How to Make Complex Collaborations Work

Something Tom Atlee recently wrote sums up for us what’s happening on the planet right now. “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster, in bigger and bigger ways.”

We live in a world of problems that are so complex — so tangled up with other problems, so non-linear, ambiguous, and volatile — that they defy solutions and cannot be effectively addressed by any one organization or even by any one sector. Problems like reducing poverty and homelessness, providing high quality universal healthcare and education, and slowing climate change and environmental degradation. Problems like terrorism, racism, sexism, social inequality, political instability, refugees, drug abuse, and child abuse.

What then do we do to address complex, systems-level problems? To really address the root causes of today’s major challenges — rather than just manage the symptoms?

Complex collaborationWe believe that lasting change and the resolution of these systemic issues is going to require effective collaboration across silos, across organizations, and across sectors, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants and the shared interests of the collective.

Unfortunately, making this kind of collaboration work well is notoriously hard, particularly between organizations. As Joycelyn Elders, the first African American to serve as the US Surgeon General, said:

“Collaboration is an unnatural act between unconsenting adults.”

There are so many new models and terms flying around for describing collaborative efforts — like Collective Impact, Aligned Action, Social Impact Networks, multi-stakeholder partnerships and more — that it’s hard to know sometimes what people are really talking about.

In our view, however, all of these are different forms of complex collaboration. Whatever you call it or however you go about it, collaboration is about making “we” work. And making “we” work ultimately comes down to building smart, collaborative relationships that endure, evolve, and function effectively over the long haul, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants involved, and the shared-interests of the collective.

Networks are a particularly effective and versatile framework for thinking about complex collaboration. If you really want to dive into network theory , Connecting to Change the World, by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland is a great place to start. The ENGAGE website produced by Monitor Institute and The Rockefeller Foundation is also a good resource.

But while the WHY and the WHAT of complex collaborations often differ, we’ve found that the HOW is remarkably consistent, regardless of your preferred model or what you choose to call them.

The effectiveness of any network or collaborative effort primarily depends on constantly managing a few basic activities:

  1. Clarify Purpose
  2. Convene the Right People
  3. Cultivate Trust
  4. Coordinate Existing Actions
  5. Collaborate for Systems Impact

These five activities are not strictly linear – they loop back and forth on each other, and you must constantly revisit all five of them throughout any collaborative effort.

Let’s begin by looking at how these five activities provide a framework for making complex collaborations work. We’ll do that by stepping through each of them, using the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network (SCMSN) as an example. Then we’ll look at how these same principles can be used to cultivate collaboration not only between organizations, but within organizations as well. Finally, we’ll discuss the unique form of leadership that is needed to successfully facilitate and advance a complex collaboration.

  1. Clarify Purpose

The first step in launching any collaboration is making sure you know why a collaborative effort is needed. The problem you’re trying to address may evolve over time. But to get people in the room to begin the process, you need a clear initial statement of what the problem is that you want them to address.

Design thinking teaches us that formulating purpose as a question prompts our brains to stay flexible and helps a collaboration maintain a focus on emergent strategy and refine its purpose over time. The typical approach we use to helping a group define their purpose is to ask them to complete the question: “How do we…?”

The SCMSN formed because people across the system had begun to realize that to care for the natural and human systems throughout their entire region was going to require a collaborative approach. They knew, furthermore, that the Santa Cruz Mountains region as a social system was fragmented, with historical tensions and significant mistrust.

Therefore, the effort began with a simple, aspirational statement of the SCMSN’s purpose, which is “to help cultivate a resilient, vibrant region where human and natural systems thrive for generations to come.” After seven months of working together, this purpose statement became a more elaborate Memorandum of Understanding, which was ratified by the network’s members in October 2015.

  1. Convene the Right People

Convene the right people means bringing people together who collectively can tackle the problem you’re trying to address.

Like your purpose statement, the people who need to be involved in a collaboration will evolve over time. But it’s critical from the start to bring together a broad selection of people who represent different parts of the system you’re trying to change. As our colleague David Haskell of Dreams InDeed would say, involve and include “the other”.

The “right people” are definitely those who represent the whole system and have the ability to get things done, particularly leaders of their organizations. But they’re also simply the people who show up and stay engaged.SCMSN members

In the SCMSN, members own or manage about half the protected and working lands in the region’s total area of 500,000 acres, and the people who participate in convenings are leaders of their organizations. Network members represent federal agencies, state and county parks departments, land trusts, nonprofit organizations, private landowners including the region’s largest timber company, research institutes, and community and tribal groups.

  1. Cultivate Trust

Trust has become a buzzword. We all know it’s important, but very few treat it as what it really is: the single most important ingredient of successful collaboration.

Cultivating trust is where most collaborative efforts fall short, and why most do not live up to their full potential. For collaboration to really work and achieve the systemic change we all know is necessary, enduring relationships are not a nice to have – they are a need to have.

We commonly confuse trust with “liking” or “agreement.” But in collaborative settings, participants don’t need to like each other – and they absolutely shouldn’t agree with each other on every issue. When we talk about trust we mean trust for action—what we call trust for impact. This is the kind of trust that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, engage in generative conflict, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.

The common wisdom is that it takes a long time to build trust. We respectfully disagree. As long as you go about it deliberately, building trust for impact does not have to take a long time. To build trust requires that we 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. SCMSN map, March '15To build deep trust and understand other people in an authentic way, we need to get to know their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up every day, the things that have made them who they are.

For a practical look at what it means to build trust, here is a network analysis we conducted just before the first convening of the SCMSN in March 2015. Each circle, or “node,” is a leader in the network. The colors indicate the different types of organizations they represent, and each of the lines connecting the nodes signifies a meaningful connection between two members. As you can see, the region was pretty fragmented, particularly in the lack of connections between different types of organizations.SCMSN map, September '15

After only two convenings – during which we gave people a lot of time to build genuine relationships so we could go fast later – you can see that the system is much more interconnected.

This connectivity is the invisible structure that makes complex collaborations work. Even if the network never met again, the system is much more resilient than it was before, because there are deeper relationships, increased frequency of communication, and greater collaboration between organizations.

  1. Coordinate Existing Actions

Once trust is established, people are more likely to notice, seek out, and follow through on opportunities to partner with other members of the collaboration. SCMSN conveningTherefore, the next step in cultivating an effective collaboration is to identify the work that participants are already doing to address the problem that has brought everyone together, and to connect the dots and coordinate these activities. In this way, members can collaborate around common goals, avoid duplication of efforts, and leverage their organizational resources.

After just one year of working together, members of the SCMSN were engaged in over 40 new collaborative projects that had formed between two or more organizations, in what is described in the next section as the place where self-interest and shared-interest intersect.

  1. Collaborate for Systems Impact

To collaborate for systems impact, members of a complex collaboration must begin by identifying what are often described as “leverage points”—or those places in a system where, as Donella Meadows has said, “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”

In this respect, leverage points are something like acupuncture points—those places where a finely-tuned, strategic intervention is capable of rebalancing and realigning an entire system. In a complex collaboration, leverage points are also those opportunities where participants can have more effect by working together than they can by working alone.

In the collaborative efforts we have worked with, the leverage points that participants have identified for affecting their system or shared problem have frequently coalesced around opportunities such as working together to increase public awareness of the problem, securing resources as a network to continue or enhance their ability to collaborate, or drawing on the strength of their collective voice to influence public officials and policy makers.

Once leverage points have been identified, members partner with others on one or more self-selecting teams to develop and implement a plan of action for generating the influence or effecting the change that has been identified. Members typically join teams where they feel they can have an effect, and where their organization’s priorities align with the shared priorities of the collective. The six active teams of the SCMSN are listed in the diagram below.

This overlap between a member’s individual priorities and the collective’s shared priorities is what we refer to as the intersection of self-interest and shared-interest, and it is critical to the success of a collaboration.

Most complex collaborations require the commitment of people who already have other jobs, which are frequently demanding in their own right. Therefore, serving the purpose of the collaboration must in some way also serve the purpose of each member and the people they represent. Otherwise, in time, members of a collaboration are not going to be able to sustain or justify the extra commitment they have assumed by participating in the effort, and they may choose to leave — which is OK.

Collaborations are living systems, not static machines. Therefore, the teams in a collaboration should not be viewed like the standing committees on a nonprofit board. Rather, they are agile groups that form when a need arises, and disappear when they’ve completed their task. Similarly, complex collaborations are sparked when the need arises, and they may likewise dissipate when their purpose for existing has been fulfilled.

SCMSN structure

To make sure that the collaborative teams actually get stuff done, we recommend that each team select a Team Lead. This function is served for the collaboration as a whole by the Core Team — a leadership function sometimes referred to as a Leadership Team or Steering Committee that is composed of a diverse selection of network members who are elected by all the collaboration’s participants. The Core Team usually makes preliminary decisions about such topics as funding, membership criteria, and external partnerships. The Core Team’s recommendations are then communicated to the whole network for consideration and a final decision by all the members of the collaboration. Deciding how a large group makes decisions can be tricky, but we’ve found that the fist-to-five method for consensus decision making works remarkably well.

Finally, just like the organizations involved in a collaborative effort, the collaboration itself can’t exist in a bubble and expect to thrive. Over time, the collaboration needs to engage and coordinate with other related or complementary efforts, particularly those within the same geography. In the case of the SCMSN, this has meant connecting with the Peninsula Working Group, a similar collaboration focused on lands north of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, a national alliance of conservation professionals dedicated to advancing the theory and practice of stewarding entire regional landscapes.

Complex Collaborations in Organizations

Now that you have a sense of how the five activities are used to form a collaboration of multiple organizations, let’s look at how complex collaborations can also work within traditional, hierarchically structured organizations or systems, such as governments, national nonprofits, or hospital systems.

Trying to change an existing system is often compared to trying to turn a battleship or an ocean liner—not easy and it typically takes a long time, if it can be done at all.

Complex collaborations in organizations

So instead of trying to change a traditional organization as a whole, it’s possible to operate part of your organization like a network — a dual-operating system” as John Kotter calls it, “with all the agility that enables” — while at the same time maintaining a reliable hierarchical system that keeps doing what you already do well.

For example, we recently worked with the UCSF Health system to support a complex collaboration featuring 40 leaders representing 12 sites and 10 health disciplines to improve the coordination of care for people with serious illnesses. Although the context was very different from a network building effort like the one described above, the process, or the HOW, was very similar.

Collaborations within organizations also need to clarify a shared purpose, convene the right people, cultivate trust, coordinate existing actions, and collaborate for systems impact. The result at UCSF Health was a system-wide collaboration consisting of six teams, each one focused on a key leverage point — all coordinated by a six-person Core Team.

Complex Collaborations Require Good Leadership

Not long ago, there was a popular idea among many who are committed to social change that the great hope for the evolution of society rested with the cultivation and funding of social entrepreneurs. Indeed social entrepreneurs and social sector leaders are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.

In case after case, it has simply proven too difficult to fully scale individual organizations to match the scope and complexity of the problems we face.

In sober appreciation of these challenges, we have come to the conclusion that the essential ingredient needed for effective, systems-wide social change are servant leaders who have the capabilities needed to build truly effective collaborations, across silos and divides. We call these leaders “network entrepreneurs,” and we think of them as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs.

Network EntrepreneursLike social entrepreneurs, network entrepreneurs are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle, despite heroic efforts, to scale their own organizations, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem.

The role of a network entrepreneur is to help the members of a collaboration to convene, connect, communicate, and coordinate around its shared purpose. They are able to mobilize a constellation of people, resources and skills that enables the achievement of a shared vision. They operate  not from within any single organization, but in the space between. In this way they are a special breed of what Senge, Hamilton and Kania called system leaders.

To fulfill this role, a network entrepreneur must be able to fulfill three core functions:

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

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

For seven examples of leaders that are generating systems-level social impact in environmental conservation, education, economic development, and beyond, check out the network entrepreneurs series in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Return on Relationships

Above all, when planning a collaborative effort, keep in mind that the greatest investment you can make to ensure its success is in cultivating resilient relationships between the people and organizations involved. Strong relationships are the cause of successful collaboration, not just the result of it. This is what we call the Return on Relationships.

Using Network Analysis For Evaluation and Design – A Mini Case Study

A social network analysis case study of the Irvine Foundation New Leadership Network

The effectiveness of any collaborative group – whether a network or an organization – is highly dependent on the quality of connections that exist between the participants involved. But how can we quantitatively measure the degree of trust that exists between members of a network or colleagues in an organization? How can we strategically build connections to maximize collaboration across departments or sectors? And how can we increase a group’s collective self-awareness and ability to “see” itself?

Social Network Analysis (SNA) allows us to visualize and evaluate the connections across networks or organizations, including the depth of relationship between participants, the frequency with which they share information, and the perceived opportunities for collaboration.

In networks, SNA can measure the depth of relationship between participants, the frequency with which participants reach out to each other for information or guidance, and the perceived opportunities for collaboration between actors. In organizations, SNA can identify the members of the organization who are key influencers and the degree to which various departments are connected to each other.

For a deeper understanding of what SNA can provide, let’s first quickly review the components of a network map:

A node is any individual or organization in the network. The size of a node is proportional to that individual or organization’s influence.

An edge is a bond or relationship that connects two individuals or organizations. Edges can be assigned a weight depending on the strength of the connection. sna-1

For two years Converge helped design, launch, and lead the New Leadership Network (NLN), a network of diverse, cross-sector leaders for community revitalization in Fresno, California funded by The James Irvine Foundation. The NLN cultivated a tight network of 48 community leaders to find common ground and collaborate together on critical community issues.

SNA proved to be an effective tool helping NLN members identify key influencers and potential connections. Network maps filtered by characteristics such as sector, issue area, geography or ethnicity provided clear “shared displays” helping network leaders and members to evaluate the health of the network and shape their network weaving strategies. 

Getting the Whole System in the Room – Mapping the NLN by Sector

By graphing the strength and density of connections over time, network analysis can evaluate the health and growth of networks far more effectively than raw numbers or first-hand accounts.

We first mapped the New Leadership Network just before its launch in 2013, and continued to conduct follow-up mappings every 3 to 6 months thereafter. As the number and strength of connections grew the network analysis validated that our convening-based process designed to build a strong, trusting community of leaders was working. The network’s density was increasing (a ratio of the number of connections to the number of possible connections in the network), existing connections were getting stronger, and NLN leaders were “closing the triangle” and introducing mutual connections to each other.

We often reminded the NLN members that being on the periphery of a bounded network should not be seen as a negative; instead, these leaders are incredibly valuable to the rest of the network. Innovation does indeed come from the periphery, as it often provides access to new information and perspectives, as well as critical bridges to new networks that the core might otherwise not have a connection with.

However, we also knew the NLN would require representation across sectors and issue areas, such that we had the “whole system” in the room. Analyzing the network by issue area and sector allowed NLN leaders to clearly “see” what issues were represented, guiding their recruitment efforts accordingly. For example, the Network’s first cohort was primarily comprised of education and nonprofit leaders. Consequently, the NLN formulated a targeted recruitment strategy to attract more healthcare, government, and private sector leaders for cohorts 2 and 3. sna-2-1sna-2-2sna-2-3

sna-2-4Weaving the Network for Maximum Connectivity – Mapping the NLN by Cohort

Our goal was never to build separate NLN cohorts, but to catalyze one larger highly connected network of leaders that had the capacity to create citywide change. Consequently, it was important for us to evaluate how well leaders were bonding across cohorts. Continue reading

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.

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

Generate Leads & Influence Your Target Audience with Network Analysis

Applying social network analysis to strengthen and grow the global B Corp network.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) allows us to visualize and measure the connections between individuals, information, and organizations. Applying SNA can reveal how various stakeholder groups within a network are connected, and how information and resources flow through that network. From this, SNA can identify individuals or organizations who are key influencers exhibiting high degrees of “social capital” within a given community or around a given topic. While not a silver bullet, SNA is an important tool for network and community-building efforts.

When paired with emerging real-time and public data sources such as Twitter, SNA can expand your ability to quickly identify promising leads, distribute key messages through the most influential sources to reach your target audience and track online conversations in real-time. 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

Building Networks To Engage Complex Problems

Network diagram

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 – people and organizations aligned around a shared purpose, connected through strong relationships, and sustained 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.

Organizations often find they can have greater impact and access to larger pools of funding when they work together across networks in a meaningful way.

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. Example: 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.

For more details and examples of effective impact networks, see our Networks FAQ.

Making Networks Work

The single most important asset of any network is the quality of relationships between leaders and organizations. Leaders must learn to “go slow to go fast”, taking the time up-front to develop enough trust to work together even when disagreements or miscommunications arise. As Otto Scharmer writes, “The most important ingredient is always the same: a few fully committed people who would give everything to make it work.”

Read The Tactics of Trust for specific examples of how participants in a large, complex collaboration can build a capacity for finding common ground.

Networks involving multiple organizations are rarely successful without a dedicated individual or team of network entrepreneurs. This role has also called a network manager, coordinator, or backbone staff, but we prefer the term “entrepreneur” because networks are constantly evolving.

The network entrepreneur’s role is to organize network convenings, facilitate the meetings, help form connections, and track and share information about ongoing collaborations while providing support when barriers arise. Over time, if funding is available, a single on-the-ground person working directly for the network can perform the entrepreneur role.

To learn about network entrepreneurs who are ensuring that systems-level, collaborative efforts thrive, read The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of.

Network Evolution

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

Network Evolution

Read The Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network for details on what it takes to catalyze networks across all sectors and issues.

Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, from Jeff Conklin

wicked problemsThis 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 Jeff Conklin, Founder of CogNexus Institute, published in the Winter 2009 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Discuss the relation between ‘problem understanding’ and ‘solution formulation’.

Today there is increasing awareness that a shared understanding of a given problem cannot be taken for granted, and that the absence of buy-in about a problem’s definition, scope and goals can kill a project just as surely as faulty implementation. Organizations are beginning to embrace the idea that these two aspects of projects – problem understanding and solution formulation–are not distinct phases, but rather different kinds of conversations that must be woven together from beginning to end.

Problem structuring is a critical aspect of the design process that takes into account the diversity of goals, assumptions and meanings among stakeholders. At the heart of this new understanding of organizational life is the recognition that project work is fundamentally social, and that communication among stakeholders must be managed and nurtured in order for the social network to cohere into a functioning entity.

Problem understanding is actually the more important and evasive part of the process. The social complexity aspect of it is that you have different stakeholders with strongly-held beliefs about what the problem is. Dealing with wicked problems is not simply a matter of coming up with the best answer; first it’s about engaging stakeholders in a robust and healthy process of making sense of the problem’s dimensions.

Any way you slice it, it entails heavy lifting, and you have to roll up your sleeves and have the hard conversations in order to expose where shared understanding is missing.