Making Networks Work: A Primer On Networks for Systems Change

Why Networks?

We are starting to realize that individual organizations and the “super social-entrepreneur” are not enough to really move the needle on complex, wicked problems (like childhood obesity, early education, housing, decreasing carbon emissions, etc.). Instead, we are learning that for broad-scale change to occur, we need to build cross-sector networks of people and organizations that are engaged on at least one aspect of a central issue.

The most effective networks transcend silos, sectors, race, class, and any other artificial barriers to collaboration and progress. They find common ground, cross-boundaries, and collaborate generously. “Rather than coming together to achieve short-term goals and then disbanding,” Heather McLeod Grant writes in a recent case study, “the goal of  2.0 networks is to form relationships with other organizations that are more fluid, supportive, and lasting—and that create shared value for all of their participants.”

To work effectively with each other, network members must progress through 3 essential steps, all in the context of a trusting relationship:

  • Develop a shared understanding of the problem
  • Agree on common goals, agendas & metrics
  • Work collectively to achieve those goals while maintaining constant, open communication

Another term for this type of work is “collective impact” or “collective action.” In the absence of an effective impact network, organizations and individual leaders continue to move independently toward their own, unique vision of success, which may differ drastically from other organizations or leaders working on the same issue. As a result, their actions don’t have the multiplier effect they should, and they’re often even counter-productive – to quote Katherine Fulton from Monitor Institute, “they add but they never sum.” Effective impact networks align stakeholders around a particular issue such that their actions are positively reinforcing and collectively progress towards shared goals.

Types of Networks

  • Social or Connectivity Networks are built on the relationships and connections between network members (e.g., Facebook)
  • Professional Networks are social networks with intentionality, where intended outcomes exist beyond simply connecting, such as finding a job or completing a task (e.g., LinkedIn)
  • Learning Networks serve to increase the flow of information and best practices on a particular topic (e.g., Communities of Practice)
  • Movement Networks seek to tie together a field, with elements of relationship-building, learning and action (e.g., The Civil Rights Movement)
  • Impact Networks align people and organizations to create and spread a collective value proposition and foster joint action around a shared goal (e.g., The Strive Partnership) 

Additionally, networks can move through multiple stages over their lifetime. Impact networks, Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland write in their new book Connecting to Change the World, typically shift from a focus on “connecting” to “alignment” to “production.”

Network Evolution


Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 5.59.56 PMInitially, networks often resemble Figure 1 above[1] – some network members know and interact with each other (forming clusters), but they are largely fragmented and isolated from one another. Then, in Figure 2, a person or an organization forms the hub that bridges connections between network members. The hub is an essential catalyst of network formation.

As network members develop trust, form connections and organize around interest areas, healthy networks eventually evolve to a Multi-Hub Network as in Figure 3. This phase can be sustained as a strong “impact network” for a number of years with the design, governance and leadership, and backbone organization to provide on-going support and coordinate opportunities for network members to connect. Over time, the strongest and most resilient networks continue to evolve, bridge ties, and expand into a dense Core/Periphery Network as in Figure 4 with the resiliency to last for decades even after the initial hub in Figure 2 has left.

Making Networks Work

Effective collaboration requires authentic, trust-based relationships, and consequently networks must focus a significant amount of time up front on building genuine relationships, and providing the space for each leader to share their own personal story behind why they do what they do. This is where most Networks fail. Trust allows leaders to listen empathetically to differing viewpoints, collaborate generously and continue to work together even when personal disagreements arise. But as the authors of the original “Collective Impact” article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review write, “Developing trust among nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies is a monumental challenge. 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.”

To build trust, network leaders must create the “Dynamic Space” where leaders empathize with those they serve and with those they work alongside, understand & define the system (see the forest and not just the trees) and each person’s place in that system, ideate the potential leverage points in the system, prototype rapidly, test with users and iterate based on rapid feedback, and repeat, all in the context of psychological safety and trust.

Impact networks also typically require clarity around the mission and purposes of the network, alignment on core values and rules of engagement, both defined and porous boundaries regarding network membership, the right design with just enough structure, clear & facilitative leadership, a strong backbone organization, adequate resources and effective mechanisms for resource sharing, agreement on decision-making, and shared agreement on quantitative and qualitative metrics of success. To be clear, impact networks will not succeed if there isn’t a supporting infrastructure – a “backbone organization” – that will continue to coordinate the network, weave connections, evaluate outcomes and drive forward momentum.

[1] From Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving, by Valdis Krebs and June Holley

By David Ehrlichman, Systems Director of the New Leadership Network and Co-Founder of Converge, with contributions from David Sawyer and Heather McLeod Grant.

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