?

  1. Formalize the network’s norms and procedures.
  2. Identify, hire, and onboard a full-time Network Leader.
  3. Engage additional board and staff of member organizations in continued development of the network.
  4. Expand the network to include other important actors from across the system.
  5. Secure funding to support the ongoing evolution of the network.
  6. Refine and advance the collaborative work of the network.

High Performance: How do maximize the effectiveness of our collaborative efforts on behalf of our mission?

  1. Re-engage drifting network members and reaffirm the commitment of critical network members.
  2. Continue to refine and advance the collaborative work of the network.

Renewal: How must the network continue to evolve to produce the greatest impact towards its mission?

  1. Reaffirm or revise the network’s purpose, vision, and plan of action.
  2. Evolve the form of the network if necessary.
  3. Confirm the right people and institutions are involved.
  4. Continue to refine and advance the collaborative work of the network.

Frequently Asked Questions About Networks

In March 2016 we helped design and lead two SSIR-Live webinars on The New Network Leader, the first on the Network Leader Mindset hosted by Jane Wei-Skillern, and the second on the Network Leader Roadmap hosted by David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman. Both webinars were exceptionally well attended, which suggests to us that leaders around the world are beginning to realize the tremendous potential that networks bring to delivering impact at scale.

Following those webinars, we received over 100 questions from network funders, leaders, and practitioners. We compiled the most common questions and produced the FAQ below to share our responses with you.

Network Basics

What are networks?

Complex social and environmental problems – like reducing poverty, stewarding large landscapes, or providing high quality health care and education – cannot be solved by any one action or any one organization. These “wicked problems” are constantly changing and involve many different groups of stakeholders – each with their own perspectives, goals, and proposed solutions.

We believe that lasting change on these systemic issues requires building networks –intentionally structured efforts to catalyze change in a system by engaging people and organizations around a shared purpose, connecting them through strong relationships, and sustaining the effort over time. Effective networks transcend silos, sectors, race, class, and other barriers to collaboration and progress. They find common ground, coordinate strategies, and collaborate generously, even when there are sharp differences and disagreements.

Examples where networks have effectively engaged wicked problems include improving the rights and conditions of women & girls across a developing country, providing high-quality care to seriously ill patients across a vast Health Care system, and stewarding the landscape of a significant Western region of the United States for generations to come. For more examples of networks working across a wide variety of contexts, see our answers to the questions below.

What are the different kinds of networks?

There are many forms a network can take based its context, the problem it’s trying to address, and the set of people and institutions involved. Networks are usually characterized by their purpose. Different forms of networks include but are not limited to:

  • Social networks: Connect with others to develop personal relationships. Example: Facebook, LinkedIn.
  • Learning networks: Share information over time to disseminate best practices. Example: Palliative Care Quality Network.
  • Movement networks: Engage others to change mindsets, public opinion and policy. Example: Joy of Giving.
  • Innovation networks: Develop and test a new model or a set of prototypes for greater impact across a system. Example: UCSF Health Continuity of Care Network.
  • Impact networks: Identify the major leverage points in a system and act on those leverage points in a coordinated, strategic way over a sustained period of time. Examples: Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship NetworkRE-AMP.

In networks, form follows function – the size, boundary, process and convening design of a given network is adapted to suit its purpose. Organizations can also take a network approach to achieving their mission, without forming a formal network. For example, Interise and Catalyst Kitchens have used a network approach to service delivery to drastically increase the scale of their impact.

What are some examples of different kinds of networks?

Visit At the bottom of the page are eight examples of networks creating positive change, across all sectors and a wide range of issue areas, including urban revitalization, economic development, education, clean energy and environmental conservation, affordable housing, and animal welfare.

How are networks different from coalitions, alliances, or associations?

Drawing from definitions provided by the book Connecting to Change the World, coalitions or alliances are “temporary alignments of organizations formed to achieve a specific objective” that has a defined end-goal, such as electing someone or securing adoption of a new law. They usually disband when the campaign is completed.

Associations “may look like networks because they are member-based, but they are organized mainly to pool resources and provide their members with various services. The members don’t necessarily develop enduring relationships and collaborations, and it’s the association staff, not the members, who do most of the work.”

What is a network entrepreneur?

We think of network entrepreneurs as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs. Like social entrepreneurs, they are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.

How is a network entrepreneur different? Rather than leading with a top-down approach, network entrepreneurs focus on creating authentic relationships and building deep trust from the bottom up. Network entrepreneurs also ensure that the power of others grows while their own power fades, thereby developing capacity in the field and a culture of distributed leadership that dramatically increases the collaboration’s efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.

Just as there are teams of business and social entrepreneurs who launch a startup together, there can also be teams of network entrepreneurs who work together to catalyze and sustain networks. A team can be stronger and more resilient than any single person, if they too are connected through a shared purpose and trust.

For more on network entrepreneurs, check out the New Network Leader Series in Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Launching and Evolving Networks

What are the key cultural principles of the most effective networks?

We have found that despite huge differences in issue area, scale, resources, and formal roles, the most effective networks all demonstrate the following four cultural principles:

  1. Trust, not Control: Trust and shared values are far more important than formal control mechanisms such as contracts or accountability systems.
  2. Humility, not Brand: Organizations work alongside their peers as equals and willingly take a backseat when their partners are in a better position to lead.
  3. Node, not Hub: Network partners see their organizations as a part of a larger web of activity directed toward a cause, not as the hub of the action.
  4. Mission, not Organization: Leaders adopt strategies and tactics to achieve the mission, not necessarily to stimulate organizational growth.

What are the necessary steps to build an effective network?

The following steps don’t necessarily happen in sequence. Instead, leaders must reaffirm them throughout a network’s formation and evolution.

  1. Clarify Purpose. Make sure you know why you’re building the network. The network’s purpose may evolve over time, but to get people in the room in the first place, you need a clear problem statement and network purpose or aspiration.
  2. Convene the Right People. The people who need to be involved in the network will also evolve over time, but it’s critical from the start to get a broad cross-section of people who represent different parts of the system you’re trying to change. As network entrepreneur David Haskell would say, involve and include “the other”.
  3. Cultivate Trust. Building strong, resilient relationships is a non-negotiable. In a network context, where the power dynamics are more distributed and horizontal than in an organizational context, strong relationships are not a nice to have – they are a need to have.
  4. Coordinate Actions. By identifying and coordinating work that is already happening, network members can leverage organizational resources, collaborate around common goals, and avoid duplication of efforts.
  5. Collaborate Generously. Network members collaborate generously when they stop calculating how much they are contributing to the network based on what they think they are getting out of it. In the most successful networks, members invest time and resources in network activities because they know that enabling one another to achieve a common purpose will benefit everyone.

What are the phases of a network’s evolution?

Networks, like organizations, evolve through five phases. Each phase below is characterized by a key question and a set of network formation milestones.

  1. Concept: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve, our core mission, and who needs to be involved?
  2. Startup: How can we build a strong foundation on which the network can do its best work?
  3. Systems: How do we build operational and relational systems to ensure the long-term sustainability of the network?
  4. Performance: How do we maximize the effectiveness of our collaborative efforts?
  5. Renewal: How does the network continue to evolve to produce the greatest impact towards its mission?

How do networks get started?

Networks are started by people and organizations we call “network catalysts.” They are most often a nonprofit organization or a foundation that sees a need for greater collaboration, and receives or grants some initial seed funding to organize an initial convening and hire an experienced network entrepreneur or team of network entrepreneurs to help evolve the network through a formation process.

Networks tend to evolve through five phases: 1) Concept, 2) Startup, 3) Systems Building, 4) Performance, and 5) Renewal.

To evolve through the Concept phase, the network will first need to go through a deep sense making process to deeply understand: the problem you’re trying to solve, the self- and shared-interests of participating leaders and organizations, the complexity of the system, and the system’s potential points of leverage. Then, the network will:

  1. Clarify the purpose of the network.
  2. Determine the optimal form of the network.
  3. Identify the right people and institutions that should be involved (some participants who have been involved to this point through the Concept phase may leave the network, and new participants may join the network in the Startup phase).

If there is real value in continuing to form the network, bridge funding may be necessary to evolve the network through the Startup and Systems-Building phases to the Performance phase. Components of the Startup and Systems-Building phases include:

  1. Cultivate relationships of trust across the network.
  2. Find agreement on a shared vision and action plan and determine the bases on which each organization will participate.
  3. Establish an online communications platform.
  4. Formalize the network’s norms and procedures, such as governance structures, membership criteria, funding strategies, meeting frequency, and decision-making protocols.
  5. Elect a network Core Team.
  6. Form network teams to advance the strategic priorities of the network.
  7. Refine and advance the collaborative work of the network.

How are networks funded?

Initially, networks are usually funded by a foundation or by multiple foundations or philanthropists. We’ve seen many nonprofits have success requesting grants from existing funders, given that a network has the potential to drastically scale the nonprofit’s impact. Once a network has been formed it can be partially or entirely self-funded through a combination of membership dues and earned revenue.

How much do networks typically cost per year?

A network’s budget depends on the scope of the effort and the level of collaboration required for real progress to occur. We typically suggest this phased approach to a network formation process so that resources are not wasted and so you can remain as agile as possible as the network evolves.

The most effective networks typically require an operating budget of $150,000 to $300,000 per year for maximum impact, given the need to support a network entrepreneur, host convenings, support regular operational expenses, and provide seed funding for important collaborations that emerge.

However, we have also seen networks bootstrap it, working with a minimal budget of as little as $50,000 per year or less to design and build a foundation on which the network can evolve. With committed participants, lower-budget networks can still have a greater impact than any single organization or person could achieve alone.

Making Networks Work

What differentiates great networks from mediocre networks?

In our research and experience, the single most important factor that determines the long-term success of networks is the quality and strength of the relationships that develop between its members.

We also believe that individuals and organizations begin to develop that trust most effectively by working together to identify shared interests and achieve common objectives, resolving the issues that need to be addressed as they arise, in real time, as the collaboration takes shape.

Strong relationships are the secret sauce of effective networks. But what is it that creates strong relationships? We believe it’s trust. But not trust for affection (you don’t have to like each other) nor trust for agreement (you definitely won’t agree on every issue). It’s what we call “trust for impact”. This is the kind of trust that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.

How long does it take a network to build the strong relationships and trust that are necessary for success?

We disagree with the common wisdom that it takes a long time to build trust, as long as you go about it deliberately. To build deep trust and understand other people in an authentic way, we need to see more than the attributes that make up someone’s external context—what they say or do, their title and organization, their gender and skin color. We also need to understand their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up every day, the things that have made them who they are. Building trust quickly is possible. Sustaining it? That requires a shared commitment to working together over time, that never wavers, even when circumstances are difficult and network members don’t agree.

For specific practices and exercises you can use to build trust across networks, read The Tactics of Trust from the SSIR Winter ‘16 issue.

How can network members find common ground and partner together when there are serious, intractable differences between them?

It’s common for people to enter a network-building process with deep skepticism and a laser focus on the differences that exist. But with the right conversations, it doesn’t have to take a long time to realize that there’s actually enough common ground to justify working together. Even if you disagree on nine out of ten things, what’s that slice of common ground where you do agree, and can work together on behalf of shared goals?

In effective networks, healthy disagreements are frequent and part of the process. Explicitly discussing the nuanced reasons why both sides feel the way they do, in a generative, respectful way, is an important part of building a strong network. You definitely don’t have to like everyone or agree on everything, but you do need to be able to hold the tension through difficult conversations and find some common ground that you can work together on.

Additionally, it’s also important to be clear about “gives and gets”, or where an individual’s or an organization’s self-interest intersects with the network’s purpose. Have everyone be very explicit about what they can give to collaboration through the network, and what do they need to get out of it to make their participation in the network worth their while. Although people usually spend the majority of their time in a network figuring out where there are shared interests – and then collaborating together on behalf of those shared interests – it’s also critical for people to be clear about their self-interests, which people are sometimes reticent about stating explicitly, out of fear that it will appear selfish in a network context. We know we’re trying to find some common ground, but if you and your organization or its constituents aren’t getting what you need out of the collaboration, you’re not going to be very engaged.

In most networks, members are free to act independently and to leave the network at any time, as participation is not legally binding. Counter-intuitively, this makes the network more resilient, since active members tend to participate more generously because of the strength of relationships they form with other members and when the network’s purpose and activities align with both their self-interests and their shared-interests.

Are there specific tips for building networks in the public sector?

We have worked a lot with leaders in the public sector, particularly in the education and workforce development spaces, and we’ve found that our suggestions in The Tactics of Trust still apply — particularly, taking time to understand each other’s external and internal contexts, and holding authentic conversations about the things that divide you. Additionally, we’ve found that the key to making collaboration work in the public sector is to be even more clear about gives and gets, or self-interest versus shared interest. For more detail, see our answer to the question “How can network members find common ground and partner together when there are serious, intractable differences between them?” above.

Network Operations

What kind of staff roles do networks need to thrive in terms of specific positions and their duties?

The network staff creates, cultivates, and ensures high quality relationships and collaborations that advance the mission of the network.

Whether network staff roles are covered by one full-time network entrepreneur, a team of practitioners, or distributed among network members, the following responsibilities are important to consider:

  1. Front of the house: public interface and outreach, external communications, and fundraising.
  2. Middle of the house: process design, meeting facilitation, conflict management and mediation, member on-boarding, project coordination, and network weaving.
  3. Back of the house: network operations including convening logistics, tech support, project tracking and evaluation, and financial planning.

What collaborative technological tools have you found to be most useful?

We’ve found Google Docs/ Google Spreadsheets to be the most useful tools for collaborative work and tracking conversations and decisions, so that the network doesn’t have various version of documents flying around and we can all edit simultaneously. We also use Basecamp, and for smaller teams, we really like Slack as a way to communicate and collaborate in real time.

Is there an example of a network MOU that is available to review?

You can find the MOU for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network at, and click “MOU”

How do you define network membership?

Network members have to sign the network’s MOU–to see an example of a network MOU, visit and click “MOU”–and they are required to uphold some primary responsibilities as outlined in the network’s bylaws. For example, this paragraph comes from the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network’s bylaws:

“Each Member organization will appoint one person to serve as the official Network Member, who will participate in Network decision making and coordinate the activities of each Member organization in carrying out the agreements formalized in the SCMSN Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In the event of retirement or a job change, a Member may request through the Core Team that a second individual from his or her organization be able to participate in Network meetings. Until a formal transition has been made, only the designated representative will participate in Network decision making.”

The process for new members to join the network is also outlined in the network’s bylaws. Prospective members can either apply to join the network, or they can be nominated to join the network based on a set of criteria defined by current network members.

Evaluating Networks

How do you measure a network’s health and effectiveness?

We think of network evaluation in four phases: Inputs >> Outputs >> Outcomes >> Impacts. Networks should track the strength of its underlying relationships (inputs), measure the vitality and effectiveness of the network, including the value it provides members (outputs), and conduct an analysis of progress made against near-term goals (outcomes), and long-term goals (impacts).

  1. Inputs are measured via social network analysis at regular intervals, which measures the frequency and quality of engagement between participants over time.
  2. Outputs are measured via a Network Scorecard Survey.
  3. Outcomes are measured via a review of collaborative efforts occurring across the network, usually based on responses to a network vitality survey, a timeline of critical actions that have been achieved, and interviews or after-action-reviews.
  4. Impacts are measured via an ongoing analysis of progress against 3-5 high-level, long-term strategic priorities of the network.

For more information on evaluating a network’s effectiveness, see the framework developed by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor:

How do you measure and evaluate the strength of connection between stakeholders in a network?

The social network analysis (SNA) software we use is called Gephi ( SNA – as we use it – serves to track the frequency and quality of network connections as they evolve over time.

Gephi is free and open-source, and works on both Mac and PC. There are lots of SNA options out there, but Gephi is the best in our opinion, because of its strong analytical tools and relative ease of use. Kumu is also a strong cloud-based SNA tool.

How you quantify frequency and quality of network connections can vary depending on the purpose of the network. However, we typically measure frequency and quality as follows:

Measuring Network Connections

To learn more, here is an overview of social network analysis from our blog.

What do networks look like as they evolve and connections deepen?

Drawing from Valdis Krebs’ and June Holley’s publication Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving, the connections across networks evolve through four stages:

Network Evolution

Innovation Networks

An interview with John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, Rotman Magazine, Fall 2015

The big challenge for today’s leaders is accept the fact that a certain amount of hierarchy is necessary, and to design a separate system – a network – for innovation right alongside it.

innovation networks

I call this a ‘dual operating system’, and it doesn’t force you to choose bureaucracy over innovation. It enables you to operate part of your organization like a startup – with all of the agility that entails – while at the same time running an efficient, reliable hierarchical system that excels in what you already do well. I am convinced that every company you can name that has been highly successful has gone through a stage where it operated with a dual operating system.

The network is not an easy thing to develop or hold onto, unless you know what it is and why it’s so important. Change isn’t easy; we all know that, and the core issue is that people don’t want to reorganize – they usually think the current approach is fine. What you have to do is develop a network with a strong sense of urgency, with its focus maintained on a Big Opportunity.

When it works right, there is an inseparable partnership between the hierarchy and the network. The two systems work as one, with a constant flow of information and activity between them, and significant numbers of people are waking up each morning with a compelling desire to do something that day to move the organization forward towards the big strategic opportunity. With aligned energy among enough people across the network, you have a targeted, passionate force that is unlike anything found outside of wildly successful entrepreneurial firms.

The Tactics of Trust

Participants in a large, complex collaboration can build a capacity for finding common ground—and it doesn’t have to take years.

Click here for the full article, The Tactics of Trust, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Winter 2016 issue.

SSIR_Logo_2013Creating the formal structures that make up an ambitious, multi-sector change initiative is one thing. But forging the intangible interpersonal connections that result in authentic bonds among participating leaders is something quite different. Indeed, it is notoriously difficult. “Developing trust among nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies is a monumental challenge,” John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote in their landmark article “Collective Impact,” which appeared in the winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts.”

But what if it didn’t have to take years? What if it is possible to accelerate the trustbuilding process that is essential to any ambitious collaboration effort? We believe that it is possible to build trust quickly—even across a network that brings together highly diverse groups of stakeholders. tactics_of_trust_imageWe don’t mean trust that’s based on liking or agreement. We mean trust for impact. Trust for impact entails the ability to cross boundaries, to find a slice of common ground, and then to work together despite significant organizational differences and sharp personal disagreements. By cultivating trust for impact, participants in a collaborative project can creatively manage their differences and form relationships that enable them to do critically important work.

We developed an accelerated approach to building trust for impact while working with the James Irvine Foundation to launch the New Leadership Network, a cross-sector network of leaders that aims to revitalize the city of Fresno, California.

Click here for the full article.

Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network

How network entrepreneurs can catalyze large-scale social impact through a process that applies to networks across all systems and sectors.

Click here for the full article, Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Impact NetworksIn The New Network Leader series, seven network entrepreneurs—leaders at the heart of some of today’s most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to the world’s social problems—have shared their accounts of catalyzing networks to create powerful social change. Although these networks take many forms, each has required consistent engagement with four network principles—trust, not control; humility, not brand; node, not hub; and mission, not organization—as well as the following fundamental process:

  • Clarify purpose.
  • Convene the right people.
  • Cultivate trust.
  • Coordinate actions.
  • Collaborate generously.

These steps don’t necessarily happen in order; leaders must reaffirm them throughout a network’s formation and evolution. Consistently engaging with this process helps ensure that the four principles get baked into impact networks as they emerge.

Here is a look at each step, with examples from the network entrepreneurs who contributed to the series.

Click here for the full article.

Network Entrepreneurs: The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of

Network entrepreneurs are ensuring that systems-level, collaborative efforts not only succeed, but thrive.

Click here for the full article, The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Network_Leader_Series_intro_art_196_196Collaboration has taken the social sector by storm. Collective impact, social media, and other tools play important roles, ensuring that the right structures, resources, and technologies are in place for groups to successfully work together. But while these approaches have advanced collaboration in practice, we believe that on their own, they are insufficient for achieving transformational change. In the rush toward readily available solutions to social problems, we often overlook a powerful missing link.

In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.

The new leaders at the heart of some of today’s most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to the world’s social problems—network entrepreneurs—are undoubtedly some of the most accomplished leaders that you’ve never heard of, and they are ensuring that systems-level, collaborative efforts not only succeed, but thrive.

Click here for the full article.

Nine Strategies to Scale Impact

We recently engaged with Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) to help them scale their impact across the nation. VEI is an incredibly effective live business simulation that integrates with the school day and allows students to become young professionals in a transformed classroom. After 18 years of program design and delivery, VEI has proven its model and expanded to 350 schools nationwide, reaching 10,000 students. But think about it: there are 25,000 public and 12,000 private secondary schools in America. That’s a total of 18 million secondary students. The chasm between the number of students currently served and a population-level scale is vast.

This challenge is classic in the social sector. Highly effective models tend to be resource and human-capacity intensive. Teach for America, a remarkable and well run nonprofit with a $212 million annual budget, still only reaches 750,000 students per year. Many social sector organizations must truly pivot to scale and achieve maximum positive impact.

Building on the great work of many of our colleagues, including Jeff Bradach, we believe these are the nine of the most powerful strategies to scale impact:  Continue reading

The One Thing You Need To Collaborate Effectively

Trust-Matters“The fundamental insight of 21st century physics has yet to penetrate the social world,” Peter Senge wrote. “Relationships are more important than things.”

Human systems are effective when the relationships between people are strong and authentic. Consequently, the most important currency in any collaborative effort is trust. But what actually is trust?

Fernando Flores and Robert Solomon, in their seminal book Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, make a distinction between simple trust, blind trust, and authentic trust. Simple trust is the untroubled, unthinking trust that young children have for their parents. Blind trust is the refusal even to consider any evidence or argument that one should not be trusting, the kind of trust demanded perhaps, by some religious cult leaders, or that we might feel in spite of mounting evidence that one’s spouse is cheating.

Authentic trust – what we call “trust for impact” – is concerned with the ongoing integrity of relationships, and is mature, prudent, measured. It is a choice, not a state. It is not dependent on mere familiarity. It is something one does – not something one has.

As they write, “authentic trust in business and politics provides ample opportunity for complex and cooperative projects that otherwise would have been unthinkable. Authentic trust, as opposed to simple and blind trust, does not exclude or deny distrust, but rather accepts it and goes on to transcend it in action.”

While there may be significant beliefs that we do not share in common, authentic trust is all about finding the sliver of ground that we do have in common. It means engaging in generative, constructive, and meaningful ways despite whatever differences exist, allowing us to work together even when personal disagreements arise, and even see our differences as potential assets.

For widespread change to occur we must find a way to choose trust, especially with those who are very different than ourselves. Effective collaboration, not to mention the future of democracy, depends on it.

Participants in a large, complex collaboration can build a capacity for finding common ground—and it doesn’t have to take years. To learn how, read The Tactics of Trust, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Winter ’16 issue. 


A National Gathering of Network Leaders to Help Advance the Field

Earlier this year we had the privilege to lead, and participate in, a convening of 14 of the top network leaders, practitioners and thought leaders from across the country. The idea was sparked two years ago while two of us (Sawyer and Ehrlichman) had dinner with Jane Wei-Skillern after we guest-lectured in her UC Berkeley Haas School of Business class on network leadership. Jane is a good friend and one of the top academics on network leadership in the world. We quickly connected over our shared belief that “there needs to be a dramatic change in the way people think about their work and act in service to the mission,” as Jane says.

The convening was a great success, and just the start of a larger effort to help move the field forward for maximum positive impact. It was particularly interesting for us to see that even with the wide range of issues and varied applications of networks represented in the room, we were all aligned around shared core principals for what makes networks really work – trust for impact, deep relationship, shared values, and authentic conversations. These are the network principals we hope to collectively spread far and wide.

Below is a repost of Jane’s recap of the convening, first published on the Haas Social Impact Blog.

Practicing What I Preach: Creating a network to study and advance networks for impact
By Jane Wei-Skillern

jen-weiskillernI have been doing research and teaching in the social impact field for fifteen years and have met countless social sector leaders over the course of my career. While I am always impressed by the good intentions and the drive of these leaders, only on rare occasions will I find a ‘needle in a haystack’. A leader that works tirelessly with a single-minded focus on advancing the mission rather than their organization, a leader who is better at being humble than at self promotion, works well with trusted peers and routinely advances the field ahead of their own interests.

These are some of the most accomplished leaders that you likely have never heard of. They have helped to generate social impact efficiently, effectively, and sustainably in fields as wide ranging as environmental conservation/climate change, housing, education, international development, economic development, animal welfare, and health, among others. These leaders have achieved tremendous leverage on their own resources by catalyzing networks directly with the communities that they serve and supporting the development of local capacity to serve these needs on an ongoing basis. Continue reading

Harnessing Disagreement, from Mihnea Moldoveneau

Mind meldThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from an interview with Mihnew Moldovenau, published in the Spring 2015 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Decisions do not occur in the vacuum of one’s mind, but in the caldron of relationships. It is a process fraught with political and interpersonal conflict and tension, but which relies on collaboration and cooperation in spite of the emotional landscape on which it unfolds.

No single mind can behold the right solution at a glance, nor can any single mind even behold all the promising solutions.

As a result, disagreement needs to be harnessed rather than camouflaged in order to uncover all of the sources of value that each contributor brings to the table. The final requirement for solving complex problems in collaborative settings is a set of tools that turn disagreement into generative tension.

Mihnea Moldoveneau, Peter Pauly, Rotman School of Management, Rotman Magazine, Spring 2015