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Networks: How to Achieve More with Less


Let’s be clear, we are not talking here about networking for personal ends, collecting business cards, followers on social media, or belonging to a nepotistic old boy’s network of mutual back scratching. Sadly, the President’s Club is an example of networks gone badly wrong, where abhorrent behaviour, driven by the worst aspects of human social psychology, outweighed the social mores of wider society.

What is worth noting however, is that men tend to network to get things done, while women generally network to learn. Both are necessary but neither is sufficient. At its worst, networking focused on doing leads to ill thought through actions that are needlessly repeated, while networking focused on learning becomes therapeutic rather than dynamic.

We live in a networked world in which wicked problems, from global warming to terrorism and inequality, flow through interlocking webs of connection, causing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Conversely, in science, technology, the environment and society, networks are becoming the paradigm with which to uncover the hidden architecture of complexity and the capacity for people, resources, and ideas to generate greater collective value. Fundamentally, networks provide a new lens through which to view organisations and communities, and a new language to help explain and act within them.

The term ‘wicked problems’ was originally coined in the 1970s to describe problems of social policy that did not lend themselves to solutions through a purely scientific-engineering approach, because they were characterised by incomplete or contradictory information, large numbers of people and divergent opinions, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. It has since been applied to problems from pandemics and climate change to social inequality and business strategy.

In most organisations the conventional response to ‘wicked problems’ has been to sweat your assets; to demand that more and more be done with less and less. Yet however imaginative, there comes a point when there is no more money, your people are mentally exhausted and physical resources can be squeezed no further. The alternative is to recognise that nothing happens without networks. We exist within them and we work through them, but often without necessarily realising that we do.

The challenge of wicked problems is exacerbated in many organisations by the assumption that every problem fits neatly into one of the departments into which they have organised themselves: and no amount of structural readjustment will solve this. However construed, organisational silos and bureaucracies drive narrow departmental approaches to problems rather than create whole organisation solutions. By making networks explicit we can see that problems and risks are rarely confined to one department or directorate, and that the solution is to do less ourselves and more with and through others, by identifying synergies and avoiding duplication of effort.

The problem is perhaps most acute for public services and the voluntary sector, where success is often dependent on support and harmonisation with other organisations. To be effective, organisational efficiency must be complemented by action on the part of others in health, policing, housing and education. This requires more than simply the provision of discrete services, it necessitates community leadership to shape the places and organisations in which they serve.

But whether in an organisation or a community, our approach is to build upon the concepts of social network analysis and community asset mapping to uncover value: identifying and then connecting individuals, teams, groups and institutions in order to facilitate the exchange of resources, skills and knowledge, between those who have and those who need. In the absence of such understanding individual, group and organisational effort can be needlessly duplicated, squandered or under-utilised.

Before you can improve your network you need to understand it. Improved connectivity, whether in organisations or communities, starts with a network map, a visualisation of the elements in your network and the relationships between them. A network map shows the nodes and links in the network, where nodes can be people, groups, or organisations, and links reveal the relationships, information flows or transactions between them.

Map in hand, you are then able to help connect those who have with those who need, and target your own organisational resources more effectively and efficiently. In short, community network analysis allows organisations to target their finite resources to where the impact will be greatest and unlocking the conundrum of doing more with less.

None of this will happen, however, without leadership. Left to their own devices networks develop naturally through proximity and homophily: natural human inclinations to associate with people who are near us or like us. While such bonds often contribute to a group’s strength, they can also inhibit communication between groups. Direction, however gentle or subtle is always required. Formal, positional leadership will remain important, but in a networked world leaders will increasingly be asked to lead without positional authority, across internal and external organisational boundaries.

It requires leaders who can see across the whole organisation or community, and make the sum of the parts greater than the whole. Leaders who recognise that opportunities and threats do not come neatly parcelled to fit the department, division, or sector into which we have arranged ourselves. Leaders who take responsibility for problems other than their own and can lead outside the constraints of their positional authority. In short, leaders who recognise that connectivity is crucial to a sense of belonging and improved productivity in the organisations and communities in which we work and live.

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5 Leadership Skills in the Age of Networks

Informal networks of connection and control have always existed, but often only vaguely understood within tribal pecking orders, neat corporate hierarchies, and military chains of command. For networks to emerge as a new paradigm it needed a language of its own. A language that has been provided by the internet and social media. The question is do we need to change how we lead within this new worldview? In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Effective collective action will always require some to lead and others to follow. Direction, however subtle, gentle or hidden is always necessary. Formal, positional leadership will remain important, but in a virtual, networked world leaders will increasingly be asked to lead without positional authority and without being able to constantly monitor their direct reports.

Unlike conventional top-down leadership, leadership in a networked world is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; but still obliging leaders to create an environment based on both collaboration and individual autonomy.

It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to the traditional mantra of positional authority: “because I say so.” It is more a case of ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’.

In her recent book, The Chess-Board and The Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Anne-Marie Slaughter identifies five skills of a network leader: clarification, curation, connection, cultivation and catalysis.

  1. Clarify – Leadership begins with helping people make sense of their situation and the clarification of goals. Clarification starts when someone steps forward and makes suggestions about how to fix or achieve something. Clarification continues through continually refining what those goals mean in practice through facilitated discussion and working through disagreements.
  2. Curate – Curation is the careful selection of whom to connect to whom: people, institutions and resources. This is a specifically network skill and starts with understanding or mapping your community or organisation, recognising who has what and who needs what in terms of knowledge, skills and resources.
  3. Connect – Having identified the assets in your community or organisation, good connectors are synergy spotters, accomplished at connecting people to each other, cross fertilising and spreading knowledge and connections to help things grow toward a common purpose. It should not be confused with networking. This is about connecting people, skills, knowledge and resources for the benefit of those you connect, not for selfish ends. And once connected, a great connector continually checks in with the members of their network to keep connections alive.
  4. Cultivate – As Stanley McChrystal observed in Team of Teams, leading is like gardening: “Leadership is like gardening, because gardeners can’t do anything. They can’t make plants grow or flowers bloom, they can only create the conditions in which everything flourishes and achieves its best.” The network leader, therefore, focuses on trust building (deepening relationships through repeated interactions), delegation and empowerment, troubleshooting, conflict resolution, setting and enforcing boundaries, sharing knowledge, gathering resources, and holding stakeholders accountable.
  5. Catalyse – a leader must provide energy, not drain it. A leader is the spark, igniting sustaining and rekindling activity in a network. This often requires uncommon powers of persuasion, which can be enhanced by being open to persuasion yourself. Model effective dialogue and a capacity to change your mind, on the basis that to change others you must be prepared to change yourself.

None of these skills are new. Napoleon recognised the importance of clarification when he spoke of defining reality and giving hope. But a new paradigm encourages us and ultimately requires us to look at the world in a different way. Like turning a kaleidoscope the pattern and the colours have been rearranged and we must adapt what we know to this new worldview, discarding what no longer fits, adjusting what still has relevance and, if need be, creating the rest as we go.

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Three Ways to Unlock the Power of Informal Networks in Your Team

NetworkDespite what we know about networks and networking organisations still tend to be understood as simple, formal hierarchies, represented by an organisational chart or organogram. It is time to challenge this convenient fiction, which at best facilitates standard modes of production, handles easily anticipated problems, and illustrates linear reporting relationships. Crucially, it hides a far more subtle and informal network of relationships that comes into its own when the unexpected happens – which seems to be far more frequently these days!

Effective informal networks facilitate the exchange of accurate information around who has what, who can do what and who needs what. They also facilitate the exchange of ideas that can feed innovation. By visualising and analysing informal social networks managers can bring out the strengths in their networks; realign their formal structure to complement the informal; and rewire faulty networks to work with company goals. The three key networks you should consider are communication, advice and trust.

Communication networks provide information about news or events at work. Examination of communication networks can help diagnose inefficiency and low productivity, on the basis that workers are either spending too much time and energy working the rumour mill, instead of actually working. Or they hardly communicate at all, leading to errors, alienation, stress and poor morale.

Advice networks are about solving task related problems and obtaining technical information to perform one’s duties. Understanding advice networks can uncover routine conflicts, recurring disagreements over how things should be done, or the assumptions one should be operating by. Advice networks diagnose such disagreements by showing when there are contradictory sources of expertise, unused sources, or no sources at all.

Trust networks are associated with the sharing of confidential or ‘political’ information and the provision of support for one’s ideas and proposals. Analysing trust networks is particularly useful for diagnosing non-routine problems, such as failing change efforts. Non-routine situations necessarily involve uncertainty and the need to generate new ideas about what to do, how to do them and generating support for those ideas. The trust network can identify good candidates for bringing the organisation together to make change happen.

At PSA we develop 2D pictures of team and organisational networks using network visualisation software, by asking each team member to identify who they communicate with, seek advice from and trust on the basis of one simple question for each network. It is simple but very powerful. However, even without the software, it is still possible to do a preliminary analysis of your team’s informal networks by asking a few insightful questions.

In terms of communication you need to identify who the connectors are in your team or organisation? The extraverts who like to talk and gossip, those team members who know a lot of people and like to share what they know. Or simply those in a position to know what’s going on, like Personal Assistants, those on the front desk, or just those who spend a lot of time in the tea room! If you wanted everyone in your team to know something, who would you tell?

When considering advice you are generally looking for expert operators who have the skills, knowledge and experience that other people need. First identify what skills and knowledge your team needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Then, for each skill or aptitude identify the novices, the masters and the coaches (those who can teach what they know). You are then in a position to share all that knowledge and all those skills around the team, through group training or individual coaching. If you identify any critical skills or knowledge that reside in just one person you may want to consider an urgent download to someone else too.

Trust is the vaguest concept of the three, but it is also the most powerful, being the bedrock of high performing teams. It is also emotive, so we sometimes use the term support instead and always emphasise that this is not about a person being trustworthy or not, but a simple recognition that at work we know and get along with some people better than others, and this affects how efficiently and effectively we work together. So, in the first place, identify the key relationships in your team, why are they close? Consider how you might build better relationships among the rest of the team, do they simply need to get to know each other better. But a word of warning – beware cliques, closely knit groups who exclude others.

Whatever you discover, the time has come to make explicit what we know implicitly about how work gets done in teams and organisations. We need internal depth to our networking as well as external breadth.

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