Brown Bag Seminar anyone?

Have you clicked around in this blog and thought: “That really looks interesting, my colleagues and I might like to use it, but it would be great if Eva could explain it all to us face-to-face.” Or: “I get it – if only she could make my boss as excited as I am.” Or maybe just: “Hey, I would like to meet the person who came up with Net-Map.”

If your office is in Washington DC, you might be lucky. Contact me (eva-schiffer@web.de) and we will figure out if I can give one of my free brown bag seminars at your location. I will show you how Net-Map works, how we have used it in the past and we can discuss how it might solve some of your problems. 

Why would I do that for free?

1. Well, I am truely passionate about spreading the method and making it grow.

2. I love a good excuse to get away from my computer for an hour or so and meet interesting people. It refreshs my mind and gives me new ideas. 

3. Sometimes the seed for a future collaboration is planted in a brown bag seminar. Sometimes it isn’t. Both are fine with me. Because if 3. doesn’t happen, 1 and 2 are reason enough.

Now you might think: “Sounds interesting, but it seems like Eva just works about chickens and rice in Africa, how can her method be used in my case which is completely chickenless and in the US?” Let me tell you: Any situation where multiple actors (people, groups organizations) want to achieve different goals and are linked in formal and informal way is a situation where you can use Net-Map. Ah, that’s reason 4: I love talking about Net-Map. And Net-Map. And a little bit of Net-Map…

Who do you work with?

I have written before about the fact that diverse work groups might not always be the most pleasurable to work with but often get the best results. The study I quoted was about people who were put together in a group and had to deal with it. But what about those situations, when you can actually choose who you want to work with. Naturally, you will gravitate to people who are like you, because you will feel safe and well understood in your work style: If you are a creative idea producer, how great to sit down with one or two of your kind and just go off on any tangent you see and think in ways that feel like no one ever thought this before…

If are a very well structured perfectionist who loves things nice and neat and has a real knack for handing things in even before the deadline, what a relief to finally work with someone who is the same, instead of that constant feeling of hearding chaotic cats!

It has been well studied, that networks in general mature towards homogeneity, having more and more similar people. But because that is what most networks do, it doesn’t mean that’s what the most creative and effective networks do. Sometimes, instead of asking: “Who is most like us, will be most comfortable to work with?” you could ask: “What kind of energy does our project need most?” And if you are a group of creatives flying high, you might need a much more focussed, results oriented person who always annoys you by structuring, insisting on deadlines and asking: “Who is going to do what and when so that we get this done?” On the other hand, your team might be great at getting stuff done, but in your heart of hearts you realize that this stuff could be a bit more inspired or innovative. Even though it makes you nervous and you guess that finishing before the deadline will be more of a challenge, you might be able to produce amazing stuff, if you invite a creative idea artist to join your team. Even though it would be so much more comfortable to just add another mirror image of you.

The key here is to be concious and self aware as a team (or individual) and not just follow the path of highest comfort. Ask yourself: “What are we strong at? Where are we lacking?” And go out looking for someone who loves doing what you hate.

Well, I don’t know…

I’m always interested in new challenges and I might have been in my own comfort zone for too long. I read Johnnie Moore about why Q&A sessions don’t work and his great analysis of the power differences between speaker and audience and how that makes the audience passive (or active) aggressive. And that reminded me of a situation in Ghana, where my young colleague was able to turn around this “I’ll rip your presentation to shreds” atmosphere in the room into true helpfulness and support. And he did something very simple. He just said: “These are some things we don’t understand. Do you think you could explain them to us?” And these were not rhetorical questions or strategic interventions to make the audience happy. He was just honestly and genuinely saying: You have a lot of experience, maybe you can help.

It’s years ago and I only now remembered it. And I know that I often get so enthusiastic that I give “Why Net-Map is so great!” kind of talks. And it’s safe and comfortable to try and pretend that I know it all. So I set myself the challenge: The next time I give a talk I want to find at least one thing that confuses me and humbly ask: “I don’t understand this. You have a lot of experience, do you think you could help me explain it?”

You know it (you just don’t know it)

It doesn’t stop to amaze me and for me that is the golden moment in any Net-Map intervention, the reason why I do this and keep being excited. You know about everything there is to know in your subject area. I know close to nothing about it. Let’s face it, who can be an expert on chickens in Ethiopia, job hunting networks in Saint Louis, fertilizer policy in Malawi and female rice par-boilers in Nigeria at the same time?

 Let’s sit down and draw a Net-Map together (best: with a group of you) and you will find out something that you knew (otherwise you couldn’t have drawn it) but that still absolutely surprises you (because you didn’t see it before). Maybe you can compare it to living in a neighborhood where you know every stone and every bug living under every stone by name and I take you on a helicopter ride.

It’s been a while but the first time that this “power of Net-Map” really became clear to me was probably when looking at communication networks in pro-poor Avian Influenza prevention in Ghana and Ethiopia. Last week we made a video of this and you might want to find out what communication breakpoints and corruption hot-spots my participants discovered…

Ethics in Social Network Analysis

Interviewees should be open because they feel safe - not confused

When you do normal survey kind research, it’s easy to ensure the anonymity of your respondents, because you are not interested in their characteristics as Peter, Paul or Mary but just want to use them as representatives for a specific type of person in your population. Network data is fundamentally different in that as a researcher you can only make sense of the data if your respondents identify specific other actors by name. Borgatti and Molina have written a great paper about what that means in organizational research. In research that is just meant for publication the researcher can remove any individual names and other identifiers for the publication. But if you use network tools in a background where facilitating change is one of the goals, the data is so much more powerful if you know who is who. For example, if one person in the administration is a real bottleneck to the success of the project, the difference between knowing that “one person in the administration” is a bottleneck and “Peter Miller” is a bottleneck is huge – both for the ones who want change (e.g. the management) and for Peter Miller. In their paper, Borgatti and Molina propose to expand the standard consent form (which binds researcher and respondent) to include the organization’s management as well, committing them not to use the resulting data to evaluate individual performance.

One general ethical issue that I have seen come up with social network analysis is that most people don’t understand how the answers they give will be analysed, what they will be turned into. Some SNA researchers see this as positive, it makes their work easy because it minimizes strategic answering… Well, call me crazy, but I think my interview partners should have all the right in the world to answer strategically, if they want to. Sure, I would prefer if they trusted me and my research enough, to open up and tell me things how they are. But I don’t want to trick them into telling me stuff they wouldn’t have told me, if only they had known what I would do with it afterwards. And this is where one of the strengths of network mapping (as compared to survey style SNA) lies: My respondents see what they are doing while they give their answers. They can reflect on the complete picture and see if that’s what they actually wanted to say. We meet at the same level, instead of me trying to wiggle some information out of slightly confused research objects. I don’t even do any magic afterwards with the data (as you do when transforming survey answers into network diagrams). Even though that might be a good strategy for getting the next contract, doing magic that my clients can’t do… But I actually want them to walk away with the feeling: “That was great! I learned something! I could do this as well!” And if they really want to make me happy, they go on and analyse their next problem by drawing a network map.

The good, the bad and the ugly

“How strongly can these people influence the success of our project?”

When you ask yourself this question, you immediately start thinking about all those who contribute positively to your success. But sometimes it’s actually those who are not interested in your success, who have a much bigger impact, by blocking your success, competing with your for resources or visibility etc. To get a clearer picture of the good, and the bad and ugly influence, this is the newest addition to the toolkit: Different colors for the influence towers. Positive influence gets red towers, negative influence gets black and you see with just one look who is who in your network.

Ok, now we know that to do with the good and the bad. But how about the ugly? What do we do with influential actors who have mixed agendas? Give them as high a red tower as their positive influence is and as high a black tower as their negative influence. We will try it out and I’ll tell you how it works.

Why I love my commute

Seriously, after 2 years of working from home, I love every part of going to office. Getting dressed, for example (and I don’t mean putting my husband”s old sweater over my pyjamas, which is the newest trend in home office fashion, now that it is getting colder…). And reading stuff on the metro that I never seem to get to otherwise. That is why, this morning, I loved my commute. Harrison Owen about “Open Space Technology” (In: The Change Handbook – The Definitive Resource on Today”s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems, by Holtman et al.). I’m fascinated by how Open Space works and what it does and would like to get into it more (attend, host etc.). And I think that’s because the underlying philosophy resonates with what I am doing. So on a rainy Monday morning, between Potomac Avenue and U Street Metro stations Harrison Owen warms my heart and has me nodding by saying:
“diversity becomes a resource to be used instead of a problem to be overcome…” and
” In Open Space, the good news and the bad news are identical: It works. In Open Space, every group I have worked with becomes excited, innovative, creative, and ready to assume responsibility for what they care about. This all sounds wonderful, but at times for some people, if also sounds like a prescription for going out of control – and they are right. If maintaining control is your fundamental intent, for goodness sake, don’t even think about Open Space. On the other hand, if you are prepared to believe in the people, trust them, and acknowledge that in a ll probability they are the true experts about what needs to be done, then Open Space will deliver – and you can be sure that fundamental change is a likely consequence.”

This resonates with my believes about network structure and control and how sustainable networks grow up (mature) into structures with less and less central node control.