Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.

The risks of making it look too easy

Is it as easy as child’s play? (image by http://www.shirleyreade.com/)

I  always try to speak about my work in a way that everyone can understand me – whether they are experts in my field or not. Because I want to make sure that what I do matters to others – and if it does, I should be able to explain it in a way that they will understand. But recently I am wondering if this approach has backfired in unexpected ways.

When I developed Net-Map more than eight years ago, my driving force was this: The basic concepts behind network analysis are all common sense (“It’s not just what you know but who you know”) – yet the language with which they are often explained is so abstract that it is hard to even take the first step in understanding them. Why can’t I develop a way of speaking about and using network analysis which is immediately useful for lay-people, without translation by an expert. So, I developed Net-Map and have gone on using it in African villages, with children (as young as 3), in fortune 500 companies and community groups. And all along I have tried so speak plain English (or German or French) – so plain, in fact, that one early advisor said: “You have to use more difficult terms, if you want to be taken seriously.” I didn’t. But the comment was still very valuable, because it made me understand that I fit much better in the world of practical application than that of abstract research, so I started my long and winding road away from research.

Yesterday though,  I had a conversation with my fellow Net-Mapper Amit Nag and we started wondering: Are we making it look too easy? Are we inviting people with a smile, telling them that this will be all smooth sailing and then they are not prepared for the hurricane ahead? And, by doing that, are we preventing them from really benefiting from the method in full?

A pattern that we have observed in our recent work is this: We present, in simple language, with colorful examples and five easy steps, how to do a Net-Map. Then we guide a group through the experience of drawing it around one of their issues. Then they are excited and run off to start using it in their own work.

A few weeks later we might see the results and… well. They did follow the five easy steps. But still, the mapping has not been as powerful and useful as it could have been, because of one or more of the following:

  • They didn’t ask a good guiding Net-Map question – to the map doesn’t focus on the core question.
  • They didn’t invite the right people in the room.
  • When there were disagreements, the group forced itself to agree instead of digging deeper and understanding more.
  • There was too little time to have a conversation, so the group just rushed to get the mapping done. Or, they got so lost in conversation, that they never finished the map.
  • No one took useful notes, so it is impossible to understand the map if you were not at the table.
  • They intended to use the map for action planning but didn’t know how to develop actions out of the map.
  • They asked about links that are not clearly defined, or not relevant for the issue.
  • They failed to connect the Net-Mapping to the bigger context of what they are doing.
  • Once the map was drawn, all they saw was a bowl of spaghetti diagram and no one helped them untangle it.

All of the above are my observations and maybe also just best guesses, because I was not in the room. In summary I could say: They didn’t get the full value out of Net-Mapping, because they were led to believe that knowing the five steps (categories of actors, actors, links, goals, influence towers)  is enough to know how to Net-Map.

So my question is: How can I invite people to confidently learn, play with and use Net-Map while at the same time clearly communicating that, in the end, it is not as easy as it looks? How can I help them learn the less straightforward and more tacit – or more academic – aspects of Net-Mapping? How can they understand that being a participant in a well facilitated Net-Map session is very different from being able to facilitate a Net-Map session well. I would love to hear from you, because it seems like this problem cannot be solved in the same mindset which has produced it. Any advice is welcome.

Maybe they get annoyed because you are more successful than you look

Cancer Survivor’s Artwork Travels the World as an Inspiration to Others

Someone who looks like you should not be invading our space (image by Cindy Faust)

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend about a very specific kind of uncomfortable interaction we experience as we move forward in our career and become more successful. And that’s the push-back you get for being more successful than you look. What do I mean? Well, she described a number of very impolite encounters as a younger looking African American woman (three status reducers in a row… wow – how lucky that she is also extremely bright and resilient). And I had to think of a friend who got into a leadership position in a large organization before growing any grey hair.

As long as you are among your supposed peers (in terms of external visual factors as in age, gender, race, social background) and filling a role that is similar to other people in this group, you might rarely experience these behaviors. People are decently nice to you, you feel like we have arrived in the 21st century, achievements are based on merit, not external factors… And then, all of a sudden, just as you are feeling like everything is going right professionally and you are moving from one success to the next, you get all these reactions from people that look and feel like racism, sexism, any kind of -ism and all they are saying is: “Someone who looks like you should not be here. We are people of status and success and what on earth do you think you are doing here.”

What I found interesting in this conversation was to understand that it is easy to go through experiences like this and completely misunderstand them: Instead of thinking: “How come that all of a sudden society has become much more backward and hostile than it was a few years ago?” You might be thinking (once you can let go of the pain and disappointment): “This pushback is a sign of my success – of the fact that I am moving far beyond what others would expect of someone who looks like me and that makes them nervous. They feel like I am getting in their space and are insecure, fearing what would happen if there was an invasion of their space of privilege by people who look like me.”

While the second thought also doesn’t change the fact that you are having annoying encounters, you can feel the power. And you are not a victim.

How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

(image credit: http://www.ourspiritedlife.com/)

Net-Map workshop in DC – May 1-2, 2015

Come summer and it is that time of the year to immerse into mapping your complex networks. The two day Net-Map workshop teaches you basic understanding of the method, with emphasis on learning by drawing your network.

Net-Map is an interview-based mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which many different actors influence outcomes. By creating Influence Network Maps, individuals and groups can clarify their own view of a situation, foster discussion, and develop a strategic approach to their networking activities.

We will also introduce some exciting innovations in the next workshop. Join the growing community of practice and I hope to see you at the workshop. The venue is George Washington University. Please sign up here.

Involuntarily airborne dog explains complexity

In a recent discussion on the marvelous Knowledge Management for Development email list, Ueli Scheuermeier recounted this great explanation of the difference between complicated and complex, which he had first heard from Irving Borwick:

“If you put a football on the penalty point and then have a guy kick it towards the goal, that is a complicated process whereby through the application of knowledge of physics etc. you can actually predict the trajectory of the football. But there are many variables that make it a rather complicated data-collection and calculation. But it’s still complicated not complex.
If, however, you put a dog there on the penalty point and a guy comes along and kicks it, you can never predict what will happen next. All you know is the general environment and the framework in which something will happen, but what exactly will happen you don’t know. That’s complexity. It usually comes up when living people (in this case an animal) and their decisions and reactions are involved and influence an outcome. When humans are involved, outcomes are never predictable. That’s complexity”.

Join us: Largest international Net-Mapper meeting ever!

Wouldn’t it be great if Net-Mappers from all over the world could share their experience, learn from each other, build a common knowledge-base and just hang out and enjoy each other’s company? You might be working with Net-Map in your university, organization, consulting practice and maybe you are the only one excited by the participatory drawing of networks. Or, maybe a lot of your colleagues are excited, but they all have no clue how it really works, so you always have to be (or look like) the expert who knows everything. I am sure you have some great stories, lessons and results to share and together we might find the answers to your questions.

We (that’s Eva Schiffer, Jennifer Hauck, Amit Nag, Paolo Brunello and our Net-Mapping friends) are planning to have the biggest international meeting of Net-Mappers at the next Sunbelt Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis in Brighton, UK (June 23rd to 28th, 2015). In addition to hosting one (or two) sessions which will be dedicated to applying network knowledge, we are planning to host a Net-Mapper get-together as informal side-event of the conference so that we can all get to know each other and each other’s work and start working together more closely.

We will discuss whatever questions are at the forefront of our minds. For me there are three things I am really curious about:

  • Learning more about all the great applications of the method to start having an extensive case collection.
  • Strategies for working together to make Net-Map interventions happen and grow the community of practice. This could lead to developing a database of international Net-Map consultants so if any of us wants to implement something that is bigger than one person, we know where to go.
  • Asking and answering questions about how to use and analyze Net-Map, moving the method forward and understanding it better.

To make this happen we need you. And you. And your net-mapping colleague too. If you are interested, please contact me directly. And submit an abstract for the Sunbelt Conference session on applying network knowledge.

Oh, and did I say that this is just the side-event? The main event is also pretty amazing. Sunbelt is the largest Social Network Analysis conference and it’s an great mix of the old gurus, the young geniuses, master’s students getting feedback for their half-done thesis, and everything in-between. Also, they have great hands-on introductory workshops on most of the common SNA software and approaches (including a Net-Map training) during the first two days of the conference. If you have never submitted an abstract to a conference and the task intimidates you, I am happy to talk you through it. And, surey, you can also come just as a participant, without presentation… but we would all be missing out, if you didn’t share your work. Looking forward to seeing you there!

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