Networks are all around you, whether you are aware of them or not. Networks influence who you are connected to, where you get your information, and how work gets done. What if I told you that by learning how to cultivate and maintain certain networks, you would have the opportunity to unlock collaboration, unravel oppressive systems, and create unprecedented value? What if I told you that you could create a sustainable structure of organizing that would demand less pushing and introduce more pull and autonomous flow? New opportunities, insights, and perspectives become available when you start to see and engage in your world through networks.
Networks have been around forever. But only recently have we been able to draw on a variety of fields—including network science, community building, systems thinking, and organizational development—as well as a range of collaborative software tools to intentionally create networks not just for social connection but also for collective action. Not only are networks the organic social structures that we naturally form; they can be cultivated to accelerate learning, spark collaboration, and catalyze systemic change.
Networks are webs of relationships connecting people or things. When they seek to address social and environmental issues, they are called impact networks. This special type of network brings individuals and organizations together for learning and coordinated action, based on a shared purpose. Impact networks provide a transformational way of working together across the typical boundaries that often hold us back. They offer a collaborative infrastructure for a more equitable, interdependent world. As a powerful and flexible organizing system that can span regions, organizations, and silos of all kinds, impact networks underlie some of the most impressive and large-scale efforts to create change across the globe.
This book is about how to cultivate impact networks that enable diverse groups of people to connect, coordinate, and collaborate within and across organizations to do more together than is possible alone. Given the increasing complexity of our society and the issues we face, our ability to form, grow, and work through networks has never been more essential.
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This book is for all those who recognize the need to work together more than ever before, for those who are addressing issues bigger than any individual or organization can solve on its own, and for changemakers who are looking for ways to collaborate across a diversity of stakeholders to navigate the wicked challenges of our time.
This book is also for anyone who is curious about, participating in, or leading collaborative networks, including those who coordinate, weave, and facilitate networks; those who fund and support networks; and all those who work in collaboration with others to get things done. Collaborative networks may be called many things: associations, alliances, coalitions, collaborations, collective impact initiatives, consortia, and more. Whatever they are called, the network approach to collaboration is profoundly different from the command-and-control approaches seen in many hierarchical organizations. Likewise, the form of leadership required to guide networks is substantially different from the autocratic forms of leadership that remain prevalent throughout the world. If you are supporting or working with a constellation of actors to address complex issues and advance common goals, this book is for you.
I wrote this book because I believe deeply in the power of impact networks to contribute to a future that works for all. The network approach builds bridges across divides, prioritizes trust-based relationships, shares leadership, and recognizes the inherent interconnectedness of our lives and work. Networks are the organizing systems that allow our society to function today and can enable us to flourish in the future.
I was first exposed to the potential of networks while working at Monitor Institute, the social sector wing of a global management consulting firm. Up to that point, I had worked only in hierarchical environments: in the service industry, in a nonprofit, in a large corporation, and with a small start-up. Every organization where I had worked had a pyramid structure—there was always a boss and a clear chain of command to indicate authority. Decisions were mostly made at the top and passed down to employees. Information was shared on a need-to-know basis. But Monitor Institute was, at that time, exploring and writing about working through networks.
There, I was introduced to Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving, by Valdis Krebs and June Holley, a white paper about how we can strengthen our communities by recognizing and cultivating the networks of connections that underlie them. I also read the handbook Net Gains, by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, an early resource for network builders seeking social change. I was moved by case studies written by my Monitor Institute colleagues on the work of the RE-AMP Network, a massive collaboration of more than one hundred organizations working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the midwestern United States;1 by Lawrence CommunityWorks, a citywide network that engages thousands of residents to improve their community; and by KABOOM!, a nonprofit that uses a network approach to mobilize low-income communities to build their own playgrounds.2
The initiatives documented in these resources brought people together from across sectors to tackle common challenges. They spanned organizational boundaries. Rather than building bigger and bigger organizations, leaders increased their impact through networks of peers. I saw how these network-based approaches wielded collaboration to create outsized impacts, and I was blown away. Inspired by these examples, I left Monitor Institute to work with networks exclusively. Since then, I have spent nearly every working day over the past decade focused on learning and practicing the art and science of cultivating collaborative networks.
My first real foray into the field of networks was in Fresno, California, where I worked for three years as a coordinator for the Fresno New Leadership Network. Funded by the James Irvine Foundation, this initiative brought together more than forty leaders from across sectors to work together in new ways to help revitalize their community. It was there that I first witnessed the power of networks to connect people across boundaries on behalf of a common purpose. Environmental activists found common ground with developers. The school superintendent worked side by side with nonprofit leaders. A partnership between leaders representing Habitat for Humanity and Kaiser Permanente led to a $400,000 grant to build a neighborhood playground in West Fresno—an area of the city with particularly high rates of poverty and childhood obesity. The county librarian teamed up with a Spanish-language radio host and the Fresno State business school to offer free citizenship academies in county libraries. A youth group joined forces with both a gang-prevention organization and the school district’s office of community and family services to advance discipline and restorative justice reforms.
I also witnessed the true power of relationships. Built on a foundation of trust, the network changed the way people engaged with one another. Two advocates, one promoting charter schools and the other supporting public schools, came into the network seeing each other as the opposition. But after taking time to hear one another’s motivations, they began to have more honest and open conversations about their vision for Fresno. “We now have a willingness to talk about where we disagree, and a willingness to talk about how to do this better,” said the charter school advocate. “We’re creating a new way of relating and working with each other.”3
Since my time in Fresno, I have had the privilege of working with dozens of other impact networks in a variety of roles, including coordination, weaving, design, facilitation, evaluation, and everything in between. Along the way, I catalyzed the Converge network with my close friend David Sawyer, a former Monitor Institute colleague and longtime change leader. We partnered in Fresno and together felt a deep calling to spread the network approach more broadly. Converge has since grown into a network of systems strategists, designers, facilitators, educators, and evaluators who work together to support networks around the globe to create social and environmental impact. To put it succinctly, we are a network of practitioners who help cultivate impact networks. When I use the we pronoun in this book, I am often referring to the combined perspectives of Converge.
Our work has spanned rural to urban and local to global, bringing together diverse stakeholders from government agencies, nonprofits, businesses, academic institutions, community groups, and more. We have been fortunate to partner with more than fifty different impact networks in the past ten years, and through these experiences we started to notice consistent patterns among networks, even when their context and focus varied widely. While the whys and whats were unique to each network, the hows—the principles and processes used to create them—were quite consistent. These approaches to network cultivation and leadership became the basis for this book.
At the same time, the content of this book comes not only from my own experiences or those of Converge, but also from the experiences of thinkers and changemakers in many different fields. I have learned so much working alongside network leaders and participating in numerous gatherings of practitioners. Here, I have drawn from case studies; the wisdom of many books, including those listed in the bibliography; and resources that other groups have developed, including NetworkWeaver, Interaction Institute for Social Change, Monitor Institute, Change Elemental, CoCreative, and many more. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the network leaders, participants, and funders that I interviewed and have consulted with in the formation of this book. I am grateful for everyone who has contributed to this growing field and shared their wisdom openly with a generosity of spirit.
In the pages ahead, I share what I have learned from a place of curiosity and commitment. I feel a great sense of humility in how much I have learned through researching this book. As someone from a dominant cultural background, a white male born in the United States, no doubt I have many blind spots when it comes to assuming power and asserting particular ways of knowing. I have shared a draft version of this book with many people I respect to help reveal those areas, and I suspect there are likely many more to uncover. As you read this book, I invite your feedback, with gratitude.
My greatest hope is that the concepts, stories, quotes, and resources contained here will support you and your work to create positive impact through networks. This book aims to illuminate the intricacies of how we can be more effective together amid the immense complexity of our world. Thank you for picking up this text and investigating its contents. May you find it valuable in ways large and small.