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.