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.

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, from Sull, Homkes & Still

We think a lot about the relationship between strategy and execution at Converge, reflecting often on the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”. Execution is about culture and leadership. Poorly executed strategies are not just a shame – they waste precious human and financial resources, are tough on morale, and undercut long-term performance. This think piece from a recent article in Harvard Business Review talks about large companies – the authors surveyed 7600 managers in 262 companies across 30 industries – but the lessons are also valid in the social and public spheres, and in smaller organizations. I found this article to be the most useful thing I’ve ever read on the topic.

Taming-strategy-400x379A recent survey of more than 400 global leaders found that executional excellence was the number one challenge, heading a list of some 80 issues, including innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth. Two-thirds to three-quarters of organizations struggle with execution. And it’s no wonder: Research reveals that several common beliefs about implementing strategy are just plain wrong. Here are five of the most pernicious myths:

Execution equals alignment

Whereas companies have effective processes for cascading goals downward in the organization, their systems for managing horizontal performance commitments lack teeth. When asked to identify the single greatest challenge to executing company strategy, 30% cite failure to coordinate across units. Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own teams’ failure to deliver. More than half of managers want more structure in the processes to coordinate activities across units – twice the number who want more structure in the management by objectives system. Processes to align activities with strategy up and down the hierarchy are generally sound. The real problem is coordination: People in other units can’t be counted on.

Execution means sticking to the plan

After investing enormous amounts of time and energy formulating a plan and its associated budget, executives view deviations as a lack of discipline that undercuts execution. Unfortunately, no strategy survives contact with reality. Managers and employees at every level need to adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles, and take advantage of Continue reading